Two years ago, the thought of me standing on a small rise in the California desert would have seemed improbable. The fact is, I would not have thought of it at all. My only thoughts then were on preparing for an attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.
After I successfully completed that hike, I still had no thoughts of attempting another long distance hike.
Yet here I was today, standing next to an ugly corrugated metal fence that runs along the Mexican border. Nearby was a simple monument marking the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.
And though I often said I never wanted to do a thru-hike again, right now hiking about 2,560 trail miles north toward Canada was all I wanted to do.
Foggy early, then mostly sunny and later clear; temperatures from low 50s to mid 70s
Sandy trail over moderately rolling terrain
I had slept well in the large dome tent set up in Scout and Frodo’s back yard, but was awakened around midnight by the sound of rain hitting the tent. After a groggy moment I remembered I left some of my gear outside the tent and quickly pulled it inside.
We were expected to be up early and ready for breakfast so that we could get to the trailhead and start hiking soon after sunup. That was no problem for me because my body was still operating on Eastern Standard Time. I was awake at 4:50 a.m.
After packing my gear, I went inside the house for breakfast. Frodo and a couple volunteers had prepared a full breakfast, which included a frittata, muffins, fruit, and coffee.
There wasn’t a lot of chatter among hikers. That may have been because of the early hour, or it may have been because we were asked to be quiet while outside as a courtesy to the neighbors.
There was probably a little nervous anticipation among the hikers as well.
Once we were done eating it was time to load up cars and head to the trailhead, which was located a few yards from the border near a small community called Campo.
The sky was dark when we left the house, but soon began to lighten as we got on the highway and headed east to Campo.
The drive to the trailhead took about 90 minutes. Our driver was another volunteer. He talked about the trail and answered some questions about what to expect.
Standing at the trailhead was a monument made of five wooden pillars.
The air was cool and damp, so I reached for my jacket. It was nowhere to be found.
It took a few minutes to realize I had left it at Scout and Frodo’s house. I asked a couple hikers who came in a different van if they had seen it, and one said yes. Not only had he seen it, the hikers brought it with them and it was in the van.
"The trail provides" is a phrase often used among hikers, and this was proof of its truth.
After several minutes of taking photos and nervous chatter among the hikers, a couple volunteers named 3-Guy and Glow in the Dark asked everyone to gather around them for a few words of advice.
The husband-and-wife team served as Southern Terminus hosts on behalf of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, with the goal of getting everyone started safely and using proper trail ethics.
One of their memorable pieces of advice: “No selfies with snakes.”
They brought with them a clever box and asked the hikers to place their phones and cameras in the slots in the top. Everyone wanted a group photo from the monument, of course, and this box put the devices in easy reach so that 3-Guy and Glow in the Dark could snap the photos in quick succession.
Once the posing for photos was finished, many hikers took off, but Tengo and I remained at the monument. We knew from experience there was no point in hurrying today.
This was not going to be a day of big miles. Those could wait for when we have better trail legs.
We signed our names in the hiker register at the monument, then decided to walk over to the fence and touch the border.
Setting politics aside, the fence was an eyesore of rusted metal and barbed wire. In front was a dirt road, which the border patrol regularly grooms so that footprints can be tracked.
Tengo and I walked up to the fence and looked at Mexico through a small opening. Then according to thru-hiker tradition, we stuck our hands through the opening. This was the closest we were allowed to touch Mexico.
By now the time was after 8 a.m., so we decided we should begin hiking. Tengo started off ahead of me and headed down the border road.
It took a minute or so before my hiker sense kicked in and I realized we were going the wrong way.
Yes, our first steps on the PCT were in the wrong direction. I should have remembered that Tengo and Stick would sometimes do this during our Appalachian Trail hike.
After stopping to confirm we weren’t on the trail, we turned around and walked back to the monument, then correctly headed north on the trail.
By now, nearly all of the other hikers had left the monument. Tengo and I chatted as we walked on the sandy trail.
After going a little more than two miles we came upon a hiker who had camped overnight near the side of the trail. We stopped to chat with him.
