Is it even a zero if you walk all the way across town?

Day 14: Zero in Big Bear Lake

May 16, 2019

After a rainy walk to the grocery store for a resupply with T-Pain and Casper, I spent most of the day forcing myself to eat food (in order to maintain my weight, I am eating roughly 4,000 calories per day while on the trail and even more while in town. Soon I will aim for 5,000 per day on trail) and walking the streets of Big Bear in search of new shoes and insoles. My old Asics running shoes and Superfeet insoles wore out so completely in the last 150 miles that the ball of my left foot began to go numb on the walk into Big Bear Lake.

Amazingly, in a town of outdoors-oriented people, the best sporting goods stores available are a bait and tackle shop and a Big 5.

I spent the morning in a sour mood, trying on shoes at the Big 5, looking for a trail runner version of the Asics road runners I have worn exclusively for the last 3 years. After a fruitless hour, I made the 45 minute walk to the Outdoor Sporting Goods store on the other side of town, only to realize they specialized in fishing gear and snowboards. I asked to look at their shoes and was directed to a wall of Vans.

As I moped my way back towards the AirBnB, I wondered how numb my feet might be by the time we arrived in Wrightwood, 105 miles up-trail.

On a whim, I stopped into a ski shop and asked about insoles. To my delight, they carried Superfeet, and happened to have one last pair in my size.

Feeling lucky, I made a second appearance at the Big 5, and sheepishly asked the same employee who had pulled 6 pairs of shoes for me a few hours ago if he would check in the back for any wide Asics trail runners he might have missed on the first go around. He brought out one pair, apologizing that he only had the shoes in one size.

When I tried them on, they felt perfect: a familiar fit with a slightly stiffer sole and a more rugged tread. The shoe was deeply discounted, and I walked out of the store grinning.

With my resupply complete and my footwear quandry resolved, I headed back to the AirBnB to ingest a couple thousand more calories before bed.

Heading to the promised land: a grocery store. Sometimes a zero just makes sense…like when it’s 40° and raining…

Rest, ice, and calories are three essential ingredients for a perfect zero day.

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I love my stove with a burning passion

Day 13: Arraste Trail Camp to Highway 18 and Big Bear Lake

Trail miles 256.2-266.2

May 15, 2019

The allure of town is strong, especially after a difficult section of hiking. I broke camp early and joined what felt like a procession of the faithful on the ten mile hike to Highway 18, where it’s possible to hitch into the town of Big Bear Lake.

At least 20 other hikers were headed into town in search of food (preferably cooked by professionals on proper stoves instead of by absolute amateurs using dinky sprinkler-head sized contraptions, which roar like jet engines as they spew high pressure propane-isobutane mixtures, and which have only one temperature setting: scorching. If we’re honest, many ultralighters “prefer” (an outlandish claim) to cold soak their meals, choosing to eat clammy ramen noodles in order to avoid carrying a stove at all: “It’s actually not bad. Want to try?” (Here’s a tip: if a thru hiker offers you some of their dinner, they are either not actually thru hiking, or the food is truly inedible.) If we’re really, brutally, unflinchingly honest, I cold soaked the first time I tried the PCT, and I can assure you that beans and rice rehydrated in cold water are as unappetizing as you imagine. Now I will end this absurdly long and sarcastic parenthetical and politely request that you reread the start of the original sentence.), a resupply for the coming section (yum… more Clif Bars and tortillas…), and maybe even a warm bed (snow is forecast for the evening and the following morning…Yay May!).

Convoluted grammar and lazy punctuation aside, the above is meant simply to prove to you that the luxuries of town are powerful incentives for hikers deprived of basic creature comforts. I was one of those deprived hikers, and I hiked my first “10 by 10” (10 miles before 10am) on my way to Highway 18.

At the road, trail angels Papa Smurph and Mountain Mama had left sodas and snacks for hikers waiting for a hitch. I drank a can and then caught a ride with Brightside, T-Pain, and Hiccups.

A friendly woman named Jubilee picked us up. She was so friendly that many times I wished she would pay a little more attention to the winding road instead of turning around to smile at us in the back seat, especially considering the broken seatbelts in her car. Thankfully, we made it to town in one piece (four pieces?) and Jubilee dropped us off at a donut shop (jubilation ensued).

