Mountain Stories: The Pacific Crest Trail

The 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) has been in the news lately. It’s the trail Cheryl Strayed took for her transforming months-long journey recounted in her best-selling memoir Wild.

But here in Idyllwild, California the thru-hikers, as they’re called (and spelled), have a special place in this mile-high town. This is the very time of year the WELCOME PCT HIKERS banners are up. The hikers dip down from the backbone of the San Jacinto Mountains for a stop to refuel, restock, and perhaps sleep in a bed at the Idyllwild or Fern Valley Inns.

I saw my first hiker striding down Fern Valley Road on Sunday. A tall, well-muscled man carrying a big pack, a staff, and things piled on that pack —  you would never take him for a day hiker. He’s an early arrival;  hikers usually arrive at the end of April.

Dressed in all black. Knickers, and so forth. His posture was perfect. I thought: Barring a mishap, this one will make it.

The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail begins in Mexico and ends in Canada, and snakes through three western states. Strapping young men explored the route in the 1930s,  and it was designated by Congress as one of the first scenic trails in the country, in 1968.

Thanks to the PCT hikers, Idyllwild has a first-class hiking and outdoors shop, Nomad Ventures. Hikers have been on the trail long enough to know what’s failing — boots, or socks or jacket, perhaps.

Here’s how these men and women get here (I’m cribbing from its “Official Map and Guide”): The PCT begins on a low hill near Campo (2,600′), a small town in California near the Mexican border, It passes through Lake Morena County Park beneath Interstate 8, then climbs through chaparral, scrub oaks, and pines to the the rim of the Laguna Mountains. The trail dips into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park . . . then winds up, down and around the San Felipe Hills and lesser mountains of the Cleveland National Forest before crossing Highway 74 at 4,900′ (N.B. I’ve seen this sign in the Garner Valley east and down the hill from Idyllwild) and climbing the backbone of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Here it gets very interesting. The trail climbs up to 9,030 feet, and that’s when many hikers begin their descent into Strawberry Valley and Idyllwild. (You can look this all up.) Otherwise, the hikers trudge from this highest point on this section of the hike to the lowest, crossing beneath the dismal Interstate 10 at the San Gorgonio Pass, passing all those white windmills.

We are always happy to see them here, especially merchants and innkeepers, I suppose, but there is something about this dipping-into-our-valley that gladdens the heart. All that effort. All that backbreaking and spirit-challenging effort.

Always a chance of snow up into these mountains, even into May, possibly putting the PCT hikers are in harm’s way. In May 2005, an experienced PCT hiker went missing in our mountains. It is surmised that in a white-out he kept moving, saw the lights of the desert, and hiked into Tahquitz Canyon, and was unable to get out.

That was what was surmised later, anyway, when two young people on a convention in Palm Springs took the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the top of the mountain, and hiked until they were lost. They blundered into the same no-exit canyon. But they found a backpack in an abandoned campsite. I think a wool sweater and wool socks were involved. But there were also matches. After three nights on the mountain, they were able to signal their location through smoke, and were rescued.

What about John Donovan, 60, the rescuers asked, the hiker missing from the previous year? There was no trace of him. But it was his backpack that saved the two, almost to the day he abandoned the camp. There was a diary.

A search party was unable to find him. In 2007, one of Donovan’s friends tried to find his remains — and did.

A couple of years ago, I met a through-hiker on the Devil’s Slide Trail (it’s an awful name, I know). I was coming down and he was headed up to rejoin the PCT. Hikers have handles, trail nicknames, and I am sorry  not to remember his. He was a man my own age and we had a long chat. Near the end he mentioned that his wife had just left him, and he burst into tears. So did I.

He was a lovely man.