Days 15 and 16

Following our unfortunate and aborted attempt to summit San Jacinto the day before, Susan and I took the following morning to relax and enjoy ourselves, eating continental breakfast and laying in the hotel room, talking and enjoying each other’s company.  It felt good, it felt peaceful, it made me not want to return to the trail that afternoon.

We went to the store, and I bought my resupply for the coming hike to Big Bear.  I was due to meet my parents in three days near Big Bear Lake, where they were coming to spend time with me on the trail and get a taste of acting as trail angels.  I was looking forward to seeing them, but more importantly, I was eager to get into the mountains and away from the impending heat that was due to hit the Palm Desert in a few days time.

The storm from the previous day had passed almost without evidence, though the slopes of San Jacinto above Palm Springs were noticeably whiter than I’d seen them last.  A few clouds remained high above Gorgonio Pass and Cabazon, but largely the sky was clear and the wind blew clean.  We stopped for date shakes and In n Out burgers in Cabazon, I shuffled through my pack and figured out my resupply (I bought far more food than needed), and we picnicked underneath the infamous plaster dinosaurs alongside the freeway.

When it came time for me to return to the trail, and for Susan to return to LA, she drove me to the trail, and we said goodbye.  It was hard to do, even knowing we would see each other the following weekend for another summit attempt, this one up Mt. San Gorgonio, but I still had a difficult time as we hugged each other and she drove away.

Alone again on the trail, I walked the mile up to Ziggy and the Bear’s, a trail angel house that offered a place for weary hikers to stay before heading to Big Bear.  My pack, heavy with far too much food, pulled at my shoulders, and though I debated pushing further past the house, the chance for a nice place to stay proved too alluring.

Their house stands a short distance from the trail, the American flag whipping above their yard and PCT emblem on their backyard gate beckoning hikers to join them.  When I entered I saw a dozen other hikers already there, and introduced myself to Ziggy, who asked me to wash my hands and then join her at the picnic table on the back patio.  Once I’d done so, she gave me a gatorade and set to outlining the rules of staying at her house.  It was very orderly, unexpectedly so, but I appreciated it, even admired it.  Given the sheer number of hikers each year that came to camp in their yard, I was certain that so many rules were necessary to keep the house intact, and to enable Ziggy and the Bear to continue helping hikers down the line.

San Jacinto
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Once I’d finished talking to Ziggy, I saw Rain Man, Dundee and Narwhal, and said hi to them.  They’d been caught in the storm the night before, and had horror stories to tell of hiding under rocks to get away from the rain, losing the trail, and dodging blocks of ice falling from overburdened tree limbs above.  They told me of the sisters from Portland, Rebecca and Marisa, who had, soaked to the bone and freezing, called search and rescue and spent the night in the nearby fire station.  There was talk of hikers lost on the mountain, day hikers, we were all told, not PCT hikers.  The sheriff even came by to ask us whether we’d seen one of them.  It was scary, and I was more and more certain, the more I heard, that Susan and I had made the right choice the night before.

I set up my sleeping bag and fell asleep under the stars, eager to get back on the trail in the morning, hopeful to get out early enough to avoid the heat of the day.

I had no such luck.  Though I was up and packed early, I loitered at Ziggy and the Bear’s for close to an hour, chatting with people and thanking my hosts.  I ate an apple for breakfast, and drank orange juice, one of my chief cravings on the trail to that point, before setting out around 7:30 toward the Mesa Wind Farm.

This was one of the highlights of the trip going into it for me, a location I’d starred long before stepping foot on the trail.  Back in 2009, I shot my graduate thesis film under those very same windmills, and had often come back to them for photography purposes in the years since, not knowing that the PCT cut a path right through them.  It was an important place to me, but as I walked through them that morning, all I could think about was how hot it was, and how heavy my pack was.

I had packed too much food, I knew this, and as the elevation increased, and my will to continue decreased, I had to stop.  I crawled underneath a small bush and opened my pack, disgorging it of all my food.  I had set out with the intention of doing no-cook meals for the 3-4 days it would take me to reach Big Bear, both due to the presumed lack of water through this section, and the fact that my resupply box never made it to Idyllwild.  No-cook, I was finding, was significantly heavier than the dehydrated meals I’d been carrying to that point, with tortillas and cheese alone weighing over 2 lbs, and the homemade applesauce (raspberry honey, so tasty) that Susan had brought me probably weighed that much alone.  I’d doubled up on meals, I carried enough instant potatoes to feed me for a week, and snacks and candy that would last me close to two.  I’d overpacked, and I was now paying the price for it.