After breakfast, we wandered around the grocery store for the better part of an hour, then crammed our booty into our backpacks and started walking towards the AirBnB we’d rented. Brightside and I got picked up by a friendly couple who took us to the hostel where I had a package waiting (thanks, Mom!).

Again, we started walking towards the house we’d rented, and again, we were picked up by the kind owner of a set of cabins in town, who was disappointed to hear that we’d already arranged accommodations.

At the AirBnB, we found our other friends and I immediately set to work devouring the food I’d bought at the store. For a reason that still eludes me, I thought yogurt mixed with chocolate Carnation instant breakfast powder and sweet potato chips sounded like a delectable lunch, so I made myself a bowl and ate it on the porch while calling my dad.

I spent the rest of the afternoon eating strawberries, chocolate chips, spinach and a host of other foods that are hard to get on the trail.

When I walked to dinner with my friends, my clothes were still in the dryer, so Fire Socks lent me her rain skirt (a swatch of silicone-impregnated nylon with a bit of elastic and a strip of velcro meant to hold the nylon around your waist). While comfortable, I found the skirt a bit drafty for my liking, especially as the breeze picked up in anticipation of the coming storm.

At the Indian restaurant, we ordered vast amounts of curry and naan, and when the meal was over, we went next door for ice cream.

Back at the house, I slipped into my warm, dry clothes and crawled into bed.

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Troubadours of the PCT

Day 12: Mission Creek Trail Camp to Arraste Trail Camp

Trail miles 239.9-256.2

May 14, 2019

For the first time in almost a week, the hiking was easy. I slept in until almost 6, reveling in the warmth of my quilt and the knowledge that, at over 8000’, the air would likely remain cool for most of the day.

I left camp after most of my friends were gone and followed the trail over some “cruisy mellow rollers” (well-graded climbs of <1000’ followed by gentle descents of similar magnitudes). My legs were very sore from the previous day’s rock hopping and relentless climbing, but a few hundred milligrams of ibuprofen and some time spent focusing on Crossing Brooklyn Ferry took my mind off the pain.

The scent of the pine forest and the dry, rocky trail reminded me of Northern California so strongly that I had to reassure myself on multiple occasions throughout the day that I was in fact 450 miles south of even the southern Sierra.

I stopped in the shade shortly after 10:30 to reapply sunscreen and to eat some of the last of my snacks. My food bag has shrunken more quickly on this section than I anticipated, and I will be brushing up against real hunger as I make my way into Big Bear tomorrow.

All of a sudden, Spartan came walking up the trail from the direction I’d just come. I greeted him and told him I’d thought I was way behind everyone today. He explained that they’d stopped for a break together at some old cabins off the trail. I’d seen the buildings and walked right by, not realizing anyone would want to stop there. “You missed the singing,” he said.

Soon Carjack joined us, and the Danes caught up as we began hiking again. We stopped in the shade where the PCT joined an unpaved road to wait for Bright Side and Hot Hands. Then I learned what the singing was about.

In her off-trail life, Carjack is a Brownie troop leader and has memorized an impressive repertoire of songs to share with her young charges.

On the dirt road, she taught us two call-and-response songs with dance moves to match the lyrics (one song was about the Princess Pat’s sailing expedition and one was about hugging a polar bear to keep warm at night).

Two Austrian hikers came upon our dance troupe while we were singing, waving our underdeveloped arms, and trying desperately to bend our sore knees in time with the song’s rhythm.

They stopped hiking and stood there staring at us as for a minute but declined to join in, opting instead to walk on in what looked to me like utter bewilderment.

When we stopped dancing and headed up the trail in a big group, everyone remarked (between the hiking songs Carjack taught us as we hiked) about how strange (and pleasant!) it had felt to put our bodies through a motion other than walking.

We gradually strung out on the trail as we headed for our last camp spot before Big Bear, so I can’t be sure, but I would not be surprised if Carjack sang all the way there.

The campsite was disappointing: 20 small tents, many belonging to people I hadn’t seen before, crammed between stands of brush, just up a small hill from a trickle of a stream. Everyone in camp planned to hike to the highway crossing early in the morning, so we cooked our instant mashed potatoes and ramen and munched the last of our snacks, turning out our near-empty food bags to collect forgotten tortilla chip crumbs and dusty raisins for our 5am breakfasts.

