One year to the day since I started hiking the PCT and we’re back at the southern terminus. With Hippie Long Stockings and Solstice, an unexpected replay of those first 20 miles. Leaving after dark, we hike until 4 in the morning. The night hike obscures time and fatigue and I grip my trekking poles hoping to keep my feet under me over the rocks and drops. With only a single beam of light to orient, the trail becomes tricky and two-dimensional so I fix my light on Hippie’s leopard-print spandex and try to keep pace with her steps and conversation.
The Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off, ADZPCTKO, takes on a different tone as an alumni. No nerves, no need to rest up for what lies ahead. It’s a reunion, and a year later we’ve got the experience, we know the beauty. Now we know what they were all talking about last year. And since we’ve proven ourselves to ourselves, we take on the job of giving the pep-talks, the encouragement, the warnings. All of us, reassembled a year later, have been changed. It just shows how big this thing is. It’s a game-changer.
After a couple days of celebrating the new hiking season, we somehow cram Coincidence, Hot Tub, and gear into Old Faithful and drive from Lake Morena to the Salton Sea. The foul-smelling beach, a landscape of fish-bones and barnacles, salt-encrusted and rotten, crunches under our feet as we make our way to the lapping water. Garbage everywhere, an unsprung-armchair resting at the water’s edge.
Water has come and gone from this place over hundreds of thousands of years. What we call the Salton Sea is the latest incarnation of this body of water, forming in 1905 when the Colorado river flooded the area. Without an outflow, the salinity of the sea increases about 1% each year. The land-locked sea briefly served as a luxurious oasis in the middle of the desert until salt levels reached a point causing the fish to dye. The stench overwhelmed the glamour and drove away vacationers.
Take the 86 north, turn right on the 10, then left onto Cottonwood Springs Road. South entrance to Joshua Tree National Park . A construction crew repairs wreckage from the most recent flash flood. After the sunset, the stars are amazing. Always the first thing to hit me when we’ve escaped civilization.
Joshua Tree is the meeting place of the Colorado and Mojave deserts. Ocotillo, Creosote Bush, Cholla Cactus. Fried Liver Wash. White Tank Granite. We hike up Ryan Mountain for a view of the Dr. Suess landscape. Joshua Trees with their hindu-god limbs scattered across the desert, flat aside from the sporadic, hill-sized rock piles.
Much of Joshua Tree is undeveloped. There are only a few places to fill water and no other amenities. The landscape is quiet and bizarre.
Sandblasted and ready for showers, we wind our way west and into the mountains to revisit Idyllwild, an evergreen oasis, perched at a mile high in the San Jacinto wilderness, PCT mile 179. The little mountain town is welcoming and walkable, a perfect place for hikers. We arrived last year, soaked and shivering from our first storm and took a zero day to recover and enjoy this mellow sliver of civilization.
Hike up the Deer Spring Trail to Strawberry Junction. Soak in the evergreens mingling with blooming Manzanitas. With trees of this magnitude comes shade and water and we lap it up. Hot Tub and Coincidence hike ahead while 30 Pack and I dilly dally, just like old times. Neon sunset and thumbnail moon.
The wind picks up in the night but calms by sunrise. My eyes first open to birds going crazy at first light and Hot Tub’s silhouette, the first to emerge from the cocoon. I let myself drift in and out for a while and think, “Aaaaahhh, we’re back on trail.”
We climb San Jacinto Peak, second tallest in SoCal at 10,834 feet, that afternoon, passing PCTers periodically, looking adorably fresh and energetic. I can only imagine how fresh and energetic we seem in comparison. Camp at Round Valley amidst granite boulders. On the hike back to Idyllwild we clamber around enormous trees fallen across the trail. An agitated Timber Rattler lunges at 30 Pack, sends him flying off trail, the fall tearing up his arms and pants.
From the mountains to the beach.
We arrive at the ocean in San Clemente in time for sunset, the sun a slightly squashed apricot hovering above the waves. Gobs of seaweed drifting in on the waves, left sprawled like bodies in the sand. Surfer bodies out in the waves, graceful and seal-like in their wetsuits, at home in the water.