“I can tell the seasoned hikers,” he told us. "They’re the ones who have stopped to talk. Everybody else keeps walking.”
He was a 24-year-old from Kansas and a student at Columbia University. He said his trail name was Bookworm, a name earned when he thru-hiked the AT in 2016.
Bookworm started hiking late last night after being dropped off near the trailhead by an Uber driver. He was nearly done packing, so we waited for him to finish and he joined us as we began walking again.
Near the town of Campo there was a small stand of trees along a small stream.
A few homes and small businesses were scattered on a road leading to the town, which the trail followed for a short distance. Among the buildings were a school and a large facility for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Though the town is modest today, Campo has always had an important role in border protection. In its early days it served as a base for the Buffalo Soldiers, an all African-American Cavalry unit of the U.S. Army.
During World War II, authorities feared the enemy could enter the U.S. through Mexico. The Army expanded the base and renamed it Camp Lockett.
The base was also used to house German and Italian prisoners of war.
The terrain continued to be varied and changing as we walked north. Sometimes we’d pass unusual rock formations. In other places the land was mostly scrubby trees and bushes.
When we reached a set of train tracks we found a shiny new sign next to the tracks, which pointed the north-south directions of the trail.
According to the sign, we had walked only three miles in nearly two hours. We weren’t setting any speed records, but no one complained.
The trail made several twists and switchbacks as it snaked around the contours of hills. There were only gradual changes in elevation.
After coming around one curve we came upon a woman name One Piece, who was hiking southbound with her cat, Spoon. She said she was finishing a section she missed last year during her hike, and had been hiking with Spoon since leaving Tehachapi, a distance of more than 560 miles.
The cat seemed to be content to sit and watch from the top of One Piece’s pack.
Before noon we met up with a young woman named Sarah. She had recently worked as a massage therapist in Portland. We thought she’d be a popular person on the trail.
After chatting with her for a short time, Sarah decided to join us as we continued walking. In less that four hours we had formed a little trail family, or tramily.
Several minutes later, we again met a hiker we had talked to earlier. Dan was sitting in the shade of a large rock and was eating lunch.
We asked him if he would like to join us, but Dan declined, wishing to continue relaxing in the shade. Tengo suggested he adopt the trail name Made in the Shade.
After the early morning fog was pushed away by the sun, the sky became mostly clear, with only an occasional light cloud. The air seemed much warmer than the current temperature, 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps that was because I wasn’t used to walking in the desert.
I felt I could quickly adapt, though. I was already appreciating the lower humidity.
Besides the desert, another new experience for me was walking for an extended time at the same pace with a group of people. That almost never happened to me when I hiked the Appalachian Trail. Even when Tengo joined Stick and me in Maine, we would usually separate a few minutes apart.
This was fun! Sometimes we’d have various conversations going on at the same time, depending on which of us was near each other.
The conversation tended to be mostly about the AT, and for that I felt sorry for Sarah. She was the only one of our group who had not hiked that trail.
Earlier today I thought we’d go about 15 miles to the bottom of Hauser Canyon. As the day wore on, Sarah gradually began to slow down. Though not feeling as tired, Tengo, Bookworm and I were satisfied with the miles we put in and didn't mind finding a place to stop.
This was our first day on the trail and agreed there was no point in trying to do too much.
When we reached an overlook above Hauser Canyon we considered our options and decided to look for a campsite now instead of hiking down to the bottom of the canyon.
There weren’t any campsites marked on the map, but there was a dirt road. I suggested we take a look at that, thinking there may be some flat spots good enough to pitch our tents.
A short distance farther, only partway down into the canyon, we found a place that would work. The time was 5:30 p.m. It had been a good day of hiking and now was a good time to stop.
As the shadows from the canyon wall lengthened, we sat together on a large rock and prepared our dinners. Then I pulled out a small bottle of wine. I had added it at the last minute to my food bag when I packed for the first few days on the trail. There wasn’t much to share between all four of us, but it was a nice way to celebrate the first day on the trail with old and new friends.
Side a white mare in the footsteps of dawn
Tryin' to find a woman who's never, never, never been born
Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams
Telling myself it's not as hard, hard, hard as it seems