This is currently being penned during an unplanned zero (hiker talk for taking a day off) amidst a snowstorm passing through southern California. I was lucky enough to be arriving in Big Bear Lake just hours before the storm started, and am staying in a hostel in town. There’s currently a couple inches (5cm) of snow on the ground, and it’s still falling. The temperature is supposed to be below or just above freezing all day, and then go up into the 50sF (10-12C) tomorrow. Not exactly the best, nor safest, weather for hiking and camping, so I’m quite thankful to be warm and dry inside. I also found out yesterday from the Ministry of Education in Spain that I got a jobas an English teaching assistant in a public high school. If the visa goes through, I’ll be moving to Madrid at the end of the PCT in late September!
My last email was sent at mile 109.5 (176.2km) from Warner Springs, a town right on the PCT and not large enough to support a grocery store. A group of retired women in their 70s commandeered the town’s community center and turned it into a restaurant/laundry/shower/recharge electronics place. The health department shut down the operation the day after I left, but the food was inexpensive and in large portions. Both of those are qualities ensured to endear hikers. I didn’t get sick, which is always a plus when the health department gets involved like that.
The community center is in a large field, where hikers could camp and spend the night. Lots of people took a rest there, since it was the first spot on the trail conducive to doing so without freezing to death or getting blown away in a freakishly strong windstorm. Having arrived just in time to get dinner, my hiker posse and I decided to take most of the next day as a rest period. By 8:30pm, just 30 minutes before “hiker midnight”, most of us were passed out in the crazy spaceship-looking tents only backpackers use.
Brittany and I decided to cowboy camp (read: sleep under the stars) since it was a pleasantly warm night with little cloud cover. We’ve both become cowboy camping addicts, and have only stayed in our respective tents when forced to due to inclement weather or cold. People ask us loads of questions about it, all of which are variations on, “What if a snake crawls onto your face during the night?!” Snakes don’t really do that. And ants don’t climb all over you during the night as long as you aren’t an idiot and set up camp on anthills, which trail rumor says has happened to some less than observant hikers. As we’ve reached the point in the hike where exhaustion overpowers fear of desert creatures when it’s time to settle down for the night, lots more people are cowboy camping
In the morning I lined up at 8am, hours after most hikers are already up, for the massive breakfast the community center provided. I sat down and ate with a retired couple sporting a thick Minnesotan accent. “How did your wife sleep last night?” they asked, which caused me to almost choke on my food. That seemed like a lot to assume of Brittany and me. I corrected that misconception, but trail rumor has had us in varying states of dating/engaged/married/doing the PCT as our honeymoon. We don’t hike together constantly during the day. Few do other than couples that haven’t yet had an explosive and quite entertainingly public fight over something stupid like which mashed potatoes to eat that night. We prefer to meet up at the end of the day and camp by ourselves or with a not-obscenely-large group of friends. She’s a good hiking partner, as long as we don’t talk about politics or food since we have such hugely divergent views on those subjects. Brittany’s the kind of woman who told me, “Well, everyone knows lesbian witches have the best herb gardens. I go to some outside Boston for all my herbal needs.” I was trying to get her to adopt the numerous desert lizards we see each day as her “familiars,” but she didn’t like that idea since she’s not part of a coven.
The rest day at Warner Springs was phenomenal, and helped my feet feel much better. There was some tension when one of the retired women would periodically yell, “I need a strong man to help me lift some heavy things!” This really upset a lot of the hikers as sexist, especially when she dismissed with a scoff the women who volunteered to help her. But the volunteers there, who were doing this to help raise money for the center and school system, were almost without exception very friendly. It was a pretty weird place in the middle of the desert, though, and I’m sure they thought we were all insane.
On the trail you rarely see anybody who’s more than half a day in front of or behind you. We call this a person’s “bubble.” Bubbles pop and merge when you get into town, so it was a bit strange to see all these new hikers suddenly. Most of us didn’t have trail names then but now do, so I’m still struggling with getting to know everyone. I usually only see anywhere from 3 to 15 other hikers a day, so it was a bit overwhelming meeting 40 all at once. I ran back into Megra, the woman I hiked with at the beginning who I’d lost contact with during the Storm. She’d spent the night with another guy inside a disgusting outhouse, dubbed the Shilton, and her companions were trying to name her Paris Shilton. She adamantly refused, and someone named Starfish gave her the trail name Moonburned. She’s been applying sunscreen every two hours but still got burned, and her friends cautioned her one night to hide her face from the bright moon to avoid further burns. Now she’s Moonburned.
