PCT Days 11 & 12: Dirt Boogers

So we’re still hiking in the desert. Definitely still the desert. And I hear it stays the desert until about Mile 700. So that’s a thing. That we’re doing.

Hiking in the desert.

There are long stretches between water sources here, so hikers tend to congregate at the few reliable sources that exist. As with trail towns, this means you intersect with people whose wildly different hiking speeds or styles mean you wouldn’t otherwise meet them. On our 11th day of hiking, 135 miles in, we’re starting to meet people who are on their 5th day—mostly young dudes (though some ass-kicking old dudes, too) who are doing 20 or 25+ mile days every day, right from the start.

This is where the expression “Hike Your Own Hike” comes in. In some ways I’m in awe of these speed-hikers and intimidated that I’ll never be able to hike that far that fast. In less, ah, charitable moments, I smirk at their blisters and predict stress fractures and say Who’d want to race through the whole trail, anyway? But the beauty of these long trails is that everyone hikes their own hike, and that’s inherently OK. However you choose to do it, whether fast or slow or barefoot or whatever it may be, that’s your choice—and anyway, isn’t it great that any of us are out here, able to do this, at all?

 

That last bit is what I remind myself of when I’m on hour seven of that day’s dirt booger hiking. Dirt boogers are what you get out here with the dry, dusty air, and that’s what these some of these recent hiking days have been—dry, uncomfortable, not particularly attractive… but an unavoidable part of the experience.

I went so far today as to relocate my iPod with its 16 glorious gigabytes of music from inside my backpack to a hip belt pocket. I’ve been trying to delay resorting to music as a way to get me through the miles, but that moment may be approaching. Another distraction method is to play with video:

Hiking looks pretty exciting, doesn’t it?! …for nine seconds, at 6x speed 😉

We did finally see our first rattlesnake today. The German couple we’ve been leapfrogging with since the start, Hannes Treeman and Julia Hedgehog, were stopped ahead of us on the trail, with a coiled, rattling rattlesnake about three feet up the hillside in between them. Treeman detoured off trail down the slope, but after a few minutes the snake slowly turned and made her way up the hill, allowing us to pass.

We cowboy camped by a dirt road that night next to Treeman and Hedgehog, my ankles in too much pain after 15 miles of hiking to go another mile to the next water cache. I’m finally starting to sleep better than I usually do while camping, though perhaps that’s simply due to exhaustion. Normally I wake up every time I turn over, every time the wind blows, or whenever I hear the tiniest rustle and decide it’s a bear about to attack. Out here I’ve been sleeping more consistently, dreaming long, convoluted dreams filled with old friends and long journeys.

 

Everyone’s hiking mantra the next day was burger, burger, burger—we were headed for the Paradise Valley Cafe, listed in the guides as possibly the best hamburger on the trail. We did take one detour, though—our first trail magic. We’ve already been the recipients of amazing generosity from trail angels—the Third Gate water cache, Mike’s place, the entire operation at Warner Springs—but one narrower definition of trail magic is an unexpected, often temporary provision of sodas, beers, or tasty food out on the trail. At Mile 145, just off the PCT on private land, a woman maintains an emergency water cache along with a free library box, free postcards (which she then mails for you), and a few supplies—and on the weekends, she brings out coolers of sodas, ice water, and fresh fruit.

 
If you ever want to see a hiker in genuine, unadulterated ecstasy, surprise him or her with a giant, chilled strawberry during a long, hot hike. Pure glee.

 

(Thank you, trail angel!)

The burgers at Paradise Valley Cafe were pretty epic, so epic that I went straight to shoving mine into my face rather than pausing to take a picture. After shakes and burgers (and pie, for Fancypants), we sorted through our resupply box, filled up on water, and then headed back to the trail for a few more miles of hiking before dark. (For the record: Cindy, who works at the Cafe and shuttles hikers to and from the trail on her breaks, is a saint.)

That night we camped on a hillside covered with blooming manzanita and huge boulders, our first night camping alone. 
 

Day 11: 15.1 miles, Mile 127.1 to 142.2 gully campsite by dirt road
Day 12: 12.5 miles, Mile 142.2 to 154.7 boulder campsite

PCT Day 10: Trail names!

