The PCT has its own rules, its own lexicon. Yesterday morning I awoke at 6 in the little town of Julian, about 12 miles from Scissors Crossing — and decided simply not to get up. No hiking. No sweating through the 85+-degree heat to climb into the barren San Felipe Hills.
In hiker parlance, that’s called taking a “zero.” As in zero miles that day except to saunter a few hundred feet to the nearest bar, restaurant or grocery store. The Julian hiker hang is Carmen’s Garden, next door to our Julian Hotel, where a large group was taking refuge from the afternoon sun and preparing to hike out in the cooler evening. This is called a “nero,” close to a zero but not quite – maybe a day when you hike less than five to ten miles. Often nero is code for a prolonged beer run, which was certainly the case at Carmen’s where the first is free. And one tends to lead to another.
It is still just a few days into the PCT, for most of us, and people are getting acquainted. A special ritual on the PCT is the giving and receiving of trail names. In my case, Mike is no more. Instead, I am Pause – so named last summer on the Oregon PCT for my propensity to let others pass me by as I sit, feet up by the trail, admiring this or that view or taking pictures of wild flowers. Another hiker I walked with a bit was formally known as Dusty Trails. But his first trail name, he confided, was a bit racier: Red Dick, bestowed after he was bitten by fire ants in a most awkward place. Turkey liked that particular brand of bourbon, and Pirate liberated $200 from my trailside backpack before we got to know one another. Or so I suspect, at least.
At Carmen’s, we meet Whisper, a quiet teenager nicknamed for her almost unnoticed entrances and exits from camp. There’s Coach, a young guy usually called Ryan and already known for cheering people on, especially those who run into trouble with blisters, fatigue or general confusion. And then, in a league of his own, is Metric Ton, gaining fame along the PCT even in these early days. Metric (Scott in real life) hiked the Appalachian Trail a decade ago with a pack weighing 86 pounds. Now, at 54, he’s taking a run at the PCT – with his pack close to 100 pounds.
That’s heavy. By way of reference, mine weighs less than 20 pounds fully loaded; most hikers tote 30-35 pounds, including food and water. “Why are you doing this to yourself?!” I demand, almost indignant that anyone in his right mind would so torture themselves. “To get in shape,” Metric’s replies. And besides, you never know when you might need something essential.
Such as? Essential oils, for one. Like biblical-era Frankincense, which he uses to treat Bandita’s sun-burned ears, named for the muff she’s wearing to keep the sun of her face. “It’s incredibly expensive,” Metric explains. “That’s why it’s in such a little bottle.” And then there’s Tree Tea for pain of the feet. “I use it for mouthwash,” says Metric, and gives me a sip. It tastes like a combination of paint thinner and diesel fuel.
Metric pulls more essential bottles from his pack. Don’t leave home without Arnica, he advises. For joint pain, topically applied. (Thank god.) Not to mention Doterra for breathing. “I was formerly a therapeutic mountain guide,” Metric explains. “The trail attracts people looking for something different.” Or simply are different.
As the shadows begin to lengthen, Metric heads off with a group of other hikers to start the very steep, arduous ascent from Scissors into the hills north of the brief Mojave desert crossing. “Do want to try it on?” he asks as he prepares to shoulder his pack. I can barely lift it, let alone carry it. A wisp of a young woman named Tactics follows him out. “Awesome guy,” she says. “He gave us some great weight-saving ideas.”
I start the segment the next morning. More than a thousand feet up in the first two miles, then a steady rise of another 1200 through the rest of the day. At 6 am, it’s easy going; by ten it becomes difficult and by noon impossible. At the Third Gate water cache, dozens of hikers huddle under bushes or groundsheets strung between rocks, trying to escape the scorching sun. I sleep for two hours in the shade of an enormous stack of water jugs provided by local train angels. Around 3, I move on. Up, up, always up under the excoriating sun on these south-facing hillsides.
Twenty-four miles and 12 hours after leaving Scissors, the trail finally drops into a delicious grove of oaks trees at Barrel Spring, just after the little PCT milemarker made of small white stones arranged in the center of the trail: 100 miles. We are desperately hot and thirsty and run for the cistern of cold clear water that gives this green Eden its name. There we find a sign, “Clear but not clean,” with instructions to boil any water from the source for at least five minutes. The reason soon becomes evident. It’s filled with the decaying carcasses of dead lizards and rodents.
Not for nothing is this stretch of the PCT known as one of the hardest on the entire trail. It is a brute.