Circling the SW (February 2015)PCT: Starting At The Beginning
Mile 0 of the PCT at the Mexican border.
Under the watchful eyes of the Border Control agents in a white SUV poised on a knoll for a chase, we snapped photos of each other at the official starting post of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, known as the PCT. Our new hiking buddies, Monte and Karen from our Palm Springs, CA RV park, had gotten the itch to do the PCT and we joined them at Mile 0 on the Mexican border. We were invited on their excursion so as to provide a second vehicle and driver to make it a shuttle hike for all.
By leaving our prepaid site at the RV park 2 days early, we could squeeze in the first segment of the PCT between our epic hike to the Palm Springs aerial tram station and our second crack at the steep trails between the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and Phantom Ranch.
Lack of vehicle safety at the Mexican border compelled us to split the 20 mile, Day 1, hike into 2 very uneven segments. We made the initial steps on the PCT at sunset after the 5 hour drive from Palm Springs to Campo, CA.
Parking in Campo, we all walked south the mile and a half on the PCT to the trailhead at the Mexican border, photo-documented our presence at the beginning, then walked back to Monte and Karen’s rig in Campo. The next morning we again drove from the nearby campground and parked at the same spot in Campo. From there, we headed north on the remaining 18.5 miles of the PCT’s official 20 mile-long first day.
Shuttling was made easy by it only being a 15 minute drive between the trail access at Campo and Day 1’s terminus in our campground. The PCT made a huge arc between those 2 nearby points, racking up almost 20 miles and 3000’ of elevation gain along the way.
The windy, up-and-down, backcountry drive to Campo from Palm Springs was tediously slow with our camper on board but scenic, and the same could be said of the PCT trail. I’d expected a boring desert hike but it was anything but that and the occasional manzanita ‘forests’ in bloom were a treat. And with 2 months in a tightly packed RV park behind us and several days in freeway-exit RV parks ahead of us, being in spacious, green, countryside campground for 2 nights was delightful.
Making our way to the day's high point on the PCT.
Our 20 miles on the PCT was an insignificant portion of the 2,663 mile route to Canada, but it felt monumental to touch base at the beginning of it so far from home. We’d done day hikes on a half dozen more-northern stretches of the PCT over the last few years and it was fun to add the initial segment at the border. Monte and Karen had fledgeling ambitions to do the entire journey whereas we were merely capitalizing on the easy opportunity to tick-off the historic-feeling first miles.
Like when hiking in Big Bend National Park in Texas in 2013, we were startled by the active Border Patrol operations at Campo. I was awakened by the sound of a low flying aircraft, and then barking dogs, our first night in the campground. I later learned that the police were using night vision equipment in the area to spot traffickers crossing the border in the dark. And while on our all-day hike, we were carefully inspected by 3 different aircraft, a couple of which circled back and then down for a closer look. We were a little surprised that the first crew didn’t pass the word along to the others to spare us the subsequent, intimidating intrusions into our otherwise peaceful hike. A Most-Amazing Birthday Party
In an attempt to better understand the sports history of our new hiking buddies while on the PCT, I mentioned that we were pleased to be approaching 20 mile day hikes and I asked Monte what distance was a long hike for him. He dodged the question by commenting that he couldn’t match Karen’s longest day hike, which was 50 miles. Stunned, I waited for a time when Karen was taking a break from her audio book to learn more about her incredible fete, which was a better story than I could have imagined.
We most often saw fleet-footed Karen from behind.
A friend of Karen’s had meticulously orchestrated a 50 mile day hike to celebrate her own 50th birthday and Karen was one of 4 special guests. It was an out-and-back, low elevation gain hike on the Olympic Peninsula near their home. To keep her guests entertained, the hostess told a story about each year of her life at each mile point. Still reeling from the incomprehensible mileage, I was hit with another bad case of performance anxiety at the thought of telling an interesting story from each year of my own life.
Karen quickly assured me that the hostess indeed had 50 memorable stories. Year 1 seemed like it would be the hardest for me but not for Karen’s friend: she had a newspaper article noting that she was the youngest guest at a party celebrating Alaska’s statehood when she and her family were living there.
Karen also summarized the Year 9 story which occurred on the morning of the first day of school when the girl returned home because she had forgotten something. In the intervening minutes from being waved to from the doorstep until her return home, her mother had collapsed on the floor from a stroke. The girl's serendipitous return spared her mother from helplessly spending the day without medical care.
