Snow in the desert…again

Day 24: Glenwood Boy Scout Camp to Godforsaken Ridge above Acton

Trail miles 400.5-424.3

May 26, 2019

What do you do when it is 40°F, windy, and rainy? You hike. Because, in T-Pain’s words, “What else are we going to do?”

Gunning for a big day, I left camp in the gray, blustery morning at 6:30. I hiked alone through the cold mist for 11 miles. T-Pain caught up to me at a spring where I was filtering water and eating lunch.

By the time I’d eaten my smashed peanut butter sandwich and a few handfuls of potato chips, the rain had turned to snow and I was shivering. We hiked on, shouting to make ourselves heard over the howling wind.

What do you do when small chunks of ice break free from the trees and whip into your stinging face? You laugh, because it’s late May in the desert and your rain jacket has become your favorite piece of gear while your sun umbrella and wide brimmed hat have sat idle in your pack. You laugh and you keep walking, because if you stop, your hands will turn to wood and the shivering will return.

What do you look at when you’re walking through a cloud? The Altras on T-Pain’s feet, and the blooming yuccas just off-trail. The gray inside of the cloud obscures all topography, so your soggy topographic map is of little help for pinpointing your location. Distance traveled is measured by time spent walking multiplied by your perceived pace.

And what do you do when you’ve hiked 20 miles and you’re still too cold to sit still and people ahead of you on the trail are turning around because of the weather?

T-Pain and I consulted the map, took an educated guess about the wind direction and the likelihood of finding sheltered camping on the back side of the ridge. Then we donned our rain pants and took off at a run through the pounding rain and wind, headed up-trail.

By the time we reached the leeward side of the ridge, our noses were numb and we were shouting and cursing at the desert and the wind and the trail. This is late May? In Southern California? This is the desert?

On the leeward side of the ridge, we were shielded from the utter chaos on the windward side. But the ominous roar of the wind in the trees atop the ridge reminded us that the storm continued to rage just out of sight.

Exhausted, we finally reached the campsite we’d been aiming for, 24 miles from the boy scout camp where we’d begun walking that morning. But the site was more exposed than we’d expected from its location on the map. Wind-whipped rain battered the manzanita and buckthorn, and ragged patches of fog scudded low over the sodden ground.

We knew that our options were limited: camp here and risk a midnight tent collapse in the rain and wind (and the hypothermia that could result from such a collapse), backtrack four miles to a sheltered site, or hike on another nine miles to camp at a lower elevation.

Tired, cold, and a bit too proud for our own good, we started looking around for tent sites.

T-Pain pitched his tent in the shelter of a large manzanita bush then helped hold my tent steady while I staked it out a few feet away (an invaluable service that helped speed the process immeasurably). After plopping a few large rocks on the most vital stakes, he dove into his tent to take refuge from the wind.

My tent is notoriously bad in heavy wind, so I spent the next half hour reinforcing my stakes with large rocks scavenged from the surrounding area.

Finally satisfied that I wouldn’t find myself without shelter in the night, I peeled off my saturated rain gear and crawled into my tent. I spent the next half hour organizing my soaked gear, fluffing my quilt (which I’d kept dry inside a large trash bag in my pack) and trying to warm my feet and hands.

Although I am usually in favor of avoiding as much screen time as possible while hiking and camping, this was a night when I allowed myself to use my phone for more than just journaling.

A facetime call with my friends Beth and Ekat raised my spirits immensely, even as the rain began to freeze and the wind tugged at my tent. As T-Pain noted earlier in the day in reference to his habit of watching half an hour of a movie before bed on the trail, removing yourself from your immediate surroundings and reminding yourself that the world continues in your absence can be invaluable after a trying day.

T-Pain before hiking out in the morning

Our frozen tents the following morning

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Coming down

Day 23: Little Jimmy Camp to Glenwood Boy Scout Camp

Trail miles 384-400.5

May 25, 2019

Although the air was still and the night was quiet, it took me a long time to fall asleep last night. Even after I’d puffed up my sleeping pad and pulled my quilt up to my ears, my mind remained far from settled. It reworked the events of the day again and again, splicing together scenes of people falling on snow and rocks with feelings of fear, exasperation, exhaustion.

Eventually, though, I slept, because I woke late to another cold morning. After packing my things and drinking a cup of hot chocolate, Carjack, Foot Juice and I held a short debriefing session to discuss our successes and failures during the previous day. We all agreed that had the weather been even slightly less than perfect or had our other friends not arrived to shoulder some of the emotional burden of evacuating the two injured hikers, we would have pressed an SOS button on a GPS device to contact a search and rescue crew.

The challenges of a self-evacuation had been nearly overwhelming, even in perfect weather, because both of the injured hikers were so badly shaken by their falls that they could not walk on snow without explicit instructions about where to place each foot and trekking pole.

After our debrief, we shouldered our packs and made our way up the trail. Tired from the ordeal the previous day, which had kept us on our feet for twelve consecutive hours, we paused often for breaks. Carjack’s shin has been causing her serious pain since her descent into Wrightwood a few days prior, and after we stopped for lunch at a small picnic area and began a road walk around a section of trail closed to protect Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog habitat, she was moving very slowly. By contrast, the severe foot pain I had experienced on the way into Wrightwood had abated almost entirely, and I was feeling strong.

