Over Agua Caliente Creek near Warner Springs. At the quiet Warner Springs post office the postmaster says, “We’re required to keep the packages at least 30 days. But I usually keep them longer.”
About a mile and a half south of Campo, just past the pig farm, on a rutted clay road, is a barbed-wire fence that marks the end of one way of looking at the world and the beginning of another. The U.S. Border Patrol calls it the “tortilla curtain,” amused that in spite of the agency’s hard-nosed image, the border itself is really nothing but a flimsy, patched-together snarl of rusted wire that wouldn’t even keep a spirited cow from crossing back and forth as freely as she pleased.
Mexican customs house at border where cattle were once inspected for hoof-and-mouth disease.
Just 50 feet south of the border stands an old shot-up, falling-down adobe Mexican customs house where cattle were once inspected for hoof-and-mouth disease. No cattle cross here anymore. In fact, the only thing making this section of the border seem any different from any other section of border is a hand-painted sign hanging from the barbed-wire fence. The sign, which is only eight years old but is already blistered and peeling from the sun, reads:
Start of Pacific Crest Trail, Campo. Campo was only supposed to be the start of the temporary route. The permanent and more scenic route was to begin at Tecate
PACIFIC CREST TRAIL
- Oregon — 1600 mi.
- Canada — 2700 mi.
The place doesn’t look like much, but it is destined to become legendary. Already it is sanctified by celebrations of joy following months-long pilgrimages and by prayerful rituals hoping to bring good weather and good luck to travelers just starting out on their journeys. Backpackers are a superstitious bunch. Like our religious ancestors, the primitive animists, they’re out there every day getting rained on, frozen, sunburned, and they need every little edge they can get.
The trail was intended mostly for horseback-riding clubs, which were more popular than backpacking clubs at that time.
Underneath the hand-painted sign lies an old pair of running shoes, curled and rotting in the sun like a burnt offering. Someone who has walked a thousand miles understands the ancient custom of leaving a personal belonging at the end of a journey. For someone who hasn’t, the custom should remain a mystery. But it’s obvious to anyone that those shoes are now imbued with the courage and stamina of whoever wore them. They’re magical, causing anyone who looks at them to become suddenly restless to leave it all behind, stuff everything a person needs — less than fifty pounds — in a knapsack, shiver in a mountain stream, lie naked in the sun, get on the trail, and put 15 miles behind him before dark.
Those shoes are now imbued with the courage and stamina of whoever wore them.
It’s an absurdly whimsical idea if you think about it: that there should be a trail 2607 miles long (the sign at the border is no longer correct) winding along the most impractical, though scenic, route nature could present between Mexico and Canada. Such a trail can contribute nothing to commerce. It does not save time. Rather than being a short cut, it is perhaps the longest deliberately indirect route ever proposed by man. And worst of all, rather than employing high technology of which this country can be proud, it relies on the oldest and most despised form of transportation in the world — putting one foot in front of the other. It’s the kind of thing that makes more practical souls groan about the boondoggles of “big gov’ment,” as though they might get their mouths washed out with soap if they said the whole nasty word, “government.” So it has to be considered something of a minor miracle that such a trail does exist.
Laguna Mountain. Looking across the oak- and sage-covered Campo Valley, you can see Mt. Laguna 30 miles to the north.
In some ways, the story of the Pacific Crest Trail is an example of how the idealism of the ’60s survived and became a reality in the ’80s. Most of us don’t wear our Himalayan ice-climbing boots and our Alaskan parkas to school or work anymore. But many people who did, back in the ’60s, are now holding positions of responsibility in “big gov’ment,” and a whimsical idea like the PCT (as it is universally called) somehow doesn’t seem as improbable to them as it might have to their predecessors. Every college student who spent a summer in the ’60s and ’70s wandering around Yosemite, or Sequoia, or the Cascades, came home with an insight into how simple and free life could be, and never forgot it. More importantly, the beauty and grandeur of this country wasn’t just something they would see all their lives in picture books and slide shows. They’d seen it themselves, it was out there, real, and because they knew it was real, that forever changed the way they thought about the land. For the past 20 years this country has been in love with the land.
