Day 2.8-11: The Return of AppleJack

Agua Caliente to Fuller Ridge

Mile 115.3-191.2

First off, you will have noticed I’ve changed the way I am naming days as it was getting confusing. Since this is year two I’ll go with 2.x to name days. As any Microsoft veteran would confide, not everything goes right in first versions anyway.

Sweet camp spot on Fuller Ridge

True to form, I have benefited greatly from last year’s attempt. Knowing what’s ahead and adjusting plans accordingly has made this year easier. I’m self assured about water consumption, food, and doing what works for me regardless of anxiety laden trail chatter.

So I set off confidently to tackle the often hot and dry section leading to Idyllwild. I fell into a familiar groove despite carrying a water laden pack and wound up making good miles relatively easily.

Desert oasis

There’s an almost 20 mile waterless stretch through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The drought ends at a most interesting oasis dubbed Muir Woods South. Mary, an owner of private land adjacent to the PCT, has created an idyllic sanctuary there in homage to John Muir. Water, shade, places to camp, do laundry, a lending library, and my favorite, the Muir John.

Luxury abounds

In her guest book Mary poses the provocative question ‘Are you hiking or are you sauntering?’ referring to Muir’s disdain for the word hiking. ‘Ala sainte terre’, ‘To the holy land’ pilgrims in the Middle Ages would reply in response to questions about their destination. Hence the term and so I suppose I now saunter in reverence to Muir’s beloved California.

Palms to Pines road walk

The desert ends at Highway 74, the Palms to Pines Highway, connecting desert towns like Palm Springs with mountain towns like Idyllwild. It was here where last year my body screamed hitch to town and rest. This year though, I sauntered down the road the Paradise Valley Café for lunch. Studying my maps I realized the Mountain Fire Detour I slogged through last year was silly. An extra 18 or so miles of up and down again all because a short section of the PCT remains closed blocking access to Idyllwild. Most people just hitch into town but since I’m ‘waking my way home’ I decided a 9 mile road walk would put me in the same place as the masochistic detour last year.

My favorite PCT trail town

It was actually a nice walk and I spent the night at Hurkey Creek near the place I got my trail name AppleJack. I passed my naming tree with one eye peeled in case any bombardier squirrels were lurking. Fortunately not and I was soon enjoying the pleasures of Idyllwild. I ate, did chores, ate, and shared a place with Hoosier Daddy for the night.

The tree of naming

Good chow at the Red Kettle

Today was an early wake up to wander out of town at ~5400 ft to summit Mt San Jacinto at ~10800 ft. It was a spectacular day and I enjoyed the summit alone until two young men rolled in having just run ~22 miles up from Palm Springs starting at 400 feet. I was still proud of myself if not a bit humbled.

Morning climb looking south

Made it this year

Looking back and up at Mt San Jacinto

And so I saunter on, back in my AppleJack groove.

Day 6 and 7- Angels of Resupply

Scissors Crossing to Agua Caliente

Mile 77 – Mile 115.2

Early morning over Scissors Crossing

I remember last year’s hot climb up and over from Scissors Crossing so I planned on an early start for what would be a ~23 mile day to Barrel Spring. I camped that night just off the first switchback after hitching a ride back from Julian graciously offered by Nature Beast, a thru hiker from 2016.

The night was spectacularly bright lit by a half moon and canopy of stars. When the stars winked out I knew it was time to move and take advantage of the cool morning hours.

Tenacious beauty

Rather than lug 6 liters of water like last year, I chose to rely on the crowdsourced PCT Water Report that said 600?!+ gallons of water were cached at the 3rd Gate about 15 miles ahead. Apparently the local owner of a ranch donates pallets and pallets of Crystal Geyser from Costco. It’s as impressive as it is nontrivial to make that happen in such a remote location.


I was grateful for the 2 liters that got me to Barrel Spring. As hot as it was, I considered a siesta in this cool little cave but decided against and soon passed the 100 mile mark.

After refilling at Barrel Spring my body said time to camp so I found a little spot where I could use some extra water I had gathered to wash off my salt encrusted body. I went to sleep knowing I had a relatively easy 8 mile stroll in the morning past Eagle Rock to Warner Springs and my first resupply box.

Classic PCT pics

I am so fortunate to have my sister Lisa and her two children, Easton and Anne pick up where my Momma left off last year. Before I left, we had fun having them carry my training pack unfairly loaded with 6 liters of Pellegrino. “How will you even walk!?” exclaimed Anne after shouldering what I am sure was at least her body weight. “Make sure you leave the boxes open” they said so they could add surprises.

