Day 16 – Genchi Genbutsu

Big Bear to Boulder Hill Camp
Mile 266.1 – Mile 288.1

Flowers everywhere everyday

My great friend Mark who works for Toyota Corporate once shared with me the company’s principle of genchi genbutsu. It refers to the idea that to know a thing you have to go to the actual place and see it for yourself. Reading many people’s accounts of their time on the PCT planted the seed for me but being out here doing it surpasses what I expected. The porcelain clink and scrape of new rockfall reverberating its depths as I travel over, the sere desert wind rising and falling like respiration, the warm, sweet spice of pine straw baking on the forest floor, to really know those things, you have to be here. Genchi genbutsu but here are some pictures anyway.

Fresh rockfall
Distant desert north

Having learned my lesson at the Red Kettle in Idyllwild about proper breakfast time, I didn’t attempt The Lumberjack Café until 7:15. I was loaded and ready to fuel up for the day. FlowerMan (his pack adorned with fresh yellow roses, hence the name) and CatWeasel were already eating so I grabbed a spot at the bar and met another character, Shiatsu Tom.

Hiker food!
Sourdough flapjacks, yum

Tom has been doing massage for 53 years, the last 20 in Big Bear. His shared secret was to use cold pressed olive oil because only that or grape seed oil can be absorbed by the skin. Who knew? We also talked about the investment to make Big Bear a top ski destination. “It’s the corporation coming in and raising prices so high nobody can afford to ski anymore. It’s a hill that happens to be at 8000 feet. It used to be great for families because there was nowhere else to go.”  Just so you know, it’s not just me.

Beautiful Big Bear Lake and Ski Area

I caught a taxi this time back to the trail and was walking by 9:30. Here is where the northbound PCT hikers take a hard left and head west. Most of the morning was spent in the hills just north of Big Bear Lake and I was able to get a photo of the lake and ski area. If I can walk up the hill in 30-45 minutes, $100 lift tickets do seem exorbitant.

The trail continued into Holcomb Valley where Diamond Dave said much gold prospecting was done in the 1840s. I saw no evidence of same but it did get me thinking about the books I’ve read about the West – Undaunted Courage, Nothing Like It In The World, and Empire of the Summer Moon are among the best. Being out here with just a horse, a rifle, a blanket, and no trail is some genchi genbutsu I’m happy to do without.

Where did all the trees go?

Another large burn area occupied my late afternoon. I stopped at Holcomb Creek for water and dinner after which I chased the sun down the valley. The trail indeed escaped the valley and I made my own campsite among large boulders on top of a rise just as the sun was setting. Best site yet!

Boulder Hill Camp

Note: I do all this writing and posting with big thumbs on a small iPhone screen. Thanks for looking past any typos I happen to miss.


Day 15 – Big Bear Day

San Bernadino Camp to Big Bear City
Mile 253.1 – Mile 266.1

A nice walk in the woods

I had been looking forward to this day for awhile now so despite staying up way past hiker midnight, I woke just as the stars were winking out above me. Everything was lined up. All my tanks were topped off, the trail volunteered a generous easing, and the promise of comfort in Big Bear put a spur in my giddyup. I all but galloped the 13 miles I needed today easily making my second 10×10 with heart rate well within normal range this time.

My first glimpse of habitation

At mile 266.1 the trail crosses California Highway 18 and here most northbound hikers bail out for the delights of Big Bear. As I exited the trail, I met Diamond Dave who had set up shop under a shade tree. He had bananas, tangerines, and water. Here again my timing was fortuitous since he was just headed back to town. Two other hikers and I squeezed into Dave’s small Jeep, hugging our packs, and chatting with Dave. He is a local musician and handyman who has lived in Big Bear since 1968. He had much to say about all the new investment in his small town but seemed to take it in stride remaining affable and good natured. Apparently the same company that owns Mammoth and other ski resorts purchased Big Bear and money is flowing into upgraded infrastructure- burying power lines, replacing water and sewer lines and repaving roads. Diamond Dave thinks the place will then explode but candidly, when I looked up at their ski hill, I can’t imagine attracting anyone other than Southern Californians. Granted there are plenty of those but to me the town feels like it wants to be Whistler but lacks the mountain to realize its dream. Beautiful place nonetheless but maybe Bend, OR is a better comparison sans Mt Bachelor.

