PCT Desert Day 16: On a Clear Day

Mile 241.50 to 256.21 — Today’s miles: 14.71
It is quite cold all night, a damp wet cold from the low fog that lingers on and on. In the morning my tent is wet inside and out, and my quilt is a little damp. I hear Proton stirring early, packing up, and I’d like to hike out with him but can’t make myself get out into the cold. I’m taping my feet when he says goodbye.

I’m out of camp about a half hour later, hiking fast in the cold and relieved to see clear skies. Maybe I can find a good sunny spot to dry out my quilt. There are beautiful views this morning as I leave the last of the burn behind and enter green spaces again.

When I reach Coon Creek Cabin, I stop to have a snack, tape a new blister (HOW?!), and book a room in Big Bear. I decide to stay at the hiker hostel, because it’s within walking distance of everything but the big grocery store, and because it offers rides back to the trailhead the next morning. But I still reserve a private room because I need my introvert recharging space. Especially in town, which I often find completely overwhelming — so much noise and speed and bustle, so many people!

That done, I hike on. Up up up, in the most perfect hiking weather one could ask for. It’s cool and clear, the sun and breeze perfectly matched. At the end of a climb, I stop for a long lunch break. I’m nearing the end of my food bag now, and decide to try the commercial freeze-dried food I packed for this section — only two ziplocs of it, because I wasn’t sure how it would turn out with cold soaking instead of using a stove. I pour some water in the bag, zip it up, and set it in the sun. Then I lay my quilt out on my Tyvek, carefully weighting everything down to keep it safe from the wind. After 30 minutes or so, my food is ready. The rice is still a teeny bit crunchy, but it’s still delicious. Going stoveless in the desert is amazing. I pack up — my quilt is warm and super puffy from its time in the sun. Today is pretty great.

Downhill time. I zip along, and pass a big group of hikers (Proton says they call themselves The Loud Group) that I’ve leapfrogged the past two days. They’re taking a long break, stuff spread out everywhere to dry, and a few are lounging on an actual sofa, which is sitting right next to the trail!

Down down, not as fast as I’d like because the trail is covered in loose rock for miles. Too fast here could mean a twisted ankle. It is unfair to have the downhill spoiled by these obstacles, really. I descend into a pine forest, the rocks occasionally giving way to layers of pine needles, and hop over a few muddy puddles and tiny little streams — what Cyn and I called “emergency water” on the JMT last summer. But I must be getting close to the big campsite, the first reliable water source since 18 miles ago.

And now here I am, at camp, all done for the day by 3pm. Proton is here, chatting with another hiker named Zydeco. We all talk for a while before setting up our tents. I choose the farthest site from the picnic tables and fire ring — I think a lot of folks will stop here for the night and want to give myself a good chance for quiet. Several of us eat dinner together at a table. Proton suggests I shorten my trail name to AJ, saying Apple Juice is too long. He and Zydeco both take up AJ, and I don’t mind.

I retreat to my tent early to write, and to text with Cyn while I have decent service. The familiar problem with big group camping returns — the bathroom problem — made worse now by the fact that we’re in a kind of canyon, the forest floor rising up steeply on both sides of us. So I walk way back on the trail until I can find a private spot. Later, Proton stops by my tent to chat. He reminds me that he has a car parked at the trailhead, since this is the end of his section hike, and can give me a ride into Big Bear tomorrow. He gives me his phone number so I can contact him for a ride to the grocery store, which is about two miles from the hostel. Proton is a generous person and a warm presence on the trail. I’m glad to have met him, and I resolve to get up early enough that we can hike together a bit in the morning.

There are a lot of people in camp, and apparently some have made a fire and are toasting marshmallows. But it’s quiet down where I am, and I fall asleep happily just as the light is fading behind the pine trees.

It’s hard to tell from a photo, but the mountains in the distance have clouds all around their base, and it made them look like islands rising from the ocean.

California goes on and on forever.

The trail passes a place that keeps wild animals, apparently for use in films and television. I think there are also lions and tigers, but the only animals I could see were a few bears, each pacing continually in their separate small cages. I found this whole scene heartbreaking, especially when I considered the bears I’ve seen in their own habitats on my hikes.

For the most part, the PCT is extremely well marked. Sometimes other hikers give you a clue — I would have missed the official trail marker to my right if not for this large arrow on the ground.

Trail angels in Big Bear posted this sign with their contact info. They give rides, laundry, showers, and a couple of beds for hikers to sleep in when needed. People are so generous to hikers in these trail towns.

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