And so, sitting in the modicum of shade provided by the small juniper, I set to thinning out my load.  I ate a quart of applesauce, probably not the best idea, and half a pint of peanut butter.  I ate two Clif bars and an Epic Bar.  I shoveled trail mix into my mouth and when I couldn’t eat anymore, I put the rest of my food away and downed a half-liter of water.  All told I cut down about 3 lbs from my pack, but I didn’t feel at all good about my methods.

Out of the Wind Farm
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As I tackled the next uphill, a thousand foot slope that felt like 4,000, I felt the fullness of my stomach, the nausea from overeating, the still significant weight pressing down on my shoulders, and the oppressive heat from the late-morning sun, all wearing me down.  When I reached the top, out of breath and exhausted, I realized, with immense sadness, that I’d only gone 3 miles to that point.  It was sad, no, it was depressing.  How was I going to make it to Big Bear?

Desert Hills
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I pushed on, thankful for a downhill slope that lightened the strain on my aching knees and back.  The trail meandered through golden brown slopes and through a craggy ravine to the Whitewater River, and thankfully, to a flat stretch of trail that, though devoid of shade, at least enabled me to walk at an easy pace.  I stopped a few times, hoping to get another 5-6 miles in, but taking every opportunity for shade the meager foliage along the river offered.  I was hot, tired, beat up, and generally over the experience.

To Whitewater
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I reached the crossing of the Whitewater and took off my boots, plunging them into the cold water, vestiges of the minimal winter snowmelt, and leaned back against my pack.  The water was soothing, calming, and my feet were thankful for the reprieve from the hot sand and rocks of the trail up to that point.  As I sat there, I met a German couple, section hiking for the second year in a row, intending to hike the trail for a month at a time until they finished.  We chatted and soon another hiker, KC, joined us, taking the opportunity to soak her own feet before making camp.  We chatted about the trail, about our reasons for being out there, our pasts and the cougar prints I’d found not five feet from where we sat.  It was lovely.

Whitewater River
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Amidst the cool water, the good company, and the sinking sun, I decided to stop for the day, after only ten miles of hiking, and set up my sleeping bag for my first night of cowboy camping on the trail.  I gathered wood and built a large fire, and we all sat by it talking until it got too dark.  We turned in, the Germans to their tent, KC and I to our bags under the stars, and I fell asleep, once again thankful to be out on the trail.

Day 8

I woke in the canyon I’d stopped at the night before and broke camp, climbing a small distance to take my morning constitutional and loading up all my gear as the sun peeked over the crest of the ridge above, bathing the canyon in the gold light of early morning.

My primary goal for the day was making it to mile 91, where the promise of a massive water cache offered a chance to refill my water for the final push into Warner Springs the next day.
Leaving camp I met a hiker named Rasputin, who’d grown up not far from my former home in upstate New York.  We marveled at the small world nature of the trail, and talked of our favorite places to eat in the tri-state area.  It was a brief moment, but exciting, and got me out on the trail in a rather good mood.
I hiked for a few miles, taking breaks as I could in the few shady patches along the ridge line.  It was mostly flat up there, and I was glad for my late night push the night before, though the sun quickly began to assert itself.
I began to feel the tortoise in the race of the PCT.  Early in my hike I was passed by Ranger and Bubba Gump, setting a fast pace for yet another 20 mile day for them.  I watched them race off into the distance only to pass them as they rested a mile or so later.
A few hours into the morning I met two sisters from Portland, Rebecca and Marisa, nice girls who were very open to conversing, and who would suffer an unfortunate turn a week later, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The landscape was bleak, to say the least.  A fire had swept few some time before and the dusty brown hills were devoid of nearly any plant life.  Blackened skeletal bushes and burned husks of cacti greeted me around every turn, and the oppressive heat beat down on me with no shade to be found.
It was around this time that I became keenly aware of the blisters forming on my hands and forearms.  It wasn’t the first time I’d dealt with sweat blisters, but I knew it to be a sign that I was doing serious damage to my skin out in the blazing sun.  I popped a few, to make sure they were in fact sweat pockets built up under the dead skin of my sun burn, and the salty squirts of sweat felt cool on my roasting skin.  It was gross, but it entertained me as I walked through that barren, desolate landscape.
I found a lone juniper in a small valley around mile 87 before a large uphill section, and crawled underneath the scant shade that it offered.  I ate lunch, my new favorite meal of applesauce and chia seeds poured into a peanut butter jar, and napped for nearly an hour to pass the time during the hottest part of the day.  The juniper, barely a shrubby bush, proved popular in the heat, and soon two other hikers had joined me, Spectrum, who I’d seen the previous few days, and Rick, a former merchant marine from southern Washington.  
After I’d worked up the courage to tackle the uphill, I pushed forward, fighting the heat as I climbed ever upward along seemingly endless switchbacks.  The wind picked up, massive gusts slamming into me as I reached the high point of the section, and blowing away a kerchief I’d carried with me on innumerable hikes throughout the years.  Bill and Jennifer from Ashland, who id hiked with the previous morning, were up near the top, and I hiked with them again, talking cacti and animals with them as we fought the high winds.

