40 Hours in a Tent

We left Idyllwild late in the afternoon on Sunday with a plan to hitch back to Paradise Valley Cafe. We agreed to hike no more than five miles so we could maximize our feet’s chances of healing. Our time relaxing in town had already done us a world of good, and the insoles I bought for arch support made an instantaneous, miraculous difference. We wound up stopping at a tent site near a small stream about four miles in and eating our dinner on large sandstone rocks under pink and orange skies. We watched an episode of Bojack Horseman on Netflix and fell asleep. The start of our trek up Mount San Jacinto seemed promising. 

The next morning it didn’t take long for our first bummer to rear its ugly head. We discovered that all the water sources for the rest of the day were a mile or more off trail. The water source we had camped at was not the best, and we didn’t want to carry all of our water for the day and night all 16 miles up and down what promised to be the steepest hills of the PCT so far. We agreed to stop once for water at Cedar Spring, which sat at roughly the halfway point of the stretch we had planned. 

We arrived at the spur trail a little before 9 a.m. Four other hikers who had just gathered water and were resting on a log informed us that it was a “steep 1.2 miles but a really lovely water source.” With the sun getting hotter by the minute, we were definitely not stoked to add 2.4 tough miles to our day, but cold, clear spring water with no funky smell or taste seemed worth the effort. 

The view on our way to the water.

Those other hikers were right; the water was lovely. We gathered five liters each and after a snack break at the top of the spur, we immediately began a long, grueling climb. The heat and the added ten pounds of weight seemed to get to us, because Dan and I got a little snippy with each other at the top, and wound up hiking separately down to the saddle at the bottom of our next steep climb. He took off first, and I descended behind him slowly, stopping to take a thousand pictures of the ridge up to San Jacinto. When I got to the bottom, I found him sitting beneath a tree grimacing at his phone. 

One of the many pictures I took of San Jacinto.

“There’s a huge storm coming,” he said. “Those old guys who just passed you told me it’s coming in at 2 p.m. and will last into tomorrow.” 

We had planned to camp two miles farther up the trail, at the top of our next steep climb. But a quick consultation with Guthook revealed that the tent site we had in mind was totally exposed, and that we wouldn’t find any tree cover for at least 15 more miles. We had already hiked 16 if you counted our side trip to the spring, and neither of us had a 31-mile day in us. We decided our best bet was to stay where we were, set up our tent in as protected an area as possible, and simply wait out the storm. 

We found a flat spot next to some bushes and got to work setting up camp. About two minutes after we secured the rain fly, the wind started blowing in from the west, which of course was the side of tent that was the most exposed. When we chose our spot it didn’t occur to us that the storm would be coming in off the ocean, but it was too late now. Steady 30 mph winds with regular 40 mph gusts beat away at our poor ultralight backpacking tent, caving in the fabric and keeping the poles almost constantly bent (side note: the thing still held up remarkably well. Shout-out to the Big Agnes Tiger Wall). A giant cloud soon blew in and seemed to get stuck on the saddle where we were camped. Every time we exited the tent to go pee, we found ourselves in its cold, misty interior, unable to see more than ten yards in any direction. 

Fortunately, we had some cell service and 4G, so Dan kept checking the weather to see when the storm was supposed to pass. Originally, we expected it to die down enough to hike out by 11 a.m. the following day. I spent most of the day sleeping and trying really hard not to look at my phone so as not to waste the battery. Dan’s phone keeps its charge about three times as long as mine does, so we watched some Netflix on his. We tried to watch Game of Thrones too, but HBO’s servers were apparently too busy and it wouldn’t load. We both managed to sleep for most of the night. 

The following day, we waited and waited and waited for the storm to pass, but it never did. At 11 a.m., the time we originally expected to hike out, we listened as rain drops pelted our tent like tiny bullets. The few times we left the tent to go to the bathroom, we would come back after no more than 90 seconds wet and shivering and would need about an hour to warm up again. 

We got to watch the Battle of Winterfell episode. We ate our snacks because we couldn’t use our stoves. We tried to conserve our water. We slept some more. We checked the weather. Now it was looking like maybe 2 a.m. would be the time to hike out. We set an alarm. 

