ITT – Intensive Trail Therapy: Flapjack Lakes

One of the most frustrating things about being diagnosed with a stress fracture in my lower leg has been the fact that it’s not that bad of an injury.  While painful for the first two weeks, to the point where I couldn’t walk or even raise and lower my foot, my leg has felt pretty healthy since mid-June for day-to-day, normal use.  Of course, the PCT is not normal use.

Given that my recovery was happening in Washington, I opeted to reverse course and head south from the Canadian border three weeks after my initial diagnosis.  I was excited to get back out to the trail, albeit under different conditions from where I left it, but the call of the hike was pulling me out there.  Unfortunately it was too soon.
The details of my three day hike up to Canada and back from Hart’s Pass in North Cascades National Park are for a later post, but the aftermath of the hike left me hobbled for another week, my lower leg still in pain though there had been none for a week prior, and now my feet, and knees aching from compensating for that pain.  I was a mess, and terribly defeated.  I returned to Olympia and my parent’s house lost and ready to give up entirely.  I had no idea how to get back to where I was before my disasterous week in the Sierras.

I still wanted to hike.  My three days in the Cascades had inspired me more than anywhere before to photograph the beauty out there, but my body wasn’t cooperating.  I needed a plan to get back.  I needed to find a way to be sure the pain wouldn’t derail me again.

A week later I was feeling good again, but was wary.  In the month I’d been off trail I’d seen several other hikers forced to leave from injury, including my friend Eric, one of the Warrior Hikers who I’d grown close to since leaving Campo.  Eric had hurt his knee coming into Tahoe, and had himself been forced to return to Olympia to recover at his house not two blocks from where I was staying with my parents.  People were dropping like flies off the trail, but I was determined not to be away for ever.  I needed to get back out.

It was Eric who introduced me to the term ITT, Intensive Trail Therapy.  Looking to heal as he hiked, Eric’s plan was to rest until he felt better then use the physicality of the trail to work himself back into hiking condition.  I liked the sound of it.

But first I needed to test myself physically, to determine whether my body could even stand up to the rigors of day hiking, let alone distance hiking.  My parents live an hour from Olympic National Park, one of my favorite places to hike, so I picked a trail not far from their house, a 15 mile out and back hike up to Flapjack Lakes, off the Staircase section of the Olympics, an area I’ve become very familiar with over the years, and a longtime nemesis of mine.
In 2012 I attempted my first distance hike up the North Fork Skokomish Trail, and was soundly beaten by the mountain on the way up.  I’d made it 18 miles into the trail when I gave up and turned around, and was so exhausted and beaten up by the experience I hardly moved for two days after.  The reasons for turning back: too much weight, snow, and pain in my knees.  These seem to be recurring problems for me.
Flapjack Lakes had long been on my list of destinations, though I’d always thought of it as an overnight hike.  Though only 7.5 miles from trailhead to lake, the Olympics have a way of exaggerating distances, whether through poorly maintained trails, high elevation gains, or weather, 10 miles seems like 20 in those mountains.  My choice of this 15 mile trail, however, was based on my confidence, or hubris, that that distance had been my minimum on the PCT, and I was hiking during the height of summer in Washington, when the weather was warm, the days long, and the trails abundant with berries (a deciding factor for me, for sure).
I set out at 11:30 from the Staircase ranger station, along the mostly level trail for about 3.5 miles til I reached the junction to the flapjack trailhead.  I felt good, strong, fast.  I passed day hikers and blew past them, and felt no small amount of pride at being a stronger hiker than when I’d hiked this section in the past.  The fact that these other hikers were old women and small children meant nothing to me, I was a strong hiker, damn it!

It took me an hour and a half to reach the junction, well ahead of my PCT pace, but I had no weight on my back beyond my tripod and camera, so I didn’t read too much into it.  I turned up the hill, and was immediately confronted by the Olympics I knew and loved.  The trail climbed up several hundred feet right off the bat, up long switchbacks that drained my enthusiasm quickly.  Combined with the increasingly rocky, root-strewn nature of the trail, and I was starting to question my decision to hike up to the lakes, still some 4 miles away.

