Friday, April 29, 2016

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, California Section B, Day 5: Patchouli, Water from a Puddle, and Triscuit Yogis a Ride

A day in the sun makes all the difference.
When we awoke, still the only souls in a huge campground, something was different. The sky was clear. There was no rain! Hallelujah! Triscuit and I made short work of packing up, but Man in Black lingered on in the campground, talking on his phone well out of our earshot. You meet nice people on the PCT, but they harbor secrets like everyone else. Leaving him to his rendezvous, or whatever it was, Triscuit and I found the mountain bike trails leading to Idyllwild easily. Why thru-hikers were skipping this section claiming there was no alternative to the fire closure, we couldn't figure out. It was a pleasant walk, our stuff was dry, and there was sun. We really couldn't ask for more.

Soon we attained the closed May Valley Road, a dirt road that runs through the heart of the old fire. As such, it is closed to vehicle traffic, so we could boldly walk through it, seeing nobody. There were only a few hiker tracks. Prior to the road we had been following some distinctive prints that had a castle like image on them. "King," I mused. "Chicken A La King!" Triscuit said. Whomever the tracks belonged to, he now had a trail name.  We giggled for miles. Sadly, we never found the person to let him know.

Trail messages

Near the South Ridge trail that would take us back to the PCT, we called the ranger station to see what conditions were like on Tahquitz Peak and to determine our fate--to Idyllwild or not? I harbored hopes of not touching a town at all.

"I'M SO GLAD YOU CALLED!" the ranger said. "DON'T GO UP THERE." He went on to elaborate that the trail climbed the shoulder of the peak and was icy and dangerous. People who had tried it had come back in defeat. It's always hard to know what fears other people carry, but we decided to be prudent and road walk into town. I was disappointed, but without additional information, this was the best we could do. On we walked, finally attaining pavement and walking through some delightful neighborhoods with cute cabins. I could totally live here, I thought.

But it was taking forever. Where the heck was town? Triscuit grew tired of guessing and flagged down a small car. The driver popped out, a lanky and handsome young man with a do-rag wrapped around his head, and reeking of patchouli. "Don't come near the car!" he warned, and two evil looking dogs surged the windows. "You're almost there," he said before retreating. What the..? The juxtaposition of a hippie and mean dogs was yet another mystery we could not solve.

Like a mirage, a restaurant appeared on the corner of the main drag. Despite our bedraggled appearance, we hiked in. Water! Tuna melts! Sweet potato fries! One thing I love about hiking is the freedom from the daily calorie count. Then we pondered our options. Most hikers were hitching to the Devils Slide, which took them up and over Fuller Ridge. However, we were hearing horror stories of people sliding and falling. It seemed to make more sense to take the Black Mountain alternate, which is the same in terms of mileage, so we wouldn't be "cheating." We just needed a ride to the Black Mountain Road, 8 miles away on a highway with no shoulder.

We scanned the dining room for possibilities. Would those older ladies be a good bet? Everyone's eyes avoided us as if they knew what we were up to. Triscuit marched off and managed to yogi a ride with two New Zealanders on vacation, ambushing the woman by the bathroom. Intrigued by us, they agreed to take us to the road. I wasn't able to believe our luck. We hadn't had to hitchhike!

Our trail angels the Kiwis!
The Kiwis dropped us at the road, which was actually driveable for two more miles before reaching a gate, but we were firm in our need not to cheat.  We would walk! Back at the restaurant, we had pondered the water report. It said that Posey Spring, eight miles up the road, was usually running. That had to mean it was, right? But our cautious nature compelled us to bring three liters. As it turns out, that was a good decision.

Triscuit and I trudged up the road, which was incredibly steep. We both agreed we wouldn't want to drive it. Near the top, Posey Spring was, in fact, not running, and we knew we had a long way to water--over 20 miles and not nearly enough water. I scraped some snow into my bladder and we gathered water from a puddle. That was a first. The water was a strange shade of yellow, but it would do.

Triscuit gathering water from a puddle

Finally we reached the intersection with the PCT and headed downward. This was a 6,000 foot descent to the valley floor. After having ascended 6,000 feet, we weren't going to do it all tonight. Instead, we hunted for the camping trifecta when it is windy: boulders, trees, and a great view. We lucked out at about mile 192.

Sparks, a section hiker finishing up his multi-year section hike of the PCT. Go, Sparks!

Later in the evening, a thick bank of clouds spilled over the shoulder of Mount St. Jacinto. It was a perfect campsite. A few other thru hikers trudged past, and two women, Seasoned Strider and Gadget Girl, came to share our site. GG's husband was supporting them in an RV, picking them up every few days and allowing them to rest, get showers, etc. That would be quite the luxurious way to thru hike, I thought enviously.

