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Weeks 2 and 3 of my PCT journey have been some of the most fun I’ve had so far on trail. These two weeks brought the first real peak on trail and also two fast food restaurants that have acquired legendary status among PCT hikers. After spending what will probably be the most relaxing and easy zero day I will have in Idyllwild with my cousin, I got back on trail and began my climb up the first big peak on the trail: San Jacinto. During my zero day, I had heard a wide variety of reports regarding trail conditions near the 10,834 foot peak. Some hikers reported trouble with blow downs on the spine that approaches the peak, some said snow conditions made accessing the summit a real challenge even with snow gear, while others said the approach was no big deal and micro spikes were not necessary. Hikers use an app called FarOut for offline GPS navigation, but this app also allows comments to be made on waypoints such as water sources, campsites, and places of interest such as peaks. This feature can be extremely helpful when trying to plan your water or camping strategy for a day but can also result in the social media effect where problems or issues are amplified.

As I made my ascent on a very windy day with gusts pushing up over the spine I was zig zagging along, I found the blow downs to be navigable and I even received some trail magic of candy and pretzels from a trail angel who had hiked over 5 miles up to a wind-swept saddle to hand out snacks and supplies to hikers. He carried a sign that said “Real Life Trail Angel, Not an Actor” and had apparently been doing trail magic on San Jacinto with some other trail angels for years. My excitement rose as the elevation climbed and I summited San Jacinto the day after I left Idyllwild. I had brought my microspikes with me and put them on for the last mile of snowy trail to the summit, more to just get some use out of them because I found the snow conditions to be good, even after it got a little slushy in the afternoon sun.

The hike up and down San Jacinto really got me excited for the peaks to come along the trail and I loved being up at elevation again. The smell of pine in snow reminded me of training hikes I did this past spring in Rocky Mountain National Park and in Pike National Forest to prepare for the PCT. While at the summit I met some day hikers who had taken the Cactus to Clouds route all the way from downtown Palm Springs. This route has one of the greatest elevation increases among day-hike routes in the USA and after starting the climb in the cool early morning hours of the desert and climbing over 10,300 ft of elevation gain, hikers usually take a gondola ride back down to the desert. I took a day to climb down from the summit to the windy and dusty I-10 crossing.

Arriving at I-10 at the end of the day reminded me of getting picked up from summer camp: Trail angels, Ubers, and friends and family were all waiting to pick up dusty hikers who had either arranged for a ride or a place to stay. Multiple trail angels offered me rides into Cabezon or Palm Springs before I was picked up again by my cousin Colin who had graciously offered to help me out on the other side of the mountain! Colin took me to the location everyone on trail had been talking about all day and had even sighted from the high ridge line overlooking Cabazon: the I-10 In-N-Out. Re-entering the real world via a fast food restaurant can be a jarring experience for a hiker who has spent days in the peaceful wilderness, listening to bird song and streams, but the promise of all the calories you could ever want makes the chatter and clatter of fast food worth it.

It’s quite a sight to see groups of dusty, sweaty, windswept hikers amongst bright white and red booths filled with patrons in regular, clean attire. With my double hamburgers done protein style, fries, and pink lemonade secured, Colin takes me on a quick driving tour of Palm Springs and I get to see the 26 ft tall Marylin Monroe statue in downtown and then back to his Palm Springs house for the night. I also get to watch a full moon rise over palm trees while sitting in their hot tub, savoring this dreamlike moment. I have a flash back to the night before that I spent beneath the summit when I had to pull my sleeping bag all the way over my head for warmth, and then I come back to reality feeling like I need to pinch myself because I am so lucky to be experiencing both of these things back to back.

Getting back on trail the next day, I feel even luckier and more grateful for the familial support because I meet multiple hikers who braved camping in the windswept valley and were met with 90 mph gusts of wind around midnight, destroying tents and a night’s sleep. After leaving Palm Springs, I enter a section of trail that has gained a lot of notoriety on trail this year: Mission Creek. A friend of a friend on trail had sent a text describing this section as Satan’s Labyrinth due to the extreme trail damaged caused by Hurricane Hillary last summer, washing out around 10 miles of trail that followed the creek bed. In addition to this destruction, there had also been an outbreak of norovirus in April that the PCTA had determined started in this area. The comments in FarOut were all over the place, but I reminded myself that I grew up hiking in creeks that would wash out during spring rainstorms for fun and most hikers were being extra careful with respect to hygiene since the warning had been posted. I also needed to make some big miles to get into the town of Big Bear before the Post Office closed on Saturday, or else I would be trapped in a major tourist town over the Memorial Day weekend until Tuesday.

