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Mesa Wind Farm
This is long overdue, and I'm sorry. I've been off the trail for a week now, and the end has come. As excited as I was to start the second phase of this grand adventure, in less than 40 miles, the PCT threw everything at me it could - washed out trails, harsh weather conditions, and even a little trail magic - and it broke me. But the story of how I got to this point is worth telling, so I hope you'll hang with me for this 'finale.'
SATURDAY, 30 MARCH. Although it seemed a pain at the time, it turned out to be a blessing to have my flight delayed until mid-afternoon; something to do with Southwest's fleet of Boeing Max 8's, I presume. It gave me some extra time to spend with Jill, going over administrative details to be addressed during my absence, and wrapping up a few minor yard maintenance activities. All thanks to a nice Uber driver named Faisel, I was able to get from the Ontario airport to a Super Walmart to get Smart Water bottles and camp fuel, then on to the I-10 underpass at Cabazon - what the thru hikers refer to as the "Oasis" - where I began my short hike for the day. As is the case with the PCT, you meet some of the nicest folks, one of whom was an elderly lady named Karen who was walking down Tamarack Lane and insisted on showing me where the trail began. Of course I knew this from last year, but she was so enthusiastic I couldn't help but be appreciative of her intentions. A guy stopped in a truck and bid me a 'hello hiker.' His name was Andini and he had just finished a southbound (SoBo) Lash from Tehachapi (not a bad idea, as it turns out) and was on his way home to San Diego. After asking if I needed anything, he wished me good hiking and then took off. Nothing left to do but hit the trail. It was well after 6pm at this point, so I managed to make it about two miles up the trail before finding a primitive parking lot beyond the sparse housing project adjacent to I-10, and setting up my shelter. I'd eaten well, all day, so there was no need for supper at this point, and I crawled into my sleeping bag and went to sleep, listening to the distant drone of traffic on I-10.
SUNDAY, 31 MARCH. This was the first active day of my PCT permit, so I was 'legal' at this point. I awoke to the beginning of a beautiful sunrise, with the massive Mesa Wind Farm turbines silhouetted against the morning sky. As with last year, this wind farm was a bit of a taste of home, given that Mesa, and its founder T. Boone Pickens, are big donors to my undergraduate alma mater, Oklahoma State. I'm glad to see Big Oil doing what it can in the renewable energy world. After only a quarter mile, I came upon the wash for Cottonwood Creek, which was flowing, and met a couple - John and Stork - camped there. It would have been a good place to camp but I was not yet in need for water the night before, and as it turns out I would have been encroaching on them. John and Stork were from Hood River, OR, a place I'd been with my family just the previous weekend. That called for an explanation as to how I'd made my way some 210 miles up the PCT, and how I was actually engaged in PCT Part Deux. We visited for a couple of minutes then I pressed on. About 2 miles up the trail is a place I remember well from last year; it is the maintenance center for the Mesa wind farm. A sign adjacent to the trail indicates water and shade for hikers at the facility. I thought it would be a good place to take a break and have some breakfast. When I came through here last year, the facility was open and there were several hikers in the kitchen, sitting in real chairs and taking advantage of the snack bar the Mesa employees had set up for hikers. Not this time though; it was closed, and although there were a number of vehicles parked around, there seemed to be no one there. Maybe because it was a Sunday. No problem; I took a break on a small grass patch outside and had some granola and brewed up a cup of coffee. A nice 45-minute break, then back at it, without seeing a soul at the maintenance shed. The canyon heading north from that point was very familiar to me, as I recall, painfully, the steep 2-mile trail leading to the bluff above the Whitewater River, and the San Gorgonio Wilderness boundary. Up ahead, I saw John and Stork, who