PCT Part 4: Becoming Paddles

Idyllwild (Mile 179) to Big Bear (Mile 266)

I got discharged from Eisenhower right in the middle of the Coachella music festival, which had filled up every last hotel room in the Palm Springs area. I hadn’t a hope of finding accommodation until my hospital roommate, Bob, kindly offered to let me stay with him and his wife Karen at their retirement community in Indio, not far away.

Bob and Karen are from Wisconsin, but spend their winters down in the southern California desert to escape the snow. They were keenly interested in my hike, and we grew pretty close in my time with them. They were incredibly generous with their time and effort to help me get back on trail, even though I had so little to offer to repay them.

We bonded over our shared love of Wisconsin sports (especially the Packers, but also the Brewers and Bucks). Bob let me drive us in his golf cart to his gym, where I gingerly tested my heart’s strength on the treadmill. I had long chats with Karen about everything from my life in Australia to the fortunes of the Democratic Party. Bob and Karen invited their friends around for dinner to meet me, and took me to PF Chang’s for a very non-traditional Easter dinner. That sort of kindness from people I’d only just met is what the trail is all about. It’s truly uplifting.

On paper I was fully recovered from my A-fib episode, but I was still nervous when it came time to head back up into the mountains. I was picked up by a Palm Desert local named Jesse, who’d seen my blog post on Facebook and offered me a ride to Idyllwild – another act of kindness from a complete stranger. Jesse accompanied me on my slow plod up the Devil’s Slide trail, where I stopped every few minutes to check my pulse. Mercifully, it stayed in rhythm.

We said our goodbyes at Saddle Junction, and I began the climb around San Jacinto Peak. I’d originally planned to take the summit trail to the top, but I thought climbing a mountain on my first day back from a heart procedure was exactly the kind of fatally stupid decision that earns people Darwin Awards. I stuck to the PCT, and hugged the ridge around the mountain.

I hit snow at around 8700 feet, and strapped on my microspikes. A light dusting of falling snow soon turned into a magical flurry, followed by sleet and light hail. I’d planned to walk 10 miles to Fuller Ridge campground, but the going through the steep snowy sections was even slower than expected. I made it about 8 miles before I ran out of light, and made camp with a group of other hikers near a bluff. We watched in awe as a spectacular sunset lit up the valley far below in glowing pink light.

My trail name had been Woggle, but my hiking buddy Kate suggested I change it to Paddles after my brush with a defibrillator. I liked it, so I introduced myself as Paddles to this new group of hikers.

The next morning I was out of camp early, intending to make it 18.5 miles to the base of the mountain. The two miles along the notorious Fuller Ridge was frustratingly slow going, but not as dicey as I’d expected. I cleared the last of the snow at the campground, and began the long descent. A seemingly endless series of switchbacks wound down, down, down, dropping 8500 feet in 16 miles. It was easy on the calves, but rough on my joints. My knees were tender when I finally reached the spigot that marks the end of the descent.

As the only water source for miles, the area around the pipe was crowded with hikers. Not having room to set up my tent, I rolled out my sleeping mat and cowboy camped under the stars. I had a long, dreamless sleep.

I was wide awake at 4AM, and decided to make an early start. Expecting a hot day on the desert floor, I wanted to beat the heat. I strolled along the trail in the dark towards the Interstate 10 underpass, passing beneath crackling transmission lines on the way. The pre-dawn light silhouetted wind turbines on the horizon.

Dawn broke as I reached the underpass, where I discovered a cooler of trail magic. There were soft drinks, beers, and a hiker box. I helped myself to a Mountain Dew and munched on a stale danish I’d bought before my hospitalisation while freight trains and traffic rumbled overhead.

I-10 is the trail access point to the town of Cabazon, but I’d decided to skip it and aim for Big Bear. I had plenty of supplies, and there wasn’t much in Cabazon but fast food and an Indian casino. I’d heard hitching there on the interstate service road was difficult, but apparently you can now Uber into town.

