Monday, May 4, 2009

PCT Section A (northbound)

As some of the passes in Section B were still covered in ice and snow, I decided to hike Section A again this year. This time I hiked northbound, so I could spend some time getting to know a few of this year's thru-hikers.

I drove down to Lake Morena, after picking up Freebie, Tomato, and Raw in Portland. After a bit of car trouble on the I-5, we arrived late in the evening on the 23rd and cowboy camped under a tree to avoid the worst of the damp. The next morning, we got a ride down to the border near Campo with Greg "Strider" Hummel, who hiked the PCT in 1978. He told us some entertaining stories about how the trail had changed in the last 2 decades, then sent us on our way after a quick photo shoot at the monument.

Glad to be on the trail after such a long drive, I was fully enjoying every mile of the trail. Rolling, dusty hills with dry scrub and abandoned paraphernalia from the illegal immigrants provide the backdrop while the trail twists around and crosses the local dirt roads of Campo. After a few hours, the trail descends into Hauser Canyon, and at the bottom is a nice shady spot for lunch. Here we met I-Spy, Bootie (still Sarah at this point), and Pockets. I-Spy explained how he had just recently obtained his trail name, after using his monocular to track some illegals.

The hike up the north side of Hauser Canyon is not too steep, but is fairly long and I was fairly low on energy by the end. A few high energy snacks and the last of my water got me through the last stretch before camp, to complete a fun and picturesque 20 miles.

Back at the kick-off party (ADZPCTKO) I settled into a beer or two, and spent the evening chatting with old friends from last year (The Onion, Nitro, Heinz, Duckie, Nano, to name a few) and meeting too many new friends to name. Some people had already been hiking for a week, so we got updates on blisters, water, snow, and the usual trail gossip. Saturday was spent relaxing, eating, and checking out the vendors. Later that evening we got to see the latest installation from Squatch's quadrology, "Walked", as well as the 5-years-in-the-making, yet-to-be-completed first half of "Tell it on the Mountain."

Sunday morning we awoke to frost on the tent (or sleeping bag, in Tomato's case), then packed up ready for the trail. Duckie kindly offered to drive some of our gear to Mt. Laguna, so I gave him my extra food and only had to carry about 11 pounds for the 23 mile section. I opted to keep all of my gear with me in case of any trouble making it there, so technically it wasn't a true "slack-pack" but it certainly was nice. The weather was once again just right for hiking, clearskies but not too hot, and the hiking was brilliant. A few miles before the Mt. Laguna store, we realized it was going to be very tight to make it there before it closed at 5:00. Tomato was having one of his usual ice cream cravings, so he picked up the pace and left us behind. I continued along steadily, and at 4:51 I reached the road junction where it was a half mile walk to the store. I didn't really want anything, but figured an ice cream would be nice, so I switched into a fast walk. A hiker without a pack jogged by me and threw a taunt my way, so for some reason I went into a full sprint and raced him to the store. He beat me, but I still got there with one minute to spare. I had my ice cream while I caught my breath, and spent the next hour loitering on the Mt. Laguna steps as so many hikers have done before me.

As a treat to our thru-hiking friends, Duckie and I rented a cabin to share with Tomato and Freebie. The evening was nice, but we couldn't quite relax as we didn't know where Raw was. Raw had opted to do a complete slack-pack, so Duckie had all of his gear. It was slowly getting darker, colder, and windier. By 7:00 we took a drive around the area to try to find a sign of him, but had no luck. We left messages with campers nearby, and a note on the store message board, but at this point we were actually getting quite worried. Luckily, around 8:00, a truck showed up at our cabin and dropped a very exhausted Raw off. It turns out he had arrived in the area an hour before, but we hadn't been clear on where we were meeting. He eventually got the message from the campers that we were in a cabin, and found us. Now able to relax, we had some pints and helped Raw lighten up his pack a bit.

On Monday we hiked another clear, comfortable temperature day to just North of the Sunrise Trail Head. It was incredibly windy at this point, and finding a sheltered camp site was proving difficult. After getting water at the Sunrise Trail Head, we hiked a few miles further and then found a somewhat-sheltered gully. The wind battered the tent around all night, and I had trouble sleeping until I finally realized I had earplugs with me. This granted me a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, and I woke up refreshed and ready for more miles.

On Tuesday morning the wind had calmed down a little bit, but it was still a bit cool. Tomato, who didn't have the comfort of a tent, made a quick getaway. Freebie and I followed shortly after, and we all met up for lunch. Later on in the day we ran into Buddy Jesus at the Pioneer Mail campground, and he advised us to drink water. His actual words were, "If I can give you one piece of advise on the PCT, it's DRINK WATER." With this morsel to chew on, hilarity ensued for many more miles. We arrived at our destination for the day, Scissors Crossing, in mid afternoon. Not ready to settle down yet, Tomato and I caught a ride into Julian where we enjoyed milkshakes and hung out in the library to catch up on email. The proprieter of the local outfitter gave us a ride back to the trail at 5:30, where we met up with Freebie, I-Spy, Bootie, and pockets. Another windy tent set-up, then pass-the-pigs until we couldn't see any more.

Wednesday was going to be my longest day at 24 miles. It was also the crossing of the San Felipe hills, which, although not steep, is a long and dry stretch. The morning was cool, and we got an early start, so we made the Third Gate water cache for an early lunch siesta. A number of other hikers were here, including Buddy Jesus dropping down some more useful knowledge. We stayed for all we could take, then hiked the rest of the way to Barrel Springs where we were soothed to sleep by the resident frogs.

The last day of my hike was a short 10 miles to Warner Springs. The scenery is drastically different in this brief section, featuring oak forests, rolling meadows (replete with cows), and, arguably the most photographed spot on the trail, Eagle Rock. Tomato and I were both very low on food, so the draw of breakfast at the Warner Springs Country Club was very strong. Freebie proved to be a misnomer as he shared the last of his energy bars with us as we caught some extra photos at Eagle Rock, then we moseyed northwards.

Warner Springs Ranch deserves its own paragraph. A clean, well provisioned resort, they drop all pretense of standards and actually welcome hikers to soil their establishment. Deep discounts and friendly staff get you in the door, and 105 degree hot springs keep you there. We made full use of the amenities, spending countless hours floating around in the hot and slightly-less-hot pools. Although the hiking was incredible, Warner Springs was the icing on the cake for this trip.

Thursday night our gang crammed into my car and we went up to a Mexican Restaurant in the metropolis that is Sunrise Summit. Good food, good drink, and a well aged Christmas Tree mixed with new and old friends made for a fun evening. Another dip in the springs that night, and I started to feel the sadness as I knew all my friends would be resuming their hike northbound in the morning, and all I had to look forward to was a 1000 mile drive. Friday morning we took our time getting up, and had a leisurely breakfast at the golf club. I drove a few folks the 8 miles to the nearest grocery store for a resupply (the Warner Springs gas station isn't bad in a pinch) and then said my goodbyes. I was very jealous, and sad to part with everyone, but was also missing home.

The drive home was pretty uneventful. I drove to just south of Redding on the Friday evening, then got up early and drove the next 800 miles to make it to the ferry by 7:00pm. I just caught the 7, and was home by a little after 9:00 to an empty house. My fiancee went out for the evening as she wasn't expecting me to be home until after 11, whoops!

(Note: I had originally started to blog this hike from my Blackberry on the trail, but really didn't enjoy the experience. I've deleted those posts as they were rather incoherent.)