After another hour I finally reached the water cache, and was greeted by the sight of nearly two dozen other hikers, and dozens of huge jugs of fresh water.  I lay at the cache and watched hummingbirds sip at cholla blossoms, and luxuriated in the shade provided by the trees that encircled the stash.  It was a gloriously peaceful moment after a very hard day.
As I lay there the hikers from the Warrior Hikes group showed up, and I happily reintroduced myself, thinking they had left me in their dust on day three, and shocked that they had ended up behind me somehow.  This time, meeting them seemed more solid, and in the coming days I would find myself running into hem repeatedly, and forming friendships that I’ve learned to truly value since.  But that is a story for another day.

I filled up with 8 liters and drank nearly two more by the time I left the cache, eager to get a few more miles in before the sun went down.  I pushed on, signing the trail register and camped two miles up the trail, catching the sun as it went down over the hardest section of the trail is faced to that point.  I slept well that night, buffeted by the desert winds, excited to be in position to hit Warner Springs the next evening.

Day 7

I have discovered an amazing meal, and I’m not sure how it took me so long to devise it.  A squeeze packet of applesauce poured in a peanut butter jar, sprinkled with chia seeds and graham cracker crumbles.  It is special, well and truly, and it is my lunch of choice since discovering it on the afternoon of Day 7.  But I digress…

As has become my pattern on the trail, I woke up at 4:30 am, wide awake, staring up at the milky way above.  I’ve always had a fondness for the darkness of out of the way places, and most of my campsites along the trail have certainly qualified.  The stars are amazing at night, truly breathtaking, and one of my major regrets is that I’ve been too tired from hiking all day to fully take photographic advantage of them.  Perhaps as I grow more used to life on the trail I’ll be able to accommodate a few late night photography sections.  I hope so.

I went back to sleep, waking at 6:30 and giving my girlfriend a call as she walked the dog and got ready for work.  Work has been tough on her and I could hear the weariness in her voice, the stress and sadness.  It makes it difficult for me to be out here knowing she’s struggling back at home, all I want to do is hold her and help her make things better, but I know we’re working out our own paths right now, and in the long run we’ll be stronger for it.  Still, the caretaker in me finds it difficult not to want to be there.

No Trace and Unbreakable passed me while I lay in my tent, already four miles into their day while I talked on the phone.  It still upsets me somewhat that I’m not an earlier hiker, there are many advantages to doing so that I should be allowing myself to partake in, cooler morning weather in the desert, less direct sunlight, finishing my day earlier, but I haven’t worked it out yet, though I’m sure I will.

By the time I got on the trail around 8, it was still cool, and I made good time hiking the two miles from my camp to the fire tank at the Rodriguez Spur road at mile 68.  As I hiked I met Bill and Jennifer, a couple from Ashland, Oregon hiking in support of the PCTA, and the constant revitalization and repair efforts being done by trail workers and volunteers all along the trail’s length.  They had an easy pace, and we walked and talked amiably, about the cacti and animal life we saw, about our lives back home, about their reasons for doing the trail.  It was the first time I’d hiked with another set of hikers and had such a relaxed walk, and I definitely appreciated the conversation.