Spartan, T-Pain and I decided to push on to the Glenwood boy scout camp, while Foot Juice and Carjack opted to stop early for a shorter day.

At camp, I made the best dinner I have had on trail so far: instant rice cooked with a miso packet and a dash of chile sesame oil and topped with ginger garlic wonton strips from the salad dressing aisle of the grocery store. Unfortunately, another cold storm was moving in, and I had to down my meal quickly so I could retreat to the warmth of my quilt.

The decision to carry an ultralight knife comes with advantages and disadvantages. Some might say it cuts both ways.

Road walking around the endangered frogs

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An Epic on Baden-Powell

Day 22: Wrightwood to Little Jimmy Trail Camp

Trail miles 369-384

May 24, 2019

I apologize in advance for such a long post. This day was extremely eventful and emotionally draining, and I want to keep a fairly complete record of my thoughts and feelings from that time.

After getting a hitch with a mother and her two young kids (apparently, she’d asked her first and third graders whether they wanted to pick up some hikers before school, and they had both assented), Foot Juice, Carjack and I began the climb toward Mt. Baden-Powell.

As we climbed, day hikers and a few thru hikers who had turned around stopped on the way down to warn us about icy conditions near the summit.

Just as I had on Mt. San Jacinto, I had decided to forgo microspikes on Baden-Powell after discussing the snow conditions with people who had climbed the peak recently. My trail runners have stiff soles and work well in snow that is soft enough to allow me to kick steps, but they are insufficient for truly icy conditions. As more and more hikers stopped to tell us about the dangerous ice up above, I began to feel concerned that I had made the wrong choice. I comforted myself (and my hiking partners, both of whom carried microspikes), saying, “I’ll go up and check the conditions out, and if it feels unsafe, I can always turn around.” I’ve found that on this hike, it is often easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that values only northbound miles and sees southbound miles as a waste of time and energy. I sometimes have to actively remind myself that turning around and hiking south on the PCT is always an option if conditions to the north are unfriendly.

Luckily, as we made our way upward into the cloud layer, the snow remained soft, and kicking foot holds was perfectly manageable in my running shoes. We reached the top just after 1pm, signed the summit register, and took a group photo in front of the dull gray mist that hung thick around us.

The descent route runs west of the summit, following a long ridge before losing any significant elevation. As a result, the trail from the summit remains snow-covered until late in the season. I knew from the outset that route-finding and avoiding dangerous falls on the extended descent would be the real challenge of the day, but I never guessed how difficult the next few hours would be.

Shortly after leaving the summit, Carjack, Foot Juice and I came across a hiker named Doctor. We heard him first, as he cursed his way through the snow, slipping often in the slush and shouting profanities as he scraped clumsily at the slope with an ice axe he clearly didn’t understand how to use.

When we reached him, he was puffing on a vape pen, blowing thick clouds into the cool air. He offered us a hit, and I recognized him from the parking lot below Baden-Powell, where just a few hours ago he’d offered us edibles before the climb.

We stopped for a moment as we passed him and he started asking us about when we’d started our hikes. He volunteered that he’d been hiking since February, and when I asked him why he’d started more than two months before most people, he practically shouted, “Because I’m chill as fuck!”

We asked Doctor if he had earned his name because he’d been to medical school. “No, but I took a wilderness first responder course.”

He later told Foot Juice that he had failed the course, “On a technicality.”

Shortly after we met Doctor, Carjack, Foot Juice and I encountered a steep snow bank. A trail of footprints was visible along the ridge below the snow bank, but to get there, we had to navigate down the steep, slick snow slope.

While we were looking over the edge and mulling our options, Foot Juice suddenly cried out in surprise as he slid down the snow on his back.

“Did you do that on purpose?” Carjack called down to him.

“No! I slipped.” Foot Juice replied from the bottom of the slope.

“Well it looks like the easiest way down,” Carjack said, as she sat on the snow and prepared to slide down herself.

I watched Carjack go and heard her shout about the rocks that bruised her as she came to a stop. “That hurt!”

Dissatisfied by the rocks and trees at the base of the snowbank (which I figured I would surely hit on my way down), I began kicking steps and walking slowly down a less steep section.

Just then, a hiker named T (I want to protect her privacy) arrived at the snow bank and asked how Carjack and Foot Juice had gotten down.

As I continued kicking steps, I heard T ask, “Will you guys catch me at the bottom when I slide?” Carjack and Foot Juice replied, rather annoyed at T’s ignorance, that they actually would not stand below her while she made an uncontrolled slide toward them, metal-spiked-feet-first.

My back was turned and I was kicking my last few steps down the slope when I heard T begin to slide. Then I heard her shout in pain and shock as the other ones gasped.

I hurried over to the group and saw that T had lost control of her glissade and had ridden over a patch shallow snow, which was studded with protruding rocks, before slamming leg-first into a tree. Carjack, who is a physical therapist in her normal life and who also has significant first aid training, immediately opened her first aid kit, donned latex gloves, and went to work dressing the deep cut on T’s hand and assessing her leg, which had borne the brunt of the collision with the tree. T was crying and squeezed Foot Juice’s hand while Carjack cleaned and dressed her wound.