Thankfully the trail leveled out for a time, but not for long, and soon I found myself climbing one of the worst sections of trail I’d ever attempted.  To call some parts of it a trail would be generous, as I clambored over rocks and roots, and generally hated my life.  Oh there were highlights, a bridge crossing Madeline Creek, bumblebees on lupines, a waterfall that I spent far too much time (nearly an hour) shooting pictures of, but the trail was pounding my legs, and I still hadn’t reached the difficult section of the trail.

After the water the trail rose precipitously, in some sections seeming to shoot almost straight up the mountainside.  I rolled my ankles and twisted my knees, and just when I thought I’d overdone it…the trail leveled out and I was rewarded with the most glorious possible reward.  Huge salmon berries, the size of my thumb and subtly sweet on my tongue, lined the trail, and I gorged myself on all I could find.  They were delicious, and though I was sore, and tired, I felt buoyed, pushed to get up to the lakes which couldn’t be far away.

Sure enough, I reached the twin bodies of the Flapjack Lakes around 4:30, after another half mile from the berry patch, and was rewarded with an amazing view of the Gladys Divide, a craggy mountain spur along the southeast section of the Olympics, and took pictures along the lakes edge while eating mountain huckleberries straight off the bush.  It was peaceful and very rewarding.

I left the lakes at 5:30 and started my descent, and was pounded by the impact of my feet down the trail.  Everything ached and hurt, my feet felt ruined, my knees like jello, and my muscles were tight and burning, and I was regretting my life.

I pushed on, though, the thought of a burger pushing me onward.  All I wanted was to get to my car and to find somewhere where I could find a greasy, delicious burger and a milkshake to fill my belly.  It’s the simple motivations that often work best.

By the time I reached the North Fork Trail, I was exhausted, and it took me another two hours to reach my car, seemingly far longer than it had taken to get up just eight hours earlier.  I passed two hikers on their way to the lakes as I descended, and felt sorry for the poor bastards and their 50+ pound backpacks.  I tried to warn them about what they were getting into, but they didn’t listen.  Such foolish pride…
I reached my car and collapsed in the driver’s seat, taking off my boots and stretching my aching feet.  I was not ready for the PCT yet, my body was still not cooperating, but I figured out some important things about the causes for my pain.  My boots, heavy waterproof Merrell’s, duplicates of the ones that had carried me from Campo to Kennedy Meadows, had so little cushioning that impacts (like those that had caused my stress fracture in the first place), sent shocks of pain straight into my legs.  Also, my lower leg was perhaps the only thing that didn’t hurt, a signal that maybe the stress fracture had healed in the week since I’d retreated from the North Cascades.
As I drove back and pulled into Five Guys for a well-deserved burger (with everything, naturally, and cajun fries), I knew I wasn’t ready, but found myself encouraged that maybe, just maybe, I could make adjustments to get me back on the trail in the not too distant future.

Day 18

For once I woke with the dawn and was out of camp by 7, a great victory for me, though I was nevertheless still passed by a few hikers, including the sisters from Portland, who said hi as they hiked passed me.  I put on my pack and soldiered on after them, happy that, with less food, the weight on my shoulders was finally somewhat manageable.  Smeagol, cold and barely moving, lay snug in his bed of toilet paper high in my pack, I feared he wouldn’t make it, but if I could get him to my dad that evening, there was a chance.  I had to get to Big Bear that evening.

Bee on a Yucca
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In Flight
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Yucca Pollination
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The sun crested the eastern edge of the canyon quicker than I would’ve liked, and the heat of it was beating down on me already.  My calves and arms had been heavily burned from the previous two days of desert hiking, and I had an open, blistered sore on my right hand, where the skin had peeled then been burned anew.  It hurt, and looked terrible, so at my first stop, the true last crossing of Mission Creek, I filled my water and wrapped my hand with a gauss bandage, looking like I’d taken a grievous wound.  A few other hikers had camped alongside the creek here, including Nails and Butt Plug, and they all commented on my injury, worried that I’d severely hurt myself.  I shrugged it off, but secretly entertained the idea of playing it up to make myself seem cooler.  It was sad, and I wasn’t proud of myself.

