Sometimes questions are more important than answers. – Nancy Willard
Because it was so cold down in the creek canyon, I shared Ted’s tent, a tiny two-man tent, the one he uses with his son every year on an overland marathon in Scotland. It felt like an animal’s underground lair, tight and warm in a dark feather-lined tunnel. I slept soundly even as the wind rattled through the night.
We wake slowly and linger over muesli, the air crisp now. I am so glad I didn’t send my rain gear back home as I’m wearing it now and have a feeling it will be on me all day. The Santa Ana winds have kicked up in Southern California. I always thought they brought heat, but up here above 8,000 feet, they’re icy cold. I can’t complain, though, since it makes for ideal hiking weather, especially with no guaranteed water source for 17 miles.
We head up on a pine needle carpet, willows in orange and yellow line the trail. I think I see huge San Jacinto peak, but truthfully all the mountains look big here. Pine cones litter the path and Ted kicks and crunches them in turn as he leads. We come to Onyx summit where our trail angel friend Papa Smurf left several gallons of water. I go ahead and chug down a liter I’ve carried, then replenish it. I revel in such kindness taking care of us hikers.
The trail leads down to a ‘private zoo’ which houses exotic animals used in movies. Sadly, the cages are empty as the property is for sale. We make a few wild animal noises and find yet another water cache in some bushes. What I need is a snickers bar cache. The dirt road heads up for some time, in fact, this entire section crisscrosses roads and I think about how much people complain about road walking on the Te Araroa, as though no other thru-hike has to include a few areas like that. I don’t really mind a road walk now and again and this place is absolutely deserted.
It’s a steep up and Ted sips from a coke bottle kept in a pocket conveniently attached to his shoulder strap. We stop for lunch at the top, rationing meat, cheese and bars. I’m always hungry, but there’s only so much I can carry. I slip out a bag of sweets and decide to break them open to share after we walk another five miles. Everything changes over this pass with new trees and seemingly bigger pines and their cones. The rock is pink and bright green mistletoe attaches to branches in giant balls. We walk down long switchbacks to a road where ‘Stache’ has left yet another cache. We leave it for the next hikers knowing a stream is close.
It’s right back up again into a burned area. Sparkly white quartz crumbles into tiny nuggets on a gorgeous balcony walk high above the steep valleys. I spy a Sierra-style meadow in the distance. Ted asks if I’d check a hot spot on his toe just as we enter a field of pink flossy shrubs. He is being a real sport dealing with water rationing and challenging terrain, but I need to remind myself that this is day two for him on the PCT and it takes some getting used to.
We continue down on a carpet of erosion, passing a trail camp and entering a canyon still reeling from a forest fire with huge charred trunks ready to dislodge and the trail a tangled mess of rock, downed trees and landslips. At a spot that lists camping, we find absolutely no camping – at least none away from widow-maker snags – but do find beautiful rushing water at Mission Creek as well as sitting rocks. I filter water and we make dinner now, not knowing where we’ll end up sleeping.
The trail goes steeply up and sidles the cliffs, creepy tree carcasses looking on. We spy two sites near the creek surrounded by dead trees ready to crush an unsuspecting camper, so we move on hoping somewhere in this narrow canyon, a flat spot will appear.
The sun is down, the far mountains pink and we can see deep into the canyon maze we’ll walk through tomorrow when we walk right by a small spot on the ridge. Ted tries a tent peg and it threatens to bend in this concrete-like rocky ground. That’s when I suggest we cowgirl camp. At first, he’s skeptical, but once we set our ground sheets, mattresses and sleeping bags, put on all our warm clothes and crawl inside our bags, then watch the sky get dark and the stars come out, he is enamored with the sky being our ceiling. I am typing as two huge falling stars streak across the sky. And as I sign off on this lovely day not seeing another soul, Ted falls fast asleep.