The Border to Julian: My First Week on the PCT
Day 1: 15 hot miles to Hauser Creek.
A friend drives us from San Diego to the Mexican border, though the last quarter mile is so rugged that we hop out and walk. We arrive at the terminus just before sunset, an orange glow on the horizon.
I’m surprised by the enormity of the Mexican border wall. So often PCT starting photos carefully crop that out, but to me, it’s part of this moment, of what it means to inhabit a border. My partner and I take photos that show the wall.
We stay at CLEEF campground in a long line of ultralight tents. There’s a bonfire, but we don’t talk to many people—we need to set up camp, organize gear, and eat a cold burrito for dinner. By the time we are done, everyone has gone to bed, so we do the same.
Sleeping in a tent feels just like home.
My partner, who needs no alarm, wakes me with a hand on my shoulder at 5 AM.
It’s chilly and dark as we wake and break down camp. We eat a hot breakfast but most everyone else just packs up and hikes out silently. We start the PCT in a hushed silence with dawn just brushing over the horizon.
Our first day of hiking we intend to cover 15 miles and camp at Hauser Creek. As I hike through the early morning, I am grateful for wildflowers, which are blooming and abundant on our trail today.
I didn’t think the desert would be like walking through a botanical garden, but there seem to be alien-shaped, gorgeous flowers everywhere – tiny yellow ones clinging to rocks, great white and purple ones jutting up like festive torpedoes, and yellow sprays of poppies dotted between little bushes.
Sadly, there is also a ton of poison oak. We do our best to avoid it. Many other hikers wear shorts and walk calmly through bushes of poison oak.
The heat arrives by 8:30 in the morning. We shed our layers and hike steadily until around 11 a.m., then duck into a shady nook to wait for a few hours. I immediately fall asleep. When I wake up hours later, we have only five more miles to get to our campsite.
But afternoon hiking in the heat is hard. By the time we arrive, I feel nauseous and have a headache, and I have rolled my bad ankle four different times. But I manage to eat, take meds to settle my stomach and my headache, and I do some yoga to stretch my legs.
Hauser Creek is a very impacted and very busy campsite. We are lucky to have a flat spot clear of poison oak to ourselves, and invite our neighbor, a solo hiker named Lupine, to join us for dinner. She is quiet, smart, and serious, and she knows an impressive amount about Southern California botany—which delights both me and my partner.
And just like that, we have our first trail companion. We don’t know it yet, but we will camp with Lupine all the way to Julian, talking about our lives, our reasons for hiking the trail, and our fears about the months ahead.
Day 2: Hiker Party in Lake Morena
We wake early to hike out of Hauser Creek. It’s a lovely, well-graded hillside with a receding mist into Lake Morena.
Like many others, we use the shelter of the Lake Morena campground and Malt Shop to avoid the main heat of the day. We shower, recharge devices, and have long rambling chats with other hikers. My good friend Linda brings us our first resupply on the trail, so we are set now until Laguna.
It’s impossible to keep track of all the names and people we meet, but it already seems like we won’t see many of these folks again. Many of them seem to be starting out with 20-mile days, and we are very committed to starting slowly and gradually. Every mile, I remind myself that I may never get to walk down this part of this trail ever again. And so, each bend in the trail feels something like a gift.
The terrain is rolling and gradual as we hike out of Lake Morena later in the afternoon. Paved roads give way to soft trail, and the hiking is easy even in the heat of late afternoon.
We sleep our second night in Boulder Oaks campground, where trail angels have filled a cooler with cold drinks including beer, and someone brings a power block that can recharge six phones at a time. We have a lively, social dinner time with new friends from all around the world, and I am again amazed at the way the PCT brings people together from so many different walks of life.
Day 3: Wild Storms and Collapsed Tent
Our third day on the trail, we ascend a scrub-bound ridge trail maintained by a group of San Diego ultra runners. We are already getting a taste of the lovely vistas we’ll have later in the trail. We hike 11 miles to a reliable water access point at Long Canyon Creek (mile 37.1), and make camp with some college-aged girls and a couple from the Czech Republic, as well as Lupine.
We know there’s a chance of a storm, but I am not overly concerned as we set up camp. The weather had promised high winds when we stayed at Boulder Oaks, and it was calm all night. So we set up our tent at Long Canyon without worrying, though I eye the storm clouds rolling in at eight p.m. as I go to sleep.
Four hours later, I am very worried.
The storm wakes me up at midnight. The winds are gusting so intensely that they knock down one of the trekking poles we are using to hold up the tent. My partner tells me to hold the trekking pole in place while he scrambles out of the tent to reattach the guy lines. The tent is battered by powerful gusts of wind, and sheets of rain have soaked everything in the vestibule. We rearrange our gear as best as possible, moving my shoes to the other side of the tent away from the wind, bringing gear inside the tent, and shifting things away from the sidewalls. Already sharp winds are bringing water into the tent from the vent by our feet.
