Last night was interesting. I woke up a couple hours after falling asleep and thought I heard screaming in the forest. That’s cool, I don’t need to sleep or anything. By all means, creep me out. I turned on my headlamp and called out in case someone was actually in trouble, but got no response. I chalked it up as being half asleep at the time, laid back down, and listened in case there was anything else the forest wanted to scream at me. Nothing.
I don’t know how much later this was, but then I heard snow crunching right outside my tent. Hey that’s fine as well, go ahead with your spookiness. Still half asleep, I didn’t make much note of it and fell back asleep. I woke up a few more times after that to adjust the straps on my quilt to prevent cold air from blowing in and found the right setup, and passed out for the remainder of the night.
I woke up the next morning feeling alarmed. I thought about the screaming, then remembered the SAR (search and rescue) helicopter flying around all day yesterday. Oh shit. Instead of breaking camp immediately, I wandered around the area for a while looking for footprints in the snow. Directly outside my tent were animal tracks. At the time I thought they were from a dog, but later I found out they were cougar tracks. Cool.
All the footprints I found far out from the campground were really old and I didn’t find anything else other than that. By the end of my excursion I spent about an hour and a half looking for anything from the area I heard the screaming from. Just animal tracks. I guess it was just an animal? It bothered me walking away, but I didn’t really know what else to do but to get back to civilization and look into what the hell was going on yesterday.
I followed my footprints back to my tent and packed up ready to get the hell out of this place. I followed everyone else’s footprints out of the campground and into a small meadow, into a river bed, and then back up to the official trail. Being off the PCT is a shock to the system, this trail is so unmaintained and confusing! But there’s red ribbons hanging off the trees directing hikers where to go, so it wasn’t exactly hazardous.
As I continued on, the trail went downhill a bit more and was a little more snowy than the other side of San Jacinto. Occasionally I hit a patch of ice, slipped, fell on my ass, and laughed. I’ve been hiking for so long, but it’s also been a very long time since I’ve legitimately fallen. I wouldn’t say microspikes were necessary though, the temperatures really dropped the night before and any moisture buildup on the trail froze overnight. I made a point to not walk on boulders anymore where the ice was obscured.
After I made it down the first hill I heard a sound I knew but hadn’t heard in a long time: trickling water. What is this crazy world I’m in where water just flows along the ground? You mean I don’t have to drink from a tank out in the desert? No dead bugs floating around in it? Wilderness, you’re blowing my mind right now with your crazy stuff. I didn’t need to fill my bottles yet, there was another source down the trail once I got back to the PCT. In any case I stopped to admire it/take pictures and video of it.
I’m going to shock you here: I went downhill a bit more. I got back down to the PCT eventually and marched happily along the easy-to-navigate pathway. Eventually things took a different turn and I started going uphill a bit. Up switchbacks, up actual stairs, up a gentle grade. Eventually I ran into a little more snow leading down to another actual stream with actual flowing water. This was my last chance for water in 20 miles (reliably), so I stopped to fill up. I was so happy to have cold fresh water for once, it’s amazing how such a small thing can be so uplifting. I’ve heard the climb down into the Cabazon area is particularly brutal, so I took way more than I needed at 7 liters.
As I threw my backpack on and made my way across the stream, a couple other hikers came down to do the same routine. I waved and left them behind. The trail started doing crazy things again, and today I was just along for the ride. I wasn’t particularly bothered by it, I felt no urgency or pressure to make big miles quickly. I stopped whenever I felt like it, occasionally looking at the dusty desert floor beneath me wondering what it will be like to hike through it. I miss the desert. I’d press on for a while, find somewhere awesome, then take another break, each time taking off more and more layers. The further down I get, the hotter it gets.
Eventually the trail evened out a bit and I was walking along Fuller Ridge. This section of trail gained so much notoriety for being dangerous due to snow, but there wasn’t a single patch. As I continued on the ridge narrowed out a bit more and my views became a bit more clear. I’d been looking for a good spot to take my lunch break, and eventually found it under a tree on a ledge overlooking San Jacinto. I plopped down and ate despite not feeling very hungry and stared off at the mountain I’ve been navigating down all this time. Eventually a hiker strolled by and casually said “Hey what’s up”, I turned around. It’s Tarzan! He’d gotten a late start on the day, I guess I’m not the only one not feeling any urgency about miles today. We looked at the mountain for a moment, took pictures, talked about the plan for the day, then he took off and I was alone with my view again. I pulled my pack under my head and chilled here for about an hour. This trail is the best.
