Trail Devil

 

ATT07322

Time for true confessions.

We are devils of the PCT, sirens of the sort that almost tempted Ulysses from his odyssey.

My wife Suzanne, aka Rodeo, is back on trail and offering her unique PCT concierge service. That means a car and “taxi” service to and from the trailhead, or wherever. That can complicate otherwise simple decisions. Like continuous-stepping the PCT.

It is hard to say no as you contemplate the 3500-foot climb out of Sierra City in the mid-day heat of a 96-degree day, especially when weak-legged after a 2-week stint off-trail. “There’s a road to the top,” says Rodeo, consulting Guthooks. “Why don’t I just drive you?”

I do not say no. Worse, I invite others to join us. As we ferry a clutch of hikers to the trailhead, I mention as casually as possible: “You know, the new rerouting of the PCT passes Packer Lake. I’m picking up the trail there,” saving a few miles and several thousand feet in elevation.

The three look at one another. “No, thanks” is the verdict. Obviously, they are made of sterner stuff than I. But I do know of others, earlier in the day, who happily took a pass on That Big Hot Climb. I won’t name names.

The trail north of Sierra City is a series of sharp ups and downs, interspersed with rolling stretches along forested ridgelines offering occasional glimpses far ahead of snow-capped Mount Lassen. Its main feature is the 3500-foot descent to the middle fork of the Feather River and 3000-foot climb up the other side. More positively, it’s also notable for some great stops along the way, beginning in charming Sierra City through the lodges around Buck’s Lake to the delightful river hamlet of Belden some 90 miles up the trail at mile 1287 on the north fork of the Feather River.

ATT67144

ATT43155

ATT60793

Right now, I’m sitting on the upper deck of the Belden Town Resort watching boisterous beer-drinking hikers balancing on a tippy wooden raft in the river running by the lodge. From the beach, one guy throws beers to those on the raft. The idea is to dive or jump off to catch the beer in mid-trajectory. A case or two goes into this game, without a single score.

Whenever a hiker passes over the nearby bridge, a chant goes up from the raft below. “One of us! One of us!” A girl crosses who everyone seems to know. They shout out her trail name, short for Fiona. “Pee-na! Pee-na!” It would be easy to mistake that for something else. She carries a twelve-pack and drops it into the rushing stream for the swimmers to dive and fetch. Aptly, there’s a lighted sign atop the girders of the bridge. It’s a martini glass with straw and olive.

As for me, I kick back in a cushy beach chair considering tomorrow’s climb — an utterly exposed, south-facing cliff, up which the PCT zigzags for 5000 feet over 11 miles.

Coming into Belden, half way down a series of unending switchbacks at 4400 feet or so, I caught a glimpse of the trail as it leveled out at the bottom of the valley. If there were hikers, they would have seemed no larger than ants, little black dots hardly discernible far below.

Much of the descent has been through old clear-cut, scarcely a tree in sight under the beating sun. At lower elevations the trail re-enters the woods but it gets hotter and hotter as you drop into the valley. Mid-summer circadas buzz amid the dry grasses and oak trees. My ears are ringing with the rapid loss of elevation. Belden, at 2400 feet, is one of the lowest points on the PCT. And that means pain on the other side of the river.

On the deck at the charming Belden Town Resort, over a cold glass of wine, I turn to Rodeo.

“Is there another option?” I ask. “Hmm,” she replies, again consulting Guthooks, complemented by Google maps. “There might just be.”

So, another confession: I am conflicted. Not because of the climb so much as the realities of time. For the past three months, I’ve been commuting between the trail and my job in Kenya. And as a dad, I have family obligations not always compatible with solo life on the trail. Like college visits with my junior-year daughter and an older son’s birthday.

That pushes me to a bummer of a decision. As my time grows short, I will start skipping ahead. After so many more or less continuous (or at least closely linked) steps, I am going into PCT sampling mode — our hiker version of urban restaurant “grazing” or “bar-hopping,” where you pop from one spot to the next – in order to get in as many meaningful miles as possible from here to Canada.

O well. Hike your own hike, as we say. I don’t know whether that will be 90 percent of the remaining trail, or 60. But one thing I do know: I’ll throw in a good share of days like tomorrow. Because it’s the hard bits that make the good ones all the better.

Who knows. Perhaps my daughter will go to college in California, and I can pick up wherever I leave off.

July 20

Independence Day

It’s the Fourth of July in Sierra City. That’s mile 1195 in PCT Time. And no one has shown up. Except us hikers, that is.

Back in Truckee, some 40 miles south, the main street is lined with sight-seers. There’s a parade, with floats and marching bands. Flags fly, the music swells. There are barbecues and country western concerts and fireworks.

Not everyone is happy about that. The woman watering the flowers on the corner across from the grand Hotel Truckee complains that July 4 celebrants pick all her daisies. “They just pluck ’em. None’ll be left,” she says, shaking her head sadly. And those PCT hikers, camped out in the park at the east end of Donner Lake. Sleeping wherever they like, in violation of all town ordinances not to mention polite behavior.

In Sierra City, by contrast, a weird quiet marks this festive day. “I hear there might be a parade,” one hopeful hiker says as he passes on the trail early in the morning, making speed for Highway 49 and a hitch into town so as not to miss the fun. Alas, organized fun is not on the schedule. Could it be that Sierra City is just too small — population 167 and a dozen dogs, on a good day?

