Descending the Seven Levels

Warning: I’m writing this message in a tiny two person tent, with enough foot odor to intoxicate an entire army, so my apologies in advance if this entry is a bit loopy. Also, I have no idea what the seven levels of hell actually are, being raised a good little Jewish boy, nor have I ever read Dante’s “Inferno.” But this is what I imagine they resemble.

After our zero day in Idyllwild, we returned to the PCT via the Deer Springs Trail, a quick 4 mile jaunt with nearly 4000 ft elevation gain. We reached 8000 ft by lunchtime and the temperature was cool enough to comfortably hike for the rest of the day without too much exhaustion, despite our newly resupplied backpacks. Being foolish post-pubescent college-educated boys that we are, a quick four-mile side trip to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto seemed totally necessary. We dropped our packs and effortlessly flew up the remainder of the trail, with only a water bottle and can of Rocket Fuel (a homemade mixture of peanut butter, cookies-and-cream frosting, and chocolate chips. Who says I can’t cook?). The 10,800 summit of the second tallest peak in Southern California was still covered with patches of lingering winter snow revealing an impressive view 9600 feet down to the desert floor, with Palm Springs and the Salton Sea visible to the east, and the dazzling LA smog to the west. We could just make out most of the trail switch-backing 15 miles through the desert, where it crosses Interstate 10 and heads back up into the San Bernardino mountains. A few miles west of the PCT/interstate intersection lies the Morongo Casino, Hotel, and Spa, a 30+ story, brightly lit, well manicured, beacon of capitalism and gluttony among the surrounding natural beauty. More on that later…

20140508-135838.jpg

Looking down to Interstate 10 from Mt. San Jacinto

After polishing off our homemade caloric delicacy and snapping a few selfies, we departed the breezy 65 degree summit for the tedious downhill journey. We reached our stowed backpacks after a few miles, carbo-loaded on Snickers and Chewy Bars, filled up on water and resumed hobbling along with our heavy packs. Dinner consisted of pasta with instant creamy pesto sauce near a snow-fed babbling brook, surrounded by pine trees and spectacular recently constructed granite staircases.

20140508-140040.jpg

Nick and Gabe on the summit, with the Morongo Casino just visible left of Gabe’s hand

1. Cats of Prey

As we meandered down from dinner at 8000 feet to a sleeping spot at ~6000 feet we were fortunate to watch a beautiful sunset (well as beautiful as it gets when the sun slowly fades out into the sea of smog rising from the LA valley) and eventually became separated by a few minutes despite groans and moans from foot pain echoing around each turn. The light began to fade as the stars and moon began rearing their watchful, omniscient eyes upon us, surely judging the character within each hiker.

Earlier that day, we had seen several signs warning hikers to never proceed alone because of mountain lions in the area. Apparently they had killed several hikers years earlier, and didn’t want us to be the next victims. Although extremely rare, mountain lion incidents often prove fatal since victims have little to no time to react to the attack. As both Nick and I were hiking to the campsite, we were independently thinking of the impending attack, worried the other one might be the helpless victim, or we in turn were doomed to become dinner.

Needless to say, we arrived at the marked flat area and sought shelter from the relentless wind, in the middle of a flat and sandy dirt road. Hoping no cars would speed up the mountain in the middle of the night, we spread out our sleeping pads and crashed for the night.

Watching the sunset

Watching the sunset

Enjoying the view as the sun sets

Enjoying the view as the sun sets

20140508-135917.jpg

Looking through the beautiful pine forest as the sun sets

2. Who Built This Trail?
Bright sunshine and painful sand blasts from the wind woke us up at 6 am, where we scarfed down a Poptart and two Svenhard’s Breakfast Claws (those cheap Danishes you get at free continental breakfasts or as punishment for not completing your cooking homework in Home Ec.). It was our mission to reach the interstate, some 20 trail miles down the trail, even though as a crow flies it was only 4 miles away. The path descends 6040 feet in 15.2 miles along an extremely hot, exposed, dusty trail to a water fountain on the desert floor and we were set to reach that water by lunchtime, come hell or no water.

