Finally!! No more desert. Reaching the High Sierra means goodbye to scorching heat. Goodbye mandatory siestas. Goodbye night hiking. Goodbye rattlesnakes. Goodbye forest fire closures and their resulting poodle dog bush infestations and detours. Goodbye desolate landscapes. Goodbye 10+ litre per day water consumption and 20 mile water carries. Goodbye cactus and yucca with your stabbing leaves. Goodbye and good riddance.
Most hikers see the desert section as just a chore to get through; a trial by fire that weeds out the untrue. And while it was miserable at times, there were some amazing moments, and despite my complaining I enjoyed much of it. Even the yucca and rattlesnakes… to a point. Beside the long list of annoyances, I would also be saying goodbye to stunning desert sunsets, fragrant fields of sagebrush and forests of mesquite, perfect nighttime temperatures,
Actually, the majority of what the hikers dub desert is really a Mediterranean forest, woodlands, and scrub biome, more commonly referred to in the US as Chaparral. But as I trudged up the mountains and across the valleys of Southern California I could see how they would confuse the two.
I enjoyed the novelty of this region, as growing up in the midwest provides little opportunity to experience the vastly different wildlife and vegetation of the Southwest. I found the landscapes truly beautiful. The yucca and manzanita were probably my favorites of the flora, but getting a nose full of sagebrush was always welcome. But no matter the beauty, my water woes outweighed my happiness most of the days. It’s hard to focus on how amazing the hike is when all you can think about is how much water you can allow yourself to drink and how many miles you have left until the next source. Every once in a while, however, I’d cross a meadow or dip into a little oasis and everything would seem alright again.
Coming in to Warner Springs I got both. As I crossed a ridge, like magic the trail became surrounded with actual green trees and grasses. I dropped into Barrel Spring (my first natural water source on the trail) and chatted with the cache bashers soaking up water and some much needed shade. Not 2 miles out the landscape changed again suddenly and I was walking across rolling grassy meadows and cow pastures. As I approached Eagle Rock I had to actually chase cows out of my way and they glared at me angrily from their new vantage a few yards away. Then, another 2 miles down the road I was yet again in a tree lined canyon with a little creek running through it. The desert isn’t always angry, but it certainly is bipolar.
The next 50 miles were pretty barren, but I met the people I’d spend the next month with and we were having fun despite the environment, laughing endlessly and learning about each other in our honeymoon phase. Then, starting with Idyllwild, almost exactly every hundred miles the trail would rise high enough that evergreens replaced sagebrush and the temperature became a little more accommodating. Though it did dip a little lower than expected as my Team Siesta friends and I approached Mt. San Jacinto. In Idyllwild, the four of us -O.G., Puddin’, Hocus Pocus and myself- spent a couple of days at the home of “Bones,” one of O.G.’s friends from the Appalachian Trail, where we were pampered with pizza, homebrew, a nice, warm fire, and a private sitar session. In addition, I got my first shower and proper meal since leaving the border 150 miles back.
But we had to break out of the town vortex eventually, so the morning of our third day we grudgingly set out for the trail again. Bones drove us up to Humber Park where the Devil’s Slide trail would lead us back up to the PCT.As one would expect from the name, Devil’s Slide took us up a steep route to over 8000 feet, past Tahquitz Peak, to the PCT junction. From there we crested 9000 approaching the San Jacinto summit side trail. We decided against a summit because in the course of nine short miles the weather had turned from sunny and hot to cool and foggy. Then we got sporadic rain, sleet and hail before the fog got so that we couldn’t see 20 feet ahead and the snow started. We had to make a snap decision to camp in a tiny clearing we came across or try to reach a larger spot designated on the map a few miles out.
We tore a few dead plants out to expand the clearing (and in the process realized we were surrounded by thorn bushes) and squeezed three tents in it, Hocus Pocus and I bunking up in my 2-person. Our tents were so close that we could basically hear each other breathing, so we joked with one another for a bit from our own little nests before falling asleep with no sound but the little crunches of snow colliding with tent.
