I’m hiking a few hundred miles again, in the mountains, whatever.

Last year was my first hundred-mile (160 km) hike, and it seemed like a big deal at the time. But by now that I have done two continuous 400+ mile hikes, it no longer feels like such a big deal.

And I’m doing it again.

Right now, I have a permit to go from Etna, California, to Tuolumne Meadows, California. That is more than 600 miles. I would like to go further south, but in order to do so (legally) I would need to get a John Muir Trail permit at Tuolumne Meadows, which may or may not happen. And a John Muir Trail permit would only get me as far as Mount Whitney, and while when I was planning this trip I was hoping to get as far as Walker Pass … in some ways, it would be better to end at Mount Whitney (it is much more epic/symbolic than Walker Pass) and in some ways it would be better to end at Walker Pass (public transportation), but right now I’m leaning towards ending at Mount Whitney.

For those of you who are not familiar with California geography, I’m going to spell it out – I am finally going to be hiking in the Sierra Nevada.

You see, I grew up in California, and backpacking/hiking has somehow become one my major hobbies, yet I have never hiked in the Sierra Nevada before (unlike you count my aborted hike at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada. Even though I know a zillion people get excited about hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains, for some reason, I am strangely chill about it. Maybe it is because I grew up within a few hours drive of the Sierra Nevada (even if I rarely visited), maybe the fact that everyone else gets so excited makes it harder for me to get excited, I don’t know. But I think it is a good thing not to try to get my expectations too high.

Since I am planning to hike 600-900 miles (depending on permits/itinerary), I think I will want a break. The most logical place to take a break would be Donner Pass, because that has the best transit connections. I could just return to San Francisco for my break, or I could simply go somewhere else. Right now, I am leaning towards visited Utah for a few days to break up my hike, since taking a train from the Donner Pass area to Salt Lake City would be fairly straightforward.

I was almost hoping I could complete all parts of the Pacific Crest Trail I have yet to hike this year. It now looks like that is not going to happen, and I’m okay with that. I’ve already done a good chunk of the PCT this year, and if I complete this chunk, then I will have hiked most of the California PCT, leaving only a few small bits of the California PCT and the Oregon PCT for me to hike next year.

What this means for this blog is that I have a whole bunch of canned posts coming up, so this blog will continue to update on a weekly basis while I am away from the internet. However, I will probably be very slow to respond to comments during the next few months.

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Cold and Windy Spring in California

Cacti, in snow. I’ve posted this image before, but I’m posting it again because it is such a great symbol of my long hike in Southern California.

Going into my southern California hike, I was expecting to have problems with heat. After all, it got pretty warm during my week-long hike on the southern California Pacific Crest Trail last year – one day it got over 100 ºF (38 ºC). I was also concerned about finding shade, which is one of the reasons I went with a tarp which could be used for shade.

Yeah, there were a few brief times when the heat was uncomfortable (the warmest I ever got was on the lower part of my hike up San Jacinto), and a few stretches where shade was hard to come by (also on the ascent San Jacinto, actually) but it was cold temperatures and wind which gave me a lot more trouble during my hike.

The most extreme example of problems with cold weather was on the very first night, which I wrote about before. Thankfully, that did not repeat itself.

However, it also snowed on me while I was hiking through the San Bernardino mountains. Yes, it snowed on me while I was hiking in Southern California, in April. I even did a cowboy camp in the snow, which actually is not as bad as it sounds, especially since it got much warmer in the middle of the night.

Normally, hikers take a midday break in the shade. We were taking a midday break in the sun because it was ~that cold~ (and I am impressed that this guy had bare legs, because I never took my puffy jacket off at all this day). We were happy to see the sun come out, because it had been snowing an hour earlier.

Heck, I have calculated that I have spent more time in SNOWY weather in my PCT hikes in Southern California than I have in RAINY weather in my PCT hike of the entire state of Washington. For that matter, it was definitely colder on this Southern California hike than on my Washington hike – I never had a problem with any kind of cold night in Washington like I did in some parts of Southern California, and I definitely had more problems with heat in Washington. Heck, I experienced more rain during my two days in Texas than I did on my 30+ day hike through the Washington Cascades. I know that I did my Washington PCT hike during an unusual summer, but even so, whenever someone talks about how rainy Washington is, or how hot Southern California is, or how dry Central Texas is, I am going to be tempted to roll my eyes.

