day 16: today i could hike forever

04.25135.5 – 156.5

i wake up to a velvety sky full of stars & something pressing against my face. that’s not right, i think, & fumble with the netting that has fallen down around me. oh. the wind must have torn out some stakes & flipped the tarp over the top of where i’m laying. i stay immobile for a while longer, the night is so still aside from occasional gusts of wind. three choices i guess. i can either try to go back to sleep, i can fix it, or i can get up & start hiking. i get up to pee & realize that i’m bleeding. i sigh & decide to fix my tarp & go back to sleep for a while.

today the trail crosses mission creek twice more & then it’s a sixteen mile dry stretch through a fire scarred burn area. the first five miles are punishingly steep & climb back up to 8500 feet but after that the trail feels friendly & i make good time. a hummingbird hovers at eye level for a long moment, but otherwise i have very little company all morning. today i’d like to get as close to big bear lake as possible, probably 21 miles, so i challenge myself to see how many miles i can hike before i take my lunch break. an innovative but unsuccessful new water carry strategy means that my pack is uneven for much of the morning & i’m grateful at 12 to take it off with 13 miles behind me. 


today is cool & cloudy. i could hike forever like this, i think, & i keep feeling good until i round a bend & cross a dirt road & come to a sudden stop in front of a double chain link fence enclosing a series of thick metal cages. this must be the private zoo noted on my gps app & it is heinous. the bengal tiger & the snow leopard stare at me dully with hollow eyes & a brown bear paces his cage. he stands up on his hind legs but can’t straighten his back all of the way because of the low ceiling & he drops back onto all fours. “how is this legal?” fumes patchwork, i just shake my head. “i’m sorry,” i murmur to the animals & then i have to keep hiking because i’m going to cry. 


i catch up to sticks & we hike together for a couple of miles. “i thought there was some kinda summit around here,” he muses, but the terrain is gentle & we round a corner & there’s a dumpster labeled magic & a mysterious white sofa. we sink in with orange sodas & before long hamlet & swedish fish & patchwork & byline have all caught up & we have to take turns on the couch. 


camp is less than four miles away & i fly. i could keep going, i think, but camping with friends sounds lovely & i surrender. it’s cold already in the little clearing & i clamber into my shelter early. all night i shiver but the thought of sharing a tent with josef for the next month keeps me warm & i sleep. 

day 15:ย 

04.24

218.5 – 235.5

the wind harangues me again all night, sprinkling a fine dust into my tent anywhere that it can. when will i ever sleep through a night? i wonder.

the morning is all long sweeping ridges & contoured canyons. “now this,” says the retired army medic who i am hiking with, “this i could do all day.” the trail today cuts through a canyon for about 12 miles as does the glittering ice cold mission creek. i cross over at least a dozen times, sometimes onto nice rocky shores & others into swampy mud pits that suck & gurgle at my feet. at one particularly inviting crossing, i join snowshoe, saunter, rafael, kelly & mystery cooler for a foot soak. as i pull my shoes off, the adhesive holding my gaiter velcro to the heel of my shoe finally gives out. “oh,” i say sadly, “i guess i need some superglue when i get to town.” laughing, snowshoe produces a tube of it from the depths of his pack. “the trail provides,” nods mishap.

at my last creek crossing i set down everything again & use my bandana & the good cold water to clean the dust & sweat of the last few days from my body, my face. the water is so SO refreshing. all i can think about today is the salad that i will make when we get to big bear. “roasted chicken, avocado, tomato, bleu cheese dressing, romaine lettuce,” i recite to anyone who will listen. 


today is a short day, since the 16 mile stretch ahead is a former burn & therefore camping is prohibited. it is a treat to roll into camp by 4 o’clock. we’ve all eaten dinner by 5 & since there’s nothing else to do other than tell stories, we all have 2nd & then 3rd dinner & then put ourselves to bed before 8pm. the wind is wild again, but i am confident in the security of my shelter & i fall asleep smug & snug.

day 14: why am i carrying an ice axe through the desert??