Karen said the fascinating 50 stories eased the effort of the hike, as did the presence of other hikers who joined them to walk segments of the journey. At the 25 mile turn-around point, another group of friends met the walkers with a birthday cake for a mid-hike celebration.
Karen’s retelling the story of her 50 mile hike was a pleasant distraction from the effort of our 18-miler and had me savoring the images of their traveling birthday party for weeks. I was deeply moved by the exceptional way this woman had found to reflect upon her past, to actively honor her past in the present, to share herself with her friends, and to create an enduring experience for a number of people, including me.
Actually Crossing the Border
Algondones, MX wasn't much to look at.
This winter season we left home equipped with our passports and new Global Entry cards so as to cross the border into Algondones, Mexico near Yuma, AZ. Our 2014 Yuma RV park hostess had given Bill a stack of information about shopping at Algondones, along with the usual park info, like the code to the bathroom door and the check-out time. Unbeknownst to us, typically hot Yuma was also a hot-spot for legal drug-running by snowbirds.
Deeply discounted prescription medications, dental work, and eye glasses were in high demand and Algondones was set-up to relieve those market pressures. We lacked sufficient ID to allow us easy re-entry into the US in 2014, so we made a note to create the opportunity for ourselves in 2015.
Bill’s final 2015 itinerary hadn’t included traveling so far south, so Algondones was shelved until 2016 but Monte's last minute PCT hike changed our plans. Suddenly, there was just enough time for a reconnaissance trip to the shopping Mecca.
And reconnaissance was about it. We arrived in Yuma around 3 pm, asumming that the shops would be open until 6 pm or later. We quickly discovered that 4 pm was the typical closing time and that we’d unexpectedly lost an hour to Mountain Time at the border between California and Arizona.
We made a beeline to the main Algondones pharmacy in hopes of finding deep discounts and the opportunity to stash some extra inventory to be used when our travels made it difficult to fill prescriptions in the proper time window. But one-by-one, we were disappointed. The Mexican pharmacy was primarily catering to the very common lifestyle maladies, like diabetes and heart disease, and our few items weren’t in their inventory.
We’d also hoped to buy Bill a back-up pair of prescription glasses since he’d had 2 ‘crushing events' in the last year that necessitated paying top dollar to get new glasses the same day. But we were too late and the optical shops were closed. We needed to be on our way in the morning and probably wouldn’t bother returning to Algondones in 2016 but were glad to have checked out the scene for ourselves.
A Friend in Phoenix
The inner canyon.
Iva, our retired bike racer friend in Phoenix, again opened her doors wide for us and we spent 2 delightful nights catching up with her. We were treated to a hike at a favorite state park, several yummy meals at her home and in restaurants, and lots of fun conversation. Then it was on the road for several more of our hallmark, low-mileage driving days to arrive at the Grand Canyon.The Grand Canyon & Phantom RanchDoing It Again
Despite the byzantine reservation process to secure a bed at Phantom Ranch that requires dozens of hours on “Hold” listening to nonstop ads, I had succeeded in arranging for a second visit there. Our reservation for a single night in a cabin for February 16, 2015 was made a year in advance. A year later, a couple of days before we hiked down to the Ranch, I managed to get us each a bed in a 10 person dorm for the following 2 nights. Such a crazy process but we finally had a 3 night stay!
We desperately wanted a cabin to ourselves for all 3 nights. We were chagrined at the thought of divvying up our supplies for 2 nights in the non-coed dorms, but gambled on upgrading to a cabin with the help of last minute cancellations once down at the Ranch. We did well enough: the first 2 nights were in a cabin, the third in dorms. The dorm experience was OK and we agreed that we’d be willing to do it again because it was as wonderful as anticipated to have 2 hiking days in the Phantom Ranch vicinity after the big physical and logistical efforts to get there.
We learned by doing that having the final night’s stay be in the dorms was definitely the better of the 3 nights to do so because our 20 pound food stash was at its minimum. Like last year, we paid the portage fee to have a mule haul a mule feed bag of our feed down to the Ranch. Doing so allowed us to hike down the beautiful but knee and toe banging Kaibab Trail with 17 lb packs instead of 32 pounders. But the bulk of that extra 30 lbs of food and gear would have been tough for us to manage if we were in 2 separate dorms all 3 nights.
Salmon On The Colorado River
All the way to, and behind, Ribbon Falls.
Another lesson we learned during our 2015 Phantom Ranch excursion was that the yummy smoked salmon a mule carried to the Ranch for us was an olfactory nightmare. The air in our little rustic cabin quickly filled with the pungent fishy odor when we cut open the foil wrapper to divide the fragile filet into 6 portions.