Dave dropped me off at the post office where I prominently declared myself a PCT hiker without saying a word. Support poured forth from the people going about their day at the post office: “Welcome to Big Bear!”, “Hope there are lots of carbs and protein in your box” , “You’re out there doing it!”, “Good for you”. Resupply box in hand, I dialed up Motel 6 and spent the best $49 I can remember. Let’s just say it took some time to see the water run clean again on the floor of the shower.

Impressive hiker box at Warner Springs

Another fixture of many trail towns is the hiker box. This is where folks will cast off unwanted or unneeded gear and food. Like a wish fulfilled, the hiker box at the Motel 6 supplied me with laundry detergent to wash my clothes. I also happened to meet CatWeasel and FlowerMan, two jovial Germans also staying in relative luxury at Motel 6. FlowerMan did the PCT last year and liked it so much he’s back again this year.

I spent the rest of the day doing mundane chores, planning, and eating an embarrassing manifest of questionable food including: 3 piece fish and chips, 2 lemonades, 32oz Powerade, bag of corn chips with a tub of guacamole, and the coup de gras, double maple bars. Hey,  my brother said I was starting to look thin.

Day 14 – Wellsprings

May 22
Mission Creek to San Bernadino Camp
Mile 229 – Mile 253.1

Mission Creek wash in morning

Last night was warm enough to sleep uncovered under spectacular star light until well after midnight. I was close enough to the trail to see several headlamps come cruising by late. That’s one good strategy to beat the heat.

Not quite primroses but flowered path nonetheless

My plan again was to rise early and make some miles before the sun took hold. The first 10 miles tracked up the wash of Mission Creek crisscrossing the stream many times. My goal was the headwaters of the creek but it would take all morning to reach. The steep walls on either side blocked the rising sun until about 7 after which we played hide and seek until 8 or so after which I was decidedly found.

Entering San Bernadine National Forest

I entered the San Bernadine National Forest and the good news about climbing higher was that the air was cooler. In the morning I passed quite a few folks I hadn’t seen as yet. One older guy was sitting under a tree waiting for someone to help him shoulder his pack. I don’t know how long he was waiting but I do know he had somehow managed to get himself way the heck out in the wilderness. I doubt I will see him again but I have free legal advice from the California lawyer should the need ever arise.

Mission Spring

Up and up some more, I was back above 8000 feet and had tracked down the wellspring of Mission Creek. The water was cold and delicious so I loaded up for the afternoon. It’s hard to imagine all the water I had been walking past for the last 20 miles came from this humble mountain spring.

For the metrically inclined

On the summits and high ridges when cellular coverage appears possible , I will switch on my phone. Today I was rewarded with a strong signal I think because I had line of sight to a ski area. In any case I used the opportunity to post and call Katrina. Deprivation makes a keen whetstone to sharpen ones gratitude.  After a deep pull from my cherished heart spring, the steep grade and punishing sun fell away. I was home for a brief but delectable moment and back in high spirits I attacked the ups and coasted the downs.


At Mile 250 I saw a grizzly bear! One great oddity on the PCT is the private zoo the trail skirts where I’m told exotic animals are housed and trained for roles in the entertainment industry. The impressive bear was pacing in his pen and I didn’t take a picture because who wants to see that?

Conditions up high are tough on the skin

After dinner the race was on again to see if I could again find coverage to call into family birthday dinner. I made record time up to Onyx Summit but was sorely disappointed. But just as the sun was setting I rounded a corner and there was Big Bear off in the distance and two bars on my phone. It’s hard being out here alone and not able to be with family. I don’t think I’d make it without being able to touch home occasionally. I suppose I would have made a terrible pioneer or even PCT hiker before mobile phones.

Trail couch!

Just as the sun’s dazzling last act of the day was waning, I was ready to camp and there, right on the trail was a couch and large container with food and drinks. Cookies? Soda? Gatorade? It struck me as a perfect place to stop and so I did, sustained and satisfied.

Sunset wow moment

Day 13 – The Gunslinger

May 21

Water Faucet to Mission Creek Camp

Mile 205.7 – Mile 229

Starting my day across the desert

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” So begins what most consider Stephen King’s magnum opus ‘The Dark Tower’. There are eight books in the series and the first, ‘The Gunslinger’ opens with that terrific first sentence. Today felt ripped straight from those pages where King paints a stark, desolate world that has ‘moved on’ from our own with a hard bitten hero on an epic quest.

