Wednesday, February 18, 2015

PCT 2014, Day 16: Big Bear Lake

DAY 16
May 10th, Saturday
259 to Big Bear Lake (at 266) to trail camp

Despite it being another cold morning, we pushed ourselves out of bed and were packed up by the time the sun had cleared the mountains. We hiked at a quick pace, chatting all the way, leaving the forest for sparsely-wooded hills with open bare patches where the desert showed through. At least we were at high elevation now.

As we approached Highway 18, we found not one, but two coolers stashed with sodas. They were advertising different businesses. Zach lingered behind to grab a Pepsi, and I looked ahead to the road. There was a silver car parked on the opposite side of the highway, and the driver, seeing me, waved for me to come over.

“Zach!” I called over my shoulder. “I think we have a ride!”

We booked it down the last hundred yards of trail, carefully crossed the road (cars seemed to move so quickly after so many days at walking pace!) and jogged up to the car. Another PCT hiker was climbing into the passenger side. An older man with a long white beard smiled at us. “My name is ‘Santa’s Helper,’” he said. “You’ll have to carry your backpacks on your laps. Trekking poles go in the trunk.” He opened the trunk to reveal a cooler and a pile of snacks. “Pepsi or Gatorade? Nutty Bars or Ding-Dongs? Apples or bananas?”

The next thing we knew, we were crammed in the back seat, squished underneath our backpacks, eating bananas and Nutty Bars and drinking Gatorade. The hiker in the front seat chatted with Santa’s Helper and we listened. 

Santa’s Helper had section-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and had come this year to attempt to thru-hike the PCT. Unfortunately, at about Idyllwild he discovered that his lungs just couldn’t take the elevation, so he had to quit. Instead of going home, though, he was using his time and money to give people rides and help out with some of the trail angels in Big Bear Lake. He had retired from his job working with computers— he had worked on computers from 1965 to 2006!

All the while, he drove us along a highway that swept in big curves around the shoulders of the mountains. We passed through the tiny town of Big Bear City, then entered the bigger town of Big Bear Lake. It was the biggest city we had been to on trail yet— it was larger than a square mile and had chain restaurants and a Von’s, which was a big deal to us!

Santa’s Helper dropped the other hiker at the laundry-mat, then drove us on to the post office to get our package. He waited in the car while we went in.

The postal worker behind the desk scowled at us as we walked up. 

“Hello,” Zach said, “we’re PCT hikers and we should have a box he—”

“Name?” the guy asked, staring at his computer.

“Strader, Zachary.”

The guy stomped off as if we had just asked him to do him a huge favor. After a couple minutes, he returned empty-handed. “It’s not here,” he said, with a clear attitude that he didn’t care one bit.

“It’s not?” Zach asked.

“Nope.” He gave us a look as if expecting us to move on and let him help the next customer.

“Could you check again?” Zach’s polite tone seemed to irritate the employee all the more. 

“I don’t think it’s back there. Are you sure you didn’t send it to the hostel?”

A lot of hikers sent their packages to the Big Bear Hostel, which would hold the packages for free. I shook my head decisively. “No, I know we didn’t.”

“Would you check again?” Zach persisted.

The guy rolled his eyes and returned to the back room. Zach and I waited anxiously. It wasn’t like this box was our last hope— we could buy food at Von’s— but we especially needed the map section that was packed in it. We had a GPS track loaded on our phone, but that didn’t tell us where the water and camping were, where the towns were, or anything but the basic route of the PCT.

The disgruntled employee returned, again with nothing. “Can I have the tracking number?” he asked, now that he realized he wasn’t getting rid of us.

Of course we didn’t. “I’d have to try to find it,” I said, and we stepped out of the line.

After some frantic calling of every cell phone in my immediate family, I got ahold of my dad, and returned to the desk with our tracking number. The employee looked it up in the computer, and said, as if we were the greatest inconvenience to his life that had ever existed, “Your package was delivered a week ago to the Big Bear Hostel.”

Fed up, we said a terse “thank you” and left. Why would the post office just give our package to them? It was hard enough to keep all our resupply straight!

Santa’s Helper, determined to help us, drove us to the hostel, which was a few blocks away. He idled the car outside while we walked up the driveway and across a porch stuffed with hikers and hiker boxes into the entryway, where a guy with light curly hair and a sassy but fun attitude was checking in two guys— Matt and Sam.

“We’re stalking you,” we told them. Sam chuckled a little.

The hostel employee led us to a closet and opened it to reveal a pile of boxes. With relief, we saw one with “STradeR” written on the side. When the employee plopped it into Zach’s hands, we saw, in shock, what was written on top.

Zachary Strader
c/o Big Bear Hostel
527 Knickerbocker Rd
Big Bear Lake, CA 92315

Zach and I stared in embarrassment for a few seconds. We had no recollection of addressing our box this way, but here it was. And that was the first of many times that I was very upset with our resupply strategy.

Santa’s Helper, graciously not making fun of us for our blunder, dropped us off near Von’s and said goodbye. Zach and I gutted our box on the sidewalk, having no better place to do it, and sorted everything, packing it into our bags in a haphazard way. Then we shopped at Von’s, buying a few side items, like Fritos. We splint a pint of ice cream and debated what to do with our time while we were here. We both called home, and Zach got ahold of his Grandpa Ed (his stepdad’s dad)— we’d be hiking within nine miles of his house in a few days, and he invited us over.

