What's it like being out there walking all day?
It's nature. It's a life of big changes and subtle shifts. You can go miles through a maze of twisty little river canyons, all alike; you can climb wooded ridges where every turn brings new vistas. There are stifling cactus-studded valley floors, rolling lands of stunted dried grass, dusty hillsides of chest-high chaparral, soaring rocky peaks, sprawling pine forests. And that's all "the desert" of southern California! In one or two locations -- most notably the 7000-foot descent from snowy Fuller Ridge to barren San Gorgonio Pass -- you pass through virtually all of these climates in a single day.
Usually, though, one day's walking will give you a good idea of what to expect the next morning. The Pacific Crest Trail itself offers gradual climbs and descents -- as an equestrian trail as well as a hiker path, it's accessibly graded, comfortably wide and well-trod.
There are scrambles over ankle-twisting scree in areas where landslides have spilled over the trail. There are leg-jarring descents and miserable ascents along jagged ridgelines. There are tortuous * walks along pencil-thin traverses barely stomped into steep dirt slopes. There are stretches where a season of bountiful rains has encouraged brush to leap up and choke the path, forcing hikers to plunge through head-high bushes and swat aside thorny tendrils. (After a few uninterrupted miles of painful, tedious bushwhacking, it's not unknown for hikers to snap and carve a swath down the trail by wielding trekking poles like machetes, throats unleashing bloodthirsty cries of primal rage. Err ... not that I'd know anything about that.)
And while the climate slowly shifts around you, the company rarely does. Your trail companions will be other thru-hikers, or perhaps PCT section-hikers; it's only within a few miles of popular trailheads, and usually on weekends, that the day-hikers and curious strangers start coming out. Which isn't to say that you're in the middle of nowhere. On several stretches, the PCT is forced briefly onto roads (paved or otherwise), and on the more well-used of these, cars roar by regularly as the oblivious products of civilization scurry from office to store to house. We've crossed under four interstates, past a few ski-areas-turned-summer-wastelands, and down into both resort towns and small rural hamlets.
Although people (rightly) think of nature as where the wild animals live, hikers see surprisingly few of the stereotypical symbols of the backcountry. We can't afford to slow down enough to move quietly, and so bigger beasts generally move or hide by the time we blow through on the trail. In 454 miles, I've had two deer encounters, and seen one (dead) bobcat. Supposedly, the San Gabriels have black bears, but aside from some scat, I saw no sign of them.
I've spooked three rattlesnakes in 41 days. One stood still and posed for a picture; one retreated underneath its rock pile; and one stared quietly at my ankles from two feet away for over a minute until I turned around and finally noticed it.
Birdsong is common, although birds themselves don't often come within good camera range. A few raptors wheel through the skies, along with more ubiquitous crows and ravens. On the ground, mice, pikas and and squirrels stay well away, scampering for cover sometimes just belatedly enough to give you a glimpse of vanishing tail. At night, toads may perch on the trail, frozen in your headlamp, and silhouettes of aerial predators flit through the stars in search of a midnight snack.
But the animals that really rule the hot, dusty trail are lizards and bugs.
It seems as though every step you take is accompanied by the rhythmic rustling of scurrying lizards of every color, size, shape and description, darting every which way at your approach. Including the occasional Darwin Award candidate who beelines for your footfall. And the only slightly less idiotic ones that panic and dash directly away from you down the trail, spooking again as you keep moving forward, accompanying you for as much as 30 or 40 yards before finally tangenting into a bush to let you pass. Hikers grow intimately acquainted with lizards' large-thing tolerances, their jumping capabilities, their habit while running of turning at right angles, and the odd little push-ups they do at every stop. (The PCT Hiker's Companion says that this isn't a mating ritual, as popular trail lore has it, but a method of regulating body temperature.)
Ants are everywhere, a patchwork of red and black, small and large -- wandering to explore tree trunks, clustering around the occasional horse dropping, emerging from holes in the trail. Most labor in daylight, but desert ants -- like everything else in the hot, barren regions -- wait until the tolerable warmth of nightfall. Flies, likewise, are inescapable -- especially in hotter areas, where the sweat of your labors draws a swarm of them into a cloud around you at all times. Small flying bugs circle in the shade of trees at higher elevations, waiting for you to approach so they can kamikaze into your face. The more dangerous insects, though present, seem to be far less common -- it's been generally too warm and dry for mosquitoes (though I've gotten a dozen bites in twilights and near rivers) and I've only seen two ticks so far. Both not on me. Both of which quickly were squished.
A typical day starts around sunrise (earlier for the ambitious, at first light for the less morning-adjusted), with a quick breakfast and reassembly of gear into the backpack. Several hours of hiking ensue. You stop when tired, for a brief break to catch your breath, or when the shade's just too inviting to pass up. You drink water copiously and try to stuff your face with snacks at every stop. At water sources -- generally 6 to 10 miles apart in a wet year like this one -- a slightly longer break might be taken, to refill your bottles, drink a little extra, and maybe heat up a mid-day meal while cooking water is plentiful.
Urination breaks basically involve stepping off the trail for a moment; defecation often waits until you pass by a developed campsite on your way and can use pit toilets. (The process of digging a cathole is just so much of a production, and we've been going through areas generously littered with developed campsites so far. I've only had to take three legitimate wilderness poops.)
After a cooked lunch, it's back on the trail until approximately sunset. I enjoy hiking later, because down here the trail is pleasantly cool after direct sunlight disappears, and because night-time views -- with moonlit hills and the spilled jewels of lights collected in the valleys of urban areas -- are sometimes more breathtaking than the hazy daylight ones. When you get tired, or when you're in danger of not getting a good night's sleep if you keep pushing on, or when you find a great campsite, or when you reach your mileage goal ... you stop and set up camp. For some hikers, this means the ritual of tent assembly. But I (and many other thru-hikers) swear by "cowboy camping," or simply laying out your groundcloth and sleeping bag under the stars. The views are better, you don't have to wedge yourself into a cramped fabric shell, it's warm enough that shelter is unnecessary, and having an unbroken view of the sky makes mornings easier.
After another quick snack before bed, a change of clothes, a hop into the sleeping bag, and a night of fitful sleep and stargazing, the cycle begins again, and the mileage increments by another day's effort.
It's exertion, beauty, tedium, camaraderie. It's a life of routine, but a far different routine than dragging yourself to a desk and keeping the human anthill functioning. It's lazy moments of stillness and frustrated moments of gear fiddling. It's tiny triumphs as the path levels underneath you and the vistas sprawl out below, tiny frustrations as the tread disappears amid bushes or jeep roads, tiny reliefs as the PCT-logo-emblazoned post is spotted around a corner. It's landmarks large and small -- another 8/10ths of a mile now that we've reached the road under the power line; today's 3,000-foot climb behind us now that we're atop Baden-Powell; 1/10 of the trip done now that we've reached Big Bear; half the desert done here at Interstate 15.
It's thru-hiking, and there's not much else like it.
* The official guidebook loves this adjective. OH, GOD, the official guidebook loves this adjective. I think it occurs more often than "the."