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A Saunter North - Chapter 2: A New Home

Updated: Jul 6, 2021


What is going on, is it raining? It can’t be, there’s no rain on the forecast.


I toss and turn and try to find something to cover my face.


It goes on and on throughout the night. I wake up and cover everything I can with my rain fly. I elected to not put it on my tent so I could fall asleep to the stars but that plan seemed to have backfired now.


*my view at 2am after the little wake up call

I finally make it to 5:30 am and awake to the sun rising, shining through the trees in Julian. Birds were singing and a mist rolling through the hills around the town. I wake up next to a few hikers I met in town. Bennet, I had met before, introduced me to his friend Hunter, both from South Carolina and recently graduated from Clemson. I also met other hikers, Leo from Massachusetts and a recent grad as well, and Jackson or "El Chapo". We all decided that, rather than get a hotel, we would camp behind Julian Beer Company where we also celebrated Bennet’s 22nd birthday. But the good vibes from celebrating our first trail birthday was cut short by midnight.

We all got screwed.

When we woke we discovered that it hadn’t actually rained, but the massive tree we were all camping under had built up so much condensation from the fog that it dropped down on to all five of our sorry asses and made for an interesting morning. Bennet and Hunter didn’t even have a tent, only a tarp, and I found Hunter sleeping under the picnic table nearby to escape the tree’s “rain.” The rest of us weren’t so smart and braved the incessant dripping throughout the night hoping to just get to the morning. It was something out of a sitcom where we were all cold, wet, miserable, and laughing hysterically at how ridiculous this all was. I didn’t have much time to hang around though because I had a ride back to the trail that left at 6:30am. I laid out everything to dry but it never even had a chance. At 6:20am I give up, shove everything in my bag, and race down the street. I get to my ride and meet Sunny, or Rayngel, and enjoy a nice drive down the mountain and back into the desert.

When I get dropped off, I ran back into my friends Ariel, Stash, and Romeo. I hike with the three of them for the day and we dragged ourselves 16 miles to the nearest water source. I got there a little earlier than the rest and had a bit of water left over so rather than heading to the cache immediately, I find the nearest tree (more like tall shrub) and start my siesta. I ran into Sheriff again and quickly chat before shimmying my way under my siesta tree. I quickly doze off under the shade offered by my little alcove under the tree and felt an incredible calmness being near water and having shade to lounge in… and dried mangoes to snack on. So, so, so many dried mangoes, but never enough.

After breaking for a couple of hours, we started hiking and decided to push for mile 100 so that we would be in spitting distance of Warner Springs (where I had a resupply package waiting for me). We take off from the water cache but hardly a mile down the trail I need to take a bathroom break. It’s one thing to dig a cathole in the middle of nowhere and do your thing, it’s totally another thing when you have to watch your hiking group fade off into the distance as you’re scrambling to get business done as soon as possible to get back hiking. I race down the trail and try to catch up. I went the whole way only catching up with the group at the campsite as the last light in the sky slips away, and I pull in grateful to have made it without hiking in the dark.

We all did it though. We all made it past mile 100 and it felt like the first major milestone to have made it 100 miles.

And wouldn’t ya know it, at the campsite is Flapjack, Leapfrog, Sheriff, and a few other hikers I had recently met. We had a nice little group going on and I was celebrating the achievement in my head, and with a quick little dance. I snack on some trail mix and a mountain house meal, content with the day, and I drift off to sleep.

In the morning, the camp of 10+ hikers packed up and filtered out in a flurry. The sky was overcast and cool and made for a tremendous day of hiking. Unlike the deserty mountains we had been tracking through, we were now rolling through flat pasture land and I saw cows off in the distance. I mooed to them but got no response, I guess that these southern Californian cows speak a different dialect from what I’m used to. I walk alone to a point in the trail that leads to Eagle Rock, a rock formation that was quite popular for pictures along the trail. I stop to take a picture of the crowd of hikers milling about and getting their own pictures with the rock.

Photo from a mile out from Eagle Rock

Eagle Rock

The picture showcases the vastness of the trail as well as the community that forms along the way.

I thought that it was a beautiful moment to capture from afar. I head down to get my own picture, and after a short break I push on to Warner Springs.

