Waking Up (Days 23 to 29, Big Bear to Wrightwood)

Day 23

Start: Highway 18 / Big Bear
End: Holcomb Creek
PCT Miles Hikes Today: 19.8

Big Bear was another awesome trail down – though quite a bit bigger than Idyllwild, we still had a great time yesterday strolling the streets, getting ice cream, and enjoying the views of the lake. I was a little disappointed to have to leave so soon – it seems like an excellent spot for a zero.

We let ourselves sleep in this morning. On a normal day, we would be waking up at 5 and hiking at 5:30 to get as many miles as we can before the heat of the day set in. Today, we knew we had to wait for the post office to open at 8:30. Mango and I both mailed home our microspikes (which feel like they weigh about 1lb each – good riddance), and I mailed home my shorts (I’m always in lightweight pants to avoid sun exposure) and my compression socks (a nice thought pre-trail, but I just never ended up using them that much at the end of the day). We had a nice bagel breakfast and headed down to the post office. Seems a lot of other hikers are also mailing home their spikes.

Mango, Songbird and Misha are all wearing pretty much the same outfit – black shorts, and a grey sun hoodie. I’m not sure I knew what a sun hoody was before I got out here, but they seem like they’re everywhere this year.

Another piece of gear that everyone seems to have this year is a sun umbrella. I’ve been seriously struggling in the afternoon heat, especially at low elevations – much more so than I expected pre-trail. So I made the decision to buy one… the only problem is that every outfitter on the trail seems to be out of stock due to the combination of high demand and material sourcing issues, including the gear shop in Wrightwood and Triple Crown Outfitters. The folks on the phone at Six Moon Designs were super helpful when I called them at 7am, and they are 2-day UPS’ing an umbrella to Wrightwood, so it should be there when I arrive. The staff I spoke with seems to me mostly alumni of the various long trails and so they connected with what I was saying immediately (currently in this trail town, need one sent to this other trail town by X date, sent by a certain method, etc). Thank you to the team at Six Moon Designs for turning what could have been a stressful situation into an amazing experience.

We caught a shuttle back to the trailhead by Joe, the same guy who grabbed us at the trailhead yesterday. More good tunes and a very enjoyable ride. We got hiking around 10.

Despite the late start, the day was very cool, and we were cruising. The trail was almost entirely smooth as butter, and mostly slightly downhill. We rolled in to our first and only water source of the day at 1pm, having done 3mph for the last 3 hours. After a brief discussion, we decided to push for 20 miles on the day, to camp at the next water source, Holcomb Creek.

There was one funny moment and one very concerning moment today. First, we saw a very excitable little dog with a few day hikers sitting near a bench. We all went over to pet it, and kept hiking, not realizing that we had completely missed a PCT turnoff, and we were now heading down a side trail. Blinded by the pup! Fortunately, about a half mile down the trail, Songbird realized our mistake and we all turned around.

The concerning moment of the day came when we saw a plume of smoke emerging from the woods on the other side of the lake. Everyone is hyper alert for forest fires, after last year’s devastating season, which resulted in dozens of miles of trail closures up and down the trail.

The wind seemed to be blowing the smoke and the fire away from where we were hiking, so hopefully no impact to the trail. And, a few hikers said they thought it was a prescribed burn (which had been happening for the past week in this area), preemptively burning away some of the dry underbrush under supervision. Still, I kept my eye on it each time we emerged to a view of the lake.

The trail continued to be so, so smooth. Songbird raced ahead, I walked alone in second, and Misha and Mango trailed a bit behind.

We rolled in to camp late, but certainly not as late as I expected for having hiked almost 20 miles after starting at 10. I soaked my sore feet and ankle tendons in an ice-cold pool of stream water, which is a rare luxury on the PCT for the first 700 desert miles. I was a happy boy.

Tomorrow we will do somewhere between 20 and 25. I hope the trail stays smooth, and it looks like it’s mostly downhill. The wild card is my left ankle, which was very sore for most of the day today. I may pull up short if I’m not feeling good… as much as it would pain me to break off from this group, this is a marathon, and I know I’ve got to treat myself well and stay healthy. We will see.

