It must have been around 14:00 Monday afternoon when the first doubt started wriggling its way into my consciousness. In the middle of the Southern California desert, I stopped for maybe the 8th time that day to stretch my shoulders and give my legs a break. The heat was pressing down on me with more force than my pack, which, as it happens, was 55 pounds; far from the 30 pound weight I had carried 20 miles the previous day. How the hell was I going to walk another 2670?
Sunday morning, 6:00am. I crawled out of my tent and my eyes panned over the camp. The Lake Morena campground was still full of stragglers from the previous two days' festivities, but today they would make their way home or begin their journey north; the Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick-Off (ADZPCTKO, much easier, right?) party was officially over. Shit was about to get real, as they say. I reached back into my tent to grab my already packed bag. I had stuffed almost everything in it the night before, the only thing I would add was my sleeping bag and camp mattress, leaving my tent and food behind as this was my final destination for the day. The actual start point of Pacific Crest Trail was near Campo, 19.5 trail miles south of the campground at the Mexican border, so I would "slackpack" back to the campground to complete the first leg with only a portion of my actual pack weight.
I don't remember how the actual conversation went, but I had somehow attached myself to a German television program doing a feature about the PCT. This morning they emerged from out of nowhere and started filming as I was shuffling around camp preparing for the walk. They made their way over to me as I was quickly shoving a roast beef sandwich into my face, and Ingo, the host of the show, started asking me questions. After a few garbled (and slightly embarrassed) responses, I choked down the rest of my sandwich and we set off for the border.
A short car ride later, my crew of 2013 thru-hikers, Dr Slosh, Rocky, T-Rex, Starfox, Chik-Chak and myself piled out of the two cars and the TV crew rolled up in their van. The 2013'ers were climbing the monument erected to signal the southern terminus of the trail and reminiscing about their day, one year earlier, when they set off from this exact spot. I wandered around taking it all in and snapping a few photos before the TV crew started to do their thing.
After a few minutes of filming at the monument, I said my goodbyes to my new friends and started off down the trail with the Germans. We wandered down a short ways, Ingo asking me questions as we sauntered. Other hikers were making their ways up the path so the camera girl had to keep cutting as they approached from behind. After a few takes and about 1/8 of a mile we parted ways and I was off on my own finally. It was nearly 8:00 by this point, so I needed to hustle.
I shot off down the trail at a good clip, smiling like an idiot and having intense bursts of excitement wash over me. This lasted about 10 minutes until the first road crossing where I lost sight of the trail. Zero point 8 miles and I had already lost the trail. As I stood there looking at the map a woman pulled up and asked me if I needed help. I told her I momentarily misplaced the trail and she said it picks up again a little up the road on this same side. Great. The confidence and excitement I had been feeling moments prior was brought down to a low hum and was now accompanied by a slight undertone of shame.
Doubling down on my determination I plugged on, and as the miles ticked by without incident my confidence and happiness reemerged from the shadows and I was flying. I passed everyone who had walked by as I was filming with the Germans and I literally ran down the downhill sections. Frequently, I would stop and snap photos of the landscape or amazing desert flora, or chat with someone waiting out the heat in the shade. I myself didn't feel the need to break. Before I knew it I was back at camp to the astonishment of my friends. I had done 20 miles in just about 6 hours.
Monday morning I awoke early and stealthily packed my gear and food into my bag, leaving behind some cheese and meat that I knew wouldn't keep. Even though Mount Laguna was only 22 miles away I still had enough food left for about a week's worth of hiking. I foisted my pack onto my back, clipped in, and started off down the trail as fingers of sunlight started feeling their way over the mountains directly ahead. My pack was heavy, but not unmanageable.
