Southern Terminus to Lake Morena
In contrast to my Looney-Toon-desert imaginings (complete with a purple roadrunner going “meep meep!”), the landscape was surprisingly green and hilly, speckled with bushes and clumps of grayish-green sagebrush. Huge power lines kept the scenery from looking overly wild or picturesque (for some reason I imagined that the whole trail would be delving through the heart of wilderness). The trail was even and well-packed sand, pleasant to walk on.
It was almost 11:00, so the sun was strong but not overly hot, and I would become increasingly impressed, over the next several weeks, with my “magic hat”— a Sun Day Afternoon hat with a wide brim that looked dorky but magically kept me from the sunstroke that had plagued my summers ever since I was a kid. We walked steadily, Zach in front, me in the middle, Mary bringing up the rear. After we had walked for about 20 minutes, we came to a road-marker sign that said “MILE 1.” We took a dramatic picture next to it, and I giggled. This still didn’t feel real. But it didn’t feel fake, either. My life was completely different, but, as with so many life changes, my conscious mind took it all in stride. It was my body that would rebel.
After MILE 1, we stopped to get water out of a pipe near a ranch. This was marked on our maps as WR001. We stopped at the spigot. Two young men were there, wearing tan shirts and tan pants and looking very serious and experienced. I fumbled with the water handle, and made my first attempt at making cheerful trail banter.
“Nice day!” I said, entirely too loudly.
Both of them looked kind of uncomfortable. Zach got quiet, as he often does when I’m trying to rope unwilling strangers into conversation. “Where are you guys from?” I asked. This was always my go-to question when I traveled. Most people would instantly feel superior when they heard I was from Missouri, and would often be more willing to talk.
“I’m from Washington,” the taller of the two said. He had small glasses and a serious expression and pale skin. He looked like he had probably done a lot of hiking. We later learned his name was Matt. He pointed to the other guy, rosier-cheeked and a bit friendlier looking, who we’d later know as Sam. “He’s from Colorado.”
“Cool,” I said. “We’re from St. Louis, Missouri. Although he’s from Portland originally. You guys done much backpacking before?”
“A bit,” Matt said.
“I hiked the Colorado Trail,” Sam said. They quickly gathered up their backpacks. Clearly I was throwing a wrench in their hiking momentum. “See you down the trail,” Sam said, and they hit the trail again with a determined pace.
Mary is one of my few friends who can push her body to hike almost any distance, and she did this with impressive skill. We hiked at a strong, steady pace, over rolling hills. Then I noticed, with some surprise, that we were hiking up a mountain. An honest-to-goodness mountain— probably even by east coast standards. This surprised me because I didn’t think that we would hike up any mountains in the desert. We crossed some railroad tracks and plunged up a set of switchbacks, ducking in and out of sparsely-vegetated trees.
After a few hours, we were skirting a ridge that was covered in a blanket of eight-foot-high manzanita bushes, with their twisty red limbs and dark waxy leaves. Mount Hauser rose up in the near distance, flat-topped and impressively draped in late afternoon sunshine. My feet ached and stung. We had gone about nine miles so far, and my feet felt like they were on fire! I was beginning to doubt that we would make it to our destination for the night, Lake Morena, which was still 11 miles away. But at this point we had little choice— we were dropping Mary off there, and she didn’t have the equipment to go alone. So we took a break, snacked on a Clif bar, some Fritos, some leftover Little Caesar’s pizza, and sipped some Gatorade. Then we stood up, ignored the protests of our feet, and kept walking.
The wonderful thing about the human body is that it prioritizes what’s going to feel pain. After a while, our bodies realized that we weren’t going to stop walking, so it flooded us with endorphins, and the pain in my feet faded away. By the time we started a descent into a deep valley between the mountain we were on and Hauser Mountain, I felt good as new. I felt like I could walk all day. Which was good, considering that I did have to walk all day.
Two problems began to steadily grow as the day went on. The first was that we realized it was going to be a tight time squeeze to get to Lake Morena by 8:00, when Mary was supposed to meet a friend there. The second was that gray clouds were blowing in, and a wind was whipping up. Zach and I determined that we had to reach Lake Morena by the time allotment, or we were going to get Mary stuck in the wilderness.
Down the side of the mountain we zigzagged, blazing through the switchbacks. Fortunately the trail was well-graded and nice to walk on, without rocks. Down in the valley at the 15-mile mark, we paused at a dry stream bed near a jeep road. Somebody had dragged a hundred gallons of water to this site, leaving a cache for hikers who would run out. We had heard of such caches, but it was fun to see one in real life. To think that a stranger would invest so much time, effort and money (even tap water is expensive in California) to help out a bunch of hikers was really touching.
There was a crowd of people around the water cache, including the Union soldier/boy scout guy, Angry Bird, who was writing in a journal. Zach, Mary and I sat down for a little while for a snack, but we didn’t plan to stay long, because storm clouds were gathering.
We chatted with some of the people there, then picked up our backpacks. The group collectively gasped. It was already 6:00, a respectable time for stopping on your first day. “You’re not staying here?” someone asked.