This was one of the water sources in the San Bernardino mountains. And yes, those are icicles.

And while I was going through part of Los Angeles county which was away from the coast and near the MOJAVE FREAKIN’ DESERT, a ‘marine layer’ came in a blanketed the mountain valleys with fog. First of all, it made the air surprisingly cold (though not quite as cold as what I later experienced in the San Bernardino mountains), some hikers got caught in rain (though I got lucky and pitched camp just outside the area which got rained on) and also, it was exactly was I was not expecting, especially since I had just come out of the Mojave desert.

Hills covered with chaparral with a blue sky and a valley filled with fog.

When I saw this in Los Angeles county, I was wondering if I had accidently walked all the way back to the San Francisco Bay Area.

And on top of all that, there was the wind.

Sometimes, the wind was nice, or scary, or nice and scary at the same time.

The day I descended from Inspiration Point (near Wrightwood) to Swarthout Canyon (near Cajon Pass) was extremely windy. On the one hand, this was nice, because east of the turnoff to Mount San Antonio there was little shade, but the wind kept me cool. On the other hand, some parts of the trail was in bad shape, and by ‘bad shape’ I mean that the trail was eroding and if I slid off the eroding trail I might have fallen down a long way, and the wind forcefully shoving against my body really did not help.

Going down to Cajon Pass. I know a lot of hikers hate the segment between Cajon Pass and Wrightwood, but it was one of the highlights of the trail for me. It definitely helped that I was going mostly downhill and I did not hike this on a hot day.

And the wind was still blowing really strong that night. All the other hikers I met were desperately looking for a sheltered spot, but there were no sheltered campsites, the only fully protected place to sleep was the Best Western Inn in Cajon Pass and a) that was too far for me to reach unless I wanted to push my body very hard and b) it cost more than I wanted to pay. I know that a lot of hikers spend the night in Swarthout Canyon because it is in a convenient location just five miles from Cajon Pass, but the night I was there I was the only hiker, and it was damn windy. Fortunately, I found the single most protected place near the trail within the canyon. It was a bush which blocked about half of the wind. I literally slept under the bush.

This is the wonderful bush which sheltered me from the wind in Swarthout Canyon.

The worst wind was the day I arrived in Big Bear Lake. It as not so bad when I was hiking, since I was not going through any particularly steep or eroded areas, except for the spot which had the whirling dust storms. But when I got to the highway, there was no shelter from the fierce wind, so I had to wait in the wind and practically shout at the other hikers when I was talking to them (but I was lucky to have a guaranteed ride instead of hitchhiking, so I don’t want to complain).

Here is some dead cactus I saw on that very windy morning.

Once I was in town, even though it was a sunny day, nobody wanted to be outside until they absolutely had to go out because the wind was that bad. In the evening, it was so windy that it was physically difficult just to walk down the street to get dinner. I was very happy to be sleeping inside a building with four walls that night – though I was lucky to get a space in the hostel, since that day a lot of hikers decided they would rather extend their stay another night rather than hike (or camp) in such harsh conditions. The next morning, somebody said that, in TOWN (not on the trail, which is higher up in the mountains), the wind had gotten to be as much as 100 mph (160 kph), and the temperature had gone as low as 21 ºF (-6 ºC). I later met a hiker who had camped out that night, and the wind had damaged her tent. Other hikers did not dare pitch their tents that night, but that meant that they had to endure the cold and windy night without a tent to protect them.

On the plus side, due to the cold temperatures and abundance of March snowstorms, I happened to pass through the Angeles National Forest at a time when the forest rangers were actually permitting campfires. The locals tell me that the forest rangers almost never permit campfires. I did not have a fire permit, but on the coldest night I was in the Angeles Forest, I happened to camp with some hikers who did have the fire permit, so they started a totally legal campfire. I enjoyed the warmth.