must have passed me while I was having breakfast. They were making good time and were near the top. At this point it was becoming painfully obvious that I did not yet have my trail legs, and I struggled to follow them to the top. After entering the San Gorgonio Wilderness, the next two miles leading toward the Whitewater River are relatively flat and I made good time. The wildflowers were abundant, with various blue and yellow buds everywhere, along with the immediately identifiable California Poppies. The wildflower bloom in the SoCal desert is no joke! It was beautiful, and I stopped to take photos several times. I saw John and Stork ahead of me a couple of times, including at the trail junction leading to the Whitewater Preserve, which had been closed due to severe flooding along the Whitewater River. I looked away momentarily, and they were gone. I didn't figure I'd see them again. By about 11 am, I'd made my way to the aptly named Red Dome, an apparent down-dropped block of red rock from a no longer existing geologic strata above. I recalled this was a good shady place to take a break, which would have been the case if the wind had not been sandblasting everything around it. Still, I stopped to rest, and to survey the crossing, which had been identified in some PCT blogs I'd checked out as thigh-deep rushing water. In this area, the Whitewater River is a giant braided stream some half-mile across, and although I could see the first crossing, and the PCT marker beyond it, it was not clear how many times I'd need to ford the water. To be honest, it didn't matter; the trail was on the other side and I had to cross it. I filled up my water bottles from the cold and silty meltwater, took off my socks to keep them dry, put my shoes back on, and waded into the first stream. The water was indeed swift, but inconsistent with the reports I'd read, it was only calf-deep at best. I made it across the river fairly readily, and once on the other side I threw down my pack and put my socks back on. From this point, at an elevation of around 2700 feet, the slow and arduous climb began to over 8700 feet in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. It was the beginning of a brutal three days. At approximately Mile 226, I came to the exact spot where I made the now more wise than ever decision to turn back. It was what I would call a moment of emotional GPS. I knew exactly the spot, and I reflected for a long while on the decision that without a doubt, especially considering the terrain to come, saved my life last year. I stood there for a few moments, soaking it all in, and then pressed on, knowing I had what it took to get beyond this point, at least. Not long after, I met a fit and 50-ish couple hiking SoBo. The man admonished me to press on, that I was only an hour or so from the ridge top. He indicated that they were day-hikers that liked to vacation in the Palm Springs area, and had hiked through this area many times. After another couple hours of pretty intense hiking, I came to the campsite at the first crossing of Mission Creek. I'd made it about 15 miles, which I considered to be pretty good for my first full day on the trail. As promised, the creek had a voluminous flow and I was encouraged to know that there would be an ample water supply at least through tomorrow. Little did I know what Mission Creek had in store for me. I set up camp on a sand bar adjacent to the creek, where logs were present for sitting and there was ample area to dry out my shoes and socks. While I was eating, a couple came in behind me, and although I didn't realize it at the time, it was John and Stork. They waved from a distance, and set up their camp a couple hundred feet away. During the day, I noted that my phone battery was dying, owing to the multiple uses of the Guthook app for the usual GPS navigating, and for identifying locations of suitable water supplies and campsites. No big deal, I thought; I brought my portable charger, and while eating my dinner I plugged in the phone. Not wanting to overcharge, I unhooked the phone when I settled into my shelter for the night, and noted that it had not charged a bit. I was too tired to consider for very long the potential ramifications of this, and figured I'd charge it up in the morning, and that all would be fine.