We woke the next day to find clear skies above and a layer of clouds obscuring our view of the valley floor, but all the mountain tops poked through like so many islands. The snow hadn’t amounted to more than a few inches, but it served to slow us down as we made our way down to the next valley. The whole way down we could see the desert (the real desert) looming far below which provided a surreal contrast to the snow covered forest we were currently treading through. We walked 20 miles of trail before we made it to the valley floor, and while the transition was gradual, it was still strange. Only 5 miles of sand and wind farms separated us from our destination for the day: the home of trail angels Ziggy and the Bear.
I think if I ever found myself stranded in the middle of a large sandy expanse I would probably just sit down and calmly ride out my last few hours, because walking those 5 miles across the San Gorgonio Pass took more out of me than the previous 20. The last couple miles we were all fantasizing out loud about fresh fruit and ice cream and beer. We thought we were walking into an actual town with, bare minimum, a gas station and convenience store, but soon realized it was just a cluster of homes 3 miles from any services. However, walking under the old wooden Union Pacific rail bridge and the slightly more modern I-10 overpass we I spotted a couple of ice chests along the wall. Someone had left soda, beer, cold bottled water, peanuts… and fresh fruit!! We could scarcely believe it.
It was almost too good to be true. We each availed ourselves of a beverage, some nuts, and a piece of fruit before writing our thanks in a trail register there and finished out the last mile and change in a much happier place. We stumbled in to Ziggy and the Bear’s and were given a brief tour by none other than Puppy from the Laguna Mountain Sports. She was apparently making her way up the trail in her truck, offering help to the various trail angels along the way. So she checked us in, took our pictures and informed us that we were just in time for ice cream!!! The trail provides!
We camped in the back yard that night with 20ish other hikers and woke refreshed and ready to smash out another 25 mile day. But moments before we hit the trail, Hocus Pocus got a call from her grandfather announcing that he was driving through on his way to Palm Springs and had chocolate and fresh fruit for us! We ran out to greet him out front of the house and chatted with her grandfather, Don, and his his friends for a bit and thanked them repeatedly. But soon we had to push on before the midday heat kicked in, so we bid them farewell and wandered off into the wind farms again.
The landscape changed again as we headed up into the San Bernardino Mountains and the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Rolling hills replaced boulder strewn Chaparral, but brown remained the main color on the palette. Still, cows and horses could be seen grazing far off on the hillsides, and the change to grasslands was a welcome one. The trail descended sharply into the Whitewater Preserve where the namesake Whitewater River meanders down through a wide, rocky valley. On the climb back into the mountains I found myself dodging dozens of intrepid little caterpillars coming out to play as the sun began to set.
The following day we rose from our creekside camp spot and followed said creek for miles as we slowly climbed back up into another sky island (I just learned there’s a name for it!) of green pine, fir and cedar. Then came the poodle dog bush. Poodle dog grows in burn areas, and as we made our way into the next valley the greenery was abruptly cut off and replaced with eerie ghost trees and the dreaded poodle. Although no one I know managed to be subjected to its poison, apparently the rash resulting from contact can form nasty blisters, and in rare cases requires medical attention. We treated it like molten lava and danced carefully between its drooping stalks.
Soon enough though we were back in evergreens on our way up to Big Bear. I was running out of food and had sprinted ahead of the rest of the Team, determined to get into town that night instead of the following morning as they had planned. Four miles before the road in to town, however, I stopped dead in my tracks as I processed what I was looking at. A few other hikers I knew were sitting on a tattered love seat. Next to a dumpster. Full of food. There were cookies and sodas and bananas and cans of chicken and dumplings. I couldn’t have been happier.