I often have a hard time explaining to others why I love backpacking so much. But this was it--a challenging day in the books, the right decisions made, nearly 100 miles under my feet, and one of the most beautiful campsites ever.

Saving Day 5.5 for last...because it deserves its own post. Ha ha.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, California Section B, Days 3-4: Survival Situation on the Mountain

As we packed up, neither Wing It or the Flying Nun stirred. The ebb and flow of the trail meant we might never see them again. As we wound along the cliffs above Anza, I dared to believe that the ominous weather forecast might be wrong. This was to have been the worst day of rain, but so far it had held off.
A lot of the day looked like this.

But not for long. As we began a long descent toward Highway 74, I conceded defeat and put the rain pants back on. An insistent drizzle followed us as we put our feet on pavement. It was a mile road walk to the Paradise Cafe, and I really didn't want to go there, but I knew Triscuit did, and the lure of real food eventually made me give in. It was early for lunch, since we had hammered out 10 miles in only a few hours, but I dreamed of a grilled cheese sandwich. Triscuit yearned for her only vice, a Diet Coke. The rain increased to a torrent as we hiked the busy highway, nobody stopping to pick us up.

"We aren't in the Pacific Northwest anymore," I said. There, someone would have stopped to offer us a ride. Not in California!

Staring at the Paradise Cafe in the distance, I began to get a sinking feeling. The parking lot was empty. No lights were on. Committed, we continued to find a closed up shop due to a water problem. Shivering, we perched on the porch eating not a grilled cheese sandwich, but cashews. A few disappointed cafe goers approached, stared at us, and left. "Are you hiking?" One man asked, perhaps disregarding the obvious clues of backpacks and lack of a car. To their credit, they asked if we needed a ride to Idyllwild, but unlike 99% of the hikers this year, we were not going to hitch around the fire closure.  Our trailhead was only a mile back up the road but despite our blatant hints and (perhaps because of) our drowned rat appearance, we couldn't get a ride back there. Grilled cheeseless, we trudged back to the trail.

In rain too cold to stop and break, we wound back up into the mountains, passing little rock gardens and ephemeral streams that were running strongly. The footing was  rocky and the grade had steepened to something un-PCT-like. This was my vacation? I thought. This was why I had worked 50 hour weeks? But I could still feel the magic of the trail, even through the rain. Once again, it was not the flat, cactus desert I had expected.

Yard sale! A successful dry out has the trifecta: wind, full sun, and helpful bushes.
When we reached the ridge and turned the corner, the full brunt of the wind hit us. The fog thickened. We were walking in a whiteout, rain pelting our faces. Without saying anything we knew that this was classic hypothermia weather--in Southern California. We had to keep going. If we stopped, I doubted we would have the dexterity or ability to even put up a tent, if the wind would allow it. Scrambling to check our compass, we ascertained we were still on track.

As if there was any other trail...

Finally we reached the fire closure sign, which meant a switchbacking descent down the Cedar Springs trail. The wind receded and the urgency of the situation subsided. We had made it. Stumbling into an abandoned campground, we searched among the cow pies for suitable tent sites. The trail today had mostly been deserted but Man in Black was already in his tent there. As we passed he declared that the ridge situation hadn't seemed bad to him. Triscuit and I exchanged glances. We knew how much on the edge it had been. After 21 miles, it was good to stop.

Pictures were unfortunately scarce on this day.
Waking to a foggy world, we packed up our wet tents again and headed for a combination of paved road, mountain bike trail, and powerline to reach a roadside campground. Pausing to have a yard sale, we checked the weather forecast and were disheartened to see 100% chance of rain--again. This cemented it. We would do a "nero" hike today (nearly zero miles--it would be ten) and stay in the campground. On the way we stopped by a convenience store for some necessary Fritos. Outside, a man regaled us with tales of mountain lion killing and also that he had set up a game camera at the abandoned campground. I calculated the location and figured it was probably aimed right at my tent's location.

Peeping Tom, Man in Black and Triscuit: Hikertrash at the store
It was hard to curb my desire to make more miles, but it made sense. Besides, hot showers!

Except, no. Lukewarm showers!  I shivered as I sprinted for the tent. I was regretting my decision to go stoveless on this trip as I observed Triscuit and Man in Black sipping hot drinks. Who knew that it would rain this much? But there was hope. A hesitant moon peered out through the clouds. Would we have sun for our last few days on the trail? I fervently hoped so, not realizing that I would later have cause to change my mind. Soon the windswept and slightly desperate ridge situation would take on a different hue as the weather drastically changed.
To be continued.....