Day 24

Start: Holcomb Creek
End: Deep Creek Hot Springs
PCT Miles Hikes Today: 21.9

Well, I thought I patched my blow-up sleeping pad leak, but apparently I was wrong. At 2am I once again found myself sleeping on the cold hard ground. I blew up the pad again, but by my 5am alarm I was on the ground again. I’ll need to splurge for a new pad when we get to Wrightwood in a few days.

Cold morning – the first half of this section is definitely a slow descent from high elevation at Big Bear to low elevation at Cajon Pass.

Our target for the day was Deep Creek Hot Springs, a natural hot spring near the trail, which is notorious for being a “clothing optional” spot where locals enjoy letting it all hang out. We were excited to get a good soak in at the end of a long day of hiking – our longest yet.

The day heated up as we dropped in elevation. Around 11 we stopped getting consistent tree cover, and by noon we were surrounded once again my low-lying desert shrub, getting blasted by the sun.

My Achilles was feeling better for most of the day, but the very top of the tendon started feeling very sore about 15 miles in, and I limped in to the hot springs. It was a party atmosphere and everyone was soaking, but I just went to a shady spot and started methodically massaging my calf, trying to get my leg to stop hurting. It’s always difficult to socialize while in pain – something about pain just consumes the mind.

I eventually hopped in the water, and it was a lot of fun to spend a few hours switching from cold stream water to piping hot pools of hot spring water. I mostly managed to avoid seeing naked locals, but as they stand up unexpectedly from a pool, its hard to avert your gaze when it’s all at eye level. Still, I was ready to lie down for the day. We found a flat spot nearby, I set up the tent, and spent an hour or so massaging and stretching.

As I fall asleep tonight, I am struggling with the same negative thoughts that dogged me for the first week of the hike – that the pain means something is broken, that I’m not in good enough shape for a thru, and I won’t be able to finish the trip. We will see how things feel tomorrow – maybe we pushed too hard too fast. Or maybe these are the natural growing pains of any long distance hike. I’d be lying if I said I knew how to walk that tightrope perfectly every time.

Day 25

Start: Deep Creek Hot Springs
End: Silverwood Lake Picnic Area
PCT Miles Hikes Today: 18.5

///////// WARNING /////////
Today’s post contains some graphic details. If you want light trail updates, just skip to tomorrow’s post. Seriously, some crazy stuff happened today, and it’s not for the squeamish.

We woke at 2:30am to the sounds of a woman screaming. “Help please! Someone call 911!” Mango ran out of our tent towards the shouting, and I followed a few minutes later after getting pants and shoes on. Mango was already heading back towards me. We met in the middle, and she said, “There’s a dead man in the hot springs.” Mango told me that a completely naked man was giving the dead man CPR, with a crying woman standing nearby.

A few other locals were awake as well, some because they were still up partying, and some because they had been awakened by the woman’s shouts. No one had cell phone service, and no one had a Garmin Inreach, so Mango ran back to the tent to get her inreach to call for help. We returned to a very shell-shocked woman, who (we later were told) had been in the water with him when he passed away. She was a friend of the man and, because we didn’t recognize them from the previous evening, we think they may have come in late in the night, well after we went to bed.

This was the first time we had activated our SOS on the Garmin inreach. We were connected to the Garmin communications center through our satellite connection and were able to text with someone who connected us with the San Bernardino county police department. They dispatched officers to hike out to us, and asked that we stay put so we could provide a statement.

I woke up Sorority Steve and asked that he wake our other friends – I felt we would need a team to work this one out. Nearby, the woman was very concerned that we were going to leave her. Two very nice men built a small fire to keep her warm, and Steve engaged her in some small talk to try to keep her mind off of what had just happened. Eventually, he returned to me and Mango, who were sitting in a clear section of sand to get the best view of the night sky for our Garmin. Steve and Mox brought a tarp to cover the dead man’s body, and returned, looking somber.

We sat – cold, stunned, but together. Strangely, locals continued to soak in the springs, despite the late hour and the nearby dead man. I shook my head, wondering what kind of strange story I had wandered into tonight. Hours passed, as we received updates from the police department over our Garmin. The silence was broken by small talk, as we wrapped our sleeping bags around ourselves like quilts, trying to stay warm. “Happy Cinco de Mayo” Misha said softly into the darkness. In a different life, we could have celebrated. Tonight, we just sat shivering.

