16.8 miles on the Mountain Fire alternate
I need to start setting an alarm. I wake each day at dawn, and until today that’s been fine. Today, however, morning is warm. Really warm. I don’t need a second layer, not even a windbreaker. It’s going to be another hot day.
We hike out just before 7am on the Forbes Ranch Trail, leaving the PCT behind for now. Soon we draw alongside a little seasonal stream. I collect a few liters of cold water.
The trail soon joins Forbes Ranch Road. Below, someone is target shooting. As we descend, the shots get louder; they sound like they’re coming from directly below. We’re walking toward gunfire.
My heart rate goes up. Bullets fly in quick succession. The shooters are just below the road. Our water cache is just ahead. I don’t want to stop to fill my bottles. I don’t want to be here at all.
I’ve faced mountain lions in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, while on foot with only a flashlight for protection – and I would rather do that again than do what I have to do right now. Walking closer and closer to shooters I can’t see, who can’t see me, who may or may not be shooting toward the road, fills me with such terror that I don’t know if I can make myself go on.
Over the last few years I’ve worked to diminish my often extreme reaction to exploding sounds: I’ve gone to a shooting range with friends and fired several rounds from a .22 pistol; I’ve tagged along on a wild pig hunt with a rancher friend, where I witnessed rifle fire at close range without panic. In each case I trusted the people I was with. This is different. I have to blindly trust that these people I’ve never met are shooting responsibly, even though it sounds like they’re shooting into the hill below our feet.
I ask Dad if he’s nervous. He isn’t. Not reassured, my body dumps a whopping dose of adrenaline into my system.
Bam bam bam! Bullets fly. I tremble. We reach the place where we stashed water less than 24 hours ago. Dad goes into the shrubs to find the containers while I cower behind a boulder. Bam bam bam! I need to get out of here. Bam bam bam! I can’t handle this.
Dad calmly retrieves the water and brings it to the road. Bam bam bam, just below us. Each shot makes my throat close up. I’m spiraling into a panic attack. I have to get out of here.
Somehow I fill my bottle and my Platypus bladder with water. Then I take off down the road. Finally we come down around the last bend and see the shooters. There are three. They’re firing handguns toward a target. Then suddenly they get down on their bellies and start firing rifles. Bam! Bam! Bam!
My body has gone into such a panic that I can hardly breathe. We get to the highway, and cross, and go through a gate and onto a trail that will take us parallel to the highway for a few miles. Bam bam bam!
I can’t breathe. I walk as fast as I can and now I really I can’t breathe. I tell myself out loud that it’s ok. I’m ok. I’m safe. My body doesn’t believe me. On and on we walk and it’s a long time before I calm down enough to breathe normally.
I know that the walk along the highway that we’re about to embark on is more dangerous than walking past a few target shooters. I know this, but my body doesn’t believe it. The cocktail of stress hormones pumping through my system is going to take a long time to clear.
We make make it to the end of the trail and begin the walk alongside Highway 74. At least the view is beautiful. Pointed mountains rise above a lush valley. I wish we were up in those mountains.
We come upon Hemet Lake. Our road walk is nearing its end. The road’s shoulder narrows. I watch a red Jeep come around the corner. I watch it so closely that I nearly walk over a massive rattlesnake. I spring sideways, heart rammed into my throat.
The snake…doesn’t move. Not to strike, not to rattle, not to coil. Dead? I warn Dad as he comes near the snake. The snake still doesn’t move. Dad nudges its tail with his trekking pole. Nothing. Whew.
Even though I know it’s dead, I can’t get close to the thing. I sneak my toe into one photo for scale, but can move no closer.
We arrive at Hurkey Creek Campground and eat lunch. All that adrenaline is taking a toll. I’m crashing. To make the climb to Idyllwild, I load up on water. I’m going to allow my poor stressed body the luxury of two miles per liter. Then, if I need to dump water over my head to revive myself, I can.
We leave the campground and hike along a bike trail, then veer off onto paved May Valley Road, where we climb in full sun.
I go off to pee. As I return to my backpack, a raspy rattle starts up in the grass behind me. I leap away. Apparently I haven’t had enough adrenaline today. I don’t see the snake, but it’s near. It keeps on rattling. And rattling. We see a small rodent dash through the grass near the base of a shrub while the snake keeps rattling. I hypothesize that the snake found some rodent’s burrow and is now feasting on babies as the mother darts about in a panic. We hike on.
Where are the other hikers? We haven’t seen anyone since Real Irish walked by our campsite this morning as we were packing up. There aren’t many footprints on this road. Are we the only ones out here?
At last we begin the descent to Idyllwild. We walk into a neighborhood and make our way into town. After a few missteps, we find the Post Office and pick up our boxes. We find the campground and the hiker campsites and set up our tents. There are a lot of hikers here. We don’t recognize any of them, and I’m too worn out to introduce myself.
We won’t resupply again until Big Bear, just over five days from now if all goes according to plan. I sit at a picnic table and sort the food I sent myself. What a heavy, unwieldy mess. At least I’ll eat well over the coming section.
Dad buys me a shower token and we each take a 5-minute shower. The shower feels incredibly good. Soon I’ll be dirty and stinky again, but tonight I’m clean.
I settle into my tent with the sounds of traffic and noisy campers around me, and even though I’m worn out I type out my daily journal entry on my phone. Headlights flicker through my tent each time a car goes by on the road beside camp. Dogs bark nearby and no one tells them to be quiet. Campers strum a guitar and sing. It’s so noisy here. I want to be back on the mountain.
I set my alarm for 4:45am, finish my daily writing, and lay down hoping for sleep.
*More photos on Instagram.