This was an awesome trip with some awesome people. Our 3 day trip took place on the weekend that San Diego was on fire (May 16-18, 2014), so we were a little concerned about what would happen once we were out of contact for a couple days, but they took care of business and so did we.
Day 1: Unplugging
The itch to glance at my screen was there at first, especially since everyone brought our phones to use as cameras and they were constantly right, there. Letting the little flushes of anxiety (“Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, email”) float away became more and more effortless as I became more separated from my normal routine.
I don’t know whether it was the constant movement or the incredible scenery; any way you spell it, the 3 day journey was liberating. The constant grind of a 9-5 job and the chores that come with it aren’t always easy to objectively examine when the “fog of work” has set in.
For me, physically escaping from the routine allows my mind to follow my body to the immense, open space where it is relieved of the slow accumulation of daily pressures. There are no visual or auditory triggers for stressful subconscious memories. There are no distractions from the task at hand, which is basically just: survive and try to enjoy yourself.
Our trip ended up being about 21 miles total, an average of 7 miles per day. That may not sound like much, but doing 7 miles of such rugged terrain and quick elevation changes with a 40 pound pack would probably be impossible for the average American.
Our group started the first day at the Fuller Ridge Trailhead, a remote patch of dirt at the end of a 3.5 mile long lightly groomed dirt road carved into the mountainside. It was bumpy and it was slow, but once we made it to the trailhead, which starts on the North side of Black Mountain, we got strapped up and began our 7.8 mile journey to our first camp at Strawberry Junction.
The beginning of the Fuller Ridge trail, which is also part of the Pacific Crest Trail, works its way East along the North side of Fuller Ridge before a steep series of switchbacks that lead up the N/NE face of the ridge , which provided awesome views of the entire Coachella Valley and across it, Old Greyback (Mt. San Gorgonio). The trail starts at about 7,600 feet, so the entire trip can be considered “at altitude”.
On the top of the ridge, the trail works its way further East, hopping back and forth between the North and South faces. In the middle of these switchbacks is Castle Rocks, which reminded all of us a little of Pride Rock from the movie The Lion King.
The trail eventually settles on the South side, the whole time gradually turning South along the West side of Mt. San Jacinto.
Although it was already mid-May, we found water at several of the perennial springs that run down the West side of the mountain. Unfortunately, I purchased a bottle of iodine pills that was totally empty (what happened, you ask?), so we had to chance it and boil our water. By the end of the trip we were drinking it straight from the spring (and it was AMAZING, but I still strongly recommend against it). Luckily no one got sick, but I think Scott said it best: “If this isn’t naturally clean water, it doesn’t exist.”
We brought enough food to feed an army, so we chowed down that first night. I ate a whole freeze-dried meal and some leftovers from another. This definitely ended up helping us on the next day when we moved our way up the mountain and ultimately to the summit, both because of the extra calories and losing the weight from our packs.
That night, at one of the campsites near ours, another hiker decided to break into song in the middle of the night with his guitar and voice. Everyone had a good 30 seconds of fear-induced, heart pounding confusion, but once we all realized we were not in a cheap horror movie (and he probably wasn’t up there to murder us), everyone went back to bed.
I sat up and listened for a while, even getting out of my tent at one point for a clearer listen. He was singing in Spanish and to my surprise, it wasn’t bad. Listening to the smooth transitions and subtle improvisations made me imagine slightly calloused fingertips plucking away at the strings a trusted companion, staring up and shamelessly belting out a verse at the clear night sky. Soon enough, the familiar feeling of drifting off washed over me, the hard ground softening beneath me and I was swept away into la-la-land alongside a distant rolling melody.
Day 2: Going Up
The second day began with a hearty breakfast and a good long stretch. We headed back the way we came, retracing our steps and getting a new perspective on the amazing scenery.
Up until the junction that leads to the peak, we had been travelling on the Pacific Crest Trail the entire time. We broke from it a little under 3 miles out of camp, heading up, up, and more up.
It was only a mile of incline, but it seemed to take forever. Fortunately, we ran into the upper part of Bed Springs, flowing right across the trail, so we were able to fill up and head right into camp. It was early, we had only done about 4 miles, so we set up camp and decided to kick back for a bit and rest up.
After little debate, we decided all of our belongings would be fine there alone for a few hours. We grabbed our water and practically flew, about 40 lbs lighter, on up toward the summit.
Getting all the way to the summit is a little confusing. I’m going to attribute this to some of the people who take the tram up, then decide it is ok to take a further shortcut and ruin the hard work that someone put into grooming the actual trail (how does that one go? journey>destination). We followed the trail as best we could, eventually having to scale a few rocks to get all the way up.
Luckily, we didn’t have to share the summit with too many people and the ash had cleared from the fires, providing panoramic views of Palm Desert/Springs, all the way into Joshua Tree National Park and across to San Gorgonio.
Being at the top of this massive structure, formed by what is essentially happenstance, one continental plate going the way it did, for hundreds of thousands of years, slowly but surely reaching up and out; unconcerned with all the imaginary, psychological constructs of man… Something about imitating the mountain in my own slow, determined climb, one step at a time, makes me feel like I’ve conquered this stubborn heap of stone.
Call it the thin air, but everything else seems to instantly fly 1,000 miles further away. Job, car, rent, email, bills, facebook, money; it becomes easier to realize that all the anxiety associated with these things weighs heavily on us. For me, the heaviest are mostly constructs, which is what I like to call imaginary “concerns”; things that are either entirely out of my control or simply don’t exist.
The biggest change I notice is the noise. There isn’t any. You won’t hear a car drive by, no Harley revving up, no television, no creaks nor groans of buildings. Up here, if you concentrate really hard, you can hear something. If you get quiet enough, for long enough, you start to hear it, a gentle hum hidden in the silence: Ommmmmm. If you don’t believe me, go try it.
After heading back down to camp, we decided to find a place to watch the sunset, which ended up being an absolutely fantastic end to the last full day of our trip.
Day 3: Headed Home
The next day we packed up and headed back to the car with lighter packs and for me at least, a lighter psychological load.
I haven’t brought it up, but I’d just like to mention that the two brave women who came with us, who have never done this sort of thing before, are total badasses. The three of us guys have been on a backpacking trip with each other before, so we knew what to expect: the slow burning muscle pain, the weight of the pack, being covered in dirt and eating freeze dried meals. The ladies really showed what they are made of and helped make the experience enjoyable for all.
Coordinating this trip did take a few hours of my free time but it was well worth the sweat equity. In case anyone reading is interested in planning a similar trip, here are the links I used to research the trails, order maps, inquire about water, etc.: