The conversation with Mark and his wife was brief but stuck with me. I thought about his words as I hiked out of Julian the following morning. Whether or not you set out to make intentional changes to yourself, the trail will inevitably change you. For the better, I think, whether you realize it or not. Those changes can happen in attitude, perspective, or action. For example, I’ve met numerous hikers who say the kindness they’ve received from strangers while on trail is surprising and unlike what they’ve experienced before. It creates a ripple effect of doing good, looking out for one another, and being a positive force as we move through the world.
Ten miles into our day, Journey Man and I approach a sign that points towards a McDonald’s a mere 0.3 miles from trail. We let out an exhausted but elated cheer and turn off the PCT to head toward the glorious Golden Arches. On the way, we stop to read the plaques on a couple monuments. A man was raking the crushed gravel and stepped aside. He wiped his brow on his sleeve and approached us, introducing himself as Mark. He told us some of the history of Camp Cajon, the old road stop along Route 66 where we stood, “The only place where that PCT crosses it!” he remarked. “The stretch you just walked has been changed many times over,” he said, telling us about its history as an ocean to ocean highway that once united the Atlantic and Pacific on one continuous route. Mark sensed our eagerness to get burgers and that the black pavement was hot underfoot, so he wrapped up the conversation and wished us well on our journey. By this point, Dash joined us and the three of us walked toward the greasy heaven.
Approaching the restaurant had me experiencing sensory overload. Between the heat, the busy drive through, the sound of the nearby highway, and the bustling parking lot, I all but collapsed into a booth upon entering the restaurant. There were no electrical outlets to be found, so we settled for a table out of the way in a back corner. We ordered and ate, silent robots shoveling food into our mouths, tired from the morning hike and heat. We eventually greeted other hikers as they entered the space, engaging in the exchange of information about climbs and water sources as we were among a group of folks hiking both north and south. Soon, our back corner was filled with dusty packs and grimy hikers.
We sat in McDonald’s for at least two hours time and at least two meals worth of food. We stood slowly and stretched before strapping into our packs to reenter the heat of the day. At 3pm and with full stomachs, we started the five mile climb to the next water source. The hike was mostly devoid of shade and we lamented the amount of food we ate at McDonald’s. I stared longingly at a crow soaring off the mountainside. Give me your wings, I pleaded silently.
Four hikers heading southbound, the opposite direction as us, appeared around a bend in the trail. They were full of energy and I felt my spirits lifting as I laughed with them. They told us about their time in Wrightwood, the next trail town we would encounter. They remarked at the beauty of the area we were walking through. I left the brief conversation feeling energized and grateful for their perspective as I looked around at the mountains.
Journey Man, Dash and I arrived at a water cache around 4:30. Local trail angels stock water for hikers since there are no water sources on the 20+ mile stretch of trail. We filtered water lazily, agreeing to wait a couple hours for the heat to die down before completing our last seven miles of the day. I met three new-to-me hikers and chatted with them while we rested. It was dusk as we departed and remarkably cooler.
I focused on my breathing and what I call my mind to muscle connection. I step intentionally and feel the movement of my muscles and tendons as they support the momentum of my body. Two breaths in, two breaths out, following the cadence of my footsteps. I felt myself fall into a good flow state and moved easily up the mountain despite its steep grade or the extra water strapped to my back.
It didn’t take long for us to have to take out our headlamps. The artificial light created new shadows across the trail; the grass lining the trail seemed to shimmer and dance. “Does the grass seem trippy?” one of my hiking partners asked, almost as though he read my mind. The darkness allows you to make different observations as you move through the night. Two sparkly bracelets, one ruby and the other diamond, wound through the valley. “The snake of society,” Journey Man joked. “I thought they looked like lines of ants,” Dash said. Again, the three of us were unknowingly attuned to each others’ thoughts as we separately looked out over the constant stream of traffic in the distance down below.
Our hike continued like this in the dark, the three of us lost in our own thoughts until one of us broke the silence with a question. “Do ants ever sleep?” Journey Man pondered aloud. We laughed at the silliness of the question and mused about our theories, but none of us knew the answer. We observed ants hard at work during daylight hours, and now even at night they appeared illuminated under our headlamps. “Have y’all heard about these two huge ant colonies that have waged in a turf war for numerous years?” Dash asked.
My mind wandered again and I thought about how similar we were to the ants as we moved along the trail. North or south, hikers move hard at work to get to our next temporary destination. We pass information to each other as we move along the path. Great water source in a couple miles. Look for the protected campsite under the trees off trail to the left. Just the other day, news spread of trail magic. There are burgers waiting for you at mile 326. Excited murmurings or informative tidbits, hikers are quick and happy to share news with each other.
Between trail angels and fellow hikers, even strangers, everyone seems to have your best interests in mind. I get messages from close friends, family, old friends that I haven’t talked to in ages. Thinking of you! Excited for your adventure! Be safe out there! Let me know if you need anything! I had recently texted a good friend who responded to part of our conversation saying, “There's really something about collective thought and good will in times like these. I feel it.” You know what I think about collective thought? I can feel it too.
Collective thought, goodwill towards each other, best wishes, safety considerations, helpful pieces of information— the trail seems to bring out the best in people. You might feel it one conversation at a time, through notes people leave in trail registers, from trail angels who have been maintaining a water cache for 19 years or a couple who told you that you’re the first hikers they’ve given a ride to. Collective consciousness is a unifying force, and I feel its positive veins woven throughout this experience.
My muscles are sore even at the beginning of the day. My feet need to be massaged at lunch. Some days I have an insatiable hunger from the amount of calories I burn. I look forward to reaching the top of a climb. I’m always more than ready to sit down for a long lunch break when I can soak my feet in a cold stream. The moment I can...
When they returned, they revealed goodies that they carried for us. Fresh cherries, huckleberry ciders, and cookies! What treats! We dined together and swapped stories, staying up well past hiker midnight. In the morning, Talia and Mohamed hiked with us for an hour before turning back to...
We immediately started seeing familiar faces once we arrived. It was a big, beautiful reunion of wonderful people. By day, we wandered around with various friends and visited all the vendors. I even got to see...