MONDAY, 1 APRIL. April Fools Day, and no kidding, it was a miserable day, albeit with a touch of trail magic that touches all PCT hikers at some point. As I lay in my shelter, considering getting up and out, I hooked up my phone and charger again, and found that it would not charge at all. I panicked, thinking that I would have to get all the way to Big Bear, some 40+ miles away, without any access to GPS. I'd become so reliant on the Guthook app, and now I was only a few precious minutes from being without it. Of course I planned well and had copies of all the Halfmile PCT maps with me, so I wasn't totally hosed, but navigation, especially to water supplies, was going to be a different kind of challenge. And things only got worse. Mission Creek flows through what I would call essentially a box canyon, and the torrential rains of previous weeks had completely obliterated the trail, and had left debris in the form of giant boulders and downed trees all along the route. Although it was obvious that the trail could ultimately only go one direction up and out of the canyon, walking became a total struggle involving boulder-hopping and climbing over giant dead trees. I had to cross Mission Creek some 15 times that day, and not one crossing was routine or easy. At one point, I tight-rope walked over a downed tree to get across the water and onto the bank on the other side. It was a big tree, so not really dangerous, but as I stepped off the log and onto the bank, the bank gave way like it was ashtray sand. Down I went, hard, and found myself wedged between the tree and the new bank, halfway submerged in the creek. I did a quick survey to assess the damage to my body, and could tell Id scraped up my knee and elbow pretty good, but the immediate concern was getting out of the water. I unhitched my backpack, and finally extricated myself from the creek. Fortunately Id prepared for stuff like this, and all my gear was stuffed inside trash bags within my backpack, so nothing was really wet. But I was already exhausted. At one point, trying to navigate the channel, I saw a SoBo hiker heading toward me. Turns out it was a woman named Sochi, who had decided to bounce north and head back to Cabazon from Big Bear. She indicated there were at least 10 more crossings ahead. She had a prosthetic leg, and I admired how hard she was working to hike the PCT. An hour later, and after several more crossings, I decided to stop for a break, and to assess where I was on the map. I'd just dropped my pack, and along came John and Stork, who I thought were far ahead of me by now. Turns out that yesterday, at the Whitewater River, they'd decided to take a very long nap, and I passed them without seeing them. I sat down to have a snack with them, and related that my charging cord was not working and that I was completely without electronic GPS assistance. And in a moment of true trail magic, Stork asked me if it was an iPhone - yes it was - and she volunteered that they had two of them and that I could have one. An incredible stroke of good fortune! I asked if I could get a phone number such that I could call them and get it back to them when I was next up in Oregon, to which she declined and said not to worry about it. Wow! At that point, we commiserated about the nasty hiking conditions, and how much we were looking forward to a big meal in Big Bear. And with that, they set out ahead of me. It would be the last time I saw them. I charged my phone for a half hour, and prepared to press on. After another half dozen stream crossings, at least, I came to a campsite above the creek, and although I'd only made it maybe 8 miles at most that day, I was exhausted and determined I could go no further. There was a group of hikers at the campsite, including interesting characters named Rabbit, Lucky, Jeff, Oberon (from Northern England, with a very thick and almost comical accent), and Cowboy. All but Cowboy determined they wanted to press on toward the top of this stretch, at nearly 8000 feet and some 2000 feet above where we stood. Cowboy and I set up our respective shelters, had a quiet dinner, and bid each other goodnight. And yes, I managed to fully charge my phone. Trail magic....
TUESDAY, 2 APRIL. Cowboy was just stirring when I broke camp. We wished each other safe hiking and I was off. The climb was immediately steep and I found myself struggling for breath in the ever climbing terrain. It seemed I would take five or six steps, then stop for five or six breaths before starting again. After about two hours and no more than 3 miles of progress, I came to an open camping area at what appeared to be near the headwaters of Mission Creek. I wasn't at all sorry to be parting with that dreaded body of water, even though water would be more scarce between here and Big Bear, some 30 miles ahead. According to the map and app, there was also a spring nearby. As I stopped to catch my breath before looking for a place to rest, I turned around to see a guy coming up behind me. He apologized for apparently startling me, and introduced himself as Paul. His companion, a woman he called Stef, came up a moment later. Paul was from