You are currently viewing Chapter 3 The Start
 Kakuzõ Okakura, The Book of Tea, 1906

We rise before dawn, dress, toilet, take medication, load our water, and complete final adjustments to our packs. A recheck and triple check follow before we hoist them onto our shoulders and drop them a few seconds later at the nominated holding zone at the front porch. The buzz of nervous energy is electric. Laughter floats in the cool dawn air. We forget last night’s instructions.

“Oops! Sorry! A thousand apologies!” as the volunteers rush us indoors.

Breakfast is a feast, and we tuck into everything on offer. The frittata and porridge are great and America’s favourite–the pancake, loaded with the obligatory whipped butter and maple syrup–looks most appealing. When I find a sugar-free maple syrup, I’ll definitely give pancakes a try.

A final nervous visit to the toilet and we head outside, in silence this time, to the various trail angel drivers. They call our names, we retrieve our packs, load them into the nominated cars and the one-hour 80km journey to Campo begins. My driver is a delightful hard-of-hearing retiree who just loves trying to hear our stories and find out from what part of the world we hail. Campo, Spanish for ‘field’ or ‘plain’, is a small town closest to the PCT’s official Southern Terminus Monument. A plain ‘plain’, best remembered for being unremarkable.

As the convoy approaches the Southern Terminus Monument a sense of overwhelming excitement grips me. The new monument, recently replaced in 2016 after its four vertical fir posts rotted away, is familiar to me after viewing countless YouTube PCT videos. Freshly painted, it stands sentinel amid a sea of fine, cashew-coloured sand. My first glimpse of the PCT’s desert, beyond it, looks far less appealing.

Orange dirt, loose gravel, dust, and low-lying shrubby chaparral vegetation in every direction, but south. There, I see a huge rusty wall topped with curled barbed wire separating California from Mexico. They say you should make haste distancing yourself from this wall to avoid confrontations with illegal immigrants and border security. None of us disagree with this recommendation. Happy to distance myself from this lacklustre scene. It displays none of the trail’s majesty and brilliance which motivated me to hike the PCT in the first place. I hope the charm and hype surrounding this long-distance hike are true. I fear being sold a dud, a hike I must endure for the next six months.

Before we can start, PCTA representatives are there to register and welcome everyone. They take single and group photos of us on our cell phones. Next another warning talk on water and rattlesnakes; one being scarce and the other plentiful. This summer should bless us with abundant water sources and fewer snakes. This is welcome news. But will it last?

After the talk is done, I rush over to Helen, “I need to pee before we set out.”

I dump my pack in a pile of sand and cover everything on the exterior–sunnies, iPhone, reading glasses, GPS. Water bottles fall from their pouches and get doused too. Yik. Embrace the suck. You can do this!

Business done; I suggest to Helen we visit Mexico before we start. We poke our fingers through a hole in the wall and hope for the best. We survive, with digits intact.

Time flies and the morning progresses. We’re still hanging around the Southern Terminus Monument. The other hikers from Scout and Frodo’s convoy are long gone. The sun’s heat intensifies. With packs on our backs and GPS turned on we choose a dusty fire trail path. A young woman follows our sure steps. Until they become not-so-sure steps.  

We lose the path ten minutes into our hike. I engage FarOut, our map app, to find out where we are. “You can’t access this app because you have not yet completed your registration,” FarOut responds.

No way! I did that. And now I have limited cell reception. I put denials aside and try to rectify matters. Helen looks on patiently. The young woman bolts. Registration takes me 20 minutes to complete. Not a good sign. Ah, what the heck! Plenty of daylight left and we’re only aiming for 16kms today. Old hands tell us to “Start slow. Ramp the mileage up once you get your hiking feet.” Unintentionally, we’re following their instructions to the letter.

We make the iconic one-mile marker after an hour of total dithering. At this speed, we won’t make Canada until 2020. Next, the three-mile signpost beside a disused railway line. I lie on the tracks to set up a good social media moment. 

