The Tribe: ADZPCTKOP 2009

Somewhere in the California Desert, April 23-26, 2009

April 23, 2009
I was whistling a mongrel tune as I strolled out of the campground under the warmth of a California desert sun. I last saw the sun in Argentina in January and it felt surprisingly good even through the supernanoparticle sunblock that I had thickly smeared over my Washington-pale skin. I grabbed a sprig of sage and crushed it between my fingers before jamming my snout into the fragrant plant whose smell always makes me smile. I had a pack on my pack, trail under foot, and twenty two-ish miles of the Pacific Crest Trail to hike.

I was back, once again, for the Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off Party. I had flown down to San Diego yesterday and linked up with Mags, whom I had just hiked with in Utah a few weeks back. Our intention was a 30 mile overnight hike to the Pioneer Mail trailhead on the PCT from Lake Morena, but family obligations kept Mags close to a phone and thus I was off on my own.

Six years ago, almost to the day, I hiked through here with my sister, Anna, on the second day of my PCT thruhike. Those hundred and five days were ones that I'll treasure for ever and I can still remember every single campsite of the trip. I've learned that the experiences we meet never come around again. No matter how much I might want it, I can never repeat the experience of my PCT hike in 2003.

The trail is physically much the same as it was six years ago. A few re-routes have taken place to go around burn areas or to avoid a washed out bridge. Trail angels have come and gone. New campgrounds exist. But this isn't what I mean at all. I can't repeat the experience I had in 2003 because I am a different person now. How we relate to our environment, how we react to people and places and scents and sounds and colors, how we react to everything, is largely determined by who we are and the impact that previous experiences have made on us.

I know the joy of waking in the morning before the sun has come up, shaking off the night's sleep, and setting out on a path, knowing that the day is mine to mold, knowing that I'll be immersed in beauty constantly, knowing that the few pounds of possessions on my back is, along with water from the earth, is all I need to survive. I know this joy, but it is different now than it was in 2003.

In 2003 it was new. I had new eyes then. Now I have old eyes. The Buddhists have a phrase for this: Beginner's Mind. Shunryu Suzuki, in a book of this name, said "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." This is why learning and experiencing new things is so enticing, so tempting, so entertaining. You get to have beginner's mind without any effort whatsoever. But at some point the number of new things, or your desire to experience them, drops off and you have to work at it. Really work at it.

Note: Contrary to what the idiots at the Forest Service claimed later, the "tagging" in the below photo was not destructive graffiti. There was a pile of charcoal from an old fire at the base of the wall, which is a support pillar for a county highway, and hikers simply wrote their names on the wall with it. No one except PCT hikers will see it and it can easily be removed, unlike tagging from a spray can. The Forest Service was just upset that there pretty new white wall wasn't pure white any longer. It will wash off easy and if I lived in the area I'd come down and spend three minutes cleaning it off after hiker season.

I stopped in at Boulder Oaks, a Forest Service campground that is closed off until mid June so that Arroyo Toads can mate in peace, but with accessible water, and ran into two hikers named Chopper and Jared. Chopper got his trailname a few days previous when he had to be airlifted out of Hauser canyon due to severe dehydration. His brother, Jared, was with him and the two of them were continuing north to Canada. Chopper and Jared have a strong story behind their desire to hike the PCT and I hope that they will write about it.

We chatted for a while as I guzzled water. I was envious not just at the fact that they were going to continue heading north to Canada. Rather, I was mostly jealous that they were going to get to experience the PCT and long distance hiking with no preconditions or experiences. They were going to get it raw and new, rather than filtered through the mind of someone who was burdened by these things. I wished them well and scooted on up the trail, passing underneath I-8 and began the climb in the Laguna Mountains.

I crossed Kitchen Creek Pass and rejoiced in the open air of the desert. Where I live vistas are only long on top of a mountain, where you can get above the trees and look from the northern edge of the state to the southern edge. Here in the desert the views are only limited by the thick haze and smog spilling across the mountain passes from the San Diego - Los Angeles strip.

I could feel the sweat begin to flow and my heart begin to pump hard as my pace increased. I rolled up hill, enjoying the physical effort and tried not to dwell too much on the past. Rooting yourself in the past relegates you to the dust bin of history and keeps the old eyes firmly in place. I found a cool oasis of trees in Fred Canyon and took a thirty minute break in the shade for lunch and water. I would have taken longer, I would have lingered there under the live oaks, but I wanted to move, to walk, to pretend, even if only for a little while, that I would have to go back and be a respectable, productive member of society in a few days.

