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
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.