Searching for a Darwin Award on the Pacific Crest Trail
We’ve all seen the movie. There’s a guy lost in the desert. His horse just ran away or got shot, maybe both. He has no idea where he is going so he just stumbles around. Meanwhile the sun is directly overhead, and it is blazing hot. He is sweating like a pig. Oh, and he is out of drinking water. Meanwhile, vultures are circling high above, waiting …
That’s kind of how I was feeling recently on my first day of hiking in the southern California desert. I wanted to see what the Pacific Crest Trail was like. But, because I am either stubborn or stupid, (more likely, both), I ignored all advice and proceeded as I would normally in Wisconsin. Which is to say that I started walking around 7 AM and planned to finish around 3:30 PM each day.
Here is the problem with desert hiking: it gets hot, especially in the afternoon. Shocking discovery, isn’t it? This might seem obvious to you but learning from reading something versus actually experiencing it are, for me, two very different things. What I discovered is that right around 12 or 12:30 PM, the desert begins to feel like an oven. Now, some of you out there are going to say, “well, but it’s dry heat so that’s okay, right?” My response to you is that, yes, the humidity in the desert is low but it is also low in the dehydrator that I use to make backpacking meals. So, think of the desert as kind of a giant food dehydrator where you are the food product getting dried out. Not fun.
I had, of course, read extensively about desert hiking. “Start in the early morning, take a siesta in the middle of the day, then hike into the evening”. “Use a backpack umbrella, it will lower the apparent temperature 10° – 15° ”. I did none of this. Instead I found myself around 2 PM beginning to shiver, just a little. This, I realized, was probably the early stages of heat exhaustion. The good news is that I survived and the even better news is that I now realize that I’d rather look like a dork by carrying a hiking umbrella than like a movie extra passed out in the middle of the desert in an old spaghetti western.
My time on the PCT wasn’t all bad news though. I actually found out some useful information. For example, I apparently don’t fit the profile of an illegal immigrant or drug smuggler. While on the PCT from the border thru Campo, I was passed by any number of friendly Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) patrols, running around in their SUVs on the dirt roads next to the border wall. Nearby, an ICE helicopter was hovering about 50 ft off the ground. But, they didn’t pay any attention to me. I didn’t see anyone on the trail that entire day except for one somewhat sketchy guy camped a mile from “the wall” in a thicket. Was the border patrol looking for this guy? I didn’t pause to figure out why he would choose such an odd place to camp. The advice from the PCTA is to not stop between Campo and Lake Morena lest you run into ICE patrols looking for drug smugglers or the drug smugglers themselves. That advice I actually took.
Granted I only have a miniscule sample of trail conditions on which to judge the PCT but what I found reaffirmed what I had read. The trail, at least where I was, is in much better condition than most of the AT and the grade of the path is much more gentle. I’d see peaks some ways off and was convinced that we were going to top out on everything in sight. This was what my thru hike of the AT had taught me. But, shockingly, here the path somehow found a gap in the mountains, and headed that way, rather than randomly climbing to the top. After doing the AT, this idea of taking the path of least resistance was a novelty.
This was brought home to me in a rather startling way on Day 3 of my reconnaissance when I was taking the Deer Spring Trail to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto. In my defense, I wasn’t just peak bagging. It turns out that about 2.8 miles of the PCT is part of the trail to the summit. While on that section, I came across about 2 dozen folks doing trail work. They were employed by the California Conservation Corp. They were literally breaking rocks with sledge hammers while cutting a new section of trail through the woods. This fits my definition of back breaking work. Since they weren’t wearing orange jumpsuits labelled “D.O.C.” I felt pretty secure about approaching them. So, I started chatting them up, trying to bond with them by mentioning that I did occasional trail work for Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail. My bragging got me a blank look so I quickly moved on to another topic of conversation – what it was they were actually trying to do out here in the woods. One of the guys proudly told me that they were there to change the grade of the trail – as he put it “the current path has a grade of about 30°. That is way too steep. We are making a new trail where the grade will be about 12.5°. This should make for a much more pleasant hiking experience on the PCT.”
I was dumbstruck. This was quickly followed by fear – might I actually still be in the desert having another hallucination? But, I slowly came to the realization that I was fine and, more to the point, this person was, in all seriousness, completely earnest. This was so completely different from what I found on the AT last year where most thru hikers end up cursing the trail designers for PUDs (pointless ups and downs) and/or MUDs (mindless ups and downs) or for crazy no-switchback launching ramps up the sides of mountains, thoughtfully equipped with rebar or aluminum ladders to assist your “walk in the woods”. Instead, here were people who were designing the trail to enhance the pleasure of the hiking experience on the PCT.
Of course, with this kind of attitude, they’d best stay in California – this kinder/gentler approach to trail design would never score them a job on the AT. I briefly wondered about the causal factors leading to this difference in approach (I am a retired scientist after all). Does this represent a sinister “Left Coast” attempt to subvert the American spirit? Perhaps it has something to do with the water, or maybe it is a risk factor associated with eating too much avocado toast? Being a person who keeps my own council, I shared none of these hypotheses with the trail crew. Instead, I thanked them for their work and moved on.