PCT – CA Section A
Day 4 – A ridge near Sunrise Highway to a dry creek bed two miles beyond Highway 78 (Mile 59.5 to Mile 80.4)
Sunday, May 1, 2016
With the increased efficiency of a well-rehearsed routine, Brian and I got moving early Sunday morning. Our 4:00 p.m. rendezvous point was still nineteen miles away across a stretch of hot, dry landscape. We wanted to get moving while it was still cool because, according to the forecasts, this was to be the hottest day of our trek and, according to the guidebook, there were few opportunities to enjoy shade for the next twenty miles. And only one place on the trail to find water.
Before setting off, we took inventory of our water and food. Even after cooking and hydrating, we each had close to five liters of water and an abundance of protein bars. We were running a bit low on jerky and dried fruit, but so what. In nineteen miles, we would have a ride to a store to replenish if we really wanted to.
Our morning conversations revolved around stories of how we came to be where we are. In other words, what educational and career choices had we made to put us and our families in the place where we found ourselves in May of 2016. My story is relatively boring – because it’s not new to me – but Brian’s story is fascinating. He’s a super smart guy who has taken advantage of some unusual opportunities in this life and made a few life-changing decisions along the way. One such opportunity was an outdoor retreat where he spent about three weeks backpacking in the mountains along the East Coast, a trip he nearly missed due to the lateness of his decision. But, always being up for an adventure is kind of what makes him tick. He’s had some things happen in his life that would upend most people. But not Brian. He faces his adversities with a cheerful, determined optimism, always looking for a lesson to learn or an opportunity to improve himself, even during the most gut-wrenching of circumstances. His story is for him to tell, but as I listened, I learned, being struck by the immense amount of strength that lies behind his quick smile and happy countenance. Through hearing his story, I gained a new perspective on trials and how they can help us grow. It goes to show that we each face challenges in life and no matter the outward appearance, everybody will encounter difficulty, sorrow, and tragedy. I gained a new and far deeper appreciation for a friend whom I had always respected and admired.
The trail took us through more and taller chaparral as it wound downward to another junction with a jeep road where we met and briefly conversed with a couple from Minnesota. Halfmile PCT said there was a water tank 75 yards away, but that it was not reliable. I was starting to worry about our water situation as the heat and wind rose. We had 15 miles to go and only about four and a half liters each. The tank was empty. Not a huge worry yet. We pressed on, eventually switch backing down to a narrow canyon, around another mountain, then down further until the trail was met by a wide dirt road. I knew there was water down that jeep road but didn’t have the time or the energy to walk an extra mile and a half each way, so we turned up the next hill to press on. That’s where we met up again with our friend Second Lunch. Guess what he was doing. That’s right – eating. He was scarfing down his first lunch of tortillas and Nutella. Not something I could do, but he seemed pretty satisfied afterward. Brian and I were in a good rhythm at this point, though our conversation had quieted down while I absorbed the impact of his story, trying to assess how I might have responded to the difficulties he had faced in his younger life. One thing I knew for sure, he had weathered some of life’s storms that I don’t think I could have survived, at least not with the optimism and positivity that is his trademark. Of course, being the son of an engineer, though I possess few of the necessary traits or skills of an engineer, I was also busy continuously calculating distances, speed, and time of arrival. I wanted to make sure Brian didn’t miss his flight because, in my mind, there’s nothing worse than having to pay for a flight that you didn’t take. And I didn’t want to be the reason for such a frivolous waste of resources (there’s my training as an economist kicking in).
Second Lunch passed us halfway up the hill. Man, that guy cruises. Near the top of the hill, a pair of young ladies caught up to us. Because of my focus on the time and distance problems, as well as the heat and heavy breathing from the uphill march, I asked them neither their names nor where they were from. They were very nice and very focused, as were we. We ended up passing them and being passed by them several times over the next few hours. They kept roughly the same pace and break schedule as we traversed across and down the mountainsides towards Scissors Crossing.
In the Heat of the Day
The sun was growing hotter as it beat straight down on us. But, we forged ahead, wrapping around one hillside after another as we made our way toward the open expanse of the desert floor below us. We could see Highways 78 and S2 like ribbons wending their respective ways through sand and sage brush. They seemed impossibly far away. Especially given the fact that it was now almost twelve noon and we had ten tough miles ahead of us. Somewhere during the morning, Brian found enough cell phone reception to confirm the arrangements with Will and to ask him to pick up some water and a sandwich for me. I was so sick of protein bars and beef jerky, I felt my salvation rested upon a nice sandwich and some cold water.
