‘I have an issue to take up with you,’ I say to Mark at a break on the first day. ‘A way back you said it was downhill all the way to Hauser Creek.’
‘Myeeehhh, there’s real downhill and then there’s trail downhill,’ he explains. ‘With trail downhill you’re bound to sweat up some stuff too.’ Ah.
The first 10 miles or so have been pretty dreamy (if you’re dreams consist of sweat, heavy backpacks, and stopping incessantly to take pictures of desert flowers. I know mine do). I’m fully aware I’m in the honeymoon period of the trail, but I just can’t stop smiling. The first day and a half of the PCT are something of a baptism of fire – the next reliable water source from the start is Lake Morena at mile 20, but a 1000ft climb at around mile 16 lands most people into staying at Hauser Creek, which should probably just be called ‘Hauser’ since the last time it was remotely wet was months ago. So a 6L water carry and a dry camp it is.
I arrive at Hauser at about 4, catching up with some of the more athletic starters from this morning, who are mulling over the option of climbing up and out to a shower and food at Lake Morena. But I have an Alpine Aire limey chickeny meal thing and an avocado burning a hole in my pack, I’m going nowhere right now.
I sleep pretty well, gazing up at the stars winking through the cork-oak branches, and am up and away by 6.30am. The climb in the shade is about as close to bliss as you’re going to get ascending 1000ft in not many miles, and I’m able to pause on the top and have a proper British tea break and breakfast, watching the sun starting to warm the facing hills. The trail then winds comfortably down to Lake Morena, breakfast burritos at the malt shop and a campsite with SHOWERS.
A lot of my gang have decided to press on a bit further, but we’re on day one of a 2-day heatwave (35C-ish) and the lure of staying within a walkable radius of a tap and shower is too strong.
As I’m sitting under a gazebo catching up on my diary, a friendly ranger comes over and forms the welcoming committee. ‘Watch out for those mountain lions,’ he finishes, ‘it’s really not a great idea for women to be hiking alone. They seem to single them out as… as…’ he pauses, rubbing his moustache awkwardly. I can see him diplomatically fetching around for a term that isn’t ‘weak’ or ‘vulnerable’. ‘…different’ he arrives at. And I thank him politely and assure him I have no plans to become a cougar snack in the near future.
Later in the afternoon, the casualties start to stagger in who’ve made it from Campo in one day. They look broken, high tide marks of salt glittering across their hats and shirts.
Expecting another hot day, I get another early start and even manage to be walking with a few of the stars (and, no doubt, a collection of lions waiting behind the rocks licking their lips and brandishing cutlery). A hot but stunning day swooping up through the hills to Mount Laguna follows, scrub and chaparral turning to trees and the scent of warm pines. It’s a big ol’ 20 mile day, so I’m relieved to catch up with friends at the Burnt Rancheria Campground. It’s easy, walking along on your own, singing to the hills and taking solo breaks where you start talking to your cheese, to imagine that you’ll never see anyone ever again. And then suddenly you bump into a whole ton of people you met a while back (ok, a day, trail time is weirdly stretchy) and everything’s set right.
Rachel and I swing out of Mount Laguna the next morning, past a man walking his wolf on a long lead (ok…) and the trail takes us up out of the trees and into something that looks more like what I think of as desert: steep canyons, burnt yellows and oranges. no plants in sight. We continue along the ridge, looking out over this new barren territory, and wonder if that’s what we’ll be heading down into tomorrow. Or if it’s Arizona. Pass. Geography never was my strong point.
The wind’s starting to pick up now, and come camp time our best option seems to be to pitch in what could generously be called – even by the most creative of estate agents – a hedge. Mark, Rachel, Ed, Ludwig and I play tent Tetris until everything just about fits in.
‘Is it bad Leave No Trace to snap off a few twigs, so in turn they don’t leave a trace on me and my tent?’ I shout over to Mark, who is taking all this in his stride and wandering around serenely taking photos of the sunset. He gives another one of his ‘Myeeehs’, that tells me I should let the plant life be, and kindly helps me put on my tent flysheet as the forecast is threatening to chuck rain into this already thrilling mix of conditions at about 5am. It turns out that adding a flysheet to a relatively steady gauze inner converts it into a parachute. Who knew!
We cook dinner in another hedge – I have the Alpine Aire Masa Beef, which seems to have the sole distinguishing feature of looking exactly the same as it will in your cathole the next morning – then retreat to our respective tents to watch the poles bounce and bow in the wind.