Seattle

The weekend flew by and it was already Monday, Memorial Day, the American holiday infamous for relaxing, barbecues, and anticipating the promises the upcoming summer months have in store.

 

But I was not relaxing. Instead, I was ignoring my scholarly responsibilities (sorry Alex and Joel) because I was consumed by my final trip preparations and the need to clear out my apartment, divest various possessions, and throw the rest into storage.

 

The people around me were also unable to relax. My parents, who had driven to Seattle to see me off, were hard at work helping me clean and disassemble my apartment. My sister Rachael (who had come with my parents) our really good friend Amanda were busy with the monotonous task of sorting and compiling the last of our meals into their respective resupply boxes. Monday was a long day.

 

But it improved. At 5pm we halted our labor and made our way to the party I had organized to celebrate my pending graduation from business school, my start of the PCT, my birthday, and my 10 years having lived in Seattle. I was so wonderful to be surrounded with smiling faces and laughter of the people who have made these 10 years so special and unique. I am truly lucky having met the people who have made my Seattle life what it is. It was also a treat to get one last big social gathering before venturing out for five months of near solitude. Thank you all for making that night so memorable.

 

Tuesday was much of the same. Work work work trying to sort through the stuff I had accumulated over the years. All the material possessions that I have and use fairly regularly stands out in stark contrast to months of living with nothing at my disposal except what I carry on my back. But after another day of sweat-breaking toil, we finally had everything packed and stored away, the apartment cleaned except for a few odds and ends, and the resupply packaged and ready for shipping. My family and a few close friends stayed up late that night, even though we were exhausted, so I could have one last Matador nacho before 5 months of our instant dinners, snacks, and oatmeal.

 

That night almost exactly my 7 year love affair with Matador nachos, and I was actually lucky enough to have Chauncey there who bought me my first plate on the night of my 21st birthday. Now if you aren't familiar, Matador nachos are amazing. For $5 at happy hour you can get the biggest plate of the best Texas-style nachos in the world (at least I think so). The Matador is sacred to Chris and I, and there was a time in the not so distant past when we were eating nachos twice a week. Our voracious appetites meant we could each devour at least one plate, if not more, which is no small feat for anyone who has attempted.

 

Regardless, my nachos were amazing and I went home to my empty apartment feeling an odd combination of contentment and uneasiness. Early the next morning (Wednesday), I said goodbye to my parents and Rachel before their long drive back to the Big Sky. I am absolutely positive that I would not be able to attempt this journey without their help and support, both the direct labor that they put in as well as knowing how excited they are for me to go on such a big adventure. Thank you Mom, Dad and Rachael for everything.

 

After the truck full of people and puppies drove away, I went back upstairs, finished the odds and ends, took extra time to enjoy my final Seattle shower, and packed my bag (which I had just received the night before...which is another long story). Everything that I needed for next five months fit into this single, small backpack that, without food and water, weighed less than 15lbs. I still have difficulty expressing that how odd that feeling was, knowing that my life was instantly transforming from the comfort and convenience of an urban dweller to the minimalist, bare-bones necessities of a trail warrior.

 

Amanda rolled up around 9am, and we raced around the city to complete some crucial, last minute errands, like going to REI to get my shoes in a bigger size. She let me drive her car down to the airport simply because I love driving and haven't NOT driven a car for more than a few months since I got behind the wheel 13 years ago. I definitely got two satisfactory honks in during the quick jaunt to the airport—Seattle drivers are the worst and it brings me great pleasure to let them know it. Thank you Amanda, for your tireless help and understanding how to enjoy the little things in life.

 

After a quick goodbye, I easily slid through the security line and made my way to a restaurant next to my gate. I was able to chat with my brother, who is currently overseas. We talked about the great adventure I was embarking on, how I was feeling nervous, excited, hesitant, scared, and overwhelmed. He assured me of his confidence that I could do this, and wished he were able to do it with me. Me too, bro. Wish you were here Strong Rangering the $#!% out of this trail.

 

At the final boarding call, I grabbed my bag and made my way into the plane, knowing at the very least that I was going to end up in California. To get back to Washington I would either have to walk or buy another plane ticket.

 

Now this is where things got interesting. Since Nick had left the trail early to deal with his leg injury and was still headed to Michigan for a wedding over the weekend, our plans to get me to Idyllwild and Nick to Palm Springs had evaporated. I was currently without the means to get myself to Idyllwild, which is where I was supposed to meet Chris. Of course, this was definitely in my mind during the flight. As we got close to Palm Springs, I started chatting with Greg, the man sitting next to me in the flight. He's from Bainbridge, but has a place in the Springs that he was going to prep for the summer heat. After telling him about my own reasons for being on the flight, he offered to drive me part of the way if I was unable to find a better ride. When we landed, I furiously started messaging friends and brainstorming ideas to find my way out to the mountains, particularly because I wasn’t too keen on starting my trip with a hitch. I had never hitched before, and hitching through the desert heat sounded unbearable to my heat-averse Seattle skin. After a blitz of calls and texts that only turned into dead ends, I remembered that just a few hours earlier, Amanda had told me that her cousin Brad and Brandon had down to Palm Springs earlier that morning for a wedding latest in the weekend. Of course, I asked her for one of their numbers and sure enough, after a brief chat, the two of them agreed to drive me an hour up to Paradise Cafe, a famous little spot where the PCT crosses a highway south of Idyllwild, which is where Chris had arranged another ride to get me the rest of the way. I couldn't believe how fortunate I was, that in a situation where I needed help the most, I got it from such unexpected places. Thanks Greg, for being willing to help a complete stranger. And thanks Brad and Brandon...it was great to see and talk with you again...I definitely owe you guys a drink when I'm back in Seattle.

