Sunday, May 23, 2010

Serendipity follows the PCT

Ice on the oaksI went for an over-nighter on the PCT this weekend. I decided to drive out to San Francisquito Road and hike north to Sawmill Campground, then come back the following day.

I tried to get an early start but partway down the freeway I realized I had forgotten my trekking poles. Without my trekking poles I wouldn't be able to set up my tent. I could sleep okay without a tent, but the weather report called for nighttime temperatures in the teens with a chance of snow showers. I was counting on my tent to help keep me warm and dry. So I turned back to get my poles.

I got started hiking around 9AM or 9:30, which wasn't too bad at all.

I could see three hikers on the trail even before I parked my car. I soon caught up to two hikers near a spot where I remembered peeing behind a bush in 2008. It was the same spot where I was trying to leave behind Graybeard. Graybeard was a nice man, but I just felt like hiking alone.

I met the two hikers and their names were Wildchild and Dash. Turned out they know my mother. My mother is so famous I'm going to have to call myself Pipers' Mom's daughter.

As I continued down the trail, I met a man from Lancaster. He seemed worried about his speed. People should not worry about their speed. If they feel they are falling behind schedule, all they have to do is get up earlier and hike later into the day. Take fewer zero days and soon you'll be ahead of schedule.

When I got to Elizabeth Canyon Road and the Red Carpet water cache, I was feeling a little disappointed. I should have started my hike here instead of at San Francisquito Road because the trail between the two was pretty boring. At the Cache were three more hikers in addition to the three I had already met. All were enjoying the water in the cache and taking a break in the freezing shade.

I realized I had forgotten to get a copy of the water report. I asked if anyone had a description of the spring that was coming up. They told me I should just take water from the cache. I thought I should leave that water for the thru-hikers. I really didn't need water, but was hoping to just get a sip to drink at the spring. They read me the description and it sounded like a tiny little drip.

A mile and a half up the chaparral trail I stepped in a mud puddle and found the spring. It was dripping with the tiniest of drips. I decided I would hold my bottle under the drips while I ate a Pro-Bar and when I was finished with the bar I had about half a Naked Juice bottle worth of fresh, cold spring water. I took a sip. It tasted good. I drank the rest. A few little floaties didn't bother me.

Up I continued into more chaparral. I was starting to realize that maybe this was not the really pretty section of trail I remembered and that I should have started my weekend hike somewhere else. I hiked through scratchy scrub laced with motorcycle tracks for quite some time. Then I saw a small glade of oaks ahead and I became very happy. I was going to enter the enchanted forest I remembered after all. The glade lasted only a few feet and then I was back in chaparral with a few interior live oaks to provide interest.

After miles of ravine cha-cha, I rounded a turn and saw a forest of pines that I remembered. There were piles of dead branches with pieces of plastic interwoven in the middles of them. It was very strange. I could see the three hikers I met at the cache sitting on some kind of structure. I read my guide book and it mentioned a guzzler was coming up soon.

I reached a faint road and decided I would go see if that led to the guzzler. It did. That was the structure the three hikers were sitting on.

I had carried with me from home 3.5 liters of water. I had drunk one of them already. I was not sure if I would find more water before Sawmill Camp and since that was my turnaround point, I'd need enough water to get there, camp and then return to the guzzler again. I decided I would get a liter of water here.

I dipped my bottle into the guzzler's standing rainwater basin. The three hikers were shocked. One of them took my picture. She called me the "crazy hiker who drinks from those things." It was my turn to be shocked. I asked them if they really never took water from a source like this. They said eww, no way. They always got "man-made" water. I got out my camera to take their picture. A picture of three crazy hikers who never drank natural water.

I treated the water and tasted it. It tasted terrible. Just like concrete. But it was clean and clear and would work for cooking pasta so I was happy. Off I went into the woods.

Soon the pines turned into big cone spruce with green grasses and wildflowers blooming around every turn. I had made it to the enchanted forest I remembered. I took lots of pictures so I could remember. Some of the big cone spruce trees were huge.

After a few hours of hiking in the freezing cold wind, I started to debate whether I should camp at Sawmill Camp or not. I remember it being a windy place. As the hour to reach the turnoff to the camp drew near, I started scouting out better alternatives just in case it was way too windy there. I checked my watch at each one so I would know haw far to backtrack.

I turned up the side trail to the camp. I walked all around the campground looking for a place sheltered from the bitterly cold wind. I found some really nice places but the layer of soft oak leaves and pine needles was so thick there was not a chance I could stick a tent stake in and have it hold my tent up. I finally settled for a camp site with a picnic table that seemed a little less windy than most of them. I started my dinner cooking and since it was windy, I waited until it was finished cooking to go set up my tent. Normally I would set up my tent while it worked. I wrapped up my dinner in something warm and went to set up my tent.

I got my tent set up and brought my dinner inside to eat in the warm sun while I read a book. Just as I was cleaning my pot, I heard someone call, "Hey thru-hikers!" I responded thinking they might be another thru-hiker hoping to share my spot. It turned out the voice belonged to a PCTA rep who was out on a work project. He was inviting me to dinner and brownies and a warm campfire. I could not turn down a warm campfire!

