The Pacific Crest Trail runs from Mexico to Canada (or vice versa) largely along spectacular mountain ranges in California, Oregon and Washington. It is 2,650 miles long and just thinking about doing the whole thing makes me tired. However! My best friend from childhood, Betty, and her husband Tim (you may recognize them from such films as “The West Coast Trail“) did elect to do this insane thing. Since they were spending about three months in my home state, I was determined to find time to light out east and hike a section with them.
After years of drought, the 2016/17 snow year was a big one, and Betty and Tim had decided to “flip” partway through. That is, they hiked from Mexico to Mt. Whitney (yeah I did Mt. Whitney too whatever), then drove to the Oregon border and hiked south to Whitney, then drove back to the Oregon border and hiked to Canada. That gave the snow some time to melt and streams time to be less murderously deep and swift and was a very good idea.
By that time, Betty and Tim had made friends with other people on the trail — all with trail names and I can’t remember them all but the collective called itself Fart Force 5,000 or FF5K. Here they are (plus me):
Trying to rendezvous with people who are spending six of every seven days or more without cell service is a challenge, but by July we made it work and I took the middle of a week off to pick them up at Echo Lake in Desolation Wilderness. This was kind of wonderful because part of the reason Betty and Tim had decided to hike the PCT was when I gave them a map and told them to check out Lake Aloha in Desolation. The FF5K crew had largely stayed there the night before I picked them up in my rental luxury station wagon.
“Trail angels” are people who provide some good (beer, apple slices, a couch) or service (rides, a place to sleep) for thru-hikers called “trail magic.” This can be legendary or creepy or just careless (like the guy who left bags of trail mix out for wildlife to tear into). My goal was to at least be competent: I rented a cabin with a hot tub and like 11 beds, near town, and stocked it with (what turned out to be a laughably small amount of) steak, fruit, wine and snacks from the Korean grocery store.
FF5K moved in in waves, some having hitchhiked into town, some I picked up, and a few who came through later. They all showered more or less immediately and then washed every filthy thing they owned, leaving an array of fit young men and women only wearing towels all over this vacation home I rented. I handed them each a glass of wine.
With their motley, thrifted “town clothes” more or less clean, I took sets of hikers into town on five Safeway runs, four trips to the post office, one stop at Subway and several outings to an outdoor gear store that failed each of us in different ways (like not having a single sports bra????) The hot tub was ruined immediately, and at least a dozen pizzas were ordered an eaten as an appetizer. A FF5K member with bartending skills made excellent margaritas. We tried and failed to watch Game of Thrones (I was glad of this).
Suddenly (two days later), it was time to hit the ol’ trail again. FF5K had been hiking 20+ miles a day for months now, and I was nervous about keeping up. Actually, I just wouldn’t have been able to at all. Lucky for me, they decided to take their first day back after this epic town break an “easy” one with just 11 miles to their campsite in Meiss Country Roadless Area. We got sandwiches at Echo Lake Chalet, then got beers, then another round of beers, then stood around, then decided to start walking.
I wore the hat I’d bought to replace my much-beloved MALTEX hat, lost in Hawaii.
This wasn’t the dramatic exposed granite of Desolation Wilderness, but had its own shockingly scenic vistas and tall cool trees and open bluer-than-anything skies. (I am spoiled rotten as a Californian.)
We hiked around a kind of rocky bowl that emptied down hundreds of feet of sun/snow/tree-dappled cliffs into Lake Tahoe in the far distance. The snow was deeper in the shadows and steadily melting everywhere. Drifts were marked “FF5K” by the trekking poles of members ahead of us, and sometimes by us for the people behind.
It was near the birthday of three or people so I hiked in a lot of cheap beers (and hiked the cans out, more importantly) and some scratch-off lottery tickets. We sang happy birthday, shared a joint, cracked some fresh inside jokes, and kept one another company til hiker midnight (dusk), when the mosquitos chased most of us into our tents.
Everyone got up early to make breakfast and break camp. Then FF5K split up in groups of two or three or four, headed 20 miles or whatever that day. I took my time, since I was headed out to the real world and wanted to linger a bit, and didn’t have that far to go, really.
After hugs goodbye I strapped myself into my pack and began to retrace my steps from the day before. It was pretty lonesome without my friends, old and new, and that anxiety spun up. So I listened to a podcast while I hiked (something I really don’t like doing but which served me so well here) and was back to my car by lunchtime.
I was pretty sore after 20 miles in two days (perhaps foreshadowing the challenge Pictured Rocks would present) but I had the luxury SUV for a few more days. So I drove an hour south to Markleeville for Grover Hot Springs. This is a state park with a really modest day-use fee and there were all kinds of people there in the spring-fed pool with a beautiful view of eastern Sierra foothills and picture-perfect fluffy white clouds.
I wish fervently that America had more of these. After that I drove home and slept in bed on a mattress, as my PCT friends kept living life outdoors.
Lessons learned: You can throw one-third of a shitty egg-crate sleeping pad down anywhere. A podcast is decent company.