Day 18 – Cabazon: The Unreachable

I’m standing along side a road waiting for a car to come by.  I’m still in the odd transition from forest to desert with trees scattered here and there.  It’s a dirt road with piles of sand and rock along each side, and I’m somewhat downhill from the road.  Not exactly the ideal location to be hitch-hiking from, but my knee was bothering me again and I couldn’t make it uphill.  As I stood there, I hear rustling in the bushes a ways away from me.  In the distance I could make out a cougar creeping around.  Oh.  I tried to yell at it to keep it away from me but I couldn’t make a sound.  Oh.

It circled the bush then dashed at me.  Oh.  Right before me it leaped to take me down, and at that moment all I could do was mutter “Stop”.

My own voice woke me up.  I looked at my watch: 4:00 AM.  Okay I guess I won’t sleep anymore.  Stupid forest threw me off my “I’ll sleep through anything in the wilderness” groove.  Thanks a lot.  I’ll get it back one day, but this morning wasn’t the day at all.  I laid back down on my sleeping pad and stared at the roof of my tent as the sun barely started to inch over the desert floor.  I started to munch on some trail mix and eventually decided to get up and go.  As I started collecting everything inside my tent into their appropriate bags, I suddenly felt really tired and wished I could go back to sleep.  Might as well give it a shot.

I woke up again a couple hours later feeling much better.  In your face, stupid dream!  I nibbled on my breakfast for a while and started to deflate my sleeping pad and stuff my quilt back into its stuff sack.  I unzipped my tent and took a look outside.  The landscape seemed so different from yesterday.  All the rocks along the dusty ground were shining gold, San Jacinto was looking mighty fine, and the rocks in front of my camp were bouncing light rays all over the place.  I need to stick around for a sunrise sometime, that would be awesome.

I packed up my tent and made my way up the sandy hill, saying goodbye to what I named “The Campsite of 1,000 Awesomes” and hit the trail feeling good about the day.  I knew it would be painful downhill, but I was really looking forward to getting back to the proper desert if not for a couple hours at least.  The trail went along a flat ridge for a while to give me a moment to warm up, then spiraled downhill.  I walked along in the morning light past the tents of people who don’t have nightmares about being mauled by cougars and can sleep in however long they like.

At about 7:30 things took an interesting turn.  It was hot.  It was really hot.  It’s never hot at this time of day, what the hell is going on?  I pressed on and decided I’d hide in the shade a little later as it warms up more.  The trail in this section was a little uncharacteristic of the PCT.  Usually it’s so well maintained, but this area has clearly seen a few storms.  Sometimes the trail would melt into the side of the hill and disappear causing hikers to create a new path down to the next set of switchbacks.  Or sometimes the hikers would just cut downhill to skip switchbacks entirely, which is no bueno.  It was hard to tell and I found myself accidentally skipping switchbacks every so often.  Sorry trail volunteers, I didn’t mean to!

There was also some desert plants growing over and enveloping the trail, which doesn’t work out so well for a guy hiking in running shorts.  As the thorny bushes scraped my legs, I was mentally screaming “Running shorts, why?!“.  I got a good laugh about it as I pushed through, at least my legs aren’t sunburned anymore.  That would really suck.

I don’t know what to tell you, the trail just went downhill relentleslly here.  I’ve never been a huge fan of going downhill, it’s not great on my joints.  So far the PCT has been relatively generous about going down, but sooner or later a section like this was bound to come up.  I tried to me mindful of my knee as I went down, putting more weight on my trekking poles than usual.  As I hobbled along I couldn’t stop looking out at San Jacinto.  I was just up there the other day!  That thing is massive!

Eventually my morning of solitude was broken up by footsteps crunching behind me.  There’s no way I’m going faster than this guy at my current pace.  I hiked until I found somewhere to step off trail and let him pass.  I didn’t get a good look at him at first, then I hear:

“Hello Chris!”

Wha?  I got a better look at him.  Holy shit, it’s Mathew!  From Scissors Crossing/Warner Springs!

“Mathew!  What’s up man?!” I said surprised, I did not expect to see him here.