Doctor slipped his way across the slope we were sitting on. “You should really irrigate that,” he said of T’s cut.

Carjack ignored him and continued dressing T’s wound while he babbled about how he sure was happy to have his ice axe (which he was holding incorrectly) and his boots (which were sliding with every step).

We stayed silent as Doctor continued to rattle off suggestions about how best to treat T’a cut. After a few minutes of enduring our stern silence, he finally decided to walk on. We were happy to see him go, and we helped T to her feet and began to contour around the snowy hillside. The walking was treacherous, and with every passing minute the snow was softening further into a dangerously unconsolidated slurry.

T was terrified of each step, and was in tears as we guided her along the slope. We walked her slowly through the trees, advising her about each pole plant and footstep, but it was slow going.

I looked behind me to check on K, who was making a large step from a protruding rock to a snowy footprint. When he transferred his weight to the snow, it gave way, and suddenly he was sliding down the slope, just as T had only a few minutes prior.

Had the flat trail not stopped K’s fall, he would have hit a tree or rock another 5 or 10 yards downslope. When he did come to a stop, he lay on his stomach, his head downhill. His arm was twisted behind him and he groaned from under his pack.

I stepped carefully over to him and began to ask him where he was hurt. He complained of back pain and his hand was bleeding badly, leaving bright red stains in the snow.

Carjack made her way to us and I helped K take his pack off and retrieve a jacket from inside. Then I handed Carjack gauze and tape as she cleaned and dressed K’s hand.

“I can’t feel my pinky,” K moaned.

“You probably banged your ulnar nerve,” Carjack explained. “The feeling should come back, but right now we need to stop the bleeding.” She applied pressure to his hand and asked him about feeling in his legs and arms, assessing whether his back injury was serious enough to prevent him from walking. Because his fall had not involved any twisting motion and because he had full function in his limbs, we were satisfied that he could at least try to walk.

After about 10 minutes, K’s hand had stopped bleeding and Carjack had bandaged it well enough to get to camp, six miles up the trail. K groaned and struggled, but eventually managed to shoulder his pack, despite his back pain.

While we were addressing K’s injuries, Foot Juice was talking with T, who had removed her pack and was sitting and crying under a tree on a bit of flat ground. She had regained none of her composure since her fall, which suggested to me that she was experiencing minor shock. I mentioned this to the Carjack and Foot Juice after we’d persuaded her to continue walking with us (she’d told us to go on without her and K, who had been hiking together before we encountered them), and they agreed that she was likely still shaken up from her fall.

A number of hikers passed us as we continued our way up the snow-covered trail. A few stopped to ask us if we were all right, but none offered to help us guide these two shaken hikers to camp.

By 4pm, we were still about 5 miles from camp (that’s considerably slower than 1mph, for those keeping track at home). T had had at least three or four more minor falls, and although the consequences had been negligible, she was so frustrated that she sat down in the snow in tears.

By this point, Carjack had taken on the role of speaking with T to motivate her and calm her down whenever T suggested that Carjack, Foot Juice and I move on and let her stop to camp on the ridge with K (without access to water except by the fuel-intensive method of melting snow). Carjack was clearly struggling under the enormous emotional burden of persuading a fellow adult to recognize that she (T) was incompetent to make decisions for herself.

While Carjack was talking with T, I called the sheriff’s non-emergency number to learn about our options for getting T and K off the mountain that evening. But no one at the sheriff’s office or at the fire department knew anything about the trails in the area. Our only options, they told me, were to hike T and K to a road and then call 911 so they could trace the call (this was not feasible, given our hiking pace), or to press the SOS button on one of our satellite communication devices to mobilize a search and rescue (SAR) team.

This was not the first time we’d considered calling SAR. Until this point, it had felt unnecessary because the weather was good, T and K could both walk (albeit very slowly), we had still had many hours of daylight, and camp (just two miles before a major highway crossing) was not far away. But now it was 4:30pm, T seemed immobilized by frustration and the fear of falling, daylight was waning, and the temperature was dropping.

I might have advocated pushing the SOS button had T-Pain not bounded down the snow slope toward me, shouting “Muscle! No way! You guys must be going sooo slowly!“

I quickly described the situation to him and he assured me that the rest of the group was just behind him. Fire Socks arrived just in time to see Carjack nearly break into tears of frustration and exhaustion after giving up trying to persuade T to keep moving.

Fire Socks went to work, coaxing T up the slope she’d slipped down most recently.

Hot Hands, Bright Side and Danish arrived and immediately picked up on the gravity of the situation. Together with T-Pain, we brought up the rear as Fire Socks led the way up the snowy trail with T and K in tow.