I sat there and waited for the rest of Team Siesta to catch up and we all reaped the spoils before taking a… well, siesta, naturally. The next day we zeroed in Big Bear my friend Caroline joined us, and we ate everything we could get our hands on for 48 hours. Big Bear was much easier to leave than Idyllwild, and the group, now 5, hour back on trail with the magic 100 mile gap to the next town, Wrightwood. This time we had an additional carrot dangling ahead of us: a McDonald’s less than 1/2 a mile off trail at Cajon Pass. Now I’m no fan, generally, but all those calories so close at hand were too tempting to pass up. But there were many miles to cover before then, and those first few days out of Big Bear were my favorite of the 700 miles leading up to the Sierras. The second day out we entered Deep Creek Canyon and followed it for the next 17 miles.
I had managed to get myself incredibly painful shin splints the first day out so as I approached Deep Creek Bridge, the first point of access, I was moving at about half my normal pace and wincing with every step. I made it down to the creekside by sheer force of will and dipped my swollen ankle and shin into the cool water. After a brief swim, some sunning on a sand bar and some more “icing” in the river, O.G. stepped into his alter-ego of Nurse Hanlin and wrapped up my foot and ankle to restrict movement. This helped quite a bit and I was able to put pressure on that leg without too much pain. Still, I was struggling and we started eyeing spots along the creek to camp. The only problem was that we had risen high enough in the 3 miles we had covered since the bridge that the creek was now at least 100 feet below us down a steep canyon wall. Caroline spotted a slightly worn path down the cliff and across some boulders so we slowly lowered ourselves to the canyon floor to a sandy bank along the creek and made camp. An old trail buddy of ours, Indie, had rejoined us after having not seen each other for a couple days, and, after the sun had set, he got a fire going in seconds. We made dinner and followed it up with chocolate pudding with s’mores Pop-Tarts crumbled up in it. I may have been in intense pain, but I was pretty blissed out when I went to bed. It is still one of the best camp sites we’ve had and it’s owed to my inability to walk any further. So I had that going for me, which was nice.
Scrambling out of the canyon in the morning was a good way to get the blood flowing, although O.G. carried my bag up for me, despite my stubborn protesting. His command to “Stop being a man and let me carry your pack.” didn’t help my decision to relinquish control, but I ultimately conceded so as to not slow down the group with further injury. We made it to Deep Creek Hot Springs by midday, and fortunately there were some pools for swimming in addition to the hot spring. We lounged and swam for hours and, with much deliberation, passed on the mushroom party taking place that night in favor of hiking on. As tempting as it was, the people at the spring were not on our wavelength and there were just too many of them (plus we’d been buzzed by a sheriff’s helicopter earlier in the day and weren't keen to get busted with the delinquents).
We made it out of the canyon into the dry Mojave River Dam Reservoir by early evening, and pressed on past nightfall before we found a suitable campsite with our old friend Lumber who was already snug in his tent. We were planning to all cowboy camp, but Puddin’ let us know we were on top of an ant colony by discovering an army of them in his pants and dancing around to rid himself of them. I committed a bit of ant genocide before realizing we were grossly outnumbered. We rethought our strategy and found space for tents after all.
The following day we had a lake to look forward to! We rose later than we should have and ended up struggling through the heat of midday with temperatures cresting 100. Finally, we crossed a ridge and Silverwood Lake stretched out below us, boats and jet skis skimming across its deep blue surface. I checked the Halfmile app on my phone to see where the rest area -our appointed rendezvous location- was located. Still 3 miles to go!! I hobbled along, sweating copiously, eyeing every little cove and beach hoping that the rest of the group decided on stopping short, but no luck.
We ended up at a picnic area with a bunch of other thru-hikers and some drunk yahoos (our term for any non-thru-hiker) who were quite funny to watch, but we stayed away despite them offering tubing trips around the lake and ice cold Coors. One yahoo actually had a Coors Light tattoo across his rather impressive belly. Not the most relaxing siesta to date, but entertaining and, importantly, well shaded. We hiked out another 8 miles or so to a ridge high above the lake and camped near about ten other hikers, all of us strategically positioned a couple hours walk from Cajon Pass and McDonald’s, hoping to get there right at the magic hour right before breakfast ends so we have our pick of the meal periods. I know, it’s pretty pathetic.
