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A Saunter North - Chapter 3: Always Something New

Days 12-17

The brewery at Idyllwild was hopping (no pun intended). I had met up with a few friends and when we got into the brewery there was a whole hiker crowd that had beat us there. There must have been at least 20 hikers and we sat around a long table that had been separated into two by a plastic barrier which we took down to unite the group. Flapjack at the far end of the table had his fair share of drinks, he had an ear to ear grin and a beer sampler sitting in front of him.

“I fucking love this!” he exclaimed. “This is what it’s all about; look at how great this is!” and more rambling continued to the people around him.

There are a few different types of drunks, and clearly, Flapjack was the loving kind.

He was right though, I surveyed the brewery and it was truly remarkable that this town, this place, had drawn all these people together.

All 20+ hikers and our shared journeys coalesced together in this one place so we could laugh at each other’s jokes, share drinks, and build on our newfound friendships. By the end of dinner I was ready to go immediately back to my motel and get some much needed rest, but a much more energetic group convinced me to join them at a house where a bunch of the hikers in our bubble were hanging out. But before going over, we all agreed ice cream was a necessity to pregame the event. Leo, Hunter, Mara, Sydney, Bennet, Casey, Kevin and I stormed the local grocery market that was still open. Now you’re probably thinking that we were going to get a cone or something, but we had the early beginnings of hiker hunger, and all of us grabbed our own individual pints of ice cream. I opted for a personal favorite, Haagen Dazs Rocky Road, and it was nearly gone by the time we made it to Silverwood Estates. Once we arrived, we were happily greeted by other hikers we had met earlier. Romeo ran up to me with a huge grin and laughed that we all came to the party with ice cream. We hung out and played some games for a bit and then I walked back to my motel. On the way back three police cars raced by me up the road with short intervals between each one. Then the night was silent and the road was dark. The only light source was the moon shining through the fog that was rolling through the town.

It was an incredibly eery scene, one that stood in stark contrast to the warm and inviting atmosphere I had just left behind.

In the morning I laid in bed and groaned as I moved around, the soreness of my muscles finally hitting me after having some rest. There was a quiet double knock at my door and I opened it to find a little breakfast basket provided by the motel. I laid back in bed and enjoyed not one but two scones, an apple, orange juice, and oatmeal. I felt like a member of the royal family - this was total luxury for me. I still had chores to do in town: I had to do laundry and go to the grocery store to resupply. These minor inconveniences felt like monumentally mundane tasks which is a feeling that never goes away. The owner of the motel was kind enough to offer me a ride to the store and laundromat after I checked out. I entered the small lobby to wait for the ride and looked around. I first noticed photos of different congregations of people in Buddhist robes in Idyllwild. I noticed more religious symbols along with photos of India and more personal effects of the owner. He hopped out of his office and asked rhetorically,


I nodded my head and we packed into his minivan. I tried to strike up a short conversation. “So how do you like Idyllwild?”

He happily replied, “Oh I love it, the people, the mountains... it’s an incredible, incredible place. I love living here.”

“What’s been the best part?”

“The people by far. You live here and everybody is smiling, everybody is nice. Nobody is in a hurry. They are all just happy. I am so glad we moved here.”

“Yeah I’ve definitely seen that, everyone has been very welcoming and helpful to us hikers. When did you move here?”

“Oh we bought the motel… ‘08, ‘07? So we have been here almost 14 years. We moved from India.”

“Wow! That’s really a leap of faith, what convinced you to live here?!” He then looked me straight in the eyes and said,

“God. God told me to come here.”

He held his piercing gaze, and then almost immediately after telling me that, he dropped me off at the store and drove off. I wondered if that was the last time I would see him.

I went about the town completing my chores and met up with a few friends and made plans to leave town. Kevin had called for a ride from a trail angel he got from the outdoor store and was waiting alongside the road. I was waiting by the nearby coffee shop enjoying a pastry and coffee while talking to Brighton, a 28 year old girl from just north of Seattle. We talked about our reasons for doing the trail and she mentioned how she was getting tired of the music industry and didn’t quite know what to do next so she thought the trail was a good thing to do while she was in this state of transition. As we wrapped up our conversation our ride has also pulled up. It was an old man with a beard down to his chest in a beat-up red truck. We started piling into the back of the truck, at first thinking we could only get four. We quickly found that Bennet, Kevin, Hunter, Leo, and I could all fit in the back with our packs while Brighton and Casey took seats in the cab of the truck. The sky was dark and cloudy and the wind was moving fast, but all of us were in good spirits on our ride to the Devil's Slide trailhead. We were singing, not very well since we could only do the chorus of a few songs, and incredulous that we had all packed into the truck.

