Chapter 1: “Once Upon a Time…”

Chapter 1: “Once Upon a Time…”
Days 1: 3/6/22
Total Trail Miles: 15.40
Total GPS Recorded Miles: 15.40
Cumulative Trail Miles: 15.40
From: Southern Terminus to Houser Creek

Once upon a time…we started the Pacific Crest Trail. It felt and still feels like a dream- something that happened, but like we just woke up in our bed at home with a lingering thought of it. The reality is that we did hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), but did we quit? Did snow or forest fires cut our trek short? Did we finish? What was the end of that dream like? The ending is just there…right on the tip of the tongue, the edge of memory. Oh yes, we….

The CLEEF Campsite

Day 1 // Trail Miles: 15.40 / GPS Recorded: 15.4 / Total Trail Miles: 15.40

On the morning of March 6, 2022, we woke bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to hike up the country, but not just on some road or path, it was the PCT. At the age of 34, we were committed. We’d backpacked before, but never on a trail of this magnitude- it was long, 2653 miles. When thinking about the sheer length of such an undertaking it seemed impossible, but we knew we’d see the Canadian border. We didn’t pride ourselves in packing up camp quickly, so that morning took us a while to start. Without breakfast, it took us an hour to thoroughly fold, roll, stuff, and pack our homes up into a 70L Hyperlight backpack. The day had finally come to carry our homes across the country, on our backs.

The rain had ceased overnight leaving the grass damp with chilled dew. About 200 feet away there were several tables placed together like a Tetris piece: one empty, one with Legend and a few coffee cups, and one adjacent a portable stove where a grizzled-looking hiker was flipping flapjacks. We sat at the table with Legend. He offered us 2 coffee cups suspiciously stained with months of early-morning use. Coming from a world of “germ prevention” fighting the good fight against COVID-19, I’d almost turned down his offer in disgust. But, in the spirit of the trail and things to come, we both accepted his gift as he rinsed them out with steaming coffee. Perhaps that cooked some of the germs off. The coffee was sublime; coffee grounds lined the bottom, sometimes making their way to our mouths with a sip. Legend taught us a valuable lesson that day- never turn down a gift someone offers you. Even if you don’t want the gift, accept it and pay it forward. This lesson can be learned “loosely” but it’s still applicable.

The man working the griddle offered us greasy, half inch-thick pancakes. They were wonderful. Inhaling three cups of coffee and our pancakes, we listened on as Legend imparted knowledge, wisdom, and laughs. He could be a bit abrasive at times, and strongly opinionated, but he’s a kind man with a heart of gold. I believe he’d give anyone the shirt off his back if they asked. It was bittersweet to give both Legend and Papa Bear hugs as we left the CLEEF campsite. It was truly a warm welcome to the hiking community and our adventure.

The only thing left was to start the trail. We walked up the same washed-out dirt road Bob and Brenda had driven us the day before to see her standing there. In all her magnificence the monument was there waiting for us, unwavering. The same two PCTA reps from the day prior were also there with a table set up just outside an SUV. We checked in and obtained our official PCT badges after a crash course in hiking etiquette and a pledge.

One of the reps offered to take pictures of us before our start, which we gratefully accepted. Approaching the monument, we placed our hands on it- still cool to the touch from the night’s chill. She was solid under our weight as we leaned against it to pose. The gravity of what we were doing began to set in. It still felt like another weekend hike, but “something” felt different, more involved like we were peering into endless possibilities when looking at those five pillars. There was no car to hike back to, no home to warm us after a hard day of hiking in cold rain, it was just us and the path ahead until we’d gone as far as we physically and mentally could.

