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.
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.