Smoke, Sickness, and Sore Feet to South Lake Tahoe, Part 2

At the end of the last part, I was in relatively bad physical shape, and had a lot of pressure on me to try to make it to town before my physical state became even worse. I was dealing with bad air, pain in my feet, and a cold. I was hoping that at least one of these problems would go away so that the other two problems would be easier to cope with. I had no control over the smoke, I could not make the cold go away no matter how much vitamin C I consumed, I could not fix my feet, but – wait a minute, didn’t I have painkillers in my first aid kit? Maybe they would make the pain in my feet go away, and then I would have solved at least on of my three problems.

Some long-distance hikers take ibuprofen on a regular basis so they can push their bodies past the point where they would otherwise feel too uncomfortable. They tend to call ibuprofen ‘vitamin I’ because they take it so regularly. Me? I have not taken an ibuprofen since I was 17 years old. Actually, that is the only time I recall ever using ibuprofen. I have nothing against hikers using ‘vitamin I’ frequently if that is how they want to hike, but for myself, I only want to push my body as far as it can go in an undrugged state, and I only want to pull out the drugs (other than caffeine) if I’m having problems beyond the ordinary problems of this type of hike.

At this point, I was definitely having more-than-ordinary problems.

There is morning light on the mountain which is a bit reddish with patches of snow, and in the bowl of the mountain there is a lake which is still in the shade and had a reflection of the mountain above.

Dick Lake in the morning

The thing is, I tend to forget that I’m carrying painkillers at all. Even during my miserable date when my feet hurt like hell, it did not occur to me that I could use my painkillers. Since I could not even remember that I am painkillers even when I was in a lot of pain, do you think I’m the kind of hiker who checks her first aid kit before every hike to make sure my medications haven’t expired. HA HA, NOPE! And naturally, ~all of my painkillers were expired~.

However, my acetaminophen pills hand only expired a few months earlier. I figured it was safe to take them, and at worst, it would simply be ineffective, in which case I would be no worse off than before.

It took about twenty minutes for me to feel the difference, but I swear, the expired acetaminophen pills really helped. My feet were still in pain, but it was about 50% less pain, which was a relief. Though the acetaminophen pills did not increase my energy levels (and energy drain was the worst symptom of my cold), it took the edge off some of my other cold symptoms, and that was also nice. I don’t care if it was just a placebo effect, when you are suffering you will gratefully accept a placebo effect if it makes you feel better.

[And if you’re wondering, yes, I’ve replaced all of my medications in my first aid kit, and it is going to be a while before they expire again]

Dick Lake and Lake Fontanallis as seen from near Dick Pass. See that layer of smoke in the air?

The smoke was still worse than I would like, but an improvement over the previous day.

I had not ‘solved’ any of my three big problems, but my three big problems were less bad than they had been the day before. It was time to take advantage of this amelioration to haul myself to a road and get to town.

The first leg was the uphill hike to Dick Pass, which was my biggest uphill of the day. At least I got it out of the way first. Normally I wouldn’t consider it a big deal, but in my condition, I was concerned. It turned out to be not as bad as I expected, and I think that may have been because of the acetaminophen.

A view near Dick Pass.

After Dick Pass, it was mostly downhill.

And I saw some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve seen on the Pacific Crest Trail. The Desolation wilderness is gorgeous.

In the background is a rust colored mountain with little patches of snow, and below is a dark blue lake surrounded by greenery.

Susie Lake

The lakes were some of the loveliest lakes I’ve seen on the PCT (and I’ve seen some very lovely lakes).

There were also plenty of lovely old growth trees, shaped by the harsh conditions of Desolation Wilderness.

A blue Lake, with granite mountains is the background covered by ribbons of snow.

Heather Lake

Beautiful scenery is not ~quite~ the reason I hike the PCT, but it is always a great morale boost, and I really needed the morale boost this day.

When I got down to the two Echo Lakes, the smoke was a lot worse, but I also knew that I was getting close to a road. I would have liked to go all the way to the highway, but by the time I got to the parking lot at the resort, it was already 6pm, and I was tired (and sick). Luckily, I was able to get a ride in about 10 minutes from nice women from Oregon/North Carolina. Another PCT hiker rode in the same car – he is the first person I ever met who is a Zoroastrian (well, maybe I’ve met other Zoroastrians without knowing they were Zoroastrians). Even though they had a dinner reservation, and the hostel in South Lake Tahoe was a detour for them, they drove us all the way to the hostel (which was great for us, because South Lake Tahoe is a very spread out town).

