The Book of Tea, 1906Kakuzõ Okakura,
How I slept in a wind tunnel I will never know. We awake to foreboding skies. I photograph Helen silhouetted against dark rain clouds and snippets of orange sunrise. Both frightening and magnificent, we marvel at the scene before us. Ideal walking weather but it brings back memories of the notorious Helm Wind at Cross Fell on the UK’s Pennine Way in 2018. Back then, I had to bend at a 45° angle into a headwind to avoid losing my balance and being swept off course. This morning’s walk is as challenging, but the cooler weather is welcome, and we make excellent progress. We manage an impressive 29 km and reach the 100-mile mark. Just 26 more 100 miles and the trail will be complete.
Famous last words. It gets colder. “Good walking weather” we continue to utter, to put a positive twist on deteriorating conditions. My arthritic fingers are aching, but nothing compares to the deep fissures forming around the cuticles of my nails, especially my thumbs. Helen is experiencing similar discomfort. Mine are unworkable. Gone are the days of opposable thumbs. This primate can no longer use her digits to grasp and handle objects. The buckle clasps on my backpack and dry bags are beyond me.
How will I get my food, toiletries, first aid, and other supplies out of their dry bags if I can’t open the clasps? I can ditch the dry bags for drawstring stuff sacks, but this approach compromises waterproofness and I need my gear dry. I can ask Helen to help me but that’s unfair. We need to be self-reliant. The only solution is to use my teeth to depress the clasp mechanism. I wonder how many teeth I’ll have left by the end.
And how do we fix the deep cracks on our fingers? Courtesy of thru-hiker, Maps. “Give Super Glue a try.”
I’m sceptical but it works. It might need several applications but filling the cracks with Super Glue takes the pain away at once and prevents them from getting deeper. It heals them until the next time. I didn’t see that solution coming.
“It’s a common ailment for hikers transitioning from humid to dry climates,” Maps explains. In Helen’s case wet Yorkshire and for me a humid Sydney summer.
Another “The trail will provide” moment. We add hardware stores to our resupply if we can’t locate Super Glue in supermarkets. I’m not leaving town without this valuable piece of arsenal in my pack.
I remember having coffee with an Australian who did the PCT in 2017. She was giving me valuable tips on how to cope. She couldn’t get over the Americans’ obsession with moisturiser. “Just wear sunscreen.” I agreed with her wholeheartedly. It has moisturiser in it. Why the fuss?
That is until my fingers and thumbs started splitting in the dry air. Sunscreen won’t fix this problem. After using Super Glue, I focus on moisturising my hands to prevent further cavernous fissures.
Returning our efforts to the trail, there’s one famous natural formation we must visit first before reaching Warner Springs, our first official resupply town. It’s Eagle Rock, a massive rock formation shaped like an eagle with wings fully extended. The lyrics to Daddy Cool’s ‘Eagle Rock’ play on repeat in my head. Set above barren fields, I imagine it’s taken thousands of years of wind, water, and abrasive sand to mould this unique shape. Removing our packs, we scamper separately toward its head for a fine photo opportunity. Helen stands proudly on its back with arms spanned wide, almost an eagle herself. It’s a pivotal moment in our journey, 10 days in, at such an iconic landmark.
Americans chose the bald eagle on June 20, 1782, as the emblem of the United States of America because of its long life, impressive strength, and majestic looks. The eagle symbolises freedom. We feel free and bold as we stand abreast of it. Cold too. We need to get to town. Two women greet us on the way from Eagle Rock and hand us a fresh mandarin each. Trail magic again. I could get used to this. A mandarin never tasted so good.
After five days in trying conditions, Helen and I arrive around noon at Warner Springs Community Centre for much-needed rest, a shower, and a food resupply. After registration, volunteers direct us to the designated campground.
The shower is a bucket shower. You fill a huge bucket with warm water from a tap a few feet from the shower stalls and then you lug it to the shower stall. Once in, you use a smaller measuring cup to retrieve the water from the large bucket and use the cup to wash off any soap or shampoo lather from your body. Efficient is not the word I’d use to describe this setup. Effective, but why didn’t they run the hot water pipe to the shower stall in the first place? I’m convinced the PCT loves throwing logistical nightmares at you just for the hell of it. No fun if it’s easy, right?
Decked out in loaner clothes we use the bucket ritual again to hand wash our clothes. I squeeze out as much water as I can, but I’m not a spin cycle. Woollen socks slumped over a wire fence continue to drip from their toes. Anyone can see they won’t dry in these freezing conditions. Helen and I resign them to their fate and complete other tasks. There are priority mailboxes to pick up, lunch to eat, and resupply from the Centre’s small but adequate convenience store.
A volunteer trail angel shuttle service to the Post Office is available but volunteer means it may come and it may not. How long are we prepared to wait, for uncertainty? Not long. Helen and I are famished. We need food.
“How far is it to the Post Office and Gas Mart?”
“Only a mile. Just follow the pink ribbons,” replies a volunteer.
“Whoever said that’s a mile has never walked a mile in their life.” In a car, perhaps. That Warner Springs mile is our measure throughout the trail when signs say one mile left. The more we want it over the longer that mile becomes.
We stumble into the Gas Mart for a hot meal–hot dog from a bain-marie and hot chocolate from a machine. I drop my unappetising hot dog on the filthy rubber-matted floor. The five-second rule applies. I pick it up and devour it without a second thought. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Next, the USPS Post Office for our bounce and resupply boxes, and back to the Centre to pack for our next leg. The haphazard volunteer shuttle service is outside the Post Office. We jump in without hesitation. I don’t want to lug my resupply box back along that infinite mile. We pitch our tents and I become engrossed in preparing my meals. I decant everything from their packaging. I assemble breakfast, lunch, and dinner into daily ziplock freezer bags. I use my new, well-reviewed Spyderco Delica folding knife. Once it’s done its job, I fold it neatly and stow it away, never to be seen again. No amount of frenzied searching finds the knife. Its whereabouts remain a total mystery. I will need to buy another one to scare off bears and rapists. At the very least, I need one to dice my gourmet Spam slices and cheese, or those teeth of mine might get a recall.
Tonight’s meal is an enchilada dinner prepared by Warner Springs School. Thru-hiker, The Surgeon, a Danish dentist with penetrating aquamarine eyes, joins us. I can’t stop staring at them. Any word he utters is captivating. I’m besotted. Helen just rolls her eyes at me.
“A girl can dream, can’t she?” I get a non-committal gaze in response. Maybe not. It’s a fine line between having fun and crying on this trail. I make the best of what the PCT offers. The Surgeon is a welcome distraction.
In the morning, after a two-mile return walk to post our bounce boxes, our washed clothes remain sodden. Air drying them is not working. We know the Centre has a dryer but not for thru hikers’ use. In desperation, we ask a volunteer if we can give our clothes a quick blast of warm air. Within the hour we’re on our way.
This morning’s walk is reminiscent of the English countryside with babbling brooks and gentle meadows. In the afternoon it resembles Sydney bushland–West Head in Ku-Ring-Gai National Park comes to mind, with its scrub trails and eventual views. Gruelling ascents cause our sugar levels to seesaw throughout the day, but we make excellent progress. A respectable 16kms after a late 11.30 am start.
We cover 24 km the next day as temperatures soar. I need my trusty sun umbrella to walk this section. Today we visit Mike’s Place, an absolute godsend. Stuck in the middle of nowhere there’s tank water, drinks, weed, lots of dirt, old American car relics, and a great 70s and 80s soundtrack. I patch my feet, hit the Vitamin I (Ibuprofen), and quench my thirst with a diet iced tea before we’re ready to go once more.
