Thursday, February 5, 2015

PCT 2014, Day Seven: Warner Springs

May 1st
107.7 to 109.5

That day we woke up with the knowledge that our first resupply stop, the tiny town of Warner Springs, was less than two miles away. We were uncertain what we’d do at this resupply, although some of the other hikers had said that the community center was offering food and showers. These sounded good, so we quickened our pace and took the side trail to the center.

It turned out that the community center was the town— at least at that time of year, before the resort opened up. We saw a few houses along the road, but the only central building in sight was the low-roofed center. The town smelled like civilization, somehow, though it took me several minutes to pinpoint the smell as freshly-cut grass, courtesy of a man on a riding lawnmower.

The community center was swamped with hikers. For the first time, I saw in vivid detail why we are referred to as “Hiker Trash.” Several tents (some looking alarmingly beat-up) and the guts of a dozen resupply packages were scattered across the lawn under a couple of trees, tethered with heavy objects against the furious gusts of wind, and hikers lay sprawled amid them, sorting, cooking, eating, talking. A few hundred socks and pairs of underwear hung out to dry from a nearby chain-link fence. Dozens of backpacks lined the wheelchair ramp into the center. Zach and I made for the door.

The inside, linoleum-tiled and lined with historical plaques and documents, was swarming with hikers as well. We eyed the dry-erase sign in front: “Breakfast or Dinner $5. Showers $6. Laundry $8 (LAUNDRY OUT OF ORDER UNTIL 5/2),” and our spirits fell a little bit. There was no way we were going to spend $12 for showers. We resigned ourselves to our original plan of being appallingly dirty for the whole trail. 

We bought a breakfast to split and watched in envy as the other hikers threw back one or two breakfasts without even considering the price. Still, it was nice: eggs and sausage and toast with two glasses of orange juice. The guy we’d seen on the first day on the bus, Angry Bird, was there. We learned that he wasn’t actually a snob— he was downright talkative when given a chance. He told us and a group about the cabin he had built in the woods of his father’s property near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He said he had cut off the top of his finger with a circular saw while cutting wood just six weeks ago, and held up his finger— which was missing its nail and raggedly patched— for proof. I began to like him, and hoped our paths would cross again.

I also saw the Japanese guy we had seen on the bus with us. He spoke in halting but articulate English, introducing himself as Soshi (although Pesky christened him “Godzilla” later that day). He had seen a picture from the PCT in Japan and decided, seemingly on a whim, that he wanted to hike it. I wished him luck.

We decided to walk to the post office to pick up our box, which was a mile-long trek along the side of the road. I felt nervous that our box wouldn’t be there, but it was. We slit it open and began unpacking our meals: two mashed potato meals, two dried pasta meals, and one dried chili meal. Three homemade bags of oatmeal and two of granola. A huge summer sausage, dried beef and chicken, Parmesan, dried hummus, dried pasta sauce, a bottle of olive oil, a jar of peanut butter, and a miscellaneous assortment of Clif bars, Paydays, and Snickers. At the bottom of the box lay a map of the PCT, Section B, which we would begin when we left Warner Springs. 

Just as we had gotten out all these elements, a person with a posse of hikers on his tail emerged from the post office. He had dark hair and dark eyes and a square, serious face. “Do you want a ride back to town?” he asked. Without hesitation, we threw our stuff into our bags and jumped into his truck. We learned his name was Monty, and he was devoting his time to helping hikers. When he dropped us off at the community center, he said, “If you want a place to spend the night, I’ll be back at four.” Then he grabbed another round of hikers to drive to the post office.

Now we felt pretty conflicted. It never even crossed our minds that he might be dangerous (in fact, we later discovered that he helped with the writing of one of the major PCT guidebooks!). But we had only gone two miles today, and it was only the seventh day— we couldn’t afford to lose miles! We hemmed and hawed and felt stressed and split a hamburger for lunch and forgot about the decision for awhile as we went about our camp chores: I took all our dirty socks and underwear into the public restrooms and washed them in the sink. I made small talk with the women in the restroom, most of which had shaved their heads for convenience’s sake. There must have been a hundred hikers there that day, and only about a dozen of them were women. With this ratio of men to women, I felt like I was in a pop fiction movie.

