May 17th, Saturday
Almost Mount Baden-Powell to 394.3ish via detour
It took us very little time to reach Mt. Baden-Powell that morning, a summit that rose up above our heads, promising a great view of the surrounding mountains and nearby desert floor.
The trail emptied into a large parking lot that was full of cars since it was a weekend. Dozens of day-hikers were milling about, lacing up heavy-duty hiking boots, tossing high-tech water bottles into backpacks, and taking selfies next to the trailhead sign. Predictably enough, there was a large group of boy scouts getting ready to summit. Their leaders were shouting orders and safety precautions, warning them about trail junctions, and trying to keep the boys’ attention as they got excited for the hike up the mountain.
The hike is a set of quick switchbacks with a steady slope up a few thousand feet. Zach and I steeled ourselves for the climb, but the weather today was milder than usual, and we had the promise of a spring a bit off-trail about halfway up. We shouldered past the day-hikers and began the ascent.
Walking up the switchbacks was easier than I expected, since we were under the shade of trees the whole time. The day felt pleasant, and we glimpsed the wide desert between the trees, encroaching but not overtaking us. The trees grew thick-trunked and small-limbed the further we climbed, but we still walked in shade.
After a quick detour to Lamel Springs (a square foot hole of water covered in a metal grate), Zach and I returned to the trail. It was hard not to feel smug when we blazed past a day-hiker who was just carrying a water bottle, especially since our packs were bigger than our torsos.
A couple people stopped us to ask us about the PCT. One woman was hiking down from the mountain with her teenaged daughter, and when she saw my pack, she exclaimed, “Girl, what have you got in that pack?!”
I laughed. Our packs were much bigger than most other PCT hikers, since our tight budget and our love of sleeping comfort made us carry a bunch of bulky gear. “Well, about half of it is our double sleeping bag, and we have a bunch of food, and—”
“Oh,” she said, the lightbulb going off in her head. “So you’re camping overnight.”
I blinked. Zach tried to keep from laughing. We realized that she thought my massive, 35-pound backpack was a daypack. “Yes,” I said, trying to keep a patronizing tone of out my voice. “We’re hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It goes from Mexico to Canada.”
The woman had never heard of the trail, even though she was on it, and asked a bunch of questions while her teenage daughter kept interjecting, “Mom, don’t hold them up. Mom, they have to keep going. Mom, stop asking so many questions.” At last, she heeded her daughter’s advice and let us go.
Later, we chatted with two older day-hiking guys, and one of them asked what kind of stove we have.
“A homemade alcohol stove,” Zach said. “It doesn’t work very well.”
“Yikes!” the guy said. “Don’t let a ranger catch you with that! Alcohol stoves are illegal on this trail, you know.”
I gasped. I’m always paranoid about following rules, but I hadn’t heard anything about this. “No, we didn’t know.”
“Yeah, they’re considered uncontrolled fire, and with the drought and all, you’re not allowed to have them. The rangers in some of these forests will check them, and you’ll get a huge fine.”
I began to feel panicked. We couldn’t afford a huge fine, but how were we going to buy a gas canister stove now? Seeing my reaction, the second guy chided the first one, “All right, lay off them, ‘Dad.’ They have to make up their own minds.”
But the idea that we were breaking the law festered in the back of my mind.
As we reached the shoulder of the mountain before it crowned into a bald summit, the trees fell away on either side and we were out in the open except for a huge, thick-trunked, twisted tree. It had two main arms, with bare tops, with evergreen branches stiffly sticking out the sides. It had a sign next to it, identifying it as the “‘Wally’ Waldron Tree,” a bristlecone pine estimated to be 1,500 years old. I stared at it in awe. Its massive roots anchored it to the soil, and I noticed that it was standing on its tiptoes because the ground had eroded out from under it over the centuries. I touched the nearest root with a sense of reverence. The wood felt perfectly smooth, sanded down over the centuries.
