After a seven-year hiatus, I’m back behind the wheel of my backpacking blog. A few things have happened since then. I recovered from the giardia I picked up on the last 50 miles of the Appalachian Trail (gastrointestinally speaking; emotionally, still damaged), tended bar, lived in Uruguay, interpreted for clients at a law firm, and spent four years in the Marines traveling the Pacific (mostly the stretch between San Diego and LA). Now I’m out, I have a month-long beard, and I’m sitting with my trail brother Smash in the covered patio of a closed restaurant with a backpack and a view of the Catalina Island Express, a ferry sitting in the Dana Point Harbor. And it’s shrouded by rain.
The trail gods have an axe to grind with Dirty Mike and the Boyz, and deservedly so. The two of us are on the way to hike the scenic Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) over the next four days. All that’s missing from the scene is our third brother, YeahYeah. He’s already checked off the Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) with his now wife, LadyBaker. He also took down the Pacific Crest Trail, the AT’s younger, cuter sister who moved out west to pursue her dreams of becoming an Instagram influencer, back in 2015.
Seven years have passed since my last big backpacking trip, but I’ve slipped easily back into the life. I went shopping yesterday, and the hiker trash lenses snapped right back into place, illuminating ramen, oatmeal, and my preferred Nature’s Own chewy bars with dark chocolate and cherry. Ziploc bags took on a new light of necessity. Back at my house, I went through the old motions of stripping away packaging and consolidating. Just small routines that bring an old familiar satisfaction.
I packed my new pack, a Zerk 40L. It’s an interior frame pack, obviously. External frames were already a thing of the past when I took one up to Maine seven year ago. Besides that update, my gear set remains surprisingly unchanged. My old reliable tent, the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1, is still in service. My 20-degree sleeping bag that definitely isn’t 20 degrees anymore. My venerable Z-Lite sleeping bad, its silver heat retaining side dulled to an uninspired gray over the years. I’m taking a new set of Altra Lone Peaks, a slimmed down trail running shoe, for a spin.
A couple additions of luxuries previously unthinkable- a Sea to Summit inflatable pillow I picked up at Bridgeport, the Marines’ mountain training area, and a pair of featherlight booties stuffed with down to wear at night. During the few cold nights spent outside, my feet would be the first to lose feeling. I have fond memories of periodically kicking my feet together as hard as I could in my sleeping bag to get some blood flowing, and it felt like bonking two pieces of wood together. That’s Fuji, Japan for you. These items together are maybe 4 ounces, but sleep is a precious commodity.
As we get closer to our ferry time of 0945, the patio around us slowly fills with other passengers bound for Catalina. A woman from Venezuela chats with a native Chicagoan. A mother with a harried look helps her two little boys peel off their soaked rain slickers. The rumor that the rain will slack off in an hour or so. Smash grabbed a coffee and a couple of hot dogs wrapped in bacon and drizzled with barbecue sauce. Not an ideal 9am food for normal people, but as Smash said, “Once you become hiker trash, you can’t get rid of it. You’re infected.”
Even though we’re out of practice, we looked the part. Nobody else was wearing shorts or carrying odd-looking backpacks and trekking poles. At around 9:15, we all began to shuffle onto the ferry for the hour and twenty minute trip. I took a solid nap and woke to Smash shaking me.
Out of the windows, we could see the town of Avalon, a collection of light-colored buildings clustered together encircled by steep hills climbing up inland. Rows and rows of sailboats sat in the harbor, and a thoroughfare with shops and restaurants runs the length of the water’s edge.
After disembarking, we grabbed a can of fuel for our stoves at the trail conversation center and set about locating the trailhead. Smash’s digital map led us up and out of the bowl in which the town is nestled via Wrigley Road. After dodging a succession of tourists in rented gold carts, we turned off the paved road and onto a dirt utility road. This led us up and over the first and biggest climb of the day, and on the backside of the ridge we turned off the dirt road and onto the trail itself.
We coined a term way back in Vermont to describe the smooth, silky trail conditions we found there that were a welcome relief from the steep, rock and root infested hellscapes of Maine and New Hampshire: Sexytrail. So far, the TCT has proven nothing but. It’s hard packed, there are few rocks and those are easily avoidable, and the climbs are mostly switchbacks or have little rock stairs for the steeper sections.
Vegetation is pretty typical of Socal: scrub bushes, grass, and cactus with palm-shaped segments that resembles the prickly pear. The rolling hills combined with the omnipresent Pacific blue make for some beautiful views. Smash and I both noticed a great similarity to the training areas of Camp Pendleton. Thanks to the presence of unexploded ordnance, a huge swath of land on base used for artillery and air fire is off limits to human beings for the foreseeable future.
We stopped at playground with a water spigot, and I was surprised to see a sign that read Catalina Island Marine Institute, or CIMI- the same summer camp I remember my older brother going to years and years ago. He made the trip in an airplane alone, one of many acts that cemented his godlike status in my young and tiny mind.
The TCT is marked by wooden signs at intersections with utility roads or other branching trials. Each mile is marked by a small wooden stake that pops up about three inches off the ground on the side of the trail. As we neared mile 11, we caught site of Blackjack Campground, our stopping place for the evening. That plus the five-odd miles of the roadwalk put as at 16.8 for the day. Not bad for some old dogs who started at around noon and ended at 5pm.
After locating the campsite we had reserved, the traditional priorities of work took over: warming layers on, shelters up, and water heating. Smash proved his worth and whipped out a camelbak full of Sauvignon Blanc. It paired well with his pasta side and my top ramen, both fortified by a pound of carne asada left over from an impromptu Taco Tuesday.
As the temperature dropped and the sun set, we stowed our food in the convenient anti-critter lockers and made ourselves scarce. More to follow tomorrow.
Camp songs of the evening:
“Silver Wings,” Meryl Haggard and the Strangers
“Wanted Man,” George Thoroughgood