So F**king Done!

 

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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.

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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.

May 28

 

Expect Herpes

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Let’s face it. I am a PCT addict. There is nothing that you, or I, or anyone else can do about it. I will do anything for that opiate PCT high.

You can tell you are a PCT addict if you start doing weird, manic compulsive stuff. Like? Well, like breaking away from the trail in Agua Dulce and flying to Kenya for a business meeting. Missing the trail so deeply, so viscerally, you climb on another airplane scarcely a week later. You get off in Los Angeles, bus into Union Station downtown, catch a commuter train and frantically start calling trail angels for a ride to the town you so recently left. When at last you reach your destination, the local hostel Hiker Heaven, you’ve been traveling for 36 hours across five time zones spanning three continents and some 12,000 miles.

And that’s only the start. Because you’re short on time, you set off at dawn from Agua Dulce for the next stop at Green Valley and Casa de Luna, 24 miles up the trail. And you cheat a bit, telling no one and rationalizing your sins as necessary under the circumstances. Case in point: you skip the 17-mile walk along the Aqueduct after Hikertown — BOR-ING — in order to make Tehachapi in a day — 23-miles. Then you rent a car from the local Enterprise, drive two hours to LAX, get on an airplane and fly for two days back to Kenya. You land at midnight and go to work the next morning and pick up where you left off. As though nothing incredibly odd has happened.

Weird, obsessive compulsive, deranged — call it what you will. But here’s the really weird, obsessively compulsive, deranged thing. For the first time, the trail does not deliver its high.

The 24 miles from Agua Dulce to Green Valley begin with a three-mile road walk — no one’s favorite. Departing the highway, the trail climbs into brown, hot hills. Then more brown, hot hills. Then down through brown hills, only to rise again through unending brown hills. The views are long, and here and there you come across sweet surprises, like the burbling Bear Spring nine miles in — and the flowers, sprouting along the trail in rich profusion. But up and down the brown hills, up and down all day in mind-bending heat? Maybe it’s just me, PCT druggie, needing an ever greater fix for the same high. But I couldn’t help myself. All that way, all that money, all that flying time — for this?
As if in answer to this blasphemy, the PCT responded with kindness. At the San Francisquito highway into Green Valley, my personal trail angel awaited. Rodeo, herself fresh from Boston, whisks me off to the magic land of Casa de Luna.

How to describe this “Stay Forever Vortex” of California whimsy and hippie charm, as one hiker puts it, where everyone must don a Hawaiian shirt upon admittance? “I got here three days ago,” the aptly named Star Gazer says with a shrug as he breathes in an entire joint with one long, satisfied breath. “I meant to hike out the next morning. But…still here.”

Don’t worry about finding Case de Luna. Everyone knows it. “The house with all the trash in front.” Those are the directions offered by a disgruntled neighbor. She could have been referring to us hikers, for sprawled over a labyrinth of sofas and chairs under the trees in front of a low-slung ranch house are scores of very dirty, very sweaty, very hungry hikers, all talking and laughing and drinking as though they had just been freed from jail. And they have: the slammer known as the PCT.

Out back, folks are pitching tents in a quiet and peaceful forest of tangled manzanilla trees — little lunar pods amid the greenery. Some are pitching horseshoes; others play frisbee golf. The fruit of a Casa de Luna arts tradition — rock paintings — are scattered around the camp sites, often with little proverbs.

“What happens in the forest stays in the forest,” reads one. To which someone has added, on another smaller stone: “Except herpes.” To which someone has added, on yet a smaller stone: “Expect herpes.” And lastly, on the smallest stone yet: “Accept herpes.”

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And this:
“If a woman sleeps with 10 men, she’s a slut. If a man does, he’s gay.” To which someone else adds. “Definitely gay.”

Others borrow from notable quotables, or not:

“When the situaton seems hopeless, there’s nothing to worry about.” So says playwright Edward Albee.

“Of all the paths in your life, make sure some of them are dirt.”

“Dirt is my sunscreen.”