Luckily, we’d successfully balanced the 18” long packet on the edge of our small, cold-water-only sink and with 4 hands, were just able to pour the unexpected liquid into the sink instead of on to us or the floor. Tucking the crumbling fish and the foil wrapper into zip lock bags and running water down the sink did little to subdue the odor in our cabin. The scent remained on my hands for hours despite several direct applications of detergent. We hung the sealed baggies with salmon refuse on our cabin's exterior door hook in hopes of eventually clearing the cabin air without attracting bears.
Fortunately the salmon survived the needed 3 days without the specified refrigeration and added a touch of class to our picnic lunches on the trail. But even though we purred while eating it, we’ll never risk using it again in such close quarters. By double plastic bagging the remaining lunch portions and then placing them in a sealed plastic container, I managed to keep the salmon in my dorm room window overnight without offending my roommates. And since Phantom Ranch is a “pack it ALL out” place, the salmon and its related garbage was very much ours for the duration.
The smoked salmon was an important part of my menu design to provide us with 3+ days of no-cook, no-refrigeration food that fit our ketogenic diet. We’d maxed out our 30 lb duffel bag weight and volume limit last year with food and gear for 2 nights and this year we had provisioned for 3 nights. Freeze-dried chicken breast cubes (and dust), spinach, and strawberries were the other main components of our lighter weight menu for 2015.Hiking From The Inner Canyon
All of the intense gyrations around our food and lodging at the Grand Canyon delivered what we wanted: 2 full days of hiking from the bottom of the inner canyon in addition to our 2 days of hiking between the South Rim and Phantom Ranch. Last year, our single layover day was spent walking to the point where we could see Ribbon Falls from the trail but not actually going to the base of the falls. This year, with the benefit of cooler weather and an earlier start, we made the additional hour detour to the unusual falls themselves. And our 2nd free day was spent exploring the Clear Creek Trail.
Zoroaster Temple from Clear Creek Trail on the north side of the canyon.
Ribbon Falls was a delightful trek for the destination; Clear Creek was a joy for the journey. One of my regrets about hiking in the Grand Canyon had been that all the major trails were vertical slices through the terrain and I yearned for a long traverse of the canyon. Unusually, there are no riverside hikes along that segment of the Colorado River, but the Clear Creek Trail was the next best thing at 1000’ above the river. It delivered the ‘walk along the canyon’ views that I craved. Wishing For More
Amazingly, even though our 8 nights at the Grand Canyon were put on the calendar a year in advance because of a single night’s cabin reservation obtained from a cancellation, we lucked out on the weather. The forecast snowfall on our 2 day approach to the Park melted away before it fell and we had sunny, dry weather for our entire mid-February stay. Though we longed to extend our stay at the Grand Canyon, we departed on schedule so as to dodge the up to 9” of snow in the immediate forecast. It was tempting to stay to snowshoe but there was the risk of too little snow and too much ice for it to be fun. Images of overturned and jack-knifed trucks around nearby Flagstaff in 2011 were still fresh in our minds. (This year, it was still snowing at the Grand Canyon 10 days after we left).
Plateau Point from Bright Angel Trail.
Buoyed by our good luck with the weather, the lodging, and solving our meal problems, I immediately began calling once or twice a day in hopes of again anchoring an extended stay at Phantom Ranch next year with a single cabin reservation. Our hard training at Palm Springs meant that we easily hiked over 20 miles in 2 days from Phantom Ranch instead of resting on our layover days like most do. We were eager to do even more next year and would again plan on a long conditioning stay at Palm Springs to support the excursions.Next Up
The plan was to park ourselves in Albuquerque for 3 to 4 weeks after leaving the Grand Canyon for the steep hiking so readily available in the nearby Sandia Mtns. But Albuquerque was forecast to suffer from the same plunging temperatures as the Grand Canyon—nasty weather that blanketed the region’s 10 day forecasts. Desperate to retain our new fitness edge, we opted to drive the extra miles to head back south to Tucson.
Tucson was feeling the effects from the series of big storm systems too but that translated into a temperature drop from the 80’s to the 70’s with no teens at night like we had been experiencing. And we knew from prior visits that we could get the 4000’ gain hikes from Tucson that we needed to maintain our edge. Suddenly, after doing big gain hikes almost weekly for over 2 months, my chronic muscle soreness had abated. Not being continuously stiff and sore was a new experience for me that I was anxious to extend, to learn more about, by keeping the big hikes on the weekly calendar. So, on to Tucson it was.