Things that keep me up at night

Day 17: Splinter’s Cabin to Grass Valley Creek

Trail miles 298.5-318.0

May 19, 2019

While trying to fall asleep last night, I began to consider what a stress-free existence I am able to enjoy on the trail, where I live without worrying about school, work, or significant interpersonal drama. Then the rain started.

A few hours earlier, when we’d arrived at Splinter’s Cabin (really just a park with a few picnic tables, a pit toilet, and a gazebo-like structure constructed of concrete and wood), there were a few sloped tent sites available, but smart money was on cowboy camping under the gazebo. Rain was in the forecast, and the overhanging roof and waist-high walls of the structure offered ample protection. Cowboy camping rather than setting up our tents would keep our tents dry and make morning packing easier (and more pleasant). Additionally, there would be no need to try to dry our tents during the following day, which was also forecast to be wet.

We staked our claims on the concrete floor under the gazebo awning by spreading out our Tyvek groundcloths. I arrived before the bulk of the group and was able to secure what I thought was a logical spot nestled in one corner of the structure with my head at the base of two concrete walls.

Later arrivals filled in the rest of the floor space adjacent to the concrete walls. The only unoccupied space was in the center of the gazebo, where a picnic table sat directly beneath a bird’s nest, which was tucked into a slot in the gazebo rafters. The table was covered in bird droppings.

As I drifted off, mentally cataloguing the ways in which my trail life’s cares pale in comparison to my worries in the frontcountry, I heard the patter of rain on the gazebo roof and felt the wind blow a fine mist across my face. The storm had arrived, and I knew immediately that I’d made a mistake cowboy camping.

As I lay there, getting spritzed repeatedly by windblown rain, my mind turned to my quilt. At night, its fluffy down filling is my main line of defense against hypothermia. But when down gets wet, the feathers clump together and lose their ability to trap air. Without trapped air, a quilt loses its insulating power and becomes a cold, soggy bag of feathers.

As unpleasant as I found the mist on my face, I was far more deeply troubled by the thought of the same mist slowly soaking my quilt. How would I stay warm the following night without my key piece of insulation? Because the rain was expected to continue through the next night, I knew there would be no time to dry my quilt during the day.

While I debated the relative merits of getting up, putting on all my layers, and pitching my tent in the rain versus moving my Tyvek, quilt and sleeping pad to the bird-soiled picnic table at the center of the gazebo, I listened to the rustles and crinkles of other people moving their own sleeping gear away from the gazebo’s edges. Foot Juice (who earned his name after a gnarly set of infected blisters forced him off-trail for a week and nearly cost him a toe) took up residence under the picnic table and was quickly followed by Casper and Carjack.

Out-maneuvered and unwilling to confront the hassle and discomfort of a sodden midnight tent pitching, I unfurled my tent and draped its waterproof silnylon fabric over my quilt, then squeezed my eyes shut against the incoming mist and tried to sleep.

In the morning, I was surprised and more than a little pleased to find that my lazy solution had actually kept my quilt fairly dry. But looking around at my fellow cowboy campers, I seemed to be the only person in a decent mood.

Firesocks and a few latecomers had ended up in a puddle in the middle of the night. Hiccups and Danish had migrated towards the center of ths gazebo and had tugged their tent across their quilts like I had. Everyone looked disheveled and more than a little grumpy.

I packed up quickly and set off down Deep Creek Canyon, taking almost no breaks in an effort to reach a fabled hot spring ten miles downstream.

To my delight, the weather cleared as I walked, and by the time I reached the spring, just before 10am, the sun was out and the temperature was climbing.

Unfortunately, the hot spring, which consisted of a stream of hot water that traveled through three successively cooler pools before joining Deep Creek, was mobbed with people. The sandy beach surrounding the spring was dotted with feces and used toilet paper.

I have no problem with other people taking joy in the hot spring. After all, that is what I had come to do. I do, however, take offense when scores of people flout the camping ban that exists in the Deep Creek Canyon and mar the landscape with their waste. I am saddened by their lack of respect for the environment they arrived to appreciate.

I sat on a patch of clean sand, watching people walk to and from the hot spring. Many of the people responsible for defiling the spring had come from a road just a couple of trail miles away. But among the illegal campers, I also noticed a number of thru hikers.

When the rest of my friends arrived, we submerged ourselves in one of the warm pools of water. It was a truly relaxing moment, but when we returned to the sandy area where we’d left our packs, I did not want to linger.

I headed down the canyon, hoping to escape the sickening feeling the mess at the spring had left in my gut. My plan was to make another ten miles before camping for the evening.

The trail exited Deep Creek Canyon and passed the Mojave River Forks Dam and its massive spillway. It then entered a dense riparian zone along the Mojave River. This section of trail near the dam reminded me of the trail along the American River in Sacramento. In both cases, the combination of natural processes and human development has shaped the river corridor in a unique and unmistakable way. In this forgotten corner of the environment, tree branches and brush accumulate on the upstream sides of concrete platforms embedded in the riverbank: evidence of high flows in seasons past. Graffiti fades and flakes off of boulders as sunshine and weather slowly worry away the remnants of human intervention.

As we emerged from this in-between area, Carjack, Spartan and I stumbled upon Papa Bear, a PCT hiker (he has completed two thru hikes and now typically hikes multiple sections each year) traveling north with the bubble of thru hikers to perform acts of trail magic. He offered us sodas, apples, and oranges, and let us sit in folding chairs (seats with back rests are in short supply outdoors).

Across the valley, a stack of some of the most ominous clouds I have ever seen was boiling over the ridge where we planned to camp that night. “It’s looked like that since this morning,” Papa Bear said.

Firesocks arrived and suggested we look for a ride to Cajon Pass, where we could split a motel to avoid the weather. I have been indoors during all the major storms on this trip so far, as a result of luck and well-timed zero days. But I am not out here to avoid the difficulties presented by weather. I am here to experience a hike from Mexico (or Warner Springs ;)) to Canada along with all the challenges that walk entails.

Spartan and I headed for the hills as Firesocks, Carjack, and Casper discussed the details of finding a motel room.

Thankfully, the blue-black clouds didn’t open up immediately. Spartan and I arrived at our campsite, nearly 20 miles from our starting point, and were quickly joined by Hiccups, Danish, Brightside, T-Pain, and Foot Juice.

The wind was steady and the rain started just after dark, but my down was dry and I snuggled in for the night, mentally cataloguing the ways in which my frontcountry life’s cares pale in comparison to my worries on the trail.

The morning after a wet night in Splinter’s “Cabin”. I can assure you that everyone looked significantly less happy before I took out my camera.

The hot springs from afar

A typical stretch of Deep Creek

Rainbow bridge

Camp is four miles away, under those scary clouds. Someone suggests a motel room in town. Your move.

Walking into the weather

An extra set of hands is invaluable when setting up in the wind.

When there’s only one windbreak, camp can get crowded.

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