We talked about daily mileage, zero days, trying to figure out how the hell we ran into each other, and eventually just started walking together.  I’m hiking with someone!  This is new!  I pulled my headphones out and continued talking with him as we hiked.  I know I might come across as an angry hermit who wants people off his property, but the truth is I feel absolutely alone out here sometimes.  It’s nice to see a familiar face on trail every so often.

Having someone to hike with helped me maintain a good pace despite my knee.  I wasn’t pushing it trying to keep up necessarily, but having a set speed helped me focus better on how to manage the pain while I walked which was monumentally helpful today.  I wanted to get off this mountain.  I keep looking out at Cabazon and the desert floor below and it never seems to get any closer, perpetually 9,600 feet below me it seemed.  Eventually my knee starts acting up again and I stopped to take a break.  Mathew stopped as well and sat in the dirt with me looking over his maps trying to figure out where mile 200 is.  My GPS said we were already there.  Where’s the marker?  Weird.

We got up and started our downhill pursuit once again, and eventually passed the mile 200 marker.  I threw my trekking poles in the air and let out a half-enthused yay.  I’m the man who doesn’t count miles anymore, remember?  Really though, it felt nice but at the same time it’s hard to remember everything before you sometimes, so the mileage doesn’t exactly feel like anything to me.

The conversation between Mathew and I shifted back and forth between food and “It’s so fucking hot”.  And fucking hot it was.  The temperatures kicked up into full swing and it was still early in the morning.  It was 3:00PM hot at 9:00AM here.  What is this place.  As we walked along a ridge I could see two hikers in front of us hiking considerably slower.  We eventually caught up to them, and as we approached them we heard rattling from a bush.  The couple in front of us stopped, and the man yelled “Rattlesnake” back to us.  I know the routine, I’ve been here before.  His wife (I think?) and I detoured uphill a ways to go around the bush, Mathew lagged behind determined to get a good picture of it.

While I waited, I talked to the man for a bit.  He’d tried to thru-hike the PCT last year but was forced off the trail twice in Washington.  One half-way in, and one at the end of the trail.  He couldn’t finish, so he decided to come back out this year and try again from mile 0 with his wife.  Mathew came over the hill and back down to the trail and we resumed our hike where the temperatures seemed to relentlessly go up.  I started to feel a little odd, then even worse.  That’s probably not a good sign, I took another break to sit in the shade where I felt much better.  This might be problematic.  I made a point to drink more water, happy to have plenty from the last stream off San Jacinto.

Eventually we sat up and resumed our descent.  I wish I could write in more detail about it other than saying “Hey, we went downhill again” because downhill and brutal heat was the majority of our day, but words can only go so far.  Anyways, we eventually got to the last two miles where we picked up the pace and shot down the remainder of Mount DumbFace.  I wanted to chug all the water, Mathew was on a mission for a chili cheeseburger.  We eventually got to the bottom where I cheered.  We wandered over to the oddly-placed faucet at the foot of the hill where a couple of hikers were hiding under a rock.

“How’d it go guys?” One of them asked.

“I’m never going downhill again” I responded.

“I have some bad news for you there dude” He said.

Do not doubt my resolve, I will go uphill all the way to Canada.  It’s decided.

I desperately tried to refill my water bottles as the wind blew the steady stream of water from the faucet all over the place and occasionally onto the hikers hiding under the rock.  I eventually got a couple of bottles worth and chugged both of them as more hikers came down off the mountain.  I was on a hydration mission but I dropped in on the conversation every so often.  One last hiker came down who looked absolutely done with everything.  I sat in the dirt in the sun for a while and asked Mathew if he was ready to go.

We set out away from San Jacinto on a flat paved road with renewed energy.  We’d done 10 miles downhill already which meant we only had 5 flat miles left for the day.  Easy!  The temperature even went down a bit and a cool breeze would blow by every once in a while.  But after walking on the road for a while Mathew mentioned how weird it felt to be off the dirt.  I looked down at my feet as I walked, it definitely felt strange, it even hurt a little bit.  I hoped it would link back up with a dirt path soon.  As we walked our trekking poles would occasionally get stuck in the cracks which was the most hilarious thing for no real reason.  Small things become hysterical out here.