“Just say yes, man,”

So I do. I paint two little rocks, one for me and another for my beloved Rodeo, and place them side by side under a shady tree: “Me” and “You.” I put aside my grievances against the brown hills, chalk off the day’s inferno to just another warm day on the trail, pour myself a cold glass of white wine, dive into the taco and beans buffet and give myself over once again to the tender mercies of the PCT and its beautiful trail angels in this ineffably magical place.

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May 27

Addiction

 

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Of this, dreams be made

Many of us, as children, remember C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and in particular the second volume in the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Step into that magical portal and be transported to another world, entirely different from our own.

I sometimes feel that way about the PCT. Unlike most hikers, I’ve been popping on and off the trail, sometimes for a few days, other times weeks, depending on the demands of family or work. One thing I have quickly come to learn: I am an addict.

Off the trail, I go into withdrawal, at the very least for a few days and usually longer. I turn cranky. I watch from afar as members of my “pod” make their way steadily onward, bouncing from adventure to mishap and back again depending on what the trail might bring. And wherever I might be, I wish I were elsewhere — in this case, obviously, on the PCT.

The PCT is a drug. Its highs are incredible, its lows better than almost anything else. It’s easy to understand why we so quickly become addicted. My worry: if the effects of withdrawal are so pronounced for even short absences, what will it be like when we step off forever at Manning Park?

I dread to even think about it. As for me, I am back on Saturday, in Agua Dulce, and counting the days.

Nairobi, May 23

Hiked and Gone to Heaven

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Hiker Heaven is closed. So says the definitive guide to the PCT, Halfmile.

Or maybe not so definitive. For clearly, Hiker Heaven is wide open — a scene, in fact, come to Earth from another world. But where? Mars, maybe, or Neptune. Or some interstellar heaven hosting an advanced form of life utterly different from what we are used to on the PCT.

This becomes obvious as soon as I hop off the white pick-up shuttle and enter the gates of 11861 Darling Road. There stand the official greeters — Matt, Mango or some other volunteer host. “Welcome to Agua Dulce! Welcome to Hiker Heaven!”

Your stay begins with an orientation. “This is the kiosk,” Matt informs half a dozen of us. It’s actually a garage, but a garage transformed into the humming, thrumming hub of an operation run with military precision.

Posted on the kiosk are water reports, mobile numbers of local trail angels, passwords for the hyper-fast internet and wifi, schedules for shuttle drop-offs and pick-ups in town. “Here are your hiker boxes,” says Matt, pointing out the USPS mailings neatly arranged on head-high shelves in alphabetical order.

But wait. There’s more. Much more as Matt’s tour goes on. “Here’s the post office, where we can mail anything for you,” like bouncing cold weather gear up-trail to the Sierras where it will be needed. Outdoor showers are under those shady trees; in-door baths are in the trailer over there. Each is equipped with razors, towels, soap, shampoo and conditioners, scissors and nail clippers — even a weigh scale, which informs me I’ve dropped to an appalling 145 pounds for someone who’s 6’3″.

There are also a few private bedrooms, kitchen and living room where hikers kick back for snacks, dinner and TV. When I look in, a hippie-ish guy is playing the guitar. Later, a young woman attacks the guitar with particular gusto, singing along in an enthusiastic cross between a yodel and primal scream.

Geodesic domes double as sleeping tents for those who don’t want to pitch their own and don’t mind sharing. There’s one tent for recharging phones, another for sewing and repairing clothes and gear. Laundry is done all-day. Just grab a mesh bag, marked with a metal identification number, and drop it off. It will be returned, fresh and clean, within an hour or two. Metal shelves are filled with “loaner clothes” to wear while yours are cleaned: shorts, Ts and shirts, sandals, neatly divided into men’s and women’s.

A phalanx of ten PortoPotties handles nature’s needs. Hikers relax in camp chairs under the trees or lounge on sofas looking out from various terraces and porches toward the mountains beyond. The music play list, from morning Segovia to evening Bill Monroe and Mountain Stage, is one of the best I’ve heard. Hikers pitch their tents around a gardened campground; there are chickens and a rooster that likes to peck particularly at women’s legs as they pass. And lots and lots of friendly dogs, all sizes and shapes.

