Get ready, engines roaring, lift off, my nomadic season starts again. In a few days I’ll be on foot after coming down from the sky in Palm Springs. I’ll depend on the help of others to get me to the trailhead; I will ride in strange vehicles, sleep on unknown beds and have the sky as my ceiling for many a night. Outside my living room window I watch the buzzards soaring on a thermal above the mountains where the snow is rapidly melting as the sun is warming the slopes. I want that sun on my body for warmth, I’m done with the cold weather, rain and snow. The frenzy of packing, calculating food quantities, and shipping re-supplies has taken a turn for double checking, and slower decisions of which gear to leave behind, what shoes to wear. Choosing from the abundance of gear is like wine tasting, which goes with what, and what experience do I want on my palate, or in this case my senses?
I must have inherited the nomadic gene from my father. As a young man he used to set up camp in the dunes near his home town and live outdoors for the summer with a group of friends while bicycling back and forth to his job in town. I think of nomads in other places who are packing up tents and supplies to take their herds to new pasture where they will wander to find food. I don’t have to go find food for myself or for a herd, for me living like a nomad means wandering to find food for my soul. I’m setting out to find story. My winter’s store of writing material has dwindled and has found their way into a book and blogs. My body has a layer of fat from holiday eating. Hiking training has melted some of the layer and turned it into muscle. This trend will continue as I hike day in, day out. I will parcel food out in just enough quantities, for carrying it I must and weight matters. A little suffering makes the end of the hiking day so much sweeter, the ground so much softer when sleep comes. I’m eager to find out what life, nomadic life, has in store for me.
Since I turned 65, I’ve been hiking sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2650 mile-long trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border along the mountain crests of California, Oregon and Washington state. This year my plan is to hike 500 miles in the desert of Southern California, which will take me approximately 40 days and 40 nights. The number 40 as it was used in the Bible, when Jesus roamed the desert, or the Jews spent 40 years in exile, meant a long time and show times of soul searching. A long hike in nature brings up thoughts and questions about life. I get to experience myself against the backdrop of grand scenery, plays of light, dirt and sweat. My head will clear as my life simplifies, and falls into a routine of walk, rest, eat, make camp, sleep, break camp, walk. Each day will bring new scenery, new people, and new camps . It’s like opening a book and not knowing what the story is. I’ve had samples as I’ve hiked more than 1600 miles of the PCT, but the story of this journey is unknown. The decisions I make as I walk, eat, rest and meet people will write the story of this journey. I’m excited to begin and find out…
I came to Ladakh to see how things have changed after 14 years; how I have changed. The expected changes are here: more cars in the capital of Leh; the poplar trees are taller; more houses, guests houses and hotels fill this valley that sits at an altitude of 11,200 ft, surrounded by the tallest snow capped peaks of The Himalayas. Progress you’d think. The amount of small businesses selling the same ware, catering to tourists is astounding. How can anyone make a living?
The valley sounds are honking horns during the day, barking dogs at night. Cows and dogs roam everywhere looking for scraps along the roads. There has been a concerted effort to reduce trash and it seems to work. The dogs go hungry and the valley is no trashier than it was 14 years ago.
Climate change is here. Dawa, my guesthouse host, tells me they couldn’t plant barley this spring. The ground was too dry. When the rains came it was too late in the short growing season. Barley is a staple that gets them through the winter. One dry summer isn’t a problem, but shrinking glaciers and a lower water table is. Every time a tourist flushes a toilet he or she helps lower the water table. Yet, Leh needs the tourist income.
When I walk around the valley I enjoy the many Buddhist symbols, the clang of the prayer wheels, the stupas and gompas with their colorful religious paintings on whitewashed walls, the gold and deep maroon of the monks’ robes. I no longer hope to be saved or enlightened by doing rites and rituals. I find my daily meditation enough. But I recognize I have found this ‘enoughness’ here. I’m grateful I got clarity in these mountains and among these friendly people.
The Ladakhis strive for a better life by doing their rituals, by pushing a cart of bottled water up the hill to sell to thirsty tourists; they organize treks, yoga retreats and ultra-marathons for the hungry western mind and ego. They will never catch up to the comfortable luxurious western life. We’ve robbed them of that possibility. I can spend my money here, but it’s a drop in the bucket of need.
Climate change will be the great equalizer. My host family still knows how to grow food, work hard and be entrepreneurial. They may fare better than my trekking guide who lives in a house without a garden and sees his clientele dwindle under the political upheaval in Kashmir. My host family may fare better than those of us who depend on what the global economy will dole out when shortages hit hard.
