Editor’s note: Norm Stoldt, who was 63 in 2005, hiked the Appalachian and Tahoe Rim trails despite various physical problems that interrupted some of his adventures. His latest quest, conquering the Pacific Crest Trail, has spanned two years.
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I intended to begin this adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail east of Bakersfield and travel southward some 400 miles in 33 days to just east of San Bernadino.
My route would take me over the Tehachapi, San Gabriel and the San Bernardino mountain ranges. In addition, I would cross over the western portion of the Mojave Desert. The PCT data book showed half a dozen 20-mile plus waterless stretches, with the longest at 36 miles.
To safely pass through these barren sections, I planned on carrying an additional 12 pounds or 6 liters of water. Otherwise, traveling light dominated my choice of gear and food. Excluding water, all my equipment and five days of food (4,500 calories per day) weighed less than 23 pounds.*
I planned on hiking 15 miles or 10 hours per day. To further limit the weight I had to carry, I had six food drops at post offices in towns strategically located along the way. The longest distance between resupply points was six days (95 miles), the shortest was two days (34 miles).
This is my fifth year of long-distance hiking. I experienced last-minute complications in both my “little walks” last year. I was bitten by a stray dog while training for my spring hike and received the last in the series of rabies shots two days prior to my departure.
Then, just before returning to the PCT that summer, my first ever toothache necessitated a root canal, again just two days before leaving. This year was no different. I suffered from severe sciatic pain most of the winter and had barely a month and a half to ready myself physically.
My weekly conditioning routine consisted of one or more sessions of cycling, race walking, weight training, a series of stretches, back- and stomach-strengthening exercises and finally, a weekend hike around the Somerset-Fair Play area.
I began my adventure the morning of April 15 driving a rental truck to Bakersfield. I took a bus from there to the town of Lake Isabella. I was surprised by the weather. It was warm in the sun, but a brisk wind made it almost cold in the shade. I got a hotel room and ended the day revving up my hiker’s appetite with a burger, super milkshake and a large slice of apple pie.
After another bus ride the next morning and a 20-mile hitch from a friendly motorist, I arrived at Walker Pass and started my hike through the Tehachapi Mountains. There were still isolated patches of snow across the trail and I battled strong winds for most of my journey. The weather through the mountainous sections was truly bizarre.
The trail routinely crisscrossed between the west and east slopes of mountain ridges. While hiking on one side of the ridge, the weather would be sunny and warm with gentle breezes. On the other side of the ridge, a frigid-like gale prevailed. The sky would be overcast as the wind blew dark, moisture-laden clouds against the mountain side. I was forced to exchange my shorts and T-shirt for cold-weather gear because of intermittent snow flurries.
On one particular mountain ridge, a wintry-like fog coated the tree branches with a beautiful white frost. An hour later, I was greeted with sunny skies and pleasant temperatures while descending into a valley. But after climbing up to the next ridge, it was back to Alaska-like conditions.
The April nights were near freezing above 5,000 feet. I used both a silk liner inside my bag and a Mylar emergency sheet on top to keep warm. I slept in a Tarptent designed with open netting around the bottom and at both the front and back to save weight and reduce the chance of condensation.
The wind whistled through my tent so strongly on some nights that I had to weigh the edges of the Mylar sheet down with pieces of gear to keep it from blowing off. One night, the wind was so strong it kept blowing down my tent. I ended up sleeping under the stars curled up against the leeward side of a large bush.
Finding water in the mountains was generally not a problem. However, runoff from a year of abundant rain and snowfall did make crossing swollen streams a problem. But with a little searching, I always found a spot shallow enough to ford. I’d replace my shoes and socks with “waddles” (rubber, foam-like sandals). The icy cold water was great for waking up my trail-weary feet.
Fortunately, I never encountered any threatening wildlife (rattlesnakes or bears), but I did have an interesting confrontation with some range cattle on a narrow mountain path. With no space to pass, I shooed the herd down the trail until there was a flat area for them to get off the pathway. However, from time to time a young bull at the rear would turn around to test his virility and challenge me. Thank goodness, when the herd moved on, he’d quickly follow.