Once I’d filled my water, and downed a liter for good measure, I started uphill along what to that point had been the toughest incline of the trail, a 4 mile, 4000+ foot climb to the high ridge leading to Big Bear.

As I left the creek I encountered several stands of Poodle Dog Bush, a notorious and dangerous plant that was all the buzz on the trail up to that point.  Several hikers I’d talked to were worried about the plant, with rumors and stories of its extreme toxicity bolstering everyone’s fears and feeding them to a ridiculous level.  I’d heard stories of whole hands and arms blistered and ruined by a single glancing touch of the plant, of its similarity to poison oak, though more extreme by a measure of exponential degrees.  There were a few hikers who shrugged it off as nothing, I was not one of them.  I danced around every shaggy, smelly bush I came across.  There is a sickly sweet scent to Poodle Dog, distinct and pungent, and the first mile of the up climb was absolutely thick with the stuff.

My legs burned from the exertion of the uphill, but I took the Belgians words to heart and told myself that the mountain was only that from the bottom.  I made concerted pushes, eyeing upcoming ridges and forcing myself to reach them before stopping for a breather.  Along the way I was passed by Speedy, who I’d not seen since Paradise Valley Cafe, and chatted with him for a time.  His knees were sore, he said, and he was planning on a light day, which for him was still close to 20 miles, further than I’d hiked yet to that point.  He left me in his wake, hurt knees and all, and I soldiered on, huffing and puffing and forcing myself up and up, my quadriceps and calves burning, my shoulders and back aching.

The desert canyon transitioned out of the scrubby sagebrush and junipers to gnarly oaks, the twisted trees offering blessed shade from the pounding heat of the morning.  As I climbed, I felt like I was slowly leaving the desert behind, and it spurred me on.  I was ready for the change of scenery, longed for it, and as the pine covered ridge ahead loomed ever closer, I felt buoyed onward, forward, ever upward.

The climb seemed interminable.  I stopped for breakfast under a large oak, the shade welcome, the breeze coming off the mountain cool.  I pulled Smeagol from my pack and looked at him, he was barely alive, it was looking dire for the little guy.  I gave him a little more cheese, and put him back in my pack, hoping that he’d be able to at least suck a little sustenance from the morsel.  He needed milk, I knew, but I had none, and it was the best I could do.

Some two miles into the climb I hit the last spring for the next twelve miles, and filled my bottles, watching my steripen die as I finished sterilizing the water.  There would be no more filtering of water for me before Big Bear, increasing my need to make it there that evening.  I had to reach a road and signal my parents, who were arriving that evening, to come and pick me up, for my sake now as well as my little hitchhiker’s.

Everything was hurting as I crested each successive uphill push, only to see more and more up ahead of me.  The ridgeline was blessedly closer, but seemed so much higher than where I stood.  I checked the elevation chart frequently, and saw myself progressing, albeit slowly, but it didn’t make the climb any less daunting.

Lone Sentinel
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I passed through a wide burn area, and then the oaks transitioned into pine forest, the smells of the trees, the carpet of needles and cones on the ground, the cool air of elevation, all signaling the impending conclusion to the accursed climb.  My calves and hips ached mercilessly, each step was laborious, painful, exhausting.

I reached Mission Flats campground around noon, and collapsed in a heap under the pines.  Speedy was there, had been for an hour or more, similarly resting and eating his lunch.  There was supposedly water nearby, but I still had several liters, and no way of sterilizing it, so I contented myself with a few trail bars and pleasant conversation.  Speedy was hurting, and debating staying at Mission Flats, but I offered him a ride into town if he could push on ten more miles, to the spot I’d arranged for my own pick up.  He was thankful and we agreed to meet up in ten miles so that we could both get a ride into Big Bear.  I was glad to help.