The Rodriguez Spur fire tank was yet another communal gathering spot for hikers along the trail.  Rumors had been flying for the past two days that it was the last water on the trail for the next 32 miles, and everybody was worried at the prospect, myself included.  Remembering the lack of water on my second day, and how dehydrated I got just in that 16 mile section, the prospect of 32 hot, waterless miles through the Anza Borrego desert had me petrified.

I filled my water at the tank, purifying it as I collected, and loaded up all 8 liters into my pack.  The weight of it, nearly 17 lbs of extra weight in my already heavy pack, brought back memories of the time before Mt. Laguna, unpleasant memories I was not happy to be reliving.  Still, the majority of the day’s hike would be downhill, so I thought it would be a little easier at least.

The heat of the day caught up to me around 1:00pm, the cloudless sky blasting me with intense sunlight on the mostly shadeless downslope into the Anza Borrego.  I took a two hour break under the branches of a small tree, eating lunch and calling my family and girlfriend, and generally not exerting myself.

The whole way down I saw Scissor’s Crossing, the intersection of Highway 78 and the Great Overland Stage Route at mile 77, and even watched as I seemed to walk past it, away from it.  The trail was designed by idiots, I told myself.  Why not cut straight across the desert from where I stood to the intersection and save 4 hot, merciless miles?  There was no logic to it.  It was a lesson in inefficiency.

I reached the bottom of the hill as the sun started to sit low on the western horizon.  Sunsets in the Anza Borrego are magical times, the two or three hours before the sun finally dips below the mountains casting an ethereal golden light across the whole of the desert, causing cholla and barrel cactuses to glow as if rimmed by halos.  It’s always been one of my favorite times to photograph the desert, and this particular sunset did not disappoint.

I continued on, meeting a Vietnamese hiker named Half Slope that was doing a reverse hike for the first two weeks, starting in Warner Springs some 35 miles to the north, and hiking south to the Mexican border for the Kickoff celebration in a week’s time.  He carried his pack not on his back, but on a small wheeled cart behind him.  As impractical as it looked, I was jealous, still feeling the weight of the 7 remaining liters of water on my own back.  We chatted for a time, and he told me of the water situation ahead of me.  A cache had been left at Scissor’s Crossing, he said, and another at mile 91, enough water for everyone and then some.  I would be fine, I didn’t need all the water I was carrying, according to him.

I frowned and moved on, stumbling through the flat trail like a staggering drunk.  I passed a sign as I approached the crossing with the number of a trail angel named Misty, who was offering rides to the town of Julian (where there were amazing pies and milkshakes to be had) or the equally appealing Stagecoach RV Resort in the opposite direction, which advertised swimming pools, electricity, ice cream, and beer.  The temptations were almost too much to bear, but I declined, and moved on.  At a small cooler left by Misty, I applied some aloe lotion to my blistering sunburns, and then turned down Misty herself as she drove by.  I thanked her for the lotion, but could not accept the ride.  I was foolishly determined to climb the next set of mountains before me that night, to escape the heat and set me up to reach mile 91 in the morning.

At the crossing I saw about a dozen other hikers, including Bill and Jennifer, all camped out for the night and looking comfortable, at ease with the dozens of gallons of water left by some enterprising trail angel there.  I waved but moved on.  I would not be tempted.

I climbed out of the desert and up the switchbacks to a spot where I could sit and watch the sunset from a high vantage point and made dinner.  I ate and rested my feet, and when the sun had gone down, continued onward and upward.  At mile 80 I finally stopped, a hot, miserable day behind me, a nice cool night in a small box canyon immediately ahead of me, and just 29 miles to Warner Springs, and my next resupply.  It was all going according to plan…

Day 2

My second day on the trail was a hard one, for sure.  Breaking camp at 7:30, I set out into the hills north of Campo, and was immediately made aware of how hot and dry this stretch of trail really is.  My left hip ached immediately from the weight of my pack, and within an hour I had already regretted my decision to try hiking commando.  Ah, the chafing…

I stopped for an impromptu breakfast after two miles, cold oatmeal with applesauce, chia seeds, and cinnamon sugar.  I took pictures of pretty flowers and let myself soake in the pretty morning sunlight.  It was the last moment of tranquility I would find.

