Notes from a day of cloudy skies, oak groves, leap-frogging hikers and luxury

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PCT miles 101.4 to 109.6 – Barrel Spring to Warner Springs Guest Ranch– Total PCT miles 109.6

Woke up this morning to a new-to-trail-life experience: clouds and overcast skies. My first thought, “How did Gabriel and I make it back to Washington so soon?”

We’d checked the forecast a few days prior and were aware that the streak of warm days would soon shift to a stretch of cool weather with lows in the 40’s and highs in the low 60’s. In Southern California it seems that the weather conditions follow suit of the weather predictions.

Gabriel and I broke camp by 6:30 and were on our way to the community of Warner Springs and its guest ranch. After our first 100 miles on the trail we desired creature comforts and we wanted confirmation that we’d get them! We had no idea how big the ranch was and the last place we’d stayed along the trail, Mt. Laguna Lodge had been small and nearly full when we got there on a weekday. Hence, we were concerned that there would be no vacancies at the WS Ranch given that it was the Sunday of Mother’s Day weekend and 200+ PCT hikers were walking through the area during this peak of the thru-hiking season. The sooner we got to the ranch the further up the queue we’d be for a room. Onward to the oasis!

Our minds, still so used to planning and arranging details in advance kept wondering: Could we get a room? Or would we have to camp elsewhere and come back to town on Monday morning to pick up our box from the post office? We tried calling the WS Ranch for reservations but got no answer. This made us a little anxious. Onward to the oasis!

Now, I realize that some folks may find it odd that two people who intend to hike 2,600-plus miles and camp for 5 months could be so fixated on a hotel room when they are just one week and 100 miles into the whole endeavor.  According to these folks, we should at least go a month before seeking comforts.  And I understand, beds and swimming pools, light switches and hot water are not the first things that come to mind when one thinks of the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT and its trail life equal long dusty days, dehydrated meals, sleeping on the ground, it means “roughing it” by standards of western civilization (aside, Ed Abbey would have me put civilization into quotation marks in this sentence). The trail doesn’t equate to luxury, so these folks might say to us, “If you want to sit in a chair when you eat your dinner or sleep in a bed at night or wear clean clothes….well, perhaps the trail is not for you.”

But here’s the thing that we quickly realized, you appreciate all these comforts so much more when you are on the trail compared to when you are living your everyday (blessedly) average American life.

And we had our reasons for wanting luxury so early in our hike: The unexpected 23-mile hike the day before had our leg muscles firmly insisting on a day of comfort and rest. My damp sleeping bag-we’d slept near a dry creek bed the night before and the result was much condensation on my bag which needed a night of dry air to fluff back up (and yes, I know better than to sleep nearly on top of a creek-even if it’s dry-but weary legs stopped moving despite the brain’s encouragement to set our ground cloth in a drier spot). The clouds promising rain by day’s end. Soap to clean our cook pots and spoons. Praises in our Yogi-guide from past experienced thru-hikers accounting of hot springs, warm beds, washers and dryers, showers, dust-free lounging and large plates of fresh hot food. All these reasons prompted our desire for luxury. Onward to the oasis!

We wandered through the San Jose Valley in and out of lush grasslands, across cow pastures and under tunnels of live oak.  Canada Verde as these hills and dales are known, are a gentle scenic countryside. Massive oaks arch over slow moving creeks, their small hardy leaves and acorn shells litter the ground. The soft green of new grasses and flower buds tinge the understory and suggest-even on this cool gray day-that the season of spring is here.  We find the landscape pretty, we feel we are in nature, we feel a sense of magic walking amid these quite oak woodlands and grassy hills. And yet this is a new (or perhaps forgotten sensation) for us both to be out of doors for days at a time and not feel we are in or approaching wilderness. Gabriel and I are so defined by our lives growing up with the Cascades, wilderness paradigms if you will. This day’s stretch of trail-indeed most of the through Southern California-is helping us to appreciate new and different baselines of wild-ness.

Having encountered the 20-other hikers the night before at Barrel Springs meant that this was our first day of hiking within the “PCT pack”. That’s how Gabriel and I referred to the group of hikers who started around the kick-off and who had mostly been ahead of us this week. So this morning we adjusted to company along the trail, encountering other hikers ahead of us, hikers coming from behind, leap-frogging with hikers and sharing the same rest stops with other hikers. After the first 100 miles, we were all looking forward to reaching Warner Springs. Onward to the oasis!

The first hour or so of walking amongst fellow hikers felt foreign after a week of trail life rarely spent encountering the culture of the trail. Within a few miles we got into the flow of when to pass or be passed, how to walk amid a group of fellow PCT’ers, share the basics of our own stories (name, start date, town, state or country of origin). We’d started to met some real nice people and realized hikers become friends quickly and easily over the distance of sharing a few miles.

A highlight of the morning was coming to PCT mile 106. A mile-marker with a well-known point of interest: Eagle Rock. A spot often mentioned in books accounting life on the trail and noted in the trail journals of hikers who I followed in years past. I felt a small thrill to realize we were experiencing “the PCT story”. We were living the trail. Breathing the trail. We ARE now part of the trail just as it is part of us.  (Aside: insert your own sense of what thrilling feels like to you and what “living the dream” means to you and that’s the ripple of excitement and sensation of joy that I felt when I walked around the wall of these clustered rock outcroppings.) Indeed the granite formation does look like an eagle.

Some patriotic Holsteins had “paid homage” to the eagle as well, leaving their offerings. We had already predetermined that we’d breakfast at Eagle Rock, so I picked a spot free of cow sign and out of the wind. Breakfast, a chat with our new friend Farmer John and some obligatory photos taken, we set off for Warner Springs.

Turns out, we need not have fretted about getting a room at the inn. The Warner Springs Guest Ranch is big with ample accommodations that don’t fill up during the off-season; even if there are a hundred plus hikers enjoying its amenities. If only we’d known, we might have lingered a little longer along the trail or we might just kept a moving to get to our desired luxuries.

After checking in to our charming rustic bungalow, our priorities for the afternoon included: hot showers!, laundry, sitting in chairs, hot springs soaking and eating food we didn’t carry in our packs. In the course of finding a laundry machine willing to wash dirty hiker clothes we started to meet more of our fellow hikers that were staying at ranch. It feels great to talk trail and listen to the stories of other hikers while soaking in warm, healing water. We are all reveling in this luxury as much as we are thrilled to live life on the trail.

Fell asleep Sunday night with the lamp on, good book in hand and to the sound of rain drumming the roof tiles of our casita. Gabriel and I are grateful to be warm and dry.

On this day, we’d also like to say: Happy Birthday Mom! Happy Birthday Boni! And Happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful mothers we love!