5/10/04: Campo, Mexico/USA.
There’s something about this place, early morning, not as early as we promised ourselves – a little guilt, a little giddiness: the adventure begins.
Hugs and kisses and photos and anticipation. “See you in two weeks”, smiles, apprehension, facing a twenty mile day without water in between. Snakes and illegals, heat and hills and Rob and I are off to “kick it’s ass” – in fact, the Desert lets us pass.
Moreno Lake, sore feet, hot shower, the die is cast: this can be done. Tent set up, sun setting, other hikers drift in with damaged knees and damaged egos. Over stuffed packs, under stuffed water bottles, all of us are bound together now, all of us are on our way.
Jacqueline and Rob were in charge of dinner: Jac’s contributions (remember Rob’s truck is there, complete with ice chest and his fold-away bed (whimp!); anyway, Jac has made us cold spare ribs and chips and salad and family food: Rob’s donation: strawberry shortcake that’s sooo good we have to bury our heads in our jackets to muffle the laughter as others eat couscous and raisins.
Rob’s gone; I’m on my own (in body only).
So what’s with my feet? God, they’re sore. Remember the backpacker’s cure-all: Duct Tape and it’s second cousin, Moleskin. On it goes, on I go. Under Interstate 8, abandoned food bags and bottles from other travelers seeking salvation in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Thirteen miles today to Cibbets Flats Campground, the only water for miles. I’m there at 3:30, feet really hurting now but with lots of daylight and lots of energy. Prudence wins and I stay, hoping this short day will make me better, knowing deep down inside that there’s something radically wrong inside my shoes.
Early morning, first light, eat breakfast, break camp, on the trail before the sun. Today’s a long day, not in terms of time – I’ll be in Mount Laguna by noon, but in terms of worry. What the Hell am I going to do? From scrubland to Long Canyon’s sweetwater creek to the spurs leading off to Burnt Ranchero Campgrounds, I walk down the last bit of trail to the road to the market. Re-supply bucket retrieved a day early, I write postcards and eat potato chips and ice cream sandwiches while sorting through too much food and weight. A gallon Ziplock bag of Clif Bars and gorp and fuel and other food goes into the “backpacker’s box” by the Post Office and I’m off again, heading the last five miles into camp. By the time I get there, I’m hobbling.
There are life decisions everywhere. We expect them at work, we expect them at home – we make them all the time. Do I cut the price on this job another five percent? Do I re-finance now or do I wait? What is that little, odd shaped raised mole on my arm, anyway? And I find that it’s not much different on the Trail. Sundown, my eyes locked open, laying on my back staring up at the ceiling of my tent, knowing that I’ve now got full blisters on the bottom of one foot and forming on the bottom of the other. What do I do? Who do I call? In all my life, I’ve never had blisters on the bottom of my feet. I do not want to stop! This is my quest, my adventure, my challenge, my pledge. But if I get ten miles out and I just can’t walk then I’m burdening others to get my sorry ass out of trouble and that’s just not fair. It’s Wednesday and Jac has to drive to San Diego on Friday. “In-soles”, “New Skin”, Dr. Scholls, I need to make the right decision. I do not want to stop!
I had a dream last night. Incredible. I had a dream last night that offered hope. Who do I know that would know? Who gets blisters on the bottoms of their feet?
There’s this awesome tennis player, see. There’s this awesome tennis player that’s also an awesome coach, an awesome guy, an awesome husband to a great friend, an awesome father to two great kids. Early morning phone calls, retrieve numbers, screw being patient, call Jose’s house at 6:30 a.m.
Jose’, this is John Purcell, a friend of Donna’s. Jose’, you’re the only one that can help me. I’m doing this hike, see, from Mexico to Oregon and I’ve got blisters on the bottoms of my feet. Do you and your players still play with blisters on the bottoms of their feet? Can I keep going? What do I do???
