I’m back in Orange. I had a tremendous time in the woods, and hiked some 200 miles from the US/Mexico border to the San Gorgonio Wilderness north of Palm Springs. The trip was awesome and transformative, and though I found I wasn’t the right kind of crazy or dedicated to spend four months walking, I did have plenty of time to think and plan. So as strange and terrifying as it is to backpedal after such anticipation and hoopla, I’m here. Summer will be awesome, and there will be many more (shorter) adventures to come. Cheers to all of my new PCT friends that I know will hike on and into Canada.
Let me just start like this: nothing is like I thought.
The PCT is a completely different ballgame from anything I’ve previously hiked or experienced. It’s beautiful and nuanced, and hiking these first 152 miles has really humbled me. I’ve changed my gear setup and my strategy, and I’ll break it down a bit day-by-day.
Note: I’m having a tough time fixing the image display issue from the trail. Clicking an undisplayed image will still open the gallery for viewing.
I got off the train to San Diego at 1:15 AM, and immediately made my first hiker friend. His trail name: Legend. He was carrying a small satchel and wearing a leather cowboy hat. He’d hiked the entire PCT last year, and this time around he was going ultra ultra light. No sleeping bag light. All this next to my 40 pound pack (before food and water.)
I invited Legend to crash for a few hours in my motel room, but he was determined to sleep at the train station before our 7:38 AM train to El Cajon. Long story short: I slept about 4 hours that night and barely caught the train in the morning. At El Cajon I found myself boarding the rural bus to Campo with seven other hikers, all determined to hike to Canada. All of them with ultralight packs. Oops.
We made it to Campo two hours later. Still about a mile from the southern terminus of the PCT and the U.S. / Mexico border, Legend and I were quick enough to hitch a ride with some hikers from Bellingham (and avoided an extra mile of road walking.)
With an 11 AM start, we were hours behind the thirty-or-so other hikers who started that morning at 7AM or earlier. I set foot on the well marked trail and met wildlife only two miles later: my first rattlesnake. It hissed, rattled, stood tall, then slithered into the brush. Turns out snakes are just fine not eating people.
Day one was hard. Carrying six liters of water with over 1,000 ft of sandy elevation gain means I hiked in fifteen miles instead of the traditional twenty. I realized quickly that the trail would be a real mental test as well: by the end of the day I almost wished that the snake had bit me so that I’d have a graceful way of quitting the PCT.
Fortunately I finished the day by hiking into a very friendly camp at Hauser Creek: Slims and Apache from the bus stayed near me, and I met the wonderful couple “CnC” who would later become a fixture in my hiking sphere.
Some people say they can hardly sleep the first week of a big hike; I slept like a log.
Shoulders are sore. Everything else seems fine. I hiked the five miles to Lake Morena where I cameled up on water and washed hands etc. I ended up hiking seventeen miles to Fred Canyon, meeting many hikers along the way. I camped next to this group of folks from Paradise, CA who were quiet and not very social (but Cody, Doug, and Morgan would later become great trail friends.) I was still a bit drowsy from my lack of sleep at the start, but my mood was much improved.
Three (First Town)
My quiet neighbors from Paradise were up extraordinarily early (5AM seemed early on the third day) and I decided I might as well follow them out. It was barely light as I hiked out of Fred Canyon, but it felt great to get an early start. I hiked a few miles until I reached the first stream crossing of the PCT, where I finally chatted with the Paradise crew and met several other hikers. Steve (a hiker who also took the bus from San Diego) stopped briefly, and I also met Paul, a UK man from Liverpool who I would end up seeing periodically over the next few days.
I’ll just say now that I’ve met most hikers in my ten-mile sphere twice, if not three or more times. With everyone heading in the same direction at different paces, it’s easy to bump into folks in towns or at tent sites along the trail.
After the stream crossing, Mount Laguna was just a short jaunt up the hill. At nearly six-thousand feet, I was not expecting such elevation so early in the trail. But if there’s a summit or peak, it’s likely the PCT will wander across it. In Mount Laguna I had a tasty breakfast with Paul and Steve, and visited an outfitter where I found that my pack was 10-20 pounds heavier than my fellow hikers. All of those heavy gadgets were really doing a number on my feet; hiking in running shoes means less effort but also much less support. The blisters were terrible.
That night I camped at a public campground, where we crammed eight little solo hiker tents onto one little spot. This is where I met Kale and Becca, who I’d heard were engaged at the southern terminus of the trail and were planning on getting married in Canada at the northern end of the trail. Kale is extraordinarily social, and soon chatted with the neighboring campers who invited us to their fire with fresh fruit, vegetables, and all kinds of snacks. Trail angels are awesome.
16.5 miles. More walking.
Five (A night in town)
13 miles to Scissors Crossing. Day five was brutal. With a shorter day ahead I was optimistic, but made the poor decision to cross the two-mile flat desert floor in the hottest part of the day. Not surprisingly, I didn’t see a single hiker on the trail that day. After a long, windy, gritty trudge I arrived at Scissors Crossing, a legendary trail waypoint located under a freeway overpass. Trail angels frequent the stopover, stocking the shady bridge with water and sometimes beer. Most folks here are in high spirits.
