“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.
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.