PCT Photo Journal, Part 2: The Desert Inferno

In this 310 mile stretch between Cajon Pass to Walker Pass, I visit the ski town of Wrightwood, struggle with the extreme hot and cold that the desert is dishing out, see some cool rocks, eat some pizza and walk along the infamous L.A. Aqueduct in the Mojave Desert.

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When I wake up in the morning at Cajon Pass, it’s still dark outside.  I desperately need to use the loo, and scramble to find my toilet paper and trowel (likely a direct result of my fast food consumption the day before).  I scurry into the bushes, guided only by the dim light of my headlamp, and promptly squat onto a cactus.  Ouch!
It’s bitter cold outside, and cloudy.  Gunshots cut through the early morning silence as I climb away from the pass and into a burn area in the San Gabriel Mountains.
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The more elevation I gain, the more frigid the temperatures become.
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I reach a forested ridge by mid afternoon, just as an ice storm begins.
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I make a quick pot of ramen and bundle up to keep warm.  As I’m leaving my lunch spot, a loud crashing comes from the bushes behind me. I hurry up the trail, not looking behind me.

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I get to Guffy campground, situated below some chair lifts, early in the evening and decide to stay.  The highway to the ski village of Wrightwood is just a couple of miles ahead, but it can be a difficult hitch late in the day.  I make camp and boil some water for my Gatorade bottle, preparing for the cold night that’s ahead of me.  Once I’m cozy inside of my sleeping bag, I put the hot bottle near my feet to keep me toasty, and go to sleep.

 

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I pass under more chair lifts in the morning, and arrive at the Angeles Crest Highway just as a woman is dropping off more hikers.  She offers me a lift into town and I hop into her car.  She drops me off at the Grizzly Cafe, where I stuff myself with Eggs Benedict and a bloody Mary.  It’s Sunday, so I have to wait until the following day to pick up my resupply box from the post office.

 

 

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I get a room at the Pines Motel (not great, but offers a hiker discount) and take a shower.  I hand wash my socks and shorts, and make a beer run in town at the awesome hiker friendly grocery store.  I order a pizza to be delivered and spend the evening relaxing in bed.
I run down to the post office as they’re opening, quickly collect my resupply box and head back to my room.  I get packed and head out, getting a ride back to the trail from a former thru-hiker.

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The day is hot and dry when I start hiking again.  I run into a large group of third graders on a field trip, and the volunteer ranger in charge asks me to talk to them about my experience on the PCT.  I entertain them for a brief moment, then press on.
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I cross the Angeles Crest Highway again, which seems to snake through the mountains, and begin a labored ascent up Mount Baden-Powell.

 

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I encounter some snow as I near the top, and the trail disappears beneath it.
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I cut straight up, following the footprints of others who have done the same.

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I reach the summit by late afternoon, and then start descending down from the mountain.
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I find a nice campsite in the trees, and I’m joined by England and So It Goes once again, as well as a few other hikers.  As the sun goes down, the lights from Los Angeles light up the horizon.
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In the morning, I stop at a piped spring to filter some water and make use of the pit toilet in the primitive campsite nearby.  Further on I’m detoured again because of another trail closure, but this is to protect the endangered mountain yellow-legged frog, instead of for wildfire damage.  I take to road walking on the highway around the closure, which makes my feet ache terribly.  I meet another Washingtonian named Tom doing the same, and we decide to camp together at a backcountry campground ahead.
The campground is a welcome sight, with a clear running creek nearby, picnic tables and a pit toilet.  We sit around making dinner, and another hiker called Batman joins us, offering up a shot of rum for my hot chocolate (I happily accept).

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I set off solo in the morning, stopping at a Boy Scout camp to collect water from a spigot and rinse out my dusty socks.  A couple of deer wander through as I eat a breakfast of powdered donuts and Rice Crispy Treats.
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I cross the highway yet again, and enter a charred, skeletal burn area.  I’m completely exposed to the harsh sun and the trail is lined with every thru-hikers worst nightmare:  Poodle Dog Bush.  For those who are unaware, Poodle Dog Bush is a plant rooted in the depths of hell.  It thrives in burn areas, and when touched, causes an extremely painful, weeping rash.
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I do my best to avoid the demonic bushes and hike beneath the shade of my umbrella.  I stop for water at a slimy, nearly dried up creek, have some lunch and tend to some painful blisters that have formed on the balls of my feet.  In the meantime, my pack collects thousands of angry ants.

