The Sandbox: Campo to Warner Springs

This article originally appeared on The Trek that can be found here.


The Feels

Wow. It’s finally happening. It’s not going to begin and it’s not finished. It’s in the present. I am a PCT thru-hiker. A very novice one, but I’m out there doing it.


I spent my final days at my cousin’s house getting amped up for day #1. We ran through my gear, watched videos about the wildflowers along the trail and thumbed through maps and books about off-trail adventures in the High Sierra. We ate delicious food, including the largest heads of lettuce I’ve ever seen, grown in their garden. I also attempted to learn to identify native plants with their impressively curated native plant landscaping on their property, like differentiating penstemon from monkeyflower (hint, look at the leaves). Silvia and I listened in awe about my cousin and spouse’s adventures in the backcountry of the Sierra as they ran from bears and hid from mountain lions.


Working on our camp organization skills night #2

Silvia surprised me and instead of just waving goodbye at the southern terminus, she decided she would hike the first 109 miles with me. I initially had my reservations, but she tackled the trail with energy and great stamina. She provided me lots of relief since I had someone to listen to my anxieties about water sources and daily mile goals. (I am going to miss her a lot.)


While we were out hiking Section A, it seemed like ages since we had been back under a roof and sleeping indoors. Looking back on the hiking itself, it seems like a blur. We were treated to many trail luxuries during our first 9 days. We had a total of 4 showers and 1 zero day in an Airbnb with some new hiker friends. Rather than taking 10 days to hike 109 miles, we completed it in 8 days of actual hiking.


A very windy night at Sunrise Trailhead.

The Good

As a NOBO hiker starting in the desert has its many benefits. It’s the popular cultural direction to hike the PCT. There were two PCTA volunteers greeting hikers at the southern terminus as they collected data, offering tips, information, a hiker box and some healing crystals donated by a local shaman. There’s a new hiker friendly camping area one half mile down the trail for hikers to stay that arrive the night before their start date.


The milder elevation changes make it easier to start in the desert. We quickly saw some of the desert wildflowers and plants we had studied, like entire hillsides covered in mountain lilac (ceanothus) which provided lots of joy and smiles as we continued along the sandy trail, with sun-scorched cactus and barren creeks. I identified the manzanita trees to Silvia with their matte, deep, reddish-cocoa colored bark. Silvia quickly pointed out it translates to “tiny apples” and asked if they had fruit? The next morning we saw manzanitas with their tiny berries resembling little apples.


Desert wildflowers providing some welcome joy during our hot afternoon.

We camped in 4 official campgrounds in our first 9 days: Lake Morena, Cibbets Flat, Burnt Rancheria and Stagecoach RV Park. Three of which provided hot showers. Showers also double as a washing machine to launder my one spare pair of underwear and hiking socks. I also washed my hiking shorts since they dry quickly. Being able to end and begin our day with water was a huge relief.


Silvia and I were a bit stand-offish and camped away from the groups of hikers since at the time we had not been fully vaccinated. We quickly noticed there were two types of hikers. The super-social ones versus the do-my-own-thing ones. We settled in the do-or-own-thing group. We slowly began extending our simple waves, to brief conversations and then full introductions. I’ll say 99% of the people we have met so far have been friendly and amazing. It’s a common question to ask or be asked if you are doing okay when leapfrogging other hikers during the day. There were some hot, dry segments and everyone was looking out for each other.


A well marked sign on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

The Challenging

Some things I quickly learned in my first 9 days on trail are:

  1. Don’t leave anything outside your tent you don’t want blown away or covered in frost.

  2. You will hike nearly double the miles you expected to reach water.

  3. I crave salty snacks a lot more than I expected or packed.

  4. When faced with no other options, drinking water from a green pond or a filthy concrete basin is no big deal (just filter it first).

  5. A hot shower with good water pressure while not having to wear flip-flops feels so amazing.

  6. Putting on laundered clothes after said shower feels even better.

  7. Strangers are willing to do really nice things for people that are walking a long distance. Thank you!


Scissor's Crossing pose. A windy start on our trek to the next water source, Third Gate Water Cache.

The Sandbox


My wife and I made an interesting observation as we began our hike that is difficult for me to put into words, but I will try. The southern terminus is literally steps from the “old” border wall with Mexico. The old wall consists of some chest high poles with some barbed wire. The new wall is a very tall (20 feet?) steel monstrosity.


We saw border patrol vehicles as we drove to the starting point. We saw discarded clothing strewn in bushes just off the trail. We heard (presumably) border patrol helicopters flying overhead during our first night.


On one side of the spectrum are thru-hikers. The entrance fee into a thru-hike is upwards of $1000-2000 just for gear. You can easily spend $1000 per month on the trail depending on your town stays and food. These numbers can vary, but give you a general idea.


1oo mile marker! Making big moves.

The other end of the spectrum are people risking their livelihood and lives to cross an arbitrary line in the sand into the US. These people are not outfitted with the latest scientifically engineered fabrics designed for comfort and endurance to the outdoors, as are thru-hikers. These people do not have $1000s bank rolled to support them as they traverse the desert.


I feel like in the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the US is like a child that does not want to share its toys with the other kids. The US has extra toys, some it doesn’t even play with any more but will still not let others use them. If the world was a giant toybox, there are more than enough toys for everyone, enough resources and materials for shelter, food, clean water, clothing, education, healthcare and safety for everyone. But due to greed, ego and political power only some have access to these toys, while others have access to none at all.


The US is made of a melting pot of people yet does not want any “others” to come in. Unless you have your own toys already, and can afford to buy more toys. Then you can enter the playground. Just don’t ask for help buying your first toy.


I am humbled and grateful for the help people give to thru-hikers. I have experienced random acts of kindness from complete strangers. I am not seen as an “other”. I have expensive toys in my expensive backpack. But if you are without any toys walking through the same desert, then you are hunted down and kicked out of the sandbox.


We should all strive to be better at sharing our toys. Isn’t that what we are taught as children, and teach our own children?


PCT CA Section A: Complete. Making Progress.