Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! (Days 14 – 16)

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Near one of the road intersections I came across the above sing warning hikers about potential mountain lions in the area and suggesting that “hikers should bear side arms.”

Over the winter I’d seen a mountain lion in my home state of Massachusetts and there had been a lot of discussion about why government officials might be reluctant to confirm sightings. Though I’m not sure whether the reluctance is real or not, signs like this one certainly make me understand why there may be a reluctance to confirm sightings. It seemed to me that the sign was trying to encourage fear, panic, and a shoot to kill attitude towards mountain lions (cougars).

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As I continued up the trail I kept my eyes open for cougars and rattlesnakes and bears, and whatever else might be lurking in the woods, but figured my odds of running into a mountain lion were probably just as good as they would be anywhere else on the trail (fairly low, and preferably at a distance).

Within the next five miles the trail intersected with a dirt road and saw what appeared to be mountain lion tracks. big mountain lion tracks. They made my men’s size 10 wide boots look small! Was it a hoax? It seemed a bit suspicious to me being so near the warning sign.

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I followed the tracks up the road and away from the trail and human tracks until I was confident that the tracks weren’t likely to be a hoax (if anybody knows a tracker that could provide verification or thoughts on the tracks I would be interested in hearing their thoughts!). The pressure, the variation, the spacing, and the number of tracks all suggested to me that the tracks were real though I have to admit I’m definitely not an expert tracker by any stretch of the imagination!

I have to admit, after seeing those giant tracks I may have slowed down a bit so that the friend hiking behind me could catch up to me. I figured the tracks were at least a day old and were going away from the trail, but it made me feel a bit better to hike near someone else for a while!

As I continued hiking I got the dialog from the wizard of oz stuck in my head, “do- do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?” Asks Dorothy and the tin man replies, “Um, some. Mostly lions and tigers and bears.” I almost skipped along to the chorus, “Lions and tigers and bears. oh my!” It seemed possible, even probably that at some point on my journey I would encounter mountain lions and bears, but I had no idea that later that same day I was going to encounter actual lions and tigers and bears!

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When I rounded the corner it was the smell that hit me first, kind of a fetid, rancid, nasty smell. I looked up and saw rows and rows of chain link fence. In the corner of one there was a large brown blob. As I approached, it became clear that it was a large brown bear intermittently panting in the sun and chewing on the metal bars. It appeared to be a 12×18 foot cage without any enrichment and without any shade. It seemed very sad to me. It was not the way I wanted to see a bear, or any animal really.

As I continued up the hill I saw more animals lying down in their cages in the sun. There were lions and tigers and bears, oh my! And they all looked very sad to me. I heard later that they were retired stunt animals. I just wish they at least had larger cages and some kind of environmental enrichment. If they spent their lives working to entertain us isn’t there something more that we could or perhaps even should do to make their lives better?

I may not feel comfortable seeing the big wild animals up close and personal in the wilderness, but I definitely think that that’s where they belong. We are guests in their world, and if we pull them into our world, we should treat them as respected guests if we can.

High winds rattle thru-hikers! (Days 11-13)

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Coming down off of Mount San Jacinto we’d seen quite a bit of snow, but it was pretty manageable. Immediately after traversing the last snowy section we decided to camp amongst the last of the trees before finishing the 20 mile descent back into the very exposed desert. The wind whistling through the trees was our lullaby as we drifted off to sleep. We didn’t think too much about the wind at the time.

The next morning we continued our decent, with 20-30 mile an hour breezes in the exposed sections, which seemed quite nice and provided some relief from the heat and exposure.

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In some ways I found the snow at the higher elevations reassuring, it meant that I didn’t have to worry about chance rattlesnake encounters. Descending back into the heat and rocks of the desert, meant the return to rattler country. I watched the lizards skitter off in front of me and then had three snakes slither across the trail in front of me. In each case I stopped, realized it wasn’t a rattler and then continued on.

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Apparently, however, the fourth time was the charm. A large rattler slithered across the trail in front of me (and my friend Peru who captured the photo of it in the trail). It seemed rather nonplussed. It didn’t rattle or change it’s trajectory, it just slowly continued going about it’s business.

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I stared at it transfixed. It was absolutely beautiful. It seemed nothing like the rattlers that I’d seen on the east coast. I pulled my good camera out of my pack and began snapping photos of it. It continued paying absolutely no attention to me. My friend Peru walked by it nonchalantly…. I looked at her with a bit of disbelief, “you expect me to go by it?” I asked, eyeing the snake suspiciously. “You’ll be fine”, she reassured me. I took another couple of photos and then danced past the rattler (as quickly as I could, as far away from it as I could).