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I keep hiking into the inferno, climbing up and down throughout the day.  Tiny gnats are pestering me, dive-bombing into my eyes, nose and mouth.  By the evening, the wind has picked up and I’m too tired to keep going.  I settle into a spot on top of ridge, with no protection from the elements.

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I get little sleep in the night, as the wind whips through my tent.  It sounds as though it is ripping it to shreds, and I sit up often to check on its condition.  I break camp early, and hike four miles to a fire station.  There’s a spigot there for hikers to use freely, as well as a picnic table where I eat my breakfast.  There are swarms of bees and wasps around, hoping to get a sip of water from the spare drops off the spigot.
I climb again into the dusty hills, my pack heavy with water.  I’m suffering from the heat, and my umbrella isn’t helping much.  I’m still traversing across a large burn area, and it’s affecting my mood.  There were more gnats and even more poodle dog bush.

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An abandoned campground provides some relief from the heat halfway through the day, and I lounge at a picnic table among the shady pine trees.  I’m grumpy and hating this section of trail.  As evening closes in, I set off again.  The trail descends from the hills, zigzagging its way down to a ranger station.  The rangers have set up a temporary campsite for hikers, and provided us with water.  I set up my tent next to several others, and collapse into bed.

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I set off at sunrise, hoping to get to the Acton KOA somewhat early.  It’s ten miles ahead, and has what I need the most right now: ice cream and a pool.  Once I arrive, I pay to stay the night in their hiker site, devour two ice cream bars and an orange soda, and have a dip in the pool.  That night I order a pizza, salad and beer to be delivered to me, and enjoy my rather luxurious evening.

 

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I run into Tom again in the morning, who has decided to get off the trail in Agua Dulce and head home to be with his wife.  I’m a bit sad to see him go, but I understand too.
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I cross some railway tracks and climb into the hills.  The day is cooler and much more comfortable to hike in.

 

 

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I pass under the Antelope Valley Freeway via a dark tunnel, where there’s a funky little shrine on the other side.

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I enter the Vasquez Rocks Natural Area and slow my pace a bit so I can take in the stunning scenery.  The rock formations are lovely and interesting, and I meander my way through to the park entrance.  Here, they are filming a movie, a common sight for the area.
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I walk along the road into the town of Agua Dulce, and stop at store to stock up on a few supplies.  The store is surprisingly well stocked for hikers, but expensive.  I buy some snacks and eat a deliciously fresh salad, and then set off on the arduous road walk ahead of me.
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I reach the trail again along the Mint Canyon Road, and get a creepy vibe from the junk filled properties.  I hurry up the trail, putting distance in between myself and the Mint Canyon.
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I stop for water at a piped spring in the evening, then keep going well into the night.  I have trouble finding a suitable campsite, as most of the level space is already packed with other tents.  I finally find a good spot at the top of a ridge, but it’s underneath some crackling high voltage power lines.  I camp anyway.
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I’m struggling with motivation in the morning, and stop in a shaded gully to eat a pop tart and make some tea.  I arrive at a highway crossing by late morning where there’s yet another closure and detour.  The detour takes me around by road walking, so I get to it.  A car pulls over, and offers to take me where I need to go.  The driver tries to convince me to head to Casa de Luna, the infamous trail angel house run by the Andersons.  I decline and he drives me the Rock Inn, a biker bar along the side of the highway in the town of Lake Hughes.  I order a big, greasy burger with onion rings and a beer, and savor the air conditioning.
Lake Hughes is a bit creepy, and I feel the need to get out of dodge immediately.  I continued my road walk, stopping at a peculiar sight, an ostrich farm, watching the plumed wonders strutting around the corral.
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A bit further on, a man in a jeep offered me a ride to where the trail picked up again.  I happily accepted.  The side trail back towards the PCT took me through a forested, rather buggy canyon.  It met with the PCT again at an abandoned campground that was nestled in some oak trees.  I was feeling hot and sticky, and for some reason, emotional.
I kept hiking, stopping at a guzzler for water (an underground cistern with rainwater in it) and surpassed the 500 mile mark in the evening.

