I spent 8 days in southern California, in the San Diego area. First I did some Trail Angel volunteering, then I drove around doing Trail Magic and hit some choice spots on the PCT. The flights were terrible, because nothing flies from Providence direct. I wrapped my pack in plastic wrap like before, and it survived the trip through Baltimore and Chicago – and was the first item off the baggage claim belt!
Trail Magic began almost the moment I landed. While at the airport, Scout called me. Turns out a hiker named Chris who had come in the previous day had somehow lost his Garmin InReach Mini2 off his pack. And given the fact that he had to start on his permit date, had packed out that morning. (Plus, if you “lose” a $350 electronics device at an airport, realistically man, it’s gone.) But he had filed a claim with Alaska Airlines, and they had notified him it was there! Scout’s mission to me: Go to the Alaska Airlines baggage area, schmooze the people there to give it to me, with no ID, no proof that I should be the one to collect it. He gave me a few details about the guy, and wished me good luck. I put on my best hitch-hiking face, you know, the kind that says “I’m clean and respectable, and such a nice person that you want to do favors for me”, and walked up to the counter.
No sooner had I made a hand gesture holding a small object, and said “Hi, my friend lost his GPS receiver…” than the nice lady behind the desk said “Oh, this must be for you!” and handed it to me. No wheeling and dealing, no asking for ID, no signing forms, no convincing that I really was friends with the guy, etc. Then we had a roughly 15 minute chat about the PCT…. “how do you get food?” … “what about snakes?” … “how do you get 6 months off work?”. I thanked them and left.
Chapter 1 – Scout & Frodo
Having stayed with these wonderful Trail Angels twice, I felt I should give something back. I arranged to volunteer with Scout and Frodo at their home in San Diego for a few days, helping them, and helping hikers.
Scout and Frodo are former PCT hikers (Scout is also a Triple Crowner) who host, for free, probably thousands of hikers each year. They give you a place to land in SD, feed you dinner, help you with gear, drive you to REI and TMobile, tell you about the trail, give you a hug if you need it, feed you breakfast, then get you a ride to the trail in the morning. International travellers can stay 2 nights – and they need it! I met one woman from France who had been up for over 24 hours by the time she got there. Another hiker, from Israel, had his bags go missing. Neither was in shape to start hiking at 7am. In the old days, they personally drove you to the trail. Nowadays they work with the people at the CLEEF campground to arrange a nice shuttle van. I was lucky, in 2018, I got to ride with Scout in his car.
One more thing – it’s all free, they vehemently refuse donations.
Scout & Frodo’s website is here – check them out.
I took the free shuttle bus to the Old Town Station transit hub. INTERESTING place. Saw a lady hiker (Megan) with a nice clean set of gear walking around among the rif-raff, somewhat lost, and waved her over to the right bus. We rode up to Scout and Frodo’s neighborhood together. We talked a bit on the bus – she had the usual mixed emotions about the trip, was worried about the snow, but otherwise super enthusiastic. I started getting excited for her, the whole trip made me want to just jump on the Campo Shuttle and start hiking the PCT again!
Arriving at Scout and Frodo’s place, I met Lala, a volunteer who sat me down and got me a COVID test. Not that we’re still in pandemic mode, BUT, when you have 20-25 strangers in your house every night, you want to take precautions.
Over the next few days, I did a lot of dishes, cleaned the bathrooms, made gallons of coffee, cooked TONS of steel-cut oatmeal, gave tours, and shuttled people around in Frodo’s Prius. Shortly after I arrived, she asked me, “are you ok driving the minivan or the Prius to drive hikers?” When I said “yes”, they pointed me to the keys. What trust! Because on the Trail, the default setting is “nice”. I later found out that they had investigated me on social media before allowing me to volunteer. Sneaky.
