After yesterday’s brute, today is bliss. Meadow on meadow between vales of oak and quick-running streams. Ranging grasslands with yellow wild flowers stretching from horizon to horizon over rolling hills. Nothing could make me happier.
Here and there, huge boulders sit amid the grass, many with oddly evocative shapes. Easter Island of the prairies. Here, a giant fish with mouth and eyes jumps from a green sea. There, a muffin tipped on its side. In the distance, a rock that looks weirdly like an eagle. Tiny shapes surround it. Pagan worshipers, their cries carrying on the wind? No, this is the famous Eagle Rock, surrounded by hikers taking snaps.
“Go Trump! America is great again!” I shout to the startled on-lookers. Look closely, and the smaller rock in front is The Donald in profile — big hair, pouty mouth, slack chin. “That’s him!” agrees a German hiker in a straw hat emblazoned “Hiker Trash” and the inside brim decorated with the US stars and stripes. The guy hiking the PCT in sandals is Super Tramp. “I’m a fan,” he says, giving Trump Rock a special salute.
The trail leaves the grasslands and dips into another grove of towering oaks, the little Canada Verde river rushing alongside. Past the Bee Tree, considerately signed to keep hikers safe from the hive inside. Past the school house, past the firehouse, and you come to the Warner Springs Recreation Center. It would be better named Hiker Heaven.
The ladies of the greater Warner Springs metropolitan area have come together as a sort of PCT auxiliary force, and the Rec Center is Operations HQ. Enter, and sign yourself over to the good offices of these no-nonsense ladies.
“Welcome!” says the one at the front desk. “Are you a hiker?” She’s too polite to assume so from my supremely unhygenic appearance. “Register here, please.” From this point on, anything you could conceivably want or need is yours.
There’s an ultra-light outdoor gear shop selling everything from trail runners to tents and sleeping bags. Overflowing “hiker boxes” are full of free stuff — fresh apples, food, lightly used equipment including at least fifty pairs of almost new shoes that, for various reasons, didn’t work for someone. “If they fit, take ’em,” say the ladies.
A general store stocks hiker fixings — power bars, instant meals, band-aids. Not to mention ice cream bars and root beer floats. Loaner laptops are for the asking, along with high-speed internet — in contrast to the resort nearby. Laundry detergent costs $1. Do it yourself in a bucket, after a warm bucket shower.
The Rec Center ladies scurry around doing everything they can think of to make Warner Springs a memorable and happy stop. Need to mail a letter or pick up a package? Volunteers shuttle you to the post office. Feet sore? Have a nice Epsom salt soak.
A few members of our pod straggle in. There’s Coach. Then an Anglo-German contingent. And suddenly, my hiking mate Lars. He stayed back in Julian to see a doctor for an ear infection and couldn’t start before the late afternoon on the day the rest of us headed out. Ten hours behind, I feared he would never catch up. Yet here he is. How? By night hiking in a train of half a dozen others from 4 pm to midnight, sleeping briefly at Third Gate and rising before dawn to make Warner Springs by 11. “I hoped to kick your tent as I passed you in the night,” he says by way of greeting. Turns out Lars is a foreign exchange trader at a Danish investment bank — a notoriously competitive profession.
At check out, I drop a contribution into the center’s donation jug, as do most hikers. “Thank you, dearie,” says the lady at the desk. “Bye now.” But the PCT has one more surprise in store.
At Barrel Spring campground, the night before, I experienced one of those typical PCT mini-emergencies. Somewhere before Third Gate, I lost the top flap to my pack containing all sorts of useful things — blister tape, power chords for my phones and, most importantly, my meds. Dodo from Israel immediately put out the word on Facebook and the PCT grapevine sprang to life. By morning, I knew who found it — a 60-something couple, I was told; the man had a white beard and wore a cap emblazoned with his trail name, Voon.
I posted a note on the bulletin board at Warner Springs, and waited. Around 6 pm, just as the center was closing and my wife Suzanne and I pulled out of the parking lot and began the drive into Julian for a good dinner, a couple emerged from the trail onto the highway at precisely the moment we are passing. White beard, check. Baseball cap, check. We squeal to a stop. “Did you spend last the night at the Third Gate cache?” Yes. “Did you happen to find a grey Gossamer Gear pack top with important stuff inside?” Yes!
And there it is, neatly strapped to the guy’s own pack. It’s like a reunion of long-lost friends. “We worried about you,” they said. “Those meds looked critical!” All the other enthusiasms followed. Where did you find it? How did you think to bring it to Warner Springs? How can I repay you?
After dinner, we find them in tent city, where hikers pitch up in the meadow behind the center. In the dark, I count more than 50, lighted like luminescent cocoons by the screens of iPhones. We brought them back a pie from Julian.
The trail provides, it is said. And indeed, it does.