As I start walking, it’s like I’ve got springs in my shoes. I’m thrilled to be out here. I immediately start reflecting on everything tiny little thing I’ve done to get to this point. All of the researching, planning, preparing… from gear to food to logistics. I prepared resupply boxes into the wee hours of the morning my last few days at home. I wrapped up projects and ended all of my contracts with my clients. I rented out my apartment, packed up and moved out.
“I can’t believe I’m actually doing it!” I shout to no one in particular. I’m walking with Sean and Steve, the father-son duo that I went to Scout and Frodo’s with. Sean turns around and smiles.
It’s 8am and it’s already getting hot. But I don’t mind. I’ve got more than enough water and my trusty umbrella, should the heat get to be too much. The first bit of trail follows the road that we just drove in on. The terrain itself it easy, gentle climbs and descents. Over and over. It winds around faint red rock formations and desert shrubs. I look off into the distance at the rolling hills and realize I’ll be hiking into the horizon… for months. I can’t wrap my head around the concept.
A couple of miles in, we arrive at the first water source: it’s flowing. The first success! And even better, there’s shade! I dip my tie-dyed shemagh (which Sean made for me before we started the hike) into the water and wrap it around my neck. It feels amazing. The relief is brief, but blissful. There are a few other hikers filtering water as well – we exchange quick hellos and take a few minutes to rest.
I continue on, trying to land on my pace. It’s getting really hot now. How I’m feeling is an inverse relationship with the temperature. The more the temperature rises, the less great I feel. It doesn’t help that my pack is heavier than I had anticipated. My shoulders hurt already. I have no appetite, but I know I need to eat. My legs ache as I climb short, steep sections of the trail. I take breaks every few minutes to let myself cool off. I’m definitely struggling a bit. And as an avid Coloradan hiker, it’s a hit to the ego. How is it this hard already?
“Happy birthday!” says a hiker that passes me. “You were at Scout and Frodo’s right?”
“Thank you!” I say smiling. Hikers are the nicest. That hiker didn’t realize it, but it really lifted my spirits.
I make it to a road and find Sean waiting there. We sit in the shade, waiting for Steve to make the descent. I run up the road to go to the bathroom (hooray! I’m not dehydrated!). As I duck into a bend in the road to get out of view, I hear an unmistakable ‘SSSSSSSSSSSSSS.’ I freeze. It’s a rattlesnake. A rattlesnake! My first rattlesnake!
Wait… am I actually excited about this? Who am I?
Steve shows up sweaty, exhausted and smiling. I’m so impressed by him. He just happily chugs along. His pace is slower than Sean and I but never complains and barely takes breaks when he catches up to us. We continue down into Hauser Canyon, where we’ll camp. There are a couple of people already there and we set up our tents. I somehow forget how to pitch my ZPacks Duplex tent, despite having done it tons of times. I managed to get it up. While working, other hikers trickle in. Everyone looks rough. It was a hot, hot day. One by one, we sit in a circle and begin to make dinner. The struggles of the day fade away as we laugh over our steaming pots of food.
Another hiker breaks off half of her delectable chocolate chip cookie and hands it to me.
“Happy birthday!!” she says. And with that, everyone sings Happy Birthday to me…again. I grin from ear to ear, heart exploding. For a hiker to part with a half of cookie delicacy is an unspeakable, selfless act of ultimate kindness. I’m speechless. These complete strangers are giving me the most memorable birthday I’ve ever had.
We head to bed early and I sleep, hard… for a bit. What I haven’t told you is that I have a terrible case of bronchitis. I’m coughing violently, and immediately feel terrible for the other hikers that were unlucky enough to pitch tents within earshot to mine. I shift around all night, trying to find a position that will give me some relief. I finally stack all of my gear and sit indian-style and lean over the top of it. I don’t sleep. At all.
