Following my wondrous night of camping north of Idyllwild, I ate a breakfast of cold French fries and crushed PopTarts, broke camp, and hightailed it north. Although I was hiking at an elevation between 8,000 and 9,000 feet, the altitude didn't bother me because of my previous mountaineering experience. Another splendid sunny morning had greeted me, and the initial part of the day had unfolded excellently. This calm start made me feel carefree.
Having walked a few hilly miles through evergreen forest, I emerged in an open sandy section where I couldn't tell which way the trail led. The PCT had vanished. This disappearance created anxiety and took me of my comfort zone. I discovered a large semicircle and an arrow drawn in the dirt with the label ``PCT''. Nevertheless, I couldn't determine which way to proceed, as the direction in which the arrow pointed didn't seem to lead to a trail.
I began hiking down a declivity, and my track angled more steeply than any previous part of the PCT. Still I kept hiking. I soon found myself in no man's land and decided to continue downhill until I reached a trail-marker. On my precipitous descent prior to my believing that I was lost, I'd found a pleasant place to kick back, relax, and enjoy songbirds. I felt far from relaxed now and was thinking about the time that had been spent sitting.
As my knee-damaging descent continued, I began to get even more suspicious that I'd walked off trail. I encountered a man named Larry, who'd just hiked up the trail that I was sailing down. Larry appeared to be in his early fifties and in great shape, but he seemed totally worn out from his ascent. His breathing labored, and his chest heaved. The high altitude as well as the steepness of the climb had affected him. He told me that his son had wandered off to boulder nearby. Glancing around I noticed some interesting rock formations that I'd missed earlier. I asked Larry if the trail we stood on was the PCT. He didn't think so and said that his son would be back shortly, and perhaps that he knew.
Larry asked if I was doing a thru-hike of the PCT, and when he learned that I was, he immediately became interested and posed lots of questions. One query was, ``What are you carrying to protect yourself?'' When I told him ``Nothing'', he lurched sideways with surprise. Larry whipped out a large buck knife and said that if a Black Bear or a Mountain Lion attacked him, he would defend himself. I thought how unlikely that would be---both the attack and the successful defense---but said nothing.
Larry seemed surprised to hear that I was drinking the water from streams. In Outdoor Magazine he'd read about certain types of bacteria that can completely immobilize you. Chris McCandless (the protagonist of Into the Wild) came to mind. McCandless had become sick from eating the wrong type of seeds, and later had tragically died from starvation. I told Larry that I wasn't concerned, and sure hoped that nothing like that would happen to me. Larry was also shocked that I hiked alone. I answered that I didn't know anyone who wanted to hike the PCT on a similar schedule. All-in-all Larry seemed to be in a state of disbelief concerning my hike. Naturally, his questions helped little in putting my own mind at ease and erasing my personal doubts.
When our conversation ended, out of the blue, Larry's son appeared. He was also named Larry. He sported many tattoos and piercings, looked to be in his mid-twenties, and was totally ripped. Larry Jr. wore no shirt and soaked up the intense rays. Neither of the Larrys carried a map, as they'd planned just an out-and-back day-hike. Although they tried to assist me as best they could, they didn't possess any truly reliable trail information. Both father and son thought that I'd veered off the PCT, but they seemed only 50% convinced of this possibility. The Larrys told me that they'd remembered seeing a trail-marker another mile or so downhill from our current position.
I decided to find out what the mysterious trail-marker read. Of course, I felt worried that I wouldn't find the trail-marker at all and also that the estimated one mile might actually be more. ``Thanks, guys. Good meeting you. Take care,'' I said, while wondering if I'd ever see these fellows again. With trepidation I proceeded downhill until finally reaching a trail sign. I'd come down the Marion Mountain Trail. ``S---!'' In an instant it became clear that I'd detoured off trail---way off. My instincts had been telling me this news already for a long time. Grave disappointment and intense frustration swept over me, as I attempted to come to grips with the situation. I tried my best to let my blunder go, but for the moment I experienced difficulty in coping with the situation. Losing my way ticked me off.
