Part I: Testing the Pacific Crest Trail


IMG_3684I flew down to San Diego on December 5th for work, as I do every few months. I am always fortunate to extend my trip into the weekend in order to spend time with my friends that still live there and also to take in the feeling of being back in that place that used to be my home. The more time that builds between when I moved back to Seattle and each return trip to San Diego makes me realize even more how much that place changed my whole life. When you leave and then return to a place, especially after a substantial time away, you make so many discoveries, which are really just observations based upon comparisons.

I had asked Carlos weeks earlier to go on a journeyfoot with me on Saturday, December 8th. Carlos is one of my very, very best friends. He is the special type of friend that any of us would be lucky to come across even just once in life. He’s a four-leafed clover. Like a brother or a cousin to me, there is no doubt that our lives will be interconnected for the remainder of our years on earth.

I first met Carlito in his home city of Madrid in March of 2009. He had been applying for a job with Billabong in the south of France and was in need of English practice for his upcoming interview. At that same time, my friend Jess and I were making our living holding conversational English classes with Spanish people in Madrid. Carlos happened across one of our advertisements posted to a street sign. He scheduled a class and we arranged to meet in his tenth story flat one evening.

During that first English practice session, we sat in his living room around the coffee table and he kept lighting a hand-rolled cigarette and then talking so much that the cigarette would burn out before he ever took a drag, and then he’d light it again and talk so much again that the cigarette would burn out again, and I remember sitting there watching this happen over and over again and thinking it was so strange that he seemed to not even notice that any of this was going on.

We continued to meet Carlos and practice English, specifically questions that would be asked in an interview, and he would bring out red wine and pizzas for our practice sessions on the balcony of his city flat. Eventually we fired Carlos as our student because we felt guilty drinking his wine, eating his food, enjoying his views and discussing cool topics of conversation while also still charging him for classes. We told him we would meet with him every Monday for free, so long as he provided wine to satisfy us wineheads. And so began Looney Lunes (“Looney Monday”). Eight months later, when Jess and I were living back in SoCal, Carlos left his life in Spain after being laid off and moved to San Diego. He has been there ever since, and our friendship has only grown stronger in that time.

May 2009: Me and Carlos at the hippie-themed goodbye party he threw for me and Jess
May 2009: Me and Carlos at the hippie-themed goodbye party he threw for me and Jess before we left Spain

Since I have developed a slight obsession with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the last month or two, and spent dizzying amount of hours researching the Mexico-to-Canada thru-hike, I decided Carlos would be my perfect victim to give the PCT a short little test run. Our plan was to leave bright and early on Saturday morning, drive out to the southern portion of the 2,663 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and hike 10-15 miles before camping out that night. Our reality was falling asleep at 5AM on Saturday morning after drinking what seemed to be endless shots of whiskey, rum and tequila on top of wine and beer served at the hands of a Frenchman named Matthieu.

So at about 11 in the morning that Saturday, something very rare happened. Carlos woke me up. Normally, I am the first to rise early in the morning. Mornings have always been an interesting time for our friendship. I am chipper, happy, excited and ready for the day. Carlos is a grumpy devil that likes to sleep the morning away, or so I think. But this morning, he had to actually tell me twice to wake up and get ready for our trek. After some serious water-pounding and packing up, we were on the 8 headed east for the Laguna Mountains.

Since we had gotten like a five hour late start, we only had probably two or three hours before dark by the time we got up there. We weren’t going to be able to hike our 15 and camp out like I had planned. Instead, we parked at the Mt. Laguna/El Prado campground, set up tent and then walked out to the Sunset Highway in search of the trail. It wasn’t hard to find, and we hopped on near the Al Bahr Shrine. I was beaming. I was finally walking on part of this trail that I had been researching so much. As we headed north, desert views encompassed the whole area to our right, and the clear, early-evening air made it easy to see so far off in the distance. We walked for one mile until we came to Penny Pines. The light was starting to leave the sky so we decided to head back to camp, even though we had barely covered any ground. Both of us were in support of walking the road’s edge back instead of backtracking the trail. There were barely any cars and though it was cold, it felt like a spring or summer evening, especially considering I had just come from the December of Seattle.

