Trail Update – Big Bear to Cajon Junction
Today puts me en route to Deep Creek Hot Springs. Which, you may be disappointed to read, are little more than a ring of rocks encircling a hot spot in the muddy water of the creek. Additionally, they are often crowded.
I know I’m close by when I spot a man exercising his right to be naked, tanning like a starfish, with his cock to the sun, on a large boulder. I’m looking forward to a dip, but I’m not sure I’ll take advantage. The hot springs, despite their obvious appeal, have a mixed reputation. Reviewers often describe it as “full of trash” and the PCT guidebook warns that years ago, someone contracted a deadly brain-eating amoeba here. A freak accident, I think.
But the comments from the Guthook’s PCT app give me pause.
“WARNING: Don’t go in the hot springs if you have open cuts or blisters on your feet. People have had to get off trail due to serious infections. I’ve heard some people just put lots of Neosporin on after they get out but do so at your own risk”
Good lord. Just how dirty is this water? I decide not to risk it. There’s a fresh blister under my big toe and I’d hate to end up with a trail name like Puss-foot or Zombie.
I wake up to a message on my Garmin.
“Was expecting to hear from you last night. Hope you made camp comfortably :-* ”
The Garmin Mini, for those of you who don’t have one, is a fantastic but limited device. It has all of four buttons in total: up, down, OK, and back, which are used to navigate a series of painfully tiny menus on a grayscale LCD screen the size of a postage stamp. It’s sorta like the love-child of a pager and a Tamagotchi pet.
Despite its limits, it’s worth its weight in gold. If I need emergency medical assistance, or can’t leave the trail under my own power, it can put me in touch with search and rescue. But mostly I just use it to keep in touch with my girlfriend and personal baker, Julie, when I don’t have cell phone service.
I pen a quick reply and keep hiking. “So sorry! I thought I sent a message out but I guess it didn’t go through. 😊”
Communication through a Garmin is not as immediate or satisfying as texting. Messages are limited to 160 characters, which makes everything I write brief to the point of being rude. It’s juvenile, but I try to compensate with emoji. I hit send and keep hiking. It will take the Garmin up to ten minutes to reach a satellite and get the message out.
The next time the Garmin syncs I get a flood of messages.
“Are you getting these? I’m starting to worry something is wrong” and
“What the fuck is going on?” and
“I’m livid. I’m pouring my heart and soul into your letters and resupply boxes. The only thing I ever asked of you was to keep in touch.”
I send reply after reply, but nothing goes through. And with every passing hour, she grows more and more convinced that her worst fears came true: I’d gone full hermit, said fuck it to civilization, commitments, attachments, and loved ones. Honestly, could I really blame her for thinking that? I came out here to see if I was happier away from it all.
I knew something like this would happen. I was so convinced of this that I tried to prepare everyone at home for it. Days before my flight out, I gathered my family around for a going-away party. I wanted them to be excited for me, but I also hoped to put them at ease. It was a necessity that I do so. My parents, who are not particularly outdoorsy, were convinced I’d be walking into the wilderness to die. I worried they would call search and rescue the moment they couldn’t get a hold of me. They’d almost done it once before.
Over cake and beer, I gave a slide presentation on thru-hiking. I devoted over a third of my slides to urging everyone to remain calm if my Garmin malfunctioned or sent misleading information. I covered this exact scenario, the one when I stopped replying to messages. Technology inevitably fails, I argued. Software cannot be trusted. I should know; I write it for a living.
I stop hiking. I troubleshoot every way I know how. I debug without source code. I formulate a hypothesis and make test cases. Eventually, I manage to push a message out. But my girlfriend is still pissed and I feel like crap for the rest of the day. On one hand, there’s nothing to feel bad about. It was a technical glitch, entirely outside my control. But I do feel bad. Some part of my personality grew large in her imagination and convinced her I’d never come home again.
The joy of hiking is gone. And not for the first or last time this trip, I keep walking, because there is simply nothing else to do.
