The PCT – Desert Sec. – Days 15 – 21

Day 15 – 8.7 miles

We couldn’t find a ride out of Idyllwild through the normal channels, so we did the old hiker standby: throw a thumb out. Luckily a nice tennis coach from Palm Springs picked me, Bethany, and Chris up for a ride to Paradise Valley Cafe. (Most people get off the trail at a point right behind Idyllwild to come into town. We decided to come into to town from further back.)

We got back to PVC, had a lunch of burgers, and hung around outside until the heat cooled off a little bit. Finally around 1500, we started walking the mile back to the actual PCT. Once there is was a rollercoaster ride through canyon boulders and sand. There was a gradual rise of elevation and eventually I found myself high up on a ridge looking down at where I started from.

Camp was a mile down into the valley on the other side of the mountain, next to a lovely piped spring. I put up my tent among some gnarled oaks that blocked most of the wind and quickly fell asleep.

Day 16 – 13.5 miles

I woke up late and in retrospect it started my day out wrong. Today was all climbing steadily up into high elevation. Well it was high for me, in the 6000s up to the 7000s. The mile climb out of the spring was a nice warm up and it would the last of gentle elevation changes.

The trail snaked its way up through saddles and ridgetops. The wind sent occasional nudges that soon turned into great blasts that kept pushing me to one side. I had to scrunch down the hood of my shirt to ensure my hat wouldn’t be blown away.

I caught up with Bethany and Chris (B&C) at Fobes Ranch Trail Junction for lunch. They had already been there for awhile and eaten. My lunch consisted of me laying in the shade trying to catch my breath. B&C continued on with the plan to stop at a designated campsite. I sat awhile longer munching on peanut butter and chips.

The miles from 166.6 to 169.2 were some of the hardest I’ve done yet. It was all up, ala Appalachian Trail, with no switchbacks and hard climbing. I couldn’t catch my breath and was feeling very weak. Every 20 steps or so I had to stop and calm my breathing. It was very frustrating. It took me 2 hours to go the 3 miles to Apache Spring.

I lay on the ground for a break and wondered why it was all so much harder. Higher elevation? Dehydration? Anemia? Whatever it was I was going to listen to my body and I decided that the next flat quiet campsite I found would be home for the night. Even though that would put me “behind schedule” whatever that is.

Day 17 – 9.9 miles

I spent the night on the saddle of a mountain where I could hear the wind blowing like a jet engine all night, but the side I was on was blessedly wind free. I got going a little late, but felt rested for once. The first three miles were a steady climb up that tested my sore lungs.

I kept leap frogging around a new group of all women and at one point we were going the same pace. There were many downed trees from a fire 3 years ago that made the going slow. At one campsite the trail switchbacks sharply so as to seem to disappear. Right near that switchback was yet another tree that obscured the direction of the trail. Two of the hikers in front of me blithely trudged on through the prickly bushes off map. The rest of the group (and me) soon followed. We quickly realized we weren’t on trail anymore and stopped to find the route.

The group started wondering all over the place while I looked at the map on my phone. By the time I figured out what had happened everyone had disappeared into the brush. I delicately retraced my steps back to the trail where I last saw it and then discovered our mistake. I called out for any of the hikers but no one answered. Since I was wearing a bright orange shirt that many hikers have told me they can see for miles away, I started yelling names and propped myself up on a rock as a beacon.

Eventually one of the hikers found her way to the trail below me and wound her way back up. But that left three other hikers unaccounted for. She managed to get a text from one of them that they found their way over the mountain. So we kept going and met the beginnings of snow. With much incredulity we found them as advertised. They had scaled the mountain with its snow and sheer rock cliffs to come down on the other side.

All in all this had eaten up about an hour of time and a great deal of anxiety. I bade my farewell to this group as they sat on the trail eating and started a long slog through mushy snow to the next water source. Even with microspikes I kept slipping and sliding all over the sun warmed snow. Downed trees, high elevation, and dangerous snow – it was beginning to feel like the game makers were throwing everything at me at once.

There was a nice alternate route one could take through Tahquitz Valley. It was dry, flat, and full of pine trees. Most people go around on the “official PCT” and I was glad for the soothing balm of the peaceful place. Coincidently, I met a 70 year old day hiker on this stretch named David who was so effervescently upbeat I couldn’t help but smile as he offered to pray a blessing for me and my journey.

I rejoined the PCT at Saddle Junction and began a dizzying number of switchbacks up to my campsite. I saw Austin along the way. We bemoaned the elevation and our weariness. I found a campsite with little snow and Austin kept going. It was early to set up camp but I felt beat up and needed the strength for the next day.

Day 18 – 9.3 miles

The San Jacinto alternate is not technically part of the PCT but most people do it because it is the first big mountain with epic views. The issue is that there is usually some amount of snow when most PCT hikers show up. Though it is only 3.7 miles to the peak from the main junction, it is some of most challenging trail.

It took me 4 (yes four) hours to get to the top. Every 20 feet or so I’d have to stop and catch my breath. Or I’d get hot and to take off my jacket…and then get cold from the sudden wind. It was tedious and exhausting. At a certain point the trail opens up to a large connection of trails and the sign said it was 2.7 miles to the peak. I only went one mile and I was bricked already.

The only thing I kept thinking was, “well you’re here – and you’re doing it, so you might as well finish”. Each new level of elevation brought more epic views and I found that I had cell service. I took some pics and texted them to my parents.

