Trail Update – Mesa Wind Farm to Big Bear

Crossing the San Gorgonio River

My sun hat isn’t much help. Without vegetation, the bare ground bounces the sun back in my face like a mirror. It’s like walking on top of a roasting pan. Sweat pours off me, and I can’t get enough water.

A mere two nights ago I braced myself for a night in the low 20s. Now, in the middle of the day, I am burning crispy under a relentless sun. To my south, from whence I came, is the snow-capped summit of San Jacinto. Ahead of me, the San Gorgonio River, with not a drop of water in it. It’s a wide and arid floodplain of bone-white sand and softball-sized granite, with the occasional beer bottle or car part half buried in the ground for variety.

The highway 10 overpass, just past the railroad tracks, is the only shade for miles. It beckons like an oasis; a dirty, derelict oasis.

Coppertone’s Feast

I’ve never been so excited to hang out underneath a highway. It’s filled with trash and smells like piss but it offers a break from the brutal sun.

In the distance, I see thru-hikers milling about. As my eyes adjust to the shade, the indistinct mass of shadow resolves slowly into the hobo version of the last supper. Your usual bit of trail magic is a few sodas, or beers, and maybe some oranges left in an unattended cooler by the highway. This is overkill. This is practically a convenience store.

Lawn chairs and Astro Turf are scattered around folding tables with heaps of junk food: cookies of many types, single-serve frosting packets, applesauce. There is fresh fruit: oranges, bananas, tangerines, and apples. For those inclined to cook there are boxes of ramen, mashed potatoes, and instant noodles.

There are even supplies: toilet paper, duct tape, Leukotape, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, soap.

Coppertone, a middle-aged man with a long white beard, welcomes me. I find Coppertone to be on the quiet side, like most trail angels. Maybe it’s a byproduct of so many quick hello/goodbyes. After all, what can you really know about a person in so short a period of time?

I try my best. “Have any advice?”

“Don’t quit.”

Succinct, I think. “Did you ever think about quitting?” I’ve asked a variation of this questions to almost everyone I know who does or has done, something incredible with their life. Coppertone’s reply?

“All the time.”

The answer has never changed.

I wonder what to make of the constant desire to quit, and the resolve not to. Is it an unshakable determination? I think not. It’s a dark pragmatism. A pragmatism that admits that following your dreams isn’t the fun it’s cracked up to be. But you do it anyway, because the alternative, settling for less, is worse.

The Lost City

Past highway 10 the route winds through some rolling foothills and through Mesa Wind Farm, where the blades of wind turbines slowly rotate hundreds of feet in the air.

Behind me, I hear the footsteps of a fast hiker. Why is everyone in such a rush? The Sierra are still socked in. Beyond Walker Pass, 95% of the trail is covered in snow. It’s not long before he catches up to me. I step to the side to let him pass, but to my surprise, he’s in the mood to chat.

“Did you eat the food back there?”

“Yeah, wasn’t it awesome? Just what I needed.”

“I don’t want to seem mean. I know he’s just trying to do something kind for the hikers, but it’s not a good idea. All those hikers grabbing at food without washing their hands after they poop. On the AT people get sick in big groups after eating. I didn’t touch it.”

My excitement wanes and my stomach lurches. I honestly hadn’t considered it. He slows his pace and I increase mine, meeting politely, somewhere in the middle, but close to my limit.

His name is Atlantis (@atlantis_hikes). He is German, so naturally, I ask him what his favorite thing about the states is. After a minute’s consideration, he says, “The junk food.” At first, I think it’s a diplomatic answer but then he proceeds to talk at length about peanut butter bars, then Mountain Dew, especially Mountain Dew. Atlantis names a half-dozen flavors, laments its unavailability in Europe, and educates me on Dewcision 2016—a promotion where fans voted for the return of a limited-release flavor (Baja Blast or Pitch Black) to the store shelves.

What America has been known best for was always something of an embarrassment for me. Mention France, and what comes to mind? The croissant, champagne. Spain? Paella, tempranillo. Italy? Tiramisu and saltimbocca. But America? Doritos, Coke, the hamburger.

That our junk food was something to be envied was was beyond me.

San Gorgonio Wilderness

It’s been a low-mileage day for me. I decide that in order to make up the miles I’m going to night hike. Besides, this whole trip I’ve been surrounded by people, and I’m very much missing the “where the hell am I?” feeling that I got when I first started backpacking.

Once the sun is down it becomes clear that tonight isn’t the best night to go night hiking. The moon is new; in other words, not visible at all. Ambient light is close to zero, so I can’t really see much of anything. The headlamp is good for about ten feet, but beyond that, I don’t really know if I’m looking over a cliff or not. Add to that terrain difficulties. The trail switchbacks up and down canyons. In several places, it’s in poor repair or hard to follow. It’s really a pretty good recipe for a turned ankle. Despite this, I love it. For the first time this trip I feel like I’m the only one out here.

Occasionally, I stop, turn off my headlamp, and surround myself in darkness. Without the light of the moon, the view is as artificial and fantastic as a planetarium. The mountains are a shapeless black and the sky is a flat shade of navy with a spackling of perfectly white stars.

