100 Days of National Parks: Day 15 – Divine Light, Death Valley National Park

Rays of Fire

I am perhaps the furthest thing from a religious man, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had profoundly spiritual moments in my life, moments that affirm for me the reasons I travel and seek out beauty in everything, the reasons I want to keep exploring in the future. I’ve found, through exploring wilderness areas, particularly in our National Parks, the kind of spiritual connection with the world I never knew before, an understanding of my place within that world, a profound appreciation for natural beauty in all its forms and a desire to see more of it before my time is done.

April 15th is a hard day for me. On this day in 2012, I lost my closest, best friend in the world, Erik Lemke, to a sudden illness that took him before I could say goodbye. For months I existed in a state of perpetual shock. I became disengaged from work, family, friends, everything. I was grieving, yes, but there was more to it. I was facing mortality in a way I’d never dealt with it before, and I was increasingly drawn toward doing all the things I’d always wanted to do, but never had the chance or will to do before.

In June of 2012, I took a road trip up highway 395 in Eastern California on a drive that would take me up to Washington for some much needed family time. On the way, I wanted to detour to some of the National Parks I’d always wanted to see, but for some reason in my five years living in Los Angeles, had never made the trip to. It was the beginning of what I referred to as My Summer of George, and would culminate in visiting a dozen National Parks that year and set me on the path I continue to walk today.

The first stop was Death Valley National Park. Though I arrived late and didn’t spend much time, I did manage to reach Furnace Creek in time to catch this shot, one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen, and one of those life-affirming moments I touched on earlier. There, standing on a rise above the furnace creek campground, I watched the sun blast its rays through the tiniest of holes in the pervasive cloud cover, divine rays stretching out across the sky in brilliant red and orange hues. In that moment I knew I couldn’t look back, that I had to see more moments like this in my short time on my earth, that I had to chase moments like this, seek them out wherever I could find them. It’s why I hike. It’s why I take photos.

Life is short, and filled with moments that could be missed opportunities if you don’t go out and take advantage of all the world has to offer. Get out. Stay out. Find your own.

Divine Light

Rays of Fire
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I am perhaps the furthest thing from a religious man, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had profoundly spiritual moments in my life, moments that affirm for me the reasons I travel and seek out beauty in everything, the reasons I want to keep exploring in the future.  I’ve found, through exploring wilderness areas, particularly in our National Parks, the kind of spiritual connection with the world I never knew before, an understanding of my place within that world, a profound appreciation for natural beauty in all its forms and a desire to see more of it before my time is done.

April 15th is a hard day for me.  On this day in 2012, I lost my closest, best friend in the world, Erik Lemke, to a sudden illness that took him before I could say goodbye.  For months I existed in a state of perpetual shock.  I became disengaged from work, family, friends, everything. I was grieving, yes, but there was more to it.  I was facing mortality in a way I’d never dealt with it before, and I was increasingly drawn toward doing all the things I’d always wanted to do, but never had the chance or will to do before.

In June of 2012, I took a road trip up highway 395 in Eastern California on a drive that would take me up to Washington for some much needed family time.  On the way, I wanted to detour to some of the National Parks I’d always wanted to see, but for some reason in my five years living in Los Angeles, had never made the trip to.  It was the beginning of what I referred to as My Summer of George, and would culminate in visiting a dozen National Parks that year and set me on the path I continue to walk today.

The first stop was Death Valley National Park.  Though I arrived late and didn’t spend much time, I did manage to reach Furnace Creek in time to catch this shot, one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen, and one of those life-affirming moments I touched on earlier.  There, standing on a rise above the furnace creek campground, I watched the sun blast its rays through the tiniest of holes in the pervasive cloud cover, divine rays stretching out across the sky in brilliant red and orange hues.  In that moment I knew I couldn’t look back, that I had to see more moments like this in my short time on my earth, that I had to chase moments like this, seek them out wherever I could find them.  It’s why I hike.  It’s why I take photos.

Life is short, and filled with moments that could be missed opportunities if you don’t go out and take advantage of all the world has to offer.  Get out.  Stay out.  Find your own.

