Anyone who has ever stood on the wedding altar, exchanging vows and rings, might be familiar with the feeling of nervous excitement that comes with making a lifelong commitment. My jitters were mired in the prospect of being wed to a swath of dirt four feet wide and 2653 miles long. In my mind, though, the fine line between going for it, and doing so with cold feet, was a bit blurred.
The time on the clock read 5:15AM. It was time to get up out of bed, and since I had barely managed to fall asleep, didn’t officially qualify for waking up. I was like a fish getting pan-fried; flipped over and over. Allowing the alarm to sound was more ceremonial than anything. It officially meant if the show was going to get on the road, it had to get on the road.
Reality check: You’re walking from Mexico to Canada. Today.
I began a series of what would amount to ‘this is the last time I’m going to’- type of activities. Not in an absolute sense, and almost not even in a relative sense. I knew there would be faucets, cozy beds, showers, and toilets where I was going, but they’d be only occasionally enjoyed for the next five months. I hopped into the shower and tried to relish the feeling of warm water cascading down my forehead, over my face, and down my body. I hoped it would dissolve some of the anxiety I felt, right down the drain.
I had a good case of cottonmouth. Cottonmouth is the ultimate betrayer of confidence. The inside of my mouth was as dry as a package of desiccant. I pretended hard, so hard, to fool everyone and myself that I was confident and ready to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. I had done a pretty good job of fooling everyone, but I hadn’t convinced myself that I was ready. In a matter of hours, I would be dropped off at the Mexican border with nothing but the contents of my backpack, and my dubious confidence, to sustain me. I swallowed this truth hard as I filled up my water bottles, one by one. The total nine liters I filled would have to last me until I reached the first creek or stream, possibly 17 miles away from my starting point. No problem. Now, my eyes and body language punctuated my sense of doubt with italics and underscores. To make matters worse, Obie, with whom I’d been I’d bunked while in San Diego, filmed the anxiety-filled moments on video. Watching those videos I was assured that I had no future in show business.
To put my uncertainty and fear into perspective, I must share that I almost canned my trip even before it even began. Canned means CANCELLED. It had been a heavy snow year, and snow totals were 160% above average. It had also been an uncharacteristically cold and rainy spring. The Sierra Nevadas were a complete winter wonderland with summer right around the corner. There was talk of Mammoth Ski Resort remaining open until July 4. Even in the San Jacinto Mountains, slightly northeast of San Diego, thru hiker that had passed through sternly warned that advanced navigational and mountaineering skills and equipment were still necessary. The San Jacintos were only about 3 weeks into the trip, which would allow little or no melt time. If Southern California was this impassable, what would the rugged oceans of mountains of the Sierra Nevada be like?
I had spent a couple of months planning my trip, researching and purchasing gear, and buying mountains of food and packing it in mail drop boxes that would be mailed to me by my parents via US Mail once on the trail. I had walked the sidewalked hills of suburban northern New Jersey in order to get in some mediocre fitness for the hike. And I had even flown to San Diego, fully intending to set out the PCT. But since I hadn’t officially left, there was still plenty of time to bail out, and I was going to take advantage of the opportunity to fully consider my options.
The Thursday before the Monday on which I set out, I actually shared with my parents, Zwen and George, my plan to scrap the trip. Not wanting to read my potential obituary, my parents were supportive of my returning home. My younger brother, Stephen, who is much more level-headed and sensible than me, was equally supportive. Who was I trying to impress, anyway? Obie had a different agenda. He continued to relentlessly introduce me to his friends, neighbors, and waitresses and bartenders in San Diego, as his friend that “was going to walk from Mexico to Canada in a single season.” I awkwardly dismissed each introduction. I insisted that I wasn’t sure if I was going or not. Ultimately, his misplaced confidence in me infected my psyche, enough to decide to just go for it. I could always bail in Idyllwild, Mile #176, if I needed to, I told myself. Obie didn’t need to know my backup plan.
