REAL LIFE CAN WAIT

Sit­ting in the dirt on the out­skirts of Idyll­wild, Cal­i­for­nia, I eye the widen­ing gash in the top of my trail run­ners. What started as a few bro­ken pur­ple fi­bres has slowly spread, and now I have a prob­lem – so much dirt is get­ting into my shoe that blist

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - WORDS: Amelia Caddy IMAGES: Kern Du­cote LO­CA­TION: Unites States of Amer­ica

Amelia Caddy

MY HIK­ING PART­NER Steely – his trail name, not his real name – gets the duct tape out, and to­gether we fash­ion a patch for my shoe, which I hope will hold un­til we reach Ziggy and the Bear's house in an­other 50 kilo­me­tres – again, not their real names. The blis­ters, I fig­ure, are in­evitable now they've started to form. They al­ways come, no mat­ter how much mole­skin I use. But I can cope with blis­ters – af­ter all, I didn't de­cide to hike from Mex­ico to Canada think­ing I'd get off blis­ter-free.

It's 6am in early May and the dawn light has not yet per­me­ated this cedar-filled val­ley in the San Jac­into moun­tains, where Pa­cific Crest Trail (PCT) hik­ers stop ev­ery year to re­sup­ply on their 4,250-kilo­me­tre jour­ney through the western-most states. Tech­ni­cally, the trail skirts around the up­per rim of the val­ley, avoid­ing town al­to­gether. But Idyll­wild's cafés and restau­rants are too much for the av­er­age calo­rie-de­pleted thru-hiker to re­sist. I'm lift­ing my pack back on when a tall man wear­ing a flu­oro yel­low run­ning shirt walks around the cor­ner. He's hold­ing a takeaway pizza box out in front of him and he grins when he catches sight of my in­cred­u­lous ex­pres­sion. “Break­fast?” Shorty asks, open­ing the box to re­veal the re­mains of a salamistrewn pizza. I can't re­sist. For all my care­ful kilo­joule tar­gets (12,550 per day, mostly in the form of Snick­ers bars), I'm con­stantly rav­en­ous. ‘Hiker hunger', as my con­di­tion is known among the thru-hik­ing com­mu­nity, is the empty feel­ing that comes from be­ing phys­i­cally un­able to carry as many kilo­joules as you're burning. To­day, we're climb­ing Mt San Jac­into, our first ma­jor peak on what will ul­ti­mately be a four-and-a-half-month hike through some of Amer­ica's high­est moun­tain ranges. At 3,302 me­tres, San Jac­into is a baby com­pared to the gi­ants to come, but with 1,340 me­tres of ver­ti­cal gain over 11 kilo­me­tres from Idyll­wild, the climb is com­pa­ra­ble to the snowy passes of the Sierra Ne­vada. Only Shorty, a Ger­man moun­taineer with the toned physique of an en­durance ath­lete, would carry a pizza box on such a climb.

I met Shorty less than three weeks ago, the night be­fore I started the

PCT. We were at Scout and Frodo's house, a res­i­den­tial home where hik­ers are given meals, show­ers, soft beds, a mail ser­vice and lifts to the trail head an hour and a half away – all for free. This is typ­i­cal of the PCT com­mu­nity, where kind strangers called ‘trail an­gels' go out of their way to help thru-hik­ers. Some­times their help comes in the form of a bed, at times in the form of a lift into town, and some­times in the form of ‘trail magic', such as an esky full of cold soft drinks on a hot day. Shorty and I didn't talk much that first meet­ing, but in the time since then, he and nu­mer­ous others have be­come close friends. So, when Shorty's arms be­gin to ache un­der the weight of the pizza box, I of­fer to take it from him,

be­cause that's what friends are for. We are com­ing at San Jac­into from the south, up the aptly named Devil's Slide Trail and then the sum­mit trail. As we get higher, the cedars give way to tall pine trees, alpine shrub­bery and boul­der fields. Fallen trees from an old storm have been care­fully sawn and dragged off the path – un­doubt­edly the work of vol­un­teer PCT trail main­te­nance crews. This trail is the re­sult of al­most 100 years of hard work. What started as the brain­child of a pas­sion­ate few even­tu­ally blos­somed into a move­ment, which cul­mi­nated in the PCT be­ing des­ig­nated as a Na­tional Scenic Trail in 1968, along with the east coast's Appalachian Trail. To­day, it is main­tained and pro­tected by a ded­i­cated com­mu­nity of vol­un­teers.

The fi­nal sum­mit push is a steep scram­ble over slip­pery boul­ders, marked only by wisps of pink fab­ric that the sea­sons have worn thin. At the peak, a lone boul­der jolts up above the rest and from there we have a view that John Muir, the famed Amer­i­can nat­u­ral­ist, once called “The most sub­lime spec­ta­cle to be found any­where on this earth.”

The north­ern side of San Jac­into rises over 3,000 me­tres from the desert floor, mak­ing it one of the most prom­i­nent peaks in the United States. From the sum­mit, you can see the shores of the Sultan Sea, Coachella Val­ley, and – al­most di­rectly be­neath us – a vast ex­panse of arid brown earth. It's easy to for­get that Cal­i­for­nia is in the midst of its fourth year of drought when green pine for­est sur­rounds you, but stand­ing on San Jac­into's sum­mit makes it painfully ob­vi­ous.