Helen and I are working well as a team, sharing the lead, and pushing each other when the trail gets tough. When one of us suffers a hypoglycaemic reaction, a ‘hypo’ or ‘low’, due to low blood glucose levels (BGLs), the other is always close by offering encouraging words and a tantalising sweet treat. It can take at least 15 minutes to recover from a severe low. Having a walking partner who knows what’s happening, is most reassuring. And one who doesn’t treat you like a fragile human being is even more appealing. “Let me take the lead for a bit, you wuss,” from Helen or myself is always the perfect response. We’re not on the PCT to groan and moan about our diabetes. There are too many other ailments and discomforts to keep us occupied.
Overnight the temperature plummets. The next morning requires rain gear. Very overcast. My hot pink beavertail cacti still shine. But yellow, orange, and variegated varieties captivate too. Lemon desert dandelions, golden woolly daisies, and ookow and lupines in lavender shades cover the desert floor. Pink tufted phlox–miniature white and pink daisies–decorate each side of the path. It’s wonderful to see the desert in this bountiful state. From the countless YouTube videos I watched, this part of the desert always looked parched. The flowers are a great diversion. They help me forget the toughness of the trail as we tackle significant elevation and colder weather.
We phone Paradise Valley Café for a complimentary lift to their establishment. It is off trail, but we must go there to collect mail. And they have great burgers. The proprietor often allows thru-hikers to cowboy camp on the outside patio or set up tents out the back.
Cowboy camping is sleeping in the open without a shelter over your head. You lay out a ground sheet, plop your sleeping pad and sleeping bag on top, and spread the rest of your gear around you or stow it in your pack. Worth trying on a starry night. It makes for a quick departure the next day when you want to put in decent miles.
My pack is still heavy. I take delivery of an ice axe and microspikes for my shoes to help me walk over snow. We need this equipment for the San Jacinto Wilderness which is still experiencing decent snow coverage. If I take on an extra pound or two, I need to shed luxuries of equal weight. I can’t keep adding to my laden 40lb (20kg) pack. Often, weight considerations will see treasured items sacrificed.
It’s getting colder. The café’s flimsy outdoor bar thermometer is reading 39°F (4°C) and the weather bureau has forecast more of these frigid overcast conditions for the next three days. I yearn for a decent warm ski jacket right now, but that is impractical from a weight and size perspective. I am using a Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer Down jacket which packs into its pocket and weighs a mere 7ozs (200gms). If I need more warmth, I can add a base layer, an outer shell rain jacket, a wool beanie, polar fleece gloves, and a neck buff. We order another drink and shudder at the thought of leaving the Café to camp outside. Another oft-quoted PCT phrase is “A bad day on the trail is better than your best day at work.” A debatable one at present, but I’m putting on a stoic face.
The proprietor announces we can sleep inside once they close the tills for the night. We go outside while they wash the floor. I jump on the spot to warm myself. Do a gig, clench my jaw, huff, and puff incessantly. Whatever it takes to endure this small amount of discomfort and inconvenience.
I can’t believe another trail angel has come to our rescue. This man owes us nothing, yet he has entrusted eight hikers to look after his business. He’s even keeping the heating on overnight and providing us with access to the bathrooms. I’m more than happy to sleep on the café floor if it guarantees a warm night. Even if you can see evidence of a bullet hole in the glass, above Helen’s head. At least, Helen will cop the first shot if the café takes a second hit. My hiking buddy is proving a terrific find.
After a pleasing ammunition-free night we leave our cosy surroundings and walk a few miles back to the trailhead for breakfast. The weight of my backpack is killing me with extra socks, microspikes, and an ice axe. Hopefully, a hearty breakfast may reduce some of the weight. Every day I eat hot oatmeal mixed with dried dehydrated fruits–blueberries and strawberries–and granola. Today is no different. Helen prefers cold cereal using powdered milk. My pack is still heavy, with breakfast barely shedding 100 grams, but it becomes more bearable after I adjust the hip belt. Excess clothes and socks must go back to Rebecca as soon as we reach Idyllwild.
Today is our toughest to date. With Helen feeling tired I lead. I am sluggish too and we both suffer frequent lows. The increased elevation is exhausting us, but we agree the most energetic walker should push the other to achieve the distances we must walk each day. I’m giving myself lower insulin doses to avoid recurrent lows. But diabetes doesn’t forget when you deviate from your usual diet.
That small tub of Ben and Jerry’s I devoured last night still needs a decent dose to prevent rising sugar levels. Exercise helps, but it has little impact if you take insufficient insulin for scrumptious dietary deviations like ice cream. I’m now using artificial sweeteners and I avoid adding sugar-laden Vitamin C (e.g., Emergen-C) supplements to drinking water. They just cause our sugar levels to spike. Diabetes management is such a balancing act.
Helen and I use different regimes to treat our diabetes. We both use Abbott’s Freestyle Libre FGM (Flash Glucose Monitoring) System to test our sugar levels. Helen uses a reader device and I use a phone app. We scan a small white sensor disc attached to the back of our upper arm. The scan immediately tells us our current sugar levels. Far easier to manage outdoors than the old finger-pricking method which required you to get a heap of equipment out, prick your finger, squeeze a drop of blood from it onto a test strip, insert that in a reader, and then wait five seconds for the result. This hassle-free, on-the-go testing method allows us to treat low sugar levels at once with a quick snack without constantly needing to stop and eat. What Helen does next is quite different.
Helen’s diabetes educator has taught her the DAFNE (Dose Adjustment for Normal Eating) method suitable for diabetics administering insulin via injections and not using pump technology. This approach allows her to eat any foods she likes, including high GI (Glycaemic Index) fast-acting carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, potatoes, and sugar. Dieticians recommend diabetics eat high-GI foods in moderation. On the trail sourcing low-GI foods, such as genuine sourdough bread, basmati rice, and sweet potatoes, can be difficult. Overall, Helen’s dosage is higher than mine, but the DAFNE method offers her this flexibility.
So, each approach has its merits. I am a creature of habit and don’t mind eating the same meals the entire journey. It’s more limiting but if I eat the same food, I know I am applying the best diabetic management practices for me. Helen prefers meal variety, so DAFNE is the perfect approach for her. We do our best to follow these plans, but they can often come unstuck. We simply adjust our doses accordingly. It never defeats us. It’s just one logistical part of the trail that demands our close attention. We are both confident we can manage our condition should we choose to ‘Hike Our Own Hike’. But walking with another person, who gets your condition and can offer help if required, is the more sensible approach.
Our resupply strategy for the delivery of our insulin is also different. For me, one trail angel. For Helen, several along the trail. We use the same brand of fast-acting and slow-acting insulins. The number of times we share each other’s spare insulin, pending the arrival of our own, is too many to count. Diabetes management is cumbersome and bothersome but never insurmountable. You do what you have to do. We never let this impediment intrude on our PCT hike.
After leaving Paradise Valley Café the PCT proves a trial of a trail. The tough unrelenting inclines call for serious coping strategies. I return to memories of my successful Kokoda Trek in 2008 where mud, mountains, and high humidity defeated me on my first day. A handy tip I took from this challenging hike is “Never look up, and count.” With each ascent, I count from one to a hundred, then ten times more to reach a thousand before repeating the count. I pant out the numbers.
