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
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 clothes—the ones we had washed in the sink the first night—were 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.
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.
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.