Today, we, in order:
- Climbed 1,500 feet up a ridgeline;
- Up there, walked along our first “crest” of the Pacific Crest Trail, and it was spectacular;
- Descended 2,500 feet off that very same ridge;
- Continued walking along power lines and roads for another eight miles or so…
All told, this made today our single longest day of the trip so far, at over nineteen miles, and one of sheer exhaustion by the end. (Because there are miles and then there are miles, and gaining and losing a total of over 4,000 vertical feet of altitude qualifies one strongly for the latter camp.) Tonight, we’re camped at the Hurkey Creek Campground (don’t look at me, I don’t name these places) in Lake Hemet, CA, and I can’t even explain how good dinner and climbing into them tent feels.
A big part of the reason for the long day was that the PCT is currently closed — as it has been for the past two or three years — for a fifteen-mile stretch in the mountains here, due to a fire in 2013. As a result, you have to go around; the detour we took basically takes you from a high, beautiful ridge you’re on and drops you all the way down into the valley below, walks you along it for quite a while, and then takes you back up. (We’ll be doing the ascending again in a couple of days — in the mean time, we’ll be taking a “zero” in the town of Idyllwild, CA, which we’re really looking forward to!)
As a result of this detour, any number of different strategies have unfolded among PCT hikers. While everyone generally agrees that a “through-hiker” is someone who is attempting to hike the entire trail in a single attempt (as opposed to “section-hikers”, who will hike various sections — from 50 to 700+ miles long — in different years), there’s a huge variation in just how “through” that is.
At one end of the spectrum, we’ve seen through-hikers who skip segments of the trail whenever small inconveniences pop up — folks who will hitchhike five, or fifty, miles when there’s bad weather, or a small detour, or anything out of the ordinary at all. At the other end of the spectrum, there are folks who work incredibly hard to hike exactly and only the PCT itself. But, as these closures show, there really is no “one true PCT” that you can hike: in any given season, there are always closures somewhere — in southern California due to fires, in Oregon due to landslides, in northern Washington due to severe weather. There’s never a single year in which “the PCT” is the same as it was the previous year. It really is, in many ways, a living trail, evolving to fit the season and the year.
Of course, this brings up the question of where you lie on the spectrum: how slavishly do you follow the “official route”, whatever that is? Just today, we talked to a hiker who actually backtracked several miles because he realized he’d been picked up from a highway on one side, and dropped off on the other, and hence hadn’t covered the ground actually across the highway itself. He doubled back and re-hiked quite a few miles, just to pick up those lost few feet.
We’re trying hard, at least so far, to follow the maxim of “one continuous footpath, from Mexico to Canada”. This doesn’t mean you can’t hitchhike into town; of course you can! — it just means you get dropped off where you got picked up, not farther up the road. You can detour as much as you want, but you don’t skip sections…if there’s a closure, go around (of course), but don’t use it as an excuse to shortcut.
This became particularly clear over the past couple of days, because it turns out the Paradise Café (where we ate lunch yesterday) and the town of Idyllwild (where we’ll be staying the next couple of nights) are only about fifteen miles apart by car — and there’s that big trail closure in between, requiring a lot of ascending and descending in between. As far as we can tell, quite a lot of hikers — right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were over half — simply hitchhiked from the Paradise Café into Idyllwild, figuring it’s a whole lot easier to do that than to deal with this rather roundabout detour.
And the great thing is: there’s no right answer — “Hike Your Own Hike” (HYOH for short) is a real thing, and everybody does it differently. And, believe me, in the morning today, as we were sweating like crazy, climbing up in the hot sun, the realization that we could be sitting on a patio somewhere in Idyllwild, right that very moment, sipping a beer and waiting for someone to bring us food, definitely crossed our minds. Yet: our hike is different from that; our hike means keeping that one continuous footpath, of hiking the detours, of doing the hard parts.
You know what else? It was worth it. For a beautiful two hours (granted, out of a fourteen-hour day), we were up on a crest for the very first time, above 7,000 feet, looking down on both sides, over the desert and the mountains, and it was spectacular. That one moment, those couple of hours of beauty, made it all worth it.
Now, excuse me as I pass out completely. I meant what I said about how beautiful it was…but oh, man, am I ever exhausted now.