Mountain Goat

Wham, wham, wham. Bam! The wind on Hurricane Ridge is gusting at 50 to 60 mph, sometimes more — enough to stop you in your tracks, send you staggering sideways off the trail. This would not be so bad — fun, even — were it not for the fact that the PCT north of Pioneer Mail trailhead hugs a vertiginous cliff falling thousands of feet to the desert floor.

Wham! Bam! My hat goes flying down the trail. The loose straps on my backpack whip furiously, hard enough to leave welts. Not so unusual on this spectacular stretch of the PCT, by all accounts one of the most beautiful — and certainly memorable — parts of the entire trail. The world literally falls away at your feet, dissolving into a hazy liquid blue montage of sky and distant mountains.

As yesterday, the trail leaves Mt. Laguna gently enough, passing through a forest of pines and alpine meadows. A few miles along, around a bend and down a small ravine, it abruptly ends. Gone are the cool breezes and soft loamy path, the sound of the ocean in the trees. Once again, the desert takes over. The trail turns stony. The heat ratchets up. But there’s an extraordinary compensation: views stretching away forever, range on range of ridges and higher mountains in the distance.

This is a PCT hiker’s first glimpse of proverbial wilderness majesty. Around Garnet peak, half a dozen miles into the day, the winds begin to pick up. By the Pioneer Mail trailhead, as the trail begins to rise in earnest, they are blowing hard. Clouds whip across the ridges at alarming speed. At times, I feel like a mountain goat, clinging to the trail as it, in turn, clings to the side of the mountain.

The weather turns dark by late afternoon and at the junction of the Sunrise trailhead, I gratefully depart the PCT and walk a quarter mile to the parking lot. The wind shakes the porto-potty as I do my thing. Shake, shake, rattle and rock. An especially hard gust snatches the door from my hand and slams it with a resounding bang. A ranger looks at me, wondering if he has a PCT beserko to deal with.

A group of trail angels shiver in down jackets and sleeping bags. In the lee of their van, a hiker struggles to erect his tent. The wind blows it across the lot. Camp? A bed-and-breakfast in the nearby town of Julian sounds better. And it’s a charming place indeed. Instead of a cold Kind bar and rehydrated mashed potatoes for dinner, it’s Jeremy’s farm-to-table restaurant, washed down with a nice pinot.

April 7

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