On the PCT: Big Bear Lake

Some people, like the fabulous Pine Nut I’m hiking with, are perfectly capable of blogging while hiking.  Not me.  When I get to camp at night, there is food to eat, water to drink, dirt to wash off, a sleeping bag to loft, and blisters to pop.  And, I’ve not yet adopted the use of a solar charger to make staying “wired” out here a little easier.

But, I have been journaling, and the past week alone has yielded enough adventures for a dozen posts, once I’m back in civilization.  But, there’s only so much I can type with my thumbs before “hiker midnight.”


The view from Tahquitz

This string of wonderful-and-too-full-to-blog days probably started in Idyllwild, where I was amazed at the kindness of locals, including a man named Robert, who shuttled me around the community, shared thought-provoking stories, and sent me on my way with a full belly and an array of snacks.

From Idyllwild, a trail detour led to a choose-your-own-adventure hike, and I enjoyed hiking up Mounts Tahquitz and San Jacinto.  I’d never stood higher than when I climbed atop them, at 8,800ish and 10,800ish feet, respectively.


Near the top of San Jacinto

The next challenge was my longest day yet on trail this year: a 23.5-mile descent from San Jacinto to the valley floor below.  The descent was hot and exposed and would have felt monotonous and endless, were it not for the other hikers that I kept leapfrogging and the variety of ecosystems I reentered as I descended. My knees ached as the descent wore on, and I was exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to meet my mother’s high school friend at the base of the mountain.  Sherri brought me to her family’s home, and I savored a hot shower, a home cooked meal, good conversation, and an incredibly comfortable bed.

My night off the trail turned into a full zero day when Sherri invited me to stay for a second night and I learned that Pine Nut, with whom I was planning to hike while her partner was healing his plantar fasciitis off the trail, couldn’t meet me until the following day.  Acting as a tour guide, Sherri took me to Joshua Tree National Park and showed me the highlights of Yucca Valley, 29 Palms, and Joshua Tree.  She and her husband, Craig, also ensured that I was continuously full and very happy.  I iced my aching knees and pampered them with two long soaks in a Whirlpool bathtub, each of which led to my very sound sleeping.


I returned to the PCT rejuvenated and excited to be hiking with a friend.  Our adventure next took us to the bustling Ziggy and the Bear’s, an on-trail hostel, where I picked up a mail drop.  From there, the trail climbed up a wind-whipped valley below the turbines of a wind farm.  Conversations were abbreviated by the constant barrage of wind, but the scenery was so stark and stunning in scale that I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Against all odds, we found a place to camp out of the wind and slept soundly.

The next day, the trail took us along Mission Creek, and I spent most of our snack breaks soaking my knees in the surprisingly cool water.  Pine Nut and I talked and laughed about everything from our childhoods to current events to the trail itself.  We discussed little things and big ideas, and I enjoyed every moment of the conversations.  When we climbed to the unexpectedly cold pine forests above Mission Creek and made camp, conversation was halted when we dove into our tents early for the night, as the temperatures continues to drop.


Snow on a cactus

That night, I learned what snow upon a tent fly sounds like.  We woke up to more than an inch surrounding our camp in the pine trees; it looked and felt like Christmas morning.  That day, my hike involved fast miles and short breaks, save for a longer one to dry my tent when the sun peeked through the snow clouds.  At 4:00, the storm finally stopped.  Exhausted, I made camp soon afterward and crawled into my amazingly warm sleeping bag, dreaming of pizza in Big Bear the next day.

While the night was well below freezing, I wasn’t miserably cold, and I enjoyed the desert beauty of the hike out to Highway 18 the next morning.  I got to the road earlier than I’d expected and hitched into town, where I met Pine Nut (who’d needed to head into town early because of the weather), picked up another mail drop, and ordered two medium cheeseless spinach pizzas from Domino’s.  I ate one immediately, but I packed the second one in my pack to eat in the mountains.


Ant, Pine Nut, and me being blown by serious wind in Palm Springs

Pine Nut and I were given a ride to the trail by a kindhearted woman.  At the trailhead, we thanked her, climbed out of her car, retrieved our packs and trekking poles from the trunk, put on sunscreen, and began hiking north again.


Looking back at San Jacinto

Five Addresses in Eight Months, Part One

It’s funny which days are etched forever in our minds. One year ago today, I was enduring my second ambulance ride in as many weeks. A year before that, after having one of those life-changing, put-in-it-the-memoir family crises, I was living with 26 other people in a bunkroom in a very snow-covered Western Massachusetts as part of the SCA.


SCA Massachusetts Class of 2013

Perhaps it’s the changing weather or perhaps it’s historical precedent, but this time of year sends me into a reverie, and I decided I’d interrupt our regularly-scheduled hiking story to share some of my recollections from my time with the SCA.

In this case, the SCA is the Student Conservation Association, not the Society for Creative Anachronism. I stumbled upon the former while searching for the latter. The Student Conservation Association is an organization for which I’ve had tremendous respect for almost a decade now. Most of the members of the SCA are young adults who serve with various organizations and in various capacities across the country as they work to conserve natural areas and promote environmental awareness.

Long story short, three weeks after I got my driver’s license (as a 23-year-old), I loaded my tiny little convertible to the gills and drove it 1000 miles to Hawley, Massachusetts.

