PCT – CA Section J, Day 1

PCT – CA Section J (Sonora Pass to Echo Lake Resort above Hwy 50)

Day 1 – Sonora Pass to Small Camp by a Creek (Mile 1016.9 to Mile 1033.7-ish)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

 

An Inauspicious Start

               My hiking buddy for this trip would be my son Jared, 18 years old and college-bound. Jared’s a good sport and one of my favorite hiking companions, despite his quietness. This would be our last hurrah together – a blistering 76-mile march in four days from Sonora Pass to Echo Summit, just above Highway 50 heading into South Lake Tahoebefore he heads off to college. Jared had everything he needed for his freshman year packed and stacked in his room, ready for an early morning departure on Monday. Time was not on our side. If he was to keep his plans intact, we had very little margin for delay if we were to make our planned nineteen miles per day.

In order to get an early start on Thursday morning, we decided to camp Wednesday night at Pinecrest Campground, some thirteen miles west of Sonora Pass along Highway 108. Jared’s grandparents, my in-laws, who are some of the most supportive in-laws in history, agreed to drive us up to the trailhead knowing that it would include a night of camping without a tent or trailer. They slept in the back of their pick up and lent Jared and I some rather comfy cots.

We awoke early enough, but still managed to get to the Ranger Station after another group of hikers who peppered the only Ranger on duty with all manner of questions and shared all manner of details about their planned excursion. Me? I’m into simplicity and efficiency. I just wanted to get my permit and to get out of there as quickly as possible. Thanks to the gabby leader of the aforementioned group, we didn’t leave the Ranger Station until roughly 8:45. We were already 40 minutes behind schedule.

No sooner did we hit the road than we came upon road construction crews and signs warning of delays. They held true as we stopped several times to wait our turn to use the only available lane. My foot began to tap involuntarily as I realized we were burning daylight and would have trouble making the necessary nineteen miles that day. That, I knew, would impact the rest of the trip. 

At 10:30 or so, we finally hit the trail after pictures and hugs and plenty of warnings from my mother-in-law to be safe and take care of her grandson. The starting elevation is 9620 feet. We came from nearly sea level the night before. I knew the first few miles were going to be killer as we had to climb up and over the highest point of our journey, a 10,500-foot saddle between two volcanic peaks, within the first three miles. What a way to start. “Welcome to back to the Sierra, boys. Here’s some thin air for you to suck on!”

2.9 miles into our first day and we were winded. We sat to rest and Jared, who is not one to complain or whinge, said with one of his patent wry smiles, “You know, Dad, we could just head back down to the highway and catch a ride home. It’d be a lot easier.” Tempting as that offer was, I remained steely in my determination to check off another section of the mighty PCT and prove to my son that I could handle a little pain and exertion. And so could he.

Oh, My!

We pressed on a few more miles, rounding the shoulder of the second volcanic mountain. We kept a steady pace as the trail undulated across the rocky, semi-barren landscape. Somewhere around mile five, part way down the first of many gradual descents between mountain passes, we stopped under the shade of a group of stubby pines overlooking a moss-green lake in a meadow several hundred feet below. Five miles in with what we thought was the toughest climb behind us and we were feeling pretty good.

The trail was mostly empty. We had passed two groups of day hikers in the first couple of miles and met a couple of southbound through hikers heading toward Yosemite. But that was it. We hadn’t seen anyone else. It felt like it might just be the two of us alone in the wilderness for the next four days. The cool thing was, we were both OK with that.

The pattern for much of the next seventy plus miles began to take form after lunch. The trail bottomed out toward the end of the canyon we had been descending. We crossed a creek or two, then began to ascend with the aid of several switchbacks which grew progressively steeper. As we neared the top of the canyon wall, one false summit gave way to another, and another, until we finally traversed a pass or saddle and began to descend another canyon. Drop a thousand to fifteen hundred feet, cross a creek, ascend a thousand feet or two. Repeat.

At one point coming down one of those canyons, I had stopped to take some pictures and Jared had kept motoring ahead of me, knowing we needed to keep an aggressive pace if he was going to get home and keep his planned timeline. I came around a bend as the trail skirted a meadow and entered a forested area. Jared leaned against a rock. His eyes were wide open and his ear turned to listen. “Thought this might be prime bear territory,” he said.

“Did you hear something?” I asked.

“Yeah, but I’m not sure what it was. Might’ve been nothing. But, you never know.”

“Smart thinking, son.”

We stayed together, smartly, and talked out loud whenever we came upon areas where our visibility was limited. I was proud of Jared for his situational awareness and for remembering some of the things I had taught him when I was his Scoutmaster.

Halfway up the second canyon wall on our way to the second of many high altitude passes on this hike, we saw the seventh person of the trip and the first one since about mile two. This was eleven or twelve miles into our journey. He had an expensive camera around his neck and a waist pack with a couple of lenses along with his rather small hiking pack. He didn’t seem to want to stop and talk, but blew past us with nothing more than a “hello.”

Toward the end of the day, our legs were weary from our long and steady march over hill and dale. Our feet were sore and hot. And, dark clouds shrouded the sky above the jagged peaks to our left. A storm looked to be blowing in from the northwest. Moments later, raindrops began hitting us intermittently.

A Couple of Heroes

That’s when we saw the eighth and ninth people of the day and trip. Two older ladies were working to put up their lightweight backpacking tents. I waved and asked them about their hike. They had started at Yosemite and were working their way to Donner Summit. Although eighty miles into a two- hundred-mile trek, these two gals, who I estimated to be in their early to mid-sixties, looked cheerful and energetic. They told me they had been rained on enough this trip and wanted to get their tents up before it really opened up again. I expressed my admiration to them, telling them that I wanted to be like them – still hiking and enjoying the outdoors at their age. They wished me and Jared well and said, “We probably won’t see you again. There’s no way we can keep that kind of pace.” Yes, Jared and I were booking, trying to get as many miles in as we could before the rain started in earnest, but I remained impressed with these two brave and hearty souls and wished I had the time to talk more with them.

That was mile fourteen or so. Still way below our goal.

We pushed on as the rain was still only teasing. It would come down for thirty seconds then stop. Then do it again a few minutes later. Undaunted, we quickened our pace and came over another saddle. As we crested the summit, we passed through a barbed wire gate and began winding down alongside a small creek. The “gate” was really a couple of posts with several strands of barbed wire between them held against a post secured in the ground by a couple of loops of bailing wire. That should have been a clue.

“Do you hear that?”

To us, it was another milestone that marked our progress on the “Halfmile PCT” map app I use on my phone. We were roughly fifteen and a half miles from our starting point and somewhere around a mile or so from a promised creekside camp spot. An expansive meadow lay before us and to our left. Trees and another jagged peak rose toward the sky on our right. The creek headed into some trees. The trail followed, then climbed to another saddle. That’s when we heard it: a strange chorus of sorts. At first, it sounded like rushing water. Maybe there’s a waterfall ahead, I thought. No, it could be voices, Jared said. Lots of voices. That surely meant a scout troop camped where we were hoping to camp. That meant we were screwed and would have to hike longer than we had hoped, perhaps into the dark as it rained. As we continued, the trees thinned and we started through another open meadow. That’s when the origin of the sound became more clear. It was the sound of bells. Dozens of bells clattering on the collars of dozens, perhaps hundreds of cows grazing in these mountain meadows.

With the haunting sound correctly identified, our only concern now was avoiding a stampede and the occasional “trail pie” left behind. Of course, we were also worried about the rain as the clouds had thickened up and darkened considerably.

After winding our way through a gulley or two, we came around a bend and spotted a tent in a small stand of trees and heard the sound of a creek. I checked the app. Yep, this was it. Mile 16.7 and the small camp site it promised. We announced our arrival to the occupant of the tent and asked him if he minded if we camped there. He was more than gracious – almost anxious. We thanked him, learned his name was Jesse, and hastily scouted out the best spot to pitch our tent.

Within twenty minutes our tent was pitched, our raincoats were on, and our dinner was cooking. Or, I should say, was reconstituting. (Mountain House Spaghetti). As it sat in its bag soaking up the water we had boiled, we filtered more water for drinking into our water bladders and bottles. Dinner was amazing, as any food is when you’re that hungry and exhausted, and we finished it just in time. Drops started to spatter as we cleaned and repacked our utensils. Perfect timing.

