PCT Part 1: Life in the Desert

Campo (Mile 0) to Julian (Mile 77)

I arrived in Los Angeles a week before my PCT start date, and picked up a rental car at LAX. I was a little rusty at driving on the wrong side of the road, but nonetheless survived the drive to my couchsurfing host’s place in Sherman Oaks, about 15 minutes out of Hollywood.

I spent a few days stocking up on gear and supplies, exploring LA, and working out all the logistics of compressing my life into a backpack. On my last day in LA, fellow PCT hiker Kiki kindly drove up from Dana Point to accompany me on a long training hike through Griffith Park, past the Hollywood sign and the Griffith Observatory.

Finally on Sunday I hit the highway down to San Diego, where I was due to stay with legendary PCT trail angels Scout and Frodo. If you’re the type of person who can’t fathom why anyone would voluntarily spend five months away from civilisation, try battling Southern California traffic for a week. It may just change your mind!

I returned my car at San Diego airport, where I and another hiker were picked up by one of Scout and Frodo’s many volunteers. Scout and Frodo, who thru-hiked the trail in 2007, have turned their home into a haven for hikers who are all about to start their PCT journey. I spent two nights at their place along with about 20 other hikers, sleeping in one of several large tents in the backyard.

The couple have an infectious enthusiasm for the trail and the hiker community, which they express nightly in their dinnertime talks to their grateful guests, covering everything from environmentally responsible hiking to the history of the trail and the people who built it.

On Tuesday morning, I woke up with the other departees at 4:30AM, enjoyed my last cooked breakfast for a while, and piled into a car for the trip to Campo.

We arrived at the trail’s southern terminus monument around dawn, and peered through the metal border wall into Mexico. After the obligatory photos, hikers began to trickle out onto the trail. After four years of planning, I’d imagined that my first step would feel momentous, but I was 100 metres down the trail before I realised I hadn’t been paying attention to it. Oops!

I made my way through the first stretch of the 700-mile-long desert section, which is unusually green this year due to record high rainfall. In an average year hikers have to carry up to six litres of water to make it through long dry sections, but so far there have been water sources everywhere. It’s also unseasonably cool right now, making for some relatively easy days of hiking. The downside of all this lies in the Sierra Nevada mountains, 700 miles up the trail, which are likely to be still buried under a thick blanket of snow when I get there.

I spent my first night camped at Hauser Creek Canyon at mile 15.4, along with about a dozen other hikers. On the second day, I made the long climb out of the canyon in swirling mist, before stopping for a breakfast burrito in the tiny town of Lake Morena at mile 20.

Later in the afternoon I caught up with Richard, another hiker from Scout and Frodo’s. He lives near Monterey in central California, the area much written about by famed American author Johnn Steinbeck. I suggested “Steinbeck” as his trail name, which he mulled over for a few minutes before deciding that he liked it. Later, he asked about my tattoo of the Bibbulmun Track’s marker on my left calf. The triangular marker depicts a mythical Dreamtime serpent known as the Waugyl, which Richard thought was a good trail name. I liked it too, but I decided to Americanize the spelling to make it easier to order at restaurants. Ben is dead, long live Woggle!

On day 3, after camping by a small brook, I made the climb to the small community of Mount Laguna. A gaggle of hikers were clustered around the tavern just before noon, waiting for it to open. I had a delicious spaghetti bolognese, but envied those who ordered the BBQ chicken burger.

After restocking on gummy bears, I made it a few miles out of Mount Laguna before reaching the ridge above Storm Canyon. I was immediately blasted with cold, gusting wind, which did not abate after another hour of hiking. I ran into Steinbeck at mile 48, where he’d found a tent spot partly screened by bushes. I’d intended to camp at a group site a few hundred feet up the trail, but the fierce wind prompted me to nab the other partly-sheltered spot while I still could.

A few other hikers I recognised passed by while I was setting up my tent, all headed for the same site. I went to check on them after I’d made camp, but they were nowhere to be found. The group site was completely exposed to the relentless gale, and they all had opted to keep hiking in search of better shelter. I returned to my tent, which was getting buffeted from all directions, and settled in for a sleepless night.

By morning we were enshrouded in a thick, swirling mist, and the vast canyon below was now completely obscured. Neither the wind nor the mist showed any signs of abating, so Steinbeck and I finally packed up and started walking. It was an unpleasant day of braving the chilling winds, punctuated by occasional clear spots with spectacular views of the canyons and the desert floor, thousands of feet below. One moment I’d be walking along the sunny side of a ravine, enjoying the view, then I’d round a corner and be immediately pelted in the face with freezing wind and mist.

Finally, after 14 long miles along the ridgeline, the trail descended steeply to a sheltered campsite by a creek bed, where most of the other hikers I knew had gathered. I found water a short distance up the partially-dry creek, which allowed me to make a hot meal of teriyaki noodles.

The next day, my fifth on the trail, I had my sights set on the Stagecoach Trails RV park at mile 77. I got up early and started the long descent from 4000 feet to the desert valley floor. Visions of a burger, a hot shower and clean clothes gave me all the motivation I needed to set a quick pace. The trail offered spectacular views of the sandy-green desert all day long. On my way down from a ridge, I saw a group of men practising their shooting far below, using the base of a mountain as their backstop. The sound of the gunfire echoed around the otherwise-silent canyon, making me feel like I was in an old western movie.

Shortly before the intersection of the trail and the highway, known as Scissors Crossing, I met up with two other hikers; Mallory and Parker. We grouped up to try and get a hitch 3.5 miles down the highway to the RV park. 15 or so cars passed us by on the lonely highway without stopping, but eventually a white sedan pulled over for us. The driver, a friendly Kazakh guy who recently got his US citizenship, was fascinated by the trail and quizzed us all on the short drive. He dropped us off at the RV park with our thanks, and we dived back into all the comforts of civilisation we’d been missing for nearly a week. Showered, fed and in clean clothes, I enjoyed my best night’s sleep yet.

I decided to take a near-o (nearly a zero mile day) today in Julian, the first real town on the PCT, where I’m writing this post. My body feels in great shape, but I wanted to give it the day off to catch up on maintenance and loosen up the muscles. So far I’ve enjoyed a free apple pie at Mom’s Pies (a PCT institution), stuffed my face with nachos and caught up on life admin. Soon, I’ll hitch back out to the trail and walk a couple of miles to what I’m told is a sheltered campsite. Wish me luck!

9 Comments on “PCT Part 1: Life in the Desert

  1. It is wonderful to read about your journey and see all the pictures. Feel like I am walking alongside you. Love the beautiful California Poppies in your photo. I used to grow them in Perth. Looking forward to your next blog. Stay safe and well. Love Mum

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  2. Hi Ben,

    We haven’t met, but your mum is our very special friend and wanted to share your wonderful experiences with me, and I’m so glad she did!! It all sounds just great and might add, you describe it all beautifully!!! Keep sending these blogs to her, believe me – it makes her day!!
    Take care Ben, have a wonderful time!!
    cheers, Lia

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Have a great time Ben… My class followed Jess Watson on her journey around the world… might have to add this trip to the list this year … looking forward to following your journey.

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  4. Your adventure has begun. I am happy to see that you are meeting lots of like minded people. Love the photos and your descriptions. Take care. Jo

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  5. Ben Great article! We are enjoying snow today in Chicago. Stay safe. Sheryl

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