We had barely covered the first 10 miles of trail, hiking north from the California-Mexico border, when my hiking partner, Flash, and I found the first Pacific Crest Trail casualty. A man in his 20s, face flushed red from heat, watched us approach with clear embarrassment.
He sat in a small patch of shade next to a pack bristling with a solar charger and the latest, most-expensive gear. “You wouldn’t happen to have any water, would you?” he asked.
Flash and I eyed each other. We were each carrying six liters, enough to easily take us the first 20 waterless miles to the Lake Morena campground. We had planned our water carry days before: One liter for every five miles, with a little extra to account for the heat. It was before noon, and a big climb out of Hauser Canyon awaited us. How much could we spare?
It was impossible to walk away without helping. The hiker watched precious water trickle into his bottle and drained it. We gave him more. That morning, he had set off on a journey of more than 2,600 miles, determined to make it to Canada, but a few hours later, he had called friends for a pick up at Lake Morena. He was leaving the trail.
“It was more than I expected,” he said. Then he warned us about a girl we had seen a few miles back, wearing earbuds and only carrying three liters of water. Not enough, we all knew.
In the next five miles, we passed two more hikers in various stages of heat stress and doled out more of our water—three liters of our supply. One man, clad in jeans and flannel, could barely hold his army canteen at arm’s length as he lay just off the trail.
Down in Hauser Canyon, volunteers had trucked in gallons of water—an emergency cache. It would be a welcome sight for the hikers behind us, and I knew that at least one of them might have died without it. Flash and I did not need the cache. We still had a liter each to spare. As we started the shadeless climb, I glanced back at the pile of jugs in the dry canyon bottom with mixed feelings.
If you couldn’t carry enough water to make it 20 miles, should you be out here? California is in the grips of a severe drought. Creeks that Flash remembered soaking her feet in years before were just rivers of sand now. How long before sections of the Pacific Crest Trail were basically unhikeable?
Coming up were 40-mile dry stretches, with handfuls of volunteer caches to punctuate the barren desert. Unlike the people we had seen today, plenty of hikers were prepared, loading up their packs with seven liters of water—more than 15 pounds added to the necessities they already hauled. In the early 1990s, as a wilderness ranger and burdened with survival gear and trail maintenance tools, I carried 70-pound loads and thought little of it, though my knees took a beating. How much was too much weight when you needed water to survive?
Back in San Diego the night before, Flash and I were mistaken for volunteers as 20-somethings swirled around us, sorting their gear and making last-minute purchases. We were staying at the house of two former through-hikers, and Flash and I had jumped in to help with dinner while the others posted updates to Facebook and waited for food to appear.
An Israeli hiker stared at us in disbelief. “You’re hiking?” he asked, perhaps incredulous that two middle-aged women could attempt to do so. They would learn: In the end, it wasn’t youth that carried you to the end of the trail; it was how open you were to the lessons of the journey.
Of course, the hikers we started out with at the border didn’t remember the old days, a time when we carried maps and compasses and still got lost before we found our way again. We discovered campsites instead of having them displayed on our phones, and we carried food for long stretches without hitching into towns. Our gear was enormous and heavy. We didn’t know the weather forecasts. There were no satellite beacons to call for help; you made it out, or you didn’t. All of these things taught us resilience and how to survive. I wouldn’t trade those days for the way it is now, even though I’ve learned to appreciate having a lighter pack and trip reports posted on the Internet.
We never again saw any of the eight hikers who were at the border with us. I don’t know if they dropped out. If they kept on, I hope they relished all the days without cell service, the joy of finding a perfect campsite, or the exhilaration of surviving an unexpected spring thunderstorm on a high pass.
I like to think that they figured it out, that they learned what the trail had to teach them. I like to think of them getting a little wiser on the long march toward Canada, and I love to imagine how one day, when they’re the age I am now, they’ll look back and remember the way it used to be.
Mary Emerick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News. She is a writer in Oregon whose new book, The Geography of Water, is forthcoming from the University of Alaska Press in November.