This is a photo of my foot at the hostel (after I took a shower and washed off the dirt). Those aren’t blisters, my skin simply peeled off, exposing the inner, sensitive layers. When the red parts touched something with any amount of pressure, there was a burning sensation.

There were a lot of PCT hikers at the hostel. Since this was in early August, I knew the NOBO thru-hikers there were not going to make it to Canada without a lot of skipping. Most of them also realized this, though a few of them still had delusions of dramatically increasing their pace so they could reach Canada that year without skipping miles. There are some amazingly fast thru-hikers, but if they were those amazingly fast thru-hikers, they would have reached South Lake Tahoe long before early August on a NOBO thru-hike. I enjoyed very much hanging out with the other PCT hikers, since I knew this was going to be my last direct contact with the PCT community in a while.

The next day, I returned home. My hike ended a lot sooner than planned, but I still covered more than 400 miles, and had a lot of memorable experiences, so I consider it to have been an overall successful trip.

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Smoke, Sickness, and Sore Feet to South Lake Tahoe, Part 1

A photo of Truckee’s historic district, near the train station.

I was in Truckee. I had just returned from Utah. I intended to return to the Pacific Crest Trail.

And the air quality was worse than I had hoped for. It was worse than when I had left Truckee to go to Utah.

Furthermore, something weird was happening to my feet. It wasn’t blisters, but it was leaving my feet a little sore. Furthermore, it started happening to me when I was off-trail, not when I was hiking. I figured it was probably nothing, and would go away if I ignored it.

I then asked myself – do I return to the trail, and hope the air will get better, or do I return to San Francisco.

I had missed the train to San Francisco, or rather, the train which dropped me off at Truckee was the train to San Francisco (in fact, it was the same train line I used to get from Chicago to San Francisco). I still had the option of taking a bus that evening to San Francisco.

I had a couple hours in Truckee to ponder whether I would go to the trail or I would go home.

A hiker I encountered in Truckee said ‘Do it! Go back to the trail! So what if you have to breathe smoke for a few days?’

I finally did decide to go back to Donner Pass to get back on the trail, mainly because I was psychologically prepared for returning to the trail. I was not psychologically prepared to go home so soon.

This is a photo taken near Roller Pass, and the campsite I slept at when I got back on the trail from Truckee/Donner Pass. Roller Pass was where the mid-19th century immigrant parties crossed the Sierra Mountains. The infamous Donner Party planned to go to Roller Pass, but because of a navigational error, they ended up in Donner Pass instead, which is part of why they had such a tragic fate. Even though Roller Pass was the better route for a group travelling with oxen and wagons, nowadays the highway, freeway, and train tracks all go via Donner Pass, whereas Roller Pass is only accessible by dirt trails.

As soon as I returned to the PCT, the air quality got better. I got to camp a little later than I would have liked, and it was windy, but it was okay.

The next day was good. The air was better. There was good scenery. I passed by Squaw Valley and the Granite Chief Wilderness. My feet were okay. I told myself I had done the right thing by returning to the trail.

The air got worse in the evening, but I hoped that was temporary.

The next day, I woke up with a sore throat. My first thought was that maybe the air was so bad that it had triggered the sore throat. Later, it occurred to me that I might have a cold, but I was not sure.

And the air was awful.

And my feet hurt, far more than the previous day. In fact, my feet hurt more than they have every hurt in all of my hikes. Every step was painful.

All of the smoke in the air was changing the color of sunlight.

It sucked. It became clear that I really had a cold, though I’m sure the bad air did not help. And my feet hurt. And the air was bad. And there were not many nice views. And even the water sources were worse than what I was used to dealing with in Northern California (and even worse than average for water sources on the PCT in Southern California). I was going slower than usual, and I was getting tired faster than usual. The cold was really draining my physical energy! I was thinking a lot about how much I wanted to get to a town, and regretting my decision to return to the trail at Donner Pass.

What finally improved my mood, at the end of the day, was seeing Lake Fontainallis.

A big clear lake with bare granite mountains with a little snow behind the lake.

Lake Fontainallis

Seeing that lake was the best thing that happened to me that day, because it was so beautiful that it shook me out of my suffering.