Everyone I know on the trail seems to be here, all at once. I’ve scarcely walked in the gate than someone calls out “Mike! Pause!” It’s Popeye and T-Rex, who I haven’t seen since Idyllwild. Bee Hive, Taco and the crew are there, along with Charlie Brown, Simon Says, Mad Max and his side-kick Gretchen. At Hiker Heaven, you get a lot of trail love.

The Saufleys, Donna and her electrician husband, Jeff, have been a PCT institution for 21 years. Hiker Heaven is an oasis that sees about half of everyone who thru-hikes the PCT. Two decades ago, that meant a couple hundred. This year, Donna expects to break 2000.

Today alone, she expects 90 or so hikers. The crush season is coming up, she says — the three weeks bracketing Memorial Day at the end of May. “Last year we got 129 hikers in one day,” she says — too many to accommodate. Soon, she adds, Hiker Heaven will check permits to make sure only legitimate PCTers are taken in.

The night features a hiker symphony of sorts: snores and snorts at close quarters and, yes, farts near and far as well as the distinctive sound of sleepers scrunchscrunchscrunching on their inflatable air pads, trying to get comfortable. Morning brings a cacophony of dog barks, rooster crowings and donkey brays, not to mention the grunts and yawns and moans of rousing hikers.

I catch the 8:30 shuttle into town for breakfast with Popeye and T-Rex, then spend much of the day zeroing at Hiker Heaven. In the afternoon, Donna drives me to the nearest Metrolink, 20 minutes away, where I take the train into Union Station in LA.

I am flying back to Nairobi on business tomorrow. I tell myself that I am not leaving the trail, that I will be back when the snow melts in the Sierra. But I feel unutterably sad.

Matt snaps my picture for the Hiker Heaven 2018 year-book. “OK,” he says. “Hike safe and be well.”

May 14

Gateway to Hollywood

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Over a “bridge” of broken logs crossing a garbage-filled green-slime creek. Past the bulldozed parking lot for the Acton KoA. Along a broken chain link fence guarding a weedy abandoned lot, through a grove of burned trees, over the Metrolink commuter rail to LA and you are back on the PCT, rising immediately and steeply over the next few miles before the famed Vasquez Rocks.

There’s supposed to be a “golden spike” nearby, marking the completion of the PCT in 1993. Either someone has stolen it or it’s covered in debris. In any case, I can’t find it.

I spent the morning at KoA doing hiker chores — eating as much calorie-bearing unhealthy food as possible, catching up on emails, posting yesterday’s blog. Charlie Brown was there, who various people have been telling me to watch for since Big Bear. He hiked the PCT last year, except for the Sierras because of the record snow. This year he’s trying again, start to finish, and expects to hit Kennedy Meadows in mid-June. A labor of obsession as much as love? “Tell me something better I could do,” he replies. BTW, CB is 72…

There’s also Monty, a retired high school science teacher from Seattle and Korea. Simon Says, an engineer, is resting his bleeding feet. Mad Max takes a long morning off to trim his lengthening beard. Other hikers trickle in, some to stay the night or take a zero, others to chillax before moving on.

It’s Saturday night. At 8 pm, when most hikers prepare for bed, the outdoor movie theater roars to life with some animated shark show for kids. A few families hunker around on the grass, young children falling asleep in their parents’ laps. Huge RVs are parked around the grounds. Their owners grill under the trees, gather for beer and talk at the picnic tables. A lot seem to be former military.

I pretend to be some nutso Marine drill sergeant here in this citadel of on-the-road freedom, the KoA Knights of America. Overhearing a couple of recent college grads talk about taking time off from careers for this hike, I put on a faux redneck accent and go at ’em.

“You kids of today. All you do is play around. You should have a job! And no mortgage? What kind of true-blooded American are you. Jesus H Christ, Holy Joseph and the Sainted Mary! Don’t you know this country is built on debt? I mean, you gotta have a mortage to keep America great!”

