I began hiking the PCT with a certain amount of trepidation... The experience started quite differently from what I expected. As I hiked my very first day from the Mexican border, I ran into so many hikers -- dozens every hour it seemed -- I was shocked.
I shouldn't have been surprised, really. The reason I was starting on April 29 was because of the Annual Day Zero Kickoff Party ... approximately two hundred people attended, including maybe 70 would-be thru-hikers. While I highly recommend the kickoff party as an opportunity to meet people, gather useful information (especially regarding the water situation along the trail in southern California), it was disconcerting to me to see so many people. With so many people on the trail having previously hiked the Appalachian Trail, perhaps it wasn't as odd for them, but I was hoping for more of a wilderness experience. Fortunately for me, the overwhelming numbers on the trail was a rare experience (later to be experienced again only in the High Sierras), and had its advantages as I adjusted to trail life.
Physically, the hiking in southern California was by far the most difficult for me of any part of the trail. Although there was never a need to carry more than four days (100 miles) of food, the need to carry more water more than made up the difference in weight, and switching from a routine of being at the computer or the books ten hours every day to hiking more than twelve hours every day was difficult. While I had spent some time 'training' in the loosest sense of the word, I knew that things were likely to be painful. Sore muscles and general exhaustion were to be expected (and Ibuprofen and sleep the more than adequate solution). The greater worries were that I would have feet or joint problems. While I'd never had much problem with blisters, I have had ankle problems in the past. This time, I decided to take no chances, and hiked with two trekking poles (which also served as poles for my tarp). After this hike, I'm a definite convert, though it does look funny to people who haven't seen it before (like someone crosscountry skiing without skis or snow).
I did get a couple blisters, but they were not really a big issue -- they were easily handled and temporary. The main problem was that as of my third day on the trail the back of my heels had been rubbed raw -- no blisters, just extremely tender, red flesh that hurt like hell when pressed against (even just when walking, particularly uphill). Ultimately my skin toughened up over the first week and a half or so, and I continued to hike twenty-five to thirty miles a day throughout that period, using various combinations of gauze, duct tape, medical tape and bandaids to protect my heels and allow them to heal. The rest of the trip I had only an occasional blister here and there from carelessness, nothing that ever hindered my progress or caused much pain. I went the entire stretch from Etna Summit to the Canadian border (the final 1000+ miles) without a single blister or physical problem (besides normal muscle aches and exhaustion) at all.
Despite the physical challenges, I truly enjoyed my time hiking up through southern California (no pain, no gain, right?). Although I had lived in San Diego for three years at that point, I hadn't gotten out much, and not out to East County at all. And while I have grudgingly grown used to the urban sprawl that is southern California, I realize now that it would have been much easier to adjust to if I had gotten out, even occasionally, to the eastern parts of SoCal, where there is a lot of natural beauty, and more importantly, fewer people. There really are some wonderful areas. Even in Los Angeles County, there are some relatively rural and quite beautiful parts, particularly the Angeles National Forest and areas abutting it. In fact, aside from the San Jacintos, the Angeles National Forest was probably my favorite part of this first stretch of trail.
I remember one particularly surreal experience near the end of this time, as I was approaching Mojave (where I would temporarily leave the trail). I stayed one night at the Saulfley's in Agua Dulce - an amazing couple who host nearly all the PCT hikers who thru-hike Southern California - and then started in the afternoon the next day. It was incredibly hot and I hiked maybe fifteen or sixteen miles before dusk and something came over me and I decided to leave the trail to camp at a U.S. Forest Service campground off the trail. Normally I hiked until dusk and find a nice flat spot and pull out my pad and sleep there, but maybe staying a night in a bed at the Saulfley's spoiled me. I don't know why, but a spur of the moment decision was made and I wandered off to Spunky Campground. It was starting to get dark and the place seemed deserted. But there was a funny constant hum - it took me a moment to recognize it as the sound of a generator. As I drew closer I could see that all the campsites were empty except the one at the front -- the camp host's site. There was one of the 'silver bullet' trailers, a camper of some sort, a large U.S. Army surplus style wall tent (maybe 40' by 15' and about 10' high), and another tarp or two. Quite a collection of shelters.
As I approached, nervous since the camp seemed empty, desperately hoping that I'd at least be able to get some water (I was dry at that point), a man in U.S. Forest Service garb (and older fellow who looked right at home in his Smoky the Bear hat) came around a corner from behind one of the tents and quickly looked me over. Without missing a beat, he said, "You must be a PCT hiker, come on in, let me get you a beer." He gestured for me to follow him into the huge wall tent, and as I entered he handed my a cold beer. Once my eyes adjusted to the light inside the tent I began to wonder if it was all a mirage. Somewhat in a daze I sat down on a bar stool and started drinking the beer, looking around in wonder.
I was sitting at a bar. An actual bar, fully stocked, marble top, the rest mahogany, bar stools, the works. Behind the bar he had a full-sized refrigerator. He had all sorts of food, drink, he kept hot coffee on 24 hours a day... The Spunky Cantina (as it was called) had a ceiling fan and lights, and the camp host did it all out of his own pocket and donations. Oh yes, there was a regulation-sized pool table under an adjacent tarp. After talking with the camp host (Dale Davis, 73 years old) for a while, I politely declined his offer of another beer (who knows what it would have done to me in the state of exhaustion I was in) and wandered off to bed, fully expecting to wake up and either have it all be a dream or find myself in a mental hospital suffering from delusions. But I woke up as usual about 5 a.m. the next morning and it wasn't a dream. I wandered into the tent and he had left out coffee and cinammon rolls for me to eat for breakfast. I shot a few pictures as a record of the place and went on my merry way.
Three days later I left the trail in Mojave. For a number of logistical and professional reasons I had to come back to San Diego for a break for three weeks. I was able to arrange my finances for all my travel for fieldwork the next year, get the signatures I needed to advance to candidacy, and do some research assistant work as well. I also was able to purchase and package the food and other supplies for my remaining 20 resupply packages (to be shipped by my good friends Jeff and Rachel). This was also a good thing because at the pace I was on I would have arrived in Kennedy Meadows (the beginning of the real Sierra Nevadas) well before June, and there was no way I was going to do the High Sierras that early - there was much too much snow for that. Taking the break allowed me to get back on the trail late enough that I would have little difficulty going over the high passes in the Sierras. How that worked out ... well that's for another page.
If you want to continue on to read about my experiences in the High Sierras, click here.
The terrain the PCT covers in Southern California is surprisingly varied. For every mile skirting the edge of the Anza-Borrego and Mojave deserts there are miles up in the San Jacinto and San Gabriel mountains. The PCT itself gets higher than it ever does in Oregon or Washington, and I actually went to the top of Mt. San Jacinto (10,780') on my hike. There are places in inland southern California with few people and natural beauty, which I'm glad I saw for the first time. However, with a few minor exceptions, the terrain is quite dry, and while I was lucky for the most part in avoiding excessive heat and had few problems with water, I tend to prefer the greens and blues of the PCT further north over the mostly reds and browns of southern California.
That being said a number of places, certain experiences, still stick out in my mind ... The moon beaming down like a huge white spotlight my second night out a few miles beyond Mt. Laguna, making it hard to sleep despite being thoroughly exhausted, turning a corner and leaving the dry hills behind and entering oak forest near Barrel Springs, and all of the time in the San Jacintos (near Idyllwild), particularly the view from Fuller Ridge. Somewhat oddly perhaps, the desert terrain that sticks with me the most was that around Scissors Crossing
, which I only saw in the dark -- at dusk and in the predawn, giving
it an almost eerie beauty.