PCT SoCal Big Bear to Wrightwood: Day 1 (November 2015)
Updated: Mar 24, 2019
76 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in 5 days, from Big Bear to Wrightwood in Southern California, November 2015, lands of the Yuhaviatam and Maarenga’yam (Serrano) people
It was the first week of November in the mountains of Southern California, where the weather is unpredictable and harsh. A wind advisory warned that gusts of up to forty-five miles-per-hour were expected in the mountains and desert areas. The station wagon shook with the gusting winds as my station wagon wound up the twisting two-lane road. It was early in the afternoon and the sun hovered above the tall pines. I felt nauseous with anxiety as the car slowed and we pulled off the road next to a metal sign marking the trail.
I was about to begin a 76-mile hike from near the town of Big Bear, California to the next major highway crossing in Wrightwood, northeast of Los Angeles. It’d be just my dog and me walking northward for five days. Elu was a blond brindle 50-pound husky-mix, long and lean with unstoppable enthusiasm. Months of training preceded this November trip to the San Bernardino Mountains. Elu and I had spent countless hours hiking near our apartment in San Diego and weekends backpacking in Southern California, just the two of us.
Elu had to learn not to chase wild animals; instead patiently and silently watching as long eared Jack Rabbits sprinted by us in the Sonoran Desert. I had to slowly build up my endurance, so I could hike with a pack without feeling exhausted and achy the next day. We’d spent so much time together that she could read my emotions, follow hand signals and finger points, while I could sense when she was tired or too hot by how she lingered in the shade or walked a bit slower. She was accustomed to my dizzy spells and vertigo, and she led me along the trail without hesitation. We trusted each other and kept each other safe.
Our packs were heavy with nearly a week’s worth of food as we headed off into the forest. Elu trotted along in front of me, her blond bottlebrush tail high as I tried to squash the panic rising in my chest. As the wind gusted more frequently over the next hour and a half, I started to worry that we wouldn’t be able to find a suitable campsite before dark. Every turn around the trail held the potential of a windbreak and a safe place to spend the night, but the weather was only getting worse.
The weather reports and gusting wind made me uneasy, but I knew discomfort was often part of the deal when backpacking. I relished section hiking in shoulder seasons because of the solitude the trail provided when the weather was less hospitable. I said out loud to Elu, “This is just one week. I made it through five and a half months at Navy Dive School; I can do anything for one week.” More than that, I’d completed rigorous training as a freediving instructor, and survived a near drowning as a surface supplied diver underneath a Coast Guard ship. Walking 76 miles couldn’t be that difficult, right?
I needed to do this trip solo, to prove to myself that I could walk the distance on my own while carrying everything I needed to survive. I hoped that I’d enjoy the journey, but at that moment my mind was only on getting through the week. This would be our longest trip yet and I didn’t know how Elu and I would feel on the third full day of backpacking, or the fourth, or the fifth, because we’d never done it before. I’d started day-hiking and backpacking a few months earlier as a way to escape the worst symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—the lingering influence of events that took place during the nearly ten years that I wore a US Coast Guard uniform. I’d struggled to adapt to life outside of the military: getting migraines nearly every week and having panic attacks in public places, interviewing again and again with engineering companies but unable to secure a full-time job for nearly a year. I felt trapped: in my own body, and in my life. By hiking for five days straight with my dog, I hoped to explore new landscapes and change my thought patterns.
As the sun drifts lower in the sky, I worry that we won’t be able to find a good camping spot, that we’ll be exposed to the wind all night. Every turn around the trail held the potential of a windbreak, but the weather only seemed to be getting worse. We walked even faster and I said to myself, “We’ll stop as soon as we find a decent campsite.” My eyes scanned the ground for an area large enough for our two-person tent, flat enough that we could sleep side by side without sliding, and on ground that wasn't too rocky. An hour before sunset, we came upon an open area near tall western juniper trees with wide trunks and twisted branches where the wind seemed to be less intense. A few yards away from the trail, I saw two boulders of metamorphic granite bigger than cars and covered in fuzzy green moss.
“This is it, Elu! If we put the tent up on this side, the boulders should block some of the wind. Time to set up camp,” I announced to my partner. I unclipped her leash and threw my pack down near the angular granite. I grabbed the collapsed tent out of the top of my backpack and took out the poles, snapping them into place as Elu sniffed around the area. Next, I brought out the ground cloth and fabric tent, clipping the poles into the grommets at the corners of the material. I threw my pack and Elu’s inside and began to fit poles into the grommets at the top of the delicate structure. As the wind gusted and the tent filled with air, the aluminum poles ripped from my cold hands and the whole fragile structure went tumbling over.
“Fuck! Fuck!” I screamed into the air, scrambling after my gear as the tent rolled upside-down. I pulled it upright and yelled for Elu to come, directing her to stand inside to help keep it in place as I finished setting up. There was a tear in the fabric on the top of the structure that I’d have to tape later so the frayed ends wouldn’t widen; the lightweight gear wasn’t made to roll and scrape against rocks. I needed to pull out the big rain cover and clip and stake it into place over the tent to protect us from the rain and snow that the weather report predicted. The wind was gusting and raging consistently by then, and the waterproof fabric snapped viciously in my hands. As soon as I got one side clipped onto the tent, the other side had been pulled off by the wind and was flapping.
More than ever, I wished Elu had thumbs and could help me. The boulders next to us didn’t seem to be doing anything to block the wind and I was scared that I’d chosen a bad spot. I started to panic. As the rainfly was ripped off of the tent by another gale-force gust of wind, I put my face in my hands and sobbed. “I can’t do this, Elu!” She looked up at my face with bright blue eyes, her intense gaze focused on me. I imagined she was thinking, “What’s wrong? This isn’t so bad.”
My crying jag only lasted fifteen seconds then I pulled myself together with a deep breath and hurried to get the rainfly on while the wind wasn’t so fearsome for a moment. I managed to get all of the sides clipped onto the poles, then placed rocks the size of my head on the ground stakes and climbed into the tent to make our beds ready. The sun slipped behind the mountains, the day’s warmth disappearing with it.
As darkness came, the wind intensified and Elu huddled on her mat next to my sleeping bag inside the tent, trembling with every gust. We spent the night snuggled together, trying to stay warm and rest. I boiled water over my small stove and put a hot Nalgene under Elu’s curled body and one in my sleeping bag. I’d placed rocks as big as my head on top of the tent stakes anchoring it to the ground, but they slipped during the night and the edges of the rainfly snapped loudly in the wind every few minutes. I tried to reposition the rocks, but it only took a few minutes before the wind pulled the tent fabric loose and it started flapping again.
Rain began to fall on the tent. Then little pings sounded on our roof, hail bouncing on the taught fabric. In my exhausted and sleepless mind, the sounds of the wind and weather transformed into bears and mountain lions snarling, growling, and pacing outside the tent. I whispered to myself, “I am not afraid of the wind. I am not afraid of the wind. I am not afraid of the wind.” Repeating this mantra made me feel a little better, and I snuggled tighter against Elu. I didn’t feel safe, but I felt oddly in control that night. I understood the risks of traveling the backcountry solo in November and I knew Elu and I would get through the storm together, even though it meant shivering in the windblown tent as hail turned into snow falling around us.