Casa de Luna to Idyllwild: In Which It Was Very, Very Windy
I couldn’t think of how to intro this retroactive recap blog, so I read through some old blogs to see how I had been doing it. Turns out, I started basically every blog explaining how hard it was to blog on the PCT. As riveting content as I’m sure that was, it’s no longer applicable because I’m living at my parents’ house and unemployed for a few more weeks with all kinds of free time. I’m pretty sure my parents keep suggesting I work on blogs because it means I spend a few hours at a coffee shop and not in their hair making boomer jokes in my pajamas. (I have a job lined up and I’m moving soon, so this charming phase will end. And my parents find me endearing.) Anyway, to where we left off.
Casa de Luna to Hiker Heaven
I was planning on hopping straight from Casa de Luna to Hiker Heaven as they’re only 24 trail miles apart. The day went by extremely quickly as the I-was-just-in-town restedness was mixing in with the get-into-town-there’s-food-there enthusiasm, which made for a very efficient pace. I immediately went and got a giant plate of nachos from the Mexican restaurant in Agua Dulce before cobbling together a pretty crappy resupply from the convenience store. I started the walk toward the Sauffley’s with terrible stomach cramps; I had to pause a couple of times to hunch over because it felt so awful to stand up straight. I focused really hard on not chucking up the nachos I had devoured so happily a half an hour ago. Having vomited my way up the Appalachian Trail, it had become a small victory that against all digestive odds I hadn’t thrown up anywhere along the PCT and I didn’t want to break the streak now. It was the only victory my intestines had.
A couple of people had warned me that I may become temporarily lactose intolerant post-Giardia, including the doctor in Ashland and other hikers who had survived their own bouts with Giardia. (As an aside, I never realized until I got Giardia how many hikers say they had Giardia when they definitely hadn’t had Giardia. I know that some cases are worse than others and being the Giardia police literally sounds like the worst title you can self-appoint yourself with, but some people say they had Giardia when they definitely had, like, a bad burrito in town. There is a look of haunted understanding hikers that have actually had Giardia give me when it’s brought up and I don’t believe you’ve had Giardia unless you look like you’ve been through some shit, literally. These jokes will never stop being funny.) Anyway, I wondered with some alarm if this had happened to me. Looking back, there had been some obvious trends. “But you get Cheez-Its in every resupply and those are making you sick,” I reasoned to myself, “You’re probably just feeling bad because you ate a lot.” I continued on, ignoring the probably low amount of real cheese that actually comprises Cheez-Its.
After returning a very lovable dog that hopped her fence in her enthusiasm to see me, I arrived at Hiker Heaven as the sun was setting. Organized is the key word I’d use to describe it. If my very type A mom hosted hikers as a trail angel, this would be how she would do it, which is the highest form of praise I have. Donna gave me a quick tour and took my laundry. I asked if there was anything they hadn’t thought of as I examined the foot care station. “If there is, tell us so we can make it happen,” she told me, even though the Saufleys, like the Andersons, are closing up shop and trail angeling their last season.
Since they had literally everything, they had a scale and I was able to see with some relief that I had gained five pounds while on trail. Despite my best efforts, I had still been a little underweight when I started hiking again, and I was pleased to see the consistent nacho eating was resulting in something besides a stomachache. I spent the evening curled up in the fetal position on the couch with my arms wrapped around my stomach watching NFL highlights with yet another 2017 AT thru-hiker. I don’t really watch football, so I spent the time guessing which players looked like they could successfully thru-hike before finally the stomach cramps ended and I went to bed.
Hiker Heaven to Wrightwood
It took awhile to tear myself away from Hiker Heaven—and from snuggling with the large number of friendly dogs the Sauffleys own—the next morning, but when I finally headed out, I was greeted with towering rock formations and canyons in Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park. It was named for a bandit that used the environment to elude arrest and has subsequently been used in every movie ever made. It was extremely hot—between shoulder season and the drastic changes in elevation, the weather had been all over the place—and I felt like I was actually in an old-school western movie. The next couple days were a long and gradual climb up toward Mount Baden-Powell and the western vibes gave way to forest. I think there’s a tendency by hikers unfamiliar with the West Coast to not realize how much the ecology of the desert section of the PCT varies, but this was the start of climbing up to 8,000 feet and then dropping down to the desert floor again and again and again, which made for a constant variance of terrain, weather, and surroundings.