Around four o’clock, we decided that there was no sense in stalling— we might as well hit the trail right now. I began packing up our stuff and Zach went to check the hiker boxes one more time. As Zach was walking across the parking lot, Monty pulled up in his covered-bed truck, looked Zach in the eye, and said, “If you and your wife want a hot meal, a shower and a bed tonight, be in my truck in five minutes.”

At that point, you don’t care if you’re going to get axe-murdered. You just get in the truck.

Zach and I sat in the cab next to Monty, while five other hikers managed to cram in the back, packed like sardines between their (and our) backpacks. 

When we showed up at his house, I was impressed by how generous he was being in proportion to how tiny his mobile home was. He showed us around, pointing out the waiting-list dry erase board on the bathroom door, the tent space on the deck, the roped-off section of the kitchen, and the place where we could sleep. 

I changed into what soon became my standard “laundry clothes”— shorts and a rain jacket and nothing else. Zach had no shorts, so he just used his long underwear. The entire rest of our wardrobe got dumped into a basket to wait its turn for the washing machine. I waited until my name was called for the shower line-up, ducked into the small tub with the short shower spigot, and use a half-used bar of scented soap from the windowsill, which felt luxurious. Soon I was dressed in my raincoat and shorts again.

Now we all sat in the living/dining room, which consisted of a daybed, a couple ottomans and folding chairs. There were three guys hiking together who had met on the Appalachian Trail: Sad Fish (tall and very skinny with a beard and blue hound dog eyes), Smokey (with a winning smile and a thick dark head of hair and beard), and Anchor (pale with dark short hair and a thin mustache). They had had a fourth with them, Banjo, but he had been in the bathroom when Monty picked them up, so they left him behind in the mad scramble. Also there were Anthony (ever after, I recognized him because his shirt looked similar to mine), Dan (very tall with long hands and a shaved head), Bam Bam (from Slovakia, with scruffy hair so blonde it looked white), Goosebumps (she was very pretty, with blue eyes and magical Disney-princess hair that rippled in one graceful wave down to her waist, even after weeks in the outdoors) and Pinch (a slight woman with a sharp nose, bright eyes, and short hair).

While we were waiting around for supper, I struck up a conversation with Goosebumps. “How do you like the trail so far?”

“It’s wonderful,” she said, warmly and sincerely. “I’m so happy I finally get to do this.”

“Have you ever done anything like this before?”

“Oh no,” she said, shaking her head at such a ridiculous idea. “Nothing like this. When I graduated with my degree in Outdoor Leadership, we took an 80-day backpacking trip, but nothing like this.”

I failed to see how an 80-day backpacking trip could be nothing at all like the PCT. “Eighty days?”

“Yes, and we were doing a lot of rock-climbing, so our packs were really heavy. Mine was about 80 pounds. And none of us got to bathe at all the whole trip.” She laughed. “It was a lot of fun, but it was hard!”

While I was still working through this, dumbfounded, she asked, “And how do you like the PCT?”

“It’s… hard,” I stammered. I found that I’d be giving this answer a lot. “But actually, it’s not as much of a death march as I expected.”

Goosebumps laughed, half in amusement and half in disbelief. “A death march!”

“Yeah. I expected to be miserable absolutely all the time. And I expected the desert to be much worse than it has been, all sand and cactus and stuff. So it hasn’t been as bad as I expected.”

“Had you done any backpacking before this?”

I shook my head. “Just one overnight trip in Missouri, once. Nothing other than that.”

“That is so cool,” Goosebumps said, and she sounded sincere. 

