Mile 183.5 to mile 190.5 + Deer Springs Trail (3.5 miles)
Lynn, Cate, and Mike all get up and leave very early. I’m taking the shuttle with Caddy and Hobo from the inn where they’re staying to the Deer Spring trailhead, and it only leaves at 8:30, so I’ve got time. It would be nice to be starting earlier, but it’s just as nice to get a free ride and I’m excited about hiking with new friends. Once Lynn, Cate, and Mike leave I have the room all to myself and I make the most of it, walking around naked, doing last minute chores, and eating breakfast in my underwear. Finally it’s 8am and I am dressed, packed up, and ready to hit the trail again. I’m excited and nervous.
I walk the 3 minutes over to the inn and find Caddy and Hobo waiting. Claire is there too, and I’m glad I get to say goodbye to her. I am so grateful for her friendship and wise words; I hope I see her again soon.
The “shuttle” turns out to be the inn owner driving a few of us in his truck; it’s the three of us plus a Swiss couple. There’s a miscommunication and he thinks we all want to go to Devil’s Slide trailhead, the one Mike, Lynn, and Cate went to this morning. We drive all the way there before realizing the mixup and drop the Swiss couple before heading back down to our actual destination, Deer Spring trailhead. The drive was long and steep and I think of my three friends walking all the way there at 6am this morning; I am not jealous at all and am very confident I made the right decision for me.
We finally reach Deer Spring trailhead and we all unload our things from the truck. And then there we are! The trail is 3 miles of up up up to connect back with the PCT. I am ready to be back on the trail, on my trail – I think. I hope my body agrees.
We’re at higher elevation than Idyllwild the town is, and we immediately see snow on the trees and on the trail. I’m charmed. Snow! It’s so beautiful.
We begin hiking together and at first I think I’ll be able to keep up. We walk in a line, first Hobo, then Caddy, then me. We get to know each other – they ask why I decided to hike the PCT, I ask why they did. They met each other a few years ago hiking the AT and I am so impressed by them. They are both retired and have already hiked a long trail! And now they’re doing another one! They have such a lovely camaraderie, are clearly such good friends, and I feel honored that they have welcomed me into their group, at least for today. We pass under a thick shadow of pines and Caddy breathes in deeply, appreciatively. “Mmmm, Christmas tree!” she says happily. A moment later the smell hits me too and she’s right – I’m immediately thinking of Christmas, December, the first time I harvested my own tree in Southern Oregon. So many things have happened since that December – it was two and a half years ago. I feel happy with the trajectory of my life, happy to be on this Christmas tree forest trail with two new friends.
It turns out I can’t actually keep up with Caddy and Hobo, though. I stop often to take pictures and also this trail is hard! Up up up up. I give up on the idea of keeping up with them and just try to breath. I remember Claire’s advice; it would be nice to do Fuller Ridge, which I have built up to be totally scary and horrifying in my mind, with friends, but if I have to do it alone so be it. Aren’t we all always alone in the end anyway? Morbid but true!
So I plod on. I lose the trail a few times because of patches of snow, but it’s not bad. My microspikes are tucked in the front pocket of my pack, waiting for the moment I’ll need them, but so far so good. Every so often a clump of snow falls from a tree, sometimes landing on the trail but often landing on my head. I imagine mischievous fairies hiding in the trees, pelting hikers with snowballs, laughing about it amongst themselves. When I think of it like that I’m not even mad, just delighted. I’m walking through a magical snowy forest! I’m making my way back to the PCT, back to the place I currently live. It’s an adventure! An adventure that renders me out of breath, sure, but an adventure nonetheless.
Finally after three miles of snowy steep trail I see a little wooden sign: Strawberry Junction! That’s where Deer Spring connects to the PCT. And just after the sign I see two bodies lying on mats – it’s Caddy and Hobo! They waited for me! I’m touched, and feel emotional.
They hear me approaching and roll over to greet me. “I can’t believe you waited!” I say. “Of course!” says Caddy. “We haven’t been here long. And we don’t want anyone to do Fuller Ridge alone. If we didn’t see you here we were going to wait for you at the Fuller Ridge junction.” It’s so generous and kind; I try not to cry. I love these women, I decide. I am always like this: I decide who I love and who I can trust quickly and surely, and then that’s that. Usually I’m right.
I sit down to take a breather; I don’t want to keep them waiting though. Caddy brushes away my fears, assures me that it’s fine. We talk about food, snacking, how heavy it all is to carry. I admit I haven’t had much of an appetite, am still carrying some food I started with at Campo, more than 100 miles back. They are appalled. “What the fuck, Scissors!” Hobo exclaims. “You can’t do that! You’ve gotta eat your food!” Caddy nods. Okay okay okay! I will do better about eating, I promise them. I know they’re right – I stuff my hip belt pockets with bars and Justin’s hazelnut chocolate butter packets, the one snack I can always seem to choke down no matter what, and resolve to do a better job of putting calories into my body.
