It was time. Even though I was starting
a trip which I had planned and looked forward to for 5 months, I felt like I was being led down a plank. “OK, jump!”, the sharks were waiting to eat me alive. I really wasn’t sure what awaited me 5 minutes down the trail, let alone 5 months. I guess it was just that primal “fear of the unknown” which got a hold of my stomach. What would I find? would I be able to make it? would I twist my ankle in the first 5 miles and have to quit? There were a thousand questions which had no answers. Despite my apprehension, I really felt I was as ready as I could be and it was time to be “doing” not “questioning”.
My father was kind enough to drive me to the trailhead from Phoenix AZ, where I had spent the last week visiting and taking care of some last minute items (like getting my backpack!). We got to the trailhead just after sunrise on April 17, 1999. The PCT starts right on the US / Mexico border near the little town of Campo, CA. The official “southern terminus” is designated by an 8-foot high wooden monument. It’s just 10 yards north of an endless 5 ft high solid metal fence which is the border. Two other hikers, Alan and Rob, were already there. They were getting ready and taking some commemorative snapshots. After taking a few photos of my own, I signed the register attached to the back of the monument and said good bye to my father. The long walk had started.
The three of us decided to start out together… and right away we proceeded to have trouble finding the actual trail… the first of many such instances!. Rob had a slow and steady pace, and I was happy to just fall in line behind him. I think I would have worn myself out if I bolted out ahead. We were quickly introduced to the circuitous routing of the PCT – up, down, left, right, anything but “straight ahead”. It never really bothered me though, as long as the trail actually went to Canada!
As you can see from the pictures, the terrain in this area
was semi-arid. Not a lot of water or rain, but enough to support a multitude of well adapted plants and animals. The hills in this area were in the range of 3000 to 4000 feet, and the PCT primarily stayed near the tops of them.
As the day drew on, the sun got higher and the ground got hotter. After a couple hours, we took our first break and we were all doing well. A few more hours and we made it to Hauser Creek. I later learned that this little creek, ~12 miles from the border is the first place where people often quit. I guess the reality of the desert hits them and they decide that it just isn’t fun. When I got to Hauser Creek, one tired hiker was already there. A few minutes later, a well known 77-year-old hiker named “Batch” showed up with his friends Tim & Ann. He’d hiked the entire length of the PCT, but never in one season. He was going to try again this year. Seeing Batch out there “doing it” was an inspiration. Tim & Ann had met Batch while hiking the trail a few years ago. “We’re trying to find a way to hike the trail again…”, they said, “this trail ruins you”. They had so much fun hiking it the last time, that everything else was a bore in comparison.
Finally, after climbing the hot hillside north of Hauser Creek and along some dry hilltops, I made it to Lake Morena. My first day was over, and it was time to party! A group of people had organized a “PCT kickoff party” at Lake Morena on this day (the ADZPCTKO party to be precise, that’s Annual Day Zero PCT KickOff in case you’re curious). Over a dozen hikers were there, along with just as many non-hikers. There were plenty of drinks, food, stories and trail wisdom. I got to hear a lot of useful first-hand advice and information from a bunch of people who had done this sort of thing before. Plus, I got a little more confident as I realized that some of the hikers were less prepared than me. I went to sleep in my tent with a full belly and a calm head.
The next morning (after a great ADZPCTKO breakfast) the hikers headed out one by one. I finally got my stuff together and headed out alone around 10 AM. The terrain and weather on day 2 was much the same as day one – hot and dry. After a couple of hours, I made it to a trailer park called Boulder Oaks, right where the PCT crosses Hwy. 8. I wish I had kinder words for Boulder Oaks, but it was a run-down cesspool. I couldn’t make sense of how people could live here with all their filth and junk haphazardly scattered about. One man’s dog almost attacked me, but he didn’t even move. It was like these people had given up on life and just accepted the fact that they were losers. I felt sorry for the kids that were growing up here.
After getting some water, I headed up the hills north of Boulder Oaks. I quickly passed a group of boy scouts who were on their way down from Mount Laguna. A couple of them asked where I was heading. “Canada”. It felt good to say that, although it also felt a little arrogant. I still didn’t know if I had any chance at making it. But when I saw the look on their faces, I realized that it was OK to be a bit snotty. I gave them something to talk about and think about. Maybe it was a brief encounter that they wouldn’t forget. Another hiker later told me that he met a through hiker on the PCT when he was 12 years old, it was an experience that led to his hiking the trail this year. For most of the rest of my trip, I had no qualms about discussing what I was doing. If people were interested, great. If not, it didn’t matter to me.
As I got higher in the hills, I looked south toward where I had come from. I could see the small shiny shape of Lake Morena in the distance. It was the first of many such views. I had a real sense of accomplishment, realizing that I had walked over every bit of land between that lake and where I was standing now. A little later, I caught up with a group of hikers who had left earlier that morning. They were all resting under some trees near a stream. Almost all of them had a blister. I felt a bit lucky and perhaps a bit “holier than thou” since I didn’t. That night, I wound up camping with many of them. I didn’t cook dinner until it was dark. I still remember how awkward I felt just trying to keep all my stuff organized. I didn’t really have a system down yet, and it took me a long time to do the most simple tasks. Some of the other hikers had a lot more experience than I did. I learned a lot from watching them do their daily “chores”.
We all headed out about the same time early the next morning. The terrain was still about the same, although we were getting slightly higher in elevation. Once we got above ~5600 feet, we entered a high, dry forest. I looked forward to climbing above ~5600 feet for much of southern California. I found that’s when the chaparral gives way to cooler shady trees.
By early afternoon, we had reached our first re-supply station, Mt. Laguna, CA. There really isn’t much of a town at Mt. Laguna, just a general store, a post office and some rooms for rent. I was pretty excited to actually be here though. I went to the post office, got my package and sat outside with everybody else, sorting through what I needed and what I could leave there. Everyone was in good spirits.
While we were sitting there, a TV news crew pulled up to the general store. It was KFMB San Diego channel 8. They were doing a story on some forest service project. When they heard that we were planning to walk to Canada, the cameraman decided we were more interesting than the forest service. He interviewed a bunch of us, took close-ups of us putting on our shoes, etc. Then he asked if some of us could “hike out”, so he could get some shots of that. So, a few of us who didn’t mind putting on a show for the camera put on our packs and started walking off toward the woods. It was a bit corny, but I had fun. I never did find out if Channel 8 ran any story about us or the PCT, although I doubt it (I think we would have heard about it from somebody).
Eventually, we all figured we should hit the trail. We were a loose group of 7 hikers: Jason & Lara, Arron, Charlotte, Donna, Yip and me. I hiked on & off with them for much of southern California. We were all on our own schedules, and never formally agreed to hike together, it just worked-out that way. We had started a couple weeks before the majority of the PCT hikers, and there were only a few others around.
We quickly came upon a burned out ridge with great views of the desert to the east. I stopped for dinner at a little campground near the trail and kept hiking afterwards. I had to hike in the dark in order to make it to a decent campsite. I put my tiny photon flashlight (which is nothing more than an LED and a watch battery) in my mouth and marched on. Finally, I arrived at Pioneer Mail Campground, which was just a flat grassy area near a road. I had my very first problem. During my brief night hiking adventure, I’d drooled on my photon and it wouldn’t turn off (which caused the battery to die). I guess I shorted out some circuit in the thing. It was my first “equipment failure”, but luckily a very minor one. It was a very windy night, and the flapping of my tent made a ton of noise. It held together fine, but it kept me (and my neighbors) awake much of the night.
That night I discovered my “second problem”. I had a blister. It was a particularly nasty blister on the ball of my foot between my big toe and second toe. I was now officially a part of the “blister club” as we started calling ourselves. I lanced the blister, tried to let it dry out, and later covered it with a duct tape bandage. I got more blisters in the next couple days, but they all got better. After about 10 days out, all my blisters were gone.
The next day was much like the previous days: a winding trail routed on the tops of chaparral covered hills. Halfway though the day, under a big cottonwood tree at the end of a jeep road, we came across a water stash left by some of the same people who had organized the kickoff party. This section was very dry, and we were happy to have a shady place to rest and refresh ourselves. We kept hiking the rest of the day and eventually arrived at a decent flat area near Rodriguez Canyon. Half of our group decided to camp right there (including me), and the rest hiked a few more miles. I decided against setting up my tent and just threw my sleeping bag down on my ground cloth. I had a great night’s sleep, and great view of the stars. For the rest of the trip, I didn’t bother using my tent unless there was bad weather threatening or an intolerable amount of mosquitoes. (in other words, “any” mosquitoes)
The desert continued. We worked our way around the slopes of Granite mountain and down to a flat area called Scissors crossing. A small stream was flowing there, and there was another water stash. A long, dry, winding trail awaited us in the San Felipe Hills above. It would be about 23 miles until the next water, so we were sure to fill up. As we climbed up into the San Felipe Hills, the wind really picked up. By later in the day, it was blowing a good 40 miles per hour. We had great views of the San Felipe Valley below and Granite mountain on the other side. Later that day, I got passed by the slow and steady Batch. He hiked a consistent pace every day from 7 AM to 7 PM and then camped wherever he was. The wind kept blowing all night, and the air cooled off.
We awoke to a windy, misty landscape that reminded me more of coastal northern California than the southern desert. The trail continued to wind around the dripping chappral of the San Felipe hills until finally coming down to some water at Barrel Spring. After that, the cool wet trail continued through gentle cow pastures almost all the way to Warner Springs. We camped just outside of town. In the middle of the night, we heard loud heavy footsteps and weird groaning sounds right in our camp. Seemingly quite worried, one of my companions called out “What was that?!”. “It’s a cow” came the response. It was a funny little exchange which brought to life the unspoken concerns that we all had. There were tons of things that we could worry about: rattlesnakes, weather, water, food, blisters, injuries, equipment, etc. Cows hadn’t been on the list.
Early the next morning, I arrived at Warner Springs. The town consisted of a Post Office, a gas station, a golf course / resort, and 203 people (according to the sign). I had some breakfast at the golf course restaurant with some other hikers. We hadn’t taken a shower since leaving the border, and our dirty, greasy, crusty bodies clashed with the country club crowd. But it didn’t matter, the food was good. I finally got out of town sometime after noon, about the same time as Charlotte & Jason & Lara. The four of us headed back into the hills.