The Border Country
“Setting route to Campo,” declared the voice on my brother’s smartphone as we inched our way through early morning traffic in downtown San Diego. That stiff, robotic declaration made it clearer than anything else thus far: I was headed to the small town of Campo. I was on my way to the US/Mexico border. After all of the planning and dreaming, I was finally beginning my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail - an unbroken walk from Mexico to Canada over the course of one season. I would finally see what lay between those two borders.
It felt surreal, when after an hour’s drive, we arrived at the border and I saw the PCT’s southern terminus monument against the backdrop of a maroon and metal border fence. It was an image I’d seen so many times before in photos online. The frame of the photograph of course always left the surrounding scenery to the imagination, but there it was in three dimensions. I could see it all in a sweeping, one hundred and eighty degree view. The border stretched out in either direction. Low, chaparral-covered hills extended to the north where I would soon be walking. Only the view to the south was still a mystery, obscured as it was by the fence.
I began the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Ten years prior I had also made a solo journey - a cross-country drive that lasted for six weeks of glorious freedom. As I planned my hike of the PCT, I couldn’t help but derive some sort of meaning from the fact that both adventures would occur exactly a decade apart. It would be a decade bookended on each side by two great journeys, I had thought to myself. The first had taken place behind the wheel of a pickup truck and the second would be entirely on foot. I could only hope and assume that the PCT would be as freeing an experience as that first cross-country drive. In a way, that drive was the catalyst that would lead me to hike the PCT, one of our nation’s most well known National Scenic Trails. That trip had been a period of prolonged adventure as I explored the American landscape and its small towns, during which I gained my first taste of not only driving through our most cherished icons of the American West, but also of exploring them on foot. I liked the progression between the two adventures as well, though some might see it as devolution, of first traveling by car and then by foot, by the power of my own muscle and determination. By consequence, instead of six weeks my journey along the PCT would last over four months.
The winter after that long drive I had read John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, an account (perhaps a bit more fictionalized than Steinbeck led on) of the author’s circuitous drive, pet poodle in tow, around the United States in Rocinante - his personally designed camper/pick-up truck named in reference to Don Quixote’s horse. Steinbeck and his writing it turned out would come to be a thread weaving in and out of my journey along the PCT, both during the hike and in the years afterward as I continued to read his novels and his biography, all the while slowly pinning down my PCT experience with words and illustrations. His writing, instances from his life and his philosophy seemed to inform my understanding of the trail and at times uncannily mirror some of my experiences along the PCT. For example, in Travels With Charley he wrote that during his trip he “had to be peripatetic eyes and ears, a kind of moving gelatin plate.” He continued, “I had to go alone and I had to be self-contained, a kind of casual turtle carrying his house on his back.” What could be a more apt description of the peripatetic thru-hiker? I was as self-contained and turtle-like as one could possibly become, carrying everything I needed to survive, quite literally, on my own back.
And on that first day of the trail my pack sat heavy on my shoulders. In it I carried seven pounds of food and six liters of water. That excessive liquid weight was a physical manifestation of my fear of the hot, dry landscape. Most of that food would go uneaten over the following days, my hunger barely existent in the unfamiliar desert climate. The allure of the desert, however, was enough to distract me from the weight on my shoulders. The yucca blossoms, creamy white and purple in color, were beautiful. Wildflowers carpeted the desert floor. Large lizards, nearly a foot in length, scurried out of sight while ravens and raptors hovered up in the blue sky. Butterflies floated by and giant bumblebees too, larger than any I’d ever seen, jet black and reflecting the sun like chrome. Low, rolling, boulder-strewn hills extended in every direction, the trail flowing over them as it pushed north.
A border patrol agent passed me going south on the trail and later I discovered, neatly placed alongside the trail, a pair of cowboy boots, binoculars and two empty tin cans - one Vienna sausages and the other sardines. I could only assume they had belonged to an illegal immigrant. What better way to navigate the border country than to travel a National Scenic Trail boot-worn from thousands of hikers every year? Why, I wondered, had those items been left there. They were so neatly placed it seemed unlikely it had been a hasty departure. I wondered if the owner might still be nearby.