Laguna Mountains. The Mt. Laguna area has long been popular with trail motorcyclists; however, they are prohibited from using the PCT.
The notion of a trail following the general route of the Pacific crest from Mexico to Canada had been tossed around in backpacking circles for years. Much of the trail already existed through Washington and Oregon, where you could walk a thousand miles and never leave federal land. In California there was the John Muir Trail through the High Sierra. After World War II, the California state parks department pieced together a route called the California Riding and Hiking Trail, which extended the length of California, including a stretch here in San Diego County.
Lake Morena. Peter; Chicago, Illinois; 3-20-84. “How many of you found the trail north of Lake Morena? We road walked, but it was still better than Chicago.”
It was intended mostly for horseback-riding clubs, which were more popular than backpacking clubs at that time. The trail tied together bits of existing trail throughout the state and designated country roads which could be used to cross areas where there were no trails. The state never bothered to acquire easements on most of the private land the trail crossed, and therefore the travelers had no legal right to be there. Eventually, much of the access to the trail was blocked by angry landowners who put up barbed-wire fences to keep the trespassers out, effectively eliminating a through route from one end of the state to the other, and soon many portions of the trail fell into disrepair.
Near Boulder Oaks. The signs with the PCT symbol — a green pine tree with a blue mountain in the background — have unfortunately become collectors’ items. “They have a life expectancy of three to four weeks.”
The problem seems to have been that there weren’t enough people using the California Riding and Hiking Trail to justify the state’s spending money on it. It’s hard to imagine now, but hiking and backpacking weren’t particularly popular sports at that time. Trail riding had an enthusiastic but limited number of participants, due to the high cost of keeping the horses, burros, or mules.
Near Warner Springs. The trail temporarily follows Route S-2 before entering the old Warner’s Ranch. The next nine miles of trail were part of the old California Riding and Hiking Trail and are an exceptionally beautiful stretch of trail.
Backpackers were looked upon by trail riders as being abnormally hearty and intrepid souls who trudged around the mountains carrying hundred-pound, wooden-framed canvas packs filled with iron skillets, kapok sleeping bags, handguns (as opposed to rifles), and heavy woolen underwear. In other words, they thought backpackers were nuts, and in some cases they were right. It wasn’t until the development of sophisticated backpacking equipment in the ’60s — notably, aluminum-framed nylon packs, cheap fiberfill sleeping bags, and a whole wardrobe made of miracle fabrics that could keep even a citified dolt warm and dry in a sleet storm — that the sport became popular enough to become a political force capable of lobbying for its own improbable fantasies right along with every other special-interest group in the country.
It was in 1968 that Congress passed the National Trails Systems Act. The Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail were designated as the initial components of an entire network of scenic trails throughout the country, including a Continental Divide Trail, a Lewis and Clark Trail, a Santa Fe Trail, an Alaskan Gold Rush Trail, a Mormon Trail, a Daniel Boone Trail, and many more. The act called for the PCT to travel “generally along the mountain ranges of the West Coast states” and was to be administered by the Secretary of Agriculture (who oversees the U.S. Forest Service) in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior (who oversees the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management). The act established an advisory council to study matters relating to the trail, authorized the purchase of rights-of-way on private land, and authorized the use of condemnation proceedings to acquire private land, if necessary. Congress then set aside $500,000 to begin work on the Pacific Crest Trail.
