Day 15 – 0 miles – Mountain’s wife is in town, and they have a cottage near ours. She offers to drive us around, so we head to the pizza place for lunch. The guy behind the counter asks what our trail names are for our orders and photo. I say Ralphie. It’s the last time I use this temporary trail name, but he says it with such a great accent. Think: a Brooklyn bellow: “Ralphie!”
After pizza, we head to the outfitters. There, a hiker gal named Morgan is asking if we are hikers. She’s rented a cabin for two nights but the rest of her group leaves today. She has room for three, and we have three needing a place for the night. She gives us a great deal. We spend the evening cooking carbonara-esque pasta and sitting in the hot tub. It starts to snow.
Day 16 – 7 miles – We wake up to a fine layer of snow. There’s an even dusting on the lilacs outside. I make a pretty average omelette, and then Justin takes over and makes a few wonderful French omelettes. It’s still snowing. We debate on whether to leave today or stay another night with the hot tub. For some reason we decide “it’s now or never” and pack up. We road walk for two miles to get up to a trail that will eventually lead us back to the PCT in another 2 miles. The roadwalk is especially tedious with a steep incline. The flakes are quite large, and the mountain disappears into the cloud above.
As we continue on, each step requires more energy. Since I live and hike at a higher altitude than the others, I can push on without feeling nearly as run down. Hours pass though, and we are making slow progress as the snow gets deeper and we have to posthole through it.
There are only one set of footprints ahead of us–Morgan’s. She left early that day, all alone. I’m thankful for the little path she has made. “Hot tub” becomes a phrase that garners a lot of heckling when mentioned. We arrive at camp. Morgan is camped here too, under a tarp. A Czech woman is there too. I do jumping jacks and set up my tents clumsily and frantically. My fingers are frozen. The night passes miserably, the temperature drops to 18 degrees. I don’t sleep very much because of the cold itself and the loud wind, which starts as a distant noise tumbling down the mountain, and arrives to batter one’s tent violently. I have a 10 degree quilt, but it doesn’t seem to keep me at a comfortable temperature.
Day 17 – It seems like Tallboy and Mountain have had even worse nights than I. Tallboy has Raynaud’s disease and had a lot of trouble setting up. He didn’t want to leave his tent to use the “loo” (as I call it) so he urinated in one of his water bottles and held it to his chest for warmth last night. As hilarious as the illustration is, it aptly emphasizes the severity of the cold.
We pack up quickly and move out, hiking the ridge and down the mountain, dreaming of snow-free steps.
The snow is melting quickly after this May freak-storm, and trees drop slush bombs on our heads and down our backs. The going is still very slow, down a slushy path that makes both microspikes and regular ol’ shoe traction equally useless. Once we are out of the snow, we regroup at a campsite cleared in some Manzanita shrubs. Hummingbirds love the bell-shaped flowers, and are everywhere until dusk.
Day 18 – We wake and hike down the mountain. It’s a day full of downhill into the valley, and my knees complain instantly. The trail is quickly engulfed by a cloud, and continues to be so for miles of switchbacks. I put on some Molly Nilsson and get in a nice groove, enjoying the muted colors of caramel sand, gray-blue, and dusty purple in the plants. At times I find myself nearly dancing downhill, avoiding rocks with precision. Nature seems to being doing the color palate nicely lately.
Justin and I are pretty close in distance today, but we don’t see or Tallboy until we are out of the cloud and nearly at the base of the mountain. They’ve stopped in a cave-like place and were less than a mile ahead the whole time. The trail is funny like that. Someone can be a day ahead or a mile behind for however long, and you might never see them. Mountain stays behind. His shin has been bothering him. Justin, Tallboy, Claire, Christine and I make it to the underpass just in time to get a ride from a new trail angel named Hillbilly to his house in Cabazon.
Tarantino, Campo, and Alan are already there. Tarantino sent me a text earlier that saying: “It’s a pretty weird place,” to which I replied, “duly noted.” I didn’t quite note it as well as I should have.
