The past three days have been a blur of nurses, doctors, cardiologists and hospital technicians, all of whom have told me the same thing.
“You’re too young to be in here.”
I got dropped off at the Eisenhower Medical Centre ER in Rancho Mirage early on Tuesday morning, after experiencing an irregular heartbeat and shortness of breath at Tahquitz Peak, around mile 175 of my PCT thru-hike.
The ER nurse gave me an EKG, and I was diagnosed within the hour. I had atrial fibrillation, a condition that sends chaotic electrical signals to the upper chambers (atria) of the heart, causing them to beat out of sync with the lower chambers (ventricles). The ER doctor who diagnosed me told me it was quite a common condition in seniors, but rare in young, otherwise healthy adults.
I was admitted, and given a drug to lower my blood pressure in the hopes that my heart would convert to its normal rhythm on its own. An X-ray of my chest indicated that I might have a blood clot in my lung, or pulmonary embolism. I was put on a drip of blood thinners, and an array of electrodes were attached to my chest to monitor my heart rate. That afternoon I was given a CT angiogram, which mercifully disagreed with the X-ray. I didn’t have a blood clot.
On Wednesday morning, I woke to the same erratic beating of my heart that had been bothering me since Saturday. It hadn’t converted. One of my doctors told me the only other way to fix my heart’s rhythm was a procedure known as a cardioversion, which involves using a defibrillator to shock it out of its arythmic pattern.
Late that afternoon, after a whole day of not eating, I was given the procedure. I was almost terrified going in, knowing a tube would be fed down my throat and a shock delivered straight to my most vital organ. Patrick, the cheery echocardiogram tech, did a great job of calming me down. I remember gagging on the tube going in, and the next thing I knew I was out of sedation and my heart was beating normally. I had a faint red mark on my chest where the paddle had been applied.
That’s the good news. The bad news is the doctors don’t know how long it will stay in rhythm. Atrial fibrillation can be a one-off event, or it can be a recurring condition. It can also become permanent.
Later that evening, a couple of section hikers I met on day one, Andrew and Jamie (trail name “The Homeboys”) drove all the way from LA to visit me in the hospital. We walked down to the cafeteria, which had closed for the night, and raided the vending machines. It was a relief to see people I recognised in this strange hospital, thousands of miles from home.
This morning, my primary care doctor gave me the bad news: he “highly recommended” against me continuing on the PCT. Even if I decided to continue anyway, my travel insurance wouldn’t cover it. They may not even let me stay in the US, or return to Chicago to say goodbye to my cousins and collect everything I left behind there.
I was sad, and angry. The PCT has been my life’s major goal for the past four years. I shared my misery with my hospital roommate, Bob, and his wife Karen, a couple from Wisconsin who live part of the year near Palm Springs. They kindly offered me somewhere to stay until it was all sorted out.
I was angry that I did everything I could possibly do to prepare for this hike, and it wasn’t enough. Over the past three years I’ve lost 20 kilograms, got fit, conditioned my legs, and got physiotherapy for my misaligned kneecap. I’ve gone from a couch potato to running 5-10 kilometres consistently. My legs, my knees, my feet and all the muscles supporting them were all going strong at mile 175, when my heart fell out of rhythm. And there’s nothing I could have done about it.
When a hospital attendant wheeled me downstairs to get a follow-up echocardiogram, I was despondent. Patrick lifted my spirits a little, but the thought of going home so soon was too overwhelming.
I was halfway through writing a mopey blog post (working title: “That’s All Folks”) from my hospital bed when one of the doctors came to see me.
“Your ventricle output has return to normal function,” he said. I was floored. I asked what that meant for my hike. “I’m going to write in my report that you’re ok to continue your travels,” he said. I could hardly believe it.
So the upshot is: I’m getting back on the trail. I’ll spend a couple of days in Indio with Bob and Karen, recovering and testing my fitness. Then I’m going to take it slow and steady back up the Devil’s Slide, where I left off. I’ll need to do things a little differently, but for now, I can still hike. Wish me luck.
Julian (Mile 77) to Idyllwild (Mile 179)
I was full of nachos and apple pie when I hobbled to the highway out of Julian and stuck out my thumb. Two other hikers joined me, and we tried for about 20 minutes to get a hitch back to Scissors Crossing, and the trail. Finally a small SUV pulled over, driven by a woman who owned one of the restaurants in town. She lives right near Scissors, and picks up hikers every day on her way to and from work. She dropped us off by the side of the lonely desert highway, and I made my way to the Scissors water cache under the overpass, where a group of about a dozen hikers were sheltering from the afternoon sun.