Goodbye Rainmaker shower head. Goodbye refrigerator. Goodbye computer. Goodbye four walls and floor. Having bade farewell to all the modern conveniences, I threw my backpack up onto my shoulders for the first time and went upstairs to the main floor of the Roy’s house, where Vinita, Obie’s wife, was already welcoming the my imminent send-off. Obie wanted to have a weigh-in; me with my backpack and supplies. I didn’t protest. I was also curious of how much weight I had heaped upon my back. I stepped on the scale. With four days of food and ten liters of water, I had 43 pounds on my back. Subtract the weight of the water, the weight dropped to 23 pounds. Minus the food, my backpack weighed 19 pounds. Not too bad. Vinita gave me a solid goodbye hug. As I was leaving, Kira, the youngest of their three kids, managed to sleepwalk over to me and give me a neck hug. Sleepy-eyed and groggily, she said “Bye, Mr. Dan” as she instinctively trudged back to her room.
Outside, it was a downright chilly 51°F. I questioned the choice of packing only one semi-warm, two year-old merino wool long-sleeved shirt for insulation. After all, I only remembered the desert heat, which well exceeded 100°F in June of 1996. It couldn’t possibly be cold on the trail. No way.
The heat cranked in the car during the two hour drive to Campo, east of San Diego on Interstate 8. Obie, a techie at heart, set up our ‘electronics center’ in the minivan, which consisted of the GPS unit, multiple cellphone chargers, and camera battery chargers. I stuffed an unprecedented four Sausage McMuffins at McDonalds in El Cajon. This was the first sign of my going feral with appetite. I knew I would need every last calorie. Systematically devouring the sandwiches was done without hesitation, arguably out of necessity.
Mellow hip-hop beats helped to soothe the transition the scenery from developed suburbs to California’s relatively unpopulated interior. Granite cliffs, silvery boulders, and the muted greens of the desert shrubs along the freeway were a dead giveaway of the type of scenery I would be passing through during the first few days.
Four lanes gave way to two as we took the exit for southbound Highway 94. My spirits were elevated upon seeing creeks flowing with water that I would have written off as ‘dry.’ We passed through the small settlements of Dulzura and Potrero before finally arriving in Campo, an unincorporated town, population 3,271. The PCT monument at Mile 0.0 was the final destination. The paved road ended and crossed onto sand. Obie eagerly jacked the Mercedes into 4-wheel drive to avoid getting stuck in a sandy rut. We took only one wrong turn in the two mile straight shot south, right up to the border fence separating the United States of America from Mexico. This was as far south as I could get to Mexico without actually crossing into Mexico. More importantly, this was where a monument marked the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Two dirt roads, separated only by a waist-high barbed wire fence, pressed right up to the seemingly impenetrable corrugated tin marking the US-Mexico border. White and green US Border Patrol vehicles whizzed along the fence corridor, leaving clouds of dust in their wake. We had the spot to ourselves. Conditions were optimal for a full-fledged photo and video shoot, which lasted at least an hour. There was a lot to capture. On the border fence itself, the numbers 36 to 44 were crudely spray-painted in sequential order, on the panels erected by “Team Engineer- Builders of the Border,” which was also spray painted on the fence. I wondered how high the numbers went on the panels climbed along the undulating terrain in opposite directions along the border.
My wonderment was more focused on the monument itself, four square columns of gray painted wood, chipped in places, slowly succumbing to the elements. The shortest column announced the elevation of 2,915 feet above sea level. The next tallest column declared the trail’s distance from Mexico to Canada of 2627 miles. The third column officially named this spot as the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, on a route established by an Act of Congress on October 2, 1986. The fourth column, only slightly taller than me, had the first of thousands of aluminum trail markers that would, by no less than a miracle, guide me to the Canadian version of this same monument, although on a slightly miniaturized scale, at the US-Canada border at Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia.
Had Obie not been there, I might not have found the spiral-bound notebook that was in a tin box wrapped with a rubber band. I may not have signed my name at Mile 0.0, at the first of hundreds of trail registers I would pass during my border-to-border trek. I might never have know that hundreds of thru hikers had left from this very spot in 2010 with the same goal of making it to Canada before the arrival of winter, and that two other hikers, T.C. and Worth, had already departed on the same day before me. Somehow, I would never meet these hikers, even though they had left only minutes or hours before me.
