Up The Devil’s Slide, Down San Jacinto and Into The Rattlesnake’s Mouth

The experience of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is an ever-changing one and the last five days (86 miles) feel like a new chapter. Lisa and I have fallen out of sync with most of the familiar hiker faces while also pushing ourselves to walk longer and greater distances. I’m shedding weight faster than Jeb Bush while Lisa, who has no excess weight to lose, is succumbing to hiker hunger and slyly petitioning for restaurant stops at every opportunity. We’ve also encountered some extreme terrain and weather, not to mention a reptile or two, that I’d love to tell you about.


We tried to wait out some bad weather in Idyllwild so we could take an alternate trail to the San Jacinto Peak. When the cold and the clouds did not abate we took a shuttle from the hotel with Bushwhacked and a young hiker from Florida (trail name: Apache) to the head of the Devil’s Slide Trail. As we started up the steep set of switchbacks zigzagging up the side of the mountain, a cold mist buffeted our rain gear and numbed our hands. Bushwhacked, usually the fastest hiker in our cohort, never passed us. We suspect he had his fill of the weather and went back to town. Lisa and I kept pace with Apache, climbing into the clouds and joking about the marvelous views hidden in the clouds all around us. The higher we climbed, the stronger the wind and the deeper the cold. We climbed to an elevation of over 9,000 feet. Higher, actually, as Lisa and I took a wrong turn and took the ascent trail toward the top of the mountain for half a mile before checking our GPS and realizing our mistake. When we rejoined the PCT and began our descent from Mount San Jacinto into the San Gorgonio Pass, the pine trees around us were coated in ice and patches of snow covered the ground. The wind in the pass was fiercer than on the other side of mountain so that descending to lower altitudes with their higher temperatures were counteracted by increased wind chill. After covering sixteen frosty miles, Lisa and I made camp in the first little nook that offered respite from the wind. It was a good thing we had picked up our winter sleeping bags in Idyllwild the day before.


San Gorgonio Pass from the side of San Jacinto Peak

The next day was sunny and warm although the winds cutting through the pass were just as strong. In better spirits, Lisa and I hiked like happy mountain goats down from the San Jacinto mountains, dropping 8,000 feet to the desert. At about six or five-thousand feet of elevation, the trees gave way to boulders and scrub oak and chaparral, and lizards! Seriously, the mountain side was saturated with the scaly creatures. Big ones, littles ones, brown, black, blue and gold. Every few feet, one would flit across the trail or scramble gracelessly over a rock and leap into a bush. It was like reverse Godzilla, where a giant, misunderstood, pasty creature tromps across the landscape, sending the terrified denizens scattering. The rattlesnake, however, was less timid. About three foot long, a reddish hue, the serpent was stretched across the trail when we rounded a bend. It rattled its tail ever so slightly but otherwise did not seem particularly distressed. Lisa took some photos from a respectful distance then the two of us bushwhacked a wide path around the creature.

"My trail, human!"

“My trail, human!”

"Mattshu-San! Run for your lives!!"

“Mattshu-San! Run for your lives!!”


San Gorgonio Pass was a drab barren plain, bristling with wind turbines, through which Interstate 10 (or THE Interstate 10 as they like to say here) cuts across toward Los Angeles to the west and sandy oblivion to the east. In the middle of the pass is a small town in which live the venerated PCT trail angels, Ziggy and the Bear. This tremendously generous couple, with the aid of their grandson, have greeted thousands of hikers over the years, offering them a place to stay in their carpeted backyard, the use of the bank of porta potties set up in front of their house, showers, an outdoor sink for dishes and laundry, and modestly priced sodas and candy. They also will hold resupply packages for a small fee. Lisa and I stopped in and met the delightful Bear, picked up our package and bought a couple Dr. Peppers. We signed in and were designated hikers #1383 and #1384. We rested for a while on the bright clean carpets spread across our hosts’ backyard oasis but did not stay the night. By the end of the day, Lisa and I had hiked our first 20+ miler on the PCT.


