Julian to Idyllwild: PCT Days 6-11
Day 6. Miles: 17.1 Total miles: 94.4
I wait for a while by the side of the road, sticking my thumb out. There’s so little traffic at 7 a.m. that I pull out my stove and make coffee on the ground. Eventually, a woman in a pickup stops, and I climb into the truck bed because her German Shepherd is barking in the cab. At Scissors Crossing, I thank her and jump out.
I start up the trail with coffee in hand, hiking slowly through the sepia-colored desert. The spindly ocotillo is in full bloom, its bright red blossoms waving in the warm wind. When I finish my coffee, I stick my pot into my pack’s side pocket. Several miles later, I realize a gust of wind has removed the travel-mug lid and left it trailside somewhere behind me. Oops. I usually pick up litter when I notice it, but I resolve to be extra diligent in picking up wrappers in penance for accidentally abandoning my plastic pot lid.
Today is mostly uphill. The hedgehog cactus, prickly pear, and cholla are all in bloom. As I gain elevation, the vegetation changes from low desert cactus and creosote to tough green shrubs– scrub oak and manzanita. I leapfrog with a few familiar faces. At the Third Gate water cache, I fill my bottles and push a few wrinkled dollar bills into the donation jar. Without this cache, it would be a 24-mile water carry uphill through the desert from Scissors Crossing.
As the sun sinks lower, the wind picks up even more, and the trail clings to the mountainside, at times only six or eight inches wide. I stop at a campsite with lots of dense shrubs, hoping they will provide some relief from the wind. A few other hikers squeeze into the site. Overnight, my tent flaps and bends under the onslaught of sustained high winds, but it never collapses, and somehow I get a good night’s sleep.
Day 7. Miles: 15.1 Total Miles: 109.5
I start hiking early, knowing trail magic awaits in Warner Springs. Kathy and Jessica are coming today! Kathy, who hosted me in San Diego, and Jessica, who also came on my REI trip back in December, are waiting where the trail crosses the road near the fire station. I covered a lot of ground this morning, 15 miles by 1pm, only stopping at Eagle Rock.
I intended to hike a few miles further, but it’s so much fun to chat with all the happy hikers when they reach Kathy and Jessica’s cooler of drinks and basket of snacks. When they offer to take me into nearby Santa Ysabel for pizza and then bring me back to the trail, my fate is sealed: I am stopping here for the day.
One of my favorite parts of thru-hiking is the random human connection and acts of generosity, and trail angels like Kathy and Jessica are such a perfect example.
Day 8. Miles: 22.1 Total miles: 131.6
Once again, I wake up early. I have a routine now: my watch vibrates at 5 a.m., I stare into the middle distance for ten minutes as I question all my life choices, and then I pack up. When I roll out of camp at 5:45, I hike slowly, poles tucked under my arm, and eat breakfast on the move. It’s a quiet, mindful first mile. As my body loosens up and the sun rises, I take off my puffy and leggings and get moving.
Today, the day starts by crossing a wide pasture. I see cattle and then my first coyote of the trail, trotting across the landscape with a sense of purpose, like he has an appointment to keep. There are new wildflowers along the path, blue ones. Using Seek, an app by NatGeo, my phone identifies them as desert bluebells.
The trail is easy, and by the time it begins to climb, I realize that I’m on track to complete 10 miles by 10am, a feat we often discussed but never quite managed on the AT. At 9:30, I see a few hikers I met yesterday at the trail magic, but I don’t stop where they’re taking a break. “Trying to hike 10 by 10,” I say as I hike past. “See you later!” The last mile is mostly uphill, but at 9:59am, my watch vibrates. Ten miles!
I stop for a snack, and then hike much more slowly through the heat of midday. Sometime after lunch, when my water supply is dwindling, I reach Mike’s Place, a quirky trailside rest stop. Mike himself isn’t here, but around fifteen hikers are. Most faces are familiar by now, even if I don’t know the names. I gratefully fill my bottles, charge my phone, and push a few dollars into a can when I take a cold beer from a cooler.
After nearly two hours, I hike through the evening to a campsite in a sandy wash with two other hikers.
Day 9. Miles: 20.2 Total miles: 151.8
Today I hike alone all morning, listening to an audiobook called Little Weirds that is somewhere between a memoir and a book of spoken word poetry. I like audiobooks that are read by the author, and this one is written and narrated by Jenny Slate. As the title suggests, it’s a bit strange, but it’s a welcome distraction from my mild headache and sore feet.
It’s very hot. In the early afternoon, I come across Lana, the German half of the Te Araroa couple, who I’ve been leapfrogging with since Day 1. We walk and chat for the last few miles to Mary’s Hiker Oasis. Like Mike, Mary is a trailside property owner who provides water and a shady resting place for tired hikers. She also has a tiny library full of poetry, both her own and that of Walt Whitman and other well-known nature writers.
After leaving Mary’s, I hike alone to the next road crossing, where I hitchhike to the Paradise Valley Cafe and camp in the field behind the building. Sunglasses is here, one of the hikers I shared a campsite with on Day 6, the crazy windy night. We sit on the porch of the empty building and charge our phones until the sun sets, and we go to bed. I wake up in the middle of the night, my legs and feet aching from two long days in a row, and I resolve to take it easy tomorrow.
Day 10. Miles: 14.0 Total miles: 165.8
By 8 a.m., when the Paradise Valley Cafe opens, there’s a mob of hikers waiting outside, maybe twenty of us. When the lone employee arrives, she warns us to be patient, but she handles the onslaught of eager orders with utmost efficiency, and when two other kitchen staff arrive shortly after, the restaurant is soon churning out omelettes and breakfast burritos like a well-oiled machine.
I hit the trail around 10 a.m. It’s another uphill day as we begin to climb towering San Jacinto. By the evening, I’m hiking alone. It’s windy, but the views are so beautiful I barely mind. I make camp with a young couple from Colorado where huge boulders create a few shallow caves, providing refuge from the wind and surrounding hazard trees.
Day 11. Miles: 13.6 (PCT) + 2.5 (Devil’s Slide Trail) Total miles: 179.4
I start early again, and when I reach the steep trail from San Jacinto’s towering ridgeline down to Apache Spring, I make my first somewhat reckless decision of the trail. I have one liter of water left, and it’s nearly eight mostly-uphill miles to the next water source, a stream that crosses the trail itself instead of requiring a strenuous detour. I skip the side trail.
I carefully ration my water for the next three hours. This is the most difficult section of trail so far, with several large blowdowns which require you to crawl under or climb over like a kid on a jungle gym. The weather is pleasant, and there’s no snow remaining on the narrow trail, but it’s easy to imagine how hazardous this area could be in different conditions.
I reach the cold, clear stream around lunchtime and take a long break there with a hiker named Caveman. Another hiker, newly christened Jackrabbit, soon arrives, followed by the young German hiker, Luca, whom I camped with before Julian. We all reach the side trail down to Idyllwild in the early afternoon. Another hiker, just returned from town, tells us that Mayor Max makes a public appearance at 4pm, so I hustle down the side trail, because who doesn’t want to meet the town mayor when said mayor is a Golden Retriever?
The three of us hitch into town in the bed of a pickup, and sure enough, Mayor Max is greeting the public in the center of town. We wait our turn for photos. Max is gentle and sweet, and I love him immediately, and I would vote for him for president. (Not really… But almost.)
I splurge on my own room at the Bunkhouse, and although the 1-mile road walk feels long on tired feet, the amenities are cozy and perfect. After a sushi dinner with Lana, Wildcard, and their friend Woo, I return to the bunkhouse and sink into a mattress for the first time since I started the PCT.
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