THE COLD, COLD DESERT
It is Sunday, February 26th, we have arrived in Campo, and any nonsense about the hot, hot desert can be laid to rest right now. It is 33 degrees, there is snow on the ground, the wind is blowing hard . . . but we have arrived at our destination.
It is hard to reconcile the word “desert” with this kind of weather, but I am assured by locals that this is normal for this time of year. The desert at night is no joke. Even in the summer, the temps can drop thirty, forty degrees, or more, radiational cooling the phrase weather people like to toss around. Still, for this native Northwesterner, this is reality slapping me in the face.
We now have twenty-two days to “kill” until Bev starts her hike, and some of that time will be spent reconfiguring the interior of this bus so it is more livable. That will require finding a place to park it while we work on it, without that place costing a proverbial arm and leg. Tomorrow we will start searching for that place, asking around Campo, talking to an online hike support group that lives down this way. We will get it sorted out, possibly by tomorrow, and then we can move on to the next phase, which is to get Bev some practice hikes before she starts the real thing on March 19th.
I heard there is a place called Borrego Springs, 76-miles from here, still in the desert, but it is going to have daytime temps approaching seventy-degrees. That is seriously tempting.
I am no longer a fan of the cold. I am making that official. I am a cold wimp.
TRAIL ANGELS GIVETH AND THEY TAKETH
Bev and I drove to the official starting point of the PCT today, and on the way we came across two guys with backpacks, heading in the same direction, so we gave them a ride. Nice guys, from Salem, Oregon, I would guess mid-thirties, maybe forty, and it was fun to finally talk to some real hikers rather than watching them on videos. Bev was loving every minute of it, which I knew she would. She’s like a kid with Christmas approaching, which is what it feels like with these temperatures and wind.
While Bev was hangin’ with the two hikers, I took off on a drive with Trail Angel Lonnie, a local guy who just likes to help PCT hikers. Lonnie is three years older than me, nice guy, drove ten miles to pick me up, buy me lunch, show me a couple places where we could park the bus, such a lovely gesture from a lovely man.
I have watched many videos about the Pacific Crest Trail, and almost all of them highlight the Trail Angels along the way, people who just go out of their way to help strangers who are taking on the challenge of their lives. Sometimes they just show up on Trail with water or snacks; other times they give hikers rides into supply towns, and some even offer a bedroom in their home for a much-needed shelter.
It is enough to restore my faith in the human race.
And I will be privileged enough to be a Trail Angel along this journey.
We are currently in a KOA seven miles outside of Campo. Tomorrow we will move to Lake Morena County Park, which is only three miles outside of Campo, and the first rest area for hikers once they leave Campo. By car (or bus), Lake Morena is three miles; by PCT mileage, it is twenty miles. Anyway, I think we will stay there the remainder of our wait here, another twenty days. Expensive, but not as expensive as the KOA, and with hookups and other bonuses, it will be worth the money. As an added bonus, we will be able to talk to a lot of hikers, those who haven’t started yet, like Bev, and those who are two days into the hike, so that will be enjoyable to make introductions.
It’s a big deal, you know? I don’t think our family gets it, or they are too busy to care, or whatever, but I certainly understand. I’ve done a ton of hiking in earlier years, but nothing which compares to the PCT’s 2,650 miles, and elevation gains which would kill off a hardy team of sherpas. So when I get a chance to shake hands with these people, and talk to them a bit, and encourage them a ton, I feel honored to do it. They are special, in my book, just as Bev is, and anyone who doesn’t see that is, well, far too engrossed in their own lives to see the wonders in others.
I’m not a huge follower of organized religions. I was raised a Catholic, I’ve studied most of the major religions of the world, but I just don’t like the “organized” part, because men organizing things is usually a recipe for mistakes and more mistakes.
Be that as it may, I do recall a section of the Bible which says something to the effect of treat others as you would be treated, or as you would have them treat you, I’m close, I know I am, and the point is this: I hope I’m never too busy with my life, or delude myself into thinking my life is the most important thing in creation, to ignore the lives of others.
Soapbox rant is over!