If you’ve ever watched or read the “Outlander” series, the gist revolves around a woman who travels back in time through monolithic stones in Scotland. When she approaches the stones just before time traveling, she mentions a buzzing, a hum, a drone. The stone pillars we had our hands on also seemed to hum, but not with a noise, rather an inaudible “feeling” …a pull towards it, like how you can almost hear the communication between two magnets. Was this “hum” in a pull towards it, or was it pushing us away? We both stood there for several minutes in silence. The weight of our overpacked bags pulled us down as gravity fought against us- the gravity on our packs hurt, but the gravity of the task ahead was unknown.

There’s a Chinese proverb that states, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” We had well over a thousand miles ahead of us, but we had to start.
Removing our hands from the Southern Terminus and looking at one another I said, “Let’s do this.”
With a simple thought my brain fired across hundreds of neurons in a series down my body until the right foot twitched, my leg rose, and then moved forward. It happened again, and again…and again. Four steps. We started the trail. The Terminus was behind us juxtaposed against the sinister wall separating Mexico from the United States.
“Go” I thought and savor this moment. No more stalling, no work, no obligations other than to walk forward into what may lie ahead.
No team of cheerleaders urged us on, no family or friends, just the two of us with the PCTA staff behind us shouting, “happy trails!”

Marie and I at the Southern Terminus

The “hum” from the terminus grew weaker and weaker. Only the spirit of the trail, and the two of us remained. I’m not sure why, but I’d reasoned that starting such a feat would be like the start of a race- the gun firing, the crowd cheering, others neck and neck with us. However, this was not that. The start of this was no race, but more like a pilgrimage Marie and I were embarking on, together. Little did we know how symbolic this start would be, us together. The terminus vibrated and let out one last “hum” before a hill stood between us, and it was forever out of site.

One step became a hundred. The path wound in and out of sagebrush taking us right back by the CLEEF site and other hikers there. Shouts and cheers resonated from the tables in our direction. We were in the desert, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, in early March, finally doing it. I felt a slew of emotions as we walked beyond their shouts, but the one that resonated the most was that of sheer bliss. For the next six months I wouldn’t be working in an office or beholden to a computer. My previous job had been wonderful, but it was time for a change of pace- a reset.

Hiking slowly with heavy packs our eyes dodged and darted everywhere studying birds, rocks, the trail, and hoping to never find a snake in eyesight. We were finally doing it. The miles came and went. Each turn erased everything we’d just seen but opened a new painting of the land before us. Puffs of dust swelled around each footstep, pebbles bounced off our shoe gaiters, and small hitchhikers stuck to our socks like tiny green ants. As the day grew, the heat did with it. The day was hot enough to make us remove several layers, but not blistering like you’d expect a desert to be. Sun beamed and kissed our newly exposed skin. Every so often a cool breeze whipped through the hills cooling our faces and reminding us of just how blessed we were to be there. I started to dream of the hike we were on and all the possibilities. Tears welled up in the corners of my eyes- not of sadness but of complete joy that my only responsibilities for the next six months were to hike a long trail, to enjoy nature, and to be a good husband to Marie. I swallowed back the tears and kept them hidden behind sunglasses until they were meant to be seen.

Just over a bridge spanning a trickling creek (the last water source we would see for a while), we met a group of three female hikers taking a break. We all introduced ourselves with smiles flashing back and forth. They were smiles of joy for what we were all doing. We knew it. They knew it. As they sat, we hiked on up the dusty, verdant hills ahead. Several miles and buckets of sweat later we took a short rest for lunch. We searched for what little shade the scraggly desert shrubs could provide but resolved to just sit between two short manzanitas right off trail. We grabbed tortillas and tuna from our packs. Without sauce, the food was dry and stuck to the roof of my mouth. I’d need to work on that particular recipe. The sound of footsteps began to approach our tiny lunch spot. It was the three female hikers.