“Well, here’s what you do and, yes, we keep playing; if it’s a big enough tennis tournament, we keep playing.”
I guess it’s a big enough tournament.
Yesterday’s second round of calls brought more good advice so now I’m sitting at the campground entrance, soaking my feet to the counsel of Dr. Don Scott’s, “dilute the dilemma” mantra, waiting for my bride to show up with my salvation. And here she is!
Thirty minutes, that’s all, and then she’s gone. Did I tell her that I love her? Did I tell her enough? I’m patched and bandaged and equipped with an escape plan. I’ll go five miles down the trail to “Pioneer Mail Picnic Grounds”. There’s water there and if I can’t go on, Jac will pick me up on her drive home this afternoon. But the Trail and the endorphins and adrenaline fill me up and I blaze passed the rescue point and disappear into the Void. Miles later I meet two friends and we re-fill at one of the precious “caches” put out by Saints and Angels and modern day selfless heroes. On we go to a dry camp with a plan for another long day tomorrow – tomorrow takes us to “Scissors Crossing” but at quite a cost.
No coffee – just Tang and dry cereal with powdered milk (and yes, Gary Gray, you were right: MilkMan is the only milk to carry!).
It’s a long, hot morning.
10:30, “Rodriguez Truck Spur Tank”, a four and a half foot high concrete fire water blessing in the middle of nowhere, it offers the only shade for miles. Like cattle to a Live Oak in the middle of a naked plane, four of us gather to lay up next to the cool tank walls and scrunch ourselves into the 16” of shade afforded by the reservoir. By 1:00, we can’t wait any longer and we leave, separate now, each to our own pace, water bottles full. By 5:00, I’ve made my hardest day to the next cache and crossed two highways to a potential camp. But it’s wrong – too many cars, a polluted little stream, bits of trash that scream to you to keep going even if it means adding miles to an already 20 mile day. So dinner made and eaten and pack re-packed, the Trail is rejoined and I walk until sunset, camping in a little sandy wash under a blanket of stars.
The San Felipe Hills are beautiful in the early morning, walking in shade, climbing out of Cat Claw Acacia and into manzanita. Cruising on a 1,200’ steep slope, I round a turn to see a Golden Eagle perched 20 yards ahead of me. He glances at me and simply steps off the branch to float away. More miles but beautiful miles. Mid-day break at the, “San Felipe Third Gate Cache”, re-filled that morning with gallons of fresh, sweet water – may God hold a special place in Heaven for those Trail Angels that keep those caches full.
Barrel Springs, shade, other through hikers, some I’ve met before, others I’ve simply followed through their notes in the registers along the way. Camp, dinner, sore, sore feet but tomorrow’s Warner Springs and a shower and a meal and a washing machine and another luscious ice cream sandwich.
Up and out by 6:30, I’m at Warner Springs by 10:00. Rest.
I’ve now got a new “handle”, a new trail name. Secure in my room at the Warner Springs Ranch, shiny quarters in hand, a small box of Tide detergent from the Mini-Mart, the only clean clothes I’ve got are my rain pants and jacket. Wash in the machine, four quarters start the cycle and I hobble back to the room for a bath. Forty five minutes later I limp back to move the clothes from the washer to the dryer, deposit my three quarters, push the money in and… nothing!
Nothing? This can’t be! The washer worked fine, what’s with the dryer!? Hobble back to the room, three more quarters, push ‘em in: NOTHING!!!
“This can’t be – it’s all the clothes I’ve got; these damn rain pants are making me sweat like I’m in a sauna. ARRGGHHH!!!”
Hi, Housekeeping? The dryer’s not working – can you help me? Please?
Oh, everyone’s at lunch – I’ll call Maintenance – they’ll be here soon.
Oh God, thank God, sweet God – here they are.
Hey, guys, I don’t know what’s wrong. I put $1.50 in the machine but it JUST DOESN’T WORK. The light’s on but it doesn’t work. It’s all the clothes I’ve got. It’s….
