The Trek Begins
25 March 2016: Trek4PTSD (T-16 hrs)
It was the night before and final preparations were under way. Last minute purchases, such as a silk sleeping bag liner, and preparations were being made. A nice pasta dinner at Olive Garden to load up on the carbs I would be needing the next day was part of the plan. One last unpack and repack just to make sure all was loaded and ready, the nerves were starting to kick in.
With all preparations complete, it was time to go to bed and rest up for the trail ahead. But good sleep was not in the cards. Like a little kid on Christmas Eve, I could not get to sleep. When the time came to sleep, it did not take long to come out of my slumber, 0430 could not come soon enough, but sleep I must.
26 March 2016: Trek4PTSD (T-2.5 hrs)
The alarm goes off and the laughter of minion wakes me up. The last shower for who knows how many days feels great. The butterflies in my stomach are fluttering around even more. As I gather the few things that I will wear and pick up my coffee, I say goodbye to the comfort of home and get in the car. As planned we stop at McDonald’s to get a high calorie breakfast before stepping off. One hour and fourty-five minutes until we get there. With water, Gatorade and a Mickey D’s breakfast in hand we are driving down I-5. I try to eat, but I feel full. I drink the water and the Gatorade to “camel up” and stay hydrated. On the drive down, two pit stops had to be made, to much water :D.
We arrive at the south Pacific Crest Trails (PCT) South Terminus. There we spot another vehicle dropping off four hikers. In the distance we can see a Border Patrol Jeep besides the border. Time for one last gulp of water and Gatorade. I exit the car and make it to the terminus. On the south side, I open the re-purposed first aid kit and retrieve the log book. I sign the book and hand it over to the other hiker, then back to the car to dawn my gear.
The time to step of is upon us and as excited as I may be, ready I do not feel. One last kiss before my wife heads back home and a last embrace.
The temperature was 34 degrees.
26 March 2016: Trek4PTSD Day 1; Mile 0; Campo, Ca. (US/Mexico Border)
The Trek is on. I step off with an ultra-ultra light PCTer about 100 yards ahead. Looking back and second guessing are not options and I go forward. Just a few hundred yards into the journey I must cross the same dirt road we just drove on. My wife is there to record the moment and one last goodbye.
Roughly one quarter mile down the trail I run into a young lady, who’s name I did not get. She was a cast member at Disneyland. She decided to hike the PCT after working at Disney for 10 years. The realization that her life was mostly work so that she could pay rent, eat and not much else was too much for her. Disney would only give her one month off to thru hike the PCT. That was not good enough. She quit her job, sold her car and set off on her own journey. We hiked together for a little bit and then I left her behind. Later, I found out from other hikers, that she had actually walked four miles in the wrong direction by the boarder. Border Patrol picked her up and brought her back to the terminus. I did not see her again.
At the one mile marker I stopped to take a picture and commemorate this milestone. It would be the only mile marker I would see. Just a few feet north of the marker I would run into yet another hiker, Butterscotch. He had started his journey the night before and was still curled up in his sleeping bag. I would see him again later that day.
As the day went on and the miles passed the weather started to warm up, probably to the high 70’s. The sun made the day seem hotter and sweat was pouring from my pores. Water was a concern, so I was careful to ration it. I had started the day off with 5 liters of water and I knew that I would not have a chance to get any more until mile 15, maybe.
Roughly 4 to 5 miles into the trail I met the second hiker. She was one of the four hikers that was being dropped off when we arrived. I do not remember her name. She was an older lady who had already done a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT) and was now doing 500 miles on the PCT. I stopped to rest and she passed me up. Later that afternoon I would see her again at camp.
As the day grew longer and the temperature rose I continued on the trail. At about mile nine I stopped for lunch. Finding a big boulder that was casting a two foot shadow, I grounded my pack, took my boots off and had lunch for about 45 minutes. While I was there four hikers passed me by. Of the four I would only see two again.
After lunch I set off to try to make it to camp. I had roughly six hours until sundown and six miles to go to camp. These six miles would be some of the longest miles of this trip. This would be the times that I would question my decision to hike the PCT. I doubted my ability to continue, I was physically drained and mentally defeated. To compound the problem, by mile 12 I had consumed three liters of water and had roughly two to make it the next eight. I knew that at camp I would have a chance to set up my tent and walk about another mile and a half to get water, something I was not looking forward to. And even with the water report saying there was water there, I could not trust it 100%. But I must believe.
