PCT Part 5: Sucked Into The Vortex

Big Bear (Mile 266) to Wrightwood (Mile 369)

Trail magic can come from the most unexpected places.

Before I got discharged from Eisenhower Medical Centre after my A-fib episode, I got a visit from the nursing unit director, Sue. She told me she’d hiked various sections of the PCT, and had a cabin in Big Bear where she spent most of her weekends. She wasn’t in town when I made it to Big Bear, but she kindly let me stay in the cabin for two nights. I shared it with Camilla.

We used it as a base for trips into town, where we bought supplies and stuffed our faces with Indian food at the Himalaya restaurant. One of Sue’s local friends, Will, even picked us up and took us to breakfast at his favourite cafe. The twin towns of Big Bear Lake and Big Bear City cover a large area, making it tricky to get around without a car. Ubers were scarce when we needed to get around, but the bus system was surprisingly good, if not that regular.

After a day of rest, we managed to find an available Lyft driver who took us back to the trailhead on Monday morning. The weather had taken a cold turn, and the forecast warned of a thunderstorm that afternoon. As we climbed to the ridge that borders the north side of the lake, we could see a storm cloud dumping rain just a few miles away.

To my relief it never passed over the trail. Instead, a thick fog settled in over the ridge, shrouding the trees and creating an eerie atmosphere that reminded me of a Stephen King novel. The fog had grown thick by the time I reached a stream nine miles in, where many hikers were collecting water.

After treating a couple of litres with my Steripen, I hiked on four more miles and dry camped on a rise with Camilla, a French hiker named Alexia, and Hotbox and Trigger – a couple from Chicago. The temperature was plummeting, so I made a quick meal of pasta with cheese and retreated to the warmth of my sleeping bag.

The mercury went below zero overnight, and I woke up to find a thin film of ice covering my tent. I tried to scrape it off with my hands, which made my fingers go numb. My new rain mittens were a little help, but not much. Eventually I gave up and just rolled the tent up, ice and all.

It warmed up quickly as I continued along the ridge, heading west. The trail had turned after Big Bear, and would wind its way west for about 170 miles through the San Bernardino and Angeles national forests. The alpine vegetation around Big Bear gave way to desert scrub as the trail descended.

I ended the day 19 miles later at Deep Creek, near the site of an old 1920s cabin that had been converted to a picnic area. Rangers don’t allow hikers to camp at the cabin site, so I joined a crowd of hikers camping under a trail bridge nearby. It was a beautiful spot, at the bottom of a densely-vegetated canyon.

The next morning I followed the trail along the rim of the Deep Creek canyon, passing the 300 mile marker. A couple of hours later, I descended to the creek’s famous hot springs. I joined a bunch of other hikers soaking in the hot pools, and felt the knots in my legs and back loosening in the hot water.

I was on a schedule, so I didn’t stay for the afternoon. Trail angels the Homeboys, who had visited me in hospital a few weeks earlier, had offered to pick me up from a nearby highway crossing and take me to a Japanese restaurant. Salivating at the prospect of teriyaki chicken, I booked it to the highway.

Jamie was waiting for me at the trailhead, along with Strider. Strider’s knee had been bothering him, so he was hitching a ride off-trail to let it recover. We made it to the restaurant by 4, only to find we’d picked the one day of the week it wasn’t open. Bummer!

Instead, Jamie drove us to the McDonalds at Cajon Pass where we met her husband Andrew, and I tucked into a double quarter pounder. I picked up 20 McNuggets for the hikers back on trail, fearing I’d be lynched if I returned empty-handed.

We dropped off Strider at the Best Western, and the Homeboys dropped me back at the trailhead. It was getting late in the afternoon, but I wanted to get some more miles done before dark and distribute the McNuggets while they were still warm.