“Ya know, this just doesn’t make sense – this unit’s been working fine”…(opens the dryer door, closes the dryer door… reaches up and hits the, “Push to Start” button).
No! Don’t tell me that. “PUSH TO START???!!!” Don’t you guys tell another living soul. I’ll tell you what: I’ll go tell Management that you guys fixed the machine, that you’re geniuses, that you both deserve big raises and a year-end bonus.
“You’ve been on the trail too long, buddy.”
So I’ve got a new Trail name, “Push to Start”.
Laying awake in bed again. I’ve got 44-45 miles to go to home but I can’t walk. I could call. Jac would pick me up in a heartbeat. But I want to walk HOME!
Think. Think, McGyver, think. Rummage through the trash you’ve carried all the way from Mt. Laguna. Take the old shoe insoles, cut big corn protectors out with holes in the middle the size of the blister/bruises. Duct tape them in place and give it a try.
Leave Warner Springs. This hurts but if I can make fifteen miles today and fifteen miles tomorrow I’ll only have thirteen or so for Thursday and I’ll be home. First, water: Agua Caliente Creek, five miles ahead.
The water was green where I gathered it but treated, it worked just fine. Next water, Chihuahua Road Cache, 13 miles head.
Every bottle’s dry. All full the week before, dry today.
Down to a liter and a half (never run out of water!). One liter’s green, the half liter’s sweet. There’s a note in the cache’s register, “If you need water, walk up the dirt road, take the first ‘left’, spigot behind the house”. Up the road, down the drive, 12’ water tank: dry as a bone!
But the note said, “… spigot behind the house”.
There it is, there’s water – it’s the color of Tang but it’s water.
Next guaranteed source, ten miles down the trail and it’s already 4:30.
On I go.
My God my feet hurt but if I can make today a 24 mile day, I can get home tomorrow.
Last night’s camp was nice – wash at the bottom of Bucksnort Mountain (who thinks of these names?). Dinner was exceptional, rust water and all.
“Johnny’s Spicy Rust Soup”
½ box, Zatarain’s Dirty Rice
1 Mountain House freeze dried pork sausage patty, crumpled (don’t worry, the Trail will take care of the ‘crumpling’ part for you).
1 ¾ cup of boiling rust water (you’re supposed to use 1 ¼ cups but this worked better)
Put all ingredients in an open topped Glad bag, add boiling water, smuuush it all together, put the bag back in the pot with “Bakepacker” and water and cook for another 15 minutes. Fold baggie back over the lip of your cook pot and be careful: this is so good your tongue might slap your brains right out of your head.
I was up early again: I’m going to make it. My newly invented “corn pads” are now as thin as paper. Moleskin reinforcements help, my walking sticks help but my thoughts of Jacqueline and David and a call to Nikke are the real reasons I’m pushing so hard.
Mile after mile, all beautiful in their own way, by noon I’ve dropped into and am climbing out of Coyote Canyon.
I’m going home.
I’m going to make it!
I’m a million miles away, thinking of Ruffles potato chips and my soft arm chair in the living room. That’s when the rattlesnake laying under my next foot fall buzzed to beg me not to step on his fragile little back.
There are times when you think that your life is ruled by chance. Then there are times like that very moment when you know that there is something beyond “chance” that is taking care of you.
I didn’t deserve that break. I can go on and on about how I should have been paying more attention, how I should have been concentrating on the trail and not on my accomplishments of the previous two days… but I won’t. I will, however, tell you all what a wonderful snake that was to have sang his dry, rustle song to me and saved my limping, wounding, shaggy assed life. I’m a better man because of it.
Those last three miles before Highway 74 were the longest three miles of my life. And then, I was there. Thumb out on the highway, forty five minutes before some young construction worked picked me up to take me to the dirt road leading to the house.
And I’m home.
And I will be leaving as soon as I can, remembering always…
I am the most fortunate man alive.