On Community: Budding Trail Families Amidst the Beavertail Blooms.


I rub my dirty eyes awake as the early morning breeze rushes under CA-78, flapping the wings of my rain fly like the sails on a ship. In the loose desert sand, the wind had pulled the stakes from out of the ground as I slept the night prior. My body was so tired, I hardly noticed the noise.

A field of Barrel cactus.

I had gotten into Scissor’s Crossing late the night before – 10:30 PM to be exact. In the final hours of my day, the moon shone like a bowling ball, ripe with its mid-month glow in the dry, open landscape past Granite Mountain. For the first time on the PCT, I was truly, unequivocally in the desert. Barrel cacti and cholla littered the hills around me, all while the smell of hash browns and eggs permeated in the morning air.

“Did you get breakfast yet?”

I hear from across the pillar that stood between me and a Coleman camp stove frying enough eggs to feed four families. Trail Magic is a glorious, often happenstance gift that finds you seemingly in the perfect moment. For me, that moment of hot breakfast was after a 26 mile push out of Julian playing catch-up with my trail friends.

If someone gets 20 miles apart from you, you can almost guarantee you will never see that person again.

That is, unless a particular individual (usually the one that’s lagging behind) is willing to hike aggressive miles over long days, often with little to no breaks in between. Mixed with just the right ratio of town beer and a perfectly timed slice of Julian pie, my adrenaline was pushing me to do just that.

It’s safe to say if you enjoy the company of those you’re with, it’s important to make an effort to camp with them along the way.

I take a glance at my phone as I devour the hot breakfast that sits in my lap before me. Rachel had sent me a message – they were planning on camping just off the road to Montezuma Valley Resort, a trail town that’s signature lies in its love for a 15 foot tall Bigfoot statue and all those smelly, grimy foot passengers that put the size of Sasquatch into scale.

Alex and the Germans, moments before we split ways in Julian.

“Just as I expected,” I think to myself. Detour would be there, as would the Germans, not to mention a few more familiar faces I’d met earlier on: Sully, MJ, Bob the Builder, the Dutch. All the more reason to make the push.

The one thing: it was a 25 mile haul to get there. And it was already 9 am. In other words – Hiker Noon.

“You know what’d be hilarious?”

I had said to Alex (Netherlands) the day prior as we unloaded our heavy packs from the Subaru Forester that had dropped us back at the trailhead where we escaped freezing rain and hail on the crest of the Laguna Mountains.

“What?” He replied to me in an even-tempered, rational tone that juxtaposed my often-chaotic and impulsive urge to do the seemingly-unthinkable for the sake of a good laugh.

“What if we saw them all tomorrow?” I looked at him with a maniacal gaze, eyebrow twitching upward, waiting for him to validate my seemingly insane plan.

“F*** it.” Alex matched my grin. I had only met him 24 hours ago, but his love for the trail and passion for sharing it with those around him was infectious. And, it seemed, he was just as crazy as I was. At least in that moment.

Where Alex and I had departed trail for Julian at a lesser-used picnic area, most hitch off at Scissor’s Crossing – 26 miles further down the trail from where we stood.

That’s where the rest of our friends had gotten off. While some had timed their weather window far better than me and made it to the underpass, others had decided to bypass the ridge all together. Reaching them would mean two 25+ mile days, the first of which was starting at 1pm.

View from the ridge of the Anza Borrego Desert.

Alex and I looked at each other like two giddy teenagers about to play a prank on their younger brother.

“Well, we’d better get going then.” He said to me as the mid-day sun beamed down on my sunburnt nose.

The first push was filled with sweeping ridge lines and incredible late-evening views of the Anza-Borrego Desert below us to the East.

Shrubs of Mountain Whitehorn dotted the hillside to our left, their cotton-like flowers glistening in the rays of sunlight that cascaded down our cheeks.

Alex and I were moving fast. To make it to Scissor’s within the day would mean hiking late into the night, which I was perfectly content with. The moon would be full, and just before it emerged from behind the rocky desert hills, Orion and Leo would rise in the first hours of darkness. I was stoked.

“What is it you’re most looking forward to, hiking the trail?”

Alex asks me as we rocket our way down to a creek bed for a late-afternoon lunch. It was 7 pm – in six hours we had already done 12 miles.

“I think Washington,” I answered, somewhat hastily. Unlike most, I didn’t really have a strong reason for hiking, besides the fact that I found out about it as a teenager and thought it was cool. “The alpine peaks there seem super rad.”