Obie was very thorough in his directorial photo shoot debut, making sure to capture the radiance of the moment at every conceivable angle: next to the monument, in front of it, behind it, on top of it. The last shot included jumping from one of the columns that made up the monument, arms outstretched spread eagle-style. This turned out to be an outrageously silly idea, as it almost resulted in an ankle sprain, and, on a micro scale, it did. Somewhere in the depths of my once-broken ankle, the ligaments creaked and the tendons complained. We were both astonished at the folly of the moment, considering it could have easily resulted in a rush to the emergency room and an early flight back to New Jersey.
We turned a catastrophic moment into a bit of childish humor. Obi had crutches in the trunk and began walking with them. I had a flashback of the summer of 2005, which I had spent on crutches. During that time, not only had I gone on mile-long hikes on crutches during a trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I had also gone canoeing on the Ausable River as well. I was happy to be on my own two feet, and in no need of the crutches. I like to think that I could have walked the entire trail on crutches, had the need arose. At the moment, there was no stopping me. The butterflies had churned the contents of my stomach, and flown away. If there was one thing I knew I could do, it was walk, even thousands of miles. With that simple reassurance, I took the first steps.
In front of me, I saw the contrast of brightly colored boulders against the evergreen of the scrubby thorny hills. Power lines stretched across my immediate line of sight, with a few grayish clouds to the west. Otherwise, it was sunny, and a perfect day for a hike. I followed the slippery, rutted, bumpy hardened clay of the road, trying hard not to twist an ankle, get lost, or repeat any mistakes that would condemn my dream walk. In comparison to the first day of my trek of 942 miles with my older brother, Andrew, the current Day #1 was a cakewalk.
Fourteen years earlier, Andrew and I were similarly deposited at the foot of the monument to begin a hike of half of the Pacific Crest Trail. It was June, June 8 to be exact. It was obscenely hot. Southern California was in the midst of a drought. The place was crawling with rattlesnakes. Illegal border crossing activity into the US through Campo was especially high. And we had brought with us ice axes when temperatures were well above 100F. Our backpacks easily exceeded 60 pounds. My heavy leather boots weighed a staggering three pounds each. We were completely clueless. Andrew and I had left the monument at around 6:30PM, taken a wrong turn, lost the trail, and gotten lost. When we pitched the tent on that first evening, we had no idea where we were. An endless string of side trails had morphed into a labyrinth. It wasn’t until the next morning that we were able to figure out where we had gone wrong, and where we were. Of course, there was no rational explanation for getting lost so easily in the first place.
During the first mile, I was stalked by Obie, driving the Mercedes SUV. He found the spots where the dirt road crossed the trail and surprised me from behind the bushes and the shrubs with the video camera, and begin impromptu interviews. I pretended to be focused on the trail, but the roof of the SUV crept along the road just above the roadside shrubs at snail’s pace, my pace. Soon, even this ended. I was out there, solo, for real.
The first sign stated that “Lake Morena- 19.5 miles.” Having left at around 10:30 in the morning, I didn’t think I’d make Lake Morena on the first day. The way was sandy, but clear of obstacles, making for effortless walking. A green highway sign, probably stolen from somewhere else, marked the completion of the first mile. The message on the sign, written in black permanent marker, was more telling: ‘Only 2649 to go.” Bone-dry desert grasses and Yucca stalks, some ushering forth white flowers, grew along the rain-deprived surroundings.
After crossing Highway 94, the road that Obie and I had driven in on, another 6/10 of a mile led to a yellow circular sign with an “X”, warning hikers and those riding horseback of a railroad crossing. It was pockmarked with bullet holes. Next to it was a huge PCT marker, warning train conductors of the PCT crossing of the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railroad tracks. With a stiff wind blowing westbound, I trekked along on an elevated portion of trail that allowed me to see the over the border fence into Mexico every time I stopped to turn around.