With feet plastered with band aids, duct tape, mole skin, and blisters, we felt prepared for the descent, though clearly the descent was not prepared for us. The downhill section of trail probably hadn’t seen any maintenance in 15 years, with shrubs and bushes overgrowing the trail, loose stones in the rock wall, and water drainages completely clogged with sand. Legs were bloodied and morales beaten as we proceeded along the trail, the water fountain maintaining its allure as a tiny dot in the distance.

Whoever originally built the trail must have done so during the Great Depression and received payment per mile constructed, since this was one of the least efficient manners to descend the mountain. Often switchbacks would lose 15 feet, go up 10 feet, lose another 15 and so on. Like the calculus problem from hell, the trail never seemed to converge on a path towards the water, but rather pick and choose the most difficult path around boulders and through prickly pear patches. Some switchbacks would lose 30 feet in elevation, but take a mile to do so, while others would lose hundreds of feet just to regain it around the next corner.

Every step of the descent felt as if we were stepping closer to the surface of the sun or the seventh level to hell. The heat mercilessly burned our necks and calves, temperatures rising off the scale of the little Zippo thermometer tied to our backpacks. Little valleys would often provide shelter from the wind, but with the brutal sun shining almost directly overhead it was impossible to find any reprieve. Rocks were too small to provide any cover, and the vegetation had too many poky things to consider approaching for shade. We toughed it out the last few miles and make a final sprint towards the water fountain, eventually plopping down beside it, too exhausted and dehydrated to figure out how to turn the handle.

20140508-140106.jpg

Slowly switch backing our way down through the desert

3. Water Fountain of Doom

Now, I’m no hydrologist, civil engineer, or health and nutrition specialist, but I do know how to use a water fountain. And I could probably tell you not to build one in the middle of one of the windiest valleys on the planet. I might suggest pointing the water down, so that someone could fill a bottle, instead of up like a drinking fountain (because honestly, who in their right mind would hike 15 miles down the crazy switch backs in the middle of the blazing desert heat without a canteen to drink from!?) But no, I’m just a geologist and physicist in desperate need of some water, watching the wind whip it nearly everywhere but in the water bottle I’m holding in front of it. My pants and shoes were soaked in the five minutes it took trying to fill up a nalgene, but after that much hiking we all need several liters to re-hydrate.

20140508-135936.jpg

Gordon takes a small lunchtime nap near the Drinking Fountain of Doom

4. Ferocious Wind
Interstate 10 follows San Gorgonio Pass from San Bernardino to Palm Springs, consistently one of the windiest passes in the nation. So much so that GE has built thousands of windmills to harness the energy and feed some of LA’s growing needs. Hiking down from San Jacinto, the 300 foot tall windmills appear as specks on the brownish red sand, seeming to barely rotate their tiny arms. In reality, the blades spin at 500-600 mph, slightly below the sound barrier, to capture the maximum amount of energy possible. Over the years, many generations of windmills have been built to try and determine if the newest and flashiest technology is really worth spending $15 million per windmill, but still thousands of them stand tall and provide terrifying reminders of Don Quixote’s hallucinations from years of Spanish classes.

We thought that we had won the battle against nature after descending the peak and mastering the drinking fountain, but nature had another surprise in store for us as we crossed the bare and desolate ground towards the interstate. Wind howled in our ears and sand blasted our faces, the near complete lack of vegetation didn’t provide us with any shelter, and the semi’s on the highway appeared to be getting further away as we fought every step. Power lines overhead whistled as the ferocious wind vibrated them at exactly the right frequency, and crows struggled to maintain their flight paths as they soared across the valley.