We spend two nights at San Mateo Campground, just across the I-5 from town. During the day we wander through town and watch surfers from the beach. It’s got a Mediterranean spirit lodged in its terracotta roves, white-washed walls, occasional lemon tree. We sit around the campfire at night and look up to a muted sky- not so many stars here, near the metropolis. We make an after-dark trip to the shore along a dirt road, under a bridge, through a tunnel, onto a broad beach. Run into the water and have your breath taken away by the crushing waves.
Desert, mountains, ocean. The Cali-trifecta.
We got to talking about time travel, rewinding to save the day or walk with dinosaurs. Wondering about technicalities, and, if time travel is really possible, wouldn’t we have seen or heard of future-folks roaming around in this time?
Hiking from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and time traveling are likely not very similar experiences. However, traveling to those places untouched and unaltered, we glimpse now what was back then. The layers of the landscape mark years by the tens of thousands, a time frame we strain to understand.
The Grand Canyon is the river’s masterpiece, its portfolio from the last six million years. At the deepest point, six thousand feet below the rim, the exposed rock is 2,000 million years old.
We haven’t planned ahead so we have no idea whether or not we will get a permit to stay in the canyon. We’re lucky- there have been cancellations and we leave the backcountry permitting office with a reservation at Bright Angel Campground for the following night.
My cousin and her friends are staying in Mather Campground at one of 300 sites spread across a maze of culdesacs. We spend the afternoon with a frisbee and a few beers at the close-to-empty campground. Elk laze in the shade nearby.
Yavapai Point for sunset. From the white rocks we can see the switchbacks leading from the canyon floor to Bright Angel Trailhead.
Morning of. Wake up, make coffee, eat breakfast, organize food for the next 36 hours, pack backpacks, snag neighbor to give Old Faithful a jump, arrive at the South Kaibab Trailhead at 11am.
A 7 mile, 4,780 foot drop to Phantom Ranch.
Rim temp: 72°
Phantom Ranch temp: 94°
The bottom of the Grand Canyon can be accessed in a variety of ways. You can hike, carrying your own food, water, shelter, etc. You can hike, carrying water and a change of clothes, and stay in the cabins at Phantom Ranch. You can take a boat. You can ride a mule. Though we pass a string of mule-riding guests looking happy enough, my ego would never go for that.
The first mile and a half is congested, people clogging the destination photo-opps. Past that, the numbers dwindle and the rim of the canyon slips from our sights, a series of false summits plaguing the upward-hiker. The trail alternates between steep, two way trails and conveniently placed plateaus where the rest stops are located. As our elevation drops, the temperature increases. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is harsh, the shade is sparse.
We’re gaining on another hiker. He stands out with a mangled bike strapped to his back. As decrepit as a hermit crab, he is hunched and moving slowly. We catch up to him as he breaks and I let go my flood of questions
His name: Elliot DuMont
Trail name: Bike On
Purpose: Arizona Trail 750, Mexico to Utah, longest single-track bike race in the world, mandatory 24 mile portage across the Grand Canyon, began April 11 at 7am.
Destination: the border of Arizona and Utah. He’s hoping to be there in the next 48 hours.
Jargon: hike-a-bike (to push one’s bike while walking alongside); bikepacking (to disassemble, strap and carry a bike on one’s back)
He tells us his back is killing him, yet his smile is fixed. He’s got the look of accomplishment, determination, hilarity. “I’m enjoying the celebrity”, he says when I appologize for all the questions.
We catch our first glimpse of the Colorado River about four miles in. Shortly thereafter we take a bathroom break at Tip Off. A thermometer hanging on the wall of the outhouse reads 100° F, 40° C.
Down, down, down, we pass a few hikers in the last miles, faint and red-faced in the shade. The sun takes its toll. Down, down, down, through the tunnel, over the bridge, onto the beach and into the water. It’s 3:30pm. The water is clear and cold. Strained through the Glen Canyon Dam from the bottom of Lake Powell, the usual sediment has been filtered out leaving the water the same green as the Little Mermaid’s tail. We can only sit for a moment before our bones start to ache. After the initial plunge, I wade in just long enough to rinse my socks, relishing in the return to those old hiking rituals.
Everyone knows that John Wesley Powell led the first expedition down the Colorado River in 1869. Along the way, the explorers camped on the beach of what is now Phantom Ranch. At the turn of the 20th century, the place began its evolution into a tourist destination. A hunting trip brought President Theodore Roosevelt to the ranch in 1913, helping the Grand Canyon attain national park status in 1919. During the Great Depression the CCC was employed to make improvements to the ranch and access trails.
