PCT Day 14 : Off The Mountain, Into The Desert

April 7 (~07:30 – ~18:00)
After Black Mountain Rd – before Mesa Wind Farm (20.4 mi / Total: 211.6 mi)
Weather: Cold when I start in the snow, but it quickly warms up as I get to lower elevation. It’s burning hot once I hit the switchbacks.

I wake up rested, with a steep slope of snow behind me and a view over the stretched out city planes ahead of me. Black Water has already gone. He cowboy camped last night and woke up early to hitch into Cabazon to get some extra food. Speedy and I both have enough to get us to Big Bear and I’m in no rush to get anywhere today. I take my time to get ready, and watch Speedy head off before me. After two days of trudging through the snow and being cold and wet, I’m excited to finally get to lower elevation, and out of the snow.

When I finally set off I walk through a couple of snow patches but then they clear, and it’s officially the end of the snow. I feel so much freedom and all my attention gets immediately drawn to the views over the desert valley ahead. The expanses are widespread, and the mountains in the distance are green. I take lots of pictures until I turn around the corner and find myself meandering down the mountainside into a beautiful forest.

The trail down is an absolute dream. As I follow the path through all the trees and intermittent sun and shade, I regard the mountains to my side and I feel like I’m looking out over picturesque ski slopes in the alps. The snow of the past few days is suddenly so far behind me. Finally it’s warm. I bathe in sunshine and the sound of birds. I feel so calm again. I do away with my microspikes and my gloves, but keep my poles for a little longer to help support my ankle.

When the trees disappear, I find myself on a mountainside, with a long trail leading all the way down to the valley. The landscape here is different. Suddenly everything is desaturated, lilac and grey. It is exposed and brutally hot. There are lots of switchbacks to get down from our high elevation but I’m actually quite enjoying the elongated easy ride, after the slow progress in the snow.

There are a few surprises. A noise in the bushes close to me turns out to be my first deer sighting, and I spot some snakes that I carefully try to skirt around. Although the first water source after my campsite is ten miles ahead, I find a surprise stream earlier on, a slight flow with a distinct light blue milky colour to it. I wonder if it’s safe to drink, but I figure it all comes from the mountain – it’s not as though there’s a laundromat next door. So I try it. I fill up a bottle and drink through the filter and it tastes great. I feel like this day is working out for me.

When I get to the annotated water source I fill up again. I hoped to sit down for lunch but there’s no shade, so I keep going after a quick break. I decide to aim for the faucet at the bottom of the mountain to eat some food, and continue on my way. I’ve spent most of the day zigzagging down the same mountainside and it’s not until three miles before the bottom that I feel the switchbacks are getting rather excessive. They are so spaced out with such little decrease that I could’ve been in Big Bear if it hadn’t been for them – this area sure enjoys its switchbacks.

When I reach the valley floor I am overwhelmed by heat. I sit down in the limited shade of the one rock next to the faucet, and wash the salt off my face and arms and legs. I eat lunch, and collect the water I’ll need for the next stretch and tonight’s camp. There won’t be any guaranteed water until tomorrow morning, when I’ll pass the Mesa Wind Farm that stocks water for hikers. I’ve walked fifteen miles so far and it’s another seven to the wind farm. I wonder if I can make it all the way. I think about it – what if I cowboy camp for the first time, and do it on their doorstep?

When I continue the air burns. I can feel my ears prickling by the touch of the sun so I wet my towel and put in under my cap, to protect my ears. They are already sunburnt, although my hands look even worse – the sun rash is only swelling more, the longer I stay in the heat. I’ve had this before and it always went away, but it’s a lot more persistent this time, and it quite painful. I think I might need to look into sun gloves.

The trail follows several dirt roads until it meanders over the valley floor, through a nomansland towards a defunct underpass below Interstate 10. It’s so hot I hardly take note of all the yellow wildflowers, and I feel like a survivor from the Sahara desert by the time I reach the Interstate. I find a bunch of hikers there, who are sitting on chairs with an old trail angel called Copper Tone, and they are talking gear to a hiker with an oversized pack just as I approach, and Copper Tone points at my backpack and tells the guy, ‘That’s what your pack should look like’.

I sit down in the grass behind the other just to catch my breath for a moment, dazed by the heat and the sun. I’m too out of it to chat to the people there, but there is water and snacks and Copper Tone hands me a small orange to eat, and I fill up on a little more water before I head off again.

The trail on the other side of the Interstate skirts around a small community and it doesn’t take long before I find Speedy and Black Water camped a few miles from the farm. No cowboy camping for me today! We chat until it begins to get dark, and I set up my tent next to another water source, Cottonwood Canyon Wash which is surprisingly flowing.

I think of how I started out that morning, cold and surrounded by snow, the long days of sidling snow covered mountain tops fresh in the back of my mind, only to descend into the desert heat in one day. This trail has already shown a lot more character than I thought it would.

2 thoughts on “PCT Day 14 : Off The Mountain, Into The Desert

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