Let’s just call Mount San Jacinto “Caradhras”

Spoiler alert: unfortunately, this post ends with me leaving the trail. Not permanently, I hope, but likely for the next month or so.

And, back to the narrative!

While in Idyllwild, Miguel and I visited the ranger station to inquire about snow levels on top of Mount San Jacinto, which we would be crossing the next day. “Fuller Ridge on the PCT is still impassable,” they told us, “but if you go over the top of the peak instead you’ll be fine.”

With plans to bag the peak, then, we left Idyllwild on April 19th.

Six hours in, we had traveled a whopping 6 miles. We were hiking in just the sort of area I love–tall pines, white rocks, and frequent gaps that displayed the Anza-Borrego desert sinking as we drew higher. But the elevation gain was killing us.

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After about 3 miles, we paused for lunch where the Devils Slide Trail that we’d been on meets the PCT. There, we met Papa Buff again and told him what the rangers had said about the peak. He went on, and we followed much slower.

We turned, finally, from the PCT onto the trail that would take us over the peak. Within a quarter mile, we hit snow. It continued with minimal breaks for another half mile. We crunched on the footprints left by previous adventurers before I finally stopped. “I think I’m a bit outside my comfort zone on this,” I said. The trail was getting tough to follow, and I didn’t want to have to posthole my way up the mountain.

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We agreed to turn around and try Fuller Ridge instead. As it turned out, though there was some snow there, it was still very passable. We got water from a freezing tributary of the San Jacinto River–much of it was still covered in ice–and continued on to find a campsite.

I really wanted to walk on and find a campsite further on Fuller Ridge, since we had just left the last water source for almost twenty miles. However, when we had passed the marked campsites and looked out on the trail ahead, I felt a bit like Aragorn when he’s thrust into leading the Fellowship: “Everything I do this day goes amiss.” It was clear there would be no campsites for miles, and the sun was setting. Miguel and I, exhausted, backtracked until we found an almost flat spot, set up our tents, and retreated into them without saying much. Our full day of walking had taken us approximately 10 trail miles.

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The next morning we were just about to leave when Papa Buff walked around the corner. “No way,” he said, stopping short and staring at us with a mixture of relief and awe. “You know,” he said, walking towards us, “I know you’re a Christian, and I just have to say, I was praying for you last night.”

After talking to us the day before, he had gone over the peak and found it fairly passable, until he began going down. On that 2-mile stretch, he fell several times, broke one of his trekking poles, and had to use his GPS to find the trail because the snow was so high. “So I was just praying that you wouldn’t be coming down too late,” he said. Prayer answered! We were also able to give him news about another group he had been praying for, who had planned to camp up there the night before. “No, they must have changed their mind because they’re camped just a quarter mile back,” we said. He had warned them of the snow ahead, and they had also decided to stay low.

With that news swapped, we started a very long decent down Mount San Jacinto. We dropped around 8,000 waterless feet in 17 miles. It’s the longest descent on the PCT, going from pines in snow drifts to desert cacti in a matter of hours. And about halfway down the mountain, my knee started hurting.

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Having had knee problems since middle school, I’m a bit sensitive to pain in that area. I tried to ease the strain on them by using my trekking poles, but by the time I reached camp I was crying and limping. Of course, a lot of other people were, too, so I hoped it would go away overnight. I limped the entire 6 miles into town the next day.

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I was ready to throw in the towel that evening, but thankfully I had friends who helped me choose more wisely. Scott and Sarah had rented a car in the next town, and drove two hours to pick me up and shuttle me around the next closure. We got to Big Bear around midnight, and they let me stay in their hotel along with Skippy. The next night, Papa Buff let me stay at his Air BNB, and I decided to wait a few more days to see what happened. However, after three additional nights at Papa Smurf and Mountain Mama’s (trail angels who are ridiculously generous and wonderful), I still couldn’t walk around the block with a fully loaded pack. I knew it was time to go home and rest it.

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I got a bus to LA, stayed in the hostel that the latest season of American Horror Story is based on (I did NOT know that at time of booking), spent a day doing touristy things, and yesterday got aboard the Amtrak Coast Starlight train at 10:10. I’ll be in Salem in about an hour, where my wonderful mom will pick me up. Although I’ve mostly been able to make peace with leaving the trail over the past week, I think if I mope enough I might get an Olive Garden dinner out of this, so keep that on the down-low for now, okay?