Quaint and charming, Sierra City comprises a handful buildings lining a twisty mountain road in the Yuba River valley. It survives on hikers, who descend on the place in the hundreds during peak season. Yet on this day of days, the cafe and the town’s two restaurants are closed, with signs on their locked doors saying, in effect, “Gone Fishin’.” So are its two hotels cum boarding houses. So is the post office, where hikers wait to pick up resupply boxes. The saloon won’t open until 4:30. And not a flag flies.

Thank the good Lord, then, for the General Store. Its famous front porch is packed with hikers ordering up its famous one-pound burgers and downing chocolate malts with incredible focus of purpose. Calories, calories, calories. Fodfoodfood.

This morning, when the first hikers arrived, the store’s shelves had been stripped bare by the previous day’s invasion. By afternoon, in true July 4 American spirit, the owners arranged a special holiday delivery. In less than a hour or two, though, our hiker hordes have again snatched up everything. What do I do for breakfast, I wonder, as I grab what I can for my next week on the trail? Only two small packs of instant maple-flavored oatmeal, my favorite, are left. “Wow,” says the woman in charge. “I had four boxes just an hour ago.”

Beer, however, is plentiful. Coming to the highway into town, the trail crosses the Yuba River across a steel-girder arched bridge. “Come down, come down,” shout a growing congregation of hikers on the rocks beneath. I ditch my pack and clamber down. Immediately someone tosses me a beer — and then another as I down the first. The water is fast and frigid. From a rock cliff on the other bank, the more daring jump into a deep pool at the base of a small falls. “Smack,” go the jumpers as they hit. “Clap, clap, clap,” go those watching the spectacle. “Glug, glug, glug,” go the beer-drinkers like me. It’s Acapulco on the Yuba.

Thinking I had better get to town for a late lunch, I leave the river merrymaking and climb the last stretch of trail to Highway 49. And there is the first trail magic I’ve seen a few hundred miles. Saint John the Baptist, so named for his bushy beard, did the PCT last year, and previously the Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail — the Triple Crown! This year he’s trail angeling, and what a feast he lays on. Pasta bolognese. Bagels and salmon and cream cheese. Baguettes with fresh tomatoes and cheese. Not to mention beer, sodas and apple cider. After three helpings of pasta and a sandwich or two, I sit back for more leisurely snacking. “Another beer?” asks Saint John, helpfully. “Maybe a plum or some wild cherries? Apricots?”

The white-clapboard Sierra City church lets hikers pitch their tents on its grounds, and I add mine to the growing mix. Only inches separate one from another, and hikers cluster at picnic tables sorting provisions and talking strategy for the coming day’s five thousand foot climb out of town to the mountains above. It’s an infamous brute of a slog, and with the temperatures nearing 90 it will not be easy.

But for now, no one is stressing. The river is cold and refreshing. And so is the beer. It is the Fourth of July on the PCT.

July 4

Street Brawl

pct flowers

It’s fisticuffs at the grand old Truckee Hotel. Seems the concierge arranged for one taxi driver to take me to the PCT trailhead on Interstate 80. When that looked iffy, she arranged another. Of course, both show up simultaneously.

Never mind the early morning hour, around 6 am. It’s show-time.

“Who the f*** are you?” one yells.

“Who the f*** are you?” replies the other.

“F*** you! This is my fare!”

“No, it’s not. The hotel called me! So f*** you!”

“You f***ing scab! You’re not taking my money!”

“It’s my money, a**hole!”

All this unfolds beneath the windows of the hotel’s (until recently) sleeping guests. I get in with the driver whose eyes haven’t yet rolled back in his head, but it’s a near thing. As we pull out, the competing driver is shouting unprintable imprecations and pounding on the trunk, thinking to grab my backpack and hold it hostage.

I suspect this is not your everyday Truckee scene. The town counts among the most charming on the PCT — like Julian, some eight hundred miles back — and Truckeeites consider themselves family friendly folk. I hitched in on a Monday after a long day on the trail, asked the tourist office for the best old-fashioned lodging in town and liked it so much that I spent a zero there the next day.

By hiker standards, it’s paradise: cool bars, patio cafes, restaurants, gear stores, supermarkets, hotels and motels, including a hiker hostel (literally) on the wrong side of the very busy train tracks that run through the center of town. The Truckee Hotel is the crown jewel, and among the most affordable, with a fine wood-paneled bar and the best chef in town. I returned to the trail almost reluctantly.

Just when you think you have the PCT figured, it surprises you. By repute, the 40-odd mile stretch from Donner Pass to Sierra City, at mile 1195, is considered something of a sleeper. Ten miles in, I had formed my opinion: pretty, yes, but nothing special. Deep pine forests, grassy open meadows, gurgling brooks and streams, the larger ones crossed by neat wooden bridges. The birds singing, wind in the trees, the trail soft with loam and pine needles — it all reminded me of my own northern Michigan.

Street Brawl photo

How wrong I was. By mile 15, I was agog. Woods give way to crestlines give way again to woods and then to ridges offering vistas worthy of the Sound of Music. And the meadows, meadows, meadows — miles and miles of them, nothing but flowers, rising up the slopes to sharp green ridgelines, etched knife-like against the sky, itself a hazy, milky liquid blue unlike anything I have ever seen.