As it turns out, I really enjoyed the Mission Creek section! It was fun to practice a little route finding and I loved climbing though the walls of deposited rocks and boulders that took on the appearance of ancient castle walls.

After making it through Mission Creek unscathed, I arrived in Big Bear in time to pick up my package and then treated myself to the best buckwheat crepe stuffed with goat cheese and honey that I have ever had and some decadent iced coffee. I think it’s the best thing I’ve eaten on trail so far. After hiking for two weeks and the big downhill from San Jacinto, my body is definitely sore, and I manage to schedule an amazing PT session with a local trainer that included a cold soak and sauna session afterwards: hiker nirvana. The next day I take care of my resupply and get breakfast at the Grizzly Manor Café, which is known for their giant hiker breakfasts.

I manage to get back on trail that afternoon and hike through numerous groups of memorial day weekend warriors. There is quite a hiker treat about 40 miles out of Big Bear: Deep Creek Hot Springs, which sits right along the trail and offers an oasis. Motivated by the promise of hot water, I can’t resist hiking almost 30 miles the next day and make it to the springs for some evening soaking. I wake up early the next morning and I am treated to a private sunrise pool that is visited by hummingbirds. As the morning progresses, some friends I have made along trail begin showing up and a scheme begins to form: after soaking at the hot springs, there is a short hike to a road where you can call a local bar called the Joshua Inn. The bar will send someone to pick you up and will deliver you at a classic American dive bar where you can order beer and sandwiches while escaping the midday heat.

A group consisting of an Australian couple, three Canadian hikers, one Swiss hiker, and four Americans including myself decide that this is our mission for the afternoon and proceed to spend the hottest hours of the day eating sandwiches and drinking beer. The Australians even order a milkshake and somehow this tiny bar in the middle of nowhere produces a classic chocolate milkshake with whipped cream and a cherry on top. It’s also very interesting to watch this international group take in the americana décor in the bar. They all wanted to know why dollar bills with people’s names were stapled to the celling, and I realized it was something I had never questioned and didn’t really know myself! It turns out that back in the old days people would leave money with their name on it on payday so they could have drinking money later in the week.

Riding high on more town calories, the group decides to aim for Silver Lake to camp for the night and we take over a boat access picnic area for the night. It is such a treat to be able to swim in a lake and refresh yourself before bed and everyone is in good spirits around the picnic table at dinner. The day is dubbed a Hero Day: hot springs in the morning, town food for lunch, and a lake to stop at in the evening. Everything a hiker could want! The next day brings probably the most legendary fast food restaurant along the PCT. At Cajon Pass, there is a McDonalds that is literally .4 miles from trail. It is so popular amongst hikers that it is even on the trail sign at the pass with a millage marker. Before I can even make it to the McDonalds, there is a trail angel at the pass who is offering cool fresh fruit and drinks to hikers coming down out of the desert peak. The feasting begins! Another hiker tips me off to a fruit stand just beyond the McDonalds and I secure a large bucket of tropical fruits before entering the restaurant. Entering the McDonalds is jarring: the air conditioning is ice cold, and gone are the bright colors and clown statues I remember from my childhood. The interior is modern brutalist and you order from a touch screen, the only human interaction is when someone shouts out order numbers from pickup. Hikers have taken over a large corner of the restaurant, our stench and gear spread all around. Excited by my fruit purchase I skip over to my table of friends and plop the bucket down in the middle of everyone. Dull eyes light up at the sight of something fresh and we all devour the refreshing appetizer. Then the McRotting began.

Since it is so hot out in the desert, hikers will siesta at the McDonalds to escape the heat and then begin their climb up to Wrightwood later in the day. This creates a cycle where a hiker will order a meal, experience an extreme calorie high with bouts of giggles, and then immediately feel like they have eaten nothing and that there is a black hole within themselves that is growing bigger for having eaten this junk food. Egged on by some combination of their own hunger, watching other hikers eat, or the desire to feel happy again, more food is ordered and the cycle repeats. I was not immune to the McRotting. I had my first nuggets since middle school and its was surreal, gross and enjoyable all at the same time. I spent about 4 hours at the McDonalds, or Maccas as the Australians call it. By the time I had left, I had laughed, cried, and even witnessed a SF Gate reporter come in and interview some fellow hikers about the PCT McDonalds and the McDonalds challenge where some hikers attempt to eat only food packed out from the McDonalds until they make it 22 miles to Wrightwood. Eventually, as the day cooled, we trickled out of Cajon Pass and began the climb up to Wrightwood.

I’m definitely feeling stronger on trail than when I started and I am excited for what’s to come. Thank you again to everyone who has been following along and supporting my journey and thank you to everyone who has made the fundraiser a runaway success! Knowing I have such a great community at home really makes being out here that much easier.

Hiking On,