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Begins: Jun 6, 2014
Date: Fri, Jun 13th, 2014
Start: Cajon Pass/I-15 (mile 342)
End: Hiker Heaven/Agua Dulce/The Saufley's (mile 454.5)
Daily Distance: 0
Entry Visits: 747
Journal Visits: 3,063
Guestbook Views: 247
Guestbook Entrys: 2
Pacific Crest Trail Map
Just after my college graduation I took a flight from Minneapolis to LAX, landing pack on back and virgin eyes set to the mountainous desert horizon of the Pacific Crest Trail.
I am a relative stranger to this diverse Pacific region, since no amount of day-hikes or mute gaping through vacation car window can really acquaint someone with the land. The scenery rapidly changes from sacred pine forest to blazing desert scrub in a way perhaps analogous to Midwest transitions from sweet-scented deciduous canopy to open field. The ubiquitous Midwestern turf of grass and soil are here exchanged for spiny plant and rock in various stages of deposition: sand, or else pebbles or fist-sized rocks, or else rarer still the massive boulder itself, weathered flat and grainy over eons of wind and rain. But even the most exposed Midwestern prairie fails to match the Pacific Ocean, that untamed and untamable deity whose gaping maw swallows up the very land itself, and does it completely. It was in front of this sleeping monster that I found myself 4 short hours after my flight landed, bare chested and bare legged, deep in smiling sleep after the morning travel haze. Where I was on Santa Monica beach is a different kind of California beach altogether than the rocky, wild beaches I've elsewhere seen at Montana de Oro or else read about in Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur. On these rockier beaches, outcroppings of wet stone offer themselves up to mighty waves of Pacific thunder like virgins to the satisfaction of an angry god, but actually which has the opposite effect of increasing the turmoil: now angry white foam sprays forth from watery chaos, and a booming roar deafens the ears of any mortal in attendance. But none of this is so at Santa Monica, where both the sea and I are asleep. The regular waves are the gentle breaths of a slumbering dragon stretched out over its deep hoard. In rare moments, for up to 5 seconds at a time, the ocean makes no noise at all and simply sits there, a silent infinity. It is these astounding silences that yank me from my innocent doze and leave me unsettled. There was the sea, powerful symbol of chaos, vast and utterly silent in front of me. Was this peace genuine, or is it a false peace luring beach-goers into easy allegiance with an untrustworthy sea? Who can stare into the face of infinity and know its mind?
What I felt in front of the sea was a truly human question - should I fear what I might find in the abyssal unknown? - and it sat heavily on my mind as I prepared to trade the typical, socialized mode of life for days spent in the sun and nights under the stars, gambling the known and truly satisfying pleasures associated with a normal life with the encrypted lexicon of pleasures known only to the long distance thru-hiker. I made final trail preparations in the Los Angeles sprawl, which included a last meal of sorts with my hitherto unknown cousin once removed Catie Bellinger, a dim AMC screening of Grand Budapest Hotel, and daytime hours reading on Santa Monica Pier, or else watching Santa Monica Pier on TV in a Keeping Up With the Kardashians marathon. Catie said over tapas, "When you get to Seattle, you've gotta stay with my parents," while I thought to myself "Of course, if I make it that far." Snoqualmie Pass in Washington, my ultimate goal, is marked mile 2402 on the PCT--2,060 miles from my starting place at mile 342, the tunnel at Cajon Pass under I-15 in California. Taking no 0 days, no hitchhiking, and walking 20 miles a day, my pilgrimage is a 103 day, or 14 week, journey. In college terms, it's a full semester of daily walking, and probably more work than a typical semester though of a different sort. This is physical labor, yes, but mental labor as well which falls under the umbrella of the most difficult kind of mental labor known as "becoming disciplined." One of the disciplines I'm aiming to learn is the discipline of joy. My fears going into the trail are not so much the bears, sun, 20+ mile stretches of no water, or risk of injury, though I would be lying if I said these don't give me fear in their turn. My main fear, the only fear with the power to force me off the trail, is the fear of my experience devolving into a pleasureless isolation, a drone-like plodding from A to B. This is a fear spiraling out from a lack of faith, that is, lacking faith in my ability to find joy outside the typical channels of satisfaction, or else lacking faith that God can bring me joy in fierce landscapes.
