Mount Laguna-Julian: PCT Days 3-5
Day 3. Miles: 20.4 Total Miles: 54.7
My alarm wakes me early enough that I still need my headlamp, and I pack up. When I crawl out of my tent and stand up, I notice that my feet still feel good, no aching or soreness. I’m sure the hiker hobble will set in eventually, but for now, I appreciate my preparation.
I ascend Mount Laguna as the sun rises, hiking in my puffy and leggings until I’m warm enough to shed them. The weather has been ideal so far. It’s been sunny, with temperatures in the 70s during the day and 40s at night, but it’s forecasted to get hotter.
I’m gaining elevation, but the trail is so gentle that I can still hike swiftly. In the first few miles, I pass several tents of hikers just beginning to stir.
I love hiking early in the morning. On the AT, my goal was always to be the second person out of camp because I don’t enjoy a face full of spiderwebs, but out here, the spiders don’t seem as motivated to block the trail corridor. My first reaction to my phone alarm is still a knot of dread in my stomach, a holdover from feeling utterly burnt out as a teacher, but as soon as I’m actually conscious enough to remember why I’m getting up early, I’m grateful to be awake. Hiking quietly at sunrise, alone among beautiful views, feels like a form of prayer.
Eventually, the sun is up, and I am back to the mundane, so I listen to a podcast. I reach the first intersection to enter the village of Mount Laguna. Here, hikers choose to either stay on the PCT, and then double back down the road to reach the general store from the north, or else take the road walk from here and skip a short segment of the official trail. I hesitate for a moment, then stay on the PCT. When the wildfires start, I will probably have to relinquish my AT purist tendencies, but for now I will cling to the hope that I can walk 100% of the official trail this year.
When I backtrack to the general store, I buy an ice cream sandwich, an iced coffee, and some Sun Chips. As I sit on the stairs outside with a dozen other hikers, I eat my ice cream, and it feels as holy as the sunrise hike.
I don’t really need to resupply, so when I finish my treats, I say goodbye to the other hikers and return to the trail. That afternoon, I leapfrog with a few hikers I’ve been seeing since the beginning. One couple is from Colorado, and the PCT is their third and final of the Triple Crown trails. Another couple, one American and one German, met on the Te Araroa in New Zealand and hiked a long section of the AT as their honeymoon. There’s also an older French guy who speaks very little English, but we smile and nod at each other each time we pass.
I camp in a sandy wash with the Te Araroa couple, and we eat dinner and exchange stories while trying to avoid the many anthills scattered around the campsite. I go to bed before it’s dark enough to need a headlamp.
Day 4. Miles: 16.5 Total Miles: 71.2
In the morning, I eat just a Lara bar and start hiking. The views atop Mount Laguna are phenomenal. The trail is lined with chaparral whitethorn, a shrub that’s in full bloom with delicate powder-blue flowers.
A few miles in, I take a detour to a water tank along Sunrise Highway. A few hikers are already there, and more arrive shortly behind me. We all rest and chat and eat second breakfast. I pull out my stove to make coffee and oatmeal.
As we descend from Mount Laguna, the temperature increases. This feels like the desert now, with dusty trail and prickly pear cactus. Halfway down, I see a whipsnake slither off to my right, a slender nonvenomous snake with a stripe lengthwise along each side of its body. While I bend to snap a photo where it has paused in a bush, a loud rattle sounds directly behind me. I jump and back away. It’s coming from the left side of the trail, directly opposite the other snake, but I can’t see the source in the dense brush. I back up until the rattling stops and wait. When I start forward again, so does the rattling. I repeat the process, and once again the rattling starts when I approach, but I can tell it’s coming from at least 10 or 15 feet left of the trail, so I hug the right side and dart past. Once clear, I peer into the brush and finally spot the rattlesnake. As I watch, it seems to conclude that I’m no longer a threat, and it uncoils and slides toward the trail. I decide to wait. I know other hikers are not far behind me, and the snake will be obscured by brush until it is inches from the path.
Sure enough, I hear footsteps and call out, “Slow down! Rattlesnake!” The footsteps falter then continue until I see another hiker. I point out the snake just a few feet in front of him, and he backs up. The two of us wait as if at a traffic light while the black and white snake slowly moves across the trail between us and disappears into the brush. When we’re confident it’s clear of the corridor, we move on.
The afternoon is hot. At each patch of shade, hikers huddle together to escape the relentless sun. The miles come slowly, then speed up again as the wind picks up in the late afternoon. I am camping just short of Julian so that I can take a nero tomorrow– a rest day of near-zero miles– but most of the campsites are exposed. Eventually I pitch my tent on a patch of ground sheltered by some brush on one side. As I boil water for dinner, a young German hiker arrives. This campsite could easily fit another tent, so I invite him to stay, and he sets up his Duplex, hindered by the wind and soft ground.
Then, a third hiker arrives, and we make space for him to squeeze his tent into the site. I’m surprised when he reveals he’s in his mid 70s, a decade older than I would have guessed. He is going to zero in Julian because of bad blisters. I offer to take a look– as a guide, it’s the first aid I utilize the most– and when he pulls off his socks, I’m unable to stifle a groan of sympathy. The skin on his toes is entirely raw, too big for any of my blister bandaids. I suggest we apply antibiotic ointment and nonstick bandages held in place with KT tape, but he accepts only the ointment, preferring to let the wounds air out overnight. I give him the bandages and tape so he can use them in the morning if he wants to.
Day 5. Miles: 6.1 Total miles: 77.3
I wake up early and cruise down the last few miles of trail to Scissors Crossing. It’s a breezy morning, and the golden sun lights up the desert landscape. This feels like the desert I’m used to, full of creosote and cholla and prickly pear. Everything is blooming. The blossoms add sudden bursts of color to the warm, earthy golds and greens and browns. I hike swiftly and quietly, feeling immensely at peace with my decision to be out here. Just as I reach the road, the hiker from my rattlesnake encounter yesterday catches up to me. We find an older couple there, offering a table of trail magic: coffee, lemonade, peanut butter and jelly, and lawn chairs arranged around a propane fire pit. We sit with them for a while, and a few more of our friends arrive.
Eventually, we all thank the trail angels and hitch into town, two by two. In Julian, I start with Mom’s Pie House, where thru hikers are given a free coffee, slice of pie, and scoop of ice cream. It’s all heavenly. I move on and buy a modest resupply– my hiker hunger hasn’t kicked in yet, so I have a lot of food left– and pop into a few of the other shops in town. I accidentally buy an expensive salad (4.29 is the date it was made, not its price, which is $15, and I am too sheepish to ask the cashier to take it back) and hang out with other hikers until I hitch to the Stagecoach RV park, back near the trail. There, I pay to camp in the PCT area, take my first shower in five days, and wash my filthy clothes. I loiter in the laundry room, charging my phone until my clothes are dry. By now, a group of other hikers has arrived, mostly new people I haven’t met. We sit in a circle and eat dinner, and then I retreat to my tent when the sun goes down.
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