I felt demoralized. Uncertainty wreaked havoc on my mind and my emotions. Without having enough information to decide which way to go, I'd simply guessed. Naturally, under such circumstances I would chose correctly only half the time. I now relied on my fitness and my mental toughness to get me back on schedule. I became a tracker, always looking for clues and trying to discern where the trail hid. At crossroads such as these, I tapped into my library and sang James Taylor's line ``Keep your head together, and call my name out loud ...'' While doing 25-mile days, a wrong turn would hurt less than it would while doing 45-mile days.
Coming to grips with my Marion Mountain Trail mistake and having settled my emotions, I needed to hike up the spur trail to regain the PCT. I pushed hard in going uphill, trying to minimize the amount of lost time, and also attempting to relieve the stress caused by the knowledge of being lost. In ascending I breathed hard, and now, more clearly understood why the elder Larry had been gasping for air. I thought that I would catch the two Larrys during this Lance-Armstrong-like effort, but surprisingly didn't see them on this vertical stretch. Eventually, I arrived back at the semicircle and arrow in the sand. This time the trail jumped out at me, and it was easy to see which way I needed to go. Nothing had changed but my perception. Why had the obscure morphed into the obvious? ``F---!'' This 5-mile detour pissed me off. It had drained valuable energy, particularly on the uphill, since I'd gone anaerobic.
I finally knew for certain that I'd reintegrated the PCT, and this knowledge made me happy. While starting across Fuller Ridge, at mile 188.3, I encountered melting snow. Clothed only in running shoes, shorts, and a T-shirt and obviously not accustomed to walking through snow in Savannah, I paid close attention to my footing. I saw a partially buried trail-sign that indicated the PCT headed downhill. On discovering the trail-marker I declared, ``This can't be the PCT. The PCT is a crest trail, so surely it must go uphill here.'' I figured that someone had sabotaged the sign, so I proceeded sharply uphill, heading straight for the summit of Mount San Jacinto---one of the highest peaks in Southern California. (Although I should have, at this time I didn't realize that the four-digit numbers in the Databook specified altitude.)
While pushing farther and farther uphill, as expected, the snow became deeper and deeper. Following two sets of footprints, I imagined that I might still be on the PCT. The steep snow conditions became difficult and dangerous, and merited an ice axe, but I didn't carry one in Southern California. These guys are nuts I thought, but blindly plowed ahead. To my great chagrin, I eventually caught the two Larrys; I'd been following their footprints, not the tracks of thru-hikers! Holy s---!
We had said our goodbyes much earlier, and had never expected to see each other again. While shaking their heads, they told me that I'd detoured off trail, again. I'd been in denial about this fact but now admitted that I'd made another mistake. After a brief pause, we exchanged final goodbyes, and I descended back to the Fuller Ridge sign. If they'd been betting men, I don't think they would have wagered that I'd make it to Canada or for that matter even Oregon. Doubt didn't creep into my mind, though. I felt embarrassed, totally humiliated, but nevertheless was still on a mission.
One's thought-process works in strange ways. My earlier wrong turn down the Marion Mountain Trail somehow blocked me from heading downhill to Fuller Ridge when I'd first laid eyes on the perfectly good PCT sign. I couldn't fathom the paranoid logic which I'd employed that forced me to ignore this trail-sign. For almost 200 miles I'd followed arrows drawn in the sand, but in this case had disregarded a well-placed official trail-sign.
Another couple hours had vanished on my second detour. More costly, I'd burned a great deal of energy and done a prodigious amount of extra climbing. I'd practically returned to Idyllwild and almost summited Mount San Jacinto! These mistakes qualified as insane and never should have happened. Remarkably, I didn't let them get me too down. I used adversity to build my strength. I pretended that a grotesque adversary was trying to prevent me from completing the trail and that I would slay the monster. The small mental games which I played along the way kept me going.