Over the next four hours, my trail family members each stepped up in different ways. Danish hiked ahead at a blazing pace to secure campsites for us all. T-Pain and Foot Juice carried T’s pack (which we essentially had to pry off her back, because she kept threatening to set up camp alone in unsafe locations). Fire Socks participated in a sing along to cheer Carjack (Fire Socks hates sing alongs) and kept up a continuous stream of lighthearted banter to take T’s mind off the pain in her leg and the nausea that seemed to get stronger as dusk arrived. Carjack led K to camp because he was able to hike at a faster pace than T. Hot Hands carried our tents ahead to camp, where Casper and Danish set them up in anticipation of our late arrival. Brightside hung back with Fire Socks and me, and the three of us walked and talked with T all the way to camp, stopping every 200 yards or so when nausea and pain threatened to overcome T.

We arrived at 8pm, 12 hours after leaving the trailhead that morning, and 6 hours after encountering T and K.

Fire Socks walked T the final quarter mile into camp while Bright Side and I stopped at a spring to filter water for the group. In camp, Danish had set up T’s tent and sleeping bag, so she was able to sleep immediately. A nurse carrying a well-stocked first aid kit cleaned and dressed K’s hand more thoroughly.

All my trail family members hugged me when I came into camp, and Carjack, Foot Juice and I looked at one another and shook our heads.

The aftermath:

Before leaving camp the following day, Fire Socks, Foot Juice and I checked on T and K, who slept late in their tents. They had cell reception at the campsite and agreed to self-evacuate later that day.

We later learned that someone (not T or K) triggered an SOS beacon on their behalf, which resulted in an evacuation for T by SAR. T was diagnosed with a concussion. K regained full function in his pinky.

Both T and K are taking time off the trail to recover from their injuries. They are unsure of whether they will return to the trail this season.

Lessons learned (or reinforced):

Concussion symptoms are easily confused with the symptoms of shock. Concussions can be triggered without a direct bump to the head. In this case, a sudden stop caused by glissading into a tree led to the head injury.

Don’t be afraid to press the SOS button. Even if self-rescue is possible, it may not be wise. Had our friends not shown up, I believe Carjack, Foot Juice and I would have pressed the button around 5pm simply because we could not have evacuated T and K safely before nightfall and we were becoming exhausted and chilled attempting to help them.

Traveling in a group of trusted partners is wise, especially in objectively hazardous conditions where a false move can have serious consequences.

No matter how well prepared you are, you cannot account for the ill-preparedness of others. What should have been a 6 or 7 hour hiking day turned into a 12 hour epic because we ran into a party of people who were in over their heads. This had physical and emotional ramifications that persisted for days and weeks, respectively.

A fully-stocked first aid kit is worth every ounce, and the knowledge necessary to use that kit is essential.

Ascending into the clouds

Foot Juice and Carjack taking a break before the summit.

Walking the snow ridge on the descent

Had the weather not been perfect, a call to Search and Rescue would have been necessary for the safety of everyone in the group.

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A zero below the snow

Day 21: Zero in Wrightwood

May 23, 2019

What can I say about a zero in an extraordinarily hiker-friendly town? I can tell you that it was magical. I can tell you that the coffee was free, the ice cream was double scooped, and the “personal” calzones weighed three pounds. I can also tell you that a local school teacher saw us crossing the street and handed us the PCT patches he’d embroidered in his free time. I can tell you that a woman stopped us on the sidewalk, asked us what we needed, and then took us to her house to do our laundry. And I can tell you that no fewer than three separate locals offered to let us stay overnight at their houses.

Businesses in Wrightwood obviously benefit from thru-hiker traffic, but the generosity we experienced while staying in this friendly community stemmed from a place much deeper and more sincere than the “quid pro quo” attitude of capitalism. From the hand-drawn welcome sign at the convenience store to the residents who were genuinely happy to talk with us about our hikes, Wrightwood proved itself to be a true haven for PCT hikers.

Danish racing the snow toward Wrightwood the previous day

A rime-blasted tree on the ridge above Wrightwood

Foot Juice and his “personal” size calzone

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Looking for a hiker-friendly town? You’ve come to the Wright(wood) place.

Day 20: Dry Camp north of Cajon Pass to Wrightwood

Trail Miles 356.4-369.0

May 22, 2019

Morning dawned cold, and I hiked away from my dry camp wearing all my layers. The wind had come again last night to tear at the walls of my tent. It arrived in large gusts, each one audible in the distant trees as a low rushing that gradually gathered strength until it sounded as though the whole world had turned to crashing chaos and the gust slammed into my tent, making the poles quake and the silnylon buzz.

All day, I walked carefully, placing each foot deliberately, feeling intently for signs of pain in my extensor tendon. The night before, with my modicum of cell service, I’d googled the hell out of extensor tendonitis and had relaced my shoes to relieve pressure on the offending tendon. Extensor tendonitis, I learned, can be triggered by “extended uphill walking” or by “walking on uneven terrain.” Check and check. The previous day (not to mention the previous 19 days…) had included 20+ miles of uneven terrain, most of which were uphill. My only scrap of hope lay in the fact that my foot didn’t hurt too badly as I worked my way, ginger step by turmeric step (that might not be the right way to spice up this language…), up the hill.

My friends and I leapfrogged as they hiked fast and then stopped for long breaks while I muddled forward, taking few breaks and moving slowly but deliberately toward Highway 2 and a hitch into Wrightwood.