By the time I saw the emergency cabin at the top I was beat. Only to realize there was 0.2 miles to go to the actual peak. It was a 15 minute slog up slushy snow to the top and FINALLY I was there. It was a nice, but not worth the trouble to be honest. On my way down I saw B&C who I somehow passed.

We ate lunch at the cabin and talked with some day hikers (they smelled fresh and clean). You can either go down the way you came up and rejoin the PCT there or go down the North path and connect to the trail on the other side. We chose the North route which turned out to be a big mistake.

The North side was all covered in snow and by the time we ventured down it the sun had mushified every bit of that snow. Despite the microspikes I was wearing every step was a guessing game of slip or slide? About half a mile down the actual trail disappeared and previous hikers made a trail straight down the mountain which cut out the switchbacks. This terrifying development had me slow down to a sloth’s pace.

While B&C apparently had no problem with defying gravity bounding down the mountain with little regard for their precious meat parts, I was of a more anxious mind set. Every nerve in my body was on high alert to every tree, boulder, and prickly bush, and sending red alarm sirens through my brain. I fell a couple of times and painted a new bruise on my arm, but eventually made it to the bottom where the grade of the trail evened out. With the actual threat done, my emotional body reared up and decided it was a good time for an ugly cry.

One melt down later I was cruising along the PCT proper, and came to some actual stone steps. I found it hilarious after all that stress to find something so innocuous and helpful. At the next water source we found Austin eating, having made the prudent decision to not hike the San Jacinto alternate. I kept walking to the next campsite. All I wanted to was lay down. I found a nice little windless spot under a pine tree and passed out.

Day 19 – 19.5 miles

I woke feeling battered and deep fried. It was slow going until my muscles warmed up and the pains dulled to a mild simmer. There was some more snow on Fuller Ridge, but this wasn’t as terrifying as the trail didn’t go straight down the mountain. Then it was a forever climb down of switchback after switchback. The busy I-10 slowly became closer and closer.

At one point I looked down and thought “oh that looks like the diamond pattern of a rattlesnake but red and orange” only to realize it was a rattlesnake. Just sitting there chillin. I didn’t bother it and kept scooting along. Around boulders and down into the valley I went. My feet became numb so I didn’t even feel the rocks poking anymore.

I made it to the bottom finally and to a water faucet. I was supposed to meet B&C here to camp but I didn’t see them. I kept walking down to the road and still didn’t see them. Figuring they went further I kept walking until the sun was starting to set. I got service to find out they had Ubered to a hotel in Cabazon.

It was getting pretty dang windy so I tried to find the lowest laying most sheltered spot in an open desert. It wasn’t easy but I managed to wrangle my tent into a dry creek bed by some bushes. It was okay until about 2300 and then the wind gusts collapsed my tent on me. I’d get out and fix it and it would happen again. Eventually I gave up and packed up my stuff with my tent flopping over me.

I was trying to wrangle my tent into my pack with my headlamp on and noticed a bunch of honking a few dirt roads up from me. I saw a car driving around and felt a cold pit of dread in my stomach. I quickly threw things in pockets and ran down the trail with my headlamp off. I saw the car racing along the base of the mountain in the distance where it began to climb up somehow. It turned towards the valley and cut its lights. To be honest I have no idea if they were trying to frighten me or were just some dumb idiots riding around, but my gut said to get out of there and I followed.

Luckily there was a quarter moon to light my way and it was fairly simple to follow the desert trail up to a certain point. The closer I got to I-10 though the rougher and sandier the terrain got. It was a little like walking on the beach, but a whole lot less fun. After an hour of walking I got to the I-10 underpass and out of the wind. There wasn’t anybody there, but there was a hiker rest spot of sorts that was usually used during the day. I didn’t unpack, just lay out my sleeping pad. By now it was nearly 0200 and I was exhausted but I still couldn’t close my eyes. From my vantage point nestled between a concrete pillar and wall I could see the stars. I stared out at them and eventually the hum of vehicles overhead lulled me to sleep.

Day 20 – 11.2 miles & Day 21 – 0 miles

I startled awake around 0600 as an extremely loud vehicle jetted across the bridge above me. A dim pre dawn light served to illuminate my surroundings. What seemed threatening in the dark now appeared just dirty, but not scary. I ate my breakfast in the gravel and got up to start another day.

The trail on the other side of I-10 crawled through a canyon and a wind farm. It was a seemingly never ending climb up where the wind kept pushing against me. The bursts of wind were brutal and I kept having to stop and brace myself.

Weary and wary I kept plodding towards White Water Preserve. I could tell I was getting close when I started smelling the fresh scents of day hikers on the wind. The trail zig zagged down to the canyon floor with a drastic change in scenery. I wanted to get to the preserve because my friend David from Tzafyville (my old Atlanta apartment) had offered to house me in Palm Springs if I got there. Which I did with all due haste.

After the last couple of days I was really looking forward to a clean bed, hot food, and seeing a friendly face. David picked me up and whisked me away to Palm Springs where I got to see all the cute houses including Bob Hope’s Space Port looking house on the hill. (Seriously look it up, it’s so cool looking). I got a home cooked meal and David even made my favorite dessert of his from the Tzafyville days: Eclair cake. David and his fiance went back to his place and I was left the run of David’s condo, where I promptly went to sleep and didn’t wake up for nine whole hours. It was blissful. I did zero stuff the next day – sleep, eat, hang out. David took me to see the Cabazon dinosaurs. It was a nice day off.

2 thoughts on “The PCT – Desert Sec. – Days 15 – 21

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