I caught a ride into the town of Julian with a trail angel named Chris, along with two other hikers. Julian turned out to be a magical place, with a bakery called Mom’s that offers a free half-sandwich, slice of pie, and a drink to PCT hikers. The apple-boysenberry pie was easily the best ever. There were at least a dozen other smelly, dirty, hikers in the place–they’re easy to spot. Hikers are usually dressed in all synthetics, with running shoes and funny hats.
I ended up spending the night in Julian. I’d been having a rough time with my pack and my shoes, and desperately needed a place to cleanup and re-strategize. I washed all of my filthy desert stained clothes, ate an entire bag of chili-cheese Fritos, and thought seriously about the viability of hiking the rest of the trail. I was only an hour and some from my friends in Orange County, and my feet were brutally damaged. Because my pack was overloaded, my shoulders were bruised and my hips were bloodied. Gross.
Six (No More Gadgets)
The next morning I enjoyed the complimentary breakfast, and took it real easy. Seeing familiar faces in town was a tremendous morale boost. There are all kinds of people on the trail, all hiking for different reasons, and it’s amazing what encouragement can be gleaned from a few conversations with hikers going through the same motions. No one is without struggle and some doubt of their ability, but most keep hiking through the pain and discomfort.
I stopped at the post office and removed from my pack every superfluous piece of gear I had. No more DSLR, GoPro, tripod, shovel, batteries, chargers, cables, etc. I easily shed ten pounds right then, and my pack immediately became a more welcome extension of my hiking self. I hitched a ride with a nice family back to scissors crossing (they could hardly believe I wanted to be dropped in the middle of the desert on the side of a freeway) and was once again on my way.
Instead of flunking out at Julian, I hiked a solid thirteen miles that afternoon, and even met Becca and Kale again. Awesome end to the day.
Another thirteen mile day. Hiked intermittently with Becca and Kale, and my newfound friend from Cambridge, UK, Will. I camped in an awesome field.
Warner Springs! A little oasis in the desert, I was treated to a $5 cheeseburger at the community center. There were loads of hikers here, and naturally a very festive atmosphere. If ever there was a morale boost, this was it. I also picked up the box I’d shipped myself at the post office, in addition to a box of goodies from my contact at Gregory, Aaron White. Suddenly I had an abundance of food and was ready to hit the trail. I also bought some tortillas: carbs were definitely lacking in my earlier trail diet. I only hiked a short ways out of town that night, but camped with Becca, Kale, DC, Berlin, and Will. I’d end up spending the next several nights in the same campsites as this bunch.
Mile 127 is Trail Angel Mike’s. Usually a wonderful place of trail magic, Mike was out of town for the PCT kickoff. Instead there were a few other hospitable hikers looking after the ranch, but there was no beer or pizza to be had. This place was a survivalists dream: fresh water tanks, generators, acres of uninhabited desert, barbed wire, bullet casings, etc. With a storm front moving in a bunch of us hikers decided to spend the night in their hiker cabin.
12:00 AM: Drips on my sleeping bag. No big deal.
02:00 AM: Deluge on my bag. Huge problem. I hurriedly wrapped myself in my tent and struggled to go back to sleep amongst the sound of shingles shearing away in the heavy gusts.
We awoke to low temperatures and heavy snow flurries. Who would have thought? About a dozen of us huddled in the cabin, drinking hot chocolate and trying to wait out the cold. We weren’t wearing much in the way of warm clothes (it’s the Californian desert in winter) so we figured later was safer.
Once we were released from the icy grip of winter we ended up hiking 17 miles out to a boulder field. It was a cheerful, easy day, even with the late start. The light pack makes all the difference in the world.
Eleven (Paradise Valley Café!)
A short eight miles in the morning brought me to the freeway, and a mile west up the road was Paradise Valley Café, a mecca for hikers and bikers for miles around. I met up with a dozen or more fellow hikers and had a solid breakfast. Blueberry breakfast beer, three eggs, sausages, hashbrowns, and biscuits with gravy. Awesome.
Not far up the trail, the PCT is closed due to fire damage. The most popular detour is to hitch a ride from Paradise Valley to Idyllwild, and a trail angel by the name of Wildheart shuttled two other hikers and myself thirty minutes up the road. I set up my tent at the campground, took a blissful ten-minute shower, and set into town to resupply.
Twelve (Here I Sit)
I had a swell night at the campground, sharing beers with Doug and Morgan from the Paradise crew. I’m using the computer at the public library because of it’s superior keyboard (versus my phone) and have yet to decide my later-day plans. With a sore ankle should I zero here? I might hike another ten this afternoon.
Reflection (changing point of view)
This hike was going to be part-hike, part professional exercise. I meant to use this wonderful adventure as a chance to shoot a feature documentary, thus springing my career to new heights and securing my place in the documentary world.
But now as I hike, I know that I’m not strong enough to give my all as a hiker everyday, and then deal with the workload of documentary production as well. The gear is heavy, the shooting is time consuming, and the end product might not be tremendously worthwhile. There are several PCT films in the works for release this year and the next, and I think I’m content to let them tell this story.
Instead of working, I plan to enjoy this hike.
This is one long post. I hope to write a bit more frequently, or at least write in greater summary, so that don’t end up with too many more 2,000+ word posts. No need for this to become a novel.
Furthermore: The support from all of my friends and family has been incredible. Thanks so much for your messages and kind thoughts!