We’re all expecting to see Cate, Lynn, and Mike at some point, but we don’t see them at Strawberry Junction. Maybe they’re taking a long time in the snow. Maybe they decided to summit Mt. San Jacinto. We don’t know; we decide to keep going.
We stop for lunch and I shovel food into my mouth as quickly as I can. It’s cold when we’re not moving and I feel anxious about the time; I don’t know how snowy Fuller Ridge will be but I don’t want to be traversing it in the dark. While we’re eating some other hikers pass us – two are the girls I saw on the first day, the ones who were so much faster than me I assumed I would never see them again! “What are you doing here?!” I ask, shocked. They say they’ve had foot trouble and sun rash. Well. I guess there’s no predicting who will be where on the trail. I should let go of my concern about that – we’re all just plodding along. We ask if they’ve seen Lynn, Cate, and Mike and it sounds like they have. I wonder where they are, what’s taking them so long.
After lunch I manage to keep us with Caddy and Hobo, and soon enough we’re at the junction that indicates we are about to traverse Fuller Ridge. There is some snow on the ground and as I bring up the rear I suddenly slip, hitting my knee against a fallen log and ripping the leggings I’m wearing where I land. “OW!” I exclaim, causing Hobo and Caddy to look back in alarm. “I’m okay,” I follow up immediately, not wanting to scare them. I am okay, but ouch. The fall shakes my confidence and I feel scared; what if I fell on the ridge? What if I slipped right off? I don’t know. There’s no choice but to move forward and be careful, so that’s what I do.
As I continue moving forward, some of my fear evaporates. This section of the trail is so beautiful I can barely stand it. High elevation makes for gorgeous nature candy – I can see tall snow covered trees for miles and miles, and it feels as though I am above everything, above the whole universe. I lose Caddy and Hobo almost immediately but I don’t mind being alone at all – I am in a winter wonderland. I want to stay here forever.
I follow the trail and am pleased to see hardly any snow on the ground. Perhaps we all worried for nothing! Perhaps this is going to be easy as pie. (My future self is rolling her eyes at my well intentioned but horribly naive past self.)
My eyes are still bursting over all the beauty around me, and I stop frequently to take photos. In the distance I can see Caddy and Hobo waiting for me, and I wonder why. We’re all heading to the same campground, and the trail seems totally manageable. I don’t want to make them wait while I take a million photos…
I finally get down to where Caddy and Hobo are and I see why they are waiting: a stream crossing, flowing with force across the trail. Oh. Gulp.
I don’t have much experience with stream crossings. I’m definitely intimidated by them. Everyone is talking about the Sierra stream crossings this year, the roaring rivers that will appear once the heavy snow pack begins to melt, and I feel scared of that. If this is a preview, I’m not sure I’m cut out for Sierra hiking in 2017. But no time to think about that now, not really. There’s a sketchy looking path to take to cross this particular river, really a small stream if I’m being honest, but overwhelming nonetheless. I tentatively put my foot on a slick rock and use my trekking poles to create three points of contact, like I’ve heard other hikers talk about. When I lift my other foot to attempt to place it on the log I quickly slip and suddenly find both feed plunged into the ice cold water – it’s scary but I’m lucky I’m still standing. My heart is pounding and I look up to see Caddy looking horrified; I quickly decide it will be safer to just plow across the stream with my feet in the cold water rather than attempting to balance myself on these slick surfaces, so that’s what I do. It is, ultimately, a small stream, and I’m on the other side quickly – feet and shoes soaking wet, confidence shook, but thankfully safe. Whew.
We have a quick group check in where I assure Caddy and Hobo that they don’t have to wait for me at stream crossings – it’s so kind, but I don’t want to feel as though I’m holding them up from getting to camp, and besides, the trail conditions seem mostly okay. We can all totally do Fuller Ridge! I’ll see them tonight.
As my friends hike on ahead of me I wonder where my other friends are, why they haven’t passed me yet. I also spend a lot of time wondering about the Sierra. Some days on trail it seems that’s all anyone can talk about – the Sierra, the Sierra, the Sierra. Will we be able to ford the rivers, brave the snow? Is a continuous thru-hike possible this year? I don’t know.
I’m a few miles away from the spot we’ve all agreed to camp when suddenly there is a lot of snow covering the trail. I mean, not a lot like they’re describing in the Sierra, but quite a bit. And it’s late afternoon now, so the snow is slushy in most parts and slick – ice, really – in the patches that have been covered with shade. Fuck. This part of the mountain is like a totally different place than the beginning of the ridge. I know nothing about mountains and snow, hadn’t thought that differing sunlight and heat could affect conditions so drastically. I am an idiot, and I am alone on this snow covered trail, and I am cold and nervous and not close to camp at all. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
The thing is, there’s still really nothing to do but walk. One foot in front of the other. I fall a few more times and find myself exclaiming and swearing out loud, to no one. To the trees, to the trail, to myself. I finally decide it will be useful to put my microspikes on, and they do help. It’s not perfect, but I feel much more secure than I did without the spikes. Every few feet there are dry patches and I wonder if I should take the spikes off, but then a long stretch of snow/slush/ice will appear and so I keep them on. It is slow going.
