The PCT – Desert Sec. – Days 0-6

Day 0 – Campo, California (CLEEF campsite)

Today was loooooong. I got up at 0300 EST in Columbus, GA and it is now 1700 PST in Campo, CA. You do the math. My flights were delayed and I would have missed my shuttle, if the nice shuttle co-owner hadn’t graciously driven me and another late hiker in her personal vehicle! Thanks Dee!

At the campsite in Campo, a section of this facility is sectioned off for PCT thru hikers to start and run by trail angels Legend, Papa Bear, and a motley crew of rotating characters. Every night they hold a spaghetti or burger group dinner and Legend gave a beautiful (if not practiced) speech about the magic of the trail. This camp is only a quarter mile from the monument and entirely run on donations.

It was very windy. TBC….

Day 1 (AAAAAAHHHHH!!!!) – 11.3 miles (@mile 11.3)

Like I said it was windy. At 0530 my tent violently collasped on my supine form in a gust, snapping me awake with a vigor. I crawled out of my DCF and down coocoon and haplessly looked down at the mess I’d have to somehow wrangle into my pack. The wind cut through my sleep clothes, so I quickly set about my job.

There was a morning pancake breakfast that I wasn’t going to stick around for. I had a trail to start! I said bye to the few hikers awake, knowing they’d pass my slow butt soon enough. I took the dirt road up to the monument at the border, only a quarter mile. Once there a nice lady (whose name I never got) asked me some questions about hyperthermia and whether I had a permit, handed me a tag, and took my picture while I signed the register. Border patrol came blasting down the dirt road in a show of machismo, so I didn’t try to go stick my hand in Mexico through the wall like a lot of hikers will do.

I walked down to the first PCT marker and took my first official step towards Canada. It was very surreal. I’ve been preparing for this day for over three years (not as long as some, but enough for me) and HERE I WAS. DOING THE THING. Instinct told me to savor this moment – the beginning, the potential for all the things to come, and the relief of knowing you are where you need to be right now…and then some more hikers came along also excited for their start so I moved along, giving them their space.

The first mile winds back down through the scrub brush to CLEEF and crosses through the tiny hamlet of Campo. There are a bunch of crows out here, which surprised me. Seeing their sleek black forms playing in the wind seemed like a encouraging sign.

BREATHE IN: I can do this, I am capable, I am adaptable. The first real vista of the desert ahead was a record scratch moment. It is definitely different in real life because you can’t feel the wide open expansiveness through a picture. Feel the heat, wind, or weight of water on your back and down through to your feet. I could feel a little fear and doubt creeping in. What was I thinking? In my shape and health? Out here in such unfamiliar territory? Far away from family and friends? All by myself??? What was I thinking? BREATHE OUT: I can do this, I am capable, I am adaptable.

I started this trail with several intentions, but I never got too specific. It became clear in that first couple of miles, that I would have to clarify and cement my goals for this journey in order to bolster my mental strength (which TBH isn’t the strongest). I contemplated this as I weaved through the dusty hills of the desert, noting the strange and unfamiliar plant life. I found myself comparing it to being on an alien planet like something out of Star Trek.

I made it to the only known water source for the first 20 miles at mile 4.4. I loaded up to capacity at 5 liters and the added weight of all that water went straight to my hips. Gradually the hills opened up to bigger vistas and harder climbs. I stopped at the first bit of shade that coincidently had a nice view and ate lunch. There I met a nice lady from Montreal, but I had feeling I wouldn’t be seeing much of her because she seemed like a fast walker (and I was right).

After lunch it was a race to more shade and the stopping point for the evening. The sun beat down on my orange sherbert sun hoodie making everything glow. Light was EVERYWHERE! Bouncing off of rocks. Reflecting off shiny plants. Sparkling in the sand. This was my first indication that maybe I shouldn’t walk through the heat of the day (more on this later), but I stubbornly trudged on. I made it the campsite at 1430, which was early but I was BEAT (TM). The sun/heat drained away any and all of that peppy energy I started with. I plopped down on the bare rock under some shady manzanitas, chugged half a liter, and promply fell asleep.

When I woke the camp had filled with people, their bright blues and oranges flitting about the scrub like birds. I found out the site was mostly filled with couples, one from the Netherlands! By the way, I’ve noticed the PCT seems to be popular with the Dutch and Australians this year. I pitched my tent on some hard sand, weighing the stakes down with heavy rocks so my tent would stay in its desired position through out the night. I ate some cold soaked cous cous and promptly went back to sleep, leaving the brightly frocked couples to their chatter. Briefly I worried about seeming like an anti-social recluse – the curmudgeonly troll in the bushes – but then I remembered that I’m not out here to please anybody…so there. Nyah.