I half fell out when the tail gate opened and we all scrambled out the back. We thanked the trail angel profusely and looked at what lay ahead for us. Nothing much, just a 2,500 foot ascent over 4 miles into heavy fog that had overtaken the San Jacintos only to get back to the PCT.

As a group we started up the trail and were soon engulfed by the fog.

Near the top of Devil's Slide it was truly beautiful. Parts of the fog cleared above the mountain to provide glimpses of the blue sky that lay above. The air was cool, which was a nice change of pace from the usual desert heat, and I felt reenergized. For the first time that I had seen on the trail, everyone pitched their tent. Usually there would be a few people that would cowboy camp instead, but the conditions had forced even the most determined cowboy campers to pitch their shelter.

“It’s going to drop down to about 23 degrees…” Kevin told me as we were getting ready to hunker down, "but it says it’s going to feel like 12.”

“Well that’s actually kinda a good thing. It’s just some practice for the Sierras.” I replied half heartedly. I wasn’t too disturbed by the news but it did feel a bit disheartening. But that’s just the world we lived in, and it’s unlikely to be our last cold night, this is just our first. We all settled into our tents and sleeping bags, waiting for sleep, waiting for the next morning...

...waiting to summit San Jacinto.

I woke up with frost falling from my beanie and my water bottles frozen next to me. I got out of my tent best I could and slowly packed everything up, trying to thaw myself the best I could by moving around. While waiting for the rest of the crew to finish packing up, I stood in a ray of light that was shining through the trees to get every ounce of warmth I could. Once we were ready, we quickly made our way up the trail, hiking through a beautiful forest and crossing small streams with icicles hanging under small rock ledges. Near the summit there was a small cabin where Kevin, Leo, Hunter, and I joined for coffee and breakfast before continuing on. Not even twenty minutes later, we boulder hopped our way to the first summit of the Pacific Crest Trail. The view from the top was incredible, displaying the sweeping desert valley to the east and a sea of clouds to the west. I sprang onto a boulder and saw that there was a great frame for photos just a little ways out from me. I told everyone there that it was a great photo opportunity and one by one I got a photo of each person with the view.

From Top to Bottom: Kevin, Leo, then Bennet and Hunter

After finishing the little photo shoot Hunter suggested that I take out my drone and fly it. Everybody’s faces lit up and I heard a chorus of encouragement to fly it. Oh yeah by the way I packed a drone if I didn’t mention that before, totally going against ultra-light principles, but I’m a declared ultra-heavy hiker. I popped it out of the bag, sent the drone on its flight, and got a great shot of us on the top of San Jacinto. Right before I return it, the drone loses connection and loses altitude fast, falling behind the tree line. Everybody has a kind of “oh shit” moment. And then, slowly and steadily we watch it rise up above the trees. We all cheer. It makes its way back over to us and loses altitude again. Oh shit. And then a few moments later it fights its way back up into the sky. Cheers. It makes its way closer to us where there’s hope it’s going to make it, but then it starts to fall again, and falls fast. Leo sprung into action and started running downhill to catch the drone before it fell out of the sky. The drone was falling faster. As the drone raced closer to the ground, so did Leo to the drone. Leo was within a few yards of the drone but it crashed into the ground, just barely falling short of its return to home.

The propellers were shredded but the camera still worked. All in all, it was a pretty successful flight.

Leaving the summit we had a large descent ahead of us. Nearly 9,000 feet of descent over 20 miles. I said a short prayer for my knees before starting down. On the way we encountered day hikers and it was a trip. They were in the same place as us, but clearly from a different world. The soap and deodorant they used was almost overwhelming. In the real world we are totally desensitized to the scent of our perfumes, colognes, soaps and more, but I never realized to what degree until I had been totally removed from that world. These day hikers were also loud, playing music, and talking together in large groups of 6-10 people.

It was like entering the Twilight Zone for us hiker trash encountering these civilized oddities in the wild.

That night I camped within view of the I-10, a road I have driven many times between LA and Phoenix, and it was weird seeing something I was so familiar with but from a completely different vantage point. Instead of traveling between my home and school, I was traveling through the wilderness. Instead of listening to music and weaving through traffic, I was engulfed by the sound, or lack thereof, of the desert.

Instead of driving to college, I was walking to Canada.