Four miles into my hike, I saw my first little creek. I expected it to be dry. Instead it was flowing nicely with water which was most likely cattle polluted. Why had I decided to carry two and a half gallons of water? There was a creek which was flowing even more generously soon after, which made a good first lunch stop at which to enjoy a packet of pepperoni and crunchy croutons to excess. A little green hummingbird kept me company, attracted by radiant white trekking shirt, which was not yet fouled by trail dirt, grime, and sweat. After lunch, I had my first reminder that I was in rattlesnake country. Although I didn’t come eye-to-eye with the rattler, it made its presence obvious. Its fierce rattle reminded me that, under no uncertain terms was I to come any closer. I soon forgot about the rattler, splitting my attention between the surrounding landscapes and the trailside explosions of color; the bright yellows of poppies, and tangles of the orange hair-like filaments that appeared to be parasitizing other desert flora.
Five miles later, I crossed the first cattle gate, which had a jacket windbreaker resting on top of it, and an empty backpack, jeans, a button-down shirt and bright golden can of tuna below it. I had already had lunch, so I was not tempted to delve into the can of tuna. The clothes had most likely belonged to a person who had snuck across the border, not realizing that scorching daytime temperatures turned frigid at night in the desert.
The first 30 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail are a major transit corridor for people illegally crossing into the United States at Campo. The PCT provides a direct route north, with lots of hiding places and escape routes, making it easier to evade and avoid US Border Patrol agents.
I didn’t bump into any border crossers on the trail, but I did run into a pair of US Border Patrol agents. They were as surprised to see me as I was to see them, especially after I told them that I was on my way to Canada.
“It’s gonna be really cold tonight. You packing a piece?”
“Why not? It will protect you.”
“Well a gun won’t keep me warm,” I said, as I explained that I could not afford to carry a handgun and ammo. I had cut the handle off my toothbrush to save on weight, to reduce the weight of my pack.
I was willing to take a chance, knowing that it was entirely possible that I could find myself at knifepoint or gunpoint during the first couple of days. Hikers have been robbed, beaten, and left for dead in the past at the hands of drug or people smugglers utilizing the PCT corridor. Andrew and I had had an encounter with a group of border crossers in 1996 on the first full day of our trek. At about the same point that I met the Border Patrol agents this year, on the flanks of Hauser Mountain, Andrew and I noticed a group of people about a half a mile behind us, moving at a no-nonsense pace. It didn’t matter that we were overloaded with 60 or 70 pounds of gear and that they had nothing but gallons of water in hand, and nothing else to survive on or keep them warm at night. It didn’t matter that they had probably been walking for days and were probably half starving to death and that we were well supplied for days having set out the day before. We perceived ourselves as walking targets.
As I crossed an east-descending jeep road this year, I recalled the moment that they finally caught up to us. Andrew and I intentionally went the wrong way at the junction of the PCT and South Boundary Road 17S08 to allow them to pass ahead of us, hopefully without seeing us. We hid above the road on a sandy bank. Instead, they followed their route and came face-to-face with us. This group of torn and tattered Mexicans was more scared of us than we were of them, plain terrified. There was no violence, or threat of violence, as they walked past us. They were more like zombies, rendered lifeless by the stress of their journey and concrete reality of their comparatively more difficult lives. The drama of the moment left an emotional mark in my mind. Each thought the other was the aggressor, but neither was. I walked over to the spot where we had hidden, just to relive the moment. I imagined myself and Andrew, cowering behind the bushes and being found, a complete failure in the hide-and-seek sense.
It took some arm twisting to convince one of the US Border Patrol agents to pose in a picture with me. Before doing so, he removed his name tag, which was velcroed to his breast pocket. In the photo, he hid below the brim of his hat as I threw out a big toothy grin. I was sure they would rather the PCT not be there since it complicated their job of securing the border. What for me was a hike was for them miles of trail that they had to actively patrol, along which they might have to make arrests, get shot at, or have to shoot someone.
