Thursday, May 30, 2019

Hiking the PCT, Southern California Section E: Foiled again by the Sierra Pelona

Flash and I left Hiker Heaven under the cover of darkness, because that was how we liked it. Hiking as the sun rises has got to be the best thing there is. It was a good thing we left so early because the heat was on. The trail in this section climbs and then drops steeply, the climbs again as we headed toward Green Valley. Shade was a sparse commodity, and we leapfrogged Rampage, True Grit, and others.

Most everyone was headed for the next trail angel house, Casa de Luna. Rumored to have taco salad and a magical manzanita forest, it held some allure, but we decided to skip it. Here is where I chose to ignore my intuition (foreshadow alert). We really didn't need to hike 24 miles, but when we passed the campsite we had planned on, it was in full sun, it was early, and we didn't have enough water to sit there the rest of the afternoon. What harm would it do to descend to the fire station, get water and find a place to camp there? It turns out that this decision cost me the rest of my hike.

We saw Mark several times. We liked Mark. We shared our ice cream with Mark.
The PCT here, and in many other places, contours endlessly around hills, in one direction. The trail is not level, having eroded out, and so one foot is always at an angle. I had started feeling a nagging pain where the ankle met the foot, and if I had stopped early, it might have resolved. But, as a person with a tendency to push on, and since most nagging pains go away, I tried to ignore it. Mistake #1.

My ankle felt good while climbing, so the next morning all was well. We woke to fog that eventually cleared off as we headed upward and down to the Lake Hughes Road. I started seeing the familiar sights from two years before, when snow forced us off the mountain. The trail wound through an enchanting oak forest and a trail angel gave us water and matzoh. It would have been a good day, except that my ankle started hurting even more. We dropped down to sit at a nice campsite and were tempted to stay there. However, there had been reports of bear activity in the area, and I was convinced that if we moved up to the nearby campground, we could store our food in bear boxes and it would be better. Mistake #2.
Pretty oak forest
There followed one of the most miserable camping experiences I have yet to endure. Arriving at the campground, we were buffeted by intense winds. Flash set her tent up on the lee side of the bathroom, but mine flapped too much to consider it. Finally I spotted some bushes halfway up the hill. They didn't appear to be moving, so I wedged my tent in between them. I clung to the slope, barely able to move. Several other hikers trickled in, facing the same predicament.

This picture does not fully capture the situation.

The rain began at one am, heralding in one of the most miserable days on trail I have yet to endure. Along with the joy of taking down a wet tent, the rain and wind made it impossible to stop. I marched on, leg throbbing, getting wetter and colder by the minute. Only the foggy oak forest made the death march halfway bearable.
I normally wouldn't post a picture where I look so bad, but I had to convey the Type II fun we were having.
Finally after 17 brutal miles, we arrived at the highway and Hiker Town. A former Wild West movie set, Hiker Town is perched on the edge of scary and fascinating. A former hiking partner refused to stop there due to its reputation as being sketchy, but we found the owners to be helpful and nice. We scored a room for $20 (in the School House) that hadn't been cleaned in the last decade, but it beat the experience of the other hikers, who had to set up tents in the wind. I lay on the foul smelling carpet, wondering what to do. A test hike in the morning revealed that the pain had crept up my leg, and I couldn't put Flash in the dubious position of being out in the mountains with no bail out, with an injured partner. Plus, the forecast was abysmal, with rumors of snow, and my raincoat wasn't getting any better. For all those reasons, we decided to bail. The owner gave us a ride to Lebec and we caught an Uber to Bakersfield.
Not as happy as I look at Hikertown
In town, I was feeling all of the emotions. I obviously had an overuse injury, which I could have prevented by doing less miles. I've always been able to jump into high mileage right away, so this made me wonder if age was catching up at last. And if I want to finish the PCT, I have to go back and get those 50 miles, which really can only be done in fall or spring. It gets logistically challenging and expensive. I felt like a failure, spending money to change my flight for the second time, and Flash had to also, which made me feel worse.