And it was only a mile from my campsite. At my campsite, I stopped hiking, and after I set up camp, I lay down, and stopped putting pressure on my sore feet.

I camped near Dick Lake, which was about a mile away from Lake Fontainallis.

I hoped I could get into town the next day. But I still had about 20 miles of hiking to get to the next road. And I had to hike those miles while I had a cold that was draining my energy, with feet that felt pain whenever I put them on the ground. And who knew what the air would be like? And when I got to the road, how difficult would it be to get a ride?

To be continued…

Town Shock

I recently hitchhiked from Donner Pass to the town of Truckee (a distance a bit less than 10 miles / 15 km). The guy who gave me a ride has lived in Truckee most of his life. He commented that when he moved to Truckee as a kid it was still a small town of about 6000 people.

“You know how big the towns I’ve been in lately are?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“The last town I was in, Sierra City, has an official population of 221.”

“Oh.”

“And before that, the last town I had been was Belden. Care to guess the population?”

“No. What’s the population of that town?”

“Officially, the population is 22, though I don’t think that includes the seasonal workers who only live there for a few months per year.”

“Oh wow.”

“Since I left San Francisco, the biggest town I’ve been in was Etna, which has a whopping population of 800 people.”

“Okay, I take that back, compared to the towns you’ve been in lately, Truckee is huge. I think we now have about 15,000 people.”

Technically, between San Francisco and Etna, I did transfer in two towns – Dunsmuir and Yreka – which have a population of over a thousand people (I think Yreka has about 7000 people) but since I was just there for bus transfers I feel they don’t count. Some of the people in Etna tried to persuade me to leave San Francisco and move to Etna but they failed. Since I left Etna and started my hike, the towns I’ve stopped at have been Castella (population: 240), Cassel (population: 207), Old Station (population: 51), Belden (population: 22), and Sierra City (population: 221). Thus, Truckee is by far the most populated place I’ve been in for weeks.

Believe it or not, all of these towns have post offices. Post offices are part of the life blood of these tiny towns. They are also one of the most important stops for hikers (though I try to avoid using post offices on the PCT – I prefer to use UPS to deliver my packages to a local business instead). Even Belden has a post office.

It’s a bit of a shock. Truckee has supermarkets. Plural. Truckee has more restaurants than I can count on one hand. Truckee has gas stations, plural (Castella, Old Station, and Sierra City each have a single gas station; Cassel does not have a gas station; Belden does not have a gas station and it’s a 50 mile / 80 kilometer drive to the nearest gas station). Truckee has a post office with more than two employees. Heck, Truckee has post offices, plural (amazing). Truckee has public transportation (well, so does Etna, but Etna has a population over 500 people). Truckee is really sprawled out (well, so is Belden – even though Belden officially only has 22 people, it is miles long because it is in a canyon where the few patches of land flat enough for buildings are not all in the same place). Most of all, it is possible to be really anonymous in Truckee in a way it’s not possible in a town with less than 500 people. Even though I was just a visitor passing through these tiny towns, both the locals and other PCT hikers could instantly peg me as a PCT hiker, and that gave me some designated place in the town’s social system. Meanwhile, in Truckee, people hardly notice me at all unless I give them a reason to notice me.

I don’t just hike the Pacific Crest Trail for the trail itself – I also hike it because it allows me to experience these towns I would have never heard of otherwise, let alone visited. And it gives me a chance to get to know really tiny towns in rural California. I spent two nights in Belden – spending that much time in a town with so few people was a novel experience. I also spent two nights in Cassel.

But at the time I’m writing this post, I’m in Truckee, which is a gigantic town (yes, I know I grew up in San Francisco, which has way more people than Truckee, but still, it’s been weeks since I’ve been around so many people, so I feel that Truckee is HUGE).

Truckee has internet which is not slow.

I have yet to visit a trail town on the PCT which I did not like. I like Truckee too. Each town, tiny or not so tiny, has its own distinct atmosphere and its positives (as well as its negatives, but I tend to find more positives than negatives).

And I’m actually stopping my hike for a week so I can do something which is not hiking. And it’s going to involve going to towns which have a population even bigger than Truckee. I guess Truckee is helping me adjust to dealing with bigger towns again.

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.

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.

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.

My Most Physically Demanding 27 Hours of Hiking Ever

That mountain with snow on it is San Jacinto, the second highest mountain in southern California.