Once I got passed it I turned and continued gawking. The coloration was striking, as was the way it moved. As I watched it turned towards me and starting kinking up it’s body… Maybe it had finally noticed me! I didn’t hang out to find, I turned very quickly and put 20 feet between us before slowing down to my normal hiking pace.

I thought that the rattler was going to be my major adventure for the day, but more adventures awaited me. The further we descended, the more the wind began to pick up. I should have guessed by all of the windmills in the valley and on the adjacent hills that this was going to happen, but from a distance they didn’t appear to be rotating very fast!

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At the base of Mount San Jacinto there seemed to be a gap in the mountains that acted as a wind tunnel. Combine that with the dry, arid plain of beach sand, it meant massive dust storms. We pushed against a steady crosswind of 30-40 mph as it whipped sand across our faces. It was the 50-60 mph intermittent gusts that were the real challenge though.

We were getting sandblasted and making extremely slow progress. When the gusts came I turned my back into them and just waited for them to pass. I used my bandana to try to keep from inhaling too much dust and I worried that the dust might aggravate my asthma.

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After what felt like forever we finally made it to the shelter of the highway underpass. I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to find an underpass before in my life! As an added bonus, there was a trail magicked cache of sodas in that same underpass!

Feeling refreshed I continued on and decided to spend the night at Ziggy and the Bear’s house. They are an amazing couple of trail angels that welcome thru-hikers, provide mandatory foot baths and ice cream, and allow thru-hikers to sleep in their backyard where a seven foot high white fence helps protect everyone from the wind.

I was amazed by their kindness and generosity and thoroughly enjoyed getting to meet them. As the sun set, I decided to use the couch on their porch as an added wind block and curled up in my cozy zero degree sleeping bag and fell asleep.

“Aaaaaack!” I startled awake and stifled (perhaps unsuccessfully) a scream as I struggled against a weight to sit bolt upright in the middle of the night. The wind had gathered strength in the night and had blown the impressively sturdy lawn furniture and some of the tables over onto me and some of the other hikers. Other hikers that had been in even less protected areas had been blown off of their sleeping pads by the gusting winds!

Even the 60-80 mph gusts of winds I’d experienced on Mount Washington hadn’t been this strong! We rearranged the furniture and huddled against the wind. I don’t think any of us slept well that night.

Hiking amongst the fields of windmills the next morning seemed very appropriate indeed, though the smattering of rain and the Southern California rainbow came as a bit of a surprise! :)

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Yeah, it’s legal, but it ain’t 100% legal (days 9&10)

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There are some nights when I feel like staying in my tent in a field of boulders. It was just 3 more miles to the trail angels house and the next water source, and it was only 4 o’clock, but I didn’t want to camp near a road again. I’d spent the previous night camped by the road at Warner Springs and it was way too loud so close to town. This spot in the boulders was quiet and beautiful and I loved it. I could stretch my water until morning and just relax for the rest if the afternoon.

I woke up early the next morning and headed to my next source of water, the trail angels house. The trail angels and trail magic on the PCT have been absolutely amazing. It seems like they are incredibly organized and go to an amazing amount of effort to help the hikers out, especially with water. This trail angel’s place was no different. Instead of just a couple of jugs of water, he’d installed a giant full tank of water for the hikers.

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As I was filling up my water I heard the unmistakable laughter of the Russians (three Russian hikers that I’d been hiking with on and off for the last couple of days), so I decided to head down, say hi to the Russians, and meet the resident trail angel.

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The Russians and the trail angel were sitting in front of the house chatting and welcomed me warmly. They offered me some tea, so I sat down to join them for a spell. It was only 8 am so I was barely half awake.

The trail angel got up for a smoke and the conversation turned to state versus federal drug laws. The Russians had never seen weed before, so asked to see the trail angels prescription. “100% legal” said the Russian translator. The trail angel replied that yes, he had a prescription, but that even though it was legal you were better off thinking of it as illegal.

It turns out that he used to own a dispensary (100% legal according to state law), but he’d been raided by the Feds. Having been arrested 11 times for issues associated with pot, his lack of confidence in the law seemed very understandable!

As the conversation waned and turned towards other subject matter one of the Russians walked away from the table and towards the backyard where he picked up a 22 and began shooting at beer cans. This combination of events was a little too much for my brain to process at 8 am!

I drank my tea and enjoyed this new and somewhat surreal trail experience. On the AT lots of people talked about guns and asked me if I was carrying one, but I’d never actually seen anyone firing them. On the PCT this was now my second time watching someone fire at targets in the desert.

I finished my tea and as I prepared to head back out into the desert I wondered what new and surreal adventures were still awaiting me!