It was not just a cold spring in southern California, it was also a colder-than-average late spring up in the San Francisco Bay Area as well. Normally, it is difficult to grow carrots in San Francisco, but this spring, the local garden where I volunteer had the largest crop of carrots ever because the weather had been so cold. And it’s not just San Francisco – the local farmers’ markets are overflowing with carrots because vegetable farmers all over northern California have had a great carrot harvest due to the low spring temperatures.

I suppose the lesson here is that I should never trust the ‘reputation’ a particular region has when it comes to weather. If I had known the weather was going to be like this, I probably would have chose gear less suited for sun/heat and more suited for cold. But I guess unexpected weather makes life more interesting, and my gear worked well enough anyway.

I plan to stay overnight in all of the counties of California

One of the many cool things about travelling along the Pacific Crest Trail is that it guides me to visit parts of California I never paid much attention to before (for example, I didn’t know that San Bernardino county had its own mountain range before, let alone that the San Bernardino mountain range has the highest mountains in southern California). This has whetted my appetite for getting a broader understanding of the various corners of California.

In Taiwan, I dutifully visited every single county, and stayed overnight at least once in most of them, which was not so hard since Taiwan has only 11-18 counties (the number depends on how one defines ‘county’ and ‘Taiwan’ and if you really care about understanding this go to Wikipedia).

California does not have nearly as confusing a system for classifying counties as Taiwan, so I can say that California has 58 counties without qualifications. On the other hand, that is a lot of counties. I cannot even name them all off the top of my head (whereas I can name all of the counties in Taiwan off the top of my head). However, it would be cool to have the same experiential grasp of California geography as I have of Taiwanese geography, and I think the best way to do that would be to go to every single county in California.

But what counts as having been in a particular county? I don’t think passing through a county on a road is enough to ‘count’. Even a day trip does not feel like it would be enough. There as also places in California which I visited when I was very young and I barely remember them. Thus, in order for a county to ‘count’, I need to distinctly remember staying overnight in the county. If I can remember what year I stayed in the county and why I was there, that counts as ‘distinctly’ remembering it.

Here is a map of California, and I have shaded in all of the counties where I distinctly remember staying overnight at least once.

A map of California with San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Orange, Yolo, Santa Clara, Placer, Trinity, San Luis Obispo, Shasta, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside, Kern, Siskiyou, San Bernardino counties shaded in.

First of all, I find it amusing that this map makes it look like I am much better travelled in Southern California than the San Francisco Bay Area, when that is not the case at all. This is partially because the Southern California counties are so big because most of the county boundaries were determined in the decades after the gold rush when the Sierra Nevada mountains had a relatively high population and southern California had a relatively low population (nowadays it is the complete opposite, which is why Los Angeles county is still a single county in spite of having more land AND a bigger population than San Francisco / Marin / Contra Costa / Alameda / Santa Clara / San Mateo combined, and why the Sierra Nevada has so many counties in spite of having a small population). Also, all of the Bay Area counties are so close to San Francisco that I can visit them all on day trips. Thus, in the Bay Area, only San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, and Santa Clara are shaded in. I have only stayed overnight in Marin because of camping trips, and I have only stayed overnight in Sonoma because of an overnight elementary school trip. I lived in Santa Clara county in my late teens, though by far my most ~distinctly~ memorable night in Santa Clara county was before I lived there – the night of December 31, 1999.

But what is the most funny is that Alameda county … is not shaded in. Yet. I’ve lived in Alameda county for more than a year, I’ve visited Alameda county way more times than I can count, I have more living relatives in just BERKELEY than EVERYWHERE ELSE IN THE UNITED STATES WEST OF MISSOURI COMBINED, I have probably visited Alameda county more than any other county in California other than Santa Clara county, heck I WAS BORN IN ALAMEDA COUNTY, and yet, I cannot distinctly ever staying overnight in Alameda county, and thus I cannot honestly shade it in.

I could just ask one of my cousins in Berkeley if I could stay at their house for one night, but since there is a two-day trail in Alameda county which has caught my interest, I plan to go camping instead.

Yes, one of the reasons I went to San Clemente was so that I could scratch off Orange County on my bucket list.