I went to the bathroom, and when I returned, I found Zach chatting with a couple who I assumed were townies. The man was clean-shaven and bright-eyed, with a square jaw and an almost-shaved head of graying hair. His wife, who had pleasant creases along her mouth from smiling and two nice blonde braids, said hello. I introduced myself as Lisa instead of Leftovers.

“My name is Thistle,” the woman said, “and this is Ouzel.”

Recognizing those titles as trail names, I was taken aback. “You’re very clean for PCT hikers!”

They both laughed. “We just got a hotel,” Ouzel said, “so we just showered.”

We chatted with them for a while. They said that they had hiked the John Muir Trail, a 211-mile-long trail that mostly coincides with the PCT through the High Sierra. “It was so hard,” Thistle said, shaking her head. “But we kept pressing on, because I knew that if we didn’t finish, we’d have to go back and do it all over again! So when we finished, I thought we were done with long-distance hiking for good.”

“I guess that didn’t work out,” Zach said with a smile.

“It gets in your blood,” Ouzel said. He wasn’t the first person to say something like that, and he certainly wasn’t the last. The longer we hiked, the more we learned that hiking is, for most people, highly addictive.

After we said goodbye, we stood up to leave. On our way out, we heard one of the locals say to his friend, “Hey did you hear about the bear that mauled the hiker on the PCT two days ago?”

We paused, ears perked.

“No,” the guy’s friend said.

“Neither have I. But we have to keep the hikers on their toes!” The local grinned, even though he didn’t look at us. We laughed loudly, but the man’s friend didn’t seem to share his humor.

We ended up walking about a mile to reach the nearest pizza place, a Domino’s, where we ordered two pan pizzas. The employees recognized us as PCTers (I guess the backpacks gave us away) and recommended a riverfront park just a couple blocks away. Pizzas in hand, we took their advice.

The park, wrapped around a corner of Big Bear Lake, was bright, windy and cold. There were tons of people there, playing Frisbee, watching their kids on the playground, eating at the picnic tables, and so on. We sat down in the bright green grass and ate the pizza. I can say, without doubt, that it was the most amazing pizza I ever have or ever will eat. It’s a sad fact of the trail— any food that you eat once you’re done with the trail, no matter how gourmet it is, is inferior.

I called home and talked to people for a couple hours. Calling home from the trail was always exhausting— the people I talked to always had so much to tell me, and I had so much to tell them. At this point in the trail I was pretty good at give-and-take, but as time went on, I became quieter and quieter on the phone. I felt like I never really got to tell anyone what was really going on. I never knew what to say anyway. By the time I had heard about what the other person was doing, I was weary of talking and ready to just hang up and eat something and not stand in one place fighting to find a cell phone signal. So I’d just say, “Yeah, not much to tell. Just walking in the woods.” Anything more than that required an explanation that was just too exhausting.

Everyone in town seemed to know about us. A police officer approached Zach and struck up a conversation about the trail. A young kid kicked a soccer ball close to me, and when I kicked it back, he asked, “Are you on the PCT?”

“That’s right,” I said with a smile.

“So you started at Mexico, and you’re going to Canada?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Cool,” he said, then dashed off to rejoin his friends in the soccer game.

We had some spare food from our box (including a giant summer sausage, which we were still having a hard time consuming), so we walked back to the Big Bear Hostel to drop it off in the “Hiker Box.” Then we lingered, knowing that we had to get back on trail, but not wanting to. The owner of the hostel said we could hang out on the outside deck, even though we told him we couldn’t stay the night. The other hikers were confused— “It’s only $20 a night!” they insisted.

“$20 per person,” I corrected. “Forty dollars is, like, our budget for two town stops.”

“You’re going to burn yourselves out,” someone said with a disapproving shake of their head.

At last we tore ourselves away from the hostel and stood by the side of the busy road, tentatively sticking out our thumbs. I felt kind of awkward, like this was no place to hitchhike. But about five minutes later, we heard a friendly voice from the parking lot behind us. “You guys going back to the trail at Highway 18?”

We turned around to see a friendly blonde woman leaning on the open door of her white Cadillac. 

“Yes please!”

We hopped in, resting against the shag-covered seats. The woman introduced herself as Dawn, and said that she often gave rides to PCT hikers. She said that she and her husband ran an outdoor school for middle-schoolers.

She dropped us off at the trailhead and wished us luck, and we hiked up into a grove of manzanita. Zach sighed. I sighed. I wished that we had more money. But at least we had bought pizza, and had the promise of staying at Grandpa Ed’s house in a few days.

We hiked just another couple miles to a trail camp that had a flat spot, a spigot, and even a pit toilet. The wind had picked up again and whipped us with chill air, so we set up our tent quickly and crawled inside. Sitting cross-legged on our sleeping pads, we ate leftover pizza, which improved my mood greatly.

“This is the life,” I said. “We have everything we need: water, toilets, and pizza!”

Zach chuckled. “That should be the name of your book.”


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