Day 2 – 11.7 miles (@ mile 23)

Blessedly my tent stayed upright all night long and I slept deeply until 0500 when I woke for no reason and without an alarm. Weird.

The rest of camp was stirring as I shouldered my pack and walked into the inky darkness. My headlamp made weird shapes of all the unfamiliar plants. The sun rose rapidly, all of a sudden saying I’M HERE! I walked along a ridgeline looking down into Hauser canyon and zoomed down a dirt road to the descent into said canyon.

It was about 0800 when I reached Hauser creek and stopped for my Second Breakfast. The creek was dry from the current drought California is experiencing. I still had 3 liters of water though from the day before. After some stretching and repacking, I set about to get The Climb over.

Everyone who starts a thru hike of the PCT is warned about the climb out of Hauser canyon. Multiple hikers have been rescued in the week I started alone. I thought getting there early would be a good idea.

Apparently I didn’t get there early enough. The sun blasted down from above with no mercy. There was zero wind to ease the heat and the path was exposed with little shade to offer respite. I’d walk a couple feet, huffing out of breath, and stop. The weight of my pack seemed to pull me backwards into the shade below. I drank half a liter in 10 minutes and looking up saw that the trail wasn’t even a tenth done.

I began to realize how different the actual trail was from what I was used to – the Appalachians. In those mountains the trail usually goes straight up the mountain with zero switch backs and straight down. The grade is extreme and often an actual path is non-exisent. I walk that trail by hitching my pack high up on my back, pulling on my trekking poles, and just busting up the thing until the top. This does not work on the gentle never ending climbs of the PCT. I quickly tired out and realized I had so much longer to go. It is a difference between multiple sprints and a marathon. You get the same place, but you’ll manage your energy differently.

My left hip started hurting really bad and made the climb even more miserable. I had to stop and stretch every 10 minutes. At one point I could have stayed and rested there for a few hours, but the goal was to get to Lake Morena and an actual real Cheeseburger. It meant punching through my mental wall, but also letting my frustration and pain be what it was. This was happening, and I knew I could make it through. I wasn’t expecting to butt up against my mental resisitance so early, but here I was.

Walk, drink, stop/stretch, and repeat until I made to the famed Lake Morena Malt shop. I limped my way up and quickly shucked my pack to go into the air conditioning. It was a real pleaure. Full on a rather large cheeseburger, I meandered over to Lake Morena to lay underneath a tree and nap. I saw some people I’ve been leap frogging around, but stayed to myself for the most part.

After a few hours in the shade and much stretching, I finally packed up and headed out onto trail around 1700. I was only going 3 more miles to a campsite that promised a wonderful sunset, per Guthook (the map app I use). There was a bit of a climb, but my hip seemed to handle it well and before I knew it I was upon my chosen campsite. Another hiker named Luda was already there. He was cowboy camping, which is something I’ve not had the courage to try yet. I like my DCF coocoon of privacy. It gives me a false sense of safety, I think.

LOOK AT THIS CAT!

A sunset was indeed had and I went to sleep early. Something I noticed is that the desert is QUIET. No katydids or crickets, no leaf crunching, no sticks breaking. Nothing but the occassional sounds of planes high up, and wind if it’s there. It’s peaceful, but odd. And it made me realise my tinnitus is really bad. The sound of nothing is deafening.

Day 3 – 11.3 miles (@ mile 34.3)

I actually kind of got hot overnight and had to take off my sleeping fleece. I got going around 0600 with a smile on my face, which is still wild to me considering I used to think getting going early was such a struggle. I winded down through some boulders and saw the lights of cars speeding along a highway in the distance. Once I got down into the valley and near the vegetation it quickly got chilly and I had to put my puffy on. I sped along a dry creek bed with the sun peeking over a mountain range to the east. A fog seemed to hang over the hills as I made my way to Boulder Oaks Campground and some of the cleanest pit toilets I’ve ever seen. I’d spend the night in them!

Crossing under the I-8, started a long ascent into the mountains Cleveland National Forest. The sun was blocked on the side I was walking for the first few hours by the mountain itself. Soon though I curved around into the direct sun and even at 1000 it was blazingly hot. For about two miles it was a climb up with no shade. I could feel the salt crystals forming as my sweat evaporated, almost like I was being salted as they do pork or fish. Eventually I made it to some small trees that offered little succor, but it was a break.

There was promise of trail magic at Cibbets Flats Campground (from the thru hiker grapevine), I just had to make it there. So I stumbled through it, surprising myself when I realized I’d already did the thing and saw the sign. The deal was sweetened by an offer of a free ride back to trail (the campground was 0.8 miles down a steep dirt road).

Snakes, dehydration, exposure, and NOW THIS?!?

