Hello from Hiker Heaven! One mile out of Agua Dulce, CA, Hiker Heaven is a compound owned by trail angels where PCT hikers can come and stay for a night or two, get a shower, do laundry, rest and be refreshed… it’s one of the most popular stops on the trail, with supposedly up to 80 people per night camping here (I find that estimate somewhat doubtful, but 65 or so is definitely believable). We’re taking a zero day here and hitting the trail again tomorrow.
We’ve covered a lot of ground since I last wrote, and a lot has happened, so I might have to pick and choose things to write about… or maybe this will end up being really long. We’ll see how it goes.
After we left Idyllwild, we climbed back into the San Jacinto mountains – a beautiful area, maybe even one of my favorites so far, the trail traversing through pine- and boulder-covered mountains and giving way to breathtaking views off both sides of a ridge as we climbed up and the next day descended down.
Descending out of those mountains was one of the craziest days of hiking of my life. For one thing, it was long. The descent itself was 20 miles long in fact, with 8000 ft of overall elevation change from beginning to end. For the first part of the hike we were walking through beautiful pine forest, over creeks and past patches of iced-over snow, remnant from the winter. As we started to descend the trail led us out onto a ridge, where we had an amazing view of cloud-filled valleys beneath us. In spots where the sea of clouds parted we were able to see I-10, the first major interstate the PCT crosses, from 17 trail-miles away. We also could make out the basics of the valley: flat, dry desert – starkly different from the environment we were walking out of – and full of windmills. So many windmills. As we descended we slowly came out of the cover of the trees and back into the chaparral, and for miles we walked down the side of the mountain, watching the valley slowly rise to meet us.
We really should have been expecting it, given all those windmills beneath us, but somehow it surprised us how windy this stretch of trail was. When we got closer to the bottom the wind became so violent that we had to hold onto our hats and lean into it to keep from stumbling. I actually didn’t know wind like that existed, but it does.
By the time we got to the bottom, we’d hiked 23 miles – our longest day yet. It was 6:30 or 7, and still dreadfully windy, so after eating some dinner Emily and I decided to push on, hoping that crossing the valley would bring us to somewhere a little less windy. (Duncan stayed behind, cowboy camped next to the trail, and met up with us the next morning.) It felt good to keep hiking; I tend to enjoy hiking in that period of time right before and during the sunset, and I was pleased that I still felt like I had more in me after 23 miles.
The hike across the valley proved to be more difficult than we anticipated, though the things that made it difficult made it a memorable stretch. Somehow the wind picked up even more, bringing with it gusts full of dust and sand – periodically we’d see it coming at us, like a moving wall of dirt, and have to turn around to avoid getting pelted in the face. The trail also all but disintegrated at a point – pretty inevitable, because how are you supposed to maintain an obvious footpath in a sandy, incredibly windy area? Luckily there were sign posts somewhat regularly that marked the trail, but even those became fewer and farther between as we hiked, not to mention more difficult to see as it started getting dark. Honestly if we didn’t have the Halfmile app, which uses your phone’s GPS capability to tell you if you are on the trail and how to get back to it if you aren’t, we probably would have taken a lot longer to make our way through that stretch. We eventually arrived at Ziggy and the Bear’s house though, another trail angel house and hot spot for hikers, our mileage topping out at 28 for the day. Ziggy’s place had a big fence around the back yard, which buffered the wind enough that people could comfortably cowboy camp in the carpeted back yard, which is what we did.
We spent part of the next day at Ziggy’s, charging our phones and hanging out with other hikers, until we could catch a ride from there to shuttle around a section of closed trail. Trail closures on the PCT are somewhat common, mostly through areas that have had fires in the past few years and that haven’t been cleared as safe to travel through. This particular stretch is long enough that most people have opted to shuttle to Big Bear and get back on trail there rather than take a 45-mile road hike. It meant we skipped the majority of the San Bernardino Mountains, but there wasn’t really much we could do to avoid that short of just going for it and risking getting fined, so… oh well.