Interstate 10 follows San Gorgonio Pass from San Bernardino to Palm Springs, consistently one of the windiest passes in the nation. So much so that GE has built thousands of windmills to harness the energy and feed some of LA’s growing needs. Hiking down from San Jacinto, the 300 foot tall windmills appear as specks on the brownish red sand, seeming to barely rotate their tiny arms. In reality, the blades spin at 500-600 mph, slightly below the sound barrier, to capture the maximum amount of energy possible. Over the years, many generations of windmills have been built to try and determine if the newest and flashiest technology is really worth spending $15 million per windmill, but still thousands of them stand tall and provide terrifying reminders of Don Quixote’s hallucinations from years of Spanish classes.

IMG_0505

Struggling across the sand and wind with Mt. San Jacinto in the background

5. Trail Magic
When we finally made it to the under crossing of Interstate 10, we were greeted with a wonderful sight. Some trail angels had left ice cold beer (which was all gone by the time we arrived), soda, water, and fruit. We quenched our thirst with a delectable Coke, hid from the sun and aired our noxious feet. The short reprieve from the sun and wind was tempting us to linger a little longer, begging us not to continue bashing our way through the elements.

The magic came, of course, with its limitations. Everywhere near the under-crossing was filled with trash and graffiti, clearly the influence of the area’s struggling juveniles. In fact, most of the hike down from the water fountain was filled with years of wind blown trash and discarded plastic bags from the interstate.

Our group was faced with a decision, continue hiking north on the PCT for another few miles before bedtime, or hitchhike to the casino and gorge ourselves on the buffet. Even though our mothers always warned us against hitchhiking, especially on interstates, due to the possibility of interesting people who might pick us up, the casino buffet beckoned.
IMG_0507

Enjoying the shade, soda, and fruit under the interstate

6. The Hitch-Hiking Hippie

We finally escaped the under crossing and slowly limped the half mile to the interstate on the ramp. Very few cars were turning into I10-W as we neared the intersection, and anticipation for the casino buffet was growing quickly. Having taken notes from all the homeless people we’ve seen hitch hiking through Arcata, I proudly poised my hips and protruded my thumb. With smiles that could win over anyone’s grandmother, and a stench that would gag even the sketchiest inmates, we hoped to hitch a short ride just ten minutes down the road to the next exit.

The sun slowly descended over the hills, blowing a stale smoggy breeze up the ramp as we waited for a ride. After twenty minutes or so, the driver of an old beaten pickup motions for us to jump in. “All of us?” we yell over the freeway noise, “of course” the grizzly man inside nods back. We toss our packs and poles in the back, clamber in like circus clowns in an old VW bug, and brace against each other due to the lack of seat belts in the back seat.

“Hikers?” the driver grunts through his cigarette, smoke quickly filling the cab, as we pull away from the stop sign. Why would anyone in their right mind be carrying 40 lbs backpacks in the middle of the southern Californian desert if they weren’t hiking (or even if they were!)? We try to make small talk, even though it’s clear the driver isn’t interested in our company for the duration of the short ride. He admits he frequents the Morongo Casino, having won $1200 there last week, but losing $300 of it a few days later. He claims it’s a fabulous place finally escaped the under crossing and slowly limped the half mile to the interstate on the ramp. Very few cars were turning into I10-W as we neared the intersection, and anticipation for the casino buffet was growing quickly. Having taken notes from all the homeless people we’ve seen hitch hiking through Arcata, I proudly poised my hips and protruded my thumb onto the on-ramp. With a smile that couldn’t win over anyone, and a stench that would gag even the sketchiest inmates, we hoped to hitch a short ride just ten minutes down the road to the next exit. since he, a self proclaimed pothead and gambling addict, has lived in the area for over 20 years. Great, a role model we should definitely try to emulate immediately.

Who wouldn't want to pick up us?

Who wouldn’t want to pick up us?

7. Satan’s Fortress

We entered the casino and the air conditioning hit our faces like a comforting reminder of exactly why we didn’t belong there.  Startled looks came from every direction as we hobbled into the casino’s lobby with our trekking poles and large backpacks. The windowless gaming floor was overridden with retirees and grandparents, 20-somethings looking to strike it big, and families showing their small children how the slot machines work. Fortunately you can still smoke inside a casino, so the thick cloud of cigarette and cigar fumes slowly overrode our bodily stench and rotting salami.