“19, 30, 67, 94, 100…”
“I can hear you counting,” utters Helen.
Shut Up. You’re annoying the hell out of me is what she’d prefer to utter.
I back off or speed up depending on my position. Apart from sighting a stunning wildflower, counting is the only thing that helps me conquer these large hills. Frequent switchbacks usually elevate us up a mountain slope, but they are scarce today. Instead, a fierce unrelenting gradient presents itself.
At higher elevations, my favourite cactus deserts me. The terrain is more alpine. Full of enormous boulders, decapitated pine forests, and fire-damaged petrified manzanita bushes. An unusual and captivating landscape. Just one more night of wild camping before we reach Idyllwild for a much-needed zero stop.
The forecasted inclement weather never comes but my pricey rain pants take a battering. Ripped to shreds on jagged rocks I head back to my trusty repair kit for much-needed duct tape. Today’s desert landscape is spectacular with its mountainous ranges spread before us in all directions. I enjoy watching them absorb the setting sun’s hues–burnt umber, red sienna, tangerine orange, and mustard yellow. At day’s close, we nestle our two tents into a tight but protected site behind a sizeable boulder.
Dinner awaits. Helen’s into Knorr’s sides such as Cheddar and Broccoli or Alfredo pasta, Chicken rice, and other branded dehydrated camping meals. They fill her large pot, and she makes short work of them after a tiring day. I must admit they smell appetising, but I can’t be bothered with the clean-up ritual afterwards. She uses a miniscule piece of scouring pad (a quarter of its usual size, for weight-saving purposes) to scrape up every bit of gooey processed cheese. And like Scout and Frodo suggest, she drinks her dishwater to make sure she leaves no scents or muck around our site that might attract unwelcome visitors.
I prefer the Idahoan dehydrated mashed potato brand, in various flavours which I mix with bacon bits, Spam, dehydrated vegetables, and Ramen noodles (2-minute noodles) for bulk and calories. I use my 550ml Toaks UL titanium pot for heating water which I then add to my pre-prepared ziplock meals. The only thing I ever wipe clean is my drinking mug. Uncooperative arthritic hands contribute to my dislike for cleaning, but overall, I’m a bum, hate cooking, and take shortcuts whenever I can.
We awake to a glorious sunrise, take a few photos, pack up camp, and then head off on a three-mile diversion to a stream noted as a reliable water source.
We’re in the zone as I follow Helen closely. She powers through dense shrubs. A branch catches her backpack and then Whammo! It smacks me hard on the face. I come a right royal cropper. Blood seeps from two new facial wounds. At least, they match my Infinite Raspberry shade of lipstick.
Makes me recall those famous words “Tis, but a flesh wound” spoken by the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie when King Arthur chops off both his arms. I won’t be a girl over this, will I? Just another scrape to add to my fast-accumulating litany of woes–deep cut cuticles, a sore runny nose, blistered feet, and filthy hands. Mishaps happen. Bizarrely enough, I enjoy accumulating them. A bloodied face is one more war wound to add to the story.
To get to Idyllwild, we need to descend the Devil’s Slide pathway and hitch a lift from the Humberhead Carpark. The descent is steep and treacherous, littered with varying-sized chunks of granite. Add in extreme eye photophobia to UV light, caused by getting sunscreen in my eyes, and this lengthy part of the trail is most unpleasant. More worrying is the fact we’ll need to ascend this section two days later to resume the PCT trail.
The spacious car park is empty. Our feet are painful and unable to walk into town, and we have no cell reception. One car remains. We sit and ponder our demise and pray its owner will return. A warm bed awaits us at the Idyllwild Inn if we can get out of here. We wait, hunched over a picnic table talking in monosyllabic grunts. Shadows lengthen and the cool night air encroaches. The single car remains and our hopes fade. Until two men emerge from nowhere. Masking our desperation, we ask casually if they can give us a lift into town.
They are professional weed growers. One looks like he’s recently sampled the merchandise. Not the driver, I’m happy to report. But it shouldn’t surprise us. It’s legal in the states of California and Oregon to grow, harvest, and sell marijuana. Careful Helen and Katrina land our first-ever hitch with a weed grower. The driver is most apologetic his car stinks of weed. We are beyond caring. We must trust them and hope we arrive in Idyllwild in one piece.
Well, we engage in polite conversation and get a rapid education in weed growing techniques. Amazing! Pain and fatigue abate at once, but we stay alert. The men are friendly and polite and drop us outside the convenience store. Not sure I’d have the courage to hitch without Helen. As a pair we offer each other added safety and leeway to take the odd risk or two.
Sleep comes swiftly for me, this time in a cosy cabin until I hear much sheet-thrashing in Helen’s room. This accomplished camper doesn’t do bricks and mortar accommodation nearly as well. Any little bug requires immediate expulsion. I let her sort it out and resume my sleep. An ant in her bed is the culprit. Pleased to report she survived unscathed. Never doubted it for one moment.
On closer inspection, we find Idyllwild most appealing. It has quaint shops, an outdoor outfitter, supermarkets, the popular ‘Red Kettle’ diner advertising ‘Yummy Sammiches (sic)’, and a variety of other restaurants and tourist stores. There are colourful painted deer sculptures and bear carvings throughout the town. Its biggest drawcard is Max, the Mayor, a Labrador. A tidy town, too. Max must be doing something right.
The next morning, a trail angel deposits us back to the Humberhead Trail Head. A full day’s rest has heartened our resolve to tackle the steep Devil’s Slide ascent. It’s a cloudless day of 73°F (23°C). In just under two hours, we climb 3,000ft to 8,000ft. Halfway through I stop to allow Helen to catch up. I watch a Japanese hiker pass me and I nod a greeting. Then I see a crooked conifer on the downside of the pathway.
I back myself toward it, with the full pack load on, intending to rest there in a standing position. What was I thinking? I miss the whole tree. My heavy backpack throws me to the ground ready to catapult me down a steep slope. Helen looks towards me, not believing what she’s seeing. She ramps up her engine revs and plucks me from disaster. I deeply graze the underside of my arm from trying to claw my way back to the path. I laugh. Instead of berating me, Helen laughs too. It could have been calamitous. We laugh to forget. And we laugh to survive. The mishaps are mounting but at least I’m still standing.
After leading Helen in the morning, I struggle later in the day with higher elevation. Heart pounds. Thoughts race. Legs falter. My trusty walking partner resumes leader duties. Helen has experience walking in the snow, so I’m more than happy to follow in her footsteps. The morning snow crossings are fun, on ideal compacted snow. As the day progresses, they become slushy and hazardous. I calculate each foot placement with precision. Best to avoid careering down the mountainside, after my earlier escapade.
To cap off this eventful day, we tackle our first serious stream crossing gaining wet feet into the bargain. That night we retreat to our sleeping bags to warm ourselves. I can’t wait to snuggle up in my tent tonight. I always sleep better in the elements. It must be the good ventilation.
Today we may need our ice axe and micro spikes for our traverse of Fuller’s Ridge which is still covered in snow. The heavy winter snowfall has led to unprecedented high levels of snowpack. I suspect familiarity with real-time self-arrests, that’s knowing how to stop your rapid descent down a snow or ice slope after a fall, is not far away. My impromptu lesson on steps in a hiking store in Sydney a few months prior is a start in the right direction, but it won’t cut it in real snow conditions.