Words rarely fail me, but today they do: dazzling, glorious, gorgeous, awesome — god-like, even. Yesterday – passed one hiker coming through a more modest patch of flowered meadow. “We’re in a fairyland,” she exclaimed, by way of greeting. What would she say today, I wonder? I gotta borrow from this morning’s taxi drivers. Unbelievable. Unfuckingbelievable.

flowers

And here’s where it gets embarrassing. For a moment, the sheer ineffable beauty is so overpowering that I go down on my knees. It just seems like the thing to do. “Thank, thank you, thank you,” I say, over and over, not sure who or what I am thanking but hands held out as if receiving a blessing. As I am.

I stop early for the night, after 22 miles, and camp overlooking a small stream with the sun setting across a green valley in the distance. A light breeze keeps the bugs away.

July 3

Primal Scream

Donner Pass 2

The family that eats together stays together.

The Donner Pass gives special meaning to the old adage about the bonding effects of the communal table. After taking a wrong turn in their Conestoga wagons, the famed Donner party failed to get across the Sierras before winter. As every school kid knows, the would-be emigrants ended up eating one another to survive.

That pass is today’s destination, and the trail wastes no time in giving me a taste of the Donner experience. No sooner have I climbed out of my sleeping bag, in dawn’s chilly light, than it’s up, up, up — first through the pine forests of the valley where I spent the night, at the Five Lakes campground at mile 1136, then through vast meadows of flowers often more than a square mile in size.

Doner Pass 1

After a quick 1200 feet of elevation gain, I camel up at a stream cascading from the ridge above, where you can see the top lifts of the Squaw Valley ski resort amid a few lingering patches of snow. According to the PCT grapevine, the lodge offers a free beer to hikers. But who in their right mind would climb all the way up there?

A pair of southbounders amble past, he in a cowboy hat, she in leopard tights. As it turns out, they just did. And so do I, it turns out, for after a series of long switchbacks the PCT passes right by the trail for the Squaw Valley mountain house.

As I slog along — shedding layers as the temperatures soar — I’m suddenly seized by an absurd hiker fantasy. A guy sent up by Squaw Valley sits by the cut-off to the resort, a cooler at his feet. As I pass, he opens it and pulls out a long-neck bottle of that promised beer. O how it glitters. O how it sparkles with condensation. He waggles it tantalizingly. It’s only eight in the morning, but I yearn for it. It will taste so unbelievably good!

Just then my phone chimes. Reception! And the mirage fades. That’s when I decide to get off the trail about 12 miles ahead and hitch into the town of Truckee. There I will find that beer. Little do I know that, in the coming miles, I will earn every drop.

For now, still early in the day, I sit atop the Squaw Valley pass, the ski lifts running up the mountain off to the side, and admire the forever views to the south across Lake Tahoe, and to the north and east ridge upon ridge of mountain ranges, each bluer than the last marching into the distance.

North of Squaw Valley, the wilderness deepens. I pause at one point along the twisting trail to simply look and listen. Silence, save for a distant woodpecker and, further still, a small plane. All around are high bare peaks, like mesas, flat-topped with the stones slowly eroding.

Donner Pass 4

A glance at the map shows that the trail goes over them, too. I let out a little primal scream, self-consciously as if disturbing the peace, and it echoes back to me.

The trail climbs and climbs. Then it climbs some more. Insanely, a group of trail runners comes by, 9 miles from where they began at Donner Pass, where I hope to get to by mid-afternoon. It’s the Truckee ultra mountain marathon. “You make this look easy,” I say as one group chugs pass, downhill at least. “You’re doing the hard work,” a man replies. “How much does that pack weigh?”

Too much, I confess. Too much. It’s laden with food for my next resupply at Sierra City, 50-odd miles away. My personal Conestoga wagon, strapped to my back.

My phone starts chiming again, telling me I am finally near the top of this particular ascent, marked by a peak called Tinker’s Knob at 8,900 feet and the slightly lower Mount Anderson. The sun beats on the south-facing slope as if it were still the desert. Climate change? I pack snow into my hat to stay cool. It’s dangerous up here.

The trail meanders along the crest ridge, far above the tree line, with no cover of any sort. It’s beautiful but a bitch. Up and down, up and down, with the temperatures rising into the high-80s. By now, the acres of wild flowers have ceased to charm. So have the views. Around mile 1152, an hour or so from Donner Pass, the trail enters a small stand of pines at a saddle in the ridge, then looks to go straight up another steep bare slope.

I let out an expletive. Who designed this trail? Why go over the top when there’s a perfectly good contour through those nice cool trees just below? That’s when I lose it. Fuckfuckfuckettyfucking PCT!

I yell. I stomp. I throw my hat, jump up and down and totally embarrass myself in front of some astonished day-hikers who abruptly materialize from around a bend. And then I realize that the trail in fact does just what I thought it should, veering off across a small snow field into the shade of the trees beyond.

Once again I pack my hat with snow, cool my temper and go on. And suddenly, not so far in the distance, just past Emigrant Pass that cost so many so much enroute to California, is Interstate 90 at the Donner Pass. And what should await at the trailhead? Those promised beers, left not by Squaw Valley resorters but by some anonymous trail angel.

And it’s cold, too.

