Monday, April 30, 2012

Day 9: Agua Caliente Creek to Tule Canyon

We lingered in camp this morning, giving Sierra an opportunity to get caught up on her school work. Beyond our camp, the trail passed through thickets of poison oak, some overhanging the trail, as it made its way up Agua Caliente Creek. I dreaded the poison oak so much I almost looked forward to the next section of trail, a long, hot, dry climb up a shadeless, exposed ridge because I knew poison oak could not grow there.

But as we climbed past manzanita, sage, prickly pear, beaver tail cactus, and century plants, the hot sun and dry, still air felt relentless. Finally, we gained the ridge, and a cool breeze provided welcome relief. We stopped to admire a horned toad or lizard, and to marvel at an enormous, football sized pinecone from a Coulter pine tree, reputed to produce the largest pinecones in the world.

It was late afternoon before we reached Chihuahua Road. About one quarter mike down the road to the right was the home of Mike, a trail angel who offers a tank of water, camping, a bunkhouse and, occasionally, a meal to trail weary hikers. Straight ahead lay the PCT. Although fresh water and an early camp sounded great to me, Sierra chose to go on.

By the time we completed the slow climb to the ridge, it was 7:30. A solitary hiker was camped on the ridge, already tucked away in his sleeping bag. I suggested stopping and looking for another flat spot nearby, but Sierra wanted to hike on.

Donning headlamps and long sleeve shirts, we began the slow, meandering descent to Tule Canyon. We soon realized this was a mistake. There was no camping anywhere in sight. To the left of the trail, the hill rose steeply. To the right, the hill dropped precipitously. And both sides were covered with shrubs.

After two miles, I spotted something reflective near the trail. Sure enough, I could just make out two forms, sleeping under the stars. We planned to creep past quietly, but an arm began waving to us from one of the bags. Legion and Steady invited us to join them, moving over their own sleeping bags to make room for us on a tiny patch of ground no bigger than a queen-sized bed.  "We're thru-hikers.  There's always room for one more.  That's just what we do."  Legion reassured me.  So we fell asleep enjoying a view of the stars and cool, gentle breezes.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Day 8: Barrel Springs to Agua Caliente

Many people have warned us of a myriad of dangers along the trail: bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, poison oak, poodle dog bush (similar to poison oak). But few talk about a smaller predator, which can also be dangerous and is far more prevalent: ticks. PCT hikers have been bitten by ticks along the trail, and at least one has contracted Lyme Disease, which can be very debilitating. I discovered a tick crawling on me this morning, and will be much more careful to avoid these nasty parasites in the future.

Shortly after rejoining the trail at Barrel Springs, a long snake with a diamond shaped pattern on its back slithered across the trail less than six feet in front of me. I froze in place, watching for its tail and confirmed what I already knew: a rattlesnake. The snake disappeared into the camouflage of the brush next to the trail, leaving only its rattle covered tail visible. And then it stopped. I waited for the snake to move. And waited. And waited. I was reluctant to continue down the trail just inches away from a rattlesnake's tail, and yet I sensed that the snake was waiting for me. Finally, we gave up and hurried past, leaving as much respectful distance between us and the snake as the narrow trail would permit.

Nearby, I noticed something blue in the crook of a Y-shaped Joshua tree. Cautiously, we crept closer to inspect. Nestled behind the broad green leaves of the plant was a blue jay on its nest, peering back at us.

Continuing down the trail, we reached the grassy hills and oak-lined gullies of the rolling ranchland that surrounds the now-defunct resort of Warner Springs Ranch. Wild animals were replaced by domesticated ones, as herds of cattle freely roam and graze throughout the hills.

Cresting the top of a hill, we spotted the form of a large granite eagle off in the distance. Eagle Rock is a natural rock formation in the shape of an eagle, with wings outstretched ready to take flight. We stopped there for lunch, and Sierra quickly scrambled to the top, eating her lunch perched next to the eagle's head.