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Day 11: Mission Creek (First Crossing) to Mission Creek (Trail Camp)

Trail miles: 226.2-239.9

May 13, 2019

After spending a glorious half hour in the Whitewater River yesterday, we hiked six hot miles before camping at the first crossing of Mission Creek. Riley (whom I’d met on the trail earlier in the day) and Fire Socks (whom I’d met when she arrived late in the evening at the summit hut on Mt. San Jacinto, a few days prior) were already spreading out their Tyvek groundcloths in a sandy wash near the creek. Although they attempted to persuade me to cowboy camp with them, I decided against it after sustaining three bites from three separate species of insect while eating dinner.

After the hot afternoon, I figured an early start would help ease the climb from just over 3000’ to just under 8000’ the following day. Just as I was setting my alarm for 4am, Danish picked his way barefoot across the rocks to inform me that he and the rest of the group were going to get up at 4 to beat the heat. We joked about the “hive mind” that had led us to the same wake up time, and then he said goodnight and wandered back toward his tent.

When I poked my head out of my tent in the morning, the Milky Way was still visible as a bright band stretching across the cloudless sky. I packed my things, and when we realized that only Danish, Hiccups, Hot Hands, Brightside and I had heeded the agreed upon alarm, we set off up Mission Creek.

The maps of this section of trail are out of date as of Valentine’s Day 2019, when a massive flood tore through Mission Creek Canyon and obliterated much of the 10 mile stretch of PCT that follows the creek up its drainage. In many places, the swollen creek eroded a new channel for itself, washing away trail tread in the process.

Immediately after leaving camp, the trail disappeared from the bank into the dark creek. I plunged my feet into the water, making the first of what would become dozens of crossings.

Making our way upstream turned out to be (mostly) quite enjoyable. It was challenging in the pathfinding sense, but the routefinding was easy: we knew we had to travel to the head of the drainage to connect with the next intact portion of PCT; the only question was how best to get there. We took turns leading over boulder-strewn alluvial deposits and through stands of dense riparian brush, making our way steadily up-valley.

A couple hours into the morning, I began to feel very dizzy and drained of energy. I figured the symptoms might be side effects of the antibiotics I had been taking for my infected bug bite and ate a second Clif Bar and some fig bars, remembering that the pharmacist had advised me to take the pills with something in my stomach. When we stopped for a break, I leaned against a boulder and nearly fell asleep sitting up.

Over the next few hours, the dizziness went away, but the exhaustion remained. When we finally arrived at the section of the PCT that had escaped the wash out, I stopped for a shade break, filtered some water from a small creek, and ate an obscene amount of peanut butter in anticipation of the major climb ahead.

I memorized a few more Whitman lines as I worked my way up the exposed switchbacks, grateful for the cloud cover that kept me relatively cool. The next 4.5 miles felt unreasonably draining, even considering the 4,000 feet of elevation gain. When I finally arrived at the logical camping spot – the last water source for 15 miles – I promptly ate a large lunch and retreated to my tent for a nap.

I woke to the happy sound of friends chatting outside my tent. I joined them in the late afternoon sun to cook a 4:30pm couscous dinner. My hunger has really been picking up the last few days, and it feels as though I’ll barely have enough food to get into Big Bear the day after tomorrow. Running out of food as you walk into town is ideal; it means you carried the lightest possible food load. But there is a fine line between achieving this ideal and running out a bit too early, which can leave a hiker ravenous and grouchy. The next few days will reveal which side of that line I’ve fallen on during this section.

A bear cub near the trail. No mama bear in sight…

Heading to Mexico!

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Day 10: Interstate 10 to Mission Creek

Trail Miles: 209.5-226.2

May 12, 2019

Waking up in the motel was nearly impossible. We’d drawn the room-darkening shades against the lights of the parking lot in the night, but the same shades blocked our view of the lightening sky.

When my alarm went off at 5am (which has been my natural waking time on the trail), my body still believed it was the middle of the night. Spartan, T-Pain, and Carjack must have felt similarly, because no one moved for half an hour. When I finally got up, they only stirred after I opened the curtains and turned on the light.

I packed my things while eating strawberries and drinking cold coffee I’d bought the day before. Then we all piled into an Uber bound for the Interstate 10 bridge where we’d gotten off trail the day before.

