The PCT from Cajon Pass into the San Gabriel mountains is a bitch. It rises 5000 feet without break, some 20 miles from the floor the Interstate 15 corridor to the summit of Blue Ridge –- by repute, one of the longest, steepest ascents on the entire trail.
Just to be clear, we’re talking ten hours of tough climbing here, however well-groomed the gradient might be. And the south-facing slope is hot, hot, hot.
Worse, the word at McDonald’s was that there would be no water along the way. Seasonal springs had dried up. Caches of water bottles that locals ordinarily maintain were being “vandalized” — a polite way of saying hiker-hostiles were pissing in them. Many were no longer being stocked.
And for a special treat, the gods of the PCT threw in a new challenge for the Class of 2018. For Rodeo and me, it showed up as a strange surprise as we traversed an endless burn around 6000 feet, around mile 256. Pushing through some colorful flowered shrubbery overgrowing the trail, she asked, “Why does everywhere California smell like pot?”
Even here in the wilds of the San Gabriel mountains, half way up the slog from Cajon Pass to the cut-off for Mt. Baldy, there’s a sudden whiff of the weed. Could it be hikers hunkered down in the bushes, taking a “break” from the trail — purely medicinal, of course? Could it be passing potheads on the dirt truck route paralleling the PCT?
Nope, it turns out to be the dread Poodle Dog bush (named for its tall flower resembling the pompadoured tail of that fussily trimmed canine) has taken root along the ascent from I-15. A distinguishing warning sign is its kindred fragrance to marijuana.
Typically, we find out about it from Snake Eyes and Fugitive, just after Rodeo and I come along the section of trail they avoided by detouring along a nearby road. The PD plague was the talk of McDonald’s yesterday. How did we miss it? And shall we now pay? The rash Poodle Dog is said to inflict is worse than a coupling of poison oak and ivy. It typically shows up 24 to 48 hours after the encounter and can be toxic enough to knock you off the trail
If the goddess of el Cajon can be cruel, she can also be generous. The reward for the hard slog into high altitude is the alpine Eden at the top. At mile 360, around 7400 feet, the trail leaves the charred desert hills and enters another of those primeval forests of towering pines that make the southern mountains so magical.
A few miles farther, the trail tops out at 8300 feet near Guffy campground. Just before, you have a choice: drop down 3.6 miles to the little mountain village of Wrightwood via the steep Acorn Trail, or continue along the more or less level ridge for another six miles to Highway 2 at Inspiration Point. Having just climbed so far, I have little desire to immediately climb back down and, like most others, opt for the walk to the road and a quick hitch to town.
It turns out to be so totally the right call. The soft, even trail threads along the ridgeline under cool, shady pines, many four or five feet in diameter.
At mile 366, the trail emerges from the woods to pass the only eye-sore in the section — an ugly chain link fence, broken here and there and easily climbed over, enclosing a massive black rubber-lined reservoir with muddy green water at the bottom. “No trespassing,” reads a rusting sign. “No swimming.” As if.
I stop for lunch near the chairlifts for the Mountain High ski resort and wonder about this gentle place in winter, with its cold, snow and howling winds.
At the junction with Highway 2, where I intended to end my day, I run into Bee Hive, presumably named for his tangle of matted dreads. He’s a lively guy, so high on the hike that he has been dancing down the trail. “Literally,” he says. He found a pod he loves, on the trail of his dreams. He and four mates who hiked the AT two years ago have clocked 90 miles in the last three days. “I love pushing my body,” he says of this remarkable pace over challenging terrain. “This is the life. Where could you rather be?”
Taking a lead from Bee Hive, I decide that, in fact, there really is no place I would rather be. So instead of exiting at Highway 2, I go another four or five miles to Vincent Gap, a beautiful late afternoon saunter through yet more forests of pine, followed by a long drop down to the highway through a beautiful canyon of shady oaks.
Like Beehive, I too dance down the trail, a weird half-running gambol that I am glad no one was there to see. At this second crossing of Highway 2, I catch a lift into Wrightwood for dinner at the local Mexican spot, offering 5 cent margaritas. And there is the pod from McDonald’s. By evening’s end, I am too wasted to even blog and am asleep by 7 pm.
May 8: News Alert. Beware of the water at Deep Springs. A Naked One was witnessed “shitting” in the creek just upstream from the thermals. Not on the bank, in the water. At our hostel in Wrightwood – more on this tomorrow – Spirit is off the trail nursing a hugely swollen foot, infected by her time in the thermals two days before. Last year, if you read the blogs on Postholer, you encounter a hiker who was essentially sprinting toward Canada –- 20 and 30 mile days by Deep Creek -– only to also be forced forced off the trail after contracting an infection at Deep Springs.