I will continue to grow my garden when I get home. I will continue with my daily walks while I’m here. That hasn’t changed for me.
I hiked 4 days in the German countryside. You may envy me when you see the picturesque hiking photos of quaint villages with slate roofs dotted among green rolling hills, topped with conifer and evergreen forests, but there’s a price for quaint and ordered nature. The Germans manage the forests, exemplary for production, reproduction and environmental responsibility. The hills are green, mono-culture fields and grazing lands. Corn and hay they grow isn’t enough to feed the animals. Animal feed is imported from Brazil where agricultural practices aren’t always that pretty. Not all material for the slate roofs, required building practice in the area, hales from the local slate mines. Local slate is expensive as salaries and mining practices raise the cost. Slate from Spain and Argentina is cheaper and used to augment the local industry. Quaint and ordered landscapes come at a global cost.
In the USA nature is messy. Where I hike, fallen logs may cross or block the trail. Vistas from the ridges include clear-cuts and eroded mountain sides. The trails are often narrow and overgrown with wild berries, grasses and wild flowers; rocky or sandy trails slope dangerously toward a deep canyon. The occasional homestead sports rusted machinery and dilapidated buildings. The USA is too big to control. Messiness and decay is visible.
I have nothing against proprietary orderliness; I encourage it. Let’s keep our dens in order is my motto. The tightness I felt in my chest when I walked around the manicured woods and the ordered villages came from feeling boxed-in. The societal rules have eliminated the wildness in the German landscape. Where is the personal expression; where is mother nature’s wildness? Personal expression is relegated to artistic and craft domains. A carved door, a pattern in the slate wall, an ingenious product.
I visited an ordered University Hortus, a garden that held species from all over the world. Afterward I went to a Museum exposition on Medieval gardens, where I read: “Gardens are a demonstration by the monarch that he can subjugate nature to himself and thus a sign of his power.” If orderliness in nature as I experienced it in the German countryside, is a sign of power than the wildness I experience in the US is a sign of potential, an opportunity to rise to great heights.
Humans have lived in ordered societies since tribes roamed the earth. Societies offer protection and a chance for survival. I ask myself how much order is enough? Can too much order stamp out creativity, exploration and responsibility? Social-democratic systems that take care of people from cradle to grave popped up after world-war II in Europe; it was an effort to share and take care of each other after experiencing and witnessing the horrors of a war based on neo-nazi ideas, horrors of believing that one race is superior to another. The social-democratic systems provide healthcare for everyone; everyone has a home to live in, everyone gets a job or if a job is unavailable unemployment coverage; everyone gets yearly vacation pay on top of their salary. The streets get cleaned, the parks are neat, the trains run on time. Who wouldn’t want such a society?
There’s a catch. High taxes, restrictive building codes, restrictive business practices keep and pay for an ordered society. Large administrations make and apply the rules to make sure you don’t step outside the societal box. While the rest of the world wants free trade, creates start-up companies, takes capitalism to its highest reaches (good, or bad), the members of the ordered societies lag, have to jump through hoops before they can join the wild plays OR go rogue as Volkswagen engineers did to be competitive in the marketplace and yet comply with the pollution standards for diesel-operated cars. The members of the ordered societies want their cake and eat it too; the riches and the securities. Those who live here have forgotten or don’t know the ravages of war anymore and entitlement has replaced a sharing society. Stories of aging boomers who expect the state to take care of them even if their own monetary contribution has been minimal, abound. People who see the state as their caregiver, their medical provider, their retirement fund, their family replacement, want to travel and go on paid vacations, have someone organize a ‘nice’ life for them until they die.
I’m generalizing. Not all people fit this mold, but it helps to see that each societal form has its pros and cons. We’re in the race for presidential elections in the US; it’s a time to think about what society we’re in, and for what we vote. The freedom US citizens hold so dear, is a freedom that comes with draw-backs and opportunities. Freedom that allows each of us to make it big or to suffer. It’s a raw society, a young society, a wildly diverse society. In this society you can stand on top of wilderness pass at age 72, knowing you got there on your own power. But in this society you need your friends and family to help you grow old, relations matter and caring for each other is a tool for survival. We are a society of explorers and dreamers who need each other. Let’s not forget that it’s up to us to be kind, to share, to develop and maintain a healthy balance between safety that springs from order and planning, and opportunity that comes from initiative and taking chances. Make your security arrangements but dare to leave the well-trodden paths behind and give yourself a chance at discovery no matter what age you are.
I’m on my way to the Himalayas. I’ve done all the planning and safety measures I could put in place. It’s time to take a chance on fate, and find insights at new heights.