Resupply Angels

It’s way more fun to get a box when you don’t already know everything in it. Not only did I get 2 dozen perfect molasses cookies made by Anne along with other treats, I got the sweetest note ever:

Anne, Easton, and Lisa, you make me happy and Momma(Grandma) proud. Thank You!

I spent the day at the Warner Springs Community Center doing laundry, showering, caring for my feet, and munching cookies. It doesn’t take long for bucket showers and laundry to become heaven sent. And as I told Easton, it’s important for warriors to have clean underpants 😊

Day 3 to 5 – An Experience To Be Had

Cibbet’s Flats to Scissor’s Crossing

Mile 32.6 – Mile 77

Beware, hikers within

My approach to the trail last year was as a problem to be solved. With a late start in May and a hard stop in early October, an underlying sense of urgency drove me and I paid the price. This year I am trying a more relaxed approach, going slower, and enjoying whatever the trail has in store.

All hail the Wolverines

So when I arrived at Mt Laguna around midday and found a group of trail angels setting up at the campground for the weekend I paused. The Wolverines of the PCT we’re cooking burgers, doing pack shakedowns, and providing places to camp. Did I mention there was beer too? All free just because Steve Climber, Stumbling Norwegian, Gourmet, Hoosier Daddy, and Todd wanted it so. The great accordion of PCT hikers compressed there and many people stayed for a good time. Plenty of time to make miles later and so I stayed too.

Trail magic courtesy of the Wolverines

Mom liked Mt Laguna too

The next morning I was off early to rendezvous with Joel, he of maple bar angel fame from last year. We met up at lunch time and by special request, more maple bars! Joel rolled up in his rockin 4×4 Sprinter van loaded with water, snacks, beer, and all things delicious for hikers. “Hey Joel, you’re about to be as popular as you want to be…” I said as the leading edge of the hiker group behind me came into view. He happily hooked up the first group before heading further up the trail where we planned meet and go find a camp spot for the night. After a hot afternoon walk, Joel came strolling up the trail, turned around and walked back to his van.

Staying ahead of the weight loss

Hot afternoon walk

Nice Sprinter Joel!

How all the hikers camp every night, honest

Ho hum, Cajun blackened salmon for dinner

After dropping water for those that followed, we skedaddled to find a sweet camp site up a remote 4×4 track. We had a great time talking Sprinter vans, drinking beer, and telling stories. A delicious salmon dinner, early to bed, and an even earlier ride back to the trail.

Today was the hottest walk yet down from scrub hills to the desert floor. An easy hitch to Julian won me a free hug from the famous trail angel Carmen along with a beer, foot bath, and free piece of pie at Mom’s. I will return to the trail tonight to camp but will continue to stop and smell the cactus whenever I can and enjoy the experience as it comes.

Thank you Joel, thank you Wolverines, thank you all!

Strawberry rhubarb at Mom’s Pie House in Julian

Desert in bloom

Day 1 and 2- Reproving Ground

Campo to Cibbets Flats
Mile 0 – Mile 32.6

Bright eyed and clean shaven

Unfortunately, the hard won hiker physique I gained last year has vanished. My hoof-like feet have softened again and I am sporting an extra 30 pounds since leaving the trail last year. I knew the first few weeks on the PCT test (or retest) everyone’s mettle. I’m happy to report that at least so far, last year’s learning has helped ease my transition back into trail life. One size bigger and wide shoes, sun gloves, camp shoes, blister diligence… experience makes a difference.

Virginia vagabonds chillin at Scout and Frodo’s

Arriving at Scout and Frodo’s was deja vu all over again. A top notch operation if ever there was, the only difference this year was a much larger cast of characters from all over the world. To name a few there was British Elliot a colorist for Disney Animation, Kiwi Deebrah (phonetic spelling) just off the Te Araroa a 3000km long trail in New Zealand, a host of Germans, a vagabond couple from Virginia who have been out adventuring since early 2016, two kids from Colorado fresh out of high school, a young couple from Bellingham just out of college who reminded me of my own Connor and Lindsay, and a retired police detective from Bainbridge Island with the trail name Hoosier Daddy.

This season’s cast of characters

Hoosier Daddy comes to trail after many years teaching snow skills, doing pack shakedowns, supporting trail angels, and otherwise being a cool dude in the PCT community. Finally in 2018, it’s his turn to walk the trail and I had the honor of sharing his first few miles. In addition to ‘walking off the blue’ as he describes his hike, HD also carries the ashes of trail angel royalty. Andrea Dinsmore passed away late last year and HD intends to carry her home to Skykomish, WA where for many years she and her husband Jerry have famously supported PCT hikers.