Warner Springs is a small town, kind of like a vacation getaway spot that looked like it had been hit hard by the Pandemic. The golf club there was closed and the town’s only pull for hikers was the gas station and post office. I was lucky enough to pull into the community resource center at the same time that two people were pulling off some trail magic. They were friends of Romeo and had decided to stop by Warner Springs to provide hikers with a smorgasbord of camp food. A variety of deli meats, cheese, bread, different chips, beer, just add water stir fry noodles, cookies, and more to the delight of all the hikers arriving at the community center. Charlie and Les just provided the biggest boost I could have imagined along the trail. These two were clear adventure lovers and we joke that they’re PCT groupies because of their energy. Life is good with trail groupies, angels, and friends around!

Warner Springs was a get in and get out type of place. I got my resupply package from the post office, packed up, then get out as soon as I could. I was feeling good after a half days of rest and a full buffet the day before and had some newfound energy. I climbed away further and further from the closest thing to civilization and wound my way through the mountains.

Next stop: Mike's Place. Earlier I had heard legend of “Mike’s Place", but when I asked people to elaborate I got a wide range of responses.

“I don’t know anything, I’ve just heard it’s crazy.”

“Ummmmm… Mike’s place has some, well, mixed reviews.”

“All I know is it has water, we can sleep there, and Mike is awesome!”

“So nobody has seen Mike in weeks and we’re not sure if he’s even alive or not!”

In my head it all added up to, "well that sounds like a cool experience, let’s see what’s there!" When I finally arrived, I met Sydney and Mara before the property at this huge 20ft tall water tank. They’re both from St. Louis who play soccer and were tackling the trail like bosses. It was Mara’s second time taking on the trail, which blew my mind that she restarted the whole thing, and is here to complete it this time around. Her dedication is especially impressive when you consider that she had made it all the way through the Sierra’s before dropping out. Her trail name is, appropriately, Little Beast. We hung around the water tank before deciding to head down and stay at Mike’s Place for the night with a larger group that had gathered to siesta. We walked down a short road and when we arrived the place was totally abandoned. It was a little uneasy walking in but there were signs posted everywhere welcoming hikers, so naturally it meant we should go there. It definitely didn’t disappoint. Mike’s Place is totally eclectic composed of a shooting range, a burnt out painted car, old gym equipment, random art spread around the property, and more. There are two words that encapsulate the scene before me: rad and bizarre. The whole group I was in found ourselves in awe while exploring the property. It seemed appropriate that a bizarre hiker’s oasis was just sitting there, waiting to help us out on our journey.

We all scatter around the property to find a place to sleep. Leo slept on the pool table, saying it was like crossing off a bucket list item. I’ve personally never heard of sleeping on a pool table as being on a bucket list, but like the common PCT saying goes,

"Hike your own hike."

Others pitched tents around the place, slept on outdoor couches, and in all nooks and crannies to hide from the wind. I found myself on the ground in a little outdoor hiker’s den. It was a weird trip that this place exists, but for some strange reason, it also just made so much sense.

The day that followed was pretty uninteresting. It was another hot dry day that took us to another trail angel’s property, Mary’s Place, where she had set up her own oasis for hikers. This was far less crazy and had some nice campsites and a little free library. I looked in there and grabbed some poems Mary had printed for us.

It is a remarkable thing that something as simple as a printed poem on the trail provides such joy.

Thank you trail angel Mary.

Still in the same hiking group as Mike’s Place, we were all on a mission to make it down to Paradise Cafe, a PCT hiker’s next great experience along the trail. We hike the 10 miles in the morning to get fresh coffee, breakfast burritos, and burgers. There is no town there, just a cafe at a little junction in the road a mile off the trail. When I finally amble into the cafe I am ravenous. I find Romeo and Ariel there who had gotten ahead of me and they invited me to sit down and have breakfast with them. It was glorious to sit down, rest, and enjoy a true breakfast. I scarf down my burrito and ask for another for the trail, knowing that it would be a delicacy to have later on in the day. While at the cafe, an angel known as Grumpy arrived to drive some hikers to Idyllwild. He was certainly an eccentric character, dressed head to toe in grumpy the dwarf gear and was having a conversation with the entire restaurant, even if nobody was really talking with him. The waitress mentioned that he had driven the young hiker who had fallen to his death the year prior. Grumpy had apparently told the hiker to bring micro spikes while hiking along the San Jacintos to Idyllwild. The mountains were covered in snow and the wind along that section was brutal. The hiker had micro spikes in Idyllwild waiting for him, and it is a solemn reminder of the dangers of the trail. Grumpy had not been the same since.