Last look back across to San Jacinto

My day’s story opened early after a hot, restless night, the residual heat of the day lingering in the sand and gravel under my tent. My plan was to get a move on as early as I could and cross the valley floor while the sun was still low.

Going somewhere?
The underworld of I-10, no muties

After 4 miles or so I finally reached Interstate 10 and passed beneath in a secret world known only to hikers. There was an impressive array of note boards, signs, cached water, and Bud Lite! Alas 7am was a bit early for me so I passed but others got right to it.

A whole lot of this

I knew it was going to be a hot day when at about 8am I squeezed a Snickers bar into my mouth like a tube of chunky toothpaste. The trail rose back into the scrub hills and there was surprise number two. Mr. Norman Lee, a Korean War Vet and known as ‘Stormin Norman’ to his iron worker friends, had driven up into the hills to meet PCT hikers. His rear door was flung open with snacks and water. After a brief chat, a bottle of water, and a picture with his new selfie stick, it was ‘thank you kindly’ and I continued.

Section C begins

I officially started California Section C today the first part of which climbs up through a wind farm. Mesa Wind Energy ( a subsidiary of North Central Positronics for you Dark Tower fans) had a control station offering ‘Shade and Water’. At that point I was going to easily make my second 10×10 but the siren song proved irresistible. I ambled into their work yard just as the worker was closing up. He let me in anyway and there three more great things happened: air conditioning, flush toilet, and two bottles of cold water. Oh man, I was in heaven if only for 10 minutes.

The hot hills of San Gorgonio

The San Gorgonio Wilderness rises directly north of San Jacinto. It’s a place of steep walled canyons and though quite warm today as I traveled through, it also houses the most water I have seen yet. The PCT visits and revisits Mission Creek many times over the course of the next 20 miles or so. You would think a well flowing creek this time of year would be cold but not. It was cooler than the hot water in my water bottles but hardly refreshing just wet.

San Gorgonio Overlook panorama

The sometimes arduous walking today was made tolerable by another secret weapon I carry. An iPod loaded with all the Dark Tower books was just the thing to make those last 3 miles after dinner. Escapism redoubled!

Day 12 – I’m Going Down, Down, Down

Strawberry Fields to Water Faucet
Mile 182.6 – Mile 205.7

The desert awaits

I knew today was going to be a big descent day leaving the high San Jacinto Wilderness and arriving at the desert floor where Interstate 10 cuts through near Cabazon

First light in the forest
Spent ammunition

I broke camp early and enjoyed a cool, quiet forest, the winds of the night having fled. Yet again, part of the challenge today was water with the last reliable source, the North Fork of the San Jacinto River, crossing the trail around mile 186. That was it until the water faucet at mile 205 so I loaded up four liters.

Cold fresh water!
It looks so close
Such an innocent sign

At about 11:30 the valley floor, I-10, and the wind farms came into view. They would remain a fixture all day, never seeming to get closer despite my continued plodding. Little shade and an uneven, rocky trail added to the difficulty. There was no stopping with limited water so it became a bit of a death march toward the end.

What, what?

I could not bear to check progress on the GPS because I could see where I needed to go. What should have been a highlight, crossing Mile 200, lost some of its appeal because it told me I had another 5+ miles to water.

Looking back and up

I’m told the ascent and descent of San Jacinto ranks in the top 5 toughest days on the whole PCT. I have no way of knowing whether it is true but you will forgive me for believing.

Gnarly tree of San Jacinto

Just as I rounded the last corner, there was Zach aka ‘Pickles’ to greet me. Hailing from Philly, Zach and I have crossed paths several times since Julian. It was good to see a friendly face but even sweeter to guzzle some cold water. Other folks are night hiking across the valley floor to avoid the heat but I am spent. Camping near water is a good thing and means I can go out early tomorrow fully loaded.

Day 11 – Pilgrim’s Penance

Lake Hemet to Strawberry Fields Trail Camp
Detour Mile 8.6- 18.8, PCT Mile 178- 182.7

I am not sure what I did but walking the rest of the Mountain Fire Alternate  today felt like recompense for some unpaid debt long forgotten. I set out from Lake Hemet elevation 4364 walking the shoulder of the uninspiring Highway 74, through a campground and along rocky mountain bike tracks until reaching a dusty road that led me back into the foothills.