During my 400+ mile (640+ km) long hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in southern California, I went south, which meant that I was hiking from Interstate 10 -> San Jacinto, rather than San Jacinto -> Interstate 10.

This may not seem like a big deal if you do not know the terrain. However, countless hikers told me that, when they were going north from San Jacinto to the Interstate 10 freeway, they thought to themselves “gee, I’m glad I’m going north and not south.” Then they met me, the hiker who was planning to go south. One hiker, once it dawned on him that I was going south into San Jacinto, immediately told me that he could put me in touch with people who could give me rides so that I could go north through San Jacinto instead of south. I rejected the offer. Though I sometimes go northbound on the Pacific Crest Trail, this was a ~southbound~ hike, and for the sake of continuity, I wanted to go south through San Jacinto too.

Hikers take a break under Interstate 10. The local trail angels left water, cold drinks, and some snacks under the bridge – but most importantly, the bridge was the only place a hiker could get shade for miles in either direction.

If you are wondering what the fuss is about, let me explain. Interstate 10 is 1335 feet (407 meters) above seal level. Going south, the trail then dips down to 1251 feet (381 meters) above sea level over the next 2-3 miles, which is easy in terms of elevation, but it is through a hot sandy desert with no shade. Then, going south over the next 21 miles (34 km), the trail rises to 8947 feet (2727 meters) above sea level at the tributary of the San Jacinto river. That is a 7696 ft (2346 m) change in elevation. After taking into account the dips in the trail (because the trail is not entirely smooth), between Interstate 10 and the tributary of the San Jacinto river, I had 8883 ft (2708 m) of elevation gain in the space of 30 hours.

For those of you who do not hike, let me put that into perspective. Going from the 5th station on Mt. Fuji to the summit via the Yoshida trail (the most popular way to hike Mt. Fuji), there is an elevation gain of 4824 ft. (1471 m). Thus, going south from Interstate 10 to the tributary of the San Jacinto river is almost the equivalent of hiking up Mt. Fuji twice in a row – without going downhill. Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States (i.e. excluding Hawaii and Alaska). Hiking from Whitney Portal to the top of Mt. Whitney (the most popular route) takes 6,100 feet (1,860 m) of elevation gain. Thus, Interstate 10 -> tributary of San Jacinto river requires more uphill hiking than hiking to the top of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.

And it gets worse better. There is a water source at 1721 ft (525 m) above sea level, and then there are no more water sources until the tributary of the San Jacinto river, which is 19.5 miles (31.2 km) south on the trail, and 8947 feet (2727 meters) above sea level. That means I had to carry enough water to get me through that stretch, including the 10 miles (16 km) where there was little shade and it was surprisingly warm. And this 19.5 waterless stretch also includes Fuller Ridge, one of the most notorious stretches of the entire Pacific Crest Trail, notorious because far more hikers have disappeared/died on these 4 miles (6.4 km) than any other 4 mile stretch of the entire 2650 mile trail (even Old Snowy/Knife Edge in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, which is notorious for killing horses/mules, has had very few human deaths. Meanwhile, Fuller Ridge seems to kill a lot more humans than horses/mules). On top of all that, the risk of being stung by a bee or encountering rattlesnakes was very high, but since I did not have any adverse encounters with bees or rattlesnakes on this stretch, that was not a problem for me.

For a southbound hiker (like me), this faucet was the last water source before the 19.5 waterless stretch to the tributary of the San Jacinto river. That giant rock was pretty much the only source of shade in the area this hot afternoon, though one hiker (not in the photo) did something creative with an umbrella to make more shade.

The more water I carried, the more weight I would have to carry very far uphill. The less water I carried, the greater my risk of dehydration. It was a tough tradeoff.

I’ve heard from the local people that they hear rescue helicopters several times a day, and that at this time of year, helicopters are generally sent to rescue PCT hikers. I also kept on hearing stories about how such-and-such hiker had just been rescued. This is the only part of the Pacific Crest Trail where I heard about hikers needing rescue with such frequency.

I left Interstate 10 at around noon. I left that last water source before ascending San Jacinto at around 3pm. I reached the tributary of the San Jacinto river at around 6pm the following day. That meant it took me 27 hours to get from water source at the base of the mountain to the to the tributary of the San Jacinto river.

Looking down at the private community of Snow Creek (that’s where the trees are growing) and the valley where Interstate 10 runs.

