When the night has come,
And the land is dark,
And the moon is the only light we see.
No I won’t be afraid,
No I won’t be afraid,
Just as long as you stand, stand by me.
Out of nowhere, for no particular reason, climbing the steep hot slope out of the Horse Canyon badlands a few miles from the Paradise Café, this snippet from John Lennon comes to me. And I begin thinking of my youngest son who died at such an early age nearly two years ago. I was in Kenya, where I live, not by his side. I was not there to stand by him in his darkest hour. He must have been so afraid.
Suddenly I am doubled over, sobbing. Tears drip off the end of my nose. Do I even write this? “Heck, yeah,” I can almost hear my son Mix say. For this, too, is life on the trail. The essential ethos of the PCT is to be present. To be here, now, in the moment.
Yet we can’t, always. How could we? When there’s nothing to do but walk, we think. Perhaps it is the way of the trail, but often those thoughts trend into infinite loop, like the song stuck in your head that will not go away for hours (or days) on end.
Carrott Quinn wrote about this in her book on the PCT, “Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart.” For weeks and weeks, once the fresh blush of the trail had worn off, she could think only of all the bad things in her life. Until, that is, she had thought all there was to think about them, and abruptly the bad thoughts went away.
More famously, Cheryl Strayed in “Wild” struggled on the trail to come to terms with her mother’s death, her own drug and men-friend issues and, generally, life itself. With 2500 miles to go before reaching Canada, and the trail itself no longer such a novelty, perhaps it’s not surprising that I too slipped into The Loop.
It is cold. So cold. Dark rain clouds gather over the eastern hills. A sharp wind cuts to the bone.
A small group of us leave Warner Springs a bit after 6 am. As yesterday, the PCT meanders over verdant pastures, black steers grazing. Here and there it dips into quiet groves of spreading oaks and long green grass. The scudding clouds cast fast-moving sun and shadow over the landscape. It is absolutely beautiful.
Five miles in, I fill a water bottle at the burbling Agua Caliente, a pretty little stream along a sandy arroyo. Then it’s up, up, up – 2600 feet over the next 20 miles. Nor is it only up. It’s up, down, up. We’re yoyoing the PCT.
Through the morning, I passed a dozen other hikers. Oddly, many were older folks, cruising at no slow speed. The younger crowd was eating their dust at a far distance. By the side of the trail, I chat with a 60ish guy taking a break. “My 9th hike of the PCT,” he says. “I do it every year.” “The whole thing?” I ask incredulously. Naw, he replies. “Just eight or nine hundred miles. Different sections.” Will I be able to do that when the day comes?
At mile 127, 16 along, I reach Mike Herrara’s. “Welcome!” shouts Walkabout Jim, playing host in Mike’s absence. “Rest rooms are over there, if you need ’em.”
I follow a little painted sign, “Shitters,” string another wooden sign on a chord, “Occupied,” between two trees and find an open-air “throne” where I can both do my business and enjoy a fine view, king of all I survey. Mike’s is a low-slung ranch house with a garage, a couple of pick-ups and a corrugated metal cooking shed. A brick stove is already smoking. “Pizza dough is rising. Getting ready for tonight,” says Walkabout.
Famous as a watering stop, it seems that Mike’s is also famed for pizza and calzones, accompanied by plenty of beer. There’s a bucket for donations to defray the price. Apparently every night is a party in peak PCT season. “Like a dog?” asks another of Mike’s friends, Off Trail.
“I’m more a cat guy,” I reply.
Off Trail rolls his eyes. “Hot dog, my friend.” He warms up a tortilla and dog in a black skillet by the pizza stove and voila, instant trail magic. Lunch!
Food. Foodfoodfood. Food!
Hiker Hunger has hit in earnest. On the PCT, you pick destinations to anticipate. Yesterday it was Mike’s and the hope of pizza and calzones, according to the Warner Springs grapevine. Today it’s the Paradise Cafe at Highway 74, 26 miles ahead. Must get there before it closes at 3 pm, I think. Mustmustmust!
So I set off from Mike’s around 3 pm, expecting to put in some easy miles when the trail levels off. But it doesn’t. Instead it’s up, up, up, up for another three or four miles and a thousand feet in elevation. I hike until dusk and make camp in the dry Tule Creek, 27 miles from where I began the day.
My water bottle tinkles with little ice cubes when I start again at 6 am. I forgot that cold air collects in valleys, and that a low point isn’t always the smartest place to camp. It’s another day of “up,” powered by visions of cheese-burgers at Paradise 15 miles ahead.
I take a mid-morning break at so-called Muir Woods, a picnic spot cum shrine to the god-father of the American outdoors. Apparently Muir hated the word “hike.” He preferred “saunter,” derived from the medieval pilgrimage — “a la sainte terre.” People should saunter through the woods, reverently, wrote Muir. Not hike, and certainly not score mileage.
I try to slow my pace. I sniff a few flowers. Snap a photo of some cacti. But then I’m off again, appreciating the majestic landscape but not exactly reverently. After all, Paradise is just around the next bend.