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I began crossing paths with a series of dirt roads, and heard dirt bikes nearby.  My creepy vibes from earlier continued, and I passed up a couple of opportunities to camp near the roads.
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I walked through a lovely fairy-tale-like oak grove at sunset, and finally arrived at an equestrian camp after dark.

 

 

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I quickly and quietly pitched my tent so as not to disturb my fellow hikers, and went to bed without dinner.
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I got a late start the next day, and was the last to break camp.  I found a water tank ahead next to the trail, at the bottom of a series of switchbacks.  I filled up a couple of liters and pressed on towards Hikertown, another trail angel house.  I planned to hide out at Hikertown for the day, and do the notorious aqueduct walk across the Mojave at night to beat the heat.  But when I arrived at the gate for the desert compound, I was overcome with a bad vibe.  I decided to keep going.
I came to an open section of the aqueduct, where I scooped up some nasty looking water.  The wind was hot and fierce as I followed along the uninspiring concrete river.
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The open aqueduct soon turned into a huge closed pipe, and cut straight across the desert and into the mountains.  I walked on top of the pipe, looking out across the eerie landscape.

 

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There were Joshua trees everywhere, and an equal amount of junk and garbage among them.  The houses out here were shanty-like, made up of scrap plywood and corrugated metal sheets.  Rusted out cars sat in their dusty yards, and random farm animals roamed within chain link pens.
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I managed to find some shade beneath a bridge for the aqueduct pipe around the heat of the day.  I sprawled out on my Tyvek sheet, and tried to have a nap.  I slept for a bit, but was awoken to a car stirring up dirt as it passed.

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I walked into the evening, hiding under some sparse trees to make some tea and dinner.
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I walked into the evening, hiding under some sparse trees to make some tea and dinner.  Once it was dark, it was much cooler.  I hiked on with my headlamp and a small gas station bought flashlight lighting my way.  The Mojave was noisy after dark, and I peered around me often looking for the reflective eyes of a mountain lion.  Thankfully, I was in the clear.  I found a water cache in a small metal locker next to the trail, and filled up a liter before making camp a few miles ahead.  It was after midnight as I pitched my tent, and when I finally got to bed, I could hear other hikers passing by in the darkness.

 

The next day was brutal.  I sat under a large California Juniper to eat my breakfast, and passed under the massive wind turbines of the Alta Wind Farm.  The day turned hot early, and there was no shade to be found.  Two fat gopher snakes lounging on the trail gave me a jump as I began to climb into the mountains.

I stopped at a surprisingly clear running creek to get some water and give my poor feet a soak.  After that, though it was tough going.  I climbed up and over a mountain, on soft, sandy trail that made the hiking much more strenuous.  I then descended from that mountain into a dried up river bed, only to have to climb again up a mountain on more rough terrain.

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The next day was brutal.  I sat under a large California Juniper to eat my breakfast, and passed under the massive wind turbines of the Alta Wind Farm.  The day turned hot early, and there was no shade to be found.  Two fat gopher snakes lounging on the trail gave me a jump as I began to climb into the mountains.
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I stopped at a surprisingly clear running creek to get some water and give my poor feet a soak.  After that, though it was tough going.  I climbed up and over a mountain, on soft, sandy trail that made the hiking much more strenuous.  I then descended from that mountain into a dried up river bed, only to have to climb again up a mountain on more rough terrain
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I came across a bit of a trail magic oasis, out in the middle of nowhere and on top of a ridge.  There were several chairs, pallets of bottled water and bags of fresh oranges for hikers.
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I met another lovely group of hikers there, who confirmed my feelings about Hikertown:  it was in fact, super creepy (according to them).  We talked about what foods we were dying to eat when we got to Tehachapi, and I dreamed of nachos and beer.
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I couldn’t shake my extreme hunger for nachos and beer once I left that little mountaintop oasis, and I found that I was running on a second wind.  I hiked quickly onward, descending down to Willows road at sunset.  I entered another wind farm and crossed rolling hills, hiking in the dark.  By the time I reached Highway 58, I had done my first 30 mile day.
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I couldn’t shake my extreme hunger for nachos and beer once I left that little mountaintop oasis, and I found that I was running on a second wind.  I hiked quickly onward, descending down to Willows road at sunset.  I entered another wind farm and crossed rolling hills, hiking in the dark.  By the time I reached Highway 58, I had done my first 30 mile day.  I got a ride from a wind turbine technician on his way home, and he dropped me off at the Holiday Inn Express in Tehachapi.  It was late now, and my entire body was in agony.  I dropped my pack in my room and went across the street to the Denny’s, where I ordered my full plate of nachos and stuffed my face full of cheesy goodness.
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I took some time off in Tehachapi; four wonderful, lazy days.  It was dreadfully hot outside, but I was hidden in the comfort of my air-conditioned room, having epsom salt soaks in the bath, drinking ice-cold beer and occasionally wandering across the way to grab a bite to eat from the Denny’s.  I also grabbed my resupply box from the post office, which was only a block away from my hotel.  In that box was a new pair of shoes, a new t-shirt and some food to get me through to Walker Pass.
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It was a cool morning when I hitched back to the trail at Tehachapi Pass.  The trail was gone from a mudslide a year before, so I had to follow a makeshift tractor path alongside of the highway and past a bee farm.
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I picked up the trail again after following a gully for a bit, and was blasted by wind once I began to climb.  Near the top, I could barely stand upright against the powerful gusts.