One of them hiked up to us and declared, “Why hello again, I have a trail name for you!”
“For which one of us?” I thought, “Marie had spoken to them far more than I had.”
Apparently during our exchange she’d noticed I had a smile that seemingly “lit the way” and so she came up with the name ‘Deluminator’ based off the magical item from Harry Potter that Dumbledore gave Ron Weasley to find his friends. It was a nifty name, so I sat with it to see how it felt.
As they passed, I looked at Marie and inquired, “The ‘Deluminator’ huh? What do you think about it?”
“Well,” she replied, “It’s catchy and you do have a wonderful smile. I feel like you do have the personality to light the way and lead when you need to.”
That was food for thought, but I felt like receiving a trail name on the first day of the hike from complete strangers didn’t do justice to the experience.
“Okay.” I said, “I’m not committing to it just yet, but it’s an option for sure.”

We worked on our dry tortillas for a few more minutes before hearing another pair of footsteps approaching. We should have expected a lot of visitors with our choice of lunch spot being right on the trail. In the distance I could make out two heads bobbing up and down heading in our direction.

“Hey! Are you the other Colorado couple?” a young male hiker inquired.
A male and female hiker, roughly in their late twenties or early thirties stood before us with tiny packs and ice axes strapped to the side.
“It’s nice to see someone else carrying ice axes out here in the desert!” I exclaimed, “And, yes, we are indeed from Colorado. I’m Wesley, and this is my wife, Marie.”
“Cool, someone said there was another Colorado couple out here. I’m Brandon,” he said.
“Hey, I’m Carley,” the female hiker stated.
“Nice to meet another Colorado couple out here,” commented Marie, “Where do you live?”
“We live in Denver,” replied Brandon.
Marie smiled and looked at him, “Oh nice! We live up in the mountains- a tiny town called Georgetown.”
“Are you two heading to Morena today?” they asked.
“Nah, we are shooting for Houser Creek, about 5 miles short of Morena,” Marie stated.
Looking up the path and back at us, he said “Oh nice, we are heading to Morena tonight, they are supposed to have great burgers. I’m sure we’ll see you again.”
“I’m sure we will!” I replied, “see you again soon, and happy trails.”
And with that, they set off down the trail while we wrapped up our dry lunches.

Many hikers gun to travel 20 miles on their first day from the Southern Terminus to the Town of Morena, CA. It’s a kind of self-motivated goal for those in the shape to make it. For others, a 20-mile stretch on the first day can easily cause blisters or worse damage. For us, we chose to take it slow at the beginning and aim for around 15.4 miles which would set us right at Houser Creek. If we were lucky, there’d be a viable water source there. 4:00 PM came. 5:00 PM came. By 5:45 PM the sun was weary and began its descent behind the So Cal hills. We needed to make it to camp, but still had 2 miles left before Houser.
At the crest of a foothill, we could see the general area where we needed to head to reach camp. A tiny red light beeped in the distance along the route. It appeared to be a beacon of some sort, but we couldn’t make it out from this distance. Just up ahead we heard a sound, a shuffle.

“What was that?” I asked Marie, “It sounded a bit like someone in their backpack.”
With low light it was difficult to see, so we kept our voices down in case anyone was trying to sleep.
“Hello!” a voice called out from a tall manzanita grove. “How’s it going? It’s getting dark. We can make room for you to camp here if you want.”
A few steps further and we approached their campsite- it was a small clearing amidst the shrubs with two tents pitched on sand and rock. Two male figures silhouetted the site, one thin, and one thicker.
“Thanks,” I said, “but we’ve planned to head down to Houser Creek for the first night and don’t want to invade your space.”
“Oh okay, no worries…wait, are you thegingerandthejoy?” the thinner silhouette asked.
“Why, yes we are,” we responded with hesitancy.
Who in the world knew us and could make us out in the dim twilight? To our knowledge, we didn’t know anyone that should be out here.
“I thought I recognized you two!” he rang out with enthusiasm.
“Glad we are that famous,” I said in return, “and who might you be?”
He said, “Oh, I’m Thomas and I follow you two on Instagram. My name is roamwiththomas.”
In the dark I looked at Marie as best I could with a confused look. We vaguely remembered seeing that name start following our Instagram but didn’t know the person behind it. Well, here he was, Thomas Allié.
“Cool deal,” I said, “and who are you?” looking in the direction of the second hiker.
“Oh, I’m Nathan, nice to meet you” he said.
In a bit of a hurry I stated, “Well, it’s nice to meet you two, but we have a few more miles to camp and it’s almost pitch black out here, so we’re gonna keep going. We will see ya tomorrow I’m sure.”
And with that, we waved goodbye and hiked on to the crest of the hill. It was an interesting exchange, but we were glad to have new acquaintances and potential trail family already.