We pack up before the sun rises and finish the climb into Lake Morena. I’m absolutely loving the climb. But I have to constantly take coughing breaks. Thank heavens for the wise hiker before me to tell me to bring Jolly Ranchers with me. They’re saving me! The birds are chirping. There are beautiful flowers poking out from everywhere. The first part of the ascent has a sweeping view of the canyon. As I reach the top, I’m surrounded by tall bush. I’m practically skipping. Ohh that hiker high.
Bronchitis? What bronchitis? Heat yesterday? What heat yesterday?
I make it to Lake Morena early, alone. Sean and Steve hike together behind me. I find a bathroom to refill my water and end up running into several other hikers. One of the strong hikers I had met at Scout and Frodo’s was struggling with heat exhaustion. It seemed like everyone struggled on the first day. It makes me feel slightly better about my own struggles.
I group up with another hiker named Laura and we hike out together. She’s a young, super athletic and bubbly hiker. On our way out, we run into another hiker named Bud Light and we make our way down the extremely sun-exposed trail. It’s another hot one. We bounce between silence and jokes all afternoon.
“OH MY GOD, GRASS!!!” screams Laura from time to time. It’s cracking me up. We’re hiking through meadows that have real, actual grass. And as a chick from Los Angeles, it’s literally blowing her mind. We take a break under a bridge. It’s been such an awesome day.
We hike through the afternoon. We make our way down a steep dirt road as we reach Boulder Oaks campground and I tell Laura that I feel like I’m walking like a baby giraffe because my legs are so tired and unsteady. We laugh. It’s a large, organized campground with a water spigot, a bathroom and picnic tables. Luxurious! Sean and Steve roll in a bit later. There are lots of hikers from the previous night, as well as some new faces, including Brett, Kevin and Matt. It’s another night of hilarious conversation and warm food. We head to bed, but no one sleeps well. Thwap, thwap, thwap…It’s my first introduction to desert winds. It certainly won’t be my last.
The morning is calm as I pack up my things. I begin the climb into Mount Laguna with Laura. It is incredibly beautiful. We open up about our lives back home. It’s crazy how quickly you get to know people out here. And how vulnerable you find yourself being with complete strangers. We’re treated with sweeping high desert views and dramatic, fast moving clouds. Desert terrain turns into almost high-alpine terrain and the trail changes from sand to actual dirt. It’s crazy how quickly things change. We snake through the trees and make it to the trail junction that will lead us into Mount Laguna.
As we’re waiting for a few others to walk into ‘town’ with, a woman walks up and I realize I recognize her from the PCT Facebook group that I used as a resource while planning for my trip. It’s Dutchie! She’a tall, athletic woman that always has a sunshine-y smile on her face. We introduce ourselves in real life and she continues into town.
The others show up and we walk into Mount Laguna. It’s a cute little outpost with a restaurant, a campground and a general store. Packs are neatly lined up outside and hikers are relaxing on the front porch. I head in to do my first ‘tiny town resupply’ and was met with the sticker shock of buying food in such a place. Ouch!
Once the sticker shock wore off, a group of us heads over to the tiny restaurant for lunch. I order a pulled pork sandwich – which I’m fairly certain is the best pulled pork sandwich I’ve ever had in my life. We’re finishing up lunch with Matt gets up and grabs a guitar from some hidden corner. He starts singing Wagon Wheel and the places goes silent. He’s got an incredible voice! My jaw hits the floor. I hear another voice and realize that the waitress is harmonizing with him.
Ahh, these are truly my people.
We head back to the general store and Brett buys a 6-pack. We distribute the beers to anyone who wants one. We meet another hiker named Acid Jesus, who tells us of his crazy PCT 2017 (“The Year of Fire and Ice”) experience, which includes him falling and breaking his back after he completed the Sierra portion. I don’t admit it aloud, but stories like this make me nervous for what lies ahead.
I don’t want to leave this fun stop. But Laura, Brett, Kevin, Matt and I head out into the sunny, windy afternoon in a happy little hiker train.