I won’t be going into much detail here, because words will not suffice. Hillbilly lost his wife a few months ago. Soon after, he helped a few hikers out that he met at the post office (the previous local trail angels had quit for lack of help and respect from hikers) and has been a trail angel for two months. His daughter and her boyfriend and their two young sons live there as well.
Mousetrap arrives as well, and the hiker count grows to 10. We are glad we have each other there. To any newcomers Hillbilly asks “anyone want to know how I got my name?” The unknowing will raise their hands. The answer involves everclear. It’s a very different pace of life than I’m used to, and makes me feel thankful as far as where I grew up and what I was exposed to. The town is clearly ridden with poverty and drug abuse, and Hillbilly is clearly lonely. He has a good heart. While here, I meet a hiker named Scav. He’s doing crazy mileage with a ~6 pound base weight in order to finish the trail before August, because he’s in the middle of school. I have fun nerding out about gear with and the “calculated cut-and-run” style of trail life with him.
Day 19 – Campo, Justin, and I head out to resupply at the convenience store .5 miles away. Indian music plays and a woman is making breakfast burritos in a little kitchen. We order some. I accidentally buy some beer salt, thinking it’s electrolyte mix.
I drop off some postcards at the Post Office. We head back to Hillbilly’s and he drops us back off at the underpass.
We hike out of the valley and shortly come across a nice old man setting up for some trail magic named. Mr Lee. He’s a Korean veteran and loves to talk. “I’ve had four wives, but I hate being told what to do. I’m like Steve Martin. I’m just a friendly guy!” When I mention I live in Washington he says he has a woman there.
The terrain becomes steep but I power up it, delightedly unphased. We congregate at the Whitewater river crossing. I’m set on swimming. It’s not very deep, so I head downstream away from the others and wade and attempt to swim. I sit on a rock with my feet in the water and close my eyes for about ten minutes. It’s a peaceful moment, with the sound of the river. I head to an even more private area, and braid my hair before walking back to the others.
It’s the first time I experience “power hiking”. I get into a real rhythm and power up the hills, with an adrenaline-like feeling. It’s hard work but so exhilarating. I catch up with Mountian who we haven’t seen in a few days. He and I take a break and wait for the others.
We end up camping at the first crossing of Mission Creek.
Day 20 – I wake up to voices. Tallboy has cowboy camped and Mountain and Alan are standing over him. I wander over. “I was sick all night, like, being sick,” he moans. British translation: he’s been throwing up all night. It’s his birthday. We debate on what to do. Each of us only has enough food for another day. I’m running especially low. Sam lies does under a tree, which happens to be a tree filled with lots of ants. He lies there as we attempt to pack up his things, filter some water for him, and make him comfortable. He begs for orange juice. It give him an Emergen-C as a birthday gift. He puts his Tyvek ground sheet over himself as a blanket and a few ants crawl on him. It’s really pitiful. Since Tarantino is on his way, we decide to hike on, with his permission. He ends up getting lots of care from passing hikers.
It’s slow going in the heat, and a fair bit of uphill. We haven’t seen Campo for a while, but run into him at a large group camp spot. It’s mid day and he’s lying in his tent without the rain fly, as Justin and I happen upon him. He’s sick too, but plans to hike tonight. Campo hiked the Appalachian trail last year, and he and Justin have known each other since college. We hike on, becoming paranoid at the slightest sign of sickness. I’m starving and low on food. I can’t wait to eat some ramen for dinner. I’m rationing my food at this point because I know I have another day and a half to hike. It’s a good lesson on food planning. Justin has been generously sharing some of his food with me.
There’s a burn area closure for four miles that prohibits camping. As we enter the area, the forest grows silent. Blackened trees tower overhead. Their burned bark is foam-like and yielding to the touch, almost like caulking. At mile 240, we follow a path to get spring water. Here we find Amelia, and quite a few people camping in the closure, one smoking a cigarette. Justin points out the closure, just in case they were in the dark about it. They don’t seem to care, to my disappointment. We move on. Nearing the end of closure, we see three more tents.