First things first, we found the closest restroom and made the air fresheners work overtime. Flush toilets made our eyes water at the sight, and the sink appeared to be embossed in gold, even if it was actually just a rim of dirt. We took full advantage of the running water, washing our hands, faces, arms, and heads (much to the horror of our fellow patrons) before laughing at the amount of dirt each of us shed. What looked like golden tans just minutes earlier was now spinning clockwise down the drain, returning our skin to the ghastly white of a computer programmer who just spent his winter in San Francisco.

At the entrance desk we requested to enroll in the Winners Club, an elite group of dedicated individuals who throw money down the slot machines and get $5 off the nightly buffet. We were told that by signing up, we were entitled to five free dollars of slot machine play, a ploy that would undoubtedly get us hooked and begging for more.

We eyed the gaming floor, carefully choosing machines that would win us millions of dollars in mere minutes, ending the 10 day stretch of instant mash potatoes and dehydrated beans. With all that money we would buy a Sherpa, or a donkey, and feast on watermelon or steak every night. Alas, the luck was not in our favor as each of our free five dollar plays worked their way down to nothing. Ben was the lucky winner of the night, walking away with a grand total of $2.10 of cold hard cash.

While I didn’t actually major in math, I can’t imagine spending unfathomable amounts of money to push a button that says “spin.” There seems to be no skill involved with the slots, but hundreds of people were mesmerized at the bright lights and flashing colors. Maybe there’s a part of my brain that needs to be severely damaged for this to be fun, but hopefully my skiing helmet will prevent that possibility.

After our fake money was consumed by the slot machines, we made our way to the buffet line, where the mariachi band was beginning to (poorly) tune their instruments and voices. We paid $14 each and asked to be seated near an outlet so we could charge our devices, a request the hostess had surely never received. Each of us grabbed three plates of fajitas, enchiladas, tacos, burritos, corn on the cob, chips and salsa, salads (yes mom, we voluntarily ate green things), jello, ice cream, cookies, and many other items loosely fitting between the categories of plastic and food.

Five thousand calories later, we could barely move. Glued to the chairs by our own body weight, we suffered the pain of laughing at our own misfortune. The stomach filled up much quicker than the information got relayed to the brain, resulting in severe belly aches and intestinal gas (to add to our already delightful aroma). You would think that four college educated guys would know when too much is too much, but we were determined to test every item in the buffet, despite our bodies telling us otherwise!!

So excited to finally reach the casino!

So excited to finally reach the casino!

20140508-135952.jpg

Nick hoping to win big as a Winner’s Club Member

Feeling a little big out of place

Feeling a little big out of place

20140508-140008.jpg

Gordon demolishes plate after plate at the Mariachi Monday Buffet

 

5 thoughts on “Descending the Seven Levels

  1. Peter Bauer

    Fabulous reading! Sounds like type 2 fun (type 1 fun: fun at the time and fun thinking back on it. type 2 is only fun thinking back on it), but the reading is pure type 1 fun.

  2. Charles Minton

    An excellent read especially since that was where I lived in my late 20s. A buddy and I climbed San Jacinto from the Snow Creek side and it was scarrry. However we took the Tram down. The Seven Levels decent sounds brewtall.

  3. Aunt Barbara

    Happy birthday Gabe!! What a great life adventure you are having.Your dad travel like that most of his life,but unfortunately did not have blog in his time…Although our mom probably would have had a heart attack if she read any of that. Too much info.Peter would be so proud and I am sure he has your back on this journey. Love you

  4. stephanie perrett

    hey I was just there! last weekend! I chose to skip to casino but did visit my 96 year young grannie in Beaumont, then headed east to Joshua tree retreat center. HOT. you are all brave souls. bravo. great pics and stories!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *