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.
John