Tuesday, July 31, 2007

PCT Day 4: Mt. Laguna to underneath Sunrise Highway

Our plan for the day was to head along the Laguna rim and see how well my knee held up. Unfortunately, we were behind schedule and would need more food, so we decided to split up for the first section. Once again, Morgan was taking up the slack caused by my failing knee - this time it was so that I could get a head start at around 8am, and he would go to the store to get food when it opened at 9. We were to rendezvous 10 miles down the trail and I was to coddle my knee by taking breaks and stretching as much as possible.

It felt great to be moving again and I was soon stripping off layers in the morning sun. As I headed gently downwards, the terrain was still quite wooded and it felt kind of like home. I was having more visions of mountain bikes, but this time it wasn't me riding them. Maybe I was getting into this hiking thing after all. I was making steady progress and, since I had the map, marking arrows at ambiguous junctions for Morgan.

In terms of feeling like a progression, there was little stimulation. The trail "just" followed along the rim, but it was one of those days you get in the mountains where you just run out of superlatives. Your breath gets taken away so often that you have to be careful not to stagger down the cliffs that have you agog. Where the road to Julian had had fleeting glimpses down to the desert, now I could stand at the edge of the train and see the mountain plummet down to the sand. I could take in the scrub that hung on so tight to the walls, and the brown swirling desert down on the floor. Looking way out I could see more mountains out to the other side. I wished that Morgan was there, but I contented myself that he'd be seeing this soon enough and I should just be glad.

I made my way along for a couple of hours, pointless competitiveness kicking in and making me determined not to get caught up until I'd made it to our meeting point. Despite this, I managed to maintain some semblance of being a grown-up and every hour I put my camping mat down in the dirt (usually right there on the trail) for a stretching session. Lying there in the scorching heat and easing my worn legs into a variety of positions, it was hard not to laugh. What would I say if someone came along? "Yeah, I'm hiking the PCT but my knee is bust. I reckon I can fix it by stretching!"

As it turned out, I wasn't the most ridiculous sight out there though. At one point, the trail had turned away from the desert valley and towards wider, flatter, chaparral covered expanse. The sand was reflecting heat back up and there was no shade at all (aside from the desert umbrella!). Then, from the haze comes this guy running along with his bare chest that red-brown colour of someone who's spent too long in the sun, or maybe the colour of the inside of a medium-rare steak. With his Oakleys and his little 0.5L water bottle, he was the perfect Californian. Still, I had to admire the apparent working-order of his knees.

Eventually I made it to the meeting point with Morgan and set myself up on a picnic table to wait. It had been a depressing last hour as my knee had started to fail again and every little downward slope had me reduced to shuffling. As always though, taking off my shoes and looking out across the land made me feel better, made me wonder if it was all in my head. Soon enough, Morgan arrived too: striding along with his straw hat beginning to fall to pieces.

We had Top Ramen noodles (Brits: that's super-noodles) to add to our existing supplies and he'd got himself coffee so we were stocked for the trail. The water at this picnic ground was from a trough for horses and it featured both dead insects floating on top and live wriggly things swimming inside. It was time to break out the water filter for its first use. The filter was simple - attach one end to a container, dip the other in the dodgy water and pump away. We managed to load up with water and we were soon ready to see how far we'd get before sunfall.

The very first bit of trail was astounding. It passed close to the existing road and up a broken one which was luxuriating in the lengthening shade provide by a high wall to West. This wall was covered in graffiti from kids who could easily make it this far from the road. Turning your back on the scrawls, the view was once again awesome. Down into the desert again, but here the vantage point framed our view with nothing but reddish brown rocks. We took photos and drank it all in before turning up the road for more progress.

It wasn't long before my knee was a serious problem again. We were in an area that had been heavily burned by wildfires and as I ducked under a sooty tree we had the idea to make a walking stick. With the stick to support my weak leg it was possible to go much faster down the hills and not to risk falling. So it was with tripod footfalls that I made my way along and we chatted the afternoon away. It was to be our first night out in the real wild with food to be cooked rough too, so pretty soon I was looking for a clear area where we could use the stove. In the end we settled on top of a huge granite slab and enjoyed super-noodles with the setting sun. It was just like the photos you see in outdoor shops but immeasurably more awesome.

The day ended with a bit more progress along the trail and then a frantic search for space to make a camp. My little tent and Morgan's bivi weren't going to need much space but a lot of the trail was narrow with either thick brush or steep cliffs coming off. Eventually we found a spot, pitched up (half by feel) and tried not to think too hard about wildlife hazards. I drifted off hoping that no-one would steal my stick.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

PCT Day 3: Julian

Sleeping much past dawn was difficult on a trip like this but we gave it a go, and it was a pretty leisurely 8.00 by the time we reached the post office and shops in Mt Laguna. Of course they weren't open, so we killed time watching the lack of hustle and the lack of bustle. By the time the shop finally opened and Morgan got his coffee we had some semblance of a plan - get to Julian and do some internet research to find possible self-treatment options for my knee; get back to Mt. Laguna for exercises and general relaxation then, knee-pending, push on along the trail.