A SPECIAL COMMUNITY DOWN HERE IN CAMPO
Not just in Campo, but the PCT community online, very special people. I’ve touched on this before, but it blows me away how nice people are, how accepting, and how willing they are to lend a hand or give a word of encouragement. I want to believe I’m that way, but I also always try to be aware of self-delusion.
There is probably an infinite number of reasons why someone would take on this 2,650 mile challenge, but one of the most often stated reasons is to find oneself on the trail, to learn something about yourself that may have been stifled, or buried, up until this point.
The Trail will test you physically, but it will also push you to the limit mentally and psychologically. There are countless hours of being alone on the Trail. There are physical punishments galore. There are dangerous, fast-flowing rivers to cross without bridges, there are snow-covered slopes, steep slopes, serious degree slopes, where one wrong step could result in a very painful slide of hundreds of feet. There are narrow edges to inch along, fallen trees to crawl over, and more elevation gain than climbing eighteen Mount Everests. And with each challenge a hiker is required to face, the mind and psyche is screaming to quit, to take the easy way out, to bail in the direction of safety. But that would mean not meeting the challenge, and for a small percentage of thru hikers, the ones who finish the Trail, that is simply unacceptable.
People die on this trail. People are severely injured. People are rescued by helicopter. Each year!
So, you meet those challenges, and with each successful river crossing or snow-covered traverse, you learn more about yourself . . . and, even if you quit, you learn something about yourself, and hopefully you celebrate the fact that you were willing to even face such a challenge in the first place.
I know of no other community like this during my lifetime. Hikers understand. Trail Angels understand. This is not some metaphorical battle of Man against Nature. This is the real thing, and more often than not, Nature wins.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as proud of a human being, in my lifetime, as I am of Bev, at this moment, sitting in a ’99 GMC shorty bus, in Campo, California.
I COULD LIVE HERE
I’m sure I will say that same thing dozens of times once we head north on March 21st, and that’s fine, but at this moment I am in love with this desert area.
I have been surrounded by evergreens practically my entire life. Other than an ill-fated year in Alaska, one I barely remember, I have always been somewhere known for lush greenery. I am comfortable with that familiarity, I associate it with good memories, and I will always be grateful for it.
But . . .
There is a beauty to the desert I was unaware of, a beauty I am noticing daily now that I have arrived in it. I like its starkness. I like its no-nonsense demeanor. I like its refusal to bend, or be broken, by the harshest of climates. The desert does not adjust itself to make room for human habitation. It demands that humans adjust to it, or die, and I respect that.
For the only time in my life, I can stand in a place, look at the vistas around me, and not have those vistas blocked by towering firs and pines, and I find that refreshing. It’s as though I’m looking out at infinity, or as things were before man washed up on the shores of Mesopotamia or wherever, a land which looks quite like what it looked like hundreds of years ago. I am seeing the land, as it basically was, when the first pioneers led oxen over the sands and into the arroyos, and that stirs the soul of the historian in me. If a writer cannot find inspiration in this region, perhaps “writer” is too lofty a self-description.
Don’t get me wrong, there are people here, but they are mere props for a larger production, playing out daily, and we are simply not in control of the play.
About those people . . . these are not trend-setters. These are not people interested in the latest gadgets, the latest inventions, the latest time-savers or the latest fashions. These are no-nonsense people who are just trying to get by, to live in harmony with a region which will literally kill them if there is a struggle, for the desert never loses. I am reminded of the hard-scrabble, hard-pan farmers of the 20’s and 30’s, people trying to carve a living out of unforgiving land, celebrating victories so small as to seem insignificant to big city dwellers. You won’t find a Starbucks in the Campo area, but you will find a community center as active as a beehive, and a small café where the wheeling and dealing of daily business is conducted.
Pass by a car or, more likely, a pickup truck coming from the other direction, you can count on the driver waving, a particular two-finger salute common in the countryside, a salute which is friendly, yes, but also an unspoken promise that if you’re in trouble, that stranger will stop to help, because people in the desert rely on each other when reliance is necessary.
I have rambled on, somewhat poetically, putting my best prose forward, in an attempt to describe what this area means to me, but I suspect I have fallen short, and that is as it should be. To fully appreciate the desert, words are insufficient. To fully appreciate the desert, one must live it. Not live in it, but live it, for the desert truly is a way of life.
Anyway, I could live here.