PCT Photo Journal, Part 1: The Lonely Desert

An Introduction to my Pacific Crest Trail Journal

In 2016 I found myself in crisis; I was being swallowed whole by the black abyss of depression and anxiety.  I stayed in bed for days and found little joy in life.  I found my relationships strained with my friends and the family that I keep close.  There was only one thing that could possibly heal me: The wilderness.  Rather hastily, I applied for a permit to through hike (or thru-hike) the Pacific Crest Trail; all 2650 miles of it.  I was already an avid backpacker by that point, having completed the Wonderland and Oregon Coast Trails in their entirety.  I had a good amount of gear already, I just needed to save some money for food resupply and the occasional motel room.

I was granted a permit early in the year, and I set out planning, saving and mildly panicking about my recent life choice.  Was I capable of hiking that far?  I was about to find out.

I set up a blog to record a daily journal entry, and from my start date on April 15th at the Southern Terminus at the Mexican border, until halfway through the month of August, I painstakingly kept notes of my adventure.  I started to lose track, however, when I found my days were getting longer (sometimes covering up to 30 miles a day) and I started to socialize more and make friends.  Occasionally I attempted to remember the events that took place over the course of a couple hundred miles and record it, but I wanted to live in the moment more.

So I abandoned my original blog, but I still have thousands of amazing pictures of my time on the PCT that I frequently look through and look upon with fondness.  So I thought I would share them here, a full year later, with brief descriptions of what was going on then and maybe how I felt in that moment.  If you are interested in reading a play by play, detailed account of a thru-hike, then the good news is that there are hundreds of blogs out there that should satisfy you.  Personally, I would check out the rotating entries at the PCT Association website.

Without any further fuss, here’s my first entry from the Mexican Border to Cajon Pass:

I begin my adventure along the PCT, filled with self-doubt.  My journey starts off at the Mexican border at the Southern Terminus for the PCT in Campo, California.  I feel lonely and anxious at first, but soon begin to find my way and my confidence as the trail progresses.  I encounter inclement weather and a knee injury takes me off trail for a brief amount of time, but I stay motivated through it all, and manage to walk the 342 miles to Cajon Pass.

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Where it all begins: The PCT Southern Terminus in Campo. I arrive at the monument just as a van load of other thru-hikers piles out.  There is an air of nervousness among everyone, as if it’s the first day of school again.  Scout and Frodo, two trail angels from nearby San Diego have hosted and transported the other hikers, who seem to already have a good bit of comradery going on between each other.
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Is this some kind of sick joke?
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Yucca flowers
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The large group takes off down the trail in one big group, leaving me in the dust.
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The desert is alive and well, and very green!
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The desert is alive and blooming, and on my first day I manage to do the long 20 miles to Lake Morena State Park.  My feet are in agony and for some odd reason, I’m not hungry.
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In the morning, I’m awoken by a symphony of alarms going off at the way-too-early time of 4 am.  All the other campers at Lake Morena are sleeping through their irritating alarms; everyone except for me. Not cool.  I get up as it gets light outside, and set off into the cool morning.
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By midday, it’s baking hot outside and there’s little shade to escape under except a few oak trees.  I meet a fellow hiker named Cal, a retired game warden from my home state of Washington, and we chat about the trail.
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I pass through a hazard area late in the day, with warning signs of unexploded military devices in the area due to a helicopter accident several years ago.  Naturally, I stay on the trail.
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The colors of the desert are keeping me happy, even though I’m already incredibly homesick.
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I stop in Fred Canyon, where there’s a trickle of a creek beside a large campsite.  After filtering some water I decide to stay here for the night.  Many other hikers have the same idea, and we cram our tents in like one big, somewhat cuddly family.
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The next day, I hike the five or so miles into Mount Laguna, where there’s a cafe, small store, post office and outfitter.  It’s a reprieve from the desert heat, with shady pine and oak trees surrounding the mountain village. I treat myself to a hearty omelette at the cafe, and then an ice-cold root beer at the store.  There are loads of tourists around, spilling out of flashy rental cars and leering at me as I lounge on the front porch of the store.
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I walk up the road to where the trail picks up again, and a station wagon full of Bohemians stops to give me some free samples of energy bars.  The bars are green and smell like horse poop, so I toss them in a garbage bin in a picnic area once the car is out of sight.
The trail winds through the hills, offering dramatic views of the Laguna Mountains rising up from the desert floor.  It’s both windy and hot, and I struggle to make use of my trekking umbrella.  At one point, I think I might take flight just like Mary Poppins, so I tuck it away in the side pouch of my pack.
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The yucca plants are enormous and stunning
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I treat some water from a horse trough with an E.coli warning, and make camp few more miles up the trail.  I’m still not hungry, but I am a bit lonely.
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The following day, I’m already nearing Scissors Crossing, where the enticing town of Julian is a short hitch away.  I try to push it the 22 miles to the road, but my feet are screaming in pain.  I filter water at a piped spring, and notice that I have an ingrown toenail and an oozing infection with it.
I make camp just 4 miles short of Scissors Crossing, in a narrow gully.  The gully is quite an active one at night, and I get little sleep due to the sounds of the wildlife.  I make my way to the road first thing in the morning, and immediately get a lift into town from a trail angel named Ed.
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Ed drops me off at a charming little restaurant called Carmen’s Place, where I’m greeted in a warm embrace by Carmen herself.  A few other hikers are there too, and Carmen makes us all breakfast burritos the size of a small child.  She also gives us a round of beers on the house, and offers to let us sleep on the restaurant porch after closing time.
In the morning, I mosey on over to Mom’s Pies and get a free slice of apple pie à la mode and spiced cider, a treat only available to thru-hikers.  I hitch back to the trail with a couple more hikers midday, just as things are starting to warm up again.
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The climb back into the hills is brutally hot, and I pass through a section scorched from a wildfire.
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Turkey vultures circle overhead, giving the area a rather macabre feeling.
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The cactus is the only thing thriving in this area.
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Ten miles in, I lose my footing and fall hard to the ground, twisting my ankle and scraping my knee.  It hurts, but I think I’m alright.
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I reach the much-anticipated ‘third gate’ water cache in the evening, and fill up on a few liters of water.
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Thank goodness for Trail Angels.
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I hike on as the sun is setting, and make camp with a couple of hikers called ‘So It Goes’ and England.  We chat a bit, and England offers me a shot of vodka as a nightcap.
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I pass the 100 mile mark in the morning, and I’m quite satisfied with myself (I did a little mental happy dance).
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Several more miles ahead I come to Eagle Rock, where two more trail angels spoil me with iced tea and frozen snickers bars, making it difficult for me to find the motivation to keep going to Warner Springs.
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A rattlesnake lounging in the trail gives me a scare just before I reach Warner Springs.

