Watermelon Walking

Day 9: Nearo to Banning

Trail Miles 200.5-209.5

May 11, 2019

Morning arrived with low clouds that delivered a smattering of rain before rising and allowing the sun to bathe the mountainside in gentle golden light. I descended the final 2000’ to the valley floor slowly because I stopped to take so many pictures along the way.

Finally at the base of Mt. San Jacinto, I reveled in the gentle, mindless trek toward Interstate 10. The easy walking provided an opportunity to call my doctor about a bug bite that had appeared on my forearm a few days prior.

Beginning as a tight red spot about the size of a dime, the bite had become increasingly inflamed and now comprised an angry red splotch about 3 inches in diameter. Although the swollen area was not particularly painful, the nurse on call recommended that I go to an urgent care facility to have the bite examined. It was fortuitous that I had planned to resupply and spend the night in Banning, a town just a short distance from the Interstate crossing.

About 3 miles from the freeway, where the trail crossed a road, a white sedan was parked with a sign in the windshield reading “PCT Trail Magic.” I walked up with Carjack and Spartan to find the rest of our group and a few hikers I didn’t recognize sitting on beach towels, eating fresh watermelon and homemade brownies. Trail angel Vera welcomed us with cold drinks, asking only that we sign her visitor book.

The watermelon she handed me was ice cold, perfectly sweet, and marvelously fresh. It satisfied a deep craving I had forced to the back of my mind.

Someone asked how Vera had decided to become a trail angel, and many of us were astonished to learn that her main connection to the PCT was through the internet. In reading blogs and watching YouTube videos, she’d learned about the trail, thru hikers, and trail magic. She had decided to assist hikers on their journey to Canada by becoming a trail angel near her local section of trail. She explained that she enjoys the positive energy and gratitude of the hikers she helps, and she gave each of us a hug as we thanked her and said goodbye (a brave move, considering the special odor we’d been cultivating since we left Idyllwild).

The trail passes directly under the interstate, and in the shade of the bridge, another trail angel had left a cooler of sodas. We sat in a circle in the shade of the overpass, gulping the cold, liquid sugar.

While we rested, a hiker wearing a bow tie arrived carrying a car tire around his neck. His name was Prom King, and he had packed the tire out from where he’d found it: in a sandy wash about a half mile from the bridge. It makes me immensely glad to see fellow hikers practicing Leave No Trace ethics not only in their own hiking lives, but also with respect to the trash left by less conscientious visitors.

On the whole, the community of thru hikers I have encountered so far has been quite responsible about their own waste, although I know some people are unwilling to carry out trash left by others, especially if it is heavy. Prom King clearly suffered from no such qualms.

Banning is not a very hiker-friendly town, by which I mean two things. First, it is difficult to get to by hitchhiking. And second, stores, motels and restaurants are far apart, and there is no convenient public transit, so a hiker (or any visitor or resident without a car!) is doomed using ride sharing apps to get around.

I caught a Lyft with Carjack, Spartan, and another hiker we met at the bridge to In n Out, where I downed a glorious chocolate shake. Then I called a Lyft of my own (my first ever) to an urgent care clinic in Banning. Pino, a kindly Italian man who’d moved to California to be near his son and grandson, picked me up and offered to wait for me at the clinic and bring me back to my friends if I gave him a few bucks. I gladly accepted, and this turned out to be a fortuitous agreement, because the urgent care clinic did not accept my insurance and I needed a ride to the emergency room at the local hospital. Pino gladly obliged and waited for me there while I was examined and given prescriptions for two courses of antibiotics. He then whisked me to Walmart where I met Carjack, Spartan, and T-Pain.

While my prescription was being filled, I wandered the aisles of the overgrown “superstore”, gathering food for the next section of the hike: foil-wrapped tuna, instant mashed potatoes, dark chocolate, Cheez-Its, potato chips, peanut butter…

Everything in the store was dazzlingly colorful and the customers were conspicuously free of dirt. I felt out of place wearing my sweat-stained clothing and my filthy backpack.

Waiting in line to pick up my pills, I found my gaze resting on a particularly drab brown tile in the floor and realized that the tile had drawn my eye because it was the least over-stimulating thing in sight. The brightest colors I’d seen regularly for the last few days were the blossoms of cacti and other desert plants. Although those colors were admittedly vibrant, they simply could not compete with the garish shampoo advertisements and cereal packaging that surrounded me in the store. My mind needed a break and had found respite in the mud-colored tile.

Resupplied with processed food and stocked with enough meds to decimate my microbiome, I took a ride with the others to the motel where we’d rented a room. There, we used the shower to wash the grime of the San Jacintos from our bodies, and used the sink to rinse desert grit from our clothes. Motel management sent a representative to our room to tell us we couldn’t leave our damp laundry hanging on the balcony above the parking lot, a major disappointment and a bit of a surprise because the lack of cars in the parking lot strongly suggested that we were the only occupants. We draped our semi-clean socks and shirts around the room and sat dressed in our rain gear, sorting our food.

In the evening, we walked down the street past a “saw sharpening” business to a pub where we ordered burgers. The perfume of someone sitting at a table nearby nearly made me ill, and the boxing match on the huge television only worsened my nausea. I did manage to finish my meal, but I was relieved to return to our room to sleep, knowing we’d be back outside the following morning.

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