Amelia, Justin, and I set up camp on a windy but flat spot past mile 242. We are ravenous. None of us talk as we eat. The exertion of the day has caused acute, animal-like hunger.
Day 21 – 16 miles – We wake late and hike on, Amelia leaves before us and we don’t see her again. We run into Allen who shares his family-sized bag of Cheez-It’s with us, which is very generous. We continue from there. The miles until town are dwindling, about 24.
Twerk texts me, he’s already in town. He’s had a rough couple of days and I promise I’ve got his back and he’s got room with us. We reserve a cabin for two nights for four people.
I’m using an app called Guthook’s guides. It shows a map and an elevation profile, as well as water points. Hikers can leave notes about the area. We decide to continue to mile 258, about 8 miles out of town, because it looks flat on the elevation profile. In the meantime, the map shows I’ll be passing a “private zoo”. I’ve seen and heard of this for more than a year. As I approach it, I see a grizzly in a small cage, only enough room for it to pace shortly before turning around. A chain link fence keeps hikers from getting closer. A man with a ponytail sprays water into the cage to fill a bucket. As the trail rounds another corner, I see another Grizzly, and a smaller wild cat in other cages. Apparently, the animals are used for movies. How this person is allowed to keep these animals like this, without any stimulation or space? It puts a damper on the day.
We have another intense dinner. I tend to eat a lot more than the others, and have thought about food all day. I cook mac and cheese for Justin in my pot, because it’s larger. To make mac and cheese, I figure out that I can boil down the water and then add the cheese mix, instead of draining the pasta. It creates a starchy sauce that makes up for the lack of milk and butter, and conserves water.
I wake with a shot of adrenaline to a chilling noise. Yipping, huffing, and barking. In the confusion, I assume it’s a hurt or rabid dog. The sound multiplies and travels halfway around camp, before stopping completely. Just coyotes. I lay, wide awake, trying to catch my breath and calm my pounding heart. It’s a full moon. I don’t know why I’m so scared or shocked. I’ve only ever heard coyotes from far away, and the huffing and yipping noises don’t carry that far. I fall back asleep and dream that I have a few animals and that they get rabies so I have to put them down. On trail, dreams have been very vivid, and usually full of despair or disaster.
22 – 8 miles to go – I wake up thinking about the private zoo, and if there’s anything anyone can do for the animals.
As we pack up, Mountain rounds the corner, he doesn’t see us but I call out to him. We’ve been wondering where he was. It turns out he camped half a mile behind us.
All we can talk about is food. Last night I looked up the recipe for Bananas Foster French toast and plan on making it in town, where we’ve rented a cabin. I have less than a handful of peanuts left, and less than a spoonful of peanut butter. I decide to hike and save it. The miles go by slowly, but with one mile out, Alan, Justin, and I begin to run. Our packs are light without any food, and a minimum of water. Running turns out to be a bad choice, and we’ve only covered 1/10th of a mile while burning energy we don’t have. Mountain is behind, not running because of his shin. He worries it could be a stress fracture.
Town is great. The first place we stop is breakfast. Twerk is already there and has secured us a table. It’s an awesome spot and they give us a huge pancake as an appetizer for free.
I head to the hostel in town, because my coworker Tracey sent me a package here. When I open it, it’s filled with the most perfect things, and I’m so thankful. How did she know about toilet paper and ziploc bags?!? And so much good food. And some cool drawings and jokes from her boys. It makes my day.
We eat breakfast with a bunch of other hikers: Tarantino, Campo, Mixed Bag, Rawhide and Mousetrap. Once again, I’m disappointed with the portions.
In the evening, everyone goes to the sport’s bar to watch the game. I stay at the cabin and start the French toast for dinner. It turns out really well (in my opinion). Then we order Domino’s and Eat. More. Food.