The Journey Thus Far – April 2018

Hey, everyone! Just wanted to briefly update you all on how the journey has been thus far. I am currently writing from Claremont, CA–the suburb of LA that is home to Pomona College, my alma mater. In the two weeks since starting, I have walked 266 miles from the Mexican border to the mountain town of Big Bear. There I was picked up by two of my former football teammates (thank God for Austin and Smitty) and came back to school for a short visit–and to also have a bit of immunization work done for medical school matriculation in the fall. After wrapping up the evaluation Friday, I will ship right back up into the mountains and head westward along the Angeles crest before turning northbound into the Mojave desert and onward towards the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Up until now, the trail has been serene. The cactus- and chaparral-lined dirt path often zigs and zags across dry desert bluffs under the slow-baking, but not yet oppressively hot, sun. Every so often, a wispy cloud will provide a bit of relief, but the first stretch has been made more enjoyable by the still strongly flowing creeks from the winter’s snowmelt and my umbrella. The walking has been mostly along relatively flat trail with ascents and descents rarely striking too steep a grade. From the get go, the excitement has propelled me to do some bigger mile days than initially planned. This isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as my feet can withstand it. Although I will admit that, after a couple back to back 20+ mile days, a bit of foot pain had me worried for a possible stress fracture or plantar fasciitis. On the plus side, the quickened pace allowed me to take a couple unplanned detours to visit the wonderful communities along the trail (ie: in Julian I got free pie, ice cream, apple cider and beer!).

I have met at least 30 other hikers so far in the early season. They come from all walks of life, from all around the world for that matter, and in all ages and sizes. For some the PCT has been a lifelong dream, for others it serves as an escape from the corporate world, and for the rest, like me, it is simply a privileged opportunity to enjoy the best nature has to offer. I have hiked with a couple other hikers from time to time, but roughly half the nights have been spent camping alone or with someone new because I have yet to find a crew that fits well. Until then, I will keep hiking my own hike! One hiker that I would like to give a shoutout to is Jigsaw. He’s a fellow hiker that camped at the same spot for a couple nights in a row and even shared part of his personal water cache with me in the middle of the desert, which I never got the chance to thank him for. His real first name is Bruce and he comes from Rancho Cucamonga, and even though he is leaving the trail to move to Boise, I hope somehow someway I will get to thank you personally for that act of kindness.

Despite the relaxed nature of this first stretch, it has certainly had its unique challenges. In particular, the stretch from Idyllwild to Big Bear saw a comical array of conditions and hurdles that provided the first test to my hiker will. First, the steep climb out of Idyllwild brought us to the apex of the trail up until this point. With elevation at almost 9,000 feet, it was the first time that we were traversing long stretches of snow. The hiker-infamous Fuller’s Ridge on the north side of Mt. San Jacinto was easy enough with microspikes, but the descent brought us down into the notoriously windy San Gorgonio pass. Unable to set up my tent in the loose gravel and gusting winds, the night was spent cowboy camping (camping under the stars without setting up a tent) tucked under the shelter of a large chaparral bush. The next morning we crossed the desert in temperatures reaching the 90’s. Hiking while it’s that hot is manageable, but given that we were heading back up hill, a bit of strategic navigation from shady spot to shady spot was required. After departing a couple other hikers from the trail magic-filled reprieve under interstate 10, the trail headed through the mesa wind farms and further into the mountainous desert. A short stretch through the Whitewater Preserve was even precluded with a warning of feral longhorn steer and feral pit bulls that had recently charged a hiker and killed a calf, respectively (seriously, google it for more info). Afterwards, in the final push towards Big Bear, the trail followed mission creek for fourteen miles and roughly 5,000 feet of elevation gain.

Overall, the 86 mile stretch accumulated some 13,500 feet of ascent and descent and took me through some of the most remote-feeling land yet.

Part of it was simply the terrain. Having grown up in Illinois, the sheer lack of water and shade I think will be the most foreign landscape that I go through. At times during the slow and arduous climb up the creek, I found myself staring up at the cliffs half expecting a tusken raider to poke its head out from behind the boulders just like in the Star Wars movies I had watched as a kid. The other challenge was the remoteness. Three of the four nights ended up alone, and due to differences in hiking pace, most of the interactions had were only brief greetings with folks that would be soon out of sight. For whatever reason, I simply didn’t see a lot of people over the four days. Now hiking is inherently a physical exercise, but one could say that, especially during such periods of isolation, it serves equally as an exercise of exploration into the mind. It is interesting to see how one reacts to being cut off from our main sources of external stimulation. Given the circumstance of an extended physical challenge yet with nobody else around, I found that I felt mentally drained. The lack of interaction left me to keep my mind preoccupied, devoid of the stimulation that comes from the intellectual ping-pong when you’re around other people. Now typically, I will listen to podcasts (Vox, NPR, NEJM, and The Daily are some of my favs. Any other recommendations?) to provide some food for thought, but it is safe to say that, humans being an inherently social species, I’m looking forward to being around more people along the way.

 

–Eric