Which hand holds the ice axe? How do you use the axe’s head? The adze is the flat, wide end used for chopping steps in hard snow and ice. The pick is the toothed pointed end, curved to aid with self-arrest. And then, I have Helen. She’s an expert or the most experienced amongst us, having completed a self-arrest course in Scotland. She applied these skills to slow my rapid descent yesterday when she plucked me off the Devil’s Slide pathway. I’m sure she can rescue me again if called upon. I’ll try to behave myself.
I feel fearless and full of adrenalin. With the help of microspikes, I’m enjoying walking on the rocky downhills and snow-covered terrain. It reminds me of my childhood scrambling across many of Sydney beaches’ rocky headlands and foreshores when one must handpick the best rock for safe foot placement.
Snow walking is a welcome diversion from the other ailments plaguing me. My cracked thumbs, arthritic hands, scabbed fingers, and scratched arm are giving me grief. They’re making camp setups and disassembly the most tedious affairs.
How am I faring? The PCT is tough. Tough beyond my wildest dreams. I’m not thinking of home, my loved ones, or even Helen. The only person who counts is me. The PCT is fast becoming a question of survival. I can handle being grubby and smelly for five or more days. I can handle no cell phone reception. I can handle a heavy backpack which causes a myriad of foot problems. I can deal with rattlesnakes. I can even tolerate camping. But I hate wind, rain, plummeting temperatures, and losing dexterity in my hands.
The gloomy weather forecast is making everything tougher. If I said earlier, that I had experienced the windiest night at Scissors Crossing I lied. Last night and the one following gusted unrelentingly. The tent held up, but only because I was in it, and I had enough heavy boulders to secure every tent stake.
Doubts over completing the PCT flood my thoughts. Helen and I are doing our best to plod along for each other’s sake, our sponsors, our diabetes donors, and our supporters who continue to encourage us. We ain’t quitting after three weeks. Our love of walking is all that holds us together right now.
We reach the 200-mile mark. This milestone is cause for celebration. We need something to lift our sombre mood. After negotiating a swathe of endless switchbacks, we settle in for a windy night. It eases and I fall into a deep eight-hour sleep.
On the following day, we reach the desert floor. It is 64°F (18°C). With cloudy skies, rain threatens. We need to walk across a dry riverbed, under a freeway bridge, and into San Gorgonia Wilderness towards Whitewater Preserve. I note my beloved wildflowers are lean above 6,600ft, blue foxgloves, and desert paintbrushes emerge lower at around 5,500ft and the cacti reappear at around 3,300ft. My mascot, the hot pink beavertail cactus is back. A great mental boost for me with the elements and conditions ruling supreme.
Ominous cumulus clouds and radiant rainbows mottle the sky with sprinkles of rain. We put on our rain jacket and pants expecting a downpour. The sun comes out. We sweat and hold off disrobing before sauna conditions force us to remove them. Within minutes, rain again. Within seconds, a shining sun. I point blank refuse to gear up one more time. I’ll cop getting wet instead.
As if fleeting rain is not enough, ferocious gusty headwinds decide to join us. They throw us off balance as we struggle to walk through thick river sand. How on earth will the expression, “The trail will provide,” help us today?
As we walk beneath grotty old bridges supporting railroads and freeways, we find a water cache and hiker box. It’s always a bonus to top up your water without having to filter. Saves time and effort so we don’t say no when a thoughtful trail angel has taken the time to supply free filtered water.
I need nothing. I sift through the hiker box for something to do. I find a lovely, soft, navy blue and white striped T-shirt. Placed in my hand I estimate an acceptable weight. This will make a perfect bed shirt and it cost nothing. I am stoked with my find. Helen looks on in despair.
“Do you need that? Who’s the one complaining of having a heavy pack?” she quips.
“But Helen, it’s made for me.” You can tell the shopaholic amongst us. But can you tell who’s hiker trash too? I give it a sniff. Smells good. Tonight, I sleep in it without hesitation and relish my good fortune.
As we emerge from the bridge and desert floor, we start a steady ascent. The natural landscape shares the stage with industry. For miles, we see an endless stream of wind turbines, small and tall, old, and new. The Mesa Wind Farm. The working ones remind me of a mythological siren luring unwary travellers to a rocky demise. It is the perfect location for wind farms to harness the power of nature.
As if to prove this point, we stop for lunch amongst the turbines and the wind’s force blows my tortillas away. I scamper after them, brush the dirt off, and wolf them down as fast as I can. Safer inside me than anywhere else.
A quick, steep incline, and we enter Section C of the PCT–The San Gorgonia Wilderness–which today presents as one of the gustiest canyons. This region sustained major landslides after a severe storm in February 2019. Striking Grand Canyonesque scenery but navigation will be a challenge. As we struggle to see the path, we revise our ambitious mileage goals. The PCT, a packhorse route, is typically easy to see. Here, around Mission Creek, large sections have completely disappeared. We stumble along the riverbed and tackle 20 or more river crossings relying on FarOut, our navigation app, to keep us oriented.
Massive trees and debris are littering our progress, but I enjoy the river crossings balancing on precarious logs with a trekking pole in one hand and a sun umbrella in the other. Then scampering up the sandy banks to jump straight in the path of a common brown and white garter snake.
“WTF!” and other choice expletives follow, but I marvel at my first encounter with decent wildlife. Should I pay more attention to these potentially deadly snakes, coming from a continent that has so many of the world’s most venomous ones? I admit I jumped in surprise on this occasion.
An update for you on our current state of affairs. Our feet and fingers are blistered, aching, and cracked. Recurrent low sugar levels plague us throughout the day. Overnight, increasing hypo unawareness is leaving me sapped of energy.
Hypo unawareness describes when people with diabetes, usually type 1 diabetics, can’t recognise low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) levels. When I have a hypo I’m confused, sweaty, I may have a headache, and I usually wake up. They say a recent hypo in the last day or two can lead to a period of frequent hypoglycaemia unawareness. Frequent low sugar readings during the day may explain why we’re now getting overnight low readings without the normal warning signs.
Loss of hypo awareness is troubling and dangerous. Diabetic specialists recommend you take steps to regain hypo awareness. We want to avoid lapsing into a diabetic coma. Treatment for hypos is a glucose snack, like jellybeans, followed up with a slow-acting low GI carbohydrate to prevent another hypo. This is difficult to administer if I lapse into a coma.
The only other alternative is to use a GlucaGen® pen which has an injection of glucagon that works by triggering the liver to release stored sugar, raising blood sugar levels. If you’re in a coma, someone will inject it under your skin. Helen and I both forgo this life-saving medication in the interest of weight savings. We believe we can manage our diabetes without going into a diabetic coma but if hypo unawareness continues the risk will increase. I’ll need to watch this recent development and make sure I either reduce my insulin dose or up my carbohydrate intake to make sure I have enough ‘gas in the tank’, so to speak, to continue safely.
Only the wildflowers are moving me forward. I renew my interest in them when I need inspiration. Observing them, I marvel at their therapeutic powers to revive me with their minuscule details revealing both chaos and symmetry; their mass plantings displaying great swathes of complementary and soothing colours; and from their shape and texture their unique personalities. Helen thinks I’m barmy, but I’m using my observations to build mental strength and resilience.
During this stretch, I see orange desert globemallows, red scarlet buglers, cornflower blue desert bells, lavender-coloured thistles, claret cup cacti, and clustered yellow daisies called western wallflowers. Plains prickly pears, a lovely cactus with its muted yellow and orange rose-shaped flowers, surround our campsite tonight.