I’m living in another country, speaking another language and adjusting to the smallness of things here. After two weeks I notice I’m thinking in Dutch again, I write in my journal in Dutch and I can sometimes not find the English word for what I want to say. Am I Dutch or am I American? What does it mean to be of a nationality? Does nationality define me, tell me who I am? Or am I free to be who I am as I’m bridging more than one nationality? The question ‘Who am I?’ is psychological, philosophical and spiritual.
The Psychological Me
To function in the world, we must figure out if we’re a girl or a boy, tall or short, light-skinned or dark-skinned, a smart or slow learner. From the day we’re born our parents and caregivers give us messages about who we are and who we need to become. I learned that I was a blond blue-eyed girl, attractive to the other sex, smart enough to do well in school and too adventurous to fit well into my family of origin. I loved my country, its dunes and beaches and felt emotional listening to the Dutch anthem. I moved to another country, became fluent in another language and took a long time to identify myself as an American national. But I did; I let go of my native nationality reluctantly like letting go of a first love. That letting go felt like a psychological loss, a change in how I knew myself. I learned I’m not a finite collection of genetic and acquired attributes.
The Philosophical Me
Plato told us we’re prisoners in a cave perceiving shadows of what’s real on the wall in front of us. Philosophy tells us we’re an entity defined by our surroundings. Does this entity become a different entity in a different space/time/cultural context? Or does me, my entity just take on hues of different manifestations of reality? My hair color doesn’t change because I speak a different language, I’m still a woman even though I’m walking in a different country. Philosophically, me, my entity, is the same, even if it manifests different aspects of that entity. Adopting a new nationality has taught me I haven’t lost my original being; who I am has expanded, has become more complex, acquired another layer. I’m richer for it.
The Spiritual Me
The mystics tell us to ask ‘Who am I?’ as an exercise to know oneself. By questioning who we are, we can connect with a greater consciousness, and discover an expanded self. Moving between nationalities, languages and countries is stretching my awareness and grounding me deeper in the ‘me’ that is connected with the whole. I feel a happy me when I move through nature wherever I am. Nature is universal in its message to me: you breathe, you move, you belong. My nationality has nothing to do with this feeling. My tastebuds, my eyes and smell senses expand when I become Dutch for a while, old grooves come to life, temporarily, because when I’m back in the States, I forget the smell of the Dutch hayfields, the taste of a particular childhood treat. My being is like a ghost, a spirit moving about and absorbing the local flavor without becoming it. My being has a memory that takes me back to other moments in time, full of other flavors. I am not the flavor.
Today I’m acting on the Dutch stage, next week I’ll be on a German stage, after that I’ll enter the Himalayan stage and I will return to the American stage eventually. I am me, less attached; local determinations don’t define me; I respond to what the stage presents without becoming the stage.
Nationalistic tendencies are raging everywhere as global migration is increasing. People fear losing their sense of identity, their sense of ‘me’ when faced with other nationalities. I asked a family member who kept talking about how different we are as siblings, to look at how the same we are. By doing so we’ll develop a sense of oneness this world desperately needs. We’ve got a long way to go!
Actually, there isn’t that much soil where I was born.
Water is everywhere, crisscrossing the land retrieved from the sea and riverbanks. Windmills pump excess water back into rivers, canals and ditches to send it back via the main rivers to the sea. Land is a marshy commodity, but a fertile commodity and the locals know how to mine their gold. Dairy products, meat products, fruits and vegetables grown in meadows, fields , orchards and acres and acres of glass greenhouses have flooded the European market for years. Oh, and let’s not forget the flowers, grown on the sandy soil behind the dunes. When the soil isn’t marshy, it’s sandy and has just the right qualities for growing bulbs and sending the flowers all over the world. The Dutch are the 2nd largest exporters of agricultural products behind the USA and 90% of those exports are produced in the country. https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/actueel/nieuws/2019/01/18/nederlandse-export-landbouwproducten-in-2018-ruim-90-miljard
I’ve been rowing and swimming in the small rivers, bicycling along its banks on the narrow, cart-wide roads, stopping at fruit stands and tasting the luscious berries and tree-ripened fruits of summer. Fruit tastes like fruit here, soft, sweet, and deep flavored. Even the fruit from the supermarkets have real fruit qualities because that’s what people expect. The Dutch are discerning about what they feed themselves. I don’t know yet how they do it, but I suspect smaller operations and less transport and storage costs keeps the price down. Eating local is the answer. They don’t subscribe to irresponsible agri-business and are implementing a circular agriculture; it is innovative, efficient and deals responsibly with the side effects of producing so much food in such a small area. https://www.wur.nl/en/newsarticle/Circular-agriculture-a-new-perspective-for-Dutch-agriculture-1.htm
It’s a small country, 17 million people on 16,000 square miles and one of the most densely populated countries in the world. And yet, they make it work. They carve out green spaces, maintain their national parks, build high-rises on re-claimed land. People live close together, people have postage stamp yards, or if they live several stories high they maintain a community garden nearby where they can nurture their connection to the land and the water. They all hail from farmers, traders and sea-farers.