The trail continued through grassy fields dotted with bright orange poppies, deep purple lupine, cheerful yellow flowers, and an occasional prickly pear cactus.  Then we descended into a ravine shaded by tall, majestic oaks. Rounding a corner, we found ourselves facing down two huge cows blocking the trail, reinforced on all sides by the rest of the herd. Usually cows lumber away from people, but these cows, reputed to be very aggressive, held their ground. "Hey!" I shouted, stepping forward. The cows eyed me nervously, but did not move. "Hey!" I demanded again and again, slowly inching forward. The cows finally bolted up the hill.

We were treated to delicious cold drinks when we passed through Warner Springs and, shortly after, we discovered something magical: a tire swing hanging from a large oak tree next to the trail!  After testing it thoroughly, we highly recommend it! We are now camped at Agua Caliente Creek, listening to the gentle babble of the creek.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Day 7: The Annual Day Zero PCT Kick Off!

The Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off is an annual gathering of current and former PCT thru-hikers, section hikers, trail volunteers, and trail angels at Lake Morena. Ultralight gear manufacturers set up tables and tents to display their gear, former hikers give presentations on backcountry skills, and the PCTA and others give presentations on current trail conditions.

Sierra wanted to attend the kick off to meet some of the other hikers, and my father graciously agreed to give us a ride back down to Lake Morena. So, after 6 days of hiking, we decided to take a rest day to attend the kick off. Shortly after we arrived, Sierra met some new friends, McKenna and Jake. So while I spent the rest of the day dutifully collecting the water and snow reports and learning more about what to expect down the trail, Sierra was running around the campground playing with her new friends.

The kick off was fun, but after a day surrounded by so much activity, we are ready to return to the trail tomorrow.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Day 6: Scissors Crossing to Barrel Spring

Returning to Scissors Crossing, we climbed steeply, up long, sweeping switchbacks into the San Felipe Hills. This is true desert country, and the hills are covered with barrel cactus, other cacti, ocotillo, and many other hardy desert plants, including a relative of the century plant with a taller, skinnier center stalk that looks like an asparagus spear with a frond of broccolini on top.

The temperatures rose as we climbed. We felt parched, as though the sun had finally dried every last drop of liquid in our bodies. I began imagining icy cold drinks: frosted glasses of lemonade, ice filled glasses of tea or soda, frozen beverages such as milkshakes or Jamba Juice, or even wet frozen treats such as Popsicles or ice cream bars. But most of all I thought of water.

I thought about how long it had been since we had seen a natural source of water. It had been three days. Three days ago we had crossed a small creek in Long Canyon on our way to Mt. Laguna. Since then, the only water available on the trail had been brought there by humans: the faucets at Mt. Laguna, the water cache at Pioneer Mail, the Rodriguez water tank, the cache at Scissors Crossing.

Just as my thirst reached its peak, I heard a shriek from up the trail. "Water!" Sierra cried. There, next to the trail was a brown wooden sign with the word "water" carved and painted on it in bold white letters. Following the arrow down a side trail, we reached a true oasis in the desert: the Third Gate Water Cache. There, under the shade of a scrubby tree were over one hundred gallons of fresh, pure water, each one hand-carried over 13 miles to that location by generous volunteers. Reluctant to waste even one drop of that precious water brought to us by such selfless effort, we took only one pint, just enough to get us the remaining ten miles to Barrel Springs.

All too quickly, the hot afternoon sun dropped lower in the sky, and we watched the sun set behind the mountains. We continued hiking by twilight, and then by headlamp. The evening sounds seemed magnified by the darkness: the hoot of an owl, the rustling of the grass, the howls and yips of the coyotes. From time to time an eye reflected back at me from up the trail. Each time I approached, a small burrowing owl flew off into the night, with heavy flapping of its tiny wings.

It was late when we finally reached Barrel Springs, the end of a 24 mile day, now 101 miles from the border, where our journey began.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Day 5: Rodriguez Water Tank to Scissors Crossing

The rain came in the night, gently at first, a fine steady spray misting the outside of our tent. Then the rain slowly picked up speed until it was pounding our tent with sheets of rain. The winds howled and moaned, working into a fury and shaking the thin walls of our little tent.

