This is the second installment of Hannah Kiser and Chelan Pauly’s epic journey of their planned 2,660 mile trek to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail. The information below is a narrative from them having just begun at the Mexico border and they are currently working their way north. To see the first installment click here.

The Desert: Expectations vs. Reality
 by Chelan Pauly and Hannah Kiser

Border Patrol cruising by at 7:00 am at the southern terminus of the PCT.

1)  The desert is NOT as flat, desolate or monotonous as we thought. In our first week of hiking we were surprised by the dozens of species of wildflowers, cacti, brush, trees, small mammals, reptiles, and insects. There have also been dramatic changes in ecotones, elevation, and weather. We climbed up to 6000 feet and watched the sage and cacti community morph into towering pine trees. Some days we suffered under the anticipated 90 degree temperatures but other days we have enjoyed mist and refreshingly overcast skies. We were also hit by a late spring snow storm with 20 degree temperatures and winds up to 50 mph. Needless to say, the desert has been quite the rollercoaster ride.

The long hike begins! Location-southern terminus at the Mexico Border.

2) What does the Mexican border really look like? At the southern terminus of the PCT near Campo California, the border is marked by 10 foot tall grey-green metal panels. Each panel is numbered with spray paint to aid Border Patrol in reporting incidents. A 30 foot swath of brush has been cleared from the fence to create a long line of sight and to make it easier to track foot prints. Seeing the “infamous wall” up close as well as from high above on a ridge, highlights how arbitrary borders really are. The desert landscape on both sides of the fence is exactly the same. The border between countries has more to do with human design than any objective differences. 

3) Thru-hiking is a very different experience than traditional “destination hiking.” When you plan a hike to a beautiful lake or mountain summit, it is easy to get wrapped up in the goal and forget about the journey. However, the PCT is nothing but the journey. Suddenly sketching flowers, stopping to splash around in a stream, and taking afternoon siestas are the goals. Small victories are the stepping stones to make the gargantuan task of reaching Canada more achievable. It seems perfectly normal to hitch-hike twelve miles into town to get free pie or sleep under a bridge because that is the only shade available. Most day hikers or weekend warriors want solitude but thru-hikers often seek comradery to balance out the unknowns associated with a transient life. Whether it is a day hike to the Enchantments or a week-long backpacking trip in the Olympics, your car and warm bed are never too far away. In thru-hiking however, comfort is found in a bucket shower, fresh vegetables from day hikers, and a stocked water cache in the middle of the desert.  This adaptation to the thru-hiker lifestyle has come much more quickly and naturally than we thought!

The calm after the storm. Hiking out of Mount Laguna with wildflowers poking through several inches of snow.

4) The people hiking the trail are NOT all twenty-something athletes from the Pacific Northwest. In fact, many are international, ages vary from 10-72, and some have only ever hiked once before. We have tremendously enjoyed hearing the life stories and journeys from others on the trail. The experienced thru hikers and world travelers remind us that adventure is not something you do once, but should be a lifelong passion. There are solo hikers, couples, and even a set of identical twins with their little sister. Some people are just out of high school or college while another is doing a “three generations hike” with his daughter and granddaughter. Everyone is here for a different reason but regardless it is an opportunity to reconnect with the natural world as well as with oneself. Some might even say it is a one-size-fits-all wilderness therapy.

View of the desert floor from the Laguna mountains, showcasing the changes in vegetation.

5) Carrying 6 liters of water (13.2 pounds) is NOT actually the norm in the desert. In years past there has been a severe lack of water. However, California’s huge snow pack this year has eliminated the drought making water in the desert quite plentiful. This has resulted in the “super bloom” of wildflowers and flowing water in seasonal creeks that usually run dry. In addition to never carrying more than 3 liters of water, we visited Kitchen Creek Falls on our second day of hiking and spent an afternoon swimming in the endless pools of water and gentle waterfalls. This unanticipated oasis after a 90 degree day of sweltering hiking was both a luxury and a miracle.

Kitchen Creek Falls, a desert oasis after a hot day on the trail.

Chelan and Hannah are raising money for an organization called Inspiring Girls Expeditions. For every mile they hike, they plan to raise at least $1 to help send a high school girl on a wilderness-science education expedition. This means each step is not only part of a personal adventure but also part of a broader purpose. Please go to https://www.crowdrise.com/pct-fundraiser-raising-1-for-every-mile-we-hike-to-help-future-young-adventurers/fundraiser/chelanpauly to learn more.

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