It’s summer and the Dutch who are still in the country (many set out for a two week paid (!) vacation to other lands) are putting along in their pleasure boats on the rivers and waterways, watching the waterfowl, herons, Nile geese and flocks of birds diving for fish, plants and insects, or bicycling the dense network of bicycle paths that crisscross the fields, marshes, dunes, moors and forests. They’re an active bunch, industrious they say. That industriousness has earned them a front-row seat on the international market. The smallness of their country allows them to carry out new ideas on a small scale and when it works sell the idea to the bigger economies. It’s easier to make changes when you’re dealing with a smaller population. Easier to communicate, easier to reach out, easier to make the change visible.
One of these changes has to do with dealing with a dwindling bee population. In the US we’re realizing the devastating effects a lost bee population will have on our food supply chain. In Holland they’ve already litigated against neonicotinoids that kill the bees. But not only that, now they’ve come up with a cheap and positive way to increase the bee and insect population: berm management. The farms and small towns are surrounded by roads with berms and waterways with riparian zones. Instead of spraying and cutting the grass one community after another is implementing ecological Berm Beheer – berm management, not as catchy in English – by sowing wildflowers along berms and riparian zones and letting the flowering plants attract bees, butterflies and insects that will pollinate the agricultural products, beautify the road and river sides and delight the locals who walk, bike and boat. How simple can it be? https://www.zuid-holland.nl/actueel/nieuws/januari-2019/start-ecologisch/
When we travel to other places, we can learn. I’m learning again that living close to the land creates an economy of happiness. I buy fruit at the local farmer’s stand. I will drive to a cheese market to watch, taste and experience the ancient ritual of bargaining over the cheese produced in the area. Go find yourself a local market, go taste the fresh fruit and veggies and support your local economy. It will make you and those who produce these products happier. If you can walk or bicycle there even better.
I’m setting off on a journey to the Himalayas to retrace steps I took both 48 and 14 years ago, and to take steps I couldn’t take then. I want to see how things have changed.
Forgetting and Letting Go
Since 1971 and 2005 I’ve aged. Aging means losing short-term memory. That means forgetting where you put something and having to retrace your steps to find the thing. Sometimes you don’t find it until months later in an odd place. I found the sunglasses I traveled to the Himalayas with in 2005 in a flower pot under my deck, a year after I had “lost” them. How they ended up there, I will never know. Why did these glasses come back to me? I had moved on, bought cheaper ones readying myself for more losses and let go of the pair. Finding things when you least expect it reveals the mysteries of life. It was the year of a big personal loss in my life and the glasses became a metaphor for life returning even when you don’t expect it.
The Bucket List
My journey to the Himalayas is one of those journeys that rose in my gut. I stood on top of Forester pass in the high Sierras last summer, reveling in my brush with the transcendental as the clouds raced in the sky and the terrain was nothing but awe inspiring, when the voice inside me (I feel the voice in my gut) said: “if you want to see Tibet, do it now, while you still can”. The wish to see Tibet was born after I met Tibetan refugees in India in 1970 and 1971 and fell in love with their presence, their calm ability to roll with what life dealt them. They were the embodiment of detachment I thought then. That wish increased when in 2005 I lived and trekked with local guides of Tibetan descend in Ladakh and saw their way of life with its inherent human flaws in more depth. Ladakh is also called Little Tibet, apparently it’s a replica of Tibetan life and Tibetan landscape and architecture. You could say Tibet has been on my bucket list. I will retrace my steps in Ladakh, revisit the Kathmandu valley where I lived for 2 months in my younger years under the painted eyes of the Swyambu stupa. I’ll walk in the valley from where I hiked to the Mt Everest glacier in 1971; a glacier which has turned from snow and ice to rock and talus. I will visit Tibet, the North side of Everest and walk around Mt Kailash if my body can deal with the high altitude.
