Episode 4: Slacking, Freezing, and Nudity
Onyx Summit to Wrightwood (Inspiration Point), mile 369.4
We’ve been making good use of our cold weather gear this past week. We’ve also had lots of company. We thought we were in the main bubble of hikers before, and we also thought we were moving at a pretty average or, if anything, slower than normal, speed – but we seem to have broken into a huge bubble of hikers. Or maybe they were there all along, and it’s only the prevalence of cold weather and warm hotel rooms that’s made us congeal into this transient amoeba, moving through towns and devouring resources. In any event, it seems like we see more hikers than locals in the small mountain towns we visit. We’ve started to take the hiker uniform for a standard: eye-popping gaiters, neon puffy jackets, long johns and minimalist shoes. And the community has settled into a mutual comfort with itself – standing in line at the Post Office, eating out at a restaurant, sitting in a stall in the ladies’ room – no environment is too sacred to start a conversation with a complete stranger about about the benefits of wool versus wicking material, or what company makes the best sleeping quilts.
After the elevation gains we’ve made, the cold has settled in and it vacillates between dream and nightmare states, with the hot lower desert the distant reality that we expect to wake up to. On cool days we walk through the mountain passes without sweating through our clothes and dread the desert floor, but when Spring shows its claws we close our eyes to sleet and snow and remember the siestas under Desert Willows, hot sun lapping at our worn feet.
Soon we’ll be back in the Mojave, but for now we’re hovering between 5 and 8 thousand feet most days, preparing ourself to face the Sierras.
Back on Track:
After a day in Big Bear City, visiting with friends and family, and the fiasco of hitching around multiple fire closures, we were all excited to get back on trail and start our walk North uninterrupted. Or so we thought.
I got up early on the morning we planned to leave the Motel 6 in Big Bear City and walked to the office to drop a few things in the hiker box and get coffee. It was a cool morning but the sun was warm and inviting and the day seemed full of potential. I had time to send some emails while Little Spoon got some extra much-needed sleep. Toe Touch and I were texting about breakfast (It’s amazing how technology-dependent we become in town) when she sent me the message: “LOL. I just looked outside.”
I opened the curtains I was keeping closed for Little Spoon and discovered sideways hail. So I closed the curtains and tried opening them again a minute later. Still sideways hail.
I opened the door (still hailing) and saw Centerfold with his own motel door open. He stood half in and half out of the door, looking at the hail and looking back into his room. Then he walked into his room and closed the door. The action summarized our collective feeling pretty well.
Over breakfast, we all agreed we needed to start hiking but we weren’t excited to go up in elevation 2,000 feet with the current weather being what it was, so we made an enlightened decision: We were going to slack ourselves.
For those who don’t know, slack packing is when a thru-hiker basically day hikes a section of the trail, leaving the bulk of their heavy backpacking gear behind with a trail angel, friend, or, in this case, a motel 6. Since there were a few road crossings that could take us into Big Bear City, we decided to walk from the Onyx Summit road to the next highway – about 14 miles. It made for a short day, especially without the weight of our packs, but also, we reasoned, it was hailing.
The day was a hit since we walked the 14 miles in 4 hours (actually, Toe Touch only took 3). The zero the day before combined with our light load made us realize that we’re starting to get our trail legs and we all felt superhuman (until later that night, when our bodies were sore from pushing ourselves, anyways.) But, we got back to the Motel 6 in time to meet Frodo and Winterborn, hikers that Little Spoon and I met originally on the AT in 2013. They wanted to spread some trail magic and showed up with beer, hiker food, and – most importantly – a car!
Frodo and Winterborn gave us a ride to where we left off the next morning and slacked us again for another 12 or 13 more miles, with Frodo bouncing our packs along on the intervening roads. Specifically, Little Spoon and I slacked while the others stayed strong and carried their full resupply – but we were glad to lose the weight for another day! It was hard to put packs on after that and keep hiking to the campsite, but we managed. The rest of the hike was rainy, but not too cold or wet. It was the soft misting sort of rain that the West Coast is prone to. Walking down into a valley that night, we were met with two beautiful sights: A rainbow over the campsite, and our first backcountry outhouse.
PCT backcountry camping is a lot different than the AT, with its shelters and outhouses every ten miles or so. When the PCTA installs a solar-powered toilet, it’s pretty amazing for everyone – especially given that the exposed ridges we’ve been walking along offer little in the way of modesty.
Return of K2:
We had a cold, rainy night. I don’t know if it was our coldest on the trail or if I’ve just grown unaccustomed to having moisture in the air, but it was the first night where I felt too cold to sleep. We felt worse for Camel, who barely slept that night as he cowboy camped under a rudimentary shelter he made out of tree limbs. His tent hasn’t been working at all so he elected to go without a shelter until his new one comes in Cajon pass a few days away.
