Sunday, May 21, 2017

More Mostly Boring Desert

The last hundred miles have been pretty easy - if you ignore yesterday's 20 mile continuous climb back up to elevation, that is. The 80 miles leaving Big Bear featured a gradual downward slope. This sounds nice and pleasant for a walk but I have to say, four days of walking on fairly flat trails through the hot, sunny desert gets a bit old. Luckily, there were a few distractions throughout the days to break it up a little.

The first of those distractions were some nice natural hot springs. I am quite glad that I did not hit them on the weekend since they are apparently a popular place for locals to hang out and take a large amount of mind altering substances. Even mid-week there were some drugged out, naked people wandering around, but I was able to find a nice 106 degree spring with just some hikers hanging out.

After spending a few hours alternating between the hot pools and a nearby cool stream I continued the hot, flat trek through the desert. A few days after the pools, I hit a highway underpass, which happened to be half a mile from a McDonalds. To add to the excitement of that, a hiker named Squarepants had been inviting everyone he met to his birthday party at this fine establishment on the day I got there. It seems people got the message and showed up in full force. When I arrived, there were probably 40-50 hikers already there. Despite the smell and cramped space, the employees were incredibly pleasant and accepting of a bunch of functionally homeless people hanging out for hours.

The downside of the McDonalds stop was that the next 25 miles of trail was up a mountain. As boring as days of flat trail can be, full days of uphill are sometimes worse. For the entire day, I hiked uphill completely exposed to the sun. It was the hardest day on the trail yet. The whole process was made more difficult by the fact that there was no water for that 25 mile stretch, as well. I think it would have been easier to handle if most of this section had not been subject to wildfires in recent years and had more tree cover. There are sections of trail that have large tree trunks alongside but these trunks provide zero shade since they are just burned trunks now. Once I completed my 20 miles of uphill and hit camp, I got some more water and added plenty of electrolytes to it. I needed them badly.

The terrible day of uphill did make for an easy 5 mile day into the town of Wrightwood at mile 369. It is a nice little mountain town that is super friendly to hikers. The local grocery store has "Welcome PCT Hikers" signs all over the store to clearly show where items we care about are located. It definitely made it easier to find everything. To add to the greatness of the town, the bakery I was sitting in front of gave away all the left over donuts at the end of the day! I will be packing a bag of donuts out of town tomorrow. The last thing that made Wrightwood so great is Rosie drove up from Los Angeles to meet up with me and Zoom. It was great seeing her again! We had a nice afternoon of just catching up and reminiscing about our time on the AT. All in all, a good town experience made me feel ready to do the next 100 miles.

I think I've been on the trail long enough now to make some observations about the people that are on the trail. There are some interesting differences between PCT hikers and AT hikers that I've noticed.

Probably the most notable difference is the gender distribution. On the AT it was somewhere around 80 percent male. On the PCT, it seems much closer to 50/50. This is the difference that I have been having the hardest time figuring out. I can't figure out a reason that the PCT would be relatively more attractive to female hikers over the AT. There is a possibility that in the last three years the percentage of female hikers has risen on both trails, but that seems like it would be too quick of a change.

Some of the other differences make at least a little more sense to me. Overall, people are far more in shape at the beginning of the PCT. I've met less than five people who were noticeably out-of-shape on this trail. At the beginning of the AT, there were dozens of people in that state. The beginning of the PCT is less forgiving than the AT so it makes some sense that people would be in better condition. It ties in with the fact that people on the PCT seem more informed and better prepared all around. I think it s related that there are very few people with an excessive amount of weight in the pack or lots of useless items. I guess the fact that you have to start with decent mileage days in order to hit water sources forces people to do research and feel prepared for the trail in a way that the AT does not. Overall, I have been more impressed with the average PCT hiker in the first few hundred miles compared with the average AT hiker.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Seeing the Unexpected

The trip out of Idyllwild involved the largest vertical climb that I've done on the trail, so far. It started with a steep side trail to get back to the PCT and then continued with another steep side trail to get over the peak. While the PCT seems to be fairly gradual and not outrageously taxing per mile it doesn't always go exactly where you really want to go, especially near towns. The climb was definitely worth it when I finally got to the peak. At 10,834 feet it makes for the tallest peak I've ever done!
Luckily, the elevation didn't seem to bother me much. I think most of the time I was out of breath due to my fitness level and full food resupply, instead of the altitude. I had to trudge through some snow near the peak - I quickly learned that following footprints can sometimes be the opposite of the correct thing to do. All in all, the side trek to the peak was well worth it.

