Idyllwild to Campo: In Which It Ends, Kind Of
This blog took forever to finish because I put a lot of undue pressure on myself to write profound and wise things I’d learned about hiking and myself while hiking to the Southern Terminus. But I’m starting to run out of profound crap to say. The best thing I ever wrote reflecting on a hike I wrote after the Appalachian Trail, and it’s still most of what I’ve got to say. Read that for profound, read this for the full recap of my last week on trail, which includes more of me being a bonehead about water and my second worst hitchhiking story.
Idyllwild to Warner Springs
Back when I stayed with my aunt and uncle in Oregon, we discussed The Red Kettle in Idyllwild and the giant bowl of oatmeal they serve there. My aunt and uncle insisted no one could eat it and I assured them I could and I had hiked every mile since then assuming I would, but when I walked in the next morning, I couldn’t bring myself to order it. I eat oatmeal for breakfast every day on trail (and every day in real life because I’m #boring) and sometimes you just want an omelette instead. I ate said omelette and then went to the outfitters and bought a new pair of shoes, replacing the ones I had been egregiously wearing for nearly 1,000 miles. If they aren’t literally disintegrating off my feet, I always feel there are more miles in them, but the squish factor in the old ones was long gone and the new ones felt like clouds.
I climb back up to the trail. “170 miles left,” I thought to myself. My brother was picking me up in Campo and I had texted him a three-day window I thought I would finish in and now I was letting myself fall into the trap of wanting to finish on one of those specific days. It always feels like the trail tries to screw you whenever you give yourself a schedule, but truthfully roadblocks happen all the time on trail and you only notice them when you aren’t flexible. But on that day I chose the 4th of November (and spoiler alert, I finished the 4th of November).
As the sun set, the wind began to pick up. I was reaching the same begrudging acceptance of the Santa Anas I had learned to have with the rain on the AT, i.e., I hate you but you’re here and there’s nothing I can do about it so I might as well not hate you. I hiked late because one campsite was described as being hidden behind boulders—boulders I hoped would offer some decent wind protection.
I found the site in the dark with some difficulty and tucked in for the night between a trio of giant boulders opening to a view of Palm Springs below. My extended family takes a fairly annual trip to Palm Springs in the dead of August every year, because even on our standard vacations we enjoy some type 2 fun (highlights include the year it was 126 degrees and the year the air conditioning went out) and it was comforting to look out at something familiar as I ate my dinner tucked in my sleeping bag.
The next morning, it took me ages to coax myself out of my sleeping bag. The wind was awful, it was freezing, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Finally, in one small moment of strength, I deflated my air mattress and was pushed to move a little faster now that I was lying on a flat, cold rock. As I was packing up, the wind ripped a hunk off my tent footprint.
I hiked off in every layer I was carrying and still felt like the wind was shoving every single little bit of body heat out of me. Had anyone been watching video of me, they would have assumed I was drunk for how awkwardly I jolted and stumbled down the trail as the wind knocked me to and fro. My eyes watered and I finally brought out my sunglasses as a shield even though the sky was ominous and gray. My late start meant I was running the risk of not making it to the Paradise Valley Cafe before their fall season early closing time, but I couldn’t energize myself enough to hustle for it. At one point I got a text from my mom that another wind advisory was going to be starting that evening. “Well, what the crap is this then?” I thought as I pulled my beanie on outside of my hood so the latter would stop blowing off and flapping around my face and neck annoyingly.
But I was dropping in elevation with every step and I knew it would be warmer farther down. Mom had said the PCTA was warning hikers to be out of heavily forested areas, which was handy because the trees were literally dispersing and getting smaller as I walked. I passed the road to the cafe with a small amount of time to spare, but decided I didn’t feel up to the stress and potential letdown of not getting a hitch in time, so I trudged on.