As we pulled up to the trail, we all started laughing and had our driver honk his horn. Hiccups, Danish, Brightside, Hot Hands and Gables, who had stayed at a different motel and coordinated their own ride, had just pulled their packs out of their own Uber. We chatted happily as we rejoined the trail and began walking across the valley towards the mountains and our next resupply: Big Bear.

The clouds that had obscured the summit of Mt. San Jacinto for the past couple days had finally lifted, and as we hiked north, we turned around repeatedly to look up to the summit we’d shared just two days prior.

Without cloud cover, the day was hot. My sweat caked in salty streaks on my sunglasses, and I tugged my sun hood snug around my face, trying to shield myself from the heat and light.

The trail followed a steep, dry drainage to its head, but before reaching the divide, Spartan spotted a low tree that was casting deep shade. We couldn’t resist a break, and despite having walked only five miles, we rested for a full hour, hiding from the sun, teaching the Danes relevant slang terms (e.g. “pounding a bag of chips” means eating an entire bag of chips very quickly) and debating the meaning of the term “nature” (specifically, Danish argued that manmade things constitute “nature,” and some of us disagreed rather vehemently).

When we finally found the motivation to move, the heat had only increased. We followed the trail as it contoured in and out of small drainages and then switchbacked down to the Whitewater river. By the time we reached the riverbed, our group had strung out in the heat so that we were each walking alone.

The river was large (by SoCal desert standards) and braided, and the trail followed its bed upstream for nearly two miles before the crossing. I began walking these two miles at nearly noon, and the midday sun beat down without mercy as I made my way through the dry gravel and stone cobbles deposited by some formerly active braid of the river. I stopped to take pictures of blooming cacti, lingering to let myself cool down before continuing up the trail. The air in the valley was still, and it felt as though I was walking through a solar cooker.

My mind was blank, working only to keep the rhythm of my footsteps and to track with the trail as it disappeared and reappeared in the sand and gravel.

At long last, I reached the river crossing. I found Gables and Hiccups resting in the shade of a small cliff and joined them for some lunch. One by one, the other members of our trail family stumbled into the shade, each new arrival looking more flushed and exhausted than the last.

I sat in the sand, eating peanut butter out of the jar and crunching potato chip crumbs. The highlight of my lunch was the still-cool cucumber I’d carried out from town.

Feeling reinvigorated by the influx of calories, I took off my shoes and stepped gingerly down to the water. My toe test revealed that the water was pleasantly cool but certainly not cold.

I stripped to my underwear and stepped into the current. The river was shallow but swift. I kneeled in the water and dunked my head, then sat and tried to fully submerge myself by lying down. On my back in the rushing water, I couldn’t contain my laughter as the river started to push me downstream over the smooth stones in its bed. I sat up and steadied myself, my back to the current. Water engiulfed me from behind, rising up my back and around my arms. I felt the hot sun on my face and looked south over the hills to the snowy summit of Mt. San Jacinto. All I could do was smile.

I sat, feeling the power of the river and the sun, and marveling at the beauty of the mountains. Danish, Hiccups, T-Pain and Brightside came out to join me, and we laughed in the water, beaming at one another, overflowing with sheer joy.

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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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How to Descend Mt. San Jacinto in 23 Easy Steps*

Day 8: Mount San Jacinto Summit to Mile 200.5

May 10, 2019

Trail miles ~185.5-200.5 plus ~2.5 miles from the summit to the PCT

1. Wake at 5am and bumble around in the dank summit shelter as you and 8 of your friends try to pack your bags by the light of too many too tiny headlamps.

2. Shiver across the snow, looking for the trail you know is just off to the left somewhere.

3. Realize the trail was just off to the right.

4. Celebrate your navigational prowess by eating a bar.

5. Proceed down the snow at < 1mph, checking constantly to be sure you’re not off-route.

6. Stop at 8am just long enough to pour a bag of crushed potato chips down your throat.

7. Avoid calling for Search and Rescue by crossing the creek without slipping on a snowbank, spraining your ankle, and dunking your pack in the icy water (as one hapless hiker did last week).

8. Celebrate the end of your snowy detour and your return to the non-snowy PCT with a packet of chocolate frosted donettes.