During dinner we learned that Jesse, the tenth person we’d seen since starting on the trail, was from Portland and was hiking south from Belden to Yosemite, a 250-mile section of trail. Once in Yosemite, he planned to hike many of the trails in and around the park before the end of the summer.

Although we didn’t make the nineteen miles we needed to, we felt accomplished. 16.7 grueling miles in a little under eight hours. An extra mile or so each of the next three days and we’d be fine.

Exhaustion overtook us shortly after climbing into our sleeping bags. The rain stopped even before we fell asleep, but the clanging of cow bells in the distance provided an auditory backdrop to our dreams most of the night.

 

 

PCT – CA Section A Day 6

PCT – CA Section A

Day 6 –  Barrel Spring to Warner Springs (Mile 101 to Mile 110)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Getting an Early Start

Another warm night meant that I awoke with only my feet in my sleeping bag as the first rays of sun peaked over the hills and into my tent. Again, my trail-self did what my home-self doesn’t often do. I popped up energetically and started preparing for my day. Despite having hiked twenty-two miles the day before and a hundred and one miles over the previous five days, I felt ready to go. I knocked out breakfast quickly and repacked with surprising efficiency and hit the trail by 6:45. With only three liters of water in my pack, I felt surprisingly light compared to previous days where I was so concerned about running out. This morning, I knew I could do the nine miles with water to spare, especially if I beat the heat.

My biggest frustration that day was the fact that my solar-powered battery charger had apparently not gotten enough sunlight during the previous day, despite my best efforts to angle its panels at the sun. It hadn’t added any juice to my phone, which now had 12% battery life. That was going to be a problem, I knew, when it came time to take pictures.

I spent the morning roaming over a mix of wooded and grassy hills, through meadows and oak groves. Then, halfway through my march, I crossed the first live stream of the entire trip. A running creek was indeed a site to behold. I risked running my phone battery dry and snapped a few shots of this novelty.

Wildlife Encounter

Over the next hill, I saw more “wildlife” other than lizards than I had seen all trip. First, a pair of jack rabbits crossed my path and ran into the brush. Of course, my phone was not ready, so I wasn’t able to document it. Then, over the next rise, I ran into a small herd of cattle. I’m not scared of cows, but there was a moment where I felt more vulnerable than I had the entire trek. With sore feet, tired muscles, and a forty-pound pack, my ability to escape them was quite limited. As I swooped down the trail, the fifteen congregated, black-and-white-spotted cows, all turned toward me warily. Two or three of them did that hoof scraping thing, not in a particularly threatening manner, perhaps trying to ward me off. Three of them were lying right on the path, apparently holding no reverence for the sanctity of the mighty PCT. The others huddled in close around them, leading me to believe that they would protect their lazy sisters at all costs.

I began to bang my hiking poles together. That didn’t work. I called out to them, “Move cows, get out of my way. Go, go, go.” No response from the bovines. I waved my arms and poles as I continued to march toward them. Again, a couple of them scraped the ground with their front hooves. I stopped and eyed them, trying to figure out the best option. Of course, I had no intention of walking any further than I had to, but I also did not want to get stampeded. One option included walking in a wide arc around the group and around a pile of rocks to the top of the next hill. That would have required about 200 extra yards, I figured. Or, I could be more brave and walk only a few extra yards if I split a twenty-yard gap between the main group of ten cows near the trail and the three or four spread out to my right. That seemed the most efficient way to go. It would save me the time of waiting for these heifers to clear out and would save me the extra effort of circumnavigating around the whole group. So, I proceeded as confidently as one can when in close proximity to half-ton beasts who don’t want you near them. For added protection, I held my poles out perpendicular to my body on both sides and jabbed them toward the cows as they turned toward me. They were my only protection against being trampled. Fine, fine weapons, those hiking poles. After making safe passage through the herd, I thought: this is the stuff of “Far Side” cartoons and I laughed at the scene, wishing I had either had a camera to capture this on video or the genius ability of Gary Larson to humorously encapsulate the sight in some sort of anthropomorphic duel between the will of man versus the will of cow.

A few falsely confident strides and I was beyond them, though I didn’t take my eyes off them until I was near the top of the hill.

With that “danger” behind me, I passed over several more hills until I came to a field of towering boulders. One of them, known as Eagle Rock, was worthy of pictures, but with no battery, I had to abandon that thought and press on. The contrasts in the landscape along this portion of the trail was fascinating. Green pastures to stands of humongous oaks to rock fields to more chaparral to shady streamside groves. The variations in this nine-mile stretch kept my mind off of other things, like aching feet and gnawing hunger.

Before I knew it, I could hear the distant sound of cars, but couldn’t quite echo-locate their position, thanks to the trees and hills around me. But I knew that meant I was approaching Highway 79 and Warner Springs, my end-goal for this trip. My mouth began to water as I thought about hamburgers and chocolate shakes. I also became pointedly aware of the dirt and grime on my skin and the untidiness of my appearance. The promised showers in Warner Springs seemed to be beckoning me, so I increased my pace.

A Parking Problem

By 9:40 that morning, I was passing through the final pipe gate of my trek and striding along the shoulder of Highway 79 in front of the Warner Springs Fire District, looking for my car. Will had texted me earlier that he had left it in a parking lot between the Fire House and the school. There it was, my little black beauty. With a sense of victory and accomplishment, I dropped my pack next to the car and hurriedly removed my boots to let my feet breathe. The log divider in the parking lot made a perfect seat for the task and I was soon in my ultra-fashionable crocks and enjoying a long pull on my water bottle, which still had half a liter.

That’s when I saw two people eying me as they approached from opposite directions. They cautiously surveyed my appearance before proffering a question from ten yards away. “Are you one of those hikers?” the woman asked warily. The man, a fairly large, but not-so-menacing figure, stood behind her like a bodyguard, arms crossed and silent.

“Yes, I am,” I responded. “Just finishing my hike.”

“Well, you can’t leave your car here.”

I cocked my head and furrowed my brow. “OK,” I said as I stood slowly.

“We were just about to have it towed,” she added with an air of both hostility and benevolence. “I decided to give you until the end of the day.”

Again, unsure of what sort of response she wanted, I said, “OK, I’m heading out soon.”

“You’re not allowed to park here,” she continued. “This is for parents and teachers of this school. There’s no overnight parking.”

“Oh,” I said. “I won’t be here that long. I’m heading out as soon as I load up my gear.”

“But your car has been here since yesterday.”

Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought. “I see. Well, the friend that dropped it off for me apparently misunderstood my directions. I told him to park on the other side of the highway, but I guess he forgot or didn’t hear me.”

“But you can’t leave it here any longer,” said the impatient principal. “You’ll have to move it over there.”

Now I was growing a bit impatient. “Right. Well, I’m heading home here as soon as I pack up my car.”

Then I looked at the scene and tried to see it from her perspective. There I sat with my backpack on the ground next to me with some of its contents spilled out on the ground, my boots on top of it, with the trunk of my car open and Brian’s backpack visible. Maybe she thought I was reloading or just starting out. I don’t know. I was confused by her persistence and she must have been confused by the mixed signals coming from the array of stuff and the half-packed status of my pack and my car.

Calmly, I reiterated: “I’m leaving – I’m driving home today – as soon as I load up my car. This is where my hike ends.”

“Oh, you’re finished? Then why are you parking here?”

“I’m not parking, I’m loading up and driving home.”

She had something in her mind and what I was saying was not jibing with what she was thinking. Knowing that actions speak louder than words, I grabbed my pack and my boots and shoved them in my back seat, closed the trunk, and sat down in the driver’s seat. “I apologize for my friend leaving my car here. I hope it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience.” I started the engine, closed the door, and rolled down the window. “I do appreciate you not having it towed away, though,” I said with a smile. “That was very nice of you.” I put it in gear and drove away, having not processed the note on my seat informing me that Will had left the key I gave him on top of one of the tires. I had my wife’s key with me, which he must have forgotten. I drove off while the principal and her bodyguard watched, probably crushing the door remote into the hard-packed dirt of the parking lot as I did.