As we walked we started talking about differences between American food and German food, when Mathew brought up that he had a really gross meal from Burger King when he got into the United States saying it was better in Germany.

“I thought America is the land of the burger” he said.

That brought me back to my German lessons in school where everyone thought Germany was the land of the burger, and that Hamburg was named after hamburgers.  He got a kick out of that.

We eventually passed some homes and finally got back to a dirt path where a PCT marker sat.  On top of that sat a bottle of whiskey.

“Is that whiskey?” Asked Mathew.

As we got closer I could affirm that yes it was in fact whiskey.  I debated for a moment, then decided I’d take a shot.  Why not right?

“It’s hot?” He asked.  At the moment the question didn’t really register to me, but it sure as hell did when it hit my mouth.  It had been in the sun all day.  I swallowed it and immediately regretted the decision.  What the hell am I doing drinking whiskey in the middle of the desert at the hottest time of the day.  I took a huge gulp of water immediately after as if to say “Nononono, just kidding, I didn’t do that.  Ignore it.  Mulligan, mulligan!”.

We hiked on either way.  The remainder of the trail navigated through flat desert where the sand was loose and hard to walk through.  There had definitely been water flowing through here at some point because we’d occasionally hit remnants of river beds.  But more importantly there was no shade and it was getting hotter.

The last miles through this stretch are a blur.  I started to seriously lose strength and I became dizzy (no not drunk dizzy).  I usually drink 1 liter per 5 miles, but in this final stretch I drank 3 liters in less than that.  I’m sure the whiskey didn’t help, but holy hell it was fucking hot.  So.  Fucking.  Hot.  I’ve done my fair share of desert backpacking, but I’ve never done a hotter stretch in my life.  As we continued on I started dipping back into my funk where I start to debate whether or not this is worth it, but I tried making jokes here and there to try and lighten the mood a bit, and Mathew did the same.  I at least wasn’t feeling negative about the situation, but all I wanted to do was collapse in the dirt and stay there.  I may have done that had we not gotten to the freeway when we did.  I bolted to the underpass and hid in the shade, glaring out at the desert we’d just walked through.

What the hell was that?  That was supposed to be an easy 5 miles!  That wasn’t easy, that wasn’t easy at all!

I sat in the shade cooling off, aware that I needed to get in touch with my dad to get a ride into Big Bear due to the closure.  I’d offered Mathew a ride earlier both to the post office and to Big Bear.  He asked what the plan was, all I could think of doing was going to sleep under this bridge of awesome shade.  But eventually I got up and contacted my dad, he was here and waiting at the other side of the freeway.

We walked under the bridge and got to my dad’s truck and threw our packs into the bed of the pickup.  My dad and I started to clear out a space for Mathew, and as we did another hiker came up and said “You goin to Ziggy and the Bears?” and didn’t wait for an answer, he just hopped on in.  It was the hiker from earlier who looked completely done with everything, it looked like my assessment was right.  It was only a mile away to ZiggyBear, Mathew and I could share a seat in the front I guess.

We navigated to the house where the hiker got out, thanked us, and made his way back home.  Mathew got in back and I got my front seat back and we made our way to Big Bear.  I was supposed to navigate us there but the speed of the truck was disorienting.  When my phone said “In 5 miles..” I assume I have all the time in the world to start a story, I lose track of time, and I forget to relay directions to my dad, which means we have to keep looping all over the place to get back onto the right highway.

But we eventually get on the right track, and the road takes us up and out of the desert  area of Cabazon and into the forest of Big Bear.  To say the drive was unnerving is an understatement.  30mph feels like 80mph, and the road winds uphill and along cliffs and around sharp turns.  It was the scariest hour on the road of my life and all I wanted to do was get out.

We eventually rolled into Big Bear, and we worked out to split a room between us all to save money.  We went to Carls Jr where Mathew and I freaked out the staff by eating 2 meals worth of food, then passed out at the hotel room.

I don’t have many pictures this time guys.  That’s how hot I was.  If I’m not taking pictures, serious shit is going down.  But I think I got the best shots either way, it was beautiful looking back at San Jacinto from the floor.

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