When I was planning this whole endeavor, there was only one aspect that really worried me. Not the Sierra Nevadas and their mountains of snow (which I’m currently in), not the bears, nor the plethora of maladies that plague hikers each year. All these things warrant concern, but worry was not what came to mind when they were being planned. The only thing that really gave me pause was the desert. I’ve never been a big fan of heat, no doubt a byproduct of growing up on the Oregon coast. I thought it’d be about a 50/50 chance of survival. If heat stroke didn’t do me in, a giant cactus probably would. Don’t watch where you’re going and you end up with 2 dozen thorns in your butt.
In actuality, the PCT crosses very little desert. There’s something like 12 miles of legitimate Mojave desert to cross, and the rest skirts around it. However, as far as I’m concerned, all of southern California is desert. All that nonsense near the border is slightly cooler desert. Head north and you find high alpine desert. Los Angeles is urban desert.
How or why anyone would live here is beyond me, but I suppose some would say the same of the place I call home. Water and shade are the two most sought after commodities and are usually in short supply. Even though this year was supposedly one of the wettest years in recent history, water often seemed in short supply. Stretches of 20 miles without water were not uncommon. I’d have hated to have hiked in a dry year.
The few living things that do manage to survive in these treacherous conditions have adapted by becoming equally inhospitable. Plants grow thorns to safeguard their water, lizards develop spikes and fangs to ward off predators, even the grass produces a seed that pierces any and all clothing as a means of proliferation.
Perhaps the greater concern of most venturing out here are rattlesnakes. There are about six different species of these pit vipers spread about the trail, only two of which I have managed to identify. Rattlesnakes are certainly dangerous and lethal, but are surrounded by a much worse stigma than they deserve. Of the six that I encountered, only one could be considered aggressive, as he rolled out from behind a bush onto the trail ready to strike at Honeybuzz if he came any closer. All the others simply rattled their tails once I came near and moved along after a moment. 80% of all rattlesnake bites occur with young males who are bitten on the hand. Being in their target demographic, I was always sure to walk with my arms upright above my head when walking through areas of thick bush where rattlers might be tempted by my delicious hand meat. Snakes can’t jump that high.
Yet for all the danger and desolation, there’s something alluring about this section of the trail. Perhaps it’s that it is among the most foreign and therefore exciting region to pass through. I’ve climbed mountains and I know forest quite well, but the arid desert is mostly a mystery to me. My limited experience with the desert of eastern Oregon proved to be quite dissimilar to what I found in southern California.
I had come under the presumption that virtually nothing could live in such barren conditions. What surprised me most was the wide range of flora that call the desert home. Little purple poms grow in stacks out of each other that look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book. Flowers are so small and delicate they look like wisps of brightly colored paper that should blow away in a stiff breeze. It’s a different kind of beauty than the grand majesty of the mountains. It’s hidden behind a shroud of dust and the glare of the sun, but it’s there if you’re looking for it.
The trees’ twisted fingers are engraved by wood boring worms and tattooed by fires long since extinguished. It takes on a moonscape quality at times, and on a couple of my night hikes I had to remind myself that I was still on Earth.
For the first couple hundred miles, the trail is in relatively close proximity to San Diego, and later Los Angeles. The sun never seemed to fully set for the first month on trail. After dusk passed the city lights would paint the western sky a dull orange that blotted out the stars. Planes drifted towards them all night like moths to a flame. California makes it hard to forget that you’re in California sometimes.
My biggest concern of desert travel turned out to be the sun. Not even so much the heat, which was my original fear, but preventing sunburn proved to be the primary motive of my days. In San Francisco I was kicking myself when I realized I had accidentally bought SPF 50 sunscreen, thinking that I would come out of the desert whiter than I began. After the first couple days I was kicking myself for not buying something stronger, like SPF three billion or a portable shade tent on wheels. Thankfully all the dust and dirt that caked on my legs acted as a natural sunblock, meaning only one application of sunscreen was necessary the first day out of town. In filth there is utility.
Though I’m happy to be out of the heat, sagebrush, 20 mile waterless stretches and that damned grass seed, it was amazing to experience and see how different it was to my presuppositions. Now I’m in the Sierra Nevadas where we’re high enough to skip a couple layers of ozone and the sun bounces off the snow and burns all your nether regions. Why hike naked day is planned to fall within this section is beyond me.