July 1

American Amazon

Colfax-Summit-20180701-00257

Power-hiking. Usually, we think of men putting in those mind-boggling 30 to 40-mile days. But surprise. Judging from what I’ve seen on the trail the past few days, it’s women all the way.

Leaving camp at Velma Lake, at mile 1110, the PCT runs soft and fast, more like flat, forested Oregon than the up-and-down Sierras. It’s a landscape of deep pine forest, ferns and marshes and meadows exploding with blue and yellow flowers. To the west, the granite-faced ridges of Desolation Wilderness taper off and lose their snow, becoming more hills than mountains. “A moving sidewalk,” I say to myself. “I’m really gonna book it!”

Just then, a pair of younger hikers blast past in a clatter of hiking poles. Both women. As they pass with a cheery “Good morning,” one catches a root and falls in what she laughingly calls a “face-plant” — her second on the trail, she tells me, bouncing up.

Actually, though, it isn’t. Instead of pitching face-first, she twists in mid-air and lands safely on her pack. We dub this remarkable feat of trail acrobatics the PCT half-twist. It should be an Olympic sport, like the diving competition, we joke. And with that they’re off again, aiming to put in 30+ miles before the day is done.

Richardson Lake, another of of those sparkling blue alpine redoubts, makes a great place for a break. I’m sitting on a weathered log, dangling my feet in the water and admiring the view, when there’s a commotion in the bushes and a stripped-down Amazon splashes into the water, free-styles like a Mississippi paddle-wheeler out to the middle of the lake, disappears in a deep under-water dive, then re-emerges in a white-water-churning swim back to shore. “Hi,” she says, squirming back into her hiking togs, donning her pack and heading down the trail, all this in a very few minutes. Where do they even make these people, I ask myself?

Struggling up a rather gentle ascent to Barker Pass, 15 miles into the day, I wonder whether to camp for the night or go on. My maps show a long, steep climb to a crest high above the tree line. It will be beautiful, I know, but because of the steep slopes to either side there will be no camping for another ten miles. And it’s hot. Hothothot. And I’m tired. So tiredtiredtired.

And again, just at this moment as earlier in the day, a trio of young women — in dresses, no less — blow by me. When I catch up at Barker Pass, they’ve got their lunches laid out on a picnic table and are busily planning the rest of the day. Their strategies are similar but tactics differ.

MacGyver, in a sort of calico dress, says the goal is to get within striking distance for an early morning arrival at Donner Pass, where family will pick her up for a zero in Reno. Already today they’ve come over Dick’s Pass, about 20 miles back. “That means,” I say, “that you’ll do another 15 or 20 this afternoon?” Yup, she nods, scarcely giving it a thought. Seeing that it’s 3 pm in the afternoon, I think, that’s scary impressive.

I do a bit of silent mental mansplaining. Should they really be sitting around this picnic table, chatting with the likes of me? They should set off right now, if they’re going to put in that kind of distance. I mean, like this red hot second!

Another of the trio, the one in a black dress, shakes her head at this. Her trail name, Stuck to the Ground, reveals her intentions. “I like to nap,” she explains, and that shady spot under the pines looks just too inviting. She’ll catch up with her friends after a snooze.

And so off I go, both inspired and daunted, slogging up from Barker Pass to the ridgeline at 8300 feet, through forests of giant pines, Lake Tahoe resplendent to the east, over a snow drift at the summit and along a treeless crest that contours the steep mountain hillsides for mile after glorious mile, the land falling away forever on either side, range upon range of mountains fading into the blue distance. In the slanting late afternoon sun, it is one of the most beautiful places have ever been.

Ten miles on, the trail at last drops to Five Lakes campground. I wearily shed my pack and hurriedly put up my tent before the mosquitoes eat me alive. The Pad Thai dehydrated meal I’ve been rehyrating in my peanut butter “cooking” jar has not, well, hydrated. But then, after 26 miles today, I am too tired to eat.

I think of the Amazons, as I’ve dubbed them, still speeding along. My 31-year-old son’s birthday is coming up in a few days, and I find myself wishing I could wrap one of them up and send her off as a possible future daughter-in-law.

Trust me. I know how weird this sounds, and maybe it’s a measure of my deep fatigue. But wow, talk about women power. Made in America.

June 30

Rock Face

IMG-20180629-00252(1)

Desolation Wilderness, so aptly named. Mountains of broken rocks. Towering ranges of granite faces, topped by heavy snow. It is the very definition of barren. For the longest stretches, almost nothing grows. Yet it is uniquely impressive, like no other section of the Pacific Crest Trail, north or south

I begin the day at Echo Lake, a small resort community at mile 1092, by stocking up at the local grocery. Fishing boats bob at the docks. A boat taxi ferries folks to cottages up and down the shore. The PCT follows a ridge overlooking the water to the east, winding among pines and massive granite boulders. With the morning sun glinting on the crystal lake, it is a gorgeous scene.

As the trail gains elevation, the trees thin out, then largely disappear. The gray granite vistas are starkly beautiful, in their way, but unrelenting. Sometimes the trail is no more than a faint dirty streak across featureless slabs of rock. Other times it is an ankle-twisting, foot-bruising gauntlet of sharp, sun-split stones.

