Day 8: Snakes, Wind, and an Unintentional Cowboy Camping Intro

The moon was wide awake last night, and did not go to bed until the sun was already rising. I feel like I’ve had a headlight aimed at me for hours. And its gotten more windy. But it’s beautiful out here, so let’s go hike.

We get our crap together and I take a last look at my maps. I knew we were climbing, but…now I see that we are climbing the San Felipe Hills for 20 miles. Holy sheesh. Time to mentally prepare for another day of all uphill. Why did I even think for a second it would be different? Oh, you crazy trail, you.

The wind is really picking up, pushing us against the side of the mountain, and I have to pause here and there so I don’t lose my footing. The trail is in what I consider to be PCT “default”: Up and around, up and around. I chant this in my head, like a little chain gang jingle. “Up and around, up and around, up and around til we all come down.” The miles come slow but predictably. We are looking for something….something about a cache at 3rd gate…..and there it is. An arrow sign straight from a Western flick, pointing toward “Water”. Unfortunately, the spur trail leads down, which just means more future up. But we follow it, me doubtful, Aaron determined. The trail widens and drops us off at the famous 3rd gate cache.


There are stacks and stacks of gallon-sized water bottles with a sign asking people to only take 3 liters per person max. There must be about 400 gallons here. They have built a giant container for used water bottles. It’s quite an enterprise. And someone(s) did this for thru-hikers, people they will probably never meet.

There’s a lot of debate about trail magic and trail angels right now in the community. People feel that hikers are too dependent on caches, or that caches degrade the experience, cause trash, bottlenecks, etc. I thought the people who wanted less caches made a lot of good points, but here, on the trail, their argument strikes me as abstract. It’s sincerely amazing to find these places, these gifts from strangers on the trail. On the trail it’s not political or contentious, just people who have taken time and effort to surprise and help other people. I’m totally fascinated by these people. I need to meet some of them and find out what motivates them.


I lay out my poncho and grab my lunch. We are going to drink a liter and take a liter. I hear a grumbling coming up the road and a Jeep with gigantic, rugged wheels appears. Out jumps Shane, an ex-military man, wearing a camouflaged hat. A huge knife hangs from his hip holster. He points out all the land that is his, says that lots of ex-military have bought up around here.  He hates the city and doesn’t miss it at all. “Not even a good restaurant?” I ask. “Nah…we have everything we need here.” Shane isn’t a trail angel, but does keep a look out on the 3rd Gate cache. He warns us about the snakes: “They’re all poisonous. You’ll have to have your leg flayed, if you get bit.” I eye his monster knife. “The winds up there are dangerous, too.” He points up where we’re heading. He hands us a card. “If you find any trouble, don’t be afraid to call for help.” Then off he goes, surveying his kingdom from his mighty Jeep.

We trudge back up the spur, back to the trail. It’s even more windy than before. Up and around, up and around, up and around until….there is a snake. It’s on the upper side of the hill. It’s long and silver, with magenta/red markings along the sides. Snakes are so cool looking, but we need this one to move. Aaron throws rocks near it, clacks his poles, says, “You! Git!” a few times. It’s irritating me. “Stop telling this snake we are a threat,” I say. “Move over, let me in front. Now be quiet.” I step near the snake. Stare at it. I try to project a non-threatening air about myself. “Go ahead and pass, little dude, go to the other side. I won’t hurt you.” The snake lifts his head, his tongue tasting the air, the blades of grass. He makes small movements toward the other side of the trail, then stops.

We are at a stale-mate. I reach out with my trekking pole and give him a push by his tail to get him going. This wakes him up, and he slowly, cautiously, slithers across the path. The sun hits him just right, and he looks like liquid metal. then he’s gone and I’m glad I was able to broker a peaceful conclusion.

Up and up. Up. Windy. So windy. We reach a ridge top and decide to make camp. I might be a little dehydrated, even with that extra liter from 3rd Gate. My words are slurring a little and my legs feel like lead. The middle of my lower lip is split open. I’m pissed at everything until the tent is up, and then I calm down and return to normal, after some jerky and sips of water.

Night falls, bringing the bright light bulb of a moon with it, and we try to sleep. The wind gets scary. Our tent is whipping all around us, trying to take flight. I feel like I am on a ship in the ocean, in the middle of an epic storm. The walls of the tent bend and contort and thwap me on my side several times. The wind howls and moans and whistles. “It’s San Felipe,” I tell Aaron. “He wants us off his hills.”

We wait for it to calm, but it never does, and after an especially strong gust that lifts the bottom of the tent up, Aaron demands we take the tent down and either hike or hunker down on the ground. “Absolutely NOT are we going on that trail with this wind.” I yell. So I guess that means cowboy camping. I’ve never done it, and I’m highly resistant. We shove everything willy-nilly into our packs, and somehow get the fly and tent poles down. Then we just flop on top of the tent, pull our bags over us, and push our bodies together to keep warm.

The wind is still going totally crazy, but Aaron is right- it feels safer, and I actually have periods of sleep. In between sleep, I watch the sky. The clouds are moving so fast, it’s like watching a time-lapse video. Whole storm clouds push right over us without leaving a drop. I feel like I’m on another planet.

I can’t believe this is my introduction to camping without a tent. Not the controlled, well thought-out situation I imagined at all. Well played, PCT. Well played.