Poorly planned wa­ter­ways, dams, and the non­sen­si­cal farm­ing of high wa­teruse plants such as lucerne have drained the nat­u­rally arid land­scape of the lit­tle wa­ter that flows into it. Here, in the Amer­i­can West, 75 per cent of that wa­ter comes from spring snow-melt – pre­dom­i­nantly from the moun­tain ranges that the PCT traces – but very lit­tle snow has fallen in re­cent years. “How much wa­ter do we need to carry again?” I ask no one in par­tic­u­lar. I'm squint­ing at the glary screen of my phone, on which I've stored an up-to­date wa­ter re­port for this sec­tion of trail. With al­most no snow on the moun­tain, all of the reg­u­lar wa­ter sources along the de­scent trail are dry. Ac­cord­ing to the wa­ter re­port there's a stream just ahead, and then noth­ing for 22 kilo­me­tres un­til the base of the moun­tain. Fac­tor­ing in din­ner and break­fast, I de­cide five litres should be enough.

The de­scent is bru­tal – as steep as it is ex­posed. With my pack now five kilo­grams heav­ier from the wa­ter, my knees be­gin to protest and the hotspots on my feet be­come full-blown blis­ters. For the first time on this hike, I wish I had in­vested in hik­ing poles. Our sav­ing grace is the view, which now ex­tends to the west, an area that was hid­den by ridge­lines from the sum­mit. Thou­sands of wind tur­bines fill the val­ley be­low us, look­ing like the

minia­ture whirligigs that you played with as a child.

When the sun starts to set be­hind the moun­tain, we stop at the first flat­tish spot we see. Even if we had the en­ergy to up set a tent, the ground is too sandy to hold pegs. In­stead, we spread our sleep­ing bags out on our ground­sheets and fill our stom­achs with cold-soaked in­stant noo­dles. Hot food is just one of the many lux­u­ries we go without to save a lit­tle ex­tra weight. Sleep, when it comes, has never felt bet­ter.

When I first told my friends and fam­ily that I was go­ing to hike the PCT, they asked me the in­evitable ques­tion, “Why would you do that?” I told them I thought it would be fun. Per­haps not ‘fun' as most peo­ple would de­fine it, but rather the other kind – the one in which you over­come suf­fer­ing to (hope­fully) ac­com­plish some­thing, and (usu­ally) have great ad­ven­tures; type II fun.

De­scend­ing San Jac­into is the epit­ome of type II fun. By 7:30am the ther­mome­ter hang­ing off Shorty's pack reads 32 °C, there's no shade in sight, the sandy trail is erod­ing be­neath our feet, I'm run­ning out of wa­ter, and we're still hours from reach­ing the base of the moun­tain. I'd like to claim I get some­thing mean­ing­ful out of this, as in an epiphany about the mean­ing of life, but I'd be ly­ing.

Five hours later we're stand­ing on the val­ley floor, a mere 300 me­tres above sea level, with San Jac­into tow­er­ing above us. Shorty's ther­mome­ter reads 40 °C now, but while Steely and I have crammed our­selves into a sliver of shade be­neath a nearby boul­der like a comic cir­cus act, Shorty is sprawled out in the sun like a lizard. “Um, what are you do­ing?” I ask as I re­fill my drink bot­tle for the umpteenth time.

“Sun­bak­ing, we don't have heat like this in Ger­many, it's great!” Shorty replies. “Ger­mans,” I re­ply, rolling my eyes. I would be happy if I never had to get up again. But our sliver of shade is dis­ap­pear­ing and we still have eight kilo­me­tres to walk across the val­ley be­fore we reach Ziggy and the Bear's house. The val­ley it­self called San Gor­gonio Pass, sep­a­rates San Jac­into from the San Gor­gonio moun­tain range to the north where the trail is headed. At the nar­row­est point of the pass – about three kilo­me­tres wide – a bot­tle­neck of sorts forces the nat­u­ral and man-made worlds to­gether. Roads, train tracks, power lines, gas lines, rivers and rip­ping winds all vie for space here, in what is eas­ily the most ac­ces­si­ble path through the moun­tains.

By the time we get to the freeway un­der­pass, my hair is plas­tered to my sweaty face and I'm start­ing to feel woozy from the heat. Then Steely gives a shout from up ahead – “Trail magic!” and starts run­ning like a mad­man to­ward two eskies that have been pushed up against the wall. A small sign reads Trail Magic: So­das and Fruit – help your­self, and we do so with gusto. This un­ex­pected act of kind­ness gets us the two kilo­me­tres fur­ther to Ziggy and The Bear's house. Con­ve­niently lo­cated about 200 me­tres from the trail, it looks like your stan­dard red brick house from afar, but as we get closer we can see a line of por­taloos out the front and the tops of plas­tic gaze­bos out the back. Like Scout and Frodo in San Diego, Ziggy and The Bear turn their home into a tem­po­rary hiker haven dur­ing the thru-hik­ing sea­son. We've ar­rived on a quiet day – there are only about 20 other hik­ers here.

As we walk through the back gate, a short wo­man with grey­ing hair and a busi­ness-like man­ner greets us. “You guys just get here?” Ziggy asks. Cold Ga­torades and water­melon are thrust into our hands and Ziggy in­structs us to wait while she gets the guest book. As we sit, the other hik­ers fil­ter over to say hi. They knew we were com­ing – the trail grapevine can be a won­der­ful thing – and they've saved us some leftover pizza. Food, drink and the com­pany of friends quickly erase the mem­ory of our re­cent suf­fer­ing. And, as the sto­ries be­gin to flow, I can feel my­self itch­ing to get back on the trail. It's a long way to Canada, and there are plenty more ad­ven­tures to be had be­fore we get there.

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