I look good as a damsel in distress, but it will take every ounce of strength to right myself without removing my pack. I turn and adopt the Marjariasana yoga pose. You may know it as cat pose. Knees and hands aligned with hips I take a deep breath, pray, listen for Helen’s non-existent encouraging words, and heave myself to a standing position. Thigh muscles groan under the strain. I’m vertical again. Stupidity or persistence wins out. I suspect it will take more than well-executed yoga moves to keep me going each day.

The heavy winter snowfall has blessed 2019 with a wildflower superbloom. The best of spring has passed but late April still presents us with a breathtaking variety. Hot pink sweet peas, and white, blue, lavender, and yellow-coloured flowers blanket the desert mountain slopes and plains. Western sweetvetch, a variety of sweet peas; yellow fringed gromwell, and purple locoweed are a few varieties I can name, thanks to The National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Wildflowers Western Region.

Its Introduction states, ‘Because space in a single book is limited, only a portion of the thousands of western wildflowers can be illustrated.’ With this information in mind, I mention the wildflowers’ correct names only when my photos resemble the illustrated plates found in the 2001 second edition. My reference to them means I have identified them, not that I admire them any more than other unidentified varieties I see. Google them if you are unfamiliar with their names for a more vivid picture and description.

Purple Lupin and Long-leaved Phlox. My best guess.

The desert, full of magical swathes of colour, is not what I expected. There is light brown ochre dust at the start of the walk but five miles in copious amounts of green emerge. The dense thickets of chaparral include broad-leaved evergreen shrubs, and divine small manzanita trees with their glossy round leaves, delicate pink and white blooms, and striking smooth dark red bark. I want to stroke their silky trunks.

Flowering Manzanita bush

The wildflowers will be my saviours. Spotting my favourite hot pink colour or specific wildflower, such as the scarlet paintbrush which Helen adores, will keep me buoyed when I’m struggling. I photograph wildflowers ad nauseam for their beauty and distraction.

At mile six we collect two litres of water from a flowing stream. Fortunately, no stagnant water or stock troughs to consider at this point. My feet are hot, with imminent blisters. We stop for a 20-minute break while I apply preventative blister pads to the suspect toes. The spot we chose has lovely ivy cascading the rock face.

“That’s poison oak,” a local walker points out as he passes us. “Touch that and you’ll get a nasty reaction.”

“Thanks,” we respond. We take a photo for future reference and acknowledge how green we are at thru-hiking. We know many plants are poisonous but identifying them requires knowledge, a skill we’re a little light on at present.

Poison Oak

Onwards and upwards, we go. It’s hot. I should manage, coming from a searing Australian summer. It’s a big change for Helen though who has come straight out of winter. She’s getting distressed and turning red in the face.

I go scouting ahead for a suitable lunch spot. A rock with partial shade is the best I can muster. Lunch is tortilla wraps stuffed with cheese, meat sticks, single-serve tuna, or SPAM slices. SPAM is the UK acronym for Specially Processed American Meat or as the Americans like to call it ‘Spam’, a contraction of ‘spiced ham’. The Americans can call it whatever they want. They invented it. Many view Spam as a revolting luncheon meat, but thru-hikers consider it a luxury food item. It’s lightweight and non-perishable and gives a real boost to your meal. For variety and crunch, we sometimes add a sprinkling of Cheetos, a cheese-flavoured snack.

After lunch, my turn to get distressed. Our symptoms are chalk and cheese. Red for Helen and a deathly white pallor for me. I stop sweating but continue to overheat. I’ve encountered heat exhaustion before when I attempted the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea. To survive, I needed to cool myself on the outside. We find a water source and I drench myself. The strategy works. I use it several times, but my feet are fatiguing, and I beg a rest.

Helen finds a suitable rock. Beneath it, is a smaller rock I don’t see. I stumble over it and crash into another rock bruising my knee. Our first day, and I’m injured. An unfortunate turn of events, but way too early to give up. And so embarrassing. I dunk my trusty orange bandanna in water and tie it around my knee. This is the Ice part of the RICE acronym for treating injuries: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Improvisation has begun. Tonight, I will rest and elevate the affected leg by propping it on my backpack when I go to sleep. 

