Day 17 – the Taming of Smeagol

I woke up with a start in my sleeping bag alongside the whitewater river, the sounds of other hikers leaving pulling me awake.  The Germans were packing up their tent, but KC was crossing the river and waving goodbye as I rose, the sun already cresting the hills to the east.  I had hoped to beat the heat of the day up over the next series of up hills before my descent into Mission Creek, but I’d failed miserably.

Still, when I’d finally packed up and filled my water bottles, I was not too far behind the crowd, and still ahead of the major heat for a time, so I made good progress.  I crossed the river and made may way through the gravelly wash to a small ridge, which I climbed relatively quickly, despite the still significant weight on my back.  As I crested the rise I got my first clear look at Mt. San Gorgonio, the tallest mountain in Southern California and the target of my next adventure with Susan the following weekend.  There was a scattering of snow on its rocky summit, and it didn’t look too imposing, though it towered over the surrounding mountains, but I knew it would be a beast to climb, but that was still four days away, I had to get to Big Bear first.

Whitewater Wash
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I descended from the ridge, enjoying the downhill, and was watching the trail when I almost stepped on a baby mouse, it’s eyes closed and gait wobbly.  It was clearly helpless, driven from its burrow by some disturbance, and was sure to die either from the heat of the upcoming afternoon, or by the jaws of some passing snake.  I dropped my pack and pulled out the plastic tub I’d eaten the applesauce out of the day before, and scooped the little guy up.  It’s eyes were closed, and it was too skinny, but I hoped, if it could survive the next few days, I could bring it to my Dad, who had a long history of caring for animals, particularly mice and rats, through his career as a behavioral researcher.  I pored a little water in the tub, and some gravel for it to feel comfortable, and tucked the little guy away in the safety of my pack, where I hoped he’d be sheltered and protected from the heat and jostling the upcoming hike would undoubtedly bring.

Smeagol on the Trail
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I felt proud of myself, though I knew it was a long shot to get him to survive.  At my next stop, a mile or so in, I sat beneath a juniper and ate breakfast, tossing in a bit of cheese for my little hitchhiker and even showing him off to The Portland Sisters, who passed me as I ate and played with the little guy.  We chatted about their ordeal on the mountain, of which they seemed slightly and understandably embarrassed, and my little friend, who I had named Smeagol, because he looked like the character from Lord of the Rings.  They continued on, and I packed up my breakfast and followed a short time later.
Gorgonio Looms
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The trail led up another ridge, which offered beautiful views of San Gorgonio and San Jacinto, and even Palm Springs in the distance.  I took several photos, of course, and found cell service at the top, a welcome chance for me to check in with my family and look at the upcoming weather.  The temperatures were due to rise drastically over the next few days, and I was glad I would be in the mountains before the desert heat rose over 100 degrees.  I pushed down the other side of the ridge, into what promised to be a rare luxury on the trail to that point, a twelve mile stretch with regular flowing water.  I was beyond excited at the prospect.

Twin Summits
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I hit Mission creek and took a break under the welcome shade of an overhanging cottonwood, possibly my favorite tree, because of the life sustaining water it invariably represents nearby.  The creek was small, barely a trickle at some points, but it was clear and cool, and part of me wanted nothing more then to sit with my feet in the water and let the day pass me by.  I was passed by several hikers, most who I’d run into before, including The Engineer, Nails, whose name came from her multiple lost toenails, and Butt Plug, who got his name from an unfortunate case of constipation some days prior, and was dealing with some other unfortunate and uncomfortable issues that had him considering the name Butt Trouble.  I showed them little Smeagol and we chatted, and as soon as they moved on to find a shady spot of their own, I pushed on, knowing that I’d never make it to Big Bear if I didn’t keep walking.
The trail wound along the creek for a several miles, occasionally climbing above it to show off the winding green snake of its riparian, tree lined banks, often dipping down along and sometimes in the creek itself.  It was easy to lose the trail at several points, and the rocks and mud made it slow going, as I slipped and tripped my way up the increasingly narrow creek bed.
The creek itself was vibrant and welcoming, and the narrows of the canyon u walked through was beautiful, white sandstone rising above the willow and cottonwood lined creek bed in gnarled and craggy outcroppings, the mountains in the distance towering over it all with their piney crests.  I kept ascending, but it felt an easy, if time consuming, walk.
Bend in Mission Creek
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I passed a trail crew as the afternoon grew long, and stopped and chatted with them, thanking them for their hard work to clear and maintain the trail.  I’d come to appreciate the efforts of the PCT trail crews to that point, from the experience on San Jacinto, where the side trail had been rocky and hard to make out in comparison to the easy to follow PCT, and my knowledge of other trails in Southern California, few of which I would consider to be immaculately maintained.  The hard work of the volunteers that help keep the PCT such a lovely and easy trail to follow should be commended, and I was happy to have the chance to thank these few in person.

Afternoon Light on Apricot Mallow
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The sun began to sink below the mountains to the west as I pushed further upstream.  I took a break and checked on Smeagol, and found him cold, wet, and lacking in energy.  I took him out and cleaned his tub in the creek, before building a nest of toilet paper for him and tucking him in.  I hoped he would at least be warm and dry in the coolness of the upcoming night, though I was starting to have my doubts.

Prickly Pear in the Canyon
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I pushed on, filling up my water bottles at what I was told by another hiker to be the last crossing of the creek (it wasn’t), and kept walking until it got too dark to see where I was going.  I set up camp in a small wash, and put smeagols tub in a nest of my dry clothes inside my tent.  I went to sleep with the moon shining brightly through the fly of my tent, apprehensive about the impending climb the morning would bring, as I ascended over 4000 ft over the next four miles to the ridge line that would take me to Big Bear.

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.