Day 22 – Big Bear and Beyond

It was a dusty, windy dirt road that led up to the trail from Big Bear, and it took some time for Susan and I to make it to the trailhead, though I found I would’ve given anything for it to last a little longer.  I was saying goodbye again to her, and had already said goodbye to my family, and was once more setting out into the solitude of the trail.  It was surprisingly hard, but I was also looking forward to the sights to come.
I had spent the three days off with my family and Susan, going out to dinner, looking over my photos for the first time in three weeks, going to dinner and watching movies, and generally enjoying myself.  Though I’d taken time off in Idyllwild, this was my first real experience stepping away from the trail for a time.
My parents had rented a hotel room near Big Bear Lake, the resort town on the west end of it’s namesake, and, being a few days ahead of schedule, I found myself enjoying the restful atmosphere the town had to offer.  After San Jacinto, Susan and I had agreed to meet the following weekend to attempt a summit of Mt. San Gorgonio, the tallest mountain in Southern California, and a longtime goal for both of us.  On the way up to Big Bear I’d been laughed at many times by other hikers for hiking on my day off, but I didn’t care, it was a chance to hang out with Susan for another day, it was worth it.
My dad, excited to be caring for Smeagol, had taken to carrying the little guy in a mesh pocket hung from a cord around his neck, where his body heat helped keep the mouse comfortable.  He fed my little hitchhiker milk from a small syringe, and doted on her (as he soon deduced) endlessly.  Smeagol went everywhere with us, to dinner, to the store, to the movie theater.  I was happy because she was saved, as I’d hoped she would be upon getting her to my Dad.

Hiker hunger had set in upon getting to Big Bear, or more accurately the day before I arrived.  There is a profound need to eat copious amounts of fatty, greasy, not at all healthy food when one hikes for any great length of time, and I found myself burying my face in huge bacony burgers, buffalo chicken calzones, breakfast pastries, ice cream, and any number of things that ordinary people try to eat in moderation.  There was a scale in the bathroom of our hotel and I’d lost 12 pounds since my arrival at Campo, the calorie sucking hike was doing its work, and I was starving.
On my second day in town I ran into Stacey and her friend Just Jules, a hiker from New Zealand who I immediately gravitated toward.  Having lived in Wellington for a year, I find myself immediately drawn toward the kiwi accent, or even the chance of talking about the islands.  I need to go back one day, for certain, but that’s a future adventure.  Stacey was happy to see me again, as we’d only briefly talked in Idyllwild on my day off there before going our separate ways.  She’d come down San Jacinto the day after I left Ziggy and the Bear’s, and found herself trapped by the oppressive heatwave that I’d fortunately just missed.  Temperatures in the Palm Desert were hitting 105, and with no shade and little water for large sections of that trail, I could see why it had proved too daunting for many a hiker.  Over a dozen hikers had left the trail from Ziggy and the Bear’s, and Stacey and Jules had taken the offer of a ride from Legend, a Trail Angel I’d yet to meet, and bypassed the 50 miles up the mountain to spare themselves the pain.  I didn’t blame them, and as we sat eating ice cream and discussing life and the trail, it all seemed to have worked out well for us.
Susan arrived early on Saturday morning, and I was beyond excited to see her again, though it’d only been a week.  We hopped in the car when she arrived and grabbed a quick breakfast before making our way down to the start of the San Gorgonio trail, a large, waterless canyon that sat at the base of the nearly 12,000 foot peak.  There were signs all around warning of a need for a special backcountry permit to access the summit, which we did not have, but we persevered, climbing out of the wash for nearly a mile of rock strewn switchbacks, which left both of our legs burning.  We were sore, and neither of us were particularly enjoying the process, so when we came upon a ranger at the National Forest boundary, who asked us pointedly to see our permits, we politely apologized and reversed course, no harm, no foul.  The summit would be there another day.
So my third day in Big Bear was spent exploring with Susan, and it was wonderful.  We had lunch with Mama Goose, newly arrived in town, and my parents came to join us.  We grabbed fudge at the local fudge shop (a real gem of a place, and one I’ll be revisiting for sure), and explored the surrounding mountains by car.  Susan and I are suckers for abandoned places, so when we discovered an abandoned boy scout camp, we were excited to explore it, wandering a sage-covered meadow, laying in the grass of an archery range looking for shapes in clouds, and generally enjoying each others company.  We met my parents for dinner and spent the night joking and telling stories (mostly at my expense), and it was lovely.
But all good things must end, and I found myself stepping out of her car, fully laden pack on my back once more, kissing her goodbye and fighting tears that didn’t want to be held back.  We said goodbye, under the assumption that we’d see each other again in three weeks, and I set out, putting some distance between us before I was slammed by a wave of emotion I’d not expected.  It’s hard saying goodbye to people you love, even for a time, and Big Bear had reminded me of that love, of it’s presence and the reasons for it, and now I was alone once more.
The trail was easy, thankfully, and I turned my attention on putting in miles in the 7 hours I had left before dark.  I hiked through the pines of the mountains to the north of Big Bear Lake, looking down on the water and town I’d just left.  There were wildflowers in abundance along the trail, and lizards everywhere, and soon I was happy to be back out and walking.

