Episode 5: From the top of the world to Hiker Heaven
Wrightwood to Agua Dulce (mile 454):
Mount Baden Powell, Trail Magic, and the Snoozers
We proved today that sometimes when you snooze, you win. Camel headed out of Wrightwood early, hitching to the trail a little before 8AM. The rest of us were not as chipper. We also knew we had a relatively short day to Little Jimmy Campground, so we took things easy. Centerfold, Spoon, and I got breakfast, Toe Touch and I listened to some live music at the cafe, and we all finished up writing out post cards and other last minute chores. We caught a ride to the trail from Day Hike’s friend and started up the trail. About a mile in, we came across trail magic:
Then we ran into the Brit Family Robinson:
After a very delayed start, we finally started our way up Baden-Powell. We met Miles and Mack and hiked with them for a while, talking. As it turns out, Mack actually hiked last year with our AT friend, Siren. The climb was gradual until the top, where patches of snow and ice turned the switchbacks into steeper climbs, but we didn’t mind. As we climbed up a ridge towards blue sky, Mack said “get ready for a view.”
At the crest, the world fell away. There was only a narrow ridge of dirt and fearless trees. All around us was a cloud sea, broken by mountain tops like islands in the distance. The ridge wound up to the summit of Baden Powell, a bald patch of dirt that reached toward the sun. We sat up there and watched clouds playfully lick up into spires, amazed at how warm it was.
The rest of the day was dreamlike – the clouds grew gold in the sunset as we walked a long, descending ridge hemmed in by huge pines. The whole mountain ridge seemed impossible above 9,000 feet. Walking along the trail, every tree tells a story. The landscape, scarred or abundant, dry or fecund, wears a history of weather. The scrubby lower desert is stingy, resilient, and defensive, comprised of thorny plants that scrape by with the suggestion of moisture. Oases wear their richness like queens, blanketed in green blankets and Cottonwoods, alive with the luxury of water. But the high mountain ranges we’ve seen have mostly been barren, covered in rocky slopes and small plants that cling close to the ground. Even on calm days, the wind whips across most high mountain tops, toppling tall plants and ripping out those without deep root systems.
But the top of Baden Powell tells a completely different story. A hiker gets the impression that they are on a very kind mountain. The trees are massive, and even hollowed-out snags leaning against each other never threaten to fall. An impossible high desert jungle lives on top of this balmy mountain top, reaching non-threatening tree limbs across the trail and scattering soft pine needles on the ground.
By the time we filled up at the spring and headed towards the campground, the sun had slipped below the cloud line and the cold rose up to meet us. Just when we realized we were freezing, the welcome smell of campfire reached us and we entered Little Jimmy Campground to find the rest of our group alongside a dozen other hikers, circling the fire. We joked that today was a ‘brochure day’ on the trail – if every day were like this, we wouldn’t be able to go home when we reached Canada.
The Yellow Frog Detour
The next day, we woke up and left at a leisurely pace again, eventually finding Camel passed out on a picnic table. Camel has an uncanny ability to shape his spine to any surface, and we frequently find him lounging, totally contented, in seemingly miserable positions. We’re pretty sure he’s made out of pipe cleaners.
There was a lot of talk about the different detours around the Yellow Frog, a rare species that recently re-emerged on three miles of the PCT and inadvertently inconvenienced a lot of hikers. The two short options involved a road walk and only added a couple miles, but the long detour involved an extra 20 miles. Our group opted for the long way, as usual. We are gluttons for suffering.
Unlike our Mission Creek foray, the long detour proved to be more than worth it. The trail took us into a canyon along narrow trails supported by iron plates. The group didn’t unanimously love looking straight down into the canyon next to the crumbling trail, but I loved it. There were huge sandstone rocks everywhere, and we got to see ‘The Devil’s Chair’ – which was confusing, since we aren’t sure there was actually anything that even vaguely resembled a chair. still, it was a beautiful detour through the desert.
Since we’re usually alone in these decisions, we didn’t see any other hikers all day. We camped by a strange old windmill near someone’s private property and made a campfire out of the ample wood – one benefit of going where no other hikers go. Boom and Fae walked into our camp at sunset and we were relieved to see that at least someone else did this section.