The walk in in the morning seemed to take forever, but the scenery was quite dramatic as I approached the pass. We spent hours at McDonald’s. Packs were piled up everywhere, inside and out, and I fear to think about the stench that must have hit the olfactory organs of every non-hiker that walked through the door. We were all more-or-less immune to our aromas by now, but every now and then even I smelled someone walking by. It was awful.
That night we hiked out as the sun was setting and shortly we were completely in the dark. Every few minutes a train would rumble through the valley and its light would illuminate the valley and much of the mountain side. Once far enough away, however, it was nearly silent, and we marched on with the silhouettes of the mountains ahead of us and shooting stars distracting us from the task of walking. We had little choice to hike up the top of the ridge and off trail a bit along a jeep road before finding any flat space to sleep. But when we woke we found we were right near the beginning of a poodle dog detour that kept us on that same jeep road for 4 miles.
By lunch time we were in yet another sky island, and by dinner we were perched above Wrightwood, perfectly poised to drop in for breakfast in the morning.
We checked into a “cabin” the first night where O.G. cooked us all puttanesca and we played various board games. However, Hocus Pocus got to talking to a woman at the grocery store and was offered free lodging by some trail angels, Don and Yvonne Johnson. We were a little worried about our numbers (our group had swollen to 6!), but they said it would be fine for all of us to go. They picked us up from our current lodging, dropped us off at their house and told us to make ourselves at home and promptly left for dinner down in Rancho Cucamonga, leaving us to our own devices. But not before offering to stop at REI if we needed anything. I guiltily took them up on their REI offer, not wanting to put them out any further, but desperately needing a few items. I don’t exaggerate when I say that they were unbelievably hospitable. That night when they got back and during breakfast in the morning we talked about our experience thus far on the PCT and their multiple trips on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. In the morning they made us breakfast then dropped us at the trailhead 5 miles out of town, gave us hugs and their contract info with the hopes that we will meet up a little up the trail.
From there we had a 5 mile warm up before the steep 4 mile approach to the summit of Mt Baden-Powell. MBP proved to be a difficult climb. It even elicited an F-Bomb out of Hocus Pocus who is normally very reserved. I was amused. Although it’s only a 2800 foot gain in 4 miles, the starting elevation is about 6600 feet, so I was already starting above the elevation of the typical mountains I would summit on my day hikes in Washington.
Our next resupply would be at Hiker Heaven, the home of the Saufley’s that I mentioned in my last post. Between that and us stood roughly 76 miles of overgrown, poodle dog and poison oak infested hot, inhospitable trail. We plowed forward regardless, getting detoured by rare frogs and poodle dogs, doing some road walking and alternate trails (one of which took us through a little wooded paradise down in Cooper Canyon), getting rained on for the first time, hailed on for the second, and a little trail magic in the form of Mountain Dew, Red Bull, donuts and twizzlers from Nicotine, who was dropping out to get back to his love in Austria. These are the metaphorical ups and downs of the trail.
As we neared the Saufley’s we were informed that there was a KOA campground 10 miles before where you could shower, do laundry, swim in a pool and order delivery Chinese or pizza from the town of Acton. The last bit sold us. As we wound our way around the mountains the sound of mariachi and cumbia music rolled its way up the hillsides. It was Memorial Day weekend. Hundreds of weekend warriors in RV’s and 6-person tents had come out to enjoy nature, with a DJ and taco truck to keep them entertained and fed if they got bored of the pool and too lazy to use their giant barbecues they had brought with. It was an assault to the senses. However, Caroline’s feet would allow her to go no further, so we stopped there for the night regardless, while HP, OG and Puddin’ carried on to Vasquez Rocks 7 miles out. But not before gorging on ice cream, Cheetos, pizza and wings. But hey, we need the calories any way we can get them (see: McDonald’s, Cajon Pass).
