Wild

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Looking back at San Jacinto

Meal Idea: Chili

WILD_movie_posterFirst things first:  This aspiring PCT thru-hiker got to see Wild last night!  Before I write about what I thought of the movie, I feel I should explain my thoughts on the Wild phenomenon.  I like to think I read Cheryl Strayed’s book “before it was cool,” and I definitely was planning my thru-hike (and had already hiked the AT) before the book came out.  Nonetheless, I have no complaints about the attention the book and, now, the movie are bringing to the trail.  (In fact, it bothers me how elitist and sexist some of the criticism of the book from within the hiker community has been.)  If, in years to come, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir brings more passionate, idealistic hikers to the trail hoping to use their time in the wilderness to overcome past wounds and become the people they want to be, I think that would be a beautiful thing.

Anyway, I sincerely enjoyed the movie.  I didn’t love it as much as I loved the book, but that’s kind of typical for me.  In my opinion, curling up with a book is just a more moving, intimate experience than watching a movie ever is.  I was amazed at how well Reese Witherspoon embodied my imagined Cheryl Strayed.  There were lots of little details that I loved — from the retro Clif Bar wrapper to Strayed’s ragged breathing in her spoken thoughts.  The movie wasn’t an account of Strayed’s hike, but neither was the book; both depicted her journey, in the larger sense.  I thought that it was a beautiful movie.  (If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!)

So, anyway, chili.

I grew up terrified of beans.  My best guess as to why that is, is my mother’s rigid avoidance of them.  It wasn’t until I’d been a vegetarian for more than a decade that I finally ate them — and found that, not only could I tolerate them, I really liked them.  As a whole new world opened up to me, it was only a matter of time before I’d discover the wonders of chili and appreciate it as the perfect cold-weather meal.

Eating rehydrated chili on the trail begins with making normal chili at home.  If you’re more familiar with the dish than 20-year-old Rainbow Dash had been, you probably have a favorite chili recipe.  (If you don’t, you could go to the Trail’s End Festival in Millinocket, ME, and taste-test your way around the chili cook-off.)

When I’m making chili for the trail, I begin with just a few ingredients:

  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes (cans of diced and pureed tomatoes provide easy shortcuts)
  • Beans (cans of kidney, black, and even garbanzo beans)
  • TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein, either of a generic brand or the flavored “crumbles” that Morningstar makes)
  • Chili powder and any other complimentary spices I’m fond of at the moment

Cooking chili is a simple as sautéing the onions, garlic, and peppers, stirring in the remaining ingredients, and then adding salt and pepper and other flavors until it tastes the way you like it.  Because dehydrating food sometimes seems to diminish the food’s flavor, it’s generally a good idea to over-spice and over-season foods for a backpacking trip.  And, unless you are proficient in dehydrating corn, I recommend leaving it out of your chili; that’s one of those foods that tends to give novice dehydrators some issues.

After you’ve got a nice pot of chili, just spoon it thinly onto lined dehydrator trays and put it in your dehydrator for 8 hours or so at a medium setting.  When the food is dry inside and out, divide it among Ziploc freezer bags and stick it in your pack or resupply box.  All you’ll need to do when you get to camp is add boiling water to the bag and let the food rehydrate for 5-10 minutes.

When I’m backpacking, I like to add rice to my chili (which I add cook, dehydrate, and add to the bags before I pack them) or serve it burrito-style in tortillas — or both.  However I serve it, it’s a great way to warm up on a chilly evening or after a rainy day hiking in Maine.