The dreaded Poodle Dog
The next day, we finally passed 400 miles officially. After all the detours and re-routes, we’re pretty sure we passed 400 a while ago, but it feels good to finally have it confirmed:
Unfortunately, we’re now entering an old burn area – which means tons of Poodle Dog Bush.
Long pants are recommended for this area, since the PDB can leave a nasty rash if it comes into contact with skin. We saw a lot of it today, but mostly at a good distance from the trail. We hiked by ourselves for the morning and caught Boom and Fae for the last part of the day, reaching the ridge where everyone was camped at sunset.
The next day was a long one, so we got going fairly early (for us), around 8AM. Centerfold left about an hour before us and by the time the four of us reached the first ranger cabin of the day, we saw that Centerfold had somehow made it through two hours before us. This was probably in part due to our long water stop where Spoon and I took videos of lizards doing push-ups. Oh well.
The second half of the day was spent wondering where Centerfold was. We hiked the 21 miles to where we planned to camp and found that there was no camping there. At this point, Spoon and I were traveling with Camel and sunset was approaching. Toe Touch had gone ahead and no one knew where Centerfold was. We were exhausted by this point from our long day through the Poodle Dog Bush. It had slowly gotten worse and by this point, we were continually dodging it in the thick undergrowth, trying to beat the darkness. Two miles later, we saw Toe Touch up on a ridge having apparently found a campsite and literally shouted for joy. When we got up there, we saw that it was a hard gravel turnout next to a defunct road where, surprisingly, tons of hikers were walking. We asked what was going on and found out about the optional ‘Poodle Dog Bush Detour,’ which was a shortened road walk that avoided the areas of trail with lots of PDB. We were surprised to realize that almost everyone had taken the detour, yet not really surprised that once again we’d ended up taking the longer, harder option and continuing our pattern. We tried to set up the tent but broke a stake on the hard ground. We decided to cowboy camp instead and I was feeling pretty frustrated after the 23 miles of Poodle Dog Bush and heat and bugs, and our eventual camping spot on the road.
Fortunately, the stars blinked on one by one and the warm night was beautiful all around us. As usual, I realized that to be frustrated out here, surrounded by this landscape and this adventure and these people I love, was pretty childish.
Lions and Tigers and Trains, Oh My!
The next day we did something unprecedented for us: we woke up at 5:30 and started hiking. This had three benefits. 1. We got to see sunrise , 2. Our morning climb wasn’t stifling hot, and 3. We made it 17 miles to the KOA in Acton by 1:30.
It was at the KOA where we found Centerfold – with beers and a story for us. We celebrated one month together (Yes, we’ve stuck together for a whole month) and cleaned five days worth of dirt off our bodies. We reunited with the Brits who did 20 miles in the stifling heat of midday to get there, and all gave some much-needed TLC to our bodies.
We did wake up a few times in the night to some unusual sounds. The KOA is bordered by a busy train line and a busy road, so we were intermittently woken up by traffic and train whistles. It wasn’t until the next day that we found out the other strange roars and moans in the night – which we assumed were some hikers’ sleep apnea – were actually lions and tigers. There is a movie studio across the road from the KOA that is currently housing huge exotic cars. The trifecta of noises was enough to keep many of the hikers awake and largely confused.
From here on out we’ve been pampered, hiking the easy 10 miles to Agua Dulce the following day to show up at Hiker Heaven – an incredible spot run by the Saufley’s. Walking into Agua Dulce was incredible. The trail goes right through Vasquez Rocks into the heart of the downtown here. In a matter of miles we saw the golden rocks crowned with circling crows rise up around us and the welcome banner on the porch of Sweetwater cafe, where we gorged on burgers and beer. We were offered three different rides before we even finished our meals. I didn’t think I’d be able to declare any place more hiker-friendly than Idyllwild and Wrightwood, but I think Agua Dulce is a strong contender.
We have obstacles and long water carries ahead to challenge us, many more trail Angels and small towns to tempt us with shelter, and 250 more miles of desert that threatens to separate us – but I have faith that we’ll reach Kennedy Meadows together. I can’t think any further than that right now, so we’ll keep taking it one day at a time.
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/
The Camel of Corvallis’ Instagram (Shaughn Dugan) https://www.instagram.com/sndugan/
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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