Southern California was a real eye-opener for me. I have hiked northern New Mexico and thought I was prepared for the desert, but southern California is different. It’s hot. It’s dry. It’s large.
The biggest shocker for me was being surrounded by an entirely foreign landscape of flora and fauna. I could not identify a single plant in the desert, except for the yucca. I could identify velvet ants, but had no idea what the huge red ones were. Florida is full of fire ants – these were not fire ants. And they were literally everywhere.
Even though the desert is full of dry, crumbling rocks and gravel with hardly a gram of moisture, there is still plenty of life. There are many low flowering plants, and even decent sized trees. It took me several hundred miles to identify the manzanita tree, but it has luscious green leaves, small berries, and the most impressive blood red bark that peels like birch. It provides a little shade if you curl right up next to the trunk.
And shade was the thing I missed most in the desert. I had brought my umbrella which made the sun quite bearable with the combination of high elevations and generous breezes. But because the heat of the midday sun can really burn up some water, most hikers take a siesta in the afternoon to escape the hottest part of the day. Every day I would wake up early and be hiking before sunrise, try to find shade between 1 and 3 PM to stop hiking for siesta, resume hiking at 5 or 6 PM, and hike until 9 or 10 PM. It made for long days, but I was able to easily hike 25 miles each day with that routine. Many hikers hiked later than me and sometimes hike all night long until sunrise. I am a morning person and just did not want to miss seeing that much of the trip. The scenery doesn’t change much in an hour, but it does over an entire day.
The first section from Campo to Idyllwild took me about a week. Since I had already hiked 200 miles on the Appalachian trail just a few weeks before setting out on the PCT, I was in pretty good shape and started right off the bat with 25 mile days. I had my first introduction to Goat’s tooth seeds on my very first night and dodged rattlesnakes just about every day. Once I found out about the beer festival in Idyllwild, I had my first goal to push for – make town by Friday for the festival on Saturday.
The second section from Idyllwild to Wrightwood reunited me with one of the hikers on the bus from San Diego to Campo. We hiked together for about a week, before I had to run back after losing my sunglasses. I chased him for several weeks and several hundred miles, sometimes missing him by only a few hours. This section passed the abandoned Route 66 at Cajon pass and had plenty of great scenery.
The third section from Wrightwood to Tehachapi was where I was really getting into my groove. It was also where I got a first class introduction to modern wind generated power. I took a day off in Tehachapi to rent a car and run to an REI to prepare for the Sierra mountains just 100 miles ahead of me.
The fourth section was a quick 100 miles to shakedown the new equipment and was my first up-close introduction to California wildfires. I am not quite sure how close I was to a wildfire that snuck up on me during my siesta, but it was closer than I would have liked. The trail behind me was closed the following morning, and many hikers leapfrogged ahead of me to Kennedy Meadows.