Leaving Deep Creek
The PCT isn’t always the pristine paradise it appears to be in photos. In Deep Creek, especially, there is a ton of graffiti. Highlights include a chalk outline with a large purple penis; quite a few racist sentiments, which will not be repeated here, even for the sake of documentation; and a gothic/pencil script “13” courtesy of America’s favorite boogeymen, the MS13 gang. I doubt anyone is actually turfing over the PCT but I suppose it’s good to know what colors not to wear and which signs not to throw while I’m out here in the middle of nowhere.
The parks department, in a war of attrition, paints over it as best it can. But the result is that entire rock faces are now an awkward matte-brown. The effect, which attempts to be as natural as possible, has the opposite effect on me. It’s as if someone has gone through the park trying to hide plastic rocks among the real ones. I hate it even more than the graffiti.
It’s a real shame because aside from these few blemishes Deep Creek is stunning. The trail sits on a cliff of crumbling white stone that follows the contour of the stream some 80 feet below it, as it winds lazily between two mountain ridges dotted with sagebrush, lupine, and manzanita. The creek, wide and shallow in places, occasionally narrows, picking up both speed and force to create small waterfalls over the boulders in its path.
If complaining about graffiti seems curmudgeonly to you, let me defend myself. Generally speaking, I don’t have a strong negative reaction to it. In an urban setting, I actually prefer graffiti to an unadorned piece of concrete, or especially, an advertisement.
You see, I grew up in the ’90s, before the age of the influencer, when the printed ad and the 30-second TV spot ruled supreme and constantly bombarded the general public with messages of inadequacy. As far as I’m concerned, an advertisement is already vandalism. I didn’t consent to see it and I give zero fucks that someone paid for the privilege of forcing it on me.
So if someone wants to hijack that eye-space to write their own message, more power to them. I’ll interpret whatever they draw, even something as juvenile as a penis, as the primal cry of the individual against a dehumanizing economic system that only values them for their spending power.
But out here in the wilderness? It makes zero sense. I hate it.
This is the general trend; the closer you get to a parking lot, the more the trail sucks. It’s not that day hikers are inherently worse people than thru-hikers, it’s just that most people aren’t willing to walk 20 miles just to tag a rock. This inverse correlation—of miles-walked to human influence—is what makes a place like Kings Canyon so special to me. You’d have to walk a really long time before you could fuck up something I hold sacred.
Leaving Little Horsethief Canyon, Interstate 15 appears running along the great San Andreas Fault, the same one that perpetually threatens to unleash “the big one” on Los Angeles.
From this height, the fault itself is clearly visible. Just west of the highway lie the Mormon Rocks, visible proof of the great geological violence that occurs when one tectonic plate smashes slowly into another. They are great boulders the size of apartment buildings, somewhat squarish in shape and rounded pleasantly on all edges.
Mosses and grasses grow in the cracks of them where some soil has managed to settle, and they jut out of the earth at oddly occurring angles. A similar formation, the Vasquez Rocks, also on the PCT and just north of the west edge of the San Gabriels, it’s often used as a filming location when the script calls for an alien planet.
Cajon Junction, which is more of a truck stop than it is a town, sits squarely in this valley and marks the end of section C. At the trailhead by the highway, one of the strange signs on the PCT welcomes you to it. It reads, “McDonalds 1 mi.” It’s an official sign. The phrase is carved into a wood plaque in exactly the same manner that something important like “Ranger Station” would be. I assume this means the Nation Forest Service considers the golden arches to be an essential part of trail infrastructure.
Normally, you’d never get me in a McDonald’s. The food there seems to defy the laws of physics. One of its burgers, if left alone for months, will look no different than it did the day it was bought. Personally, I find this frightening. But most thru-hikers I know use this fact to justify packing out a week’s worth of the things without the need for refrigeration.
The old me spent years carefully crafting an arrogant but ethical diet consisting of organic vegetables and farm-to-table fare. I ate meat rarely, and when I did, it came from the local butcher who could vouch for the health of the animal personally. All that remains now is an insatiable desire for quick calories and a willful disregard for the ethics of their manufacture.
Thru-hiking may be a return to nature, but in one specific way, my diet, it’s a complete 180 from it. I order some chicken nuggets. Then I walk another mile to grab something from DelTaco.