As I arrive at mile 15.4 I arrive at Hauser Creek where I would be setting up camp. As I walk up I see some much welcome help. A trail angel has left a two liter soda bottle filled with water. On the side of the bottle was the date, 3-16, left there that day. I grab it and bring it to camp where the lady from earlier was at. Two other hikers had passed me by just a couple of miles back. A few other hikers, who were slack packed with their gear at Lake Morena, chatted for a bit and were on their way. They found two more liters of water just a few feet up the trail and left them with us. We had water, all worries were gone.
While preparing to set up camp two of the hikers that had passed me at mile nine arrived at camp. They missed the turn and walked the long way to camp. This is where I got to know Hopper, a gentleman who had moved to China to teach English. He had quit his job and sold his car, a common trend it appeared, to come to the U.S. and hike the PCT.
The older lady had already set up her tent. Hopper, his hiking companion for the day and I start to set up our tents. This was the point where Brad, not a trail name, came into camp. Brad is from Sacramento. His wife and kids dropped him off that morning at the terminus and he has until Friday April 1st to make it to Warner Springs, mile 109. That is 15 miles a day. Brad is a big guy, reminds me of Andre the Giant, and was exhausted when he arrived. He was determined.
The four of us pitched our tents, bringing the total count to five tents. This is when Butterscotch rolled in. Butterscotch is from Norther California and was taking time off from work to hike the PCT. This will be his second thru hike, with the first being the AT. He hopes to become a Triple Crown Hiker some day (thru hiking the AT, PCT and Continental Divide Trail). Butterscotch did not have a tent, just a tarp by choice. A choice that I would question a couple of days later.
That night after we had all gone to sleep, another hiker arrived. Our interaction with him was minimal. He was asking for water and we found out later that he had only two liters of water to do the first 20 miles. Shows the importance of planning and keeping up with the water reports. The next morning we would give him enough water to make it to Lake Morena.
In the middle of the night, I was woken up by a bright light. The thought rolled through my head, “who is shining that bright light at us. Well, it was not a flashlight but the moon as it came over the mountains. I pulled my beanie over my eyes and went to sleep.
27 March 2016: Trek4PTSD Day 2; mile 15.4; Hauser Creek
As the second day on the PCT started we broke camp and prepared for the 750 ft ascent to Lake Morena. This ascent is one of the steepest, if not the steepest, of California Section-A. most of the 750 foot ascent would take place in less than a mile. Starting up from the valley was not too bad, it became difficult around the half way point. That is where Hopper, who started up after I did, passed me up. The haste to get out of camp and out of the valley presented challenges getting up to the lake since I did not have a proper breakfast. The physical fatigue from the previous day and with only 1.5 liters of water for the next five miles made the ascent very difficult and taking close to four hours.
As I came closer to cresting the saddle, I could not see where that would be. That is how steep this portion of the trail was. Finally I made it to a familiar spot, the Morena Butte Trail marker. This was a welcome sight and now I knew the worst of the day was over, or so I thought. I marked this occasion on Easter Sunday by taking a selfie with the part of the trail I had just conquered behind me.
I pushed on to Lake Morena where I had the chance to have lunch, brush my teeth, get plenty of cold water and recharge my batteries for the next few miles. Here I met up with Butterscotch, Hopper, and several others once again and for the final time. I also met some more hikers while waiting to head back out.
Butterscotch decided to stay there longer and head out later to avoid the heat. He was planning to hike through part of the night, I would not see him again.
I forged on the next six miles, questioning my decision to stay on the trail even more. With every step I wanted to quit. But the support of my family and friends with the thought of those who must push through every day with the physical, mental and emotional issues of PTSD got me through yet another day.
Along the way I stopped to check my map, when I looked up I saw the most beautiful and dangerous creature of the desert. There in the middle of the trail was a SouthWestern Diamondback rattlesnake. I racked my hiking sticks and nothing. There was no room to get around it, so I decided to wait it out. While waiting I pulled out my camera and powered it on. What a beautiful picture this would make. The slithery critter was camera shy and before I could get the camera up to take its picture it slithered away while saying goodbye with its rattle. I passed the spot where it had gone in with caution and trekked on.
I arrived at the 26 mile point to make camp at Boulder Oaks Campground. When I arrived I saw a group camped out near the bathroom, I approached them and found out that it was a father with his two sons and two of their friends who had just hiked down from Laguna Mountain and were on their way to the south terminus. They invited me into their camp and I was glad for their company.
After setting up camp I walked off and turned on my phone. I became emotional after seeing everyone’s comments and the pictures of the kids doing the egg hunt. The last two days had taken their toll on my emotions and being over burdened did not help. I called my wife and mentioned that I thought about asking her to come down to take some things that were not necessary. She volunteered to drive the two hours to come get the gear and I was glad for the effort.