The world I am a part of now allows me to be totally engulfed in the moment, with the only distraction being the occasional podcast or song session. I had become attuned to the constant distractions of the real world, but those have now all faded away. The following day I finished the climb down San Jacinto and made my way across a long sandy stretch that led to this spot underneath the freeway. This spot had chairs, tables, hiker boxes, and water for hikers to have a short respite from the heat of the desert. Looking back at San Jacinto gave a funny feeling, here I was not even 24 hours removed from sleeping in freezing temps and now I am hiking through the blistering sun in the desert. It truly showcased the variety and scale of the trail’s landscapes.

The view disappeared behind more desert mountains shortly thereafter, and it was time to hike down and push through onto White River. There was one spectacular moment after the steepest climb of the day where I was catching my breath on the top of my climb and I watched as Bennet started on the steep section. He was cruising and kept up his pace, a look of sheer determination on his face to keep the pace and push up the gnarly grade. As Bennet took the last turn to finish the uphill, he let out a terrific roar that reverberated in the small valley. When you have to deal with a mind numbing amount of miles under the sun, long stretches without water, and hours of desolate trail, sometimes you just have to let it out.

After recouping from the steep climb, we carried on reaching White River right around the time the sun was setting. The rays from the sun snuck into the valley to greet us as we hiked the last mile on the mostly dry river sand. I finished the day limping into camp and immediately started preparing my dinner while Bennet beelined it for the river after setting his stuff down. There was just enough of a river that he submerged himself by laying nearly completely flat in the water. This river seemed to be the defining moment for Bennet’s hike; here on after, he hit his stride and began hiking how he truly wanted. He took his time in the morning to do yoga and got back in the river. While everyone else rushes out of camp as early as possible, he takes his time to take in the day. After this, I began to see Bennet less and less along the trail. To hike with people for stretches of trail and then lose them becomes quite commonplace I have come to find out. It’s a recurring theme of new friendships, tightening bonds, and too-soon goodbyes. While nobody is ever too far away, a mile’s difference on the trail could end up in not seeing a friend for days or even weeks.

Waking up in White River was pretty sweet. A nice oasis in the desert and it was exciting to hear that we would be following a river the rest of the day. That excitement was short lived.

As soon as I started following Mission Creek, the trail became less clear. Cairns that were a bit too far in between were the only way to find the trail which disappeared and reappeared at seemingly random points along the river. Route finding plus river rock hopping combined to form a less than stellar day. It became a half day struggle to get away from the river and get back on some real trail. Along the way I made two new friends, Hannah and Rachel. They were both section hiking and we got to be quick friends by talking about my imaginary Sasquatch friend named Reginald. I can’t quite remember what sparked the conversation but it was the main topic of discussion during our lunch break. After lunch I hiked with Hannah and Rachel for a bit where we swapped storied to pass the time. Rachel told a nearly twenty minute story about a moth training and losing in the Olympics just to get to the punchline, “and that’s the first time I saw a moth bawl.” It passed the time. We finished the day at a great campsite with a nearby spring and a picnic table. I cannot express how happy having a picnic table at camp made me. Truly one of my favorite parts of the trail is how excited I get over the small things like a picnic table, shaded tree, and hell even a pit toilet becomes luxurious. My sleep that night was interrupted by, and I couldn’t believe it, the moon. The full moon was so bright that periodically throughout the night it would wake me up as the light would pass through openings in the trees. It was the first time in my life that I needed to find shade from the moon, a frustrating but also pretty cool thing to have to deal with.

In the morning I was motivated to push it into Big Bear and get my first zero day on the trail. I didn’t wake up as early as I would’ve liked but I made up for it by pushing my pace to the limit. I was feeling good and didn’t want to break until I was at least halfway through my 26 mile day. I took a break 16 miles in instead. I thought I would be tired at that point, but being so close to town got me going. Usually I would have done those 10 miles in 3 1/2 hours, but I shaved that time off to do it in just over 2 hours. At one point I was full on running along the trail, feeling like I was Timothy Olsen for about 4 miles. I got to the pick up spot a half hour early where I contacted a trail angel to take me into town. She was kind and we chatted about the town, the trail, and the incredible sunset that was taking place as we rolled in. I got dropped off at a hostel where I met Hunter, Leo, and a few other hikers that had gotten in early. It didn’t have the privacy of the motel, but it had all the good vibes I could ask for.

Friends, good food, and a bed.

A trail register with notes from hikers that have already passed through

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Irene Hurner
Irene Hurner
Jul 19, 2021

Love this chapter of your upcoming book. I am anxious to read the next one.

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