Blasted Earth and Blasting Sky
In the morning found myself amidst a beautiful mountain landscape. These were forested mountains, not the barren ridges of my previous nine days on the trail. For the first time it truly felt like the beautiful, idyllic experience one imagines when they imagine a thru-hike. You know there will be difficult, hot and boring sections. Many of them, in fact. But cruising along comfortably, a cool breeze against your face - conifers and mountain peaks all around you - that is what the aspiring thru-hiker dreams about.
The north side of a forested peak to my left lay dusted in snow. At my feet corn lilies pushed up from the earth in tightly-bound, cylindrical shapes, their leaves overlapping at neat angles like origami. Viewed directly from above each plant revealed itself to be a dense wrap - layer upon layer of green leaves. Nearby grew a snow plant, a small bundle of bright red flowers rising up from the pine needles of the forest floor. Conifers towered above the little plant. The snow plant contains no chlorophyll and thus does not photosynthesize. Rather, it takes its nutrition from fungi beneath the soil. These fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with the conifers - they help them to extract water and minerals from the soil and in turn the trees share with them the results of their photosynthesis. The little snow plant is in reality a parasite, stealing from the conifers' gift to the fungi and offering nothing in return but its useless beauty.
I strayed from the PCT, climbing up towards the summit of Mt. San Jacinto. It was a trail choked with day hikers, many of whom arrived via a tram from Palm Springs. Amidst the jumble of granite boulders at the summit I looked out at the Colorado Desert below. My eyes traced across Palm Springs, the Salton Sea, Interstate Ten and over to the transverse ranges of the San Bernardinos and San Gabriels as they stretched out before me from east to west. I could see into the future, to where the trail would take me in a few days' time. The view extended from barren desert floor all the way to the snow-covered peak of San Gorgonio - the most drastic change in elevation along the entire route of the PCT. The desert was sporadically carved into grids of civilization, full of greenery otherwise alien to the landscape. Each square of the grid was filled with a different pattern formed by the streets of housing developments. Most were composed of right angles and perpendicular lines, while in a few the neighborhood streets flowed and repeated in wavy patterns. On the hills above, wind turbines dotted the ridges in neat rows like troops awaiting battle.
The walls of a stone shelter were blackened with soot from fires that once burned in a fireplace long since filled in with rock and mortar. Names had been scraped into the black patina. Various objects crowded the mantle: cowboy hats, a copy of the New Testament, a nearly empty bottle of whisky, a bundle of rope and a tea candle. A red plastic kazoo sat next to a cigarette butt and two small photos of Thai Buddhist monks, legs crossed in lotus position and clothed in saffron robes.
Descending from the peak I passed through a backcountry campground with quaintly named campsites like Granite Gully, Nutcracker's Perch, Junco Flats and Owl's Hooch. I was happy to see an outhouse and opened the door only to find it full of trash. A tarp was stuffed into the toilet and garbage spilled from the urinal. I dug a cathole behind it, used the bathroom and hiked on.
As I re-joined the PCT I passed a thru-hiker in a kilt named Scotch on the Rocks. I filled up on water at a tumbling creek, ate lunch and then began the start of a notoriously long descent down Fuller Ridge, which would ultimately bring me to Interstate Ten where it threads through San Gorgonio Pass, a low point between the San Jacintos and the San Bernardinos. As the afternoon wore on and I slowly lost elevation, my mood too began to drop. The afternoons were often difficult, as the excitement of the morning gave way to a sense of monotony and the dispiriting realization of how much hiking you have ahead of you - how far you really have to go. Five months is such a long time to do nothing but walk. I tried not to think of the big picture and just focus on getting to the interstate and then on to Big Bear, the next town along the trail. My mind drifted and I found myself fantasizing about having a "normal life" with a career, a family and a home. The grass never ceases to be greener on the other side, especially when viewed from a dry and dusty trail.
I passed by numerous camp sites without stopping, feeling the pressure to make more miles until I found myself amidst open, exposed and steep terrain, with nowhere to camp in sight. Anxiety crept in but I eventually found a flat area amidst the tangled chaparral and laid out my sleeping pad and bag. The setting sun cast the sky in thick horizontal ribbons of purple, pink and orange. I cowboy camped and slept fitfully, the wind blowing all night long.
Till the snow ran out in flowers, and the flowers turned to aloes,
And the aloes sprung to thickets and a brimming stream ran by;
But the thickets dwined to thorn-scrub, and the water drained to shallows,
And I dropped again on desert—blasted earth, and blasting sky…
Rudyard Kipling, The Explorer
I reentered the desert by way of an endless succession of switchbacks. Clumps of vegetation dotted with small, yellow flowers grew along the trail. I passed the two-hundred-mile marker, a small post nestled among the white flowers of devil's snare. I cautiously passed around a snake on the trail and further ahead noticed a lizard sitting atop a boulder, basking in the sun. It was not yet 9 am and the temperature rose above 100 degrees.
At the bottom of Fuller Ridge I was greeted by a spigot, bubbling up the water of nearby Snow Creek. A massive boulder offered ample shade. I eventually forced myself back into the morning sun and began to road walk north while San Jacinto rose up behind me with lines of snow tracing the gullies and crevasses descending from its peak. I soon departed the road and took off across a desolate, windswept swath of sandy terrain. There in that narrow passage between two steep mountain ranges the cool air of the Pacific met the hot air of the desert interior. The result was a relentless wind that assaulted me as I made my way along the landscape. No trail existed, just tall wooden posts placed intermittently among the palo verde and creosote. Below my feet, the desiccated ground was covered in a network of polygonal shapes. What was once mud had contracted and pulled apart, leaving a delicate array of curved and arching cracks across the ground's surface. This inevitably gave way to more sand. I seemed to move in slow motion as I passed under the lines of giant transmission towers, plodding along the soft ground and buffeted by the constant winds. It would prove to be one of the most mentally and physically taxing sections of the entire trail.