Waiting for my wife to arrive I had a big dinner and set aside the items I would give her. Among those items were my GoPro, kindle, GPS, Anker battery and some MRE’s I had not eaten and would not need. All those items plus a few more equaled six pounds. Those few pounds would prove to be a great help.
She arrived and we spent some time by the car. I grabbed the two Gatorade bottles that were in the car finishing one off before she left. It was time to call it a night. Saying goodbye one last time, she drove off and I settled into my sleeping bag. I hoped for a better night sleep for the next day would be a challenge. I dozed off and got some rest.
28 March 2016: Trek4PTSD Day 3; mile 26; Boulder Oaks Campground
Days one and two had been extremely challenging and in my mind day three would be the most difficult yet. So far I had only covered 26 miles, four miles behind my goal of 15 miles per day. I did not know how far I would get on this day but I set an ambitious goal of making it to Mount Laguna. I had made up my mind that I would do the best I could and if I did not make it there by night fall that was OK. However, I knew that if I did make it there I would have a choice to make. Making it the 17 miles to Mount Laguna would mean that I would stay at mile 41 or push on, possibly into the night, and make it to the Mount Laguna Campgrounds at mile 47.5. This decision was crucial since I could not set up camp between miles 41 and 53 outside of an established campground.
The challenge of the day would not be the 17 to 22 miles I would have to go that day, but the almost 3000 foot ascent. This day would be 95% uphill.
With a plan and a goal for the day I took my lighter pack filled with water and headed out. As I started off in the cool and overcast morning I said goodbye to my hosts and was off on the trail yet once again. A new rush of energy came over me and I could not help but notice the great pace of two miles an hour I was on. The thought crossed my mind of how long I could keep this pace while going up hill.
The day was nice and cool with a constant wind at my back. The views today were great and the troubles of the past two days seem to have disappeared. I trekked on and on.
Five hours into my day I stopped at mile 36, ten miles into the day. I dropped my pack and set off to have lunch and a short 30 minute break under a large oak tree. With temperatures in the low 40’s I put on my fleece and set off yet once again. My energy never faded and my spirits were high.
Today I had not seen anyone since I left camp. My only companions were the tracks of Hopper and Brad. I would hope to see them again later that day. And then I arrived at mile 41. Here I had a crucial decision to make, do I go right and keep on the PCT or right into Burnt Rancheria Campgrounds and town. From this point forward every decision I would make over the next five miles would be the wrong one.
I stayed on the PCT and shortly there after realized that there were no tracks to be found. I might have missed the chance to see my friends that night, but hoped to see them again in the next couple of days on the trail. I was sure that I had passed them at that point. I arrived at the Desert View picnic area and had a great view of the desert to the east, the last time I would see the desert that day even though I would be hiking the ridge line that would give me a better view of the desert floor below.
As I left forged on I realized that the winds that had been howling all day were picking up. I decide to put on my Frogg Toggs to act as a wind breaker since temperatures were now in the 30’s. I arrived at mile 43.4 and a road. Here I had another decision to make, do I take the road into town and stay at the lodge, do I stay on the road and hump it into the campground or do I stay on the trail and make the 4 mile hike to the campground? Again, I made the wrong decision and stayed on the trail.
By now the winds had really picked up and I could see the clouds rushing past in front of me. The decision to stay on the trail would haunt me at around mile 45. Here I reached a small saddle and the area where I should of seen the desert below. I could catch glimpses of the desert floor below as the clouds rushing past me would ease up. Here I was on the top of this mountain with a sail on my back and the thought that came over me that I might have to hunker down and try to survive the night. Scared that I would be blown off the mountain and into the desert, at least I knew that with the Spot on my pack I would be found quickly.
With fear and determination I put my head down and pushed, literally, forward. The winds gusts, I would find out later, were clocked at around 70 miles an hour. I made it past this difficult portion and kept going. With visibility dropping after a couple hundred yards I could not rely on my map for a precise location. Then, a glimmer of hope. With elation, as best as I could I yelled, “IT’S A ROAD, I SEE A ROAD.” This is when I knew that I was close to my destination and the worst was over.
As I made my way onto the road and back towards the Mount Laguna Campground my day was coming to an end, or so I thought. I walked up to the campground map and looked for a spot that was close to a bathroom, a decision that would be both good and bad. With night already setting in, I could not judge the best place to camp and chose the site closest to the restroom. Here I set up my tent and prepared to cook my dinner. The winds were too strong and I could not keep my stove lit. This is the good part about being close to the bathroom. I headed into the bathroom, which being so early in the season was very clean, and set about preparing my evening meal of Chicken Fried Rice. The warm meal did a lot for my spirits and the bathroom sheltered me from the wind. I tried to call my wife and let her know that I was OK. The day that had been so good most of the day ended up being horrible at the end.
