Chapter 2: Week 1: “Sand and Snow Already”
Chapter 2: Week 1: “Sand and Snow Already”
Days 2-3: 3/7-3/8/22
Total Trail Miles: 26.10
Total GPS Recorded Miles: 26.88
Cumulative Trail Miles: 41.50
From: Houser Creek to Mount Laguna
Day 2 // Trail Miles: 10.60 / GPS Recorded: 11.06 / Cumulative Trail Miles: 26.00
It hurt. Everything hurt. I rolled in my sleeping bag as best I could to look at Marie. My legs, back, arms, and even my neck felt tight, like some invisible wire was wrapped around each muscle pulling against its movement. I’d always heard that you’re most sore two days after an intense workout, but the morning was quickly proving that theory false. We should have stretched before going to bed, but we’d just been so exhausted that we couldn’t resist the call of sleep. Well, we had plenty of time to get into a rhythm of stretching before bed, it was only the second day on trail after all. She’d snoozed her alarm and so did I, so many times that I ended up turning it off, but it was still early enough for us to have a full day of hiking. My mind was still hazy with fatigue and morning grogginess, but this was our first morning waking up on trail, and our first cup of coffee was begging to be brewed.
She was still breathing heavy, caught somewhere between deep sleep and a restless cycle that sometimes comes just before sunrise. I noticed her twitch a few times when her senses noticed the sound of my sleeping mat crinkle and the shift of my weight as I wrapped my arm around her. The truth of the matter was that she’d been up several times during the night to pee due to a urinary tract infection (UTI). Her first day on trail was slightly miserable because of it. Now, she’d probably wake up sore and with a sleep-deprived hangover from so many trips to the bathroom overnight. We were near a dried creek bed, but we still walked 200 feet away out of respect for nature. What a poor way to start such an adventure, but at least we were there, and we were doing it.
“Wow…we really are doing it.” I thought to myself. “What a day to be alive and able to do this!” my mind yelled out with some energetic high from being immersed in nature.
Luckily, she’d planned for something like this. Her gynecologist had prescribed her medication for just such a mishap on trail, we just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. She was already taking her twice-daily doses and would be on the mend soon enough. So much build-up and planning had led to this moment; an early morning riddled with aches, pains, and problem-solving before rising to do it all again.
We got up, made a mediocre breakfast in our pots, and started to pack. Morena was in our sites, and we had limited water, so we needed to beat the heat by walking in the morning cool. Nathan hiked by with a quick wave and puff of dust. Thomas walked by our camp afterwards and gave us a rundown of his base-weight. 8 to 9 lbs. This didn’t include the 3 lb. DSLR camera hanging from a camera bag attached to his waist straps but to each his/her own. After looking it up we realized that the camera technically wouldn’t have been included in his base-weight, but that’s going down a gear rabbit hole. He hiked off into the morning sunrise, up through desert hills.
Finished with our packing, we also climbed up and through the desert hills, mouths slightly parched trying to go sparingly on the last liter of water we had before Morena. As the temperature rose, our pace slowed down burdened by the sun, sweat, and dreams of water. The rocks looked the same, each scrub brush was the identical twin of the one next to it. All we wanted was water, and the general store at Morena for a cold beer, even if it was only late morning.
Opening up our FarOut app, we pulled up the screen and checked the distance from where we were, to Morena. 2 miles. Then, 1 mile. A half mile left of dry dirt path before we would be at Lake Morena and then just a few minutes more to convenience-store salvation. Through a few scraggly trees we could see the Morena split-off. The hum of cars rumbled in the distance. There were even a few day hikers heading up the way we descended. As we’d soon learn, these were all tell-tale signs that a town, or at least civilization, was close. The trail curved a bit surrounded by shrubs and trees until it finally dumped right there on the outskirt of Morena. To our immediate left and straight ahead was the campground around the lake. To our right were small, paved roads that lead by homes and stop signs. The general store was further in town, so we made a B-line up the paved roads, on dirt sidewalks, and finally reached a small building with hikers sitting out front. The General Store.
Nathan and Thomas were there with packs off lining the porch rail. They seemed like they already knew each other before the trail, but we couldn’t be sure just yet.
“Hey guys!” they said.
“Oh hey, fancy meeting you here.” we responded with both excitement and the need for a beer.
“Are you here for the burger, the milkshake, or both?” one of them inquired.