Now that’s a pine cone

Along the way, I encountered some of the largest pine cones I have ever seen. These pineapple sized behemoths lay strewn about the pine straw and apparently tempting fate, I had one don my kangaroo bush hat for a picture. It wasn’t 30 minutes later when ‘click, tick’, “Hey”, I thought to myself, “that sounded like a pine cone coming loose. What are the chances… “ Wham! It was either fantastically crazy timing or a very adept (and evil) bombardier squirrel. In any case, I caught a glancing blow to the head that punched a small hole through the leather hat and left me with a pretty good bump and scratch.

Getting my elevation back

Bloodied but unbowed I continued my trudge back up the hill. Steep and seemingly endless switchbacks took me up Tahquitz Peak and at long last I rejoined the PCT at Mile 178, elevation 8618. It was physically demanding but mentally difficult too. Working so hard and not making forward progress on the PCT was demoralizing.

Back on the trail!

But ‘praise all that is good and righteous on E Street!’ rejoin the trail I did and my mood lifted. I was pretty spent but the rugged beauty of the San Jacinto Wilderness pulled me into its  remote embrace.

Window on the wilderness
First snow on the PCT

Some of the east facing slopes still held a bit of snow as I climbed to just over 9000 feet before descending and traversing the western flanks of Mount San Jacinto.
There was an optional route off the PCT that led to the summit at 10,834 but by then I had had enough for one day. I tucked in to a sweet little tent site called Strawberry Fields at 8382 feet. This made boiling water for dinner take almost twice as long as the night before but after a big bowl of spicy veggie chili, it was lights out for this tired, contrite, but satisfied penitent.

Camp at Strawberry Fields


Day 10 – There and Back Again

Idyllwild to Lake Hemet
Mile 151.8 – Mile 166.5 + 8.6 mile detour

Mighty are the women who will wear the purple and the gold! Photo credit: Orhun Uygur

Today, with great regret, I missed out on my youngest daughter Hanna’s 18th (and golden) birthday. I will also miss her upcoming graduation from high school and the expense of this trek grows ever more. Hanna, you are a mighty force for good in the world and a cherished blessing in my life. I love you and Happy Birthday! I can’t wait to see you unleashed at UW. Bow down to Washington!
My day started with a return to The Red Kettle at 6am but apparently civilized folk don’t start breakfast until 7. Settling for a cinnamon tool and coffee, I gave Herk the plumber a ring. Picture Santa Claus in jeans with square toed cowboy boots driving a red Toyota pickup and you’ll have Herk. This kind soul is an unofficial PCT Uber of sorts who lives in Idyllwild. Need a ride 20 miles back to trail? Call Herk and if he can, he will. He seems to revel in the opportunity to meet and chat with hikers from all over the world.

Trail beauty

I threw my pack in the back of Herk’s truck and hopped in. We drove back down the hill on Highway 74 to where I had left the trail on Tuesday. I set out just after nine and was soon climbing through shaded woods, redolent of pine with granite outcroppings thrusting their way skyward. Around noon I finally gained the ridge that the trail straddles alternating sides as it continues up. To my left was the pine wooded valley that leads back up to Idyllwild and off to my right and way below, the baking desert floor where lies Palm Desert.

High desert panorama
Lake Hemet far below

Just after getting above 7000 feet, at mile 166.5, I hit the Mountain Fire trail closure. Even with evidence of the fire still apparent, the ridge trail was so spectacular that the last thing I wanted to do was shed all my hard won elevation and walk the detour. Apparently two hikers in 2014 were unable to resist and continued through the closed area each paying $2500 fines for their folly.

Ghostly sentinels of San Jacinto
Haunting woods but no flying monkeys

The detour took me left off the ridge and all the way back down to the same stretch of Highway 74 that Herk and I had driven that morning. In fact, we drove right past where I am staying tonight at Lake Hemet. It hardly seems fair to do all that work today only to wind up back so close to where I started.

Wistful glance back at my lost elevation

Sigh. I will chalk it up to the inconvenience of being principled sometimes. Wait, that’s not right. I will chalk it up to the sometimes inconvenience of being principled. It turns out that word order matters, er, sometimes.