A lot of these counties which are currently shaded are counties where I have only stayed overnight because of trips on the Pacific Crest Trail. Heck, I stayed in Kern, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties overnight for the first time ~this very calendar year~ because of my long section hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. One of the main reasons I decided to stay in San Clemente on my way back home is so that I would be able to stay overnight in Orange County (I also wanted to arrange to stay in Imperial County, but that turned out to be impractical, so I guess I will save it for my next trip to Southern California).

And hopefully I am going to shade in a lot more counties on my upcoming Pacific Crest Trail hike this summer through Northern California and Central California, yes I am going on the Pacific Crest Trail again this summer, are any of you surprised?

I am bad at predicting my future, so I stopped trying

A recent theme for the Carnival of Aces was “All the birds but us…” which led to a lot of discussion in the ace blogging community about our expectations for our personal future. Of course during that month I was hiking, so my thoughts about the future were generally along the lines of ‘Maybe I will reach that campsite in two hours’ or ‘I think I will get to town in three days’ or ‘Tomorrow I am going to get water from that bad water source’ or, if I was thinking really far ahead, I would think ‘when I get back to San Francisco, I will do [x].’ To run with the bird metaphor, long-distance hikers in the middle of a long-distance hike are birds in the middle of a migration, so obviously there is no nesting.

But in a more general way, I do not have a good track record when it comes to guessing my own future more than a year or two out. True, when I was a kid, it was a safe guess that after I graduated from elementary school, I would go to middle school, and that after graduating middle school, I would attend high school, but I was bad at guessing anything less predictable than that.

If you had asked me when I was sixteen what I was going to do two years later, I would have told you ‘I’m going to be a student at one of the University of California campuses in southern California so that I can get as far away from San Francisco as possible while still benefiting from in-state tuition.’ Spoiler: I have never been a student at any campus of the University of California, nor did I go to southern California AT ALL during my years of higher education, not even for a brief visit.

If, during my third year in higher education, you had suggested that after graduation I would be moving to Taoyuan I would have responded ‘where the hell is that?’ and if you had explained that it is in Taiwan, my response would have been ‘why the heck would I visit Taiwan, let alone live there for years?’ In fact, someone did suggest towards the end of my third year of higher education that I could move to Taiwan, and I totally brushed him off at the time. Spoiler: after I graduated from college, I moved to Taiwan and stayed there for years.

There is an example where being aseuxal/aromantic is relevant. When I was middle school, I wasn’t attracted to anybody in a sexual or romantic way, but I assumed it would happen if I met the right person, so I was expecting to meet someone who I would find attractive in high school and he would become my boyfriend (because I expected this person to be male). Spoiler: it did not happen.

Nowadays, I accept that I am bad at predicting my own future, and I no longer try to imagine my long-term future very hard. I still have vague ideas of things I would like to do one day, I do have some multi-year goals (such as ‘see every Shakespeare play on stage live at least once), and I even prepare for the future in a non-specific way. For example, even if I don’t know what I will be doing in the future, I am guessing that having money will be useful, and ‘I will probably want money in the future’ definitely influences the financial decisions I make today.

Will I live in San Francisco for forty more years? Maybe. Will I move to New York in two years and never ever live in California again? Maybe. Will I discover that squash is the most awesome sport ever and suddenly immerse myself in the squash world? Maybe (as of now, I have never seen a squash match, nor do I even know the rules of squash). I am not trying to imagine any future more than a year or two out, and I’m okay with that.

What I Read during My Southern California Hike

When I first started getting into backpacking, I brought books along to read – and discovered that I did not have time/energy to read them, and they were extra weight. I became one of those backpackers who did not carry books, unless it was of practical use (i.e. a guidebook).

Last year, when I was out backpacking for more than a month, I changed my tune. I did not want to go a month without reading any books at all. Thus, I carried an e-book reader. And I discovered that reading books while on a long backpacking trip is awesome. On short trips (2-4 days) I will be too preoccupied with my new surroundings to want to read, but on longer trips, I need to sometimes give my mind a vacation, and books can do that very well. I find that intellectually demanding books are too much for me when I am on trail, but ‘mind candy’ books work very well. What works best are melodramas with good cliffhangers.