Swirling and whirling like the inside of a tornado, the wind shifted directions constantly throughout the night. At times our tent became a wind tunnel, inflating the tent walls like a toy balloon as the wind whipped through it from head to toe. At other times the wind attacked from the sides, driving rain under the tent flaps and slapping the tent walls against our sleeping bags.

The storm raged throughout the night. A growing flat light was my only sign when dawn finally arrived. Reaching for my water bottle, I spotted a light brown, widow-shaped spider nestled behind it, sharing our limited shelter from the storm. Unable to identify our visitor from among the many other spiders with similarly shaped bodies, I ushered him outside with the side of my water bottle.

I tried to sit to pack up, but the wind kept slapping the tent wall against my head. Hunching over, I slowly stuffed our wet gear into our backpacks. Sierra headed down the trail on her own while I packed up our sopping wet tent, along with an extra pint of rainwater.

Shivering, I set off down the trail into the biting wind and driving rain, bush whacking for the first quarter mile through the wet, prickly shrubs that has overgrown the trail. Eventually the rain stopped, but the mountains were still shrouded in threatening clouds. We decided to head into town at Scissors Crossing. We'll be drying out our gear and back on the trail tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Day 4: Pioneer Mail Trailhead to Rodriguez Water Tank

The winds howled over the ridge all night, undoubtedly the precursor to the storm predicted to blow in today. But sheltered in our tent under a large oak tree, we had a very comfortable night. We woke to a chorus of bird calls.

The climb out of camp traversed the side of a rocky ridge, with rugged red rock formations and incredible views of the surrounding mountains and the desert valley floor. Unfortunately, this section of trail is near the Sunrise Highway, and it has been marred by ugly graffiti painted on many of the rocks. I hurried through, successfully avoiding having to explain some of the cruder graffiti to my 8 year old daughter.

Continuing down the trail, we passed through fragrant corridors of purple and white lilac bushes. The rocky hillside was also dotted with a rainbow of other flowers. Our travels through this area were accompanied by the rather disconcerting drone of a swarm of hungry bees hovering over the flowery shrubs. Fortunately, we neither look nor smell like flowers at this point in our hike, so the bees left us alone.

Lunchtime was also school time. Although there is lots to be learned while hiking, some subjects, such as math, work best at break time. So Sierra took time at lunch to read on her Kindle (courtesy of her grandparents) and to work on multiplication and long division.

The afternoon found us slowly meandering along ridge tops, before descending past colorful flowering cactus and prickly ocotillo plants to our camp here by the water tank at the Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail, the only water source in the 16 miles we hiked today. This is arid country. Most hikers plan their camps around the limited water sources, so there are several other hikers camped here with us today.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Day 3: Long Canyon to Pioneer Mail Trailhead

 We had a very lumpy night. An ambitious rodent had burrowed an extensive network of tunnels underneath all of the available ground, creating lumps and bumps everywhere.

The trail to Burnt Rancheria Campground (5,970 ft) in Mt. Laguna transitioned to pine forest, with tall shady pine trees and soft, needle-covered earth. We reached the campground shortly after 10, and decided to continue on to Desert View Picnic Area to meet my parents and resupply. There we met Diane, an ultra-runner who was in the area training. She shared her last slice of rhubarb pie from Mom's in Julien. Delicious! Thanks Diane!

The trail continued through the Laguna Mountains, alternating through arid land covered with drought resistant shrubs and cactus and grassy meadows lined with Jeffrey Pines and Black Oak trees. After our lengthy break to resupply, our pace slowed considerably. We continued to make slow, steady progress throughout the afternoon, aided in equal measure by the audio books on our iPods and the need to make it to the next water source before we camped for night night.