For good reason, the area is popular with day-hikers. Many carry picnics and fishing poles for trout in the high-altitude lakes. They glisten like pearls beneath towering cliffs, streams splashing down from the melting snow. From time to time, huge boulders come tumbling down as well, decapitating hikers or smashing limbs. I watch, aghast, as one lands splat on a little girl’s pet dog. Game over, Toto. So sad.

Actually, I’m making this up. You can only wander in the heat through these rocks for so long before going a bit crazy. Striking as Desolation Wilderness may be, at the end of the day I’m just not a stone-lovin’ kind of guy, I guess.

IMG-20180629-00253

All this changes as the trail rises toward Dick’s Pass, at mile 1105, the last of the High Sierra’s major ascents. At the summit ridge, I clamber over a stubborn berm of snow. It’s surprising how much remains in the forested upper reaches of the north face. You slip, slide, fall, posthole — but without risk.

A few miles from Dick’s Pass, I stop for the night at Middle Velma Lake and bushwhack to a camp site on a rocky promontory of, naturally, smooth granite. The setting sun lights up the hills to the east, again mostly granite. But it’s nice even so.

June 29

Call me by my name

IMG-20180628-00250

Los Angles. Nairobi. Geneva. London. Boston. San Francisco. Reno. South Lake Tahoe.

I think of them as stations on the cross: duty calls after leaving the PCT at the beginning of June, and now back again, with stops in-between. Some 17,000 miles, five days of traveling, three continents, all to set foot once again on this 18-inch path of sand, dust and rock winding its way from Mexico to Canada.

The Mellow Meadows hostel in South Lake Tahoe is, well, mellow. A private room for $60; a bunk in a shared room for a fraction of that — appealing in this pricey resort town of casinos and strip malls where the Reno airport shuttle drops me off.

Out front in a circle of chairs, a female hiker announces that she’ll soon turn 21. Another practices balancing on a zip line between two trees. In the common room, a set of somewhat older hikers cook dinner and watch a video of a trail runner named Karl setting a world record for the fastest “supported” hike of the Appalachian Trail. That’s when an essentially professional athlete recruits a support team of feeders and tenders and dashes off into the woods to do something as fast as possible that, by rights, should be done slowly.

A dozen of us watch him moan and groan, lance blisters, trip on rocks and repeatedly fall on his face, suffer from angst and self-doubt and the existential pain and agony of striving to “do it ” — that is, “conquer the AT.” That’s the language, and of course he does, along the way passing (without a glance) all the impressive sights of the Appalachian Trail, which the veterans in our group happily point out from personal experience. As in: “I remember that bridge.” Or: “Yeah, that ledge is the most photographed spot on the whole Appalachian Trail!” And: “The AT makes the PCT look easy!”

That last is true enough, but the whole spectacle strikes me as neurotic, this lunatic near-killing himself turning something that should be a personal adventure, an encounter with oneself, into some extreme faux-sport.

Picking up the trail once again at Carson Pass this morning after nearly a month away, in all its sheer beauty, reminds me that the PCT is not about miles, or “making it” to Canada. It’s what John Muir famously called a “saunter” through the best our Earth has to offer. It’s about the pause. The moment. A freedom that few people ever get to experience.

IMG-20180628-00249

So I forget about logging a 25-mile day, the better to position myself tomorrow for one of the Sierras’ last formidable climbs over Dick’s Pass. Instead, I amble along, taking the time to drink everything in, as befits my trail name, Pause. The snow on the high ridges. The soft path winding through sunny meadows in the valley. Flowers everywhere. The rippling Truckee trout stream catching the light as it crosses and re-crosses the trail. It is a fresh, warm, perfect spring morning in the mountains.

Later, the trail becomes a tangle of boulder fields, more like the dread AT than PCT. But even then there are cliff-top glimpses of Lake Tahoe in the distance. Woodpeckers sound amid the pines. There’s running water everywhere. The slopes burst with spring grass.

I call it a day at Berkeley Camp near Echo Lake, a modest 14 miles from where I began, and settle into a deck chair on a bluff overlooking Lake Tahoe, as deep blue as the purest Mediterranean.

“Gag me with a spoon,” you might think, as I likely would, reading such seemingly sentimental drivel from afar. But from where I sit just now, on this bluff, it is a real and precious slice of life.

June 28

Fear

 

ATT64452

Facts versus feelings, science versus psychology.

Ask a PCT thru-hiker where the desert ends and the mountains begin, and the answer will be unequivocal: Kennedy Meadows, gateway to the Sierras. That’s where alpine peaks, glacial streams and pine forests supplant sand, sun and cacti.

Scientists, however, will tell you differently. Geologically, the Sierras begin at Tehachapi Pass, bisected by Highway 58. To the south is the Mojave; to the north, the foothills of the Sierras. We hikers may find they look a lot like what we’ve been walking through for the past 500 miles. But in fact, Tehachapi marks a new beginning, a climactic and geological fresh chapter. Which is great. Because, psychologically, I am done with desert. So is everyone else.

The hike from Cottonwood Creek to the Tehachapi – Willow Springs road is 23 miles. I start a bit after 6 am. In the soft sand beneath Cottonwood Creek bridge, hikers are rousing themselves from tents and sleeping bags, preparing to start the day. As predicted, a weather front has rolled through. Temperatures overnight were in the 40s. They will not rise much above 70, according to forecast. This could not be more welcome.