the UK, and Stef was from Australia. They'd met at the Campo trailhead and had been hiking together ever since, about 2 weeks. We found a warm spot in the sun adjacent to a wooden gate, and plopped down; apparently they were as tired as I was, and both commented on the miserable trek up Mission Creek. As we sat there, making small talk, a fairly large guy came lumbering up from the direction of the creek. He spoke of being injured and making barely more than 6-8 miles a day, and having to melt snow for water at various points. His name was Corey, and as it turns out he is a guy known as the Second Chance Hiker. I learned this the next day, from a couple of guys I rode into Big Bear with, and the story is that he started the PCT at Campo, weighing more than 400 pounds, with the sole goal of walking as far as he could, and losing as much weight as he could. Of course I didn't know any of this while we were talking, and all I could think was, why is this guy doing this, when he is apparently so incapable of making it? Well, shame on me for those thoughts; this guy has ten times more moxie than I ever will, and God bless him for trying. Google Second Chance Hiker PCT sometime if you are interested in his story. I believe he will ultimately make it to Canada! After a leisurely lunch, and losing the cap to my dirty water bottle - I still don't know how; it was right there - Paul and Stef set out ahead and, like seemingly all the people I've met on the PCT, I wistfully watched them go, wondering if Id see them again. Paul had been nice enough to offer me some Pringles and Skittles, which were a treat, and Stef's Aussie accent was nothing short of mesmerizing. After looking for that cap for five more minutes and then giving up, I headed up the trail after them. After a steep climb to the north of more than 500 feet, now well over 8000 feet elevation, the trail headed east along a north-facing slope, and the sun disappeared behind the hill. And here is where the harsh reality hit home regarding where the snow persists. Based on the map, it was some 3 miles to the Coon Creek Campground, where I hoped to camp (barely 10 miles from where I started that morning), and the trail was completely covered in snow, on a steep slope. Clearly others had been this way before, as the trail was well marked by footprints alone. But it was growing late in the day, and the snow was soft. About every third step I would posthole down to my hip. At one point, both feet postholed like that, and I fell backwards with my head (and pack) pointing down the steep hill; I was held in place only by how deep my legs were buried. It took me a full 15 minutes to extract myself without losing my pack, and it wore me out. A few minutes later, I slipped and started sliding downhill, but managed to arrest myself with my trekking poles. It was a true near miss. I stopped to get out my microspikes, and found that the going was a bit better, although I still could not keep from postholing. It became clear to me that I was not going to make it to the campground, and that I was going to have to find some place to bivouac for the night. After a few hundred feet of surveying the landscape while trying not to posthole and/or slide down the hill, I found a snow-free, moderately flat tree well with abundant soft bark and pine needles. My shoes and socks were soaked at this point, and the temperature was dropping rapidly now that the sun was long-gone behind the hill. I laid out my shelter and put my sleeping bag on top of it. I laid out my shoes and socks to dry, and put on all the clothes in my backpack, before peeing and then burrowing into my sleeping bag by about 6:30. I had come about 8 miles that day. It is no joke that, as I zipped up my bag around my head and curled into one of three or four fetal positions I would adopt over the course of the night, I realized this could well be the night that I freeze to death. It would surely be well below freezing, and my 28-degree rated REI bag was about to be put to the test of life or death. There was nothing I could do but take my chances. I was too tired to go on, and I was nowhere that I could be rescued if the shit hit the fan. I was strangely at peace, with the knowledge that I'd done everything I could do and it was now in God's hands. I read somewhere, once upon a time, that freezing to death isn't really that bad of a way to go; I guess you just eventually slow down until everything stops working, and you go to sleep, never to reawaken. I wasn't eager to learn that first hand, but was certainly in the position that I might find out. It was a fairly uncomfortable night, although not so much because of the temperature. I slept fitfully, partially because the tree well wasn't all that comfortable, and partially because I would wake up periodically to see if I might be getting colder. As to the latter, I never did. I unzipped my bag a couple of times to stick my head out and, yep, it was darned cold outside, well below freezing I think, but I stayed pretty cozy. Thank you REI! That sleeping bag will hold a hallowed place in my heart until my dying day, which thankfully wasn't THAT day.