But as a wise person once said, life sometimes gives you a Plan B, and what is important is how you respond to it. I'm really lucky to be able to do this crazy thing called section hiking. The trail isn't going anywhere. I'll be back.
The tent city near the outhouse. This camp rivaled Desperation Camp from Section A of the PCT.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Hiking the PCT, CA Section D: Sleeping in a horse corral and other life choices

The sad truth of life is, you can't stay forever in an outhouse, even if it is pouring and cold outside. Flash and I dragged ourselves out and into the storm. The trail inexplicably climbed to a point above Highway 2 and back down again, and we were at the Endangered Species Closure. This was a two mile slog along the highway because of an endangered yellow-legged frog. I'm all for saving the frog but this closure has been in place for years. It was time for a reroute, I thought resentfully.

It was only three when we stumbled into the closed Buckthorn campground, but we felt sufficiently wet and traumatized enough to stop before the rain began again. A lucky moment of sunshine along the trail had enabled us to dry everything out, a trick we had learned in rainy Washington. If the sun appears, you don't wait. Our tents were dry and we didn't relish setting them up in the rain.

A thunderstorm moves in our direction
We woke to more rain, but this was tempered by a delightful stroll through the Pleasant Ridge View Wilderness, a steep set of ridges with a clear stream running through it. The weather steadily improved as we hiked, enough for us to stop at a creek to soak our feet.
This tree lived a long time. Photo by Flash.
A thunderstorm flirted with the peaks and we hiked on long after we felt like stopping, clocking out at 23 miles on a large, flat plateau with the French hikers, an Israeli named Songbird, Vox, and "the girl with the braids" that we were secretly calling Pippi (though she was too young to get the reference). A thunderstorm blew in, buffeting our tents, and just as quickly left, providing us with a spectacular sunset.

International hiker camp

A room with a view
The next morning Flash and I left at dawn to the sound of coyotes, dropping out of the mountains to Mill Creek fire station and back up into the mountains on the other side of the road. We climbed steadily, leapfrogging the hikers from the night before, and dropped into the North Fork ranger station, one of those old school ranger compounds that are falling out of existence. This one was staffed by a volunteer who had come for one summer and had stayed for 20 years. "Sometimes people sleep in the horse corral," Todd said, pointing down the hill. Sure enough, the corral was protected from the wind and free of horses.

Todd the volunteer. I'm pretty sure there is a novel in here somewhere.
The North Fork Hilton

One of the oddities of the PCT is that you hike forever in what seems to be wilderness and then you are suddenly spit out into relative civilization. So it was the next day when we arrived at a parking lot to find, strangely enough, an RV and a woman chomping down on Reese's cereal. Just past this scene began familiar ground: I had hiked most of this section two years before. We climbed far above the town of Acton through dry hills, dropping finally to walk through Vasquez Rocks, where a Star Trek movie was being filmed. Not caring too much about Star Trek, we continued on to road walk into the town of Agua Dulce, where I looked in vain for items I wanted (a bandanna, lip balm). A woman leaned out of a car. "Want a ride to Hiker Heaven?" she asked, and we seized the opportunity, since it is a mile off the trail on pavement.

Vasquez rocks

We had made it to Hiker Heaven at last. I had heard about this place for years. An outdoor shower, laundry, charging stations, and resupply. I eyed the mountain of flat rate boxes in dismay. My resupply box hadn't shown up! After a mini meltdown, I realized that there was a grocery store a mile away, so all was not lost.

Loaner clothes while my laundry was being done. Thanks volunteers!

Donna, the owner of Hiker Heaven, knew Flash's mom, so she gave us a room in the hiker trailer, sparing us from the snores of the multiple tents set up in the yard. I lay in a small trundle bed, thinking about the strangeness of the PCT. One night in a horse corral, the next in a bed. Cowering in an outhouse and taking an outdoor shower.

Many people get sucked into the Hiker Heaven vortex, and it was easy to see why, We, however, were on a mission. Of course, if I had known what was in store for us, I might have reconsidered hiking on....
To be continued...

Monday, May 20, 2019

Hiking the PCT, CA section D: Seems it (never) rains in Southern California

Flash and I trudged up the switchbacks from Cajon Pass in the late afternoon. We had long heard about this steady 22 mile climb, often bereft of water and intense of heat. We had lucked out though; there was a pleasant breeze, and as our trail angel who gave us a ride (Swingman) had told us, the grade was not steep. Because this has been a flower explosion in the desert, we walked through tiny aromatic gardens. This 225 mile hike was starting off in a good way.
Blooming century plant!


At the Swarthout road cache, we didn't need much water, so we pressed on, leapfrogging a happy couple we dubbed The Brits. Finding a protected campsite at the 12 mile mark, we set up camp, soon joined by a couple of German girls (whom we never saw again. The trail is like that).
Camp, night one! Successful pitches after 12 miles.
Everyone around us was debating about Mount Baden Powell. At nearly 10,000 feet, on a typical year this mountain was no problem in May. This was not a typical year. There had been multiple rescues already, and people said grimly that spikes and ice axes were still needed. Flash and I had neither, and we were contemplating the alternate, a ten mile road walk. We weren't overly excited about the prospect, but slipping in the snow didn't sound too fun either. We would wait, we thought, and see what happened as we got closer.
Morning. The Brits tried to explain to us these were clouds, when it was really fog.

On the way to the next water source, a spring at Guffy Campground, we came upon a mansplainer. Sadly, trail life is not exempt from this species. "I was going to camp where you did," he pontificated, "but I decided to go farther." He proceeded to tell us how to hike, and how to approach snow in the mountains. At Guffy, he showed up to tell us that there was snow on the way to the spring. (Spoiler alert: we never saw him again either).

Passing by a closed ski resort, we noticed the weather getting colder, with some ominous clouds in the distance. After 20 miles, we came to a closed campground and decided to park it there for the night, due to the convenience of bear boxes. We were all alone as the wind howled above us. Surely it would warm up, I thought as I huddled in my tent. Previous year hikers had moaned about the heat, and how they had to night hike to survive.

An unwelcome noise awoke me. Not a bear, but the sound of...rain. Flash and I are used to rain, and so we packed up and headed out, bound for Highway 2. The rain and fog made it clear that this was not a day to summit Baden Powell. Up there, it would surely be a whiteout. Our only choice was walking Highway 2.

There are moments in everyone's life when they wonder just why they have signed on willingly for something, and this was one of them. The rain and wind buffeted us without mercy, and I could feel myself getting more wet and frozen by the minute. To my horror I realized my rain jacket had failed, and I was completely soaked. Miserably we fought hypothermia, walking the road until a beacon of hope shone forth in the form outhouse.

We ran for it, and fell inside. Away from the rain, there was a superficial feeling of warmth. I struggled to open a bag of crackers. I had sunk to a new low: eating in an outhouse. Would this rain ever stop? Would I ever be warm again? Could this really be Southern California? Huddled in a toilet, I pondered my life choices.

To be continued...
I was still smiling at this point. That did not last. Photo by Flash.

Monday, May 13, 2019

112 down, 112 to go

HI friends, still alive and hiking. We have had brutal cold rain, beautiful sunsets and now hot weather. More to come.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Off to chase the dream: PCT 2019

Lately, the conversations between myself and Flash have included the following:

"Can you bring trekking poles on a plane?"
"I really don't know how all this is going to fit in my pack."
"I'm worried I don't have enough food."
"So. Much. Food."
"Are you bringing microspikes?"
"I'm putting my poncho in my Bag of Indecision."

