Sunday April 3rd, the big day. There I was, finally, at the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. Together with two other Dutch hikers, I’d had the opportunity to enjoy the spectacular hospitality of a trail angel in San Diego. Moises and his wife spoiled us rotten during our stay and drove us around town to do our last-minute shopping.
And so there we were, packed and ready to go around 08.30 am, rearing to go, full of excitement and nerves. Just looking north reminded us: that’s where we would be going for the next 5 months. To Canada! After signing the register and taking about a hundred obligatory photos of us, the monument, the wall, Mexico, and any combination of the above, there was no more delaying it. Off we went, into the desert. Just us, our packs and way too much water.
It’s about time!
Walking there on that path, after so many months of preparation, felt almost unreal. The scenery was so different form what I had been expecting. I was well aware that ‘desert’ in this case, didn’t mean undulating sand dunes under a merciless sun, the kind of desert that most people picture when you mention the word. But still, I was walking through a green and fresh landscape. It had just rained and flowers were popping up, the day was overcast and grey, which made for a perfect hiking temperature. I couldn’t have asked for a better start. All this did mean, however, that the 5.5 liters of water that I had started with, was way too much and way too heavy. In the first five miles, I passed two streams where I could have replenished my supply. Live and learn.
I was trying to get used to that heavy backpack. My home country is just…flat…and so I hadn’t had too many opportunities to practice hiking uphill. Still, the day went well and I managed to make it 15 miles down the trail, exactly the distance I had hoped to walk.
The entire first week, I stuck to that 15 miles a day schedule, to get my body used to the strain and the heat that eventually came. It’s a great distance to afford yourself plenty of breaks and take it easy. I met way too many people that wanted to go further and faster straight from the start, and met most of them again later on, when they were resting to try and recover from their injuries.
In the desert
After my first day on trail, it even rained a bit at Hauser Creek. But soon after, those enjoyable temperatures vanished, to be replaced by a hotter day, and an even hotter one after that. After arriving at Boulder Oaks, the prediction for the next day was 100 degrees, so I got up at 5 am so I could get as many miles in as possible before it got too hot. I stuck to that strategy for the next few days and that I came to enjoy. The first miles of the day went by quickly, giving you the time to take an extended lunch break and siësta during the hottest hours. Late in the afternoon, I would hike the remaining miles for that day.
My days consisted of eating, sleeping, walking and planning. You have to know at all times how far the next water source is, so as not to get caught out. With experience came the knowledge of how much water I needed each day, and I always tried to take one extra liter as an emergency ration. My total carrying capacity was 7 liters, but carrying that much means an extra 15.5 lbs. on your back. Carrying more weight means slower progress, which means you have to bring more water. A vicious circle! That makes knowing how much to bring a very important skill. Taking too much: bad! Taking too little: much worse!
What never ceased to amaze me is how many hikers ran out of water, or came perilously close, on those stretches. There is plenty of information on water sources, but some people seem to take it as a challenge to make it to the next water source without any water left at all.
I wrote this article in the small town of Julian, where I stopped for a resupply, a shower and a night in a real bed. Such luxury! Moving on again tomorrow, and my backpack will be heavy again. The next water source is not for another 23 miles, as I don’t want to rely on water caches. This means I’ll be taking 7 liters of water (just in case) and several days of food. Good thing I’m slowly getting used to the pack and to the hiking.
My first 77 miles. What a week it has been.
Want to know more about what happened afterwards? To be continued…