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Warner Springs to Whitewater, Days 1-2: It never rains in Southern California

Triscuit and I awoke to the insistent patter of rain on the teepee where we were staying near Ranchita. "Maybe we should take a zero day," I said, only partly joking. The forecast looked grim, El Nino visiting Southern California at last. But section hikers don't have time to sit out the rain. Instead, we suited up in rain gear and headed out on the PCT. It felt good to be back.

The rain added magic to the open landscape, clouds hanging low as we hiked through fields and gradually ascended into the mountains. The plants were drinking in the rain. Around mid-day we came upon our first thru-hiker, Slingblade from Arkansas. Only a few hikers were brave enough to be out. Most were huddled up inside.

But not us. We walked through a brushy, rocky landscape, stopping just shy of a famed place called Mike's. Neither of us really wanted to go there; it was rumored to be a party place, and that wasn't what we were out here to do. Instead, we stopped early near some boulders after 15.5 miles of hiking, not a bad total for starting later in the day. As we set up camp, Slingblade and a trio of hikers trudged by, bound for Mike's. We never saw them again, as they were probably pulled into the vortex.

First night's camp. The NEMO tent did great in the rain.
The next morning we awoke with dripping tents to begin the routine that would be ours for the next four days: pack up wet stuff, hike until a brief sunburst, and spread everything out for a "yard sale." Rain always adds an extra intensity to backpacking. Most of your energy is focused on staying dry. I lined my backpack with a trash compactor bag and had my sleeping bag in a dry sack. At the last minute I threw my pack cover in. Mostly these are semi-worthless, but in a downpour they keep part of your pack dry, so I was glad I had it.
Happy flowers!

 We descended to a dirt road and festooned our gear on handy chaparral until it was passably dry. Gathering "cow water" from a tiny trickle, we saw more thru-hikers: Man in Black and a younger guy who claimed he was just "winging it" on the trail, thus our trail name for him, Wing It. We also came upon a man slumped on a rock, who insisted he was okay even though he looked far from it.

In the distance we could see the town of Anza and hear dogs barking from remote compounds. Who were these people, and what did they do all day? Perhaps it was better not to know. After hiking a little over 19 miles, we pulled in to a set of large boulders for the night, soon joined by Wing It, who revealed he had been in Iraq and Afghanistan and was trying to figure out what he wanted to do next, and another man we had secretly dubbed "Flying Nun" for the way his hat flapped in the breeze. Although, I mused, as we climbed out of Nance Canyon there had clearly been someone else hiking with Flying Nun. What had happened to her? Did he push her off a cliff? Did they get a trail divorce? So many mysteries on this trail.

House in the middle of nowhere, after the climb out of Nance Canyon.

Second night's camp

In the distance the coyotes howled. We knew the next day would be a test of our experience and our patience: 100% of rain and an untested alternate route due to a fire closure. Since most "thru" hikers are skipping the alternate (yet still calling themselves thru-hikers), there was not much information on this. We could only hope for the best. In retrospect, it was better that we didn't know what lay ahead.

To be continued...

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Losing Aluco

Two days before I left for the Pacific Crest Trail, one of the dogs, Aluco, came in to the house and lay silently on his bed. He hardly moved, even when I sat right next to him. A wary dog, he usually shifted away, his eyes betraying both longing to be close yet fear of being hurt or abandoned, like he had been before.

I know what that's like.

The day before this, Aluco had been his typical self, so  it was a puzzle. I usually think that illness is temporary, maybe because I like to live in denial when it comes to pets. But J knew something was wrong, and he took Aluco to the vet. There he found that Aluco's heart was enlarged to a strange shape and a bloody fluid surrounded it. Two days, maybe three, the vet said. J made the call that I would have been unable to make. The vet said he would come over at five.

How to describe those hours? My heart broke as I watched J sitting on the porch talking to the dog he had rescued when nobody else wanted him. "You know I love you," I heard J say to Aluco. This was a dog that, when taken from a hoarding situation, had to be moved from his pen with a noose and a stick. This was a dog who bit out of fear, who had to be tranquilized to be put in the truck for the first time. J slept on the porch with him for the first weeks, and gradually Aluco grew to be a dog that knew what love was for the first time.

I know what that's like.

In the afternoon, Aluco perked up a little. He walked around the yard. He sat in his usual place in the trees, the place we called the diorama because it always looked like a wolf sitting in the forest when he sat there. When the vet pulled up, Aluco walked over to say hello.

I think I would not have been brave enough right then. I would have said, let's wait a few more days. But this was J's dog, and he knew the right thing to do. Aluco sat by J as the vet tranquilized him, with J petting him the whole time. Then it was time for the final needle.