I'd lost so much time on my unintentional side trips that I'd fallen behind schedule. By hiking too fast to correct these screw ups, I'd way overextended myself. To make up for the lost hours, I hiked until darkness that evening. At this point in the hike, I didn't carry a light. I descended steeply into a canyon. For 15 minutes I'd been speed hiking while simultaneously trying to look for a flat camping spot on the sides of the canyon walls. I learned that the big canyons in Southern California contain no flat ground, though.
Several times while glancing up at hillsides, I'd twisted my ankle and nearly lost my balance. A broken ankle here would mean a painful hobble out and the end to my dream. Because darkness loomed on the rocky trail and I wasn't yet accustomed to setting up the tarptent by feel, I resigned myself to accepting a less-than-suitable camping spot. The night after my perfect campsite, I ``slept'' on a 15 degree slope on a brushy and rocky canyon wall. I lie awake most of the night, and when, to my nickle-sized pupils, the trail looked illuminated enough to continue, I rambled.
I'd camped without any water. A dry camp is a situation which hikers fear and which I found myself in because of another miscalculation. I'd expected to get water from the next creeklet coming from a snowfield, but eventually, the snowfields ran out. Thirsty, I descended another 4,000 feet to a water fountain at Snow Canyon Road, at mile 208.4. A room-sized boulder sat 10 feet from the fountain and provided me comfortable shade. I rinsed my coolmax T-shirt off, rung it out, and tossed it on the boulder to dry. When the clean T-shirt landed in the sand, I repeated the process, being more careful. I forced myself to drink as much as possible, and then drank more. ``One more liter,'' I directed. ``Yes, sir.'' My exposed stomach grew round before my eyes, bulging like that of a hungry African child.
While sitting next to the gray boulder, as probably all PCT thru-hikers before me had done, I watched a multi-colored lizard, and it watched me. I drank even more, as the sun felt hot by 9 am. The next water-source, according to the Databook, lay only 12.7 miles away. Since I'd just super-hydrated, I figured that 5 liters (just over 10 pounds of water) would suffice. I even thought that this amount seemed excessive and considered taking less. At around 9:30 with a sloshing stomach providing music and a damp T-shirt cooling me, I marched on.
As I descended farther toward the superhighway I-10, I noticed that the temperature had increased dramatically. A strong wind usually blows through this pass, but on that day the windmills covering the mountainsides barely turned. The heat wasn't yet a significant factor, and I still felt good. In fact, so good that when I encountered a golf ball that lay one-quarter of a mile from the freeway, I wrote a heel-dragged note in the sand that read, ``Wall hit this ball from the freeway.'' Joe would get a kick out of that, if he made it this far. My spirits soared. I remembered my late father and our CalTech field-trip years earlier to this region to study earthquake faults. My thoughts oscillated between happy and sad.
Leery of rattlesnakes, I worried that I might be entering the ``fireworks'' section that Wild Bill had mentioned. I didn't hear any rattlers, though, but this fact didn't free me from my hyper-alert state. The temperature increased further, and I drank water whenever I felt thirsty. I sipped fluid easily from my Platypus tube, which at all times hung only a foot from my mouth. The first three gulps contained liquid that the direct sunlight had almost boiled. Additional mouthfuls tasted cooler since the Platypus itself was buried in a sleeve. I passed under the freeway, but the multi-lane road provided only moments of shade. It never occurred to me to hang out under the road until temperatures cooled, which would have been many hours henceforth. The smell, pollution, and vehicular noise bothered me, and subconsciously I probably worried about vagrants.
I climbed gradually uphill now. A couple of hikers had previously asked me if I'd planned to stop at the Pink Motel. Never having heard of the place, I naturally said ``No''. I passed a dingy-looking building that had a ``Welcome Hikers'' sign up on corrugated metal. The landscape imitated an abandoned-auto dump. Little did I know that this dwelling was the famous Pink Motel, where I could have filled my emptying water bottles. At this point I felt more concerned about getting mugged, so didn't slow down. My suspicions about people gradually faded as the summer progressed, and my faith in humanity was gradually restored. It took a long time to overcome societal training and stereotypes. For the moment, though, I lost out, more than I realized.