I drove into town and realized there were not too many services available in this remote place. The one and only convenience store I saw was out of business. The only restaurant I saw was at the golf course near the Post Office, but I felt too grungy to walk into a fine establishment like that. There were several other hikers walking along the shoulder of the highway as I reached the far end of town. I turned around and gave the town another try. The only two townsfolk I saw pointed me to where the community center was, across from the school parking lot, so I headed back there in hopes of taking a shower and finding some food. There was no food. The showers consisted of a bucket of lukewarm water and a locking, open-air shower stall behind the building. There was a line of probably ten or twelve hikers waiting their turn, many soaking their feet in buckets as they waited for the “shower”. It was a little after 10:00 a.m. I didn’t want to wait in line for a bucket shower when I could be 60 miles down the road by the time it was my turn. So, I thanked the lady at the counter, stuffed a few dollar bills in the collection jar on the desk nearby, and proceeded dig my overnight bag out of the trunk. I used the restroom to change my clothes and half a pack of baby wipes to freshen up as best I could. I washed my arms and face and neck in the sink, turning the white porcelain brown in the process. I had a clean hand towel in my duffel bag, too. That was the best I could do for now, and it felt fantastic. Amazing how refreshing soap and water and a clean towel are after six days without.

An hour later, I sat in a Carl’s Jr. in Temecula, 40 miles to the west, enjoying a hamburger, fries, and a chocolate shake. Halfway back to the Bay Area, I satisfied another craving by stopping for tacos. Eight hours after leaving Warner Springs, I was home, unloading my car when some friends came by to visit, compelling me to delay my long-anticipated shower for another half an hour. If they were grossed out, they didn’t let on, but I make it a point to stay on the opposite side of the living room as we chatted.

Final Thoughts on First Section

My short stint on the PCT was everything I wanted it to be, even if it was only five and a half days. It’s fascinating to meet the people out there, hear their stories, and share a moment or two of misery with strangers. I enjoyed swapping life stories, fun memories, and heartfelt lessons with my good friend Brian, whom I now considered an even better friend for our time together.

Although this is not the first section of the PCT that I’ve completed, it is the first section of the northbound trail. As such, it gave me a chance to reflect on my time out there and on the many sections I have yet to complete. I started to wonder, at times, if this goal to complete this 2650-mile trail was worth it. My thoughts went all over the place and back again. I thought about my home, my business, my family. But I also thought about my health and my peace of mind. Like other hikes, if I can incorporate my kids, I’ll get the best of both worlds: accomplishing a major goal while spending quality time with people I truly love in a place that brings provides so much peace and beauty.

Spending time in nature and on the PCT is good for the body and good for the soul. The hiking experience, like any other life experience, is what you make it. It can grind you down or it can build you up, depending on your attitude. Hiking and time in nature can give you time to think, a chance to feel freer than you can in civilization, and provide the soul with some much-needed peace and quiet. It can isolate you or it can connect you to other humans while it also connects you to nature and the Creator.


PCT – CA Section A Day 5

PCT – CA Section A

Day 5 –  A dry creek bed two miles beyond Highway 78 to Barrel Spring (Mile 79.4 to Mile 101)

Monday, May 2, 2016

Early Riser?

After a restful sleep, my trail-acclimated body was up by 6:00 a.m. and ready to go. I’m not normally a morning person, so I wondered why I was wide awake so early. Maybe it was from the refill of somewhat normal food from the night before. Maybe it was because I knew my car was a mere 30 miles away and, near it, showers, civilized food, and the specter of returning home. Not that I don’t love the trail, but being home with my family trumps even the enjoyment of being outdoors.

Before packing up, I explored the immediate area where I had camped. Turns out there’s a fifteen-foot drop-off a hundred feet or so from my camp where, when water is flowing, there would be a waterfall and a small pool below. That, I thought, would be a cool sight to see. As I took in the view of the valley below, picking out the brownish-tannish line of the trail as it ran its way through the desert shrubs from the rocky hills to the south, I remembered my mindset and determination the day before to get through that furnace-like landscape as quickly as possible. I also remembered the desperation I felt when I swigged down the last of my water and the immense gratitude I felt for the Trail Angels who replenished my water bottle and, at the same time, rejuvenated my spirits. These thoughts made me eager to get on my way to see what new surprises and trail magic I might encounter that day.

By 7:00 a.m., my gear was loaded in my pack and I was on the trail. Nick and Matt were just beginning to rustle in their tents. They had told me the night before that they were not very good at getting out to an early start. Knowing I needed to get water and that Barrel Springs, almost 22 miles away, was the next on-trail spot to get it, putting in as many miles as possible before the sun started to bake me seemed like the best idea.

The Long and Winding Trail

The trail through the San Felipe hills is anything but direct. As I marched along the side of one hill, I looked to the north and could see the trail winding around the hill across from me, canyons or valleys of varying widths separating me from where I wanted to be. Agonizingly, I had to wend my way east around the shoulder of one hill after another, for what seemed like an eternity before crossing a dry creek at the end of the ravine and working my way west by northwest again until I was looking back at the portion of the trail I had been on several minutes earlier. The point is, it took a long time and a lot of walking to make any real northbound progress. But I was ticking off trail miles at a pretty good clip, so I was happy.

Along the side of the trail, several other campers were in various stages of making ready for the day. I recognized from the descriptions in Halfmile PCT the campsite under the dry waterfall, for example, and the others that were in dry creek beds and among the shrubs just off the trail. They were all inhabited, which made me glad I didn’t keep going the night before. It could have been dicey trying to find a suitable, vacant camp spot and set up in the dark.

As I came around one of these southward-jutting promontories, somewhere around mile 85, I noticed a hiker hiking the trail along the mountainside across the canyon. It appeared they were moving southbound toward me. That was unusual as most hikers were heading to Canada, not Mexico. Curiosity kept my mind busy for the next half hour or so as I worked my way around several more twists and turns and through several more of these gullies. Finally, the person who had appeared as a small blip across a wide canyon was now in front of me, making her way gingerly along the rocky path. I won’t give her name since I failed to ask her permission to use it. But, she was very friendly and nice. She told me that she had twisted her ankle badly and had to turn around. It was easier, she said, to hike back seven miles to Highway 78 than to try to go another 23 miles to Warner Springs. At the pace she was traveling, I knew it was going to be a long, hot, miserable journey for her. I offered to help however I could, but she insisted she would be fine. The interesting fact that surfaced during our brief conversation, besides her injury and need to abandon her friends and her plans, was our connection. As it turns out, she and I graduated from the same high school in the same, somewhat obscure, coastal town south of L.A. What are the odds of that? She was a few years younger than I and grew up as far from the high school as you could get and still be in the school’s boundaries, but we shared some stories about our home town and how it has changed over the years.

We parted ways after our friendly and surprising encounter. She treaded cautiously southward and I pressed forward northbound, eager to get to my car knowing I had to be back in my office, 500 miles away, in 48 hours. Nothing like a deadline to keep you motivated, right? The idea of a home-cooked meal and a hot shower were more alluring than the thought of being back in the office, but still, duty called.

Cheerful Challengers

As I forged ahead with my music playing in my earphones, I spotted two more hikers ahead of me. Again, they were across a canyon and I had no way of knowing how many trail-miles lay between me and them. As the crow flies, I estimated it to be no more than a quarter mile across a ravine to where they were. But with the meandering trail, it took me close to an hour to catch up to them. “Snapdragon” and “Lipstick” were not your typical, trail-harden, ultra-fit, I-got-something-to-prove type macho women you see sometimes on the trail. They didn’t strike me as the gritty, adventure enthusiast-type I had met earlier in the trip. Nor were they like Lucy who needed to find themselves in the outdoors in order to gain, or regain, perspective. No, Snapdragon and Lipstick were a mother-daughter team bent on doing something hard. Like me, these two ladies realized how easy it is to get comfortable and complacent and walled-in. Despite being novice hikers “tying it out,” this experience was energizing them emotionally while taxing them physically. They had read about the PCT (probably from the book “ Wild,” though they didn’t admit that out loud) and wanted to see what it was all about. They weren’t quite sure how long they would stay out there, but they knew they had to get to Warner Springs before their food ran out. They had worked their way up to eight or nine miles a day, having started a full week and a half ahead of me.  These two ladies had bright smiles and even brighter spirits. They were out there enjoying the challenge and feeling really good about themselves and how far they had come. Every bit of celebration and self-congratulating was well-deserved. I was impressed by their cheerfulness and went away glad to have crossed their path.

But, my deadline loomed ahead of me and drove me onward.