Some of those surroundings included swarms of gnats that form orbits around your face for miles on end. There was no rhyme or reason to when they appeared; I generally think of bugs as being a problem near water, and since the desert had very little water, I hadn’t thought they would be much of a problem and didn’t have my bug net. With a bug net, I wouldn’t have cared much, but without, random sections of trail became torture. For miles I would be fishing them out of my eyes, blowing them out of my nose, and spitting them out of my mouth before enough of a breeze came along to drive them away. During one of these sections I started jogging and after realizing it was an effective deterrent, I strapped my pack a little closer and happily ran down the trail. I always miss running when I’m hiking and the getting lost before Tehachapi episode had made me realize I could actually run anytime I wanted. I still had two feet and a trail.
As I happily “zoomed” along (I mean, I did my best but I had a pack on) the trail began showing more and more evidence of washouts, downed trees, and rock slides. I was a little surprised. The PCT is long and volunteers have their work cut out for them, but it’s generally in pretty good shape. In a couple of sections, the trail had washed out entirely and I walked cautiously across steep slopes with dirt that slid down with every step. At one point the dirt my foot was planted on gave way and I started sliding down like I had fallen down some snowfield in Washington, except I was sliding down loose dirt in the desert. I stabbed one of my trekking poles into the dirt to stop my slide, ankle smarting terribly. I pulled my way back up to the badly eroded trail, heart pounding and really confused. I continued on a little longer, shaking out my ankle as I walked, before arriving at a 20-yard section of trail that was completely gone. I poked the dirt with my trekking pole hesitantly and it caused a cascading slide of soft dirt that pulled more and more earth with it as it ran like water down the slope, which was a much longer drop than last time.
Utterly bewildered that this section hadn’t been talked about more, I pulled out Guthook to see if there were any comments. As I scrolled through, I realized with a sinking heart that this section of the PCT was closed to protect an endangered species of toad—and it had been closed for years. There was no signage where the detour started for southbounders and the note in Guthook was where the detour started for northbounders, so while running to escape the bugs I had blown right past it. I had almost hiked through the entire section of closed trail at this point. The detour already added miles and backtracking would add more. Between the poor resupply in Agua Dulce and an uptick in my hiker hunger, I was almost out of food. Specifically, I had five Chips Ahoy cookies in my pack. I had planned to get into Wrightwood that afternoon and backtracking would mean I had 25 more miles instead of 18 and it was already almost noon. I glanced at the slide again. There was a chance I could make it safely, but I had no beacon, no cell service, and absolutely no one would walk by and find me if I fell and couldn’t hike out. I knew what the smart thing to do was and with a sigh, I ate one of my Chips Ahoy and started hiking back the way I came. I’ll never be able to describe the frustration that comes with having to backtrack on a thru-hike (especially on a town day while hungry) and with the knowledge that no one was around, a lot of choice four letter words were uttered and angry tears shed. And a couple of apologies were made to the toads as I passed the creek.
I let my tantrum run its course as I returned to the detour and started the long road walk. I didn’t think I could hike 25 miles over Mount Williamson and Baden-Powell on four Chips Ahoy cookies and still get to the last crossing of highway 2 to hitch into Wrightwood before dark, but I crossed the highway multiple times in the next 25 miles, so I figured I would get as far as I could and hitch in early. The challenge was probably going to be getting back to where I left off the next day, but that was future Becky’s problem and current Becky had more pressing ones. I shoved one more Chips Ahoy in my mouth. And then all of them. I’ve never been good at rationing food. Once again I started running, figuring it would make me feel less hungry and get me farther in less time.
When the afternoon light started to wane and my head started to spin, I dropped down to the highway and stuck my thumb out. I always feel like your odds of getting a hitch are better when you’re standing, but I swayed on my feet and spent the wait between cars leaning forward on my knees. Two cars came by in a half an hour but the second picked me up and I silently thanked the hitching gods who have always smiled on me in emergencies. The friendly man started pulling out snacks from the depths of his truck when he heard my predicament as he drove us to Wrightwood. I tried to make sure he knew what a hero he was in this moment as I shoved food in my mouth.
I bought food at the grocery store and ate it with tears of relief in my eyes on the picnic table outside before going back in and getting my resupply done. I popped over to the outfitters and went through their binder of trail angel phone numbers until I found one who could take me back to where I left off. My ankle had ballooned up and I decided to take what would end up being the last zero with 380 miles to go.