In summary, it has been an enjoyable but testing day. Time to celebrate with the Ramen Bomb. A favourite PCT thru-hiker concoction, I become an immediate convert to this hiker delicacy. In a ziplock freezer bag, add half a packet of Idahoan mashed potato, half a packet of Ramen noodles, and garnish to suit.
Your garnish could be any of the following ingredients–Bacon bits, cheesy croutons, diced Spam, diced tasty cheese, dehydrated vegetables, herbs, and seasoning to taste. Add two cups of boiling water, stir well, then wait a few minutes. Voila! A meal fit for a king. Helen observes my cooking efforts. No salivating descriptions convince her to try it. “Yet,” I respond.
The following day brings more stream crossings, cool weather, and copious lows as we climb 4,000ft to an elevation of 8,743ft. We are looking forward to a nearo in Big Bear Lake to rest and regroup. That evening we camp with other thru hikers who warn us to expect snow.
We wake to a winter wonderland. Fortunately, most of the snow dislodges with a quick shake. Ends up being a much easier decamp than I expected. Helen wants to eat breakfast first but on surveying the scene thinks a quick exit might be the preferable choice.
We leave at 6 am eating a muesli bar on the go as we head for Onyx Summit Carpark. From there we plan to hitch to Big Bear Lake. After a valiant effort at giving oncoming traffic my best Infinite Raspberry smile and dancing sideshow, we accept a lift from the father of a hiker we camped with last night, who has arrived to take her home. Not a moment’s hesitation and we stow our gear and selves into his car.
After many thanks and photos for his kindness, we head off in search of a proper breakfast. The server leads us to a secluded stall beside the toilets. We are hiker trash now. We can’t fool anyone. The smell must be a dead giveaway. If not, the look of us. Dirt embeds every fingernail, wrinkle, and cranny.
Hunger satiated we prepare ourselves to brave the weather and find the well-reviewed Big Bear Hostel. It is cheap, has basic amenities, bonus laundry facilities, and is a great location for hanging out with other thru-hikers. But nothing is easy. Cold and sore we trudge another 2.5 non-PCT miles along the bitumen footpath to find it.
Exhausted we plop ourselves in the common room while our room is being prepared and are privileged to meet Medicine Man, a man of similar age to me who is also going-grey-gracefully. He is a great vlogger under the name vetonthepath with countless YouTube episodes on how to survive in the woods, how to find water, filter it, and how to light a fire without fuel or matches. My binge-watching of PCT gurus on YouTube includes Darwin on the Trail, Jessica ‘Dixie’ Mills from Homemade Wanderlust, Jennifer ‘Starburst’ Mabus from The Whimsical Woman channel, and Medicine Man. His vlogs are most informative, and I admire his skills. I introduce myself.
“How do you know Medicine Man?” Helen enquires.
“YouTube. It was the only way I could get up to speed with my PCT preparations.”
My lessons with Medicine Man start today. First, to the fishing store to pick up a ferro rod. A ferro rod is a small steel rod made from ferrocerium, a man-made metallic alloy, which produces sparks when you scrape it with a rough edge such as a rock, or a sharp-edged knife. I complain my arthritic hands prevent me from using a BIC lighter or even matches to light my stove. The ferro rod might just be the answer as it avoids the need for fine motor skills. Medicine Man gives me a quick lesson and sends me on my way.
The pressure to master this alternative lighting method is immense. Medicine Man is sharing his skills with me. I owe it to him to at least give it a go. We dedicate the rest of the day to a six-day resupply and mailing our ice axe to Wrightwood for our climb of Mount Baden-Powell. Three weeks into May have now passed. It’s well into spring, but it feels and looks like winter. Snow levels this year are unprecedented.
The following morning, we open the curtains to survey the weather. A parked car has collected six inches of snow on its bonnet overnight. Lordy! Lordy!
We’re most thankful for our cosy bed, but it’s time to brave the outdoors once more. Three days of tolerable conditions are forecast. Buffalo Bob kindly transports us to the trailhead with our laden packs.
Back on the trail we motor along with a cloudless sky and cool walking conditions. There are few difficult ascents. And apart from delightful, wooded areas, the landscape is drab. At dinner, we meet fellow thru-hiker, Strider, from Germany, but we cut our conversation short as the temperature plunges and forces us to retreat to our tents.
The wildlife we can expect to see here are burros–wild donkeys. I never see one, but Helen says she heard them during the night as I awaken from my usual restful eight-hour sleep. I must piss her off something fierce with my ability to sleep through every noise and condition, even my alarm.
The next day tried my patience. In tough conditions, we climb 900ft in an hour to an elevation of 7,900ft. Not sure how impressive our climb is, but it’s a triumph for us. For the first time we cover 10 miles (16 km) by noon. Regardless of the terrain, easy or hard, we are averaging two miles (3.2 km) an hour. The original wet forecast changes to fine, windy, and cool. We eat lunch in the sun, but the bitter wind soon becomes fierce. Both of us are in our tents by 3.30 pm and there we stay.
I’m wearing everything I own; five top layers, a beanie, and gloves. I have no energy to slip off my bottoms and change into base layers. Base layers become top layers and I snuggle into my sleeping bag. I dismiss thoughts of a hot dinner. I have no confidence to boil water in my tent vestibule without courting disaster. I recall my parting words to my husband,
“Hey, Mike. Guess what? No winter for me this year.”
How wrong am I? The temperature today is at least 10°C lower than Sydney’s coldest ever winter’s day and I am camping in it. I signed up for a summer hike. Not this torture. I’m questioning my wish to continue. But the folks at home watching our story unfold on social media keep offering the most encouraging words.
One suggests a trail name of ‘Kit Kat’ because “You’re Killing IT KATrina.”
Your trail name should come from someone on the trail, but I’m not suggesting it. The name is often based on something stupid you did, a quirky mannerism, or a unique identifier. The irony is I’m not killing it and diabetics should avoid chocolate bars, such as this one. I can wait for another name suggestion, but this name appeals to me. From this day forth I am known as Kit Kat.
German Lucky always laughs at my trail name. He knows KitKat only as a lewd Berlin nightclub established in 1994 with its strict dress code demanding patrons wear latex, and leather, be kinky, and have a fetish. God forbid! If I am to live up to my name, in all its manifestations, and survive this torment, I may need someone to lead me.
I suggest ‘Shepherd’ for Helen, a reference to her good navigational and leading skills. I will be her flock. Kit Kat will kill this trail, but not without her Shepherd. Helen likes it. And our joint trail name is the Double Ds, because of our diabetes. But the sniggering giggles we get from both male and female hikers throughout our PCT journey suggests many believe the name alludes to our generous cup size. Eliciting laughs feels good. Most thru-hikers never forgot the Double Ds.
Many thanks to Shepherd for her encouragement in getting me through a tough patch. The next day, nearing the end of a decent 17.4-mile (28km) hike, I slip into the water attempting a river crossing on unstable logs and slippery rocks. Not concentrating, I snap one of my expensive carbon fibre trekking poles leaning too hard on it. The pole gets caught between two rocks. I lose my balance and take another river dunking. Great!! I need two trekking poles to erect my tent.
We scurry around the riverbank checking out branch debris for use as a temporary tent pole. Until we have a lightbulb moment. Shepherd, who doesn’t use trekking poles for her tent, says I can use one of hers until we can order a replacement part. I’m most grateful for her kind offer. Rain looms. We quickly set up camp for shelter and warmth.
