I was expecting something more like the Sahara or the barren wastes of so many old movies, but on my first day of hiking in the desert from Campo to Lake Morena I got rained on more than any other point in the entire trip until Washington. What the heck? Luckily, I had planned to put my bounce box together at the Kickoff, so I had my rain gear handy. If I had sent it beforehand, I might have been without rain gear during some of the nastiest weather on the trail. Instead, I got a crash course in the realities of the Southern California desert: it rains, there’s plenty of plant life, and there’s more gravel than sand. That was just fine for me, though. I’m used to wet, cool environments and I have an irrational hatred for sand.
Right from the Annual Day Zero PCT Kick Off Party, there was constant talk of the horrors awaiting the Class of 2010. Those that had left Campo a week early had already been dumped on with snow, Fuller Ridge had “dangerous levels of snow,” and the Sierras were experiencing a cool spring that meant there would be tons of snow through the hiking season. For those of us who hadn’t had to dig ourselves out of a blizzard already, we were sure to have rain and cold temperatures galore. Rumors spread like wildfire: Billy Goat was flip-flopping, the trail closures from last year’s fires would force us to walk a hundred miles on a suicidal highway, we would be better off waiting until next year to try hiking to Canada.
As nervous as all this talk made me, I wasn’t going to let two years of planning and one expensive plane ticket go to waste. I started off from Lake Morena and tried to forget about all that snow that everyone was talking about. The early part of that hype, the snow on Fuller Ridge and Mount San Jacinto, turned out to be real, but it was over a week before I had to deal with that. By that time, I had talked to several people in the trail community and found an alternate route that avoided most of the dangerous parts of the mountain. “Dangerous levels of snow” avoided, I could get on with my hike and not worry about all that foolish fear-mongering. In fact, with the wet and cool spring in southern California, we had a much easier time of desert hiking than most years. Most of the seasonal springs were flowing well, and the temperatures only rarely got above 100 degrees.
After the snowy Fuller Ridge, the only terrifying obstacle in my way was a pair of trail closures due to large wildfires from last year. As with the snow, the danger and nastiness of the detours was also largely overblown. I got through both detours in three easy days of walking along back roads with two to five other hikers, enjoying the views of the mountains and occasionally finding various forms of trail magic left by friendly locals. And then everything that had been talked about for the first month of hiking was behind me, with no news of what was ahead until the Sierras.
This left me to hike for weeks through the chaparral and high desert, discovering a part of the country I’d never imagined before. Rocky mountains strewn with manzanita and joshua trees, otherworldly rock formations, horny toads and scurrying lizards– I’d never walked through anything like it. The hiking and camping styles were so different from what I’d known, too. My tent became my pillow, since it never rained again, and the loose sand wouldn’t have held my stakes anyway. Breaks were dictated by the amount of shade I could find. Campsites were often little larger than my sleeping pad, since the trail wound along sides of hills for miles, avoiding any sort of flat spots. Some nights I would awake wondering who was shining their light in my face, only to find it was the intensely bright moon illuminating the landscape like daytime. Some days I could see the trail stretching out ahead of me for miles, knowing it would be hours before I crossed the next ridge to see what was ahead.
Soon enough (almost too soon) I found myself walking down a road to Kennedy Meadows with several other hikers. We knew we would have to deal with the snow in the Sierras very soon, and we’d been hearing about it in almost every trail town since the Kickoff, but now there was no avoiding it. I was pretty excited, though. Going into the high elevations of the Sierras with so much snow meant plenty of water and cooler conditions for hiking. Seven hundred miles of hiking in a desert had started to wear on me, with the necessity to lug loads of water and time my hiking days to avoid the worst heat. But wait! It wasn’t really that bad, was it?