Eventually time started to creep on me. As much as I’m not paying attention to miles, I do have to kind of pay attention a little considering I only have so much food and so much water to exist on at a time. I reluctantly left my super awesome spot and made my way back to the trail. The even terrain gave way to what would be downhill for the remainder of the hike. At some point I went off trail to take care of business – I had to shit basically. First time on trail believe it or not! Not on the trail.. but.. you know what I mean. Anyways, I took care of that and started coming out of the trees. I went in a fair ways and was navigating my way back to the trail when I heard:
I stopped dead in my tracks. It wasn’t a rattlesnake kind of hiss, it was “Hey asshole, I’m a motherfucking mountain lion” kind of hiss. I started banging my trekking poles together, and started to do a mad turn into the forest to yell and hopefully scare it off. As I’m doing that I see a hiker walking down the trail with a bandana over his face. I heard the hiss again. He was blowing his nose. Well I feel dumb. I hopped back onto the trail and started walking like nothing had happened. Yep, just a normal day for a normal hiker right? Right?! I don’t think Cougars even hiss. Who knows.
Shortly after that exciting little moment I hopped down into an awesome little campground after Fuller Ridge. It was completely vacant, and there was a spot with a picnic table. Sitting at an actual table is the wierdest but coolest feeling on a thru-hike. I put my pack down ready to take yet another break. I started debating whether or not I’d stay here for the night. I really liked it there. I pulled out my phone to check the maps: I’d only gone five miles all day. Well, okay, that’s fine. How far until the next water source? Too far. Guess I won’t camp here then. But I did take another break here and decided it would be my last for the day.
I eventually summoned up the will to get up and press on. As I did my knee started to scream at me: “No! Go sit back down! I don’t want to go downhill anymore please for the love of god!”. Sorry knee, we gotta go. I tightened up my knee brace and pressed on. The scenery started to shift from forest back to desert as the miles went until I was in the middle of the hesitant transition and found myself in a dry forest.
What’s cooler than the forest and desert? I thought. A forest/desert hybrid. I really wanted to camp here too, but I do like to drink water every so often, it’s kind of a survival thing I guess. I needed to make more miles out of the day so I could continue to do that surviving thing. My knee on the other hand thinks it’s above water and started to refuse to cooperate. Eventually I couldn’t bend it very well at all and had to slightly drag it behind me as I walked. If I were in a better section, I absolutely would have stopped to let it rest. Here however, I had no choice. I put in an earbud and turned on the best “You can do this!” music I had on my MP3 player: Dropkick Murphys. Irish Punk ballads about badasses filled my ear and amped me up enough to get me to where I needed to be.
Except where I needed to be didn’t have anywhere to camp. I’m not too picky, but I do at least ask that I’m not sleeping on a 60 degree angle. I looked at my topo maps and found out I’d need to go another mile to get somewhere flat to camp in all likelihood. As I pushed on I found I was right in my uneducated assessment. Guthooks on the other hand told me I’d need to go further for one of it’s campsites. No thanks.
Just as my knee reached its peak of “If you keep hiking I will break you!” complaining, I looked downhill a bit. There was a relatively steep-ish drop on very loose sand, but at the bottom of it was a flat spot perfect for my tent on an outcropping from the mountain. From it I had a perfect view of San Jacinto, the desert below, and the awesome mountain I was currently on. Hell yeah I’ll take it.
I ungracefully made my way down the sand and looked at my new site. This is awesome. Instead of making camp immediately like I usually do, I dropped my pack on the ground and sat down to stare at the tiny windmills out in the distance doing their dance of healthy energy. I’ve never been right by a windmill before, I hope I get to hike past these ones. If not these, I’ll get to walk past some at some point on trail, that much I know for sure.
Eventually hunger took over, but I resolved to set up my tent first so I could crash if I wanted to after dinner. I’m getting good at this routine, my tent and everything else was put up in moments, and before I knew it I was sitting on the ground cooking my – wait for it – mashed potatoes. Blegh. I forced it down and sat back down on my spot overlooking the desert. I’ve never watched the sun set before, this is the perfect time for it.
This world is so mind-numbingly big. I never appreciated that fact before this thru-hike. It’s too easy to hop into your car to go pick up something within a reasonable walking distance, you miss so much in-between point A and point B. It makes you feel like you’re crammed into a small claustrophobic bubble world. I’m going to walk more when I’m done with this hike.
The sun set, I went to bed. I’m starting to find my groove out here. I think.