Give and take, take and give. That’s the Pacific Crest Trail. One day you will ask yourself, “What the hell am I doing here?” The next you exclaim, “It doesn’t get better than this!”
Today, however, is mostly “take.” Departing from the San Francisquito highway, in Green Valley, the trail gains a quick thousand feet in little more than two miles. Reward: a first glimpse of the Mojave Desert, the sweltering boilerplate we are to cross the day after tomorrow.
To beat the heat, a small pod of us left Casa de Luna at dawn. We heard that this section would be no picnic. Temperatures by mid-morning would nudge into the 90s, and higher later. From the topmost ridge, we pause to admire the view – and angst about the coming desert passage, so vividly demanding – then plunge into a cool green oak grove. “Nice,” I say to myself. “Maybe this won’t be so bad.”
But the shady grove soon gives way to the day’s leitmotif: interminable contours along sun-beaten hills of brown scrub. The only break from the hot monotony is an abundance of blooming wild flowers. “Flowers, nice flowers,” I repeat to myself, almost robotically as the heat builds through the morning. “Think flowers, not heat.” Flowersflowersflowers.
The trail drops sharply to the Lake Hughes road, its melting tarmac sticky underfoot. On the other side, it rises even more sharply – unusually so for the generally gently ascending PCT. The south-facing slopes offer no protection from the beating sun. At one point, I crawl into the maw of an abandoned mine shaft, to escape even for a bit.
I fall in with Brandon, an Australian, and a blond Viking named Karsten, who painted a boulder in the likes of Puff the Magic Dragon last night at Casa de Luna. By the side of the trail we come across a small spring trickling from the rocks. We drink straight without filtering, joking about giardia but too hot to wait. An hour later, a herd of 30 to 40 hikers would queue up for more than an hour to laboriously fill their water bottles.
The steep climb that began the morning lasted less than an hour. So what is this? The trail shows no sign of easing up. On and on it goes as the morning turns to early afternoon and the heat builds inexorably. Up up up. Hot, hot hotter. As an hour turns into two, then three, I grow irritable. When the f**k will this ever stop!?!
With the temperatures approaching the mid-90s, I’m weaving on the trail, despite drinking a liter at the spring and carrying three more. No shade, no rocks, no trees, no bushes higher than my waist. Atop a distant ridge I see a grove of tall pines, but of course the trail gives it a wide berth in favor of yet another sun-blasted and seemingly endless series of ever-rising switchbacks. As if in mockery, the trail parallels the Mojave, flat and shimmering in an endless blue distance, reminding us what real heat will be like.
Nearly four hours after the Lake Hughes crossing, around 5000 feet in elevation, this particular slog ends as the trail enters a sparse stand of trees amid sand dunes that gradually thickens into a forest of oak and pine.
Salvation! One of those high-altitude alpine Edens, cool and delicious. Trouble is, we are all too whupped to enjoy it. Between the heat and the unremitting elevation, many of us are half off our feet by the time we reach Sawmill campground, 20 miles in.
But if the PCT beat us down, the day ends with a last, saving grace. Where the trail dumps into the gravel parking lot, there’s Rodeo. Cold apples, sandwiches, impossibly delicious iced lemonade. Half a dozen hikers gather for glass after glass after thirsty glass: Whistler, Karsten the German, Brandon the Aussie, Pot Hole and a few others. Seldom has trail magic been so welcome.
We sit in a sort of shell-shocked silence for a spell, savoring this improbable miracle high in the mountains whose only access is a rugged dirt track. Whistler, I notice, looks especially deep in thought.
“Dude, penny for your thoughts,” I say.
“I’m thinking,” he replies. Long pause. “I’m thinking that, all in all, I am done with the desert. So f**king done.”
Aren’t we all, I agree with a nod. Aren’t we all.