The next two days we kept up the pace by completing 18.7 and 21 miles respectively. We covered the San Gorgonio Wilderness, a hot stretch of winding canyons and creek beds then ascended into the San Bernardino Forest. The unrelenting sun blasting down upon me proved mentally and physically taxing. While Lisa abhors the cold, I prove equally adverse to the desert sun. I felt a profound sense of relief while hiking through the shade of the sequoia and redwood trees of the upper elevations. One minor hitch to the trees, however. Pinecones! Tribbles of the forest, as I call them. Yeah, they’re cute at first, but they quickly multiply and clog the trail, getting underfoot, making you feel guilty every time your heel crunches down upon them, or eliciting a rage when they roll your ankle. I don’t care how pretty they are… enough tree spawn is enough.

Beautiful but eternally sunny.

Beautiful but eternally sunny.

All worship the shade of the trees!

All worship the shade of the trees!


Darn pinecones!

A much needed lunch break in the shade.

A much needed lunch break in the shade.

I realize this post has taken on a rambling tone, so I will end it with Lisa’s face to face encounter with another rattlesnake, larger and more ornery than the first. I missed the fun at first, as Lisa was just ahead as we made our way up the PCT. It was only when she leapt back, waving her trekking poles through the air, calling out a sort of “wha-oohh.” Just as surprised was the black rattlesnake just a few feet ahead, bunched up with its rattle quivering high over its wide, arrow-shaped head. Lisa quickly recovered herself and took out her camera, although I urged her to step back even further. Sadly, no clear pictures were taken. The obsidian-hued snake was having none of it. It continued to shake its angry tail while tensing its body. Like reprimanded children, Lisa and I backed down the trail a bit, and the snake slithered to side, then for good measure wound itself back up and issued renewed promises of destruction with its tail. Lisa and I promised with our silence to be good and the snake stretched itself out and made a cautious exit into some ground cover. Objectively, the snake looked to be about forty inches long although my terror gaze knows the beast was probably five feet in length at the least.

We’re now taking another zero in Big Bear Lake, a large tourist town with all the amenities of Julian and Idyllwild combined, but far less charm. That’s okay. Lisa is eating everything in sight and I’m consuming so much Dr. Pepper that I’m thinking of saving time with a corn syrup IV. I probably won’t as that might be a challenge to hike with on the trail.

Playing tourists in Big Bear Lake.

Playing tourists in Big Bear Lake.

Idyllically Idle in Idyllwild

IMG_0578[1]After another five days of hiking and another 75 miles ticked off, Lisa and I are down for another zero day. We’re holed up in another tourist town nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains. It still astounds us that in just a few miles we can travel from 85 degrees in the high desert to 45 degrees at a more temperate elevation. It’s a good time to rest. The mountains are socked-in, there’s a threat of rain and snow, and my feet have been particularly sore from constant walking and deviously small blisters pinching down on my little toes. We’re debating an alternate route for tomorrow that would take us over San Jacinto Peak. At 10,834 feet, it would be our highest summit to date by a solid four-thousand feet. I’m excited to try the climb despite my susceptibility to altitude sickness, while Lisa just wants to avoid getting caught in any snow. We’ll let you know how it turns out.

The Paradise Cafe,  1 mile off the trail, enticed us all with its siren song of soda, eggs and bacon and burgers.

The Paradise Cafe, 1 mile off the trail, enticed us all with its siren song of soda, eggs and bacon and burgers.

Since Julian we’ve been hiking/camping with the same crowd, give or take one or two folks each day. (I’m hesitant to drop real names without permission and most trail names have yet to be earned or given out, so the list is incomplete.) We tend to congregate at water sources, campsites, and restaurants that aren’t too far from the PCT.