Of course I camped overnight on the trail. I definitely was not going to do the entire ascent in a single day. I camped 4.6 trail miles (7.4 trail km) south of the water source, at 3339 ft (1018 m) above sea level. That meant my next day was going to be physically intense.

The first stretch hiking up San Jacinto was just about the hottest hiking I did during this entire trip. It was not fair that it was so hot when I was doing a steep uphill carrying so much water, and that there was so little shade, even though I had made a point of hiking this part in the evening/morning. On the other hand, I was very motivated to hike so I could get to a higher elevation. I could see there were trees on top of the mountain, and I was eager to get to an elevation that was high enough for trees to go.

Finally, I reached a place where there were dead trees – the dead trees didn’t help me much, but at least I knew I was at a high enough elevation that I might find living trees too. And sure enough, shortly after I reached the dead trees, I reached a place which had living trees, and that meant I had REAL SHADE! Awesome! Also, the temperatures were significantly cooler around the trees, which was also very nice. I was still hiking uphill a lot, and had no water source, but at least I had shade, it was no longer hot, and my pack was less heavy because I had drunk quite a bit of water. Hiking became much more pleasant.

Trees! It’s amazing! I’ve never been so happy to be among trees in my life!

I reached the Fuller Ridge trailhead, which was the beginning of Fuller Ridge for me. And there was a water cache there! Usually, my policy is to disregard water caches. However, when I was at the faucet, I had to compromise between having more water and carrying less weight uphill, which meant I was rationing my water. I could have continued to ration my water all the way to the tributary, but that meant only drinking what I needed, not drinking enough to satisfy my thirst. Thus, I took some water (about 1.5 liters) from the water cache so that I would be able to drink as much as I wanted. It feels so good to be able to drink freely instead of just drinking the minimum to hold off dehydration. I also got to take a break at a picnic table in the shade and hang out with a couple of hikers.

Fuller Ridge sometimes holds snow well into May. When it is covered with snow/ice, a lot of people get injured, and some even disappear/die. Fortunately for me, even though it was April, Fuller Ridge was totally dry. The trail takes a bunch of weird little turns in the rocks in one part of Fuller Ridge, and I could totally imagine people getting lost in that stretch when it is covered with snow, or slipping off the rocks if it’s icy, but since it was dry, I could keep track of the trail as long as I paid attention, and I was at little risk of sliding down.

I’m surprised I don’t have any photos of Fuller Ridge. I guess I was too focused on hiking to take photos.

And then finally, I reached the promised land. Or rather, the promised tributary.

The tributary of the San Jacinto river.

I ran out of water just when I got to the tributary (though I had been drinking freely ever since I left the water cache – if I had continued rationing the water, I would have drunk less). The photo above does not do justice. This tributary was a series of little waterfalls cascading down the mountain and across the trail. It was a lot of water – a glorious sight for a hiker who had been worried about water for a day. There were a lot of hikers at the tributary who were busy filling up, since all of them were going north and thus would not have reliable water for 19.5 miles.

I was practically jumping for joy at the tributary. Reaching this water source was more exciting than reaching the Canadian border when I hiked the entire Washington PCT.

I would have liked to have gone to the summit of San Jacinto – but by the time I reached the turnoff (which was just pass the water source), I could feel that I had pushed my legs to the limit, and I was afraid that ascending an extra 2000 ft. (which does not seem like much after ascending 8500+ ft.) might push my legs past their limit, and I could get an overuse injury. I did not want to risk an overuse injury, so instead, I just hiked another two miles past the water source, and set up camp (though the fact that I was able to hike another two miles after all that shows you just how much energy I had).

This is where I camped in San Jacinto.

Strangely, though this was my most physically demanding day of hiking ever, it was also my giddiest. Here is my diary entry for the day I reached Fuller Ridge and the tributary (which I wrote at the campsite above):

This has been one of the most exhilarating days on the PCT ever. I made my legs do so much work, but they were up to the task. From hot exposed chaparral to cool pine forest. The views! And the knowledge that I did a mostly uphill 19.5 mile waterless stretch! (w/ a little help from a water cache).

Part of the euphoria was probably caused by endorphins flooding my body. It also helped that the worst part was the beginning, so it just kept getting better. And I think the fact that I was attempting something so ridiculous increased the giddiness.

I have no regrets about doing this segment of the trail southbound. Going south through here is definitely harder than going north, but I do not think I would have found it as memorable – or enjoyable – if I had gone north.