Sun, Wind, and Pie: The first week
April 17: Campo (mile 0) to Julian (mile 77)
Edward Abbey said that the desert does not have a shortage of water, but rather the exact right amount. But in lifelong contradiction to this, I’ve always heard ‘desert’ uttered alongside words like drought, austerity, or inhospitable. I watched Looney Toons and old Clint Eastwood movies. The desert as I understand it is a wasteland where prickly cacti hoard precious moisture; it is the antithesis of vitality. But in the past five days, I’ve had to reverse my definition of a desert – because everywhere we look, there is green.
Each morning starts cold, with bird calls and the sandy mountains – which look blue in the evening sky – starting to glow. Everything is still but the wind, which howls through the valleys and sets our tent shivering. Then the sun peaks over the rim of the closest mountain and then the whole desert comes to life. Cactus flowers open, the little lizards that skitter across our path grow less sluggish, and the landscape glows with golds, browns, and greens. It’s both magical and completely alien to us.
Coming from the East Coast where storms can blow in at a moment’s notice, none of us are new to our weather system vacillating between extremes. But in the desert, the difference isn’t as tangible. Back in NH, you could feel the temperature hang in the air and the weather system shift with the wind. But here, a side step into shade can make you 20 degrees cooler; turning around a switchback can make the difference between a calm day and extreme wind. We may as well be at sea, for all the differences that we discover daily. Learning to hike in the desert isn’t like learning a new environment; it’s more like learning a new element.
Day one: Our hike started off on an auspicious note. After Scout and Frodo dropped us off at the monument, we started our hike laughing, joking, talking, and quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm. The day passed quickly. The PCT eased us into desert hiking slowly, with a fairly shady first day which we did not yet know how to appreciate. We met dozens of other thru-hikers chugging along and, fresh as we were with full packs and 7 liters of water each, we felt every step.
We had to hike 20 miles the first day or take a long side trail to water after 15, so we chose the 20. Fortunately, the trail out here, built for equestrian travel, is much kinder than the Appalachian Trail’s brutal footpath, so it only took about 8 hours. In Lake Morena we reached our first restaurant, spoiled as we are, and bought burgers and beer to bring back to the campground. Since there are only 5 of us, another hiker Dan kindly helped us polish off the remainder of our six pack.
We fell asleep at sundown, exhausted, and woke up to a rain forest in our tent. Apparently the lake effect in a desert causes some crazy condensation, so we weren’t the only ones with wet stuff. Fortunately (and sometimes unfortunately) the desert sun dries out everything immediately.
Day two, we had another long day of about 19 miles to just before mount Laguna, where we found a campsite at about 5,000 feet among some windy pines. Little Spoon (Mark) and I bought breakfast burritos in town and met trail angel Ed, who promised us we’d see him again. We were passed by a huge group of 24 horse packers and we saw our first natural water source after more than 30 miles of trail: Long Canyon Creek.
By now, we were all feeling the effects of sun exposure. Even with our heavy sun protection and frequent sunscreen application, we found ourselves burning to a crisp. The relentless sun gets into our shirts, under our pant legs, inside our sun hats; it reflects off sand at the underside of our noses and even touches our eyelids with pink when we take off sunglasses to better read the map. Today was mostly climbing, which made us much more aware of the hot sun beating down.
On day three, we made it into Mount Laguna, which is a great little trail town that has food, water, a post office, and an amazing outfitter – basically everything we could need. Jon switched out some of his gear and picked up an umbrella (which we’ve since been told qualifies as a parasol, since it’s used for sun and not rain).
We picked up our first mail drop without a hitch (thanks, Mom!) and met Will, an amazing young guy who is legally blind due to a juvenile form of macular degeneration and yet hasn’t thought twice about hiking the PCT, being an EMT, or working for the DOD in Afghanistan. He also makes up great hiking songs. Julie, Jon, and Dugan headed back to the trail while we stayed behind to talk to Jessica, a hiker with the same hip flexor issues I had pre-trail. About half an hour after our friends, Spoon and I headed out with plans to rendezvous at a campsite.
While we were talking to Will in town, he mentioned that the forecast was ‘windy,’ which sounded nice after the dry heat of the desert. But hiking into the aptly named Storm Canyon made us reconsider that, as 60-mile-per-hour winds blasted us from seemingly every direction. There was no shelter or reprieve, and we found ourselves tossed around like rag dolls, wobbling down the trail.