In The Pacific Crest Trail, a National Geographic book published in 1975, there is a two page spread of photos depicting Mexican immigrants, three of them portraits of men after they had been apprehended by Border Patrol agents. In one, a man’s hands are covered in a chaotic pattern of scratches from making his way through thick chaparral. In another photo a man’s face is cast in shade from the brim of a straw hat. His eyes are nothing but dark shadows and the corners of his mouth hang slightly downward in an almost lifeless expression of solemnity and resignation. In a third photo a man sits hunched over, arms crossed and white linen wrapped around his head like a hood. He stares down towards the ground lost in thought, a look of consternation upon his face. It’s not hard to imagine him thinking back on all the planning, preparation and hardship involved with his journey. I imagine he thought of all the things he had hoped to gain from passing into the United States and began to reconcile all of that with the fact that he would soon be sent back to Mexico.
I took a break in the early afternoon, feeling at peace in the oak tree shade. I removed my shoes and socks to let my feet air out because that’s what I read you were supposed to do when you hike through the desert. My feet sparkled in the light, covered in miniscule flakes of some shiny mineral found in the dirt and sand. They seemed to be covered in gold dust. “These feet are golden,” I told myself, full of hope. “They will take me to Canada.” It was then that I noticed the ants. They had covered all of my belongings - my hat, my trekking poles, my pack. Allow yourself to be distracted for only a moment and they will overtake you, it seemed. An older man hiked by and told me I needed to wash my feet. “Show me some water,” I thought, “and I’ll gladly do so.”
The trail was crowded with hikers and I continued on, soon meeting a Japanese man from Yamanashi prefecture, a place I had visited when I lived in that country. The name translates to mountain pear and there I saw vineyards and a beautiful five-tiered waterfall. It was his third attempt to hike the PCT. It would be hard, I thought, to fail at this hike in a foreign land and then return to your home country on the other side of an ocean. To do that a second or third time was unimaginable.
I stopped at the Boulder Oaks Campground to wash my feet and socks and met two hikers. They told me that a hiker had died the day before. He was young and it was unclear exactly what had happened - the weather had not been excessively hot. It was odd to think we both had started our PCT hikes on the same day, both with lofty goals of hiking across California, Oregon and Washington. Now, a day later, I sat washing my dirty socks and he was dead. It was difficult to comprehend.
Moisture-laden air had traveled from the Pacific Ocean, giving meaning to the appropriately named Laguna Mountains, the southernmost mountain range of the Pacific Crest. It was cold and wet and as I climbed the precipitation turned from rain to sleet and then to snow. With each thousand feet of elevation I gained the temperature dropped another five degrees or so. I was only forty miles from the border, but ecologically speaking, up there at 6,000 feet, it was as if I had been transported some five hundred miles north. I entered pine forest and the trees were covered in wolf lichen that glowed a bright green. Small icicles descended from the clumps of algae and fungus and I spotted the blue form of a Steller’s jay amidst the darkened forest.
Back home in Washington it was common to begin a hike in the dense forest and climb until I found myself above tree line, above that point where conditions are too harsh to support their growth. In the arid landscape of Southern California, however, the tree line was reversed. The lower elevations, so hot and dry, were treeless. It was not until the trail climbed up into the mountainous sky islands of the Lagunas, San Jacintos, San Gabriels and San Bernardinos that the trees began to appear.
As I entered a mountaintop landscape full of blackened and burnt forest, remnants of a wildfire, the wind picked up to speeds I had never before experienced. I leaned sharply into the gale as I pressed on. Pummeled by the wind, my mood dropped severely and so too my confidence. I convinced myself I would never find anywhere sheltered to camp. I questioned if I was even capable of hiking the PCT. I neared a road and a car passed by. A voice bellowed from the open window and before registering what had been said, my immediate reaction was to assume I was being ridiculed. Why else do people in cars yell out at pedestrians but to heckle them? A second or two passed before I realized what had actually been shouted. Carried on the wind was a single encouraging exclamation: “Going to Canada! Yeah! Do it!” That simple comment from a stranger had more of an effect on my morale than he probably could have known.