The PCT continued down the other side of the mountain’s shoulder, but the spur trail to Mt. Baden-Powell’s summit was only 0.2 miles round-trip. We powered up the steep slope, emerging on a mostly-stone crown cluttered with day-hikers. We dropped our packs and wandered around a bit. Walking without a pack, especially after a steep summit, felt very strange: my body threw all its weight into moving my legs, making me move like a jerky mechanical toy.
The view of the desert was a bit hazy, but the 360-view was nothing to complain about. Again, I got the sense that the horizon was very high as we looked down at it, with much ground and little sky. This mountain was in good company, surrounded by huge ridges and summits to the east, west, and south. To the north, the side we’d come up, the mountains fell away into foothills before smoothing out into a vast plain, painted with delicate sandy shades of red and pink, scored by straight white lines that indicated highways.
We signed the trail register, then sat in the scarce shade of a bush. A group of about fifty Japanese people were there, with multi-day backpacks and walkie-talkies and a tour guide. We sat among the sea of tourists and short-term backpackers, feeling oddly isolated.
Zach pulled out the bag of Fritos and his new bottle of Tabasco habanero sauce. We rehydrated some refried beans in cold water and began eating the chips. Zach dribbled a bit of Tabasco on every chip he ate.
At that point, we were joined by another PCT hiker: Hand Brake, who I had met at Guffy Campground yesterday. This was his first time meeting Zach. When he heard Zach introduce his name, he asked, “Don’t you have a trail name yet?”
Zach shook his head. We continued eating the Fritos.
Hand Brake looked at Zach for a long time. Finally he blurted out, “How about ‘Tabasco?’”
It’s true that Zach is quite the hot sauce connoisseur, and we had actually discussed taking a trip to Louisiana sometime to visit the Tabasco fields there. “I like it,” I said. Zach nodded noncommittally. Hand Brake, satisfied that he’d contributed, hiked back down the mountain. We never saw him again, although I always found his name in the trail registers. But his work was, in fact, done: from then on, Zach always introduced himself as “Tabasco.”
Before long, we were headed down the mountain ourselves. We passed the old tree again, then plunged over the opposite side of the ridge, skirting the side of Baden-Powell for a bit, then climbing onto the spine of a neighboring ridge of mountains. On this section of trail the pack of hikers thinned, but there were still a lot of people, namely the people from the Japanese tour group. They often formed long lines on the narrow trail that cut across steep slopes, making us slow our pace considerably until they saw us behind them and let us by. I was really glad I didn’t have to pee at any point during this section— there would have been nowhere to go!
We stopped for a break along a ridge on a nice boulder, and some of the Japanese hikers joined us. They spoke in broken but articulate English, asking us if we were PCT hikers. They said they were doing a series of hikes in California. In July they were going to hike the John Muir Trail in the High Sierra, a trail that coincides with the PCT for most of its 211-mile route. The JMT seemed so far away at that point that I could hardly fathom it. I said that we might see them. Later, Zach told me that we had better be through the High Sierra by July, or we would be woefully behind schedule. But I just couldn’t comprehend that we’d be crossing snowy passes in just a few weeks.
Down the mountain a little ways, we stopped at a spring for water and found a trail angel named Sage handing out mini Snickers. As we snacked, we paused to consider our options for an upcoming detour marked on our map: a chunk of the PCT was closed to protect the habitat of the endangered Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog. There were two options for going around it:
1. The “official detour,” which was significantly longer and apparently not very well maintained.
2. The “old detour,” which was about the same distance as the original PCT, but included four miles of “potentially dangerous road-walking.”
It didn’t take us long to choose option two. Sage said he thought it was a good idea.
We continued down the trail, which delved back toward the highway that we had already crossed twice, Highway 2. At the crossing, we found nice outhouses (they even had toilet paper) as well as a big parking lot packed with day-hikers. As I was studying the map and fire warnings on the bulletin board, a man walked up to me. “Hi, are you a PCT hiker?”
I said I was.
“Great! Would you like some soda or vitamin water?”