I passed several more hikers, some in pairs, some solo, all of whom planned to make it to Canada by mid-September. I wondered and worried about a few of them as they seemed to be struggling with foot or other issues at this early stage. One in particular seemed to not only be ailing physically, but mentally, too. Letting up mentally is worse than breaking down physically when it comes to endurance sports. When I greeted him, his surly attitude was immediately on display. Instead of the usual pleasantries and exchanges, he practically barked at me when I asked him how far he planned on going today. He let me know that nothing was going as planned and he was sick of everything breaking. A quick glance at his equipment led me to believe that he hadn’t put too much time or effort into his preparations. No wonder his attitude was sour. Boots that aren’t comfortable, a backpack that does fit right, and the wrong type of clothing can kill your best-laid plans. I felt for him and offered assistance, but he waved me off and said he’d be fine. That was somewhere near mile 88.

Lunch in the Shade

I hiked alone with my thoughts and my music most of the day, only meeting one or two other hikers the rest of the morning and on into the afternoon. By noon I was famished and needed a break. I had been planning to stop for lunch at a trail junction where there was water off the trail. When I got to the junction at mile 91, I found a small area of shade under the chaparral near the sign that pointed to water. I decided I would eat first, then assess my water situation. As had become my lunchtime ritual, I pulled out my small chair, took off my boots and socks, donned my Crocks, and quenched my thirst before I even thought about food. My feet enjoyed the freedom of the non-restrictive Crocks as they cooled off in the shade. It just about noon and I was just about halfway to my end goal for the day, so I was feeling pretty good. Even with the stops to talk to people and the generally uphill slog, I had averaged a little better than two miles per hour. Not bad for an old guy, I thought.

I pulled out the bag Will had given me with the makings for a sandwich. It was packed carefully amid my clothes so as to stay out of the heat and to not get smashed. The bread was still fairly fresh, as was the cheese. But, thanks to overuse of salami on so many other hikes, I couldn’t stomach the thought of eating more of it. When one of the hikers I had passed within the hour came to the junction, I gave him the salami, which he gladly accepted. I still had half a bag of Doritos, which I savored as I wolfed down the whole wheat bread and Swiss cheese from Will. It was heaven compared to the thought of more protein bars. I added some jerky and nuts to the feast and felt quite satisfied as I enjoyed the shade.

After a few minutes’ rest, it was time to check the water supply. My 3-liter camelback still had a liter and a half. One of my 1.5-liter bottles was full; the other had about half a liter left. My two one-liter bottles contained electrolyte mix and were each still half full. So, I emptied the full 1.5-liter bottle into my camelback and headed down the path toward the water source to refill it. The guy I gave the salami was enjoying a much better, much shadier spot than mine a hundred yards down the path to the water supply, which made me wish I had scouted out the area better before I settled for my tiny spot. He informed me that the water tank was quite a way down the trail. I started down, but as it got steeper I became wary. I would have to return up this hill. The app said it was .6 miles from the trail. That meant 1.2 miles roundtrip – at least half an hour of extra walking in the heat of the day, half of it up this steep hill. Forget it. I had enough water to last me the rest of the day if I was careful, so I returned to my chair and rested for a minute. At this point, I was focused on efficiency. No extra steps, no climbing unnecessary hills. With almost four liters of water to last half a day and ten miles, I knew I’d be alright.

The rest of the day was spent angling more northward than I had in the morning. There were fewer ravines and gullies to traverse, although there were a few doozies still. Points of interest included what the app called a “Billy Goat’s cave” at mile 96, vistas across long, green valleys, and a commemorative marker made of white rocks at mile 100. I reached that marker at 4:40 and knew I’d be in camp by 5:00 at the rate I was going. I thought I would refill with water, make dinner, eat, and push on another couple of miles.

Well, that plan didn’t work out. I got to the water source by 5:00 as expected, but by the time I finished eating, my will to put my boots back on and hike another hour was gone. It felt good to sit in the shade of the oak trees at Barrel Springs. There was a bevy of other hikers there, too. As we waited in line at the water pipe to refill, I was intrigued by the stories of these other hikers. I listened with rapt interest as I realized how fortunate I had been to avoid equipment and health problems that had plagued some of them. I also realized again the advantages of being a section hiker instead of a thru-hiker. The long detours for resupply and the careful planning and timing required to get to the post office after a package arrived instead of having to wait around for it, and the necessity to “take a zero” (the term for a layover day) occasionally to recharge were things I didn’t have to worry about.

I was nine miles from my car which would take me to a burger joint, a shower, and home. Of course, there would also be an ice cream reward in there somewhere. A good night’s sleep and I would be ready to pound out those miles in short order and get on the road.

 

PCT – CA Section A, Day 3

PCT – CA Section A

Day 3 –  A ridge five miles south of Burnt Rancheria Campground to a ridge near Sunrise Highway (Mile 36.5 to Mile 59.5)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Morning Fog

When we awoke that Saturday morning, it didn’t feel like a typical weekend morning to me. I arose before 6:00 a.m. That’s not a typical Saturday for me. Nor is being in a tent high up on the coastal range enshrouded by fog. It was nippy with a brisk breeze blowing in from the ocean, which we couldn’t see for the thick cloud cover.

The burning thought in my mind was that we needed to get Brian to Highway 78, which, ironically, was at mile 78, by 4:00 on Sunday so he wouldn’t miss his flight. We had to cover 42 miles of terrain between now and then with some possible detours and delays to find water. The decision was made to forego breakfast for now, deferring until we had adequate water to cook. So, trail bars and jerky would have to suffice as our morning meal. Another atypical start to the day for me.

With the heavy fog, everything was wet. Thankfully, we had covered our packs, as I almost always do, with garbage bags the night before to protect them and their contents from the moisture. Maybe it was just a mind game, but the wet clothesthe ones we had washed in the sink the first nightwere still not dry and seemed to make my pack feel heavier. Nonetheless, we saddled up and hit the trail before seven o’clock.

Within a few minutes, it seemed, the chaparral gave way to scrub oak and laurels as we climbed almost imperceptibly onto the forested shoulder of the Laguna Mountain range. The time and the miles ticked by as we engaged in lively conversation. At one point, a hiker known by her trail name of Lucy, stopped to let us go by. “I can hear you guys a mile away,” she said. “And I want to hike in peace, so go ahead of me.” We apologized for making too much noise, but she just waved a dismissive hand and shook her head. Less than an hour later, as we paused to rummage for snacks, she caught up to us and asked our forgiveness for being rude. We told her we understood her desire for quiet time, especially early in the morning. Lucy went on to tell us her reasons for hiking the PCT and her goals for the trek. Lucy had been living in Alaska for years and, until recently, hadn’t realized how depressed she had become. Between the unreasonable stress of her job and dealing with a grumpy boss, the long, sunless winter, and her own lack of activity, she had slumped into the doldrums and was looking for a way out. Getting laid off provided the gap in her demanding schedule needed to undertake something like this. When we asked if she was heading all the way to Canada, her answer was, “We’ll see if I can make it that far.” We were somewhere near mile 40 and the doubts were already creeping in. Brian and I did our best to encourage and uplift her as her end goal was looking impossibly far away to her at that moment.

As we approached an array of dirt roads and trails crisscrossing the path, we knew we were approaching the next major campground, Burnt Rancheria, and my stomach howled in anticipation of stopping to make a real breakfast. I’ve learned over the years that I don’t do well without this most important meal of the day and this morning was no exception.

The search for water

Lucy informed us that she planned to veer off the trail here and find the town that was less than a mile away so she could resupply. Brian and I, with a deadline looming, had no plans to walk any extra miles. However, we did walk a few hundred yards off the trail into the campground where we met a friendly Park Ranger at a water spigot. The Ranger smiled at us and explained that the water still wasn’t up to drinking standards and he couldn’t let us fill up there. His pleasant demeanor and kindly voice typified many of the non-hikers we would come across on our shortened journey. He said most of the PCT hikers he had come across had a certain “vibe” about them that was positive and nice. That’s why he was always glad to try to help them, like he helped us, with guidance to the nearest place to buy food or take a shower. We declined the advice to head into town for a hearty meal at the restaurant there, outlining our time constraints, and thanked him for his hospitality.

The information from this amiable Ranger changed our plans. Instead of stopping for breakfast and to replenish our water reserves for the long, dry traverse to the next known reliable water 22 miles away, we used the information he provided and decided to detour to the Mount Laguna campground where, he assured us, the water was clean and plentiful.

On the trail again, we rounded the shoulder of another hill, then began to descend past Desert View Picnic Area, where we got our first glimpses at the golf ball-like radar domes on Mount Stephenson and narrow views of the expansive desert to our east. The contrast between the cool forest where we hiked and the arid desert just a few miles away was an up-close lesson about how topography affects life because of how it alters the distribution of rain. Soon enough, we would cross into the that dry and seemingly lifeless region. But, for now, we hiked on while wearing lightweight jackets against the continuing ocean breeze.