It all looked fairly simple on paper. But in reality Congress was asking for a cooperative effort among the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Border Patrol, three state forest agencies, three state parks agencies, dozens of county governments, and hundreds of private landowners. The last time that many bureaucrats and landowners agreed on anything in this country was when they conspired to steal the American West from the Indians. Now, 16 years after its inception, the PCT is 100 percent complete in Washington and Oregon, perhaps 90 percent complete in Northern California, and less than 50 percent complete in Southern California. In San Diego County construction has been finished on 50 miles out of a planned 112 — the rest passes on temporary trails or dirt roads. It isn’t that we are dragging our feet down here, it’s just that so much of the trail up north was already in place, while down here it passes more on private land, requiring negotiations with each landowner. The forest service expects to have the trail 100 percent complete by 1986.
Probably 95 percent of the hikers who walk the entire PCT start at Campo and work their way north. The reason for that is a simple lesson in geography: the trail requires about five or six months to complete. If you start at the Canadian border and hike south, you will have to begin after the snow has melted in the Cascades — sometime in late June or early July — and you will very likely be getting snowed on in the southern Sierra when you arrive there in October. But if you start at the Mexican border in May, you can hike most of the trail snow-free.
But why Campo? The sunny, backward little town where everyone seems either to work for the border patrol, or else is running from the border patrol, has never been famous for being the start of anything. In fact, everything seems to end there, including television reception, Route S-1, and the U.S.A. Actually, Campo was only supposed to be the start of the temporary route. The permanent and more scenic route was to begin at Tecate and pass through the open, roadless desert north of there. The PCT advisory council drew that route on its maps and just assumed that someday the trail would go that way. Then somebody decided to ask the border patrol what it thought about it. “We were glad they asked us,” says Bob Stille of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Campo station, with a tone of edgy understatement. “The route they had in mind started at Tecate and meandered along the border for a ways, passing through areas where we operate all the time, tracking and doing surveillance [of illegal aliens]. We have electronic sensors in there, and the hikers passing through would have constantly been setting them off.” There was also some concern that the illegal aliens might use the PCT as a thoroughfare out of the border area, but this was only a minor concern, “since the aliens already have so many trails through there, one more wouldn’t make that much difference.” At any rate, the border patrol’s complaints that the Tecate route would open up an area of the border which was essentially closed to legal traffic were forceful enough to get the permanent route changed to Campo.
Looking across the oak- and sage-covered Campo Valley, you can see Mt. Laguna 30 miles to the north. On a clear day, 30 miles doesn’t seem too far. Unless you’re on foot. Carrying a 50-pound pack uphill, it takes two days to hike 30 miles. Going downhill, you might be able to go a little faster, but if you do, you’ll pay for it that night with pain in the knees and calves. Say you planned to hike the PCT in six months, and you hoped to hike every day, rain or shine, sick or well, tired, bored, hungry, or sore. That means you would have to average 15 miles a day, and to most hikers after a month or so of 15-mile days, the United States starts looking like a very large place, and the PCT starts looking like a very long, grueling death march. That’s why very few hikers complete the trail in one year. The forest service estimates fewer than 50 people a year hike the entire distance. Many more people complete it in sections, returning each summer to hike another few hundred miles.
For a trail that passes through some of the most beautiful land in the world, the PCT’s first few miles are very grim. The temporary route travels along a dusty road, and there’s nothing that can make a wobbly-kneed, tender-footed, beer-can-kicking hiker feel more foolish than road walking. As the cars go rattling by, spewing carbon monoxide fumes, the hikers say to themselves, “If cars can drive here, why am I walking?” It’s even worse if the cars stop to offer a ride, because the hikers know they can’t accept it. It would be very poor style, and maybe even bad luck, to travel the first miles of the PCT under any power other than their own. Most hikers are relieved when they arrive at the Campo post office, where they can stop to sign their names and enter their comments at the first of 55 trail registers along the way:
Keith; Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin; 4-28-83. “For the next six months I can use a calendar instead of a clock for my timepiece.”
Ray; Newport Beach, California; 4-14-82. “Hope to use many non-motorized methods of travel — bike, hike, horse, cross-country ski — and maybe make it to Canada in 1989.”
