Starting with a Storm - Benefit and Burden 

Updated: May 31, 2019

Let's start with excitement and satisfaction. Reaching the southern terminus was a great feeling after the several months/years of planning, training, and dreaming. It's both amazing and ridiculous (in a good way) how much meaning we put into starting the trail. We were all elated to go wreck ourselves, hike through hot and cold weather, and sleep far away from the comfort of home. Of course, it wasn't the logistics we were anticipating, but the adventure.

None of us expected to reach the southern monument and experience rain in mid May. Usually, it is hot and dry with limited water supply; so of course, many of us were prepared with gear to match sunny conditions. Yet we accepted the storm with open arms knowing it would provide access to water and cooler temperatures.

Overview of Hike and Struggles

The first two days were glorious with spectacular views shared among other appreciative hikers. In the afternoon of the second day, I reached Mount Laguna and enjoyed the scenery change of pine trees and stormy mist. I walked into a little recreation town thinking I would get a hot meal and find a place to camp. Unfortunately, the town was closed except for the lodge/general store.

First night on the trail; a nice setting at Lake Morena.

Despite hiking in 40 degree windy weather in shorts and a shirt for the second half of the day, I got an ice cream sandwich and sat to talk with another hiker. In 30 minutes, the storm intensified to 30-60 mph winds with light rain. It was without question to the two of us that getting a cabin room would be best to avoid impending sleet/snow and faster winds.

We left the next morning early trying to take advantage of a break in the storm and try to drop in elevation from 6,000' to 3,000' to reach warmer conditions and reduced wind speeds. The next 20 miles are known to be very windy regardless of storms, so hiking quickly during the storm break became our strategy. We made it 20 miles, but the storm found us six miles into the hike throwing rain, hail, sleet, and occasional snow with high winds; and of course, we had summer gear. This was not how we thought the third day would go.

A few snapshots before the storm. Note: this is a slideshow, click the arrows on the image to see more.

Hiking to stay warm even though our legs were numb is an ok strategy, I suppose, but with unforeseen negative consequences. We hiked the 20 miles in 5.25 hours trying to beat the storm (not a brag but an indicator of desperation); our cold, stiff hiking form caused unusual stress on our bodies along with worries of hypothermia, forcing us to find an exit. Julian is a nice little town...I can tell you that because we did not hesitate to find the hwy and hitch into town. The French onion soup is pretty good...I heard the same about a turnover chicken pot pie and later confirmed the hype.

The storm continued the next day, but with less tenacity. After a rest in town, my new friend and I continued from our urgent exit point. We noticed the pain in our knees from the previous day and took the next segment very slow. Over 17 miles, we dropped in elevation to the desert floor to be greeted by abundant agave and the distinctive smell of creosote (an unusual aroma to like, but I do). Although my knees were tight and pained, the last three miles of this stretch has been one of my favorite moments on trail so far.

We reached our checkpoint at Scissors Crossing and found that most hikers had similar problems with their knees. I suppose that information is comforting, thinking that the wear and tear from recent miles is somewhat normal. After a day of rest and a couple more days of hiking I reached mile 109 and stopped near Warner Springs.

Thoughts and Adjustments

I have reacted to this storm with duality; a blessing can become the peril I'm out running. Although we made plans to adjust to the change in conditions, there were other options that crossed my mind that I did not execute. We didn't make any wrong decisions or had any bad plans; we carried through and we are ok with some lingering stress on our legs. In hindsight, I wish I had listened to myself to either [1] stay in the Mount Laguna lodge one more day to fully wait out the storm, enabling a slower hiking pace and less stressful conditions the following day [2] camp at mile eight miles in before our bodies experienced sustained low temps and requiring us to go to town. Not to mention, there was a trailhead structure/privy and water at mile 8 that could've be used if conditions were too extreme for tents.

We are Social Creatures

Excitement from starting the trail and seeking out friendships is always a great thing as well as an advantage. We are social creatures and can't help ourselves to prefer teams over remaining solo. It is safe and it is smart. I did not anticipate grouping up so early on the trail, but sharing euphoria and encouraging each other is irresistible. There comes a point, though, when too much optimism blinds one from upcoming challenges. Usually I voice my skepticism when plans start to go awry, but we wanted to believe in each other, which gives an unrealistic assessment of the challenges ahead. I've learned that I need to trust my initial judgement and share it, but not be timid to split from the group if need be.

Change of Pace

I've also realized that I never changed my pace of life once I started the trail. For the last year, I've been on overdrive, doing several tasks at once for work and life. Going to work everyday was more than showing up and doing, but a constant push mentally and physically beyond a normal day's worth of effort. I held this pace of life through to starting the trail and never took a moment to slow my perspective. I filled the role of overworking by focusing too much on mileage, pace, time, and changing conditions and forgot to relinquish some control. I certainly have been enjoying the trail and all it has to offer, but shifting my focus from mileage to simply hiking and openness is an adjustment I'd like to make. I think many of us hikers suffer from obsessing over logistics; it's what we've been doing for several months leading up to the trail.

"But where are the drops of oil I entrusted to you?" asked the wise man. Looking down at the spoon he held, the boy saw that the oil was gone. "The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon."
The Alchemist - Paulo Coehlo

During the past few days of hiking, I've noticed that my legs and feet are strong and without fatigue after 15 to 20 miles. I think I can thank my training for that; however, my knees are not up to par and as of now, I'm resting my knees for a few days. I've pushed my body to flight/fight the storm, which with numb legs, a fast pace, and downhill terrain, turned out to be too much. I'm giving a solid healing period in hopes to be back on trail soon. I know many other hikers are pushing on with the understanding that this type of knee pain is normal and will eventually go away, but I don't want to take the risk of developing severe tendinitis or even worse. Upon returning to the trail, I plan to hike at a slower pace and reduce the mileage until strength is regained. How much reduction?! I'll let my body decide and make plans that give me the option to do so. Among those changes, I will carry new lessons to trust myself and not underestimate the influence that social interaction and weather has on my decisions.

"You know a dream is like a river, ever changing as it flows. And the dreamer's just the vessel that must follow where it goes. Trying to learn from what's behind you and never knowing what's in store, makes each day a constant battle just to stay between the shores."
The River - Garth Brooks

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