We left the creek bed at sunrise. I expected some trouble with poodle dog bush, but the combination of the dreaded plant and uphill switchbacks for over a mile made the morning especially difficult.
Poodle dog bush causes a severe rash if touched. I didn’t know how it compared to nettles or poison oak, but just the look of the plant was threatening. A close cousin to marijuana, you often smelled it before seeing it. I’d heard a rumour of an intrepid hiker who’d tried smoking the plant and ending up hospitalized.
After a steep climb and poodle dog dodging I came to a ridge where I managed to achieve a single bar of service on my phone. I wished my mum a happy birthday, and then the bar was gone. It would be the last I’d have for days.
I found Justa and Squatchie a couple miles later eating breakfast by a stream. They hadn’t anticipated the climb last night and hadn’t made it very far. Rally caught up shortly, along with three other lady hikers – Poca, Radish and Growler, another Canadian girl. They had all camped by us in the creek bed.
Together we climbed out of the valley and eventually into pine forest. Once the trail flattened out I breathed deeply, savouring the smell of pine and cedar and hot sap. I loved the desert, but in a way I gave it all that I had to the point of exhaustion, and the forest filled me back up.
We topped up our water at a mountain spring. Among the hikers breaking there I saw several who I hadn’t seen in a while, and was excited to catch up with them. Among them was Coyote Bait, who I’d last seen in Julian when he gave me dried fruit, and Canadoug, who I saw at Ziggy and the Bear’s during the storm. I’d shared a ride with him from San Diego to Campo on day one. I remembered that during the drive he had said that when you hike the PCT, sometimes you might go for months without seeing other hikers that you’d met in the beginning. I had been keeping pace with him so far for nearly 250 miles – I wondered if I’d lose track of him soon.
After the spring I quickly split off on my own, hiking through the cool mountain forest at an incredible pace.
I love this, I thought. I could hike in this forever.
I listened to the sounds of the forest: singing birds, chattering squirrels, rustling leaves. I didn’t encounter another human for hours.
At the bottom of a hill I met a hiker called Papa Smurf, resting his feet. He gave me some of his food, for which I was incredibly grateful; I hadn’t grown used to my new appetite and was running low. In return I gave him first aid supplies for his blisters.
I reached a cabin where I found Poca and Radish eating lunch on the lawn.
“I read that there are animal cages here,” I said. “Like retired movie animals or something.”
“It’s just up ahead,” they said. “We haven’t seen it yet.”
I didn’t want to see it. But there it was, less than a quarter-mile down the trail. A sad, lethargic grizzly bear lay on the ground in its small cage, not even lifting its head as I passed. I saw some sort of big cat half hidden in a cage further in the property – maybe a mountain lion – and a tiger. I wanted to cry. I saw construction equipment through the chain link fence, possibly indicating renovations our new facilities for the animals. I hoped it was the case. But I wondered why the animals couldn’t be rehabilitated in a zoo or preserve somewhere.
I stopped thinking about it. I had to hike on.
In the late evening I reached a campground where at least a dozen hikers had set up their tents. I chatted for a bit with some of them as I unpacked and set up. Eventually Rally, Squatchie and Justa hiked in with their headlamps lighting the way. I said good night to them and read until I was too tired to keep my eyes open. In the late night i woke briefly to flute music playing through the dark woods. I thought I knew who it was; I’d met several hikers carrying instruments, but only one with a flute.
Tomorrow I would only have ten miles until reaching Big Bear at Mile 265. I will have completed ten per cent of the PCT. I felt like time had moved so fast. Soon I will have finished twenty, then fifty per cent. And then eventually the PCT would be just a memory. It was hard to wrap my head around. Getting to Canada was no longer a goal, but an eventuality. I had grown into my nomadic life on the trail. I knew I would miss it when it was over.
I banished those thoughts from my brain as I cozied in to my sleeping bag. Instead, I thought about Big Bear and fell asleep to fantasies of town food.