We both left, Speedy quickly overtaking me despite me leaving before him, and I pushed along the now fairly even trail, lined by pine trees and huge boulders, and it seemed I’d stepped into a place completely different from the one I’d started that morning.  Gorgonio loomed over it all, it’s snowy pinnacle poking through the trees around each bend, behind me now, but ever present, the looming reminder of my hike with Susan now just two days away.  Beautiful vistaend, edees greeted me at each turn, San Jacinto and Palm Desert stretching out in the distance to the south, Joshua Tree National Park and Thousand Palms off to the east, and to the north, the rolling San Bernardino Mountains, covered with trees and blocking from sight the town and eponymous lake of Big Bear.

Still Standing
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Along the way, I ran into Nails and Butt Plug and several other hikers, taking a break beneath a large pine, eating and joking.  As I rounded the bend they stopped me and asked me, out of nowhere, where the most interesting place I’d had sex.  I was not expecting the question, but I answered as well as I could in the moment, though my answer, on a picnic table in my favorite national park, paled in comparison to others, including a gas station bathroom, on top of a fast food restaurant, and several other decidedly seedy, unappealing propositions.  It was funny though, and the topics of conversation flew quickly.  I offered my most unfortunate encounter, one involving poison oak in places poison oak should not be, and was quickly beaten there too.  I left the conversation feeling decidedly unadventurous sexually, and wondered if I was too much a prude for my own good.  Of course I hadn’t been completely honest and open, and had held back some important and racier details, so I decided maybe I wasn’t as saintly as I feared.  All in all, it was funny, and one of the better interludes I’ve had on the trail.

The trail rose and fell, but mainly stayed level the rest of the way to the road where I would meet my parents.  There was a minimal uphill, and corresponding downhill, right before the road, but I was making good time, and hit the road around 6:30, with half an hour to spare before my ride was to get there.  Speedy was there, laying on the side of the road, and greeted me as I arrived.  I left my pack near where he lay and decided to wander up and around the “private zoo” just off the trail.

I’d seen the marker on the map for the zoo, and my trail guide promised a chance to see lions, tigers, and bears, and I thought “Oh my…”  I walked up to the animal cages and bore witness to the single most depressing thing on the trail, either before or since.  The “zoo” was a circular enclosure, surrounded by high fences, with several small cages, though small is a generous term in this instance.  There were bears, two large, sad looking grizzlies, who barely moved as I approached, and at least two lions, who seemed to be sleeping.  I circled the enclosure, taking pictures and thinking of ways that I could save the poor creatures from their imprisonment.  When I reached the far side, a large tiger stood watching me from his cage.  He was active, pacing back and forth in a cage barely large enough to allow him three steps in any direction, and watched me expectantly, as if I offered him something.  I took a picture of him, and said goodbye, before walking back to the road.  It was depressing, and part of me wished I hadn’t gone to see them in the first place.

Sad Tiger
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When my parents arrived, Speedy and I loaded in, and my parents cracked the windows.  We both smelled like hikers, that is to say, bad, but it was good to see my family again, and as we drove to Big Bear, I handed Smeagol over to my dad, who took him out, identified him as a her, and a pocket mouse, and then held her the whole drive in.  She was alive, though barely, and in good hands finally. I’d done my job.

Days 15 and 16

Following our unfortunate and aborted attempt to summit San Jacinto the day before, Susan and I took the following morning to relax and enjoy ourselves, eating continental breakfast and laying in the hotel room, talking and enjoying each other’s company.  It felt good, it felt peaceful, it made me not want to return to the trail that afternoon.

We went to the store, and I bought my resupply for the coming hike to Big Bear.  I was due to meet my parents in three days near Big Bear Lake, where they were coming to spend time with me on the trail and get a taste of acting as trail angels.  I was looking forward to seeing them, but more importantly, I was eager to get into the mountains and away from the impending heat that was due to hit the Palm Desert in a few days time.

