Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Part 6 - Meltdown

The Kickoff for the class of 2013 PCT hikers is a big deal, but I had no desire to attend.  I just wanted to hike, and spending three days at Lake Morena would put me days behind on the trail.  Funny, how on day two, I’m already feeling the pressure to make miles and cross the Canadian border before the snow flies in late September.  Even though it was often repeated among hikers that, “It’s not a race to get to the border!” there were those, and I was definitely one of them, who had a gut feeling that taking too many zeros (translated: spending extra days in trail towns) would, in the long run, have disastrous results of not finishing the hike in good weather. 

By noon I was on the trail, sort of.  Passing through the town of Morena, I couldn't resist stopping at the small convenience store and buying a box of Chips Ahoy! cookies and a quart of milk.  This was to become my signature meal whenever I passed through a trail town - milk and chocolate chip cookies, and then a meal.  

The PC Trail continued along the shore of the lake and then turned north.  The sky was overcast, but the weather was pleasant.  Shortly, I will be heading into the Cleveland National Forest, a climb of thirty-two hundred feet. 

A few miles past the lake, other hikers pass me, and they do so at a pace that makes me look like I’m standing still.  I don’t understand why they can move so fast and I can’t.  
“Why am I not able to move at the same speed as they’re walking?” I ask myself.  
I try to analyze the problem.  Apparently, I can’t get enough oxygen deep down into my lungs to facilitate extended exertion.  I find myself not only walking slowly, but shuffling, like the older hiker I met yesterday on the trail just outside of Campo.  I can barely put one foot in front of the other and move forward.  It became obvious very quickly that this was going to be an extremely long journey, if I even make it at all. 

I obtained water at the Boulder Oaks Campground adjacent to Highway 8.  The trail, after passing under the freeway at mile twenty-eight, began a steep uphill climb.  One hundred feet into the climb, I had a total meltdown.  I could not walk another step.  I could not climb up another rock.  I was physically and mentally exhausted and ready to walk back to Highway 8 and hitch a ride back to Campo, call it quits and go home, and I hadn't even been on the trail a full two days. 

I cried; in fact, I cried a lot.  It wasn't supposed to be this way.  No one could be more physically prepared than I am; in my mind, I’m still the invincible one; I still have the majority of my nine lives; I’m the person who has twenty-five thousand miles of rowing time on rivers in Utah and Idaho; the person who rode his bike forty-three hundred miles across America, then built and rowed a homemade rowboat across four thousand miles of the Atlantic Ocean.  This current outing is only a walking and hiking excursion.  How hard can that be?  At home, I walked every day - to the store, to the church, the post office, and the football stadium.

I rested for one-half hour, drank some water, ate a Cliff Bar, then continued on.  I passed Kitchen Creek that was down in a canyon, with much flowing water, but not needing the water, I passed by it.  My goal for the evening was Cibbetts Campground which, according to the water report I had downloaded from the computer, had water.  

By 7:30 p.m. it’s almost dark, and I don’t appear to be close to Cibbetts Campground, so I stopped at an undeveloped campsite that already had several hikers camping there.  I asked for permission to spend the night, and they said, “Sure.”  I scanned the ground for a suitable flat spot, and upon finding one, didn't bother to put up my tent, just laid out my ground cloth, air mattress, and sleeping bag.  Everyone else had their tent up, but in good weather, I could see no reason to put up a tent.  Taking it down in the morning was just one more time-consuming chore to do before getting on the trail.

First light was around 5:45 a.m.  By 5:30 a.m. I was up, and ready for the trail by 6:00 a.m.  Another hiker was also up – Maggie from Oakland, California.  I greeted her and left the campground.  Two miles from camp, I came to the trail leading down to the Cibbetts Campground; I paused here for one-half hour and prepared my breakfast - a concoction of oatmeal, ground nuts, Craisins, and powdered milk that only had to be hydrated.  I needed water but chose not to make the two-mile round-trip to the campground and will instead wait and obtain water at the next source, a small stream in Long Canyon.

