When I signed up to hike 700 miles (1150km) through the Southern California desert, I didn’t think I’d be having to deal with TWO SNOWSTORMS IN A WEEK. So, like many other hikers, I’m holed up in Wrightwood after having had to bail temporarily from the trail today. I’m only 90 minutes from Los Angeles, land of sunshine, so this seems weird.
In the last message I forgot to include a story that’s been circling the trail rumor mill about me. Unlike the mythical bearcat stalking the San Jacinto mountains, this one is actually true.
After descending a ridiculous amount of switchbacks from San Jacinto Peak Brittany and I reached the house of Ziggy and the Bear, two trail angels who open their back porch to hikers during the six week season. To call it just a “back porch” doesn’t really do it justice. They’ve carpeted much of the backyard and erected plenty of shade. Hikers are welcome to rest there in the heat of the midday desert, as well as fill up on water and charge electronics. They take orders for pizza each day, offer free fresh fruit, act as a surrogate post office, and let hikers cowboy camp on the carpet each night.
The heat at the lower elevations can get really brutal, as Brittany learned when she got sick on the trail. The rumor mill basically said she was dying somewhere, and when she recovered and rejoined the trail community had to keep telling people “I’m still alive!” Her trail name is now Alive.
We got to Ziggy and the Bear’s place during the height of the heat, and spent the time chatting and catching up with trail friends. Without realizing it, we spent over four hours there. I’m finally starting to understand what hikers mean when they call certain places “a vortex.”
During those four hours I couldn’t help but rummage through the hiker box, which operate under a “take what you want, leave what you don’t” system. Stretch summed up the hiker box well when she talked about the ubiquitous bags of unmarked white powder: “You never really know what you’re going to find, except for those damned bags of white stuff. Is it vanilla shake? Foot powder? Laundry detergent? We’ll never know.”
After finishing off the remains of someone else’s 2 pound (1kg) jar of peanut butter, I realized how much my personal standards have degraded when it comes to food. Like many other hikers, I pounce at the opportunity to eat food I don’t have to carry. That could be from a hiker box, or some random stranger who stands by the road and offers me candy and water. The latter, called “trail magic,” is surprisingly frequent. People often leave large caches of water in dry sections and often include fresh fruit, which we all crave on the trail. The real stuff is too heavy to carry, unless you’re the crazy aggressive guy with a lazy eye who carries five pounds (2.3kg) of food a day and ridicules anybody in the grocery store parking lot who doesn’t. Somebody has spent too much time baking in the sun.
Momma Squirrel, her husband No Boundaries, Alive and I decided to try night hiking from the Ziggy and the Bear vortex under the full moon to some place called the “trout camp.” That would’ve been a 23 mile (38km) day for me, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it since up to that point I usually didn’t do more than 18 miles (30km) per day.
The wind upon leaving the vortex was ferocious and through a wind farm in the middle of nowhere up a big, steep climb. After going around 3 miles (5km), I got tired of the wind and found a place to camp. No Boundaries and Momma Squirrel came by and, not having seen me, jumped when I talked to them.
“The wind was annoying me, so I just found a place in this ditch and decided to sleep here,” I explained to them. It was actually pretty comfortable and sheltered from the wind. From their perspective it apparently looked like the bush in front of me was talking to them, and they started telling everyone about how I talked like sleeping in a ditch is a totally normal thing to do. Even in the thru hiker community people are against sleeping in ditches unless absolutely necessary, but they don’t know what they’re missing out on. I’m not particularly picky when it comes to campsites, as evidenced a few nights ago when I slept on a large boulder in the desert scrub. I just didn’t want to go farther and it was dark. I would be fine with sleeping in an outhouse if I had to because of rain or snow, but it thankfully hasn’t come to that. Yet. Preferably one without mice, but even that’s better than being wet and cold in below-freezing temperatures.
Last time I ended with staying at the Big Bear Lake Hostel to wait out the snowstorm. We got around five or six inches (10-12cm) of snow. I’m definitely glad I didn’t camp in that. Others who trickled in the next day said they didn’t sleep at all because it was so cold. The hostel filled up to capacity, but they were letting anybody who couldn’t get a room elsewhere sleep on the couches or floor. Most of my friends split hotel rooms amongst eight people, but I prefer the large amount of common space in hostels. I shared a room with Toast, ID, and Blue Heron. Momma Squirrel said you can always tell who gave themselves a trail name because they pick something like “Blue Heron” or “Fire Hawk” and not “Hypothermia” or “Amber Alert.”
Staying at the hostel was doubly nice in that they gave rides to and from the trailhead, negating the need to hitch with strangers. I’ve gotten pretty decent at appearing presentable enough to hitch a ride wherever I’m going, but hitching with 13 people at a trailhead all at once just isn’t practical. The hostel was able to take all of us in two cars, so I got to head out with my hiking buddies Beer Goddess and Something Hawaiian (formerly Hanakoa, who had issues with people remembering her trail name).
To avoid the day and a half of snowstorms, we took a zero in Big Bear Lake. It’s a ski resort and the last decently sized town before Tehachapi on the edge of the Mojave Desert. On our rest day I met my posse at the Grizzly Manor Cafe, a hole in the wall breakfast joint known for hiker discounts and massive meals. There were no available chairs, and I almost sat down at a random guy’s table before realizing this isn’t Colombia or Ethiopia and that is considered weird here. Having a bunch of random strangers eat a meal together can be a lot of fun, but most westerners seem to disagree with me. Instead, Momma Squirrel and Mr. Noodles grabbed me a chair away from some kid and I got to eat breakfast with them. We spent the rest of the day wandering the stores to get food and supplies to last us untilWrightwood, 103 miles (140km) away.