I pressed on, my spirits buoyed, and eventually reached a roadside picnic area and a small gathering of hikers. As night fell I lay feeling claustrophobic beneath my shelter, pitched as it was low and tight to the ground. I had no appetite and ate nothing for dinner. I tossed and turned all night. The wind and rain were persistent and though I could hear them, my tarp, tucked in an undesirable spot behind an outhouse, was spared the brunt of the storm.
“The rain drummed on the metal roof. Nothing in my stock of foods looked edible. The darkness fell and the trees moved closer. Over the rain drums I seemed to hear voices, as though a crowd of people muttered and mumbled offstage.”
Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
The trail hugged the side of Garnet Mountain and afforded expansive views of the Anza-Borrego Desert some 5,000 feet below. It was the most breathtaking view thus far and one that would become familiar over the next few weeks. Dun-colored mountains rippled the landscape. Their crimped forms, folded and angled, created stark shadows and highlights under the desert sun. The lack of trees on their slopes exposed every detail of their form. Jeep roads criss-crossed the valley below and green puffs of vegetation appeared sporadically, revealing those rare spots where enough water flowed in wetter months to support them. It was beauty best observed from on high, a vertical mile above it all rather than down on the baking valley floor itself. I hiked on mellow terrain through a landscape littered with massive boulders. My feet had begun to feel tender. The hard-packed, rocky trail of Southern California was a far cry from the soft, damp soil of Washington. In my head the lyrics to a song played over and over: Got the feeling I can’t move without sliding, I’m a thousand miles behind, with a million more to climb.
I watched small songbirds propel through the air, low to the ground. Every so often they punctuated their trajectory with a rapid flap of their wings, shooting themselves a foot or so higher for only the briefest of moments. Their flight seemed to mimic the up-ticks on an electrocardiogram tracing its pattern across the desert sky. The pink flowers of the prickly pear cactus lined the trail and seemed to me little beacons - signs of encouragement in the midst of a fairly stark landscape. Out ahead of me, to opposite effect, a solitary, black raven sat atop a desiccated yucca stalk. On the other side of a small valley a hiker made his way up a ridge. It was almost thrilling to see another hiker far ahead of me amidst that open landscape. Seeing that small figure on the trail I was able to step outside of myself for a moment and I became ecstatic with the realization that I was out there doing that which I had only imagined for so many months. In Steinbeck’s The Red Pony he describes the boy Jody’s anticipation of the birth of his colt: “But this year Christmas was not the central day to Jody. Some undetermined time in January had become the axis day around which the months swung.” In the same way, once I had finally determined my departure date, April 24th, it had become for me that kind of axis around which the months revolved. It was exhilarating to now have that day behind me and to have finally set my adventure into motion.
I came across a hiker named Ewok who was carrying with him a steelpan - that large musical instrument with its origins in Trinidad and Tobago. It was contained in a thick fabric case and lashed to his pack with bungee cords. He carried a dead yucca plant as a walking stick, ripped up from the earth with its spiky leaves still attached. It was hard not to judge all this as affectation - a way for him to stand out on the trail. Some people it seemed had planned out new identities and ways of differentiating themselves from the hordes of hikers spilling north from Campo during those last days of April. It was hard to imagine those sorts of things persisting further up the trail, as one’s focus refines to the essentials of food, water, shelter and the ever-present need to make miles before winter arrived.
Ants marched underfoot following their own chemical trails as I made my way along a thin ribbon of earth carrying me north towards Canada. Gunshots rang out in the valley below as I descended towards a rare water source. To my right rose Oriflamme Mountain, one of many areas in the desert southwest known for mysterious balls of light that dance over the surface of the landscape. One explanation for the lights is that they mark the existence of gold veins or buried treasure. Not surprisingly, numerous colorfully-named mines were located on my map of the area: Banner Queen Mine, Desert Queen Mine, Golden Chariot Mine, Lucky Strike Mine and Cold Beef Mine. Oriflamme also refers to the bright red war flags of medieval France, their color meant to symbolize cruelty and ferocity. It wasn’t difficult to imagine why early travelers in this harsh landscape may have chosen such a name.