Breakfast, finally

At a trail junction, we stopped to rest and consult our maps and guidebook. Knowing we were running low on water and were soon to be heading into the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, we detoured to the campgrounds at Mount Laguna. There we rested at a picnic table, sans boots and socks, while we boiled water for oatmeal and dug out some dried fruit and nuts. We also used an outlet in the restroom to charge our phones.

While we ate and rested, several other hikers wandered into the campground. The first two were a British couple looking for a place to rest so the wife could recover from an injury to her hip that was bothering her. The next was a French couple. They, too, were going to stop for the night despite the fact that it was only noon. The last one in was our Dutch friend. We, the Americans, found ourselves in the minority. An interesting discussion about American politics and the on-going presidential campaigns ensued. They were all sympathetic to our plight of not having a single good candidate to vote for and lamented the future of the world based on the outlook from the two frontrunners (Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump) in the contest.

Politics aside, Brian and I realized the time was getting late and we still had to make 30 miles in 28 hours, hoping to cut that number in half before dark. We bid adieu to our international friends and headed back down to the trail. However, we got sidetracked by a lookout point that stood just above the trail and offered a spectacular vista and interpretive panels that highlighted the various life zones present within our view. Behind us was Mount Laguna and its shady forests. Ahead of us were the rock and cacti-covered Sawtooth Mountains. Below them and to our left was the vast expanse of desert floor. This required some photos. And since we knew we would likely be out of cell phone coverage for most of the next 24 hours, we took the opportunity to talk to our wives.

Beating the Clock

Time continued to march, even while we did not. It was now moving in on two o’clock in the afternoon and we were terribly behind schedule. Despite sore feet and tired muscles, we pressed on, taking only one small rest until we got to the Pioneer Mail Trail Picnic Area. Since there was a restroom and picnic tables, we ventured another break, though not a long one.

We climbed out of the picnic area on a wide section of trail that appeared to have once been a road. We were moving up the shoulder of another mountain and attaining altitude that afforded more impressive vistas over the hilly desert below us. Traversing along this shoulder for some distance, we could feel the air growing warmer and drier as we progressed away from the cool of Mount Laguna toward the heat of the San Felipe Hills. But we still had altitude on our side, maintaining 5,000 feet for several long miles before gradually descending to lower climes. This area, however, provided some of the most spectacular vistas of our trip.

As late afternoon turned to early evening, we came upon a boulder-strewn area promised in the guidebook and the Halfmile PCT app as a good place to camp. The bright colors of tents and campers’ outerwear popped against the granitic boulders above the trail to our left. We came around a bend and saw more of the same. We continued around an outcropping where the story was repeated. It appeared to us that this prime camping spot was getting crowded. That was one problem. The other was that we were still roughly twenty-three miles from our rendezvous point the next day. We pressed on in an attempt to reduce the chances of Brian missing his Sunday evening flight home.

Sunrise Ridge

After undulating in a general downhill flow into more low-lying chaparral, we mounted one final steep uphill slope expecting to find a crossing of Sunrise Highway somewhere near the top. We could hear the occasional vehicle in the distance, but were not quite sure where the road was. Instead, we came to a sort of plateau where the ridgeline flattened out a bit. Halfway across this plateau, we met a junction with the Sunrise trail, heading perpendicular to our right – straight east – following another ridgeline. Ironically, it was just about sunset as we arrived at Sunrise Trail Junction. The area was high up with a great view. Plus, it was flat and relatively rock-free. We were somewhere around mile 59.5, meaning that we had hiked over 23 miles that day even with our longer-than-expected brunch break. Our feet and legs definitely felt it and were ready for a rest. The app said there were good camp spots in two miles, but again we didn’t want to be searching for them in the dark nor run the risk of finding too little space in a crowded area. With darkness looming only minutes away, we pitched our tent and made our dinner as the winds picked up and cooled things off in a hurry. That’s when I realized just how exposed we were up on that ridge. Oh, well. There were no clouds to worry about and with a few extra stakes in the ground and guy lines secured, the tent didn’t flap too much.

Before falling asleep, Brian shared some ideas for songs to go on the soundtrack of “Off Kilter, the movie.” As an enthusiastic supporter of my goal and dream to bring my book to life on the big screen, he suggested a few I had not thought of, including U2’s “Stuck in the Moment” and Ellie Gould’s “How Long Will I Love You.” He also liked several of the songs on my existing playlist, including Johnny Cash’s version of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt;” “Back 2 Good” by Matchbox Twenty; “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day; Evanescence’s “Bring Me Back to Life;” “Times Like These” by Foo Fighters; and, as the opening anthem, Moby’s “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad.”

As our musical conversation slowly faded, the chill set in. For the first time all trip, I slept with my wool beanie cap and zipped up my sleeping bag to conserve warmth. That’s how cold it was. But, as mentioned before, our damp clothes from the first night were completely dried by the wind as they stretched out over rocks and shrubs all night. When, at midnight, I had to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag and venture outside for some relief thanks to my efforts to rehydrate, I was shivering nearly out of control before I had walked the requisite 100 feet away from the tent. It was a brisk and breezy night, but the strain of twenty-three trail miles during the day made for a fitful rest.

 

PCT – CA Section A Day 2

PCT – CA Section A

Day 2 – Lake Morena to a ridge five miles south of Burnt Rancheria Campground (Mile 20 to Mile 36.5)

Friday, April 29, 2016

Getting Going Again

We got off to a slow start on this, our second day, as we attempted to leave the campground at Lake Morena. The clothes and socks we had rinsed out the night before in the shelter of the bathroom, then laid out on rocks and branches, were no drier come morning than they were the night before thanks to the marine layer and the continuing cloudy skies. In fact, those clothes wouldn’t be fully dry until the morning of the fourth day. While the clothes attempted to release their moisture, we reorganized our packs, ate our breakfast of instant oatmeal and dried fruit, and tried to formulate a routine. For me, day two of any long hike is the toughest. Your body is still not used to the strain you’re putting it through and your muscles complain about it relentlessly. At least until you’ve gotten a mile or two down the trail.

Our late start was slightly compounded by the need to make a few more adjustments as we began our hike and, to a lesser degree, by the soft, sandy soil of the trail as we trudged up the first of many hills that day. Because we had forgotten to apply sunscreen before we left, that became a necessity as soon as the marine layer burned off. That was one stop. The weight distribution in our packs was off, so we stopped again to readjust. Then we saw a cool mini arch and had to have a photo, so we stopped again. Several hikers passed us, so we chatted with each of them, adding to the delays that would inevitably reduce our mileage for the day.

Meeting New People

Many hikers take on trail names, monikers usually given by other hikers that either expose a certain element of their personalities or help them conceal their civilian identities. Early on day two, we met “Rambler” and “Second Lunch,” two thru-hikers traveling separately, but sort of together. Rambler got his name because of his constant need to be outdoors, exploring. Second Lunch got his because of his appetite. Both were amiable, fit, and determined. Second Lunch kept a blistering pace, but, as we found out later, had a tendency to take long meal breaks. Rambler was friendly, but not talkative.

Our trail brought us along the top of a flat ridge for some time. Canyons dropped off gently on either side and taller mountains loomed to our left and right in the distance. The sand and rocks were similar in color to so many trails in the High Sierra. The trail twisted and bent around until we were looking back at Lake Morena, where we had started our day some four miles and two hours earlier. This is where we dropped into a narrow, grassy valley and made our way through a stand of scrub oaks and laurels. Somewhere in there we found a nice rock to sit on and ate lunch in the shade. This is the point at which I began to feel a bit of chaffing and skin irritation along my hips and I discovered the benefits of Band Aid’s Friction Block. It worked a charm and kept my legs and hips happy. Anytime I felt any type of irritation or rubbing, I stopped and applied that stuff, which solved the problem.

Not too much further down the trail, we met Tequila John and Compass as we approached Boulder Oaks Campground. They alerted us to the location of the last known water spigot with clean water for thirty miles and encouraged us to “camel up,” which we did. This was the point at which I filled the two- 1.5 liter bottles I had carried empty to this point. Brian and I drank all we could at the spigot, then loaded up our bottles. We each carried the recommended eight liters of water. Eight liters of water weighs almost 18 pounds and we definitely felt the extra burden. But, we were later very glad we had done this.