Six miles and almost two hours later I was sweating and tired, but happy, in the shade of another live oak in Longs Canyon. The small, but vibrant, stream at my feet was cool and sweet. I didn't bother with iodine or filters or UV light or bleach. I dipped my water bag and drank from the source. This is yet another pleasure that people never allow themselves. Drinking straight from the earth, and not worrying about it, is elemental. It is a part of our past that we have convinced ourselves is gone forever, rather than having only shifted places. Fifteen minutes later I was on my way once again, finishing off the climb into the Lagunas, where pine trees and wildflowers had replaced the cacti and sage and juniper of the lower reaches.

The trail was flat now, with only a few bumps along the way. I was heading for Desert View, a spectacular lookout down to the Anza-Borrego desert, one of the most hostile places on earth. The searing heat of the desert regularly climbs to within a degree or two of the record set by Furnace Creek in Death Valley for the hottest point in North America.

I was at 6000 feet in the Lagunas, with the floor of the desert nearly four thousand feet below. A breeze was blowing hard and clouds whipped overhead as I stopped and looked at the expanse of nothingness below me. Nothing grows down there. No one mines down there. The desert, with its absence of life, magnifies the importance of the individual, the importance of the single member of a species, the importance of anything alive. Three major religions came out of the desert. This is not a coincidence.

I wandered into the hamlet of Mount Laguna and found that the store had closed thirty minutes before, leaving me beer-less for the night. Fortunately human's are capable of planning ahead and I had a bottle of whiskey in my pack. I fetched water and went back to Desert View, passing a few PCT hikers bivied in the woods. I waved and kept going, for I wanted to spend the night alone with the view of the desert.

It didn't take long to set up camp. I tossed out a ground cloth and weighted it down with rocks. Sleeping bag out. Down jacket and warm hat on. Setting up camp, when you're doing it right and the weather is fine, is a matter of seconds, just as it should be.

I sat with my back against a downed tree and watched the desert down below. The light was changing but the relative locations of the sun and the Lagunas meant that I wouldn't get the an evening light show. I'd have to wait for the morning for that. But I watched nonetheless and pondered. Whiskey, a bit a Doctor Zhivago, and thought. What is the relationship of Man to the Natural World? Every other living thing on the planet knows where it stands in the natural world. Deer, bacteria, tigers, mosquitoes. It is only Man that has a problem, and many of our problems seem to stem from not knowing which side of the fence we happen to be on. Indeed, we are, by our very nature, in two worlds at the same time, and the confusion that this causes is the source of conflict, both internal and external. Only by rejecting the notion of the Duality of Man and embracing a unified vision of our Nature, whatever that might be, will we ever have true peace. The fact that this has been common knowledge for a few thousand years across many cultures, means that it is far easier to write about than to do it, just like Beginner's Mind. Eventually the whiskey kicked in and such thoughts went to sleep for the night. I, however, was still awake with one of the greatest love stories of all time. I was awake long enough for the stars to come out and the night to spread across the land. Down below, in the Anza-Borrego, whatever was alive was coming out of its sleep and beginning life once again.

My watched told me it was a little after five in the morning. The eastern horizon told me something else. The sky was beginning to lighten. A nuclear red was replacing the soft orange of Firstlight. The red grew like a cancer, enveloping the entire sky eventually. Its fingers spread out across the mountains and the desert below. I reached for my camera and started twirling dials, getting ready for the shot. I looked at the sky, thought for a moment, and put the camera back in its bag and flopped over on my side to watch the sunrise. The fusion taking place thousands of miles away was sending its light through the particulate laden air of southern California at a low angle, causing such fabulous colors that I'm shocked every time I see it. I wasn't going to take a picture of it. You'll have to go to the desert to see it for yourself. The show is free and you don't need any special equipment, training, or instruction. Just go and have a looksee.

I slept until nearly eight, packed my gear up and picked up some random trash that picnicers had left. The store didn't open until 9 am, which was when Mags was coming to pick me up. I'd have slept longer, but I didn't want my presence to deter any morning visitors, even though they'd have to work a bit to find me. On the stroll to the store I found a perfect example of the planning abilities of birds: Woodpeckers drill out holes in the soft wood of pine trees and place insect larvae filled nuts and acorns into the holes. When the larvae hatch, its time for a feast! Birds might be able to plan for food, but I haven't seen a single one figure out how to carry a whiskey bottle, so humans still have the advantage.