Bob; Columbus, Ohio; 4-17-81. “I hiked the Appalachian Trail, Georgia to Maine, in 1977. I’ve been dreaming and planning for this adventure ever since.”
Howard; Visalia, California; 4-12-84. “Taking a year off from podiatry school. Bring your tired, aching, blistered feet to me. The first visit is free.”
Roger; Greenville, North Carolina; 4-12-84. “To people following behind, I will be the fat man you pass at blinding speed.”
Lane; Milwaukee, Oregon; 4-17-79. “Stayed in San Diego two days at the YMCA. Nice rooms, but strange people running around.”
Stinky; Merrill, Washington; 3-29-84. “Clevis pin on my pack broke. I’m quitting.” (After only a mile and a half on the trail, he’s obviously joking.)
Gerald; Glenwild, New York; 10-23-83. (Getting a very late start.) “Been reading up on how to make igloos. They say what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
Tom; Greendale, Wisconsin; 6-5-80. (Hiked from Canada.) “Mexico at last! Great God Almighty, I made Mexico at last! My heart is sad, but my feet are in ecstasy.”
Antoine; Vevey, Switzerland; 12-26-82. (After spending a year on the trail.) “What a feeling to be in Campo! The trail goes no farther, but what am I going to do tomorrow?”
From Campo the trail begins a long, uphill pull to the Laguna Mountains. Most of the temporary route as far as Lake Morena, which is ten miles from Campo, follows county roads through dry chaparral country thick with rattlesnakes and ticks. It is not one of the more memorable stretches of trail on the PCT, but in the fall of 1985 work will begin on the permanent route through Hauser Canyon to Lake Morena, and that route promises to be a considerable improvement.
Construction on the PCT is now the top trail-construction priority in the western region of the U.S. Forest Service, which demonstrates how serious it is about completing it. The funds for the trail are budgeted year to year, and since most of the work has already been completed up north, lately the Cleveland National Forest has been getting a larger share. But trails aren’t cheap. The forest service estimates that it costs somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000 to build a typical mile of trail. If a lot of blasting, rock wall, or causeway construction has to be done, it can cost considerably more. Trail construction in San Diego County usually isn’t a particularly complicated matter, because so much of the terrain is relatively flat and free of large rocks and trees. Since the summers are hot and trail work can usually be done even in the worst of winters here, the Cleveland National Forest hires trail workers from up north to work here in the winter and gets them at cheaper rates than it could during the summer, which is the peak trail-building season to the north.
A lot of the trail construction on the PCT, though, doesn’t cost the forest service a thing. It’s the work of volunteers from a group that calls itself the Pacific Crest Trailblazers. Its leader and prime motivator is a computer systems analyst from La Jolla named Rob Langsdorf. He describes himself as somebody “born too late to help build the great railroads in this country.” He worked one season ten years ago as a trail worker at the Minarets station of the Sierra National Forest west of Mammoth and never quite got trail building out of his system afterward. “When you work in an office all week like I do,” he explains in his patient, methodical way, “sometimes you go home at the end of the week and ask yourself, ‘I wonder what I really accomplished?’ When you work on a trail all weekend, you say to yourself, ‘Well, I got this much farther up the trail.’ ” In the past ten years Langsdorf figures he has gotten at least ten miles farther up the trail, all of it in San Diego County, on various portions of the PCT. One year he kept a record of his time and found he had put in more than 175 hours of volunteer trail work. After that year, he stopped keeping track.
Langsdorf works almost entirely with Boy Scouts, simply because they are almost the only people who will show up and do a day’s work without pay. “I can talk to one scoutmaster and have 10 to 20 scouts out that Saturday. If I talk to three or four scoutmasters, I can get 50 people out there,” Langsdorf says. “But with the Sierra Club, I run an announcement in every issue of their bulletin and I’ll get maybe 2 or 3 people out. The Sierra Club workers always feel like they ought to come out, but they don’t keep coming out. After all, it’s hard work.” He has been a member of the Sierra Club for years, but he says, somewhat distastefully, “More and more they’re becoming an organization for armchair environmentalists.”