The winds continued for the next ten miles, and we eventually gave up and joined the chaos, running into them and screaming, flailing our poles around. For a while, it was both fun and exhausting, but when we reached Pioneer Mall picnic area where we expected to camp and found it dominated by intense wind gusts, we started to get worried. The wind was too strong for tents to hold, so most of the people there were planning to cowboy camp and brave the wind. We had seen Julie, Dugan, and Jon retreating when we got there, so we filtered water from a horse trough (our primary water source for a while) and pushed on in hopes of catching them.
This was one of the most beautiful sections of trail so far, but also the most dangerous. The trail wound around the canyon walls with a ledge about a food wide and a sheer, several thousand foot drop to the side of us. With gusts hitting us from every side, we took our steps really slowly, split between awe at the sun setting on the mountains and pretty reasonable fear.
Just when we thought our companions must have fallen off a ledge somewhere, we saw them coming back around the mountain, half delirious and exhausted. They’d been fighting the wind all day too, and with the sun setting quickly hadn’t been able to find a non-exposed campsite. We all headed back a mile to a drainage area we had all considered, knowing that it at least would offer some shelter. Spoon and I set up our tent and so did Julie and Jen, who we met in Laguna. Jon and Dugan decided to rough it, sleeping basically inside a bush. We had to tie off all of our guy lines to rocks and the tent still flapped like thunder all night, but we got some shelter. The night was a rough one; no one got much sleep, but the group made it fun still, joking into the night and at sunrise, when we all fled the drainage, re-walked mile 55, and headed for lower ground.
Day four, we started exhausted and with surprisingly high spirits. We got to our water source – another horse trough – where we were informed by a British man that “the water’s green, but if you use the faucet at least it’s ‘fresh green’.” As it turns out, actually, the British guy and his sense of humor are part of a family of four that includes an 8 year old and a 10 year old. They were dubbed the ‘Fab 4’ but we’ve been calling them ‘The Brit Family Robinson,’ courtesy of Dugan’s imagination.
We spent the day seeking shade, which at this point is almost non-existent, and lounging in what little we could find. We stopped for a while at a pile-up by the water source, then hiked on to a beautiful ridge where we could set up camp and watch the sunset over the mountains along with a French couple who camped by us. It is constantly amazing what a difference a day can make on the PCT.
Day 5, we hiked a short 7 miles to the road crossing for Julian. Most of the hike was in a flat expanse between mountain ranges that looked short at first and proved to be several miles long. The vegetation is beginning to grow sparser and the cacti more frequent, and I think we all started to really feel like we were in a traditional desert while we walked the long, flat, sandy bottom of the valley.
We caught a hitch immediately from – of all people – Dan’s wife (remember him from Lake Morena?) who came to meet him on trail. We all checked into the Stagecoach inn to do laundry and shower, and we rented two ‘gypsy wagon cabins,’ which are little rooms with stacked beds that fit three people. The rest of the day was spent lounging and not contacting the outside world, since there was no phone service and the wifi signal was about as strong as our resolve not to buy food there.
Dugan has been given the trail name, ‘The Camel of Corvallis,’ because he’s been promising to tell us the story of the camel of Corvallis for a week now and we’re pretty sure that he’s just making it up. In any event, it seems to suit him. Unfortunately, our dromedary friend busted his ankle over the past four days, leading us to realize we’ve probably been hiking too far, too early in the trip. With the blisters and aches we all have, we decided to give it another day for rest and visit Julian the following day. We went to bed happy with our decision, and didn’t wake up until roughly 5 AM, when Spoon and I made a huge mistake.
We left our cabin to both go to the bathroom, only to discover that the cabins actually lock when they’re shut. Standing in the freezing desert night with bare feet and long johns, we spent about ten minutes trying in vain to break into our cabin before Camel came outside and shooed us into their cabin. The cabin that barely fit three now had five people in it, which led Spoon, Camel, Jon, and I to venture out around sunrise and wait for 9, when the staff should show up, in the laundry room. The laundry room was the only open room and had a plethora of beauty supplies from a kind towns person that thought hikers might be in need of a little personal TLC – so the four of us spent a couple hours buffing our nails and curling our hair. We are now the best looking hikers in Julian.
And that’s where this story ends for now. We caught a ride from trail angel Ed (remember HIM from Lake Morena?) and hit the Julian streets sleep deprived yet polished. We got free apple pie for thru-hikers at Mom’s pies, free beer for thru-hikers at Carmen’s restaraunt, and free granola bars and beer from Julie’s friend Kyle, who drove an hour from his home to visit us on the trail. Frankly, we’re feeling pretty spoiled now and ready to get back on the trail after a good night of sleep – uninterrupted by wind, condensation, or cosmetics.
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