Hiking Section A of the Pacific Crest Trail: Ouch! and other names on the trail

May 16-21, 2021…

If everyone in the world treated each other like they do while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the whole world would be in a much better place. A special culture exists among those who walk the trail and those who support their endeavors.

I’ve been hiking sections of the trail off and on for 20 years. Many are what you call thru-hikers; people who attempt to walk all 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada in one year. Others, myself included, prefer to do shorter sections of 100 miles or less at a time and then call it good until the next year. Whichever the method, meeting someone else on the trail brings an instant bond with that person.

Day hikers on the PCT

People who hike the trail do so for a number of different reasons. Many are younger, and want to take advantage of the time to take a long journey just after completing school. Some folks are in a transition period in their lives. Others seek the simplicity and freedom of the hiking lifestyle. And there are those who do it just for the challenge. I do it for the sake of Geography….just to see what’s around the next bend in the trail, or to see what lies on the other side of that mountain ahead.

My most recent hike took me to the Southern California desert, an area that I was previously unfamiliar with. I was supposed to hike the 702 mile portion of the trail that crosses the desert regions last Spring, but Covid cancelled those plans. Since I am still working part-time, I could only take a week off this Spring, so I chose to hike most of Section A, which is the part that is closest to the border with Mexico.

First I flew from Bend, Oregon to San Diego, California to spend some time with an old high school friend. Another friend from Orange County came down to meet us and we all went to a baseball game at PetCo park to see the Padres vs. the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the 20th MLB team I’ve seen play in their home park. With proof of Covid-19 vaccine, we got to sit together in preferential seating, close behind the Cardinal dugout.

Old Friends at Petco Park
MLB park #20 Yellow Bracelet=Proof of Vaccine and Preferential Seating

On Sunday, May 16, my buddy drove me to Lake Morena County Park to start my PCT hike. Lake Morena is 20 miles from the Mexican border. If I am fortunate enough to complete the rest of the trail in a few years, I will save this last 20 mile section as a day hike to the terminus of the trail. There is a road crossing the trail only 1.6 miles from the border. I plan to invite family and friends to meet me at the road crossing to walk the 1.6 miles together, after which I will throw a BIG party for everyone.

Near Lake Morena at the start of the hike

As it was a weekend, there were lots of day hikers out on the trail. Most were enjoying the cooler than normal temperatures and taking in the colors of the wildflowers in bloom. Several stopped to ask me about what it was like to backpack the PCT. I told them I only planned to go about 90 miles on this hike.

Wildflowers on trail north of Lake Morena

“ONLY 90 miles”, they would exclaim, like that seemed like a LONG way to them. I told them that most of the younger backpackers they would see are attempting to walk the whole trail in one season….a trip of 2,650 miles.

PCT crossing under Interstate 8

Everyone I met were nice people. But they all had regular names, not trail names. Even the few long distance hikers I met did not have trail names yet. Trail culture has it that people who hike the trail get pseudonyms and have an identity linked to a trail name. That name should be given to you by someone else. Many times the name has something to do with the food the hiker likes. Over the years I’ve met hikers with the names of Wasabi, Mustard, Horchata, Basil, Sprout, Chili Pepper, and the Ginger Ninja. Others take names from a mishap on the trail (Blisters, Feet, Toes, Underwear, Scarface, etc.) Still others have animal names or plant names (Otter, Bear, Oso, Coyote, Bird, Songbird, Tortoise, Bunny, Forget-me-Not, Sage, Willow, Spruce). On past hikes, I’ve met Chilly Willy, Indiana Jones, Dumpster Fire, Game Boy, The Jesus, Spaceman, Windchime, Low and Slow, One-Pole, So Far, Sunshine, Shade, Tree Monkey, Red, E-Walk, Cool Breeze, and Jackrabbit, just to name a few. My own trail name happens to be “Ouch!

I got my name as a section hiker. I’ve been walking roughly 100 miles per year and now have just over 1,700 miles of trail completed. Thru-hikers always comment on how much easier it would be to be a section hiker, as you get to pick the best weather for whatever section you decide to hike that year. While that might be true, I usually ask them about their experience of their first two weeks on the trail, while they are breaking their bodies into trail shape. The first couple of weeks are usually remembered as painful ones. When I reply that EVERY YEAR I hike I am always in the first two weeks of the hike and it is ALWAYS painful, they think for a moment, wince and say “OUCH!”. That is the etymology of my trail name.

This year, starting so far south, almost all of the thru-hikers had the names their parents gave to them. I met Alison, Megan, John, Dustin, Kevin, Owen, another John, Johnny, Emily, Dave, Bryan, Sarah, Daniel, Kathy, Javier, Jennifer, Olivia, Alex, Rebecca, and Devin… to name a few. I hiked a couple of miles with Tejas, a Tamil boy from India. Only two hikers I met already had trail names; a guy from Maine named Haystack, and an attractive brunette from Switzerland called “Cowbell”, due to the clanging of a water bottle she had hanging from her pack. With so many people using their given names, it is difficult to remember who is who.