It seemed like a good plan, but as we headed for the road to hitch a lift, I was unable to walk 100m with my pack. Morgan carried both and I felt the true meaning of lame. It was to be my first ever hitch-hike and Morgan had been entertaining me with stories of his previous hitching exploits. He maintained that out here, with backpacks, it would be a breeze. When we made it to the road every car we saw was going in the wrong direction for a while and then, on the first chance to use our thumbs, a van pulled up. Morgan dashed up to meet them, and I tried to hide how badly I was limping. They were going to Julian and happy to take us all the way. Hitching was easy!

The driver, Lonnie, introduced himself, his wife, and then his daughter, "She's called touch-her-you-die." "Haha, but really, what's her name?" Morgan asked. "Touch-her-you-die." There was nowhere else to go down that line of enquiry, "So what takes you to Julian?" It turned out that Lonnie knew all about the PCT and had helped hikers out before. He and his family were heading to Julian to get pie. Julian markets itself on pie - better than nothing, I suppose, and pie is good. We went through the usual round of small-talk, I trotted out the usual vaguely correct description of my job to be met with, "You design ASICs then?". Lonnie's bewildering expertise included nursing, electrical engineering, and piloting small planes.

Lonnie's Small Plane Story

On a flying trip out with his wife one day, Lonnie was having difficulty finding the runway. The weather was fine, he could see roads and buildings and knew he must be in the right area. He was looking for an airfield that he'd never been to before and he knew it was quite small, so seeing a strip of land that looked about right and a group of building that looked about right, he set in to land. The runway was short and narrow, with no margin for error, but he managed to touch down, keep the plane straight and stop before he ran out of room. So far so good, but he soon noticed a patrol car heading his way. All flashing lights, sirens, and excitement, the officer rushed up to speak to them. "You can't be here!" he said. Lonnie was confused, "I thought this was XYZ airfield." (I forget the name)
"You can't be here! You need to leave immediately!"
"Where am I?"
"You're in ABC State Prison, you can't be here!"
(I forget that name too)
Lonnie had mistaken an internal prison road for an airstrip, made an impossibly hard landing, triggered an alert for an attempted breakout, and exploded the tiny mind of the prison officer in the process. Once things had calmed down, it was decided that his wife would travel to the airfield by car and Lonnie would have to get the plane turned around before performing a tight take-off and flight to the real airstrip. Everything worked out in the end, but Lonnie is a man who knows very well what happens if you ignore inconvenient details on a map and that was a subject close to our hearts.

It was an interesting drive, there's no doubt about that. Not just for the conversation, but also for the views from the mountains down into the desert. We could see where the next few days might take us and it was epic. Many little worlds in valleys, knit together by the mountain range and each fading into the same desert at the bottom. This was more like the PCT we'd dreamed of, and the one we weren't prepared to give up on.

At Julian, Lonnie gave us a quick tour of the town before bidding us farewell and dropping us off at the library. Knee research suggested two possible problems Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS) or Patellofemoral Syndrome (that second link I found much more recently). At the time ITBS sounded more likely and Morgan knew a good method for working the IT bands - lying sideways on a foam roller and moving it up-and-down from knee to hip. "Excruciatingly good" was an apt description. This exercise (using a fuel container wrapped in a towel) and resting did smooth things out somewhat... but more on that later.

Having done the work, and scratched the email itch, we headed into Julian as a pair of smelly, cheap tourists. We had pie and the pie was good. With hours left to go, we set out to hitch back to Julian. This time things weren't so easy. The junction of roads left nowhere good for cars to stop, and the wind blew hard, but we kept our humour for 4 hours. The first car that stopped was a woman on her way to an AA meeting (Brits - that's Alcoholics Anonymous, not Automobile Association) who said she'd pick us up on the way back if we were still waiting. We really hoped that it wouldn't be necessary. As it turned out a friendly dentist who rode mountain bikes gave us a ride, even though it was entirely out of his way. It was another fine example of the kindness of ordinary Americans. He was slightly less wacky than Lonnie, but he was soon to be heading off for an MTB trip in Mongolia at an age where other people might be just looking forward to golf and retirement.

There was time for one more slice of Americana before we retired from the day. As we walked up the road to the camp-site, a local shouted over from his yard, "Are you guys hiking the trail?". We said yes, and he asked where we were from. We said we were English and heard the voice of America, "You guys are real allies, not like the French. Tony Blair's welcome here any time. He's a great leader." Not wanting to get into that, we just appreciated his enthusiasm and bid him goodbye.