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For now, thanks for reading my blog! I’ve been so blessed by all the supportive awesomeness my friends and family have surrounded me with. I trust God’s going to work this out better than my original thru-hiking plans, even though it kind of sucks at the moment. I’ll keep this blog updated on how it all works out. Hopefully, I’ll be rejoining the trail in northern California sometime in June!

Week 2.5: Water and Milkshakes

We now resume our rapid-fire recap of the PCT.

Day 10: As we ate our pancakes at Mike’s place, Papa Buff told us a bit about his beekeeping business in Humboldt County. Remember that, because bees will come back in a few sentences.

After leaving Mike’s, we got to Tule Springs 10 miles later. Sadly, the word “DRY” was scratched in the dirt road leading down to the spring. This was a problem since the water report had said it was running great and we had planned to get water here. Upon investigation, we discovered that it really was dry and decided to wait for the afternoon to cool off before continuing. There was a rumored water cache in 6 miles, but we fortunately didn’t need it. After 3 miles, we came to a guzzler that reminded me of a sepulcher, both in its shape and the green water it gave. But it was better than dehydration, so we took several liters and walked on.

Miguel and I decided to camp in a boulder field a few miles after the guzzler. We found the perfect spot with a nice sandy bottom. I was just about to put the poles in my tent when I looked up and saw a swarm of honeybees the size of a basketball in the branches of a bush just 5 feet away. Having thus started and ended my day with bees, we moved a few feet up the trail to a spot with a much better view.

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Day eleven: we passed the 150 mile mark, enjoyed an on-trail little free library (and capri-suns!) and made it to Paradise Valley Cafe all in one day. It was possibly the first time I’ve ever been applauded while waking into a restaurant–about twenty hikers had taken over the tables on the porch, including many of the ones I’d spent time with in Warner Springs. I’m not sure if it was really the best chocolate shake I’ve ever had, or if I had just been craving one for so long that it felt that way. As another hiker pointed out, though, it doesn’t matter: “You enjoyed the hell out of it!”

Part of the trail was closed, so after spending a few hours at Paradise Valley, we got a ride from a nice old man to Idyllwild. Did you know they often filmed Bonanza in that area? Neither did I, until our driver pointed it out. We got a room to share at the Silver Pines Lodge, and loved the town so much we decided to take another zero day there.

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Day Nine: Running out of Time

After 109.5 miles in one week, my hiking partner Miguel and I decided to take the day off in Warner Springs. Warner Springs is an unincorporated area that has a school, fire station, post office, golf course, senior living park, and community center. For two months of the year, they open this community center to hikers, offering a place to camp, do laundry, shower (in a 5-gallon bucket), and buy supplies. Not only does this provide a wonderful resting place on the trail, it also gives hikers an opportunity to help the community we hike through: according to one of the volunteers, hiker season is their biggest fundraiser of the year.

We stayed one day, then rolled up our tents and set off for the 50 mile journey to Idyllwild. Miguel and I had planned to walk about 15 miles that day and meet our friends Scott and Sarah, so I wasn’t in a huge rush. I had a leisurely trailside lunch with Papa Buff and another guy, then lolligagged on up the trail. However, ten miles in I met Miguel where the PCT intersects a steep dirt road that leads down to the only spring for miles around.

“So, I hear if we go about 17, we’ll get to Mike’s place, and there’s pizza there.”

Sold! I laid my tent out on the bushes to dry and went to collect water, not concerned about time at all. Miguel started walking again, agreeing to meet me at Mike’s.

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That afternoon we passed through miles of boulder fields. As the sun began to set,  the fading light brought out the red hue of the rock. I probably would have appreciated this fact more if I hadn’t been trying to find this mysterious trail angel before it got dark.

Pizza. Pizza. Pizza. That thought kept me going. How long did I have before it got too dark to walk–an hour? 45 minutes? The boulders and cacti, which were so stunningly beautiful, also blocked a good many potential campsites–thanks, nature. I began to take note of every random spot that seemed big enough for my tent.

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30 minutes before dark, I finally found a sign by the trail advertising “Water and shade.” Relieved, I followed the side trail up the hill.

At the top of the trail was a road with a fork in it and tracks going both ways. Because trail angels aren’t usually on maps, I couldn’t rely on mine for direction. I also had no cell phone service. Luckily, PCT hikers have developed a much more sophisticated method of communication.

“FOOD,” someone had scrawled in the middle of the dirt road. I followed this sign to a small house with a fence and several outbuildings.