I was having a discussion with a friendly couple, when a lone hiker in a black shirt walked by. About 1/2 hour later, he was walking back in my direction. He asked if I knew where Kitchen Creek Falls was. “I’m not from around here”, I said. “I’m from Oregon and this is my first time down here.”

He said that it was also his first time. I asked where he was from. He replied “Spain.”

“Pues, de que parte o provincia de Espana viene Usted?”, I asked.

“Soy de Pais Vasco!”, he replied. His name was Javier. From there we had a long conversation, 90% of which was in Spanish. Although I didn’t know much of his first language of Basque, I threw out a phrase such as Eskerrik Asko, and pronounced his hometown of San Sebastian as “Donostia, Bizkaia” in his home language. His jaw dropped and his eyes opened wide! Shared knowledge of one’s geography as well as talking to someone in one of their home languages is a great way to break the ice and instantly bond with another. Rather than try to explain my trail name of “Ouch!”, I became Mick again, even if just for a moment.

Javier, Hombre de Pais Vasco

After 20 minutes or so of Speaking Spanish, we parted and hiked in opposite directions. I made my first camp about 1/2 mile off of the trail on the way to Mt. Laguna. It was cold and drizzling that evening.

The next morning was still cool, but the sun was starting to peek out. About midday, I came to a dirt road with a sign warning about live ordinance in the area. I stuck close to the trail here. It seems a military plane on a training mission crashed near here long ago and not all of the live munitions were recovered!

Caution….don’t wander off trail!

At the end of the second night, I crested the high elevation point of this week’s hike, at Mt. Laguna. Being in the forest made you feel that you were far away from the Southern California desert.

A LONG way to walk for Thru-hikers

The trail started its long descent toward the fiery Colorado desert. It followed a ridge line that paralleled a road, but still stayed high enough to have a view over the desert below. Trees began to thin out, being replaced by chaparral vegetation. Continuing north past the old Pioneer Mail Trail-head brings you to a shrine overlooking the desert. The shrine is to remember the lives of many motorcyclists who passed away.

The Shrine on the side of the Trail

One plaque was to remember a beloved pet, a dog named Solo. What read on the plaque would be a great epitaph for any human’s headstone!

If only we could be remembered so fondly!

The trail cut into the side of the mountain with outstanding views of the desert below. The sun was baking down and I was sure to fully cover my arms and face. I even wore a mask to keep the sun from cracking my lips.

narrow trail with superb views!

A couple of clouds materialized in the sky. I kept singing an old Judy Collins song, titled “Send in the Clowns”. Except that I editorialized the song and replaced the word “clowns” with “CLOUDS”.

Send in the “Clouds”

The New Song Lyrics went something like this.

My Face is burnt, my lips are chapped….

Send in the Clouds… Send in the Clouds!

The trail continued its long sinuous journey downward. At a spur trail to the Sunrise Trail-head, I saw another hiker texting on her phone. With limited cell service, I pulled out my phone to text my wife. No service for my burner phone.

Another hiker who did have service on his phone, offered his phone to me. I called my friend Allan in San Diego to give him an update on my progress and asked him to call Beth for me. It is another example of how people on the trail help each other.

Since it was near the end of the day, the two hikers invited me to camp with them at a campsite about 1/4 mile away. When I arrived, most of their group had already set up their tents. Their ages ranged from early twenties to mid thirties. I was the grandpa of the group. They came from many different places and had just met on the trail and had formed a hiking group. They came from a wide range of places such as Western New York state, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington state, Switzerland, Minnesota, and North Carolina. We spent the twilight sharing stories about the trail. Everyone shared why they were attempting to hike the whole trail in one year. We all opened up and shared some personal experiences. Where else could a group of strangers from different places and of different ages be so open with one another? Only on the trail….

I didn’t even bother to erect a tent, but simply rolled out the bag and gazed at the myriad of stars in the sky. I stared up at a waxing half moon above me in a cloudless sky. Contentment quickly led to restful sleep.

I heard the sounds of zippers being zipped and packs being packed at about 5:30 in the morning. I awoke and wished my newfound friends a safe journey northward. Just after they departed, I took this picture of our newly abandoned campsite. What seems like just an ordinary clearing in the chaparral became a vibrant meeting place that came to life the previous night. It was a place that offered not only rest and relaxation, but fostered connection between varied individuals. Long distance trails like the PCT are places that can make these kind of things happen!

Such a different and special place a few hours ago!

Once down in the valley, the trail runs through the hot, dry San Felipe Valley until it crosses Hwy 78 at Scissors Crossing. From there it is another 24 miles without a natural water source. I was carrying 7 liters of water, which made the pack extremely heavy.

Crossing the Hwy at Scissors crossing

On the other side of the highway, some trail angels left a few bottles of water and some Gatorade. Trail angels are volunteers who support hikers in many ways; either by stashing water caches in dry places, giving hikers rides into town to resupply, or by offering food or any other type of support. Hiking the trail may seem like a solo challenge, but it would be impossible without the help of kind strangers. Many trail angels are hikers themselves.