My friend Lucy Stagnaro and I planned on meeting up in LA as she drove to Austin, TX. "I'd be happy to take you anywhere you want to go" she said, but an unpredictable and, alas, miserable stomach flu delayed her, which was really bad for the both of us since now I had to find transit out of the concrete jungle and into the mountains north of San Bernardino (for a Midwesterner like me, even after living in Europe for a semester, public transit is an attractive but foreign concept). But it all worked out through a series of buses and trains, even though I had to pay $ 50 for a ride from a mother and son in the gloaming up the misty mountain pass for the final stretch of the journey, lest I risk a much more expensive encounter with the cops by sleeping outdoors in the grass of the Fontana bus station. But I slept a happy starlight sleep on a windy ridge barely wide enough for my single-person tent with the sounds and lights of cars on highway 15 driving below me and slender coyotes howling to their friends from the dark folds of endless arroyos.
Morning light gave me the first sight of desert day as the trail snaked uphill through massive culverts and around railroad tracks, fading orange trains thunderously clacking the goods of America towards their distribution centers. Little time to imagine the tendrils of infrastructure, though, since my next water stop was a trickling stream 22.5 miles away and the 5 liters of water on my back weighed heavy with the 8 days of food and camping gear. I hiked all hot day, lizards scurrying out from underfoot, and into the night, moon rising over my left shoulder. In the final tenth of a mile to the spring I picked up the faintest scent of campfire, growing stronger as I climbed uphill, until finally panting I reached a crowded, almost bustling campsite, with 10 or 15 other happy campers. Pleased with the company and with the water they gave me, I slept the sleep of an exhausted hiker.
The next day was essentially the same, though with more water stops, climbing the 8,000' Mt. Baden-Powell, and with the added excitement of sleeping in an isolated valley campsite called Little Jimmy's (which I would avoid in the future). That night I heard some large animal noises, like the amplified growling of a stomach. I had fears of charging antlers and scared solo attempts to fend off four-legged predators, which turned out to be groundless since I was not, in fact, camping solo but was sharing the campsite with a fellow thru-hiker who introduced himself the next morning as "Paint Your Wagon, or just Paint," a retired carpenter from Lincoln, IL and a past attendee of my Alma Mater's music festival. My first acquaintance with the same plan as mine, which brought reassurance. We hiked together off and on for the next day, separating and meeting up three times. One of those separations was caused by me getting lost at the top of some mountain, getting off-trail by a solid mile and having to GPS myself back on trail after hiking over three saddles in the heat of the day with only 4 liters of water, which left me hitchhiking on the side of the road once I finally did get back on trail, trying to get a few miles down Highway 2 to the next water fill-up on the trial. But before a sympathetic car could drive by, two hikers came up behind me, Snake Charmer and Lady Luck, who, surprisingly, turned out being friends of some of my best friends' cousin's husband, Snake Charmer being an old fellow lab assistant at University of Washington with Daniel, now in Wichita, and connected by marriage to the Overholts, cousins to my friends the Cranstons. A strange and loose connection to be sure, but really amazing considering the diversity of people on the trial. The three of us have been hiking together for the past 3 or so days, talking on subjects from gear to gun control ("just think what sort of public works projects we could make if we beat all those swords into plowshares!") to God/s. Really a fantastic gift to me, this couple from Seattle.
Last night, after hiking 19.5 miles to Agua Dulce and filling up on beer and pizza, the three of us arrived at Hiker Heaven, the Saufley's trail angel paradise and met, briefly, the Turtles, a pair of hikers younger than myself named Sea Turtle and Tortise, who are hiking the trail as a video project. They're gone now, and Snakecharmer, Lady Luck, and myself are taking a 0-day today (that is, no productive trail miles), following r.i.c.e., playing guitar, sorting out affairs, etc., and generally passing the day away in a beautiful trailer parked beneath some shady pines on a horse ranch just outside Agua Dulce. I'm about to catch a ride into Valencia with a veteran hiker, iPod, to catch a movie and buy some better-padded shoes (my Patagonias not following through, surprisingly). I hope in my next entry to offer some better gear reviews, and more trail details, but I'm still getting my sea legs. Next entry should be within a week.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a 2,650-mile national scenic trail that runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. The PCT traverses 24 national forests, 37 wilderness areas and 7 national parks. The PCT passes through 6 out of 7 of North Americas ecozones. Learn more: www.pcta.org