I couldn’t see any hikers, though. In broad daylight, I might have just walked in and asked if they were around. However, coming to a house in the middle of the desert with only a few minutes of daylight left and no companions made me feel a bit like the character in the first five minutes of a horror film. After walking all the way around the fence and seeing no tents or other evidence of present hikers, I decided to return to the trail and pitch my tent.

I found a space just big enough about a hundred yards down the PCT from the side trail. I was nearly done pitching my tent when I heard, from the part of the trail I had just left, Miguel’s voice.

Dropping my things, I walked toward him. Miguel and Scott had formed a search party for me. They had seen another hiker coming towards us and were going to see if he knew where I was. Instead, they helped me carry my tent to Mike’s, and I got to enjoy barbecue chicken pizza and good conversation around an outdoor brick oven before sharing an old RV with Scott, Sarah, and Skippy. Gabe, Papa Buff, Miguel, and, I think, Footloose were also there, but they stayed in a bunk house. In the morning, the caretaker of the house made us all pancakes. Needless to say, I was very grateful to have made it there.

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Catching Up: Week One on the PCT

Thank to a solar charger that only charged my phone for three seconds at a time, I haven’t been able to blog as much as I had hoped. In reality, the first two weeks of hiking were almost entirely consumed with walking, eating, or sleeping, so I probably wouldn’t have blogged even with unlimited power. But it seemed like a nice excuse.

So, to catch up, I’m just going to write a few quick highlights from each day of the first week.

Day 2: I spent most of the day being blown away by how gorgeous southern California was. Miguel and I walked about twelve miles from Lake Morena to a campground that is either Cibbet’s Creek or Cibbet’s Flat, depending on which sign you read. Though it was sunny most of the day, it turned to rain shortly after we got to the campground. Wendy, Jasmine, and Clint had saved us a spot under 2 sprawling oak trees, so we spent most of the evening huddling in our tents and talking to one another through the rainflies.

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Day Three: We had an easy 10 miles from Cibbet’s to Mount Laguna. I was extremely hangry by the time I got there, but luckily my hiking partners didn’t shoot me for it–instead, we went to a cafe and had burgers, then rented a cabin for the express purpose of letting our stuff dry out. The cabin was two rooms and every time the furnace kicked on I thought there was thunder, but they provided us with a Styrofoam cup of laundry soap and a few five gallon buckets, so we felt fortunate indeed. Every hook, rod, and doorknob was covered with our wet things from the night before. We spent the evening watching Family Feud and not regretting that we weren’t in the storm outside.

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Day four: The climb our of Mount Laguna had been one of the coolest parts of the trip. For miles the trail hugs the edge of Storm Canyon, a plain that the natives used to live in during the winter before heading to the mountains we were climbing through to escape the summer heat. Also, there was a sign near the trail that gave the name and history of the canyon. Who am I to pass up a good sign?

We camped that night with about a dozen others on a very exposed mountain top near a horse trough, which we filtered water from the next morning. I slept terribly because of the wind, but around midnight I remembered I had earplugs in my bag and fell soundly asleep. It turns out, the wind died shortly thereafter anyways and a heavy fog rolled in. And that’s how we ended up stuffing wet tents into our packs yet again.

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Day five: What do you get when you combine out-running thunderstorms, sitting on a cactus, and sleeping under an overpass? Just another day on the PCT, of course! After an adventurous 15-17 miles, a group of about 16 of us slept under the bridge at Scissors Crossing. When we arrived we found trail magic: a box of oranges, avocados, and strawberries left by Magic Rob, the son of a thru-hiker who wasn’t even there at that moment. It was the best dinner I’d had the whole trail, including the burgers in town.

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Day 6: Sometimes, you spend the morning climbing the barren side of a mountain that isn’t nearly as scenic as the ones you climbed yesterday, and it’s hot and you forget to reapply sunscreen and you wonder how terribly this trip will age your hands and it’s too windy to use your umbrella for shade and you’re getting passed by 60-year-olds, literal 60-year-olds! And should you just go home because otherwise you have to do the distance you’ve just done like 25 more times to get to Canada–and then you find yourself camping on a ridge on top of a mountain with some of the 60-year-olds who passed you, and you get to watch the world turn purple and you realize, you only get to do this like 25 more times before you get to Canada.

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Day 7: I spent most of my last day of Section A enjoying the giant oak trees we got to pass by. There was more trail magic, and this time I got to meet Magic Rob and his dad, Papa Buff!! He met about ten of us where the trail meets a road, and brought us avocado and tomato sandwiches, chips, fruit, drinks, and–wonder of wonders!–brownies!!! After a lovely rest in which we all politely asked after one anothers’ injuries, we continued 6 miles to Warner Springs.