WEDNESDAY, 3 APRIL. Around 6 am, a full 12 hours since I burrowed into that bag, not knowing if I would live or die, I emerged stiff but not very cold. There was a layer of frost on all my gear. My shoes were frozen solid, along with the laces that weirdly spiraled into the air. The minimal water I had left in my bottles was frozen solid as well. It must have been very, very cold last night, but I was one very happy camper. I decided after getting my gear packed into my backpack that my shoes weren't going to thaw any time soon, so I kept on my camping socks and stuck my feet into those rock hard shoes, laced them up as best I could, pulled on my gaiters and microspikes, and headed out. The snow was as hard as a rock, which presented a significantly higher threat of slippage, but the spikes bit well and I didn't posthole once. At one point I got to do something I'd never done; I melted snow for drinking water. Hadn't really planned on that, but no question the supply was abundant. After about two hours, and barely more than two miles, I made my way out of the snow and onto enough bare ground to take off my microspikes for good, and eventually made my way into the Coon Creek Campground, where a group of hikers was just getting up and ready to go. Two of them were Paul and Stef, who I was happy to see, for the last time as it turns out. The other four were a group of hikers who had passed me just as I was settling in the night before, and they apparently had the legs to get to this point when I clearly did not. One of the guys was from Ireland, and another from Sweden. The other two were Americans from the southeast, North or South Carolina I believe. One of them indicated that they were out of food and that they were going to take the south entrance into Big Bear (Highway 58) for resupply. By now you can imagine that I'd all but abandoned my hope for completing the PCT in favor of staying alive, having dodged death more than once and being subjected to all the bad karma the PCT can throw at a hiker. My sole goal was to get to that intersection, hitch a ride into Big Bear, and then find a way to get home, for good. Paul and Stef, and the other four hikers, left soon thereafter, and I decided to stop for breakfast (I hadn't eaten since noon the previous day) on the veranda in front of the historic old Coon Creek Cabin. I really wasn't all that hungry, and knew that if I could get into Big Bear there would no doubt be some kind of cafe, and a large cheeseburger, waiting for me. When I got to the unpaved road leading toward Highway 58, I turned left and walked the quarter mile or so out to the highway, where the four hikers had apparently been waiting for a ride for about an hour. Here's where another piece of trail magic came in. No sooner had I walked up to the road, figuring I'd be waiting a good long while for a ride (the hikers, of course, had first dibs), when a large white pickup flew past us, only to turn around and come back. It was a guy named Jim, with a king cab pickup and lots of room for the five backpacks and five tired hikers. In a half hour, barely after one pm, he dropped me off at a local Motel 6, where I got a room and began to ponder, sadly, my future off the PCT. I walked - limped might be a better way to describe it - across the street to the Broadway Cafe, so named because it had Playbills for dozens of Broadway plays all over the walls and under the glass tabletops. I had that large cheeseburger, used their flush toilet, and then went back to the room for a long nap. Later that night, I called Jill and told her of my decision to end my adventure. I had come to understand a few things that had been obvious to me but that I'd never wanted to own up to. First was that I just did not want to suffer any more. I could not see the virtue of enduring what I'd faced over the previous three days in pursuit of some dream that I was not really physically suited for. And what I really had discovered was that I did not want it as badly as I once thought I did. I had begun to realize that this adventure was all about me, and that I wanted adventures with my family, especially with Jill. I needed to be with them. I went to sleep with a sad but resolute heart. The adventure was finished, but I would live to tell about the part of it I had accomplished. It may be a pretty lame justification, but to me that doesn't sound so bad.
THURSDAY, 4 APRIL. Late on Wednesday, I'd figured out how I would get from Big Bear into San Bernardino on the Mountain Transit system; from there I would figure out on the fly how to get to Ontario for a scheduled 8:20pm flight. The ride from Big Bear was interesting and a bit eye-opening. There were some seemingly pretty sad individuals on the bus, whose lives seemed to me to be pretty stressful. It was a good perspective leveler for me, because my biggest problem in this world seemed to be a failed adventure, of dubious significance to anyone but myself, and finding a way to get home to family and friends who love me. One guy, an older gentleman on his way to the VA Hospital in San Clemente to get his hip replaced, talked non-stop, directly to me, the entire 1.5-hour ride into San Bernardino. I tuned him out and tuned him in based on the interest I derived from his endless anecdotes, some of which were genuinely informative, if not altogether true. What the Mountain Transit reps had not told me was that the end of the line was the San Bernardino Amtrak station, and not a transit hub. Understandably, nobody there had any idea as to how I would get to Ontario. I ordered up an Uber ride (getting pretty good at that now, thanks solely to the PCT), and a nice guy named Pedro picked me up in two minutes, and took me to the Ontario airport. I managed to get on a 2:30 flight as standby, and got to Walnut Creek BART by five pm, where Max, on his way home from Santa Clara, came and picked me up. Home safely, with a dream sadly over.
And so, it is finished, at least for now. I will always have regrets that I might have given up too readily, and that I should have hung in there, but it's hard to think clearly about all that now. I do know that, if I don't find some way to complete this journey, it will definitely be something that I will lament over on my death bed. That's a humbling thought. I do take a great degree of comfort in knowing how many friends and other interested persons followed along with me. Thank you for all the good vibes! I will never say never......