The sea of the desert seems endless. Endless vistas of hot, scrub-covered hills. The rocky trail endlessly rising. The sun beating down without respite.
Then suddenly it all changes. Around a bend, down a slight dip, past the last gigantic boulder, the desert abruptly ends. Chaparral gives way to stands of Jefferson pines. In place of heat and lizards and flies, all is cool shadow beneath the whispering trees. The trail turns from toe-stubbing stones into a carpet of pine needles and soft loam. Here and there, across the desert’s expanse, these islands of alpine forest and meadow poke up, often through clouds, like Caribbean islands in the Gulf stream.
The 21 miles from Lake Morena to Mt. Laguna begin gently enough. Pass through a metal gate, already warm to the touch in the morning sun, through glens of oak trees and greensward, white-tailed rabbits scampering alongside. Boulders big as houses are scattered amid the chaparral. The trail itself is soft course sand, crossed now and again by jeep tracks, and for the first six miles or so is all gently rolling hills. Six miles along the trail winds into an eden-like bower of oaks and long green spring grass, soft as a mattress. I lie on my pack, listening to the birds and looking upward through the leaves to a cerulean sky.
Soon after Boulder Park, the trail passes under a viaduct carrying Interstate 8, Los Angeles’ gateway to its great inland empire, and begins a long and steep ascent into the far hills -– a sun-blasted landscape of scrub and split rocks and rough walking, going from an elevation of less than 3000 feet to more than 6000 over the next 15 miles. I pass an older couple coming down. “You’re going the wrong way,” I say by way of greeting. The man laughs, steps off the trail to let me pass and almost falls off the near-sheer cliff to a creek far below. His wife catches him mid-wobble.
Where Kitchen Creek Road crosses the PCT, there is magic. Buff and his son Rob, once again, have set up shop. Burger? Hot dog? Avocado and cheese sandwich on multigrain bread, perhaps with an apple and V8 juice to wash it down? Yes, please. A dozen hikers are gathered in camp chairs in a laughing circle. But it’s an odd symmetry. Buff and Rob are doing their father-son thing. So are two women from Wisconsin who look eerily alike, only in reverse. Here it’s mother-daughter. Mom is an engineer looking for a life change; the daughter who studied for years to become an engineer is now thinking of becoming a painter. They share a one-person tent. “We just cozy up together,” says the mom. Rounding out the group: a grey-bearded dad and his 20-something son from Austin. Between bites, I ask Buff how he got his trail name. Turns out it’s not. He plays with the Buffalo Chip Banjo Band.
Just before Mt Laguna, the alpine effect kicks in. The village itself is little more than a lodge, a restaurant and an outdoors shop. In previous years, hikers would get “Daved,” a ritual where the resident outfitter weighed your packed, edited it down to essentials and sent you on your far-lighter (and happier) way. So where’s Dave? In fact where’s the outfitter’s shop? “How the hell should I know,” replies one of the lodge’s new owners. “Why don’t you ask him?” Thinking it might be nice to overnight in one of the quaint cottages, I ask if they have vacancy. “Try a motel down in Pine Valley,” the man suggests. “More in line with your price bracket.” He adds, almost as an aside, that the new management doesn’t much like PCT “hiker trash.”
Nearby is the Burnt Rancheria campground, by contrast a welcoming oasis of calm amid the pines. And costing only $5.