After eating dinner and texting with my wife I settled into my sleeping bag and prayed for some sleep. The high wind advisory was set until 0300 and I longed for that magic hour. I could hear what I thought was rain and the howling wind above me. At times the winds were so strong that the tent roof would be pushed down on me. As always, I had to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and I also had to fix on side of my rain fly. As I prepared to put on my foot ware I noticed what was on my shoes. I shouted, as much as I could, “Are you fucking kidding me? Frozen rain? Really?”. The winds had pushed it under the rain fly and all over my shoes. The rest of the night the winds did not ease up and sleep was not in the cards.
A great day was overshadowed by one of the most horrible nights of my life.
29 March 2016: Trek4PTSD Zero Day 1; mile 47.5; Mount Laguna Campground
As the sun rose and I could see daylight hitting my tent I had a decision to make. The winds had not let up and I was afraid of what the future might bring. The previous night I had made the decision that it would not be wise to continue the next day if the winds had not let up. Now, the faith of the day rested with the weather forecast.
I turn on my phone and look at the weather report. “High Wind Warning in effect until 3AM Wednesday”. The decision was made for me by mother nature. I would not continue on today. The decision now was what to do. Temperatures were not supposed to get much warmer and rest would be next to impossible. The decision was final.
At 0630 I made the call, “I cannot get off the mountain safely, come get me”. I was suspending my trek. A wave of emotion came over me and I had my moments. It would be two more hours before I would get off this mountain. Camp was frozen, water was frozen, my cold was worse and I could not do much more.
In the meantime, I walked around the campgrounds and found two young ladies, PCTers themselves, Kristen and Haven(neither of the had trail names) from Ohio. They had taken a zero day the day prior trying to wait out the storm. They were thru hiking the PCT and had, as I, made the decision that hiking the next 30 miles was not wise. In an attempt to go on, they were going to try to find a way to Julian and continue from there. I offered them a ride there once my wife picked me up.
With camp broken and we waited for our angel to come get us of this mountain, two other hikers made it to the campgrounds. They had been caught on the ridge line behind a rock and had to wait out the night behind a huge boulder. They had hit the trail from town shortly after I had, but were unable to push through onto the campground. The decision that we had made to leave the mountain was one that these two weather beaten hikers were not struggling with. If one decided to stay and the other go we could of given them a ride. But they both decided to try to go to Julian and we could not fit them all in. They stuck together and tried to hitch a ride there.
My wonderful wife turned down the campground road and we could see a wonderful sight. As my big yellow Jeep roll in, we knew that shortly there after we would escape the 25 degree cold and windy mountain and head home for me and Julian for them.
As we turned into the main road and headed north to Julian, I stopped to say one last goodbye to the two hikers who were trying to hitch a ride there. As we made the drive north we could see portions of the trail and the ridge line it would follow. The Jeep acted like a sail and it was a struggle to keep it straight in the storm winds. This reaffirmed our decision to abandon the trail for another day.
We dropped Kristen and Haven off in Julian and headed home. As the day came to a close, I was disappointed that I was unable to continue. I knew, however, that I will pick it up where I left off in the not too distant future and the Trek for PTSD will continue.
As I was battle worn from the previous night I could not stop thinking about those I had met on the trail. Was Brad going to be able to keep his 15 mile per day pace and make it to Warner Springs in time? Was Hopper staying the night and wait out the storm? Did the two hikers who were stuck on the top of that mountain, able to get a ride to Julian? I hope that they are all doing good and OK.
I have learned a lot over the past 3 days and look forward to meeting more people on the trail. Besides the obvious hiking/camping related issues, I also learned to look at the soles of those I meet. Their soles will help me track them as I go down the trail. If I have one regret is that I did not take pictures of those I met, a mistake I will not make again. And when I am not on the trail, I will do what I can to help those that are. Plans are in the works to leave several gallons of water at mile 15.5, Hauser Creek, so that others will feel the love I did when I saw that water sitting there.
After making the decision to leave the mountain and my subsequent post, a good friend reminded me of something very important about this Trek. She said, “knowing when to ask for help is extremely important. ….isn’t this what you are promoting?” and that statement brought the whole day, and this journey, into perspective. We need to know when to swallow our pride and ask for help.
The trail is calling and I will be back on it soon at mile 47.5. The Trek will continue.