Because of a math error I made when reading the water report, I accidentally had to go 26 miles my first day from Big Bear Lake so I could actually drink water. It wasn’t as bad as what Honey Badger was telling me about when she got lost in the Grand Canyon for four days, but still not ideal. It ended up being totally fine on my feet, and I camped with the super hippie Velcro and a random older guy with a thick west Texas accent. The Texan got annoying in the morning when he tried to wake me before 5am. I don’t remember what I snapped at him, but he stopped immediately.
Snake Stomper, formerly Amy, and her French boyfriend hiked by my campsite while I was packing up at the much more reasonable hour of 6:30 and asked me if I was doing the “McDonald’s Challenge.” Where the PCT crosses interstate 15 is a McDonald’s just a five minute walk from the trail, and as a food source was the dominant topic of conversation on the trail. I agreed to doing 76 miles (125km) in three days to get there, and we made it! I ate a ridiculous amount of food.
It was also the only time I’ve really felt like hiker trash. Usually people we see know about the trail, but that was definitely not the case there. I got a lot of looks when I walked in with a full pack and not having showered in days.
Lauren and Pink Lady walked in after dark, having done a 30 mile day just to get there for dinner. Lauren ordered, leaned against the wall, and collapsed. Luckily Pink Lady and I were able to get to her before her head hit the ground.
The hike from I-15 in the dark was reminiscent of a horror movie. By myself and in the dark, I hiked the trail through long tunnels and an abandoned spillway. One guy actually camped inside the spillway, which crossed my mind as a possibility but was way too creepy for me. I found a nice boulder, unfortunately within easy hearing of train tracks, and spent the night there.
The hike from Big Bear Lake to Wrightwood was kind of lonely, because I would only see up to three people a day. Sometimes I would see Snake Stomper and her boyfriend, but only once or twice a day. I’d put in a day’s worth of distance between me and most of my friends because of pace differences, and was between bubbles of hikers. The bubble in front of me was composed of testosterone crazed and mile obsessed hikers, who got on my nerves a lot so I mainly avoided them.
Snake Stomper, Fabian, and I hitched into Wrightwood together just long enough to resupply and rest before hitting the trail again. There were reports of a snowstorm coming, but we figured we could camp at lower elevations when possible. Plus, we didn’t want to just hide every time a storm came. The Animal, who was looking for a hiking partner, and I decided to team up and do it together.
She stayed at the Wrightwood library working on her blog when I got bored and decided to hitch back to the trail. I waited for her at our designated campsite, a ravine near Highway 2 and a latrine. It probably wasn’t legal camping there, so I just hung out at the picnic table. When it got cold I got my sleeping bag out and laid down on the cement floor of the outhouse just reading, protected from the wind by the structure’s walls. Some day hikers came over and I’m pretty sure they thought I was homeless and/or insane.
The Animal finally arrived and we set up camp at dusk in the ravine, which proved to be both sheltered from the wind and relatively warm (read: above freezing). We got up at 4am to get on the trail early enough to beat the predicted afternoon snowstorm over Baden Powell Peak, a high and exposed hike. The storm came earlier and MUCH stronger than predicted. Everything was white and blanketed in snow, and when I tried to drink my water I found it had frozen while I was hiking. The wind was really strong, and the trail obscured by the snow. It was getting dangerous to be out there, where a wrong turn could result in some serious consequences and getting lost. Even at the (relatively) lower elevations it was cold, wet, and windy.
At one of the crossings of Highway 2 I waited for The Animal, telling her I was planning on just hitching back to Wrightwood. Courage, a Japanese thru hiker, The Animal, and I tried hitching but we got ridiculously cold and annoyed by a weekend hiker with a massive 60 pound (25kg) pack who was telling us we were packing all wrong and should bring guns. When he starts hiking more than two miles a day (3.5km) then he can talk.
We retreated to the shelter of the outhouse and stayed there for a bit. After an hour of no cars, a van finally pulled across the highway. Courage ran towards it like a madman and was able to get the driver to agree to take us to Wrightwood. He was our savior!! We ran into many of our hiking buddies there, all of whom had the same idea of bailing off the trail. It just wasn’t going to be safe camping out there, especially with six inches (15cm) of snow forecast for the night.
A large crowd of hikers filed into this tiny pizza joint in town. The owner donated a bunch of cookies and some candles that said “24”, and then everyone sang “happy birthday” to me out of the blue. It was a bit unnerving, and Courage got some photos of me looking really confused at what was going on.
Tomorrow I’m hanging out with friends in Wrightwood. My “group” of hikers right now includes Stretch, Momma Squirrel, No Boundaries, Alive, Pine Nut and her girlfriend Ant (who have previously biked from the Atlantic to the Pacific), Beer Goddess, Something Hawaiian, The Animal, Courage, Switchfoot, Tiny Dancer (he’s by no means tiny), Snake Stomper, and Poncho. It’s a good group. Soon we’ll be in the Mojave and wishing we had snow.