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AT vs PCT: The first 150 miles

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Lots of people have been asking me how the PCT compares to the AT… At least in the first 150 miles there are lots of differences!

The AT is a green tunnel, the PCT is either a red racetrack or the yellow-brick road.

The AT has lots of tree cover and the trail was mostly mud or hard-packed earth. The PCT by contrast is incredibly exposed. There is rarely tree cover and much of the trail is yellowish beach sand or reddish rocks.

Walking on the AT was mostly walking on hard surfaces, walking on the PCT is mostly like walking on the soft part of the beach.

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On the AT I never used my sunscreen, on the PCT I use it four times a day.

On the AT I used my rescue inhaler four times a day, on the PCT I haven’t used it at all.

On the AT it seemed like there was water everywhere, on the PCT the creeks and streams have mostly been dry. The water caches, however, have been impressively stocked.

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On the AT almost 80% of the thu-hikers I met (in the first 150 miles) on the trail smoked cigarettes, on the PCT I haven’t encountered any smokers yet.

On the AT the birds started chirping an hour before dawn (a reliable alarm clock), on the PCT the birds start chirping sometime between dawn and an hour after dawn.

On the AT views were a rare commodity, on the PCT it seems there are spectacular new views around every corner.

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On the AT the lows were in the 40s, on the PCT the lows were in the 20s.

On the AT the highs were in the 70s, on the PCT the highs were in the 90s.

On the AT it’s possible to stay at shelters every night, on the PCT there are no shelters.

On the AT mice out number people, on the PCT lizards outnumber people.

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On the AT the crowd was mostly 20 something’s, on the PCT the crowd seems to be mostly 60 something’s (because I’m starting the PCT early and I started the AT late?).

On the AT people would look at you crazy if you hiked 20 miles on your first day, on the PCT that seems like the norm.

Blister prevalence seems the same for both the AT and the PCT. I’ve seen fewer knee injuries on the PCT so far though.

The PCT truly believes in switchbacks, Georgia thinks that it’s trying sometimes.

On the AT there are gaps, on the PCT there are canyons.

On the AT I never used my sunglasses, on the PCT I use them every day.

I didn’t seem any mosquitos the first 150 miles of the AT, I’ve seen tons on the PCT already.

There seems to be a higher default level of education on the PCT relative to the AT (could be due to the older demographic.

On the AT I hung a bear bag every night, on the PCT I sleep with my food on my tent.

On the AT I resupplied out of grocery stores and ghetty marts, for the PCT I am sending myself maildrops.

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Despite raining 4/5 of my first days on the PCT, it has generally been much sunnier on the PCT than on the AT.

When packing for the PCT I made a few adjustments to my gear. The main one was switching my alcohol stove to a jetboil sol. I loved my little alcohol stove, but because of the fire danger California has banned them this year.

In the first 150 miles I’ve also switched some of my gear. I traded out my baseball cap for a more desert friendly cap with a neck guard. I bought down booties to keep my feet warm. I bought a chrome dome umbrella for shade, I bought extra sunscreen, and I bought some Chapstick with sunscreen in it. I also realized that having a v-neck long sleeve shirt meant having extra sunburn area to worry about so I would definitely get a high-colored shirt if I were to do this again!

;

Do you wanna be a cowgirl? (Days7&8)

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I rounded the corner and came face to face with a herd of cattle in the trail. Not one, not two, but a whole herd. In the trail.

When I was on the AT I’d run into cows in the trail, usually one or two that I could walk around, or a whole herd in a pasture, but this was different. There was no way to walk around them, and there was no where for them to go except up the trail or down the trail.

Two of the cows turned towards me and tried to stare me down. It looked like I was going to need to learn how to herd cattle… something that I’d never expected to do, but seemed sort of fitting out in this scrubby area of the desert.

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I pretended that it was a heard of black bears and I moved forward slowly and deliberately while talking to the cows in a calm, cool collected way. “Hey y’all, I’m sorry to disturb you, but you’re in the middle of the trail. If you could kindly move out of the way I’d really appreciate it.”

The herd did not respond in a cool and collected way. They started stampeding up the trail! I worried about what they would do if they encountered another hiker coming from the opposite direction? I hadn’t seen any southbounders so far and i hoped that trend would continue so I wouldn’t find out what the cattle would do with that kind of dilemma.

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After the initial stampede, I gave the cows some subtly words of encouragement and before long I had them marching single file up the trail in front of me. I felt like maybe I could handle this whole cowgirl thing afterall!

