Awake at 5 am. Drive to the Interstate 10 underpass, where I broke off my hike two weeks ago. Stand around in the grubby sand chatting up even grubbier trail-trashers who either slept or congregate in this forsaken place. Then up, up into the foothills of the soon-to-be-scorched San Bernardino Mountains, past tracts of suburban ranch houses. (Look, there’s a pink one! And a blue one!) Up, up through the windmill farms. Only after ten miles, at the Whitewater Preserve, does the landscape turn scenic in that deserty-scrub lizard-loving kind of way.
Sorry, but no thanks. There are two ways, at least, to the hike the PCT. One is for purists – continuous steps, can’t miss a spot and all that. Another is the more haphazard style Bill Bryson used on the Appalachian Trail, summed up as: “Hey, whatever feels good.”
So it is that, flying into Los Angeles last night from Kenya, I opt once again for PCT Concierge Service. Instead of the I-10 underpass on an exceedingly cold night, this time it’s a cozy fireplace at Bear Lake Cabins, just off Highway 38 and literally steps off the PCT at mile 249. My personal trail angel Suzanne is cooking up a piping hot spaghetti dinner, with lots of red wine to wash it down. And in the morning we improvise a little trailside sign offering not mere trail magic but a real home-cooked breakfast around a real table. It snowed yesterday from Mission Creek all the way to Big Bear; photos showed hikers awaking to six inches of white stuff covering their tents, the trail, everything. We figured our bedraggled friends-to-be could use a little care and tending. And really, if you had to make a choice, where would rather be? Shivering under I-10, or warming up with us?
First to make the correct life choice is Circus Act, so-named for his adroit twirling of his hiking poles, who arrives within minutes of the sign going up. He is soon joined by Spooked, Miss Grizzles, a pair of Dutchmen named Pacemaker and Shepard and half a dozen others. All tell tales of the snow, the rain, the freezing nights. As Suzanne fries up eggs and toast, I escape to begin my day – a 16-miler to Highway 18 and the drop-down to Big Bear.
The sky is crystal blue, and the sun soon melts away the night’s frost. Half a mile along, I come across the saddest sight on the PCT. Billed as a “zoo” for animals starring in Hollywood films, at mile 151, it’s in fact an animal prison. Near a chain-link perimeter fence a grizzly or brown bear lies inert in a cage less than three times as big as he. Nearby a black bear paces his small cage. Up, down, back and forth, endlessly. Surrounded by the sight and smells of their native wilderness, these beautiful and powerful creatures live a shadow life, confined in spaces almost too small to move, dazed to what must be sheer insanity.
What a joy, for me, to move through this landscape of towering pines. I recognize Lodgepole, Jefferson, cedars. And another with a soft, twisting, shaggy red bark just calling out to be petted. In the distance, ridge on ridge of mountains fall away to infinity, the highest still coated with the recent snows. It is so beautiful up here. I am so happy, so free.
I fall in with the Dutchmen, Pacemaker and Shepard. At Onyx Peak, there is a small cache of water, beer and chips supplied by Papa Smurf (909-800-7038) and Mountain Mama (909-800-7039). At mile 253, a comfy sofa sits alongside a blue-eyed dumpster full of chilled hiker supplies, compliments of the Big Bear hiker hostel. Around mile 258, we come across yet another grove of giant pines, the wind murmuring in the tree-tops like a gentle and friendly ocean, the ground mattress-soft with needles. Arrastre Trail Camp, with its picnic tables and fire pit, would be a lovely place to stop if it were evening. A metal trough is signed, “water for horses only.” Just after the camp, a series of small creeks and springs flow along the trail. I’m carry one liter but, after so much time in the desert, it’s nice to be on a trail where I actually need none.
I pass a southbounder, rare so early in the season, who started the PCT in Canada last July, took six months away, picked up again this spring after the Sierras and is now about two weeks from finishing. Before I can ask what’s next for her, she’s off.
A bit further on, a south-bound section hiker, Tom, lounges in the shade by the side of the trail, his little dog Morkie curled up on his belly. How we got here I dunno but soon he’s telling me how his back froze up four years ago. To manage the pain, he worked his way up the ladder of painkillers all the way to methadone. Half paralyzed, increasingly obese, well on the way to becoming a drug addict, he one day just quit, cold turkey, and began hiking. And today, here he is, cooling his heels on the PCT, a new man, 140 pounds lighter and feeling no pain. “I was near dead, at 54,” he says. Now, 20 miles a day is nothing to him. “Nothing to her, either,” he adds, giving Morkie a pat.
Not for the first time, I wonder how it is that we all find ourselves here in this beautiful place, on this beautiful trail, in this life that, for so many can be so difficult, but for we fortunate few is so full of beauty and endless possibility.