You've guessed it, we are off to hike another two sections of the PCT. For some reason, I have packed and re-packed, second- and third- and fourth-guessed. One reason is because the trail ascends Mount Baden Powell, a trail so snowy that people have fallen and broken bones and had to be rescued earlier in the season. It is allegedly better now, but hikers are still road walking around it. Do we bring our microspikes and then have to carry the darn things the next hundred miles? Also, we are carrying seven days of food rather than spend the time it would take to hitchhike into Wrightwood, which 99% of hikers do. With a big water carry at the same time, I am eyeing my pack to figure out what I can dump.

Despite all this, I am looking forward to just walking for two weeks. As my PCT adventure winds down (I only have one more section after this), I want to think about all the different miles I've walked, and all the companions along the way, people like Cherry Pie, Short Cut, Man in Black, Beekeeper; and then all of the others whom I met briefly but won't forget for the moments in time we intersected: Continental Drifter, Diesel, Shepherd. I never set out to hike all of the 2,650 miles but somehow, it looks like I am going to.

I am rehiking about 60 miles I have already hiked, because Flash wants to and because it's challenging to bridge the gap up to the dirt road where Triscuit and I bailed in a snowstorm. It will be good to hike them; I still wish I had holed up in town to let the storm pass and hiked on. But there should be no regrets.

We have sent two resupply boxes and have a box to check at the airport (because the TSA says trekking poles are banned, although numerous accounts of those who have succeeded exist); I have a cork ball for foam rolling, KT tape for stuff that might hurt, two sets of insoles, camp shoes and a Kindle. Ultralight I am not. I plan to treat this section differently. Usually I rush through on a mission. This one I will savor.

I'll be back, friends, with desert stories to tell.

Elevation profile of the first 112 miles,

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Annual pilgrimages vs. discovery

I can't believe it, but I have lived in one place for ten years. The old me would have been horrified by this. Keep moving, see what is around the next bend, was my mantra. People who stayed in one place were..boring. (They really weren't, but I was young. Forgive me.)

Part of this incessant traveling was based in my line of work, which was largely seasonal, and necessitated leaving when I was thrown out of the bunkhouses. Plus, there was an always changing cast of characters who gushed over the exciting places they had been over the past season. Who wouldn't want to be part of a migration like this? It was an incredible experience that I wouldn't trade on most days, even those when people younger than I am can retire (we can have amazingly young retirements in this agency) and who come into my team at the same level as I am but are twenty years younger. Life choices, but I feel as though I made the right ones.

On Sunday, L and I made an annual pilgrimage to Freezeout Saddle. Some of us go there every spring. It is how we mark the beginning of renewal, and register the differences between the years. "The balsamroot isn't even out," she observed, unusual for this late in the year. Down in the canyons, we snagged boughs from a blooming feral apple tree. We climbed up the switchbacks to the saddle, where it lived up to its name as we burrowed in down jackets and hid behind rocks. It is never warm at Freezeout, but that is part of the ritual.

some snow over in Idaho
As we descended toward the sun, I missed my discovery days fiercely. It isn't the same, going on short jaunts away from the county. Back then, I moved to whole new ecosystems, exploring blank spots on the map. It is hard to admit that part of my life is over. At the same time, I listened to L as we drove down the somewhat creepily fascinating access road. She pointed out all the abandoned cabins. Who used to live where, the scandals and mysteries that made up this part of the landscape. "I've known Pam since the 1970s," she said. "She used to live over here." What would that be like? Here in a place with so much history, I am caught between two extremes--no longer a traveler, but not a local.

"If I were single, I'd be going to Greenland too," I whispered to Big Spindrift, who travels the globe doing temporary jobs like this. But would I? I don't know. He has a house, but he is never in it. Others take care of his dog. While we all flock to see him on the infrequent times he is in town, he can't maintain the same level of friendship as if he stayed. I've left really good friends and we promised to keep in touch--but invariably, distance separated us.

Maybe I'm always wanting what I can't have? I think about the canyon and the people who fought hard to stay there. The books I write, that are always bound to landscape. There's something to be said for familiar pilgrimages. There's also something to be said for adventure. How to merge them both, that is the question.