Dark brown Park Service buildings appear amidst the cacti and cottonwoods. The trail follows Bright Angel Creek and a string of campsites appears on either side of the trail. We walk the gauntlet, eyeing the set-ups of our fellow campers. Backpacks hang from metal racks and metal boxes for food storage sit on picnic tables to keep the squirrels away. At this point, we’ve seen the sign repeatedly (squirrels = fleas = plague = no touching, emphasized by a picture of a hand with a nasty squirrel bite) and take their warnings seriously.
We drop our gear at the far end of the lineup and head to the canteen/restaurant for water, 5 minutes further on the opposite side of the creek. The canteen serves beverages of all sorts and a few snacks, but dinner is limited to those with reservations made ahead of time, extinguishing our fantasies of burgers on the canyon bottom.
A pipe has burst. The ranger talks it down, a frequent occurence due to the high pressure and old pipes that transport the water across the Canyon. It’s happened three times over the past three weeks. We learn that all water on the South Rim comes from one source: Roaring Springs, located on the North Rim. Despite the burst pipe, drinking water is still available, but we have to flush the toilets with buckets of creek water.
Our friend Bike On is inside refueling, a couple cans of soda and bags of snacks laid out on the table in front of him. After a quick rest he’ll continue his journey up the North Rim.
The mules are housed between the campsite and the canteen, ten or so swishing their tails in the corral. The handlers tell me that the outfit has 140-some mules that hike the canyon and 60-some mules that stay up at the rim. The animals make the trip down and back, then rest for two or three days up top. “They get more days off than us!”
It’s serene in this little green canyon. The various types visiting are similar enough to get along and diverse enough to mimic a community. Unlike the typical resort, the range of cost to access this place, physical and monetary, keeps the clientele interesting.
A park ranger accompanied by a volunteer makes the rounds, checking permits, informing us of the spawning fish and proper use of headlamps. At dinner the gas runs out and I make a trade with the neighbors: two packets of hot chocolate in exchange for access to their fuel canister.
It’s still hot. Even as the sun sinks, the heat persists. We take a walk back to the river before we lose all light. In the dusk we see the cacti on the verge of a massive bloom. We sit and talk on the rocks, watching bats whoosh over our heads until the dark envelops all of it. We find our way back to camp, weaving through whispers and bobbing lights of other campers. The heat keeps us on top of our bags for most of the night and the starlight is incredible.
My eyes open at 5:20am and we’re on trail by 6:30. After yesterday’s heat we don’t want to push our luck.
We finish the five miles to Indian Garden and water by 9:30. Though we’re half-way, we’ve got a 3,000 foot grunt ahead of us. Luckily the weather is mild, the sun filtering through clouds and the temperature dropping as we make our way up. We leap-frog with another family coming from Bright Angel and make friends with Payton, a fifth-grader from Oregon. The trail’s grade forces us to break every mile or so but the 70° air assures us that there is no need to rush.
We reach the rim at noon, racing another new friend and fifth-grader Rhiannon the last mile or so, finding that we can’t compete with the energy of eleven-year-olds. Payton is also waiting at the top with a smirk on his face.
18 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain. We revel in our accomplishment, pigging out next to the snack bar amidst cleaned-and-pressed tourists. Another delightful hiking ritual, dirty and smelly, downing town-food with audible joy.
The Grand Canyon is such a celebrity-landmark and it feels like a great accomplishment to have hiked to the bottom and back. The beauty we see is delicate, a continuous transformation by the tiniest forces, building up and tearing down, grains of sand and drops of water that weather, sculpt and carve. A great work of art, perfect and balanced. And though we leave wanting more, I am glad that only a sliver of this place is accessible to us so that we can appreciate without entirely disrupting. Let the artist work.
Back in mountain-climbing mode.
Guadalupe Peak, our last stop before leaving Texas, is the highest point in Texas, 8,749 feet. The trek to the summit, 8.4 miles round-trip, is a beautiful one with awesome views and 3,000 feet of elevation gain.
The Guadalupe Mountains hold the fossils of an ancient marine reef, “El Capitan Reef”, spanning 400 miles. Up close, the fossils are amazingly intact and abundant.