Meanwhile, we sit and admire the view. From high above we look down upon a varied and mountainous terrain. I always thought the desert was flat, at sea level, but this rugged gently undulating landscape, at elevation, is enthralling. Such a calming site to admire. Our FarOut app informs us a campsite exists four miles away. This location works well with our planned mileage for the day. But campsites are filling fast. Arriving late we find our preferred location is full. A smug contentment rests on the faces of those who have secured one of the limited available spots.

“Bastards! Hope your luck runs out soon,” I mumble under my breath. 

We plod on, hurting and beyond exhausted. This will be my first night pitching my tent in the wild and we can’t find a suitable spot. Helen and I want level ground for two tents. We pass several single unoccupied spots. The possibility of us separating on Day 1 escalates as dinner time approaches. We settle on a rocky, sloping patch.

My tent’s footprint is square and needs more room for staking. Helen’s is compact and rectangular. I screw my face up at the unappealing site. Helen says I often look this way. My family says I’d make an awful poker player. Even my newest friend can read my thoughts.

Helen always offers me the first choice of preferred tent sites. I try to be fair in choosing the least appealing one when two ideal choices are unavailable. Half the time I have no idea why I choose a particular site. Is it the appealing tree nestled next to it that is influencing my decision?

Helen’s scout training from her youth enables her to check the direction the wind is coming and find the most sheltered location. She looks for evidence of ant nests and widow makers, those large overhanging limbs that might end your days here on this earth, and whether the site is level. I suspect giving me the first choice is her way of ensuring she gets the best choice.

Later, she taught me the wetting-the-finger trick to find out the wind direction and how to pitch my tent’s vestibules away from the wind to avoid sleeping with a gale. With experience, I developed confidence in how to select a suitable site.

Tonight, the challenge is to get my tent stakes into hard compacted dirt. What a chore. After the early morning start and excitement of starting the PCT on a tough, warmish day I’m ready to rest. But I must attend a weightlifting class first before I cook dinner. I stumble around looking for sizeable, heavy rocks to secure my tent stakes. My tent walls flap in the light breeze and the roof is concave. A sorry sight, but the tent is upright. I’ve done my best.

Helen’s tent, assembled in two minutes flat, looks impressive. I hope she never requires me to put it up for her. No matter how many times I watch her assemble it I never grasp how she does it.

K-chink, pssst, and Helen’s stove is alight. I’m still getting my $14 Amazon-purchased ultralight stove out of its pouch and unwrapping the three potholder supports. I screw it onto the fuel source, a small canister of isobutane/propane fuel mix labelled with extreme danger warnings. Now I’m expected to light it and avoid combusting everything nearby.

Most hikers use a small BIC disposable lighter for this purpose, but I find the wheel scrolling mechanism too difficult for my arthritic hands. I have waterproof matches instead. The longer you take to light your canister the more valuable fuel you waste. A 100g canister should last a week if you heat your meal for the recommended time and warm it further off the stove in an insulated thermal pouch.

I turn the gas on and try to strike my first match. The wick is faulty, and no frenzied striking will get it to light. I try another match. This time, the wood shatters in my hand but it lights. I can’t get the flame close enough to the stove’s fuel outlet before it reaches my fingers. I hurl it into the dirt in disgust. Meanwhile, the gas continues to escape if I don’t shut it off each time. Helen watches my pathetic efforts. The thought of cold soaking, eating a cold meal without needing fuel, is tempting.

“Can I light it for you?” offers Helen.

With humility, I accept her kind offer. We eat something warm and sloppy, pack up our stoves, and retire to bed at 8.30 pm. A long first day full of laughs and mishaps. 19kms completed. Only 179 more days left.    

The following morning, we awake to drizzle and cooler temperatures. Our destination is the Lake Morena campsite and Malt Shop. The thought of decent food, after just one night in the desert, consumes most of our chatter. Hiker hunger hits every hiker when energy spent far outweighs calories consumed. You become constantly hungry and can think of nothing else but fat and sugar to fuel you. My go-to foods were burgers, burgers, and more burgers. Washed down with thirst-quenching sodas to ease my parched throat from the desert’s dry air. 

Is this the start of hiker hunger? No. It takes a few weeks to kick in and believe me you will know when it does. I suspect this food obsession and need to talk about our favourite foods is our minds’ way of preparing us for this inevitable challenge.

