After Cris flew home, I ended up spending a couple more days at her parent’s house in Lake Elsinore. I was waiting on a delivery, a tactical piece of gear that had been ordered and was integral to the continuation of this trip. According to my driver’s license, I’ve needed glasses now for quite some time. I can see okay, generally, but I struggle under certain conditions. At night on unfamiliar roads, during heavy rains, against the glare of oncoming traffic; these are all times that leave me straining behind the wheel. Present me with any combination of these factors, and I can’t see shit. (A big part of why the drive down from Northern California had been so heralding.) I had an old pair of glasses that I’d relied on for years, but the lenses got so scratched that they became useless. Before leaving Iowa I finally broke down and scheduled an eye exam, ordered new glasses, and instructed the vision center to ship my new specs to California when they arrived. It took longer than expected for them to catch up with me.
The delay was kind of nice, though. It gave me a couple of extra days to relax, reorganize, and hang out spending time with Cris’ parents Steve and Vicky, and her sister Kelly. My last night in Lake Elsinore, we went out to dinner and I had the pleasure of listening to stories of the family and their extraordinary travels. Steve and Vicky (and Cris and Kelly, too…) are active in and strongly devoted to the work of Rotary International. They have all traveled the world engaged in a number of humanitarian projects, and I always love listening to their tales. Once again I sat spellbound as they enthusiastically told of traveling with armed guards through the forgotten reaches of India, landing at remote airports to see their plane be surrounded by militia, and their ongoing work bringing hope and new life to an impoverished village in Uganda. Once again I was amazed by the experiences that they’ve had, and again I was in awe at my own good fortune. Not only in realizing how well we have it here in America when compared to the struggles of many in this world; but also in awe of how lucky I am to have found my wonderful wife, and to be welcomed into her amazing family. I don’t know what I did to deserve such blessings, but I couldn’t be happier and look forward to the many experiences and adventures we’ll share together.
That said, with the arrival of my new glasses it was time to set out on my own. I loaded the car and left Lake Elsinore around noon on January 3, promptly got lost in neighboring Temecula (apparently being able to see doesn’t necessarily equate to knowing where you’re going…) and finally drifted southeast into the high desert. I didn’t have a definite plan, but didn’t want to leave Southern California without paying homage to an old friend.
I first spotted her near Warner Springs, a conspicuous roadside sign and faint tread meandering off toward Eagle Rock. I sensed her closeness in Julian, billboards boasting the best homemade pie around. I kept going, though, making my way to San Diego County Route 1 and then turning toward Mt. Laguna. Soon the landscape became familiar, and landmarks appeared as if I’d gone back through time. I saw the ridgelines, then the forest service bathroom my hiker friends and I had used for shelter to cook in on an ungodly windy night. A few miles further and I could resist no more. She was right there along the road, waiting, and I had to get out and say hello.
The last time I was at Pioneer Mail trailhead, my Pacific Crest Trail hike was newly underway. My friends Tracy, Dude and I had collapsed there in the shade, joined by a British gentleman named Ivor, who also sought refuge from the desert sun. The temperature was soaring and we gathered for the security of water, the muddy brown liquid at the bottom of a circular cement horse trough. A sign warned that it was unfit to drink, but that didn’t matter. We had no other option, this was the only source for miles around.
We stalled there for several hours, exhausted and perhaps a bit bewildered. We’d only begun to scratch the surface of the hike, but had already encountered rattlesnakes, illegal immigrants, and the intensity of this unforgiving land. We had over six hundred miles of desert afoot ahead of us, and two thousand more after to finish the trail. It was a daunting task, but as the shadows grew long and evening drew near, we packed up our gear and moved on…
Standing here now brought back an onslaught of memories and emotions. I took a minute to reflect on the trail, that summer, how much it had meant to me and how it had changed my life. I walked over to the water tank, and laughed to see it now full and frozen over. What a joy that would have been for hot, thirsty hikers to find! I walked a little ways out on the trail, said thanks for all it had given me, then returned to the car and moved on.
In all honesty, I’d intended to hike out that night and camp somewhere along the PCT. Something about it, though, just didn’t seem right. I didn’t feel good about leaving the car unattended along the road with heavy tourist traffic passing by. I thought of the laptop, Christmas gifts, and other items that with a broken window might disappear in the night. I felt extremely guilty thinking this way, and still do. I’ve spent significant time traveling through Southern California, and all over America, and met countless good hearted souls along the way. I’ve rarely had a problem, and if there’s one thing my experiences have taught me, especially along the PCT, is that it’s okay to let go and trust in people. However, now my gut instinct told me different, and that’s something else I’ve learned to follow. Reluctantly I continued on.
I drove through the village of Mt. Laguna, past the small camp store where I had sat with dozens off hikers five and a half years before. It was still a busy scene, now with tourists from San Diego carrying plastic disc sleds, traipsing out to slide down the skiff of snow covering a nearby hill. The afternoon temperature was thirty eight degrees, and I decided now given the option to head to a lower elevation for the night.
Dropping out of the Laguna Mountains, I recalled a forest service campground nearby. It’s a bit of a challenge navigating by memory, though, when your previous travels have been cross country on foot. I must have missed the turn for Boulder Oaks campground, but soon saw another familiar sign. Lake Morena County Park was just seven miles away.
Lake Morena is another well-known landmark along the PCT, as each spring the park hosts ADZPCTKO (Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kickoff.) Late in April Pacific Crest Trail hikers new and old congregate here for a weekend of trail related festivities. There are clinics, cook-outs and bonfires. It’s a chance to wish the current year’s class of hikers well on their way, and for those who came before to reminisce and reunite with old friends.
The campground was vacant now, except for a couple of trailer RV’s. I registered for a site at the rangers station, parked the car and immediately found my way to the trail. Again memories came rushing back as I retraced the path leading from the campground, out into what was once unknown. I remembered the excitement and apprehension, and the haunting sound of someone with a bagpipe playing Amazing Grace. It was an appropriate start to a new leg in life’s journey; and as much as I wished I could break through time and return to that moment, I was equally grateful for where my path had led and happy for the chance to walk in those footsteps again.