Wrightwood to Big Bear
I taped my ankle up as best I could and hiked out with an extra couple of pounds of fear calories in my pack. It was Saturday and Baden-Powell was crawling with day hikers who peppered me with questions about my hike. “If only today had been the day I ran out of food,” I mused. “I could have yogi’d food easily.” But what are you gonna do?
Along with my extra food, the next day I would be hitting a McDonald’s infamous for being almost right on trail: .3 miles away, to be exact. I passed up the last water cache before the junction, thinking I’d much rather hydrate with a McFlurry and raced to get over railroad tracks so my apple pie would not be delayed by a long train.
There were a lot of people in a very confined space and I couldn’t keep the bubble of you-can’t-smell-me space I like to pretend I have in public, but I sat with other thru-hikers and our numbers combated any self-consciousness. I don’t eat meat, but demolished an array of sides and desserts as I peppered them with questions about the Sierra and the locations of other hikers I knew. At the last minute I ordered an iced coffee—thinking it was going to be just cold coffee—but was instead given a concoction that was 90% cream and sugar and 10% coffee. It made my stomach turn just looking at it, but I had paid for it, so into my stomach it went.
Sure enough, the awful stomach cramps started again and they were far worse than any of the dairy-induced pains I had experienced before, which was unsurprising considering the McFlurry and the iced coffee monstrosity that were currently running through my intestines. I tried my best to hike on, hunched over with my pack unbuckled, but eventually I gave up and spent a half hour curled up in the fetal position on the side of the trail before pulling myself up and dragging myself a couple more miles to camp. My food bag was filled with mac and cheese for dinner so I grabbed my one non-dairy option, which was chili ramen. At the time, it felt like the lesser of evils, but in reality it was like eating a match if my stomach was already full of lighter fluid. My stomach hurt no matter how I tried to lie down on my air mattress and I tossed and turned all night, never finding a comfortable way to sleep. With no other options, I suffered through every one of those boxes of mac and cheese on the way to Big Bear, each one giving way to a painful and sleepless night, although none of them were as bad as the night after the McDonalds’.
The night before I got into Big Bear, I made my first water mistake. With so few sources, I always knew when I needed to fill up, but after walking next to Deep and Holcomb Creek all day, I put off getting my camp water one crossing too many. My last crossing of the day was dry as bone even after some investigating upstream. I could have turned back but since backtracking miles is agony and the sun was sinking fast, I decided to push on and make do with what I had. When I got to camp, I saw that what I had wasn’t as much as I thought it was and while the next source was listed as reliable, so had the last one and it looked like it had dried up in Octobers past. It was also 14 miles on, with an additional three to Big Bear if it was dry. With a groan, I knew I had to get up early enough to get in all my miles before the sun got too hot and set my alarm for 3 a.m.
I rationed my water the next day far better than I had rationed my Chips Ahoy, which just meant I was thirsty all morning instead of going from kind of thirsty to really, really thirsty. I listened to podcasts and tried to fill my brain with things to distract from how badly I wanted something to drink. It’s only occasionally that I start hiking before sunrise, so I tried to focus on the incremental changes in darkness before the black gives way to a brilliant sunrise. Other sections of trail may have their pros over the desert, but the desert sunsets and sunrises are up there with the best I’ve ever seen. The temperatures vary wildly over the course of the day and I figured I had until about 10 a.m. before I started getting really uncomfortable, so I hiked quickly in the chill desert morning air.
I got into Big Bear and bought two Gatorades at a Vons, which I drank outside, sitting cross-legged next to my pack. Only when both of them were consumed did I go back inside and sort out my resupply. I then walked into the laundromat next door, glancing around halfheartedly before turning back out and getting pizza instead.
Big Bear to Idyllwild
I hiked out of Big Bear with another windstorm brewing. There were some rumors that fire restrictions had gotten so severe we weren’t supposed to be using campstoves, but already tiring of cooking and wishing I wasn’t carrying my stove as it was (with 250 miles to go, it didn’t seem worth the postage to send it home at this point), I packed out no cook food. No cooking and no dairy meant boring food, but I was getting pretty bored of backpacking food anyway.
As I hiked out, I realized I had less than the distance of Maine left to go. I thought for a while about what those last 280 miles on the AT had felt like. Every joint had hurt, my weight was in the double digits, I threw up randomly for reasons I didn’t understand, and I felt like I was racing to get to Katahdin before my body gave out entirely. Southern Maine had terrified me and any moment I wasn’t moving I fell asleep instantly. Every night I had gone to bed thinking I didn’t have another day of hiking in me and then every morning I got up and put my shoes on and hiked. I’m more proud of myself for finishing Maine than the entire rest of the Appalachian Trail. With some sadness, I realized this didn’t really feel like that. I wasn’t sure if it was because the desert is easier than Maine, I was missing miles this time, or if I was just better at keeping my body from getting in that bad shape. I wasn’t necessarily missing feeling that terrible, but I did miss that feeling of digging deep and pushing through. “I’m going to have to find that again at some point,” I thought as I hiked.
