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
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.
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.