We caught up to a pair of young hikers, one from Boston and one from “the Peninsula” in the Bay Area. I told him we were from the East Bay and we struck up a lively conversation and compared notes. These two were carrying less weight than we were, but still complained of sore feet and tight muscles. It seemed that they were struggling more than Brian and I despite being twenty something years younger and less weighed down.
We reached a place called Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail. Just off the trail is a water spigot, the last sure water source for 32 long miles across hot, dry terrain. We stopped and contemplated filling up. But, there was a large group of thirsty hikers lined up to restock their supplies. I estimated at least a dozen of them. Seeing the slow trickle of the water and the number of people waiting, we had to make an executive decision. With only five miles to go until we met up with Will and the water he promised to bring and less than two hours to get there, we decided we could make it if we managed our water intake judiciously.
I had my worries about both the water situation and the timing of everything. I didn’t want to run out of that most precious of commodities, nor did I want to risk making Brian late. Without too much hesitation, we pushed on, trusting that Will would be there and would deliver.
Brian and I stuck together for much of that baking hot afternoon, solving the world’s problems and reviewing ideas we had discussed earlier in the trip. We also talked about our kids and their hopes and plans for college and beyond. We talked about how we wished we had understood the opportunity that lay before us at that time in our lives and how we hoped that we had done an adequate job of preparing our kids for their futures. This continued as we wound our way through gullies and around mounds of rock and across dry creeks, taking only small sips of water as we went. With three and a half miles to go, I drained the last of my noni-and-electrolyte-enhanced water. I also poured the last of my “storage” bottles – about half a liter’s worth – into my nearly empty camelback.
When we reached the flatlands where the trail crossed a three-mile swath of desert, I found a new gear. My ear buds were in, blasting some of my favorite tunes, and I was hyper-focused on that sandwich and cold water. Three quarters of the way across the flat, sandy, shadeless expanse, I sucked the last drop of water from my camelback. About that time, the trail appeared to meet the road at a ninety-degree angle, so I thought I was there, at the rendezvous point. But I was wrong. A barbed wire fence with three times the number of strands of barbs as usual met us and forced us to take a sharp left and follow the highway for some indeterminable distance. I reached around to the side pocket of my pack and pulled out a water bottle – the only one left unemptied. There were literally two swigs of water remaining in it, so I put off drinking anything as long as I could. But, with the blistering pace I was keeping and the blistering sun overhead, it wasn’t long before I had drained those last precious drops. Now, I prayed that Will was there at Scissors crossing with that cold water Brian had requested. Otherwise, I was screwed.
I called Will to see where he was. He had missed the intersection and was turning around to come back. He said it would take him twenty minutes. Oh, crap, I thought. Twenty minutes without water? I could feel a headache coming on and with my history of migraines that is not a good thing. They literally incapacitate me sometimes. In fact, for me, going without water is about the worst thing that can happen when a headache starts. The trail continued to parallel the road and it seemed an eternity had gone by since my last sip of water. I was searching for shade, but what I found as we came to the opening in the fence where the trail crossed the highway was far better. A minivan sat parked on the opposite side of the two-lane thoroughfare, tailgate up and doors open. A couple stood in the shade of the open tailgate and greeted hikers as they crossed the road. The two ladies from earlier in the day crossed just ahead of me and joined a small group of three or four other weary souls (and six or eight weary soles, I suppose). The couple was a pair of those famed and revered “Trail Angels” offering “Trail Magic.” In the back of their van was a cooler full of cold beer and a bag of bite-size candy bars. I don’t drink beer, so that held no interest for me. But, the husband, a large and muscular man, stood with a five-gallon jug of water in his hand, dispensing it to anyone who needed a refill. That, to me, in that moment, was heaven-sent and these people were truly angels. In my exhaustion and near-delirious state of water deprivation, I failed to ask or remember their names when the ladies in front of me inquired. I just gladly accepted the offering as the husband effortlessly poured from that massive jug into my water bottle. I gulped half a liter before I returned to thank them for their kindness and generosity. The wife gave me a bite-sized Twix and Snickers bars. Boy, did they hit the spot.