 

Idyllwild

As we arrived at the Paradise Cafe, we were greeted with a raucous honking and yelling; Chris was hanging out the window of a Food Explorer that pulled in just behind us, which was just another example of the crazily convenient timing I had experienced this far. He quickly introduced me to Jules, a trail angel he had met in Idyllwild. I said my goodbyes to Brad and Brandon, and we were on our way to the small mountain town. Jules was incredibly familiar with the area and after hearing a little bit about me, began pointing out interesting landmarks, naming trees and landscape features, and tell various stories about her life before and after moving to the mountains.

 

The hour drive finally brought us to the little town of Idyllwild. About 4,000 people live there, but you'd never guess it because the town is tucked in a small mountain valley with the homes scattered throughout the forest. One of these homes, which is an old log cabin originally built in the glory days of the Californian mountains, is the residence of my good friend Ross’s grandmother, Katie. After Ross told her about my trip, she invited us to enjoy a meal with her and her friends, Pat, Alice, and Paul. The evening was wonderful; stories were shared, jokes were told, and the spaghetti and garlic bread was devoured by us two hikers, knowing that home-cooked food would be in short supply during our trip. Little did we know, but Alice and Paul were PCT veterans—Paul had hiked it twice. They are also some of the founders of the Guthooks hiking app, which is a fantastic tool for navigating the trail. After saying good byes, we got a ride back to the little inn we were staying at. I was eager with anticipation and had the cliche butterflies in my stomach, knowing that within 12 hrs I would truly begin my journey. Thank you Grandma Katie for your hospitality, Pat, for your stories, and Paul and Alice for your encouragement, guidance, and app. We appreciate these gifts far more than you know.

 

Early the next morning, Jules picked Chris and I up and took us to the trailhead. She gave us a wonderful parting gift and filled us with words of encouragement as we stepped onto the trail. Thank you Jules, for your generosity to help strangers. You were a fantastic trail angel.

 

And like that I was hiking on the PCT towards the summit of San Jacinto, the tallest mountain in the San Jacinto range. Though it was only 10 miles to the top, the high elevation, intense California sunshine, and my rusty legs made the going slow. But it was worth it, as the 10,834’ peak offered unprecedented views of the desert floor 9,000 feet below and mountain ranges in the distance. Chris pointed out the mountains he had already hiked, as well as the ranges we were headed towards. We also met Darlyn and Marsha, two fun-loving young ladies, friends since childhood, who live by the motto “friends who hike together, stay together.” We exchanged stories and summit photo taking, and began the descent back to the main portion of the PCT. After another eight miles, we set up camp for the night. Day one, my first day of the next five months, was complete.

Chris and Ben on the summit of San Jacinto

Chris and Ben on the summit of San Jacinto

 

The next morning, while making breakfast and tearing camp down, we had a ghostly visitor sneak through. This was the fabled Tuna Helper, an avid PCT hiker who is trying to set the record for the fastest un-assisted PCT hike. He barely made a sound as he strolled past, his long stride making him appear to hover above the ground. He adheres to the most extreme ultra-light style, probably carrying less than 20lbs at any given time, allowing him to much more easily hike 40-50 miles a day. When you can hike that far, you don’t need to carry nearly as much food since you have far fewer days between towns. Chris wishes we could go that fast, but Nick and I whine too much and are too much dead weight. Plus, we want to enjoy this time away from reality.

 

Anyway, Chris and I began our descent out of the San Jacintos towards Cabazon. The morning started cool and beautiful, but the farther we dropped and the higher the sun rose, the more oppressive the heat became. What’s worse is that the 4 mile distance (as the crow flies) from our day’s starting point to the next water source was stretched out to 16 miles of gradually descending trail. To further complicate matters, I had been feverish the night before I left for California, which hadn’t bothered me too bad until this moment. In the middle of the day, in the glaring heat, my fever started up again. I was disoriented, dizzy, and sluggish; thankfully Chris noticed, and we curled up in the shade of a large boulder where I was able to replenish my fluids, rest, and battle the contradictory feelings of burning up and feeling chilly. Let me just say that having a fever in the middle of the day in the middle of the desert is one of my least favorite things. The fever broke, and we were able to make our way down to the water, where we put up the rainfly for some shade, laid down, rested, and waited for the sun to weaken. In the cool of the evening, we walked the remaining five miles across the desert floor to Cabazon, the home of the trail angels Ziggy and The Bear.

 

Cabazon

Ziggy and The Bear greeted us with cold gatorade and fresh fruit, and welcomed us to their home where we were free to stay and enjoy their hospitality for as long as we needed. It was good to be off my feet, out of the sun, and have water accessible at the turn of a wrist. It had only been two days and 35 miles, but no matter what I had done to prepare myself, I was not ready for the reality of the trail. Fortunately (or maybe I’m just a little weak) Chris and I headed back into Palm Springs the next morning to hang out, relax, rest, and wait for Nick to get back from the wedding. We spent the weekend going to movies, eating delicious food, and sleeping in a hotel room. I have to admit I was quite spoiled that the first days of my journey were probably the easiest start for anyone attempting the PCT. I was fortunate. Fortunate to have family who has my back. Fortunate to have friends who will do anything to help out. Fortunate to meet strangers who are kind, generous, and hospitable. Fortunate to have two great guys at my side who are encouraging, funny, and patient as we push each others’ buttons day after day. The PCT is a great thing. Tough, but great. I’m looking forward to the future journey.

 

-Ben

 

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