Monday, March 4, 2013

Part 4 - Border Patrol

Leaving the PCT southern terminus, I backtracked along the trail that paralleled Forest Gate Road.  After two years of planning and one false start, I was actually walking the Pacific Crest Trail.  I repeated this thought over and over to myself as I moved quickly and swiftly along the trail, imbued with a feeling of freedom and excitement at the thought of walking this fabled trail.  With eight days of food and two and a half liters of water, my pack weight felt tolerable.  Little did I know that this first day would be the last day, for the next five months, that I would move quickly and swiftly along the trail.  

I made five miles the first day and camped around eight thirty in the evening.  Along the way, I overtook another hiker, an older gentleman who was just barely shuffling along bearing, what seemed to me, an outrageous pack weight.  Approaching him from behind, I made him aware of my presence.  We stopped and chatted a bit.  He seemed fatigued and said he didn't have much water.  His daughter had driven him to the terminus and let him out.  He gave me his trail name, which I promptly forgot, but I do remember he was from Riverside, California.  My impression of him was that he shouldn't be on the trail. 

I cowboy camped that first night as I did through most of California.  Camping under the stars had been a way of life for me, having spent forty-five years of my life camping out on the banks of rivers.  By 5:00 a.m., I was up and on the trail again.  Despite my pack weight of nearly forty pounds, my steps were light and airy.  I was invigorated and motivated to be up and moving.

I passed another couple camped on a ridge above the trail.  They were just beginning to stir.  I prided myself on my early start, and considered these two to be slackers for their relatively late start.  I called out to them; we chatted. Their names were Bill and Tory.  We chanced to meet again in Independence, California, eight hundred miles up the trail, after which I would never see them again. 

Within the hour, I met a third hiker who also was just beginning to stir.  He gave his trail name as Gentleman Jim from the Boston, Massachusetts, area.  He was wearing a winter coat that looked suitable for a Massachusetts winter, but totally out of place here in the desert in April.  His choice in footwear was a pair of heavy hiking boots.  Gentleman Jim appeared to be in his mid fifties, and like the older hiker I met yesterday, I questioned how thoroughly the two had researched and planned for their hike, as both seemed to be out of their element.  He questioned me about the next water source, which led me to believe that he too might be short on water.

The trail was not hard to follow.  After thirty or more years of use, it was well-embedded in the soil, even when it traversed across hard scrabble.  Up and over and through and around a multiplicity of endless ravines, the trail, flanked on either side with lush chaparral, began a long descent into bone-dry Houser Canyon.  Before reaching the bottom of the canyon, the trail intersected a dusty dirt road, labeled on hikers' maps as the South Boundary Road.  Standing at the intersection of the trail and road, not sure whether to turn left or right, I consulted my maps.  The maps indicated a right-hand turn, which I took.

A few moments later, I heard a vehicle approaching from behind.  I turned to see a camouflage tan and brown military Humvee following me, carrying two Border Patrol agents.  Instantly, I knew they were patrolling the back roads looking for illegals.  They stopped and I inquired if the road I was on was part of the PCT.  They assured me it was and that in a quarter mile down the road, I would come to a sign indicating a turnoff.  They asked me if I needed water, and I stupidly said “No,” not wanting to appear unprepared for my journey, but I really could have used a couple of liters.  That would be the last time I would ever reject an offer of food or water, even if I were stuffed to the gills. 

In early spring, there may be water flowing in Houser Creek, but by late April, even a horny toad can cross the creek bed without getting wet.  I checked my water bottles and found I had less than a liter to go fifteen miles to Lake Morena campground and the next water source.

From the dry creek bed of Houser Creek, the trail ascended a rocky hillside one thousand feet to the top of Morena Butte, my first real climb.  This was going to be my trial by fire – lugging forty pounds of pack weight up a one-thousand-foot incline in the heat of the day while rationing water.  I made it to the top, but by my standards, it wasn't pretty. 
 I would walk a hundred feet, stop and rest, walk a hundred feet, stop and rest, and so it went all the way to the top.  I could see the handwriting on the wall.  This was going to be a difficult journey, and it was only the first day.  But I had hopes that with time and practice, my body would get stronger and the climbs would become easier.  The first part came to pass, but the second part never materialized.  Over the course of months, my legs, calves, and thigh muscles became like pillars of iron and steel, like powerful pistons in an engine cylinder, but the climbs never, ever became easier.  I struggled and fought for every foot of elevation gain I attained to, all 498,418 feet – the equivalent of hiking from sea level to the top of Mount Everest – over seventeen times. 

I arrived at Lake Morena late in the afternoon, with less than an inch of water in my water bottle.  Trail angels Jackalope and Yogi had paid for several campsites at the lake and were directing incoming hikers to these sites.  I surveyed the area and chose a site next to a picnic table where several other hikers had already set up their tents.  After setting up my tent, I stowed my pack inside to keep it away from thieving crows, which could go through your pack quicker than a pickpocket in New York’s Times Square can relieve you of your wallet.  I sat at the picnic table and pulled out my guidebook – the Pacific Crest Trail, Southern California section to read about Lake Morena. 

It has ninety campsites with showers, restrooms, and drinking water; anglers can fish for bass, bluegill, and catfish in the Morena Reservoir.  Lake Morena is also the site for the annual ADZPCTKO or Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kickoff. Yogi’s PCT Handbook says this about the event: 

“This is a hiker gathering at Lake Morena Campground, which is on the PCT at mile 20.6.  The Kickoff usually happens the last weekend in April.  Although the event continues to grow in size and attendance, we have fought hard to maintain our basic fundamental foci:  Low key, Educational, Inspirational, Historical perspective, and Hiker Needs Service.”  (McDonnell)

The Kickoff lasts for four days – Thursday through Saturday. 
“It was organized in 1999 by a few PCT enthusiasts and former thru-hikers who wanted to help current hikers," Yogi’s book says, and goes on to say, “you’ll meet former thru-hikers, current, and future PCT hikers, trail angels, trail groupies, and lightweight gear reps.”  (McDonnell)

I set the book down and gazed out across the field that comprised the campsites that Jackalope and Yogi had reserved for PCT hikers.  A number of hikers were busily setting up their tents; others were in small groups talking among themselves.  We were all strangers, bound together by a single goal – hiking the PCT to Canada, and we were all so innocent and naive as to what lay ahead. 

couldn't get the older hikers – Gentleman Jim and the fellow from Riverside, out of my mind.  I was greatly concerned about them trying to make the twenty miles to Lake Morena without sufficient water.  Why should I be concerned about them, when no one else was, I didn't know.  Perhaps no one else stopped to talk with them, and thus were unable to deduce their circumstances.  But why, I asked myself, should I be the one to go back and offer help.  It had been a horrible struggle for me climbing up the thousand-foot incline of Morena Butte, and to make the twenty-five to thirty-mile round-trip again in the desert heat, seemed like sheer stupidity.  But if I didn't go, who would? I knew I would go, but I really didn't want to.  

I camped for the evening on the other side of these tracks

Gentleman Jim just getting ready for the day. After this first day, I never saw him again.
Looking down into bone dry Houser Canyon

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