Walking through Vasquez Rocks in the morning was lovely, but I detoured myself and ended up about 2 miles from the intended destination. After some map consultation and some road walking I rolled into the Saufley’s a little after 10. We all reunited for a bit, but Caroline needed a zero to nurse her feet and the German television crew was slated to meet me the following day to catch up on my progress and film a little at the Hiker Heaven. The rest of Team Siesta (minus Indie) hung out for the day, had some Mexican food, then left as the day cooled. Our zero was actually really nice, and we jumped in on a shuttle to REI and, notably, In-n-Out -access to which had me excited from the outset of planning this trip. At REI I got new trekking poles and new shoes, but deliberated on a new pack (the old one was too big to begin with and got bigger in the waistband as I shed pounds). That deliberation caused me to have to spend 2 zeros in Mojave, the armpit of America, but we’ll get to that.
In order to beat the heat the next day, Caroline (now dubbed Karaoke for her performances at the Saufley’s) and I opted for a 3:30 am wake up call, and put in 5 miles before the sun broke the horizon. We were to hike with the Germans that day, so we siesta’d for a few hours then walked with them and filmed sporadically until near sunset, so we lost a few hours and half a dozen miles, but gained fleeting fame in Germany. I’d say that’s a win.
Twenty-four miles past the Saufley’s the trail drops down to San Francisquito Canyon Road which is significant for two reasons: Casa de Luna, the home of trail angels Terrie and Joe Anderson, is a few miles west, and the trail north is closed from this point on for 40 miles due to a fire a couple years back. Despite hearing how amazing and restful the manzanita grove camp sites are at the Anderson’s, we had to pass on staying the night to try and make up the miles. We dropped in for a bit, however to get water and assess our strategy for the fire closure (to road walk or not to road walk…) and struggled to stay true to our plan of not staying. Some people were running shuttles up to different points, but they were booked by other hikers before we’d even arrived, so, after taking off the Hawaiian shirts we’d been provided on arrival, Karaoke and I walked to the main road and stuck out our thumbs. Four hitches and a pit stop at a pub later we arrived at Hikertown, a weird collection of semi-abandoned cars (including a Rolls-Royce) and buildings made to look like a wild west town right on the fringe of the Mojave Desert. It was very odd, and we stayed just long enough to gather water and our bearings before heading off into the desert following the LA aqueduct.
The next couple of days we hiked well into the night and woke before sunrise as there was little shade or water in this stretch. The scenery would have been quite dull if it weren’t for the novelty of Joshua trees and a close proximity to very large wind turbines. Slowly the terrain grew hilly again and we climbed up into the Tehachapi range as the sun set on our second day in the Mojave. By the morning of the third day we were only 10 miles out from the road to Mojave and we were in town by 1 pm and managed to catch up with OG, Puddin’, and Indie. Hocus Pocus had gotten a ride in to Tehachapi twenty-some miles to the west and was in a hurry to get some more miles in before a break for a wedding in Washington D.C., so we lost her for the next couple weeks.
And here is where my deliberation on the backpack screwed me. After leaving REI, I turned around and ended up ordering the pack over the phone to be delivered to the Days Inn in Mojave. The man on the phone was so nice and helpful that when he said it would be there in 4 days (which would have been Thursday the 29th of May) I didn’t think to question that and maybe throw down for expedited shipping. So when UPS tracking had a delivery date of June 2nd my heart sank. I couldn’t possibly ask the boys and Karaoke to wait for me, so I bid them farewell on Sunday and escaped the town of Mojave for the much more pleasant (and less meth-y) Tehachapi. To console myself, I treated myself to a double feature of Godzilla (meh) and X-Men (amazing!), and in between I met some 2013 thru-hikers who informed me that I could camp at the airport and use the pilots lounge for a shower, Wi-Fi, or to just chill out in some old recliners and watch the telly. It was a truly unique experience and saved me from camping in a field in the middle of town. I would have been fine either way, but camping at an airport is just more interesting of a story.
This post has gotten out of control! I had some catching up to do, but you must be bored to tears. I’ll leave off there, and finish the saga of the desert and my pursuit of Team Siesta at another time. But here, have a selfie.