04.23

201.1 – 218.5

the little hollow in the mountain hosts not just all of us hikers but also a howling windstorm. i wake every hour, convinced that my shelter is about to be torn apart but somehow it survives & so do i & i wake up to a beautiful sunrise weary but ready to hike.

i’m grateful for the relatively cool morning air as i trot down the last four & a half miles of mount san jacinto. from miles away i can see a paved area where someone has installed a water fountain & i imagine in great detail what it will even feel like to drink out of it. i call josef when i get there. he asks me when i’ll be in big bear. “wednesday, i think”. “okay,” he says, “i’m going to come meet you there.” i had been hoping that he would say that ever since we’d started talking about him maybe joining me for a while. ecstatic, i hang up the phone & start the next stretch which crisscrosses through a barren, sandy & wind-swept plain towards the i-10 underpass. 


i never imagined that in my life i would be so relieved to sit under a bridge but as soon as i arrive all of my great aspirations to push on another couple of miles before lunch dissolve & i collapse into a heap next to a styrofoam cooler full of cool water & stay there for the next hour and a half. at first it is just hikers & then slowly people start arriving one or two at a time. they are trail angels & they bring wonderful gifts like lemonade & fruit & candy. this is good because after doing some vaguely scientific calculations yesterday evening, i realized that my too heavy food bag actually contains just barely enough food to get me to big bear lake on wednesday. now, though, with my stomach full of a cookie & strawberries & lemonade & an added banana & grapes & candy for later i should have more than enough snacks for the next 57 miles. i am elated- one less worry for my mind to dwell on. 


the nine mile stretch which leads from the underpass towards the san gorgonio wilderness feels difficult beyond belief. part of it is the wind, part of it is the sun, and a large part of it is in my mind. i try to remind myself what anna told me (although i forget where she got it…): “you can do anything for ten minutes.” the wind mills watch over me like silent sentries. 


“why does the last mile always feel so long?” sighs swedish fish & i nod sadly & trot down the hill as quickly as my wincing feet will allow. “kind of galling, isn’t it?” asks hamlet nodding towards the sign at the junction. 1/2 mile off trail to camp at the whitewater preserve. “this better be good,” i mutter darkly, & it is. there are bathrooms & running water & the sound of frogs. the place is full of hikers, many of whom skipped the last nine mile section from i-10 & hitched here. 


i cook one of the bougie ramen packets that annabeth sent me & add some freeze dried peas. it’s good & i’m beginning to realize that there’s some merit to a hot meal at the end of the day. some of the germans had brought back a case of coors & the party goes late but i put myself to bed in my little shelter before 8pm & the wind drowns them out anyway.

day 13: feeling sketchy on san jacinto ๐Ÿ—ป

04.22

183.3 – 201.1

my body’s beginning to adjust to it’s new schedule. i only wake a couple of times before it’s time & then i wander across the slab & stare down the mountain at a grid of city lights that must have materialized in the night.

before i’ve gone far, something dashes across my line of sight. i stand very still & peer into the darkness at the edge of the trail & make eye contact with a doe. she flicks her ears & watches me until i turn & keep walking. 

within a mile i am grateful once again for my microspikes. i take them on & off a couple of times, eventually just clipping them to my hip belt for easier access. at north fork jacinto river i edge down an uncomfortably steep ridge towards the water’s edge. it’s the biggest water crossing i’ve had yet & i hang back for a moment to strategize. there are plenty of big rocks to clamber across so i’m not too worried. on the first step my foot slips into the cold water & i cling with both hands to the rock, heart in my throat. i struggle into my down jacket with numb & shaking fingers. the water that i filter from this river tastes how the pine trees smell.

fuller ridge is the stretch of san jacinto that everyone seems to have heard something terrifying but nobody seems to know where exactly it is or what’s so bad about it. envisioning endless ice cliffs, i have my ice axe ready but truthfully, i barely notice when it begins. progress is painstakingly slow &, with numb feet, i try to make myself focus on the compressed footpath as i inch along, prodding sketchy stretches with my trekking poles. i’ll take a lunch break at mile 190.5, i think, but no matter how long i walk it doesn’t seem to come any closer. finally i round a bend & everything is sunny & goliath says “that’s the last of the snow.” it’s taken me nearly seven hours to walk as many miles & i collapse into the patch of sun & spread out everything to dry. 


i look at my maps for a while & make up my mind. the next good campsite is listed as a ten mile descent away. i lead the way with hamlet & swedish fish on my heels. “you make it look effortless,” pants hamlet when we take a little break overlooking the upcoming valley. i laugh, it feels anything but. in fact, i’m beginning to crash, “i’m sleepwalking,” i admit. i’ve hiked for 12 hours today, longer than i ever have before. i fret about the upcoming camp spot. everyone that i’ve seen all afternoon has been planning on going there- what if there is no space & we have to hike farther? we round a corner & there are tents everywhere & plenty of space for more. great gusts of wind tear through the little valley & i have to reinforce my stakes another time before bed. please hold, i think, & then i am asleep.

