The following is the final part in a series about my recent experience on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Each part has been adapted from journal entries written in the wild. The date and time listed are when the journal entry was originally written.
11 June, 2018: Monday
21:52—Silverwood Lake, “Bikers” Campground [PCT Mile 328.7 (Mileage Today: 25.75)]
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I am utterly spent. I pushed on farther than planned due to the allure of soaking in the lake and enjoying fellow hiker company. Alas, neither of these came to be, but I appreciate the faucets and bathrooms here. The Philadelphia Boys pushed me and I pushed them: Chris “Crash”, Noah “Drop Zone”, and Colin.
But I will write more tomorrow. I have only 13 miles of this PCT section left, which includes some climbing. I pray my body is restored enough tonight to complete the section in good time, but mostly to catch up with the Boys. In the meantime, goodnight.
13 June, 2018: Wednesday
“God, the LORD, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (Habakkuk 3:19).
Monday, I rose at about 6:00, noting how the sun was progressively lighting the western hills. I prefer packing up camp and completing my routine in the cool of the shade when the temperature is pleasant, only beginning to hint of the heat to come.
Ready to traverse the boulder field and hike back up to the PCT from my Deep Creek camp, I only took a few steps before feeling water spilling from the base of my pack. Realizing that it must be my hydration bladder (Note: I keep it in a pouch fashioned inside the back of my pack so that the drinking hose has easy access through a slot to attach to my shoulder strap). A lot of leakage was occurring, so I cursed and quickly removed my pack to salvage the situation. The problem was that the hose joint at the base of the bladder had been pulled out. I lost over half a liter of water. Fortunately, some water was left and the hose could be fit back into place, seemingly secure; though I am now more mindful of how I place the bladder in the pouch.
Overall, I didn’t mind having a damp butt, for the day would be sunny and dry. Concerned about my down feather sleeping bag being soaked, I placed my mini towel inside along the bottom of my pack beside the bag to absorb the moisture. I also took my [useless] pillow out along with my wind jacket (which I never used) and strapped them to the outside of my pack to dry. All this ultimately proved effective.
Having reached the PCT, while I made some final pack adjustments, a couple hikers passed by and waved knowingly. I did not recognize them, but later realized that they were the Philly Boys. Not long after I started hiking, Crash passed me at a brisk pace to catch up with them (having apparently made a pit stop).
The next four miles were leisurely with countless canyon views of Deep Creek. I passed the German hiker I’d met days earlier at the Holcomb Creek campsite. He was struggling to break in some new hiking boots. His partner, Celine (from Switzerland), was waiting for him not far down the path.
I wanted to stop at the much-talked about Deep Creek Hot Springs. Arriving, a number of people were lounging about. The beach looked in a bit of disarray, much likely contributed to by weekenders or tourists who walk in from a nearby dirt road, but don’t pack out their garbage. There are some locals, however, including rangers, who do their best to keep it clean. Still, it’s discouraging how trashed some natural sights can get when people don’t care about those coming after them. The rangers have their hands full. Camping is technically not permitted, but some get away with it. PCT hikers generally try to honor the Leave No Trace philosophy, so are allegedly given greater leniency in terms of being allowed to camp at the Hot Springs. I probably could have camped there, but on the other hand I’m not sure I’d have fit in. Quick Start, who I’d see later that day and hike with for a while during the next day (my final day), talked about having passed out on the beach with a few others the night before I arrived. I can’t remember if he said it was from weed, some kind of drug, alcohol, or a combination.
Anyway, I reconnected (and finally recognized) the Philly Boys as I arrived at the Hot Springs. I talked with Drop Zone for a while—he’d earned the name on another backpacking excursion after his food canister fell off a cliff—and then joined the others to soak my feet in one of the ten hottest pools (105+ F). Some bathers enjoyed the “no clothes required” culture of the springs. The Philly Boys and I talked with two local men about the trail and their memories of Hot Springs shenanigans from the last twenty plus years. “Hippie Dave” shared the most, how there could be hundreds of people at the springs at a time, about a man who landscaped the pools using creek stones and cement to create walls and deeper pools (really quite nice), not to mention the parties, orgies, arrests, and more that have and still occur. The Philly Boys and I listened and conversed politely and with engagement, but also a degree of emotional distance. We are not really part of the hippie backpacker culture.
Ready to depart, I asked to join the Philly Boys, which they welcomed. Collin hasn’t earned a trail name yet. His knee is bothering him, especially during descents. Crash (i.e. “Crash Bandicoot” because his face, namely his eyes, kind of looks like the video game character, much to his reluctance, though Balloons and I immediately saw the connection) is probably the fastest, most aggressive hiker of the three. Drop Zone is the quietest, but certainly solid. Crash will be leaving the trail in a few weeks after they take a break to connect with their girlfriends. If I would be in San Jose instead of Kentucky at the time they’ll be there, I would try to connect. Alas, I will be away. Collin and Drop Zone will hike until early September when their jobs begin. About all this and more, including about myself, favorite Disney song(s)—for possible trail song parodies—were discussed as we hiked. I tried Crash’s trekking poles, interested in the rationale of using them, and really liked their flow. Not only do they give the hands something to do, particularly against swelling, but most of all provide a way to leverage arm power for greater speed. I think I’ll acquire a set for my next distance hike.
Approaching the Mohave River Forks Reservoir Spillway, we passed a few day hikers going into the canyon; only, they weren’t carrying any gear, especially water. Noting that we were a couple miles from the Hot Springs or car access from the Spillway, I thought about how people like this add to the statistics of hikers dying from dehydration.
The Philly Boys and I ran into some confusion at the base of the Spillway regarding the direction of the PCT. We met a woman who was experiencing the same. Apparently some hikers had proceeded down a dirt road, but our maps indicated that we needed to cross at the adjacent creek. We opted for the latter. Drop Zone got his shoes wet and the woman fell in, so I decided to just take off my shoes. The other side of the creek was overgrown with vegetation. It didn’t seem like the right way. Collin bushwhacked to try to find the trail while I left my gear with the others in order to jog downstream to see if the PCT actually crossed there (i.e. via the aforementioned dirt road). Both options proved true. It appeared that the trail has been redirected in the last few years. So we retrieved our gear and, excluding Collin who walked the older section of the trail, walked barefoot downstream to the newer PCT crossing. In the shade of a tree we then ate some lunch, filtered some water—all that we would have for the next 11-15 miles until Silverwood Lake—and let our feet dry. Though the Boys are all twenty-two, we seemed to have compatible personalities and shared experience as distance runners.
I’m not sure how I would have completed my last two days on the trail without company.
For the remainder of the afternoon, the trail followed the meandering contours of the hills that border the desert valley of the dry Mohave River Forks Reservoir. There was little cover or shade, though thankfully a gusty wind, to shelter us from the heat. I led the group after a break near the Mohave River Campground trail junction. Venturing alone to the campground ¾ mile away (my original plan) in the heat of the day was unappealing to me, so I resolved to push on with the Boys. We met others at our break, including a girl who had hiked most of el Camino de Santiago in Spain (until her gear was stolen). She had the Camino shell attached to her pack. Everyone was pressing on to Silverwood Lake. I wanted to be in community.
The remaining miles were tough, though I initially led the aggressive pace. We were heartened to finally ascend to a point overlooking the lake (c. PCT mile 325). The blue water looked so inviting. It would be another 3+ miles before we reached camp. I was very much looking forward to soaking in the lake. I gradually burned out along the way, falling behind (Collin had fallen behind earlier, but passed me while I rested). I needed to stop at one point to rest my feet and eat a Snicker’s Bar for energy. I felt spent. Soon I ran out of water.
There was a frustrating set of missteps once I reached Silverwood Lake’s Cleghorn Picnic Area. At first, I thought I had gone too far, leaving the PCT for a bike path in hopes of reaching the camping area where I presumed other hikers would be staying. Having backtracked on the road, I found Crash and Drop Zone. (The hiker with the travel guitar was also there; at McDonald’s the next day, I learned his name is “Yellow Toe.”) Collin had apparently reached the Mesa Campground and was excited about the showers. Talking on the phone with him, Crash told him, “Leave it running.” We tried to cross over to the mesa via a faint “trail”, but that ended in water, then backtracked to attempt the bike path, but some day users were a bit vague about whether it led to the camp; so we backtracked again to the road. Tired and aggravated, Drop Zone said it well: “I’m done with this day.” He was in flip flops and shirtless, having changed at the picnic area, thinking that was where we’d camp. “Prematurely” he added, later along with how shortcuts often prove to be the longest ways.
Nonetheless, we finally found Collin. The other two lined up to shower, but I noticed a sign pointing to the “Biker Camp” (including a picture of hikers) further down the road. I didn’t want to clean up and then have to hike a ways, so told the Boys that I was pressing on, thinking that they’d join me after their showers. As they too didn’t feel like moving after showering, they arranged with the camp manager to stay in one of the nearby vacant car sites. (The manager also let them use the shower without paying.) I should have just stayed with them. But I wouldn’t learn of these details until the next day.
As dusk approached, I made camp at the corner of the mesa. The hordes of mosquitoes created a steady whine in the air above my head. Fortunately they did not really bother me. Seeing that the nearby showers (different than where the Philly Boys were) cost $2 in quarters for 4 minutes, I decided to just use the nearby faucet. Stripped to my shorts, washing from the faucet, I’m sure I was a bit of a strange sight to the car campers. I paused to let one guy fill up his water jug. I was happy to learn from him that the water was potable.
Cleaned as best as I could, with my tent set, I felt exhausted but content eating dinner—double portions since I knew the next day would be my last; I benefited from the extra energy and not needing to carry the weight. I observed a few flashlights across the water inlet below at the Cleghorn Picnic Area. Latecomers on the PCT, I presumed. I kind-of wished I was over there with them, but more so wondered where the Philly Boys had settled, wondered if they’d start early or sleep in a bit as Drop Zone had suggested earlier.
After calling Andrew to let him know that I was another day ahead of schedule, I sank into a deep sleep, hearing the sound of coyote calls amidst cheers and laughter from nearby car campers who had set up a projector in order to play classic Nintendo games. It was amusing, but not exactly my ideal atmosphere for a last night on the trail. Yet part of the nature of the PCT is adaptability, just going with opportunities. Trying to control everything only leads to irritation and burnout.
The Final Day
[PCT Mile: 342 (Day’s Mileage: 14)]
11:54—(same as above)
I awoke just past 6:00, not wanting to be in any more sunlight than necessary; but also because I was anxious to return to the trail away from the littered, somewhat mangy Mesa Campground; but most of all to catch the Philly Boys in case they had left early. Having eaten heartily the night before, I decided to just pack up and depart for the trail right away, thinking I’d eat breakfast during my first break. As I ascended from Silverwood Lake to the top of Cleghorn Ridge, I passed by Yellow Toe breaking camp as well as an older woman seen the day before called “Keep Going.”
A little over 3 miles into my day, at a dirt road (RD0332), I came across Quick Start and Balloons finishing their break. I was going to eat breakfast there, but they talked about a “shoes off” break at a camp in about 1.5 miles, so I decided to join them. I didn’t recognize Balloons at first (Note: he’s from Bakersfield; named for picking up some discarded balloons early on the trail, including one with “Class of 2018” printed on it). Quick Start, named for the whimsical nature of his deciding to hike the PCT weeks before the conclusion of his first year of college in Phoenix, AR, was recognizable from the day before. He is also a runner, which we talked about extensively for a time after our breakfast break.
I was thankful for the company, but after our break my left foot flared up painfully, causing me to limp slightly. Quick Start was moving along well. Yellow Toe had passed us during the break, we yo-yoed a bit with Keep Going and an English couple, the two [Dutch?] girls were a bit behind us, and I was beginning to slow; so I let Quick Start, with his wide-brimmed beach hat, Vietnam War era external frame pack, and GoPro in hand, go on ahead of me. (Note: He began the trail even carrying his laptop for picture editing, but quickly sent that home after a brutal first damp of dehydration from Campo.)
At Mile 338, I rested my feet in the shade of a power line tower, waiting for Balloons. (In the desert, shade is a treasure that often dictates where to take a break.) Before stopping, I called out to Quick Start who was not far in front of me, but he didn’t hear. My throat was too dry. Balloons eventually reached me. We enjoyed some conversation as he hydrated and ate some powdered hummus.
To my delight, the Philly Boys soon caught up with us, having risen later. I learned how their evening had concluded, thought about joining them for the last 3 miles, but then didn’t want to abandon Balloons just yet. Also, I wasn’t sure I would be able to maintain their more aggressive pace.
Before departing for our last haul, I gave Balloons some foot stretching tips, which he implemented and desperately needed. He’s going to meet up with his parents and likely check with a specialist about his foot. I hope he’s able to make a swift recovery. (Note: He works in environmental science, and has been to the Bay Area before.)
Reaching our first overlook of Cajon Pass and its hilly, barren glory, I saw that the Philly Boys were not too far ahead. My foot still hurt a bit, but was numbing, so I tried to use my hips, gluts, and knees in my usual fluid descent fashion, which can be quite fast. I caught them just as we reached the weigh station to I-15.
McDonald’s with its golden arches never had nor likely never again will hold such appeal. It is a brief hiker haven between sections C and D, as is the hiker-friendly Best Western Hotel that provides discounted rates to PCT hikers. There is a heavy 22+ mile ascending waterless stretch to start Section D, which discourages hikers during the midday heat. Hence the air conditioning and cheap food of McDonald’s (or nearby Subway) is so appealing. Many hikers opted to spend the night at the Best Western. Some, like the Philly Boys, planned to wait out the heat, pack up 4+ liters of water, and start the ascent that evening.
“I am partially jealous of you,” Collin commented as I prepared to leave with Andrew. “I am partially jealous of me too,” I replied, meaning that I was sad to leave the PCT community in which I had begun to belong. There were at least fourteen PCT hikers in the McDonald’s, packs taking over part of the walkway and half of a booth—to the annoyance or amusement of other patrons, who were probably mostly curious by this jovial but hungry and grimy group of bon vivants. An older woman, a trail angel, offered us peanut butter cookies.
Crash and I had been talking about cold drinks, especially McFlurries, the day before, so I indulged in a large and then small vanilla milkshake. So good. Andrew and I next drove to Chipotle en route to his place in Yucaipa.
Before leaving, I wrote down the Philly Boys Instragram account to follow (@norf_bound) as well as Collin’s email to send him some photos. I am definitely tired. My foot hurts and feels slightly swollen, so I need to rest and tend to it at least for today.
Cleaning up last night felt really good, though it took two soap scrubs to really get the dirt off, especially around the feet and ankles. I have some fresh blisters, likely from pushing too hard these last three days in heat across sandy terrain.
I wouldn’t really want to day hike any of the area I covered in this section. There are just not really points of interest except Mount San Gorgonio, Big Bear Lake, and Silverwood Lake, though just hiking by them is enough in my opinion. The highlight of this section was the people, feeling more part of the PCT community than ever before.
I learned some lessons about gear—refinements really: e.g. checking if things work before leaving, how to better clean and store some, items to lose or add, food that works—but also confirmation about pacing for enjoyment, physical stamina, and injury prevention. I sacrificed a bit of the latter in favor of community, which I do not regret. But if I were to attempt a thru hike again, or even with sections, I must be ever mindful of pace for the first 1-3 weeks of my body’s acclimation—not ignoring the knowledge of conditioning learned from distance running.
Part of me is sad to be done, but part of me is satisfied. There are other important, meaningful responsibilities and adventures in stores this summer. Lake Tahoe and Section C of the PCT have been an incredible start. Thank you, God, for the opportunities, and for being my strength in weakness. I love you.