“Neither just yet,” I replied, “it’s only the second day and we feel like we haven’t earned a burger or shake just yet haha.”
“Oh, got it. It’s never too early for a burger!” Thomas interjected.
We stripped off our packs and walked inside the air-conditioned luxury of the general store. A small café was tucked in the front left, isles of sugary and salty snacks lined the bulk of the store, and there in the back was the glorious, shiny beer cooler. We each grabbed a tall boy and went back outside to kick our feet up and rest. Picking two chairs with backs against the wall, we propped up our packs and rummaged through for our food bags. While there was a plethora of delicious snacks in the building behind us, we wanted to eat what we had to lower the weight of our packs. On just the second day, we were quickly learning that weight was everything, but that wasn’t going to stop us from carrying a six pack to our camp that night!
We had a few technical difficulties when trying to get water out of the bulk water dispenser on the front porch of the store. And by that, I mean that we somehow shot water everywhere from the tiny spigot, including all over our shoes. No water crossings yet and our shoes and clothes were already getting soaked. I’m not sure why we didn’t just buy water inside the shop, or filter from the lake a quarter mile away, especially since the dispenser charged, but we chose our path! With our water bottles filled and feeling slightly embarrassed by our lack of water-acquiring skills, we declared to Thomas, Nathan, and a few other hikers who’d wandered up, that we were grabbing a six pack and hiking it to camp at the Boulder Oaks Campground.
“We’ll camp there too if you share a beer!” rang out Nathan. Thomas agreed.
“Hrmm, well I guess we can go without a beer or two. Sounds good. See you both there.” I replied.
Why we didn’t just give them a beer a piece right there and have them hike it to the campground I’ll never know, but we were the Good Samaritans looking for new friends on our adventure, and so we’d lug two IPAs that we’d never drink another 6 miles to camp that afternoon in the spirit of being kind. With a beer and snack inside our stomachs, we flung our packs back on and started off back towards Lake Morena and the trail. Thomas and Nathan had started on a bit before us, so we didn’t feel any rush, especially with the long March days. There was plenty of light to see us to camp that evening.
At the lake we ran by April and her dad, Kurt, the same two from camp the night before. They’d made it to town a bit after we did and were going to make camp at the lakeside campground there with all the amenities at their disposal. Waving them goodbye, we hiked up through the outskirts of Morena and back into the desert wilderness.
Loose, beach-like sand made hiking difficult, but the desert stretch quickly evolved into a completely different landscape. Before we knew it sand became dirt, which became grass. Massive, grandfather oak trees lined the trail providing shade from the sun’s heat, and offering enticing campsites as far as the eye could see. Our bodies still ached and craved rest from the 15-mile day before, but we’d made plans with Thomas and Nathan, and we knew there would be firepits at Boulder Oaks. The desert becomes cold, even frigid, at night, so the thought of a warm campfire inspired us to hike on.
A few hours after leaving Morena, we strolled into Boulder Oaks. Huge horse pins were speckled amongst the designated campsites, all empty, save for one that we could see. It was a corner lot, close to the pit privies, potable water, and apparently the only spot designated for thru-hikers. We could see Thomas and Nathan with their tents pitched, and a few others. There was plenty of available space, so we picked the best spot available and dropped our bags to claim it. Before setting up, we walked over to the others, four in total, and said hello. The two hikers we hadn’t seen before were Leon, a young 19-year-old looking for answers and adventure on trail, and the other was “Lucky Charms.” Lucky was an older woman doing a section-hike of the PCT.
After pleasantries, we walked back to our claimed spot and began to set up the tent, our Dagger 3-Person. It was a mansion. With only 2 tent stakes in the ground, an SUV drove over towards us.
A middle-aged woman stuck her head out the passenger’s window and started, “Hello! My name is ‘One Speed.’ I’ve hiked the trail before. Just so you know, this campground is closed for a week starting tomorrow on account of horned lizard mating season. You need to be up and out tomorrow morning by 7AM before the Forest Service gets here.”
“Well, that’s good to know,” I responded. “Thanks for the heads up!”
She looked at the group and added, “Oh yeah, and there’s trail magic over on one of the camp tables tucked in the corner. It’s sodas, coffee, and small snacks. Enjoy!”