The next notable stop on our route was Deep Creek Hot Springs, and I don’t remember quite how far that was from Big Bear.. maybe a couple days. I’d read about this place before and was pretty excited about it – even so, it exceeded my expectations. Deep Creek Hot Springs is amaaaaazing. It’s my favorite place on the trail thus far hands-down. We spent the entire day leading up to it hiking along a steep hillside looking down into the valley at Deep Creek – it actually reminded me of the South Fork of the Yuba river, which is near where I grew up and is one of my favorite places in the world. Slowly the trail descended, and where the trail meets the creek there is an absolute oasis: the creek widens into wide pools that you can swim in, and alongside it are natural hot springs flowing into rock-lined pools, sort of like natural jacuzzis. You can go back and forth between the cool creek water and the hot pools as you please. All sorts of people go there, but everyone has to hike in a ways so the crowd was… peaceful. Friendly. I feel like places that are tucked away like that demand a sort of respect, like for the most part the trek there filters out the types of people that I wouldn’t enjoy being around. It’s also a clothing-optional spot, which meant that I and like 3 other people were very happily naked, and nobody else cared. I really, really love places like that. There was such an air of non-judgment, of good will and gratitude. How could you not be a wonderful version of yourself in such a beautiful place? I feel like everyone I met there was being wonderful versions of themselves. Maybe I just got lucky and met really friendly people, but who knows.
Also, there was a slackline (apparently a permanent fixture there) strung between rocks over one of the cold pools of water. I was really excited immediately when I saw it, but it took me a long while to get up the guts to try walking across. I stood at the edge for a good 10 minutes calming down my nerves… it seemed so silly, that it was so hard to take the first step. I have a slackline, I know the basics of balancing on one, and I knew I would probably fall the first few tries but that I’d be fine because there was water directly beneath. But I just took my time until I finally was able to take the first step. Then another, and another. Then I fell into the water, and I laughed and was totally fine. I climbed back up on the rock and repeated the same thing, and kept trying until suddenly my body remembered how to walk on a slackline. The change was immediate; suddenly it seemed nearly effortless to walk across. People sitting in the nearby hot pool cheered for me. It was awesome.
I felt so at home and at peace at that place; it felt like a spiritual retreat of sorts being there. I want to go back one day. It’s the kind of place I would spend a lot of time at if I lived close enough. Absolutely magical. Of course it was hard to leave the next morning, after sleeping out on the sand next to the creek and waking up to the sounds of people taking a sunrise dip in the hot pools, but that’s how it goes on this trail… you come to places that are wonderful, and then you walk on to the next place. So we gave it one last look-over and then continued on our way.
Next came our approach to Wrightwood through Cajon Pass, a notably hot stretch of trail that we luckily hit on a cooler, overcast day. There was a long ascent that stretched over maybe 15 miles, climbing into the San Gabriel Mountains, and over that ascent I felt spectacular. There’s something wonderful about hiking uphill – you have to find an internal rhythm to tap into, and once you find it… it is so satisfying. Something in the combination of required effort, feeling the physical strain and pushing through until your body just clicks with it, can be inexplicably and overwhelmingly joyful for me. It’s a lot like running actually. That day I really tapped into a groove – and while Duncan and Emily don’t share my strange love of uphill stretches I think we were all noticing that we’ve become stronger out here, that the hike up was less difficult than it would have been a few weeks ago. I felt ecstatic from the physical effort, from the feeling of my body being strong, and from the views that became more and more beautiful as we got higher and higher. We ended our 20-mile hike that day at Wrightwood, and I felt like I could have gone 10 more. There’s nothing quite like that kind of energy. It makes me feel so happy to be out here.
In Wrightwood, we were met with yet another trail miracle. Wrightwood is like Idyllwild in that it’s a small, hiker-friendly mountain town that most thru-hikers stop in to resupply. In contrast to Idyllwild though, Wrightwood doesn’t have a campground that PCT hikers go to – instead, there are a mix of hotels and a posted list of trail angels that offer different types of accommodations for hikers passing through. We went to the Mountain Hardware store when we got in town, chose a name from the list of trail angels, and on our first try got someone who could take us for the night. I was expecting a spot outside to pitch our tent, and maybe some water or something. What we got instead was so unexpected and so lovely, and has been a total highlight of our trip so far.