I found a tree to sit under and read while I waited for Mags. I took a few slugs of whiskey for good measure and chatted with a hiker named Donovan who had hurt his knee and had been living in the woods for the last five days smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap vodka. He was heading down to the Kick Off as well, and from there to San Francisco where he'd heal up before returning to the trail. This description makes him sound a little off in the head, but he was really just a normal person out for a stroll who couldn't afford a motel room for five days.

A SUV disgorged four hikers who were going to walk back to Morena for the Kick Off and the driver agreed to give Donovan a lift down. Mags arrived shortly thereafter and sped down the mountain, with two more hikers I met, in the small rental car. The party was getting ready to start and I had a lot to do. ADZ comes around only once a year, concentrating many friends, and soon-to-be friends, in the same place, at the same time. Rather than trying to tell a linear story of everything that happened over the next two days, which would probably bore most people, I'll instead just focus on the people. It is the people that makes long distance hiking so much fun. Besides, my students probably are reading this and I don't want to give them any juicy stories about me.

Here is Yogi, a repeat offender on the PCT and a Triple Crown hiker. I hiked with her a bit on the PCT in 2003, her third thruhike of the PCT, and emailed with her extensive afterward about her PCT Handbook. Additionally, after a long and tiring time on the Continental Divide Trail in 2005 I ran into her in Yellowstone as I was road walking my way to Jackson. I had had a waking dream, or vision, a few days early and my grip on what was real and what wasn't was not very firm. When she pulled along side and called out my name I wasn't sure if she was real or not, but hopped in the car anyway.

Below are Brian Frankle (left) and Billy Goat. Brian runs Ultra Light Adventures (ULA), a company that makes lightweight backpacks and other assorted bits of gear for backpacking. I've used ULA packs for many long trails and like them a lot. Brian and I hiked around Mount Hood and he'd been invaluable for helping me plan various spring break trips in Utah. Besides making packs, Brian also hikes, with thruhikes of the PCT, Arizona Trail, Hayduke Route, and Idaho Centennial Trails. Ever heard of the last two? Brian's got good taste in trails. I'd love to tell everyone about his current plans for the fall, but I just can't bring myself to do it. Instead, you should call Brian (phone number on above website) and ask him yourself. Ask for him personally and make sure you tell him that I sent you.

Next to Brian is Billy Goat, who may hold the record for most PCT thruhikes. He seems to hike every year, won't tell anyone his real name (though I know it as I'm devious like that), and has a well developed philosophy of trail life. Being a humble person it is hard to drag out of him, but an upcoming movie about hikers(Go Tell it on the Mountain), as well as several of Squatch's DVDs, has quite a bit on him. I wish I could tell you more about it, but someone more qualified than I will have to. I'd ghost write a book for him anytime.

One of the best parts of the long distance hiking community is the existence of multiple cottage companies that have sprung up to serve the gear needs of hikers. These companies design more innovative, functional gear at a higher quality level and a lower cost than the big companies. Only a few majors are close to producing something at the level of ULA or, shown below, Gossamer Gear. GG's best products, in my opinion, are their shelters. I used their SpinnTwinn tarp on the Pacific Northwest Trail and liked it a lot.

I didn't get a shot of the co-founder, Glen Van Peski, but found Disco working the booth and took a picture of him instead. Disco is yet another Triple Crowner (i.e, has hiked the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails), but more importantly was the creator of The Walkumentary, a documentary about his, and others, 2006 CDT hike. The post production editing took more than 250 hours to do, which is a lot of time to invest in something that you're going to give away. That should tell you something about the character of people in the long distance hiking community and where their values are. The documentary is well worth watching and I'd encourage hikers and nonhikers alike to download and watch it.

Another small gear maker is Ron Moak, head of Six Moon Designs. I've never actually used any of Ron's gear, but if I wasn't using ULA packs I'd use his in a heart beat. Ron's shelters are innovative and highly functional, with full on tent-like tarps to a minimalist poncho-tarp. In fact, I was going to use one of his shelters (the Wild Oasis) last summer, but the design is just too short for me. You can see his Lunar Duo shelter (in green) in the below photo.

Besides designing great packs and shelters, Ron is also a hiker. He's on the left with Mags on the right. We spent time chatting about various hikes and other trips during the weekend, and I'm was happy to hear that my PNT hike may have inspired the Braintrust hike (i.e, the heads of the small companies) this year to be in a certain dazzling location along said trail.