I hadn't really noticed that I was getting precariously low on water. While climbing uphill in the loose sand, the temperatures blistered me. The humidity read 10% compared to Savannah's 85%, and I told myself, ``It's a dry heat.'' I laughed. ``It's a dry heat,'' I said again, shaking my head from side-to-side and smirking. I passed a beat-up old car that was parked near the trail. It looked like the poor wreck had fried there overcooking in the brutal conditions. I wondered who'd abandoned the car, and if the vehicle's owner had made it out of the desert alive. The beater had probably sat there for dozens of years, and this inhospitable place was its unsavory burial-site; its license plates were tombstone inscriptions. While pushing on through the desert, I continued to overheat and rather seriously. Suddenly, I laughed no more.
In my quest to find shade, I crawled under a spindly tree and rested there for awhile on, of all things, a torn black-plastic bag that I lay down on whenever my back hurt. (I'd been given the trash bag by two section-hikers a few days earlier at a water-cache where we'd become friends.) After 5 minutes of lying down, I began sweating even more profusely. My black-plastic sheet functioned as a ground-level oven. I took an inventory of my water and to my overwhelming dismay discovered that the precious-fluid supply had practically evaporated. At the rate I was dehydrating, I couldn't lie here too long. I soon rose and began hiking. ``Come on, Wall!'' I said forcefully, giving myself both encouragement and an order to push on strongly.
Time seemed to freeze somewhere between 12 noon and 1 pm, and with the sun directly overhead, no shade existed anywhere in this scrub desert. I hiked on a 12.7-mile waterless stretch and believed that my next water would be obtained at a creek. I told myself that I would arrive there soon, hoped that I could find the creek, and prayed that the small water-source hadn't already dried up for the summer. The trail rose continuously uphill and remained very sandy, and I made poor time, much worse time than I'd hoped. What if the water-source were dry?
After taking a few minuscule sips of boiling water, my supply seemed completely gone. I sucked desperately on the Platypus tube but ingested only air, as the Platypus folded and crumpled in a vacuum-induced state. This emptiness voided my hopes, and created a bad feeling. Not really sure how far I still had to hike to reach water, I speculated maybe an hour. In the extreme heat and with goose-bumps already forming, this stretch would be hard, dangerous, and life-threatening. Naturally, I thought that I should have left Snow Canyon Road with more water. I felt frustrated, stupid, and angry over my poor judgment, but my mistake happened and couldn't be undone. ``F---!'' All of my mental energy focused on events that I could still influence.
My tired legs became anchors in the desert sand; my swelling feet became slow-emptying hourglasses. The previous day's hard effort, when I'd red-lined my pace to make up for wrong turns, had totally zapped me. I definitely hadn't recovered fully and felt baked. Splotches of salt outlined my clothing and my face. I went horizontal again on my black plastic in another spot having almost zero shade. This sunny place was, however, the best resting point that I could find. Feeling cooked and getting worse, I wasn't comfortable. Even the plastic melted in the extreme temperatures. I told myself to stand up and hike. I commanded myself a second and a third time, ``Do it, Ray!'' My will-power and experience with dehydration were all that I had to go on. I was in serious trouble and knew that no one would be coming by to assist me. I fiddled with my switching network, but my poor timing had reduced its effectiveness.
I dragged myself north. Hallucinations entered my mind with regularity---rocks became pools of blue water; catci became water fountains; lizards became St. Bernards carrying water. I needed to concentrate intently on hiking. Another very steep section faced me. I ordered myself to walk as efficiently as possible and began poling more rhythmically. This stretch felt like the terribly vertical Caneleta on Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the world outside of Asia, that I'd climbed in oxygen-starved air at 22,000 feet. ``Keep moving, slowly, slowly,'' I encouraged myself. Then the fact dawned on me that I could still make sounds. Hermann Buhl, the great Austrian climber, during his solo alpine ascent of Nanga Parbat in the 1950's had been so horribly dehydrated that he couldn't utter a single sound. As long as I could still speak, I believed that I could endure. I pulled the Buhl volume from my library and kept moving forward, periodically making an inane comment to assure myself that I wasn't dead.
