‘The thing is, you’ve got to be tactical about it,’ says Mary, thunking a gallon of iced lemonade down on the table. ‘Don’t go up to the guy in the corner with the motorbike and tattoos, who looks like he just got out of jail this morning. Approach the family with the kids and the ice cream and say in your meekest voice, “Ohhh, I don’t suppose you’re going to Idyllwild, are you?”.’
I’m at Muir Wood, another trail angel oasis in the middle of the Anza desert, run by a retired philosophy professor from New England who now lives out here full time. (I promise it’s not all lemonade and angels, it’s just that a lot of the other stuff is foot-in-front-of-the-other grind and wondering what’s for lunch.) We’ve climbed out of the leafy valleys around Warner Springs, stopping to rest at Mike’s Place – a quirky stop with water, shade, and a collection of vintage cars under tarps, all halfway to revival.
Mary’s place is heaven for bookish sorts fond of shade (= me). There’s a Little Free Library, where I readily offload my finished Agatha Christie, pocket printouts of Muir’s writing on the Sierra Nevada, a pit loo (or ‘Muir John’, I love a woman who can pun), cutouts of Thoreau, Whitman and Muir with associated Instagrammable quotes, a solar shower, shade, water, and – if you’re lucky like us – freshly made and iced lemonade. Mary speaks with a fierce and enduring love of the desert stretch of the PCT, the Muir-ean concept of sauntering rather than hiking, and I finally discover what the plastic-bark, movie-set looking trees are (manzanitas).
Paradise Valley Cafe is just a few miles away, said to have the best burgers on the PCT, and it’s the focus of most conversations today. The Mt San Jacinto fire closure not much further up the trail means a lot of people, burger-drunk and desert-worn, decide to hitch directly from Paradise to Idyllwild and skip a few awkward miles. Am I one of those? I think you know the answer.
‘You should really do the next section if you want to know the PCT before Wild,’ Mary says. ‘Sure, you can still get into a pocket of solitude when you’re walking north, but let me tell you – when you’re heading southbound… well, you have to say “hi” an awful lot.’
After experimenting closely with over-hydration, I finish the last hot miles to Paradise Valley. The PCT being what it is (someone quite rightly pointed out to me recently, ‘it’s a national scenic trail, not a crow-flies highway to Canada’) it dips down and up 3 times when it could quite comfortably have stayed high on the ridge. There is really nothing quite as energising of an afternoon as seeing a trail across a valley, at the same height as you, knowing you have to bash your knees up and down 2000ft to get there. Passing mile 150 in a bit of a daze, it’s not long before I reach the road and hitch down to a Route 66 burger, a Coke and shade. A lot of the gang are stopping here for the night to wait out some expected high winds, but while camping on a roadside cafe patio with the promise of breakfast is not without its charm, I decide to take a bite out of tomorrow’s thousands of feet ascent and head a bit higher into the hills with a few others (all Brits, make of that what you will).
Walking into the dusk away from the road is serene. Birds are coming into roost, the lime green moss seems to fluoresce even brighter in the half-light, and armies of ants march across the trail, bringing home the day’s dropped riches of trail mix, peanut butter blobs and tortilla crumbs. With dinner done and dusted, I’m not consumed with the usual hunger fixation oh-god-do-I-pitch-tent-or-cook-or-wash-or-what mind freeze. We camp in a roundly bouldered canyon, hearing the wind whipping through the trees above but magically sheltered ourselves.
The next day proves to be both the hardest and happiest so far. After climbing up a fair bit, there are ominous clouds sitting fatly over the ridge with no sign of shifting. Snow starts falling in a Christmassy way, but pretty soon it’s a sideways blizzard affair. The blisters on my heel, which are starting to challenge the laws of physics, feel like they might have just burst, but I’m not about to stop to find out (plus on days like these it’s this kind of gripping intrigue that gets you to the next stop – ‘In 5 miles I’ll have a biscuit and find out what delights are waiting inside my socks.’)
I’ve been bitching for days about the PCT always being on the side of the mountain, giving you the 180 view rather than the 360. Now we’re on a long ridge with unparalleled panoramas including Mt San Jacinto, and I’m being beaten about by 60mph gusts, wearing everything I own and mostly looking at the inside of my bandana. It feels relentless, not being able to stop too long without getting dangerously cold, the wind cheating my balance, the trees in the burn area giving little protection.
Suddenly, the cloud lifts, and I drop down into a bit of a wind shadow. All around the burned out trees are iced in the morning’s snow. It’s a weird, hyper-real, dystopian Narnia, and more than worth the slog to get here. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. We’re able to stop, catch our breath and eat some lunch. ‘This is still my favourite day on the trail, we’re properly in the mountains!’ I bubble with a mouthful of snacks, sounding alarmingly like my parents. Fran looks murderous.
We look at the map to see that there are few sheltered camping options for miles until Hurkey Creek. That’s going to make it a 24-mile day. After eating, we push on, up the steepest switchbacks to date, swimming around in the clouds, until we get to the official fire closure, and turn off down the Spitler Peak Trail with little reluctance to be ditching the PCT. There’s not much to say about the way down except it was long and – though not strictly endless – as close to an infinite trudge as it’s possible to get.
Ed, Ludwig and I wobble into the general area of the Hurkey Creek campsite – campsites I’ve now decided being second only to industrial estates in impossibility to navigate/find entrance and exit etc. Ed shouts over to a group of men gathered round their RVs, beers in hand and barbeques on the go. ‘Oh, this area is more of a campground,’ one shouts back, easing the tab off another can. ‘You guys’ll want the campsite half a mile over that way.’ I have literally no idea what the distinction is, but we end up with a site – or ground – to pitch. There are a number of signs around with dire warnings about bears who’ve learned to identify picnic coolers and toothpaste tubes. ‘Leave everything covered in the trunk of your car, and nothing to chance,’ they urge. The signs admit no possibility of arriving here on foot, so I embrace the hiker trash and hang my food bag in the loos, making a mental note not to need a wee in the middle of the night.
The following day, we roll along 10 miles into Idyllwild, with a few less layers of skin on our face and a few more stories to tell. Ten of us stay at the idyllic, Snow White-ish Foley Cabin, I get to the Post Office in time to collect my new sleeping mat, pants and sun gloves (next stop, Dorksville), spend most of the time eating and patting the mayor.
Another hitching tip: it is your smile that gets you rides, not your thumb.