The walk there was one of my favorite parts of the trail. There were miles of prairie, with violets, dandelions, poppies, and lamb’s ear all rustling in the gentle breeze. At one point we had to get off the trail because there were cows in the way. And we saw Eagle Rock, a clump of boulders shaped like an Eagle. Luckily, my phone died just before we reached that spot, so I have no photos to post. However, I did get some on Miguel’s phone, so I’ll have them eventually.

When we finally shuffled into Warner Springs around 4, we were given a 5-gallon bucket and towel. They had hot water and privacy stalls in the back. Once I washed, I cleaned my clothes and added them to the chain-link fence behind the Resource Center to dry. With so many hikers camping there, it was hard to find a spot big enough for all my clothes. Miguel and I decided to take the next day off.

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PCT Day One: Don’t Rain on this Parade

For the first couple miles after setting off from the Campo monument, I attempted to keep up with the people I had started with. It was a lovely walk, and we were all together when we hit the most important milestone of all: the first one.

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Shortly thereafter, though, I desperately needed to sit and eat something, so Miguel hung back with me and the rest headed forward, with plans to meet up later that afternoon.

Coming from a somewhat Oregon-chauvinist background, I spent most of the first week in awe of how beautiful southern California is. There were wildflowers blooming everywhere: Indian paintbrush, hot pink cactus blooms, some random white flowers that graced the top of a 6-7 foot stalk. From the bare ridge on which we walked, we looked down on farms that reminded me of the Grapes of Wrath, except it seems most of the dorms are either empty or used for youth camps. To to it all off, it started to drizzle slightly. That might not seem like am ideal hiking weather, but compared to the 95 degree heat they had the week before, rain and 60 was perfect for this Oregon girl. It was lovely.

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And then we hit mile 10. It had been mostly uphill so far, which was good for my knees, but considering I had a 41-pound pack, not good for the rest of me. I sat to eat more trail mix and some T&E pepperoni sticks (which clearly have rejuvenating powers) and stood, after a nice break, to put my pack on.

I fell over. Miguel looked on with concern. After recovering myself, I tried again, with much the same result.

I sighed. “I really did not want to go Cheryl Strayed this so early,” I said to myself. And yet, there really want much option. I got down on my rear, slid my arms into the pack straps, rolled onto my hands and knees, and pushed myself to my feet with my trekking poles.

Three long downhill miles later, we met our friends by the side of a road that the PCT temporarily joins.

“We’re going to Lake Morena tonight–are you coming?”

I dropped my pack to the ground and prepared for my second lunch.

“Yeah, I guess,” I said.

No, no, no, nooooooo, my body said.

“We’ll meet you there.”

And with that, they set off into Hauser Canyon.

Hauser Canyon has a creek that flows through it, if you’re there during the right part of the year. It seems very rare that PCT people are there at that time. It has a steep drop into the canyon, and a 5-mile, exposed, steep climb out, with no opportunity to safely pitch a tent should you decide you can’t go on. Many hikers camp in the bottom of the canyon, and take on the climb on the morning when they’re well-rested. However, Bob had warned us against camping there: “Border Patrol goes through there about every hour with lights on their atv that will x-ray you through your tent from 100 yards away. No one gets well-rested there.” Between that warning, wanting to take advantage of the cool weather, and the thought of a burger from the cafe at Lake Morena, we pushed on…very slowly.

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When I got within a mile off the campground, I called my parents from a rock that overlooked the lake and the surrounding valley. “It’s gorgeous and I love it and also there’s no way I can keep up with these guys,” was the gist of the conversation. I finally got to camp just as it was getting dark, got a really crappy burger from the cafe, and set up my tent in the dark while it was raining. As princess Mia said in the Oscar-worthy Princess Diaries, “I am miserable, and I am wet.”

This post was edited to correct my smart-phone misspellings.

Getting to the trail: thank God for trail angels!

There are few things that make me wish I had planned an extra day in San Diego more than looking out the airplane window and seeing a pirate ship in the harbor. Alas, I had people to meet, so I added ship commandeering to my list of things to do when I go to Comic Con (someday!!) and headed out to navigate the San Diego terminal.

I had packed my clothes and sleeping bag in a ratty blue tote that I’d meant to give to goodwill. That way, the rest of my things could go in my checked luggage. When I landed in San Diego, I had about fifteen minutes to grab my checked bag, figure out which terminal I was in, and get to “a dog walk with a surrounding hedge,” according to the email from Bob Ries, Trail Angel Extraordinaire.