Nine hikers camped out in this boulder field atop a sandy ridge. We watched the sunset together. Later that night the Milky Way was visible.

Nine hikers camped out in this boulder field atop a sandy ridge. We watched the sunset together. Later that night the Milky Way was visible.

For better or worse, the group is dissolving. Bushwhacked is the charismatic epicenter of our hiker wave although he yearns to pick up the pace and leave us slow pokes behind. He’ll have to chase down an ex-marine from California and a fellow from Blacksburg, VA who paired up and have pushed on to San Jacinto Peak despite the weather. One of the guys we started the trail with, a recent college grad we’ve dubbed Risky Business due to his iconic sunglasses, is still here in town, likewise giving his exhausted body a break. He’s planning to cover less mileage than Lisa and I in the coming days. Another of our original crew, a vegan hiker who wears running shoes without socks and carries perhaps no more than ten pounds of gear and is  capable of hiking thirty-plus miles a day but much prefers to dally about a beautiful vista, has disappeared into the ether. He could be ahead or behind, we know not which. The woman we started the trail with reportedly hiked twenty-five miles the first day. Racing to finish the trail before her junior year of college kicks off, I doubt we’ll ever catch up to her. The last two men we started with (friends from the Appalachian Trail and two of our favorite hikers) are likewise zeroing here in Idyllwild. One is a former librarian/web developer with fascinating insights on backpacking and our journey in general. His partner in crime is a retired journalist with a curmudgeonly facade and a razor sharp wit. He calls himself Reese after the actress and is the only person I’ve ever met who can utilize the affirmation “mos def” appropriately and without irony. Reese and the Librarian have been keeping pace with the greater group but they march to their own rhythm, resting and hiking where and when they choose. It seems more happenstance that we bump into them regularly, although Lisa and I are delighted whenever they’re nearby. The pair are debating skipping large portions of the desert should the heat continue to be a burden. I can’t blame them.

There others I haven’t described, but each of them have already contributed indelible memories. We’re sure to run into some of them, again and again, over the coming months. The company is great, but camping out alone is its own unique and fulfilling experience.

We've been told this is a horny toad. While other lizards are very bashful and camera shy, the horny toad is an unrepentant self-promoter.

We’ve been told this is a horny toad. While other lizards are very bashful and camera shy, the horny toad is an unrepentant self-promoter.

100 Miles!

 We passed the hundred-mile mark today! A few miles more and we stopped and took some photos at Eagle Rock.

Our logistical support expert, vital to the success of our journey, wrote this lovely note and included it in our first mail drop.

Our logistical support expert, vital to the success of our journey, wrote this lovely note and included it in our first mail drop.

77 Miles and One Blister Later


“Wheels are made for rollin’,

mules are made to pack.

I never seen a sight that didn’t look better looking back.”

-Ben Rumson from Paint Your Wagon

A storm churning across southern California has driven most of the thru-hikers out of the mountains into the trail towns dotting the Pacific Crest Trail. Lisa and I, and perhaps twenty other hikers, are hunkered down in Julian, a gold rush town turned tourist attraction. We’re taking our first Zero (zero miles of hiking, aka a day off) to give our bodies a break and tie up some loose ends from when we snipped the bonds of civilization and disappeared into the wilderness.

It’s also a good time to catch you all up. Here are the quick, plain facts. In five days we’ve hiked seventy-seven miles. We’re sticking to about fifteen miles per day for now, until our muscles strengthen and our joints adapt to the constant movement. By day three we stood at an elevation of about 6,000 feet, higher than almost every summit of the Appalachian Mountains back home. Water is scarce and the sun was unrelenting up until yesterday when the edge of the storm clouded up the sky and the winds picked up fiercely.