What happens in almost 50 years to a landscape, a people? Globalization and climate are the biggest changers. What was an unsophisticated trek 50 years ago, our white faces a novelty in the mountain villages, is now a booming tourist industry. An industry the people depend on for survival. We trekked without maps, used only local directives, had no GPS devices, no cellphones, no WhatsApp to communicate with the outside world. Tibet was elusive closed to us. The people suffered, were oppressed and looked to us to give them what we had: freedom of expression, money to buy our way out of difficult situations, a level of comfort I had not appreciated until I saw their often squalid circumstances. The romance of simple living, of spirituality drew me to them; they only saw what I brought with me: comfort and wealth.
There is no going back to what was. Changes abound. I will notice the changes and discover the new. But more than that, I’ll find the changes that have taken place in me. The places will tell me who I’ve become. The young woman on a quest for meaning, the mid-life woman on a journey to get lost in her grief in the mountains, are gone. Who am I now? This journey isn’t about losing and letting go, it’s about finding a new me. The place will tell me. Tibet has called and I’m answering the call.
PCT section E, mile 454 – 548, Agua Dulce to Tehachapi, via Hiker Town mile 518 in the SW corner of the Mojave desert.
After weeks of hiking through a mix of forested and chaparral mountain ranges, some with snow, others bright green with spring grasses and new growth, I entered this drier desert section with mixed feelings. On the one hand, this was what I had come for: to experience the desert and meet my fear of dry, waterless and shadeless trail. On the other hand, my overworked and painful knee made me wonder if I should leave the trail to let my knee heal. However the rest and hospitality at Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce gave me the courage to tackle the next stretch.
Trail magic sustains and supports long distance hikers. There comes a moment on a long hike you don’t anticipate, can’t plan for in advance; a moment when you need support from others on the journey. L-Donna (and her husband) at Hiker Heaven has dedicated 20 yrs of her life to supporting PCT thru hikers. A hiker herself in the past, she knows the needs of a thru hiker and opens up her property 3 months of the year for hikers to rest, get laundry done, repairs made, charge electronic devices, re-supply, mail stuff home, receive packages, watch movies, rest and hang out with other hikers, shower, cook and exchange trail information. L-Donna does everyone’s laundry for them! She has a few volunteers who manage the mailing and post-office pick-up, and live in a colorful VW-bus on the property. All of this is offered at no charge. There isn’t even a donation box; you have to make an effort to contribute monetarily to this venture.
When I walked off in the early morning from Hiker Heaven through a landscape of horse ranches, with smells of fresh cut hay in the air, I wondered what motivated Donna to do this service year after year. She wouldn’t tell me as she spent an afternoon cleaning the hiker trailer, changing linens on the couches by the TV, and scrubbing the hiker kitchen. “Can I help,” I asked? “No, you can help by getting out of here and sit somewhere outside and rest your knee,” was her answer. She runs a tight ship, has a list of rules of conduct, keeps the place cleaned up and looks after everyone. I saw others around her pick up on her generous spirit and share resources, or form new alliances for hiking. Donna is an ambassador for community building, for spreading kindness and, albeit temporary, offering a world of harmony. Flashbacks to my commune days in the 70ties went through my head as I hiked on. Where did it go wrong with the communal spirit of the 60ties and 70ties I thought. Will young people (and older ones) figure it out this time?
Soon my attention was on climbing the exposed slope to my camping destination for the night. A cool breeze kept me from overheating and fortified by Hiker Heaven rest I hiked 17 miles that day, despite my bum knee. The next few days friendly faces of hikers I had shared a room or campsite with in the last few weeks kept popping up. I now was part of a group that moved along the trail at a similar speed. I had a trail family! The magic of a trail family is the moral boost you get when the going gets tough. A smile, a shared rest stop, someone to complain to about pain, temperature or trail condition. Also someone to share lunch and siesta with. So I talked with the Finnish young couple about their plans for moving to Portugal, listened to the 50some woman who left home and husband to give herself a new purpose as she was dealing with an empty nest, and shared shade with my Welsh Brexit-man on a windy spot near the only cistern with good water that day. Travelers who have an open itinerary opened up about life and ideals, and together we puzzled over new solutions to age-old societal problems.
On the fifth day of this section, after a loud night time thunder storm, I walked through orange and yellow flower meadows down into Mojave valley’s Hiker Town. Hiker town looks like a movie set out in nowhere, right along the trail. It is a conglomeration of wild west movie set fronts with rooms built on to accommodate hikers at $10.- a night. Laundry can be done by hand, a shuttle takes you to one of the two cafe/stores where you can get a meal and re-supply. This is corporate trail magic. A large corporation, Tejon Ranch, established with a movie producer’s money owns the land and the “town. For the longest time TJ Ranch resisted to open their land to a trail for thru hikers. After much back and forth the PCT organization pulled their trump card to get the last part of the PCT completed. They threatened to start condemnation procedures. TJ Ranch surrendered, and they completed the trail. In the process of dealing with hikers, caretakers of the Hiker Town property learned that hikers aren’t dangerous or irresponsible and a re-supply stop was born. I think the magic that happened was that hikers changed the TJ people’s outlook and a place with trail magic could exist.