The trail hugged a range of hills above open plains, and was eerily empty and silent. In two hours I made it about six more miles, and only saw two other hikers. I gave the first, a guy from Dallas named Brian, 10 nuggets, and shared the rest with a guy named Joyride at the spot where I camped, next to a stream.

Joyride told me he earned his name on the Appalachian Trail, where he unknowingly got a hitch from a wanted felon driving a stolen vehicle. He was arrested at his hostel and charged with joyriding, and spent three days in a jail before the charges were dropped. Now that is a good trail name story.

The next day, I’d originally planned to walk 18 or so miles and camp short of Cajon Pass and the I-15 freeway. I woke up agitated, and just didn’t feel like another night in my tent. I called the Best Western and made a reservation. I’d have to cover nearly 25 miles to make it, but I didn’t care.

I hiked like I was possessed, charging up hills and racing along the flats. I barely paused to take photos when I reached Silverwood Lake, and only took off my pack twice all day – both times to collect water. I skipped lunch and munched on some granola bars instead, while I kept walking.

Finally around 4PM I staggered into the Cajon Pass McDonalds, where I’d been a day earlier, and ordered another quarter pounder meal. I was drenched in sweat. I chanced walking across the I-15 interchange, the only way to get to the Best Western on the other side. This place was not designed for pedestrians.

I checked into my room, which had an enormous king bed. I watched the filth pool around my feet in the shower as I scrubbed myself clean. It felt glorious. I washed my clothes, and got some drinks from the neighbouring gas station with some other hikers.

There were only 28 miles of trail between me and Wrightwood, but it involved over 5000 feet of elevation gain and no reliable water sources. I dawdled in the hotel the next morning until the 11AM checkout, then hit the trail with Canary, a hiker from Oklahoma.

We passed the spectacular Moses Rocks, which look like a set from an old western. Huge freight trains lumbered between them as we hiked by. Canary had been having troubles with her foot, so she soon fell behind. I continued upward, taking switchback after switchback for hours. I made 15 miles, and cowboy camped at a rare flat spot around 6500 feet.

Early the next morning, hiker All-In caught up to me at my camp spot. He’d camped with Canary the night before, and told me she’d eaten some bad dehydrated food and gotten sick. Being sick on trail is so much worse than being sick in town. I texted to check on her, and she said she was going to try and push on to Wrightwood after a late start.

All In and I hiked the last five miles of the climb before reaching the day’s peak elevation. I stopped to rest, and hiked the last eight miles to the highway alone. Traffic was slow, but I got a hitch after about 15 minutes and got dropped off at the hardwear store in town, which is hiker central. The store is all set up for hikers, with a trail register, information on local trail angels and a weighing station for packs.

I got a Philly cheese steak sandwich at the brewery, and a milkshake at the sweets shop. I’d invited a friend of mine from LA, Kathy, to come visit while I was near, so we’d booked an AirBnB on the outskirts of town. The owner, Jeff, turned out to also be a trail angel who was hosting three other hikers in his garage.

Kathy arrived in the early evening, and we went out for steaks at the Grizzly Cafe and beers at the Raccoon Saloon. I took a zero the next day, which was Cinco de Mayo. Canary made it into town, feeling much better, and we watched a softball game out at the entry school with Faucet (from Seattle) and Tidbit (from Texas).

Later, a dad who spied us loitering outside the community centre conned us into watching his kid’s school production. We sat through the first act of Annie, then bailed. We all ended up at the Wrightwood Inn, which was offering free pool and $3 beers. We got hammered.

Now I’m taking a second zero, because there’s a storm up on Mount Baden Powell. Definitely nothing to do with drinking. Nope.

Hikers call towns “vortexes” because they suck you in and don’t let you go. I’m loving this one, but looking forward to getting back on trail tomorrow and conquering Baden Powell.

2 Comments on “PCT Part 5: Sucked Into The Vortex

  1. Great to hear you are making lots of friends. Amazing photos and I am enjoying your descriptions of people and places. Jo

    Liked by 1 person

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