The following morning brings rain, and we must break camp in these conditions. My hands won’t work. Functionality worsens in cool weather. A miserable start to my day. For the next ten minutes, I pack up my soggy tent while Shepherd waits. While doing a last-minute check for any missed items I discover my sunglasses are inside my tent, inside a stuff sack on the outside of my pack. Shepherd looks at me in despair but holds her tongue.
“Can you soldier on without them today?” she asks, ever so politely.
I have photosensitivity to glare, suffering when we descended into Idyllwild. I want them, but the sky is dull.
“I s’pose so.”
To be honest, I’m as upset as Shepherd with this stuff up of mine. I hope my meticulously folded tent does not damage my glasses. When I unravel the tent at day’s end, I’m relieved to see they’re fine.
This incident makes me ponder our mishaps. Shepherd drops valueless items, such as water bottles and hand sanitiser, from mountainsides that are difficult to retrieve. I break or destroy things; my puffy down jacket, trekking poles, tent mesh screen, and matches. The list is growing. I’m clumsy because my hands don’t work as they should, and my actions become weak and jerky.
I best stick to walking, admiring the sensational views, and taking photographs. Each day I marvel at the variety of new wildflowers I find in each section we pass. My trusty iPhone camera has become my most treasured companion.
As for ordering another trekking pole, this exercise is another fiasco. The company has no phone contact. They won’t accept my Australian credit card after it has taken me 15 minutes to fill in the re-order form with one-fingered typing. Just another little debacle to frustrate me and my walking buddy. I give up in disgust and hope Shepherd can help me later. We end up using her card and ordering the centre section of the pole for one-third of the price.
Bonus! Order is restored. I must note down how much I owe Shepherd and spend that same amount buying her meals and other things to wipe the debt. Keeping tabs on who owes whom what will consume our entire journey. At least we get to exercise our basic math muscles.
It’s time for a reprieve from the hard conditions. On cue, the sun emerges. In the early afternoon, we locate a small level section of sandy beach beneath a bridge at Deep Creek. Small limbed trees surround the shoreline offering us shade and a handy clothesline for drying our gear. Aside from the enormous paw prints leading to this spot, it looks like the perfect campsite.
We suspect the paw print is a mountain lion or bear seeking a drink. They look fresh. What are the chances the animal will return? Brave or stupid? It doesn’t matter. We secure all food remnants and scented products in sealed Loksak Opsak odourless bags. We zipper ourselves in our tents and, once again, I sleep a solid eight hours. The dangers are out there every day. To worry over what may or may not happen will send you crazy. Shepherd and I do not dismiss dangerous scenarios. We practice caution and make sensible decisions, but the PCT is an adventure too. We want to live and living involves taking risks.
The gorge is a lovely level walk. Bright orange desert mariposa lilies and Californian poppies abound together with an abundance of yellow daisies, the southwestern thorn apple–a white version of morning glory–and my beloved pink beavertail cactus.
We cross three proper bridges and reach the 300-mile (480km) marker. Deep Creek is a favourite destination for younger hikers. Lots of weed in the air and lolling in the hot springs. Not my scene but I dip my finger in the springs; feels like a piping hot bath. Many find it hard to leave here but we continue on our way.
Deep Creek merges with the Mojave River coming from another direction at the Mojave River Forks Reservoir Dam, but you don’t see a dam full of water. The country looks to be in drought. It’s quite a phenomenon to see. The water dissipates into the soil as it rushes towards an enormous drain. As a parting gift, the PCT makes us walk through thigh-deep Deep Creek to resume the trail on the other side. We are wet but refreshed as the much-expected heat shows its presence.
Heat means sunscreen and who should we meet today but the one and only Coppertone who earned his trail name from the popular sunscreen brand with the logo of a small child having her swimmer bottoms pulled off by a mischievous brown puppy dog. Or the decent tan his wizened face displays from countless hours in the sun. Coppertone completed the PCT in 2006 and ever since has been giving back to the trail with his trail angel duties. He has set himself up in the middle of a hot, dry patch and has an abundance of food, drink, sunscreen, and lotions for us to consume or use.
I crave the fresh produce and tuck into a juicy, crunchy Fuji apple and a few strawberries. Coppertone is content hearing our stories. And we are eager for any tips he might have. It’s not often you meet a thru-hiker who has completed the PCT trail in its entirety. I tell him of my recent woes with my trekking pole and he offers to give me his bamboo hiking pole to replace it. I assure him all is good. A replacement part is on its way.
Amazing to meet these people who think nothing of giving away their possessions and buying supplies for us with no expectation of payment in return. He sits on his camp chair surrounded by his offerings and smiles. Showing no urgency to be anywhere else he laps up our stories and shares his own. To give, not take, has its rewards. There is a message here from these trail angels with their overwhelming generosity. I just have to figure it out.
Resuming the trail, the heat, once again, takes its toll on our poor feet. I treat mine daily, cleaning and re-plastering them when new blisters form but the heat is expanding them, and the shoe cavity is getting too tight. I have gone up a half size from my normal shoe size. These swollen flipper feet need a larger size. We both need new footwear–shoes for me and boots for Shepherd. There’s not enough time to order replacements for a Wrightwood delivery because of the Memorial Day public holiday on Monday 27 May. We must wait another week to take delivery at Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce.
At this moment, we chance upon some patchy AT&T cell reception on the trail. We sit on a hill in the baking sun talking to a lovely sales representative from REI. REI stands for Recreational Equipment Inc. and this American-based retail and outdoor recreation corporation is one of the best outdoor stores. It began in 1938 as climbers searched for quality outdoor gear. The owners founded it as a co-op because they valued helping people get outside, over profits. Everybody loves the service they give adventure seekers. I ordered new boots for Shepherd and shoes for me and this time they accepted my credit card. Hallelujah!
New varieties of wildflowers are coming thick and fast. I see a bush known as Wright’s deer vetch with its orange and yellow orchid flowers; orange desert mariposa lilies; a lavender-coloured daisy called leafy aster; cream cups–a small daisy cluster with a mixture of white and yellow petals and lemon orchid-shaped monkey flowers. There are also yellow Californian poppies; field milk vetch and a stalky cactus flower called canyon dudleya. The list continues. I’m captivated. Today’s visual offerings are intoxicating. They do a wonderful job of distracting me from the daily toils of the trail.
After checking for ants, we set up camp near Silverwood Lake, a massive freshwater lake popular with holidaymakers. A swim looks tempting but we only use it for water resupply. Exhausted we’re ready for bed, but another thru-hiker has other plans for us. He arrives late and rustles endlessly setting up camp. Then he wakes early creating even more noise. We abandon thoughts of further sleep and are off by 6 am.
Shepherd sets a cracking pace to get to a proper toilet at a designated picnic area two miles away. Why can’t she just crap in the woods like everybody else? I’m tired, struggling to keep my sugar levels in a healthy range, and becoming moody. We descend a hill, but these are non-PCT miles I don’t want to walk. I become the recalcitrant child from hell and give Shepherd my thoughts on this unnecessary diversion.
“Suit yourself. You don’t have to come with me,” she retorts.
I mumble something indecipherable and resume my place behind her. At least it has a bin (trash can), to offload our waste. “Leave no trace” principles mean you must carry out every bit of waste–packaging, uneaten food, wipes, and toilet paper. In some areas, this can even include human waste. I bring a Gallon-sized (3.8ltr) ziplock bag to every meal labelled ‘Dirty Bag’ as if you couldn’t tell. And I stow my toileting wipes in an opaque green doggy bag. I shake the contents into the bin if I have no replacement bags. On this occasion, I ditch both bags and am thankful for the slight decrease in pack weight.