I wound along the mostly level trail, slowly descending from the ridgeline.  A few miles in I passed the meadow Susan and I had found the day before, and was hit again by a wave of emotion, but I pushed it down and soldiered on.
The area north of Big Bear was marked by a series of large burn areas, from the all too frequent wildfires that hit the area.  Soon I was out of the trees and hiking down a barren and rocky hillside, catching my first glimpse of the San Gabriel mountains to the west, the mountains that stretched north of my home in Los Angeles, and was again confronted with a powerful emotional reaction.  In a week I’d be the closest to home I’d been in a month, it was exciting, and I was anxious to get there.  I descended into Little Bear Camp and used the surprisingly well maintained toilet there, a solar affair behind a wood plank wall, a luxury out on the trail, and continued on, until I got to the dirt road crossing near Holcomb Creek.
I had seen the truck parked at the road as I came down from the mountain into Little Bear Camp, a white pick-up that I presumed belonged to some local out for a day of hiking, off-roading, or hunting.  I found myself nervous as I approached it.  Though I had no reason to doubt the intentions of anybody on the trail, thoughts nevertheless sprang into my head of redneck shenanigans, and harassment from locals.  Whether it was due to some inborn prejudice (it was) or just general social anxiety from a month removed from society (it was), I was filled with a decidedly anxious feeling as I approached the dirt road.
Compounding my anxiety was the fact that I couldn’t see where the trail led after the road.  I stepped onto the well graded dirt and pulled out my phone, scanning the map and trying to judge where the trail picked up again.  The white truck was to my right, not 10 feet away, the driver sitting quietly watching me, the idiot hiker, lost and filled with nervousness.  As I looked at the trail, and my map, he rolled down his window.
“Looking for the trail?” he asked, and I said yes, nervously laughing off my lack of route-finding ability.
“It’s about a 100 yards up the road, past that fenceline and down along the creek.  Just walk up that way and you can’t miss it,” he said.
I thanked him and he smiled, starting to roll up his window again.  As he did I asked if he was out hiking.
“A little yeah, just got back to my car.  I was out saying goodbye to my dog.”  He said, stopping his window halfway up.
This was one of the heaviest hitting, and most beautiful moments I’d come across on the trail, and I offered my sympathies.  “How old was he?” I asked, knowing the pain of losing a pet, and having just helped Susan through her own loss not 6 months earlier.
“Fifteen, but he was strong til the end,” the man said, and continued.  “I’d bring him out here all the time, he loved hiking this section.  He’d always jump right out of the car and run straight into the creek, it’s really cold water, especially on days like this.  It’d take hours to get him out.”
I listened, entranced, as he finished.  “We buried him last week, but I kept his collar.  I figured it would be nice to leave a piece of him here in his favorite place.  I hung the collar on the fencepost next to the sign up there, you’ll see it when you hit the trail.”
I again offered condolences and thanked him for his help.  Not for the first time, nor for the last, were my preconceptions proven completely wrong upon talking with someone on the trail.  As I walked on, and past the collar, hanging from the trail sign as I stepped down away from the road, I was buoyed by the beauty of the moment, and it both lifted my spirits and opened my eyes to the sights on the trail ahead.
I followed the creek, past large, placid pools, dammed by beavers, it seemed, the cool dark water calling me.  I considered jumping in, but left it alone, instead filling my water bottles and pushing forward.  The sun was getting low, and I wanted to get a few more miles in before stopping.  There was a crossing not three miles ahead, and reaching it would set me up perfectly for a hike into Deep Creek the next day.
I walked through another burn area, big boulders dotting the landscape, and new manzanita and wildflower growth lining the trail to either side.  I stopped for some time by one manzanita, in full bloom and covered in bees, and took pictures far longer than I should have, but it was peaceful, and I felt inspired to capture the beauty of the moment.
The sun was almost down by the time I hit the crossing of Holcomb Creek, and I set up my hammock quickly before eating dinner.  It was disappointing to be back on trail rations, but there was nothing to be done for it.  I dressed for bed and climbed into my hammock, and went to sleep as the full moon rose over the small canyon.  It had been an eventful first day back on the trail, but I was happy to be back out.

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
print available at www.daturaphoto.com

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
print available at www.daturaphoto.com

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
print available at www.daturaphoto.com

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
print available at www.daturaphoto.com

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
print available at www.daturaphoto.com

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.