His name was Louis, and Zach joined me and we walked over to his car. Not only did he have a cooler full of soda, but a bunch of snacks as well: popcorn chips, cookies, and the most amazing, buttery madeleines that I had ever eaten. Zach and I savored each bite and sip.
We discovered that Louis was training for a hundred-mile trail-running race. Since I can’t even run half a mile, I was deeply impressed. Louis seemed to think it was no big deal compared to what we were doing, and I couldn’t convince him otherwise! But our trip just required perseverance— his required an intense kind of activity that I doubt I’ll ever reach.
We said goodbye to Louis and continued up the trail. We hiked to a picnic area called Eagle’s Roost and snacked, then took to the road for the detour.
We were really glad we chose this detour— the road had a wide shoulder and little traffic, and we later heard horror stories of how poorly-maintained the other alternate trail was. Twilight closed in as we walked along the road, on a steady incline that took us deeper and deeper into evergreen-laden mountains. I reflected that, once again, the “desert” section of trail was much different than I had expected.
It was nearly dark by the time we turned off the road to cut through a paid camping area to hook up with a trail that would lead us back to the PCT. The campground was stuffed to the gills, and as we walked between the sites, I felt like we were a couple of hillbillies who had stumbled into New York City.
Everyone’s tents were huge. Huge. They had five- to six-foot ceilings and alcoves and subdivided rooms and patio spaces and screened kitchen attachments. Each campsite had a huge roaring fire. One site was outfitted with a massive gas grill and a buffet, next to a crowd of people sitting at two picnic tables draped with white cloths, adorned with taper candles, and complemented by glasses of wine.
Zach and I must have looked like vultures eyeing potential leftovers as we walked, softly and dreamily, through the camp. Other hikers would have gone up and “yogied,” that is, asked for food in the nicest way possible. Zach and I, both feeling shy and out of place, simply made use of the outhouses and filled up our water bottles at the pump. There was a place for PCT hikers to camp, but that would mean 10 dollars per person, and that was our budget for an entire town stop. We decided to continue on and look for a place to camp once we rejoined the PCT.
We joined up with Burkhart Trail, which wound through a valley next to a stream that tumbled through the rocky wooded landscape. The trail wasn’t narrow, but a cliff rose up to our left and the ground fell away toward the river on our right, leaving nowhere for us to camp. We hiked onward in the gathering gloom, stumbling over rocks until we finally pulled out our headlamps.
Now we were in deep woods, and it was suddenly and alarmingly pitch black. Our headlamps cast pale circles of light that lit up the reflective PCT emblems, but we walked slowly, listening to the gurgle of water and the rushing of wind in the pines.
We were in bear country now, and walking in the dark next to a water source made my heart start pounding in fear. I thought I was holding my unrealistic fears together until Zach walked a little ways ahead, and I yelled, “Don’t leave me!” and dashed over to his side.
“What’s wrong?” Zach asked, turning around in concern.
I burst into tears. (Yes, I know. I did that so much on trail.) “I’m just really afraid of bears,” I said. I knew I sounded pathetic. I knew that the chances of us getting mauled by a bear was literally about one in a million. But I have a hard time quieting fears when I’m in the dark woods at night.
“I know,” he said, giving my arm a comforting squeeze. “We just need to find a campsite. Stay close.”
Feeling braver (and a bit silly), I stayed right behind him. We crossed the stream a couple times, finding footing on round rocks over the dark water. As we walked, Zach began singing a song about Smokey Bear, which cheered me up.
At last we came to a crossroads where we couldn’t tell where the trail went, but fortunately it was also a wide open space, flat and covered in pine needles. Relieved, we set up camp and decided to eat cold oatmeal, but I begged Zach to not eat it in the tent (because obviously the bears would maul us to get our oatmeal). We walked about ten yards away and sat on the ground, back to back, and ate the oatmeal. My breath steamed in the light of our headlamps.
At last we crawled into our tent and I tried to tell myself that the thin piece of plastic would protect us from wild animals. That didn’t work, so I told myself that wild animals wouldn’t bother us. I told myself I would be fine. Then I buried my head under the covers and tried to go to sleep.