I leave Paradise Cafe and start climbing into the San Jacintos. The day is hot but this part of the trail has offered the most shade so far so it made the trek bearable. Once I make it to the ridge of the mountains the wind was blowing so hard that it reminded me of a dramatic scene out of a movie. I was with Hunter and Bennet hiking along the ridge and we were whooping and hollering as we braved against the 30+ mph winds. We would get sheltered by some of the mountain before getting to an exposed part of the ridge that blasted us with more wind. It was so powerful that I was leaning my shoulder into it to stay balanced... and with each step the wind was guiding my steps in its direction. Its direction was towards the edge of the trail and it required focus to maintain a good path. Hunter, Bennet, and I finally made it to a path along the top of the ridge that led down to a camp site and spring. Down there we entered into a new world that felt like it was a precursor to the Sierras. It offered good, not great, shelter from the wind and the site filled up with people. Sydney, Mara, Leo, Kevin, and others found shelter in Cedar Springs. It was probably the windiest camp site I had been in thus far, but compared to what we experienced along the ridge it was a welcome respite. We had just one more day’s push to our next stop, Idyllwild.

Sunrise leaving Cedar Spring

We get out of Cedar Spring early and each hiker leaves individually at their own pace. I find myself hiking alone, battling more wind in the morning, and working to get past this brutal section. I work my way up and down, up and down, moving along from peak to peak along the range. I run into Bennet and we hang around and eat breakfast together and chat for a bit. We talk about why we’re out here and talk about ‘normal’ people, whatever normal is.

All we know is that what we’re doing isn’t ‘normal’, and that’s part of why we love the hike.

Peak after peak goes by, each one blocking the view to the next, so it tricks you into thinking that each passing peak is the last. The climb goes by a rockfall that forces a group of hikers to form as we do some acrobats to get around or under the rock fall. A small rope is there to support the climb around the boulder along the trail, but it doesn’t help much. It’s very awkward trying to climb around a rock with a heavy pack on. I get around and the group that passed by the obstacle helped the group behind the rockfall. We form a line to move bags along the small path and help each other around. We celebrate together when our small group gets by. We move on and trudge closer and closer to our goal. Over, under, and around trees felled by a fire the year prior and continuing the trek along the tops of the mountain range. Bennet and I eventually make it Devils Slide, hiking along with Hannah, Rachel, and Casey who we ran into at the rock slide. Hannah and Rachel are friends from Colorado who are both section hiking while Casey is from Maryland with no experience in backpacking. We hike loosely together down the 2,500 foot decline that leads into Idyllwild and are greeted by huge granite walls visible from the trail.

Hannah with Tahquitz Peak Towering Above

We finally make it to the parking lot where we all find a hitch into Idyllwild in short order. Bennet and I get a ride from a sweet dutch woman named Gretta who was easily in her 80’s and still actively hiking around these mountains. She dropped Bennet off at his campsite and took me to the motel room waiting for me. I had finally arrived, flopping onto the bed in the room and I eased into full relaxation mode. I know that this wasn’t Nirvana, but it felt damn close in the moment. I took a glorious shower and realized I would have to take another three in order to get rid of the layers and layers of dirt caked onto my skin. Still, I felt like a new man and was ready to hit the town. I didn’t have long before I took off to meet friends for dinner. Even when you have down time you’re still on the go.

I stepped out of my room, feeling fresh and renewed, and breathed in the fresh mountain air. In that moment it felt as though I had fully completed the transition from normal life into trail life, and this way of life is now becoming my new home.
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Irene Hurner
Irene Hurner
Jul 06, 2021

You'll have spectacular. memories. I am waiting to read your next chapter.


Really enjoyed this chapter, Nathan! I would love to see Mike's Place some time (it taunts and entices all at once), but I doubt I will hike to get there. You made us feel like we were there with you on those windy ridges! I hope you keep writing the blog at this level, as it is an exciting read, but I also hope it isn't too time-consuming on the hike. What an adventure! Continue to both work hard at it AND have fun--sounds like you are! Great for us to be able to follow along. Love, Aunt Jean and Uncle Craig

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