I refilled my water bottles and began the climb to the ridge that the trail would follow for the next 20 miles. I’d only intended to walk a couple of miles on my near-o day, but swarms of gnats at the early campsites encouraged me to go further. About five miles later I ran into Simless and Mallory (now called Pineapples) at a site with an awesome view over the desert floor and decided to stop for the day.
Simless – a Brit so named because he refuses to buy a US SIM card – had spent the previous night back in San Diego, where he returned his sleeping bag, which was much too cold. We all watched the sun set over the distant mountains before retreating to our tents.
We knew water sources were scarce for the next section of trail, so the next day we set our sights on Barrel Springs, nearly 19 miles away. It was a long day of trekking through the desert heat, and I was grateful for the protection of the sun umbrella I bought on a whim weeks before the start of my hike. We reached the Third Gate water cache around lunch, and refilled for the afternoon. The cache is maintained by a team of local trail angels, saving hikers the pain of carrying heavy loads of water all the way to the spring.
We passed the 100 mile marker late in the afternoon, and poured into Barrel Springs about half an hour later, exhausted but satisfied. A notice at the spigot warned of dead rats floating in the spring-fed cistern, so I treated the water with both my Steripen and bleach tablets.
The next morning I had only an eight-mile hike to Warner Springs, a tiny community renowned on the trail for welcoming thru-hikers with open arms. Less than a minute out of camp I came across my first trail magic of the PCT – Canadian former thru-hiker Stranger Danger was parked at the highway crossing with donuts and iced coffee for everyone. Thanks dude!
The rocky desert ridge I’d been following for the past two days was replaced with rolling meadows with green grass that shimmered in the wind. I called FedEx to check on my suitcase which hadn’t yet arrived back with my cousins in Chicago. The rep told me it never made it out of California, and they had no idea where it was. Now they want receipts for all my clothes and souvenirs before they’ll pay me their $100 insurance or refund the $128 I paid in postage. Do yourself a favour: Don’t use FedEx.
I tried to put the annoyance out of my mind as I reached Eagle Rock, a huge rock formation in the middle of a meadow that is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
Three miles later I made it to Warner Springs, which was swarming with hikers. The town’s community centre is all set up for hikers, with bucket showers, a bucket laundry, a small resupply store, and a hangout space with plenty of outlets for charging. Warner Springs is a fairly depressed community, which relies heavily on donations from hikers to fund its community centre and school. The volunteers who run the centre are some of the warmest, most welcoming people I’ve met so far.
The community centre even has a mobile gear store, operated by Two Foot Adventures, where I bought a new pair of microspikes to replace the ones that were in my missing suitcase. In the evening, we all walked over the road to the school, which was putting on a fundraising dinner for hikers. I stayed for the school district board meeting after dinner. Gina got employee of the month. Congratulations Gina!
The field behind the community centre was turned into a tent city by hikers, many of whom spend two days or more at the centre before they move on. Hikers call places like these “vortexes” – because they suck you in and you never leave.
Determined not to get bogged, I headed out with fellow hikers Kate and Andy the next morning. We were aiming for Mike’s Place, a trail angel’s property 18 miles up the trail. We crossed a cow pasture, then followed a creek into the hills. We spent most of the afternoon on a long, gradual climb from 3000 to 5000 feet.
Kate and I stumbled into Mike’s Place late in the afternoon. I’m not really sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t it. Mike’s Place is a house at the end of a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a bone-dry hill. Car wrecks and old RVs are scattered around the property, which has no running water. We met the caretaker, Strange Bird, a former hiker who wears a prosthetic tail and talks in riddles. It was all delightfully weird.
Strange and his crew of volunteers made pizzas for the hungry hikers, and filled a cooler with soft drinks and beer. I helped out making the dessert pizza – a deep dish with peaches and pineapple. Delish!
I camped out behind the house. In the morning, volunteer Scott made me a breakfast burrito before I headed out. I had another long day ahead of me – 18 miles to another trail angel’s property on the outskirts of Anza. The day was pretty forgettable, consisting mostly of trudging in and out of canyons in overcast weather. I made it to Mary’s water cache an hour or so before sunset. I met Mary, who has effectively donated a corner of her property to thru-hikers. She’s set it up with a water tank, a pit toilet, picnic tables and tent sits. A mini library is stocked with printed excerpts from her favourite authors Walt Whitman, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau.