For the most part, we have been trekking through high desert in the Laguna Mountains. It is not what I expected. For one thing it’s quite green and fantastically beautiful. The views are incredible and the landscape is entirely alien and unique. I know very little about plants but the flora here is playing for keeps. Everything is either serrated, prickly, grabby, or tough as leather. Plants do not crowd together like back home, but instead seem to form little isolated fortresses in the sand and rock. Scorch marks and charred wood are evidence that wildfires strike often, although the plant life quickly recovers from the flames. Wild flowers and fruit bring splotches of color to the landscape. We have spotted a wide array of animals, particularly lizards and birds, and rodents. We came across a small snake (not a rattler) sunning itself in the trail. It seemed annoyed when we tried to pass and decided to leave before Lisa could walk by. Yesterday I caught a glimpse of what I believe to be a coyote’s backside slipping behind a bush. Jackrabbits dart about constantly.

IMG_0212 IMG_0228

There have been a few day hikers and locals on the trail, almost 100% friendly. One exception. On day one, around noon, Lisa and I were eating lunch on the side of the trail with other thru-hikers Phil and Jeff, whom we met in San Diego and were shuttled together to the trail. Lounging quietly in a rare patch of shade under some stocky trees I cannot begin to identify, we heard the voices of two women approaching. They appeared one after the other, on horseback, around a bend about ten yards down the trail. They seemed very much surprised by the gauntlet of  idle hikers crowding their path and worried about their horses being spooked. As we began to make room for them to pass, the woman riding at the rear called out in a vexed and rather admonishing tone. “You have to talk!” Lisa and I happily obliged, greeting them and their horses. The same rider stopped her horse beside me. “Now you have to touch him!” she commanded as I stared face-to-side-of-face with the glassy eyed created. I was delighted to rub the curious horse’s nose and was more amused than annoyed by its rider’s eccentric bossiness. Wondering how long horses could go without water, especially when bearing such a grouchy load, I asked how far they were riding. The woman seemed surprised to be directly addressed for she stared at me for a moment before stumbling with an answer. They were covering about twenty miles. We wished her and the horse (really just the horse) a pleasant journey. They rode off into the sunset only, not really, because like I said it was noon and the sun was directly above us.


We’ve met thru-hikers from all over the United States and beyond. Some are just out of college or trying to fit in the trail before going back to school. Other hikers are retired, some are just out of the military, and others are just crazy wanderers, like Lisa and Me, who have quit their jobs and left their families behind. Most of the hikers we’ve met have yet to adopt or receive their trail name. Not so for a hiker from LA, a man in his late forties, who started the same day as us, and from now on shall be known on the PCT as Bushwhacked!

This hiker has had a run of bad luck since he started his hike to Canada. He lost his sunglasses the first day, his tent poles not long after that, hurt his knee, and his son bailed on joining him for the hike. The hiker soon to be known as Bushwhacked left camp two days ago, not realizing that he was taking the wrong trail. Markers are few and far between, and it was several miles before he suspected something was up. Fortunately, he came across some border patrol agents and asked if he was in fact on the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT is 7 miles back that way, they informed a limping, sun-baked, frustrated man. Or one mile down that mountainside if you bushwhack. Throwing caution to the wind, he abandoned the trail and began navigating the maze of bushes and cacti. Remember how I described the little fortresses of plant life amongst the sand and rock. The further into the bush you go, the more they crowd together. The maze closed in around the hiker, tearing at his bare legs and grabbing at his pack and shoulders. By the time he reached the PCT, Bushwhacked had lost the sleeping mat attached to the back of his pack. By some miracle, the solar panel he had strapped to his sleeping mat, remained, yet Bushwhacked was so frustrated that he snatched the charger and threw it off the mountain. But now he has his trail name.

Hopefully, ours will come more easily.

It has begun!

5/10/15 A bunch of thru-hikers started the trail with us. Who will cruise ahead? Who will match our pace? You know what? It doesn’t matter. Hike your own hike, so the saying goes. 


Sunny San Diego

This is one of our hosts in San Diego. Her name is Penny.

This is one of our hosts in San Diego. Her name is Penny.