We woke up before dawn after cowboy camping in the Warner Springs Community Center parking lot and carried all our gear about 100 yards away to pack up, in hopes of not disturbing everyone else with our crinkly air mattresses and loud Tyvek groundsheet. We ate breakfast and packed our packs at a picnic table behind the Community Center bathrooms, which have a family of bunnies living underneath them. The bunnies venture out to nibble grass and then scurry back under the building whenever anyone approaches. What’s the cutest kind of infestation? A bunny infestation.

 

Big news, y’all. After various suggestions over the past few days, we’ve got trail names. A trail name is the name that you go by on a long hike—it can come from something you do (“Etch-a-Sketch” draws pictures in the trail registers), some physical object (“Cribbage” carries a cribbage board)), or really just about anything—a comment, a story, anything that causes a fellow hiker to say “That should be your trail name!”

There’s a tradition of receiving a trail name from other hikers, though you’re “allowed” to reject suggestions, and plenty of people just name themselves. A sampling of people we’ve met so far includes: Daydreamer, Moist, Foolhardy, Dino DNA, Sarge, Stump, Eskimo, Mountain Goat, Klutz, Jorge (a woman), Goat, and Lucky. There’s definitely a bit of insider-outsider, legit-newbie dynamic around trail names—Oh, you already have a trail name? You must have thru-hiked before… There are already many people who we only know by their trail names—and we’ll most likely never know their “real,” off-trail names (or as one hiker put it, “slave names”).

So Andrew was putting on his rain pants at Warner Springs, and I said “Those are some fancy pants!” in admiration of their zippers and velcro tabs. His hiking pants are also pretty schmancy, with zippered ventilation panels up the legs, so “Fancypants” it is. I’ve got a pretty sweet homemade water bucket that I constructed from leftover silnylon tarp scraps and an aluminum oven tray, so my name is “Bucket.” So now we’re legit! The first few times we introduced ourselves as Fancypants and Bucket rather than Andrew and Clare felt odd, but it has quickly become totally natural.


Today’s hiking was tough—everyone we saw was feeling the heat and the elevation gain and the lack of a breeze. The terrain is also… not the most exciting. The trail is sandy and exposed and follows the hills in big s-curves that mean you can see exactly where you’re going on the opposite hillsides—but before you get there you’re going to have to make a long detour into the bend? armpit? crotch? between the two. My vote would be to install zip-lines across the canyons, but the Forest Service may not be into that.

  
I’ve realized I have a strong preference for not being able to see the trail ahead of me. If I can’t see where it goes, then anything could be over the next hill or around the next bend: a waterfall! a taco truck! an ice cream stand! Or, more realistically: a great view! some nice shade! trail friends!

At the end of our 17.3 mile day today, we had one of those miracle moments: we got to the water tank at Mile 126.8 and discovered that Mike’s Hiker House, described in the guides/apps as “sometimes open, sometimes with food” was very open and very much serving spaghetti for dinner. We arrived to applause and beers and about two dozen equally tired and subsequently relieved hikers.

 

17.3 miles hiked, Mile 109.5 to 126.8, Mike’s Hiker House

PCT Day 9: Eagles and Cheeseburgers

After gloriously sleeping in until, like, 7AM, we did the last 8.3 miles to Warner Springs. The hike into town was beautiful—the trail passed through fields full of freakin’ amber waves of grain (or at least this awful goat’s head grass that hooks itself into everything but looks pretty from a distance), dotted with black-and-white-spotted cows. About halfway to town there’s an outcropping of rocks that, from one angle, looks like a giant eagle with raised wings. Obviously we stopped for pictures.

 

We walked to the Warner Springs Post Office, where the postal clerk seemed a bit traumatized by the steady stream of hikers coming in for their packages. Andrew also picked up his new backpack: the central metal stay in his ULA Circuit (a very common pack on the trail) came loose and punched through the bottom of the pack. To ULA’s credit, they not only answered the phone at 11AM on a Sunday when he called for support, but also made sure to get a new pack to him at a post office in the middle of nowhere four days later. It’s a Catalyst, the larger model, so the hope is that it will fit him much better.

