PCT SoCal Big Bear to Wrightwood: Day 2 (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.
Early in the morning on Tuesday, the gusts slowed to one every half hour and we were finally able to rest. A notoriously light sleeper my whole life, the trait had only worsened in recent years. I had barely gotten any sleep during the night, and expected bone-deep weariness, but knew I could push through it for one day. As first light began to glow, the wind quieted for good, and I boiled water for a hot breakfast of rehydrated eggs and bacon that I shared with Elu inside our tent. The meal was too powdery to ever be mistaken for fresh scrambled eggs, but the flavor of the bacon bits in the mix and the warmth it spread through my body more than made up for that. “We made it through the worst part,” I said to her as she gobbled up the egg-topped kibble. “Well, I hope that was the worst part of the trip,” I quickly amended, immediately feeling as superstitious as I did while at sea as a Coast Guard engineer, afraid to jinx us and somehow invite bad weather or broken gear.
I cracked open an icy tent flap and we gently stepped out into fluffy snow half an inch deep. I had known it might snow on this trip, but living in San Diego for the past few years, I’d forgotten how it felt to wake up to a frozen world. The frustrations of the night before were swept away by the freshly fallen snow and the warmth of the sun. Elu and I wandered back to the trail and I was happy to find the deep rut of packed earth easily visible even under the white cover. I tilted my face upward and grinned, absolutely joyful to see the clear blue sky and inhale the sharp smell of pines on the cold air.
Even though we'd only slept in thirty-minute increments, we were both excited for the day ahead. I’d planned a fifteen-mile hike for each day, which would have us completing the trip on Saturday morning or afternoon. I’d be updating my friend Cara with our progress through text messages and she planned to pick us up at the Cajon Pass where the PCT met highway I-15, near the starting point of our last backpacking trip.
We walked all morning and stopped for no longer than twenty-minute breaks because it was so cold that we’d start to shiver if we rested any longer. We walked through the snowy forest above Big Bear Lake, where the slopes of ski resorts were visible across the water. Within an hour, we reach the spot the guidebooks and trail note as the highest point that Elu and I would travel during this section, at 7,716 feet of elevation. I knew the trail would gradually slope downward until we reached the lowest point of the trail near Deep Creek Hot Springs, forty-two miles into our trip.
As the sun rose overhead, we passed through a dry and recently burnt area with bald and blackened downed trees lying across the trail. Elu and I squeezed under the logs when we could, sometimes having to shuffle up the hill and around them. Occasionally, I had to hoist Elu over a fallen tree by her harness before I climbed over.
As we hiked, the scenery changed from the dense and tall lodgepole pine forests to short shrubbery and twisted manzanitas.
Then the trees disappeared altogether, and I recognized the smell of sage in the air and the spiky desert plants from our earliest hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail near the Mexican border. In one day, we’d walked 15 miles from a snowy campsite at 7,000 feet and right into the Mojave Desert.
When reached the area where I’d planned to camp, the clouds were thick above us, darkening the sky and moving fast to the south. I watched the gray clouds advance over the open land of the Mojave, and imagined lightning and rain pummeling the terrain. Intuition told me we’d have to get out of the desert and find a safer spot to rest during the night’s storm.
Just like when I was a military diver, every decision I made in the wilderness weighed risk versus reward. My experiences as a woman among the Brotherhood of Divers had led me to this stretch of land seeking to escape, but they’d also prepared me in many ways. The Coast Guard had instilled in me the skills of navigation, weather prediction, multi-day trip planning, keeping a steady pace, and reacting quickly to changing situations. My plan had us camping in the high desert after hiking 15 miles, but I listened to the instincts that told me to keep moving.
I knew we needed to keep hiking until we reached lower ground where there wasn’t a risk of flash flooding during the rainstorm that I felt was imminent. Picking up the pace, an ache in my knees began to grow as we hurried downhill along the sandy path. I let Elu off leash to scamper ahead on the trail and she waited at each bend, keeping an eye on me while also watching lizards and birds from the edge of the trail. I shuffled along behind her, relieved when the environment changed again to small trees, then larger. We heard a trickling stream before we saw the running water of Holcomb Creek. When I spotted an open area above the creek surrounded by pine trees with thick trunks, at last I knew we’d found a safe place to camp. As night fell at six PM, the rain began to splatter on us and I expertly set up our tent underneath a large Jeffrey pine.
I was amazed that we had hiked twenty miles during the short autumn day, with only twelve hours of daylight. That was more than we had ever done in a day before, despite the heavy packs and lack of sleep the night before. How was my body capable of so much strength and endurance? I’d felt so fragile and constantly exhausted only a few months before while struggling through months of depression interspersed with moments of sheer panic and sensory overload typical of PTSD. The stress of starting a new engineering job, training Elu as my service dog, and completing a distance master’s program in creative writing left me with little time or patience for anyone.
Hiking let me leave all of that behind, and by always moving forward, I was able to stay in the moment. In our tent under the sturdy pine, I congratulated Elu for a successful day on the trail and shared my rehydrated meal and beef jerky with her. The rain pattered on our tent through the night and I slept deeply, Elu’s warm body curled against my side. I felt safe and content next to her, in a way I hadn’t felt in months.