Devil’s Slide Trail to PCT, detour to San Jacinto, ending at 187ish
The next morning, Zach accepted the un-repayable gift of the backpack. He also bought us a set of trekking poles, one for each of us, since we realized that we had accidentally left ours back at the cafe. Then we said goodbye to John, who was leaving for a business trip, and Eileen drove us up the mountain to the far edge of town, dropping us off at the Devil’s Slide Trailhead, a trail that would lead us back to the PCT. With a wave of her hand, and a “Good luck, and God bless!” she was gone.
It was 11:00 when she dropped us off. I had been nervous about such a late starting time because the desert was training me to be terrified of midday. However, today I learned the magic of elevation. It was very sunny, but the air had a distinct refreshing chill to it. No siesta needed today! The trail, a tumble of gray boulders, was marked with towering firs.
As we prepared to start up the set of switchbacks, we marveled at the huge pinnacle of rock to our right: Tahquitz Peak. It loomed up over the trees, so huge and sheer that I had to crane my neck to see the top. I had never seen a mountain peak that impressive before, and I had to stare at it for several minutes before Zach could tear me away. Then we started up the Devil’s Slide Trail, zigzagging up the mountain steeply. After a couple miles, we came to a flat evergreen forest and rejoined the PCT, right where the closure ended.
There were a few people there, including a couple named Nick and Erica who were starting their PCT hike at this point. They looked so new, so clean. They had huge, heavy canteens hanging off their packs, and heavy boots, and freshly-scrubbed faces.
Abruptly, I realized that I was starting to feel experienced. We had only been out 11 days, but we had already hiked further than some people hike in a lifetime. Putting together our packs wasn’t so hard anymore. Walking itself wasn’t so hard any more.
For the first time since we started the trail, I realized that we were getting better at it.
After a snack of cheese and salami that Eileen had packed us, we decided we should get moving if we wanted to make any sort of mileage before sundown. Only a mile or so later, we saw the guys that I had started referring to in my head as the Appalachian Four— Smokey, Sad Fish, Anchor, Banjo. They asked if we were going to take the San Jacinto alternate, a slightly longer alternate trail that would take us to the 10,834-peak of San Jacinto Mountain. We debated a little, but decided we might as well.
The climb up to San Jacinto was the hardest yet, and although we blamed our breathlessness on the elevation, it was mostly just the massive natural stone steps— large even for my ridiculously long legs— that zigzagged up the mountain. Patches of snow along the trail reminded us of the elevation, and we got a great view of the blue mountains that clustered around San Jacinto. Near the peak, we dropped our packs at a spur trail and clambered several hundred yards onto a pile of boulders to reach the peak.
The view was definitely worth it: we could see down onto the whitish desert plain and watch the windmills spinning like child’s toys. A scan to the left or right led us into more mountains, blue and jagged, stretching far out into the distance. Wispy rags of clouds stretched across the sky, seeming close to our heads.
Something I noticed then, and kept noticing later when we were in the Sierra, was that the horizon of the earth looked much different from a high elevation. In the Midwest, the horizon is right at eye level. Up here, the horizon seemed to be high above my head— the land spread out in a tapestry, almost as if I was looking straight down at it, with the edges of the sky drawn up on all sides like I was in a bowl.
We didn’t stay up there long, but continued down back toward the trail. As we hiked back into the forest, we realized something: we were running out of daylight very quickly. Also, we were on top of a very tall mountain, and there were not many places to camp.
We started a wild hike down the mountain, on a flat trail that cut across very steep forested slopes. We had to stop at a spring and filter several bottles of water, because we needed water for that night and for most of the next day. It took forever, and a bone-chilling cold was already creeping into the air. My hands smarted with cold as we took turns filtering.
That was the day we learned how stressful it was to be stranded on a mountain with cold weather blowing in. By the time our water was filtered, the entire side of the mountain was draped in shadow. This was a bit of a surprise— as mountain-like as the hills thus far had seemed, they were not nearly as massive as this one, and didn’t block out the sun so early.
We pressed on, more and more worried as cold and darkness descended. I could see Zach was incredibly stressed, especially since we still only had one headlamp. We found the first spot where camping was even possible: a tiny flat stretch that dropped off into a cliff. We immediately ruled it out and pressed on. Unfortunately, we were striking out onto a place called Fuller Ridge— a spine of rock jutting out from San Jacinto with a flat top about forty to a hundred feet wide, which then fell away steeply on both sides. Wind howled over it, and clouds began to fly by us in shreds. We were shivering and windblown.
At last we found a campsite that was a reasonable distance from the edge, although the gaps in the trees showed us that the cliff was indeed sheer. We debated about what to do, and for the first time, we were hit hard with the constant dilemma of the trail: if we go half a mile more, will there be an awesome campsite? Or will we just be wandering in the dark, on the side of a mountain, with only one headlamp?
The headlamp was the tipping point, and we set up camp as best as we could in the wind. When I walked to the edge of camp, Zach worriedly called out, “Be careful of the edge!” We also noticed some very dead pine trees at the edge of the clearing: the wind was blowing in the perfect direction to bowl them over onto our tent, and the way that the dry limbs were thrashing about, it didn’t seem like an unreasonable fear. But I was cold, and there was nowhere else to put the tent. We plunged inside and huddled together under the blanket. I made sure to tuck our water filter in with us, for fear that it would freeze and break.
Huddled against Zach in the dark, listening to the wild thrashing of the dead pines, I felt a raw, almost primeval fear. It was a feeling I’d become well acquainted with later on, but right now it was new to me. As I listened to the wind slashing and hacking at the dead trees, I searched my mind for memory of Bible verses that would calm me down. Oddly enough, the first one that came to mind was the story of the prophet Elisha, after his mentor Elijah had been taken away from him up to heaven. Elisha came across a group of young men who started to make fun of him for being bald. The text calmly states that the prophet called down a curse on them from heaven, and a bear came out of the woods and mauled them all.
Not exactly an inspirational poster, but the story comforted me. Something as seemingly random and dangerous as a bear is ultimately under God’s control. It was the same with these pines. Instead of thinking of the wind as a chaotic thing, I imagined that every tiny breath of wind was controlled, minutely and personally, by God. If he wanted those pine trees to come crashing down on us, it would happen. If he didn’t, it wouldn’t.
With the unexpected flood of peace and calm, I felt exhausted. I was asleep within minutes.