I envisioned myself as a cowgirl wandering the old west: thirsty, dirty, and with a herd of cattle to look after. California was certainly west, and I was definitely thirsty and dirty… The cows were even kicking up a fair amount of dust. I decided to call it close enough and claim my title as a modern cowgirl and started singing one of my favorite songs:

On the loose to climb a mountain
On the loose where I am free
On the loose to live my life
The way I think my life should be
For I only have a moment
And the whole world yet to see
I’ll be looking for tomorrow
On the loose!

I held onto this new image of myself until I met a real cowgirl, Gillian. The PCT is approved for both human and equestrian thru-hikers and Gillian (check out her webpage) is working on a doing a thru-hike with her horses. I kept pace with her and her horses for a while and chatted with her about her adventures, but their pace of 3-4 miles per hour was a bit much for me (my comfortable pace on that kind of terrain is more like 2-3 miles per hour). After meeting Gillian, I relinquished my title and gave it to her. Headed off on here solo ride of the PCT she seems to epitomize the modern cowgirl to me!

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The Bloomin’ Desert (Days 5&6)

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I awoke to the pitter patter of rain on my tent. “I’m not coming out until it stops raining” I announced to the universe and anyone else that may have been close by. It was my fifth morning on the PCT and this now meant that it had rained on 4 out of the first 5 days of hiking in the Southern Californian desert. This just wasn’t supposed to happen. Up until this morning it had been kind of funny that a rain cloud was following me around, and I appreciated that it was good for California, which has been having a massive drought. This morning, however, I was a bit cranky about it.

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I gently reminded myself that this was not Virginia, that it was not the Appalachian Trail, and it was not going to rain 50 out of the first 60 days on the trail.

It shifted from a light rain to a misting fog as I clambered out of the tent and packed it up, sopping wet yet again. One of the good things about the rain was that it had been a much warmer night than the night before (it had dropped down to 20F causing water bottles and condensation to freeze at mount Laguna the night before) and I’d slept much better.

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By mid-day I’d hiked out of the fog and into the sunny, shadeless Californian desert. Unlike the rain and fog, which felt familiar to me, the long treeless expanse of the desert was definitely going to take some getting used to. At least it was gorgeous!

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As my rain cloud dissipated, the Californian desert revealed endless spectacular views and even though there wasn’t much vegetation, the vegetation there was seemed to be in bloom!

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I think I can get used to this!

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Stand your ground! (Days 3 & 4)

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The desert in Southern California has been full of surprises. Hiking through mud and snow were definitely surprises for me. Looking up from the mud and seeing three mountain bikers barreling down the trail towards me was also a surprise. On the Appalachian Trail I never once encountered a mountain biker on the trail and I was pretty surprised to encounter them on the PCT.

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Almost all of the PCT markers indicate that biking is banned so I made eye contact with the oncoming bikers and prepared to stand my ground. All of my years as a Boston pedestrian suddenly came into play as I stared down the bikers and prepared to either educate them about their mistake or dive into the bushes to avoid a last minute collision.

What I had forgotten to take into account was that I was hiking with a retired forest ranger with a pet peeve about mountain bikers abusing hiking trails. Before I knew it he was 3 paces ahead of me using his self-proclaimed “teaching voice” to give the unsuspecting mountain bikers a piece of his mind.

The mountain bikers claimed that they didn’t know that they were on the PCT, and they didn’t know that they weren’t allowed to ride on the PCT (though they looked rather sheepish about it). One of them said, “hey man, why don’t you just enjoy your hike and let us enjoy our ride.” This did nothing to mollify the former forest ranger who countered with, “why don’t you just give me your names?” Unsurprisingly they declined to offer that information.

Clearly the mountain bikers had gotten a bit more than they bargained for. “What do you want us to do about it?” One of them asked. “Turn around and go back to wherever the **** you came from and let your biker friends know that mountain bikers are not allowed on the PCT!”

I could almost see the steam venting out of my friends ears. This was not the answer the bikers were looking for or expecting. They looked to me for help (I was nonchalantly standing my ground and watching the show). Eventually one of the mountain bikers looked properly chastised, apologized, and said that they’d never bike the PCT again as they detoured off the trail around us and continued on their way.

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In the fresh mud and snow on the trail the evidence of the mountain bikers passing was obvious and continued to rile my friend. Only three weeks retired, he still had all of the local forest rangers on speed dial and made sure to contact all of the local officials and inform them about these mountain bikers offenses.

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We were saddened to learn that there is a big problem with mountain bikers on the trail in this area. The local mountain biking community affectionately refers to the PCT as the “perfect cycling trail”. The raging debate between the mountain biking community and federal officials about appropriate land use seems complicated to me, but for now the issue about mountain bikers on the PCT is straight forward. Bikes are not allowed on the PCT and I’ll be happy if I don’t encounter any more of them on the trail.

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