I could go on, so do. “Tell you what. I’ll give you a job — $16 an hour driving fence posts. Sound good? My ranch-hands know a young ‘un in need. They’ll fetch you up right here this afternoon!”

There are a few nervous titters. “You sound just like my father,” says one finally. Only the older hikers laugh. Oh, well. I was hoping to be so far from real-world reality as to be funny. After all, am I putting my own career first to be out here?

The KoA is popular, and for the first time in a long while I have company on the trail. A line of hikers is silhouetted against the sky on the ridge above me. Across the highway below, the mountains I descended yesterday — the highest before the Sierras — are wrapped in cloud.

It’s been cool and cloudy all day, but the sun comes out just as I begin what I imagined would be an easy 10-mile saunter to Agua Dulce a bit after noon. The trail rises sinuously through brown-scrub hills, under various power lines and across rocky unpaved roads. Not a stretch I would recommend. No wonder Charlie Brown hitched; he did it last year and sees no need to repeat.

All that changes at Vasquez Rocks, I’ve been told. Monty the Trekkie started making all sorts of weird hand-signs and movie references at their mere mention. I figure it’s some code I can not possibly understand. So I pick up my pace and, at last, crest the final ridge of the climb — to be greeted by the roar of the Antelope freeway, far below.

A long down is interrupted by my second rattler beside the trail, hip-high. He refuses to move, even in the face of a few thrown rocks, so I climb up and around him. (Later, at camp, another hiker just ahead told how he simply held the big snake down with his pole and scooted past.) And then, suddenly, there it is: the Gateway to Hollywood.

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The Gateway to Hollywood is the long dark tunnel under the freeway — a bit like Alice’s rabbit hole. Pass through, and emerge into another world — the Vasquez Rocks.

Movies are made here. The gallery of wind-and-water sculpted stone, many tilted at eerie 45-degree angles, is made to order for Hollywood sets on a monumental scale. Now I understand. This is Monty’s Trekkie shrine, where Captain Kirk in Star Wars solo-fights the Gorn.

Countless westerns were filmed in these parts, back in the day when they were popular — Bonanza, the Wild West, Blazing Saddles. And more: the Flintstones, Dante’s Peak, MacGyver, Hail Caesar! In one episode of Big Bang Theory, our Trekkie-costumed heroes visit the sacred Gorn battle site — and have their car stolen.

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South Antelope Valley-20180513-00195All along the trail, wooden signs identify various indigenous desert plants: Arroyo Willow, Cottonwood, Giant Rye Grass, Black Sage. And then, abruptly, Agua Dulce, the only town the PCT actually passes through. Along the main street, a few Ye Olde Western bars, a hardware, grocery. A mile-long road walk takes you to one of the landmarks of the entire PCT — Hiker Heaven. A shuttle pulls up just as I arrive.

“Going our way?” asks the driver of the white pick-up loaded with hikers.

“Yes,” I say, fervently. Yes, I am.

May 13

What Poodle Dog Plague?

ATT06267Researching my PCT hike, I came across dire warnings. Mile 419 to 431 was one massive Poodle Dog plague. There were photos of plants head-high, massively over-growing the trail. Experts warned of its effects: massive blistering, followed by second-degree-burn-like scabs. A detour along Gleason Road, the unpaved track paralleling the PCT, was recommended.

So when I arrive at Mill Creek, mile 429, I am worried. I ask others what they would do. Most have never heard of this particular issue, which confused me. How could they not know? Bee Hive, Taco and their gang shrug. “We’ll just push through it,” says Taco. It’s Smoke Break, I think, who consults Guthooks. In minutes he has an answer. ” It says here you can get through,” he says. “Even in shorts, maybe.”

I spend a wakeful night on the Mill Creek ridge, trying to keep warm under my quilt, listening to the wind and worrying about Poodle Dog. Could we get through without an encounter of the poisonous kind? The last thing I want is to get trapped by an impenetrable bunch of the stuff over-growing the trail and be forced to back-track.

At 6 am, Mill Creek is still wrapped in fog. A cold winds whips from the coast. A few miles into the day, however, the sun begins breaking through. Banks of clouds and mist cascade down the far side of the mountains, in great rolling waves, away and away and away.