As I hiked the chaparral covered mountains with my bum knee, I had concluded it would be better not to risk permanent damage and cut my trip short in Tehachapi. The open desert lay before me and I wanted to experience walking through the Mojave flat land. Three days to Tehachapi, could I do it? An exposed, windy 18-mile walk to the next water source lay ahead. As we were sitting around with other hikers and talking about our hikes, a man arrived who joined the conversation. When I mentioned needing to go slow and hoping to make it across the aqueduct, he offered to be my walking partner. And so an angel walked into my hiking life. Attilio’s caring attitude, his willingness to go my pace and make sure I would be OK, has given me hope and confidence in humanity (maybe he was a real angel and showed up to teach me how to be a better human being). He shared stories of his life, his indigenous Mexican heritage and family (the Carlos Castaneda theme was still hanging around!) and his outlook on bringing humans together by being nice to them was a shot in the arm for believing that we can live in harmony with strangers, that we can build a world in which we support each other with no need for monetary return. I learned on this section hike that the more vulnerable I was, the more support came my way. A’s girlfriend picked us up at the trail head to Tehachapi. A day of rest and getting clean and I had a ride to the airport with my hiker angel.
30 Days and 30 nights of roaming the desert was a soul journey. It gave me 350 miles of hiking, a new look at life, a respectable 2000 miles of PCT trail under my belt, a slimmer self, new knowledge about my bodies limitations, and a new love for the possibilities of humanity.
PCT section E, mile 454 – 518, Agua Dulce to Hiker town
It’s only fitting on a hike that’s going nowhere to have to give up on well laid plans. This section gave me the unknown in spades. You’d think after hiking close to 2000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (in sections), you know a thing or two. And I do, but as life has it, there’s more to experience, and more to learn.
Hiking with Pain
I’ve been very fortunate till now and have never had to hike with nagging pain. Shoulder pressure may be, sore tired feet at the end of a long day, but nothing that didn’t resolve with a night’s rest. On a long steep downhill, loaded down with water weight, my aging knee decided it had more than enough. Inflammation, swelling and pain that screamed for relief. Drugs and a slower pace softened the sensation but the truth is, my mind had to focus on managing pain while hiking and this pushed my experience of my surroundings to the background. My empathy for people living with chronic pain has grown with leaps and bounds.
When you’re focused on pain you meet others in pain. Lots of hikers are in pain! And then there those bouncy strong legs that pass you by, doing a 30-mile day effortlessly it seems. Life isn’t fair and pain distribution isn’t equal among people.
And so I will cut my planned hike a bit short to do the wiser thing and take the knee home for some rest and healing. But first I want to walk the only flat 17 miles on the PCT: the L.A. aqua-duct, where L.A.’s water coming from the Mojave flows under your feet, and where fierce winds can blow in this corner of the desert proper. The weather gods are blessing me with cool temperatures…
Hiking The outskirts of the Mojave brings up images of dry barren hills, soaring temperatures and the search for water. Last winter’s abundant snowfall and the cool spring temperatures have kept water flowing in the mountains except for this last week’s stretch. I learned that a half liter goes a long way if necessary (normal calculation is 1 liter for 4 miles).
One cistern produced foul smelling but not dangerous (after filtering) water as I didn’t get sick overnight. The next tank’s water was so low that lying on my belly, sucking dirt while siphoning through a 2 mm tube produced a drip, drop trickle that would take hours to make a liter. A quarter liter was all I got, hoping the next cistern 3 miles ahead would be better. Not so! The smell of dead animal in the green slime below turned me away from that one. Another 2 miles to the next one and what if it turned out to be bad? Navigation comments didn’t seem to be keeping up with current hiker demand.
As I stood on the road by the foul smelling cistern, 2 motorcycle riders came by on their dirt bikes. I flagged them down and begged for water. After some humming and hawing on how to transfer water from their backpack bladders to my water bottle, this strange and dirty looking old lady had a half liter to hike on with. I never thought I would be thankful to dirt bikers.
The next cistern did have clean, fresh smelling water. I “cameled” up, had siesta and made dinner for an afternoon of downhill hiking (the painful kind for my knee) with plenty of water in case I had to make dry camp that night. I made it to a campsite 6 miles from Hiker town where a little stream was still flowing. A sponge bath was my reward for a long and water challenged hiking day.