The police arrived around 6:30. We gave our statements, and were cleared to hike on. Our packs were in disarray – normally, I carefully place each item in my pack – sleeping bag on bottom, then tent, food bag against the back, lighter items like chargers at the top, toilet paper easily accessible in the outer pocket. But the frantic wake up and subsequent packing were rushed. But we didn’t take any time to rearrange Once we got the all clear from the police, as if by unspoken agreement, we all hurried from the hot springs, anxious to put distance between ourselves and a terrible night.

What to say about hiking today? It was hot, and I was sore, and we had great views and a few nice water sources. Strangely, the details of the rest of the day seemed both so menial and so important alongside what happened last night. What is it about witnessing death that shines such a light on our own lives? It’s like a thunderclap, shocking you back to awareness, waking you up. It both validates the adventure that we’re on and makes me feel it’s petty and that I should go home and do something real. How do I hold both of these contradictions in my head at once? It all makes no sense.

I was much less in my own head today. The calf pain and the hot sun were as beautiful as the bright wildflowers blooming along the side of the trail. It felt like I had awoken from a stress dream. I was happy to be hiking, happy to be with Mango, and really happy to have our trail family for support. As Mango and I rolled into camp, Mox pulled out two Gatorades and handed one to each of us. He had hitchhiked to a gas station earlier today and packed us out a treat. Feeling happy, I opened the lid and tasted that sweet sugary nectar of the gods. We smiled at each other, and sat down to lounge on a picnic table for the rest of the evening.

I hope this post made sense. It’ll be back to witty hiking stories tomorrow, I promise. But for now, I go to bed, fully awake, and desperately ready to sleep.

Day 26

Start: Silverwood Lake Picnic Area
End: Cajon Pass
PCT Miles Hikes Today: 15.5

Mango and I set our alarms for 4:30, knowing that I had been gimpy for the past few days because of my calf / Achilles, and wanting to give ourselves plenty of time to get to Cajon Pass in time for lunch. We both slept beautifully after yesterday’s mayhem – clearly we were catching up on some lost hours.

What a beautiful morning. Perfect temperature, and incredible views of Silverwood Lake, where we camped last night. Unfortunately as beautiful as the lake is, it’s also highly contaminated with algae. They had to shut down the lake a few years ago due to dangerous levels of toxic algae… Not a great spot to filter water. We were running very low on H2O, so we rushed to the campground 2 miles away, which had a water fountain and toilets. Sweet, beautiful conveniences of the real world!

This morning was cruise city. The trail has been silk since we left Big Bear – we picked the perfect time to step up the mileage. Mango and I hiked apart from the group for most of the morning, with everyone rushing ahead to get to the gap. Mango and I are actually the slowest ones in our group, believe it or not.

Misha finally earned a trail name – Redline. He sleeps in a few hours later than us, then proceeds to crush miles to catch up. You can often hear him huffing and moaning as he approaches, pushing his body like you’d push a car in low gear. Today he didn’t catch up with us before we hit the gap, but that should just tell you how amped the rest of us were for food.

We flew to the turnoff – 15 miles before noon, a new record. It’s a short blue blaze road walk to McDonalds. Most years hikers take over the McDonald’s every day as the bubble passed through town, enjoying the air conditioning, outlets and refills on Coca Cola. Thanks to COVID, indoor and outdoor seating at McDonald’s were both closed. Many hikers this year are opting to walk further up the hill to the taco truck, or across the highway to Subway.

I told myself I’d go to the taco trucks instead of McDonald’s, I really did. But as we passed by, a few other hikers had taken over a very shady, grassy area between McDonald’s and the Chevron. It looked so comfy. Before I knew it, I had dropped my pack, yelled to Hot Spring (another hiker) to watch it for me, and sprinted inside McDonald’s. I walked out with a double quarter pounder, fries, coke, and 10 McNuggets, and collapsed into the shade.

Eventually Redline showed up as well, and we took a spin through the Chevron to pick up some snacks. I got an ice cream sandwich, a Gatorade and another Coca Cola. Mango and the rest of the crew had opted for tacos, but I think Redline and I had the better spot for lounging.

We booked a room at the Cajon Pass Inn, which seems to house mostly hikers and truckers. This pass is more of a highway off-ramp than a true town. There is a constant hum of trucks on I-15 and the air has the distinct tang of exhaust. But, tonight we get a shower and a bed, so I’m happy. Redline and I made our way to the hotel room on the other side of the interstate via the overpass, and after a very dangerous run across the 4 lane road, we arrived at a hiker oasis.