I lag Shepherd as we climb 700ft, 200ft, then another 300ft. A new first. We walk 12.2 miles (19.6 km) before lunch but we have more miles to cover before our day is done. Our reward will be a night’s accommodation at Cajon Pass preceded by the much-awaited vanilla thick shake at McDonald’s. Laden with sugar, I haven’t had one of these treats in several decades. Maccas Vanilla Thick Shake images occupy Shepherd and my thought bubbles. Only 0.4 miles left before Shepherd and Kit Kat, smelly backpacks included, burst into the icy-cold McDonald’s, to claim our reward. Soo good!!
When we test a half hour later, our sugar levels are off the charts. Despite 10 hours of strenuous exercise, which should lower our sugar levels, we still need to give ourselves a mega dose of insulin to cope with this massive sugar hit. We don’t. Instead, we laugh our heads off at the sheer pleasure of this indulgence and adjust later.
Despite aiming for regular good sugar management, diabetes constantly tests us. Our health teams discourage these spikes. Do this too often and you risk serious long-term complications. That explains why I haven’t had a thick shake in over 30 years. Oh, to be a non-diabetic for just one day.
With limited variety on the trail, most town food is good. Except tonight. I suspect Shepherd is treating me to dinner for behaving and getting through the hefty distance today. Google tells us the family restaurant, Del Taco, is next to the Chevron Gas Mart within walking distance of the Best Western where we are staying. While our washing is being done, we shower and change into our town clothes for our big night out. Refreshed we head over to the restaurant and pass the drive-thru window on the way. Mmm… Is that a good sign?
“So, where’s this restaurant?” I can only see a Gas station. “Let’s check inside.”
Oh, I see it now. A tired-looking corner of the gas station is Del Taco. Not a chair or table in sight. Just a faded menu board with a disinterested cashier. The usual fare. We order the bento box of Mexican cuisine and retreat to our motel room to stuff our faces with tepid refried beans and other dubious offerings.
“It said family restaurant on Google,” Shepherd assures me.
“I believe you. Now we know the look of an American family restaurant.”
I fall asleep dreaming of another Vanilla thick shake.
Yesterday a gas station cashier ferried us to our Cajon Pass motel across a terrifying network of roads. She cautions us with a few choice words.
“Never walk this yourself. Someone was killed here attempting it.”
“Thanks for the heads up.”
The following morning, we can’t get a single person to help us. No Ubers are available. We are out in the sticks. They won’t drive miles for a one-minute ride and every Mexican refuelling at the gas station suddenly can’t speak English.
I recommend to Shepherd we walk it. My leader is not keen. With negligible hitchhiking success so far I predict the other alternative will be a lengthy indeterminate wait. God damn it! We have walking work to do. We need to move forward. I assure her I will be careful leading her. We sprint across the road and hug the verge. It is nerve-wracking and uncomfortable as fast-moving traffic whizzes by. A walk in the woods is easy in comparison. I hand leadership duties back to Shepherd once we are back at McDonald’s.
We meet a fellow thru-hiker Lucky for a quick photo opportunity. He always has us in stitches. A passer-by is taking our photo and making an absolute meal of it.
“We’ll eat your little dog if you don’t hurry this along,” Lucky remarks to us.
He’s restored our excellent mood, and we’re eager to move despite today’s cool and windy conditions. We soon enter a dark tunnel beneath the freeway. I use my phone as a torch. Five minutes later I notice one of my gloves is missing.
“I must go back, Shep. My hand won’t survive without it.”
Now who is the slow coach? Shepherd nods her head towards the tunnel, and I scamper away. Words are unnecessary. We know what the other is thinking. As our friendship grows so too does our humour and appreciation of each other’s quirks.
Today involves climbing amid violent wind gusts. Perched on a skinny ridgeline, it’s hard work staying upright and avoiding being blown into oblivion. A last glimpse back towards Cajon Pass we view a wonderful industrial scene. A network of freeways and railway lines. Looks like a Thomas the Tank Engine scene coming to life as an endless stream of freight trains perform a 360-degree circuit.
We tear ourselves away from this captivating sight to immerse ourselves in a sea of purple and yellow wildflowers as we head toward a cache for a much-needed water top-up. Recent hiker comments on the FarOut navigational app suggest it should have an ample supply. It is a relief to see their comments are correct. Sheltered too. A perfect spot for lunch.
A Dutch couple greet us and ask how we’re faring. They’ve never experienced such cool weather in Southern California at this time of the year. Good to know. We’re not just imagining it and being wusses.
“Can we get you anything? Soda, food?”
I’d love a soda right now. But Shepherd and I can’t drink regular sodas. They need to be the diet variety.
“Do you have a Diet Coke by any chance?”
“Yes, we do.” They return with two unopened Diet Cokes. General chit-chat follows. Shepherd mentions how dry her skin is. A tub of Nivea cream miraculously appears a few minutes later. Their parting gesture is to take away our rubbish.
“What just happened?” we ask each other once this lovely couple departs.
The generosity of strangers is overwhelming. I’m sure we’re being taught something on this trail we can’t comprehend at present. Put yourself in discomfort and help comes from nowhere every time you need it most. The trail continues to provide.
Although walking conditions are ideal, the weather deteriorates in the afternoon. We climb 2,000ft to 6,500ft. It gets colder and windier. The skies are grey. Our campsite sits precariously on a windy ledge. I expect the wind will buffet us the entire night. Once again, a hot meal is not possible tonight.
I feast on peanuts, on-the-nose meat sticks, and an Oatmeal and Raisin Cookie so laden with chemicals I’m sure it will never go stale. I try to write in my journal and clean myself, but I’m interrupted every few minutes with a fresh spray of dirt. My lemon-coloured sleeping pad is now mustard-coloured. Grit covers my face. I give up and “Embrace the suck.”
We need to reach 8,200ft tomorrow before descending to Wrightwood, our next hiker-friendly resupply town. Sleep beckons and I sleep through another windy night.
Today is a superb walking day. It’s a fitting day to mark Memorial Day, a federal holiday in the United States on the last Monday of May for remembering and honouring the military personnel who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. It reminds me of ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corp) Day commemorations held on April 25 each year. Many PCT thru hikers are ex-military so this day is important for them. Many of the towns we pass have memorial gardens. Wrightwood has a moving display where hikers congregate.
For the moment, the temperate is ideal at 52°F (11°C) with minimal wind and glorious sunshine. It is marvellous fun to crunch through the snow at these higher elevations. We are so high up that we’re taking photos from above the clouds as if from a plane.
One of our social media followers requests a photo of our silhouettes against these cloud inversions. Another wants more animal photos and fewer wildflowers. Here we are, putting our lives on the line and sharing our stories, and our fan base dares to put in special requests on what they want me to photograph. The cheek of it!
These funny requests and comments keep us engaged with the outside world and help divert our attention when times are tough. It’s pleasing to know others are interested in our journey. For my generation, Facebook has grown into a platform for sharing your adventures. And it’s an agreeable way to keep in touch with others back home.
The snow is melting as we descend into Wrightwood via the Acorn Trail. Sizeable, knock-you-out chunks of snow fall from the conifers. The trail is steepish, and it becomes slippery, but we manage without microspikes or ice axes. We’re expecting to pick up our ice axe tomorrow for ascending Mount Baden-Powell. In town, we catch up for lunch with Lucky and his walking buddies, Silence, and Bumble Bee.