Don’t count on supposed water sources in or near the desert. Don’t carry too much water, it hurts your knees. Go figure!
PCT section D, mile 364 to 454, 90 miles, Wrightwood to Aqua Dulce.
In biblical times the devil would visit and test prophets who roamed the desert to do their soul searching. On my way out from Wrightwood I decided to avoid snowy Mt Baden-Powell and hike an alternate trail, not the PCT. The first 6 miles went according to plan on my map; as I approached Big Rock camp where I had to turn onto South Fork trail I met a man hiking with his young son (!) who when I asked confirmed that there was a trail to Ipsli Gap. “Just cross the river and you’ll see the trail on the other side.” Indeed the trail was waiting, wide and inviting. When I checked my GPS, the marker didn’t show (!), so I went on trust. Soon another young man (!) came towards me asking if I was thru-hiking. When I said where I was going, he also directed me on this trail. As I hiked on, I felt “lucky” to have guides appear in Castaneda type fashion (Carlos Castaneda was a much read shaman in the sixties who found his spirit guides in the Sonoran desert) After 1 1/2 hours of hiking uphill and down I came to a river and campsite where a black snake (!) slithered across the trail. I hiked across the river and further up, kept seeing the land on the eastern side of the mountains, not what I thought I should be seeing.
And then there was the wooden sign: Devil’s chair keep going, South Fork Trail go back. I was on my way to Devil’s Chair and 3 miles out of my way! Those men were no spirit guides, they were the devil in disguise leading me the wrong way!
As I consulted my GPS again, the marker showed up and told me I needed to hike back to the first river!
Did I lose an afternoon? I hiked and I was fine, so what is there to lose when time is all I have? When I eventually came to the South Fork Trail, it was barely visible and definitely in a different river canyon. I made my way up the canyon along a very narrow rocky and sketchy trail until I was too tired to go on. My fury over being fooled by the “devil” moved me along (really they were nice Hispanic people with a cultural bend to want to please even if they didn’t know where to send me). I found an impossible small rocky patch to pitch my tent for the night and slept like a rock (pun intended).
This detour and the following morning’s hike up to Ipsli Gap, a hike where every step required my focused attention so I wouldn’t slide into the river ravine below, showed me that the road to heaven is narrow and difficult. The road to hell is wide and easy.
That afternoon I did arrive back on the PCT and walked through a beautiful forested section, with wide granite sand and plenty of water called Paradise Valley. I met up with another senior hiker and we leap-frogged together for the next 4 days, sharing rest moments along the trail and campsites at night. I passed PCt mile 400.
The monotony of the desert landscape left plenty of room for thought. And yet thoughts have become far and between. The activity of the day is hike, find water, hike until my body has had enough, usually around 5 PM.
The end of this section led me by a noisy KOA campground with terrific ice cream and showers, through hills of flowering sage and poppies to a true Hiker Heaven in Aqua Dulce.
PCT section C,D, mile 266 – 369, Big Bear to Inspiration point.
Dan is a ruddy robust man from the UK, who, when asked why he’s out here hiking the PCT, tells me, “to get away from the Brexit mess”. His hiking buddy Stu nods his head and in his Aussie drawl confirms he’s getting away from Australia as well. Both are contractors at home and have found kinship on the trail. I camped with them a few nights and saw how helpful they were to others. How they shared their stove with a couple whose stove was malfunctioning. Dan and Stu had an ease about setting up and breaking camp and they were willing to look after me as I tried to cross Holcomb Creek and stay dry. “It’s complex”, Dan says about Brexit, “but immigration has a lot to do with the Brexit mess.” Stu adds, “Yeah, we’re getting African gangs in Australia, they’re messing up the order there.” We agree that migration is a global phenomenon and rattling people’s comfort zones. We’re not coming up with solutions as we talk.
Soon their younger legs outpace me and I meet others who’ve made an exit from their normal lives. There are day hikers, a couple near Splinter’s cabin. He’s done sections of the PCT and looks ready to tackle the whole thing; she tells me their kids are teenagers and hiking the PCT will have to wait. Still there is the longing in their eyes to exit their busy L.A. life.
The greater L.A. enters my awareness as I hike out of Deep Creek to the Mojave River delta. The catch basin behind the dam, when I follow the trail across, is empty, but a downpour could quickly change that. The dam is regulating the water flow in the Mojave river flood plain below. Soon Deep Creek and the Mojave River merge and I cross Deep Creek for the last time, this time it’s a knee deep wade, which feels good on a sunny noon hour.