The storm from the previous day had passed almost without evidence, though the slopes of San Jacinto above Palm Springs were noticeably whiter than I’d seen them last.  A few clouds remained high above Gorgonio Pass and Cabazon, but largely the sky was clear and the wind blew clean.  We stopped for date shakes and In n Out burgers in Cabazon, I shuffled through my pack and figured out my resupply (I bought far more food than needed), and we picnicked underneath the infamous plaster dinosaurs alongside the freeway.

When it came time for me to return to the trail, and for Susan to return to LA, she drove me to the trail, and we said goodbye.  It was hard to do, even knowing we would see each other the following weekend for another summit attempt, this one up Mt. San Gorgonio, but I still had a difficult time as we hugged each other and she drove away.

Alone again on the trail, I walked the mile up to Ziggy and the Bear’s, a trail angel house that offered a place for weary hikers to stay before heading to Big Bear.  My pack, heavy with far too much food, pulled at my shoulders, and though I debated pushing further past the house, the chance for a nice place to stay proved too alluring.

Their house stands a short distance from the trail, the American flag whipping above their yard and PCT emblem on their backyard gate beckoning hikers to join them.  When I entered I saw a dozen other hikers already there, and introduced myself to Ziggy, who asked me to wash my hands and then join her at the picnic table on the back patio.  Once I’d done so, she gave me a gatorade and set to outlining the rules of staying at her house.  It was very orderly, unexpectedly so, but I appreciated it, even admired it.  Given the sheer number of hikers each year that came to camp in their yard, I was certain that so many rules were necessary to keep the house intact, and to enable Ziggy and the Bear to continue helping hikers down the line.

San Jacinto
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Once I’d finished talking to Ziggy, I saw Rain Man, Dundee and Narwhal, and said hi to them.  They’d been caught in the storm the night before, and had horror stories to tell of hiding under rocks to get away from the rain, losing the trail, and dodging blocks of ice falling from overburdened tree limbs above.  They told me of the sisters from Portland, Rebecca and Marisa, who had, soaked to the bone and freezing, called search and rescue and spent the night in the nearby fire station.  There was talk of hikers lost on the mountain, day hikers, we were all told, not PCT hikers.  The sheriff even came by to ask us whether we’d seen one of them.  It was scary, and I was more and more certain, the more I heard, that Susan and I had made the right choice the night before.

I set up my sleeping bag and fell asleep under the stars, eager to get back on the trail in the morning, hopeful to get out early enough to avoid the heat of the day.

I had no such luck.  Though I was up and packed early, I loitered at Ziggy and the Bear’s for close to an hour, chatting with people and thanking my hosts.  I ate an apple for breakfast, and drank orange juice, one of my chief cravings on the trail to that point, before setting out around 7:30 toward the Mesa Wind Farm.

This was one of the highlights of the trip going into it for me, a location I’d starred long before stepping foot on the trail.  Back in 2009, I shot my graduate thesis film under those very same windmills, and had often come back to them for photography purposes in the years since, not knowing that the PCT cut a path right through them.  It was an important place to me, but as I walked through them that morning, all I could think about was how hot it was, and how heavy my pack was.

I had packed too much food, I knew this, and as the elevation increased, and my will to continue decreased, I had to stop.  I crawled underneath a small bush and opened my pack, disgorging it of all my food.  I had set out with the intention of doing no-cook meals for the 3-4 days it would take me to reach Big Bear, both due to the presumed lack of water through this section, and the fact that my resupply box never made it to Idyllwild.  No-cook, I was finding, was significantly heavier than the dehydrated meals I’d been carrying to that point, with tortillas and cheese alone weighing over 2 lbs, and the homemade applesauce (raspberry honey, so tasty) that Susan had brought me probably weighed that much alone.  I’d doubled up on meals, I carried enough instant potatoes to feed me for a week, and snacks and candy that would last me close to two.  I’d overpacked, and I was now paying the price for it.