9. Realize that your celebration was premature, as you are about to follow the PCT down 3 miles of slick snow on Fuller Ridge.

10. Descend into the cloud layer, where the forest is freezing, wet, and silent.

11. Plan a lunch break at the water source 7 miles ahead.

12. Repeat Step 5 for 3 miles, stopping occasionally to chew tortillas and gnaw on a block of cheese.

13. Give up on your planned lunch break and stop at the first non-snowy site available.

14. Hike on in an attempt to return some warm blood to your wooden fingers.

15. Strip off your layers as the warm breath of the desert rises to meet you.

16. Descend until your feet weep, your knees cry out in agony, and you simply cannot continue.

17. Check the map, realize you haven’t lost nearly as much elevation as you thought, and revisit the previous step.

18. Take your mind to that special place where physical suffering is meaningless.

19. Descend until physical suffering becomes meaningful again.

20. Stumble upon a friend at the first decent campsite in miles.

21. Call it a day, eat dinner in the dirt, and complain about your sore feet.

22. Retreat to your tent and try to sleep, thinking about the additional 2,000’ you must descend in the morning.

23. Smile; you chose to be here.

*Physical steps required may exceed 23

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So you want to summit?

Day 7: Fobes Saddle to Mt. San Jacinto

Trail miles 166.5-181.2 plus 3.3 miles to the top of the peak

May 9, 2019

Today was a huge day. I left camp at 6 and had no chance to work on memorizing more lines today because the trail was relatively technical.

A large part of the San Jacintos burned in recent wildfires, and despite enormous efforts to reopen the trail, portions of this area are crisscrossed with downed logs and small landslides. Use trails have formed as hundreds of hikers have worked their way around these obstacles, and these are invariably steep and rocky, offering poor footing and requiring significantly more concentration than hiking ordinary, well-groomed PCT miles.

The trail, true to the “crest” in “Pacific Crest Trail,” followed the spine of the mountain range, weaving back and forth across the ridge and trending ever upward.

From Fobes Saddle, we climbed along the ridge, headed towards Tahquitz Creek (11 miles from camp, it was the first reliable water source of the day and the first in 25 miles for me). To the east, Palm Springs was visible, sprawled across the valley floor, its buildings glinting in the desert sun.

Because I am stubborn and lazy, I had carried five liters of water from Paradise Valley the day before in order to avoid going off trail to get water from a spring during the climb to the ridge. The use trails to the springs in that section are between 1/3 and 1 mile long, and every one involves significant elevation change. I figured I’d actually save energy by lugging extra water up the well-graded PCT in order to avoid these steep excursions from the trail.

This decision left me with little water by the end of the climb, and when I woke to confront the 11 mile climb to Tahquitz Creek, I had about one liter left. At least I would travel most of the distance before the sun had climbed high in the sky. Or so I thought.

The challenging terrain and the unrelenting climb reduced my ordinarily respectable pace to a plod. Although I began hiking at sunrise, I was still four miles from the creek at 10am.

I stopped for a snack break at a burned out campsite, and Teresa, seeing my short supply of water, insisted I take a few ounces of hers. As she poured her water into my near-empty bottle, I felt the hot pressure of the sun on my face and knew she was being absurdly generous.

Her water tasted of sulphur, and she explained that getting it from one of the springs had been a mistake because of the hard climb down to the water and back up to the trail. But what was I to say as I reaped the benefits of her hard work?

Feeling both chastened for my stubbornness and reinvigorated by the extra water, I made quick work of the final four miles to Tahquitz Creek and stopped for lunch. Theresa was there with Hot Hands, Brightside, and a few other familiar friends.

Only after I’d drunk two full liters of the icy water and then pulled on my down jacket to stave off the shivering that induced did I realize that we’d stopped 1/3 of a mile shy of the actual creek at a seasonal stream of snowmelt. I could not have cared less as I sat there chewing absentmindedly on tortillas and cheese.

After an hour, I forced myself to stand up. I hobbled around in bare feet, sore from the morning’s exertion, and packed up my things. On the way to the Mt. San Jacinto alternate trail, I talked with Danish about distance running and about how he’d heard about the trail. Danish’s friend Chris, who was hiking just behind us, had “introduced [him] to many of the joys in life,” two of these being backpacking and computer science.