Some SCA positions are “front-country” positions. Like AmeriCorps VISTA positions, these usually see SCA members working individually with organizations, in internship-like settings. Other positions are backcountry positions, where (generally) teams of SCA members serve and camp together. Most backcountry positions focus on trail building, and the position to which I’d been accepted in Hawley was no exception.

My interview with SCA Massachusetts was memorable. They asked a question that I’d spent a great deal of time thinking about but still did not have a concise answer to: “How do you feel about cutting down trees?” I suppose my rambling answer — about the way cutting down trees for trails leads to an increased awareness and appreciation of the natural world, which leads to more conservation of trees — must have been acceptable.


My first attempt at using snowshoes

Because of everything that had happened at home, I was a mess when I got to Hawley, but the whole crew of SCA members who were already at the base camp greeted me and helped me bring my belongings into the bunkhouse. Soon, my upper bunk in a corner of the giant room started to feel homey.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much effort put into group building and communal living as that displayed by the leaders of SCA Massachusetts. They ensured that we had plenty of formal and informal time to get to know one another, led us in many reflections and games (that we could later use when we led classes of children), and set group expectations. They encouraged us to view our base camp as home and took us on outings to familiarize ourselves with the area.

Coming from the South, I wasn’t sure whether I could ever feel at home in a place like western Massachusetts in early March. The snow was three feet high, and new snow fell every few days. Winter was my usual running season (and my key stress management strategy), and I couldn’t run at all. I’d never used snow shoes, and I had no clue how to cross country ski. I didn’t even know how to split wood to heat our bunkhouse. I was eager to learn it all.


Our bunkroom

Serving with the SCA did have its challenges. The 29 (27 SCA members and two leaders) of us who lived at base camp during training had 76 gallons of water to share each day. We rarely flushed the bathroom toilets and signed up for a couple short but precious showers at the start of each week. Our bathroom was up a hill, the path to which I watched go from snow-tunneled to bog-bridged. Sharing one room meant that this SCA member, whose Lyme Disease was slowly rising to the surface, could never get enough sleep.

But, it also meant that there were always great people around. It meant that someone could find a book recommendation, a service project buddy, or a head massage whenever the mood struck. Our living situation made for an unforgettable game of Cards Against Humanity by the fire one night, and it gave me a snowy sunrise that brought me to tears a few mornings later. The SCA’s base camp in Hawley earned a special place in my memories.

Unfortunately, my time with the SCA was cut short. It turned out that lots of reflection exercises and no space to be alone to process things weren’t very conducive to phase of the healing process that I was in at that time. Our leaders were incredibly understanding when I explained what had been going on and why I needed to leave the program; I was astonished when they invited me to apply another year.

Another year, in another mindset, I think a program like SCA Massachusetts would be right up my alley. I love communal living, love the backcountry, and love being around like-minded, passionate people. But, that year, I just needed to be around friends.

And so, on a bright sunny day, moments after I’d given my goodbye hugs to SCA Massachusetts, I climbed into my convertible again, turned up the Indigo Girls, and headed to Burlington, Vermont, where, sleeping bag in hand, I knocked on an old friend’s door.

Summiting Mount Mansfield, Part One

In all the time I’ve spent hiking, there haven’t been many mountains that have stumped me, that have sent me back down to the trailhead before making it to the summit.  Katahdin did that once.  Vermont’s Mount Mansfield did it four times.

My first attempt at Mansfield was in March 2013.  With a friend and his father, I strapped on snowshoes and waded through powder on Sunset Ridge, on the western side of the mountain.  That was just five months after I’d developed a stress fracture in my foot, and I learned that a weak foot plus heavy snowshoes plus steep inclines is not a fun combination.

Two months later, I tried again.  This time, I headed to the mountain with a friend from the Intervale’s planting crew and their partner.  At the base of the mountain in Underhill State Park, the weather was in spring mode, with all the trees leafed out and wildflowers approaching their peak season.  As we ascended the mountain, we walked backward into winter and soon realized we were hiking from mud and into rotten snow.  When my hiking companions and I were thoroughly soaked and had each slipped several times, we decided to call it a day.

I didn’t have a chance to attempt Mansfield again until two weekends ago, when I found myself back in Vermont and decided to approach it from the east.  Excited at the prospect of finally making it to the summit, I readied my pack, climbed into my wagon, and headed to Stowe.  I only made it partway down VT 108 before I found that recent wintry weather had closed the road.  Unless I wanted to have an exceedingly long hike, there would be no summiting Mansfield that weekend.

This past Saturday, I tried again.  The day was gorgeous–bitterly cold but with an unbelievably blue sky.  I drove to the western side of the mountain and set off around 9:15.  I felt fairly confident that I’d make it to the summit until I came to a rock slab a little over one mile from the peak.  The slab was dramatically sloped and covered in snow and ice; it took patience and courage to climb past it in my lightweight trail shoes.  The combination of that slab, several others like it, a few slips, and my being alone on the mountain left me a bit unnerved.  As a result, when I met another hiker (who had hiked up another trail and would take Sunset Ridge down to the parking lot) 15 minutes from the summit, I decided to walk (and slide) down with him, saving Mansfield’s summit for another day.

That day turned out to be the very next, the last day of my last weekend in Vermont.

Fifth time’s the charm, right?

To be continued in the morning, when I’m less tired…