And so, sitting in the modicum of shade provided by the small juniper, I set to thinning out my load.  I ate a quart of applesauce, probably not the best idea, and half a pint of peanut butter.  I ate two Clif bars and an Epic Bar.  I shoveled trail mix into my mouth and when I couldn’t eat anymore, I put the rest of my food away and downed a half-liter of water.  All told I cut down about 3 lbs from my pack, but I didn’t feel at all good about my methods.

Out of the Wind Farm
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As I tackled the next uphill, a thousand foot slope that felt like 4,000, I felt the fullness of my stomach, the nausea from overeating, the still significant weight pressing down on my shoulders, and the oppressive heat from the late-morning sun, all wearing me down.  When I reached the top, out of breath and exhausted, I realized, with immense sadness, that I’d only gone 3 miles to that point.  It was sad, no, it was depressing.  How was I going to make it to Big Bear?

Desert Hills
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I pushed on, thankful for a downhill slope that lightened the strain on my aching knees and back.  The trail meandered through golden brown slopes and through a craggy ravine to the Whitewater River, and thankfully, to a flat stretch of trail that, though devoid of shade, at least enabled me to walk at an easy pace.  I stopped a few times, hoping to get another 5-6 miles in, but taking every opportunity for shade the meager foliage along the river offered.  I was hot, tired, beat up, and generally over the experience.

To Whitewater
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I reached the crossing of the Whitewater and took off my boots, plunging them into the cold water, vestiges of the minimal winter snowmelt, and leaned back against my pack.  The water was soothing, calming, and my feet were thankful for the reprieve from the hot sand and rocks of the trail up to that point.  As I sat there, I met a German couple, section hiking for the second year in a row, intending to hike the trail for a month at a time until they finished.  We chatted and soon another hiker, KC, joined us, taking the opportunity to soak her own feet before making camp.  We chatted about the trail, about our reasons for being out there, our pasts and the cougar prints I’d found not five feet from where we sat.  It was lovely.

Whitewater River
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Amidst the cool water, the good company, and the sinking sun, I decided to stop for the day, after only ten miles of hiking, and set up my sleeping bag for my first night of cowboy camping on the trail.  I gathered wood and built a large fire, and we all sat by it talking until it got too dark.  We turned in, the Germans to their tent, KC and I to our bags under the stars, and I fell asleep, once again thankful to be out on the trail.

Day 7

I have discovered an amazing meal, and I’m not sure how it took me so long to devise it.  A squeeze packet of applesauce poured in a peanut butter jar, sprinkled with chia seeds and graham cracker crumbles.  It is special, well and truly, and it is my lunch of choice since discovering it on the afternoon of Day 7.  But I digress…

As has become my pattern on the trail, I woke up at 4:30 am, wide awake, staring up at the milky way above.  I’ve always had a fondness for the darkness of out of the way places, and most of my campsites along the trail have certainly qualified.  The stars are amazing at night, truly breathtaking, and one of my major regrets is that I’ve been too tired from hiking all day to fully take photographic advantage of them.  Perhaps as I grow more used to life on the trail I’ll be able to accommodate a few late night photography sections.  I hope so.

I went back to sleep, waking at 6:30 and giving my girlfriend a call as she walked the dog and got ready for work.  Work has been tough on her and I could hear the weariness in her voice, the stress and sadness.  It makes it difficult for me to be out here knowing she’s struggling back at home, all I want to do is hold her and help her make things better, but I know we’re working out our own paths right now, and in the long run we’ll be stronger for it.  Still, the caretaker in me finds it difficult not to want to be there.

No Trace and Unbreakable passed me while I lay in my tent, already four miles into their day while I talked on the phone.  It still upsets me somewhat that I’m not an earlier hiker, there are many advantages to doing so that I should be allowing myself to partake in, cooler morning weather in the desert, less direct sunlight, finishing my day earlier, but I haven’t worked it out yet, though I’m sure I will.