“No,” I said, “we’ve got to get my sister to Lake Morena by 8:00.”
The person doubtfully looked at Mount Hauser. It was just dawning on me that we would have to climb that mountain. That 828-foot mountain (Buford Mountain is 640 feet). It seemed like a lot of elevation at the time, and we still had five miles to go, and it was getting dark quickly. I would have loved to stay at that cache, set up camp, sit around and chat, etc. But that just wasn’t an option. So we said goodbye to the people there and started our trek up the mountain.
I look at the elevation of Hauser Mountain now and chuckle in a nostalgic sort of way. It wasn’t much of a mountain compared to what we’d be up against next, but it was one of the hardest mountains I’d ever tackled to that point. The Ozarks, and even the Smokies, do little to prepare you for the mountains that the west coast can throw at you. The switchbacks seemed endless, and I felt my blood pumping hard, my heart throbbing as I doubled over with effort.
Mary was our guiding light. She knew we were walking so far because of us, and she was determined to help us get to our destination. You could practically see an aura of positivity around here, and her energy flowed into me, keeping me going step after step. We flew up the mountain, zigzagging over the switchbacks. The storm clouds closed in, alarmingly close over our head. Thunder rumbled. Darkness fell.
We only had one headlamp. This had seemed like a good idea at the time of packing— save money and weight!— but it’s hard to see in the pitch dark with only one among three people. Fortunately the trail was still smooth, although it turned into slabs of sandstone. Zach led the way, calling out hazards in the path. “Step down!” “Rock in the middle!” “Uneven section!” Mary and I trailed behind, taking short, quick steps and trying not to stumble. I hadn’t expected it to get dark so fast.
We were lost in a flurry of darkness, with only the cold glow of the headlamp to guide us through the eerie boulders and dark trees as the air got wetter and heavier with the threat of rain.
After a while of silence, hearing both my heart and my feet thumping, I heard Mary’s calm voice behind me. “Remember that scene in The Horse and His Boy, where Aravis has to spend the night in the tombs, and the cat comes and sits with her when she feels afraid?”
I barely remembered. It had been years since I read that book of The Chronicles of Narnia. “Vaguely.”
“That’s how I feel right now.”
Something about the calmness in her voice made the whipping wind and the roiling clouds and the unseen trail seem less scary. In silence, we continued on.
We continued in this furtive way for almost an hour. Then we looked ahead and saw the one sight that would never fail to bring tears to my eyes— the lights of civilization. They were yellow, houselights in the darkness. We were almost there, and our spirits lifted.
We burst out of a clearing of trees onto a lawn of city grass at about 7:30, and street lamps glared in our faces. To our left we saw a park where the Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick-Off (ADZPCTKO) was being held, and a sign told us to check into site #18 and pay at the front ranger station. We headed instead to the general store, where Mary’s friend would be meeting her. It was a half-mile walk, but a half mile suddenly seemed like a long way. When we got there, I sort of melted into the booth. Zach ordered us ice cream cones and a pizza. I sat under the harsh glare of the florescent lights, feeling every muscle and tendon in my body calcify. Now that I wasn’t pumping endorphins into myself, my body was letting me know, loud and clear, that it was not happy about the 22.5 miles I had just walked.
Mary’s friend arrived and sat at the booth with us. I found myself utterly exhausted, incapable of conversation. A guy walked into the store and loudly asked if we had heard about “that kid who died here yesterday.” We said we had not. He was grave but eager to tell us about it: a 19-year old had started on the PCT from the border the day before with only a liter of water. He got almost all the way to Lake Morena, then dropped dead of dehydration. I stared numbly ahead, feeling vaguely sorry, but also mad at the kid. He could have asked for water from anyone on the trail that day. He could have gotten some at the cache. But then I thought, why am I mad at him? One stupid mistake cost him his life. God knows that if all our stupid mistakes had such consequences, we’d all be dead.
I said goodbye to Mary, giving her a hug. I felt too tired and sick to feel any emotion. Right after she left, I ducked into the bathroom and felt like I was going to throw up. I couldn’t vomit, and that made me feel worse. I stumbled outside and told Zach we should probably find a place to camp.
By the time we stepped outside, my body was shaking uncontrollably, like a severe shiver that wouldn’t go away. I could barely walk I was shaking so hard. I wished I could throw up and get it over with. Zach put his arm around me and we limped to the campground. A couple guys were standing there, laughing and drinking. They told us that, this particular weekend, we could camp anywhere we pleased. As if by magic, my muscles loosened up. I was still sore, but I didn’t feel like I was dying anymore.
I have little memory of setting up our first night, packed in between hundreds of other tents in the city park. Our camping set-up was a bit ridiculous, and involved blowing up veritable air mattresses and stuffing them into a special pocket on the underside of our sleeping bag. I just remember lying in the tent, feeling the sensation of plastic— plastic cloth in the sleeping bag, synthetic clothing, the plastic over our heads— and listening to the first few raindrops fall. Then I was out, lost in a sleep that had never felt so good.