Hoosier Daddy

I never got the chance to meet Andrea Dinsmore but I do carry my mother’s memory with me. Mom, “O (Trail) Angel of God!” passed away too soon this past December. My sister Joanne had small hearts sewn from one of Mom’s flannel shirts and filled them with dried rose petals. Though the memento may be worse for the wear, Momma is coming with me this year.

Momma is with me

My plan was to make it to Mt Laguna today but freezing temperatures and 50+mph winds at the top encouraged me to stop short and hunker down. It was actually quite pleasant to nap the day away snug inside my tent and let the weather blow itself out tonight. Taking a more leisurely approach to hiking (and blogging) seems promising.

The Tyranny of Convenience T-2

Leaving my love, my family, my life for ~5 months to again attempt the PCT has been harder to justify this time around. “It’s been your dream, go for it”, “Seize the day!”, “Good for you”, “I’m jealous, wish I could go too”, “Godspeed” were common refrains heard before leaving last year. This year, more disbelief joined the happy trails. “You’re going back to start over?”, “From the beginning?”, “Why do the desert again?” “You said the scenery of first 700 miles had little to recommend”, “Don’t do it”, “Wait, what?”

As luck would have it, a recent piece in the New York Times Sunday Review points to the answer of ‘why?’ better than I ever could. In his article The Tyranny of Convenience, Tim Wu points out the value of choosing a hard path. “We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest.” Through struggle you can find “the solution to the question of who you are.” I’d encourage everyone to consider what Wu has to say. His words certainly ring true for me.

I of course love my life, I love my wife, and often wonder about being the lucky one who has won life’s cosmic lottery. Relative to most in this world, my life is unimaginably easy and comfortable. For that I am immensely grateful. I also seem to find joy in tackling arbitrary challenges, completely contrived and meaningless in the big picture, but from which I source great personal satisfaction. “I going to run the New York Marathon”, “I’m going to climb Mount Rainier”, “I’m going to run around Green Lake 60 times in 60 days”, “I’m going to do an Ironman”, “I’m going to thru hike the Pacific Crest Trail” … Channeling my inner JFK, I ‘choose to do these things not because they are easy but because they are hahd’ 😊

The payoff is getting to know myself as someone who can do whatever I choose. Admittedly self-indulgent and more costly this year than last, I return to the PCT in 2018 because I can and also to see if I can wring more self-discovery from the experience. I’m pretty sure there’s not much juice without a good squeeze.

Once More Unto The Breach Dear Friends, Once More T-6

With some trepidation, long anticipation, and no small hope of redemption, today I declare my intention to return to the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018 and once again attempt a northbound walk from Mexico to Canada. One of my longtime friends observed that accepting failure is not one of my strong suits. True enough, my decision last year to leave the trail after almost 800 miles has haunted me ever since. Were the conditions really that dangerous? Why the stubborn refusal to skip ahead and come back later? Why not settle for a section hike? I have thought about such things every day since.

I do think I made the right decision. The celebrated mountaineer Ed Viesturs famously quips, “Reaching the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory”. Last year two young women tragically drowned in separate incidents while attempting the same Sierra runoff conditions I avoided. Based on reading others’ accounts from last year, it would seem the best chance to connect a full northbound thru hike required an early start (think March) and the fortitude to brave 300+ miles of Sierra snowpack before it all started to melt in earnest (think snow bridges in May). Those that made it through have harrowing tales to tell and my utmost respect for their accomplishment.

Not surprisingly, I watched weather reports in California this past winter with interest. Whereas 2017 was an epically high snow year, as of 4/1, the snowpack this year is only about 45% of average sparking both renewed drought worries for Californians and high hopes in one erstwhile backpacker. I pulled a permit back in November when they were all quickly snapped up by this year’s crop of PCT aspirants. Just in case I told myself.
And so, not without some heartache and other complications, next Tuesday, I will retrace my steps back to San Diego and try again. I can’t very well explain the need to start over from Mexico especially given my grumbling account of the desert last year. Suffice it say that I am nothing if not my word. If I say I am going to do something, come hell or high water, I typically do it. Er, I guess maybe strike that last bit about high water 😊

I will however do some things differently this year including relaxing my self-imposed requirement to blog every day. It became a source of undue stress especially when network coverage was spotty or nonexistent. I will write as frequently as I’m able and pledge again to take you along for the ride if you are so inclined. I have another idea about capturing the experience for others via virtual reality. Other than adding an obnoxious amount of electronic weight to my pack, I am excited by the prospect of creating an immersive post hike retrospective in VR wherein you’ll be able to walk beside me and glimpse the glory of the PCT. Stay tuned…