I found a culvert with some wind protection (the desert section of the PCT has given me a really strong appreciation of culverts) and set up camp for the night. The next morning was another struggle to climb from my bag and once again I started hiking in every layer I was carrying. There were two water caches coming up, both maintained by generous volunteers and both seemingly pretty reliable. Conventional wisdom tells you to never rely on a water cache, but in practice everyone does it. The desert would just be too difficult otherwise. I hiked to the first one with my trekking poles stowed away so I could pull my hands into my jacket and keep them tucked in my armpits. Still my hands ached and I debated stopping and pulling out my camp socks to wear as gloves, but laziness (Is it laziness if it’s a desire to not do something that isn’t hiking?) prevailed. When I got to the first cache, the idea of removing my hands from their toasty cocoon in my unwashed armpits seemed sucky, so I opted to move on to the next cache in four miles, banking on the fact it would be warmer in an hour or two.
Four miles later, my layers were off, the day was warming, and the cache was nowhere to be found. I smacked my head gently on a fence post for a while. “You. Are. So. Dumb,” I said to myself in rhythm. I knew better. Only about half the caches mentioned by northbounders in Guthook are still maintained when the SOBOs go through and common sense desert water rules tell you to never walk past water that you know is there in favor of water that might be there later. If you thought I would prevent future misery by turning around and backtracking the four miles to the last cache, you clearly have never read this blog.
It was a long hike to get to Mike’s Place, where yet another water cache is maintained (I don’t know how the desert would work without the kind people who voluntarily maintain these caches) and I gave myself a “stop being a bonehead” pep talk as I rehydrated. The water situation in the desert is extremely manageable if you’re smart about it and I think most water-related issues that arise stem from human error, as I had continually proved over the past couple hundred miles.
The wind was still whipping but was substantially calmer than it had been the previous 36 hours, so I settled into a little cave-like opening in a forest of manzanita trees. I had developed a pretty strong fondness for the tree and the cocoon-like effect they have when surrounding campsites. I treated myself to the luxury of setting up my tent. I hadn’t minded cowboy camping for the bulk of the desert but I still find something comforting about crawling into a tent at the end of a long day. Having had so many moments on the AT and northern PCT when the inside of my tent was the first respite from a day of rain or thick clouds of bugs or excessively drunk locals at a shelter, there is a noticeable Pavlovian spark of joy I feel every time I settle in.
The next day, I headed into Warner Springs, eating the last of my snacks on the way into town. There is a community center right next to the trail that maintains a number of hiker amenities, including a resupply store, but I had outdated hour information and they were closed when I got there, so I walked the mile into town to grab some snacks. It took seeing a lot of little kids wandering around in costume for it to finally click that it was Halloween. The cashier at the gas station told me he liked my thru-hiker costume and held out a bucket of candy. I walked back to the trail chewing on Starbursts and contemplating the 100 miles I had left to go.
Warner Springs to Julian
I stared at Eagle Rock in the fading afternoon light after leaving Warner Springs. It didn’t look as much like an eagle as it had in Instagram photos and I stared at it in confusion for a long time before I realized you had to go down a short side trail to get to the right angle, which was probably a sign of how poorly my brain would work for my remaining four days on the trail. Between the wind and a leak in my air mattress that I hadn’t been able to locate, I felt like I hadn’t slept through the night on trail in weeks and it was finally starting to catch up with me. My brain felt like mush and I could tell my critical thinking was… not the best.
Around 4 every afternoon, the whole landscape of the desert would start looking like it was painted gold and that kicked off the desert’s most perfect form. The sun would sink spectacularly in a blaze of a million colors you can’t see anywhere else and then the stars and moon would appear so bright you *almost* wouldn’t need a headlamp. Since I wasn’t sleeping well anyway, I got in the habit of hiking far later into the night than I ever had before. This night was no exception. “Only a handful of these nights left,” I thought as I tripped down the trail, my eyes continually gravitating upward and away from my feet. The challenges of the desert had been a struggle for me—the water mistakes and the near-constant windstorms and somehow repeatedly ending up on private property on accident—but I had found I loved it far more than I expected I would. I knew I would be seeking out other desert trails in the future.
