It’s Thanksgiving 2020, and like so many Americans, we’re home, grateful for a “warmish” day of 45 degrees and sunshine so we can sit in our courtyard and lift a glass – at a safe distance – with a few neighbors.
Last November, I was walking in the Southern California desert, slowing my pace to enjoy stops along the way and mingle with locals. It’s inconceivable in this moment to consider the freedom and assumptions I made back then – eating in restaurants, shopping at the supermarket and staying at a historic inn without wearing a mask or maintaining distance.
Heck, I even hugged hiker friends who I hadn’t seen in weeks who suddenly showed up in my space. Besides Richard – and my doctors – I haven’t touched another soul in nine months.
It was just a year ago that I completed the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d dreamed of walking it for a long time, but thought maybe my first thru-hike ought to be something exotic and far away. The reasoning was I could hike on my home-turf anytime, but to travel half-way around the world was going to take much more planning.
And then I was suddenly “boss-free” and at the urging of my husband, who seems to understand me better than I understand myself, I flew out to Washington state on a one-way ticket, joined a gang of hikers and headed up to Hart’s Pass in the North Cascades just to see how far I could go.
By Day 127, I was nearly finished, and headed down the Devil’s Slide to visit the charming mountain town of Idyllwild. A hiker friend had joined me for this section, and while we still put in a good number of miles on those short, autumn days in the high desert, after climbing 10,000 feet up and over San Jacinto Peak, we felt we deserved a day off in this truly idyllic place.
It was a sunny, dry day with a slight nip in the air when Benita welcomed us to the Silver Pines Lodge, handing us a change of clothes while we washed our hiking outfits, and giving us the run of the beautiful grounds . She told us, she’s seen her share of us ‘hiker trash’ but says we enrich the lives of her village.
Days like that, where we don’t have to worry about getting sick or making others sick, will return, I promise you, and they’ll be more precious than ever. Listening to this conversation with Innkeeper Benita, makes me feel strong and brave to face the coming months, knowing I’ll be back on the trail soon enough. I hope some rubs off on you, too.
People say that you’re going the wrong way when it’s simply a way of your own.
Along the 2600+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, there’s an abundance of trail angel generosity surprises.
A few that come to mind include Broken Toe’s encampment where he parked for two weeks at Hart’s Pass just to greet SOBO’s with a warm fire, a fresh vegetables and good hiker beta. Also Big Lake Youth Camp that made it part of their mission to help us hikers with kindness so deep they set aside a building just for us to hang out replete with fresh baked cookies, showers, even a box of second hand clothing to change into while our dirty ones were being washed.
In California, it was a string of pearls of hospitality like Casa de Luna near Green Valley, and Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce, owned by otherworldly souls willing to open their homes and back yards to hundreds of smelly hikers over literally decades.
By far, though, one of the strangest places I came across was Hiker Town. It’s smack dab in the middle of tumbleweeds, jumping cholla cactus and Joshua trees, mountain lions stalking and rattle snakes sunning in the middle of the trail of Southern California desert. I reached it after walking the California aqueduct, water closed in by concrete rushing below me and only available for my bottles at a single faucet before an 18 mile stretch in the blazing sun.
I had not heard good stories about Hiker Town, mostly that the owner is known to ask inappropriate questions and come on strong to young female hikers. He wasn’t around when I arrived – or if he was, after taking one look at me, he must have decided not to bother. I felt reasonably safe especially wince my friend Callum was right behind me on the trail.
Hiker Town’s sprawling acreage abuts a busy highway. There’s one modern house shaded by trees with a spiffy little patio, but all the others are tiny cabins, seemingly left overs from of a B movie of the Wild West variety. There’s a bank, a sheriff’s office, a school, the mining supplier, even a brothel.
I wandered about and finally found Bob building the outdoor shower. Wisps of hair on his grown and full, neatly trimmed gray beard, Bob appeared harmless enough in a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, far more appropriate for the Venice boardwalk than this dusty place. A videographer who won three Emmies for his work on Columbo and The Rockford Files, Bob has lived here over a decade and greeted thousands of hikers. When I asked him how he liked living in the desert, he replied resignedly, “It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.”
Bob doesn’t move fast, but he got me quickly settled in my own private cottage, one without designation aside from a sign reading, “If you’re lucky enough to be at the beach, you’re lucky enough,” underscoring my Venice Beach association. The space was barely big enough for a brass bedstead holding a lumpy mattress and a creaky old chest of drawers missing most of its knobs. Good enough for this thru-hiker, I decided, and dumped my stuff heading to the newly constructed outdoor shower before the sun went down and the air chilled.
Callum arrived just as I dried off and was ushered to his own cottage and shower. Bob drove us (without incident) both fifteen minutes up the road to the convenience store for a mini resupply and dinner. It was dark by the time we returned. Three other hikers had arrived to stay, along with a couple I’d met on day two back in Washington. We sat out on the patio to share a soda before they head into town.