Within half an hour of fixing the tent, it collapses a second time. This time both my partner and I get out of the tent in the storm, and we begin to secure everything with enormous rocks. I hunt around in the heavy rain with my headlamp on, my legs getting soaked. Once everything is as secure as we can possibly make it, we crawl back into the tent and do our best to dry off. More of our gear is soaked by incoming rain, but we shift everything to one side so that the bathtub floor can lift against the oncoming wind, and that seems to help quite a bit.
We make it through the rest of the night without the tent collapsing again. And I do manage to get some sleep.
We learned a lot of important lessons about how to pitch the tent for bad weather. And as uncomfortable and challenging as it was, in some ways, it was an amazing experience. There is something incredibly beautiful and powerful about being in a tent during a ferocious rain storm.
Day 4: Dripping Forest Walk and A Campfire
Our fourth day on the trail, we walk through a misty, dripping, icy forest full of Jeffrey pines to reach the little town of Laguna. The temperature drops dramatically with the storm, and I hike most of the day wearing a wool hat and puffy jacket, my hands in gloves to keep my fingers warm.
Unfortunately, the town of Laguna is a bit of a disappointment. The one café is closed, and the little store that held our resupply box doesn’t have much in the way of fresh food or options for vegetarian backpackers. But they do have wonderful hot cocoa, and we get to sit and dry out while talking to other hikers about their experience of the storm.
At least a few folks were rescued from the storm. Sadly, I think this was a case of underprepared hikers who chose to summon emergency services rather than hike themselves to safety. I met one hiker who said he was camped with a number of other people near the Mt Laguna overlook of Storm Canyon. It’s a very exposed area and also an illegal camping spot – the only legal camping in the Mt Laguna Recreation Area is at the two campgrounds. These folks were camped within a two-minute walk of the road, within a half mile of the Laguna Campground, which has showers, flush toilets, picnic tables, and lots of good wind protection.
We spent the night at the Laguna campground, after a short and easy 10-mile hike. We have fallen into a fun, easy-going crew that is the same group we camped with during the storm
The Laguna campground was not impressive. The shower was a body-temperature drizzle that left me shivering, there were only two outlets for everyone, and the employee who met us at the entrance seemed skeptical of us and unwelcoming. But we had a wonderful time anyway. We built a campfire and the eight of us gathered around talking until nearly eight p.m., before dashing to our tents to escape the cold.
Our fourth night on the trail brought a cold snap. The temperature dropped to the 20s and we woke to frozen water in our water bottles. We would hear from other campers later in the day, that they had been relying on water faucets only to find them frozen solid overnight. Thankfully the water in the Laguna campground did not freeze and we were able to fill up for our hike that day
Day 5: A Commitment to a Sensibly Moderate Pace
The weather made our 12-mile hike on day five of the PCT very easy. We no longer had to plan around a two-hour siesta to avoid the heat of the day. Instead, we walked along a trail bracketed by mountain mahogany with soft white flowers, with enormous views of the Colorado desert and distant mountains beckoning us we camped with the same crew that we camped with for the last two nights, negotiating with other thru hikers for the limited space in the campsites.
People keep asking us when we started and how far we are hiking. I always say that we are very committed to our sensibly moderate pace of 11-15 miles per day as we find our trail legs. There’s a lot of social pressure to go further, but so far we’ve resisted. We still have plenty of time to make it to Kennedy Meadows by our target date of the first week of June, and I want to appreciate every day of the desert. Plus, I’m far more worried about an injury than falling behind.
Day 6: Easy Miles and Cozy Campsite
We camp on the 6th night at mile 72, with Lupine and another trail friend named Izzy that we met at Boulder Oaks. We have a smaller campsite that’s well-protected from the wind, and there is even a bit of a view.
I appreciate the smaller group, and I’m frankly astonished at how much I have in common with this crew. Before coming on the trail, I feared that there would be a very aggressive vibe on the trail that was more about proving something or conquering something. But we’ve managed to connect with folks who are as excited about plants as we are, and who aren’t trying to rush through the desert as fast as possible as though checking it off a to-do list. Our short days also mean we have long lunches full of meandering conversation and long evenings where we share deeply about our lives.
If this week were the entire PCT, it would be worth it. But knowing we have months more of this ahead is pretty amazing.
Day 7: Julian
We woke to a splendid dawn over the mountains and met up with a trail angel named Rangel in Scissors Crossing who brought us into the adorable mountain town of Julian.
Walking around town feels like a reunion. We keep bumping into people we first met in Hauser Creek, Lake Morena, or in Laguna. We break into huge grins of recognition, calling one another’s names and dashing over to hear how they have liked the desert, where they have found water, and how they survived the very bad storm. Already, it feels like we are creating a community.
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