Emily had talked on the phone to a man named Lou, and he came and picked us up in his truck 15 minutes later. He took us to his house, maybe 5 minutes out of town, and welcomed us inside. We met his wife Tawna, who had been cooking hot food in anticipation of hikers coming over. In addition to the immediate offer of homemade food we were greeted with other friendly faces, a fridge full of craft beer (!!!), a laundry machine that we could use, a hot shower, a bed to sleep in…. basically everything we could have been dreaming of in that moment. Among the other people there were a few other hikers and some friends of Lou and Tawna, who we talked with about hiking and our stories, and who told us about brewing beer (Lou and Tawna are part of a home-brewing club) and a lot of other random stuff. It was a very merry evening, filled with conversation and food and beer. It felt amazing to shower and wear clean clothes and eat a hot homemade meal, and Lou and Tawna were the friendliest hosts I could have ever imagined.
We slept in the next morning and they cooked us a breakfast of homemade tamales (yes I’m serious), alongside beans and pan-fried potatoes and a beautiful fruit salad. I ate two full plates and can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so satisfied by a meal. They took us over to the neighboring town to buy food at a supermarket so that we didn’t have to shop at the more expensive store in Wrightwood, we shared with them what we’d learned to love food-wise on backpacking trips, and they drove us back to the trail by the early afternoon. Oh, and their friend fixed Duncan’s glasses. As if they hadn’t already done enough wonderful things for us!
This is trail magic to a previously unfathomable extreme for me. When I decided to do this trip I had no idea that I was walking into such a large community, that I would meet so many people that would want to extend their hands and hearts out to help me on my way. Lou and Tawna were inspiring to me. When I’m their age I want to still be backpacking like they do, I want to have friends over and drink beer and cook food, I want to be friendly to people the way they were friendly to us. I feel like we made a meaningful impression on each other – it just reminds me that life is full of unexpected moments, that it feels good to be good to other people, and that what goes around comes around. Lou and Tawna are going on a backpacking trip in a couple weeks, bringing their friends who have never been backpacking before – here’s a shoutout for you all! I hope you have an amazing time, and you’ll definitely be on my mind and heart!
This post is already getting long, so I’ll fast-forward to the past couple days. Ben and Mathew are with us now! They flew out on Tuesday and hiked in to meet us that night. The next day they hiked 18 miles, an awesome first day! They felt it of course, but they also got to follow that up with a zero day here at Hiker Heaven – which has been absolutely lovely, I should say. There’s a trailer here with a big couch and a tv and a communal kitchen. I walked into town for some groceries earlier and cooked some lentils with vegetables and garlic… it was awesome. I also spent a good amount of time hanging out with other hikers. After Idyllwild we ended up pulling ahead of the group we were in, so there are a lot of new faces now… I was sad at first to sort of lose what felt like my trail family, but it’s also awesome to meet so many new people. Everyone is part of the family, not just the first group we shared a pace with, and I’m sure we’ll see our other friends again. It’s just another part of it, the unpredictability of where and when everybody’s paths will cross. It actually feels really fitting to me. It reminds me that life in general is unpredictable in the same way, that it’s best to just enjoy the time you have with people when you’re with them, best to be where you are and accept it for what it is. Nothing about the future is guaranteed, all you have is right now and right in front of you.
So on that note, I’ll sign off. Sending out love and good energy to you all! We’re heading into the most desert-y stretch of desert on the trail, wish us luck!
(By the way, for those of you who have been wondering how to send us mail or packages, feel free to shoot me an email or facebook message and I’ll give you the details of places coming up. I meant to include info like that on the blog but I’m having trouble making the time just to write so I don’t think it’s gonna happen.)