At about mile thirty-five, a few miles after passing the trail leading down to the Cibbetts Campground, I had another complete meltdown, this one worse than the first.  Not only am I just shuffling along the trail, and going very slow, but I’m also dizzy and very light-headed whenever I stand up after resting.  I just don’t feel I can go on.  I call my wife, Jodie, using my satellite phone, and am crying all the time I‘m talking to her.

I’m seventy years old and grown men don’t cry, but I can’t turn off the tears.  I told her it’s too hard to go on, that my feet, legs, and knees are fine, but I can’t get enough oxygen into my lungs to breathe properly, and now I’m dizzy with a touch of nausea.  I told her if my GPS Spot tracker on her computer shows me returning to the Cibbetts Campground, I’m through, I’m coming home.  Jodie is sympathetic with me and tells me it’s okay to come home; there’s no shame in quitting.
“You've given it your best shot,” she says.

I buck up and keep going.  This is the last time I will have a meltdown, but it won’t be the last time I want to quit the trail.  From these experiences, I learned that you never want to make an important decision when you’re having a bad hair day.

At the Long Canyon stream, I rested for an hour, filtered water, and tended to my feet. Many other hikers pass me.  At this point in time, I’m not sure enough of myself to venture out of my self-imposed shell to inquire after their trail names.  This will come later.  Consequently, in the first few weeks of hiking I don’t remember the hikers who were coming in and out of my life.

From Long Canyon, the climb was steadily upward towards the Mount Laguna store, lodge, and post office located at mile forty-three.  The facilities at Mount Laguna were at the top of the mountain and situated in a stand of pine trees.  At the store, I bought Gatorade, peanut butter and grape jelly, and a packet of ten flour tortillas to supplement the provisions in my pack.  I and several others were heading for the Mount Laguna Campground, several miles up the road, where we anticipated spending the night.  But they left the store before me and I was never able to catch up with them. 
Passing by a deserted campground called Horse Haven, I walked in on the side road, past the closed gate, and spent the night under the pine trees.

Leaving the store at Mount Laguna, the PC Trail continued north, hugging the rim overlooking the Anza-Borrego Desert forty-four hundred feet below, and then rejoined the Sunrise Highway at the Al Bahr Shrine Camp.  Water was available at the Shrine camp, so I bypassed the exposed rim trail and walked the highway until I reached the camp.  I arrived early; in fact, too early, as no one was moving in the camp.  It wasn't obvious where the water spigot was located, so I had to check around the sides of numerous camp buildings until I found it.

I’m feeling better than I did a few days ago when I had my meltdowns, although I still move incredibly slow.  I've started to call my walking gait the Old Man Shuffle.  During my training walks back in Salt Lake City, I would time myself and found that walking at a brisk pace, I could walk a consistent three miles per hour while carrying a heavy pack.  My pace of three miles per hour, or twenty minutes a mile, was constant whether I walked five miles or a hundred miles.  And even though there wasn't a lot of uphill climbing in these training walks, I had no reason to believe that I couldn't continue to do three miles per hour, at the very least two and a half miles per hour. 

 It was a shock of immense proportion, once I was on the trail, to find I could barely walk two miles per hour.  I truly believed I still had the body of a thirty- to forty-year-old, and it was a tremendous letdown to recognize and admit that in reality, I had the body of a seventy-year-old, and it wasn't going to get any younger or walk any faster.  It would take many months before I could fully accept this revelation, as it was a bitter pill to accept.  

In quick succession, I passed Stephenson Peak, Monument Peak, and Garnet Peak on my way to Pioneer Mail Campground, which had a water cache for both equestrians and hikers.  For the horses, there was a four-foot circular concrete tub filled with water, while water for hikers was contained in numerous one-gallon plastic jugs sitting on the ground in front of the concrete tub. 

My next water was sixteen miles up the trail, at a place called Rodriguez Spur fire tank.  The fire tank was a circular concrete tank with a concrete lid, approximately fifteen feet wide and eight feet deep.  In the spring, it’s filled by BLM firefighters to supplement their water supplies in the event of a fire in the area.  The water is also available to PCT hikers and horse riders. 