A whole day gone and no trail miles, but characters aplenty, a renewed determination, and a plan of action. It wasn't hard to sleep that night.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Why ride a singlespeed? (Part 2)

Here's another good reason (Part 1 here):

  • Because it's not the fastest way to ride a bike. I'm hugely competitive, but that competition is directed at myself. Deliberately riding a bike that's inefficient acknowledges where the real challenge lies: not in beating other people, not in achieving an 5% improvement in my average speed, but simply in sustaining my effort for the amount of time I want to ride for. And that's not all - anyone who has ridden along a flat road with a 32:16 ratio (or, even worse, my usual ration of 32:18) cannot take themselves too seriously. And if they do need to watch the bit in The Goonies where the older brother gets dragged along by a car whilst riding a BMX - that's what you look like with your little legs spinning like a pinwheel.

PCT Day 2: Lake Morena to Mt. Laguna

Those damn dogs! Sleeping in a hick town where every resident has a noisy dog in their yard isn't easy. I'm so jealous of Morgan's ability to sleep through anything. Today we head for Laguna - at 6,000ft elevation some climbing will be necessary.

However, before we even get beyond sight of Lake Morena, the first blister crisis comes on. My battered feet start to burn as one has burst. I should have pierced it the day before, but I had hoped it wouldn't be necessary. Instead I was sat on a rock with the hydrogen peroxide, hoping that the pain would go away. Strapped up, and treading carefully we pressed on to finish the 6 miles to Boulder Oaks camp-ground for water and a breakfast stop. The route took us under a major road and made for one of many jarring contacts with the rest of the world. As school buses, trucks, and commuters bustled past our slow progress felt idyllic and the dry grass was a world of yellow. It was in this field that we saw our first snake. Generally the snakes were put in a poor performance, we saw only 4 between us on the distance between Campo and Warner Springs. Even verbal taunting didn't bring them out. Lightweights. Anyway, this particular snake was narrow, kind of yellow ochre with black markings, and its tail was hidden in the grass. If it was a rattler, it wasn't putting the effort in.

Eventually, we made it to Boulder Oaks and Morgan set off to find a working tap whilst I attended to my feet again. Old blisters feeling slightly better, but new blisters at the sides of my heel. Having a third item to add to my putative letter to Mr Salomon, I once again took knife to my shoes. This time trimming the edges of the insole where it had rolled over to make a lump around the edge of my foot. The "sterilise needle, clean up mess, hydrogen peroxide, strap" routine was getting pretty familiar now. As Morgan came back, the news was: no water.

So we had breakfast with water from our packs and got back on the trail. The water report said we would cross a road and we could go 1 mile off-trail to reach a spring that had been running a couple of weeks ago. Arriving there involved throwing away a load of height on the tarmac, and then we found the spring dry. Bummer. The next chance was back up another mile and along the trail for nearly 2 hours before diverting back off it to a camp-site. It was a hot trudge round to there, but we were getting towards the mountains and views along (the gloriously mundanely named) Fred Canyon were a great distraction from pointlessly sucking on my camlebak. The miles rolled by, and eventually we met the jeep trail down to Cibbets Flat Campground. Running water! Toilet paper! We clearly hadn't completely adjusted to trail life yet.

We spent a few hours hanging out in the shade and considering how far we had to go to make Mt. Laguna before dark. It was going to be pretty tough with the required elevation gain, but we could should make it. The trail snaked in and out, but gently upwards for hours. Just chapparal, kinda big hills to the sides and ever bigger hills above. As the shadows got longer every stick started to look like a snake, but they must have all been at home drinking gin and knitting because each stick was just a stick. A marker we had been looking for to indicate that we were getting there was a "Horse Meadow" and as we got close things got surreal. Lush green grass, overhanging trees, running water. Had we just wandered into an English summer?

The lengthening shadows were beginning to be a worry as switchback after switchback crept us up towards camp. Finally we seemed to stop climbing and reach some woodsy singletrack that even Morgan (roadie scum) could appreciate. Picking nice lines to ride and willing myself through the last few miles I could feel an ominous weakness in my knee. When we finally made it to Burnt Rancheria camp-ground I was tired, confused and hurting. Fortunately Morgan stepped up to sort things out so that I could go for a shower, and hopefully find some resolve underneath all the dirt.

Wandering around the camp-ground looking for the shower block things just got worse. In the fading light, my knee kept failing and I was lucky not to just fall. The shower helped my mind, but the body still wasn't playing the game as I tried to get back to our camp. Over orzo and veggie chilli I told Morgan about the knee and we decided to take the next day off for stretching, research into what the knee problem could be, and possible replanning. 40 miles in and doubts about whether I could continue. At least there were no dogs to keep me awake up here.