In the morning we said goodbye to Lisa and Francis, gathered our packs and set off out of town on foot. We decided to take some fire roads out of town instead of road walking the whole way, since the highway was largely winding, narrow and dangerous.
For the first couple of hours we walked uphill through neighbourhoods, past pubs and cabins and an elementary school where children played soccer out in the field. A little girl watched us from behind wire fence. When she noticed us looking she quickly ran back to the soccer game. I wondered how we must have looked – four women matching slowly up the hill with big backpacks, trekking poles clacking against the pavement.
In the outskirts of town we met a man who was walking his dog – an American Staffordshire bull terrier named Benny. Benny interrupted our hike with his soft, pleading eyes and we all gathered around to scratch his ears and rub his belly when he placidly rolled over for us.
“I always feel like making friends with every animal I meet,” I said.
Eventually we made it onto the fire road out of town and stopped for a break. As everyone else was talking, a honeybee started harassing me, flying in front of my face, and climbing on my pack.
“What’s it doing??” I yelled, running back and forth up the road, “Why won’t it leave me alone?” The ladies just laughed. I remembered spraying myself that morning with some sort of fragrance found in our hotel room that Justa described as ’90s Suave hairspray smell’. I reminded myself to just embrace the hiker funk in the future to avoid unwanted attention from bees.
The fire road soon became a pleasant downhill walk through beautiful pine and manzanita forest. We came round a bend to see some men loading rocks into the back of their pickup truck. Something was weird about the way they suddenly stopped and looked at us, then at their phones.
“How’s it going?” Rally called out.
“We have a permit,” one of them said.
Further down the road another truck was loaded with cut manzanita trees, covered with a thick tarp. The driver watched us warily as we passed.
“I think what they’re doing is illegal,” I said, stating the obvious.
After another mile the first gave way to burned and blackened trees, the forest replaced by rocky meadows and dead, charred trees. The fire happened a couple of years ago and was the reason a chunk of the PCT was closed, forcing hikers to detour. Signs along the fire road indicated that the road itself was open, but we were not to venture off of it.
We stopped for lunch at a road junction and talked about our mileage, where we wanted to camp, and the milkshakes we were going to order when we got back to the Paradise Café. We shared our food, joking about how we were tricking each other into lightening our packs.
The fire road went on for another mile or so, quickly transforming from burned woods to meadow, and back into semi-desert when we reached the highway. There was no shoulder at first, so Squatchie – who had great hearing – would yell “car” from the back and we’d all plaster our bodies against the dirt bank as it passed.
We discovered a trail at the bottom of the embankment on the opposite side of the highway, which Justa and I took as Squatchie and Rally continued on the road. The trail eventually led to a campground – completely empty, but with bathrooms and a huge children’s playground. I made use of both, making sure to try out every slide on the playground. Squatchie and Rally caught up with us at the campground entrance and we talked about where we were going to go.
There was another campground – Lake Hemet – half a mile down the highway. It was also empty, but ended up being expensive and the campsite we were assigned was half a mile into the campground which felt pointless and frustrating. The lake itself wasn’t much of a sight, a huge portion of it dried up from the drought.
As we pitched our tents we watched dark clouds descend ask around us. Bad weather was predicted for Idyllwild for the next two days, and we wondered about our friends heading up San Jacinto that day, or the next. We set up our rain flys just in case. I swore repeatedly as I tried to hammer my tent stakes into the hard ground with rocks that kept crumbling on impact.
The weather soon became cold and damp and after dinner we crawled into our tents without ceremony. I took a generous swig of cough syrup and fell asleep on my back as the hoots of owls took over the night.