That afternoon I hike through a landscape filled with poppy bush. I meet a local hiker. He appeared out of nowhere, taking a Sunday afternoon walk among the blooming poppy bushes. The gray in his hair matched his soft-gray SPF hiking shirt. He sports two skinned and whittled sticks for hiking poles. “Ola”, he grins, stretching the wrinkles on his weathered tan face. He is no stranger to this desert landscape. He belongs to this land. For him the exit from his homeland happened a long time ago.
That night I share a small windy camp spot looking out over the Mojave River Valley with “Sunny”, a Swiss psychology student taking a break from student life. “I’m ready for adventure and get perspective on what I’m studying. We talk about Freud and neuro-psychology. She cowboy camps and writes furiously in her journal.
Sunny leaves camp the next morning before me. “I like to hike alone”, she says as she pushes earbuds in her ears. I myself don’t hike with earbuds. I let my mind rock and roll around the issues and challenges of the day on the trail until I get moments of emptiness in my head and communicate with the landscape: the destruction caused by trees and big desert plants falling and disintegrating on a salmon colored rocky plateau; the deep purple masses of bellflowers hanging on for dear life in the poor granite soul and fierce winds in DeepCreek Canyon; the slow growing pines at higher elevation holding their own through snow and drought. The message is clear: “adapt or die”.
With that notion in mind I wind my way to Cajon overpass. I watch Route 66 from afar coming closer. I come close to it and visit MacDonald’s, the only restaurant civilization offers me here. It’s the only stop for food, power and water for the next 22 miles.
After a chat with an Australian family who are in shock over traffic but love how nice everyone is, I set out “cameled up” with water for the next day. I cross under the famous Rt 66, step over railroad tracks an hike back to the hills that will take me to my resupply in Wrightwood.
In the first days of this section temperatures had been down to freezing at night and the last day turns loose a cool low-cloud misty day. The weather gods are with me as I hike up the 5000 ft elevation to the top of the ridge above Wrightwood. When the weather turns colder and rainy in the afternoon with snow on the ground I am ready for my exit from the trail for a few nights.
PCT section C mile 209 – 266. I-10 to Big Bear City
Hiking the PCT is a commitment to the unknown. The allure of surrender to a world out of my control has brought me back to testing my strength and my patience. That first day the Gorgonio mountains, normally chaparral covered, showed themselves blanketed in yellow, orange and purple. The uphill with loaded pack was hard on my breathing. Sun and wind a radical change from rainy Oregon.
After camping on a windy expanse the next day brought lovely hiking temperatures, and a down slope with more flowers to Whitewater creek crossing. To keep my socks dry I waded across in bare shoes. That was the first and last concern for dry socks that day. Up hill we went to Mission Creek canyon, the main artery that feeds the innards of these mountains. By midday the trail disappeared in a tumble of rocks, branches, gravel and gullies, the result of a recent flash flood. Water coursed down wherever it could find an opening. Wet feet were the order of the day as we crossed, re-crossed and climbed up and down the riverbank to catch sections of intact trail going up the canyon. Adrenaline and “can-do” attitude kept us going through this arduous bushwhacking. We camped on a white sandy river beach and I let the river wash away the salty sweat on my body before sinking into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The next day the enormity of climate changes were even more apparent as we worked our way up the changed river canyon to more open terrain where charred cacti and shrubs struggled to put out new sprouts and buds in the spring light. While I slept in my cosy bed this last winter the torrent waited as rain and snow fell to burst forth and wreck havoc on its way down. I became just a witness as I broke my hiking pole when I tripped working my way around a blowdown cedar up to the top of the canyon where Mission Creek Camp waited. I used a willow snag to make a new pole. Nature provides. I am a visitor who steals an image of wildness, force and raw beauty. The remnants of burned trees stood silent in their blackness against patches of white snow. How long will they stand before they too tumble down?
The sun warmed me as I hiked another day at 8000 feet altitude. We met the still snow covered north slopes while working our way around another crest. I looked far to the Jacinto Mountains to the south and down to what seemed like a benign ribbon of river feeding what grows in the Mission Creek basin. I know better now, benign is only one side of the coin. If you mess with nature, death and destruction will be the other side.
On a 16 mile waterless stretch trail magic gave me a new hiking pole from a hiker box along the trail. A child like happiness told me to trust I will be provided for. We camped with hordes of PCT hikers in Arrestra river camp that night. A wild wind woke us to a day of traversing a sunny wide desert expanse into the Bear City valley. My spirit soared in the sun and wind. I survived fire and flood.