We landed in California yesterday expecting bold blue skies, sultry breezes, and palm trees bathed in marmalade colored sunsets. Sunny San Diego is a lie! A rainy, gray, fifty-two degrees lie!! Actually, as a New Englander, I have been dreading the 700 miles of desert to come so the familiar chill was a welcome relief.

We were scooped up at the airport by a Trail Angel named Bob. We are camped out in Bob’s dilapidated Winnebago crammed into his backyard. Other hikers are sleeping in the house, along with Bob, his family, and three lovely dogs. Bob has taken over 139 hikers to the Pacific Crest Trail. He picks them up from the airport, puts them up at his house, and drives hikers to the trailhead. He is among a small, dedicated and generous group of people, dubbed Trail Angels, who help us undeserving folk during our adventure. Bob’s help and selflessness has me floored.

Tomorrow we leave before dawn for the Pacific Crest Trail. Lisa and I are brimming with excitement. It cannot start soon enough.

Equipment for the Journey


Some backpackers are total gear-heads. They want the top-of-the-line, latest, most innovative equipment available. Until recently I hiked with an old, battered, clunky external frame and refused to carry a smartphone in the woods. I’ll take a $2 poncho over a $20 dollar pack cover any day. I don’t obsess over equipment. I am hardly a luddite or a miser. That said, taking the right gear is vital to a safe and enjoyable trip. The right gear varies for each individual.

For the curious, below is a comprehensive list and perhaps a dull description of the equipment we are to bring along. This list is sure to change as the trip progresses.

Matthew’s gear:

  • 1 backpack ((Deuter brand) All right, I’m already being a hypocrite. I upgraded my external frame a year ago to this internal frame bag. It sits more comfortably than my old Kelty although I argue it is far less accessible. I could retrieve water bottles and maps without taking my Kelty off, unlike the Deuter. That is until I modified it by adding a small mesh pouch to the hip belt.)
  • 1 two-person tent
  • 1 sleeping bag
  • 1 pair of trekking poles (think collapsible ski poles)
  • 1 pair of hiking boots
  • 1 $20 pack cover (hypocrite x2! I got it for free!)
  • 1 headlamp
  • 1 water-filter
  • 1 three-liter water bladder
  • 1 single-liter water bottle
  • 1 backup water bladder (I get thirsty)
  • 1 food bag
  • 1 Tupperware container w/ spork (serves as a cup/bowl/plate)
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 3 pairs of wool socks
  • 1 t-shirt (synthetic)
  • 1 t-shirt (cotton)
  • 1 windbreaker/outershell
  • 1 long-sleeve shirt
  • 1 fleece
  • 1 wool cap
  • sunglasses
  • hat
  • trowel
  • bathroom kit
  • bundle of cord
  • 1 pair of flip-flops
  • notebook
  • 2 pens
  • 1 pencil
  • 1 novel
  • 1 ipod (This little piece of technology is controversial for us. We will address it in a later post) w/ earbuds

Lisa’s gear is mostly identical to what’s listed above save for a few notable exceptions.

  • 1 Osprey brand backpack
  • 1 smartphone w/ earbuds
  • 1 pair of trailrunners (Heavy duty shoes lighter than boots but less durable)
  • 1 pair of foot inserts. (If this was 1941 Lisa wouldn’t be allowed in the Army)
  • 1 med kit
  • 1 pair of long pants/shorts with dettachable leggings
  • 2 bandanas
  • 1 winter jacket (as opposed to my windbreaker.)

Also, FOOD:


A Word or Two on Beginning

The adventure we are about to take on would not be possible without the continued support, both emotional and logistical, of family, friends and former coworkers. To take four to five months away from Life and hike across the country is a tremendous gift. We are lucky to be able to make this trek. That said, Lisa and I have put tremendous effort into saving and preparing for this journey. And hiking from Mexico to Canada ain’t exactly easy.