“Then the Portagee knew; for this was the night when every paisano who wasn’t in jail wandered restlessly through the forest. This was the night when all buried treasure sent up a faint phosphorescent glow through the ground. There was plenty of treasure in the woods, too. Monterey had been invaded many times in two hundred years, and each time valuables had been hidden in the earth.”
Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat
I thought of what my father had said to me before I began my hike: “I hope you enjoy doing what you want to do.” That is the most he said in regards to my plans to hike the PCT and for him it was a lot and as much as I could hope for in terms of encouragement. I felt fairly certain he thought of it as a frivolous pursuit. To him, I was simply his restless and wayward son, unable to settle down and make a life for myself in any traditional sense. As Steinbeck put it, “When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from.”
I had a variety of reasons, to be sure, but simply put, I just couldn’t imagine not doing it. I couldn’t leave the PCT to my imagination or secondhand accounts - I had to experience it all, for better or worse, firsthand. The notion of a single, continuous trail connecting Mexico and Canada was intoxicating to me and, in a way, I was unable to resist. It seemed like such a romantic and adventurous pursuit, the likes of which were hard to come by in the modern world. And the beauty - it was hard to imagine all of the beauty I would see along the spine of the Sierras and the Cascades. The virus had taken hold two years prior and every morning my thru-hike had been, quite literally, the first thing on my mind when I woke up and the last thing I thought about as I went to bed.
In reading Jackson J. Benson’s biography of Steinbeck I came across a reference to Cup of Gold, Steinbeck’s first novel, that seemed to offer a counter-example to my father’s lukewarm response:
In Cup of Gold young Henry Morgan determines at fifteen to chart his own course in the world. He wants to leave home to pursue a vague dream of fulfillment, which, in the course of time, becomes a quest for something very close to the Grail of the Arthurian legends ... Henry’s father, however, reluctantly agrees that his son’s quest is necessary. To himself, he muses, “Why do men like me want sons?” He decides:
It must be because they hope in their poor beaten souls that these new men, who are their blood, will do the things they were not strong enough nor wise enough nor brave enough to do. It is rather like another chance with life; like a new bag of coins at a table of luck after your fortune is gone. Perhaps the boy is doing what I might have done had I been brave enough years past. Yes, the valley has smothered me, I think, and I am glad this boy of mine finds it in his power to vault the mountains and stride about the world.
There was a part of me that hoped my father somehow saw the strength it took to embark on a thru-hike of the PCT, that he might see it as something he would have attempted when he was younger, had he only possessed the courage. In reality, however, my father had taken plenty of risks and experienced quite a bit of adventure in his years before starting a family. He had enlisted in the Navy, served in Vietnam and seen the world. When the war was over he had ridden (and crashed) motorcycles, he had piloted airplanes, he had parachuted through the sky and he had dove beneath the waves. The man I know as my father bears little resemblance to the man he was before I existed. That sense of adventure had disappeared with age. Surely, someone who had experienced what he had would take an interest, would relate in some small way, to my desire “to vault the mountains and stride about the world.” I do not know if he now looked upon his younger years as frivolous. Instead of living vicariously through his son as Morgan’s father had, perhaps he dismissed my adventures, just as he dismissed his own adventurous past. Like many things regarding my father and his life, I was left to wonder.
I reached Scissors Crossing, a point where two highways intersected like the blades in a pair of shears. I climbed up into the San Felipe Hills - the biggest climb so far on the trail, yet I enjoyed it immensely. The PCT switchbacked up through what seemed to be a landscaped desert garden. Barrel cactus in full bloom sat squat and plump amidst tall, spindly ocotillo. The cacti blooms were reminiscent of tissue paper flowers, the kind I remembered making as a child in elementary school. The sharp, spiky fronds of yucca contrasted with the deceptively fuzzy-looking cholla cactus. The cholla in particular were uniquely beautiful. Backlit by the sun, the main form of the plant was a dark silhouette but the outer contours of each branch glowed brightly, burning against the desert backdrop.