I was heading into Julian the next day despite not really needing to. I could have done a more complete resupply in Warner Springs and skipped over Julian entirely, which would have been the most efficient choice, but I was making the trip for one reason and one reason only: pie. Julian is famous for its pies and a place called Mom’s Pies gives free pie to hikers who show their thru-hiking permit. It was about time mine got put to use after sitting unviewed in my pack since a ranger had last checked it in Northern Oregon. I also had made the decision to splurge for a room in town, despite being kind of expensive and a really silly purchase this close to the end of a trail. But my brother was picking me up at the border in three days and we were driving straight to his home in LA. If I didn’t shower and do laundry before then, he would have to spend a couple of hours in a car with someone who hadn’t showered in 180 miles and hadn’t done laundry in over 400. Since he was doing me a huge favor as it was, being at least semi nontoxic felt like a necessary kindness. I was also secretly hoping the room might have a tub I could submerge my mattress in and find the leak. Waking up every hour or so to some body part hitting the ground and becoming an instant icicle was getting really old.
I kept an eye on my watch as I hiked in. Mom’s closed at 5 p.m. and the hitch into Julian was a long one. I wanted to make sure I gave myself enough time to get my free slice of pie. It was a hot, shade-less day and I moved quickly. I got to the road at 4 p.m. and stuck out my thumb with relief. Pie was waiting.
At 5 p.m. I was still at the road. There aren’t a ton of perks to being a woman who hikes alone, but one of them is I rarely wait more than 15 minutes for a hitch. Cars zoomed by uninterested. I’d almost rather not get a hitch because no cars were driving by than a full hour of nonstop cars that don’t stop. No one is ever obligated to give you a ride while hitching, but the constant rejection gets demoralizing. I had drank the last of my water a mile or two from the road and the heat radiating from the pavement was starting to make me feel sick. I knew there was a cache nearby, but what if the person who would give me a ride drove by while I was down the trail looking for it? Someone had stopped and told me I should stand at a different part of the highway, but the location he had directed me to was having similar results. I was on the cusp of vomiting all the liquid I didn’t have in me onto the side of the highway when a truck finally stopped. The driver was a firefighter going home after a four-day shift in the height of California’s fire season. If there was anyone who had driven past me in the last hour who should have just gone straight home and slept it was him, but he gave me ride into Julian while describing what the last 75 miles of trail would look like for me. “He’s a good human,” I thought as he dropped me off. It was too late for pie, but I would get it in the morning. At this point I was just relieved to have made it in at all.
Julian to Campo
Showered and laundered (but unable to find my mattress leak in the tubless bathroom) I had pie for breakfast and then stationed myself for the hitch out. I was braced for a bit of a wait, but thought it was more likely locals would see me on this side of the hitch so it wouldn’t be as bad as the day before. Once again, 40 minutes later I was still standing at the road. Once again, a local suggested I try a different place that also failed to get someone to stop. “I’m 77 miles from finishing,” I though exasperatedly. “This is my last hitch. Can I just go hike and finish please?”
“No one is obligated to give you a ride,” I told myself sternly in the next breath, fighting back annoyance as car after car drove past me. “You essentially ask for lots of favors to get in and out of towns. You don’t get to get mad just cause not everyone says yes.” Finally, a car pulled over.
To be honest, my experience with hitching is far from what non-hikers think when they hear I hitch. Most of the time, the people who pick me up are kind locals who see hikers hitching on their commutes everyday or people who are driving back from their own day hikes or section hikes. I’m rarely nervous or suspicious of people, but generally it’s the people who pick me up who have never heard of the trail that make me the wariest. It didn’t take long to realize I was in for it this time.
He told me he had gotten his car back after having lost it for a while. I assumed he had had his license revoked for a DUI or the like, which, hey, humans make mistakes. But no, he had been on a lot of acid and forgotten where he parked it. He kept pulling over to get me to explain where I was trying to go, despite the fact he just needed to stay on the road he was on that had no turnoffs. He kept thinking I was from Canada and couldn’t understand why I didn’t just want him to drop me off in Mexico. He tailgated the car in front of him, honking and yelling, despite the five cars in front of it. And he careened wildly down an already windy road while telling me his life’s tragedies, clearly thinking I was capable of far more emotional labor than I was while trying not to vomit. But we got there, with me white-knuckling the sides of my seat the whole way. I bade a hasty goodbye and all but sprinted away.
