May 20th, 2006

Redtail - bird face

Big Bear City, and hiker departures

Big Bear is the first trail town I've been in so far that has passed the real litmus test of modern civilization:

Fast food restaurants.

The area has about 15,000 people, separated into eastern-residential-area Big Bear City and western-shopping-area Big Bear Lake. The former has some hiker-friendly hotels and a fire station that is a literal hub of PCT activity (with showers, a trail register, and free phones and day-use backpack storage). The latter is home to virtually all the major burger chains; two genuine supermarkets and three major pharmacies; and a swarm of touristy shops, restaurants and bars collectively called The Village.

There's a giant lake, the titular Big Bear Lake, that in warmer months becomes a sailing mecca. There are huge swaths carved through the hills above town that in chillier months become the ski resorts that draw huge crowds from Los Angeles. There's two movie theaters just a block from each other, and a video arcade that felt like falling into a time warp -- their newest game appears to be a several-years-old light gun shooter, and a Dance Dance Revolution machine shares floor space with Defender, Galaga, Pac Man Jr. and other cabinets with more nostalgia value than a Mr. T chia pet.

The real landmark for me, though, was my first fast food in over a month. I went to Jack in the Box last night and ate $10 worth of tacos and burgers.

While I was there, some county sheriffs pulled in. We chatted about the trail for a little bit. They relayed to me that last week, a hiker died in a fall from the trail. In the section in which I will shortly be hiking.

Normally, the thru-hiker grapevine gets word out of these sorts of tragedies pretty quickly. This was the first I'd heard of it, though. I have to wonder -- since the story makes no mention of "trail names" and the guy's real name means nothing to me -- whether it was anyone I'd met along the way.

(... And a few seconds of research reveals that "No Way" Ray was at the kickoff party this year. I don't know if he was a thru-hiker. But this makes it all he more sobering.)

The news added a seriously morbid note to the other reports that have been filtering in. Wrightwood -- the next major town -- seems to have a reputation as the big drop-off point, where lots of would-be hikers bow out. But the thru-hiker rolls are thinning already.

Suzy and Matt (Snapshot and Onefeather), the mother-son pair that I've been hiking along with for the last week or two, finished their section hike here in town and had to take off very hurriedly last night to catch a plane. I didn't even get to say goodbye. I also heard that Junker, a fit but portly older man whose trail name came from the thrashed thrift-store condition of his gear, bowed out in Idyllwild shortly after I left. I camped with him several times from the Warner Springs area onward. Trail Name Pending spent one final night here in Big Bear City with a group of us on Thursday, then left for the east coast to catch an engineering class at his university that suddenly opened up months sooner than expected. I first met him at Rodriguez Canyon, in the middle of my hellish 19-mile blister day, and shared the last of my rice crackers with him.

Freefall left a note in the logbook under Interstate 10 that he had to bow out of his trip from there. It was a counterpoint to the many profuse expressions of thanks that hikers left for the cold soda that former thru-hiker Gottago provided.

The one constant out here on the trail is the sense of community that you feel as you get to know your fellow hikers -- sharing snacks, sitting around fires, keeping each other going during sweltering hot days of hiking, laughing at trail stories, trading tips and anecdotes. It hurts to know that your companions -- your friends -- suddenly are vanishing back into the aether from which they came. I didn't know any of them from Adam twenty-three days ago, but out here, where there's only the trail and a small group of adventurers trying to brave it, friendships form quickly. In a not insubstantial way, other hikers become your lifeline.

So I tried not to think about the departures as I was eating my fast food. The threats to my own hike are bad enough.

The good news is that -- hopefully -- the foot numbness is nothing serious. I managed to wedge my way into the family health clinic here for a walk-in visit with a doctor who had done some hiking herself. The most likely cause seems to be a little foot inflammation from overuse that is pinching a nerve; I haven't lost any sensation that would indicate a more serious problem, and some X-rays should rule out a stress fracture (which would be a hike-ending injury; I'll know for certain by Wednesday). She prescribed massive doses of ibuprofen and a change of shoes to something with firmer ankle support. Nobody in town here stocks Size 14 anything, so I'll try to dope it up for a week and then do my shoe shopping in San Jose when I head to Baycon.

The bad news is that kadyg's job situation has gotten a lot more precarious. That's her news, not mine, so I'll let her go into detail about it on her journal. But the bottom line is that she is providing not only our sole source of income while I'm hiking, but also my line to health insurance. If that deteriorates -- and we have to pay both rent and COBRA coverage out of my savings -- I am going to run out of money within one to three months. So a worst-case financial scenario means I might not make it any further than Mount Whitney, about 1/4 of the way through, before I simply can't afford to hike any longer. I'm going to have to hope for a better situation and take it a day at a time until I know more.

Neither of those, at least, are going to put a halt to my hike in the immediate sense. My short-term plans aren't changing. I'm going to hike out of town this afternoon, head to Interstate 15 at Cajon Pass (another 80 trail miles) by Wednesday, meet deirdremoon's parents, and on Thursday find a way up to Baycon in San Jose (still haven't hooked up a ride, so feel free to volunteer if you're heading that way, but in a worst-case scenario Kady can come pick me up or I can ride Greyhound). After the convention, it's back to the trail hopefully Monday night, and a 110-mile stretch to Agua Dulce, skipping the allegedly-cursed-but-possibly-less-cursed-than-here Wrightwood.

I'll be getting a little later start on the trail today than hoped, though. Last night was just a comedy of errors.

I left my laundry with Suzy and Matt, who had planned to do theirs while I was out hospital-ing and shopping. But then an airline snafu forced them to abandon town (and the hotel room they were sharing with me) before they could hit the laundromat. Meanwhile, I had a nice time eating burgers and tacos, and met the wonderful proprietor of Equada Outfitters, a highly PCT-friendly gear shop downtown -- but when I tried to catch the day's last bus for the four-mile-plus trip back to the hotel, I stood at a well-marked bus stop and watched the driver glance at me and then blow right on by.

Fortunately, the husband-and-wife proprietors of the Nature's Inn are awesome people, and Rick drove out to come rescue me. (Big Bear is allegedly a very hitchhiking-friendly place for hikers, but I have had absolutely no luck so far -- hence the buses -- and couldn't bear the thought of shivering out in the dark trying to beg a ride off of strangers for half an hour or more.) That got me back to the hotel, but put the kibosh on my plans of hitting the supermarket last night. So now I have to do laundry and buy food before heading out of Big Bear.

I'll be glad to go. Like a catclaw plant, filled with barbs that snag at your clothing and tear your skin, this city has been slowing me down. When I first got into town, I showered and made a beeline straight for Sizzler and its lunch buffet -- and promptly, no shit, lapsed into a food coma. The next two hours were a struggle to simply walk, let alone do the pharmacy shopping I was trying to do. That and some allergies and some blisters combined to basically lay me out flat on the pavement behind the fire station, staring at the sky for most of my first afternoon here. Which pushed my resupply-shopping and hospital plans back to Day 2, which turned into a zero day, which then became the missing-bus snafu that is going to cost me another full morning of hiking. Momentum is a precious and valuable commodity out here, and Big Bear has sure sucked mine away.

At least I'm still able to keep moving. RIP, No Way. And best of luck with the lives of all those who have bowed out.