Checking my watch, I realized that it was 3:58. We did it. We made it to the rendezvous point precisely on time. I can’t usually make it to church, two blocks from home, on time, so it was a victory indeed to make it 78 miles on foot by the appointed time set three days before.
A Slice of Heaven under the Highway
When Will arrived, he had a dozen store-bought water bottles and the makings of a sandwich in a Ziploc bag for me. But, after hearing from the Trail Angel couple of a general store and restaurant four miles down the road, I asked Will if he would mind driving me down there. We got there too late for the restaurant, which closed at 4:30, so the dream of a burger and fries blew up because it was 4:38 when we entered the establishment. But, they had pre-packed sandwiches, Cheetos, a soda machine, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in a freezer next to the counter, so I loaded up. Later in the trip, I wished I had had the foresight to throw in some chips and a couple of Snickers. Before leaving the general store, I refilled all 8 liters’ worth of water storage in my pack and drank down two of Will’s water bottles. I also accepted a bag of Ranch flavored Doritos Will offered.
Will dropped me off back at Scissor’s Crossing just before 5 p.m. Brian and I took a couple parting photos as I thanked him for joining me and making a long, hard hike much more enjoyable. I then collected my things and headed to the shade of the overpass where the highway crossed San Felipe Creek. I pulled out and set up my 11-ounce REI camp chair, removed my boots and socks, and dug into my feast. Besides water and food, that chair is the best 11 ounces I carry, extraneous as it may be. A roast beef sandwich in a plastic clam shell container, Diet Coke, Cheetos, and Ben & Jerry’s never tasted so good. It was a welcome respite from the steady diet of trail mix, protein bars, beef jerky, and electrolyte-laced flavored water. Rarely am I able to pack away that much food in a single sitting, but I was even more famished than I had anticipated. The food, water, and caffeine, along with an Ibuprofen or two, staved off the migraine. Disaster averted; happiness restored. I also took advantage of the cell phone coverage to call my family, catch up on emails and texts, and check the forecast for the 32 miles ahead of me. I was feeling good.
At 5:45 that evening, after consulting my map, trail guidebook, and Halfmile PCT app, I concluded that I would go at least another two miles up into the hills to my north where there was a campsite or two in a dry creek bed near mile 80.5. When I got there, two guys had already set up camp in the narrow gully wash. I briefly contemplated pushing on to the next spot a mile farther up the mountain. Seeing my expression, which likely conveyed a certain level of exhaustion, Nick from Washington and Matt from Australia kindly invited me to camp there near them. The spot I chose was flat and soft, due to the sand, and immensely appealing after speed-walking twenty-one miles through sweltering heat. This spot has to rank up there as one of the coolest (not temperature-wise, but ambiance-wise) places I’ve ever camped.
Nick and Matt were equally as engaging. Friendly and interesting, our conversation flowed naturally for half an hour as I set up my tent and stove and chair. We swapped trail stories until the sunlight began to wane. Matt had quite a bit of long distance hiking experience, but this was Nick’s first such adventure since his days as a Boy Scout, which were probably no more than ten years prior. Both planned to make it to Canada by mid-September and had been working up to 15 miles a day, having done zero training before hitting the trail. But being young and strong, they seemed fit enough to handle it. I smiled as their jaws dropped when they learned that I had left Campo two days after they had. I can only chalk it up as one of the advantages of section hiking.
That night, with the tent to myself, I stretched out, opened my map and studied the trail and read from the guidebook until my eyelids grew heavy. The night air was warm, so I started out on my pad with only my feet covered by the sleeping bag. By morning, I was still only halfway covered because the temperatures didn’t drop too far.
Before nodding off, I reviewed my day – no, the past several days – and felt immense gratitude and satisfaction. My prayers that night, like each previous night on the trail, included plenty of thanks for safety and protection and plenty of pleading for the same for my family. I also realized after meeting other, much younger hikers who struggled with some physical ailments induced by either the hike itself or pre-existing injury, that I was blessed to be healthy and strong enough to come this far this fast. I was 80 and a half miles into a 110-mile hike and feeling great. I had a lot to be thankful for.