At the foot of Mt Baden-Powell, a youngish woman sits on a bench at the trailhead, sobbing. She’s put the pedal to the metal from Campo, pushing 20+ miles a day. And now suddenly, after the steep climb into the San Gabriels from Cajon Pass, and then down into Wrightwood, she’s developed blisters. “I mean, all over,” she says. Between her toes. On the sides of her feet. Beneath the thickly calloused pads of her feet.
She changed shoes recently, to a zero rise. And they are obviously too tight in the toes, with no room for her feet to breath or expand in the desert heat. She explains all this rationally enough, but tears are steaming down her face. Mt Baden-Powell is clearly to steep and hard in her condition; its 9000 feet are difficult enough even when you’re fresh.
The good news: her aunt and uncle will come to whisk her away to a beach house in Malibu for a few days. She doesn’t yet understand how healing a Pacific Ocean and a lot of chardonnays will prove to be. So for now, it’s tears. The Bitch Goddess of the PCT claims another victim.
The climb up Baden-Powell is uncompromising: nearly 3000 feet in elevation gain in a bit less than four miles on sun-beaten south-facing slopes. Everyone says to start early when it’s cool. I start late, perhaps because of overdoing it last night on the 5-cent margaritas. The forest pines provide some shelter, but it’s a brute that takes more than two hours.
At the top, a view of blue infinity, falling away and away and away as far as the sea and Los Angeles. And a choice: take the side trail the last 100 feet to the very tippy top summit, or continue on the PCT. Wimp that I am, I opt for the last, preceded by a snooze under the Wally Waldron tree, a tangled old cypress estimated to be 1000 years old.
Many years ago, as a young man traveling around Europe, I saw an older couple sitting in a restaurant made famous by artists called the Colombe d’Or, in St Paul de Vence. Judging from the man’s face, he must have led a rich and likely remarkable life. It was a handsome face, full of lines and character, and he glanced at me with eyes, at once gentle and knowing, that surely had seen the world in all its rich breadth.
I remember the moment vividly, as yesterday, because it was the sort of face I would wish to have when I would be his age. Like this tree, gnarled and knowing, on a windy ridge at the top of the world.
The back side of the mountain is no cakewalk. From the summit you go down sharply, then up Mt Burnham, then down, then up Mt Hawkins, then down, then up yet again around Mt Islip before the trail begins its long descent to Little Jimmy campground and, two miles farther, the trailhead at Islip Saddle and yet another crossing of Highway 2.
There trail magic awaits, lemonade a la Rodeo. Another trail angel named Karen Agape – “Agape Agua,” lover of water – is also there, showing us how to emulsify essential oils into water. I don’t get the science, but “weed water” and weed trail mix strike me as quintessential California.