Well, 2 a.m. came and the weather remained unchanged. We woke up to the alarm, heard the rain, saw the fly completely caved in, and immediately went back to sleep without any debate or words about it whatsoever. There was obviously no point in night hiking in this. 

Throughout the night we would both wake up from time to time and just stare up at the rain fly flapping violently against the tent. By about 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, we knew we needed to make some kind of move. 

We had only packed four days worth of food, and most of what remained in our food bags needed to be cooked (not something easily accomplished in high winds) and it would be at least two days till we reached our next resupply. The weather said the summit of San Jacinto was sunny, but we were 18 miles from the summit and as far as we could see, it was still storming with wind gusts that could easily knock you right off the side of the trail. We didn’t even have our rain gear. We had left it at home to be sent to us farther up the trail because we thought it never rained in Southern California. With all this taken together, we didn’t feel it was safe for us to try to summit. We decided it was time to get off the mountain. 

Fortunately, we were not far from a two-mile spur trail that led down to a parking lot that sat four miles from the road. We packed everything up and made plans to hitch to Palm Springs. 

The first person to pick us up was a woman who worked as a botanist for one of the universities nearby. She wasn’t headed all the way to Palm Springs but she dropped us off at the Paradise Valley Cafe and wished us luck. We got breakfast and booked a cheap room at the Days Inn before hitching again. 

Within about 30 seconds, a beat up tan Toyota Camry pulled over. I didn’t know it until I saw him, but the driver was exactly the groovy cat I had always dreamed in my wildest dreams would one day pick me up on the side of the road hitchhiking in Southern California. Some trippy 60s surfer rock garage band type music drifted out of his stereo speakers. He wore a brown shaggy mop top haircut, circular pink sunglasses, a blue paisley shirt, and burnt orangey brown-colored corduroy bell bottoms. He was missing a VW bus and an eight-track player but otherwise the look was utterly flawless. He told us he was headed to class in Palm Desert but that he would drop us off at the bus station and we could catch the bus to Palm Springs from there. During our drive we learned that he was attending College of the Desert for two years to save money, but that he was planning on transferring next semester. He had recently been accepted to Columbia as a chemistry major but “wasn’t sure about New York.” We told him we understood. He said his new girlfriend lived in Montana and so if it worked out he might go there. We agreed that that would probably be a better place if he didn’t like big cities. As promised, he dropped us off at the bus station and we thanked him for the ride and wished him luck in school. Then he drove off to attend his class and, I imagined, maybe a protest of the Vietnam War somewhere on campus later in the day. 

Palm Desert is only one town over from Palm Springs but the bus ride took an hour. In that hour we decided that our bus driver, whatever she was being paid, was definitely not being paid enough. There are some serious characters using the public transportation system in Palm Springs. But we finally made it to our destination and were able to check in to our hotel right away. 

Palm Springs lies in the valley on the east side of San Jacinto and there it was a warm, sunny day. We took off our damp clothes and enjoyed hot showers. We walked to an Albertsons supermarket, where we had the luxury of doing a full resupply with every brand and food we could possibly want. We drank chia seed beverages and ate yogurts at the tables near the checkout, then went back to the hotel and did our laundry and watched TV and ordered Domino’s pizza. After what we had just gone through for the past few days, Palm Springs felt like heaven on earth. 

We decided that the next day we would take an Uber to the trail where it crosses I-10. It was a tough decision, but between our time in Idyllwild and our 40 hours in the tent, San Jacinto had become a thorn in our side. An obstacle that was now more than just a mountain to climb. It had become a logistical nightmare that kept sapping us of an indefinite amount of time and money. The ridge we had come off of was still completely socked in, and we just couldn’t go back. Mentally and physically, it was time to move on from San Jacinto. 

San Jacinto finally in the rearview mirror.

So the next morning we left around 7 a.m. Our driver dropped us off on the trail about 38 miles from where we had left off. At first I felt defeated, but as I looked back at the mountain and saw the dark clouds over the ridgeline, I made my peace. A few hours later, as we hiked through one of the most beautiful canyons I have ever seen, with bright sunshine beating down on painted desert cliffs and scores of unique and gorgeous flowers, I was very happy with our choice. All it means is that we now have a reason to return to this part of California, and that is perfectly alright with me. 

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