Editor’s note: Somerset section-hiker Norm Stoldt, trail name “Stormin’ Norman,” shares the story of his third attempt to finish the southern portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.
The start of my spring adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail began at Big Bear City. In 2004 I was evacuated by helicopter 30 miles south of there because of severe tendinitus in my knee. The following spring my hike was again cut short by heavy snow accumulations in the San Bernadino Mountains.
After checking into a motel I had supper at a nearby restaurant and met a group of senior hikers, trail names “Hoosier” and “Caboose” and a young hiker they called Cole. They turned out to be hiking companions for most of my 200-mile northward trek through the San Bernadino Mountains and high desert to the small hamlet of Agua Dulce near Palmdale.
I also met Hoosier’s son “Dude,” and “Deadman,” a hiker leaving the trail, and “Monk,” a real Benedictine monk celebrating his silver anniversary in the Order by thru-hiking the 2,700 mile long PCT, a monumental goal for a 72-year-0ld.
The next morning Caboose and his wife drove me to a trail head. His wife and brother-in-law provided support and met him at various points along the trail.
I hiked south up the mountain from which I was evacuated and was surprised to discover that the spot was only 2 miles from a major highway. I could have simply walked out and hitched a ride into Big Bear. My map had shown the trail meandering in a 30-mile loop to the north of the city. Unfortunately the highway was just off the map.
Once there, I reversed course and headed north back to Big Bear. It was hard going; I wasn’t acclimatized to the 7,000 to 8,000 foot elevation and my physical conditioning was somewhat lacking thanks to a mild case of sciatica that prevented strenuous exercise prior to leaving.
The strangest thing I saw that day was a zoo-like compound with bears and lions in the middle of nowhere. I decided it must be a holding and training ground for movie animals.
I arrived at Big Bear the next morning, but not before missing the turnoff to be forced down a steep, brush-covered hill, circling around backyards and cutting through a vacant lot to reach the highway.
Once in Big Bear I ate lunch and picked up my drop box at the post office. Powered by a buffalo burger, I departed on a grueling 5-mile walk uphill to the trail head, mostly in the sun. I stopped early, deciding to continue early the next day when it was cooler. I was soon joined by Hoosier, Caboose and Cole.
The next morning was so cold ice formed in the top of my water bottles. I wore my cold weather jacket and pants and put socks on my hands to keep warm. Late in the day we descended into a narrow canyon, fording a creek numerous times. We lost the trail several times.
High water had washed out the trail in many places and left a lot of debris to climb through. It was ideal snake country and sure enough, I saw my first rattlesnake tightly coiled on a rock under some brush. It must have eaten or was cold as it didn’t sound off or move when I passed.
While rock-hopping across a fast-moving mountain stream the next day I slipped and fell in, twisting my ankle and leg. My not-so-waterproof watch drowned and while checking my gear I lost my compass and knife. The injury was to my right leg, the one I had lost 20 percent of the feeling from the knee down after a back injury, so I felt no pain.
My ankle and lower shin were discolored and swollen so I wrapped them with an ace bandage, took an industrial strength ibuprofen and hiked into Deep Creek Canyon. We enjoyed magnificent views, skirting high above cascading falls and serene blue-green pools. The canyon was wedged between hundreds of feet of sheer granite walls and we passed over a series of beautifully engineered high arched bridges.
My friends stopped to enjoy a natural outdoor hot spring but I used the break to catch up on my journal and soak my foot in a nearby stream.
That afternoon a helicopter circled overhead. I joked to Hoosier that it was an air rescue craft coming to pick him up. Amazingly, it landed next to the creek in this deep canyon and two occupants got out, set up lawn chairs and relaxed on the creek bank.
One morning we stopped at a road junction after a particularly long and arduous climb and Cole gave us a Jolt, a caffeine-loaded gum. Highly re-energized, we took off but missed a very obvious trail marker and went a mile in the wrong direction. We then christened Cole with the trail name “Jolt.”
Descending into Cajon Pass we were met with a world-class panoramic view of hundreds of miles of golden-hued desert against a backdrop of partially snow-draped mountains tinged with purple.
Our first stop at Cajon Pass was McDonalds and after refueling with Big Macs, drinks and dessert, we checked into a motel.
My companions left the next morning but I took an extra day to rest my leg and enjoy the motel’s hot tub. When I left I took almost 6 liters of water — 11 pounds — and just 2 pounds of food for the next 25-mile waterless stretch through the desert.
Early on I came upon a water cache. A trail angel had set up a homemade cabinet filled wit a dozen gallon bottles of water. There was a bench attached to rest one’s weary bones. I drank all I could hold but didn’t fill my water bottles as a courtesy to the next thirsty hiker.
As I walked I couldn’t help but ponder: I was in the middle of the desert with no watch, no knife, no compass and only a poorly marked trail to follow. I missed my watch. I had used it to estimate hiking times and identify major points on the trail like water sources and trail junctions. It also had an altimeter — not too useful in the desert but extremely helpful in the mountains.
I met two hikers who were doing a “yo-yo,” finishing the trail in one direction and turning around to complete it from the opposite direction. They hoped to cover 5,200 miles in 150 days. Wow!
