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As someone with asthma, I hate hot weather. It makes my life very miserable and difficult for me to breathe, which is why I planned to start my long-distance hike on the famed Pacific Crest Trail ("PCT") in the last week of February. The PCT starts at the Mexican border wall in Southern California, an hour from San Diego and runs through California, Oregon, and Washington, all the way across the Canadian Border. It is 2,652 miles long. On my original late-February timeline, I would be in the Mojave Desert and the 100 miles before it by about early April, when the weather is fairly cold.
But life has a funny way of going its own way and messing up your plans: “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley.” Due to medical circumstances beyond my control (major life-changing surgery), I could not start my hike on the planned date. I could only start in late April, and I thought that it would be enough time to still hike in "cooler" temperatures in the Mojave Desert and the desert area before it (Palmdale and Lancaster). With the late-April starting date in mind, I made reservations for transportation and hotel and made my way to Palmdale to begin my PCT hike. I had been following weather forecasts for several weeks and was carefully looking at the "weather window." It looked doable and temperatures were only in the 80s Fahrenheit. However, a few days prior to my start date, I noticed that the temperatures climbed all the way up to the 90s Fahrenheit. Still, I decided to continue.
Prior to getting on the trail, I had prepared regularly for the PCT trail by hiking up to eight miles a day in my neighborhood in Stockton, where elevation was 7 feet. Outside of Stockton, I would do longer hikes, up to 16 miles in one day in the Marin Hedlands. On this day, I will climb a summit that was over 3,000 feet high, and a major reason why I started here instead of other places where elevation would go all the way up to 7,000 feet and even 10,000 feet. Yes, of course I could have prepared more; yes, I could have even spent more time hiking in the Marin Hedlands along the Coastal Trail… but life did not offer me that luxury. With my wife’s illness, I was more caregiver than a hiker in preparation. Nevertheless, I have traveled down this road before, and, my experience is, that after ten days to two weeks, your body will eventually get tuned by the daily exercise, and you are now in “okay,” but not great hiking shape. Then, after two weeks, generally about the third week mark, your body is now in very good shape. Physically, you are “tuned in,” and you hike faster and stronger, and the miles travelled begin to increase, and you are zipping along the trail. This was, in any event, my experience and strategy when I thru-hiked the 500-plus miles of the Camino de Santiago, from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela, from Santiago to Muxia, and then from Muxia to Finesterre. And just for good measure, that same year, I also decided to hike the Camino Portuguese.
But, in the last week of April 2019, I was in the dry, arid and hot desert of Southern California and not in the Pyrenees mountains of Spain.
On my first day on the PCT, I also had a late start. There is no need for a reason to explain why, but the crucial thing is, I had a late start. Hence, by the time I got to my starting point at KOA Acton in Los Angeles, it was already 12 pm. I met other fellow PCT hikers--Stewart from Australia, Jason from New York, and Daniel from the UK--and we socialized and chatted for a few minutes. This is an important human interaction ritual because if they were going on the trail and something bad happened, we had already established some human contact and interaction, so they already know who I am and would be more inclined to help since I am no longer a stranger. By this time, they were already finely tuned "lean and mean" hikers who had already 400 miles logged. Hence, I listened very carefully to their answers and advice. Thank you, Stewart, for openly admitting, "I still carry too much stuff"--so did I, which is why I was late because I mailed gear home to make my backpack even lighter! Daniel told me he generally carried 3 liters of water on a 10-mile hike, just like the one to Agua Dulce on this section. I made a mental note that I should be okay since I was also carrying 4 liters.
Finally, when I asked folks when are they going to start on the trail, the folks around the table at that day and time all said that they were not: that they were, instead, going to either spend the night here because IT WAS TOO HOT, or they were going to take a ride into Agua Dulce and skip this section of the trail altogether... BECAUSE IT WAS TOO HOT. I kinda shrugged it off and thought of going on the trail regardless.
