The following is Part 5 in a series of posts concerning my experience with the Pacific Crest Trail. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 can be found via the associated links.
28 April: Saturday
Failure. After only 110 miles, only one completed PCT section (A), I am defeated. How? Why? To what end? These are questions that I must ponder. But I do not think that there are any immediate or clear answers. In some ways I am very disheartened by all this. Yet in part, I consol myself by recognizing that most of the choice—at least the one made in hope of wisdom—was not really mine. In other ways, I welcome the oblivion of uncertainty: the disruption of the unknown. Faith. I find great power in redemption, in how it manifests itself regardless of our human boundaries. But there is still grief. There was so much anticipation, so much preparation—so many imagined memories. As often is the case in my life, I got ahead of reality—or at least tried to. Perhaps that is what defeated me. Can hope be an enemy when it is courted by pride?
To begin to answer the questions, I will first outline my final three days on the trail. In these circumstances there may be some clues.
As usual, I was the last to break camp (Wednesday morning). There is too much that I like to do to prepare for and close a day. I was never even able to do it all. A significant realization that I later had is that my mileage approach to the PCT led to a sort of workaholism—let us call it “trailaholism”: when each day is driven by getting from A to B with little or no true rest, when all that is done is to keep the body progressing. Progress. . . . I hoped to escape it for a time. Yet it dwells within me. How dare I bring it into the wild? No wonder Nature resisted. I forgot why I loved being in nature. I forgot my greatest memories. They are nearly all in stillness: atop a mountain or hill, in a whispering valley—anywhere that I can stop and just listen and receive quiet’s blessings. Naturally, to reach those places takes work, but I let the work define my journey from the start. Timelines. I need to recreate my approach to the PCT. There needs to be lower daily mileage. There needs to be a greater emphasis on people. There needs to be more peace. A new aspect of peace has made itself known: embracing slowness. It is not a profound or new truth. I just understand it better now.
Anyway, I felt tired and footsore as I left Pioneer Mail Trailhead Picnic Area. I hoped to catch up with Ryno and Matt that had left about two hours and an hour before. The day was cooler with scattered clouds and the promise of evening rain. The views were lovely and lonely. My foot pain was my main companion, stealing my attention, my will, and my joy. Yet I pressed ahead steadily.
Not long after passing a “SoBo” (South Bound; I am a “No Bo” apparently) group thoroughly enjoying themselves—where was that celebration in me?—I caught up with Ryno and Matt. Their feet were also causing some grief. Yet I wonder how it compared with mine. A highlight of the day was, after passing Monkey and her mother, when we crossed west over Sunrise Highway (S1) toward Cuyamaca Reservoir to rest at a horse trough in a small field of grass buzzing with unobtrusive insects. We restocked our water supplies with our personal filtration systems, took our shoes and socks off, washed our feet, and then let them dry as we propped them on our packs and laid back to nibble and review maps or guidebooks. This is what the PCT is about.
Eventually, we packed everything up and walked the half mile east back to the PCT. At the junction, a young veteran SoBo couple was picnicking. I first heard the NoBo-SoBo terminology from them. Ryno had heard the term “NoBo.” I replied, “like hobos . . . or nobodies . . .” with a smile. The couple was going to the official PCT Kick-off at Lake Morena during the upcoming weekend (i.e. presently). We were thoroughly encouraged to attend. Probably nine out of ten people we meet encourage us to do so. Many people hike the first section (A: Mexican Border to Warner Springs) before attending the kick-off. They are then afforded a few days to rest and heal. That seems smart. As lively as it sounds, I was not sure that I had been convinced to attend. A lot of drinking is apparently involved. Many people get their trail names during that weekend. For example, one seemingly unfortunate lad lost a drinking contest to a woman. She, as a reward, named him “Mangina.” Apparently, he is proud of the name and was only too ready to tell others about it. Regardless, I mostly justified my reason not to attend by the fact that I did not have the extra supplies or transportation coordinated to backtrack and forth those few more days.
After our conversation, Ryno, Matt, and I left the couple, and I felt a wave of focus and strength—and relative painlessness—rise within me. I pushed ahead with an ambitious sense of getting back on schedule by reaching Scissors Crossing that evening, which would result in a 26-mile day. I sort of regret this decision. I loved being with Ryno and Matt. I just got distracted by the “necessity” to reach Warner Springs before Saturday (today) in order to guarantee picking up my first re-supply box without delay (the Post Office is closed Sundays). Yet I feel like I abandoned them in my brief period of strength. Do I often distance myself from people with my sense of resolve or discipline or call it what you want? I usually fear being abandoned by others. It has seemed to happen a few times. Though those people may have had different reasons than me, perhaps I would be a hypocrite not to recognize the same essence within me: abandonment justified by some personal conviction. Have I really ever sacrificed, purely without selfish motivation? As I recover and reorganize, assuming Ryno and Matt are still on the trail, I hope to get in touch with them to reconnect somewhere further along, such as in Yosemite National Park.
Meanwhile, I felt invigorated. I felt my old strength. I passed Heather and Monkey. I passed SoBo hiker “Don’t Panic” as I made the steep descent to Chariot Canyon. I climbed up to the ridge between it and Rodriguez Canyon, hollering back to Ryno and Matt a few times as I noted their slower progress below. I reached Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail just before dusk. Paul was there, setting up camp along with another couple. I cannot remember his name, but the husband and I spoke some German together. He had studied near Hannover for six months.
I knew that Ryno and Matt would probably camp at Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail for the night. It was a lovely spot. The San Felipe Valley stretched out below. I probably should have stayed. Yet my timeline lingered—persisted even—in my thoughts. I was tired. But I was determined.
The next 9.2 miles were lovely, especially with the sunset over the San Felipe Valley. That glorious view was God speaking to me about redemption. A few F-16 Fighter Jets even flew south over the valley toward the training zones east of the Laguna Mountains. I passed one other SoBo hiker along the way. I quickly began to tire. Seeing a house nearby at one point, I imagined a trail angel family welcoming me into their home where other hikers were staying for food, fellowship, and civilized comforts. Alas, it was to be a lonely night. I became fatigued. Once I reached what Don’t Panic had called “No Man’s Land”—Earthquake Valley between Granite Mountain and Grapevine Mountain—I was struggling to walk steadily. A few miles away from Scissors Crossing, I found shelter from increasingly harsh winds behind a large bush to cook what I intended to be my first dinner course: a freeze-dried meal. It helped. As the sky darkened, others creatures began their own supper routines. A few silhouettes of what were either desert foxes or coyotes ran stealthily across my path. After refilling at a blessed water cache near the S2 (road), I left the trail in hopes of hitchhiking the last 1.2 miles. That was unsuccessful. In a dark loneliness I continued, with a small circle of light from my flashlight to guide me.
At last I reached the bridge that marks Scissors Crossing. A camp consisting of four tents was setup on the sand under the bridge. The men there were friendly. They had selected that spot to avoid the expected 1.5 inches of rain to come that night. They told me of a water cache waiting across the dried creek, at the other end of the bridge. I chose not to camp with the men mostly because it was a bit crowded, but also due to the wind and sand blowing, and only slightly because I was not in the mood to socialize more with what seemed to be four gay men—a few of them started singing together after I left.
A few other camps had been set up a short ways away out in the open. My feet were really killing me. I was tired and grimy, and not in the mood for a stormy evening. I stumbled around awkwardly for a while. The bridge group led me to think that there was a campground nearby. A curt word from one uninterested camper let me know that I could just camp anywhere. I was hoping to find someone familiar, but it was just too dark and late.
I eventually found what seemed to be a suitable spot. Its disadvantage was that it was surrounded on three sides by a briar patch. When this settled into my now half-conscious mind, I was already too progressed with setting up my tent to feel like seeking another spot. My fingers were stabbed by the briars a few painful times as I used my Leatherman saw to remove branches that could potentially snag my gear or myself. This took too long. But I did not want to stumble out of my tent in the rainy night in hopes of relieving my bladder to instead get tangled in the embrace of an angry plant. Now, the advantage of the campsite was that it was protected against the wind, not to mention any intruders. Like lions . . .
By the time everything was set, I was in no mood to cook again, though I was hungry. My weariness took precedent. After going to the east side under the bridge to try to tend to my feet—somewhat in vain—I retreated to my tent, not even bothering to brush my teeth. I was tired and demoralized. My feet were grievous. I felt grimy from blowing sand. I was hungry and lonely. I could barely think to get organized in my tent—a challenge amplified by bad weather and doing so at night—and my clothes smelled rather putrid. Not to mention that I had cursed to myself more than I like. God forgive me. I eventually found some sleep. I was in too poor a mood to want to call Mama & Papa.
This was a low point.