Bob spends several months each year picking hikers up from the airport, driving them to REI, hosting them in his home and RV, and taking them to the trailhead to start their hike. Basically, he’s brilliant. My friend Wendy had contacted him a few months earlier, and he had graciously allowed us to start with him, which was amazing.

I was, of course, a bit nervous about climbing into a car with someone I’d never met, but the overwhelming amount of people online who had had good experiences made me think he was probably legit. Plus, both of my friends that I was starting with had been with him for a full day before I got there, without any problems. Either he was who he said he was, or there was a massive internet conspiracy against me.

Turns out, he’s just a really nice guy. And he got me out of driving in San Diego, which was a huge blessing. We spent the afternoon going through our packs, trying to cut ounces in preparation for the next day’s hike. I decided to leave half my rope, and some toothpaste. Everything else was definitely essential. Several other hikers were there as well: Yocean, from Taiwan; Miguel, from Mexico; Willem, from Belgium; and my two partners who I’d met on Facebook months ago, but had only just met in real life, Wendy and Jasmine.

We went to dinner at Scout and Frodo’s. They are more ridiculously generous people, hosting dozens of hikers a night and feeding us all dinner. And they do all of this without accepting any donations. They fed us chips and asparagus dip, burritos, and chocolate cake. I was so nervous for the next day I could hardly finish my dinner, and didn’t bother with the cake. As my friends know, if I’m passing on chocolate, I’m having dune serious nerves.

On the way back to Bob’s, we all voted to get to the trail as close to first light as possible. “Perfect,” Bob said, “we leave at 5:15.” Back at his house, we spent another hour going through our packs, shoving six liters of water into them, and getting to know one another before going to bed.

I slept about two hours. I was nervous, I was sharing a bed (I never sleep well sharing beds), and I had Taylor Swift songs stuck in my head. And not soothing T-Swizzle songs either, like “Teardrops on my Guitar.” No, it was “Blank Space.” Catchy, but not conducive to sleep.

And yet, around 4:45, I pulled myself out of bed ready to rock. We had a quiet ride to the monument at Campo, California. We’d added a couple people–an American named Clint and an Australian who I honestly didn’t see once we got to the trailhead. We took pictures at the trailhead, then took then because it was too dark the first time. I will always treasure those photos as the last time my backpacking gear will ever be clean.

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Mail drops on the PCT: Putting the Pro in Procrastination

Considering I leave this week for the Pacific Crest Trail, I thought it might be fun to, ya know, figure out what I’m going to be eating on the trip. Here’s the problem: I’m a lousy cook, even in the best of circumstances.

Case in point: I once was in charge of making macaroni and cheese for some high school boys at church. High school boys.

“Surely I can do this,” I thought. “High school boys will eat anything!”

Then, midway through his first bowl, one of them turned to me and asked, “Did you put sour cream in this?”

I had not, in fact, put sour cream in it. Yet despite his raving starvation just before lunch, he didn’t finish his bowl, and we threw away over half the batch of Mac and cheese.

Luckily, Campbell’s makes a wide variety of delicious soups that are almost idiot proof, so I’ll just eat those for the rest of my life.

Except for when I go on long backpacking trips that necessitate higher calories and also lighter foods. What to do?

The answer, of course, is simple:

1) Go to Winco and buy every container of food that looks like I might be able to prepare it on a backpacking stove, or, even better, without a stove;

2) Take the food home, thinking the while drive about what you really should have gotten;

3) Toss it all in a heap on the living room floor and stare at it for half an hour just in case it suddenly decides to prepare itself;

4) Grab random items from the floor and take them to the kitchen to test, while singing madly like the chef on The Little Mermaid;

5) Realize Mom is pulling into the driveway and run outside to ask her to brace herself for the mess inside.

I did all of these. She came in, saw kitchen littered with small pots, spilled couscous, and half-filled bags of trail mix and said, “Oh, this isn’t so bad.”

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She then walked into the living room and said, “Oh, this is bad.”

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Fortunately, after four kids and three grandkids, she’s developed a calm in the face of disaster. Just another reason she’s the best mom ever.

I ended up discovering that I have an affinity for couscous and not cooking anything, so my game plan at this point is to go stoveless for the first 200 miles, at which point I’ll be so grateful for hot food that I won’t even care if my Mac and Cheese tastes like sour cream.