Mile 0 to mile 20
The great irony of the universe dictates that the first day of the PCT should be one of the longest, most brutal waterless stretches of the entire trail. 20 miles without water. Start early or you won’t make it.
I didn’t start early.
I’d had a nice breakfast with Finn and the baby squirrel (who did not give me bubonic plague) at the campground, and I wasn’t in much of a rush to get started. It would be a long time before I saw a friend again and especially Finn, who lives in a canyon outside LA. After eating we packed up and I realized I had forgotten to pack the piece that allows me to charge my cellphone with my solar charger, so I would be about a week between power sources, until I got another one. Well, I thought. We’ll see how that goes. We drove to Campo and gave the baby squirrel in its paper sack to a woman in a dirt yard full of dogs, where I’m sure it met its brutal fate. Finn walked me to the monument and I fumbled with my gaters, trying to figure out how they worked. We looked at the big graffitied wall, and I imagined all the clever ways people had found to get over it. It was already suffocatingly hot.
I had seven liters of water in my pack for the twenty miles through the bright waterless desert to Lake Morena campground. I also had enough food for seven days, until my next resupply. My pack was so heavy Finn had to help me put it on. Goodbye, I said, hugging Finn. Friend! I thought. Don’t go!
The trail was a dusty path through the hot chapparal hills. I was exhausted still from my mad rush of packing, my one-hour sleep on the night before my flight, the six hours I’d had last night, lying anxious and awake in the tent. I already needed a day off to rest but instead I was setting out late in the brutal desert to hike the longest stretch I had ever hiked in a single day, and with a super heavy pack.
Will I make it to Lake Morena? I thought, as I stumbled my way though the desert. And what will happen if I don’t?
After a few miles I passed into a shady little grove of oak trees and saw a bearded man in a sunhat. What are you doing? I asked him.
I’m teaching my donkeys to cross the bridge, he said.
There was a little footbridge over a stagnant tea-colored stream and two giant donkeys stood in the sun on the other side.
Those donkeys are big, I said. Good luck!
Good luck! Said the man, to me.
My pack was like a giant hand crushing me into the earth as I plodded along the sandy path. What is in this pack? I thought. Fear, I guess. Fear that this or that will happen. I thought of how our fear crushes us into the earth. My fear is crushing me into the earth, I thought.
Around noon I stopped to rest and set my pack down in a nice leafy patch of… poison oak. I looked down at the plant, so green and innocous seeming, where it brushed against my bare legs. I stepped away in alarm. Well, I thought. We’ll see what happens with that. I could use soap to wash off the oils, except I’d emptied out my small ration of dr. Bronners to make a bottle to feed life-giving water droplets to the baby squirrel. Well, I thought, lifting my heavy pack back onto my back. Well.
At two p.m. I’d gone just a handful of miles and I was so hot I was dizzy and I could barely walk, although I felt grateful to bikram yoga for teaching me my heat threshold and so at least I knew that I wasn’t necessarily about to die. I found a patch of shade in front of a giant stone next to the path and spread out my sleeping pad and sat on it. I’d discovered that morning that I should never, ever sit on the bare ground here, as it is a fine mix of clinging sand, thorny plants, and ticks. What do I know about the desert? I thought as I sat on my mat, staring out at the burning hills. Nothing! I looked down at my legs. I’d chosen to bring just running shorts instead of my zip-off pants, and my legs were now brown with dust that had clung to my thick coating of sunscreen. I pulled a log of salami from my pack, unwrapped it, and promptly dropped it in the dirt. I picked it up and scraped at the sand with my knife. It felt good to be sitting in the dirt, holding something salty in my grubby hands. Like when I used to ride trains! After eating I lay down on my mat. I’ll take a nap, I thought, until it cools down a little.
In an hour I woke and the shadows had lengthened. The sun was less brutal and I felt new life running through me, from some resevoir somewhere I didn’t kniw I had. I hiked on. There was a water source choked in poison oak at mile 15 that was usually dry. Hauser Creek. It was dry today. I looked up at the bluff after Hauser creek, the long climb to Lake Morena. The sun was sinking in the sky. Should I hike in the dark? I thought. Of course, there was only one answer.
I ate a little dinner of Pepitas and dried plums partway up the bluff and watched the long red sun set over the chapparal hills. In the east the moon was rising, a big silver moon, bright like a streetlamp. I’ll see how long I can hike without my headlamp, I thought. That way I won’t get so spooked by the dark.
The moonlight shone on the white rock of the bluff as I walked. The light was so bright I could see everything, all the way to the hills in the distance. I could see every rock in the path. I didn’t need my light at all! It was cool now, and I walked quickly, as if powered by the moon.
“If you don’t want to hear or see signs of undocumented immigrants in this area,” halfmile’s maps had said, “don’t hike at night”. I practiced my spanish as I walked, and thought of what I would say if I ran into anyone. I would give them the last of my water, I decided. Buena Suerte, I would say.
I rolled my ankle once, hard, when I was looking out at the hills and not at the trail. A flash of tingling went through my foot, and then it was gone. Well, I thought, we’ll see what happens with that.
I reached Lake Morena campground at 9 30. It was like a large city park, eerily deserted. I stumbled in the cold dark past vast empty lots where RVs would go. I could not find the office. I’ll never get used to southern california campgrounds, I thought. I found a meadow where some tiny space-ship tents were pitched. A man was doing calisthenics on a sleeping pad. Is this the walk-in camping? I asked him. “Walk-in camping?” He said. “What’s that? This is the hiker camping, and you look like a hiker, so pick a spot anywhere.” I stumbled over the people cowboy camping, like big slumbering larvae, and set my things beneath a tree. I found the bathrooms and tore off my sweaty clothes. There was a shower, a single sputtering fixture in a freezing concrete stall. I stood beneath it, rinsing out my socks. I wiped the caked dirt and sunscreen off of my body. I had made it to lake morena.
P.s.- still no charger, can maybe get one in town in five days. More posts to come, don’t fret if you don’t hear from me. People everywhere, roads, towns, other hikers. I’m fine! Just no phone. :(
Pps- read thyra’s blog! It is so good! in these woods