My pace degenerated to that of a disinterested toddler. The clock continued to tick: 1 pm, 2 pm, 3 pm, ... The temperatures continued to escalate. On the cold side there is a coldest temperature known as absolute zero, but on the hot side, there is no such corresponding upper limit. I wished that there were. Tremendous cotton mouth plagued me, and my lips cracked deeply. Thoughts of water flooded my mind. Unable to salivate, I could only think how good even a tiny sip would taste. I was beyond desperate and close to falling down.
I must be getting close to the creek---at least I believed and hoped this thought held true. Constant reassurance kept me hiking, just another 15 minutes, just another 10 minutes, just traverse this wasteland, ... . Then I struggled over a big rise and in disbelief gazed on a long set of switchbacks wrapping hundreds of feet downhill into a bone-dry canyon. The limited vegetation was shriveled and brown, and there was no water in sight, anywhere. This desolate place depressed me. My spirits sank as reality whispered that this grueling descent would take another hour of hiking at my snail's pace. I seriously doubted that I would last for that duration. I felt sad. This lonely ending, shared only with ravens and lizards, wasn't the final scene I'd envisioned.
Then the thought to dump my pack occurred and to head directly for the creek. Encouraged by rational thinking, I felt hope. If I did rid myself of the pack, I would have to return for it. I really had no sense of the gap size between me and the creek. My highly-erratic pace and warped sense of time confused me. For all I really knew, the water hid still another hour after the massive descent. I decided not to jettison the pack, yet.
I was miserable and a beaten man. My fear of death turned more to a feeling of acceptance. If I was to die today, I was to die. To save myself, though, I needed to reach water. I decided to carry my pack Tanzanian-style to create shade for my head. After an hour or so of this technique, with aching back, I staggered to a creek. My eyes felt weepy, but no tears fell. The creek appeared suddenly, perhaps too suddenly? The urge to cry dissipated, though, even as I thought that I was seeing a mirage. It was a mirage. ``No! Oh, no!'' I shouted without making a sound. It wasn't. Thank God, I saw a real creek!
I stripped naked and lay horizontal in the cool creek. With water streaming over my goose-bump-covered body, there I lay submerged for an hour-and-a-half, drinking animal-style. During many of these moments, I cramped up and writhed in agony---like a poor squirrel emerging from underneath the wheel of a speeding auto---had I already left my body? I yelped and whined. Various body parts became badly sunburned, and my feet softened up. However, these discomforts held absolutely no concern. I drank, drank, drank, and then chugged more. While filling all of my water-containers to the brim, I tried to eat salty foods. After this life-threatening bonk, a long time elapsed before I could upright myself and walk. Despite my misery, I felt happy to be alive. In fact, I experienced a great joy at being alive. Tears of joy fell, and my emotions flowed unchecked, as all my senses returned. My dream breathed, too. This time I'd returned from the edge.
The thought to camp near the friendly creek never even occurred to me. Once recovered enough to rise to my feet, I pushed north. I didn't hike too much farther that day, but a moral victory had been won in just hiking again, at all. The day ended with a mileage total of only 25. Thanks to Larry Sr. I worried about dying from the life-saving water because I hadn't taken the time to treat it. However, the creek's water never did bother me, and I felt a presence watching over me. I continued to guzzle vast quantities from my vessels. While forcing myself to swallow more, I chugged chocolate milk, root-beer soda, pina coladas, Chimay ale, and icy Del's lemonade. Despite the huge volumes of fluid, I never urinated that day or that night. As the sun illuminated a morning scene that I felt happy to play a role in, I drank more water and ate my sunflower seeds to acquire salt. When I did pee, the liquid flowed an ugly, grainy, brown color. I looked away, horrified.
