Mylar, Not War: ADZPCTKOP 2005
Lake Morena State Park, April 21-24, 2005
April 21, 2005
Each spring, dating from time immemorial (1999, to be precise), there is a gathering of saunterers in the desert mountains to the east of San Diego in order to celebrate, by taking a day off, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. In 2003, I missed the wonderful Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off Party as I had to sit in Indiana and lecture on some now forgotten topic in mathematics. In 2004, I missed the ADZPCTKOP yet again because I had to sit in Indiana and get things in order before leaving Indiana for good a couple of weeks later. In 2005, I had no excuse.
On a plane, packed with business travelers, and a scattering of Evangelicals telling stories of Brazilians healed from the Downs syndrome by prayer, I read Annie Dillard or stared at my watch or gazed out the window, wishing time might some how pass a little faster just this once. Captain Bivy and Dirty, few in the hiking community use their real names, met me at the air port at whisked me to a local Hooters where we ate some overpriced food and drank some over priced beer, while chesty women strolled about being bubbly. I looked at my watch.
After making a swing by a gas station for beer, we roared out of town on I-8 and rolled into Lake Morena State Park, about 50 miles east of San Diego. Located 20 trail miles north of the Mexico-US border, Lake Morena is the first reliable water source on the PCT and is the usual campsite on the first day of hiking. Members of the legendary class of 1977 have been organizing a party here for hikers, and this year was the biggest yet. More than 500 hikers, trail maintainers, and interested types showed up and had the entire park to ourselves. I found the class of 2003 campsite, stuck way out on the fringe of the campground for the safety and sanity of others, and joined the party in progress. A fire was going, beer was flowing, and stories were being told. Just like old times, except that I hadn't had any of the old times with these particular hikers. I missed meeting Freefall, by about three hours, when he hitched in to Reno to give a presentation for the cause (AIDS and kids) that he was hiking for. I missed TeaTree because she came down with the Mojave flu and was holed up in a motel room with the shades drawn for five days. I met Lou and Wahoo for a little while as we sat around the Saufleys, but never after. Alistair and Gale I chatted with for a few minutes in South Lake Tahoe and Echo Lake, and nothing more. I never met the One. It didn't matter a lick to any of us. People had heard of me, and I of them. But our common experience formed a bond that prevented us from being strangers. A common bond.
After staying up until 1 am drinking Budweiser, I thought it would be a good idea to get up at 5:15 am and hike 20 miles across the desert. A bit in a fog, I loaded up a day pack with some food and water and stumbled over to a pavilion where rides to the border were being organized. Alistair was up as well and gave me a lift along with a few others. The monument was still there where I had left it, two years ago. Although we were the first to arrive at the long metal fence near Campo, we were not alone for long.
Very quickly cars began to roll up and disgorge excited looking hikers. Behind many of the smiles I could see the nervousness in them. I could see it because I could recognize it. I could recognize it because I remembered it. Standing a few feet from Mexico, one finally realizes how far it is to the Canadian border. The guidebook says 2650 miles. It feels much, much further away, and the preposterous nature of a thruhike is instantly drilled into the minds of those preparing to undertake the long walk north.
I shed my down jacket, said my goodbyes, and set out down the trail, leaving around fifty people behind me, with more rolling up. The PCT has to negotiate some private land parcels in the area and even takes to a road for a few yards. As the road runs by places like a Border Patrol compound and a juvenile detention facility, they are take great pains to warn people not to park along the road. I was happy to find that vandals had visited the area recently.
I loped along, passing hikers occasionally, and getting passed in turn by others, I tried to remember what I had thought about on my first day of my 2003 hike. I couldn't remember anything specific. Instead, the smells triggers emotions and feelings. The sight of desert flowers, out in a profusion of fecundity, brought back the notion of complete freedom. Freedom from everything that didn't have value or quality. I had to eat and drink. I walked and rested, doing each as I pleased. Nothing more, nothing less.
This was going to be a great year for hiking in Southern California. After crossing a road and leaving the private land behind, I began to encounter water sources. Water sources that didn't exist when I had hiked. Water sources, in the desert, no less, that I had to leap across. Flowers bloomed and birds sang, and there were even clouds overhead to keep things nice and cool.