Chris and Danish have an enviable relationship that seems entirely symbiotic. One carries food, the other carries the tent. They take breaks together during the day and take turns preparing meals for one another: tortillas with heaped with tuna and smothered in Thousand Island dressing for lunch; double packets of ramen, presented as separate courses, for dinner.

“He’s very easy to get along with,” says Chris of Danish (off trail name: Emil). “And when we have a disagreement, I know we can work it out.”

Around 3:30pm, we reached the junction where hikers wishing to climb Mt. San Jacinto can skip a few miles of PCT in favor of another few miles of trail leading to the peak. The descent trail then rejoins the PCT a few miles north of the junction.

By this time, we had climbed 3,000’ over 15 miles, and I was feeling the sweet sleepiness that comes at the end of a long day. But at the junction, conversation turned to summiting the peak that evening.

Because the routes up and down the peak are still snowbound, most hikers carry microspikes, which are an ultralight version of crampons. They are composed of a series of small metal points joined by chains attached to an elastic band that allows one to affix the spikes to the bottom of a running shoe (most PCT hikers choose to hike in running shoes because modern ultralight gear keeps pack weights minimal and the support offered by heavier boots is unnecessary and often uncomfortable).

While in Idyllwild, most people in my “trail family,” as the cohort of hikers you see on a daily basis is known, picked up microspikes. I opted not to because I have experience hiking in snow, and because at least one of the trails to the top was reportedly free enough of snow to be passable without microspikes.

My initial plan had been to set up my tent at the trail junction and then “slack pack” the peak (climb it with only food, water, and layers, rather than with a full pack). But in spite of the lateness of the hour and the exhausted state of my legs, I decided to push on for the summit with a full pack so I could camp in the hut at the top with Danish, Chris, Gables, Teresa, Brightside, Hot Hands, and Rod.

We set off in the afternoon light, slipping on snow patches that were slushy at the end of the warm day.

I will spare you the details of that climb except to say that every time we stopped (which was often, as we sometimes lost the trail in the snow), someone would ask how much more climbing we had to do and how far we were from the hut. The answer, often out of someone’s mouth before the question was fully formed, became “Only one mile left,” or “Only a thousand more feet.” Even as we walked up the final snowfield, watching Teresa waving from the hut entrance, someone could be heard remarking “only a mile to go!”

After offloading our packs in the dingy summit hut (It’s actually a beautifully built structure of precisely-stacked stone that was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 as part of the New Deal. Unfortunately, the inside has been trashed by selfish users), we made the final trek to the absolute summit. From there, we looked west across a sea of clouds, golden in the evening light. To the north, Interstate 10 sliced across the valley floor. The mountains visible beyond the interstate hide the next section of trail, which leads to Big Bear Lake. To the east, the desert was pricked with wind turbines so distant they appeared only as white toothpicks. And to the south was the ridge we’d climbed all that day and the day before.

That night in the hut, just after we’d turned out our headlamps and settled onto our crinkly inflatable pads, everything was silent. Then Chris, who had now been afflicted for two full days, let out a single hiccup. Everyone burst into laughter, and Chris accepted his new trail name. Henceforth, he will be known as Hiccups (except on Fridays, when we will call him Big Daddy for no reason except that it is entirely misaligned with his character).

Looking back at Fobes Saddle

The ridge. The snowy summit where we ended the day is just visible in this picture from about 7:30am.

Low on water, high in the San Jacintos

Tahquitz Creek or not, this was a prime lunch spot.

Clockwise from top left: Hiccups, Danish, Teresa, Brightside, Hot Hands, Spartan, Muscle, and Gables

Hiccups (aka Big Daddy on Fridays) and Hot Hands at the summit

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Day 6: Paradise Valley to Fobes Saddle

Trail miles 151.9-166.5

May 8, 2019

After a breakfast of eggs, cereal, and ice cream, I walked to the Idyllwild town center with Carjack and T-Pain to hitchhike back to the trailhead in Paradise Valley. While we waited, I munched on a stalk of broccoli I’d bought at the store with my resupply.

We caught a hitch out of Idyllwild to Mountain Center with a friendly local named Jerry. While we were waiting for a second ride (from there to Paradise Valley), our friends Danish, Chris, Brightside, and Hot Hands waved at us from the car they were hitching in.