“I think it will be great for me to learn more about myself from the challenge.” Alex answers. “That, and the people. You meet so many cool people out here. From all walks of life.”

Alex struck me as one who never did something without an intention. He was deceptively older than I had expected – mainly due to his deep sense of play, alongside years of consuming good food in a country that doesn’t super-inject chemicals into nearly everything it deems semi-edible.

“You carry yourself as much older,” he says to me as we walk.

“And you, much younger!” I reply. In the five hours I had hiked with this man, I felt as though I had learned more about him than some I had spent years with back home in Chicago.

The trail has a funny way of opening you up; something about putting miles on your dirty feet leaves little room for putting up walls. Alex was a prime example of that.

As we sit at the small stream eating our dinner, I show Alex my Justin’s Almond Butter packets, a staple in my food bag that I’ve taken to smearing on a tortilla for a sort of sweet crepe.

“Holy Sh**,” Alex laughs as he licks the chocolate nut butter from the front of his teeth.

“Good, right?” I say to him with a smile. He nods in approval.

Stopping for the night at the stream would be the reasonable thing to do. Alex and I, on the other hand, were nowhere near reasonable.

It was 12 more miles to Scissor’s Crossing, which meant if we were lucky we would arrive by 10:30 PM. I was also operating fully aware that with Detour and Rachel’s pace, I would likely have to do the same tomorrow.

“Bring it.” I think to myself.

Alex motors off from the stream while I, as usual, take my time moseying through my gear and packing up my food. One thing I’ve noticed about my hiking style is that I like to go fast – that is when I’m moving. When I’m pitched up somewhere, it usually takes an army to motivate me to leave.

Groves of Mountain Whitehorn.

When I do finally pack up, life seems to gift me with the finest array of colors that streak the rocky talus fields in shades of pink and orange. The exposed ridge lines that had been terror a day before became a prime example of sublimity – nature’s painting, just for me.

There’s a great solace I find in logging miles where I can’t see anyone else. As though peace has opened up its wingspan and let me in for just a second.

As I begin to descend the rocky slopes that had been my home for so many days, I begin to see myself in the third person. Almost at a bird’s-eye. For so many years I had pictured a version of me walking blissfully across the country with nothing but a rucksack and a smile. Now, I was that person.

“Sick.” I giggle.

As much as I love spending time walking alone, finding good company is worth more than gold on trail, and I had begun to miss Detour’s blunt and erratic tales of his day-to-day, as well as Rachel’s nightly admiration of the moonrise that we were gifted each night. Catching them was a priority – hiking with them just felt right. The miles in between were just a test.

We were the makings of a family, after all.

“Wow! You’re practically sprinting!”

Alex shouts to me as I rocket by him as the sun dips below Granite Mountain. We would still have to traverse our way across the slope before finally descending the desert floor below.

Looking back at Granite Mountain.

“I’m so glad we continued. Tonight has been a gift.” Alex smiles at me contentedly. I nod in agreement. There’s something truly surreal about hiking at the bookends of a day, as dusk and dawn turn the landscape into a Van Gogh or even sometimes a Gauguin, except only for those keen and patient enough to walk in those ripe, oblong hours of sunlight.

By the time I had made it to Scissor’s Crossing, a tiny tent city awaited me under the CA-78 overpass. The dim red light from my headlamp illuminated large piles of water jugs, a cache maintained by Trail Angels who quite literally keep the hikers in the desert alive.

“Again tomorrow.” I think. I had lost Alex in the last five miles, he had gotten tired, hunkered down somewhere for the night. But with the moon full and the bridge so close, I couldn’t bear to call it quits just yet.

In the morning, I leave an extra breakfast plate under one of the pop-up folding chairs that line the backside of the underpass.

“I hope he gets here. We’ve got miles to do.” I think to myself. Another push, this time the last.

My haphazard attempt of saving Trail Magic for Alex.

When I did finally arrive at camp that night, having dipped down from desert fields of prickly pear, beavertail, and hedgehog cactus to a wet riparian riverbed, my arrival was met with applause and hugs.

“What?” The Germans gasped, pointing at my tired face. I check my phone for Alex – he’s five miles back, we’ll see him tomorrow.

“Glad you made it in,” Detour said with a smile. I was back with my people. When you find the right tramily, it’s important to keep up with them. If you don’t, you might never see them again.

And I for sure as hell wasn’t going to let that happen. Not when life was this good.

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Comments 1

  • Kathleen Sable : May 20th

    Thank you for keeping an eye on my little punkin, Moonie. I love your writing style and pace!


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