By the time I got on the trail around 8, it was still cool, and I made good time hiking the two miles from my camp to the fire tank at the Rodriguez Spur road at mile 68.  As I hiked I met Bill and Jennifer, a couple from Ashland, Oregon hiking in support of the PCTA, and the constant revitalization and repair efforts being done by trail workers and volunteers all along the trail’s length.  They had an easy pace, and we walked and talked amiably, about the cacti and animal life we saw, about our lives back home, about their reasons for doing the trail.  It was the first time I’d hiked with another set of hikers and had such a relaxed walk, and I definitely appreciated the conversation.

The Rodriguez Spur fire tank was yet another communal gathering spot for hikers along the trail.  Rumors had been flying for the past two days that it was the last water on the trail for the next 32 miles, and everybody was worried at the prospect, myself included.  Remembering the lack of water on my second day, and how dehydrated I got just in that 16 mile section, the prospect of 32 hot, waterless miles through the Anza Borrego desert had me petrified.

I filled my water at the tank, purifying it as I collected, and loaded up all 8 liters into my pack.  The weight of it, nearly 17 lbs of extra weight in my already heavy pack, brought back memories of the time before Mt. Laguna, unpleasant memories I was not happy to be reliving.  Still, the majority of the day’s hike would be downhill, so I thought it would be a little easier at least.

The heat of the day caught up to me around 1:00pm, the cloudless sky blasting me with intense sunlight on the mostly shadeless downslope into the Anza Borrego.  I took a two hour break under the branches of a small tree, eating lunch and calling my family and girlfriend, and generally not exerting myself.

The whole way down I saw Scissor’s Crossing, the intersection of Highway 78 and the Great Overland Stage Route at mile 77, and even watched as I seemed to walk past it, away from it.  The trail was designed by idiots, I told myself.  Why not cut straight across the desert from where I stood to the intersection and save 4 hot, merciless miles?  There was no logic to it.  It was a lesson in inefficiency.

I reached the bottom of the hill as the sun started to sit low on the western horizon.  Sunsets in the Anza Borrego are magical times, the two or three hours before the sun finally dips below the mountains casting an ethereal golden light across the whole of the desert, causing cholla and barrel cactuses to glow as if rimmed by halos.  It’s always been one of my favorite times to photograph the desert, and this particular sunset did not disappoint.

I continued on, meeting a Vietnamese hiker named Half Slope that was doing a reverse hike for the first two weeks, starting in Warner Springs some 35 miles to the north, and hiking south to the Mexican border for the Kickoff celebration in a week’s time.  He carried his pack not on his back, but on a small wheeled cart behind him.  As impractical as it looked, I was jealous, still feeling the weight of the 7 remaining liters of water on my own back.  We chatted for a time, and he told me of the water situation ahead of me.  A cache had been left at Scissor’s Crossing, he said, and another at mile 91, enough water for everyone and then some.  I would be fine, I didn’t need all the water I was carrying, according to him.

I frowned and moved on, stumbling through the flat trail like a staggering drunk.  I passed a sign as I approached the crossing with the number of a trail angel named Misty, who was offering rides to the town of Julian (where there were amazing pies and milkshakes to be had) or the equally appealing Stagecoach RV Resort in the opposite direction, which advertised swimming pools, electricity, ice cream, and beer.  The temptations were almost too much to bear, but I declined, and moved on.  At a small cooler left by Misty, I applied some aloe lotion to my blistering sunburns, and then turned down Misty herself as she drove by.  I thanked her for the lotion, but could not accept the ride.  I was foolishly determined to climb the next set of mountains before me that night, to escape the heat and set me up to reach mile 91 in the morning.

At the crossing I saw about a dozen other hikers, including Bill and Jennifer, all camped out for the night and looking comfortable, at ease with the dozens of gallons of water left by some enterprising trail angel there.  I waved but moved on.  I would not be tempted.

I climbed out of the desert and up the switchbacks to a spot where I could sit and watch the sunset from a high vantage point and made dinner.  I ate and rested my feet, and when the sun had gone down, continued onward and upward.  At mile 80 I finally stopped, a hot, miserable day behind me, a nice cool night in a small box canyon immediately ahead of me, and just 29 miles to Warner Springs, and my next resupply.  It was all going according to plan…