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I arrive in Warner Springs late in the afternoon and decide to take advantage of the free camping and flush toilets at the community center, as well as the school fundraiser spaghetti dinner across the street for $5 (the garlic bread and fresh salad blew my mind).
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I spend the rest of the evening relaxing and putting my tired feet up at the Community Center in Warner Springs.
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The next day is unbearably hot and dry, with a long section without any water.
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I’m happy to find a random cache at a dirt road crossing, and fill up on a couple liters.  I struggle to make progress, and find a nice campsite just short of 20 miles.  A couple joins me shortly after I pitch my tent, and they bicker into the evening.  It’s an awkward situation, and I can’t wait until the morning.
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I hustle to the next water source at a trail angel home known as Mike’s Place, fill up a few liters and drink a soda they’ve left in a cooler.   The day is insanely hot again, and I put my umbrella to good use.  I pass by a group of hikers trying to scoop water out of a crumbling cistern, and I peer inside out of curiosity.  To my horror, there’s a couple of dead mice floating in the shallow, slimy water.  I still have enough water from my first stop, and thankfully get to skip this water source.
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I manage to do a long day, and pass by a warning sign stating that the local “farmers” are in fact marijuana growers and are not too keen on the hikers.  In the evening, I encounter a snake, casually strangling the life from lizard in the trail.  This place gives me bad vibes, so I try and lay low.
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I make camp among some boulders, well out of sight, and attempt to clean myself up.  I’m absolutely filthy, from head to toe, but I’m feeling good.
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An icy wind is sweeping across the landscape in the morning despite the sun shining, and I get straight to hiking to warm up.  The town of Idyllwild is ahead, and I’m ready for my first shower in nearly 150 miles.

 

hornytoad
Early on, I encounter a cute little Horned Toad trying to warm itself in the sun.

 

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I pass another water cache called Malibu East, then reach the highway crossing where there is a trail closure due to a burn just ahead.  I detour to the infamous Paradise Cafe along the road and fill up on an omelette and coffee.  From there, I hitch up the highway instead of road walking, as it feels too dangerous.  A nice family picks me up and takes me into town, where I get a cozy little cabin for the night.
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I set out to do my errands, getting my resupply in order, doing laundry and having the most amazing shower.  A storm rolls in in the evening, bringing the bitter cold with it.  I hole up in a restaurant for a bit, letting the comforting warmth of my Phở fill me up.
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In the morning there is fresh snow on the ground, and a dense fog lingers across the mountain village.  Everything is covered in ice.  I pay for another night in the cabin and tuck myself back into bed for the day, watching bad 80’s movies, drinking beer and eating junk food.
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I decide to join the PCT via the 2 mile Deer Springs Trail, just a couple of miles outside of town.  A friendly local gives me a lift so I can avoid walking along the winding road.  There is still fresh snow on the trail, and the air is chilly as I enter Mt. San Jacinto State Park.
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I slip and slide all over the trail, having difficulties gaining traction, and climb above 9000 feet to Fuller Ridge.
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From here, I have spectacular views of the desert floor below and the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
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I run into Cal again, and we decide to camp around the 5000 foot elevation.

