Agua Dulce (Spanish for "sweet water") is, in every sense of the word, an oasis. Down in the San Gabriel Mountains' northwestern foothills, at about 2,500 feet elevation, it's a tiny outpost of civilization in the middle of dry desert hills and rock outcroppings. Nearby Escondido Canyon has a gently flowing creek, which you cross six or seven times after the trail follows the water through a tiny tunnel under busy Highway 14. But with three restaurants and a luxuriously stocked grocery store, only the most desperately thirsty hikers stop to filter the creek water.
Due to various land issues and a hurry-up approach to finishing the Pacific Crest Trail back in the early 1990s, the trail itself uses the sidewalk of the main street of this no-stoplight town, passing just 20 yards from the entrance to Vincenzo's. The Thru-Hiker's Guide To The PCT points out that this "is probably the closest a pizza and beer can be obtained while on the trail." I scurried by the restaurant, though -- at 8:30 AM, it was closed, and anyway I was intent on reaching Hiker Heaven at Jeff and Donna Saufleys' house before the temperatures soared higher. (It was already 85 degrees, with the sun still low in the sky; it would pass 100 by midday. Todd, back at the North Fork Ranger Station 20 miles beforehand, had said something about a record-setting heat wave. Everyone in town agrees it's hot, but I haven't heard anything more about whether this is the worst it's gotten.)
Hiker Heaven ... is an experience unto itself. THGTTPCT tries to give some flavor of it in the page and a half it devotes to the Saufleys; phrases such as "(they) are quite possibly the most amazing people you will ever meet" and "You don't understand ... they LIVE for hiker season" litter the book. The Saufleys devote an entire two-bedroom guest house to hikers -- bathroom, kitchen, living room with TV and two computers, and all. And an RV. And several huge canopy tents and half a dozen air mattresses. And Donna does all the laundry; and they keep several shelves stacked with loaner clothes so you can get everything washed at once while you lounge around in "Saufley Electric" T-shirts and shorts during your stay.
Did I mention the fleet of basket-equipped bicycles provided to make the mile back into Agua Dulce a breeze? Oh, wait, the car -- they have a loaner vehicle that they keep around (and specifically keep insured) solely for hiker use! And, and, and. It doesn't end.
The place is one giant thru-hiker assembly line, too -- after a decade, they've got it down to a science. Their always-open garage has a "Start Here" billboard and instructions for common hiker needs (laundry, arranging transportation, etc). Everything is meticulously labeled; the two phone lines devoted to hikers (incoming calls (661) 268-1348; I'll be here another 24 hours) have instructions taped on the wall for accessing voicemail, the menus for several area restaurants that deliver are posted prominently near the kitchen, and the bathroom mirror has a small sign with instructions for used towel return.
When I arrived, I launched straight into the usual back-to-civilization ritual -- shit, shower, shave (minus the shave -- there'll be time for that later). Making a beeline for the bathroom and showering was never so welcome. I'm used to the week-without-a-shower wilderness experience, but now that southern California has gotten serious about the heat, even just a showerless day or two leaves you feeling like a wreck.
As little as an hour or two of hiking through 85-degree heat soaks every article of clothing on your body with sweat, especially under shoulder straps and hip belts. You can whip off your shirt at every rest stop to dry in the sun, but your torso is still sticky from the dried-out perspiration and grimy from the trail dirt. Shorts and underwear are a little more problematic unless you're totally shameless, and so usually stay hot and wet all day, leading to nasty chafing and heat rash.
As I luxuriated in the cool shower, I had an experience that has to be unique to long-distance hikers. My first foot wash was routine, but a single scrubbing removes hardly any of the grime, so I sat down for my usual detailed second foot wash -- and, to my surprise, discovered a blister on my pinky toe that had been completely invisible underneath all the dirt.
I do not exaggerate here. Not twelve hours before, on the descent toward Soledad Canyon, I had completely stripped my shoes and socks off and done a detailed foot check to make sure that the brutal downhill wasn't causing me any hidden problems. In spots where my feet were too dirty to make out discoloration, I gently prodded them to check for tenderness or swelling. The small blister on my black-with-grime toe didn't feel unusual, so it wasn't until I took the shower that I even realized it was there.
I got a second shock when I toweled myself dry and, on a lark, stepped onto the bathroom scale. I weighed in at about 175 pounds, which is a weight I haven't been since college. I left for the trip (after bulking up a bit) creeping up on 200, and had been about 190 in Julian, so I was expecting I'd be slimming down, but not that much -- especially with my gut still looking a bit round, an artifact of gorging myself during the five-day BayCon layover.
Thru-hikers' weight fluctuates greatly over the course of a trip. We're used to just burning so damn many calories on the trail that we can't eat enough to keep up, and then pigging out during town layovers to gain it back for the next leg. But I guess it hadn't quite hit me that, with a month under my belt, I'd have whipped myself into such shape.
After emerging from the bathroom clean and lean, the usual priorities emerged -- chug some water, chow on some of the copious quantities of communal food, and then steal one of the beds and collapse for a nice afternoon nap to make up for my half-night of hobo sleep. But I had to take a side trip to the garage first to locate my bounce box -- there was something I'd been dreaming of doing for an entire week.
I dug down through the pile of stuff to my iPod, plugged it in to the wall, donned my headphones, and dropped into sleep to the soothing, rhythmic thump of a two-hour techno mix.