day 12: back on trail

04.21 3 (south ridge trail) + 2.5 ernie maxwell trail + 2.5 devil’s slide trail + 179.4 – 183.3

i sleep fitfully in the top bunk of the dorm style room that i’d taken for the night, waking periodically to rearrange the too warm covers around me. it’s nice being in between clean sheets but i wake up ready to be back on trail. 

on my way to meet hamlet at 8:30, zippy & the newly dubbed maps poke their heads out of their little rented cabin & offer me coffee. who am i to say no? we talk trail & cute dogs for awhile before i have to run.

yesterday evening hamlet & i had decided to attempt to rejoin the pct via the south ridge trail & he’d been able to coax a kindly local into giving us a ride to the trailhead. “it’s not too steep till ya get to the switchbacks,” he assures us before lumbering away in his canopied pickup truck. 

as we trudge up the (too steep) road, a dusty little silver sedan passes us coming down. i step to the side of the road to drink a little water & hear the car turn around & head back up. strange, i think, & then the car is pulling up beside me & my long lost friend emily fong is leaping out from the passenger seat! we lived together for probably six months in portland but she is RAD & it is so awesome meeting her boyfriend & hearing about their awesome plans for the upcoming summer. “maybe we can even meet up in washington in august?” she offers. i’m buoyed by this encounter, happily chattering to hamlet for awhile about some of the badass adventure babes that i’m lucky to know.


we turn a corner on the road & a pair of drawn looking germans trudge down to meet us. apparently there’s a posted warning that the south ridge trail is impassible. they’re heading down to try a different way up. i hesitate, maybe we could try it anyway? but then they are showing us pictures of the snow-erased trail & i rethink. 

as a herd, we backtrack the mile & a half we’d come towards the ernie maxwell trail which will take us to the devil’s slide trail which will take us to the pct! by the time we even begin the first part it is already 10 am & i cringe. it’s going to be hot. an older woman hiking with her daughter asks me if i’m hiking the pct. “yeah!” i say “alone?” she asks. she blanches & then shrugs & raises her trekking pole in the air & cries “girl power!” i echo it back, laughing. 

the trail gains 1000 feet of elevation in just a few short miles & josef’s warning from last night starts to make sense. “tomorrow’s the first day that it’s really going to feel like the pct,” he’d said. 


patches of snow begin to appear around 8500 feet but i’d known to expect this from the questions i’d been asking day hikers all morning. the scent of pines is overwhelming & comforting, it smells like winter. at first the snow is fun, i find ways to skirt around the patches or follow dirty footpaths through the crunchy snow. as the snowfields begin to grow & merge together, i hang back so that hamlet & i are hiking together. we both are getting weary of the increasingly frustrating terrain & after a while i suggest we sit down to rest & reevaluate. “oh… i see…” says hamlet. his tone worries me. “looks like we got a bit off trail…” we compare apps &, sure enough, we had taken the wrong junction about a half mile back & now we are on the summit trail. “that explains why the snow’s only getting deeper,” i laugh, but my heart tightens: the snow tricked us.


we backtrack a half mile or so, feet numb & spirits low. when we finally cross over to the sunny side of the ridge & are able to take off our microspikes i immediately feel better. the last couple of miles to camp are pine needle softened & lovely, the golden hour illuminating everything around us.

i set up my shelter on a high granite slab using big chunks of rocks instead of stakes. two other hikers are camped there as well & they build a pinecone fire in the established pit & it’s so lovely being warm & washed with the smell of woodsmoke. i sleep easily. 

day 11: today i do not hike

04.20

151.5 y nada mรกs

when i begin to stir, i shake frost droplets from the tightly stretched tarp above me. everything is drippingly wet with condensation… i am slowly learning that grassy fields are the least practical places to set up camp. oh, well, i think, grateful that today i don’t have to pack everything away for an early start. in fact, today i am not starting at all. i am taking the day off to pick up my microspikes & ice axe, to gather supplies for the next stretch & to meet up with brian & penelope in idyllwild. i luxuriate in the lightening morning for a while before laying my things out in the already hot sun to dry. the others are beginning to do the same & the freeway-side field looks like a bizarre & unorganized flea market. 

we drink weak but delicious coffee on the patio at the diner & strategize for this next stretch. i still have not made up my mind about the mountain fire alternate. i don’t want to skip it but i also don’t want to do it alone & i’m having trouble finding anyone else who’s game to start tomorrow. we lay out our paper maps, our hand-drawn diagrams, our phone apps, & our data sheets & by the end of breakfast i just feel more confused than ever. the next 39 miles are inarguably confusing with plenty of warnings to watch for specific unmarked junctions & monitor mileages. “i just want to get to mile 190 so we can cruise into canada,” i laugh. 

