Pain and Water

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.

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thru hikers taking care of their sore feet

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…

Water

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one of the few running streams in the San Gabriel mountains

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).

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the small black tube was my siphoning tube

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.

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cistern with clear good tasting water

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!

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The road into Hiker Town Mojave desert CA

From the Devil’s chair to Paradise to Heaven

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.

About Brexit and Exits

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.

Fire and Flood

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.

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‘T Is the Season

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…

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