We slept in a wind tunnel posing as a grassy field Saturday night. The constant barrage of gusts made it impossible to sleep, and we needed to sleep. Four days on the trail wrecked our bodies. Our battered joints ached and blistered toes stung. Still, we had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to make 16 miles.
The morning started off scenic. The sun rose over rolling hills of cacti and bushes, painting the sky a fiery orange. The trail rarely tops mountain peaks, but instead meanders around the sides, rising and falling to the contours of the ridge. That day, we descended into the valley, leaving the magnificent heights of Mt. Laguna. We made 10 miles before 10 a.m.—a great pace. And then the heat set in.
Southern California is difficult country. In my years of backpacking, I've never experienced the desert. This land of cacti and sand is vastly different than my more recent jaunts in the endless forests of West Virginia and the glaciered ridges of the Canadian Rockies.
Here, we start hiking at 6 a.m. to beat the intense, dry heat. Around noon, we stop and take a siesta for a few hours in the shade, before cranking out a few more miles in the late afternoon. Listening to music or podcasts can be tempting on long stretches of trail, but it makes it impossible to hear a rattlesnake's warning. And sharp turns around corners should be made with caution, as the barbs of a cactus often greet hikers on the other side.
We carry enough water to make it between water sources—wells, creeks, faucets, or some bottles left by a trail angel. But the heat can throw away any plan you had for conserving water and making it to the next source. When the heat set in at 10 a.m. Sunday, I had three liters. It wasn't enough.
As we headed down the mountain, and saw the highway that would take us to nearby Julian for R&R in the distance, the heat grew more and more intense. The final three miles were along the desert floor, radiating from the midday sun directly overhead. I felt each blister with every step, my right knee crying out and left thigh screaming. A blister was forming on my hand from gripping my hiking pole too tightly. I had the last of my water with a mile to go, wiped out and having a hard time focusing.
"Why the hell am I out here," I thought.
The trail is harder than I ever imagined. But it's also exceeded any of my expectations. The desert, a mean cuss who doesn't care if you're in pain, is also a beautiful wonder.
Wildflowers of purple, yellow, red, and blue dot the arid hills that roll on for miles. Three hours of climbing switchbacks yield stunning panoramas of the desert floor and distant peaks. And going over a pass could mean switching from the familiar bushy terrain and into a patch of evergreens that weren't expected until the Sierra.
There's also trail magic. When we finally reached our destination—an underpass—at 12:30 p.m., it was stocked with water bottles and lawn chairs provided by trail angels. Another trail angel named Ed soon showed up, willing to drive the seven of us (more on our hiking crew later) into town in his minivan.
Ed, donning NASCAR gear and a scraggly white beard, regaled us with trail stories, hiking advice, and a full overview of what to expect in Julian, an touristy gold rush town. It took us seven hours to hike 16 miles that day. It took Ed 20 minutes to drive us 16 miles into Julian.
He dropped us off at Carmen's Garden, a thru-hiker Mecca. We left our bags out back and went into the air-conditioned restaurant where we were greeted with a free beer and a hug from the waitress.
After a hearty lunch and a phone charge, we went across the street to Mom's for free apple pie and ice cream. Trail magic!
We called home and got a few groceries that would get us to Warner Springs at Mile 109 in a few days, where boxes of food we previously sent are waiting. As we headed to the post office, where hikers usually try to hitch a ride out of town, an old man in a pickup truck asked if we wanted a ride. We excitedly accepted his offer.
Six filthy men, our shirts stiffened with dirt and sweat and legs blackened by sand, sat crammed in the back of a pickup truck on the way back from a town of trail magic and real food to an RV park for whiskey and sleeping in. With the wind in our hair and packs in our laps, our battered feet didn't matter. We all finally felt like true thru-hikers. We survived the first part of the desert. We earned a small break before hitting the trail in the late afternoon of the next day.
We just passed the 100th Mile of the Pacific Crest Trail. It's hard to believe that we began this journey a week ago, touching the rusted fence along the Mexican border and heading north on the hills to Lake Morena and beyond. While my body aches from walking nearly 20 miles a day with a pack full of food, supplies, and water, it aches less and less with each new campaign. The landscape, while unforgiving, is endlessly gorgeous. And in my lowest moments, the trail provides a bit of magic to get me to the next step. On Sunday, we experienced just that, for every cactus has a flower.