And with that, she wished us good luck as we all nodded in acknowledgement. She and her husband drove around the lot and were out on the main road with only her words and dust spat up from their tires as a reminder they were ever there. As the hum of their vehicle faded out of existence, we finished pitching our tent just as the sun began to set and burn a fiery red. With our lopsided food bags partially disemboweled over the picnic table, we started dinner by cutting up salami on a tiny cutting board I’d likely consider throwing in a hiker box at least seven times a week. Nathan gathered a few twigs and limbs that’d fallen from the massive oak in the heart of our campsite. He set some kindling in the middle of our firepit, a few larger sticks on top, sparked his lighter, and a fire sprang to life almost instantly. It was no wonder there was a fire ban in California and that we were required to get a fire permit even for camp stove use. If the rest of California was this dry, it would go up like a tender box.
As the fire in the sky was snuffed out, the fire in our campsite blazed while we all ate dinner around it in a perfect circle. This is what it was all about, living life on trail, sitting around fires, making friends. If that’s what most nights would be like on our trek, I couldn’t wait. In no particular order we went around the fire talking, tell snippets about who we were, and laughing. Nathan more or less handled the fire until Thomas noticed it was starting to burn out.
“Hey, add a log to the fire.” he insisted while looking at me.
“Umm, I think you meant to say, ‘Would you please add a log to the fire, right?” I interjected.
“Oh yes! That. Please.” he came back with.
“Uh huh,” I thought to myself giving Marie a look that told her exactly what I was thinking. “Jeez, man, what the heck? You don’t even know me.”
Finally sitting up and grabbing some limbs from behind me, I obliged and added a few more minutes of warmth to our hiker circle. Yawns began to break the constant ‘crack’ of the fading fire. Eyes looked heavy under the warm amber glow as one hiker after another began to stand up and call it a night. With the last embers fading out, Marie and I put on our headlamps, washed our pots and faces under the tap water, and crawled into our tent. The air outside was already cool, but the temperature inside our closed tent was noticeably warmer from the last legs of the sun heating it up. With just under 11 miles hiked, we were tired, not only from the six beers we’d hiked in, but from the three we drank. At some point during our campfire evening we’d split our beer cargo in half with the group.
“Well, it all evens out, and karma is real,” I thought. “It was great to be able to share beers and pieces of ourselves with the others.”
And with that, darkness fell over our consciousness as we drifted off to sleep.
Day 3 // Trail Miles: 15.50 / GPS Recorded: 15.82 / Cumulative Trail Miles: 41.50
The air inside the tent was crisp and cool. Peeking out from behind the warmth of my sleeping bag, the sun was just barely cresting the horizon. Our alarm had gone off at 6:00AM since we had to be up and out by 7:00AM. Was this site some important location for horned lizard mating? Why even have a campsite here in the first place if this was where they chose to bed down for a week? I was frustrated we were in the middle of such a weird phenomenon, but it was kind of amusing at the same time.
A thought of future conversations popped into my imagination, “Hey man, how about those horny lizards? You get kicked out too? Bruh, that was nuts.”
I don’t talk like that at all, but that’s how I saw the conversation playing out. We’d all had a good laugh about it the night before too.
Marie rustled next to me and woke up, bolt upright.
“Crap! We need to move quick to get out by 7:00!” she exclaimed.
We started packing up our things in the tent, even before coffee or a small breakfast. The beauty of being on trail is that you can live in a space of routine, or pure spontaneity and both are just fine. We had to break out of our routine to pack before the Forest Service showed up to do whatever they were going to. Twenty or thirty minutes is all it took to pack up everything but our food bags. Walking over to our small picnic table, we greeted the other hikers crawling around half asleep while we all started our morning coffee ritual. Everyone, that is, except for Nathan. Nathan was up, fully packed, and heading out for the day while we were still struggling.
He walked by and I don’t recall ever hearing him say, “Good morning! Have a good day,” or, “Peace out guys! See ya later.”
He was simply gone. He’d “deuced” out and started before any of us.
“Well, he’s a morning person,” I said to Marie.
“He sure is. Man, he must have been up early,” she replied.
Using the water we still had in our water bottles, we made a quick breakfast and coffee before packing up the food bags. Our packs were still heavy, even with no beers left, and food eaten out. We said goodbye to the straggling hikers still there, Lucky Charms and Leon, filled our bottles back up at the spigot, and were out of Boulder Oaks by 7:10AM. Thomas had already left. The Forest Service was there, sitting in their trucks drinking coffee in heated cabs. Hiking by, we waved to them and crossed the small road to the trail on the other side.
