I wake up per usual to the sounds of campmates stirring. It’s Gusher’s birthday today, so A-GAME brought party hats for the two of them and gives Mark and I miniature cocktail umbrellas. I pack up and stay to listen as A-GAME reads a birthday Mary Oliver poem out loud for Gusher. Then we’re off. They’re all faster than me, and I stop to pee in a field of very low and sparse bushes- my pee game is getting riskier by the day, as I get lazier and lazier about it.
Someone passed by our camp last night and said there was going to be pancake trail magic at Whitewater Preserve in 8 miles, our next water source. So, I’m trying to keep up a steady pace and not stop until I get there. It’s not so much about the pancakes, but that I can use them as motivation; I pass right by the windmills as I’m walking along a gully, and a few minutes later the Mesa Wind Farm office, which offers water to hikers. My least favorite part of the day is when the sun is just rising and glaring into my eyes, so I have to walk with my eyes and head down even with sunglasses. The trail winds along the sides of a dirt road, crossing every few minutes, but with the glare I can’t see where the PCT picks up again and have to backtrack a few times. It’s miserable; I want to be able to be free to look anywhere I want.
Finally the sun is high enough that the sunglasses can be put away in their hip belt pocket. The trail goes up a canyon that recedes back into the hills, sandy-brown hills dotted with bushes. It switchbacks tightly up to the ridge, the canyon becoming longer and the ridge farther the higher I go. Even with the switchbacks it’s very steep, eroding back into the slope. I trudge up, thinking of pancakes, telling myself sternly that I won’t take even a breathing break until I get to the top.
I’m up, and after a congratulatory water break I descend. I turn past the corner of a hill and the mountains open up ahead of me, cascading up into the sky in streaks of orange-brown. In the foreground is a mesa covered in straw-brown grass, and a creek cuts a deep wound into the earth, its canyon heading towards the mountains in a curving streak of green cottonwood. A sign says ‘Welcome to San Gorgonio National Wilderness,’ with a number to call for more information. I’m pretty sure I don’t have service to call, so I find the sign amusing.
Then another 4-5 miles to Whitewater and possibly pancakes. I don’t take any breaks other than to drink water, and compared to the climb out of the wind farm earlier, the trail is mild. I’m still riding out the tail end of the cool weather from the storm; I’m sure it can get pretty hot in this section, though.
Below I can see Whitewater Creek, a giant field of loose white boulders, a strip of green running across it like a ribbon. Across are mountains whose sides have been carved away by the water, exposing striped layers of sediment and earth. If the Grand Canyon is anything like this, I think, I can imagine it must be incredible.
I starting seeing day hikers a mile out. One woman asks if the Sierra are passable right now, and how the snow is, as if all thru hikers are experts on such things. I reply that I don’t really know. I take the turn off to the preserve, and another woman pauses to talk with me.
“Where did you start?”
“And where are you going?”
“Canada,” I say.
“And you’re not alone, are you?”
I nod my head yes.
“Oh! Well! God bless you and protect you,” she says, and pats me on the shoulder.
Thanks? Way to patronize.
I wander in on hiking trails around 10, stepping over pools filled with tadpoles and taking a footbridge over the creek. I pass a couple of private houses, probably for the rangers, and man-made ponds of water overhung by willow. I’m pointed down to the pancakes, after preparing myself for them not being there for the last couple of miles. A trail angel named Legend with curly dust-brown hair and blue eyes and a chipped front tooth is having a thru-hiker flip the pancakes while he talks to other hikers at the picnic table.
I say hello and flop my pack down in the grass under one of the big oak trees. I dig around in my pack and eat some food and drink the rest of my water as I wait for a spot to sit at the table. Mountain is here, and A-GAME and Gusher, and Hot Sauce, and Adam (who is a woman), and Haiwen. A bunch of people head out and I eat two big pancakes with molasses (accidentally because the bottle isn’t marked) and syrup. I listen to Legend talk with the other hikers for a while, then head out with a hiker named Helen to check out the wading pool, which is apparently for wading in. I get in slowly and clean myself. I can feel the vortex sucking me in, but I don’t mind, because it’s beautiful here and there is swimming and food and bathrooms and shade and tables and charging stations inside the ranger station, which combined is everything a hiker could ever want or need. Helen and I and a guy named Hot Sauce who’s hiked the AT all decide to stay all day until dinner at 4, and we watch everyone else move on. We talk and eat food.
Finally Legend comes out of his trailer around 4:30 to talk with us. He knows all of the trail angels very well along the PCT and hiked in ’13, and has volunteered for years. He tells us lots of stories and gives advice. We make a detailed plan for making spaghetti dinner. I’m in charge of the Parmesan, Mousetrap walks in and is the timekeeper who decides when we’re going to eat, Hot Sauce chooses the location, Will is helping serve, and Helen is in charge of seats.
Legend goes back to his trailer and is walking back with the Parmesan, so I go out to meet him and take the Parmesan, taking my Parmesan duties very seriously; instead he misunderstands and I get a big hug. It’s my second hug on-trail, not counting Sully the dog at the cabins in Idyllwild.
Legend goes to get the spaghetti and we walk over to the designated picnic table that Hot Sauce chose. We eat the spaghetti along with a bunch of other hikers who just showed up. Legend sings us a poem he wrote, that ends like this:
“Encourage each other, Walk slowly, And follow your dreams.”
Helen and I decide to night-hike out together, so we go sign Legend’s truck (it’s on a board that gets painted over every month) and we say goodbye and thank you! Legend is awesome, and will be traveling along the trail with the pack. So worth spending 7 hours lazing around today and swimming and talking to people, but Helen and I aren’t satisfied with only 8 miles today so we hike out together.
Just before the trail crosses Whitewater Creek, I pass Colleen, Rawhide and Tarantino. I stop to talk, but tell them that I want to move on and I hike some more. We have to go upstream a bit to find a good place to cross, then backtrack. Helen is great company and we’re both walking at the same pace, so the time flies by. We stop every now and then and point at where we just were.
“Hiking is like a super power,” I say.
The moon is full and rises over the hills, glowing yellow. San Jacinto is a towering black silhouette on the horizon, looking impossibly tall and far away. It seems crazy that we were both just there yesterday.
A city shines below us as we walk, Anza possibly, and the trail rolls up and down among hilltops and ridges. I start yawning. We eventually make it the 8 miles to Mission Creek in the dark. We quietly set up cowboy camp, and Helen offers me a beer can she’s packed out. I take a sip, and it’s cold from the night air, and good. There are people camped here, frogs are chirping, the moon is rising, the creek rushing as it slides down its creek bed down into the valley below.