The yucca were out in full bloom, giving the land their distinctive shape. As unique looking as the Joshua tree, to be found further north, the yucca is one of my favorite desert plants but is surprisingly scent-free, despite its gaudy appearance.
Some are a pale yellow, while others have a pink or purple tinge to the edges of the flowers. After resting during the short desert winter, the yucca bush sends up a long, tall stalk, off of which the flowers grow and hang. When its life is up, the yucca then falls over and begins to rot and hikers in the late spring and early summer can find the land littered with the corpses of the local yucca population, slaughtered by time and nature.
I passed by my first rest break area and smiled, but kept on motoring for another mile until I found myself at the rock that I was pushing for. One of the benefits of having hiked before was knowing where all the great rest spots were. On the slab I sat, and looked out on the land below Hauser mountain. A road, a ranch, some cows. SoCal. Mad Monte and two other hikers came by and I set off in chase, chatting a bit with Monte, but eventually separating as we began the climb over Hauser mountain.
I climbed, sweating lightly, and felt the joy from two years ago thick in my blood, like a parasite. Only, this was a parasite that helped, rather than hindered, its host. I couldn't stop. On and on I pushed, moving faster and faster, blowing by a few hikers scattered here or there in various states of rest. I dropped to the South Boundary Road, an old jeep track that runs south of the park, and cruised along toward Hauser Creek, passing an odd sign along the way. I didn't think it was meant for me.
As I began the descent to Hauser Creek, I found a pleasant rocky ledge to sit on for a bit. My watch told me that I had been hiking for four hours. My guidebook told me that I had covered almost 16 miles. My shins told me I was pushing a bit harder than was prudent, given my city-softened body. I ate some brie and a Snickers bar and found myself wishing for a baguette and a bottle of something red to wash it down with. The red lump of Morena Butte jutted up in front of me and I thought about how often hikers got broken by it. No shade, 1,200 feet of vertical in 1.6 miles, reached after 16 miles of walking. Today was cool and overcast, however. After sitting for thirty minutes, I felt the need to move and set off for Hauser Creek. Flowing strong enough that I had to actually rock hop across it, I was amazed by how many water sources I had encountered. In 2003, I found two (both disgusting) before reaching Lake Morena. Hauser Creek was, this year, the fifteen water source.
After crossing the creek I bounded up the side of Morean Butte, ignoring the elevation gain as best as I could, and rolled along the plateau on top untIl I reached a long trail crew, spread out over a mile, who were doing various bits of trail work. One was a hiker from 2004 who, along with his wife, went by the trail name of HikeandRide. They had brought a horse with them, and one of them was always hiking, one usually riding. I slowed and chatted with him as we descended to the lake.
The walk through the campground took me past the vendors area and directly into a hug from my friend Yogi. Yogi hiked the PCT in 2003, and 2002. And half in 2001. And the Appalachian Trail in 2001. And the Continental Divide Trail in 2004. She had written and compiled information into Yogi's PCT Handbook. Composed of two parts, one is for planning and the other is for carrying, which is a rather nice idea for a guide. The carrying part is designed for distance hikers in mind, and contains some important water source information for SoCal, and resupply information for the towns to the north. Yogi and talked and talked, and then had to chat with customers. But, Fallingwater, from Six Moon Designs, was right next to Yogi. Fallingwater and I chatted away about various things trail as I checked out his new Lunar Solo tent, Big weather coverage, innovative features, light. Looked perfect for the CDT this summer. But, I already have a good tarp. This would be a battle over my $235. Right next to Fallingwater was Brian Frankle of Ultralight Adventures. I hadn't seen Brian since August, when I came through Logan to retrieve some gear that I had left with him before starting the GDT. He had a new dog, named Red, but spelled with a W. A Utah thing, he explained. We talked for a while, but the first annual most useless piece of gear contest was starting, which promised to be interesting. I picked up some beer from my tarp and joined the festivities.
Although there were several good entries, a few dominated. Taking third place was the Reverend Gizmo, who had hiked in 2002. Within the first few days, he had gotten a lift into town from a man who wanted to know if he was carrying a bible. When the good Reverend said no, the driver pulled out a full sized King James on the Reverend (whose full trailname is Revered Gizmo the Agnostic). Gizmo carried it to Canada. Given that many hikers make it to Canada hauling 12 pound packs, adding a two or three pound Bible is rather a lot. Gizmo won a fish hat. Second place went to a 2005 hiker who had an eyelash curler in her pack. She won an adding machine from the early 1980s. First place was one by a 2005 hiker who had written something of a dissertation as a plan. He had included weather forecasts for days in June when he thought he might be crossing the Sierra. He had his caloric requirements. For example, "Need 110 calories before Campo Creek." He won a 25 lb weight. Fun was had by all.