I walked down there to see Wildchild and Dash already there. I spent the evening standing around the fire trying to stay warm. It was really very cold out. I worried I would freeze all night long. Two more thru-hikers arrived and I enjoyed the conversation with everyone around the fire. I was so grateful to have this company, this spontaneous happy happening, that I was willing to pay for it with a cold night. I was so happy I had taken the turn into the camp and that I had not backtracked to one of my back-up locations. This is what I call trail magic. Trail magic wasn't the fact that these people were here handing out food to thru-hikers but that the trail took care of me enough to provide me warmth and company on what would have been a cold and solitary night. That's trail magic.

After a while I finally tore myself away from the fire and found my way by moonlight to my tent in the frigid wind. I wore every single item of clothing I had brought, save the homemade dirty girl gaiters. I wore capilene tights, hiking pants, rain chaps and my fleece leg warmers on the bottom. Long sleeve shirt, long sleeve button-up "desert" shirt, Patagonia Houdini wind jacket, fleece balaclava, homemade Ray Jardine bomber hat and the Houdini's hood on top of it all. Fleece fingerless gloves on my hands. My down sweater wrapped around my middle like an extra blanket. My 20 degree sleeping quilt wrapped in a bivy sack inside my tent. I hoped for the best.

I actually slept pretty warm. I awoke to a cold morning and when I felt I could brave the outside, I got up and looked around. There was a little ice on my tent. Cold clouds swirled around in the wind. It was much colder than yesterday.

I packed up all my stuff and went down to the PCTA work crew camp to make my breakfast by their fire. Instead, they offered me some eggs, potatoes and sausage, and hot cowboy coffee. Who could refuse!

More hours around the campfire. The leaders offered me a chance to hike further north and then as long as I returned to Sawmill Camp by 2PM they would give me a ride all the way back to San Francisquito Road. That sounded wonderful so I took them up on it. At 8:00 I realized that if I left now I'd have three hours to hike out and three hours to hike back. So loaded up my pack and headed off. They offered to let me leave my pack in camp so I didn't have to carry it, but I didn't want to leave my pack. I'm glad I didn't because I had to keep shedding layers and putting them back on. It was good I had a pack to carry all these layers.

The trail left the enchanted forest and passed the number 500 written in pine sticks on a dirt road. A short while later I passed a marker that the trail crew had just installed marking the real 500 mile point.

There was no more enchanted forest for the rest of my journey. I hiked through frozen chaparral outlined in a rime of white. It was beautiful but very cold. I needed both my fleece balaclava to keep my cheeks and neck warm and my Ray Jardine bomber hat to keep the wind from penetrating my head. My bomber hat worked great. Thank you so much, Palomino, for giving me the kit.

I kept hoping to get a glimpse of the view I saw in 2008 that planted the seed that led me to try to hike from Santa Barbara to the PCT. But the clouds were low and the snow was falling fast, but not sticking to the ground.

Soon I reached a dirt road and the data book said there was another guzzler down the road. I actually recognized the spot immediately and turned to go check it out. I didn't need any water, but the guzzler is in a small little enchanted oak forest and I wanted to take a picture of it. These things are really quite clever. People could install similar things if they had space in the yard and collect rain water to use in the garden. The previous guzzler was a concrete catch that filled a concrete basin. This one was a slanted metal roof with a gutter that fed the water into a fiberglass basin under the roof. I stopped under the roof to get out of the snow and take a little break.

The oak trees glistened with white. It was beautiful. I considered for a moment why I do these crazy hikes. Yesterday the first half of the day had been really boring. But I enjoyed it anyway because sometimes it's nice just to walk without distraction. I knew the weather report was daunting but I went anyway because I hardly ever see it snow. I wanted to see snow fall. Here I was freezing cold but I felt alive. I don't feel alive working and always being in air-conditioning during the day.

I started back southbound happy I had had a good adventure. The clouds began to clear a bit and I finally got my view. I could see Slide Mountain Lookout where I had considered making my trail. I could see a glimpse of Pyramid Lake. I could see the mountains near the Buck Creek Trail that I missed and the Snow Creek bushwack that I got lost in. I could see interesting rock formations that I remember seeing in the Google satellite views when I was researching my route. I saw the old highway with all the old inns that is now just a favorite Sunday motorcycle ride. I didn't see the Topatopas like I thought I would and this made me wonder how I ever though I recognized any of those mountains. That must have been serendipity of the PCT as well.

Hiking southbound I noticed a water tank. I decided to go investigate. I could not tell if you could get water out of it, but I was at the road so I decided I would just walk along the road instead of the trail. Wildchild and Dash had been hiking the road all through here and they said it had better views than the trail and highly recommended it. The views were very nice. I could see far into the Mojave/Lancaster area. The Tehachapis were covered in snow now. Storm clouds stretched far into the Sierra Nevada. I felt sorry for the thru-hikers this year. It's fun for a weekend but every day for months would be exhausting being snowed so much.

Along the way I saw a couple of dirt bike riders. Then I found a big baby bird laying in the road. It looked like maybe it had fallen out of the nest. I didn't know if it could fly yet. It looked lika dove. I picked it up and put it under a shrub to prevent it the indignity of being run over by a motorcycle or truck. It was soft, warm and heavy like my birds at home.

Eventually I reached a convenient place to get on the trail again and then I found myself back at Sawmill Camp waiting for my ride in the bitter cold. I got my ride back and enjoyed talking with Kevin of the PCTA. I hoped to see thru-hikers needing a ride to the Andersons when I got back to my car but there were none. I drove home fighting the urge to close my eyes and nap in the warmth of my car.

I'd post a picture but I can't figure out what happened to the network drive where I download them. It has vanished.

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