I camped that night amongst thick chaparral where I could be sheltered from the wind. A rusted beer can, most likely decades old, sat secluded within a cluster of beavertail cactus. I relaxed under my tarp, closed my eyes and traced the path of the PCT from the border to my current location - five days worth of hiking. It seemed so odd - after months of speculation about the trail I could now conjure an image of it, mile for mile, in exacting detail. How long, I wondered, could I keep that up? How much of the trail would I remember 2,000 miles from now?
“Night did not stop us, and when my eyes ached and burned from peering too long and my shoulders were side hills of pain, I pulled into a turnout and crawled like a mole into my bed, only to see the highway writhe along behind my closed lids.”
Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
The sound of Ewok playing his steelpan filled the morning air as I packed up. He was camped further away and out of sight, lending to the eerie nature of the music. It was an all-encompassing soundscape amidst the otherwise silent dawn. It wasn’t the cheerful, rhythmic music one typically associates with that Caribbean instrument, but something more ethereal and much more fitting in the severe and otherworldly landscape of the desert. I dismissed my judgments of Ewok and soaked up the beautiful atmosphere he had created.
I shouldered my pack and began to hike as the music receded into the distance and the morning light came up over the nearby mountains. The sun, obscured by peaks and ridges, warmed the air unevenly and I watched as a raven floated and spiraled on the resulting thermals. A desert horned lizard blended in almost perfectly with a tangle of thorns near the side of the trail. Insects glinted in the light as they congregated on the petals of a yellow wildflower. I stepped over a grouping of rocks arranged to spell out three numbers: one-zero-zero. I had hiked one hundred miles - more than I had ever continuously hiked before. It was merely a drop in the bucket but I nonetheless felt proud. With each ensuing mile I hiked further than I ever had before.
As I approached Barrel Springs the chaparral gave way to taller trees and from there the trees in turn gave way to large swaths of arid grassland. Wooden sign posts etched with the letters “PCT” marked the path for those times, perhaps in wetter years, when the grass obscured the trail. The black and white spots of a group of cows stood out among the browns, tans, and pale greens of the landscape. Further along, on the crest of a small rise stood a giant stone monolith - the profile of a beaked head and two massive, outstretched wings. Eagle Rock was one of those iconic features along the PCT that I’d seen so often in photos. I would reach many more such icons over the next few months and the thrill of finally seeing them in person, having walked every mile between, never quite diminished.
The trail deposited me at a paved road in the small town of Warner Springs, where the local community center had opened its doors to thru-hikers. I bought a burger and a soda and took a warm shower outdoors behind the building. Later in the day a woman entered the community center with her little girl in tow, the child dressed in a ballerina outfit.
“Can normal people get water here? Not just people who walked all the way from Mexico?” she asked gruffly, to no one in particular.
Her daughter curtsied and danced for several of the hikers in the room, then they both turned and left.
Outside was an open, grassy area where several large trees provided shade to camping hikers. Some had been there for several days, nursing injuries and waiting to recover before heading back to a trail more demanding than they had anticipated. One hiker had been stranded there for multiple days because her mother had forgotten to send her resupply package to the local post office. Her brother, also hiking the PCT, was a few days ahead of her. Oddly, the mother had sent his package on time. Nearby was a baseball field with a bathroom open to all hikers. Behind it a family of rabbits, with babies small enough to cup in your hands, crouched low and trembling in the grass.
That evening I “cowboy camped” on the property - no tent, just exposed to the starry sky. The wind picked up in the middle of the night and I sat up startled, allowing my inflatable pillow to be picked up by the gusts and blown away into the darkness. I turned on my head lamp and found the pillow trapped between the force of the wind and the chain link fence that had stopped its flight. I panned the light across the fence and saw a collection of other hikers’ belongings plastered there next to my pillow.