I ate dinner with Kate, Mojo and others, then crashed early. I dreamt of hot food, which waited for me the next day at the Paradise Valley Cafe – purportedly home of the best burgers on the trail. We got to the cafe during the breakfast service the next day, so I ordered bacon and eggs, and a milkshake. After finishing, Kate and I waited for the lunch service, and each ordered burgers. Mine was greasy, dripping with cheese and overflowing its bun. Delicious.
Full to bursting, we were dreading the one-mile walk back to the PCT along a spur trail. Luckily, local trail angel Grumpy turned up just as we were about to leave and offered us a ride back. So it was that we wound up on the side of a highway, struggling with the hipbelts on our packs to accommodate our full stomachs.
The eight remaining miles to our campsite involved about 1400 feet of elevation gain, causing us to pant and wheeze our way up the rocky trail. We camped in a sheltered spot on the side of a large hill, and skipped dinner.
I knew that the next day would be my first experience of hiking on snow, at the notorious Apache Peak. As we made camp, word reached us that a hiker had been helicoptered off the peak that very day after falling down the mountain. I went to bed nervous, and had nightmares of tumbling down an icy slope onto rocks.
We woke early the next morning, aiming to make the nine miles to Apache before the sun turned the hard-packed snow into an unstable slush. The hike to the peak was tough and strenuous, with steep drops and even steeper ascents.
When we finally reached the north face of Apache around noon, it became immediately obvious why it was so treacherous. The trail was nothing but a line of icy footprints that traced a flatt-ish ridge above a steeply-sloping wall of snow. One slip, and it was a long way down. I put on my microspikes and followed Kate. Being from Colorado, she knew what she was doing, so I followed her lead.Within seconds we came across a hiker in trouble. Golden, one of the hikers who stayed with us at Scout and Frodo’s, was standing on a patch of dirt about 30 feet above the trail. He said he’d slipped, and in his attempt to get off the mountain had somehow climbed higher and gotten himself stranded, abandoning his trekking poles in the process.
Kate managed to slowly talk him back down to the trail, where he turned around and got off the ice, headed back to the snow-free alternate trail down Spitler Peak. We continued, one careful step at a time, until we were safely back on the dirt a quarter mile later. It was relatively easy to stay upright as long as you moved slowly and tested each step before committing to it, but the consequences of a mistake up here could be dire. I was glad for the experience, as plenty more snow awaits me in the Sierra.
The last six miles of the day were a grueling 1000-foot climb, but we were rewarded with spectacular views over Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. On the west face of the San Jacinto Range, we could see the devastation wrought by last year’s Cranston Fire. The entire bowl between the range and Lake Hemet was northing but burnt trees and scorched earth.The water report indicated that the climb was without any water sources, so Kate and I had resigned ourselves to a dry dinner and some mild dehydration before we reached Tahquitz Spring the next day. Happily, a stream of gushing snowmelt had carved its way down the mountain since the report was last updated, so we filled up.
With two miles to go to our campsite at mile 175, I began to run out of gas. Eager to be done with the day’s hiking, I pushed myself hard to make it to the top. It was a mistake.
When I arrived at our campsite, in a saddle at 8235 feet, I felt exhausted and out of breath. Assuming I would recover, I made camp and boiled water for my dinner of ramen noodles and a protein bar. I climbed some rocks to see the lights of Palm Springs at sunset, then returned to my tent.
Now hours after I’d stopped hiking, I could feel my heart beating urgently and irregularly. I tossed and turned on my air mattress, willing myself to sleep, but none came. I spent most of the night staring at the stars, drifting off only for an hour or so around midnight.My saving grace was a short day’s hike into Idyllwild of only six miles, nearly all of it downhill. When I emerged from my tent I was greeted by a spectacular sunrise that lifted my spirits.I knew something wasn’t right with me as soon as we broke camp, as even the gentlest of climbs would send my heart racing. I put on my spikes and trudged slowly over the snow, taking breaks at regular intervals. After refilling water at Tahquitz Spring, I stood up and nearly blacked out. When we finally made it to the top of the Devil’s Slide Trail, which descends into Idyllwild, I was feeling moderately better. I’d chugged an electrolyte drink, fearing I had run out of salts, but was still feeling weak. We made our way down the mountain.At the bottom, we ran into Grumpy again – he was dropping a group of hikers off at the trailhead – and he offered us a ride into town. He dropped us at the Silver Pines Lodge, where Kate and I had booked a shared room. The lodge staff kindly did our laundry for us, and I enjoyed scrubbing the filth off me, eight days after my last real shower.