With everything official done, I returned for some more beer and then over to the vendors to talk some more. I ran into a couple of people who were hiking this year and had read my journal from 2003. It was fun to talk with them about it and I appreciated that they had taken the time to read through my sometimes (most times) longwinded prose. Mags, a person I had never met but had talked with a lot, rolled up. Talk, beer, talk, beer. At this point, someone strolled up and announced that all the 2005 hikers had been fed, and the class of 2004 would be glad to feed everyone else. Dinner, however, was to be short lived. After eating down a few threads of pasta, I spotted Sisu and Raru, friends that I had met in Wisconsin at an Ice Age Trail event, and later in the summer of 2004 as they were hiking the PCT. Tossing my plate, I naturally accosted them. I was loving the whole thing. Everywhere I looked there was someone that I had some connection to, some common experience with, something shared.
We talked for a while and then walked over to the truck of Spidermite, who had hiked in 2001 and given Sisu and Raru a lift from the airport. Spidermite had just finished a tour with the Peace Corps in Kazakstan and I immediately started picking his brain about the experience over slugs of Jim Beam and bottles of Sam Adams. Sufficiently fortified, we stumbled over to the 2004 campsite and hung out until it got too cold for shorts. I left my friends and put on thermals and other warm clothes, and found it oddly dark outside. That meant it must be time for Walk, a documentary made by Squatch about the PCT in 2003. I was one of the very few hikers not in Walk, but that just didn't matter. I had seen it in the fall at a film festival in Olympia and loved it. More beer in the sack, and over to the field where the organizers had constructed a movie screen out of Tyvek. To know why this funny, one has to be a distance hiker.
After watching the DVD for an hour, I suspected that sixty percent of the class of 2003 had some sort of tears in their eyes as they remembered. I also suspected that this might be something of a rowdy night. The crowd dispersed and I found myself in front of our campfire with the rest of the class of 2003. The One and Freefall provided guitar support. A sign proclaiming "Mylar, Not War", courtesy of Bap da. The humor here is, again, understood only by those who have spent some time in the desert and read Ray Jardine. A drum came out. I looked up and found a mason jar of moonshine in front of me. Quality stuff. Around the fire, as if our of nowhere, were the faces of many hikers, from all years. The Mylar song came out. The screaching became louder and more voices joined into the adlib songs that the One and Freefall produced. The guitar playing intensified and the fire was built higher and higher, the flames roaring. The moonshine made the rounds and some one arrived with a mandolin, providing a bit of the surreal. The crowds gathered and the sound of our little tribe of heathens broke over the park. Around 1 am, with great effort to keep myself upright, I left the still raging party for my tarp, twenty feet away. Even without ear plugs, and with the sound of our tribe next door, I slept instantly.
The morning was clear and nice, but at 6:30 am no one was happy. The class of 2003 was serving breakfast to everyone and that meant we had to get ready. No one bothered me, but I could hear an assortment of curses that were supposed to rouse Freefall, a nominal organizer. Thinking I should get up, I staggered out. Batter was being mixed, berries cut. There were lots of hangovers in the immediate vicinity. Mags and I shuffled over to coffee central and returned to find preparations complete. "Pancakes!" was yelled, and people began to show. Everything seemed under control, and so I sat next to the smoldering fire and drank coffee with Mags. The coffee wasn't working. The line was long. Everyone new the cure: Hair of the Dog. I love vacation.
Five hundred people fed, breakfast wound down and we realized that we needed more beer. This was something of a shock to us, but fortunately there was a grocery store close by. Nothing was on the menu today, which is exactly what a Zero Day (the Day Zero part in ADZ) is supposed to be. WhoopAss, who was hiking this year and had the ignominious distinction of having fallen in a creek in the desert, took apart her pack for us to look at over late-morning cocktails. It was hard not to fawn over her, and none of us tried to resist. Doodlebug took apart her pack as well, but the cocktails were starting to take their toll.