The trail is dusty soft as it winds through the massive Station burn. Blackened trunks of pines stand in lonely sentinel, interspersed with groves of dead alder and oak, the bark burned from them and turning a bleached silver with the wind and sun.

Yet it is actually quite beautiful. And everywhere there is new growth, thick and green and cool, birds chirping and singing.

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The 17-mile stretch from Mill Creek to North Fork ranger station is supposed to be without water. But coming down a dip at mile 425.8, I find a moist steam bed. Dig a small hole and it fills with enough clean water to scoop and drink without filtering. With a straw, you can drink straight from your hole.

At 10 am, I take a mid-morning break — 10 miles by 10 am, a hiker index of decent progress. Except for a few small clumps around mile 420, there has been little sign of the alleged PD Plague.

What gives, I wonder? Why all the internet sturm und drang? After all, I was actually considering an awful road walk instead of this wonderful bit of trail.

At just this moment, who should round a bend but a volunteer PCT trail crew with chain saws, rakes and axes. “Where’s all the Poodle Dog,” I ask. “It’s supposed to be a plague!”

They all look at me funny. “Who’s feeding you this BS,” says one finally. “We got it all last year. There’s none left!” It seems our US Forest Service has done us all, well, a service.

Where the PCT crosses a dirt road at mile 401, I run into another volunteer, Pickaxe Pete, celebrating his 87th birthday by working on the trail. “”Happy birthday!” I say, tipped off by his crew mates. Apparently they’ve put dozens of hikers up to this over the past week. “Thank you very much,” says Pickaxe with a laugh.

Looking two decades younger than his age, he’s sitting in a white pick-up with a Forest Service worker named John, who asks me to note any fallen tree with the exact mileage. “Report it to Todd at the North Fork ranger station and we’ll cut it,” he instructs.

Todd is not to thrilled to have another dirty hiker knocking at his door. But he warms up after I explain that I am a duly deputized very, very temporary forest service volunteer bearing mission critical information about a fallen tree at mile 434.09. In return, he gives me a small dollop of hand-soap to wash some poison oak off my leg.

There may be no PD plague on the PCT, thanks to those volunteers — but there is a lot of poison oak over-hanging the trial in the last mile before North Fork ranger station.

I had been warned by the trail crew. “Just push it out of the way with a stick,” advised John. Avoiding one clump, I stumble into another.

Such is life on the PCT. I grab a $1 root beer out of the cooler by the ranger’s gate and am on my way.

May 12

A Night at Mill Creek

Mile 403. The last crossing of Highway 2 at Three Points trailhead. Abruptly, the forest ends in scrub desert and chapparal.

“Where did everybody go?” Yesterday I ran into just one pair of hikers, picnicing at Glendale youth camp. This morning I pass Rattles, famed for snaring an attacking rattlesnake with a branch and tossing it off the trail. He asks the question I’ve been asking myself. Suddenly the PCT has turned into a ghost trail. We’re hiking alone, almost all day.

Rattles and I are both heading for the ranger station at Mill Creek, 16 miles ahead, where there’s said to be water. Otherwise it’s reported to be a long and dry stretch.

Wrongly, as it turns out. Two springs, still but clear, burble along the trail before 407. At exactly mile 411, Fountainhead spring (with a small pipe spigot) is flowing well. Beware, just steps before half a dozen Poodle Dawgs lie in wait.

In the heat, you take refuge from the monotony in small things. Today, for me, it’s imaging the lives of ants. They scurry along the trail, hiking too, living their little ant lives, dreaming their little ant dreams. There are so many and they move so fast that I must have stepped on some. Not the sort of karma I want on the PCT. A quail bursts from a bush and runs down the trail. And of course for snakes and lizards and black beetles, the PCT is a cosmic living room.

All in all, it’s an easy stretch — until a sharp, long climb up Pacifico Mountain, a gain of some 1200 feet from where I started. It ends in another of those idyllic alpine oases that mark the PCT’s higher elevations. I stop for lunch at a sunny spot amid the rocks and pines, shielded from the wind.

