Day 5: Northbounder Heading South

March 24th

Mileage 15

Miles 26-42 (but N-S)

Today the plan is to hike from Mt. Laguna back down to Boulder Oaks Campground, and then head back up and stay at the Lodge. About 15 miles, the most I’ve ever hiked in a day. I mean, I’ve walked about 17 miles on a paved path in the East Bay, but my longest hike was when we went off the JMT via Bishop Pass, about 13 miles. And I’ve done a Half- Marathon, so most likely I can do 15 miles today.

We drive to the Burnt Rancheria Campground around 10 a.m. The gates are closed, but we see two mountain bikers come up from the distance. As they pass the gates, one says, “The PCT is down there, if you’re into that kind of thing.” Which means they were probably riding their bikes on the trail. I give a non-committal smile; I don’t feel like talking to them. Instead, I concentrate on getting my precious cup of coffee into a Gatorade bottle.

We stroll through the campground, heading in the general direction of where I expect the trail to be. We come across a beautifully maintained trail, about 18 inches wide and covered in foot friendly gravel. Cute little rocks line the path. “This is definitely NOT the PCT,” I snort.

Twenty feet past the pathway, I find the PCT. I’m ready to begin, so I hastily say goodbye to Aaron and Nisa. The trail here is actually more friendly than normal; mountain dirt and mountain air make the morning quite pleasant. I pass my first two PCT’ers, two older gentlemen, whom are anxious to get to Mt. Laguna. They mistake me for a day hiker- it irks me a little, but I don’t correct them- and none of us seem to willing to stop our hiking for conversation.

It’s a gorgeous day so far. It’s cloudy and the hills are gentle. Although the blisters are already giving me pain, I feel great; strong, confident. I love the act of striding forward, I never tire of seeing what is around the next bend. I think a lot about the amount of difficulty I have already faced on the trail- I am convinced it is more difficulty than other people are experiencing. I have felt so scared about my back the last five days, and today is the first day that I feel myself relaxing about it. I think I’m no longer in danger of it giving out- it is adjusting. I’m getting in the groove of what backpacking feels like, the roller coaster ride of it, the pain, the exertion, how I have to give in to it and accept it. It is an acceptance I have a hard time practicing in most parts of my life, and backpacking is not much different. “You’re okay,” I tell myself as I tromp along.

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The mountain transitions smoothly into the hills and sagebrush of the lower elevations. I have great views of where I have walked the days before. As I walk down to a dry gully, I run into a group of men. Two of them are the LNT ambassadors the PCTA started this year. They ask to see my permit, and I get embarrassed. Thing is, I accidentally left my pouch that had my permits, and ALL my money, at the hotel. Aaron is was heading down there to pick it up (and generously tip the housekeeper that found it), so I don’t have it. But they are nice guys, and they are okay with not seeing it.

Not long after, I run into a group of three Germans, one by one, about five minutes apart each. The first guy tells me it is too hot. The girl tells me it is too windy. And last guy flies by, a content smile on his face. They are like the three bears from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.

I keep rolling along. This is the most people I’ve seen, and running into each of them is like getting a little shot of Espresso. If you want to see PCT’ers in March, head south! I take a break under a dead Oak tree, drink a little and try to eat, to no avail. I’ve been trying to break for 45 minute every two hours, but after 20 minutes I get antsy and have to move on.

The clouds have broken up and as I contour hill after hill, I see Cibbets Flat down below me; it looks like a toy model campground, too nice and neat and too much green grass in the middle of all this dryness. Aaron and Nisa are meeting me here for lunch, and I can see them down there on a jeep road. I feel a little bad for them because it has warmed up a bit, and I hope they are not too uncomfortable. We meet up at the signs than warn of unexploded military ‘ordinance’ and find a little shade to relax in. Aaron has a surprise for me- he found someone selling Bunuelos! I manage to eat a decent amount of the sugary, fried tortilla goodness. We joke around and trade stories of our day for a bit, and then I again get antsy and have to say good-bye. I’m having such a good day! All I want to do is hike more.

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After a few more miles, the views really open up and the tread becomes a very narrow stretch of dirt atop some very steep slopes. I have to concentrate not to trip. It’s thrilling, this landscape I can only see by foot. I pass a hiker named Gene on his way to Cibbet’s Flat. He’s a friendly guy, determined yet pragmatic. I cross a paved road and there is a creek way down below, the sand banks suggest that there is usually more water flowing. I meet two friendly women on a rock, airing out their feet. I feel excited to finally meet women doing a thru hike. I hope that I will run into them again.

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Down, down, down toward Hwy 8 and Boulder Oaks. When I am eye level to the highway, a man who kinda looks like the poster boy of a thru- hiker makes his way toward me. He is flying, his pack is non-existent, I doubt he’s carrying any extra water. We exchange Hello’s and right when he passes by me, he stops and looks me intently. “Northbounder heading south,” he declares. “You got it!” I reply, and we both chuckle. It is such a small, simple moment of camaraderie, yet so profound. I feel like I have just been accepted into a community, somehow. I practically float the last fifteen minutes to the parking lot, where Aaron and Nisa are awaiting me.

When I reach the car, I feel an intense pain on my heel, and a wetness envelops my sock. A blister has just burst, and it is so painful. But I will not let these blisters ruin my perfect day. “Take me to a burger!” I say, and off we go.

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