Warner Springs and the trail itself had become packed with hikers. I enjoyed meeting other hikers on the trail, but in time I was always ready to hike on in solitude. I felt as if I was missing out on something if not completely engaged with the natural beauty the trail offered, but knowing full well that I was dismissing an equally vital social aspect of the experience. In a way, I was out of my element there in the crowded, early sections of the trail. I began to hike faster and cover more ground each day. I passed through groups, left them behind and then reached new groups, only to do the same. I had the incessant desire to get through and ahead of the pack of hikers clustered in Southern California during the sweet spot of a mid to late-April starting time - early enough to avoid the blistering heat of the desert that would soon reach its height, but late enough to avoid entering the High Sierra before it had begun to melt out.
At night in this waterless air the stars come down just out of reach of your fingers. In such a place lived the hermits of the early church piercing to infinity with unlittered minds. The great concepts of oneness and of majestic order seem always to be born in the desert.
Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
The long church was rather dark, but the high altar was on fire with candles. And in front of the images at the sides, the votive lights were burning. The old and sweet incense perfumed the church ... At last the sermon began. “There is a new beauty in the church,” Father Ramon said. “One of the children of the church has given a golden candlestick to the glory of Saint Francis ... [he] loved the beasts so much that he preached to them.” Then Father Ramon told the story of the bad wolf of Gubbio and he told of the wild turtle doves and of the sister larks.
Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat
At the far southern end a pass opened in the hills to let out the river, and near this pass lay the church and the little town of Our Lady. The huts of Indians clustered about the mud walls of the church, and although the church was often vacant now and its saints were worn and part of its tile roof lay in a shattered heap on the ground, and although the bells were broken, the Mexican Indians still lived near about and held their festivals, danced La Jota on the packed earth and slept in the sun.
Steinbeck, To a God Unknown
I left town via an alternate route, road walking until I reached Agua Caliente Creek, the first flowing water I encountered on the trail. There I found an old adobe church, built by the local Cupeno Indians of wood and earth taken from the nearby hills nearly two centuries ago. The door was open and the chapel empty so I entered. Inside there was a beautiful and quiet ambience about the space. Candles hung on the walls and Easter lilies sat atop the altar. A small bird flew among the hand-split wooden beams and finally settled upon a windowsill next to a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe and a vase full of daffodils. It began to tap its tiny beak against the window pane. Outside, a little finch, its head stained a beautiful purple, tapped back from the opposite side of the glass. The chapel was named for St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the natural environment. A fourteenth-century text known as The Little Flowers of St. Francis tells of him preaching to a flock of birds so entranced by his voice that they did not fly away. Fittingly, he is often depicted with a bird in his hand.
The afternoon was spent slowly climbing through monotonous terrain. The heat was extreme and my morale suffered accordingly. I traveled through an area scattered with massive boulders and two fighter jets shot overhead and then descended into a canyon far off below the trail. I reached a dirt road and a sign advertising water, shade and shelter only a hundred yards away. I filled my bottle from a giant metal tank and then descended upon heavily textured stepping stones towards a modest home. The steps, it turned out, were old grinding stones, traditionally used to make masa corn dough - the main ingredient for producing tortillas. It was an off-the-grid complex that belonged to a local “trail angel” - someone known for aiding hikers, often providing them with shelter, water and other amenities. In the corner of the yard, amidst a circle of grinding stones in the grass, lay what appeared to be a marble gravestone. It was dedicated to one Francisco Herrera, who had lived from 1886 to 1936. On one end of the marble stood a small statue of an Indian man in full headdress. On the other end was a statue of a bronze-skinned woman with long, black hair kneeling and patting a pile of dough in her hand.
