Day 15 – April 18, 2022
Mile 190.5 (Fuller Ridge Trailhead) to 213.4 (Mesa Wind Farm)
22.9 trail miles | 22.2 tracked miles | 1,747 ft elevation gain | 84.2 F / 29 °C
After showing its gentler side for 14 days, the desert finally revealed its true colors and unleashed its might upon me. Though the day was challenging, I learned a lot, which is one of the many virtues of backpacking that I appreciate.
We woke up at 5 am to beat the heat before tackling a section that we expected to be dry and exposed. While I’m not a morning person (which I might have mentioned before?), watching the sunrise in the wilderness is an extraordinary blessing.
I broke up camp methodically and slowly as usual, lifted my overweight backpack, then finally hit the trail at 6:20am.
It’s natural to focus on elevation gain when assessing the difficulty of a trail. Obviously, working against gravity requires effort and determination. But this morning was a stark reminder that walking downhill can be equally challenging.
We descended from our high-altitude camp in the Mt. San Jacinto mountain range to the desert floor, losing 7,000 feet of elevation over a stubborn 16-mile stretch.
The landscape morphed as we descended. Pine trees soon gave way to desert flora.
As the valley loomed large ahead of us, all that remained were shrubs. Meanwhile, I completed my first 10-before-10: 10 miles hiked before 10 o’clock!
Eventually, we reached our lowest point, a dramatic and barren landscape where only the most tenacious plants survive.
While the grade was gentle all along, my overloaded backpack crushed my shoulders. The temperature rose dramatically as we descended, reaching 100 F (38 C) by late morning, although a gentle breeze helped offset the sweltering heat.
I passed the 200-mile marker, though reaching this milestone felt somewhat anticlimactic, considering that I’ve actually hiked significantly more than 200 miles including bonus (off-trail) miles. Plus, my knees were begging for relief.
Eventually, we reached the sole water source on this morning’s stretch: a faucet installed by the local utility for the benefit of hikers. I collected some water, but noticed in dismay that I had plenty left.
The first lesson of the day shall be: “though shall not carry too much water.”
It’s always a fine like to walk (see what I did here?) Obviously, running out of water can have dire consequences. On the flip side, water is heavy, so optimizing is key. In this instance, I neglected to account for the fact that we would get up early and descend non-stop. Temperatures are cooler in the morning, and descending, while hard on the knees, does take less energy than climbing. I did not need six liters.
Also, I can carry up to 3.75 liters easily in my bottles in hip pockets, but if I need more, I have to use my CNOC bladder. However, the bladder shifts the center of gravity of my pack, making it more uncomfortable to carry.
The sun was high and relentless, and shade was nowhere to be found. For the first time, I deployed my sun umbrella.
Considering that the area was inhospitable, we decided to walk another 4 miles and get lunch at the I-10 highway underpass, a well know “hiker oasis” with guaranteed shade and frequent trail magic.
Christie, Joe, and Michael seemed to fare better than I did. The trio left ahead of me, while I stayed behind and rested for a moment.
The next mile or so followed a paved utility road.
I passed a few scattered houses and briefly spoke with a friendly local resident. She kindly asked me if I needed anything, and pointed out that the area was just coming off a heat wave. I cannot imagine what it felt like.
The trail soon parted from the road. Ahead of me laid the bare, rocky, desolate, forbidding desert. There was nowhere to go except straight ahead.
The next four miles were brutal—a constant battle against the wind, the sand, and the heat.
There were few trail markers, and in my lethargic state, I wandered off the path. As if I had lost my bearings, I suddenly felt disoriented and anxious. It was a disturbing feeling. Everything around me looked the same. I couldn’t make sense of my environment.
Technically, I was never remotely lost. I could see the highway and railway bridges in the distance. Besides, I have maps both on my phone and on my watch. But my emotions got the best of me, and I felt completely powerless for a moment.
I collected my thoughts and was eventually able to retrace my steps. I spotted a trail marker and resumed my mind-numbing walk, but the highway in the distance was like a mirage. It seemed to move further away as I battled the elements.
Eventually, I-10 materialized in front of me, and I followed the trail down to the underpass. I was mentally drained, exhausted, and almost dizzy.
In hindsight, I realize that I was just hungry. Lesson #2 of the day: I should have had lunch at the water faucet—I needed food much more than shade.
Sitting in a broken chair at the seedy underpass felt like heaven. It’s as if all my worries had dissipated, and I could feel a sense of accomplishment.
The I-10 hiker oasis comes courtesy of generous local trail angels, who maintain a water cache and regularly drop off a few treats. Today’s selection included fresh fruit—always a winner on trail—and I was thrilled to find Oreos in the hiker box.
We napped for a couple hours, then decided to get back on trail and reach the next suitable camp site, which is located 4 miles further on private property, at a wind farm. The alternative was to stay overnight at the underpass, but the day was still relatively young, and I can’t imagine sleeping with freight trains rolling by.
We stepped out of the shade and re-entered the ghastly desert.
Fortunately, the trail quickly regained a bit of elevation, and the landscape became slightly more varied. At least we weren’t walking in a straight line anymore.
We passed the welcome sign for California Section C of the Pacific Crest Trail. Sections A and B went by so fast! As a section hiker, I used to always pay attention to these official designations, though as a thru-hiker, I tend to think in terms of towns and resupply points. Administrative sections are somewhat irrelevant.
The four mile trek to the wind farm went by relatively quickly and uneventfully.
The wind farm has a reputation for being hospitable to hikers, though we weren’t sure what to expect. In fact, I was as a little confused, seeing that there were no wind turbines in the vicinity.
We knocked on the door of a non-descript office building in the middle of the desert. The manager welcomed us with open arms, and invited us to relax and cool down in the air-conditioned staff break room, where we we had the option to purchase snacks and treats for a nominal fee. We were able to use the bathroom, too—I even spotted a shower but didn’t dare abuse our hosts’ hospitality.
The staff has a tradition of welcoming hikers every season, and they invited us to sign their log book. I chatted with a maintenance supervisor and was able to learn a bit about the company’s operations.
The office building is located a few miles away from the wind farm proper, which explains the absence of visible wind turbines. In any case, they only have a few turbines in operation at this time as they are in the process of upgrading their equipment. We could watch the real-time output on a control screen. I learned a bit about recent developments in blade technology, which have dramatically improved the efficiency and durability of wind turbines, while lowering the costs of operations.
The manager is on an extended mission at this location. He stays at a hotel in town in the evenings but typically leaves work late in order to help hikers! We were incredibly grateful.
After a brief moment of hesitation, we simultaneously all decided to have two dinners in a row.
We wolfed down TV dinners from the wind farm’s pantry, then setup camp right outside the gate and ate our second dinner. Calories are the best possible end to a rough day.