I’m finding one of my favorite things about the PCT is the unexpected nature of it. Each day you can expect to walk for miles. You can expect for the skyline and landscape to merge into a tapestry of beauty. But you don’t know exactly how. The humidity or clouds can dramatically shift the contrast, creating a unique display of beauty that’s unpredictable. Often I lay in the tent at night thinking about what the next day will bring. Rarely can I predict it. And more often than not, nature has a better plan than I can imagine.
But, the beauty of the unexpected goes beyond just scenery and reaches into moments, often punctuated by people and sometimes the absurd.
Today’s hike began like any other: beautiful views, wind, dry terrain. Knowing we had about 8 miles to the next reliable water source, we stocked up on water the night before. Hiking in the desert is strange because there are no natural water sources. There are no streams or rivers. So, instead you rely on water caches, or cisterns. Some of the water caches are funded by private parties, or organizations like the PCTA. Several of the water cisterns are provided by private individuals who make their water accessible to hikers. Today, we have Mike’s Place marked on our map as the next reliable water source, for a stretch of 16 desert miles.
It’s another hot, dry day, the hottest for us yet again. The trail winds around large boulders and singed trees of a fire from years gone past. It’s so dry I notice cactuses brown and shriveled up. Dead. There’s nothing but sun, rock and sand for many miles. It’s a section that feels more desolate than any we’ve yet touched. And in the middle of this desolate patch of desert sits Mike’s Place.
Less than a mile before we reach Mike’s Place, we encounter three guys on the trail without packs, one without a shirt. They don’t look like the hiking type. “We’re just going for a day hike” one of them jokes, “Mike’s place is up ahead on your right if you guys need water or anything.”
We hike around the corner and spot a sign indeed confirming Mike’s place.
We do need water. So, we hike up a steep hill and come down the other side to a road, following signs to Mike’s place. There they are, three large cylinders shaped like silos, labeled water, “must be filtered”.
Our hiker friend, Son, of the Father and Son duo, who we slept next to last night, is here at the water silos. He’s writing a message for his dad in the dirt and planning to stay at Mike’s place for the night. He heard they grilled steaks last night. We look down the road toward Mike’s place, a thin blue line flag flies overhead, tattered in the wind.
Son walks down the road as we filter our water from the large metal cisterns. I drop 3 dollars as a water donation into a tiny fridge with a lock on it that’s been turned into a donation box. It’s plastered with John Muir Trail stickers. The three guys we saw a few minutes earlier come walking by, the shirtless one now wearing a shirt. They make some joke about being lost hikers looking for water, huddled together in the desert cold. They all look a little haggard. They’re friendly enough but put off a strange vibe. They’re friends with Mike. They play death metal with him, and might fire up the generator and play some later. They tell us Mike’s not there right now but Spirit, the caretaker is there and will be throwing some food on the grill later. They welcome us to Mike’s place, then they walk down the road as we continue to filter our water.
Rachel and I look at each other. We’ve gotten the water we stopped for. We could continue on. As if to create a verbal contract, I say “I don’t want to stay long”.
We continue down the road, and observe the spectacle of Mike’s place. My eyes aren’t sure where to focus as we descend into what feels like the movie set for Mad Max. A trailer to our left. A newer building to our right in a paused state of creation. Junk scattered between the gaps of landscape. I’m amazed. It’s like nothing we’ve seen on trail, nothing we’ve seen in our lives.
A hiker we met in Julian, Odysseus, approaches from some signs pointing to a bathroom to the right. He says, “this is Mike, he’s hella cool” pointing to a guy sitting in a camp chair behind his pickup truck. It’s one of the three guys we already met by the water cisterns.
We get a brief tour, which includes the hikers room, and the beer location.
Then we connect with the small group of hikers, in a circle in the dirt. We recognize a couple faces. There’s Shepherd, and Son. We meet a few new names. Rachel and I set our backpacks down beside the house, and I notice some loose wires hanging above our bags… “maybe we should move over here” I say to Rachel. We then pull our food from our bags and join the other hikers to eat lunch.
Everyone looks tired, worn down by the desert heat. Some stayed here last night. Some have been here all morning. I assume the beer can’t be helping matters, or the sun they’re sitting directly under.
I look around in disbelief. This place is a tetanus shot waiting to happen.
I’m sitting next to a pile of metal roofing. I see a weight bench missing the backboard, a squat rack without a bar, a washing machine left outside to fend for itself. There’s an endless sea of junk and metal scattered about the property. I take a video to collect it for later.
Rachel spins off talking to different hikers, and the hosts. I chat with Shepherd about the conditions ahead. I see he has an ice axe, and he says crampons too. He says they’ll leave nice big tracks behind him, for whoever follows him in the snow. I think “no wonder they call you Shepherd.”
Rachel returns and gives me a rundown on what she’s learned, big eyed by the sites she’s seen, “there’s this old white haired guy with a sunburn I was talking to up there. He’s the caretaker.” I’m not sure what he’s taking care given that this place appears to be in an advanced state of disrepair.
Apparently, these guys work at VVR, a resort up north off the John Muir Trail. They spend the off season here, and from the looks of it, partying with hikers. They seem nice enough, but this is not the place for us. I get a creepy vibe. I hear a large smelly man among the hosts proclaim, “I drank 15 beers last night.”
We have seen enough. I resist the temptation of a beer, and hot dogs on the grill as we leave. This place is a vortex, swallowing weery hikers in from the sun. We best escape right now.
We say goodbye and admire the abandoned convertible with a surfboard in the back seat as we ascend up the driveway. We are both in a state of disbelief. We pass Horse getting water at the cisterns and tell him “we’ll see you down trail.”
Less than a mile later the trail intersects with a dirt road. A sprinter van is parked. A tiny wooden stand with a corrugated metal roof sits next to the trail. Two kids jump inside as they see us coming. On the top of the stand is a sign that says “Trail Angels”. The kids offer us from a choice of goodies: tangerines, apples, chips, gatorade, jolly ranchers, and peppermint patties. The hikers ask how much for the items. The girl says “we’re not selling it. It’s free for hikers. I make bracelets I sell on Etsy, and I made $100 that I used to buy stuff for hikers.”
The hiker asks “are you going to hike the PCT when you’re old enough?”
She responds “No, it’s too long! I just want to be a trail angel.”
Rachel chooses a peppermint patty. The little girl proclaims “I knew these would be popular.”
Her little brother looks at me, “how about you? Perhaps something to boost your energy to get up the hill?” I certainly can’t turn him down. He makes a compelling sales case. I ask for a tangerine and some jolly ranchers. They pour some into my hand.
As we hike up the trail we hear the kids behind us erupt “Mom! Dad!We just gave stuff away for free!” They’re dancing outside their Trail Angel stand in celebration.
In less than a mile we’ve experience Trail Angel whiplash. There’s Mike’s Place which Rachel best described as a desert flophouse. Yet, still Mike would be considered a trail angel, providing water and beer for weery hikers. Then there were our Tiny Trail Angels, far more wholesome and heart warming. I thank the trail for them.
Today the trail has provided the unexpected, absurd and beautiful, and somehow sewn them all together.
We hike again into the sunset.