Day 15. Miles: 20.5 Total: 232.1
Overnight, the wind gusts so strongly that my tent collapses twice. The second time, I extract all my belongings and just cowboy camp on top of it like a ground sheet. The wind blows sand at my face, so I retreat all the way within my bag, full cocoon style. It is not a restful night.
When my watch reads 5 a.m., I give up trying to sleep and pack up. I’m the first out of camp, but I soon worry that I’ve dropped my headphones somewhere, and I stop to rummage through my pack until I find them. Pivot and Jackrabbit both pass by. Once I confirm that I have the headphones, I tuck them in my pocket and keep hiking. The trail is gentle at first, then climbs a steep canyon, and I’m relieved that it’s early enough to be shady and cool.
After a few more miles, I take a side trail to Whitewater Preserve, where there are bathrooms and outlets and a clean water faucet. There’s a pond where we can wade and soak our tired feet. It’s shockingly cold. Before I hike out, I take off my shirt and dunk it, and when I button it back up again, I start shivering. But it’s a good call. The temperature rises swiftly, and the sun here in the desert is bright and relentless. The shirt is dry in ten minutes, and soon I’m dreaming about cold water again. After another few miles, I cross the stream again. The stony riverbed is a hundred feet across, but the water itself only spans a few feet at this time of year. I dunk my shirt and buff again. Again, they evaporate swiftly.
The trail climbs up again, winding around in curves and switchbacks, so no section is ever terribly steep. Nonetheless, the heat is so strong that when I finally reach Mission Creek, where a few large trees provide an oasis of shade beside the water, I collapse in relief. Jackrabbit has already been here for three hours. There are also several hikers I haven’t met. I rest in the shade for over an hour before pressing onward.
From here, the trail gets confusing. It follows Mission Creek, but there is evidence of flash flooding in recent seasons. It’s often unclear where the PCT is supposed to climb in and out of the wash. Narrow trails of Altra footprints zigzag through the creek bed and then climb up the steep, sandy embankment only to rejoin what was clearly the original trail, which must have crumbled away back where it was supposed to descend to the stream. It’s slow going, but it’s cooler in the narrow green valley. I hike slowly and cowboy camp along the creek over 20 miles from where I started, half giddy with relief that my ankle seems fine after all.
Day 16. Miles: 24.1 Total: 256.2
Today, we climb. Up, up, up, near the summit of San Gorgonio, just as high as we were on San Jacinto a few days ago before plummeting down to I-10. I start early, and the first five miles climbing up from Mission Creek remind me of the AT. Instead of the gradual switchbacks I’ve grown conditioned to out here, the trail ascends straight uphill, steep enough to stretch your calf muscles. My pack is light on food but heavy on water, as this ascent is long and dry.
After I reach the parking lot at Sand to Snow National Monument, the ascent goes back to the usual gentle PCT grade, and I can pick up my pace. I’m hoping to do my biggest day yet. The views are beautiful, and the trail is lined with meadows full of grape soda lupine, a bright purple, sweet-smelling flower. I see a little black snake, no bigger than a shoelace, with an orange ring around its neck. I also start to see chipmunks. This is not the desert anymore.
In the afternoon, the wind picks up. My phone warns me of a high wind advisory, with gusts up to 65mph. As the miles accumulate beneath my feet and the wind intensifies, my focus grows narrower and narrower. I (mistakenly) believe I’ve lost my headphones again, so I watch the trail before me and hike fast, thinking about everything and then nothing. It’s an exhausting form of meditation. I lose myself in taking careful, tired strides, placing my trekking poles. My goal is the Arrastre Trail Camp, which is a thousand feet lower down than the trail has been this afternoon, and my only thought is it can’t be this windy down there.
It’s around 6 p.m. when I reach the camp. There are fifteen or twenty people here. Some are familiar: Jackrabbit, Pivot, a few others. Most are new. I guess when you hike a 24-mile day, you start to catch the people in front of you.
This camp is tucked in the forest, and numerous dead standing trees seem hazardous in the wind. I choose to cowboy camp alongside a large boulder, hoping it will shelter me from any deadfall in the high winds. Jackrabbit, Becky, Luca, and Fry get the same idea, and we end up crowding around the perceived safety of the boulder.
As the sun sets, the wind eventually dies down.
Day 17. Miles: 9.9 Total: 266.1
I’m first out of camp in the morning, but one by one, Jackrabbit, Billie Goat, Becky, Luca, and Fry all pass by. I try not to get discouraged that even after all my preparation, I’m still among the slowest hikers. After all, it’s not a race, and I’m still going plenty fast. I hiked 24 miles yesterday, and my body still feels fine! It’s only 9:45am by the time I cover the ten miles to the road into Big Bear. Everyone except Jackrabbit is still in the parking lot, thumbs out. Eventually we all find rides.
I head into town with a hiker named Matt, whose parents live nearby and arrive in a sedan loaded with Gatorade and snacks. I get a text that the others have gone to a restaurant called the Grizzly Manor Cafe. There, we crowd into corner tables and eat enormous meals. My blueberry pancakes are the size of pizzas, overflowing the edges of the plate. When we’re ready for the check, the waitress informs us that a man already paid our tab, ten breakfasts for ten hungry hikers, and left. We had heard Big Bear was a hiker-friendly town, but we can still barely believe it.
After breakfast, we resupply at the grocery store and head to our motel. While waiting for the others in the checkout line, I text some flower pictures to my friend Kenzie, who brings her encyclopedic knowledge of plants to the REI trips she guides. She tells me to smell the grape soda lupine, and mentions that she’s in Big Bear. I call her. “Wait, you’re in Big Bear? I’m in Big Bear.”
She’s here for some climbing, and after I shower, she and her husband pick me up from the Motel 6 and we go out for coffee and tea. It’s a fun and unexpected afternoon, and then I have a quiet evening alone in the motel room journaling and uploading a blog post while my friends go out for dinner and a drink. They get back to the room around 9pm with crazy stories from a weird hitch. For some reason, we spend the next hour loudly singing Disney songs while we sort our food, and then we go to sleep.
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