It wasn’t long before we met back up with Little Miss Tent, which was set up for only the third night in her young life. The northern forest of Idaho’s panhandle, the shore of the Colorado River in the middle of Utah’s desert and now the mountains of Southern California. Not a bad track record if you ask me. The next, oh, six hours of our lives was a non-stop hunting for, and collecting of, wood. Fire wood. It might as well have been snowing, because the cold penetrated my bones in the way I thought only snow could. If there had been another human being anywhere near us, I never would have known. The Milky Way was doing its thing above us as we crept further and further out of our campsite to find any sort of burnable wood, which was scarce. I was even collecting tiny little sticks smaller than broken pencils. Since Carlos had basically put a fallen tree on top of the fire, we had to keep it burning really hot in order to break it up so that it fit inside of the fire pit. Our mission became finding firefood. Anything that would keep it burning. We would both collect handfuls of fallen pine needles from the ground and throw them on the fire, warm our gloved fingers up with the quick-lived flame and then go back for more. “We need to go to the pines” Carlos kept saying, and he became a madman of the night searching for more wood. Check out this video of Carlos demonstrating how a Spaniard chops wood:

After many hours of work, the large firewood was burned down and we could leave the fire and retire to our sleeping bags. Big mistake. If I had known how effing cold I was going to be, I would never have left that fire all night. I’m not even going to go into details, but basically it was the worst night sleep of my life and I never have a bad night’s sleep even if I were sprawled across a hardwood floor alongside tacks. It was hell. And what was even more hell was the sight of Carlos sleeping happily in his big plush sleeping bag that he would not have been able to even bring had we gone backpacking in to our site as originally planned. As I lay there shivering my ass off the entire night, I started to resent him and his slow, steady breaths that only a sleeping person makes. I also realized I need way better gear.

As soon as the first light was in the sky, I was out of the tent and in the icy air desperately trying to restart the fire with the smallest scraps of wood, which proved difficult with ice fingers. While venturing out of our campsite, I found a fallen tree with lots of sticks to feed the tiny flames. Carlos eventually arose, puffy-faced as so often happens after a night of inhaling campfire smoke. In his sleepy state, he let out an “aeugh”, which I presume would mean the same thing in any language, and held up his hands encased in his big, black snow gloves to reveal burnt holes covering the tips of every finger, the leftovers of his hard work the previous night. I then found my own small hole in the ring finger of my brand new glove. Boo.

By 8AM, the sun had started to warm our world as the line of shade crawled back east towards a ridge line. We headed back towards the road to once again jump on the PCT at the same spot as the evening before, but with plans to this time head south towards Laguna where I remembered seeing a mountain diner. We were dreaming of a hot breakfast and coffee, though we weren’t sure what we would find.

We hiked five miles south on the Pacific Crest Trail and did not see one person in those five miles. A lot of it was uphill and we came across several spectacular vistas. Most of the time I was walking ahead of Carlos, as my legs are longer and I’m a fast walker in general. I would stop every so often until he caught up and then we’d set out again. I enjoyed hiking this way, alone but with someone.

IMG_3685

The trail in this area doesn’t meander far from the Sunrise Highway, and we eventually cut across in hopes of finding the diner. I told Carlos that thru-hikers on the PCT need to eat like 10,000 calories a day, and he said he wanted to do the thru-hike just to be able to eat all of the food along the way. I could not agree more with him, and our stomachs grumbled emptily as we approached the Pine House Café. There were only about two people in the cute little restaurant, and because it was such a lovely sunny morning and smelled so much like summer, we sat on the outside patio. We each ordered an omelette with potatoes and one specialty pancake to share. Carlos ordered an extra egg. The food was outstanding and the very nice server, who undoubtedly lived in the area, told us the cook was a five-star chef that made everything home-made style. There was not a crumb left after we inhaled our food, and we considered ordering more, but didn’t. Instead we finished our coffee in the warm morning sun with the silence of the forest around us.

The server at the Pine House Café, whose name I unfortunately never learned, was so warm-hearted and kind to Carlos and me that morning. After such a nasty night of sleep and dreams of hot breakfast and coffee all morning, she was the one person on our whole trip that made our dreams come true. So thank you, wherever you are!

We finally headed back north towards the car. We found an alternate route to the campground in order to avoid backtracking on the same trail. This route was shorter than the PCT route we had taken, and before long we were back at the car. After packing up, we headed west to Pacific Beach on a gloriously sunny day. Once at Carlos’ place, we devoured In-n-Out for the second time in two days and I changed my flight so that I could fly out the following day. We spent the night on the couch watching TV, a luxury that we would not be able to have if we were thru-hiking the PCT.

Continued in Part II: 2012 and Beyond

Jayme Welch

I write. I explore. I think. I write some more.

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