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.
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.