Oh sweet air conditioning! Our whole trail crew was busy showering, organizing, and pooping. After a spirited debate, the rest of the crew decided they would hike on to get a jump start on the big uphill tomorrow, while Mango and I stayed in the room overnight. I don’t mind a few more miles tomorrow if it means I get to sleep in a bed tonight.

I got Del Taco for dinner, and ran across the street to grab some subway for the trail tomorrow. Our friend Redline tried to pay for his food with a Canadian credit card and somehow crashed their entire payment system. He peaced out and left all the other customers (including me) to pay with cash – ouch. Thankfully I had cash, so I picked up 2 spicy Italian subs and some Gatorade.

Mango and I loved having a room to ourselves for the night. This is the first time we’ve had a real hotel room to ourselves (we don’t count the Mt Laguna lodge), so we lay in bed and watched a marathon of The Office. Eventually, we regretfully turned off the TV and decided to hit the hay – we knew that our 4am alarm would come far too soon.

Day 27

Start: Cajon Pass
End: Guffy Campground
PCT Miles Hikes Today: 22.5

4am is painfully early to wake up, but we felt we really didn’t have a choice – the next 20 miles were basically straight uphill, and we ascend over 5,000 feet to 8,300 feet. This section is notoriously hot, dry, and unshaded. I really didn’t want to get caught on the uphill in the afternoon heat.

After a terrifying walk back to the trail (crossing busy streets and highway off-ramps at 4:30am in the dark is an awful idea), we walked under the highway through a huge drainage pipe, and emerged at the beginning of the climb.

We were totally socked in by fog, until we finally broke above the clouds a few miles in and saw an amazing sunrise.

I noted earlier that this stretch is very dry – it’s 22 completely dry miles between Cajon Pass and Guffee Campground, which has an unreliable spring that goes dry some years. We knew we’d have to pack out enough water to potentially get us to Wrightwood, 27 miles and a dry camp away. That meant a pack full of heavy water. Fortunately, we came across a well-stocked water cache put together by local trail angels about 5 miles into our day. I didn’t see a donation collection jar, but if anyone out there knows about a Venmo account, I will gladly send them a donation. It was amazing to have water available as we ate breakfast (which was a subway sandwich for me, and a McDouble for Mango).

It quickly became clear that I did not bring enough food to make it to Wrightwood. The sandwich I ate for breakfast was supposed to be my lunch, which means the sandwich I ate for lunch was supposed to be my dinner. The hiker hunger is real – now that we’re pulling 20s, I’m running a big calorie deficit.

The uphill really wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be, though that may be because we got lucky and hit it in a cooler day. By the time the sun came out in force, we were far up the mountain.

We climbed, climbed, climbed. Eventually we got to 6,500 or so feet, and trees started to pop up. We gladly took a few breaks in the shade, drinking down our water weight and complaining about how much further uphill we had to go.

We got close to the top of the climb, and ran back into Bushwhack, Redline, and Sorority Steve. They had camped at the water cache and taken a long break at a scenic overlook. Mango and I were crushing miles today, but we were both starting to feel the effects of all the climbing – our calves were on fire, and my feet were seriously not happy with me. We limped our way the last few miles and arrived at Guffy Campground around 4:30, having done 22.5 miles. What a day!

Songbird was here waiting for us here – She said that she rolled in at noon. Crazy, I expect she will leave us in the dust in the near future. Mango and I are enjoying hanging out around 20 miles per day right now, and are in no rush to push harder unless there’s a very compelling reason (like, say, toilets at the campsite – like there are tonight!). This campground is hopping with weekenders and locals, as it’s a drive-up site and it’s a Friday night. There are little kids running around screaming and lots of folks drinking and burning fires. All the PCT hikers were in their tents by 6:30. Mango and I are so wiped from the past 3 days, we’re ready for a zero in Wrightwood!

Days 28 and 29

Start: Guffy Campground
End: Highway 2 / Wrightwood
PCT Miles Hikes Today: 4.9

A very cold, windy night last night, up at 8,200 feet. Fortunately we were camped a little off the crest of the campground – poor Redline had one of his tent stakes rip out last night due to the winds, and he had to get up in the middle of the night to hammer it back in. Sorority Steve rolled a downed log next to his tent as a windbreak, which seemed to work pretty well.