It was a kind of Tortilla Flat, if you will, out there in the Southern California desert, far from Steinbeck’s Monterey and its seashore and its pine trees. Tortilla Flat was the novel that brought Steinbeck his first taste of fame and success. It was the novel the author came to regret writing once he realized his characters were being perceived as nothing more than quaint bums. And it is the novel that nowadays can raise feelings of discomfort in the sense that Steinbeck was a white man writing about the paisanos of Mexican and Indian descent - as some saw it, portraying them as “jolly savages.” Despite all of that, it is a novel, full of beauty and humor, about a man and the man’s friends and the man’s home, and how they all became one entity.
In the same way, a single house sitting atop a ridge overlooking the surrounding desert became a magnet for so many individuals. It was called the Sky Ranch Sanctuary and the owner, Mike Herrera, who I imagined as Danny from Steinbeck’s novel, was absent. In his place, however, there were caretakers and surrogates, three of them in total, just as there were three in the novel: Pilon, Pablo and Jesus Maria. Their tastes, however, gravitated towards marijuana rather than the wine so cherished by the inhabitants of Tortilla Flat. The first was the aptly named Kushie. He offered “pack shakedowns,” a process by which one hiker helps another, usually a novice, to reduce their pack weight by discarding any extraneous items. He offered a free, pot-infused edible to the first person to shed ten pounds. The second was a man named Tom who had once opened his own property to hikers until he ultimately had to shutter his operation, succumbing to community complaints and red tape from the county. The third was a man from Seattle who spoke repeatedly of his dissociative identity disorder and a host of other health problems. He performed a little charade for us, one which I imagined he put on night after night for each new group of hikers.
“Does anyone have a knife?” he asked.
As everyone scrambled to locate pocket knives buried deep in their packs he wandered over to a nearby wall and produced a massive machete.
“Oh, nevermind,” he chuckled to himself as he sauntered off.
He had a captive audience that rotated each day - hikers departed to continue along the trail and new arrivals replaced them. There were other long-term residents: injured hikers who performed chores around the property, earning their keep as they nursed their wounds and recovered. And so, like the Pirate and Big Joe Portagee in the novel, other individuals coalesced into the larger unit of the Sky Ranch. Likewise, the mass of thru-hikers on the trail in Southern California had merged into a single entity, often derisively referred to as “the herd,” and it seemed nearly half of them must have descended upon the Sky Ranch that evening, trickling in one-by-one until the space had clearly reached capacity.
Steinbeck was fascinated with the group mentality and had a conception of the group as a living thing - individual humans within a group existing like the cells in an organism. In an essay on Steinbeck’s “phalanx theory,” as it is known, Jeanette Rumsby writes that “Steinbeck is suggesting that a group of men with a common purpose make up a unit, an unstoppable and fixed force in one direction.” In those first days on the trail, hiking amidst the herd, it wasn’t hard to see all of us thru-hikers united in our common purpose, a fixed force headed in one direction - north towards Canada. It is only natural for most novice thru-hikers, especially as they begin alone in a new and uncertain environment, their head full of lofty goals, to crave a movement to join. Rumsby writes that “mankind craves that sense of togetherness, needs the support and community that a mob provides.” Most people cultivate newfound identities as members of the thru-hiking subculture and benefit from the social support that the group offers. We, the herd of thru-hikers, were like the school of fish observed by Steinbeck in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, bound together in survival during the hardships of those first days on the trail, with “a nature and drive and ends of its own.”
In the beginning I stubbornly resisted such a notion, unwilling to give up my sense of solitary freedom. That evening, each hiker claimed their spots in the bunkhouse but I waited too long, vacillating between my desire to be alone on the trail and my desire to remain sheltered from the desert wind. When I finally decided to stay for the night all of the spots in the bunkhouse had been claimed. I entered the dark shed and the other hikers were quick to accommodate me and thus, if only for one night, I became an individual cell within the larger organism of the thru-hiker phalanx. I ended up with a small sliver of space under a metal wire cot upon which another hiker slept. I stared up at the cluster of metal springs, bars and sharp wires above me and listened to the cot creak and groan each time my neighbor tossed and turned. As the wind shook the sides of the bunkhouse I was relieved to be indoors, but nonetheless felt a certain measure of uneasiness as I drifted off to sleep.