Meanwhile, we contacted Bev, a lady from Idyllwild’s trail angel listing, to see if we could stay at her place for a few nights. She has a broken arm and can’t offer her usual hospitality but if we don’t mind making our beds and putting up with the ‘rustic’ setting we can stay with her.
“Oh, yes, please. A thousand thanks, Bev. We’re on our way.”
No mention of payment but we will offer money for her kind offer. We don’t take the generosity of trail angels for granted. You pay over US$100 for a basic room in this town. It adds up if you can’t find cheaper alternatives. There may be a campsite in town, but these are my least preferred places. On this occasion, we don’t even consider it. After lunch, we head over to Jensens, to check out resupply options.
Jensens is my favourite supermarket. Massive signs out the front welcome PCT hikers. There are even picnic tables set up outside with charge ports on the wall nearby for your electronic devices. Inside, dedicated displays with every lightweight, calorie-dense food you could ever want. They even throw in a gift at the checkout. We move on to the Hardware store next door, sign their PCT register, and are given a memento PCT stick pin. Our lunch spot offers free coffee. Is this a gift or punishment? That’s the Australian coffee snob surfacing in me. You can only drink so much engine oil.
Bev, an impeccably dressed, well-maintained mature lady picks us up from Jensens and drives us home one-handed for an orientation and rules lecture. The wiring in this converted garage is questionable. We trip the circuit every time we turn on a single device. Tech-guru and all-things-handy Shepherd lets Bev know of our predicament. I let her take the lesson on how to fix the problem.
“For the team Shepherd,” I respond as Bev guides her to the circuit box. She knows I run a mile from switches and electronics of any kind. When the replacement section for my trekking pole arrives, I shove it at Shepherd too.
“Can you work your magic and reassemble this for me, please? It’s my hands, my arthritic hands.”
Bullshit thinks Shepherd. “It’s just not your thing. You’re taking advantage of me.” Too right I am.
Tonight, we head out for dinner and by chance meet up again with Medicine Man and his new walking partner Tripod. I’m yet to try the ferro rod he has taught me how to use.
“It’s been too windy. Cut me some slack Medicine Man.”
He takes in everything I say and nods in understanding. I can see him brewing an alternative solution for me. I will hear of it soon enough. We return to Bev’s place and can’t turn off the outside flood light, as instructed. We’ll tell her in the morning. It’s chilly indoors. There’s a thermostat on the wall which she’s permitted us to adjust upwards to warm the basement. It works a treat, and we enjoy a restful night’s sleep.
Unlike Bev who is not so warm. Unbeknownst to us, cranking up the heat downstairs drains warmth from upstairs.
Observing the thermostat, the next morning she comments, “74 degrees Fahrenheit! No wonder I’m cold.”
Oops! Shepherd is as good as 50 years old and me 60. We become naughty schoolgirls. We wait with bated breath for the ‘not-turning-the-outside-light-off moment’. It comes at once. It takes every bit of composure and biting of lips to stave off a fit of the giggles. We suggest it may not work because of the light’s two-way switch, one upstairs and one downstairs. When you position the switch one way the other corresponding switch may not work, as intended.
“That’s never happened in all my time here,” replies Bev, pulling her dressing gown tighter around her lean frame.
Of course, it hasn’t. We are plain evil and inconsiderate. We can’t stop laughing as we leave the house to begin our resupply, but we know she’s a generous soul. Every trail angel is. There’s sadness there we can’t quite place which might explain her brusque manner.
We wash, then hang our clothes and tents out to dry in Bev’s backyard. But we have more chores to complete. With nothing to wear, we hit the town in our PJs (Pyjamas)–our comfy black base layers. They could be transparent, but we don’t care. They’re our only solution. This I-don’t-give-a-damn-what-other-people-think feeling is most liberating. We head to Jensens to complete a 12-day resupply; six to carry and six to mail to Agua Dulce because their local convenience store is no longer supporting hikers. We add in a weightlifting class as we lug our supplies back to Bev’s home.
We remove the outside food packaging before repacking breakfast, lunch, and dinner into ziplock freezer bags. I then package my meals into larger ziplock bags labelled Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner for easy access. Shepherd packages her into Days One through Six. No method is better than the other. After three hours, we complete our 12-day food resupply. Tomorrow we return to the USPS to send our six-day food resupply to Agua Dulce and our bounce boxes to Lake Isabella. It’s a full-time job keeping tabs on where we send everything, but we’ve not lost a package yet.
The afternoon is more restful as we catch up with other hikers and enjoy delicious sandwiches at the Cinnamon Bakery Shoppe. I will order lunch and dinner for tomorrow from here. They’re too good not to revisit. In the evening I convince Shepherd to try the Mexican Seafood Restaurant.
“I don’t do seafood.”
“Well, don’t. Do Mexican instead. It can’t be any worse than our Del Taco Family Restaurant experience.”
“You have a point.”
PJ clad, the server escorts us to a nice upstairs booth and offers us the 5c Margarita Tuesday night special. “Yes, please,” we enthusiastically respond. They prove the best Margaritas on the entire trail. And the meal is not bad either.
The next morning Bev ferries us around with last-minute housekeeping duties. I preordered our lunch and my dinner for a specific pickup time, but the Bakery Shoppe is making a right royal hash of it.
“So sorry for the delay Bev.”
“No problems,” she replies but I’m not convinced.
It comes as an overwhelming shock to us when Bev huddles us together and says a moving prayer for our safe passage on this challenging journey when she returns us to the Acorn Trailhead. Trail angels are amazing people. I’m not religious, but her earnest gesture touches us. And, as most of them do, she refuses payment of any kind. An uplifting experience as we contemplate a killer ascent.
Shepherd is not feeling the love for a 1,500ft climb up Acorn Trail, having seen its steepness a few days ago. But we have a great weather forecast for the next 14 days. We are feeling fit and rejuvenated, and the snow has melted since we were last here. After a fair bit of cursing and cussing, we make it up the mountainside in a respectable 90 minutes. Pleased with our efforts we find a spot to enjoy our Cinnamon Bakery Shoppe lunch.
Our flavoursome turkey wraps are full of fresh juicy ingredients, but they’re wettish. Not one of my better ideas. I have a wetter vegetarian one awaiting me for dinner tonight. I’ll pretend I’m eating something more pleasant as I must eat it. For a late start, we cover 12 miles (19 km) today. We retire early and rest up to prepare for tomorrow’s Mount Baden-Powell climb.
Although May does not conclude for two more days, I’m moving those remaining days to the next chapter. Snow is still around but the worst of this month’s extreme weather has passed. As Hannah Fry, Staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, reported on May 17, 2019. “Southern California was hit by the wettest winter in years. And in mid-May–two months after the official end of winter–the rain and snow just keep coming. California was clobbered this week by another storm, which dumped snow on the Sierra and set rain records in the Southland. The National Weather Service predicts colder-than-average temperatures for the entire state next week.”
Later we find out the 2019 snowpack was 220% of a normal year’s fall and the cold snap we experienced was a once in a 100-year event. No wonder I was complaining. We had good cause. But there’s an upside to a large snowpack. It’s an important measurement of the state’s water supply, and it was looking great. This meant, as PCT hikers, we could breathe easier over water sources as we entered the arid Mohave Desert.