I stumbled into the place through fresh smelling campers lazily having fun and found the thru hikers site where cold Gatorade and a turkey sandwich waited! Huzzah! It was a hiker feed hosted by a mother and daughter trail angel team. Shade, cold drinks, and food – I was happy. I also found Luda and the Dutch couple. I met another couple from Texas (a lot of couples on this trail), and the gal was an ICU nurse. The conversation turned morbid and dark as it does when you get nurses talking about their job, but everyone seemed supportive and undestanding. I went to the toilets to put an end to my part in the discussion as I felt the anger trigger trying to turn on. When I got back, they were onto the much lighter fare of digging cat holes in the desert. FYI, it’s like literal kitty litter. I’ve never had such an easy time of digging a poop hole. TMI?

More people started showing up, and it became crowded with people laughing and sharing stories. I started to feel some kind of way, especially when the beer and liquor got passed around.

QUICK SIDE NOTE: I guess this is a good a time as any to note that I am currently practicing sobriety. For many reasons, the strongest being a reaction to the pandemic, I was pickling my liver with the booze and about 6 months ago began to explore the reality of not “drinking my pain away”. I read The Naked Mind by Annie Grace and it seemed to stick that I might be strong enough to do this. After many slip ups and I’m sure many more, I’m now commited to this practice.

So anyways, I don’t really mind being around people who are drinking in small numbers, but in large groups, and all of them strangers? I thought it might be better if I went back to the trail. A lot of the hikers would be sleeping in this campground and I didn’t think it would do me any good to be around them all night. My overwhelmed brain was doing the klaxon noise and I quickly asked to be driven back to the trail head even thought it was still hot AF.

I was only going 1.3 more miles up the trail, through the blistering late afternoon sun. The heat was emanating from the ground and boulders like an oven. Oh and obviously from above too. But once I made it to camp, I knew I made the right decision. A dense thicket of scrub oak provided shade and cooled the area where I’d be sleeping. There was just enough room for my tent and I peeled off my sweaty hiking shirt for a dry one. Yes, I made the right decision, I thought as I lay in my cool tent and watched the sunset turn the canyon muted oranges and pinks. After all it’s hard to practice sobriety if you are drunk.

Day 4 – 7.2 miles (@41.5)

I am stinky. Everything is stinky. I had heard Mount Laguna had a wonderful restuarant run by a french couple that had a breakfast to die for…and also a coin laundry. So I packed up ealier than my PCT usual and got going at 0530 (!!what??) It was cool and breezy up and out of that canyon. The sun eventually peaked it’s fiery head over the eastern horizon, but a the breeze kept most of the heat off.

I was hiking fast for me, but I kept worrying about the other hikers blasting past me. I don’t know why it is a constant nagging thought and had to tell myself to stop letting comparison get the better of me. I’d go at my own pace and get there when I get there. But I think it’s a natural instinct to want to categorize and rank the situations you are in. Judgey Me is a real bitch and really works to ruin my day.

I call this the thru hiker All American Special. I just need my half of the waffle Dad!

Then the Pines started appearing! And I forgot all about Judgey McJudgeFace. TREES! PINE TREES! I didn’t realize how much I would miss their presense. Soon I was crunching along a path of old pine needles and feeling refreshed. My step quickened the closer I got to Mount Laguna and before I knew it I was sitting down to a cheesey and bacon-y omelette with tangy sourdough toast.

I managed to get a place in the PCT crash pad which was basically a tiny room where you slept on the floor. It was $25 and had access to a shower and kitchen. Also, there was one futon in the room and since I was there first, I claimed it as my domain for the day. I showered, I laundered, and I lounged. I met a German gal and we spent the afternoon doing the compare my country with yours thing. We went back to the Pine Cafe and had Four Cheese Ravioli (so good!)

Came back to the “room” and tried to fall asleep. The futon was comfortable enough, but I was so itchy. (Weird Laundry detergent?) I evenutally took two Benadryls and fell alseep. A storm was coming on Monday that everyone was going to stay in town for, but I didn’t want to waste a day waiting around and spending money. My point: I wanted to get to sleep early and I don’t usually medicate myself for that, but I really needed some sleep.

Day 5 – 14.5 miles (@ mile 56)

WHAT. AN. EPIC. DAY!

I woke later than I planned, but still early. The people there were going to stay in Mount Laguna to wait out the storm in two days, so they were still sleeping. I realized I lost my green yogurt spoon, but luckily enough found a random plastic spoon in the hiker box. I packed quietly and stepped out into a sleepy morning.

Back on trail, the dreamy quality of the light continued as the sun rose slowly over the mountains gradually waking everything up. I was on a ridgeline overlooking a wide vista and saw the sharp gradiation from cool blues to warmer tones. I was still in the pines and it felt a little like walking in woods at home. I saw a huge golf ball thingy that the USAF owns. It became a referernce point to how far I’ve gone through out the day.