This morning it takes two hours to disassemble our campsite, after breakfast and morning ablutions. Light rain is not helping our departure but there’s room for improvement. We require full rain gear today.

I consult FarOut to see where we’re going. 5kms in we should see Hauser Creek, a water source that may or may not have a reliable flow for water replenishment. And 10kms later, Lake Morena, our eventual stop for the day. A wiggly red line on my screen shows me the way from point A to B. Looks simple enough but no contour lines appear. Without a map, I can see a steep ascent leading out of Hauser Creek. Gentle switchback gradients make the steep incline manageable. But shouldn’t topographical maps have detailed contours showing valleys and spurs and the steepness or gentleness of each slope? A few weeks later an experienced hiker updates my map view to include the contours. Most displeasing to see approaching discomfort. I prefer the A to B wiggly line. 

At least our packs are more comfortable with one less day’s food and a lighter water carry. We have a pack weight of 20kg. It will be a constant challenge for us to reduce this load. There are countless items we can’t give up under any circumstances. They include our FRIO cooling wallets, our insulin pens, our Flash Glucose Monitoring System’s reader and sensors, spare insulin, and other diabetic-related consumables. And my so-called ‘luxury’ items. These include my inflatable pillow, inflatable sleeping mattress, and my collapsible wide-mouthed Nalgene drinking bottle, which I pee in at night to avoid leaving my tent.

We cover nine miles today and then walk another mile to pay for our campsite. Helen and I are prepared to walk a long way completing the PCT, but we dislike non-PCT miles if we can avoid them. In Helen’s words, “Not a fan” is the best way of describing our trudge to the distant postal box to deposit our campsite payment.

It’s nippy. The cosy Malt Shop, a short walk from our campsite, is the perfect place to settle for the afternoon. We could push on, but we are trying to adhere to past hikers’ advice to start slowly. Completing nine miles today is as good as the ten they recommend. Going further could prove problematic if FarOut-noted campsites are not readily available.

It’s important to calculate the distance to each campsite because you can’t camp on the trail itself. People get annoyed if they have to stumble around your tent because you can’t bother to plan your route better and set up camp wherever it suits you. Believe it or not, trail etiquette does exist.

This afternoon we whittle away the time snacking in the Malt Shop until the hour for dinner arrives and we treat ourselves to a Jalapeno cheeseburger.

For thru-hikers, any food is excellent when you’re not preparing it yourself. The shop has ample snacks for resupplying. We jump at the opportunity to nab a few more single-serve Spam slices. After whiling away the afternoon posting updates on social media and using the shop’s power outlets to recharge our devices, we return to the campsite and retire for the night.

First into camp yesterday, we find ourselves last out today. Not sure that’s how it should work. It’s wet again, and this time we take two hours and 15 minutes to pack up camp. These young thru-hikers are well-oiled machines. I estimate they take less than 30 minutes to get themselves sorted. They have the lightest of packs and are prepared to sacrifice many creature comforts to keep their pack weight low. Some hikers carry only a lightweight tarp to cover their heads and go without inflatable sleeping mats.

I can’t do that. I’m too old to be more uncomfortable. I don’t regret walking the PCT at my current age but if you have the time and financial means, I recommend starting this trek 30 years earlier. Late 20s to early 30s is ideal. Preferably after your higher education and before work life and family planning take over. The younger body can cope better with the gruelling elements of this walk. The daily distances, which only grow the longer you are on the trail, become ridiculous. Old feet will find it hard to keep up daily mileages of at least 32 kms, to maximise their chances of completion, without sustaining an injury. That said, the older body has mental strength in its favour and the financial means to make it happen.

I see many of the younger hikers are not averse to using weed to ease their pain. Weed is legal in California and Oregon but not in Washington. Although you shouldn’t smoke, ingest or swallow it in federal wilderness areas, the 2018 US Farm Bill has legalised medical and recreational cannabis at the state level. This means you can source it at dispensaries in strip malls, CVS pharmacies, the local gas station, pet stores, and even Carl’s Jr fast-food outlets.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a chemical compound from the cannabinoid family present in the cannabis plant. Personalised medicinal weed (marijuana) is supposedly the future. CBD is just one variety scientists think may help reduce anxiety, pain, and inflammation. Many hikers crave the pain-numbing qualities to help sore, blistered, and damaged feet. Youth may not be the only thing putting that spring in their step.