We arrived at the Pioneer Mail Trailhead picnic area late in the day. Several tents and multiple picnic tables dotted the grassy hillside. "Plenty of room for more," welcomed a hiker, as he directed us to a cache of drinking water next to the non-potable water in the horse trough. We saw several other familiar hikers, including Jason, who remembered meeting us on the JMT!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Day 2: Lake Morena to Long Canyon

After yesterday's heat, today's weather was another shock to the system. We set off on the trail into a misty fog, sheltered under a canopy of mossy oak trees.  We hiked on a damp, sandy tread, watching the occasional cottontail rabbits scamper across the trail in front of us.

As we approached Boulder Oaks Campground, the terrain transitioned from arid, chapperal and cactus covered hills to oak-lined, flower-filled fields littered with lupines, paintbrush, and tiny, delicate flowers in all shades of purple, yellow, and white. When we arrived at the campground my parents were waiting with cold drinks, crisp Ambrosia apples, and crunchy, salty Fritos corn chips.

We made slow progress in the afternoon, and at 5:00 we found ourselves on the side of a ridge, miles away from Long Canyon, the nearest source of water and camping. But with no alternatives, we pressed on, arriving just as the sun was slipping behind the ridge.

My brother had cut a sheet of Tyvek for us to use as a ground cloth. Sierra was delighted to discover that her cousins had decorated it with pictures and messages wishing her good luck on the trail. My favorite picture was of a mother and daughter blazing down the trail under the light of a crescent moon and a star-filled sky. It seemed appropriate somehow, as we sat identifying Orion, the Big Dipper, and several other constellations while we ate our dinner.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Day 1: Campo to Lake Morena

"A journey of 1,000 miles (or 2,665+) begins with a single step."

We woke to the tips and howls of a nearby pack of coyotes surrounding their prey. All too soon those nighttime sounds were replaced by the chirps, caws, clucks, coos, and chirrings, of countless wild turkeys, roosters, jays, morning doves, and many other species.

Although Campo is over 20 miles from Lake Morena by trail, it is only a short drive. We soon arrived at the border and, after the obligatory photos at the trail monument, we were on our way.

The trail gently climbs over rolling hills covered with burned chapperal, blooming century plants, several varieties of cacti, and a multitude of hardy spring flowers. The temperature also rose, but not nearly so gradually. It was HOT, and after spending the last months skiing, we were not prepared for instant summer.

As we hiked, we leapfrogged several other hikers, all of whom seemed to be suffering in the heat. We also spied several pieces of abandoned gear next to the trail: a gray hooded sweatshirt, hanging on a branch, a pair of heavy khaki dockers, a Thermarest Neoair mattress, a weathered journal with yellowing pages, a new pair of Black Diamond ski gloves, neatly placed on a rock, and a hat hooked over a fence post. We wondered about the stories behind each abandoned item. Had the owners, exhausted by the heat and overwhelmed by the weight of their packs just tossed them aside in frustration?

It was late afternoon when we reached Hauser Creek at mile 16, the only water source between Campo and Mt. Laguna. The "creek" was actually a stagnant pond, thick and murky with unidentified green, mossy plants growing in it. I stepped across in a single step, determined to continue to Lake Morena without stopping for water. But the climb to the lake was hot and steep, and my bottle was almost empty. I pulled out my filter and hoped for the best.

Fortunately, the water did not taste as disgusting as it looked. Refreshed by the water we made good time up the steep climb to the lake, where we enjoyed cold drinks, fresh food, and hot showers.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Ready to Begin

Today we are heading to the border. It feels strange to be riding in an air-conditioned car on Highway 395, whizzing past familiar trailheads we hope to hike past in the next two months: Taboose, Onion Valley, Whitney Portal, Horseshoe Meadows, Kennedy Meadows.

Today we will drive just under 400 miles to the border. It will take us about 7 hours. But the trail takes over 800 miles to reach the mountains above our home, and it will take us two months to get there.

We are now camped at Lake Morena (elevation 3,065) in the oak woodlands near the small border town of Campo, California. Tomorrow it all begins.