We got a ride from the post office to the Warner Springs Community Center with a great-grandmother who happily crammed six hikers plus their resupplies into her compact sedan. The Community Center is a place of many wonders: double cheeseburgers, sodas, pie with ice cream, outdoor showers, electricity for charging phones, and space for—when we were there—over two dozen hikers to set up their tents under big oak trees.

 

There was a kids’ softball tournament wrapping up at the fields next door—I saw a boy leaving with a trophy almost as big as he was—and some hikers were continuing on that afternoon, but we stayed for the night to rest our feet, sort through our resupply box, and eat pie.
 

8.3 PCT miles hiked + 1.2 miles to the post office, Mile 101.2 to 109.5 Warner Springs Community Center

PCT Day 8: Windy Desert

It was windy all night, windy all morning, and windy all day today.

The trail stayed high along the ridge of the mountains for most of the day, which meant continuing sweeping views but, again: wind. We got kinda sick of the wind.

The morning’s main event was making it to the Third Gate Water Cache, an impressively organized and stocked cache of bottled water—gallon jugs, six jugs to a box, and many, many boxes in what was originally three tarp-covered stacks. Enough hikers have come through to reduce that to one and a half stacks. Someone buys? donates? the water and then trucks it in on a dirt road to a spot about a quarter mile off the trail. The generosity and support extended to thru-hikers continues to amaze us.

 
After the cache it was back to desert hiking. Not particularly compelling desert hiking, honestly. The sun beats down, it’s too windy for the umbrellas to provide shade while walking, and then it’s guaranteed that as soon as you want to stop for lunch, there’s no shade to be found.

We decided to aim for the next water source as our stopping point for the night, which would bring our mileage to 18 total. Eighteen miles is most definitely farther than I’ve ever backpacked in a day—though still less than what we’re going to need to work up to doing daily in order to beat winter to Canada.

It was a long day. No shade, more of the same meh desert, and enough miles to make my ankles start complaining. But this is part of thru-hiking, too—I’m guessing it’s the bulk of it, honestly—you just keep walking, even when it’s not especially fun. Not every day is a magical vista around every corner. But eventually you get to a stopping point, you eat some rehydrated mashed potatoes, and you pass the eff out by 9PM. Then you get up and do it again the next day.

We made it to Mile 100 today!

 
18 miles hiked, Mile 83.2 to 101.2 Barrel Spring

PCT Day 7: From Julian to Cacti

After sleeping in, taking more showers, and enjoying the Julian Hotel’s “two course breakfast” (house-made granola and waffles with fruit), we ventured back out onto Julian’s main street, where it was a hiker reunion every ten feet or so — Kara and Allie, Hannes and Julia, lots of people we hadn’t seen in a few days.

We got a ride back to Scissors Crossing with the cook/owner of the Julian Cafe, a badass lady who shared tips for keeping snakes out of your pack/sleeping bag (circle a length of rope on the ground around it—then she insisted that Hannes take about two pounds of rope).

In some respects, the line between thru-hikers and homeless people is demarcated solely by 900 fill down and carbon fiber tent poles. Because there we were, post-hitch-hiking, napping in the dust under the Highway 78 overpass for a few hours, waiting out the midday heat. Two fighter jets swept by at one point, flying low.

We were waiting for it to cool down because from Scissors Crossing you look up and see the next section of trail switchbacking up about one thousand feet of sandy mountainside. I was expecting it to be a miserable slog, but it was actually my favorite section of trail so far because it wound through the most spectacular cacti I’ve ever seen.

 

The hillsides were a Dr Seuss wonderland of cacti. I’ve never seen so many different kinds, so densely packed, covering so much area. It was—and I don’t use this term lightly—amazeballs.

 

 

The wind was blowing fiercely the whole way up, but the trail continued to be beautiful, snaking up along the hillsides as the sun sunk lower in the sky. We found a site partially sheltered from the wind (next to the Germans, Hannes and Julia) and decided to try our first night of cowboy camping, which is sleeping out under the stars without a tent. We haven’t done this before because someone who shall remain nameless has a bit of a bug phobia, but there was no sign of bugs and no chance of rain, so we went for it.

 

Lying warm in a sleeping bag, looking up at a night sky filled with stars, watching a satellite glide by—it’s not a bad way to fall asleep.

5.8 miles hiked, Mile 77.4 to 83.2 windy tent site