PCT Day 4: Mt. Laguna to underneath Sunrise Highway

Our plan for the day was to head along the Laguna rim and see how well my knee held up. Unfortunately, we were behind schedule and would need more food, so we decided to split up for the first section. Once again, Morgan was taking up the slack caused by my failing knee – this time it was so that I could get a head start at around 8am, and he would go to the store to get food when it opened at 9. We were to rendezvous 10 miles down the trail and I was to coddle my knee by taking breaks and stretching as much as possible.

It felt great to be moving again and I was soon stripping off layers in the morning sun. As I headed gently downwards, the terrain was still quite wooded and it felt kind of like home. I was having more visions of mountain bikes, but this time it wasn’t me riding them. Maybe I was getting into this hiking thing after all. I was making steady progress and, since I had the map, marking arrows at ambiguous junctions for Morgan.

In terms of feeling like a progression, there was little stimulation. The trail “just” followed along the rim, but it was one of those days you get in the mountains where you just run out of superlatives. Your breath gets taken away so often that you have to be careful not to stagger down the cliffs that have you agog. Where the road to Julian had had fleeting glimpses down to the desert, now I could stand at the edge of the train and see the mountain plummet down to the sand. I could take in the scrub that hung on so tight to the walls, and the brown swirling desert down on the floor. Looking way out I could see more mountains out to the other side. I wished that Morgan was there, but I contented myself that he’d be seeing this soon enough and I should just be glad.

I made my way along for a couple of hours, pointless competitiveness kicking in and making me determined not to get caught up until I’d made it to our meeting point. Despite this, I managed to maintain some semblance of being a grown-up and every hour I put my camping mat down in the dirt (usually right there on the trail) for a stretching session. Lying there in the scorching heat and easing my worn legs into a variety of positions, it was hard not to laugh. What would I say if someone came along? “Yeah, I’m hiking the PCT but my knee is bust. I reckon I can fix it by stretching!”

As it turned out, I wasn’t the most ridiculous sight out there though. At one point, the trail had turned away from the desert valley and towards wider, flatter, chaparral covered expanse. The sand was reflecting heat back up and there was no shade at all (aside from the desert umbrella!). Then, from the haze comes this guy running along with his bare chest that red-brown colour of someone who’s spent too long in the sun, or maybe the colour of the inside of a medium-rare steak. With his Oakleys and his little 0.5L water bottle, he was the perfect Californian. Still, I had to admire the apparent working-order of his knees.

Eventually I made it to the meeting point with Morgan and set myself up on a picnic table to wait. It had been a depressing last hour as my knee had started to fail again and every little downward slope had me reduced to shuffling. As always though, taking off my shoes and looking out across the land made me feel better, made me wonder if it was all in my head. Soon enough, Morgan arrived too: striding along with his straw hat beginning to fall to pieces.

We had Top Ramen noodles (Brits: that’s super-noodles) to add to our existing supplies and he’d got himself coffee so we were stocked for the trail. The water at this picnic ground was from a trough for horses and it featured both dead insects floating on top and live wriggly things swimming inside. It was time to break out the water filter for its first use. The filter was simple – attach one end to a container, dip the other in the dodgy water and pump away. We managed to load up with water and we were soon ready to see how far we’d get before sunfall.

The very first bit of trail was astounding. It passed close to the existing road and up a broken one which was luxuriating in the lengthening shade provide by a high wall to West. This wall was covered in graffiti from kids who could easily make it this far from the road. Turning your back on the scrawls, the view was once again awesome. Down into the desert again, but here the vantage point framed our view with nothing but reddish brown rocks. We took photos and drank it all in before turning up the road for more progress.

It wasn’t long before my knee was a serious problem again. We were in an area that had been heavily burned by wildfires and as I ducked under a sooty tree we had the idea to make a walking stick. With the stick to support my weak leg it was possible to go much faster down the hills and not to risk falling. So it was with tripod footfalls that I made my way along and we chatted the afternoon away. It was to be our first night out in the real wild with food to be cooked rough too, so pretty soon I was looking for a clear area where we could use the stove. In the end we settled on top of a huge granite slab and enjoyed super-noodles with the setting sun. It was just like the photos you see in outdoor shops but immeasurably more awesome.

The day ended with a bit more progress along the trail and then a frantic search for space to make a camp. My little tent and Morgan’s bivi weren’t going to need much space but a lot of the trail was narrow with either thick brush or steep cliffs coming off. Eventually we found a spot, pitched up (half by feel) and tried not to think too hard about wildlife hazards. I drifted off hoping that no-one would steal my stick.

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