Falling Further Behind

While still at the campground, we took a few moments to do business. My phone had been blowing up a little bit with office-related stuff, so I took a minute to answer emails and texts and make a call or two. Brian, too, got online and managed to save himself a few hundred dollars by cancelling some flights that he had double-booked. He also made arrangements with Will to get picked up at Highway 78 on Sunday so he could return and take care of business back at home. Coincidentally, Highway 78 is at trail mile 78. Boulder Oaks Campground, where we took this long break, was at mile 26.5.

Shortly after our longer-than-expected break, we passed under Interstate 8 and began a long slog up the shoulder of a mountain known as Peak 4382, hoping still to reach Burnt Rancheria Campground before dark. Problem was, it was already after 3:30 pm and we had about fourteen miles to go until we reached our intended camping spot. This called for some focus, so we each put in headphones and listened to music. Or so I thought.

Brian was actually listening to my debut novel, “Off Kilter,” on audiobook. When he caught up to me again, we began discussing the story, the characters, the setting, the plot, and every facet of the book. Later, he commented about how it should be made into a movie. I agreed and outlined my plan to make that happen. He offered a few suggestions and possible introductions, so we’ll see where that goes. I really enjoyed this in-depth conversation about something that means so much to me. I spent hours and hours developing and writing and plotting and revising and re-reading that story. It was fascinating and gratifying to listen to someone pull it apart and examine it out loud and ask insightful questions. Fortunately, I knew the answers to most of the questions, although Brian hit me with a few details that I had basically glazed over in the story. He’s really good that way. Always making me examine what I know from a different angle.

As we approached yet another ridgeline, I checked the Halfmile PCT app to find out how far we were from our intended destination. The app showed us to be four and a half miles away from the camp I had intended as our destination for the night. It was now past 6:30 p.m. That meant we’d be trying to find it in the dark with only our headlamps for illumination. It also meant two more hours before we ate something substantive. My insides were beginning to feel hollow and in want of food. See, lunches are always the most difficult meal on the trail. Weight is a huge consideration, as is protein and calories and preservability. That really limits your choices, so we stayed with trail mix, beef jerky, and protein bars. But, I was already growing tired of those and longed for a real meal, at least as real as freeze dried dinners can get.

A Unique Campsite

Half an hour later, we heard a familiar voice calling to us from somewhere up the hill to our right. It was our friend, Dutch Vegan Hiker. He had gotten ahead of us while we were stopped at Boulder Oaks and found a suitable place to camp just under the ridgeline, among the chaparral, about 200 feet from the trail near mile 35.5. It was flat and sandy and protected from the wind. What an awesome camp spot. We were grateful to our Dutch friend for his warm invite and spent what remaining daylight we had setting up our tent, preparing our dinner, and talking with our trail buddy about life, about the future, and about what brought him out to the PCT. It was a nice evening, but as darkness fell, the warmth of the day disappeared and our energy with it.

We spent the night on this obscure ridge, adequately sheltered and dog tired. Another good day, but we had only traveled 17 miles, putting us about four miles behind our tight schedule. Knowing we had two full days of hiking to make up lost ground, neither of us worried as we hunkered down and quickly fell asleep.

There’s a certain gratifying exhaustion that greets you at the end of a long day on the trail. Never is a warm sleeping bag and a thin, blow up mattress more inviting. My head hit my makeshift pillow and I was out cold. I think Brian had a similarly short ride to unconsciousness, but I couldn’t be sure as I was unaware of anything thirty seconds after I laid down.

While we slept, the fog rolled in again, keeping the clothes we had laid out on branches damp.

 

PCT – CA Section A Day 1

PCT – CA Section A

Day 1 – Campo to Lake Morena (Mile 0 to Mile 20)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Mile One

As mentioned in a previous post, hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a goal of mine, but not one I can accomplish in one four-to-five-month swoop. I have to be realistic at this point in my life and break this massive 2,650-mile goal into manageable segments. I use Jeffrey Schaffer’s “Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California” as my guide and, following its breakdown, chose to do the 110-mile Section A from the Mexican border to Warner Springs, California, for this excursion. Spring time is the best time to attempt a traverse of this desert-like section and we were blessed with near-perfect hiking weather.

Starting out at the Mexican border, my friend Brian and I were intrigued by what we saw. The first thing we noticed, after the sign post commemorating the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, was the openness of the terrain. Hills and valleys undulated in every direction. Next we saw, running along the boundary between two countries, a barbed wire fence that separated us from a wide dirt road. On the other side of the road, a metal barrier, probably eight or ten feet high, stretching from West to East. Each metal panel was numbered. We were at about panel 40, which seemed odd considering we were some 40 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and those panels were not a mile wide each. On the other side of that wall was Mexico, indistinguishable in features and landscape from the US soil upon which we stood. It stretched out to the south as far as we could see.

As I let the panel numbering head-scratcher go, I looked all around, knowing this was the beginning of an odyssey, both personal and physical. I identified the trail we would tread, then took in the surroundings. A layer of clouds blanketed the sky above. A dense cover of chaparral, that low-lying scrubby vegetation found throughout the Southern California environs, carpeted the ground. Chaparral does well where there is little moisture. It also does well at snagging your clothes and slashing your skin if you get too close as you hike. It adds color to the dry hillsides along which we hiked. I imagined it also gave shelter to all sorts of wildlife, some of which might bite me or try to eat me.

I quickly set those worries aside as I have yet to be bitten by anything other than a bug and have remained to this point uneaten. Rattlesnakes and mountain lions were top of the list of wild things that could inflict serious harm along this section of trail, but I neither saw nor heard either of them for the entire 110-mile sojourn I began that day.

Brian and I were quickly enveloped in stimulating conversation. I enjoy hiking with him because he is full of knowledge, humorous stories, insights, and a wealth of experiences. He’s a great story-teller and a keen problem solver. We hiked and talked and took in the sights and snapped photos and reveled in being “out there” and unplugged, sort of. See, the thing is we had great cell phone reception for most of the first two days and ended up taking care of some business along the way, but that was more of a stress relief than an annoyance for both of us.

Meeting New People

As we skirted around the shoulder of Mount Hauser, we met several other hikers who had just started out on the trail that morning as well. One had a goal to make it to Canada; another said, “We’ll see how far I can get.” He was probably fifty pounds overweight and was not in peak conditioning. However, he was out there to test himself against the elements and had a determination about him that impressed both of us.

The next PCT hiker we met was known as the “Dutch Vegan Hiker.” He, too, was out there to test his determination, but also to decompress from some of the intense stresses life had put him through in recent months. As it turns out, we would spend quite a bit of time with this European gentlemen over the next few days. His story was intriguing and made me realize that everyone who starts on this trail has a unique set of life experiences and motivations behind this grueling undertaking. He used GoFundMe and sponsors to round up the money, food, and equipment he would need. Being a vegan, his dietary needs were far different than mine, so my offer of food did little to help him. We did make a donation to his cause and, after hearing about his difficulties with his career, his relationship with his father, and the Colombian government-induced separation from his wife, I felt a connection to this man and his story. Since he couldn’t work in the country of his wife’s origin (Colombia), couldn’t get her the necessary paperwork to leave the country since she had no job to go to, and because his father was unsupportive and aloof, the Dutch Vegan Hiker decided to follow his passion for hiking and the outdoors to the same trail that had drawn me and Brian in.

That first morning was spent under mostly gray skies and cool temperatures, but as we began our climb into the mountains after a brief lunch of beef jerky and protein bars, the sun peaked out of the clouds a few times. The vistas from the trail as it overlooked valleys and adjacent peaks were spectacular. Lush greenery mixed with reddish and grayish rock and soil, which in turn mixed with the bright yellow pods on the twelve-foot-tall Yucca plants in full bloom that dotted the slopes.

By four in the afternoon, we passed a campsite along Hauser Creek that was already sprouting half a dozen tents. Our goal, Lake Morena, was still just over four miles ahead of us. We powered up the hill through more chaparral and into the trees – mostly bay and laurel. The breeze had picked up with the elevation gain and the sweat was beginning to chill me to the bone. But, my wife called me as I worked my way down a short set of switchbacks to the campground, thus distracting my attention away from the cold. We arrived at the campground about 20 minutes before sundown, giving us just enough time to find dry clothes and the bathroom where we could change quickly and easily.