The late start combined with the fact I hadn’t initially scheduled an overnight stay in Julian meant I had a lot of miles to do to get to the border as early as possible the day after next. When I set up camp I had 60 miles to go. “Fifty miles tomorrow, maybe?” I thought to myself. I’m not sure why the idea of hiking 50 miles in a day got so stuck in my brain when in actual practice I never wanted to do it. But I set an early alarm the next morning, with the intention of making a big day of some kind happen.
Or I thought I had set an early alarm. I packed up and hiked out in the dark but was confused when daylight started to creep in after only a bit of walking. After a couple of minutes wondering if it was some sign of the apocalypse, I realized the time had changed. Normally the time change would be irrelevant since I operate and schedule my whole day around sunrise and sunset, but anyone trying to fit in big miles would rather split their headlamp hiking hours between morning and evening.
I ran into a trail race around Mount Laguna and was unable to yogi myself anything from the aid stations. My progress slowed to a crawl as I passed hundreds of runners that assumed the right of way. Technically uphill hikers have the right of way, but I figured runners aiming for a competitive time deserved unencumbered single-track, so I stood to the side. But it meant that for about four miles, I had to take two steps, pull to the side and wait, take two steps, pull to the side and wait. I got a couple of, “Umm, excuse me” when I didn’t step out of the way fast enough, but mostly a lot of, “You’re almost to Mexico! Congrats!” so I forgave the race for slowing my big-mile day to a standstill.
It was a Sunday and Mount Laguna was crawling with day hikers in tennis shoes and fancy athleisure clothing. I looked more alien than I ever had at the end of the AT, tanned beyond belief and coated by a layer of dust that had become a part of my being at this point, and I got a few sideways stares. I wondered if they knew where I was going and where I had come from and how close to the end I was. The sun sank and I stared hard, my poor eyes be damned, trying to superglue the image of the last sunset in my brain. After a couple hours of night hiking, I kept losing my way around the Interstate 8 underpass and Buckman Springs road and I decided that this time-consuming forward progress wasn’t worth the loss of sleep and called it. I checked how far I had come. “Thirty-five miles?!” I thought angrily. That wasn’t really the big-mile day I had hoped for or the amount of miles I felt like the amount of effort I had put in merited. It’s not a good hiking habit, but if at any point I get a certain number of miles in a certain number of hours, I always assume I can get the same miles in the same hours, regardless of the charmed circumstances that had led to them the previous time.
I flopped out my belongings on the ground, feeling disproportionately upset. I was tired and I knew it was starting to affect my mental state, but the bad thoughts still snuck in. “Other people could get 35 miles in a regular day without any extra effort. Other people could get way more miles in the amount of time you put in today.” Never once did I try to tell myself most people never hike 35 miles a day in their whole lives or even that tomorrow I was reaching the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. Consequentially, I feel asleep in an unchecked bad mood, made worse by waking up frozen on the cold ground every hour as my air mattress slowly deflated again and again.
I was probably delirious from lack of sleep when I woke up at first light the next morning. I spent my morning hiking through waist-high tumbleweeds, acknowledging to myself that it had been the right call not trying to find the trail in the dark last night or before dawn that morning. Legs sufficiently scratched and bloody, I spent the rest of the morning trying to recalibrate my head space. I had 25 miles to go to reach Mexico and I could not finish crabby at everything. I have a tendency to think the last day or two of a hike is going to be an easy, charmed, and reflective stroll through the last section of trail, then get unnecessarily grumpy when the same obstacles that arise every day of a thru-hike show up.
