Day 13- 17.3 miles on Mountain Fire Alternate from Spitler Peak Trail (mile 4 off of 168.6) to Saddle Junction (179.4)

I wake up and lie in my sleeping bag for a while. It’s my first night with it back and I slept very well, finally. Warm and secure. It’s so worth the extra weight. Maddy is still asleep. I start putting my sleeping bag away.

I see someone sprinting down the trail with no pack. The runner comes by and says hello. “Is this the PCT?” he asks.

I explain about the alternate around the fire closure, and he says good morning and runs off. Maddy is awake now. I have no idea where he started running from if he came down from Spitler. Fobes Saddle?

There’s condensation on our sleeping bags and shoes and ground sheets. I pack up first and head off, the alternate going from trail to road walking until the highway. It’s pretty though, and Maddy soon catches up. There’s a stream running alongside the road which doesn’t have much traffic. When it does the cars speed fast around the curves.

We get to the back fence of Herkey Campground. Maddy wants to walk to Lake Hemet and swim; it’s only a mile or so so I go with her. We walk along the side of the small highway for a bit, then see the lake and cut down from the road through some small copses of trees and bushes. We follow a sandy wash and step over a barbed-wire fence.

“No trespassing,” Maddy reads from a sign facing away from where we came. Oops. And then there’s the problem that is the heavy duty fence topped with barbed wire that runs along the dirt road we just trespassed to reach. “It looks like a private lake,” Maddy says.

We’d have to walk all the way around to the Hemet Store on the highway with no guarantees of being able to get in to the lake, so we give up and head back, the proper way this time. We stop at Herkey Campground back at the alternate and use the bathrooms and eat some food at the picnic tables.

Two guys come and sit down. They’re called the Girl Scouts, and I only remember Michael’s name. They bring out some vintage-looking Alpine Air meals with graphics that look like they were designed sometime in the 70s or 80s. Some older hikers gave them to them. They check the best-by date; they both expired last year. How far ahead do they date those things? They start heating water for them and we head off.

The alternate follows a different route from Herkey Campground from last year. Instead of broad networks of Forest Service roads, it follows a spindly and washed-out path through the hills at the bottom of the valley. Eventually it joins the old route on a dirt road by a grassy meadow, and the going gets steep, and I’m sweating even though it’s cool enough out, drenching my arms and giving me a sweat mustache.

Eventually we turn off the alternate into paved road, steep and winding and pavement-less winding down to the heart of town. Maddy sticks her thumb out as we walk down and eventually a car stops, and we’re spirited down the last 1/2 mile. Idyllwild is so different in the sun; hikers wander around everywhere, congregating to talk on the sidewalks, tourists interspersed among us.

We get lunch at the Red Kettle, leaving our packs inside. I get a sandwich with cream cheese, avocado, tomato, and sprouts, which is delicious, and a slice of blueberry pie. I finish before Maddy and the two hikers we sit with, Katie and? So I head down to the library to charge my electronics. I drained my battery taking pictures yesterday. I find a copy of the Silmarillion and read the creation story of Middle Earth.

Maddy finds me and sits with my stuff while I do a quick resupply. She has her box and we sit in the benches in front of our library, sorting our food away. Locals and hikers join us at the benches and talk to us. Finally we’re ready, and we wander through town one last time to get to the road. We stick out our thumbs and a retired couple picks us up and ferries us up the steep road walk.

We follow the road up to Ernie Maxwell Trail, which is gentle and graded and pretty in the trees. We pass dayhikers heading down from Devil’s Slide Trailhead, where we sit for a while. I eat my bag of chips and we use the bathroom, and off! I struggle with the steeper grade and elevation of Devil’s Slide and let Maddy go ahead. The sun starts setting, the mountains hazy and in rising gradient far off in the distance, the sun shooting light rays through the trees on the far slope. I catch Maddy sitting up on a rock ledge watching the sky, the squirrel! and we walk the last part up to the PCT again together.

There’s a no camping sign at Saddle Junction, but apparently it’s fine as long as it’s on the PCT side of the junction. We wander around looking for campsites, Maddy being indecisive. Finally we set up a bit away from some other thruhikers. I cowboy camp on a deep, soft layer of pine needles and put all of my non-shell layers against the creeping chill. I have a half-bagel and cream cheese and some chili lime ramen. Maddy comes and sits on my feet and eats her cold-soaked noodles and lentils.

We say goodnight and I snuggle into my sleeping bag. It’s going to be a cold night.