Eventually it seems as though the snow is behind me. The trail is going down, down, down and I’m praying that eventually this will mean the snow will disappear. I mean, I know that is what will happen – snow happens at higher elevation, obviously – but I don’t know exactly when it will happen so I pray for the moment, the unknown timestamp when I will be able to release the breath I have been holding for the past few miles. And then it seems as though that moment has come! There’s a sunny clearing with no snow at all, and I exhale and stop to take off my spikes. Thank goddess.
But no! The trail turns again and there’s another hump of snow covered terrain. Whyyyyyy. I think about putting my spikes back on but I just took them off and I can see that this is the very last snow, the trail stretches beyond it completely clear and dry. I take a few tentative steps onto the snow bed but can tell immediately that it’s too slippery – if I fell I could hurt myself, I think. Ugh. I sit down on my ass and kind of scoot/crawl my way over this short obstacle – I’d always rather seat myself in snow or ice than risk falling. I remember the time Hadley and I hiked Angel’s Rest in the Gorge on New Year’s Day and the conditions were much worse than we anticipated and I made my way down the steep parts, covered in black ice, on my ass on purpose. Other people looked at me funny but they also fell and I didn’t care what they thought – I just wanted to be safe.
The trail has a sense of humor though, so of course, as soon as I seat myself on the snow in this awkward way, I hear rustling and three hikers appear seemingly out of no where. Of course. I’ve been by myself for hours all day, but the moment I’m in an embarrassing position, I’ve got company. Let go of your ego for forever, the trail whispers to me. Well okay. “Hi Mark!” I say, cheerfully. “Hi Helen! Hi Hot Sauce!” They’re nice and funny and don’t make fun of me sitting on my butt, though none of them have to sit down to handle this pile of snow. I feel sort of dumb but also happy to be alive, so whatever. I let them pass me, like I always let everyone pass me, and then I decide to haul ass to camp because I am over this! Gone is the perfect winter wonderland of a few hours ago – night is coming and even though there’s going to be a perfect full moon, all I want is a warm dinner and to be horizontal in my tent.
So I hustle, even though my knee is bothering me – is it from my 3-5 falls today? Is it just because going down is hard? Should I worry? – and then I’m at the campground! Caddy and Hobo are there already and so are a few other hikers I don’t recognize. It’s a huge campground and there’s room for all of us. I set up my tent near my friends and soon everyone else starts rolling in, too. Finally finally Mike, Cate, and Lynn arrive! I’m so relieved to see them – I didn’t want to say it out loud but I was worried something bad had happened to them. They describe their day and it sounds even harder than mine. Amelia and Raw Hide and Steffy and Colleen all show up too and we make a little village with all of our tents close together.
Hobo has been boiling snow for her and Caddy’s dinner and as soon as it’s done Caddy apologizes for not sitting around to socialize, saying, “I’ve got to get in my tent now!” No one is offended because we’re all of the same mindset and soon we are all in our tents, chatting through the thin walls and shoveling hot food into our mouths. Making a hot meal does a lot for my morale – my mom has sent me these amazing Good To Go ready made meals and the mushroom risotto is shockingly dairy-free (!!!) and also incredibly delicious. I feel as though I could eat seven servings, but the package only contains two so I settle for that.
I’m so happy to be in my tent after such a long cold day, and it’s really fun to be camping with a large group of humans that I like so much. Unfortunately I am so, so cold, and my clothes and my shoes are wet, so I’m anticipating a cold, wet morning. I’m so cold it is hard to move my fingers. And now, lying down, I realize that my left knee hurts a lot. I’m not doing anything – just lying in my tent – but there is a dull pain radiating around my knee. Why?
I try to ignore my ailments and think warm thoughts. Luckily I have warm dry socks to put on and my quilt is warm and dry and I’m wearing my fleece hat and my down puffy and I’m trying to be warm. I will be eventually, I know. But this is the first cold damp night on the trail and it’s not my favorite. I think about the whole day, about what it means if this was a low key foreshadowing for the Sierra. So low key, really. Nothing like the Sierra at all. And already this felt too hard for me. What does it mean, what does it mean? It means it’s time for bed.
Through her tent wall Caddy tells me she and Hobo will be up at 5:30 and will shove off at 6:30. Okay, I can do that. We’ll do a 15 mile day tomorrow, down down down, all the way to a “rusty pipe” where there’s water. Well okay. Tomorrow we pass the 200 mile marker. Tomorrow we say goodbye to all the snow for now. Tomorrow I keep hiking with my friends.
I’m cold but there’s nothing left to do but close my eyes and try to sleep. Eventually I do, and I have the weirdest dream. In my dream I’m hiking the AT with a flakey friend from high school, and we hitchhike back to Massachusetts to get dry socks and then my friend says she doesn’t want to hike anymore. I spend the rest of the dream trying to get a ride back to the trail, but no one will take me.