After 343 miles of hiking in three weeks, any sign of civilization looks too good to be true, no matter how seedy. When Crowdog, Kerry, Anne and I saw the golden arches down the road after emerging from the brutally hot desert mountains we barely hesitated to trudge up the pavement. The guidebook listed the McDonald’s at the Interstate 15 rest area as a hiker hot-spot, which seemed odd to us until we got there. Once we arrived and realized how hot Cajon Pass could get, air conditioning and cold soda were hard to pass up.
What we didn’t realize was just how packed the place would be. It was probably the busiest McDonald’s any of us had seen, filled to bursting with clean, shiny, stylish folks from San Bernardino and Los Angeles, both very close by in the valley below. Then there were the hikers. Several other Pacific Crest Trail hikers had already taken over a corner of the joint, and it was basically a rotating cast of characters throughout the day. Most of us hadn’t eaten fast food in years, but that didn’t seem to stop anyone. Here we were, a crew of dusty, ragged, sunburned hikers with a large radius of open space between us and the normal folks. When the trail society meets normal society, the results often mix like oil and water.
This is something I’m used to, and it’s the same on the Appalachian Trail. There’s a shared experience between long-distance hikers that doesn’t translate perfectly to the outside world. We try to explain it as best we can, but oftentimes I can see the words from both sides just passing in and out of ears. It takes a certain kind of strange person to spend six months walking the length of the country.
For the past several weeks I’ve been hiking with more or less the same cast of characters. There’s Kerry, an electrical engineer from Montana, who I’ve been mostly hiking with since the beginning. She started with Anne, a writer from Boston who has often fallen behind us and caught up in towns. Then there’s Croatian Sensation and Not A Chance, a couple from northwest Washington who we catch up with every few days. They’ve each hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in the past, so we’ve been picking their brains about what lies ahead. There’s Crowdog, a firefighter from Florida, and Moleman, another writer from Pennsylvania, both of whom hiked the Appalachian Trail in the past. These six hikers tend to be my partners on the trail, even though I might only see each of them only once every few days. But since we all walk at a similar pace between towns, we’ll catch up with each other at one point or another and usually have time to trade stories in town.
The rest of the hiking herd that left the kickoff party near the Mexican border a month ago is also around us, but there are few enough that we almost never see any completely new faces. Whenever we arrive in a town and take a day off we might see some new people when they catch up. Today I’m in the tiny town of Agua Dulce, a short drive from Los Angeles and a long walk from Mexico. The town is one of the many that are friendly to hikers, especially because of one family that has several permanent tents set up in their yard with enough space for up to fifty hikers to stay and use this as a base of operations while they go into town for restaurants and groceries. Hikers from ahead and behind tend to congregate at places like this. When I arrived yesterday, I finally caught up with Uncle Tom, a fellow Mainer from Northport who started the trail a week before me– now we’re 455 miles into the trail and that’s how long it can take to catch someone who’s a week ahead.
The crowd of hikers last night was abuzz with talk about the next major hurdle in the trail: the Sierras. The high peaks of the Sierra Nevada are still two hundred fifty miles away on the trail, but we should all be getting there in about two weeks, which means everybody is getting a little nervous. Until we get there, we will have been hiking in mostly desert for a month and a half. Our trails through the mountains so far are dry, dusty, sunny and easy to follow. Soon we’ll be constantly above 9000 feet in elevation, which means the trails will be below several feet of snow. Since the Sierras have had so much more snow than usual this winter, the usual start date of mid-June for entering the higher elevations is being pushed back, and hikers are nervous about being able to find the trail. Many of us have come up with other plans for coming back to them later in the season, then scrapped those plans due to other complications. It sounds like most of us are just going to walk on snow for a few hundred miles. That’s the hardest thing to do out here. I’ve tried hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail in winter, where there are markings on trees and something of a tunnel through the trees that can be followed even in winter, but even that is tremendously difficult. Out here, the trails are barely marked and they go through wide open spaces. We’ll just be following our maps and compasses, hoping to stay somewhere near the actual trail.
With difficult times like these, the two biggest things that keep us going are the views and the community. It’s a beautiful area out here, of course. With high peaks and low vegetation, we can sometimes see for hundreds of miles to mountains that we might not walk over for weeks. But even more important are the people we hike with and meet in towns. The other day we were forty miles into a road walk along a detour where the trail had been closed due to a major forest fire last year, and someone poked her head out of her house and yelled to us, “hey, if you need a place to stay you can camp in my yard!” We’d been walking over twenty miles on the road and thought we’d have to go another five to find a decent place to camp. Kerry and I took her up on her offer, and ended up ordering pizza and sleeping on the floor in the woman’s house. It turned out she worked at a cafe that’s popular with hikers in Agua Dulce, so she realized that a small bit of unplanned hospitality can mean a lot to someone who’s been hiking hundreds of miles so far.
Now we’re waiting in Agua Dulce, letting our feet recover from the pounding (as we’ve done in almost every town), and relaxing in good company. We know that in two weeks we’ll be in the Sierras, starting into the snowy elevations and wishing for some of the blistering heat that we’re in right now. It’s almost noon now, and most of the people that were here last night have left, heading north on the trail for the next major stop several days away. As for me, I’m about to watch “Alone In The Wilderness” (a PBS documentary about Richard Proenneke living alone in Alaska for forty years) with Croatian, Not A Chance, and a few other hikers who have just showed up. There will be plenty of time to hike tomorrow.