Lying down for 12 straight hours was nice, but my legs are still in rough shape from yesterday’s 22 mile, mostly uphill slog. I was a little gimpy heading out of camp. We were all excited to get to Highway 2 and get a hitch into town for breakfast.

It was an easy 5 miles to the highway. We quickly ran into a problem, though – Due to last year’s Bobcat fire closure a little ways up the trail from where we were trying to hitch, Highway 2 was closed heading in the direction we needed to go. All of the cars we saw were heading away from Wrightwood, instead of towards! We stood there for 30 minutes before Mango called the hiker-friendly hardware store in Wrightwood and got a list of trail angel phone numbers, and one came to pick us up.

We were dropped off at the Evergreen cafe for an incredible breakfast, and after we satiated our soul-crushing hiker hunger, we turned our attention to how we were going to spend the next few days. A nearo / zero! What a treat. It was barely 10am and we had all of today and tomorrow to relax, resupply and eat.

Wrightwood was so cute! And extremely hiker friendly. We first swung by Mountain Hardware, a local hardware and hiker supply store, to replace a few pieces of gear. Our Opsaks were falling apart, so we bought a few new ones. My sleeping bag liner stitching had come undone by the foot box, so it was replaced as well. Since we have new shoes coming to the Acton KOA via mail drop, we bought super glue and Velcro tape to put on the back, so our gaiters will work with them. Finally, we picked up my brand new sun umbrella, which the store had held for me after I ordered one from the manufacturer. It is super light and I can’t wait to test it out.

The grocery store in town was perfect for a hiker – it had everything we needed at only slightly outrageous prices, as opposed to Idyllwild which had only half of what we needed at completely outrageous prices. (Beggars can’t be choosers… and it seems like Cali is just way more expensive than North Carolina…) I did find it cute that the grocery store had special PCT hiker food flags on some of the labels, though.

Talk soon turned to the upcoming Bobcat fire closure. We got off trail at inspiration point trailhead, mile marker 369. The Bobcat closure starts at Dawson Saddle (mm 380), but there’s no way to get off trail there. So, you’d have to backtrack all the way to Vincent Gap at mm 374 and road walk Highway 2 for 22 miles to get to where the trail reopens at Three Points trailhead, mm 403. We decided that road walking 22 miles on a dangerous, windy 2-lane highway wasn’t the trail experience we were looking for, so we made the call to hitch ahead from Wrightwood to Three Points, and come back in a future year to make up for what we missed. Unfortunately because part of Highway 2 is closed to traffic, it’s a 90 minute detour drive to where we need to go at Three Points. We were stumped on what to do, but we figured we could do some research tomorrow and find out the best method of transportation.

As we were sitting on the stoop of the grocery store arranging our resupply food, a woman named Carol pulled up and asked us if we needed to arrange transportation around the fire close. Well, funny you should ask! Carol offered to drive us around the closure the morning after our zero. Amazing how the trail provides, and thank you Carol for helping hikers around a very tough logistical challenge!

The rest of our days in Wrightwood were relaxing and fun. Squeaks, Shooter, and Tenderfoot are also in town, and we spent time eating and drinking and catching up. Mango and I split a room with Sunspot on night 1 and with Songbird on night 2 at two different hotels – weekends fill up fast in these mountain towns apparently, and we had a lot of difficulty booking at the same hotel for 2 nights. Nonetheless we loved spending the evenings in a bed resting our sore muscles.

And that’s all for this post! The plan is to jump ahead to Three Points, then do 3 days to Acton KOA then 4 or 5 days to the Hikertown area. Low desert ahead – I think because we are skipping Baden Powell, there are almost no high mountains between here and the Sierras. It’s only getting hotter every day on trail. Here’s to hoping that sun umbrella is as good as everyone says it is!

Until next time, happy trails!


P.S. If you like this post, check out Mango’s trail podcast, Take a Hike!, now available on all major platforms (except Apple for some strange reason, probably due to that time in the late 90s I shorted Apple shares – we all know Steve Jobs kept a list of those betting against the company.) https://anchor.fm/takeahikepodcast

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Comments 3

  • Mike : May 11th

    Excellent commentary – got post card

  • Shirley : May 20th

    Thank you for sharing your trip with us..it is so exciting to read about your adventures. Stay safe and strong.


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