Like many, I’ve been anxious about this last stretch of desert, almost to the point of not wanting to do it. The heat is one reason, the long carries between water sources another. But none of this is new. There have been hotter days, including the very first from Campo. So why the uncharacteristic jitters?

Maybe I sense it’s the end of something. We are all so eager to have the desert behind us. And yet, it has been wonderful — surprising in its austere beauty, even more in its diversity, from featureless scrub to high alpine meadows and those beautiful oak glades in-between.

There’s also fear of the new. The Sierras are still bound by snow; stream crossings can be dangerous in the spring melt. Trail angel Mary, driving me from the train from LAX to Hiker Heaven just a few days ago, warned me against venturing in too soon. Within the past ten days, she said, there was as much four feet of fresh snow around Mt Whitney.

Last year at this time, she gave rides to a pair of Asian girls, Tree and Buttercup, one Chinese, the other Korean. Both died in stream crossings. “I had a terrible premonition about them,” she told me on the road to Agua Dulce. “They were so small, not even five feet tall.” And they seemed over-confident. “Don’t go alone. Don’t cross those rivers without other hikers,” she told them. As it happened, neither listened. “We’ll be ok,” each said. The Korean girl hadn’t told her family she was hiking the PCT. They learned when informed of her death.

Perhaps this is my age speaking. And I am a father of four. In a long career as a correspondent, I have seen wonderful and terrible things — wars, revolutions, the strength and triumphs of ordinary people in the face of danger or adversity, but also their weakness, their capacity for bestiality or mere foolishness. By nature, we behave as though all will be well, however difficult whatever it is we might undertake. But with years, we also learn how badly things can go wrong, often beginning with the smallest things. Like underestimating the force of a small river, perhaps only ten feet wide and three deep.

Whatever my doubts, they vanish on the trail. A brisk winds blows; hikers are bundled against the chill in fleeces and rain jackets. The land is completely featureless — grass and sparse sage — save for the ubiquitous wind turbines, ghostly in the dawn light. They tower above us, in endless rows, emitting a weird whirring noise, their spikey blades miming the even weirder Joshua trees doing their Joshua tree thing. The mountains to the south are cloaked in cloud.

ATT85835

After a steep 3500-foot climb, six miles along, the trail plunges into Tylerhorse Canyon. Three guys who left Hikertown last night are gathering water from the trickling stream and smoking weed. I quickly camel a liter and refill my bottle. “Man, one guy last night was doing acid,” one says. Another: “At midnight, I just sucked down a beer and kept going.” An older guy with a white beard, soft-spoken Bill, listens off to the side as the other three cough roughly after their hit. One hiked 42 miles yesterday and looks wasted.

That turns out to be the pattern. Up one canyon, down another, repeat. All this through the brown, brown hills of southern California where the tallest bush is scarcely knee-high. And yet: even at mid-morning, the day remains cool. The wind blows atop the ridges. With the Mojave and its wind farms stretching far below, it is like walking on top of the world. I gulp huge breaths of air, drinking it in like water.

At 10 am, about ten miles in, I take a break at the bottom of Gamble Spring Canyon. It’s faintly disheartening to walk down the long switch-backs in full view of another set rising 1500 feet on the other side. At the summit ridge of Burns Mountain, there’s an improbable water cache with eight or ten chairs clustered under a red parasol. It even has a name: the “549” Bar & Grill — Fine Dining with a View.” House specials: Lizard Chips, Jack Rabbit Stew, Rattle Snake and Eggs.

ATT68836

Brandon, Penguin Pants, Ranger and Missing Person are there, along with a few others. The talk is of Odysseus, the sacred weight of hospitality in the ancient world and its echo on the PCT. As the Greek mythic hero was blown around the Aegean, he was taken in by various tribes of the Greek islands, like the Lotus Eaters, after their fashion – much as we are by trail angels. “Contrast that to Cyclops, who ate his guests,” says Yoseki. “And look what happened to him.”

Yoseki is one of the few who trail-named himself, a composite of his three favorite places in the world – Yosemiti, Sequoia and King’s Canyon national parks, all just a skip up the trail at this point. Thinking of my own imminent departure, I mention how hard it is to leave the trail, even briefly, and how I (at least) display symptoms of withdrawal, as if from a drug. “We live in Valhalla, everyday day,” Yoseki replies, still in his mythic meme. “It’s a hard place to come down from.” That’s why he recently retired from his legal practice, he adds. “So I can do stuff like this.”

The trail drops down to Willow Springs Road along pine-speckled ridges and field after field of wind turbines in their thousands. The reason they are here by now is obvious: this is one of the most consistently breezy places on earth. At times, the wind is strong enough to knock you sideways on the trail – bam, Bam, BAM! But it’s exhilarating, as well, and I keep gulping in the fresh gusts like someone who has just emerged from a vast desert into a land of cool and refreshing lakes.

It’s another of those very special days, perhaps uniquely common on the PCT, where all feels well in the world, and that deep within the gods are with you.

Where the trail dumps you at the highway, there’s magic. Rodeo happily offers up sandwiches, apples and ice-cold lemonade; the legendary Coppertone, an angel who parks his camper at trailheads up and down the PCT for as long as a week at a time, dishes out his trademark Root Beer floats.  Neither expects anything in return. For the Wandering Wayfarers that R Us, it is the embodiment of that caring-sharing PCT ethos — and the antidote to fear.