Invisible frogs croak in the creek below and give me a hint or two about my elevation. I’m much higher than I want to be. In the distance, my headlamp catches the reflection of tiny red eyes. They don’t move as I get closer. When I get close enough to make out its shape, I just see two red eyes on a gray and white lump. I think it’s a snake coiled up. Worried about being bitten, I stand there like an idiot for a few minutes, unsure of what to do. Eventually, sick of having a flashlight in its face, my “snake” takes flight. A burrowing owl!

World’s Most Unhelpful Sign

Around 9 I’m about ready to pitch the tent and call it a day. But as I’m getting ready to do that I catch sight of sign, it reads:

“Be aware of potentially dangerous wild and feral animals. Avoid interacting with them, give them plenty of space, and report sightings of aggressive behavior to the Witewater Preserve Ranger…”.

“Dangerous wild animals?” I’m confused. Is this just a sign warning me that animals exist? I’m in designated wilderness; that just comes with the territory, why do I need a sign? Or is there something special about the animals here that makes them extra dangerous. The range of possibility here is huge. Are we talking like squirrels that get too close, or did a mountain lion just recently kill someone? Why the hell isn’t this sign more specific?

Suddenly, I don’t like the thought of camping alone. I press on for five more miles hoping to run into another tent. But it’s just me out here. Just how I thought I wanted it.

Mission Creek

Earlier in the week, around mile 175, I took my lunch at a small rest stop just off the trail by the name of Mary’s Oasis.” Mary, whose property abuts the PCT, is a trail angel, equestrian, and part of the trail crew. Next to the picnic tables, she left an understated notice to the effect of “The PCT north of mile 219 is damaged, and cannot support the foot traffic of thru-hikers.” I don’t quite know what to make of it. There’s no suggestion for an alternate route, and a quick check of the PCTA website indicates no trail closure. In the years I’ve been backpacking, I’ve been cautioned by concerned citizens and overbearing rangers alike about hard-to-pass trails, and it’s always been hyperbole. Naturally, I dismissed the message as more opinion than fact.

But now I see what Mary was talking about, and I curse her matter of fact writing style.

Recent flooding absolutely obliterated the trail. Everything is a mess. The creek jumped its banks. In some places, the trail is completely buried under debris. In others, the creek’s new route has cut deep chasms from the soft and sandy soil. Whole trees are uprooted. The ones that are still standing are no better off, their bark blasted off by countless collisions with rocks, alive for the moment, but each mortally wounded.

Navigation is hell. Other hikers, with the best of intentions, leave markers. They draw arrows in the sand or stack rocks in piles on opposite sides of the creek bed. But half the time they are misleading, and in some cases just plain wrong. Not that finding the trail is of any benefit here. When I was lucky enough to find the trail, more often than not it would terminate in a ten-foot drop down a crumbling embankment, leaving me to wonder if I wouldn’t have been faster to continue walking through the wash.

The entirety of Mission Creeks’ north-south run is a constant circus of getting lost, bushwhacking, and scrambling. It takes all day to go ten miles. The added difficulty isn’t even anything to brag about. It doesn’t take bravery or mastery to cross. It’s just a slog. I would have gladly taken an alternate route, but I’m in too deep now, and the only thing to do is continue forward.

Section C wears on me, and for the first time, the thought of staying in town is more appealing than staying in the wilderness. A few days after I cross this loathsome section, the PCTA posts a warning about it.

The Hitch

Section C has been a slog, and in my opinion, not very picturesque. Not a single day in this leg has been easy. And without rest to reset my mood, the irritations have compounded on each other, making each day harder than the last. If my first weeks on the trail could be likened to a honeymoon, these ones are more like coming home to your partner asleep in sweatpants on the couch with the TV on. I hate to admit it, I am, at this moment, tired of the trail, and eager to take a day off. No, make that two days off.

I reach highway 18—the most common hitching point to Big Bear—with a bubble of hikers, but they press on to put in more miles, leaving me by the side of the road by myself.

Usually, getting to town is pretty simple. Trail angels and trail entrepreneurs post their phone numbers next to highways. Make a few calls and you often have a ride in minutes. And if they don’t come through, there’s usually a Lyft driver or two in the area. But due to poor battery management (which is a whole post unto itself) my phone is dead. Meaning that my only way into town is to hitch.

I haven’t had much luck with solo hitching. Even on busy roads, it can take me an hour to get a ride. Not that I’m surprised. I look crazy right now. My beard is too long. Multiple applications of sunblock have glued a thick layer of dirt to my skin, and I smell like crap. What I want people to see is “university-educated pacifist on a journey of self-discovery,” but what they probably see is “homeless murderer.”

On the one hand, I get it. There’s no shortage of random and violent crime in America and men commit more violent crime than women. But on the other hand, public perception of the dangers of picking up hitchhikers is greatly exaggerated. The trope of the murdering hitchhiker is an expedient plot device, but honestly, if someone wants to kill you, they’ll just kill you. I doubt they’ll spend up to an hour, waiting with their thumb out, in shitty weather by the side of the road, for the perfect chance.