Trail Magic left by an Angel

From Scissors Crossing, the trail steeply climbed up a ridge, from where it appeared to side-hill for a long way. I took one of the Gatorade bottles and planned to drink it once I finished the climb out of the valley. It was just after noon, and the sun was high in the sky. Shade was nowhere to be found. I ended up guzzling the orange drink well before I finished the climb out of the valley.

Looking back at Scissors Crossing through an Ocotillo Bush
climbing above the San Felipe Valley

A strong wind howled on that ridge the entire day. Walking was difficult and the narrow trail was eroded in sections. A misstep could result in tumbling off the side of the cliff to a possible death. Each year, a few hikers perish on the trail. Some are older folks my age who suffer heart attacks; others are younger hikers who suffer a fall or drown crossing swollen rivers once they are out of the desert. I was careful not to become a statistic for this year.

Even though the temperature was cooler than normal for this time of year, the unrelenting sun took its toll. Shade was almost non-existent. During the rare times that I found some, I took a break to take advantage of it.

Grab any shade when you can get it!

There are quite a few snakes in this part of the world. Most scampered off of the trail before I could get my camera out. This guy was a little slower than most, so I got to snap his picture!

slowpoke snake

I knew that trail angels had stashed a large cache of water at mile 91 of the PCT. I was running out of water before that, but Johnny, a fellow hiker, topped me off with almost another liter. I thanked him by giving him some beef jerky. We both felt like we got a good deal! Another instance of folks helping each other on the trail. Does this kind of stuff still happen back in town? It used to a long time ago!

I was just approaching mile 91 when I heard Haystack coming up behind me. We were both glad to see a sign for water. The cache was about 1/4 mile downhill. I dropped my pack and took my empty water bottles down to the cache.

Agua!

There was a small dirt road from the back side of the mountain that let the trail angels be able to stash a couple of pallets of water for the hikers. Without this, it would be almost impossible to hike section A of the desert.

The trail angels pay for all of the water out of their own pockets and of the goodness of their hearts. We gladly put some cash in the kitty for their efforts. They constructed a place to put the empty plastic bottles to be recycled.

Haystack told me that he had run into Kevin and that Kevin now had a trail name. He would now be known as “Rudolph”. Rudolf got his name from the group that he was hiking with. Even though he did not have a GPS, he was always the first one out of the gate and leading the rest of the group. Recently he forgot to lather up on the sunscreen and his nose got burnt. So, for always being out in front and with a red nose, Kevin became “Rudolph”!

The next morning, the wind was still howling. The trail finally crossed over from the west side of the ridge to the east side, where the mountains did act as somewhat of a windbreak. Then, I felt comfortable enough to take some pictures of cactus flowers.

After a LONG descent, I reached the Barrel Spring near the highway. The water needed to be treated, but at last there was some trees for shade and I got cell service next to the highway. So, I took a long break and called Beth and Allan. Then I took time to journal in the shade.

Barrel Spring

Just after crossing the highway, the scenery changed dramatically. The trail went through some private land, much of which had been cleared for cattle grazing. There is no camping allowed for the next several miles.

It seemed strange to walk over flat meadows after so much side-hill trail in the mountains. The few cows in the field stared at me incredulously, as if they had never seen a hiker before. They stopped grazing and chewing their cuds while they cautiously followed my walk along the path. Only when I was nearly out of sight did they relax enough to continue to graze. Seriously! They must have seen dozens of hikers like me every day this time of year, and they still act like it was the very first time they’d seen one!

Finally leaving private land, I came to San Ysidro Creek, a welcome sight after such a waterless stretch of hiking. I decided to pitch the tent here. The gurgling creek was such a wonderful sound to fall asleep to!

San Ysidro Creek

After breaking camp the next morning, there were only about 6 more miles to go to get to the road which leads into Warner Springs. Climbing out of the ravine where the creek lay brought me to another stretch of open pasture-like land. A group of resistant rocks poked up out of the plateau.

Heading towards an interesting landform

One of those protruding rocks was worth a side trip down a short trail. The landform is called Eagle Rock. I wonder why they called it that! See the picture below…

the famous Eagle Rock

Nearing the end of section A of the PCT, I ran into several day-hikers headed to Eagle Rock. Once off the trail, I walked the road into Warner Springs and stayed at a picnic area next to the gas station, where my friend Allan would be coming in a few hours to take me back to civilization. Now, with a little over 1,700 miles on the PCT under my belt, I will have only about 945 miles left to complete it. Planning on doing another 260 this summer and another 500 or so the following Spring. But first, time for a hot shower!

6 thoughts on “Hiking Section A of the Pacific Crest Trail: Ouch! and other names on the trail

    1. Cat F., our librarian, is hiking all of California right now. She has a blog called “Three and some trees” (also on WordPress), if you want to follow her along on her adventures too. Thanks for reading!

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    1. I am thankful to read your comment on my post, as I drink my coffee in my comfy chair! If you like nature, which I assume you do living where you do, you might want to peruse some of the other posts I’ve made on Alaska and Canada. Enjoy your weekend!

      Like

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