Langsdorf is astonished, and a little bit disgusted, by people who use hiking trails all the time, yet have no understanding what goes into building one. He tells about the time the forest service held a public meeting in San Diego to gather opinions on matters relating to the PCT and a representative of the Sierra Club was there to see that her group’s wishes were considered. “She stood up and said she was concerned that the forest service would be ‘cutting bushes’ to build the PCT, and the Sierra Club didn’t want to see any bushes cut,” he says. Naturally, she was laughed off the floor. Without “cutting bushes” there wouldn’t be many trails in San Diego County, not to mention most of the West. In the politics of environmentalism, sometimes the ultimate purists are not so much pure as just misinformed.
People like Langsdorf are a blip on the budget computers of big gov’ment. They’re sort of the opposite of a boondoggle. Whoever thought people would go out to work on the PCT just because they believed in it? After all, how many people spend their weekends assembling MX missiles just for the fun of it, or painting battleships, or gluing the little tiles on the side of the space shuttle? How do you account for people who volunteer their hands and their backs to a government project for no reason other than they love it and are willing to work to see it become a reality?
Langsdorf and his Pacific Crest Trailblazers meet on the third Saturday of every month during the prime season — November through April. Usually somebody from the forest service has already flagged a route through the brush on the section of trail they are going to work on, attaching colored plastic ribbon every ten feet or so. Langsdorf talks to the volunteers for a few minutes about tool safety and the basics of trail construction. Then they get to work.
The first step is to go through with chain saws or hand saws and cut the brush back five feet on the uphill side and four feet on the downhill side. The brush is then dragged out of sight. Even though the brush is cut at ground level, it would quickly grow back if the roots weren’t dug out of the ground. This is the really grueling part of trail work in chaparral. It’s tedious, back-wrenching, hand-blistering work, but that’s the way to do the job right. “I’ve seen places where we cut scrub oak at ground level but didn’t dig the roots out,” Langsdorf says. “Nine months later it was five or six feet tall again.”
Next the crew goes through swinging McLeods — a heavy-duty combination rake and hoe — cutting a tread into the ground two feet wide. Rather than slope the tread slightly into the hillside, the way a roadbed is cut, the crew cuts the trail tread with about a ten percent outslope so water can drain off. “There’s a lot of things that can destroy a trail,” Langsdorf says, “and water’s one of them. If the tread isn’t cut right, one rainstorm can erode three or four inches off a trail.”
The forest service has established trail specifications for the PCT. They are: a tread 2 feet wide, a brush clearance at least 4 feet wide, an overhead clearance 10 feet high (for horseback riders), and no more than a 15 percent grade (15 feet vertical for every 100 feet horizontal). By almost any trail standards that is super deluxe, a wilderness freeway, but Langsdorf sees room for improvement. “I shoot for about a 7 percent grade and end up with about a 10 percent grade,” he says. “If you’re shooting for a 15 percent grade, which I think is pretty steep, you end up with a 20 percent grade, and that is too steep.”
The last step in completing the trail is to place signs marking the trail at road crossings and junctions with other trails. The signs with the PCT symbol — a green pine tree with a blue mountain in the background — have unfortunately become collectors’ items. “They have a life expectancy of three to four weeks,” Langsdorf says. “That’s why you don’t see too many of them on the trail.” In the last few years, as the signs have disappeared, they have been replaced with four-by-four posts with the PCT symbol branded into the wood. Most people will think twice before they’ll dig up a six-foot post and carry it off for a souvenir, but as Langsdorf says, “The trouble with the marker posts is that hunters, when they get bored, take their shotguns and blast them to pieces.”
From Lake Morena the landscape along the PCT begins changing rapidly. At Boulder Oaks it ducks under I-8, then begins climbing out of the chaparral into a region of open meadows, consisting of bunchgrass, sedges, and sage. A little farther on it enters a forest of black oaks and Jeffrey pines. Many people consider this the most beautiful section of trail in the county.