At the end of staying in town I start to get antsy and am impatient to get back on the trail. After the heat of the day had passed I went and hiked 8 more miles (12.5km) just to get ahead of the herd from the Warner Springs bottleneck. Brittany and I met up on trail, and met some guy from San Diego who thought he was at mile 125. He wasn’t. We couldn’t tell if he was high, really unprepared, or incompetent. He also had 6 liters of water with him, which seemed a bit excessive since we were just carrying around 1.5 liters.
Sometime during the night a couple guys came into our camping area looking for a place to sleep. Seeing we were already there, they left. I’d slept all through this, as per usual. For some reason the night hikers searching for campsites at very late times are becoming a thing. A lot of us think it’s Pinky and Jesus, the former nobody knows until you say “that hiker who looks and talks like he’s on steroids”. They’ve been called the Boombox Boys because they were blasting rap one night on a full moon hike on god knows what device they’ve lugged this far. Stretch, a 2013 AT thru-hiker, witnessed one of them fall flat on his face onto a rock during the late night rap incident. Karma does work! There are few things more annoying than people who hike while blasting music. Addendum: I’ve since gotten to know both of them and they’re cool guys.
While hiking through the endless desert chaparral over the mountains, I came to a sign that said something about “Come to Mike’s place. We have water.” I kept on hiking to the road five minutes later to wait for Brittany. She didn’t show up, so I headed on to “Mike’s place.” It was some random house in the middle of the desert, with no paved road leading to it. I ran into some other friends of mine from the trail there, as well as Brittany. She was confused how I got behind her. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be comfortable going there solo, so I waited and then just decided to head on in anyways,” I told her. “Oh, I’m over stranger danger now,” she replied. Although we all kept talking about how much the signs reminded us of Terminus from The Walking Dead, we really have become immune to stranger danger. Someone asked a random guy who didn’t look like a hiker if he was Mike. He said, “No. I’m Tom. I killed Mike. Do you want a burger?” Not ones to turn down food on the trail, we all looked at each other, shrugged, and said that would be fine. When we were all talking about our blisters and foot problems, Tom’s girlfriend Mamás (trail name) came out. “Time for trivia!” she yelled. “I always do this when you guys talk too much about the trail.” She also gave us candy. As my father always told my brothers and me while growing up, strangers have the best candy.
While at Mike’s place I was telling people stories of all the characters and stupid questions I’ve encountered in Yellowstone and on my AT hikes. I was asked how I meet all these kinds of people and I said, “Crazy people lock eyes with me, say ‘ONE OF US!’, and then follow me around.” Mama Squirrel suggested “One Of Us” be my trail name, and after a lot of encouragement from others and trying it out for a bit I’ve decided to stick with it. You’re supposed to have your trail name “bestowed” upon you.
We’ve all gotten into the habit of accepting food and assistance from random strangers. It seemed scary at first, but eventually exhaustion and hunger get the upper hand. My friend Beer Goddess was taken in by trail angels into their home during the Storm. The locals seem to be fascinated by and simultaneously pity us. Of course, they think we’re all insane (not that I’d debate them on that point).
The most recent trail drama has concerned a 15 mile section of trail that was closed by a 2013 fire. The soil there is still fragile, so camping and hiking there is prohibited. Two hikers last year were fined $2,500 each for going through the closure. The PCT Association made an official alternate along the highway, but we were advised by others on the trail community not to do it because of the danger of the winding roads with no shoulder. Plus, these are SoCal drivers on the roads and they’re awful. Halfmile, the trail map god, made a 20 mile (33km) alternate that used dirt roads and 10 miles of the actual PCT before the closure. On highway 74 ten miles before the closure is the very popular Paradise Valley Café, run by an Ohio State fan who lets hikers sleep on the porch as long as they’re gone by the time the customers arrive in the morning. Most hitched a ride to Idyllwild and skipped the alternate and 10 PCT miles altogether. I planned on doing the whole reroute, but it was in pretty bad shape and after 16 miles I got to highway 74 and hitched to town.
Rainbow Dash, another 2013 AT hiker, gave us first timers a run down on how to hitch:
· Hide your trekking poles. They look like weapons.
· Take off your hat and sunglasses. Smile!
· Put your backpack in front of you and make sure you have your “HIKER TO TOWN” bandana visible so people don’t think you’re homeless.
There are some other tips I’ve heard, including:
· If you’re hiking and hitching with someone who looks threatening, make sure they hide in the bushes and then “happen to just walk out from the trail” while you’re talking to the driver. Ask if your friend can accompany you.