The twilight was all but gone. We could barely see a pale glow off in the distance, though it wasn’t enough light to walk with. We pulled out our Petzle headlamps to illuminate a small 5-foot-wide circle of visibility in front of us. A few hundred feet downhill from Thomas and Nathan’s camp we heard more hikers- voices laughing, male and female both with a thick Texan drawl. It made sense- the app everyone used for hiking the PCT was called FarOut (or Guthook) and looking at it, there was a tent icon right on top of where we were standing. Approaching their camp, we could only see different shades of gray and black. Our headlamps had three light settings: dim, bright, and “solar flare” …no red light. The two hikers had tents wedged in a small cutout among the manzanitas too, but much cozier than the last camp.

“Hello,” we said, “sorry to crash in on you like this.”
They laughed and said, “Oh, no worries, we thought we were the only ones out here! We haven’t seen another hiker in hours.”
Marie responded, “Oh weird, you know there are hikers camped just above you, right?”
“Oh, we had no idea,” the female responded, “cool, so we aren’t that alone. I’m April and this is my dad, Kurt” she said, “nice to meet you…and…who are you?”
“Nice to meet you too! I’m Marie, and this is my husband, Wesley,” Marie replied.
I turned my head to the side away from their small campsite and said, “Oh man, I’m sorry but our headlamps don’t have red lights and I don’t want to blind you, so I’m talking to you while looking downhill, not trying to be rude. Anyways, yes, I’m Wesley, but was also named the ‘Deluminator’ today…I’m just not sold on it yet.”
They chuckled, “Hey, no worries, we’d offer you a beer, but these are the last two!” Kurt assured us with a nod to the beer in his hand.
Apparently, they’d hiked in a six pack of beer to celebrate their first day on trail. April expressed that she was hiking the entire length of the PCT while her dad was there to start and complete a short stretch of it with her.
“Well, we’ve gotta get going, but I’m sure we’ll see you tomorrow,” I said.
“Sounds good,” Kurt replied, “nice to meet you Marie and ‘Deluminator’. Have a good night!”
“See y’all later” Marie shouted as we started off downhill to Houser.
“Well, they seemed fun,” I commented to Marie’s back while hiking behind her.
“I know! I like them” she replied.

And then we fell quiet with the only sound filling our minds that of wind and the repetitive ‘thud’ of shoes on dirt. We walked downhill that way for several minutes beyond April and Kurt’s camp, our minds beginning to calm in the consuming dark after a long day of hiking. We were exhausted, mentally fatigued, and our bodies ached terribly. Down we went, pebbles being kicked in front of us by tired, dragging feet. From somewhere to our left in the thick black of shrubs and desert hills a shrill screech rang out, ripping us out of our hiker trance. And then again, “mrrrrrrrrrawr!” the sound rang out.
“What the hell is that?!” I exclaimed, “is it a cat?”
It sounded like two cats in a fight, or mating…either way unpleasant and disturbing. Were there desert cats, bobcats, or mountain lions here…? We had no idea, but what we did know is that there were two “somethings” in an easily-perturbed mood just to our left, so we picked up the pace to put them behind us. On we hiked as the trail took us further from the sounds behind. They became less and less frequent until they no longer seemed to exist and then all that remained was the pain in our feet and the 20 feet of visible path ahead of us.