And here was me thinking CBD stood for Central Business District. Those glazed, happy-go-lucky expressions on many hikers’ faces made for riveting conversations. Ah, Yeh! He! He! Giggle, giggle. No judgement here. Just my observations. I wasn’t averse to needing help myself at times. I stuck to prescription medication and Vitamin I, that is Ibuprofen or Nurofen to the uninitiated, a common over-the-counter anti-inflammatory.

Today is as wet as yesterday and the clouds never pass, but ideal walking weather. I left my pack’s rain cover with my trail angel to save weight. The pack is getting wet, but it dries when the rain eases and the contractor trash bag, used as a pack liner, together with stuff sacks, are working well to keep key items safe and dry.

We enjoy another day of glorious wildflowers. The variety is immense. I love the yellow golden alexanders, bright pinks, oranges, the delicate white cow parsnip, Fremont’s monkey flower, and the Mojave yukkas. The western peony, a deep maroon colour with a drooping head is most appealing.

As for rattlesnakes, an informative noticeboard at the Lake Morena campground advises us to watch out for varieties which include the Southern Pacific, red diamond, Southwestern speckled, and the Colorado desert. To date, coming up the rear, I have seen none. Helen has glimpsed a tail.

Few hikers either. Although 50 thru-hikers started on the same day as us, we are spread out. We might see a half dozen gathered at a stream but most of the time hikers are settling into their routines–‘slow and steady’ or the ‘bull at a gate’ approach. Fitting in with other’s walking speed can be counterproductive and may just lead to growing angst and ultimate separation. Helen and I walk at different speeds, but we gravitate to a pace that works for both of us. If I want a chat, I heel her closely. If I want time to myself, I increase the distance between us. If I lose her, I try to catch up. Her concerned, “You alright back there?” I always meet with a positive “Yes” response.

The following day we head for Mount Laguna campground, our next resupply town. Along the way, we stop at a water source and meet up with other energetic but thirsty hikers. PCT starter enthusiasm is plentiful with hikers greeting each other with hearty cheer and playful banter. As I struggle to remove my pack, Ruben, a cute little Spaniard with Rastafarian hair, offers to fit my pack for better load distribution. We met before at Scout and Frodo’s kitchen sink while washing the dishes. I accept his offer without hesitation.

They say, when you least expect it, “The trail will provide.” It’s amazing how often this occurs. Ruben worked at Sydney’s premier hiking store, Paddy Pallin, when he lived in Australia. This is the store that fitted me for the pack I’m wearing. He knows his stuff. Here is how you fit a pack. Hip belt first, anchored above the hip bone; next the side shoulder straps at the base of the shoulder harness which you pull away from you or loosen for a comfier fit; then the sternum strap and finally pull the top load lifter adjuster straps to bring the pack closer to your body. If still not ideal, you may need to adjust the frame to match the length of your back.

“Ruben. This feels so good I could walk to Canada today.”

“Not bad for a drug dealer.”

“What d’ya mean?”

“Well, you look the part, with your dark sunnies and fanny pack.”

This comment brings me back to earth with a thud. But only said in jest, and we share a laugh.

Helen pounces on this remark and has me imitating legendary hip-hop rap singers later in the desert when I tie an orange bandanna around my head to act as a sunshade. Biggie & Tupac is a 2002 feature-length documentary film on murdered rappers Christopher ‘Notorious B.I.G.’ Wallace and Tupac ‘2Pac’ Shakur. None too conversant with whom I’m imitating I keep asking her their names. She tells me and then bastardises them to fit in with our walk. ‘Biggie Thrupac’ is born, together with the cool two-fingered rapper salute Helen teaches me before she captures the perfect photo. Our social media post reads, “Biggie Thrupac is keeping it real on the PCT. Wah Gwaan kids?!”

I bet you didn’t see a 58-year-old pulling that one off. I possibly didn’t, but it gives Helen a good laugh. Sometimes you need to create your own fun, or the aches and pains threaten to dominate your every thought.

