The end is near
I was somewhat concerned about having the Southern California Blues. After walking through the Sierra Nevada, some may feel that the rest of the trail pales in comparison.
Entering the Sierra is a slow, steady affair. The scenery gradually gets better from Belden onward. However, exiting the Sierra is incredibly abrupt. In two days we descended from 13,200 feet to 6,000 feet in Kennedy Meadows. Although the Tehachapi Mountains are officially the Southern Sierra, it feels foreign. The water disappears and the desert abounds.
I thought back at some of the odd experiences we had on the PCT...
Kicking a flying bird
When you walk on the PCT you are like a suicide bomber in Baghdad. Animals all scurry away when they hear or see you coming. But some wait a tad too long before making a break. One tiny bird was hanging
Although I was oblivious of her presence, she tried to fly away, but my normal stride kicked her in mid-flight! She somehow stayed aloft (perhaps my swift kick gave her a boost) and then flew away. It is about time that a bird feels what it is like to get the boot.
Even the mighty bear runs away from me. Indeed, two cubs ran up a tree when they saw me at Joshua Tree Spring near Tehachapi. As I approached them, they stumbled down the tree and ran away. I saw mama bear 30 minutes later. Then I saw those who aim to kill her.
Hunting season opens
The day after seeing those 3 bears, we ran into a bunch of hunters. The day before was opening day on deer, bear, and PCT hikers.
20 Mexican Americans generously invited us to dine with them once they learned that we were out of water. Despite the aromas of tacos, pollo, and frijoles, no bear set foot into our camp that night. Perhaps the wise bear knew that there were more guns than people.
Animals know all the hunting rules
A retired cop gave us a ride back to the trail after walking 5 miles off of it to get water.
He said, "I drink and smoke, but if that's OK with you, then come on in."
He wasn't joking. He had an open beer can tucked between his legs and cigarettes nearby.
Here was an ex-LAPD cop, drinking and driving. He served the force for over 30 years and seemed to take the law in his own hands. For example, he baited a deer for 3 weeks. Baiting is illegal. The bait was a juicy apple. Every day for 3 weeks the ex-cop would sneak out to the same secluded spot and leave an apple in plain view. Apples are a delicacy for deer, kinda like leaving a Snickers bar for a thru-hiker. The next day when the hunter returned, the apple was gone, so he placed another one to reinforce the deer's habit of coming back to this same spot. He kept up this ritual for 3 weeks. On hunting season's
He scanned around all day. No deer showed up.
"The damn things have their own calendar!" he told me. "They know when hunting season opens!"
We later met four Armenians who had just killed a buck on opening day. They generously loaded us down with fresh green peppers, tomatoes, pita bread, feta cheese and sausage. They also confirmed this idea that the animals get an email that reminds them when opening day is.
"I can come to this same spot in the winter and I'll have a deer sleeping right next to me. They even know when weekends are," the Armenian assured me.
Even the 3 bears we saw knew which side of the road to hang out in. Had they crossed the road they were fair game. They wisely stayed inside the wilderness park that protected them.
All the hunters were extremely generous with us. I respect that hunters frequently are more observant than hikers. Hikers look at their feet or at objects 2 or more miles away. Hunters are keenly aware of the land, especially scrutinizing everything within 500 meters - their rifle range.
The border guards chasing us
A few days from the Mexican border, I became concerned that a US Border Guard might mistake me for a wetback. Given my deep tan, disheveled look, and Mexican sombrero, they might have good reason to book me. So if you get a postcard from Guantanamo Bay don't assume that I am relaxing on that Cuban beach, but that Tony, the CIA resident brute, is working me over.
Little did we know that when we were climbing out of Hauser Creek, 10 miles from the Mexican border, that we had tripped a sensor that alerted the US Border Patrol of our presence. Of course, we were clueless so we kept walking toward Mexico, oblivious that two guards were mobilizing to capture us.
As we climbed out of Hauser Creek the PCT follows a jeep road for a few hundred meters and then breaks off again. I was staring at the map and Maiu was examining lizards, so both of us missed the turn off. By staying on the jeep road we had not only gotten off the PCT, but we had also faked out the Border Patrol.
They thought we were taking evasive action. Unlike the PCT, the jeep road goes over the summit of Mt. Hauser, so we worked harder than we needed to. The Border Patrol expected that we would stay on the PCT, but once we tripped another sensor near the summit, they got off the trail and headed to the top to nab us.