We Made It

We found our way to the PCT backpacker’s section of the campground and joined a group of about thirty other hikers spread out across the grassy field. Running water and garbage cans were a welcome sight, allowing us to replenish that most vital commodity and dump out a few extra ounces of weight in the form of wrappers and food containers.

Though our legs were tired and our feet sore, Brian and I were in good spirits and pleased with the 19.5 miles we had covered on our first day. We were off to a good start.

 

PCT – CA Section L

Pacific Crest Trail – CA Section L (Donner Summit at I-80 to Sierra City at Hwy 49) – 39.6 miles

July 31, 2015

Did we really do that?

               The sweet chirping of birds in the trees overhead mixed with the low roar of motors speeding and wheels rolling along pavement on Interstate 80, just a few hundred yards away, as the first rays of the sun filtered through the forest canopy. I blinked hard to recall where I was and how I got there. My boys and I had just finished our 40-mile, one-day trek along the PCT. Every muscle ached, but my legs and feet cried out the most when I attempted to move too quickly. Toes and ankles wrapped in white athletic tape at first ignored the commands my brain was sending to them.  Because of the linear blisters that spread across the back of each foot, caused by the brand spanking new insoles I had put in my boots the day before (not the best idea), my feet hung off the end of my fully-inflated REI Stratus sleeping pad so as to avoid contact between the blisters and the pad.

               That’s when I remembered spreading out my tarp on a flat spot just a few strides from the edge of the parking lot, blowing up my pad, and crawling into my sleeping bag at midnight, just before exhaustion overran me.

               Giving in to the demands of my stiff muscles, I refrained from moving and lay gazing up into the pines as a sense of accomplishment spread through my weary bones. On my left, curled up in his baby blue mummy bag, only the dark locks atop his head visible, my 17-year-old son, Jared, slept soundly. To my right, I sensed the shifting and tossing of my 21-year-old son, Jake. Fatherly pride swelled within me as I recalled trying my best to keep up with these two stallions throughout the entire previous day, watching their long, confident strides as they marched over mountain and meadow, through forest and glade. I was proud of the way they handled themselves despite the long, tough slog we had undertaken. They hardly complained and kept their humor up throughout the experience, making it a pleasure to be with them, physical pain notwithstanding.

And, truth be known, I felt more than a hint of pride in myself that a) even at 48, I was never more than a minute or two behind them (possibly due to their benevolence) and b) that my boys were still willing to spend time in the wilderness with their dad. All those Scout trips over all those years didn’t push them away. Marty, the fellow PCT-er I had met in this very parking lot twenty-four hours earlier, had looked at my sons and told me I must have done something right for them to be out here with me. Yep, I thought, I am blessed and these boys are awesome.

In one day? Why?

               The genesis of this particular PCT outing was a question posed by Jared back in April: “Dad, are we going to do any backpacking this summer?” He was interested in spending some time outdoors with Jake, who had been away from home for a couple of years. What else could I say except, “Of course. Let’s see if Jake’s up for it”? Jared had hiked with me and my 19-year-old son, Dallin, from Horseshoe Meadows to the top of Mt. Whitney and onward over Forrester and Kearsarge Passes on a 65-mile odyssey along the PCT in August of 2013. Jake and Dallin had done the same trail with me in 2011. All three boys had been on two other 50-mile hikes with me and the Scouts in 2010 and 2012 and numerous shorter hikes through their years in Scouting. Both sons said separately that they missed being out in the back country.

My original plan for this summer was to hike the PCT from Mammoth to Tuolumne Meadows in conjunction with my goal of ticking off the entire trail, section by section. But, as other demands reduced my available time to just a long weekend, I decided to do something closer to home and a bit shorter. That’s when I read about the 39.6-mile Section L. Starting at Donner Summit just off I-80 made it close to home and ultra convenient, saving us valuable travel time. That meant we could leave on a Thursday night after work, camp at the trailhead, and hit the trail Friday morning. The boys were bought-in and we had a plan: A three-day jaunt from Interstate 80 to Highway 49, a very doable 13 miles a day.

As luck would have it, more competing plans encroached on our weekend and we needed to be home by Sunday. No problem, I thought. We can do 19 miles a day since there is relatively little elevation gain and the altitude isn’t extreme.

On Wednesday night, my boys and I sat around the dinner table mapping out our trip. I read from the guidebook, “Northern California Pacific Crest Trail: From Tuolumne Meadows to the Oregon Border.” The introductory paragraph says that heavily laden through-hikers will do this section in two days, but strong hikers can do it in one long day. Well, that’s all the challenge the boys needed. They looked at each other, nodded, and said, “Dad, we totally qualify as strong hikers. You’ve said it yourself.”

I tried to protest and keep to the two-day plan. “But Dad,” said Jake. “You did the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim in one day. That was what, 47 miles? We can easily do 39 miles, especially if we’re not loaded down with full backpacks.”

How?

I don’t know if they would say we did it “easily,” but we did it. We hit the trail shortly after 7:30 a.m. on that beautiful, slightly overcast, Friday morning. We hiked under cloud cover in very pleasant mid-70-degree weather most of the day and enjoyed some light sprinkles in the late afternoon.

Three miles in, we ran into the new friend we met in the parking lot, Marty, who had driven to the other side of the freeway, hiked up to Castle Pass, and was heading back to his car. He greeted us fondly and expressed his admiration for the boys and their great attitudes. He told a few stories and encouraged us onward by stating that the Sierra Club’s Peter Grubb Hut was about a mile ahead and was worth exploring.

As we continued, we all felt strong and comfortable. Of course, we realized that we had summited only the first of a dozen passes and saddles we would need to climb before the day was through. We enjoyed talking and reminiscing and joking, but realized we were not making good time thanks to our longer-than-expected conversation with Marty.

After our tour of the Peter Grubb Hut, owned by the Sierra Club and well worth a look-see, we realized it was nearly 10:00 and we had only covered four miles. We picked up the pace and crossed meadows and creek beds left dry by the ongoing, four-year California drought. What should have been lush greenery was left yellow and brown. This scene repeated itself numerous times as we traversed undulating peaks and crossed canyons. There was no running water.

By 12:30, we had only covered nine and a half miles. We were only a quarter of the way through and already our feet were starting to moan for rest. The thirty-minute stop for lunch was just long enough to take off our boots, stretch out on a tarp, eat, and contemplate what lay ahead.

Throughout the day, we were treated to spectacular vistas. We strode along crests overlooking long, verdant meadows a thousand feet below us. We switch-backed up hillsides dotted with reddish volcanic rock and scraggly Jeffrey Pines to reach saddles that afforded us views filled with mountains and trees and lakes that stretched to the horizons. Stunning and breathtaking, we appreciated the feeling of being “out there” where relatively few others had traveled.

By 6:00 p.m., two things crossed my mind. First, I realized we had only seen six other humans on the trail, four of them within the first hour. The sixth, a female solo hiker, we had just parted company with a few minutes earlier. Second, the guidebook talked about water being available at several creek crossings. Thus far, we had seen no running water. We stopped and inventoried our supplies. We each had more than two liters left. Fortunately, we each started with three liters of water and nearly two liters of Gatorade. We figured (incorrectly, we later learned) we had twelve miles to go, so we were in good shape in terms of our food and water.

At roughly 7:00, we reached the road to Jackson Meadow Reservoir, the very road we thought we had crossed an hour before. That meant we were at mile 27.5. We had more than twelve miles to go instead of the eight and a half or so we had incorrectly calculated. Knowing we had that much farther to hike was like a punch to the gut. Again, we sat down, took off our boots, massaged our weary feet, ate some beef jerky and Cliff Bars, and pulled together every ounce of reserve we had.

At 7:30 when we stood to begin the last twelve miles, we hobbled like old men, lactic acid stiffening every muscle. At that point, most of our blisters were just babies. We would have taped them had we not left the last of our tape on a rock somewhere just after our lunch stop. Moleskin and a few band aids were applied, but the damage was done.  Our gait was far slower thanks to the fatigue and we treaded far more gingerly because of the blisters, but we pressed northward in the waning sunlight.

Are We There Yet?

Our conversations had grown quiet by 8:15. That’s when we realized we were walking through a jumble of weeds and rock, not on a real trail. Twilight was upon us and we knew we’d be screwed if we couldn’t find the trail before dark. I pulled out my phone and tapped the Halfmile PCT app. Within seconds, it informed us that the trail was 650 feet to our right, up a steep hill. As I studied the map, however, I realized that we could save some stepsa very important goal at that point in the marchby heading straight forward. By the time we met up with the trail again, we had bush-whacked nearly half a mile. That little side trip through dead-fall, rock fields, and undergrowth slowed our progress and sapped our strength, but could have been disastrous had it not been for that app. If you plan on hiking the PCT, download Halfmile PCT before you go. It could save you valuable time, if not your life.