meg & pinecone & pheobe & i hitch a ride into idyllwild with janice, gary the horserider’s wife. she is gracious & funny & indulges all of our questions about logistics & reality for their trip. most importantly, she has an amazing dog named rose who climbs into our laps & gives us kisses the entire 17 mile drive. 


i had asked annabeth to mail me my microspikes & ice axe for the upcoming treacherous fuller ridge so, trepidation building from my last post office experience knotting my stomach, i walk down to the post office. i hand over my id & wait, trying to be calm. when the postal worker comes back empty handed i can only laugh sadly. “you might try coming back in the afternoon,” he says doubtfully. 

i try calling annabeth but she must be at work so i wander around the grocery store listlessly for awhile, taking mental stock of what i’ll have to buy for the next hundred mile stretch of trail. i buy an ice cream sandwich & a vegetable juice smoothie & alternate nibbles & sips on the curb in the shopping center. frustrated & lost i pace the loop of town. it’s small enough that i run into several hikers & by the time i circle back to where the australian girls are staying i feel calm. meg offers me a shower & the hot water feels so good that i almost cry. 

annabeth calls me back & is able to help me find my package & it’s full of snacks & books & a new diva cup to replace the one i’d forgot & my microspikes & ice axe. i’m so relieved that i slump over on the porch of the inn where i’d found it & close my eyes for a moment & i’m there still when penelope calls to tell me that she & brian have arrived in idyllwild! 


i’m so happy to see my old friends, to ask their advice on things, to tell them my stories. we wander around the little town for a while, we even get to meet mayor max, idyllwild’s dog mayor (!!!!) eventually we settle in at a little brewery where we sit close to a big stone fireplace & talk until it’s after dark & i’m yawning involuntarily.


after brian & penelope leave, i stay up for a while, researching routes & recent reports. i’m so tired, i feel so confused & conflicted about what to do next. this day off has only made everything feel more complicated, the unknowns building up in my imagination. i know that once i figure things out one way or another i will feel better. 

day ten: girl gangs & burgers

04.19

131.5 – 151.5

my hastily deployed shelter had been pitched at a slight incline but somehow it works. yesterday’s 22 mile day makes it mighty easy to put up with a little downhill slither. i wake up to pee & stare up at the sky full of stars. there are little blurred lines of light where the mountain’s edges are & so i know that it’s time to be awake. a strange phenomenon in this deep water adjustment period has begun to surface: during the days i feel fine, my greatest struggle remains convincing my mind not to linger on the painful. nights are fine, too. i usually write a little & then am too tired to do anything but sleep. but when i first start to wake my heart feels clenched in icy fingers of dread. it takes getting up & moving for it to dissipate. what is this??

i walk the six miles to our first water source of the day with four australian girls (pheobe, tamika, meg, & pinecone) who had camped in the same little clearing as i had. they are funny, engaging, & lighthearted, a true girl gang & i want IN.


“would you like to join us for coffee?” asks pheobe as we traipse across a nearly dry creek. “YES” i nearly shout. i haven’t had trail coffee yet & i’ve only had coffee twice since starting but mostly i’m just desperately grateful to be included. 

i keep pace with pinecone for some miles after our coffee break & we talk intersectional feminism & american attitudes towards nature & strange people we’ve dated. the day grows hot quickly, & there’s something about the relentless sun & the extra exposed ridges that sucks my energy. i swelter up trail another eight miles towards a water cache & a vague hope for a shaded lunch spot. i don’t know where all the dudes who dominated the trail the first few days are but i find myself surrounded by pretty much all women today. it’s awesome! we luxuriate in the shade for hours & convince another passing hiker to take a photo of all of us. 


i had planned on an 18 mile day today & a short day tomorrow into a trail famous cafe but all that anyone can seem to talk about today is BURGERS & cold soda & so, without even fully realizing it, i commit to getting there tonight. “pheobe,” i pant, dragging myself up the last major incline of the day, “i am going to have a burger tonight.” i fall behind, my feet feel tender, & i listen to some music to pump myself up. everyone’s probably already gone ahead to the cafe, i tell myself. to my laughing relief, though, they are there clustered at the roadside, waiting for me. they make an archway of their trekking poles & i jog through, laughing. i call the number scrawled on the road sign & cindy the waitress at paradise valley cafe a mile down the road rolls up in her dusty green ford explorer. “hop in,” she tells us & she brings us to a world of sweet potato fries & rootbeer & big fluffy burgers. she lets us camp outside of the cafe &, clutching my take out box of leftover fries, i set up my shelter & snuggle in, bathed in light from the freeway.