In just an hour of hiking, the sun was blazing hot, and the chill we’d felt that morning was singed away. The landscape before us was quintessential desert. Rolling hills in different shades of latte juxtaposed with a sea-blue sky filled our eyes. With sun hoodies, sunglasses, sunscreen, and unspoken prayers, we tried our best to avoid intense sunburn. The trail took us straight through a small, exposed valley introduced by an “Unexploded Military Ordnance” sign that informed us to stay on trail, lest we lose a limb, or four by straying too far into the unmarked sands.
Leon managed to catch up with us. Oh, to have been 19 again and hiking the trail. But I was proud of our progress so far even at the ripe old ages of 32. He asked if he could hike a bit with us and we were happy to welcome him into our hiking troop for the day. Getting lost in conversation to forget the heat and make the miles go by faster, he opened up to us a bit on his reasons for being there. His family had experienced a travesty that happened on the very same trail he was walking, and he was there to look for peace, closure, or whatever it was his soul needed to process the loss it had experienced.
We continued to talk about any and everything through the sun and sand. After a few miles of hiking with him, we walked by a large grove of manzanitas that housed a spacious campsite. Sitting there in the middle of the shade was Thomas.
“Oh, hey guys! I thought I heard you talking and laughing,” he said with excitement. “It’s hot out here and I messed up my knee a bit. I’m in a good bit of pain, and just need to take a break. I may camp here for the day.”
I looked at him and said, “That’s no good. Do you need any Ibuprofen or anything?”
“I’ve got some, but thanks! Maybe some rest will help. Hopefully I’ll see you guys soon!” he exclaimed.
“Thomas, please take care of yourself,” interjected Marie.
“Sounds good man. Rest up and get back out there. Hope to see you soon,” I replied.
We were concerned for Thomas as we hiked away and uphill, but we also had a goal. Marie’s birthday was coming up in three more days and we’d planned to spend it in the town of Julian, which was around mile 77… we were at mile 32 or so. Not to mention the heat was truly intense and we wanted to get out of the sun and into a shaded site for lunch in an hour. Continuing on with Leon for that hour, we never found solid shade, only specks and dollops of it from manzanita leaves. Our bodies needed food, though, so we wedged ourselves under a few small branches, turned our faces down trail away from the sun, and pulled out a few snacks for lunch: tortillas, logs of salami, and sweets. Sharing some with Leon, we heard footsteps approaching us, just around the bend. Taking shape around the corner with a navy blue sun shirt and a ‘Trail Butter” hat, was Thomas.
“Well look who it is!” I yelled out.
“Hey! My knee is feeling better and talking to you guys and your laughter really inspired me to keep moving to catch up with you,” he rang. “I’ve been dealing with a few things lately and really trying to be optimistic about things. I consider myself to be a devoted optimist because I just don’t want to let myself get bogged down.”
“That’s great man!” I exclaimed, “and…I think after hearing that…I have a trail name for you. How do you feel about ‘Optimist Prime’ since you’re such a devoted optimist and have a bright outlook on things?”
“Hrmm. I like it! Let me think about it for a while,” he said.
“Cool. Well in the meantime, do you want some salami, haha?” I asked.
And with that, he took a few slices of delicious, salty, fatty salami.
Five minutes after he’d reached us, another hiker came up on our impromptu lunch spot. Her name was Gazelle, and she was a fellow redhead. She asked us if we had any vape fluid and stated she was trying to FKT (fastest known time) the trail and train for upcoming ultra-races she’d registered for. We all exchanged hellos, and then she was gone in a blur just as quickly as she’d hiked up.
With lunch concluded, we set out towards Mount Laguna, a small town along the trail (near mile marker 41.50), and where we planned to camp or find lodging. All four of us set out together, but we quickly lost Leon to the desert when he stopped for a break in the shade. And then there were three. As we hiked, Thomas, or ‘Optimist’ gave us a detailed rundown of who he was, his gear, his sponsors, and what he was doing on the trail. He was truly an energetic, fascinating person. I was beginning to like the guy. Marie and I thought we could write a small biography on him after the talk, but you’ll always learn something new about a person, right?
The day grew long, and our water supply dwindled. Sand and stone became dry grass and a mixture of both dead and thriving oaks. Green oaks in the desert meant one thing; water was nearby. Looking at our FarOut app, sure enough there was a creek coming up just ahead. We could hear it before we could see it. The creek trickled and glistened from the sun, and sitting there just where the trail crossed the creek, was Nathan. He had his shoes off drying his socks and cooling his feet in the water.