Then, a little more than halfway through my long hike, my eBook reader broke. By then I was so used to having a book on hand to read in camp that I did not want to do without, so I picked up the most interesting paperback I could on my next town stop. That was Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurty. It lasted until I reached Manning Park, where I dropped it off.

During my long hike in Southern California, I decided I was going to take paperbacks. I did not want to break another eBook reader, and unlike electronic devices, paperback books can be used as pillows (which turned out to be very handy). Naturally, I was only going to bring one book with me at a time, and then replace it when I finished reading it.

Cover of Heir to Empire

The first book I brought with me from San Francisco was Star Wars: Heir to Empire by Timothy Zahn. It was perfect. I was already familiar with the main characters (except Thrawn and Mara Jade) because I have seen the original Star Wars trilogy, which made it easier to read, like fanfic when you are familiar with the canon. However, it’s also fun to read, had the right kind of cliffhangers, and was more intellectually stimulating than I would expect from a Star Wars novel. Grand Admiral Thrawn is basically Sherlock Holmes, except he is evil, so this was basically a story about Luke Skywalker/Leia/Han Solo vs. evil!Sherlock Holmes.

I had a wide choice of books I could bring my San Francisco, but once I finished and dropped Star Wars: Heir to Empire, I was limited to whatever paperback books were available in whatever town I was in. This is how I learned about the selection of books available in various small mountain towns in SoCal. And these were the books I ended up with, in this order:

Danny, The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
Jack London’s Klondike Adventure by Mike Wilson.

Cover of Danny, The Champion of the World.

With Danny, The Champion of the World, I almost had no choice. I picked it up in Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce. The hiker box which had all the books had been left out in the rain, which meant all of the books were moldy. Danny, Champion of the World had been put in the wrong place, which meant it was spared the rain. I otherwise would have almost certainly not picked a Roald Dahl book. But I’m glad I did. It has been over twenty years since I read anything by Roald Dahl, and it was nice to revisit him. In some ways, Danny, Champion of the World is a very good book, and I enjoyed reading it, but it also has substantial flaws, and I think that is why it is not as famous/popular as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach.

Cover of Riders of the Purple Sage

Riders of the Purple Sage is the only book I would have chosen to read even in San Francisco where I have an extremely wide choice of books to read. It is not a coincidence that I picked it up in Wrightwood, which has an awesome used bookstore – I had a very wide choice of books there. It was excellent reading for a hike in the southwestern United States. Even though I was hiking through SoCal, and the novel is set in Utah, it resonated with my everyday life – the characters were concerned about finding water, just like I was, they were concerned about slipping off a cliff, just as I was, they kept their eye out for cottonwoods (cottonwoods = water), just like I was, etc. A lot of the characters are also Mormon (it is set in Utah), and I was in the middle of the book as I went through a segment of the PCT called ‘Mormon Rocks’, so that was also thematically appropriate.

Cover of Foundation and Empire

Big Bear Lake also had a used bookstore – ‘Bearly Used Books‘ – but it is much smaller than the used bookstore in Wrightwood, so my choices were more limited. I had a hard time deciding between The Shattered Chain by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Foundation and Empire. The tie-breaker was the fact that Foundation and Empire was slightly cheaper. It has been a very long time since I read any of Isaac Asimov’s fiction, and I had forgotten what it was like. In fact, the very last Asimov novel I had read was The Thousand Year Plan, an abridged version of the first Foundation book, and I had read it in 2003, in Italy (and the Vatican – I distinctly remember reading the book while I was in the Vatican). Methinks I will have to put the rest of the Foundation books on my to-read list.

Cover for Narrow Road to the Interior (translation of Oku No Hosomichi

Bonus: While I was in Big Bear Lake I also read Oku No Hosomichi and a few other travelogues by Basho (in English translation). I did not take it with me on the trail (too big) but it also resonated with me a lot because Basho also travelled a long distance on foot/by horse through relatively wild areas, and had a lot of the same concerns as long-distance hikers today. I’ve also been to a few of the places that Basho describes (Yamadera, for example).