We reached the top of the ridge. Hot Hands and Bright Side stopped to poke at a frozen puddle with their trekking poles. I flapped my arms and dropped to the ground to do pushups, trying to regain feeling in my fingers.

At a memorial stone honoring a pair of hikers who died in a fall while attempting a thru hike in winter of 1983, I thought about the extraordinary challenge of navigating the snow-covered trail with fewer hours of daylight and harsh winter weather.

But in this section of trail, harsh weather seems to arrive at any time of year. On our descent toward Highway 2, soft balls of graupel began to fall. I cinched up my rain jacket and tried to move faster, only to ease up a few minutes later when my foot began to flare with pain.

As I approached the highway, I could see that the traffic at this crossing was minimal. I was warm enough as I hiked, but knew that the moment I stopped moving, the cold would begin to win. I crossed my fingers for a quick hitch.

I arrived at the road just in time to watch a car full of hikers pull away, headed for Wrightwood and food and warmth. Feeling dejected, I began unstrapping my pack and preparing for a lonely wait at the side of the road when I saw a day hiker coming down the trail on the opposite side of the road, carrying large shards of bright blue plastic. He called to me and I made my way towards him to hear what he was saying.

“Do you need a ride?”

The popular thru hiker truism, “the trail provides,” could not have been more appropriate.

Rich opened his Subaru for me, then went to a dumpster at the trailhead to discard the remnants of a plastic saucer sled he’d picked up on his hike.

“Families come up here from LA and they bring the sleds for the kids,” he told me. “When the sleds break, they leave them.”

Rich asked me whether I was hiking alone, and I told him that Hot Hands, Bright Side, and Danish were right behind me.

“We can wait for them,” he said. I felt a wave of gratitude wash over me, knowing that my friends wouldn’t have to stand in the incoming storm for a ride that might not come.

On the way to town, Rich explained to us that he’d been exploring the mountains (primarily the Sierra Nevada) with his friends since he was a young man.

“I can’t tell you how many times we were exhausted after a hard trip, standing on the side of the road in a gathering snow storm thinking, ‘We’re in for it now.’ But the kindness of strangers always seemed to save us.”

He said he was doing his best to return those favors by offering rides and housing to hikers arriving in Wrightwood.

As he drove us to the Grizzly Cafe to meet Hiccups, Rich gave us the “Two Minute Tour” of Wrightwood, pointing out the hiker friendly grocery store, restaurants, and coffee shop. As he dropped us off, he offered to let us stay at his house. Unfortunately we had to decline, as we’d already made other arrangements, but as we walked into the cafe, we couldn’t stop talking about how friendly this utter stranger had been to us.

Over sandwiches and pie, we looked out the window at the worsening weather and speculated about the fates of our friends who were still on the mountain. Soon, T-Pain and Fire Socks arrived after taking a side trail off the PCT to get out of what had turned into a full-blown snow storm. Foot Juice and Carjack were still up high, but we were comforted by the fact that they had camped together the night prior and had likely remained together as they hiked into the storm.

After lunch, which was discounted because we were hikers(!), I stopped by the hardware store, which holds resupply boxes for hikers and stocks Altras (a shoe brand wildly popular among hikers), stove fuel, toe socks, Clif Bars, and other thru hiker essentials. Then I shopped at the grocery store, where hikers are allowed to pick up free snacks from a basket near the checkout. A row of power strips at a picnic table outside the store’s entrance was labeled “PCT Hiker Charging Station.” At dinner with Carjack and Foot Juice, a local resident guessed that we were hikers (we were wearing our rain gear because we had showered and did not want to put on our as-yet unlaundered hiking clothing), and offered to let us stay at her house. Rich’s generosity had been just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. At every turn, Wrightwood had proven itself more hiker friendly than I could have imagined.

Poodle-dog Bush. Cute name. Nasty bite. If you want nightmares, read about the “memory response” in the “skin irritant” section of the Wikipedia article.

Casper having a cup of tea and drying his quilt before heading to Wrightwood

Warming up at the top of the hill. Video courtesy of Danish

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New pain, true pain

Day 19: Dry Camp south of Cajon Pass to Dry Camp on the climb to Wrightwood

Trail Miles 335.4-356.4

May 21, 2019

When my alarm beeped at 5:30, I felt as though I’d hardly slept. A powerful wind had blown throughout the night and was still buffeting my tent now that the sun was beginning to rise. I turned off my alarm and “slept” for another hour as my tent shuddered around me in the gusts.

I started hiking at the stroke of 7:40. In an effort to hide some of my heat from the greedy wind, I cinched my rain jacket hood snug around my face. My sunglasses shielded my eyes against the intermittent rain drops that whipped through the air.

“Why is it always windy and cold? In the desert…?” I thought to myself as I walked over a ridge and into a fresh blast of frigid air. For a few minutes, I hiked with a scowl on my face, brooding about my bad luck with the weather. But as I walked on, it occurred to me that I was allowing the wind and the low-hanging rain clouds to ruin my day. I started to imagine the situation as a competition. The wind was out to spoil my mood, and it was succeeding. The only way I could turn the tables was to enjoy myself in spite of the wind.