Smiling below is Freefall, who hiked the PCT in 2003 also. Back then I was trying desperately to run him down, but he was so fast that it wasn't until near Donner Pass that I finally got close. Unfortunately he hitched down to Truckee to give a slideshow for the charity he was hiking for and I missed him. It wasn't until 2005, at my first Kick Off, that I actually met him in person. Freefall and I will be starting out on the CDT together this summer as a part of a small gang of hikers (ten at last count) who will cross Glacier National Park together. Freefall is also one of the main coordinators for ADZ, making sure to get people in the right place at the right time.

Jester, below, is one of the few AT devotees to come West, and we've corrupted him completely. Soon he'll stop carrying a 50 pound pack and take up the joys of a tarp. I had hoped to hang out with Jester more this weekend, but my liver isn't up to Billville standards. If you ever find yourself at an East Coast hiker trash gathering, ask around for Billville. You won't be disappointed.

I don't know this girl, but she was doing laps on the clown bike. I think she may have been drinking or something.

Tigger, left, I don't know, but Pickles, right, I do. Pickles hiked the PCT in 2008 and remembered me from the last Kick Off. She was taking a new job in San Francisco after finishing graduate school at UC Davis and to celebrate was riding her bike from the Kick Off to San Francisco. Of course she's going solo, which is what everyone from the long distance community would expect, but is the question she gets most often. She seems to be smiling like this all the time, a common trait amongst long distance hikers.

I'm not sure who this woman is, but she's heating up seasoned beans for the hiker feed on Friday night. Breakfast and dinner at the Kick Off are communal and free. The entire event is free for people hiking the PCT in 2009. Other people give what they are able to. Who says socialism can't work? The event depends on volunteer labor (I drank beer and rolled burritos) and voluntary donations. No pressure (except from the PCTA, who hit hikers up at exactly the wrong time Saturday night) from the organizers. Bring what you can.

And now we come to the lovely TeaTree (also called Cinnamon, but one doesn't talk about that in polite company), whom everyone is in love with. TeaTree has hiked the AT and the PCT twice, worked in the hut system in the White Mountains, and is moving to Washington to work on an organic farm. I'd marry her in a heart beat, as every other male hiker would, but she's been dating a hiker for the last two years and isn't likely to give him up any time soon. Even worse, NAFTA is a nice guy.

I met Walt (another Triple Crowner) and Pat Radney on the PCT in 2003 and was one of the few hikers that caught up to him that year. I'm not sure how old Walt is, but he's been retired for some time. Pat has hiked many miles on the AT and the PCT as well, but knee injuries have slowed her of late. In 2004 I was leaning against a rock wall by a road near Waynesboro, VA, when they rolled up in their van and dropped off some hikers. Completely unknown to me they lived in town and put me up for the night. Good people for sure.

This blister was named Herman by her owner. Herman was one of the gnarliest blisters I've ever seen. Don't hike in the desert in sandals! Even though Jesus did it, I wouldn't recommend you try it.

Eric Ryback was the first person to thruhike the PCT back in the 1970s. After completing the PCT (and before that, the AT) he went on to hike the CDT, writing books about his two western trails. He then disappeared from the hiking scene for many year until 2008. This was when the organizers of the Kick Off tracked him down and convinced him to give a slide show and talk last year. He's been hooked over since and here he is showing off the pack he used on his thruhike. Might he try it again next year? The rumors are starting.

Here you can see Freefall and TeaTree. On the right is Girl Scout, a local hiker and trail angel in San Diego. Girl Scout lost his voice and here he is talking through Freefalls megaphone so that we all can hear him. GS puts up hikers in his apartment in San Diego and drives them out to the border for the start. He won't accept donations, but encourages people to joint the PCTA instead. Remember what I said earlier about the character of the long distance hiking community?

Another key component of the Kick Off is Special Agent, who seems to get stuck with a lot of the essential grunt work of the event. I saw him everywhere, from helping getting things clean to getting the burritos rulled. Agent hiked in 2003 and we shared a bit of trail in and out of Mojave. Here he is showing off his beer coozy/brown paper bag for a 40 of malt liquor. At least I hope its an honest beer and not some fancy schmancy microbrew.

The Kick Off does have informational presentations and workshops, but I tend not to go to them. In the evenings, however, there are slide shows and documentaries that are shown. Here the crowd is waiting for the world premier of Squatch's fourth, and final, installment of his Walk series. Squatch came to his first Kick Off in 2003 simply because he was curious about the signs pointing the way to the Pacific Crest Trail near his home of Los Angeles. After meeting a few hikers, he knew he had a lot material for a documentary. As he spent more time around us, he became interested in trying to hike himself. Over the next five years he made a total of four documentaries on the PCT and section hiked the entire trail. His last movie was showed this transition completely, though one would not see it unless you've seen where he was back in 2003.