After the peak, the trail had 30 miles of downhill in store for me. It is an interesting experience to hike from a snowy peak down to flat desert in a day and a half. The low elevation, flat terrain, and strong sun drove home the fact that it does not have to actually be that hot in the desert to feel oppressive. I don't think the temperature was above 70, but all I could think about was shade. Unfortunately, the only thing around was a wind farm.

A few days after hiking past the wind farm, much to my surprise, along the side of the trail was a private zoo. Apparently, this zoo is a location that animals used in films get trained. The only animals I could see from outside were a grizzly bear and a lion. There is something deeply depressing about seeing these kinds of animals in small enclosures after spending two weeks walking through fairly remote mountains. Even in public zoos, one can argue that the education to the public is a net positive for the captivity of animals. This doesn't seem to be true for a private zoo. The zoo wasn't the end of surprises for the day though. Near the end of the day, I came upon a couch and dumpster filled with trail magic just sitting next to the trail. A free soda and a soft place to sit are always appreciated along the trail.

That trail magic was provided by Big Bear Hostel so it seemed appropriate to stay there once I got to Big Bear City. Big Bear is at mile 266, which is pretty good for two weeks into my journey. Ten percent of the way there! Later today, I'll be heading back to the trail with a full five days of food. My backpack is much heavier than I would prefer.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Life in the Desert

After leaving Warner Springs I did a couple twenty mile days to get to highway 74, leading into Idyllwild. This is not the closest road into town, but a few miles past highway 74 there is a section of trail closed due to a wildfire a few years ago. There is an official alternate route that bypasses this closed section of trail but it looked decidedly uninteresting so I decided to hitch into Idyllwild from there and pick up the trail on the other side of the closed section at mile 177. The past few days have been full of lovely views and fairly easy trails. The PCT continues to be much more gradual on the elevation changes than the AT. There is also not much vegetation taller than I am to obstruct the views. It is kind of nice to feel like I am being rewarded with views, but not punished with grueling climbs, straight up mountains, like the trails back home. The following photos provide a fair representation of what I look at all day as I hike.

Water continues to be annoyingly sparse. There are specific locations that have it (some of them questionable, at best) but I don't know if I will ever get over the habits that much of the AT taught me. The AT has abundant water sources along the trail and thinking about the distance to the next reliable source of water never took up much of my mental energy. On this trail, water is always an event. Water sources are where hikers tend to gather for breaks during the day and socialize. So far my experience on the PCT has not been on of people clumping up to camp at night, which is the opposite of the AT. The trend of spreading out more to camp seems to drive people to hang out longer at water sources just to chat with the people around them on the trail.

When the water source is less than desirable such gatherings don't seem to happen. (There was a dead rat in this one.)

Besides hikers at water sources, I have also seen a plethora of other wildlife. I had not expected to see more wildlife in the desert than I did in the woodlands of the AT, but it feels like that's the case. Along the AT, I saw squirrels, chipmunks, and deer almost exclusively. So far on the PCT I have seen dozens of rabbits, countless lizards of multiple varieties, three rattlesnakes, a few other snakes I am not knowledgeable enough to identify, as well as the multitudes of small rodents that populate the desert. The plant life also seems to be more diverse with different kinds of cacti and bushes along the trail. I recognize that the variety of the flora and fauna probably stands out to me more since it is all things that exist outside my normal climate zone but it still surprises me to see so much life in the desert. 

Tomorrow I will be leaving Idyllwild and summiting San Jacinto Peak. The summit is at elevation 10,834 feet, which will be the tallest of the hike so far (by quite a bit!). It is supposed to have some of the most spectacular views on the southern section of the PCT so I am looking forward to it. Hopefully the trail doesn't throw too many hurdles my way, or at least ones I can't make it over.