Just then Bee Hive comes by, already 19 miles into his day after a zero in Wrightwood. He’s cruisin’ at 3.5 miles an hour, listening to New York Times pod casts about the Middle East. “See you at Mill Creek,” he says, departing in a proverbial cloud of dust. His mates are behind him, also coming on fast. So far, he’s only the second hiker I’ve seen all day.

Just before Mill Creek ranger station, at mile 419 on the Angeles Crest Highway, along comes his hiking partner Taco. There’s trail magic from Rodeo — lemonade and cold apples — as well as Gaia and Docent with fresh-baked cookies and a flat of strawberries. Pizza and beer have just been delivered to another pair of hikers.

Puma and Smoke Break arrive, the missing pair in Bee Hive’s pod, The scene is set for a trail party but, abruptly, the sun disappears and a chill mist from the sea rolls in. It’s only 5 pm, but folks are ready to pitch their tents and call it a day.

Expecting a cold night, likely in the 30s, Puma and Smoke Break intend to sleep in one of the two highway restrooms “It’s clean,” I offer, having already considered it myself.

The wind blows sand and a fine dust into my tent all night, as the traffic rumbles along the highway.

May 11

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Nero Daze

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A slow start to a lazy day. One of those mornings where you just don’t want to hike, but you don’t want to hang around town, either. So you split the difference and take a “nero,” not quite a zero but not much more.

The little town of Wrightwood has a lot to offer: breweries, bakeries, various restaurants, a great grocery called Jensen’s and a gear store called Mountain Hardware. Friends from the trail crashed in various cabins and motels, sometimes cramming as many as half a dozen or more people into a single $100 room.

Rodeo and I find a hiker hostel called The Holistic Day Spa, a log house just outside town where you can get a cozy private room for $50 or claim a couch on the long porch for $10. In a pinch, the owners make room for you under the dining table for $5 – and do your laundry. They also shuttle you to and from town, as well as up and down the mountain, for free. A pet pig sleeps in the kitchen, bt know that he’s cleaner than we are.

We spend the morning stocking up on supplies, having a coffee at the Cinnamon Bakery and packing up. By the time we hit the trail, it’s coming up on 10 am.

The trail from Islip Saddle, where I left off yesterday, begins with yet another peak: Mt Williamson, rising 1200 feet in less than 2 miles. — not the stuff of  perfect nero, I think to myself as I slog upwards. The views are impressive, as you would expect at 7800 feet, but an anti-climax after Mt Baden-Powell. I am only glad I did not do it yesterday evening, as planned.

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From there it’s an easy downhill walk, save for the necessity of making another of those PCT choices around mile 390. It seems the rare mountain yellow-legged frog makes its home on the PCT after the Eagle’s Roost picnic area. The official Endangered Species Detour takes 20.5 miles to bypass seven miles of frog habitat. The unofficial detour entails a roadwalk on Highway 2. Not big on tarmac, I opt to hitch, along with a few others, and pop back onto the trail where Highway 2 again crosses the trail at mile 398.

Don’t you just hate amphibians? I mean, really. Mass extinction of species is a looming reality. You would think these little yellow-legged slippery slimies would just give it up already.

Two miles later, a milestone in pine comes: the 400-mile mark. Nearby, there’s a clear burbling spring not shown on Halfmile Notes and, a bit further around mile 402, yet another. The Camp Glenwood youth camp also has piped water, not to mention a beautiful little cabin and camp sites.

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At the Three Points trailhead, where the PCT makes its ninth crossing of Highway 2 since Wrightwood, at mile 403, we catch a lift to Newcomb’s Ranch, a nearby biker haven offering good food and drinks. A checkered racing flag waves smartly in the breeze.

It’s Rodeo’s last night on the trail. Heavy-heartedly, we drop down to the nearest motel, in an LA suburb called La Crescenta, half an hour away. Marilyn Monroe used to escape here, a long, long time ago. How weird, coming down so far from the mountains, only to go back up in the morning, alone.

May 10

 

 

 

 

Bitch Goddess 2

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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.

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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.

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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.

May 9