By 1 p.m. I decided it was time to head out on the PCT trail. So off I went with my merry hiking thoughts and with a bit of excitement. I arrived on the trail and immediately thought, "Damn, I am violating one of my important rules to never start hiking in the middle of the day when it is too hot." Still, I started up the hill and proceeded with my hike... and that was when I realized, "Damn, it is too hot!" Right away, I thought about decision-making processes, how they are made, and the mistakes people often make in their decisions, especially within the context of behavioral economics where we think we are all going to deliberate and act rationally when the reality is, we do not. Sometimes, people will stay with their bad decisions because they are too embarrassed to admit that they made a mistake. People will keep their bad financial decisions a secret, even from their families (for example, a bad loan or investment they took), instead of admitting it and seeking help because they don't want to admit they made a mistake. I thought, Am I doing the same thing here? Am I staying with my bad decision to hike in mid-day and under the scorching hot sun, because I am too embarrassed to admit I made a mistake? That is, I dread the embarrassment of admitting a mistake more than the mistake itself? Even though the mistake can endanger me and even cost me my life? With that in mind, I decided to climb down the mountain and rested at the bathroom area near the trail... and mulled over my mistake. Or as a professor would express it, “engage in a Socratic dialogue.” How on earth am I going to be able to walk back down to the KOA Campground and explain to folks that I turned back from the trail? Que horror... what terrible embarrassment would I experience!? Then a PCT hiker named Michelle came down the trail, and I said, "Wow, you're a Southbound hiker!" Michelle, who is from Wisconsin, replied, "No I am Northbound. I am going to Canada. Where are you headed?" "I am also Northbound," I replied, and then I realized that I was HEADING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION! So those are now two signs that confirm that it was not a good idea to go hiking in this hot weather, and that I am correct in turning around and returning to the KOA Camp.
When I returned to Camp, I immediately explained to my PCT friends, "It is way too hot out there, and I decided to turn around and spend the night." To my surprise, the other PCT hikers agreed. I spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with more PCT hikers, and by dinner time they suggested we ordered pizza and beers. I explained that I was planning on cooking dinner since I have a seven-day supply of food, and I really wanted to lighten my load. But Daniel, who really wanted to drink beer on this hot day, kept insisting, in the friendliest way, on us having pizza and beer. "Okay," I said, "I will go in on the ham and pineapple pizza, but no beer." Then he mentioned that the restaurant that was doing the delivery had Sierra beer. Wow, I am not a beer drinker, but my friend Carlo Medina, my surrogate son from Northridge who is also an RN, introduced me to the fine art of beer tasting and appreciation, especially from specialized micro-brewery. "Okay, Daniel, I will order one Sierra beer," I said with a smile and thought, why not, it would make for good social bonding with my fellow PCT hikers.
We had a great evening of conversation: Daniel from the UK, Marcus from Germany (trail name "Wilson" from the Tom Hanks movie), and James from Washington State, who was also a fellow UW graduate. There were many more folks there, but this was my group. James and I ended up hanging out together and getting into deep conversations about his time in the U.S. Army, most of which were conducting highly specialized operations (i.e. classified), and he cannot speak about them, and about my friends who served in the Vietnam War. I think he was genuinely taken when I spoke of my friend Alex Fabros, a retired Colonel, Vietnam combat veteran, and a fellow historian with Ph.D. and how much "I really love that guy." He noticed that I was almost teary when I spoke of Alex. James mentioned that in his time with the Army doing special operations, judging character was an important survival trait, especially since he was involved in highly classified operations (again, of which, of course, he cannot speak) and engaged in brutal combat around the world, especially in Afghanistan. James said, "You have good character." He was also very surprised that I had so many friends that were colonels: "Those guys are gods... they are way up there in the military. Enlisted men like me rarely deal with them directly." Ironically, his best friend and buddy in the Army was a Mexican. My best friend and photography buddy, Steven Montalvo, is also Mexican. But most importantly we spoke about the complicated and complex relations between fathers and sons. I shared my story about my son Adrian, and he spoke of his lawyer father. His story and advise was very helpful to this father and writer who is also writing this essay. To my surprise, when our conversation ended, James got up and gave me a hug... and I felt his back as we gave each other a heart-felt hug, and it felt as if it were made of steel. This was one serious bad-ass American soldier.