· It’s easier if you hitch with another person, especially if you try to look like a straight couple or parent/child pairing.
The guy who offered me a ride could only take me to the junction leading to Idyllwild, about five miles (8km) from town. He did give me a bottle of Gatorade and offered me a joint, the latter of which I politely declined. It took about ten minutes to get that ride, and 90 seconds to get the second ride to Idyllwild. The people where we hitch tend to be very familiar with the trail and constantly see hikers looking for rides. The woman who picked me up was in that category as an Idyllwild native, and she offered to drop me off wherever I wanted to go. She seemed happy when I asked to be dropped off at the library and not the local seedy bar.
Right when I got to Idyllwild, with my feet in tatters, I knew I wanted to take a zero day there. With the massive pine forest surrounding it, I felt like I was back in the Sierra Nevada or Yellowstone. The fresh pine smell was everywhere, and I was reunited with most of my trail friends. The town was extremely hiker friendly, which some towns most definitely aren’t. Some places call us “hiker trash”, a pejorative term we’ve embraced, and would really rather we weren’t there. Idyllwild was the opposite, with hiker discounts pretty much everywhere. The library offered free wifi, water reports, and town maps to all hikers. For only $8 I got two nights of camping and a shower at the San Jacinto State Park Campground.
Zero days may involve zero miles of trail hiking, but they can be pretty busy. You have to shower, do laundry, and buy any food and supplies you may need for the next five days. Since you have no motorized transportation other than the occasional bus system, and because most American towns are super spread out, it can take a while doing all that. Idyllwild was well laid out with everything centrally located, which was nice. However, figuring out how much food to get for a week is pretty difficult. You don’t want to bring too much because excess weight is painful, but on the other hand you don’t want to go hungry. Striking that happy medium takes practice, which I did after eating my breakfast of one pint (500mL) of coffee ice cream. When hikers get into town we eat a TON.
At the grocery store in town I ran back into Beer Goddess, who was trying to not use that AT name because she thought it made her sound like an alcoholic. She didn’t like the name Whine Goddess or Struggles that we suggested, so she’s still going by Beer Goddess. She introduced me to her hiking buddies as, “Guys, he’s One Of Us.” Someone else said, “Good to meet you! I’m The Animal, and this is Not A Bear.” The people in the store avoided us after that and looked at us like we were absolutely nuts.
The PCT is 5 miles (8km) from Idyllwild, which required extra planning on how to get there. Plus, there was the option of taking the PCT detour to the top of San Jacinto Peak, one of the highest peaks in SoCal at 10,834 feet (3,302m). Most people do the detour, which only adds 1.2 miles (2km). I lucked out and had clear and calm weather up the pine forest trail to the peak, and great visibility.
Being there on a Sunday, I ran into a lot of weekend backpackers at the peak. As a general rule, they think of us as being both really tough and probably needing to be institutionalized. It’s only a little over two weeks into my hike and I’m already tired of people asking me, “So are you carrying all five months of food with you right now?” Like at Yellowstone, it’s really hard answering stupid questions without being condescending. I also get asked, “So you sleep in a hotel each night, right?” I do love the reactions I get when people ask me where I started my hike (Mexico) and where I’m going (Canada).
At San Jacinto Peak I ran into Hanakoa and Beer Goddess, both of whom are solo female hikers. One of the older weekend hikers was aghast that women would go into the woods by themselves. Hanakoa is from Hawaii, and I’ve been hiking with the two for the past few days. I’ve also been hiking with Six Two, a guy from Oregon who has traveled extensively. I’ve been interrogating him about his recent trips to Georgia and Uzbekistan, both of which are on my list for the next couple years. He’s the only other person I’ve met outside of the Balkans that’s also been to Albania.
My last night on the trail, 10 miles (16km) from the highway to Big Bear, was fairly cold. I got out of my tent in the morning and thought, “Wow, this isn’t nearly as cold as I thought it was going to be!” We checked and found it was just below freezing.
The clasp on my pants broke, so I’ve been wearing my long underwear instead of pants for the past few days. Now I’m going to brave the snow and cold to go find a safety pin or Velcro/button to fix my pants, as well as get food for my hike to Wrightwood. I should arrive there on the 14th, my 24th birthday. There’s a McDonald’s an eight minute walk from the PCT when we cross the interstate, and all people have been talking about recently is what they want to get when we arrive there. Most of us don’t really eat that much fast food, but that’s really been dominating the conversation.