At the Laguna post office, 30 miles from the border, the hikers stop to sign in at the second register on the trail:
Peter; Chicago, Illinois; 3-20-84. “How many of you found the trail north of Lake Morena? We road walked, but it was still better than Chicago.”
Snake; Sonoma, California; 5-3-84. “This neck of the woods is prettier than I thought it would be.”
Randy; Casper, Wyoming; 4-26-84. “Real cold so far. Barely brought enough warm clothes.”
Peter; Olympia, Washington; 5-26-84. “Ninety-six in the shade!”
Ed; Napa, California; 4-17-84. “Bad winds north of Pioneer Mail.”
Tim; Norwalk, California; 3-26-84. “My dog and I having a great time. Lots of good things to eat.”
Scott; Sonoma, California; 4-6-84. “Hope to see some fellow hikers soon. I’m a little bored.”
Mike; Camarillo, California; 4-25-84. “Saw a rattlesnake in Fred Canyon, but somebody already got its head and tail.”
Stinky; Merrill, Washington; 4-24-84. “I solemnly swear not to bathe or shower before Canada.”
Paul; La Cañada, California: 4-14-84. “Only 2570 miles to go!”
From Mt. Laguna the trail parallels the Sunrise Highway for about ten miles. Sometimes the road is only a few hundred feet to the west, which detracts from any wilderness feel the trail might have. Still, it’s very beautiful, with dramatic vistas of the Borrego Desert, the Santa Rosa Mountains, and the Salton Sea. The eastern escarpment of the Laguna Mountains, which has a drop-off of more than 6000 feet, is as rugged as anything between here and Canada, and in some places the trail tiptoes along the very edge of it.
The Mt. Laguna area has long been popular with trail motorcyclists; however, they are prohibited from using the PCT. For a while off-road vehicle users lobbied for the right to take trail motorcycles onto the PCT, but the National Scenic Trails Act specifically states that motorized vehicles would not be allowed, that it was to be strictly a riding and hiking trail. Motorized vehicles have never been allowed on National Park or Wilderness Area trails because they detract from a wilderness experience, their tires damage the trails, and their use conflicts with hikers and stockusers (people who travel by horse and mule). Motorcycles are allowed on most forest service trails, even though stockusers hate them and have been trying to get them banned for years. An old cowboy who runs a pack station in the Sierra, just off the PCT, tells a story about the time a trail biker came to him and asked how much he would charge to pack his broken-down motorcycle out of the backcountry. “I don’t know,” the cowboy said. “How much is it worth?” “About $400,” the man replied. “Then that’s what it’ll cost,” the cowboy told him, “and I’ll need the money in advance.” After the man paid him, the cowboy packed an acetylene torch into the backcountry, cut the motorcycle up into little pieces, and packed them back out.
The controversy over trail bikes on the PCT (and all forest service trails, for that matter) has gotten more complicated in the last few years with the popularity of mountain bicycles. When Congress wrote the National Scenic Trails Act, mountain bicycles were practically unheard of, and since they are not motorized vehicles, they are allowed on forest service sections of the PCT. In the National Park and Wilderness areas, however, the wording in their regulations say that “all mechanical modes of transportation” are prohibited; therefore, bicycles are not allowed. This infuriates mountain bicycle organizations, and they recently informed the Sierra Club that they wouldn’t support any more wilderness legislation until the law prohibiting bicycles is changed. So, as the situation now stands, mountain bicycles are allowed on some portions of the PCT but not on others. Here in San Diego County they are allowed on the entire 112 miles of the PCT, and those who have ridden it say the bikes make an excellent alternative to the long stretches of road walking.