Today isn’t bucking the trend. With each car that passes my resentment grows. Often, I’d rather road walk than let it spoil my mood, but Big Bear is an unwalkable distance away. When a lone female hiker comes off the trail, and sits down at the side of the road. I don’t miss my opportunity.

“Mind if I catch a hitch with you?”

“Yeah, of course!” She replies, enthusiastically.

As a guy, you’re much more likely to catch a ride when there is a woman in your company. I guess the thinking goes that, having not killed your female companion yet, you can be trusted not to kill the driver.

Sure enough, the second car to pass by picks us up.

The driver, a woman in her late 30s, greets us not with a “hello” but with “I never do this.” We throw our packs in the trunk, and reply with multiple and obligatory thank yous.

On the drive over, she tells us about the lake, how this year’s big rains have brought the level up from dire to acceptable. She points to a boardwalk, suspended maybe ten feet in the air, and tells us that when she was younger the water came right up to the planks.

California may have just eked out of drought—but the lake and reservoir levels are far from healthy. A full Big Bear Lake is a kind of normal that we might never see again. For all the photos I post, and all of the majesty I write about, I cannot shake the feeling the beauty will not last, that I am losing the chance to see the wilderness as it was meant to be. It may also be the reason I hate section C. My classmates may revel at these high mountains but at the moment, I can only see the burns, the floods and slides, and the drought imprinted on the land.

The small talk continues, and the driver wants to know how long we’ve been hiking together. It’s a misunderstanding that I was eager to exploit, the very one that marked me safe to pick up, and I’m happy to keep up the ruse if it puts our driver at ease. Before I can get a syllable out, my hitching partner says, “Oh, we just met!” In the rearview mirror, I see the driver’s eyes go wide.  She adds, “Literally just a moment ago, in the parking lot.” Eyes wider still.

She drops us off, eagerly, at the hostel. This is probably the last time she’ll do this.

Big Bear Hostel

The creature comforts are singing to me. I plop into the dirty, musty couch, deformed in the middle from many years and countless asses, and revel in its softness. YouTube celebrity Second-chance Hiker is sitting on the couch, nursing an injury that took him off the trail. I admire him for helping to smash hiking stereotypes. Instagram and Backpacker Magazine are addicted to models, especially if they’re in their early 20s, roughly 120 pounds, and look good in tights. But the truth is, you don’t need a special kind of body to go hiking. Almost no one out here looks like that. There are thick thighs and pot bellies in spades.

I pull up restaurants on Google Maps and fantasize about eating at each. I can’t decide between Nepalese or pizza. It’s a tug of war between my palate and my exhaustion. Hiking food is so bland, the spices of the Nepalese food sing to me. But my body protests—“Carbs! Fats! Carbs!”

I’m thinking out loud, maybe I’ll eat at both. I really feel like I could eat two entrees.

Second-chance says, “Sounds like something I would do.” For someone eager to shed weight, he doesn’t seem too self-conscious. I like this guy. I make a note to watch a few of his videos later.

I decide I will eat pizza first, and order kofta second. I order the largest pie they make, and the one with the most toppings. Wilderness writers have written pages on how hiker hunger makes the most banal foods delicious. But I appear to be immune to this effect. The hungrier I am, the pickier I am. This is not the pizza my body deserves—too heavy on the cheese and hardly any sauce. Despite this, I eat all but two slices and walk out in pain.

Facebook

My legs kick involuntarily at night, angry they are not being used. Is this what restless leg syndrome is? We have medications for the strangest things; for our restlessness, our appetites, our libidos. Maybe RLS victims don’t need medication; maybe they need to hike more.

On the second day of zeroing, I am bored out of my mind. Once your basic human needs are met—a shower, phone call with loved ones, town food and the obligatory Instagram update—town loses its appeal. Getting back out there is the only option.

I have the room for the night, but I wonder if I can’t reclaim the day somehow. I figure there’s still enough daylight left to slackpack miles 366 to 377. I’ll need a ride to the highway, and a pickup from Polique Canyon Road. I post a ride request to the trail angels group on Facebook, with extreme reluctance. Firstly, because I feel guilty about asking strangers for favors, and secondly because I quit Facebook years ago. It made me miserable. I only recently rejoined because I heard it was an invaluable resource for thru-hikers.

In the span of minutes, I remember why I deactivated my account in the first place. The same people I love on the trail are an absolute nightmare online. My phone pings with notifications. No one wants to offer me a ride, but they have lots to say.

“What’s up with your profile pic?”

“Never heard of anyone trying to do that.”

“It’s not a hundred-mile carry, you can resupply at McDonald’s.”

Just wanted a ride guys, not a debate.

I delete the post. If the PCT has taught me anything, it’s that the structure of our interactions has a real effect on the quality of them. I can say with confidence that the way we are encouraged, explicitly or subliminally, to interact with each other in modern society sucks.

Today is a wash. Fuck hiking, I’ll watch Naruto on my phone.

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