The day subsequent to my cruel dehydration, after I'd been hiking for a couple of hours, I befriended a fellow going south. The white-haired outdoorsman appeared to be around 70 and looked very hardy. Eventually I learned that the old car which I'd been mystified by was his; he took great pride in his relic. ``Has 400,000 miles and runs great.'' I asked him where we were on the PCT, and he pulled out his Databook. His copy wasn't cut up, like mine. He taught me about the altitude column in the Databook, and from then on I paid close attention to elevation as a means of knowing where I was. Why hadn't I noticed the elevation column up until now? I couldn't even speculate. The hiking veteran wore a wrist altimeter, too.
My latest instructor said that he'd passed a petite Asian woman earlier that day. ``She was going gangbusters up the trail. Saw her come out of a dry wash this morning where she'd camped. I asked her why she didn't come up to the campsite only 100 yards farther up the trail. She just said that she didn't know about it.'' I wondered if I would meet her later that day. My new friend, the mechanic, pressed on south with a grave warning from me regarding the water situation that he'd be facing. Obviously, he'd already been over this terrain and was doing an out-and-back trip, but I was too far gone to realize his itinerary at the time. This experienced back woodsman surely didn't need my warning. He probably thought I was nuts.
Amazingly, I hiked 32 miles the day following my near-death experience. As the sun disappeared from the sky, I dragged my battered body into a pine-needled campsite. The ``Asian woman'' rested there at a picnic table, and sat all bundled up to protect herself from the freezing temperatures. The hiker's dark balaclava disguised her as Ninja-warrior. I startled her by my late arrival as darkness fell, and perhaps because she was alone and hadn't anticipated any other hikers arriving at camp this late at night. My war-worn appearance probably didn't comfort her, either. I sighed deeply; I felt wasted. We exchanged pleasantries, and pointing I asked, ``Do you mind if I pitch my tent over there?'' She was fine with that. I told her that I needed to establish camp right away since I didn't have a light.
As I was setting up the Squall, she finished eating a cooked dinner. I learned that she planned a thru-hike and that her name was Jenny. Like Joe, not everyone uses a trail name, especially at the beginning of a hike. I needed to lie down before I fell down, and, as an afterthought, I asked her if she would like to start off hiking together the next day. Jenny remarked that she liked to get going early. We agreed to start hiking by 6 am, and said goodnight.
I slept well that night, and when Jenny called to me at 5:40 am, I was dreaming of water. Fortunately, my internal clock still ran on eastern standard time. The camp where we'd stayed sat at 7,600 feet, and the crisp morning air chilled us. I filled my Platypus with clear water from a faucet, and Jenny actually needed to close the container for me. My numb fingers wouldn't cooperate enough to press the zippered seal tight. Jenny told me that she'd been rock-climbing for 7 years, and this fact showed in her hand strength. For my part I wouldn't make the same mistake of getting icy water on my hands when refilling water-bags.
Jenny and I hiked together and shared friendly conversation. She'd started her solo journey on the evening of May 9th, ignoring grave warnings from border patrol personnel, and planned to finish the PCT in mid-September. I informed her of my goal to complete the thru-hike in early August. We shared similar interests in music, and we sang our way north together. Jenny possessed a melodious voice that was well-suited to songs by Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and others. She demonstrated a gift for lyrics and knew the full words to many songs. I could usually recall only the chorus and one or two verses, so chimed in sporadically. Miles passed quickly and happily for both of us.
Although Jenny hadn't completed a mega trail, she was a very strong and experienced hiker. She'd done two multi-week trips in preparation for her PCT hike. This diminutive powerhouse had soloed the 235-mile Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota traversing along the northern shore of Lake Superior to the Canadian border and the 223-mile Ouachita Trail in the Ouachita Mountains spanning Oklahoma and Arkansas. Since Jenny had worked at REI, she knew the ``in's and out's'' of gear, too. Her meticulous planning and skillful preparation showed, and her resume impressed me.