I walked right past the last water source for 20 miles before Campo. I’m not sure what I was thinking. I know I thought, “I don’t need it, I’m almost done,” like it being my last day somehow made it feasible to hike 20 miles with a half a liter of water. Mostly I just hadn’t wanted to stop walking, and my brain, probably addled by a month of not sleeping, hadn’t overruled. By midday it had become my hottest day in the desert. “Well, at least you get to experience one more water disaster entirely of your own creation,” I thought as I walked. A mile from the terminus was a convenience store where they would surely have an orange Gatorade and there is nothing like an orange Gatorade when you’re about to pass out from dehydration. “Might be the best orange Gatorade of your life,” I thought, feeling perversely delighted at the prospect.
The day was surprisingly hard considering the mild terrain that comprises most of the desert, although that might have been the dehydration talking. I pictured all the NOBOs hiking through on their first days, nervous and excited and probably carrying too much. It made me smile. As I approached the terminus, the campsites were more frequent and larger, signs of the mass of NOBO hikers who leave the Southern Terminus each spring, clinging together in groups and fighting tooth and nail for miles I would finish these days by lunch. “I was that NOBO,” I thought, looking at a campsite six miles from the terminus. How much had changed on the same pair of legs.
In my first PCT blog, I said that choosing to hike a second trail was essentially acknowledging that you would hike a third and a fourth and a whole lot more after it. I sensed it then and I knew it now. As the trail started to come to a close, I had started to feel relieved that I had gotten sick and missed the Sierra; it meant that there were more miles to hike next summer. I had been assuming that 2020 would mean moving out of the Bay Area, settling somewhere else, and not hiking for a bit, which was a plan that had seemed OK before the PCT and now seemed so stupid I can’t believe that I ever thought that post-PCT me would go for it. When I finished the AT, I wanted to be back on trail. When I went home with Giardia, I wanted to be back on trail. Even in this moment, rationing drops of warm water that was at least some portion melted plastic, I wanted to be on trail. In what universe was I going to finish the PCT, wipe my hands and say, “Yes, OK, done with that?” Then I was startled from my ruminations by a familiar rattle. “Sorry dude,” I said as I gave the snake a more respectful berth.
I found my brother Joe and an orange Gatorade at the Campo convenience store. After a brief break comprised of me lying out like a shriveled starfish in front of the store while the Gatorade worked through my system, we started out on the last mile and a half. It was not exactly the most scenic mile on the PCT, but my brother was enthusiastic regardless.
We approached the monument as the sun started to set. “Looks like I’ll get one more after all,” I thought. Joe filmed the moment like an overenthusiastic soccer mom. I wrote something in the logbook that I don’t remember. We took lots of pictures, texted them to our parents, and made jokes about the myriad loose alcohol bottles that someone thought the most desperate of hiker trash might be willing to drink and then turned around to walk back to the car. I tried to (jokingly) hitch back with a border patrol van and Joe wisely put the kibosh on that before it could become unfunny. Some locals yelled congratulations as we stood outside the car looking up directions to the closest In-N-Out. And that was it. I said my goodbyes to the PCT, for now.
In the weeks after, I got a job that will mean a winter in the mountains and another summer of hiking. My leftover PCT miles won’t fill it, so I’ve spent a lot of time daydreaming about what other trails I’ll hike. I’ve got some exciting things planned for 2020. I’m sure I will blog about them. In the meantime, thanks to those who followed this blog and read through every excruciatingly long post. (This one is almost 5,000 words! Woooooo!)
In my AT reflection I listed the things I took from that hike. From this hike I take an absolute certainty that however my life will shape out from here, hiking will always be a part of it. And that you should always filter your water. And if those aren’t the ends of the spectrum of things you can learn from long distance hiking…
As an aside, if anyone is looking for resources on a SOBO PCT thru-hike, I want to mention that Henry “Righteous” Slocum wrote a five-part series for The Trek that I found very helpful, with the exception that everyone he polled had experienced less than a week of rain going southbound, which became an incredibly demoralizing factoid to know during the nonstop rain in Washington. I haven’t considered doing something similar because I think his is so thorough. But know it might rain on you for more than a week.
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