From Pioneer Mail, north of Mt. Laguna, the trail begins descending rapidly into the San Felipe Wash. The original plan had called for the trail to stay high, in the Volcan Mountains to the northwest, but this would have meant crossing 15 miles of private land near Julian, and each parcel the trail crossed would have required the purchase or donation of a right-of-way. For simplicity, the route was moved to the east, where it crosses public land inside the boundaries of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Most of the trail in this area — from Chariot Mountain to Scissors Crossing — has not been completed yet, and the temporary route requires walking down the Banner Grade on Highway 78. The new trail, though, which will be completed sometime this winter, promises to be one of the most wild and scenic sections of the PCT in the county. Within 15 miles it will descend out of the pines in the high country, through the sycamores and cottonwoods in the creek bottoms, and into cacti on the desert floor — an experience uniquely Southern Californian.
The PCT has sometimes been criticized for taking unlikely and roundabout routes to get where it’s trying to go. As Rob Langsdorf explains it, “The mandate for the PCT says it’s to be a ‘scenic crest’ route. Sometimes I think the forest service got the word ‘crest’ in their minds and couldn’t get it out. A lot of times the trail will follow a ridgetop instead of a more practical route down in a canyon, near water, or where there might be more level ground.” The intention of Congress was to have a route that provided broad vistas, the feeling of being on the backbone of the west. It was not a practical idea, but what they were trying for was something impressive, a gift to the war-troubled country, a kind of picture window through which we could view our country’s spectacular birthright. And that’s what it has become. Most hikers don’t mind the roundabout routes because if they had been looking for the easiest way to get to Canada they would have taken the plane.
Although Congress gave the forest service the authority to condemn private property in order to acquire rights-of-way for the PCT, the service is proud that it has never had to use that authority on the entire route of the PCT. This has required a lot of careful diplomacy with landowners and, in some cases, some rather erratic shifting of routes. Several landowners in San Diego County have resisted plans for the PCT to cross their properties, most of them cattle ranchers who were concerned that the trail would provide access for motorbikers who would rustle their cattle. Their concerns were not unfounded. On the old California Riding and Hiking Trail, near Otay Lake, motorbikers did just that several years ago, taking only the prime cuts of meat and leaving the rest to rot.
Orville Cummings, owner of the 9000-acre San Felipe Ranch at the bottom of the Banner Grade east of Julian, was one of the property owners who objected to the PCT’s route. The temporary route crossed his ranch on a dirt road which is locked to vehicular traffic. “The way they had it at first,” he says in his gruff Marlboro voice, “the trail ran right across the middle of the ranch. People that went through there were always leaving the pasture gate open. I was running heifers on one side and steers on the other; they’d get all mixed up and it’d take me a day or two to get them all straightened out again.” Also, he adds, “The backpackers would camp right at the windmill and keep the cattle away from the water.”
Like some other ranchers, Cummings has a hard time understanding somebody who would voluntarily walk from Mexico to Canada. The way he spits out the word “backpacker,” he makes it sound like something obscene you might get arrested for, if only law and order in this country hadn’t gone all to hell. “I didn’t much like the kind of people who were passing by the ranch house,” he scowls. “Lotta times there wasn’t anybody home, and we’ve had some burglaries.” He couldn’t prove the burglars were backpackers, nor did he have any evidence that backpackers, motorbikers, or anybody else had been rustling his cattle. “But I do have those suspicions,” he says.
Eventually Cummings was able to get the route of the PCT changed to the outer fringes of his ranch, where there are no fences and no gates to be left open. He seems satisfied with the arrangement. “It worked out the way I wanted,” he admits. “They appraised the land at something like eight or nine hundred dollars an acre, and they bought an easement 15 feet wide. It didn’t make many acres. I was opposed to it all anyway, but it was a compromise deal.”
From the San Felipe Ranch, the trail temporarily follows Route S-2 — another dull stretch of road walking — before entering the old Warner’s Ranch in Valle de San Jose. The next nine miles of trail were part of the old California Riding and Hiking Trail before becoming part of the PCT and are an exceptionally beautiful stretch of trail. With its open grasslands dotted with lazy cows and big live oaks so dark their leaves look more blue than green, it seems more like something from the early California rancho days than anything from the 20th Century.
