After leaving our lovely campsite by the creek, we quickly started gaining elevation and soon entered a region of true desert. The lush trees gave way to scrub oaks and then just cactus and dried grasses. Hiking early in the morning is the best. Not only is the sun light soft and golden, there are birds singing and you can feel nature waking up for the day. A few days I have started hiking around 6-6:15 am. I have also been awake in my sleeping bag at 5 am and have watched hikers head down the trail, hiking by headlamp.
This was the first day that I really felt like we were gaining elevation. Although the uphill sections were not long nor very steep, I definitely felt like we were on a crest trail for the first time. Unfortunately, this was also the day when my shoes started to give out. I had hiked about 150 miles in them before starting the trail and had hoped that they would survive for about 250-300 trail miles, but it became evident very quickly that was not going to be the case. When I was in Warner Springs I had ordered a new pair of shoes to be delivered to my next resupply station but I was starting to wonder if my shoes would even make it that far.
Throughout the morning I hiked alone, thinking that Eric (new trailname: Horizon) and Captain Deadweight were ahead of me and knowing that the others were behind me. I hiked a ten mile section (mostly uphill) until I got to a turn off for a water stop. A short way down a dirt road lead me to a rusting tractor, atop which sat a larger, jolly man with a long flowing salt-and-pepper beard. Next to him was a water cistern, and there, laying in the sun, was Horizon. I had made it to Mike’s place, but the guy on the tractor was not Mike. He was Tom and he just hangs out there for a few months, providing water, food, beer and sodas to PCT hikers. We call this “trail magic”. I filled up on water and signed the trail register he had, but declined the beer and soda since it wasn’t even 11 am. As I took a load off and had a second breakfast, Captain Deadweight and Merkel came up. Somehow I had passed Deadweight without even seeing him.
The afternoon took us on a long downhill section, which was much harder on the knees than the uphill. By the time I made it to the next water source (a pipe coming from a stream), I was feeling it. Luckily, the four of us took a long rest there, which helped. Then I looked at my feet. They had been hurting for a few hours and I had several hotspots on both heels from my shoes breaking down but I also had a large blister on the smallest toe of my right foot. Lancing it helped to relieve the pressure, but made it more tender to walk on.
Our rest stop wasn’t the best place to camp, so after an hour’s rest I had to keep going, and of course it was more uphill. I was so glad when we found a campsite and I immediately set up my sleeping pad and bag. I was done!
Most nights I have been sleeping out under the stars, with no tent or tarp above me. This is what’s called “cowboy camping” and is what most PCT hikers do during nice weather. It’s a bit colder than sleeping in a tent, but the it hasn’t been that cold at night.
In the morning it was a 13 mile, mostly downhill, hike to the Paradise Cafe, which is a hiker and biker friendly restaurant just a mile off trail and a stopping point for most people. We refueled with burgers and milkshakes then had a decision to make.
In 2013 there was a large forest fire near the Paradise Cafe which has closed a section of the PCT. The trail hasn’t reopened yet, so hikers do one of three things: 1) hitch a ride from the Cafe into Idyllwild where they can rejoin the trail; 2) hike up the PCT until the trail closure, then hike along a busy road into Idyllwild; or 3) hike along the road for 8.5 miles then get onto unpaved forest service roads and take those into Idyllwild. None of the options were ideal, but since Horizon and I didn’t want to skip any sections we opted for #3. Merkel and Deadweight decided to join us.
The 8.5 miles along CA78 was not physically hard hiking since it was more or less flat, but it was mentally the hardest section yet. Every few minutes a car or truck would zoom past us at 70+ miles per hour and in some places the shoulder we were walking on was pretty narrow and I could feel the whoosh of the wind as the vehicles passed. After two and a half hours of that (which were some of the longest so far), we found a game trail on forest service land that we deiced to follow.
That put us farther from the road, which was a definite plus, but the ground was soft and it was hard walking. Eventually we got to a campground where the four of us rested for a bit and all enjoyed two Popsicles. The campground was a bit expensive and made for RVs so we hiked another half mile up the road to a county park and spent the night there. When we told the ranger that we were PCT hikers, he gave us a deluxe site near a bathroom that had electricity (so we could charge our phones) for no extra charge. He, like so many people I have met along the way, was incredibly nice.
Even though it’s only been 8 days since I left San Diego, I have become accustomed to near silence and complete darkness at night, and sleeping in the campground was actually the least restful night I’ve had. Sure, it was nice to have an actual bathroom close by, but there were campfires going, kids screaming and lights seemingly everywhere. Don’t they know that 9 pm is when PCT hikers go to sleep? I was really beat: I had a new blister on my left foot and both feet hurt. I had also hiked 47 miles in the past two days and my body was feeling it.
It was also the coldest night I’ve had to far: in the morning I awoke to tiny ice crystals on my sleeping bag and dampness everywhere.
But at least we had left the road walking behind us: from the campground we were able to follow a mountain bike trail uphill until it connected with a forest service road that took us right in to Idyllwild. It was a gorgeous morning and we could see a thin layer of mist down in the valley that we looked out on. The walking was easy and fast in the fresh morning air. We passed through the burn zone from 2013, where nearly all of the trees on one hillside were still standing but clearly dead. Grasses have filled in everywhere and there are a few small bushes starting to emerge, but the burned trees make the area look post-apocalyptic.
Passing through the outskirts of town, we came to Astrocamp, where we saw some kids setting off bottle rockets. Then we encountered a few local residents who asked us some questions about the PCT and asked to take our picture. We said it was alright, as long as their dog was in it with us. It’s a little strange to be asked to be in a photo like that; I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’ll have to remember this the next time I’m in another country and want a picture of a local person.
Idyllwild is a cute, touristy town. We ran into Infrared on the way to the Red Kettle Cafe and he joined us for a great breakfast outside on the patio. While eating, a woman came up and asked if we were PCT hikers. When we said yes, she asked if we had gotten our free cookies and set out five ziploc bags of cookies for us then walked away without saying another word. It was a bit bizarre, but also amazing. These small towns really know how to treat a hiker well.
Immediately after eating, I set out to find a new pair of shoes and set a new record in shoe purchase time when I went into an outdoor store, tried on two pair of the same shoe (different sizes) and bought one of them. Hopefully my foot problems will quickly go away.
The public library was a great place to hang out for a few hours, catching up on the news and typing this entry. Having a full keyboard is so much nicer than your thumbs!