Soon it was suppertime, so we all crammed into the living room. Within a minute, Monty had served us each a huge plate of salad: mixed greens, thin slices of radish, chunks of tomato, roasted chickpeas, and homemade salad dressing. It had been a week since I’d had any sort of good fresh food, and I could fairly feel my body loudly thanking me for putting vegetables in my system. The salad alone was hearty and could’ve constituted an entire meal. But we devoured them in a few minutes, and Monty grabbed our plates for the second course.

Monty served Bam Bam first, since he was a vegan. He set down a huge plate of pasta with sautéed vegetables and tofu, sprinkled with a huge helping of spinach leaves and a gourmet sauce that was obviously homemade. The rest of us stared, dumbfounded, at the culinary creation.

“So for the rest of you…” Monty said. “Mountain House or Top Ramen?”

I barely had time to get the joke before Monty handed me a plate heaped with the same dish as Bam Bam’s, except with the addition of chunks of chicken and a massive pile of shredded mozzarella. “Ladies first!” he said, serving Pinch and Goosebumps similar plates.

We ate and ate, slower and slower as our stomachs, not yet swollen with hiker hunger, distended. The food was rich and flavorful, more rich and flavorful than you think a bunch of vegetables can be. Goosebumps had leftovers and I, eager to live up to my trail name, finished them off for her. Monty kept on urging us to eat more— “I’ve got half a pan of food left over there!” We chowed down until we felt that we would burst. Smokey laughed and said that he didn’t think we had earned this much food yet.

As we ate, we talked, and for the first time, I honestly felt like I was part of the trail community. Smokey, Sad Fish and Anchor all knew each other from the AT, but they weren’t hiking the PCT to try to compare it or say which was harder. They were genuinely nice and told some great stories. 

“We were trying to hitch after a rainstorm,” Smokey said, telling about their days on the AT. “We were completely soaked, drenched in mud, and we stank like shit. So we’re standing on the side of the road, sopping wet, trying to get a hitch. Just then this BMW convertible pulls up with a Norwegian couple in it. Nice leather seats, brand new— it was a rental. And we said, ‘No, we can’t accept this ride.’ But they said, ‘No, get in!’ So we had an argument about it. In the end, we took the ride— and we felt so horrible about it!”

Later, Smokey asked, “So who here has met the person who’s overly zealous about giving you a trail name?”

We laughed, because we all had.

“Someone tried to name me ‘Caterpillar’ because of a weird-shaped blister on my toe,” Goosebumps said.

“I met someone at Kick-off,” Smokey said, “who was like, ‘Do you have a trail name yet?’ ‘It’s pretty early still,’ I said, ‘so we’ll see.’ And she said, ‘How about, “Fun Guy?!”’ And I was like, ‘NO, you are not fuckin’ calling me fuckin’ Fun Guy!’”

"We've gone this far!"
As dinner ended, and we were completely stuffed, Monty showed up with a tray full of ice cream sundae floats, topped with whipped cream, strawberries, syrup, and strawberry soda. We managed to muscle them down, and they tasted so good that I almost found myself wanting more.

Monty set Zach and I up in the daybed in the living room, with Anthony and Bam Bam on the floor nearby. The two other girls got a room to themselves, and the rest of the guys slept on the deck.

The evening passed peacefully: Monty talked to us about ultra-light backpacking (his base weight is seven to eight pounds); I examined a huge mysterious rash with a bubbling blister on my calf; everyone looked at my weird blister/rash and offered opinions on what it might be; Anthony gave me some Benadryl tablets; 9:00 rolled around and all of us could barely keep our eyes open, so Monty wished us goodnight. It would be an early morning tomorrow.

As I closed my eyes that night, curled up under cotton sheets with Zach’s arm wrapped around me, I was grateful that my head cold was gone, and that I was showered and laundered, and that we could sleep indoors, filled to the brim with gourmet food. I hadn’t expected this in the slightest, and at the time, I had no idea that I would be pleasantly surprised by things such as this many, many more times.


1 comment:

  1. Monty is truly a trail my kayaking world, there are river angels. What a blessing and absolute God-send.