Carrying food for more than a week or two can be a problem for hikers on the PCT, so most of them mail packages of supplies to themselves, general delivery, at post offices along the way. At the quiet Warner Springs post office the postmaster says, “We’re required to keep the packages at least 30 days. But I usually keep them longer.” Watching the hikers open their packages is liking watching kids at Christmas, and he wouldn’t want to be the one to spoil the fun. After the hikers sign the register, he and the other employees like to read what they wrote:
Howard; Visalia, California; 4-19-84. “My feet are improving to the point where I only have to limp the first mile or two before they go numb and I don’t have to feel them anymore.… When approaching cows, wear bright red clothing, paw the ground with your boot, and bellow belligerently.”
Chuck; La Cañada, California; 4-19-84. “The wind and rain hit me pretty hard last night. I’ll have to make camp early so I can dry everything out.”
Andy; 4-14-84. “Cool wind this morning. Fresh cowpies to cushion the way.”
Ron; 4-28-84; “Met some great people…a few wackos, too.”
Len; San Diego, California; 5-18-84, “Lost two toenails (useless weight anyway), but I’m still fat, dumb, and happy.”
James; Orangevale, California; 7-3-84. “Attempting to do the entire PCT by bicycle. Mountain bikes are great!”
Wallace; Big Bear, California; 10-23-84. “Except for dangerous winds coming over San Jacinto, fall is a beautiful time to be on the trail.”
Stinky; Merrill, Washington; 4-4-84. “I still haven’t bathed. You’ll smell me before you see me.”
Rudy; 7-2-84. “Spent Sunday sipping cool beers at Phil’s Log Cabin in San Felipe. A nice place to get a feel for the country and people of the chaparral.”
From Warner Springs the trail begins climbing again, into a high desert of tall yucca spears whose blossoms are as tasty as artichokes, and fine-needled cholla cacti, which look like golden halos silhouetted against the sun. Thick stands of oily yerba santa grow out of the white clay soil; the “holy herb” is said to have been named by the Spanish missionaries after Indians gave them a tea made from its leaves to cure their chronic constipation. Also growing in rare abundance is red shank, a lovely, lacy-leafed plant similar to chamise. Like other places on the PCT, finding potable water here can be a problem. There are many stretches in Southern California where hikers have to go 20 or 30 miles between water, and when they do find it, they can’t assume it is safe without boiling or treating it.
Just south of the Riverside County line, the PCT has more of a wilderness feeling than other portions of the trail in San Diego County. Other than the abandoned fire lookout on Hot Springs Mountain, there is no evidence of man in sight. The trail climbs to within 500 feet of Combs Peak, 6913 feet high, and provides shimmering vistas of the Santa Rosa Mountains to the north and the Borrego badlands to the east, before continuing on to Anza, San Jacinto, Big Bear, the Mojave, Sequoia, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Lassen, Crater Lake, the Cascades, Mt. Rainier, and Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia.
Many hikers on the PCT who were unfamiliar with San Diego County before passing through here seem surprised by the beauty and variety of the landscapes they find. Judging by their register entries, they seem to have expected either desert wasteland or an overdeveloped maze of freeways and tract homes. While we certainly have both those things, the chaparral, the broad grasslands, the high desert, and the manicured forests of San Diego County have their own charms, to be appreciated on their own terms rather than in comparison to places more breathtakingly spectacular. Hikers passing through the forests of Washington have complained of the wet, endless green monotony. The High Sierra, in an icy autumn rainstorm, can be a hell on earth. The Mojave Desert in August can be nauseating to the point of madness. In nature there are no bad places, only bad times to be there, and at the end of winter, to a hiker starting out on a half-year adventure, San Diego, with its warm, clear days, seems like the best of all places to be.