Two other times as we trudged through the darkness, we used Halfmile PCT to verify which fork in the trail to follow. Again, saving precious energy and reducing the number of painful steps required to reach our goal: the car at the trailhead off Highway 49.

With our headlamps glowing, we reached a point in our descent where we realized it was much less painful to go with gravity and run rather than walk. Dodging rocks and roots and steep drop offs, we weaved our way down switch backs and along hillsides above unseen creeks and rivers, sometimes at breakneck speed, jogging most of the last seven miles downhill. We could only hear the rushing of the water, knowing it was close by, but impossibly dangerous to access if we ran out of drinking water.

At 9:45, we encountered the seventh and last person we would see on the trail. He was camped near a bridge along Haypress Creek. He was a southbound through-hiker who gave us words of encouragement and offered us some of his hot meal. We thanked him for his offer, but knew it would be wrong to deprive him of food he would surely need later. Plus, the magnetic pull of the car and the sleeping bags in its trunk was far too powerful to overcome. We knew we had only two and a half miles to go, so we pressed on.

After crossing the river two more times, enduring two more sets of downhill switchbacks and several other mild ascents, we came to a spot where the forest thinned and lights could be seen. A flat, open area where it was hard to spot the trail with our head lamps spread before us. I pulled out my phone and consulted the app again. By that point we heard a car engine in the distance. What a blessed sound that was. Five minutes later, we were at the edge of Highway 49.

It was 10:25 when we crossed the highway and caught a glimpse of my son’s ugly blue Saturn, which had never looked so inviting. Our 15-hour, 39.6-mile trek through a gorgeous, unspoiled piece of the Sierra was over. Mission accomplished, life long memories earned. Our first fully completed section of the PCT (according to the sections in the guidebook) conquered.

Looking Back

My two regrets are, first, that we surely missed some stunning scenery during the last two hours as we hiked and ran through the forest in the dark. Hearing the roaring river as we crossed the bridge at the Haypress Creek gorge was cool, but seeing it would have been cooler. The second regret is that Dallin couldn’t be with us. It would’ve been that much more memorable with him there.

Driving from the trailhead parking area just east of Sierra City back to Donner Summit without falling asleep at the wheel was the day’s final challenge. Our one-hour drive back to where we started that morning, to where the other car was parked, felt like pure mockery of our struggle to cover that same distance on foot, but we were glad to return to the spot where we had camped the night before full of vim and vigor and courage and energy. As we stretched out there for a second night, all of that had been replaced with the very real sense that we had done something hard together, that the experience had galvanized our already strong bond, and that we would enjoy more excursions as a family in the future. After we recovered from this one.

 

Why the PCT?

Why the Pacific Crest Trail?

Mile One

Clouds spread above us like a steel grey canopy. A brisk breeze blew and we shivered against the 45 degree chill. Here it was, the end of April, as we stood at the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, my friend Brian and I. Our friend, Will, had just driven off with my car. There was no other choice now, but to start working our way north toward Canada on foot, although that was a goal neither of us held for this particular trip.
Canada, 2650 grueling miles ahead, though out of reach for the two of us at this point in our lives with our focus on kids and careers, is a very real goal for the vast majority of people who start treading upon this trail at this very spot, after taking the very same pictures in front of the very same trail posts. Less than 20% make it all the way, but that’s OK. Everyone’s journey is as different as the story that brought them to this otherwise obscure hill at the border between Mexico and California.
For some, their journey on the PCT is all about escape. For others it’s discovery. Some want to reconnect with nature or with their inner selves while others want to disconnect from the world or bad relationships or terrible jobs or other unbearable circumstances which, in one way or another, have imprisoned them. Here, at the trail’s head, shines a glimmer of hope. Out there on the trail somewhere, answers, relief, revitalization, self-fulfillment, re-empowerment, peace, solace, freedom, and vast stretches of untamed wilderness lay waiting to be found. Some, like myself and Brian, will find at least a measure of what they’re looking for in the first segment of the PCT. Others will require the entire 2650 miles. Either way, it’s OK. Everyone’s journey is unique.
Being out there changes one’s perspective on current circumstances. Studies show increased mental ability after a long hike in the wilderness. The physical health benefits of hiking cannot be understated, either. Physical exertion and mental stimulation combine along the PCT to help those adventurers who come to the trail in search of something they can’t seem to find in the confines of modern living, despite its inviting and captivating trappings and luring promises of convenience and luxury. Technology that is designed to give its users an abundance of time by making life easier seems to have wrapped too many of us in a virtual stranglehold. We’re tied to it. Addicted. Perhaps that is why the trail is more crowded than ever. In the past ten years, the average number of hikers who started at the southern terminus has increased from roughly 500 to over 4,000 in 2016, according to a Forest Service Ranger I spoke to at the onset of my trip. Pretty amazing.

The Wild Effect?


Of course, some of this increase in trail traffic may be the combined Reese Witherspoon/Cheryl Strayed effect. Cheryl Strayed is the author of the book “Wild” that chronicles her journey to and on the PCT and Reese Witherspoon is the beautiful and talented actress that portrays her in the movie. Since the book and movie came out, interest in the PCT has skyrocketed — and justifiably so. If someone as conflicted and tormented as Strayed could find a modicum of peace and resolution out on the trail, why not give it a try?
My curiosity with the PCT and those who spend months hiking it from end to end started in the late nineties when I first heard about this mysterious and impossibly long trail through the mountains. I’ve always loved the mountains and enjoyed backpacking from my first experience with my brothers when I was ten. But I hadn’t spent much time on or around the trail until my first 50-miler in 2010 with the Scouts as an adult leader. We intersected the PCT for fourteen miles on that trip and ran across a dozen or more thru-hikers. These hikers fascinated me. By the time they made it to Benson Lake in the northern reaches of Yosemite, they had been on the trail for two or three months. We, by contrast, had been on for two days and were starting our third.
But it was the stories I heard that pulled me in to the enticing orbit of the PCT. Stories of exploring some of America’s finest, most remote scenery, glimpsing wildlife up close – too close in some instances – and developing bonds with strangers over a shared love of outdoor adventures or the communal pain brought on by blisters, aching feet and legs, or sore waistlines from belt straps. As I listened, I was enthralled with the concept of leaving the modern world behind for the opportunity to live in the natural world for a time. What an idea. What a journey. What a life choice.
Each summer thereafter, as I spent a few days on the trial with the Scouts, I would run into more thru-hikers and learn more about the trail and those devotees willing to give up several months of productive time to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime odyssey.
Thus, through those initial encounters with thru-hikers on the PCT, my goal to hike from Mexico to Canada began to take shape. I knew then like I know now that I could never step away from my responsibilities as a husband and father for months at a time. However, leaving for a week here and there is a different story, isn’t it? I also knew that if I could involve my family, I’d have a win-win. In 2010, my three boys – ages 16, 14, and 12 at the time – were just starting to take to this backpacking thing. They were just becoming aware of the empowerment that comes from getting out of your comfort zone, pushing yourself physically, all while enjoying the beauty of God’s creation away from the demands and entrapments of civilization.

Being Out There

Backpackers and outdoors enthusiasts know what I’m talking about. Being out there for any length of time is invigorating. But it’s also more than that. There an ethereal, life-affirming boost one receives on the trail. It’s intangible, but it’s real. The benefits to one’s health and well-being are easily explained, but the impact on one’s soul is nearly impossible to describe. Part of that is because it’s unique to each individual, as is the inner drive that brings each hiker out to the trail.
Being out there with my sons makes each experience that much more meaningful. I’ve invited my wife and daughters to join in the fun. Maybe one of these days they’ll take me up on it. I take a certain pride in knowing that I am passing on to my family an appreciation for the majesty and splendor of the wild and a desire to see that it is preserved for their children and grandchildren to enjoy.
I hope you will stay tuned as I update this site with stories of my adventures and musings while out there on the trail – whichever trail it may be. Hopefully, sometime in the next dozen years, I’ll report on my trek across the border into Canada and my ascent to Mount Khanaki where the trail ends. Hope you enjoy the adventures.