Day 17 – the Taming of Smeagol

I woke up with a start in my sleeping bag alongside the whitewater river, the sounds of other hikers leaving pulling me awake.  The Germans were packing up their tent, but KC was crossing the river and waving goodbye as I rose, the sun already cresting the hills to the east.  I had hoped to beat the heat of the day up over the next series of up hills before my descent into Mission Creek, but I’d failed miserably.

Still, when I’d finally packed up and filled my water bottles, I was not too far behind the crowd, and still ahead of the major heat for a time, so I made good progress.  I crossed the river and made may way through the gravelly wash to a small ridge, which I climbed relatively quickly, despite the still significant weight on my back.  As I crested the rise I got my first clear look at Mt. San Gorgonio, the tallest mountain in Southern California and the target of my next adventure with Susan the following weekend.  There was a scattering of snow on its rocky summit, and it didn’t look too imposing, though it towered over the surrounding mountains, but I knew it would be a beast to climb, but that was still four days away, I had to get to Big Bear first.

Whitewater Wash
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I descended from the ridge, enjoying the downhill, and was watching the trail when I almost stepped on a baby mouse, it’s eyes closed and gait wobbly.  It was clearly helpless, driven from its burrow by some disturbance, and was sure to die either from the heat of the upcoming afternoon, or by the jaws of some passing snake.  I dropped my pack and pulled out the plastic tub I’d eaten the applesauce out of the day before, and scooped the little guy up.  It’s eyes were closed, and it was too skinny, but I hoped, if it could survive the next few days, I could bring it to my Dad, who had a long history of caring for animals, particularly mice and rats, through his career as a behavioral researcher.  I pored a little water in the tub, and some gravel for it to feel comfortable, and tucked the little guy away in the safety of my pack, where I hoped he’d be sheltered and protected from the heat and jostling the upcoming hike would undoubtedly bring.

Smeagol on the Trail
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I felt proud of myself, though I knew it was a long shot to get him to survive.  At my next stop, a mile or so in, I sat beneath a juniper and ate breakfast, tossing in a bit of cheese for my little hitchhiker and even showing him off to The Portland Sisters, who passed me as I ate and played with the little guy.  We chatted about their ordeal on the mountain, of which they seemed slightly and understandably embarrassed, and my little friend, who I had named Smeagol, because he looked like the character from Lord of the Rings.  They continued on, and I packed up my breakfast and followed a short time later.
Gorgonio Looms
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The trail led up another ridge, which offered beautiful views of San Gorgonio and San Jacinto, and even Palm Springs in the distance.  I took several photos, of course, and found cell service at the top, a welcome chance for me to check in with my family and look at the upcoming weather.  The temperatures were due to rise drastically over the next few days, and I was glad I would be in the mountains before the desert heat rose over 100 degrees.  I pushed down the other side of the ridge, into what promised to be a rare luxury on the trail to that point, a twelve mile stretch with regular flowing water.  I was beyond excited at the prospect.

Twin Summits
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I hit Mission creek and took a break under the welcome shade of an overhanging cottonwood, possibly my favorite tree, because of the life sustaining water it invariably represents nearby.  The creek was small, barely a trickle at some points, but it was clear and cool, and part of me wanted nothing more then to sit with my feet in the water and let the day pass me by.  I was passed by several hikers, most who I’d run into before, including The Engineer, Nails, whose name came from her multiple lost toenails, and Butt Plug, who got his name from an unfortunate case of constipation some days prior, and was dealing with some other unfortunate and uncomfortable issues that had him considering the name Butt Trouble.  I showed them little Smeagol and we chatted, and as soon as they moved on to find a shady spot of their own, I pushed on, knowing that I’d never make it to Big Bear if I didn’t keep walking.
The trail wound along the creek for a several miles, occasionally climbing above it to show off the winding green snake of its riparian, tree lined banks, often dipping down along and sometimes in the creek itself.  It was easy to lose the trail at several points, and the rocks and mud made it slow going, as I slipped and tripped my way up the increasingly narrow creek bed.
The creek itself was vibrant and welcoming, and the narrows of the canyon u walked through was beautiful, white sandstone rising above the willow and cottonwood lined creek bed in gnarled and craggy outcroppings, the mountains in the distance towering over it all with their piney crests.  I kept ascending, but it felt an easy, if time consuming, walk.
Bend in Mission Creek
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I passed a trail crew as the afternoon grew long, and stopped and chatted with them, thanking them for their hard work to clear and maintain the trail.  I’d come to appreciate the efforts of the PCT trail crews to that point, from the experience on San Jacinto, where the side trail had been rocky and hard to make out in comparison to the easy to follow PCT, and my knowledge of other trails in Southern California, few of which I would consider to be immaculately maintained.  The hard work of the volunteers that help keep the PCT such a lovely and easy trail to follow should be commended, and I was happy to have the chance to thank these few in person.

Afternoon Light on Apricot Mallow
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The sun began to sink below the mountains to the west as I pushed further upstream.  I took a break and checked on Smeagol, and found him cold, wet, and lacking in energy.  I took him out and cleaned his tub in the creek, before building a nest of toilet paper for him and tucking him in.  I hoped he would at least be warm and dry in the coolness of the upcoming night, though I was starting to have my doubts.

Prickly Pear in the Canyon
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I pushed on, filling up my water bottles at what I was told by another hiker to be the last crossing of the creek (it wasn’t), and kept walking until it got too dark to see where I was going.  I set up camp in a small wash, and put smeagols tub in a nest of my dry clothes inside my tent.  I went to sleep with the moon shining brightly through the fly of my tent, apprehensive about the impending climb the morning would bring, as I ascended over 4000 ft over the next four miles to the ridge line that would take me to Big Bear.

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