As might be imagined, the afternoon passed by in something resembling a fog as I visited with friends both new and old.
In the late afternoon, the organizers were successful in corralling a large number of hikers for group photos. The big photo, the class photo. There was even a hiker from 1974. Many of the 2003 hikers were napping (passed out) in order to gain strength for the upcoming night. The crowd seemed a bit stunned that so much ruckus came from such a small group of people. (In the picture below: Bottom Row - (L-R) - Lou, TeaTree, Yogi, FreeFall, Meadow Mary. Standing - (L/R) Wahoo, Me, SoFar, The One, Batteries Included, Billy Goat, and I don't know).
The organizers provided a big dinner for all, enlisting the aid of a small army of volunteer cooks and servers. It isn't easy to provide food for a large number of people (witness this morning), but the organizers had it down to a science. Much food, cooked and served quickly. No one went hungry, but TeaTree was most upset that I had swiped the last of Bob Reiss' justifiably famous potato salad. Of course, we ended up back at the campsite for jello shots and vodka watermelon. The shell was carved into a smiley face by the One, and the end result was christened the Jack-o-Melon. The sun fell and we all felt the effects of the last few days. A stunning, spectacular DVD assembled from the photos of the 2004 hikers by WeatherCarrot was show on the Tyvek screen, and then the party was started again, with the grinning visage of our little graven image looking on.
The crowd began to gather and the party picked up. The drum came out once again, and this time there were two two guitars as a new player joined in. 2005 hikers mixed in and out with the 2003 people and those of the 2004 crew who had shown. It was starting to dawn on the 2005 hikers the nature of the thing that they were getting involved with. Unfortunately, at 11 pm and angry man showed up. The angry man brought angry words with him. The angry man threatened to bring the sheriff to visit us, for we had disturbed his sleep. After last night's party, we had talked with the organizers, as we had worried that the music might have been too much. No, we were told, enjoy yourself. That is why you are at the far end. This is a party for hikers. As we had the campground to ourselves, we had the law on our side. The problem with the angry man was that he was angry. The angry man left, and then came back a minute later, even angrier. Apparently, he didn't like our telling him that he was right. The angry man came close to getting a beating by several irate hikers from 2005 who didn't like being sworn at, threatened, and insulted. The angry man left, most wisely, and we left the drum silent for the rest of the night.
Morning came. The same kind of faces as on the previous morning, and this time there was only decaf coffee, or the Hair of the Dog again. After eating down a breakfast made by the organizers, we made a coffee run this time, surprising the workers at the store by not hauling out cases of beer. Things were coming to an end. A steady stream of hikers could be seen leaving Lake Morena on the PCT for all points north. Most would not make it. I hoped all would take something important from it. Those of us who were not fortunate enough to be hiking on started to wonder about things like showers and getting to our various homes.
At least Squatch and others were heading to Mexico to get their teeth cleaned cheap. Someone had to do something more interesting than go home. I caught TeaTree brushing her teeth, sans tights so as to mingle better in civil society. We both thought this funny. We gathered for a final picture with a few of our closer friends from the class of 2005, putting NaborJ and Chowder through the task of taking pictures of us with everyone's camera.
I showered and put on clean clothes, a bit sad. People left and our group was soon reduced to only a few. The one bright spot at any parting in the hiker community is the firm knowledge that it is a small community. We will cross tracks again.
Time was coming to an end. I said my goodbyes to the last few hikers around and starting the long, slow walk to where Yogi and Mags were waiting. It took me forty minutes to cross the hundred yards. Along the way, I made a couple of new friends, and ran into some old ones I had not met before. Small community. As we drove out toward I-8, we spotted thruhikers walking in a field close by and honked and waved, just like tourons do at Yellowstone when an elk or coyote walks by. I had another month and a half until my summer started. I wanted it to start right now. I wanted to walk north. I wanted to be without the burden of civil society and obligations to things that really do not matter. I wanted a good day to be one in which I found a nice tree to sit under, or when the sun went down with a particularly odd color. I wanted to be free of most possessions, to live a simple, honest life. A month and a half, I thought, as we started our descent in to San Diego, getting passed by SUVs and pickups, bumper to bumper in a 80 mile per hour tailgating festival.