Sitting with him for a minute to filter water, Thomas introduced himself to Nathan as the newly-born “Optimist Prime’. I guess he’d pondered the name over the last few miles and liked it. Excellent! The evening was growing late, so we all decided to set out in search of Mount Laguna. If we were lucky, there’d be lodging available in the early season, or at least a gas station open for some milk or beer.
Climbing gradually along ridges and up valleys, we approached a forest. As if a new battlefield was conjured up by some PCT magician, pine trees towered over us, and snow littered the forest floor in the shade. The deeper we hiked into the wood, the thicker the snow became until the entire forest was blanketed with inches of pure white powder, save for a thin, muddy boot pack made by hikers who’d passed through before us. The day had started with sun, unexploded ordnance, and exposure, but now we were battling snow, freezing temperatures, and soaking wet shoes. Southern California was such an interesting place.
We were in snow for just over an hour before the trail dumped us into a campground. The temperature continued to drop as the sun went down, but at least the paved roads of the campground were more or less snow-free. Optimist and Nathan hiked ahead of us while Marie and I stopped to put on jackets. It truly was freezing. By the time we had our packs back on, Nathan and Optimist were out of site, presumably in the small establishment of Mount Laguna by then. We made our way through the camp, onto the highway that cut through town, and started down towards a few buildings and what looked like a cozy wooden lodge. Down near the entrance to the lodge was Optimist speaking to a man with grey hair, and Nathan standing slightly behind them. He whipped around and saw us, then motioned for us to come over. He informed us that the lodge was closed for the day and their cabins were booked, but that Optimist was talking to the owner. Listening closer, it sounded like Optimist was speaking French to the man, but it was hard to tell from so far away.
Seeing the curious look on my face Nathan added, “Oh yeah, Thomas, or Optimist, speaks French.”
“Umm, what!?” Marie and both yelled out.
“He basically gave us his entire resume today, but he failed to mention that he spoke French,” Marie protested.
“Wow, what are the odds,” I said looking at Marie.
“I know, right,” said Nathan. “And it sounds like this guy is going to let us come in for beer or a drink.”
And with that, Optimist turned around and motioned for us to follow the elderly Frenchman inside. It was called the Pine House Café and Tavern and they also had lodging, but sure enough they were booked. Once inside, we could hear Optimist fluently speaking French and holding a conversation with the man. They said a few things back and forth, and then the man went into the kitchen. After asking Optimist what was happening, he explained the owner was making us hot chocolate and that we could buy beers from him as well. What a godsend!
I looked at Optimist with skeptical eyes and say, “So. You speak French too?!”
“Oh yeah, I was born in France,” he replied with a smile.
Cocking my head, I look at him, “Well then. That’s convenient given our current situation! Always learning new things about people you think you know.”
The owner walked out with our hot chocolates and we thanked him generously. He exchanged a few more words with Optimist and then brought out a round of beers that we were happy to pay for. And then, more words were spoken in French with vague hand gestures.
“So, it looks like he’s going to let us sleep here in the lobby tonight,” stated Optimist with a proud look. “He’s just asked that we help clean up the dining room tomorrow before breakfast as our payment.”
The owner was willing to let the four of us stay in the front lobby on the floor and sofas and use the shower that was in one of the lobby restrooms. In exchange for lodging, we just had to sweep, wipe, and dust the dining hall down. We all happily agreed with nods of gratitude as he showed us the shower and soap. What a blessing for us to find, especially since Marie was still dealing with her UTI and the shower would help her recovery. We were pretty lucky Optimist spoke French since the man’s English seemed to be about as good as my French (which is not great at all).
Eventually the man wished us goodnight in broken English with nods and gestures, then began to retire as we sipped on beers and cocoa. Optimist translated and thanked him while we each also threw in our best pronunciation of “Merci!”. Once we were all alone, Optimist cracked open a few French treats he’d bought from the man’s lobby store and smiled.
With a chuckle he stated, “I basically just saved your lives!”
We rolled our eyes at him, but also thanked him for the trail magic we weren’t expecting. Setting up our sleep systems, we made dinner and took turns showering before falling asleep in a warm room that should have been a cold tent in the woods had it not been for this kind Frenchman’s generosity.
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