I had started my hike before most of the PCT hikers had begun their 2,600 mile northward march to Canada. Therefore, except for the occasional weekend adventurer, I was the first hiker of the year to pass through most of the remote sections. The trail through these sections at times was thickly covered with fresh spring flowers. I felt a tinge of guilt as I trampled through Mother Nature’s unspoiled garden of beauty.
I crossed the waterless, desert stretches of the trail with minimum discomfort by carrying extra water and resupplying from caches provided by trail angels. Without the efforts of these dedicated individuals, hiking the arduous 2,600-mile PCT could easily turn into an endless painful austerity.
They not only stock water caches, but provide shuttles, food, offer shelter and a place to shower and do laundry — all essential to the health and morale of a bone-weary hiker. One creative trail angel even managed to place a lovely hot-pink bouquet of artificial chrysanthemums beside the trail to brighten a barren wind-swept desert hillside.
Another time, I came upon a small camping area set up in a thicket at the side of the trail. Trail angels had left coolers with cold drinks, fruit and beer and lounge chairs for hot, dusty, exhausted hikers. Its entrance was marked by a large Halloween skeleton.
I encountered a huge wind turbine farm just south of the town of Mojave. As I hiked past hundreds of these whirling monsters, I couldn’t help but think about the saga of another senior adventurer, Don Quixote, and his mythical joust with a windmill. As I walked through a series of unlocked gates across the farm, I also wondered about the security of our electric generating plants.
On the other hand, stringent security measures surrounding a reservoir where I had planned on refurbishing my water supply made for my longest and most exhausting day on the trail. Coming out of the Mojave Desert, the road to the reservoir was fenced off. It and the entire area was surrounded by an 8-foot high cyclone fence toped with razor wire.
I had to make an eight-mile detour in the heat of the day. I climbed fences, tramped through knee-high grass infested with fox tails and nettles and finally dodged a herd of buffalo until I reached a road on the other side of the reservoir. The net result was an arduous 24-mile marathon, the last eight miles without water.
One of the things I enjoy most about long distance hiking is all the interesting and caring people I meet. On a training hike around the Somerset-Fair Play area, I came upon an 85-year young gentleman riding a handicap-type scooter with a large red warning flag.
This good Samaritan was making his weekly rounds picking up aluminum cans along Fair Play Road. He donates the money from the recycled cans to a national children’s cancer project. After reading this, maybe all you drivers will take a little extra care if you see an older gentleman riding along the side of Fair Play Road on a scooter with a red warning flag.
I met only two fellow PCTers during my two-week odyssey, Healer and Highlander (trail names). Healer was an acquaintance from my 2003 hike on the Appalachian Trail. He had treated a spot on my shoulder that had been rubbed raw from a pack strap. Highlander was a retired British army sergeant from Scotland. Both hikers were doing flip flops, hiker’s jargon for skipping a portion of the trail, hiking to your destination and then returning to complete the missing section. They had jumped northward to avoid the San Jacinto Mountains that were impassible due to heavy snow and ice.
Finally there was Donna and Jeff, owners of Hikers Heaven in the small hamlet of Aqua Dulce. They had set up a two-bedroom, fully equipped trailer on their property solely for the use of PCTers. They had an assortment of tents and could accommodate some 40 hikers at a time. They provided showers, laundry and shuttle services. The trailer came with a full kitchen, Internet connection, phone, VCR/DVD player, tapes and discs, and a library — all provided free of charge.
Leaving the trail
I was forced to terminate my adventure early after only two weeks and 180 miles. The winter of 2004-2005 had been one of exceptional heavy rainfall in Southern California. The resulting heavy snow and ice made the mountainous southern portion of my journey impassible. Conditions were so dangerous that the U.S. Forestry Department closed the area to hikers until the end of May.
I was disappointed I couldn’t finished my hike and left with 200 miles to complete next year. Nevertheless, I was happy knowing that most of the PCT’s long waterless, southern desert stretches were now behind me. I could now focus all my energy my next quest —hiking the PCT from Donner Pass to Ashland, Ore.