Hot, hot, hot. Up, up, up. Two of us are switchbacking through the steep 1200-foot climb out of Hauser Creek canyon. The sun beats down. Periodically we hunker down in the scant shade of a large rock or small bush before plodding on. Now and again we pass other hikers, slogging along under “sunbrellas” or curled up in whatever passes for a shadow.
This is said to be one of the rougher sections of the PCT, the finale to a waterless 20-mile first day from Campo to Lake Morena. I’ve been dreading this particular ascent all day, but it passes almost painlessly and suddenly we emerge on a high rocky butte, the land falling away into the blue distance. We will feel it tomorrow, I know. But in PCT terms, tomorrow is an eternity. Here is a place of the now.
Nearly 50 of us started off at the southern terminus this morning around 7:30. We’re a motley crew of nationalities: Israel, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Brazil, Holland, South Africa and (me) Kenya. In our little group, only a handful seem to be Americans. Every day a new pod is released, limited exactly to 50 under the PCT permit system. The routine is unfailing. Arrive at the trailhead, stand for a “Class of ’18” group photo, pose in front of the border wall, then set out. I give the wooden monument marking the beginning of the trail a sharp rap and off we go, winding past the village of Campo, then into the rocky hills, heading north, atop which you see stretching endlessly ahead nothing more than the same.
At a creek four miles in, we come across the day’s first casualty, an older man sitting in the shade of a cottonwood. He has tripped and banged up his knee. “Not my year, I guess,” he says, preparing to limp back for help. “And I’ve got the most unbelievable ass chaff!” We move quickly on.
So far the walking has been easy. Gentle ups and downs through stands of cottonwoods and grassy oases where the trail dips into the occasional creek-bed or low-lying meadow. Otherwise it is treeless desert scrub covered by chaparral. The Europeans and others fall behind and soon I am alone, more or less at the head of today’s pack. By 11, the heat has grown intense and to my shock I find one of my two water bottles is leaking. I have only half a liter for the next 13 desert miles, most of it uphill. As I sit thinking about how to manage this mini-crisis a young American chugs up. John, from Fresno, is 18, just out of high school and a hiking powerhouse. “Need water? Have mine,” he says. He’s carrying seven liters and without a second thought gives me an extra.
We hike together for the next few hours. He’s been saving up for this life adventure for two years, working spare jobs painting houses and tutoring kids whose parents (unlike his) can afford such things. He was supposed to start a few weeks ago but a friend borrowed his car and promptly got into an accident that cost John half his PCT cache in repairs. He worked off the debt in a couple months, triple time, and here he finally is — 2640-odd miles from where he hopes to end up.
Dropping down from the Morena butte during the last miles, I suddenly hear my name, coming faintly from a distance as if carried on the winds. “Mikey!” Then around a bend comes my wife, hiking up to meet me in a floppy straw hat. “Do you need some cold water, honey?” The trail dumps us at the night’s camp site, Lake Morena Park. Under a spreading oak surrounded by the greenest grass of early spring, trail angels “Buff” and his son Rob do their thing: play host to weary hikers. “Have a chair, Mike. Coke? Water? Hot dog?” It’s a Cosco special, and good. The kindness of strangers, called “trail magic” — a perfect coda to a fine first day.