Without meaning to, we took more evasive action by heading down two different side trails that we thought would lead us back to the PCT. Instead, they just led us to a dead end. Along the way we found abandoned Mexican ponchos and other trash. The chaparral was so dense and sharp that trying to bushwhack to the PCT would be like trying to push your way through barbed wire.
Of course, we had no idea that the guards had been chasing us for almost two hours, frustrated that they couldn’t locate us due to our erratic movements.
"Damn, these illegals are good!" said one Border Guard.
"Yeah," the other agreed, "Clearly, they're professionals."
Finding the PCT again
Finally, Maiu and I found a dirt path that crossed the PCT. We celebrated. It was embarrassing to get lost so close to the finish line. Hadn't we learned anything about navigation over the last 2,600 miles? Apparently not.
By getting on the PCT again, we unknowingly tripped another sensor.
"There they are again!" the Border Guards exclaimed. "Let's get 'em!" They sprinted on foot after us.
We had been walking down the PCT for about 20 minutes when I heard some voices above us. I figured they were some Mexicans hiding in the bushes. On the other hand, it seemed stupid for them to be making so much noise. We stayed quiet to not attract their attention and continued walking.
I turned around and to my surprise two Border Guards, dripping with sweat, stopped right behind us and with just one look at us they breathed a deep sigh of relief. It was immediately obvious that once they saw our high tech backpacking gear and our pale skin, we weren't what they were expecting to find.
"Oh, it's just you." the guard said while trying to catch his breath.
"What happened?" I asked.
The guards share their story
"I knew that whatever we were going to find was not going to be normal. Sometimes Mexicans go south for a mile or two to fake us out. But you just kept going and going. That's when I thought you were a coyote (a Mexican guide) heading back to Mexico. But those guys usually go at night. So I didn't know what to expect."
"Didn't you think we could be hikers?"
The other guard, with his heavy Spanish accent said, "In my 11 years on this job, I've never run into regular backpackers during this time of year. The only people who use the PCT around here are illegal aliens."
I guess it makes sense. In a typical year, fewer than five thru-hikers complete PCT going southbound. This year it looked like only three made it (Maiu and I + Scott Williamson).
Meanwhile, thousands of Latin Americans pour through the border every year.
"Last night I caught a dozen," the guard proudly told me.
"How many slip through?"
He looked at the ground and said, "I don't even want to know. I try not to think about it."
"Why did you guys make all that noise right before you caught up to us?" I asked him.
"Because we would rather not run after you all night. If we start talking loudly then the illegals know we're on their tail. That's when they're likely to jump into the bushes and try to hide. Then we'll just follow their footprints right into the bushes. The chaparral is so thick that they can't get too deep into it."
I looked at my footprints. I could barely distinguish them from all the other footprints. These guys are sharp.
"I see you're armed. Do you ever have trouble?"
"Rarely," he said. "These people are good people. They just want a job. They don't want trouble. But there's sometimes one idiot in the group who does something stupid. For example, the other day one tried to wrestle my gun out of my holster."
"What did the other Mexicans do? Join in, just watch, or try to make a run for it while you were busy with the guy?"
I wondered, "How many Border Guards get killed in the line of duty?"
"Usually a couple a year. It's the drug smugglers who are the dangerous ones. But even they usually surrender peacefully."
Then I confessed, "Um, I probably shouldn't tell you this, but Maiu is not an American citizen. She's from Estonia. She has a visa, but doesn't have it on her."
"I knew there's a reason we came after you guys," he grabbed his handcuffs, and then broke a grin across his face.
Leaving the guards and our last northbounders
Having never met a southbound thru-hiker, the guards were as curious about us as we were about them. After talking for 20 minutes, he said, "The sun is setting, you guys better get going, it's hard to find a place to camp around here."
He was right. The dense vegetation made it impossible to find a secluded camping spot. Normally, in such circumstances we would camp right on the trail. However, we suspected that some illegal aliens would use the trail in the middle of the night and we preferred to avoid an encounter. They don't use flashlights and could easily trip over us since there was little moonlight.
We bid the guards farewell and hiked with our flashlights until we found a spot that was acceptable. It was right off the trail, but somewhat hidden.
Just minutes before my alarm went off at 5 a.m. we heard some footsteps approaching. No voices. Just the crunch of a pair of feet on the gravelly trail. Two illegals walked right by our heads. I saw their silhouettes against the stars. I doubt they saw us, but I'll never know. If they did, they obviously didn't want any trouble. They were heading to El Norte.
It's funny that the last Northbounders that we saw on the PCT were a pair of illegal aliens.