The next morning, I exchanged email and contact numbers with James and Daniel, and I left for the trail early, just a little past 7:30 a.m. It was 10.6 miles to Agua Dulce, and a 2,000-feet in elevation gain, with the highest point being 3,143 feet. Temperatures were in the low-90s. In my training hikes in Marin along the California Coastal Trail, I have hiked 16 miles, so I should be okay. Or so I thought. Small detail: Marin is right by the Pacific Ocean and is nice and cool. We are at the edge of the Mojave Desert where it was hot and very dry.
The first hour of hiking in that early morning with temperatures in the 60s and, two hours later, in the 70s, were absolutely wonderful. Even though I have asthma, even though I am not in perfect shape (I politely and jokingly refer to myself as a “fat old man” [see photo above on left side]), and even though my backpack was heavier than I would like with 4.5 liters of water and seven days supply of food, I was happy. And my lungs were good, and my legs were okay. I could hear my heart beating hard and pounding as I was hiking up the hill, but it is not the kind that spells trouble. Rather, it says, “Dude, you’re out of shape.” I was eating nuts for protein and freeze-dried cranberries for sugar, and I was drinking water at regular intervals. Drinking in nice sips but not gulping in desperation. The hills surrounding the trail were filled with California poppies in full bloom. A gentle breeze was blowing across the hills and valleys, a very pleasant morning, and a major reason why I and so many others go outdoors to hike.
At 10:30 a.m. in the rolling hills and mountain deserts of California, I stopped to have early lunch (a bagel and more nuts and cranberries) … and it was already getting too damn hot. There was hardly any shade to be found, a shade where one can hide from the scorching sun and get reprieve from the energy draining heat. This is the evil side of the American dream of a “sunny California.”
I also was making very slow progress. At the 3-mile mark, the experienced PCT hikers from camp who have over 400 miles under their belt, passed me and proceeded up the switch-back trails along the mountain to the summit. I did not see them take a break on their ascent. In contrast, I take mountains in stages and rest several times during my mountain ascent.
By 1 p.m. I had summited the highest part of the mountain, but the initial joy from my early morning hike was gone. Hiking was no longer fun. And I am feeling pain in climbing up the 2,000 feet of elevation gain. My legs were cramping; it was painful to step up in my climb; and I had to do stretching exercises just to be able to move forward. In retrospect, those leg cramps were signs of dehydration, most likely from too much sun exposure.
I was now clearly in purgatory.
Coming down from the summit, on the next hill, I sat on a rock along the trail's edge that overlooked Highway 14, the Antelope Valley Freeway. It was then that I decided it was time to bail out of this trail and call it a day. I will then reassess the hike, make the necessary adjustments and restart with the new bearings. I checked to see if I had cell phone services, I did get a signal, and I texted my wife and told her of my decision. Then I asked her to make hotel and Amtrak reservations for my trip home where I will do a serious reassessment and then restart at a part of the PCT Trail where it is much cooler, with lots of shade, which would be somewhere in the Sierras. I felt better in making this decision and reminded myself that it was exactly this type of decision-making process that I will be doing when I sail out the Golden Gate Bridge on my long-distance sail. I needed to embrace and reward myself for being able to make a difficult decision to bail on a journey. Unlike sailing across the Pacific, I will not have the luxury of bailing from a difficult PCT hike.
However, having made the decision to leave purgatory, I ended up in hell. By 1:30 p.m. I realized I was in trouble. At this speed, I am staying out in the hot sun way too long and reaching unhealthy heat exposure levels for a human being. There was almost no shade on this section of the PCT. I think I counted two times where there was some semblance of shade along the trail, which is why some people carry sun umbrellas when hiking in hot temperatures. Although I had reached and traveled beyond the summit, and it was now mostly hiking downhill, there were still parts of the mountain that involved 50-200-foot ascents. Those were very painful climbs for me. There were even parts of the hike when I felt like vomiting. Although I was drinking regularly, and I eventually finished all my water, I know now as I am writing this that this was a further sign that I was still very dehydrated.