Cover of Perelandra

The wonderful library in Idyllwild sells used books, but unfortunately, most of their books were too bulky to bring on trail, so my options were once again limited. If my choices were not so restricted, there is no way I would have picked Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. Yet, surprisingly, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because it was so freaking weird. Here is the premise: Ransom is a devout Christian, so when God tells him to enter a coffin made out of ice, he obeys. God sends the ice coffin to Venus, and since God works in mysterious ways, he does not tell Ransom much – it is up to Ransom to figure out what the f*** is going on. Ransom then discovers that God has created a new Adam and Eve on Venus, except this Adam and Eve are way more awesome than Earth’s Adam and Eve, which means that if Venus!Eve succumbs to Satan’s temptation, it will be EVEN WORSE than what happened on Earth. However, since Ransom is a mere human being, he is not sure what to do about this. Meanwhile, C.S. Lewis waits for Ransom to come back to Earth (yes, C.S. Lewis is one of the characters in the novel).

C.S. Lewis: I don't want anything to do with your creepy aliens; Ransom: But God told me to go to Venus, so wait for me. And if you die, have someone else wait for me; C.S. Lewis: Okay.

This is a summary of a scene in Perelandra.

While I disagree with C.S. Lewis about a lot of things, I am very impressed with his imagination, and I think it is a shame he ‘converted’ to Christianity instead of plunging into ‘madness’ and following his interest in the occult. If he wrote this kind of thing as a ‘sane’ Christian, imagine what kind of novels he would have written as an ‘insane’ occultist (though I suppose it is possible that if he outright pursued occultism rather than constantly trying to resolve the tensions between his Christian beliefs and his attraction to occultism, his imagination would have gotten less exercise). I also like George D. MacDonald, and appreciated the strong MacDonald influence evident in Perelandra.

Cover of Mountain Fire Momma

Bonus 2: While I was in Idyllwild, I read the book Mountain Fire Momma: One Woman’s Story of Wildfire, Family and the Zen of Survival by Melissa Severa. I started reading it at a restaurant in Idyllwild, and then tracked it down at the library and finished it. It’s a poignant account of a woman with children who lost her home in the floods after the Mountain Fire in 2013. As a PCT hiker, I was very aware of the Mountain Fire because that had severely damaged the trail. Also, the writer lives on Apple Canyon Road, which is where I rejoined the PCT after Idyllwild. It was cool to go up Apple Canyon Road and know something about the people who live there, and to know more about the Mountain Fire.

Cover of Jack London’s Klondike Adventure

My last book, Jack London’s Klondike Adventure, came from the bookstore run by the friends of the San Clemente library. “But San Clemente is nowhere near the Pacific Crest Trail” you say (if you know about California geography). True, but it was on the way between rural!San Diego county and San Francisco, and I stopped there for a couple nights. I was no longer hiking, but I wanted a book to read on the train, since the train ride from San Clemente to Oakland Jack London Square is loooooooooooong (I boarded the 6:56 am train departing San Clemente, and I did not arrive at Oakland Jack London Square until 10 pm – and then I still had to travel from Oakland to my home in San Francisco). And yes, I thought it was thematically appropriate that I was reading a book about Jack London when I was en route to a train station which is literally named after Jack London. I remember when the Jack London Square train station first opened up, I went to the opening ceremony as a kid, I think that is the first time I became aware that Amtrak exists, so it was meaningful for me to finally take an Amtrak train to Jack London Square. But I digress.

A train passes through San Clemente (yes, the train literally runs on the beach).

I got more out of Jack London’s Klondike Adventure than any other book I read on this trip, which is a good thing, because it was the only book I brought home. I had not realized that Jack London had such an interesting life. And now I want to go through the Chilkoot Trail, just like Jack London. However, unlike Jack London, I do not think I will carry 2000 pounds of supplies with me, or stay in the Klondike for a whole winter.

Some of these are books which I would have probably never picked up if my reading options had not been restricted, but in the end, that was an advantage. If I always have a lot of choice in picking books, I tend to pick the same types of books to read over and over again. And while none of these are my favorite books ever, I do think it was good for me to step out of my comfort zone and read something different.