But the weight of my pack wore on me. The heat was also considerably more intense and came on earlier than the previous day. Stubbornly, I pushed throught the midday heat, sweating profusely and guzzling water. Stopping frequently to catch my breath and stretch my back and legs, I felt beaten. At about my 17th mile that day my legs were giving up. Stepping over a metal gate my calf seized. By sheer will (and the belief that I was actually closer than I was) I made it to Burnt Rancheria campground at mile 41.5. After begging a group to let me join them in their camp space, I showered, cooked dinner despite not having an appetite, and set myself up for a tentless "cowboy" camp.
The night proved to be quite windy and cold, but I slept in my down jacket, balaclava, beanie, gloves, and thermals, so I managed to sleep relatively well. I woke with the sun a little above the horizon and laid in my sleeping bag for another half an hour. When I finally worked up the will to stand my legs were wobbly and sore. I had already resigned myself to doing a "nero" (a nearly-zero mile day) and to offloading some gear in a mailing home, so I was in no hurry. Choking down some granola and dried milk with water, I realized my lack of appetite was probably due to overexertion in the heat the previous day. Yet another sign that I had pushed myself too hard. My dues for the campsite were paid with Nutella and couscous, then I thanked the group for letting me stay and slogged up to the local gear shop, Laguna Mountain Sports.
When I walked in the store, the owner, Dave, greeted me and asked if he could help. I glanced around gear piled, stacked and hung from floor to ceiling with narrow corridors cut reluctantly between. Rather than search through the mountains of gear I took him up on his offer and asked for a few items. After finding the things I needed I inquired about the post office's hours. He informed me that they wouldn't be open until noon, 3 hours from then, but he handled FedEx shipments out of the shop there. It was time to mail some stuff home.
Dave had a hanging scale outside attached to the winch of an old truck that tripled as signage for his store. Before unloading anything from it, I threw my pack up there to see how much I was packing. The scale looked back at me with reading of 52 pounds. Adding the food I ate and unloaded on my campsite mates, I estimated I had 55 pounds leaving Lake Morena. 55 pounds of gear, clothes, food and water hauled over 22 miles in the desert heat. No wonder I felt the way I did. I tore through my pack, tossing socks, a shirt and other "superfluous" items into a box. I shaved 4 pounds off. I felt pretty good about that, but Dave informed me that an employee, Puppy, was doing "shakedowns" outside. That is to say, she would rummage through every item in my pack and tell me what needed to go. Desperate times calling for desperate measures, I surrendered myself to her.
Spilling everything out onto a tarp in the driveway, I sorted things into categories. Food, water and cooking gear to one side, shelter and sleeping set-up in the middle, clothing off to the side and a miscellaneous category that included electronics, books, and peripheral gear stuffs. Puppy sat observing me from a tree stump a few feet away then dug in. She convinced me to abandon stuff sacks and containers for just about everything: sleeping bag, tent bag and the seperate bag for the poles, the tiny mesh bag for my camp mat. Ounces count out here. She said she cuts all the tags off of her gear, and I've heard of people trimming their shoe laces and pack straps. Not only is abandoning stuff sacks weight saving, but the sleeping bag and tent simply stuffed into the pack will fill a lot of the little air pockets that form when you have these round, tight little packages tucked down in there. The more you know...
In addition to these easy ounce trims she talked me out of a lot of other little token items and some less-than-essential "essentials" I was reluctant to give up. She only sold me on 2 items from the store, as well: a tiny clip-on knife/scissors/tweezer Leatherman product to replace my hefty river knife and plastic sheath, and an Odor Protection Sak, or OPSak to safeguard from mice and larger would-be food thieves. I didn't wait a second to snatch that up after hearing horror stories of tents and packs being gnawed through in the night.
All in all, 10 pounds of gear went into a box to be shipped home, and that $20 FedEx shipment was probably the best $20 I ever spent. A little over 12 hours prior I had been utterly defeated stumbling in to camp. Now, walking away from Mount Laguna with a 42 pound pack I felt like I was back in the race. Instead of doing a "nero," that afternoon I smashed out 17 miles. And I had energy to spare as I lay my head down underneath the budding blanket of stars presenting themselves in the twilight.