Thursday, May 12, 2016

Magic and frustration on the Pacific Crest Trail

All systems have been go – attitude, gear, stamina, knees, back... but not my feet.

I write this from Julian, Calif. where I’m stuck for a few days with what appears to be Plantar Fasciitis. It’s rather agonizing to be off trail, luxuriating in a nice, touristy hotel room when my every instinct screams to be back on the rocky, rocking footpath to Ashland. These problems aren’t uncommon among hikers, especially during the first few weeks. So I’m sentenced to live in trail town luxury for a few days as I work through the foot issues.
So Called Thoughts
The first week-and-a-half of my Pacific Crest Trail hike has mixed pain, pleasure, tedium, fascination and overall I-can’t-believe-I’m-actually-doing-thisness. The trail is never the same from day to day, and it’s all fun.

If you are going to commit to being out in the wild for months, the PCT is a great choice. Just in Section A, from the Mexican border to here, you’ll experience a stunning variety of climes and hiking conditions. I’ve crossed streams, clambered over logs and boulders, walked through canyons and valleys, across rocky desert, dense forest, arduous mountains and gusty passes, all filled with stunning sights to behold. Yet you’re never too far from a friendly, resource-rich trail town to rest (and shower) your bones. For the first time in my life, I’ve hitchhiked to get to and from the trail. For me, that’s pretty edgy.

Since I lack any desert background, until now I’ve not fully appreciated what I might know intellectually about this complex, bountiful ecosystem.

Lizards bask on rocks, scampering away as you pass. Squirrels and jackrabbits give you the eye and scurry off. Shiny black beetles lumber about on their business. Unseen birds sing exotic songs we never hear in Arcata. Cacti and chaparral make wicked, wonderful sculptural statements. Toxic, weed-like Poodle Dog Bush invites the unwary to have their skin erupt and boil off. Rock formations assume shapes no human could ever imagine, embellished with rich and detailed colors no painter could ever paint. It’s waaaay beyond anything Disney might contrive, but all real and free for the immersing.
Colors unretouched. Sights like this are commonplace along the trail. 

Thrusting rock is lined with sedimentary strata laid down over eons, but the stripes are vertical because subsequent eons have upended that ancient lake bed and made it into a mountaintop. The rock seems so solid and changeless, yet you know it is always in motion and, over time, just more fleeting ephemera like yourself. Still, wading through these building-sized wonders, you really “get” the scale of geologic time compared to our flickering lifespans.

One can’t resist taking pictures of the many jaw-dropping sights and delights along the way, but if you break out the camera to capture every worthy image, you’ll never get anywhere, so you just have to let a lot of it go.

The PCT culture offers another set of surprises. My first day on the trail, I met Randy and Deb. They turned out to be friends with none other than Rees Hughes, co-author of the Pacific Trailside Reader and volunteer trail steward. Later, when I got to my first campsite that night, I was greeted with a friendly, “Hi, Kevin!” It was Randy and Deb, already set up for the night. 
The first night's campsite, with Miriam and David.

Later, a young couple named David and Miriam showed up and shared the campsite. Miriam was having foot problems, and soon, so would I. They said they’d followed me up the mountainside, saying “There’s Umbrella Guy” again and again.

My first trail magic came the next morning in the form of two big jugs of water left at Hauser Creek, right before the hot, hard climb up to Morena Butte. That really helped my water margin. Funny, you’d never drink anything found sitting on a sidewalk in Arcata. But two anonymous Sprite bottles full of plain old water in the middle of nowhere, and you’re a-guzzlin’.

There was more magic down the road at Boulder Oaks campground. As previously noted, every other hiker is an instant friend and ally out in the middle of nowhere. Everyone shares, and there’s a lot to share.

Just as I was getting ready to rehydrate some mashed potatoes that night, this nice guy named Steve showed up with four pizzas, cookies, sodas and chilled apples for the PCT hikers there. I, Phillip and Isabel from Montreal and Alex from Napa dined royally.
Later, just as I was dropping my $14 park fee off at the kiosk, a woman a ways behind me said, “Sir? Sir?”

It was Ettie, here with Ethan by way of Arizona. And she had yet more pizza offered by yet a different trail angel – “some lady” –  right when I was getting the hungries again! Yes, I actually had a free pizza delivery while walking past my tent in the woods.
TRAIL PIZZA! Ettie delivers. KLH | Union
TRAIL PIZZA! Ettie delivers. KLH | Union
The next morning, a guy named Legend showed up in his fanciful cook truck to makes us all M&M pancakes and hot coffee. The trail love was truly felt.

Other than campgrounds, I’ve tented at several remote trailside removes. Available tent spots tend to fill up late in the afternoon and evening as hikers, some gasping and wheezing with exhaustion, straggle into camp. Some just throw up their tent and zonk out; others chat and socialize into the evening.

In Mt. Laguna, I ran into David and Miriam. They said they missed me, aww. She’d found some better-fitting shoes in a hiker box and was sending her old ones home (which I should have done). While visiting outside the store, I left a small box of groceries unattended for a few minutes, and when I got back David had stashed two PBRs in it. Some people ...

A few hiking days later, when the feet again got too painful (and probably unwise) to ignore, I found a road and held up my “HIKER TO TOWN” scarf. After a half hour, along came Zach (trail name Astro). A PCT thru-hiker himself, he’d actually intended to stop at a picnic area and chat with some of this year’s “trail trash.” Instead, he saw me and pulled over. “I’m trying to get to Julian,” I said. “Let’s go!” he said, and drove me right to the hotel here. Then I think he gave another hiker a ride out to the trailhead.

So for now, I’m unplugged from the trail life I’ve just been learning to savor –  laid up in Julian, nursing tootsies with what appears to be Plantar Fasciitis. If that sounds like some freaky form of foot fascism, well it is. It’s immobilizing, and you just have to wait it out. Stewing and moping seem fairly mandatory, and I’m great at that. But at least there’s beer. I wish the nurse at the local clinic had been on duty today to verify my diagnosis and offer advice.

While I literally cool my heels for a few days, I’ll get new shoes in nearby Ramona; something I should have done in Mt. Laguna. (Later note: none of that happened.) My plan is to hitch back out to the Sunrise Trailhead or Scissors Crossing after my doctor visit on Monday and unless I’m advised otherwise, hit the trail again, hopefully with fortified feet and lessons learned. (Note: None of that happened either, except the lessons learned.)  Meanwhile, I’m learning the intricacies of foot taping. It really helps.

It’s frustrating to be waylaid like this, but from what I’m told, it’s all within the range of mini-adventures people commonly experience on this living ribbon of rock and soil, sand and sunshine we know as the Pacific Crest Trail.

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