I hiked through Mission Creek, trying to keep my temper in check as I lost the trail at every creek crossing. The trail in this area is mostly washed out and nonexistent as it zigzags over the creek repeatedly. I knew when it was time to cross when a cairn appeared next to my feet, marking where the trail began again for northbounders. There were no cairns on the other side for SOBOs. “To be a NOBO again,” I thought longingly. I would have placed cairns for the SOBOs behind me had I had any idea where I was going. Every crossing led to lots of backtracking and aimless wandering; often I just gave up and bushwhacked next to the creek. I ended up stopping early instead of spending an hour or two night-hiking. The days were getting shorter and I needed to spend some time in the dark to make good miles, but there was no way I was trying to figure out where the trail went in the dark.
The next day was hot as I continued my drop back down to the desert floor. Once there, I would again start a long climb back up to 9,000 feet, this time to Mount San Jacinto. It’s the last big mountain for southbounders and it also happened to be the first place I’d ever stepped on the PCT. My family had hiked around Jacinto a lot when I was a kid and I had been to Idyllwild before; despite being from California, the only other trail town I could say that about was South Lake Tahoe. It’s exciting to see places you’ve hiked before and I maintained my enthusiasm through the heat of the day.
At highway 10 (I’d been past the PCT so many times without realizing it as a kid!), I came across real, honest-to-goodness trail magic. Two former thru-hikers had set up a taco-making station; they had hiked a section this year and had come to do magic for a friend they’d made on the way, but had brought enough for the exactly four hikers they would see that day. It really does make sense SOBOs don’t get much trail magic like this, especially in the desert once all the NPBOs and flippers are done. In my excitement and thirst, I drank two PBRs and two Diet Cokes before I hiked out again and the caffeine and alcohol formed a perfect equilibrium in my contentedly full stomach. I started up the climb as the sun was setting, exactly my intent. It’s a 20-mile waterless climb for SOBOs, probably the hardest climb they have in the desert. I had planned to do half that night and half early the next morning. I was feeling awesome with my chemical stimulation and the familiar wind turbines from countless childhood drives dotting the landscape below me. I had the zoomies, which is what I call it when stopping for anything feels impossible. “I should just hike all night and summit Jacinto at sunrise,” I thought as I charged up the hill. I did the math in my head. It would be a 50-mile day and I had heard Jacinto was rocky and steep but my brain was screaming with delight at the idea. “Respect the whim! You can do it! Hike all night! Hike all night!” But by 10 p.m. the caffeine and alcohol had worn off and I tucked myself into a clearing in some shrubs to sleep under the stars.
“You should have just hiked all night,” I thought to myself as a gust of wind pried up the sides of my quilt and woke me up for the thousandth time that night. The shrubs I had settled in were ripping out and being blown into me. The wind advisory I had forgotten about had finally kicked in. I hiked out the next morning, groggy and grumpy as the wind whipped around me in what was assuring itself to be the LA Aqueduct Part II. “This is why you respect the whim,” I scolded myself. Fifty miles had seemed like something only my non-sober brain would think was a good idea, but in the light of day and with a clear mind, I realized I could have done it, and I should have. Especially since I would have spent the rest of the day napping in Idyllwild.
Like on the aqueduct, I trudged on and gave up on eating, drinking water, and peeing—all things made frustrating and difficult in the wind. I hiked all day without stopping, desperate to get some sleep, and in my grumpiness, decided to stay on the PCT and bypass the side trail to Jacinto. Don’t quit on a bad day and don’t skip summits on a bad day. I ended up regretting the choice. But it did mean I got into Idyllwild a little earlier and I put my sleepiness on the back burner as I walked around, inspecting all the restaurants I remembered and deciding which one I would sacrifice my stomach space to. I was halfway into an ice cream parlor before stopping myself, finally contentedly filling my belly with pasta instead. I had intended to stay at the campground in town, but in my desire to sleep out of the wind, I shelled out for a room and passed out in it immediately. “Worth it,” I thought to myself as the old inn creaked and windows rattled.
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