May 31

The Wee Ville Plot

The Wee Ville Plot

 

ATT66736

The alarm goes off at 4:30 am. Dawn breaks faintly to the east. I really should be going. But no. I just do not want to do this: get up and start hiking the Aqueduct, notorious for its flat, dull, hot, dusty, monotonous path across the corner of the Mojave northeast of Hikertown.

By contrast, this bed is so warm and comfy. My wife Rodeo and I have the honeymoon suite. And a porch of tattered comfy chairs and sofas. And our own shower and bathroom. Give this up? Besides, I’m tired from yesterday’s 21-mile trek from Sawmill campground to Hikertown. My legs hurt. It’s cold out.

What do I do? I discipline myself and make the hardened hiker’s responsible choice. I go back to bed. Today’s forecast is for heat, I tell myself. Tomorrow, a cold front rolls through. Hike the hard part in cool 60s and 70s, says the rational part of my brain. I nod in agreement with my Id’s reasoning — and wake up four hours later. It’s Zero Day at Hikertown!

Behind the counter at the Neenach Café, a couple miles down highway 138, Joanne is dancing to a Pandora track of 70s and 80s hits. At a neighboring table, Mission is robot dancing at his table, bemused dad looking on. Mission got his name for his determination to hike the entire PCT in 100 days. On the wall is a world map, with pins marking hikers’ home ports of call. Nothing for Africa, except a couple for South Africa and one for Zimbabwe. I push in mine: Nairobi Mike.

“All these hikers, rushing through. They look just exhausted,” says Joanne, noting my lingering over coffee. She brings a free vanilla-iced espresso. “I wish you a happy and safe journey,” she adds with a kind smile. Along the trail, and life.

Just then that country classic plays, “You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes.” Ridiculous as it sounds, I am suddenly overcome with emotion. Life is so sweet, even the most mundane music. We rush through it, on the PCT making time and mileage. Maybe I’m simply tired. Maybe it’s that 4:30 alarm and my abrupt decision to take a zero. But I realize how important it is to pause, to take notice, watch life, slowly. To live up to my trail name.

Back at the ranch, a mini-drama plays out. Seems there’s a rival hiker hang a few miles down the road called Wee Ville. (This is right out of Dr Seuss, but I kid you not.) It also seems that the Wee Villians have taken umbrage at Hikertown’s profile on the PCT and want a cut of the action. So they allegedly started spreading mischievous rumors: how Hikertown’s owner, Richard Skaggs, so zealously guards his domain that he tosses out hikers who patronize the Wee Ville store and restaurant rather than his own Neenach Café. He’s further reported, according to the often dubious hiker network, to possibly use less detergent when washing his place’s bed sheets than the Wee Villians. And also that his place’s breakfast tacos aren’t as delicious as those of the Wee Villians. It’s war, declares the Wee Ville chief, who stocks an award-winning $42 bottle of white wine made by his daughter-in-law, I believe, that nobody buys. Another Hikertown plot hatched in the mind of the diabolical Richard?

As it happens, the purported villain in this tale has just loaded half a dozen hikers into his Rolls and driven them to Wee Ville for dinner. As none of them likely bought that $42 bottle of wine, alas, the Wee Ville sense of conspiracy against them goes on unabated. But really, who knows the truth about such things?

Richard himself finds it all quite funny. A retired Disney executive, he bought his Hikertown spread as a sort of desert getaway without ever having heard of the PCT. Soon after the deal closed, he and his wife (also a major Disney exec) awoke one morning to find their yard filled with sleeping hikers. “I thought they were hobos,” he says. So he did the obvious Disney thing. He went out and offered them money to leave. “They wouldn’t take it,” he said. It seems they looked like hobos. They smelled like hobos. But they weren’t hobos. “They were hikers on the PCT!”

Richard still marvels as this wonderful discovery. In true trail angel tradition, the Skaggs got into it. His wife gussied up the various farm buildings around the place, re-creating them in the Wild West motif we see today. As the trail’s popularity grew and the numbers of hikers passing through increased, Richard turned Hikertown into a bona fide operation, taking on a manager named Bob, who’s been there more than a dozen years, and installing all the things hobo hikers need – beds, showers, water, soap. Hikertown was born.

He does all this for modest donations that do not come close to covering his costs. But so what? He’s loaded. Besides, he likes the company, the camaraderie and diversity of all the folks from around the world. He also likes giving the younger female hikers a spin in his souped-up, Blade runner dune buggies. But that’s another story. Along the way, he finds time for some high-profile good works. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines some years ago, he marshaled food, fresh water, medicines, blankets and the like from around the county, chartered a plane and flew it all to those in need, personally directing his own humanitarian relief operation.

In other words, he did what he does for thousands of hikers at Hikertown every year: jump to it for those in need, however modest.

I survey this Hikertown scene, replaying itself each day, from the vantage point of my little porch in the early evening, glass of wine in hand, and think about the next 17-mile stretch of trail – essentially a dirt road-walk along the Los Angeles Aqueduct, sometimes open, sometimes running through a huge pipe, but mostly buried in a concrete tunnel. It is notoriously hot and long. Hence the number of hikers opting to do it at night.

