hippies

On the PCT: Wrightwood

Before I set foot on the Pacific Crest Trail, I’d imagined that walking through southern California would involve plodding through lots of gently rolling chaparral.  Sometimes that’s exactly what it’s like, but most of the time southern California is full of surprising variety.  That has certainly been the case in the last few days.

After thawing in Big Bear following a snowstorm, Pine Nut and I hiked northward to Wrightwood, where we’d meet Pine Nut’s partner, Little Ant, who was working on healing a nasty case of plantar fasciitis.  The days between Big Bear and Wrightwood sounded miserable in the guidebook, but we were pleasantly surprised time and time again.

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Big Bear

The snowstorm had frozen itself into our memory, and Pine Nut and I both spent the first five miles out of Big Bear in awe of sunlight and warmth.  The trail was easy, and the pines and cedars lining it were beautiful.  We camped in a clearing in the hills and woke up to frost on our tents, which blessedly warm sun melted and evaporated as we breakfasted and prepared to hike.

According to my journal, the day was “generally perfect.”  The cedars along the trail were huge, the sky was the sort of Windex blue I’d never seen outside of New England, and, perhaps most astoundingly, the trail we were walking on was dirt — not sand, not rock, but dirt!

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The fire-scorched valley

Rounding a corner and looking over an expansive valley, behind which gigantic peaks towered, I was amazed at the loveliness of southern California.  But, then, I looked more closely at the trees rising from the valley and noticed that they were all scorched.  I was staring at the aftermath of an enormous fire, and each of the trees in the valley was a victim.  It was so very sad.

The highlight of the day was Hulcomb Creek, which Pine Nut and I arrived at toward the end of the day.  The stream was cool and clear and riffled; it was shaded by cottonwoods and bordered by herbaceous plants.  I spotted a water penny, a macroinvertebrate found only in healthy streams, under the first rock I overturned.  Hulcomb Creek was perfect.

While the next day involved carrying more water, it also involved looking at a lot of water, as the trail spent miles and miles following contours above Deep Creek.  We took a break from contour walking to enjoy some hot springs, a favorite destination of nylon-clad hikers and unclad locals alike.  Sitting at the water’s edge, enjoying the contrasting sensations provided by the hot springs and the cool creek, I appreciated the natural beauty of the area and the company of the other swimmers and waders.

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A rainbow bridge over Deep Creek

The feelings of community persisted that evening, when Pine Nut and I, scared off a ridge by intense desert winds, found ourselves at a large crowded campsite, surrounded by many other friendly hikers.  We saw some people we hadn’t seen for miles and met others who’d been ahead of or behind us until that night.  While I was happy for the hiker culture, I was even more glad about the warmth of the night.

The next morning saw us contour walking on white sand above the Mojave River Valley, which was so green that it looked out of place.  Once we left behind the valley, we found ourselves staring at the sparkling water of and green mountains surrounding Silverwood Lake.  The allure was too great:  Pine Nut and I waded into the water as soon as we came to a beach.  I barely blinked for fear that I’d miss a moment of seeing the landscape around me.

The next day, which took us down to and up from Cajon Pass and toward Wrightwood, was more trying.  It involved an early stop at a McDonald’s that the guidebook listed as the “last on-trail water before Wrightwood,” some 27.5 miles away.  The day also included  around five or six thousand feet of climbing beautiful mountains.  The day was oddly tiring, and coming upon poodle dog bush, a plant whose rash-inducing oils have been the subject of trail horror stories for years, at the end of the day was especially trying.  Pine Nut and I did an awkward dance down the trail as we worked to avoid the poodle dog bush that seemed to be coming to attack us.  We collapsed, exhausted, at the first campsite we came across.

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In Wrightwood

And, then, there was yesterday, when we woke up to a chilly morning of blue sky and puffy clouds.  A couple hours later, the clouds moved in, grew darker, and opened up, letting loose fierce winds and ice-snow of the variety that stings any exposed skin.  Pine Nut and I kicked it into high gear, covering what would have normally taken us six hours in less than five, as we dashed to Wrightwood.

So, here we are, taking a zero day in town with Little Ant as the snow continues falling on the mountains.  We’ve done our errands and spent much of the day eating and watching a mix of the Disney Channel and “Naked and Afraid.”  But, tomorrow, we’ll be in the woods again, heading toward Canada.

On the PCT: Warner Springs, Part Two

I’ve actually done it.  I’ve resisted the urge to (Rainbow) dash along and taken some much needed zeroes.  In the five days that I haven’t hiked, I’ve been thinking a lot about community.

While I’ve zeroed, I met the blogger behind BikeHikeSafari.  He is even cooler in real life than he seems in his blog.

There were reunions all around.  I got to see the hikers I’d met all the way back in Campo; I was caught by Wild Bill and company, with whom I went to New York City while we were all on the AT in 2012; and I was recognized by Sprout, a 2014 AT hiker I’d hiked near in Maine.

The backpacking community is ridiculously small, and that’s one of the things I like most about it.  Out here, there never seems to be more than one or two degrees of separation between two people.  As a result, reputation is as important as it is in small-town America.

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Tent city in Warner Springs

For the most part, hikers are very mindful of and interested in building community.  There’s an ethic of sharing that’s implied in this lifestyle.  From the water sources (and, more importantly, water caches) to the campsites to the hiker boxes, what’s one’s is also someone else’s.  I was thinking of John Lennon’s “Imagine”:  We don’t stay in place long enough to have anything like the “country” he sings about; similarly, it’s difficult to be concerned with possession or be materialistic when you live out of a backpack.

There are many ways in which the trail isn’t a perfect community, and there have been a number of conversations online about perceived flaws with it as of late.  However, it’s interesting to consider the ways in which the trail serves as a microcosm wherein community is created.

For years, I’d struggled to articulate exactly what I meant when I think of the depth of conversations I have out here.  After the gear conversations (that drive me batty) of the first few hundred miles, people seem to talk about who they are, rather than what they are.  It’s not about what job you hold or what your spouse or children do for work; it’s not about what car you drive or home you live in.  It’s simply about who you are, what you believe, and where you’re from and heading.

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Waiting out 60mph winds in the Resource Center

Out here, the playing field has been leveled.  Everyone is dirty and stinky and passionate about the natural world and/or outdoor adventure and/or athletic endeavors.

I enjoyed watching this play out while I was holed up at the Warner Springs Resource Center, where older community members host a full-service hiker reststop.  Hikers who hadn’t met one another before fell into conversation quickly and parted company with the blessing of “Happy trails!”  In the tent city that was created on the Resource Center’s lawn every night, hikers shared stories through tent walls, thankful to have had warm food, showers, and clean laundry and to not be spending a night in the hypothermic conditions that have predominated the southern California mountains recently.

It was beautiful, but I was so, so ready to hike on.  Finally, when my swelling and pain decreased to the point that I didn’t need to get ice from the fire station next door, I shouldered my pack and headed north.