And the blisters are coming thick and fast for Helen. Her custom-fit orthotics are causing serious problems. The spongy cushioned exterior is breaking down and exposing the hard inner lining which rubs along the side of her arch. Ouch! We hobble into Mount Laguna at 4.50 pm. The shop is at the top of a steep road a fair distance from the Burnt Ranchiera campground. We need food.

Helen won’t make it. It’s up to me. Putting pain aside, I gun it up the hill with five minutes to spare. I grab Idahoan mashed potato meals, a slice of Spam each, corn snacks, diet cokes and, to celebrate making the 5 pm closing time, a wee little piccolo of white zinfandel wine. We both enjoy those three swigs of wine from our collapsible drink mugs.

‘From wine what sudden friendship springs!’

John Gay

Tomorrow we plan to walk a day of the PCT with Helen’s friend, Ann Boyce, but we cancel at short notice. Helen needs a day off to rest her feet. We must buy five days ’ worth of food and our clothes and bodies need washing. Our planned town nearo day–in and out with one night’s accommodation in a motel or campsite–ends up becoming a zero day. A zero day is two nights’ accommodation to give us time for housekeeping and recovery.

Wash Day. Pick the Aussie’s tent.

With changed plans, Ann and her friends still want to meet us. They bring us a welcome Starbucks breakfast with decent coffee. And a stack of hotel shampoos, conditioners, soaps, and body lotion to share with other hikers. My four-minute $1 shower in the campsite just got better and I can wash my clothes with nice smelling product. “The trail will provide” motto is making its presence felt once again.

How does one spend US$156 on a five-day food resupply? Is it because the general convenience store has cornered the market and can charge what they want or am I a sucker for nice food? A bit of both, I suspect, but I’m blaming the Wild Zora brand.

As I explained before, my cooking regime involves pouring boiling water into prepared dehydrated or freeze-dried meals. To reduce weight, I avoid purchasing heavy foil packaged meals. If unavoidable, I decant them into ziplock freezer bags. This store only has ziplock storage bags. They won’t work. The plastic isn’t as strong, and the contents may leak. The Wild Zora brand has a great, lightweight, dehydrated breakfast choice offering me Organic Flaxseed and Coconut with blueberries and strawberries. Just add cold water. Yum! They sound perfect.

There are only three left, so I grab them all before someone else nabs them. Or doesn’t! They retail for US$19.95 each. They’re going nowhere. I’m too embarrassed to return them to the shelf. They better be great. They are but I’ll check the marked price of these gourmet dehydrated meals more thoroughly next time.

Back at camp, we enjoy sharing a campsite table with other thru-hikers. Such a rare treat. We eat dinner seated at the table swapping out our least preferred meals and picking up other’s rejected belongings from a box nearby.

The ‘Hiker Box’ is full of discarded food, gear, and clothing. Many cash-poor hikers resupply from these hiker boxes, considerably reducing their on-trail expenses. You will find them in towns, at established campsites, motels, and post offices. They’re not the prettiest of things. Often grubby and smelly, you need to sift through the debris before you secure that magical find. No deterrent for true thru-hikers though. We jump in with gusto.

No way am I throwing my expensive Wild Zora breakfast meals in here. Cheap Ramen noodles are plentiful together with ziplock bags full of dubious spices, hot seasoning, and broken single oatmeal servings. Heavy creams, leaking sunscreen tubes, band-aids, nylon lines, warped tent stakes, and broken inflatable mattresses are other popular inclusions. Lucky, the comical German, nabs British chef Colin’s recently discarded dehydrated beef.

Novel ‘Bring the outdoors indoors’ dining experience with Emma

Others we meet include British Rory, British ‘Last Minute’ and his Yugoslavian girlfriend ‘Fox-something’ and young Emma, the therapist. Some of these hikers have trail names. Others, not yet. From the hikers we meet today you can see the PCT is as much an international affair as a rite of passage for adventurous Americans. It’s exciting meeting people from different walks of life, of varying ages, experiences, and nationalities. What ties us together is our common goal to finish the PCT in the summer hiking season.   