Dawn finally brought some relief when the sun came out and warmed our tent, and I slept later into the morning than usual. I woke up to Little Spoon making coffee. It was our first time making coffee on the trail, since we haven’t camped in many water-secure areas yet, and it was maybe the only thing that could have gotten me out of my sleeping bag. We were camped right by the trail, so hikers said their hellos and laughed as they walked by our late start – I think we’re beginning to get a reputation for leisurely mornings. Toe Touch was eating breakfast outside our tent and chatting with us when another hiker in the customary sun shirt and sun hat blew by us. “Hello!” Offered Little Spoon as he passed.
Then the hiker turned around and shouted, “Chuckles and Little Spoon!”. It was K2, who we met on the AT! We only hiked with K2 for a few days, since he was much faster than us, so we thought it was hilarious that he caught us on our laziest morning yet – drinking coffee in our tent, still in our pajamas. He stopped and sat down and we were able to catch up a little. This is K2’s final trail to complete his Triple Crown – he finished the CDT last year, and now he’s well on his way to doing the PCT in a little over 4 months, having started an amazing 10 days after us. Sadly, we probably won’t be hiking a lot with K2 on this trail either!
We played catch-up that morning, passing lots of other hikers as we sought our group. We caught up to Centerfold and Toe Touch around hiker lunchtime (which is a pretty nebulous time that roughly translates to ‘whenever you’re hungry and sick of walking’) and found out that Toe Touch rolled her ankle. Of course, Toe Touch could have lost a toe and she wouldn’t be slowed down, so it didn’t really effect pacing much, although I don’t doubt it was hard for her (we have to guess because Toe Touch has been living away from the East Coast for too long and forgotten how to complain about things.)
The PCT wove into a canyon again and we hiked together over some pretty amazing bridges, finding Camel by the end of the day sleeping, apparently, on a pile of rocks:
Hot Springs and the Trail McDonalds:
The next day, we all woke up excited to get to the natural hot springs occurring right on the PCT. They’re a popular spot for hikers and locals, and described in our trail guide as ‘clothing optional.’ Perhaps in honor of this description or because he wants to start living up to his name better, Centerfold declared today ‘shoulders-out Tuesday’ and cut the sleeves off his shirt. Not to be outdone, Toe Touch brought out her belly shirt. Camel had woken early as usual and passed us while we slept, so we assumed he was somewhere constructing a mud hut to replace his tent.
On our way to the Hot Springs, we met Austin and Penny at the first water source and finally uncovered the burning mystery of who has been scratching smiley faces into the trail for the past hundred miles. Penny confessed to her deeds and we had fun for the rest of the day making smileys for her to find.
The Hot Springs were an amazing break in our morning, offering natural hot tubs for us to soak our sore feet in. We also decided that ‘clothing unlikely’ was a better description than ‘clothing optional’, but we met some really nice locals and saw a pretty impressive slack line demonstration of which nudity was the least shocking aspect.
The rest of the day was spent hiking through the canyon, crisscrossing over more industrial bridges and catching up with Camel, who we caught mid day and Blur, who we found waiting for us at the Hot Springs.
We dry camped that night and the next day hiked through an exceptionally hot, dusty morning, past a water treatment center where we could not get water, past a dehydrated hiker and a small water cache, past greasewood and cacti, only to come out on top of a ridge and find a massive lake below us.
Silverwood Lake had by far the most water we’ve seen on trail, and Little Spoon and I sat and filtered water from it while we enjoyed the breeze off the water (and ignored the trash on the beach). Toe Touch went ahead and Camel was, as usual, hours ahead of us, but we caught Centerfold eventually and hiked with him for a couple hours. The plan was to stop somewhere before Cajon pass, probably at the last water, and wait until the morning to hike to the famous ‘trail McDonalds’ – .4 miles off the trail – for breakfast.
As we grew closer though, it became more and more apparent that there wasn’t much in the way of water or camping available. We passed maybe a dozen hikers who described what food they were going to get, and our imaginations got the better of us. Centerfold hiked ahead with dreams of a room at the Best Western, and started Little Spoon and I on our daydreaming about showers and laundry.
Towards the end of the day, we were running down the sandy ridges, stood up on end like the walls of a child’s sandcastle. The wind was full of late afternoon sun and it felt playful, whipping us down the switchbacks laughing. We stopped once to hold a horned lizard that Baloo had caught, and a second time to watch a lazy Rattlesnake slide off the trail. A train whistled at us, and were sure we could smell greasy food.
A couple miles from Cajon Pass, we realized that we still hadn’t seen Camel or Toe Touch. They should be ahead, but it was strange not to come around a bend and find them waiting. We sent messages on our phone but heard nothing. We sat on the bank and waited until our imagination got the best of us, and I went ahead to get a room and wonderful hot, fatty food.
We got the second to last room at the Best Western, which was absolutely crawling with hikers. By far the nicest place we’ve stayed, their hiker rates were dirt cheap. After a harrowing run across the freeway off-ramp, one and a half Del Taco burritos (which were much better than we expected) and about one and a half showers each, we felt completely human again – although we lost Toe Touch to the original plan. Apparently, for the first time in the history of our group, we were ahead of Toe Touch and Camel on this particular day, and they were planning to camp and head into the pass in the morning. Toe Touch was a good sport about being abandoned for the night, and Camel was so happy about Camel Christmas – his new tent came, along with several other gear changes he made – that he risked the evening traffic crossing to split a room with us.