ATT46613

I have a day left before flying back to Nairobi for work, just once more before committing myself in earnest to a long march on the trail. How to spend it – on the flats of the Mojave along the aqueduct, or in the hills rising from Cottonwood Creek at mile 435 and on to Tehachapi, 23 miles away?

For me, it’s a no-brainer.

May 30

Excuse me, sir. Would You Like a Rat with your Drink?

 

 

tj21873_062417_113034_1117462-1

The weird thing is the cream Rolls Royce. After a long meander through otherwise bare golden-grass hills, the PCT dumps you on the fringe of the Mojave Desert, where beauty immediately fades. But wait. Past the fenced lot of broken electronics, past the rusting cars, past the dilapidated warehouse of what looks to be abandoned movie props, across the highway of on-rushing traffic, through a picket-fence gate — and a surprise awaits: Hikertown.

Could it be a mirage? A hallucination brought on by the first full blast of desert — 95 degrees in the shade, even in the growing cool of late afternoon?

A Wild West cowboy town rises out of the dust and sand and tumble weed, straight from Hollywood. There’s a Jail, storing old appliances. A Gun Shop, a School, a Post Office full of hiker boxes. The Hikertown Church opens into a dusty chicken coop, next door to the Saloon and a house of ill-repute known as The Cat House, with topless manikins in the window and a sign: “Meow is spoken here.”

The Hotel doubles as bedrooms, as do the Doctor’s Office and a bunch of other small buildings framing a tree-shaded town square of tables and chairs where hikers to hang out, the Rolls parked ostentatiously in front. Mattresses line the floors; there are sleep sofas on ranch-style porches. A scattering of trailers, pick-up trucks, rusted-out cars, shipping containers packed with broken electronics, dune buggies, golf carts, old boats, hoists and ancient tractors with flat tires completes the sort of lost-in-time Blade Runner effect, all slowly disintegrating in the scorching desert sun.

But, I get ahead of myself. The day begins in sublime reality, not theater-prop make-believe.

ATT10500

From Sawmill campground, the trail is nothing less than a dream. It spends the better part of a day winding through deep, beautiful groves of oak and enormous pines. Birds sing, doves coo, owls hoot in the slanting early morning light.

The track is soft and fast under the spreading trees, so different from yesterday. Occasionally it emerges from the leafy glades onto another of those sun-baked brown hillsides. But unlike yesterday, where shade was rare, the PCT today offers long and almost uninterrupted runs under the cool cover of the trees, broken most notably by one long, sharp two-mile uphill beginning at the unofficial 500-mile marker and ending just before the Red Rock water tank, where no one of right mind would drink. And even along these stretches, the trail is lined with a flowering bush a lot like lilac and just as fragrant — blue, white and lavender-pink.

ATT20644[1]

At times the oak groves are less forest than shaded meadows, the grass growing long and green, so in contrast to the desert far below. I stop for a morning break in one such grassy spot beneath a massive oak, gazing into the blue distance across the Mojave toward the mountains beyond. A cheery shout echoes from the trail as Two Fly passes by: “Hey, Pause!”

On and on it goes, to the point where you grow reluctant to take another step, the sort of day you wish would never end. Small wonder so many consider this to be one of the most gently beautiful stretches of the southern PCT.

20160521_071429

Water is scarce. I carry three liters from Sawmill campground — enough for the next 21 miles to Highway 138 and Hikertown. But I have my eye out for the “guzzlers.” Reading about them, I imagined pristine repositories of cold, clear, fresh, drinkable rainwater. The reality was rather different. Coming to one, I found a hiker lying prone amid swarms of bees, trying to scoop water out of a muddy cistern with a plastic bottle tied to a stick. It broke.

At another, a hiker I’ve been walking with jumps up as I approach, throws a bandana over his arm like a waiter’s napkin and asks, with mock formality: “Good afternoon, sir. Would you like a dead rat with your drink today?” It seems that decaying lizards and other former animal life were not good enough for this particular guzzler. Only a rotting rodent would do. Or something.

All these wonders cease three miles from Pine Canyon Road, when the trail drops a few thousand feet into the Mojave. Suddenly, the green glades are gone. Hot vanquishes cool, dust displaces fragrant breezes.

Once again, Rodeo is there, positioned perfectly. One woman has been fantasizing all the way down the mountain of hitching the last six sweltering miles of saw-tooth ups and downs. Another arrives, out of water and almost reeling along the road where he hoped to find an elusive pond. “Never, ever,” he says, “have I so needed some trail magic.” Rodeo gives them both a lift to Hikertown, as well as water and a Coca Cola float.

We have the “honeymoon suite,” so named because it has a king-sized bed and its own bathroom. It costs $20 a night, or $10 a head, and takes up a whole wing of the Hotel. There’s also a porch with a mismatched set of torn and broken chairs. It’s charming.

All day, hikers come and go. Some stay the night, others sleep away the afternoon before starting off again in the evening when the temperatures drop. There’s a patio for grilling burgers. Buckets to wash clothes. Showers. Trucks roar by on the adjacent highway. A blustery wind blows across the flat valley floor, churning the wind turbines in the distance.

By 7:30, the heat of the day is gone and hikers are moving out with a view toward crossing 17 miles of desert by dawn. It’s a full moon tonight. They won’t even need to flick on their headlamps. I am asleep by 8, after shooing away a cat who wants to sleep on my head.

May 29