I rested often during those next sixteen miles, sometimes by leaning on my trekking poles, or more often just collapsing onto the dirt in the trail.  I went for shade under a Joshua tree or scraggly chaparral when I could find it.  This was the desert of Southern California; it’s hot, arid, and amazingly beautiful.  The wildflowers and cacti are in bloom and display a vibrant array of purple, gold, yellow, red, and blue colors.  Each time I got up after resting, I was dizzy and light-headed, and had to brace myself with my trekking poles to keep from falling to the ground.  I shuffled along, going slower with each passing mile. 

By the time I reached the Rodriguez Spur fire tank, I was too weak to lift the metal lid off the top of the concrete tank to gain access to the water below.  I found a chaparral bush close to the tank that offered a little shade, and placed my foam Z-pad on the ground.  I rested on the pad, and as time passed, I could feel the sun encroaching upon my shade as it moved farther to the west.  I was sick; I needed help, but I was not sure what to do.  It was obvious that I couldn’t continue walking the trail, and I was twenty miles or more away from Julian, the nearest town.  

As I lay on my foam pad, contemplating my options, a pickup truck passed by me on the dirt road I had been walking on.  A few moments later, it stopped and I could hear men talking and dogs barking.  I decided that this was my one chance for getting help, and perhaps a ride into the nearest town which would be either Banning or Julian.  

With great effort I pushed myself up off of my foam pad, steadied myself, and began walking towards the truck.  Two men were outside the truck talking and holding AR-15 rifles. The dogs immediately noticed my presence and raced towards me, vicious-looking, muscular, short-haired dogs.  I recognized the breed; they were short-haired blue heelers or Australian cattle dogs, the kind one often saw riding in the back of a rancher’s pickup truck.

I have always referred to them as ugly dogs, and these two were no exception. As they raced towards me, hell-bent on tearing me to pieces, the younger man called for them to stop, but they were purposely deaf to his shouting.  He raced after them, I guess hoping to catch them before they got to me.  Usually, I would be afraid if I had dogs set to pounce on me, but at that moment, I was so sick, fear didn't register with me.  I thought to myself, they can bite my leg off and I wouldn't care.  The young man caught the dogs, and with great effort, restrained them from tearing into me.  I told the young man that I was a PCT hiker and was sick and needed to get to the nearest town.  He said,

 “Let’s go talk to my father.”

Together we walked the hundred feet to where his father was standing next to the truck.  I repeated my request, and added that if they were heading towards Julian, would they be willing to give me a ride.  The older gentleman replied that they were from Julian and would be willing to give me a ride into town.  He said they wouldn't be leaving for about an hour, but when they did, I could come with them. 

 I returned to my foam pad which was now fully exposed to the sun and lay down again. An hour later, the young man came to get me; he said they were leaving.  I folded my Z-pad and reattached it to my pack, then shouldered the pack.  On wobbly legs, and supported by my trekking poles, I followed my guide to the truck.  When I first approached the truck, the two men were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word Minuteman on the front.  And in the back of the truck were several AR-15 rifles.  This time, as I hoisted my pack into the back of the truck, the rifles were stored in their carrying cases and the men had changed their T-shirts.  My impression was that they were local militia Minutemen patrolling the back roads for illegals and guarding the water supplies.  

 In the truck, I sat up front with the father, while his son sat in the back of the crew cab with the two dogs.  They don’t like me, and I’m sure they can sense I've never cared for their kind.  For half an hour, we bounced down the mountain on a bumpy dirt road that gave a bird’s-eye view of the Anza-Borrego Desert off to the east.  It looked menacing and foreboding, dry and arid, and totally bereft of water, and I will be out there in a couple of days.  

Loading up on cookies and milk for the long haul ahead
PCT Logos marked the trail all the way to Canada

The PCT leading off through the desert

 The small stream at Long Canyon

Piling my stuff on the ground while I rest and tend to my feet

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