The next day, Little Spoon and I got a predictably late start. Centerfold and Toe Touch headed out first and Camel left about half an hour before us. But we caught Beast Master, an easy-going ex-marine that we’ve been leap-frogging with, and we chatted while we hiked up the sunny switchbacks. It was a perfect day for hiking – It was so beautiful that I didn’t notice Little Spoon was having ankle problems until he had to sit down. We took things slowly for a while, until Beast Master and I heard a yelp from behind us. Little Spoon, who never complains about pain, was sitting on the side of the trail holding his leg. We were at mile 350, exactly half way to Kennedy Meadows, in the middle of a 22-mile waterless stretch on a trail cut into the side of a ledge. Water lay 8 miles behind us or 14 miles in front of us; camping was non-existent. And Little Spoon couldn’t walk.
For not the first time on the trail, technology came to our rescue. I sent out a message to the rest of the crew, expecting that they wouldn’t get it until they turned their phones on the next day in Wrightwood. But we were in luck – Camel had his phone on. He sent a message that there was camping about two and a half miles ahead of us, and that he’d leave an ace bandage.
We had tons of water that we had hiked up and the afternoon wasn’t too hot, so we decided to push ahead. Mark cached his pack on the side of the trail with a note and walked on slowly carrying only a liter of water. I ran ahead with my pack on, planning to jockey the packs up the trail until we reached the camp spot. I was nervous because A. I have no idea how to put on an ace bandage and B. If Spoon couldn’t walk tomorrow, we wouldn’t have enough water to last another night. Backup scenarios went through my mind – we could walk down the jeep road, but that might be further than taking the trail back. I could hike ahead to water and bring it back. Or, worst case scenario, we could call for a rescue – something we’ve never had to really consider before.
Just as I was walking around another switchback a mile and a half from where I left Spoon limping along, I nearly ran into Camel. He had hiked back to help us. I’ve never been so happy to see a friend as I was in that moment. Camel is trained in wildlife first aid and knows how to wrap an ankle, so I dropped my bag and walked back down to where Spoon was with him. While he wrapped up Spoon’s ankle, I ran back to his pack and carried it back up to where I left my bag. I discovered it was missing and worried for nearly a mile that Camel had somehow carried two packs uphill, only to find that Spoon was feeling good enough with his ankle wrapped that he carried my pack.
We were able to get the tent up and make dinner before dark, although Camel hiked into the night to get to the others five miles ahead after completely saving us. We turned on our phones and saw that Centerfold and Toe Touch had sent us encouraging messages, and fell asleep feeling really lucky to have friends who are not only able to get themselves through a thru-hike, but support us while doing it.
The next day was probably our most trying one on trail. I took most of the weight so Spoon could stay off his ankle. With the weather turning cold and our water dwindling, my pack wasn’t too bad. Still, we started our day with 9 miles of uphill towards Mt. Baldy, which wouldn’t exactly be an easy hike with good ankles and day packs.
We walked through a dense fog where the morning tossed sleet, rain, and hail at us intermittently. Because it was still warm enough and we had rain gear, we laughed it off. Towards the top of Baldy, though, the weather shifted. The temperature plummeted, a freezing wind came up over the ridge, and snow started pouring over us. The trees were all frozen solid in a windswept position, and even the grass was encased in ice. We kept walking over the exposed ridge, past the water at Guffy Campground, without stopping to eat. We were hungry and exhausted by the time we reached our first wide open stretch of grass. Unaccustomed as we are to seeing lush green grass, we temporarily wondered if we’d left our frozen bodies for a higher plane before we realized we were walking through ski runs. We were frozen and surrounded by mist when we got to Inspiration Point at highway 2.
After a desperate hitch which involved stuffing four hikers into the backseat of a small sedan, we found ourselves in the middle of hiker-friendly Wrightwood.
We zeroed here in this haven where every local is a trail angel and the businesses give us pins commemorating our hike, and now we’re feeling ready to go out and face the elevation, whatever it brings us.
Sponsors of Chuckles and Little Spoon that you should check out:
Mary Jane’s Farm organic dehydrated meals https://www.maryjanesfarm.org/
Honey Stinger bars, waffles, and energy chews https://www.honeystinger.com/
Big Sur Bars https://bigsurbar.com/
Katabatic Gear https://katabaticgear.com/
Mom’s Stuff salve https://www.momsstuffsalve.com
Little Spoon’s Instagram (Mark Santoski) https://www.instagram.com/marksantoski/
Centerfold’s Instagram (Jon Graca) https://www.instagram.com/jograca/
Toe Touch’s Instagram (Julie McCloskey) https://www.instagram.com/jtmcc272/
Toe Touch’s Blog https://seeyajules.com/
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