No doubt ever crept into my mind as to whether Jenny would finish the PCT or not. Obviously she possessed great courage to hike alone in the wilderness. People had questioned her sanity for going solo, just as they'd questioned mine. The only thing that concerned me about Jenny's journey was that she lugged close to 50 pounds. For any hiker this amount is a back-breaking load, but for a 5-foot 1-inch, 105-pound person the weight seemed enormous, and I worried about her sustaining a foot or a leg injury. I learned that Jenny intended a true wilderness experience and planned to resupply only every 12 days. This plan I found truly remarkable since I intended to obtain new supplies essentially whenever feasible, thus at all times carrying the least amount of food possible.
We arrived at a ranger station and were refilling bottles when another thru-hiker asked us our names.
``You're not Ray and Jenny Jardine, are you?''
We both smiled and said ``no'' simultaneously. The Jardines are the most famous hiking couple in the world, and Ray Jardine is considered by many to be the father of ultralight-backpacking techniques.
Jenny confided later, ``I never thought of that before.''
When Jenny and I parted company, I felt sad and lonely. I think she did, too. Jenny had taught me a great number of things. I wished that our schedules had meshed better. Destiny pulled me inexorably north, though, and Jenny followed her own carefully thought-out itinerary. Throughout the trip I would often think of Jenny and wonder how she was faring. I hoped that she found her way and was successful. Jenny inspired me.
From Idyllwild I'd planned to hike 100 miles before resupplying in the town of Big Bear, at mile 276.3. When nearing the approach for Big Bear, my food stores ran low. Nevertheless, I decided to skip Big Bear and push two more days without food to Silverwood Lake, at mile 331.1. I turned off the hunger switch. During those two days, I burned almost all my remaining body fat while consuming only 2,000 calories. This episode hurt but definitely toughened me up for any future lack-of-food dramas. Despite the struggle, I was happy that I'd skipped Big Bear.
I'd actually traveled to Big Bear before, and even under similar circumstances. When I'd first moved to California from Rhode Island to attend Pomona College in 1979, I'd often explored Southern California alone by bicycle. One day while sitting in my dorm room, I'd looked at a California map, at the time I'd assumed that the scale matched the one for Rhode Island (as most Rhode Island teenagers probably would have done), and had found Big Bear Lake nestled in the mountains. The alpine lake fascinated me since I'd never seen one. I decided to ride to the lake from Claremont.
The mammoth ride had tapped all my reserves, and I hadn't brought enough fluid or food with me. The last 17 miles had involved tortuous climbs, and I'd completely bonked. My plan had been to ride from Claremont to Big Bear and back to Claremont the same day. The route I'd cycled went on forever, and it hadn't been physically possible for me to turn around and immediately pedal back to my dorm. Fortunately, I'd carried a credit card with me. I'd checked into a motel, had devoured a huge meal, and with extremely sore knees had pedaled back safely to Claremont the next day. This trip, better than any geography class, had helped me to understand the relative sizes and the relative elevations of Rhode Island and California.
In Southern California the PCT is very arid, so locating water is a formidable task. The Databook describes where the next available places are to pick up water, and most hikers rely heavily on this light guide. I realized that losing a single desert page of the Databook would put me in a potentially life-threatening situation. With gaps in water's availability as wide as 30 miles and temperatures over 120 degrees F, dangerous predicaments can arise. In the torturous desert I carried my maximum possible water-load of 11 liters (approximately 22 pounds).
Hiking a waterless stretch of 30 miles, while walking 3 miles per hour, swallowed 10 hours. In the soaring desert heat I needed at least 1 liter per hour. Thus I would typically find myself out of water by the time I reached the next water-source. If I missed that creeklet or spring, it could have meant another 30 miles without any water. This distance wasn't doable except at night, and I carried no light, so I simply couldn't miss any refill opportunities. Finding some water-sources challenged me, and without the Databook, I wouldn't have even known where to search. I kept a watchful eye on the pages of the precious Databook to avoid a disaster.