At 4 p.m. I realized I had not taken a pee all day long, and that I now had to pee. For most people, taking a pee is fairly routine, but for outdoors folks, this is an important time to see if you are dehydrated. My pee was yellow and very little came out. I thought, damn, I am indeed heavily dehydrated. By this time, I nearly finished drinking my 3 liters of water, and I only had 14 oz. left in my small Nalgene water bottle. Thus, when I came upon a stream just under the Highway 14 underpass, I filtered and filled up my 1-liter Smart Water bottle, the fashionably de rigueur water bottle for PCT hikers. The cool water from the stream felt so good, as did hiding from the harsh heat of the hot sun. With only 2 miles left to hike before I reached Agua Dulce, I thought that 1 liter of water, plus my extra 14 oz. in the mini-Nalgene would be enough. One important lesson I learned from that hike in the scorching sun, a rule which I follow as did my other PCT hiker friends, is to always have a clear water bottle and at least 1-liter, as your emergency supply--a clear bottle so you can see exactly how much you have left, . That way, if you run out of water in your main supply, which is usually a bladder tucked away in your backpack, at least you know you have enough water to last you through the night and until you can reach your next water supply point.
In sum, I made it to Agua Dulce, and I am now at home typing this on my MacBook Air. But the trail really kicked my butt big time.
Some of my PCT friends at the KOA Camp bailed and took Lyft/Uber to town because of the high temperatures... and silly me I decided to hike it. I should have probably followed their decision and also skipped this part of the trail. At the end of 10.6 miles and 2,000 elevation gain, I felt like I was a beaten-up fat old man.
The thought of bailing from the trail occurred to me after making it over the summit, and I was sitting on a rock overlooking the Highway 14 Freeway. I thought, “What the hell... I have to hike in this similar hot weather and high temperatures for 7-10 more days, including the Mojave where and when it will be even hotter than today?” That was when I thought it was time to bail. I checked into a hotel and took the Amtrak home for this weekend.
But the decision to bail temporarily all worked out because next week I also have to take the photos in the Anthropology Museum photography exhibit down and prepare it for the next exhibit. I am not trying to rationalize my decision here, but I am just trying to see the positive in this otherwise very painful and humbling experience.
IMPORTANT LESSONS LEARNED
The most lesson for me is everything I do now is ultimately in preparation for the sail to Hawaii and somehow make it to across the Pacific to Australia. This is a major reason why I am hiking the PCT. It sounds ambitious, and possibly full of self-aggrandizing shit if you don't know how sailors with long-distance ambitions think. But that is exactly how we think, and we would die in pursuit of our sailing goal… something which I am not willing to do for the PCT.
This PCT hike was a test run on long-range travel planning, risk avoidance, sustaining those long-distance travel plans and survival decision-making abilities. BAILING OUT on the PCT taught me an important lesson: I am not afraid to make the decision to bailout and call it quits. I am willing to swallow my pride and admit I made a mistake. This is good because unlike the PCT, when I am out sailing in the Pacific, and I get beaten up by the Ocean, I don't have the option of checking out, leaving the trail, making reservations and checking into an air-conditioned hotel, and then taking Amtrak home the next day.
This is a defeat. I lost to the trail... but it is good to experience that "defeat" now, a defeat which I hope is only temporary, and not have to experience it later when you are out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and assistance is several hundred miles away. On a trans-pacific crossing, that defeat may not be temporary... that defeat may end up being very permanent. Hence, I am learning an important lesson on the PCT. And it is good to be able to deal with setbacks and defeats, so you can recover and live another day and be able to move forward with a life intact.
I will be returning to the PCT Trail in a few days. By then, I will have done the proper reassessment (the former professor in me still thinking and talking in terms of “assessments”) and will have planned a new bearing and a new route and then move forward. It will definitely be in 1) cooler weather with a fair amount of shade, 2) with a much lighter backpack (good-by beloved camera gear and GoPro 7!), and 3) the proper readjustments to hike longer and further.
Life is a Journey… with lots of bumps and valleys along the way… and sometimes there are deserts with scorching heat that will just beat you up. Better to make the correct decision, to retreat and live another day, so you can return and keep on hiking.
Life is indeed a Journey.