The PCT rollercoaster: Ranchita to Big Bear

The PCT is a wild rollercoaster ride filled with ups and downs, both literally and figuratively. Over the last 2 weeks I’ve been up high in the mountains, down in the scorching desert floor, elated, and dejected. It may be the contrast between every moment that makes them so intense.

Mountains to Desert

This section has had the most striking elevation changes of the trail so far. Within the span of a few days I went from above 8,000 feet in the snowy San Jacinto Mountains, down to 1,000 feet in the heart of the desert, then right back up to over 8,000 ft in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. The descent from the San Jacintos included over 6,000 feet down in a single day — luckily my knees luckily held up. As I went down in elevation, the sun got hotter and the terrain became drier. Below the snow line I could no longer rely on melting snow, so had yet another long water carry (over 16 miles) until a faucet finally appeared in the middle of the desert like an oasis. Hikers congregated under the tiny bit of shade from a nearby bush waiting out the worst of the midday sun. It was abundantly clear I was not at higher elevation any longer, but that would soon change.

The climb back up to the mountains was equal parts brutal and beautiful. There were back-to-back days of relentless climbing in the exposed desert heat, paired with the first route-finding challenges of the trail as it criss-crossed Mission Creek what seemed like a million times. The novelty of an actual creek with water soon wore off after I repeatedly found myself off trail and bushwhacking to find it again. It wasn’t too bad, but up until this point we had been spoiled by ridiculously easy navigation on the trail. Then throw in blowdown blocking the trail, over 5,000 ft of elevation gain in a single day, steep sections with eroded trail, and you get a tough day that challenged on all levels.

Emotional rollercoaster

Just as the trail goes up and down, so does my morale. With the usual comforts gone and ego stripped away, it’s as if all your emotions are laid bare and left raw. Some moments, or even whole days, are brutally hard and I think about quitting. But then something always shifts. Sometimes it’s external, like when I was hiking through an unbearably hot desert stretch where I felt like I couldn’t go on, and suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw a cooler tucked under a bush. Inside was the best trail magic I could have hoped for — ice cold Gatorades left for thirsty hikers. I exclaimed out loud when I saw it and let the cool, sweet liquid pour down my throat and transform my entire mindset. Or when I was resigned to sleep under the Interstate 10 overpass to escape the elements and a trail angel drove by and scooped me up to sleep on her lawn. Other times, the beauty of the landscape or the freedom of my thru hiking life hit me, leaving me feeling exhilarated. On the hike into Big Bear, the lightness of my pack with an empty food bag let me glide through the miles effortlessly.

Hiker hunger

Now at almost a month into the trail, I’m consistently hiking 17-18 miles a day and expect to be at 20+ mile days soon. All of that hiking has started building an insatiable appetite, also called hiker hunger. When I arrived in Big Bear, I went out to lunch with a few other hikers and we ordered poke bowls. They were delicious, but as soon as we finished them we all gave each other a look signaling that they were nowhere near enough. We then immediately went to get pizza for a second lunch.

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