We camped right near the trailhead at the Pine Springs campground for $8. On our next visit, we’ll camp (with a free backcountry permit) at the awesome site just shy of the summit. The perfect vantage for the sunrise and set.
All in all, a wonderful send-off from the vast and varied state of Texas.
WAY DOWN SOUTH, turn at the little town of Marathon Texas, onto a road stretching towards Mexico. Lined by the barbed wire fences and branded gates of ranches, the black strip of asphalt has one intention: Big Bend. The subtle contours of Texas Hill Country, dotted with yucca blooms and tangled mesquite, are deceptive. Follow the road through the park entrance and the land transforms; slopes and ridgelines grow into breathtaking mountains and cliffs, the expanse of blue sky above enhancing their majesty.
The desert is a place of such wonder. Appearing unlivable, yet supporting an abundance of life that is so unique and perfected. Not only existing but thriving, parched and scorched and wind-weathered.
We spent four nights in this spectacular place and left with scraped-up legs, sun-reddened faces and the regret of leaving so soon.
Over a hundred million years ago it was all under water, a sea. Two different seas, actually, that came and went, leaving layers of limestone and fossils. These layers were exposed by the same tectonic disruptions that formed my beloved Rockies. The Mariscol Mountains in the south of Big Bend are the southernmost extension of the Rocky Mountain Range.
The park’s high and low points have a difference of nearly 6,000 feet, reaching 7,825 ft. at the summit of Emory Peak, and dropping to 1,850 ft. at the Rio Grande Village. The Chisos Mountains- rugged, reddish lava towers- are grouped in the park’s center. Emory Peak stands the tallest of these formations, severe slopes uniting at a jagged summit. Casa Grande, at 7,325 feet, acts as a formidable sentry, casting her shadow across the winding road leading to the Chisos Basin.
Big Bend’s disparate elevation and dynamic geological history fosters a variety of ecosystems and tremendous diversity amongst the resident flora and fauna. The park is a sanctuary for thousands of species, many of which are endemic and/or endangered. Plants range from Juniper and Oak trees to more than sixty species of cacti, from delicate wildflowers to viciously-spiked-and-barbed everything else. The animals include some 450 species of birds, of which we saw only a handful. Though cougars, bears and other creatures inhabit the park, we saw only jackrabbits, sprinting and springing across the gravely hills, and heard the wailings of coyotes in the early morning hours.
We find beauty within every inch of the natural landscape. Patterns, spiraled, spotted, layered; textures, smooth, curved, rugged. They catch the eye in a way modern-day clean-cuts and white-washings cannot; they captivate the mind erasing the droning, buzzing, beeping world of walls in which we eat, sleep and work.
In nature, we awaken and play.
WHERE WE WALKED
The furious calm of the wild, so many sprouting, growing, blooming, dying, decaying things. Effortless transitions between states of being, occurring and intermingling. In every death there is life.
This entry is in memory of my late Aunt Deb. A woman unafraid to be smart, to be beautiful, to stand tall.
I wish you peace.
Thanks to the National Park Service Webpage for helping me with those finer details.
We spend a day in Lander, take a hike up Sinks Canyon to see the frozen falls, eat enormous burgers at the Lander Bar. Alongside the local cowboys, we watch Olympic figure skating and cringe as Sean White takes fourth.
It’s windy as Hell as we head South on Hwy 287. The road is closed to “light weight vehicles” and the rest stops are full of semis, waiting it out.
After a night in Laramie, we cross into Colorful Colorado at 11:03 am. The odometer reads 1053.
In Denver, we stay with Karlie. We’ve known each other since middle school and she’s letting us stay as long as we’d like.
On Valentine’s Day we drive to Rocky Mountain National Park. A sign reads “In case of flood climb to safety”. We see sunken houses, boarded windows, bull dozers and trees with exposed, bare roots. We learn that 18 inches of rain fell between September 11 and 13 of last year. The park had to be evacuated and the eastern entrances were inaccessible due to the devastation of the flood.
Herds of elk graze beneath towering mountains. It’s 36° and snowing lightly. We’ve got the park to ourselves. We cook ribeye steaks for dinner and make a nest in the back of the car, drinking wine and playing chess.
In the morning, it’s too windy to make coffee or cook bacon. We pack up the car and drive out of the park as a stream of cars enter.