Lars has a trail name: BeepBeep. Like Road Runner, he’s speedy. We left him behind in Julian with an ear infection that needed a doctor – and he caught up by Warner Springs. We left him again in Warner Springs with shin splints and a stomach bug. Two days later, taking a zero in the charming mountain town of Idyllwild, there was a knock on our cabin door. “Beepbeep,” he greets us, newly christened. Road Runner!
When it comes to hiking the PCT, there’s plain vanilla-style – plod, plod, plod with occasional visits to a town as a special treat. Then there’s Concierge Service. That’s where a friend (or in this case, my wife Suzanne) drives along. Wherever a road crosses the PCT, there she is, hiking in a few miles to meet and then drive you to the nearest French restaurant for dinner.
So it is that we’re ensconced in a little log cabin at the Fireside Inn in Idyllwild, 20 minutes down the road from the Paradise Café, fireplace burning merrily, hiker clothes drying on our sunny personal deck under towering pine trees as other members of our pod cower against the cold and wind on the high ridge above town. By contrast we sleep late, saunter to nearby restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner, ogle the stocks of resupplies at the supermarket. And of course leisurely plan the coming days’ hike, without the wind blowing away your maps or cussing as your Halfmile trail app blips off when your battery dies.
The Red Kettle diner is hiker central for Idyllwild. Every morning, the tables fill with the scruffy likes of us for coffee and huge breakfasts, as unhealthy as possible – fried eggs, bacon, pancakes, corn syrup, hash browns, all washed down with milk shakes. Little pop sayings dot the walls.
“Sarcasm: one more service we offer.”
“I’ve only got one nerve left. Don’t get on it.”
And the faintly philosophical: “If a man speaks in the woods and no one is there to hear him, is he still wrong?”
Folks here know who to call for every problem. Need a lift up a rutted mountain road to a remote trailhead? Here’s JC’s number: 951-834-4506). Is your quilt sleeping bag freezing your butt at high altitudes? (“Damn, I HATE quilts,” yelled Dodo in the middle of one night, sleeping on the deck of the Paradise Cafe.) So-and-so will buy your old bag and sell you a better used one.
In the morning, Lars and I return to the Paradise Café and pick up the PCT where we left off the day before, hiking some 16 miles and 3000 feet up toward Spitler Peak. From here the PCT is closed due to the lasting effects of a 2013 forest fire. Most hikers bypassed this section altogether in recent years and hitched into Idyllwild. This year, a few miles of the trail have been re-opened and many now consider it worth the trek.
I’m not so sure. It’s a tough slog and, as I see it, drains a lot of your leg strength for the far tougher climbs of the coming few days. The first few miles are standard-issue desert: scrub, low wind-blown trees and sand. But as the trail gains altitude, it begins to offer vast, almost Sierra-like vistas of range on range of rugged mountains, falling bluely away into the distance.
The expanse of the 2013 burn is enormous: a graveyard of dead trees turned silver by the sun and wind. Only here and there have a few young bushes begun to grow. Then abruptly, between Cedar Springs trail junction and Fobes saddle, the burn gives way to the forest as it was – stands of long-needled pines, the trail soft and springy along ridgelines offering 50-mile views.
Is the beauty worth the pain? You decide. After all the hard work getting up here, the trail suddenly drops some 1000 feet to Fobes saddle, then rises another 1200 to the Spitler trail detour followed by another several thousand-foot feet downhill over five miles to the nearest trailhead. After that, it’s another eight miles to the highway.
Since I’m hiking with Concierge Service, my ride awaits at the trailhead. Suzanne crams as many exhausted hikers into her van as can fit. Some we met on the trail today, others at Paradise. Among them are T-Rex and her husband Popeye, a recently retired air traffic supervisor so obviously in his prime of life that you cannot believe he’s hit That Age. Once he claims this 2600-miler as his own, I tell him, he can command any next job he chooses.
Arriving in Idyllwild, Popeye treats us to dinner, so great is his relief at being spared the long march to town. The next morning at the Red Kettle, I go to pay my breakfast bill. “That table over there has taken care of it,” says the waitress. It’s Shannon and Stritch, two others we had ferried down the mountain.
Here in a nutshell, the wonderful ethos of the PCT.