Miraculously, this simple change of perspective salvaged my morning. I cinched my hood tighter, pushed my sunglasses into place, and hiked faster, trying to take energy from the wind instead of giving it more of my own. I flew down the ridge towards Cajon pass, singing snatches of songs to myself and croaking at the ravens who appeared to be grounded by the strong gusts.

I made the 6.5 miles to Cajon pass in less than two hours and followed an official-looking sign down a short road to a McDonald’s, the last consistent water source before the long (22+ miles long) climb into Wrightwood.

I stepped into the McDonald’s, still wearing my tightly-drawn hood and sunglasses, looking like a dirty astronaut with bad facial hair. My friends sat at two large tables and had commandeered a third booth for packs and trekking poles.

I stashed my gear and chatted with them while I powered down my second breakfast: some hashbrowns, a cup of coffee, two apple pies, and an ice cream cone (first breakfast had been gobs of peanut butter and Nutella sandwiched between tortillas, but that was two hours ago).

We talked about the long, waterless climb ahead, and discussed the dearth of good camping on the exposed ridges we’d be walking that afternoon.

Most of my friends were interested in staying until McDonald’s started serving lunch (10:30am, for anyone wondering), but I wanted to keep the rhythm I’d found that morning, so I tanked up on water and headed out.

I felt a bit like a socially averse pelican, swooping in just long enough to catch a few social-life-sustaining laughs, before flapping away towards Wrightwood while my friends lingered. But I knew I had a tough afternoon ahead of me and really did not want to spend another moment in that “restaurant.”

For the first few miles out of Cajon Pass, the trail travels through the no-man’s land surrounding the interstate and the rail lines at the center of the valley. The trail ducks through tunnels and culverts and jogs under bridges and power lines before eventually winding its way into some low hills. From there, it crosses the rift zone of the San Andreas Fault, which appears as a long valley lined on either side by steep mountains. Then begins a steady 5000’ climb into the mountains on the western side of the valley.

I cruised up the climb, feeling strong and happy except for an occasional twinge of pain in my hip or my foot. Two of the previous three days had been essentially 20 mile days, and I looked forward to adding a 20 plus mile day to the list.

But in the last few miles of the day, the twinge in my foot exploded into full-blown tendon pain (in my extensor tendon on the top of my foot), complete with a distinct burning sensation to accompany each step. The pain demanded my attention, and I stopped numerous times to try to relace my shoe. My efforts were in vain, and by the time I reached a reasonable campsite, I was hobbling.

I ate dinner in my tent and washed down a large dose of ibuprofen with the water I’d carried from McDonald’s. When Hot Hands arrived, she lent me her tennis ball so I could try rolling the tendon out, but rubbing it was painful.

Danish, Brightside, and Hiccups ate dinner near my tent, and I laughed with them as we joked about the people we’ve met on the trail, but my mind was on the following morning’s hike: 13 miles with 3500’ of climbing and nearly as much descending. How would my foot hold up? And would a zero in Wrightwood be sufficient time to heal, or would I lose my trail family as they hiked on without me?

This is the PCT…

No, seriously…

This is the trail…

I swear…

Guess who figured out how to use the macro function on his camera

Tumbleweed’s campsite

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Snow Waffling

Day 18: Grass Valley Creek to Dry Camp south of Cajon Pass

Trail miles 318.0-335.5

May 20, 2019

The rain that came in the night had cleared by morning, and we stuffed our wet tents into our packs and set off under a blue sky. Up the trail towards Wrightwood (our next resupply), heavy clouds shrouded the hills. When the wind shifted, they parted, revealing glimpses of the massive, snow-covered mountains beyond. But problems of snow hiking and frosty nights are problems for the future.

Today we walked ten miles of easy trail through the low hills. We set a leisurely pace in order to arrive at the Cleghorn Picnic Area for lunch. Fire Socks had informed us that last year she was able to have pizza delivered to the park, and when we arrived, we wasted no time calling in an order for six pies. The proximity of the trail to civilization in Southern California astounds me every day.

While we waited for the delivery man (I swear I am backpacking), we pitched our still-damp tents in the sun to allow them to dry and sat at a picnic table making hot drinks with the plentiful potable water available in the park. Clean water on demand! What an idea!

Even in full sun, we wore jackets to cut the wind, which, amazingly for late May, still possessed a chilly bite.

So far, the desert has not been at all what I expected. If you’d asked me a month ago, I’d have told you cooly that the days would be hot and that I’d be lugging five liters of water through long waterless stretches to dry camps every night, where I’d cowboy camp in the warm sand under starry skies.

In reality, it has been cool, and literally every “seasonal” (in a normal year, read, “dry”) water source has been flowing. I have been setting up my tent and wearing long johns and my fleece to bed every night to stay warm. In over two weeks and nearly 250 miles, I have only contended with serious heat on one occasion. My largest water carry was 25 miles, but that was self-imposed (because I was too lazy to head to off-trail springs and because the weather was forgiving enough that I was able to be lazy instead of sucking it up and going to a spring). Cold, rainy weather has been the norm this season. As we head to Wrightwood in the next few days, snow is in the forecast.