Eventually the trees thinned out and I was walking along a mountain top in the full on wind with views out for miles! The subtle color hues of the desert on full display, with the warm ochers, and suprising greens and blues. The views went on for miles, with no trees obstructing the distance. You could see where the path was going to in the distance (a rare thing on the AT). Even though the sun was on full blast, the wind actually made it cold and I had to keep reminding myself to drink water.

I made to Pioneer Mail Picnic Area for lunch and met some folks who had an Airbnb available in Julian and offered me some space during the storm. How synchronistic! I’d been thinking I should figure this whole rain thing out. Originally I’d been telling people I’d just walk though it, after all if you didn’t walk in the rain on the AT you’d never get anywhere. But some of the more expreinced West Coasters were warning me of the high winds and lack of cover being more of the problem and that perhaps I’d want to wait it out. The problem being that everything in Julian (the next town up) was booked or prohibitively expensive. So it was with great surprise and gratitude that I accetped Chris & Bethany’s offer to take one of the rooms. They’d booked a huge Airbnb themselves and were looking for hikers to share it with. On trail it isn’t a weird thing to be comfortable finding total strangers to share a space with.

They were going to hike on though and try to hitch in Julian, but I wanted to spend one more night out on the trail. I found a secluded spot at the top of Oriflamme Canyon that was only another 3.4 miles. There was a huge boulder and brush to block most of the winds. I decided tonight was the night I’d try cowboy camping for the first time. Why? With rain coming? I honestly don’t know.

This is a water source.

I watched the stars come out after the sunset, which was fun. I had forgotten how they just kind of appear all of sudden as the light dims. There were the obnoxiously bright lights of the airplanes going to San Diego every 10 minutes. At first I didn’t know what they were, and the seemed hover on the horizon in a weird way (ALIENS?!?!) until they got closer and you could see it was in fact an airplane (not aliens). The night stayed clear and surprisingly warm and I think I fell asleep around the 8th airplane, kinda like counting sheep.

Day 6 – 4 miles to Sunrise Trailhead (@ mile 59 5)

Welp, boulders and shrubs can only do so much. Around 0430 in the morning, the wind kicked up and I could see in the ambient night light that clouds were blowing in. I decided there was no reason to keep sleeping, so I gathered my things in a hurry, brushed my teeth and set off.

The wind bullied me up and down that canyon. OHHHHHH I thought, this is why no one wants to be out here in a storm! There were small corners of the trail that were sheltered and I managed to eat a bar while watching the sun rise through the clouds over Salton Sea in the distance.

I got to the Sunrise Trailhead on the highway and sat in the pit toilet to warm my fingers up. There was no traffic at this time of morning anyway, so wasn’t going to stand out in the cold wind with no hope of a hitch. Eventually though I went out to wait and see, and then another group of hikers showed up and we all commiserated on our pitiful state. In a stroke of serendipity, a man in a camper van rolled up and we crammed everybody and all our things in there. And so we went to Julian.

Everyone in the van wanted to go to the coffee shop once we reached town, but I hunted heartier fare, so I stopped at the Julian Cafe for a Corned Beef Hash Omelette. I sat by myself as I do, but oddly enough the driver also showed up and I shared my booth with him. He said his daughter was doing the trail and he was just bumming along, camping in his van in the desert as a sort of support in case she needed it. (ah-hem…Dad?)

We parted ways and I went walking through the ridiculously cute town main street. I went to the general store and picked up some snacks because I didn’t pack enough food (I thought I’d be going faster than I am). The proprietor of one establishment ran out and bade me to come inside for free hot cider and a snack pack of chocolate covered bananas. Don’t have to tell me twice, as it was already getting blustery and cold. The cider was topped with whipped cream and cinnamon, and I sipped it in front of their fire place. What a life.

Julian is known for its apples and the fact that you get a free slice of pie at Mom’s Pie Shop if you show your permit. I think there is a bit of pie rivalry going on, because I read in the Julian Cafe’s menu blurb, that they were voted best pie in San Diego. Fascinated by the town’s pie history I went from store to store, and eventually bumped in to Bethany and Chris in the Olde Goat buying lotion. More serendipity! They walked me to the house we were staying in and I took a shower in the oldest tub in Julian. (It was the first house to get plumbing). After a short nap, we all went to the brewery and I had a wonderful pork sandwich, but apparently the pizza is where it’s at. It was pouring rain and I am definitely glad I made the decision to come into Julian and take zero tomorrow. And that I randomly met Chris, Bethany, and Austin (the other “roommate”) at that picnic area. It’s funny how things work out on the trail. Like magic.

One thought on “The PCT – Desert Sec. – Days 0-6

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