Part of a series of stories from hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
The climb down from the peak of San Jacinto is a 20 mile network of descending switchbacks called Fuller Ridge. The second desert rainstorm within two weeks was looming, and most hikers within 1-2 days of us were banking on making it to a trail angel’s house about 4 miles from the bottom of the ridge to wait out the weather.
The trail angels, an elderly couple by the name of Ziggy and the Bear (mile 211), offered up their backyard full of awnings for thru hikers to rest, stay the night and even pick up a few supplies. It was the only shelter for miles.
We reached the house on the heels of the storm to find the backyard filled with hikers. While we were grateful for the shelter, as more and more hikers poured in from off the ridge, the accommodations began to feel like a refugee camp. Less than enthused by the prospect of spending the night crammed against other hikers in varying stages of wetness, a group of us rallied around a plan to split a few motel rooms in the nearby town of Banning. The night turned out to be dismally wet and cold, so it was a good choice.
Fast forward 24 hours, after a wild night of refuge from what turned out to be a certifiably cold and dismal storm, Indiana and I, along with our hiking buddies Border Patrol, Brunch and Dr. Dre had come back to Ziggy and the Bear’s, now cleared of so many hikers, to regroup before hitting the trail just steps away from their back gate. We impatiently waited out the looming clouds and ambiguous forecast for the last few hours of the afternoon.
No point in getting wet.
By 6pm the 90 percent chance of rain looked more and more like a misfire, and we rallied the troops to make the 8 mile hike up the trail to a ranger station along a desert spring.
Rounding up and readying more than 2 hikers is a strange, frustrating exercise. After getting everyone to agree on when and where you’re all going, the same group of people now have to pack up and prepare, which includes important considerations like: using the last real toilet at least 3 more times, changing socks, putting on a warmth layer, filling up on water, panicking over whether or not the tap water is really drinkable, taking off the additional layer, brushing teeth, and standing around and holding farting contests. And of course, the person who was ready before everyone else realizes something they forgot only after the entire group is suited up and ready.
By 7:45 everyone finally assembled.
It was my first night hike of the entire trip. Palpable excitement permeated through our group. It was the first time I’d felt like the trail held the prospect of real adventure.
The five of us single-filed out of the backyard as the sun made it’s final pass below the horizon to our left and we climbed towards the dark hills to our right. We chattered along, staving off fear of the darkness and plodding up the 5 mile ascent to the peak of that night’s climb.
Someone made a joke about mountain lions. Another hiker had told me that the area had twice as many mountain lions per square mile than normal, and he’d been followed by one for two miles a few nights ago. No animal would come near a group of five humans, I knew.
On the ridge above us, windmills whirled with flashing red lights, making ominous howling noises. The more we hiked, the quieter we became, and the more eerie the night felt.
The trail steepened the closer we came to the 5 mile mark as the five of us stalked up the hill in the dark. As the slowest in the group, I was the elected leader, and I’d been pushing myself to go faster to compensate, even up the hill. Finally someone breathlessly called, “Break!”
We chugged water in the incomplete darkness, each wearing a headlamp at this point. The wind had picked up, and when we weren’t moving the night was cold. Indiana checked our maps to find that we were almost at the peak, and spirits renewed, I pushed up to the top.
After the climb, the trail slowly wound down into a valley. We stuck together in the dark, all walking at the same speed, a train of humans chugging down the mountain track. Our campsite for the night was 3 miles further, but it was easy going, and we even stopped to break to gaze at the starry night sky.
Our midnight hiker train arrived at the Whitewater Preserve (mile 219) ranger station and campground around 11:30 that night and located the camping area with only some confusion. One of our buddies, Dr. Dre, insisted on setting up close to the river. The other four of us trailed behind as he scouted the lawn in the dark, twice almost setting down our packs before he finally settled on the furthest back corner of the camping area.
As I set up our gear to cowboy camp I heard shouts over by the picnic table where the others were unloading. In the thick wall of river weeds next to us was a pair of flashing red eyes that stared out before disappearing back into the darkness. Too small to be a mountain lion. A fox maybe? We had caught one unawares on the hike in.
Indiana and I crawled into our sleeping bags liners and dragged our food bag (rat-proof) close while we munched on trail mix and tortillas. It was too late to set up the stove and we were crashing.
A loud crash and Dre shouting “EY!!” erupted from by the picnic table. Dr. Dre was standing tense, staring into the thick wall of reeds between us and the river.
“What’s going on over there?”
“A big fat raccoon,” he answered. “I hate raccoons. He was after the food bag.”
Indiana and I exchanged looks. We hurriedly finished our snacking and packed everything away into our food bag, spending some time fussing over its placement near our sleeping arrangement. If a raccoon did come for our food in the night, I wanted the goods to be close enough to where we would know, but not too close that I’d have a curious raccoon within inches of me.
A few minutes later we were snuggled into our sleeping bag, gazing up at the miraculously starry night sky above us.
“AIIIIEEEEEE MOTHAFUCKAAAAAA!!” Dre screamed. We looked over and he was standing on top of the table, this time staring with rigid intensity past the chain link fence that bordered the campground.
“Did the raccoon come out again?!”
“Yeah, and he was dragging my bag with him!”
Great, I thought. If a raccoon is strong enough to drag a hiking pack into the woods, it would certainly be capable of taking off with our food bag. Rodent proof isn’t the same as raccoon proof. It was after midnight at this point, and we were both bordering on too tired to care. Hopefully if the raccoon decided to make a move on our food, we’d wake up in time to stop him.
I fell asleep to Dr. Dre hanging his food bag from the enormous tree in the campground and watched an owl silently dive from the rocks above, into the field behind us.
The next morning we woke up with the sunlight on our faces instead of on the walls of our tent. As usual, I resisted getting up while Indiana got out of bed and started rustling up some grub. I heard him laugh when he got to the picnic table, and the characteristic camera snap sound of his iPhone.
He walked back over and showed me a picture of Brunch’s bag: turned upside down, and a hole chewed clean through her food sack, instant oats scattered throughout.
Brunch hadn’t hung her food bag, and though the raccoon didn’t care for instant oatmeal, he made off with an entire block of cheese and a bag of lime-flavored Lays potato chips.