The cool, wet spring does not bode well for an easy hike through the Sierra. In a normal year, melting is often beginning in earnest by the end of May. But in the last week, more than a foot of fresh snow has fallen near Mammoth.

I’ve been talking with different members of my trail family to get a sense of their thoughts about hiking through that kind of snow. For some, a flip-flop seems like a logical idea, allowing for continued hiking in the north while the Sierra melts out. But for others, a flip-flop is antithetical to the idea of a “continuous thru hike” from Mexico to Canada. While I find the idea of a continuous northward hike appealing, I am also concerned that conditions in the Sierra will be dangerous (primarily when crossing rivers swollen by snowmelt), miserable (because of the potential for days spent postholing through miles of soft snow), or some sick combination of the two. As much as I like to suffer a bit in pursuit of a grand adventure (or at least a good story), hiking in ultralight gear through the snowy Sierra sounds an awful lot to me like Type 3 Fun. Then again, it could make for both a grand adventure and a great story.

Stay tuned for a decision. Kennedy Meadows (around mile 700) is the gateway to the Sierra. Barring another infected bug bite or a close encounter with the dread Poodle Dog Bush, I’ll be there in about a month and will be forced to either hike thru or flip. Here’s hoping I don’t flop before I get there.

A helpful tip or a twisted prank? Only one way to find out.

This picture needs cropping.

Drying tents at the picnic area

Pizza delivered to the trail??

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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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Restless Legs

Day 16: Dry camp at mile 279 to Splinter’s Cabin

Trail miles 279-298.5

May 18, 2019

The walking today was mostly easy, but there was a lot of it.

In the morning, Hiccups and Danish caught up to me after a few miles and we began to talk anout photography. At one point, Danish put forward the idea that the act of photographing something (distilling a message or a feeling by composing a specific image from a larger scene) may lead to a deeper appreciation for or better understanding of the scene. I had to laugh at the similarity between this point and the idea I’d discussed the previous day with Casper that describing an experience with language can make the experience more meaningful.

In the afternoon, many people stopped for a siesta by a small tributary to Holcomb Creek. I closed my eyes for a while but didn’t feel sleepy, so after massaging my feet and enjoying the sound of the breeze in the trees, I shouldered my pack and moved on.

My new shoes seemed to be working well, although the ball of my left foot (which had been going numb in my old shoes) was painful for much of the day.

It is hard to tell on this hike which pains are worth worrying about. As T-Pain says most days, “It feels like there’s broken glass in my feet.” My feet don’t feel quite that bad, but every time I begin walking, it does take about half an hour for the aches in my foot muscles and tendons to work themselves out. As the day wears on, my feet inevitably become very tender, no matter how warm they are, but I don’t think this pain is cause for concern. I hope that as I continue doing the same thing day after day, my body will adapt to the challenge by turning my bones into carbon fiber and my muscles into industrial strength, indefatigueable rubber bands. The other option is slow degradation leading to stress fractures, ruptured ligaments, and frayed fascia. My sun-gloved fingers are crossed and my toe-socked toes are splayed for the former.

After leaving the siesta spot, I walked for a while with Carjack, who also couldn’t sleep. We discussed the advantages and drawbacks of hiking with such a large group. Neither of us expected an experience as social as this hike has been. Although I am thrilled to have people around me who greet me by (trail-) name and care about my wellbeing, I also need solitude to sort through my thoughts and to absorb the details of the beautiful landscapes through which I have been passing. Despite the joy of shared jokes and the comfort of camping with others, time spent in a group as large as my trail family can become emotionally draining.

After talking for a few miles, Carjack and I split up and hiked alone for a couple hours. While I walked alone, my mind was able to settle into a deep rhythm, and I began to examine some of the questions I promised myself I would address while on this hike. These include what I believe are the typical problems for someone my age: Where do I want to live and work? What kind of work do I find most meaningful? What kind of life do I want to lead and how can I share that life with others in various capacities?

Progress on these matters is necessarily slow, but like walking to Canada, progress is made by addressing the challenge incrementally. So although I came to no major conclusions today, I did decide that hiking alone is something I would like to do more. It allows me to work through ideas deliberately and without distraction, and I suspect that spending part of the day in solitude will make me a better friend when I arrive at camp to rejoin my trail family.

Hiccups with a bag of crushed potato chips: a calorie dense snack that packs efficiently.

Best enjoyed with a spoon

Siesta near Holcomb Creek tributary

Holcomb Creek

I think these big pink crystals are feldspar, but please correct me if you know better.

Moss has been a rare sight on the trail so far

Any idea what kind of bird this is?

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Gluttony and Sloth

Day 15: Short day out of Big Bear Lake

Trail miles 266.2-279.2

May 17, 2019

In the morning, I ate myself sick trying to finish all the food I’d purchased in town. Breakfast consisted of the last third of a quart of yogurt I’d opened the day before, as well as the remainder of the two pounds of strawberries and the half gallon of milk I’d started at the same time. I also had a banana, a baked potato, and an unknown quantity of chocolate chips.

When we caught a hitch to the trailhead, I was still trying to power down the stalk of broccoli I’d started eating on the walk from the AirBnB to the main road. I finished it while riding in the back of John’s pickup truck, sandwiched between Carjack, T-Pain, Hot Hands, Bright Side, and Casper, as well as all of our gear.