Hanging out at the DelTaco I bump into Sprocket. We met previously at Mike’s Place but he doesn’t remember me. I don’t blame him; I prefer to blend in.
He looks more like an auto mechanic than a thru-hiker, dressed as he is in a truckers hat, a canvas button-down, and a pair of Dickie’s. Tattoos cover every inch of skin from the neck down and his full beard and thick glasses give him a vacant but friendly look. He is the antithesis of ultralight trail fashion. Only an expert or an idiot would break so many conventions.
His pack’s mesh pockets hold two liters of water, and one of rum, which he mixes with his fountain soda from the gas station. He’s in the mood to give advice and has opinions about everything from venomous snakes to entering the Sierra. In the hours we sit there, waiting for our phones to charge, I hardly talk at all, interrupting only occasionally to ask him questions. He’s an expert on all things trail, and I can’t pass up the opportunity for good advice. It’s rare, even out here.
“How did you get frostbite?” “Do you ever think you’ll go back to work?” “Do you worry about how you’ll get by when you’re old?”
But I have an ulterior motive, too. I want to know what his life is like. Sprocket is a unicorn among PCT hikers. Most of us will return to our lives at some point, whether by choice or by necessity. Sprocket, if he is to be believed, hasn’t left the trail in years. He relishes his lack of attachments, indulges every whim, and lives a happy life well below the poverty line. The whole of his PCT budget is $2,000. He appears to me to be living proof that happiness can be obtained by a shift in perspective.
You see, recently, I was starting to wonder if I wanted to be this person. All the signs were there. As a kid, I fantasized about running away from home. I even packed a suitcase once or twice but never made it farther than the corner. In grade school we read the Hatchet and I become fascinated with the idea of living alone in the woods. In high school, I idolized authors like Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and Edward Abbey. By the time I graduated from college, I developed an unhealthy obsession with hobos and boxcar hopping, and during my first years living in New York City, I nearly blew up my apartment trying to build a moonshining still from scraps of copper pipe and an old keg.
But this part of me, whatever it was exactly, never found full expression. I secretly feared it would overtake all others, and throw my life into chaos. Who might I become if I stopped thinking about what was expected of me? I’d end up a drifter, riding from state to state on a beat-up motorcycle, working odd jobs. A life of sex with strangers and perpetual loneliness. Most horrifically, I’d probably take a liking to country music. It was, as Jung puts it, part of my shadow.
So despite these flirtations with living as an outcast, I did my best to repress this aspect of my personality. I pursued a career. I tried to stay in one place as long as possible. I attended professional development events and wasted hours listening to podcasts about becoming a better employee. I prioritized stability and safety.
But where had that gotten me? Suppressing these impulses hadn’t made me happy either. The world was still a chaotic mess. I never felt in control. And my day to day was soulless. Work stripped me of my creativity. Had becoming a responsible adult been a mistake?
Knowing better hadn’t stopped me from romanticizing the open road. So I set out here, not knowing what would change, but only knowing that I had to change, and trusting that whatever the other side looked like it had to be an improvement. And for the longest time, I thought there would only be two answers to this dilemma: repress or let free. I thought the PCT would help me figure out which it should be. I would either get it out of my system or fall so deeply in love with the wilderness that it would provide me with enough bravery to forsake the things I was still holding on to.
Looking at Sprocket, like a vision from the future, seeing a version of myself that I thought maybe I wanted, I realize that I don’t want to be him. It’s not that there aren’t things to admire about him. To me, he is living proof that real happiness can be obtained with a shift in perspective. And certainly, some part of me is this person, but a lot of me isn’t. I like gardening. I like to build things. I like tinkering in the garage and long hours of study in front of a technical or scientific book. These are all pursuits that require me to stay put for a time.
Two hundred miles in, I feel like I found a third answer to my dilemma: balance. I am both drifter and homeowner, family man and hermit. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
Sprocket unplugs his spare battery from the outlet and heads off.
I know that the mountains are a place I can return to when I need quiet, and solitude, space for me to think, and a reminder that I am not at the center of the universe. But I don’t need to live here full time. I grab a tallboy from the gas station and head out to make camp among the Mormon Rocks, relishing the privilege of remaining a delinquent just a bit longer.
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