The shadows were already lengthening in the late afternoon sun as I crossed into Hauser Wilderness. I had climbed the flanks of Hauser Mountain and was now had to descend to Hauser Creek on a vintage section of PCT. A sign, written exclusively in Spanish, cautioned “Cuidado. No exponga su vida a los elementos. No vale la pena.” In other words, “Caution. Don’t expose yourself to the elements. It’s not worth it.” I zigzagged my way down, back and forth, down wall of the canyon into long and narrow Hauser Creek Canyon, through which flowed Hauser Creek. Across the canyon, to the west, lay Morena Butte, the most remarkable high spot in the area.
I was flooded with memories. Andrew and I camped at Hauser Creek in 1996. That day was rife with experiences; brain-boiling temperatures, the run-in with the border crossers, rattlesnakes, and the toil of overloaded backpacks. That day had been capped off with Andrew passing out cold as I was preparing a dinner of lentil stew. I was the designated fainter in the family but this time, for the first time in his life, he fainted. We were about five miles from the nearest help. I had to play medic. This was wilderness, specifically designated to remain wild and immune to human intrusion. All I could think of doing was slapping him on the cheeks and hoping he’d recover consciousness. He did, but before there was time to celebrate, he again lost consciousness. I slapped him on the cheeks several times. The physical battery seemed to revive him. This was an obvious case of heat exhaustion. Water was in short supply, as Hauser Creek was nothing but a series of manure cesspools. To complicate matters, the lining inside of our collapsible water bottles had leached into the water inside, making it taste like superheated battery acid. The lentil stew had to get tossed. He skipped dinner entirely.
A fire had come through the canyon in the ensuing fourteen years. I remembered an area more handsomely populated with trees. Although the water in Hauser Creek was not in short supply, it was reputedly severely cattle polluted. I didn’t need the water of the creek anyway. I still had six liters of the nine I had carried from the border.
I decided to find a spot above the creek, further up the trail, to reduce the possibility to someone crashing my first night of sleep. I found a little flat spot amid some boulders a half a mile up, right on the trail. The spot was nothing to write home about, but it was somewhat out of the wind, which had picked up without warning. I was too intoxicated by the rays of the sun, punching through the clouds, to consider that the dark, ominous gray clouds might result in some sort of rain. I had dreamed of spending the first night under the stars, without any tent or tarp. And just like that, in less than 24 hours, normal living became altogether foreign to me.
I woke up at 3AM with the awful realization that it was drizzling. The open area I had chosen was a magnet for the winds which were now swirling all around me. Or was it the pair of jet black helicopters drowning the Hauser Creek Valley just below with paranormal beams of floodlight and bloodcurdling chopper wash? I sat there in disbelief, trying to make sense of what was going on. Drizzle began to hit me from every direction. Was this really happening? Captain Hindsight would have said that there should have been a Plan B, just in case it began to rain. Rain? In the desert? Army helicopters shattering the night? Really? Where’s my damn bed?
I began to mentally circulate through my options. The darkness of the night mirrored my brain processing power at that moment. The spot was simply too small for me to pitch my rain fly. I tossed my sleeping bag into its waterproof bag, and then into my backpack with all the other loot. The spot was just bad news with the chaotic wind blowing every which way. I didn’t know where to go, but with all of those boulders around, I figured I could one to hide behind.
I began to follow the trail, walking uphill. The clouds were low-lying and the visibility was generally poor. My goal was to get in a more sheltered spot between boulders, which took about 15 minutes to find. On a greatly slanted hillside, I took out my emergency blanket, and crammed it and myself beneath the sprawling branches of a sage bush. I did my best to wrap myself into a human burrito. By this time, I was shivering. I tried to let my body heat reflect off the silvery side of the emergency blanket back onto me. This worked only so well, as it was cold outside, and I was wet. I dozed off a couple of times, but by 4AM, I was aching for the sun to come up. I dozed off several more times. By 5AM I gave up on the sun and got up on my feet. Walking, I realized, would be the easiest way to warm up without pitching my tent and taking out my sleeping bag.
THANKS FOR READING AND STAY TUNED FOR THE BOOK!
ind!e a.k.a. jerseyfresh