I was packed and ready early the next morning and hiked off on my own through the pine forest. The golden morning light seemed to bring the moss and lichen to life, clothing the trees and fallen logs in vibrant green.
A few miles up a slight incline I reached the top of a ridge overlooking Big Bear Lake. I could see the marina and could almost pinpoint the hostel. I stopped briefly for breakfast and then headed out along the ridgeline where I ran into a familiar face coming from the other direction.
“Hey!” I said. It was Foxtrot, who I hadn’t seen since Idyllwild. He was with two other hikers I didn’t recognize. “You guys are going the wrong way.”
“We’re slackpacking,” he said. That made sense. Big Bear to Wrightwood was a five day food carry. To avoid the weight hikers could cover short sections without carrying all their gear and supplies.
“Cool,” I said, “well, see you later.”
The trail soon veered on to the north side of the ridge through a burn area. The elevation remained steady, but the repetitive contours and bare landscape started to put me to sleep. I listened to podcasts for a couple hours until I reached a single shaded tree near water where I set down my pack and curled up for a nap.
Justa caught up to me half an hour later and we had lunch together until Rally and Squatchie arrived, along with an older hiker I had passed the day before named Don. We all filtered our water from a small stream while asking Don questions about his family. He had 22 grandchildren and was planning to hike a section of the PCT with two of the eldest.
I could feel the muscles in my legs begin to atrophy from my long break so I said goodbye and hiked on, listening to a mix of classical music as I transitioned out of the burnt forest into an arid stretch filled with giant boulders, shrubs and charred wood. I was glad that the elevation and the breeze was enough to keep me cool as I could see that I’d be exposed for miles with no opportunity for shade.
I rounded a sandy bend to the tune of Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ and sharply sucked in my breath. Ten feet in front of me was a fat black snake laying across the trail. I could clearly see its rattle, although it made no sound to warn me. I watched it slowly slither across the path, clearly in no hurry.
“Hey, snake,” I muttered. It rattled briefly in response and coiled itself behind a burnt log, head raised and tongue flickering in my direction. I heeded its warning and moved on.
Just up the path I saw a cluster of blue birds attacking something in the grass. When I drew near they scattered, including the object of their torture – another bird of the same kind, which flew away, seemingly uninjured. I felt like I had interrupted some sort of bird fight club. The desert was brutal and weird.
As evening drew near I found myself at a small clearing in a grassy gulley next to a flowing creek. There was a pair of campers there – clearly weekend warriors judging by their heavy dome tent and camp stove. One of them approached me as soon as I entered the clearing.
“Hi there,” he said. “We’re just cooking dinner. Would you like some food?” He said his name was Mauricio. He and his son were hiking this section of the PCT for the weekend.
I graciously accepted their invitation and joined them for some Mountain House beef stew. They asked about the PCT and my experience on the trail. Mauricio used to teach backcountry survival. He was horrified when I showed him my feet.
“You should be wearing boots!” He said.
“They’re not as bad as they look,” I replied, wiggling my blistered and blackened toes as if proving my point. His son, Alex, was more fascinated with my descriptions of my diet.
“I eat, like, five thousand calories a day,” I said. “I can eat whatever I want. For breakfast I had Fritos and pie.”
“That’s pretty much how I eat now since I’m in college,” he said.
Soon Squatchie, Rally and Justa joined us and shared more PCT stories, while we learned more about Mauricio and Alex and their lives back in LA. When it grew dark we said good night and the four of us set up our sleeping gear near the creek bank.
“I love them,” Rally said, “I want to just put them in my pocket and take them home with me.”
“They gave me yogurt,” I said wistfully. “When do you ever get to eat yogurt on the trail?”
I didn’t set up my tent that night since it was warm, but regretted it when the nearly full moon rose and blasted its moony light through my heavy eyelids. The mosquitoes were out in full force as well, and I covered my face with my sun hat to keep out the light and the bugs.
I drifted off to sleep but woke within an hour with a pounding heart. I sat bolt upright and looked around the moonlit clearing. It was just us, and Mauricio’s tent. My heart was still hammering, my body riddled with adrenaline, and I realized the left side of my face was numb around my nose and mouth. My lips were swollen. I was having an allergic reaction.
I sat still for half an hour while my body settled down, and when I decided the numbness wasn’t spreading, I lied back down, soon falling asleep from the exhausting aftermath of panic.