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The wind is howling and frigid, and I try to take cover behind some manzanita trees.
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The wind is howling and frigid, and I try to take cover behind some manzanita trees.
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The next day, I begin a long descent over several miles back down to the desert.
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My knee is screaming at me in pain on the descent, likely from my fall several days earlier, and I have to stop often for breaks.
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I’m in severe pain, and I limp past the 200 mile mark.
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Once I reach White Water Reserve, I call a cab to come and get me.  There’s another closure ahead, and the only option is to take a bus around it to Big Bear.  I meet a couple of Scottish brothers, called John and Andrew, and they agree to share the cab with me to Banning where we’ll catch the bus in the morning.
knee
We check into a cheap motel, and I spend the evening icing my swollen knee.
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We catch the bus early in the morning and it takes several hours to reach Big Bear.  I check into another motel room, as the hostel is full and I’ve heard negative things about the local trail angel.  I continue to ice my knee and take long, hot soaks in the bathtub.  Andrew and John take me out to the pub in the evening, and then bid me farewell the next morning.
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I’m forced to take time off in Big Bear; five whole, painfully boring days.  I visit a doctor about my knee, and he is somewhat condescending and urges me to quit the trail.  I follow some of his advice and take some anti-inflammatory medication and continue icing my knee, but I refuse to give up.
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I get back on the trail on the other side of town, following the Cougar Crest Trail up to the PCT.
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At the trail junction, there are views of Big Bear Lake and the resorts below.
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I manage to do a decent amount of mileage for the day, and make camp in a sandy spot along a small creek.
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After a light dinner, I head to bed.
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I’m not feeling much pain anymore, and I fall asleep to the lovely sound of an owl calling in the distance.
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I walk through another depressing wildfire burn area, and the sun is beating down on me early on.
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I cross a nice, clear stream and take my shoes off to soak my tired feet.  The trail takes me away from the oasis of tree shade and cool creek water and hurls me back into the inferno of the desert.
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Thankfully, I come to another joyous sight after a few miles:  The Deep Creek Bridge.
There’s a sandy beach below the bridge with full shade provided by some grand oak trees.  I clamber down the steep side trail, where other hikers are taking refuge from the heat of the day.  I sit in the cold water of the creek, giving my muscles a good soak.  I take my time, enjoying a long lunch break and the soothing creek water.
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I despair at leaving my lunch spot, but I press on into the day.  The trail follows Deep Creek Canyon along a high, somewhat unstable cliff.  I’m uneasy by the way the soil is loose under my feet and easily giving way into the canyon below.
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By the evening I reach Deep Creek Hot Springs, something I was looking forward to and then ultimately let down by.  There were huge crowds of people there, who weren’t thru-hikers.  There was a ridiculous amount of trash and feces near the trail, and I felt sick at the sights I was seeing.  A man stumbled towards me out of the bushes and then proceeded to vomit.
I kept moving, thoroughly disheartened.  Thankfully, a cute little lizard perched on pine cone restored my mood.
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Night was now closing in, and I had surpassed my 20 mile goal for the day.  I was having difficulty finding a campsite, as nearly all of them were packed full.  I pushed on after sunset, finding my way with the dim light of my headlamp.  After 25 miles, I was completely knackered and hurting, and settled on camping in a wide spot in the trail.  As I set my tent up, the light of my headlamp caught the glowing eyes of a creature down the embankment.
I stood still and focused. It was a fox!  Nothing to worry about whatsoever.
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A storm seemed to be looming in the morning, with dark skies just ahead.

 

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The trail climbed back into the hills, crossed an ugly gravel pit and followed the road for a bit.

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spillway
I passed by several spillways for a dam, with trash and graffiti spoiling the scenery.

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slime

silverwood lake
I decided to stop at the state park at Silverwood Lake, where they had hiker campsites for $5.  I was surprised to be the only one there, but I could see why once I started to pitch my tent: every square foot of ground was covered in broken shards of glass.  I did my best to clear a spot, and went to bed.
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When I wake up in the morning, the weather seems fickle.  Thunderstorms seem to be closing in.
lupine
The climb back into the hills is lined with lupine, which is perfuming the air with its lovely grape soda smell.
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Once I start my descent towards Cajon Pass, the wind picks up and I can feel the static in the air.  I hurry down towards the freeway, where a handful of fast food restaurants are calling to me.
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I pass by the infamous PCT McDonald’s, and head towards the taco shop across the road.  I devour some carne asada and an offensive amount of nachos while I’m there.  I head back towards the trail, but it’s clear that weather is about to come down hard.  Thunder is rumbling in the distance, and there’s a severe weather and flash flood warning for area.  Against my wishes, I hide out at in the McDonald’s.
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I buy a coffee and a large order of fries, and take advantage of the phone charging station and free WiFi.  The weather gets wild outside for about an hour, spitting hail and then raining, but then quickly clearing up.  I get back on the trail again, crossing under the freeway through an incredibly spooky tunnel.

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On the other side, I watch as several freight trains pass on by.

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I get a few more miles in as night falls, and make camp in the dark alongside the trail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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