I left the underpass, and began gradually climbing away from the desert floor. Over the next two days, I would have to regain virtually all the elevation I’d lost the day before. By mid-morning I made it to the office of the Mesa Valley Wind Farm, which the Guthook app had told me was a regular source of trail magic. I poked my head in the door, and was greeted by the manager who offered me a seat in the employee’s break room. There was a cream cake on the table for hikers to tuck into, and the fridge was stocked with food available for purchase at basically cost price. I helped myself to some cake, an ice cream and some Gatorade powder, and charged my phone.

I headed out an hour later, and followed the trail as it climbed steeply away from the Mesa Valley. I hiked for a while with Mayhem, a 19-year-old girl from Oregon, until we reached the Whitewater River in the early afternoon. Many hikers were camped out in the shade beneath tall cliffs. It was getting hot, and I’d already walked 15 miles, so I decided to join them. I dunked myself in the fast-flowing river and washed off some of the sweat and grime I’d accumulated over the past few days. It felt sublime.

After several hours of lounging around, I forded the river and bashed out another six miles to Mission Creek just before sunset. I’d walked 20.7 miles – my longest day on the trail so far. I felt tired, but satisfied with how my body was performing. I had dinner with Camilla, a hiker from Phoenix, then crashed, knowing the next day I’d have to tackle my biggest elevation gain so far.

I’d planned to make it 15 miles, but the terrain proved even tougher than expected. The first six miles was almost completely washed out by flooding, and the trail was nonexistent. Camilla and I spent hours bush-bashing, picking over rocks and splashing through the creek on our way to its source. The sun was blazing. The only upside was that my shoes dried quickly after each dunking.

We reached a shady spot around mile nine, and lazed with a few other hikers as we waited out the early afternoon heat. I grew impatient and headed out before the rest, continuing the seemingly never-ending climb along steeper and steeper inclines. By the last mile, I was running out of gas. I stopped every few hundred feet for a breather, willing the campground to appear. Finally, it did. I’d only made it 13.8 miles, but it was my toughest of the trail so far. I crawled into my tent and slept like a baby.

The next day had its ups and downs, but it was nothing compared to the grueling ascent of the day before. I made it 19 miles before sunset, to a ridge with a view of Big Bear. Camilla and I woke early the next morning and walked the 6.7 miles to Highway 18, passing the trail’s 10% milestone along the way. We got a ride into town with a hotel proprietor who’d come to drop off some guests.

I’ve spent today’s zero day enjoying all the comforts of civilisation (namely plumbing and heating), and stuffing my face with real food. Tomorrow, I’ll be back on the trail heading to Cajon Pass. Until next time!

8 Comments on “PCT Part 4: Becoming Paddles

  1. Loving your blog. The mountains over there make our little bumps on the maps here in WA look minuscule by comparison Trail magic is the boss! Be kind to your heart, you only have one.


  2. Hi Paddles!! Love the name!
    Mum kindly sent your blog to me again and WOW – how well you’re doing! So happy to read that.
    Love reading about your adventure and how lucky you are to be able to continue your dream. and – such beautiful scenery! Just great!
    Good luck Ben – keep doing what you’re doing, but, perhaps look at a better diet éh!!!
    cheers, Lia


  3. Hey Paddles…Great reading…Love the pics….. I’m steeling a line from an E E Cummings poem… all of us following you at home will carry your heart….we’ll carry it in our hearts. Stay safe…


  4. Congrats on passing the 10 per cent mark. The photos are great. Are you just using a phone?


  5. Ben I am so enjoying reading your blog. Very well written and the photos are amazing. I am so pleased you are able to continue with your adventure. Look after your heart and take it steady. Love you heaps. Mum xxxx


  6. Looks like an incredible Hike. Glad to see your fit to travel on. Good luck with the rest of the journey. Ive just got back from the Walpole to Albany section (your blog was helpful) which was brilliant but your PCT adventure is starting an itch.

    Are there any older people on the trail (I am 53)?


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