Day Six heralds the 80km mark. Walk these distances 53 more times and we reach Canada. This milestone deserves a StickPic moment for Facebook and Instagram. StickPic moments are selfies created by me with Helen’s help. I anchor my phone to the base of my hiking pole with a small tripod adapter. It’s a bugger to attach, with troublesome arthritic hands, so Helen assists me on each occasion.

With my iPhone’s timer set, we give you our best smiles regardless of our mood. It sometimes takes a few more shots before we look our cheesy best. We aim to inspire you. A cheery disposition is foremost on our agenda. As the proverb goes, ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’ Your positive words of encouragement buoy us to carry on. 

That’s 80km and maybe not a Stickpic moment. Smiles are genuine.

As the sun lowers in the sky shadows advance across the path. We are weary but the switchbacks help us with the incline. If not for another hiker’s warning shout, we’d have trodden on the dopiest of rattlesnakes crossing before us. No rattling, hissing, angry stares. Why the fuss? They look harmless. 80kms in and I’m already complacent. Best watch this casualness of mine as we approach Kwaaymii Point. The desert terrain at this high viewpoint is spectacular, reminiscent of Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park. I can understand why so many plaques rest here. Soothing to think of a loved one’s soul feasting on this magnificent view. I could think of worse views for a snake bite victim’s dedication plaque.

Overall, no real mishaps to report. Feet are good despite carrying a full five-day food supply and heavy water. As the daylight tinges orange, we meet a swarm of bees feasting on the copious blooms of the manzanita bushes with their distinct smooth, burgundy red and chocolate brown trunks. Fortunately, no stings to report. Further on, we enter a vast burn zone. The petrified manzanita bushes are now a stark driftwood white–a surreal and eerie scene.

Tonight, we wild camp in a stream bed. Helen assures me it won’t rain. Here’s hoping she’s right. Laurie and Staples join us. Staples earned her trail name on the Appalachian Trail (AT) when she needed staples to stitch up her face after a fall. Not sure I’d like that for a trail name. They pitch their tent, the same brand as mine, in the opposite direction, because they know what they are doing, and I don’t.

Isn’t sleeping in a wind tunnel the aim? When I met Laurie earlier at Mount Laguna, I thought her too exuberant and talkative for me, but I ate my earlier assessment of her. She is exceptional. She knows knots, and she said the manufacturer of this tent hasn’t fitted my guy lines correctly, the cords used to secure your tent to the ground for added support. As if I’d know that. I let her perform her magic. I take a photo of the revised setup in case I ever need to fix them myself. Learning knots will never be my forte. I’m just not interested.

Camping per se, is a bothersome task for me. I’m only doing it to see the PCT’s magnificent landscape. I’ll never love it. However, there’s been one positive from this experience. I’ve never slept as well, with minimal aches and pains, as when I’m in a tent.

I get eight to ten hours of sleep without earplugs and don’t hear a single thing. Sheer exhaustion wins out each night. Once my lids are closed, I enter the deepest of dreamless slumbers. No thoughts of home. No mountain lions, coyotes, or bears to worry me. Ignorant bliss. Maybe this life does agree with me.

But Helen is looking uncomfortable. She’s not getting eight hours of sleep, even with earplugs, and an allergic reaction is swelling her eyes. The best solution is to administer antihistamines. The allergic reaction settles, but the warmer temperatures and drier air bring more discomfort for us.

We bring our starts forward to 7 am and we motor along well in the first half of the day. We must seek reliable water sources noted on our FarOut app, drink often, and stay hydrated. The general rule of thumb is to take one litre of water for every six kilometres hiked. A little more won’t go astray but a heavy water carry adds weight which can lead to foot troubles. No water can be drunk unfiltered. Giardia parasites carry giardiasis, a waterborne disease, found in lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. Apart from shop-bought bottled water, we must always filter water from these other sources to make sure it’s safe for drinking.

Our filter of choice is the Sawyer Squeeze Filter. As long as it never freezes, it’s a reliable filter. I attach it to my Cnoc Water Reservoir and then filter the water into a clean Smart Water bottle. In towns, I backwash the filter to remove built-up sediment which may reduce flow speed. On the trail, I will zip it into the warmest place, the bottom of my sleeping bag, to prevent it from freezing. I take 15 minutes to filter my water. Often, we choose to rest at these water resupply points for a snack or lunch. Other times we flee the water source as they attract mosquitoes. Shade and mozzies or blaring sun without them? Difficult choices.