The trail into Wrightwood was an ear-popping, toe-jamming, knee-wrenching 4,000-foot descent. My first stop in this mountain village was the Evergreen Café for coffee, pancakes, eggs and bacon and I met back up with Hoosier, Caboose and Jolt.
After checking into a motel, a shower and a nap, I scoured the town to replace my lost gear and pick up my resupply package at the post office.
I bought a combination compass/whistle/thermometer but couldn’t locate a watch. Everyone I met was very hiker friendly. I joined the gang the next morning for breakfast and we spent most of the afternoon together. By day’s end I had a watch compliments of Caboose’s wife Karen.
Leaving Wrightwood, I hiked along the highway and intercepted the PCT at the base of Mt. Baden-Powell instead of making the strenuous climb back up the side trail while my companions drove to the top on a logging road. After 10 days on the trail my physical condition had so improved that the 2,500-foot climb to the summit was not unusually difficult.
The vistas were overwhelming — a panoramic view of miles of desert on one side with mountains and narrow valleys as far as the eye could see on the other side.
There was a solitary gnarled pine tree estimated to be over 1,500 years old close to the summit. Near this weather-beaten giant was a placard explaining that the tree and the mountain were named for the founder of the Boy Scouts. Talking with a scout leader later, I learned that 51 miles of the PCT around the Mt. Baden-Powell area coincide with a special scouting trail.
Hiking the trail to the tree and summit is like a pilgrimage honoring their founder for the scouts. Staying near 9,000 feet I crossed three more mountain peaks before stopping for the night.
I got back to the highway as it dropped into the desert. It was great walking — no traffic, no rocks and no rattlesnakes to step around. There were even two tunnels to pass through. It got hot again once I was back on the trail and in the desert.
Just before stopping at noon I saw a large timber rattlesnake — actually they all look large to me. I threw dirt at it but the wind blew it back in my face. Finally I rolled a large rock down the trail toward it. The snake reluctantly withdrew into the brush and I sped safely past.
I stopped for lunch at Mill Creek picnic grounds. There was no water but I replenished my supply at a nearby California Department of Forestry station. While waiting for the weather to cool off I met Greg, a friendly talkative individual in his 30s.
Seeing my still swollen ankle and my discolored shin, he offered to get me ice. I accepted even though the 10-day-old injury had greatly improved. I planned to to use the ice when it melted to replenish my water supply.
I packed up and left when my rest was interrupted by a gang of noisy prisoners and forest fire personnel who started cleaning up the area with weed whackers, rakes, shovels and even a chain saw.
I met another rattler on the ridge climbing out of the picnic grounds. The ridge went on forever so I decided to stop and camp on the trail. As I went to sleep I heard music and some kind of recorded message up the ridge ahead of me. Was it civilization? It was quite a surprise the next morning to come on the entrance of a scout camp a few miles up the trail.
When I stopped for lunch at a ranger station I found Curt and Monk, two hikers I had played tag with since the start of my hike.
The trail was extremely difficult the rest of the day, a steep, downhill descent with many short ups and downs across canyons. It was cloudy but the humidity was awful and sweat poured off me. By 5:30 p.m. I could go no farther. I was burning energy and water at an alarming rate.
The trail wound around steep grass-covered hillsides with no place to camp. I saw what looked like a little used side trail on a small ridge. Home for the night.
I put down my sleeping pad, used my sleeping bag for a pillow, my pack for a foot rest and collapsed. After a time I heard an engine roar as an off-road motorcycle came over the rise and down the trail. I had left the hiking trail but found myself on a bike trail.
The young biker was extremely friendly. After talking for a bit he gave me some water — an extreme act of kindness in the desert — and was off. Night came and I went to sleep under the twinkling of stars overhead, the glow of lights from distant ranch houses and the occasional wail of coyotes.
Except for the motorcycle and all the foxtails I picked out of my gear and clothing for the next two days, it was a neat place to spend the night.
I covered the 7 miles to Agua Dulce in record time, pausing only to wonder at the magnificent and strange rock structures in Vasquez Park. I celebrated the end of my journey with my usual breakfast and a beer. Then I was off to Saufley’s and “Hiker Haven.”
The service the owners of Hiker Haven provide is unbelievable. They can handle up to 40 hikers on their five-acre property. To house so many people they put up as many as five tents. There’s also a mobile home with a fully equipped TV, DVD player, library, Internet access and free phone use.
In addition there is a small motor home for hikers. Their garage has hiker information about everything a hiker could need: Trail conditions, bus/train schedules and news on fellow hikers. They provide bicycles and even an old car for shopping trips to town. They also have an abundant supply of old clothes to wear while one’s hiking apparel is being washed.
When there is an extra large number of hikers they bring in a water truck and port-a-potties. They are truly a couple extraordinaire. After I took a shower and a short rest, my old friend Hoosier arrived. He and my other hiking buddies had been close behind me for five days. Later Jolt, Caboose, Dude and Monk walked in and we all went to town for pizza. The next morning we had breakfast together.
“Ladybird,” who had been there two weeks recovering from a brown recluse spider bite, drove me to the train station in Acton. From there I went to Palmdale, picked up a car and began the long drive home.
By finishing this 200-mile section, I had completed the 1,750-mile long section of the PCT through California. I completed the Oregon and Washington segments (940 miles) in the summer.