After a few minutes stretching our thumbs by the side of the road in the thick fog we were picked up by Donna and Niel, a rock climbing couple who live in the area. We chatted with them about the snow in the Sierra on the way to Paradise Valley.

At the trailhead, we found the whole gang and shouldered our packs for the long climb into the San Jacintos.

Considering most hikers leave camp quite early (6am is not at all unusual) and hike significant numbers of miles before the heat of the day, our 10:15 departure was a late start. As a result, I felt as though I was making up a distance deficit for the rest of the day. I stopped only twice to snack on tortilla chips and cheese, and because I had carried enough water from the valley floor, I didn’t stop at any of the springs just off trail.

To take my mind off the series of aches and pains that worked their way into various parts of my legs throughout the day, I worked on memorizing a few stanzas from Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, the Walt Whitman poem Trail Angel Mary had printed on leaflets at her hiker oasis. The mental work was welcome, and I found I was able to connect more fully with the structure of the poem as I turned the lines over and over in my mind until they began to rise smoothly and easily, one after another, and I could recite the first couple stanzas aloud.

Tomorrow I’ll work on the next few stanzas as I climb up from my camp at Fobes Saddle (~6,000’) to the trail junction with the San Jacinto summit alternate (~9,000’). At that point, the PCT continues around the peak, bypassing the summit. I would like to take the alternate trail, which leads to the summit and then loops down to rejoin the PCT farther north.

At the junction tomorrow, I’ll have to decide whether to continue on with Brightside, Hot Hands, and Carjack to the top (10,833’). Chris and Danish plan to sleep in the hut at the summit, and the others want to join them. But they all have microspikes for an icy descent the following morning. I opted not to buy microspikes. The weather has been mostly good and the reports from the peak have suggested that microspikes are helpful on the descent, but not absolutely necessary. If the descent on the snowy trail is too dangerous without them, I should be able to hike back down to the PCT using the same route we will ascend. This route is reportedly less snowbound and will simply add a few miles to my total distance.

Tonight I am camped with Hot Hands and Brightside in a crowded site on Fobes Saddle. The wind is blowing hard, but my site is sheltered on three sides by manzanita, and there are plenty of big rocks to bolster my tent stakes against strong gusts.

Waiting for a hitch with T-Pain (left) and Carjack

That big snowy one is the goal (Mt. San Jacinto). Tomorrow.

Dodder: a parasitic orange plant that feeds on other plants instead of photosynthesizing. Is it possible to be simultaneously vegetarian and cannibalistic?

Chris and Danish crushing miles and enjoying the view of Mt. San Jacinto to the north

Lucky or unlucky, depending on your perspective.

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A Day of Rest

PCT Day 5: Zero in Idyllwild

May 7, 2019

Today was a day for chores and socializing. The coffee shop was for cards and chess; the grocery store offered more supplies (can you say Snickers?); the post office was a place to mail some food ahead and to send some unneeded supplies home (goodbye, half pound journal!); and the pizza parlor was for discussions of politics, religion, and hockey.

My trail name is now “Muscle,” for the story I keep having to tell about my extra muscle that took me off the trail the first time. Whittling my trail name down to “Muscle” took a few iterations (“Extra Muscle” and “Double Buff” duked it out at first), but the simplest version won out. I met Next Level at the post office and introduced myself as Muscle. Introducing yourself to someone new using only your trail name is typically the final stage of trail name acceptance.

Tomorrow, Carjack and I have plans to hitchhike back to the Paradise Valley Cafe with T-Pain to begin the climb into the San Jacintos. (Carjack is named for the way she demanded a ride from a stopped car to get herself and a whole group of hikers out of a horrendous storm and to the town of Julian back near mile 75. With her, I expect T-Pain and I will get a ride no problem.)

After some very warm days in the desert, weather in the upcoming mountain section is expected to be near freezing before accounting for windchill, and there is a good chance that snow will fall at the summit of Mt. San Jacinto (10,833’) when we reach it on Friday. Our next stop is a brief resupply at the Walmart in Cabazon (near mile 210), and then we’ll hike on to the town of Big Bear at mile 265.

Before the resupply (drying gear and taking stock of food supplies)

Hungry? (The food for the next section)

After the resupply (packed and ready for an early hitch)

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