“Why not just stay here?” I asked before they left. “We’re right on the trail.”
They repeated the disturbing stories I’d heard, and, as if to put a finer point on the situation I faced, asked if I’d looked under the bed yet. What could possibly be under the bed!? They gave few clues before their ride arrived but I wan’t about to look all by myself in the dark.
So I headed to Callum’s cottage, who was already in bed at 7:30 since everyone knows that 7:30 is “hiker midnight.” Even so, sweet Callum obliged bringing his headlamp. He got down on his knees on the dusty wooden floor to get a better look. “Ah, there they are!”
“Black widow spiders. But don’ worry. They won’t hurt you unless you agitate them.”
I never got around to asking Callum how many spiders were calling my ned home, though I realized he was right. Those black widows had zero interest in me. So far on this hike I’d walked in a snowstorm, been visited by a bear, stirred up a rattlesnake and walked a helluva long way without incident. I was pretty sure the local residents were going to leave me alone.
You don’t choose the day you enter the world and you don’t chose the day you leave. It’s what you do in between that makes all the difference. – Anita Septimus
I wake on my final day with the moon casting leaf shadows on our tent, Rich a giant breathing blue bag next to me. He’s more of a night owl, working on projects at home until the wee hours, but he’s always awakened with me when I need an early start, sometimes even walking me to work at 4 am. What a treasure I have, his muppet face peaking out then brightening excited for me on this last bit.
The campground was mostly silent, though the three hikers sharing our space yell to each other from tent to tent about sharing a joint and coffee, every other word beginning with an ‘F.’ The sun isn’t up yet and there are posted quiet hours. We’re offered an entire area for only $5 each and I wince thinking these guys are ruining it for future hikers. I pack quickly just as they start playing music. Guys, really? I hold back lecturing them as lesson learned is to simply remove myself. We find a rock in shade near the trailhead to drink coffee as a man comes by with a pair of pugs. My self-righteous indignation melts at the sight of these cuties. Another lesson learned – everything changes. They have the softest fur, too.
If you have the courage to fail, then you have the courage to succeed. – Shalane Flanagan
Desert sunrises are magnificent – orange light in the east as the full moon drops, deep pink on the other horizon. I sit up and make coffee noticing a tiny animal hole right next to my mat. OK, who did this? Were you coming or going? I never saw or heard a thing – no harm, no foul – hey, Ted, can I have one of your granola bars?
We pack up then fill our water bottles from the cache, rationing out the last of the electrolyte tablets. It seems only yesterday we had a huge pile of them, but it also feels like only yesterday Ted joined me to hike a few sections, and today is his last day on the trail.
You never find yourself until you face the truth. – Pearl Bailey
I have seen lots of animals on this hike including black bears and marmots, rattlesnakes and golden eagles, but nothing has gotten too cozy or threatened to steal my food until my stay at one of the Warner Springs Resort cabins. There’s a mouse in the house and he chewed a little opening in my vanillacoffee. Fortunately, nothing spilled out and I simply transferred the grounds to another baggie after seeing his little body scurrying under the door. Run, little mouse, run!
Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith. – Margaret Shepherd
No beings – animal or otherwise – came round last night. I slept soundly in our little piece of sand next to a shack, the moon’s reflection in the windows looking like eyes. Mike doesn’t show, but I am so grateful he offers a place to camp, water from a huge tank affixed with an easy-to-collect spigot and a long-drop, clean and odor-free. I eat the last of my bars with vanillacoffee and have Ted bandage my back, my spine bones taking a beating from my pack before we set off.
I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes. – Edna St. Vincent Millay
Terrible Ted negotiates the rock fall trying not to look down.
I set my alarm a bit too early this morning thinking I’d need more time to organize since going back after a ‘zero’ day is always a bit of a shock. I fill the time eating too much yogurt and granola and reading the Times. An article grabs my interest as I wait outside under a sky just beginning to lighten for handyman Dean to take us back to the trailhead. It’s about grieving and highlights a book by David Kessler where he takes the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – and adds one more, meaning. “Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen,” he writes, offering something hopeful, optimistic and, most important to me, active to the peace and groundedness of acceptance.
Dean arrives right on time and we pile our bags in the bed of his truck and head up to Humber Park. I think about the kind of meaning I’ll create out of the ashes of my loss, and decide, as Ted and I retrace our steps up to the saddle, that my experience will be meaningful and I will carry it with grace and dignity. It’s fitting to consider these things here as I walk up what I just came down, as though offered a kind of do-over and a chance to gain a new perspective.
Ted leads and powers up even with a full resupply. Taquitz – pronounced tah-quits or tah-keets, take your pick – looms over us, seemingly inviting me to come climb him. Giant firs hold their enormous cones at the tip of the boughs like poorly placed oversized Christmas decorations. Several dead trunks stand as beheaded sentinels, their bark stripped revealing a twist underneath from root to crown. Birds sing good morning and we’re at our junction before we know it.