Besides the logistical support, the social aspect of things is something that cannot be overlooked. A lot of people had minimal experience on long distance trails, flew out solo, didn’t know anyone, had never hiked in the desert before, etc. It’s a huge opportunity to socialize with other people in your same boat, and to ask questions of the greybeards like me. So many questions – what about water, how much did you carry, is my pack too heavy, do I need to carry maps, what about an ice axe, where should I send packages to, how do I hitchhike. For people who hadn’t done this before, these were real worries, and it was nice to educate/comfort/encourage folks where they needed it.
Chapter 2 – the Desert
Day 1 – Julian
After a few days of fun, I left for my real vacation. I headed up to Julian, a nice mountain town at mile 77 off a place called “Scissors Crossing“. On the way, I stopped at a Von’s Supermarket where I stocked up on drinks and cookies and ice to give out to people. I still had the membership # saved in my phone from 2018, so I used that and got a nice break on the prices.
I hitched some people back out to the trail. Then it was Trail Magic time; I handed out beers and sodas to some hikers who were packing out after dinner, then had a nice hike by myself up into the San Felipe hills. Supposedly mountain lion-infested, but I never saw any – just an angry rattler.
After returning to my car, I drove east over the mountains and then down, down, down, to a town called Borrego Springs. I think it only exists because of the resorts there, pumping groundwater up so there can be swimming pools and palm trees in a neat square of green, amidst the ridiculous desert.
In spite of the late hour, when I got down to the state park campground and it was over 80 degrees. At 9pm. I cowboy camped, ate a salad out of a bag, drank a beer, and listened to the coyotes.
Day 2 – Anza Borrego
First thing at 6am I was up. I wanted to do some low desert hiking and I didn’t want to do it in the heat. There’s a couple of canyons in/near the park, so I picked one. The signs were … disturbing.
After getting back to my car I headed back towards Julian for some more coffee and muffins. At Scissors Crossing I ran into some hikers just getting up to the road. It turns out it was a woman I had met at Scout and Frodo’s, and it was the first time she had ever hitchhiked. When I asked her and her friends, “do you guys want some drinks? I have cold Gatorade” they almost cried. We ran up to Julian and got breakfast. We talked more about the trail, experiences, I checked in with them to make sure they were healthy, etc.
On the way out of Julian, there was a woman hitching outside the Post Office. No pack, no hiker clothes, but I thought, hey, it’s why I’m here. Turns out she WAS a hiker, but she was camping for a few days down at the RV park east of the trail. Her name was Candace, and she had started the PCT with this guy she met online. After a handful of days trying to match his pace, she was severely blistered, dehydrated and heatstroked, and he left her in the desert with a liter of water, saying “you’re fine, you need to just get to the next water”. So we talked a little bit about that. She had hitched up to Julian to go to the medical center to get checked out, since she said she still didn’t feel 100%. While she was waiting for the results, she was going to just chill at the RV park and re-evaluate some things. One thing she had were brutal blisters, so I told her about my secret ENGO blister pads that saved me.
Heading back to Scissors Crossing, what did I find, but more hikers – so back to Julian I went! In town I also ran into a couple more people from Scout and Frodos that I had met, so it was a mini reunion.
I drove up to Warner Springs, where at least in 2018, you could camp at the Community Center and do bucket laundry. COVID and septic regulations killed that off however.
I took a ride to Oak Barrel Spring at around mile 101, and hiked up into the canyon to do Trail Magic at mile 100. This was the best kind, I thought, where you’re hiking along, and come across a Gatorade in the middle of nowhere. After sitting and thinking about that or a while, I drove to the Montezuma Valley Cafe a few miles to the east. It’s a new place that’s kind of a hostel/store setup. I got ice cream, and then hitched some hikers back out.
From there I drove up to Idyllwild, and camped at Hurkey Creek County Park. The place was empty, so I got in, ate, tented, and got out easily.
