The scene at the Grizzly Manor Café is standard-issue Big Bear Lake, a one highway strip-mall of a mountain town. Commandeering the tables on one side of the diner, a few dozen Jeepers – four-wheel drive enthusiasts whose big wheels are corraled outside, ready to tear up the dirt roads of the San Bernardinos.
On the other side: a few granola-wholesome PCTers and day-hikers. But there the differences end. The meals served up to each are one-of-a-kind, made-to-order Grizzly café heart-stoppers. Massive plates of hash browns doused with ladles of butter and melted cheese. My ”Sissy Boy” special is made to order for this faint-hearted dude. The pancake is larger than the plate and twice as thick, topped with two eggs and a piece of ham big enough to pass as the whole pig.
I work my way through half, earning concerned glances from the short-order cook who barely pauses in his assembly-line breakfast-making as he chats up the customers under a sign warning, “Beware: attack chef.”
“PCT, hunh?” he says. “Heard of it.”
At the Grizzly, it’s said, “the food is bland, the staff salty.” “It” being the menu. Locals’ business cards and announcements paper the walls, along with the inevitable folk sayings I’ve come to call Diner Sass. Like: “Send more tourists. The last ones were delicious.” (This featuring a lip-licking bear.) Or: “No charge for entertainment or strange moods of the help.”
My PCT concierge, Suzanne aka Rodeo, and I exit in the wake of the Jeepers, hoping against hope that they are not going where we are –- up the 2.8-mile Van Dusen Canyon Road to mile 275 of the PCT. It turns out to be one of the most beautiful and peaceful parts of the trail you can imagine. Like the best of yesterday, a cathedral of towering pines, spreading views, gentle ups and downs.
All that changes after mile 282, however. The massive Willow Fire of 1999, started by a camper, destroyed several hundred thousand acres of primeval forest. The burn goes on mile after mile. the brown hills returning to desert amid a kingdom of charred sticks.
Half an hour in, I come across southbounder Ed, who’s knocking off the desert before his start date in Campo. “I retired to do this,” he says, and has but one regret traveling in the opposite direction as almost everyone else. “You northbounders develop cohorts. We’re alone.” And it is indeed a very different social experience. Among the members of what I call my “pod” – the folks I started with in Campo – there is a very special bond. I ask Ed how far the burn goes on, and he rolls his eyes. “Half of southern California is a burn these days.”
At Little Bear Spring trailhead, there are picnic tables, a corral and a solar-powered loo. Here and there, stands of pine survived the burn but not enough to give any respite from the mid-day sun.
The burn goes on, seemingly endlessly, hotter and hotter. A stream trickles along the trail, beginning around mile 286, the remnants of the recent snow. It’s mainly still pools turning slowly green, but I find some fast-running rivulets and camel up.
Around mile 290, the trail descends sharply through a maze of sandy wind-sculpted rocks and tumbled boulders, the sound of a river rushing in the canyon below. Gradually the high desert gives way once again to a shaded world of pines and wooded forest. But it’s a Tantalus-like curse, at first, for this is Holcomb Creek. The trail threads a narrow path a hundred feet above, along steep cliffs. You can only look down at the clear, cold stream — but not get to it.
At last the trail relents, and dips, and there it is. I fill my water bottles for the final eight miles to camp at Splinter Cabin, mile 299. It tastes, deliciously, of pine resin.