These pictures were taken the next day, but I don't feel like trying to write about the night, so we'll just transition directly. Below is So Far, another 2003 PCT thruhiker. I'll be hiking with So Far also this summer on the CDT, part of the large gang moving across Glacier NP together. We hiked together back in 2005 through part of Oregon as part of a reunion, along with Freefall, TeaTree, Chance, The One, and Northerner.

Around noon I was wandering back toward my tarp and found Buzz (left) and Izzy from the class of 2004. We chatted a lot before their hike and they were kind enough to send me a photo DVD that they put together afterward. I ended up sitting at this picnic table for almost 5 hours drinking beer and talking with various hikers. They were out for a little section hike, a wee 200 miles to I-10. Long distance hikers have no idea that what they do seems ridiculous to everyone else. After all, most people would consider a 200 mile walk to be very, very long and would think that it would take a lot of planning and preparation. But everyone at the table had hiked several thousand miles in the past and a 200 mile hike does seem like a nice, 10 day jaunt. I wish I could have gone with them.

See, Pickles is always smiling. I can't imagine what she'd look like frowning. It might not be possible.

The only reason that the picnic table broke up was that Buzz and Izzy wanted to get hike about 5 miles out of Morena to Boulder Oaks, or thereabouts, and it was time for class pictures anyways. The hikers gathered at a set of large boulders by the lake and all the hikers there from the class of 2009 swarmed over them. There are many hikers who aren't here, either by choice (it's actually better logistically to start a few weeks later) or by necessity (jobs), but it was comforting to feel that much positive energy in the air at once.

The class of 2003 is well represented!

The 1980s had only a few, but Billy Goat, who should have been in every one of the class photos, elected only to come out for the 1980 crew.

The PCT really started in the 1970s and the central organizers of the Kick Off are all from that decade, with most having hiked in 1977.

After the class photos the hiker feed started up. Hot dogs, hamburgers, and veggie burgers were on the menu. Earlier in the day 200 pounds of potatoes had been peeled to make into Bob Riess' famous potato salad. I don't have a photo of Bob, but in 2003 he picked me up at the airport in San Diego, put me up in his RV overnight, and drove me out to the southern terminus early in the morning before he went to work. Thanks Bob!

Pickles and I sat around with some hikers eating and showing off various hiker tricks. Here, she's showing three hikers how to do a "marathoner's" tie. This is some sort of fancy shoe lace tying technique that was lost on me. The male hiker is a repeat offender from 2008 called Joker. He was back to hike again this year. The two women are hiking this year also. One is a dentist and the other is one of her clients. They found out that they had a common interest and here they are.

There really isn't any reason for this photo, but I like it and am putting it in anyways. The light was good, but I'm not much of a portrait taker and didn't feel like getting up and changing positions to get a better shot.

So Far (right) and an unknown hiker were leading others in a sort of group stretching exercise.

The next morning was moving day, with hikers getting to hike and people like me having to go home and be respectable. I found out that these two hikers, The Onion and Skittles had been looking for me all weekend. I was camped about 15 feet from them. Both were interested in doing the PNT and perhaps the GDT. I know both only by reputation. The Onion is an ultramarathoner (i.e, his races are 50+ miles) and was the first hiker to yo-yo the CDT (Francis Tapon did it the same year, oddly enough). A yo-yo is an out-and-back hike, which means he hiked the CDT from Mexico to Canada, then turned around and hiked back to Mexico. The distance is impressive, but the timing is more so. In order to yo-yo a long western trail, you have to beat the snows in the fall, yet you can't start until the spring snow melts. Skittles is one of the few repeat offenders on the CDT and has been hiking and traveling for the last two years. He isn't independently wealthy. He saved money and lives frugally. He may be showing up at my door step in a month or so prior to starting the PNT.

It was time to go. I had a flight to catch and had to return to respectability. Here are two of the organizers that I tracked down to thank and to make a donation to. On the right is Strider, the main man of the ADZPCTKOP. To the left is, I think, Jerry Goller. It was great to be out in the desert, but it was hard to escape the gravity of the event.

Mags and I finally started to drive out of the campground, but not before I got a shot of Billy Goat and Freefall from the moving car. The talk just never ends.

Perhaps most appropriately, the last photo I shot was of Mad Monte, one of the legendary class of 77. And with that we were speeding away back toward the city, toward the airport, toward a flight, and toward a life with shoes that need polishing, shirts that need a tie, and a life that has a schedule. At least, that is, for the next month and a half.