Day 3 – Idyllwild
Early out of the campsite, I headed up into Idyllwild, or “Idy” as many call it. It looked slightly wealthier, and more snowy than I remembered. I wandered around for a bit, and hit the coffee place. It HAD been called Higher Grounds, and was a super cool independent place, but COVID killed that off, and it was now called “Pure Bean”; part of a chain. The owner wasn’t there anymore, and they had remodelled. But the food was still good, as was the coffee. No more free coffee for hikers, though.
On the porch I caught up on world news on my phone, and chatted with 3 lady hikers. They were discussing how to climb St. Jacinto, which was still socked in with snow. As one of them put it – “to get here was 2 days of walking on snow, where if you slipped, you would fall off the mountain and die, so we’re taking a different route”. I offered to drive them to the dirt road around the back of the mountain, and off we were. I stocked them up with cookies, and took their iced drink cups back to town for them.
For lunch I headed south to the famous Paradise Valley Cafe – famous among bikers and hikers, and especially handy as its less than a mile off the trail. They also hold packages, provided you buy some food there. There’s just a huge “find your own stuff” kind of pile by the bathrooms. Most hikers were shipping their snow gear here as they would need it for the traverse of Jacinto.
After eating the excellent Jose Burger (melted cheese, jalapeno peppers), I drove back up into Idyllwild and looked for the trailhead. My plan was to hike up the back side of the mountain towards a place called Suicide Rock. I had hiked this path in 2018 because I had already done the typical trail out of Idyllwild “Devil’s Slide” in 2017. Arriving, I realized you needed to pay for a day parking pass, but a departing couple gave me theirs. Strictly legal? Probably not.
I immediately realized how hot it was, how out of shape I am, and how thin the air is at 7000 feet. But it was a great hike, massive pines, smooth, dry trail. And a massive result – at no point did my torn up ankle give out on me.
That night I stayed in the San Jacinto State Park campground right in Idyllwild. I swung by the thruhiker area and dropped off beers. Then I had some ice cream, rolled out my quilt, and cowboy-camped next to the picnic table.
I rolled out of Idyllwild early. I meandered back south, stopping in at Warner Springs and Julian, hitching a few more people in and out; I didn’t want the trip to end.
After that I drove all the way down to the border to a town called Campo, where the PCT terminus sits next to The Wall. The last half mile was a decent dirt road, and there it was. I walked up the hill to the monument and was shortly met by 3 people, 2 hikers and their dad. These 2 kids from England were starting the next day. We chatted and took pictures, then the Border Patrol came. Turns out he was a former thruhiker and had requested this section specifically because of the Terminus. We talked a bit of politics, but mostly trail.
You’re not allowed to photograph Border Patrol personnel, but as he pointed out, “If I’m not looking at the camera, then I can’t say I knew you were photographing me.” Hence the smirk. Very cool guy, super interested in the hikers.
It gradually turned from a fun reminiscing to a sort of homesick reflection, so I left. I drove up to Lake Morena campground, where I knew there would be coin showers, and more hikers. I dropped off the last of my snack food at the hiker gazebo. It felt like there were not a lot of people there this year.
There is a new “you dont have to hike to Morena on day 1” theme going out on social media. And you certainly don’t; most people don’t pull the 20 miles to get there on the first day. ALSO, there’s a shuttle which will get you to Campo mid-morning, or around 5, so a lot of people aren’t starting at dawn. This means there isnt the big hiker bubble at Morena; people get there mid-day, eat lunch, then cruise through, probably mostly to Boulder Oaks campground at 26.
I grabbed a shower, made dinner, and got in my tent, ready for an early start.
Left Morena at around 6:30, and drove back to San Diego. I got to participate in the San Diego rush hour, complete with fog. I wanted to make sure I got to the airport in plenty of time to drop off the car and check in, so I high-tailed it. Not necessary.
“Gas will surely be cheaper there”, I thought. Wrong. After doing the cost-benefit analysis of driving around for an hour to save 10 dollars, I ended up filling up near the airport at $5.89 a gallon.
San Diego -> Chicago -> Providence, and home by midnight. I saw both the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean in a single day.