I had planned to near-o out of Idyllwild the next day, but I decided to take an entire day off to give my body a chance to recover. I spent the afternoon and the next day exploring the pretty little mountain town, which is a hotspot for hikers and rock climbers.Still not feeling much better by the end of my zero day, I called home and consulted my GP friend, Brooke, and my stepmum Marina, a surgeon. Both advised me to get my heart checked out at a hospital. This morning, I got a ride an hour down the mountain to Palm Springs. As I’m writing this I’m in the ER at Eisenhower Hospital waiting to see a doctor. I’m nervous, and hoping this is just a setback.
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!
Hello from sunny Los Angeles, California!
It’s taken four years, plenty of false starts and a whole lot of footsteps, but I’m finally just days away from starting my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.
For the uninitiated, the PCT is a 2,450-mile (4,265km) long hiking trail that stretches all the way from the US border with Mexico in Campo, California, to Canada. It takes the average hiker about five months to complete.
The trail starts in the southern California desert, then climbs into the Sierra Nevada mountain range before entering the Cascade range in Oregon and Washington.
The idea of walking the PCT is what got me into hiking four years ago, and it’s been my goal since I took my first clumsy steps on Western Australia’s Cape to Cape track way back then. I had planned to hike the PCT the very next year but poor fitness, and life, got in the way.
Since then I’ve lost a ton of weight, hugely improved my fitness and replaced almost every bit of hiking gear I own. I also used the intervening time to scrounge every Qantas point I could muster so I could fly from Perth to Chicago in first class, which I THOROUGHLY recommend.
The PCT will be by far the longest hike I’ve ever done, but my experience completing the Bibbulmun Track makes me confident I can do it.
I’ve been celebrating my last few weeks of civilisation by exploring Chicago, New Orleans and LA with the help of local family and friends, but now I’m ready to leave it all behind and start walking.
On Monday night I’ll stay in San Diego with Frodo and Scout, a pair of legendary trail angels (volunteers who help hikers). On Tuesday morning, they’ll drive me and a heap of other would-be thru-hikers out to the trail’s southern terminus in the desert east of San Diego.
From there, I’ll begin the long walk to Canada.
Warm spring days are a time for slowing down and smelling the wildflowers, and Yanchep National Park’s Ghost House Trail is one of the best places in Perth to do it. The flat, 11.7km loop is a slowly-unfolding gallery of colour in wildflower season, brimming with golden wattles, red banksias, kangaroo paws and countless other varieties of native flowers from start to finish. Do yourself a favour and take your camera, and allow plenty of time for lingering to take photos of the flowers and wildlife.
The trail is named for an old ruined house it passes by, although I’ve yet to encounter any ghosts in it. If you want to visit the ruins at their spookiest, you can camp overnight at nearby Shapcott shelter.
The walk: The Ghost House Trail is officially a 9.2km one-way path that spurs off the Wetlands Walk Trail, but realistically you’ve got to do the extra 1.5km to complete the loop and return to your car. I recommend picking up a map at the park entrance, and starting the walk from the visitors center at McNess House. There are no signs for the Ghost House at the visitors centre, but all trails lead in the same direction. Follow the many markers and you’ll soon come across the comical Ghost House marker – a clip art ghost hovering over some ruins.
After a short walk through some unspoiled bush and around the camping area, you’ll arrive at Cabaret Cave – a limestone cave that has been converted to a function venue. The path then continues deeper into the park, winding its way through shaded forest and open, sandy areas with low-lying scrub. Shapcott hut, near the half-way point, is an ideal lunch stop or overnight camp, if you feel inclined to stretch the hike over two days. It’s worth exploring the short spur trail that leads from the hut to some low cliffs, which you can ascend with a short scramble.
After Shapcott the track soon turns back towards Loch McNess, the lake at the park entrance. More wildflowers and birds were plentiful on my walk, including a pesky kookaburra I spent five minutes chasing from tree to tree to get the perfect shot. The trail follows the edge of the lake for the last 30 minutes or so of walking, offering expansive views of the water and surrounding wetlands, where you can often see black swans.
After your walk you can enjoy some well-deserved refreshments at the Yanchep Inn, or set up a picnic on the lawns in front of McNess House.