After it was over, and we took our sweet dog to the place where we bury all of our pets, a place by the river, it was hard to imagine that he was gone. Losing a pet is gaining a hole in the heart. Animals are purer souls than all of us. They teach us what love is all about. They show us the kind of person we could be, if we were brave and true enough.

I saw a lot of myself in Aluco. Scarred from the past, I didn't want anyone to come closer than an imaginary line that I drew. I wanted to let someone in, but the gap seemed too big, no bridge I trusted enough to cross. What if it was like before, I thought. Easier to believe that no relationships ever worked out, that I was impermeable, that life was better on my own.

I was wrong.

Aluco taught me that. He showed me that no matter what haunts you, you can learn to trust that you won't be abandoned, that there is a place for you by the fire, that even if it doesn't last forever, loving someone with all of your bruised and broken heart is worth it.

We'll miss you, sweet dog.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

On the Edge of Somewhere

There's lots of times we walk on edges. It might be walking the tightrope between what is and the way we wish it was without falling off. It might be balancing our dreams so they last through whatever adversities we are facing. Or it might be as simple as looking over the edge of a canyon, wishing we had the time to hike all the way to the river, but accepting that this will have to be good enough for now.
We pitched our tents in the perfect spot, on the bench overlooking the rest of the canyon.
One of my favorite things is bringing people to a new place. I brought one friend and two strangers, who became friends. The canyon is like that. We stood on the bench, wanting to go further but knowing we only had the one night. The river will have to wait for another day. It's a slim window in this place, but we had hit it just right. The rivers were running high, we only found two ticks, and the snakes were absent.

A lot less snow than last time.

Rain fell softly on our tents during the night but cleared up by morning. It was the perfect trip, and we all agreed this would keep us going on our edges until the next time.

Sunrise from the tent.

Rain clouds, but it was okay.
I'm walking some edges right now. Wanting the freedom to keep writing my third book, wanting more time in general. But I can't let myself fall off into what's negative. We all  know people like that, and they aren't pleasant to be around. Trips like this let me know what will be possible someday, and that's enough for now.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Stakes on a Plane! And other Adventure Preparing Rituals..

A hiking friend emailed me, saying that she was about to go on an untried route, with someone she had never met, in a hiking outfit she had never worn before. I laughed and then thought...Wait...I am about to do the same thing! In less than a week I will be toeing the PCT at mile 110, ready to take on the next chunk, about 100 miles to Interstate 10. It's a challenging route because there is a fire closure, which a lot of people hitchhike around but which I refuse to, for stubborn reasons. There are a few alternates but not a lot of information about them. I am wearing a prototype hiking skirt that I got for free (!) to test out. I am also meeting up with M, a hiker I have never met, but have corresponded with for a few months. Luckily, we have hashed out our expectations beforehand. We plan to camp at the same spots and do some of the harder sections together (the icy ridge at 10,000 feet, the fire reroute, the early morning dash to get water from a place that seems a little sketch) and may hike some, or a lot, or all of the rest together. It will be good to hear some new stories!

We'll probably take the yellow alternate.

Does anyone else panic pack? I am a victim of this practice. I also email Flash repeatedly since her husband works for the TSA. "Ask D!!!" I type, with many exclamation points. "Trekking poles on a plane? Tent poles on a plane? Stakes on a plane?!!!!"

Which brings me to the ritual weighing of the backpack. I stand on the scale, look at my weight, hope that this hike will take off a few pounds, and then try on the pack. Only I can't do that this time because I've sent all the stuff I mentioned away. It's probably better to remain in blissful ignorance, right?

Other rituals? Obsessively check weather. Rain pants in, rain pants out. Ballcap in, sun hat? Dorkiness or sun protection? Clean the house in the fruitless hope it will remain so. Spend a lot of time with the kitties. Briefly ponder if you could hike the trail with a cat. Write a lot on the new book. Work many, many hours to make up for the time I will be gone. Eat a lot, because you will lose weight. Right? 

Then I realize: this is not a trip to the Sahara. It's just a backpacking trip. It will all be okay, even if I forget a spoon and have to carve one, even if it's too icy to tackle Fuller Ridge and we have to roadwalk, even if it's hot/cold/windy. I can handle all those things. Let the adventure begin (well, in seven days that is).

Do you have trip rituals? Have you ever forgotten a spoon? What's the most important thing you have forgotten? (If you read this blog you know my list is long, and includes a rainfly during a thunderstorm, a crucial tent pole, the camp stove, a sleeping pad and a sleeping bag).