As I pushed up the winding trail, I slowly watched the border fence dwindle behind me, and the rocky pinnacle of Mt. Hauser signal me onward.  At the base of the mountain, in a verdant creek bed, sadly dry this year, I had designated my first camp, though having hiked four miles the day before, I felt encouraged to push an extra five miles in to Lake Morena, where there was the promise of clean water, showers, and a quiet campground filled with other through hikers.
So I pushed onward, up through rolling hills dotted with craggy boulders.  I spooked a rattlesnake in a bush, and almost had a heart attack.  I met other hikers who quickly left me in the dust.  I stopped frequently and drank water as I could, though the burning sun seemed to suck it out of me as soon as I ingested it.

I stopped for lunch as I came to the southern face of Hauser Canyon, a trail bar, some jerky, and a handful of dried fruits and nuts.  Shortly beyond, a work crew from the local prison was clearing brush under the watchful gaze of half a dozen corrections officers.  One officer, noting my dwindling water supply, kindly proffered me a bottle of evian, for which I was most grateful.
I was soon overtaken by Alex, a hiker from England who I fell in with for the next 4 miles to Hauser Creek.  We hit a good pace and I was most thankful for her conversation.  I’m finding the loneliness is oppressive out here, so every bit of human contact becomes a welcome relief, and invigorates me to push on.
I hit the creek bed out of water and dreading the coming five miles.  Blessedly there was a water stash some kind soul had left along the creek bed, and I filled up one more liter, enough, I surmised, to make it to camp.  I lay in the shade of the cottonwoods with my boots off for half an hour, watching a half dozen other hikers, including Alex, leave me behind.  I was alone once more for what would be the hardest part of the hike so far.

Straight up the side of the ravine I started to climb, up dreaded switchbacks with no shade and the heat of the damnable sun pounding on my back.  It was getting late, and my internal clock was pounding in my head.  I had two hours to go five miles.  I wasn’t going to make it.

I called my parents near the top of the ridge, one of the few fleeting moments of cell service, feeling defeated and demoralized.  They talked me back on my feet, but it was hard.  I pushed on, and as the sky grew dark a mile from camp, I lay down again, my body spent, my water drained, my heart deflated.  Was this how it was going to be for the next six months?
I called my girlfriend, and her voice calmed my nerves.  I miss her terribly, and knowing I would disappoint her if I didn’t push on helps me do exactly that.  She offered some words of encouragement, one of her fortes, and forced me off my ass for the last mile.
At 9:00, roughly 13 hours after I started the day, I arrived in camp, and was greetd by a cold can of beer on a rock.  I like to think it was left for me by one of the other hikers, and it’s a gesture I will try to pay forward in the days and weeks to come.
I showered and made dinner, then passed out, feeling innumerable aches and bruises and raw chafed spots.
Thus ended my second day.  I hope the third is easier.

Day 1

So here I am, starting out on the Pacific Crest Trail…
The last few weeks have been a blur to be honest.  Since finishing work on Jane the Virgin back in mid March, I feel like I haven’t had a moment to sit down and really think about where I’m going or what it is in actually doing on the trail.  For the last month, my life has been entirely consumed with preparations and squaring away my non-trail life; from packing everything I own into storage to arranging all my resupply plans in Washington with my family, to making sure I had every little thing I would need for the next six months.
I write this now about 4 miles from the Mexican Border, in a small cheat-grass clearing next to the trail.  Tomorrow I hike on to Lake Morena, my first of many 16 mile days ahead of me, and I find myself oddly comforted by the fact that this is now my life.  At sundown I make camp, at sunrise I wake and walk.  There’s a beautiful simplicity to the whole thing, a  welcome respite to the stress and anxiety I’ve inflicted upon myself the last few days, weeks, and even months.
When I signed the trail register in Campo, I included a quote I recently discovered on the wall of an abandoned house on the road to Julian…
“And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” – William Shakespeare
It struck me as particularly relevant to my pursuits over the next few months, and oddly perfect that I would stumble upon such a quote the day before stepping out onto the trail.  It reminds me of the reasons I set out on this journey in the first place, to hear the song of nature in the deserts and mountains and meadows from here to Canada.
Good night.