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I walked under more wind turbines throughout the day, and stopped in the evening to collect water from a slimy cow trough.
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I pushed on for a few more miles after that, settling into a clearing within some pine trees and out of the wind.

 

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When I pulled back the door on my vestibule in the morning, I was shocked to see that I was in the clouds; a weather system had moved in overnight everything was socked in.  There were no views to see that day, and everything was dead still.  The sound of wind turbines spinning could be heard overhead, but the fog was too dense to see them.
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I was having a hard day: my feet were in pain from trying to break in my new shoes, thunder boomed as I was crossing over a rocky ridge, and I was struck with a sudden case of homesickness.  I reached the 600 mile mark, but it was raining and I was blue, so I found no joy.
The clouds persisted until the evening, when suddenly they cleared out and the sun made an appearance.  I settled into a large campsite with another solo hiker, feeling better as the sun warmed my skin.
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In the morning, I hiked to an off trail piped spring with a stone shelter nearby, collected water and cooked mashed potatoes for my breakfast (why not?).  I entered more pine forest after that, which then gave way to an exposed burn area.  Lupine bloomed across the now open area, washing the charred area under brilliant shades of purple.
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My amazement was shattered, however, when I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake.
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I stopped at a water cache beside a dirt road and made my dinner, before continuing on into the evening.  I found a pleasant little spot to make camp nestled among a group of Joshua Trees, and watched the sun set from the comfort of my tent.
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I had a huge climb first thing in the morning; up a steep mountainside and on soft sand.  It was exhausting to say the least.  The sun was harsh and the wind howled across the hillsides. I had spent the morning shaking cockroaches from my tent, which must have gotten inside when I got up to pee in the middle of the night.  This made me a little grumpy, and I complained to myself throughout the morning.
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After following a dusty trail all day, I was happy to arrive at more pine forest by evening.  It was quiet there, and I found a large water cache.  I cooked dinner and then hiked on some more, before finding a nice spot to camp in the shade.

 

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I got up before sunrise, and hiked in the dark for a couple of hours.  I cruised along the ten or so miles down to Walker Pass, getting there just after 8 am.  I had a go at hitching, but grew weary as the day progressed; I was low on food, completely out of water and wanted to got off the hot tarmac.  The motels in nearby Lake Isabella were booked solid being that it was Memorial Day Weekend, so I called a small motel in Mountain Mesa.  They had a room for me and the owner, Bob, was willing to come and collect me.  Success!
After I checked into my funny little room at the Lakeview Motel, I got to work on a gallon tub of Birthday Cake Flavor Ice Cream and half of a watermelon.  It went down nicely, and really hit the spot.  I had a shower and then headed to the local Mexican Diner, where I’m pretty sure I ate my weight in tacos and cerveza.
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I managed to buy all my resupply at the Dollar General store just a block away from the motel, as well as some junk food to see me through the night.  All in all, a happy way to end the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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