When John swerved his old red truck to the side of the road to pick us up, I had more than a few misgivings. I had been standing, partially obscured, behind a sign while Hot Hands, Brightside, and Carjack (all of whom are women) danced on the sidewalk with their thumbs out. Women generally have a much easier time hitchhiking than men do, so I was happy to hide my threatening visage (ha!) while they flagged down a ride.

John flashed a half smile at us as he got out and explained that we had to ride in the truck bed, as he had no room up front. He was wearing a pair of dirty coveralls and his unkempt hair and beard also looked in need of a wash (although I have little room for judgment in this regard).

My mind really started to race when he began preparing a place for us to sit. He muttered an apology for the mess as he moved a dirty cloth sack and two large shovels, motioning for us to get in.

“Riding in the bed of a pickup is illegal in California,” I whispered to Carjack in an attempt to convey my uncertainty about this plan. “Maybe we should wait for another ride.”

“Well you can wait, but we’re going,” she replied, climbing into the truck with Hot Hands and Bright Side.

I have been experimenting with following my instincts during this trip, “trusting my gut” with regards to decisions about where and when to camp and what and when to eat. As Carjack situated herself beside Hot Hands and Brightside in the bed of John’s truck, my gut was ripping itself in half, simultaneously yelling, “Get the hell out of here!” and shouting, “Stick with your friends!”

I stood for a moment, allowing this silent argument to ripple through my consciousness. Then I threw my pack into the truck and climbed in after it. As John was “reassuring us” with a description of the back road route he planned to take, T-Pain and Casper ran up and asked if they could jump in. I was relieved when John assented, saying only, “As long as you can fit.” Six of us, I reassured myself, could certainly handle anything this coverall-wearing, shovel- and sack-toting mystery man could dish out.

The back road route John drove turned out to be perfectly pleasant, and thankfully free from both large bumps in the road and law enforcement. The six of us chatted as we rode, ducking behind our packs for shelter from the chilly wind.

When we arrived at the trailhead, John refused the money we offered him for gas.

“I hope we didn’t make you late for work,” Hot Hands said concernedly.

“I work for myself,” John replied. “Hard to be late.”

He shook our hands when we thanked him again for the ride, saying “Have a good trip. Be safe.”

So much for trusting my gut.

At the trailhead, we were slow to get moving. Our packs were heavy, laden with the calories necessary to power our trek to Wrightwood, about 105 miles away, as well as the water necessary to get us through the ten dry miles to the first water source.

In the first couple miles, I had to stop repeatedly to readjust my shoelaces, trying to get comfortable in my new trail runners. Eventually I figured the lacing scheme out and fell into a rhythm. Nearing the water source, I was so lost in thought that I nearly walked right by Casper, who was stopped in the shade of a tree just off-trail. I looked up when he called to me, and seeing how comfortable he looked, decided to take a lunch break with him just half a mile short of the stream I’d been aiming for.

As we ate, we talked about the strange memories that drift through the mind as one walks. Interpersonal interactions from the past resurface unexpectedly for reexamination. Snatches of music arrive in response to the changing cadence of footsteps on the trail.

We also discussed the benefits and drawbacks of journaling while on the trail as well as in normal life. One thought that Casper shared struck me as particularly interesting: you understand experiences more deeply if you describe them in words (paraphrased).

Danish and Brightside joined us by the side of the trail and we all talked and rested (though I don’t think any of us was really tired) for nearly another hour before finally moving on to the stream, where Big Daddy (Hiccups’s name on Fridays) and Spartan were waiting.

There we found trail magic next to a jeep road: sodas sitting in a plastic bag still filled with ice, and cinnamon and butterscotch hard candies. We sat in a large circle for an hour and a half, savoring these sugary treats we’d hardly earned.

By 3:20 in the afternoon, I was antsy to get going. We had come only nine miles, and although we had intentionally planned a short day out of town, I felt as though we’d wasted most of a day.

As I walked the final four miles to camp on a dry ridge, a Pink Floyd lyric from their song Time kept returning to me: “Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way.”

I do not want to develop a warped sense of accomplishment on this trail by associating success on a given day solely with the number of miles walked. The things I will remember after the hike is over will certainly include the people I spent time with and the conversations we had. By contrast, I suspect that the number of miles we walked will fade from my memory rather quickly. Already, it is difficult to distinguish the mileages of days just two weeks in the past, while I can remember jokes people made and ideas we shared within the same time frame.

Even so, it takes effort to relax myself thoroughly enough to enjoy short, slow days like today, when time spent hiking is exceeded by time spent sitting and the most memorable sights are the faces of your companions.

Hot Hands (left) and Bright Side, expert hitchhikers on the way to the trail

Casper enjoying the breeze from the back of John’s truck

The new shoes. Like the old shoes, but gray.

From left: Danish, Bright Side, and Casper

Big Daddy himself

Spartan

Carjack

Fire Socks

Dinner: egg noodles cooked with a packet of instant miso soup, a pouch of tuna, and a generous dash of chili sesame oil. Call me the Titanium Chef.

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