Deflation in the San Felipe Hills

The San Felipe Hills can kiss my ass.

After that windy night on a ridge somewhere outside Mount Laguna, I emailed in some updates to the PCT water report. (Essential reading for those with a keen interest in staying alive in the desert. Consider it the TripAdvisor of water sources, but where your baseline expectations are even lower than a crummy motel. Sample: ‘Great source, if you don’t mind the sulphur smell folks!’ ‘Dead mice and a lizard in the upper cistern, but otherwise good.’) I closed my email with best wishes from an even windier Mile 55.

Trail magic in the wind near the Sunrise Trailhead! Very welcome bag of gummy bears to shove in one’s gob when it’s too windy to open your food bag.

‘Hey, get used to the wind in SoCal!’ replied DoubleTap, one of the amazing volunteers who keeps this resource running. And get used to it I did. The rest of the day 50mph gusts battered us around on ridge tops, down snaking switchbacks, and even in the usual precious corners of shelter it would sneak in and blow dust into your peanut butter.

The dust is just something you get used to out here. Between your toes, up your nose, at the bottom of your bag, silently exfoliating everything you hold dear. But I really do draw the line at using it as sandwich seasoning.

At last I rolled up in Julian, a gold rush town full of charming weatherboarded houses and the kind of wholesome stores that sell old timey cyder and give you free pie if you show your PCT long distance permit. A trail angel called Carmen, who – to our great loss – will be packing up in May, opens up her restaurant to hikers so they can use her washing machine, sleep on her porch, and get restorative hugs aplenty. If there’s a currency on the PCT, I truly believe it’s kindness.

Julian getting sleepy after 5pm

I had the kind of shower that restores your faith in the world, followed by a bath, and tried to sort everything out a bit. A scout leader gave me his chocolate bar in the supermarket. Things were looking peachy.

Updating my blog at Julian Library set me a bit behind the herd the next day, and I found myself climbing out of Scissors Crossing into the south-facing slopes of the San Felipe hills, at 1pm, alone – a combination of ingredients that you’ll find recommended in every good hiking guide. I’d got a bit of a march on and probably was a bit dehydrated, when I bumped into Joanne and Nicole, holding back as a hiker ahead had warned them of a rattlesnake ahead.

Lovely, endless dust

‘Yeah, he’s pissed,’ said AWOL, another hiker who’d come up behind us just as the rattling was getting started. Being bold 21st century women, we sent him on first and, seeing he was unscathed, I got ready to move. Although only a tiddler, this snake was coiled up and ready to strike. He was down on the slope, to my left. Up to the right was a delightfully vertical rock face. I don’t really remember how I passed it, but my legs are intact so I suppose it went well.

My beautiful nemesis

I set my tent up on a stunning but exposed spot and watched the sun go down in the evening stillness. In the night, the wind picked up again and to add some extra spice to the mix, I appeared to be lying on the ground. Searching around with a headtorch, I found two, tell-tale arsing spines peaking out of my sleeping mat. My pack had slipped onto a cactus  earlier in the day but it hadn’t occurred to me the spines would reach all the way to an inflatable mat and pillow packed well in the middle of my kit (WRONG! Guess again! Everything you assume about the PCT is wrong!) Sending a silent prayer to the gods of Tenacious Tape, I tweezered out the offenders and patched the holes up as best I could and had an uneasy sleep until dawn.

When you see pictures like this on Instagram, bear in mind that the owner is about to wake up cold, on the floor, and then spend most of the next day snotty and whimpering.

The next day was hot again, and seemed to consist of more endless switchbacks, no-one in sight, the same view, no sense of progress. I had my first big PCT cry. I missed my beloved Pete, missed us laughing together at the shitty stupidity of situations we’d end up in, of musing about what was for lunch, of pulling each other through. Suddenly getting to Canada seemed huge and daft and impossible. I passed mile 100 in a blur, seeing most things through a salty filter of tears.

Bird + Byrde at Eagle Rock

And then, somehow, I was between trees, running streams, big open grassy meadows arms wide open reaching to Eagle Rock, a breathtaking formation whose outstretched wings pull you into Warner Springs. Green, green, green. The last mile to town was by a bubbling creek, and I was followed by a cow who mooed at me quite a bit. I felt at home.

Green! Running water! Bovine livestock!

Warner Springs put me back together.

It’s a town with 96% poverty rate, yet there is a phenomenal band of volunteers who welcome hikers to their community centre every year. On the day I arrived, the place was bustling with people packing up hundreds of food bank bags for the community – all this while annoying smelly people like me are wandering in and out having existential crises about defective sleeping gear.

Angels in action at Warner Springs Community Centre

There’s bucket showers, hot water to wash your clothes in, a small but mighty resupply shop, and the oh-so-needed 2 Foot Adventures, whose Airstream trailer belts out soul music and carries gear for hikers whose kit isn’t quite right/has already met with the local flora and lost the battle. A kind older guy with an earring and a warm smile reassures me they’ll be there the next day if I can’t fix my mat.

‘Every day’s a lesson out there,’ he smiles, ‘and you just got a PCT schooling.’

There were even fluffy bunny rabbits around the showers, for goodness’ sake.

Disney critters on tap

I spend an entertaining hour with Mark, pouring water onto my sleeping mat, looking for bubbles like over-excited hawks and then yelling ‘Sharpie!’ as soon as we spot a leak. Later in my tent, I add a few more patches to the mat, then put in a call to REI to send me something more robust to Idyllwild. Feeling flush, I add on an extra pair of pants to my order. A girl’s got to treat herself once in a while.

Warner Springs put me back together. And the San Felipe Hills can still kiss my ass.