The trail split and connected with a dirt access road. On the road, that red flashing light we’d seen a mile uphill came closer and closer. What was it? We discussed it being some sort of phone tower, or power line, or emergency beacon from a hiker. When our headlamps were finally close enough to make the small tower supporting the red light visible, we saw it…an emergency beacon for hikers. There on the tower was a sign that stated the large red button just there was for emergency use only for hikers…who needed an emergency evacuation.
“Really!?” I said, “hikers call it quits at just around 13 or 14 miles? That’s so much time, energy, and money dedicated to starting this trail, just to be spent right there with the push of a button! I guess it’s used since they have it here, but man, that must be hard.”

The truth is, this emergency beacon is/was in the middle of a stretch with little to no water, and desert weather can change rapidly from extreme highs to frigid lows at night. Anyone not physically, mentally, or logistically prepared for it could find themselves in a bad situation. It stood there like some ominous judge where the hopes, dreams, and will of each hiker who walked by it was tested, is tested…will be tested.
“Was it that easy to just quit?” I thought, “I mean, maybe, but not us…not tonight.”
We’d both quit our jobs, sold our cars, liquidated most of what we owned…we had far too much at stake to just quit because our feet hurt, or because we were parched. We were still in a good space despite some relative discomfort and dry mouths. The desert so far was dry, as they often are, but we’d have more water the next day in Morena, even if Houser Creek was dry.

And it was. After another mile of dragging our feet downhill, we reached Houser Creek, or where it should have been. The creek bed was lined with grass and scratchy shrubs desperate to soak up any water that may exist there, or flow deep underground. Three tents were pitched in clearings just off trail, one solo and another two clustered to our right. We still had 3 liters of water to budget for dinner, overnight, breakfast, and the 5 miles to Morena next day, so the dried creek wasn’t a huge issue. The problem was that the sites we’d intended to camp at were now full. The two tents to our right were speaking to one another, heads popped through unzipped vestibules. They looked in our direction as we tried to look away to avoid blinding them with our headlamps.
“You two are hiking late,” they insisted, “there are more campsites just a few hundred feet ahead if you’re looking to camp here. Also, the creek is dry, but you can find some water another mile downstream if you’re desperate.”
That was valuable intel. “Thanks for the heads-up! Much appreciated. We’ll check out the sites just over there,” I commented, “have a great night.”

Just another minute or two of hiking and the trail split to the left on a half-worn footpath that opened into an oak-covered clearing by the creek bed. It was perfect, and we were thoroughly exhausted. We claimed it like PCT conquistadors and unbuckled our backpacks. With a thud they hit the ground as we sat on tree stumps with a sigh. I looked down at the legs that had just taken me 15.4 miles and noticed a round black spot on my right thigh…a tick.

“Oh wow,” I said to Marie, “looks like a tick got me. You should check yourself too.”
Lyme disease on the first day of the PCT didn’t seem like a great way to start. I rummaged through all the bags in my pack until landing on the one with toiletries and medical supplies. Pulling out a pair of tweezers I thought may come in handy, I pinched and pulled it off without another thought. Everything after that became a bit of a blur. We pitched our Nemo Dagger 3P tent and boiled water to make something; some dehydrated food we prepared and ate but can’t recall. There was no cell service to update friends and family on our accomplishment, but we were also too exhausted to care. With two button clicks I tried to send a preset message from our Garmin GPS device, but it never went through. It would be fine, but our eyes were just so…heavy. It felt wonderful to stretch and lie on our sleeping pads. Then, as quickly as our day had started, it ended. We were out, bodies pulled into sleep by the weight of fatigue. After a full 15 miles, we had completed our first day on the Pacific Crest Trail. And there we were, sprawled in our sleeping bags under the tent and stars that would be our home for the next six months.

Miles Remaining: 2638.2

The twilight just before nightfall, Day 1.

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