Sawyer Squeeze water filtering method

Heat is building. Conditions are tough. PUDs–Pointless Ups and Downs–frequent our day. It takes good equipment, such as my trusty sun umbrella, to ease the discomfort. There is always a weather incident to test you. This time the wind picks up, and I put my umbrella away and grip my beloved orange baseball cap.

My wildflower fascination is the perfect distraction. I love capturing the best images. The flowering cactus, the beavertail, has won me over with its delicate transparent hot pink flowers sitting atop its prickly base.

New varieties of desert yukkas emerge. Our Lord’s candle with its single stalk of delicate Singapore orchid-style flowers is a stunning example. The small evergreen manzanita shrubs explode with clusters of the softest pink and white bell-shaped flowers. There are yellow and purple specimens everywhere. Goldfields, a low-lying yellow daisy; charlock, a long stalked yellow cluster daisy and lilac penstemons and lupines cover the desert floor. 

Notice my Zpack Duplex tent expertly pitched in the shade?

Tonight, we join other young hikers at a nice campsite near a well-maintained water cache. One of them wants to wash her feet and face with the trail-angel-provided water. We discourage her. This precious commodity is for others to enjoy. You can never rely on water caches, but they are a blessing when you see them. Taking a litre or two is acceptable trail etiquette. There is a delicate balance between carrying an adequate supply of water across dry areas and having a tolerable pack weight. Every added kg/litre on your back puts further stress on your swelling feet. If you find a cache, be thankful. It’s there for weary hikers. 

I’m keeping a close vigil on the state of my feet. I treat hot spots with blister plasters, band-aids, or waterproof tape; whatever is on hand from my trusty fanny pack. My feet are a multi-layered patchwork stuccoed in dirt. Injinji toe-liner socks and another pair of merino wool hiking socks offer further protection. A non-waterproof pair of hiking shoes completes the foot care regime. With frequent river crossings to look forward to, we prefer non-waterproofed footwear as they dry faster.

Hikers often finish their foot treatment with gaiters to prevent dirt, tiny rocks, and those annoying grass seeds from entering their shoes, but not for me. It’s one more bit of equipment to fasten to the back of your shoes and laces. My arthritic hands can’t handle the pfaffing around it requires so I ditch the gaiters and suffer the annoying debris in my shoes. “Embrace the suck,” they say, and I do.

This afternoon, we cross the desert floor and walk under a highway bridge at Scissor’s Crossing. Not the prettiest of places with its graffitied walls and floodwater debris but a thoughtful trail angel has deposited filtered water for hikers’ use. We gratefully top up our supply. The quiet and shade prove a handy rest stop before we tackle our next ascent.

Countless switchbacks, a zig-zag trail pattern, are assisting us in climbing the steep mountainsides. I can’t walk this trail without them. Fortunately, the PCT loves switchbacks as this trail design helps keeps the trail in excellent condition and minimises erosion. Each turn elevates us into the windiest terrain we have encountered so far. 

I retire my baseball hat, for safety’s sake, leaving my hair to flap widely around my face. Tucking it behind my ears lasts a nanosecond. I spit it out of my mouth and hold it in place with my hand as I try to see where I’m going. We plod on seeking shelter from the wind, but the exposed ridgeline goes on for miles. Can I pitch my tent in these conditions?

We settle on a campsite which has plenty of rocks nearby. I use every available one to secure my tent but the tent stakes still escape the soil. What I need is a good 50kg rock. My trusty 20kg pack and I solve this dilemma. The tent won’t shift with me inside it.

Helen, a few feet away, attempts to cook a hot meal with her handmade aluminium foil windshield. Good luck with that Helen. I give up. The chances of getting a stove lit in these tornado conditions are zilch. Dinner is tortillas with cheese and meat sticks, thoroughly sprinkled with dirt. Did I give this PCT enough thought? Did I willingly sign up for this discomfort?

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