Friday, December 14, 2018

Symbolism and Literary Devices in The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Here is a rundown of all of the symbolism and other literary devices I've found in the first half of The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth. I'm referring exclusively to the book, not the movie. It's mostly just the first half because I find the second half upsetting and I don't read it as much.

The End of Childhood: Stolen Bubble Gum, Dead Parents, and Quake Lake: As the book begins, the weather is hot and "has been cooking" for days. The plot is also already cooking, since Cameron's parents left for the trip that would kill them and the two girls kissed and Cameron got the first hint she's a lesbian the day before. The first paragraphs of the book paint the scene of Cameron's world as a child's world she made sense of and co-created with her friend Irene - their rituals to stay cool in hot weather without air conditioning or sit in the back of grandma's car pretending to be in the Grey Poupon commercial, their special drink of Ginger Ale and orange juice they call "cocktail hour," the meanings of the different places along Main St to them as kids (the market sells ice cream cones of Wilcoxson's ice cream, the banks give out dum-dum pops), how they turned Miss Scarlet from Clue into an inside joke, and so on. The mention of the funeral parlors could be foreshadowing here, although the reader already knows that Cameron's parents die that day. This early description also grounds the story in its place, eastern Montana, with references that people from there will know and outsiders won't (such as Wilcoxson's ice cream). It shows the closeness of Cameron and Irene, and how thoroughly intertwined their childhoods are with one another's. Irene is symbolic of childhood.

Before Cameron finds out her parents are dead, there are a few bits of foreshadowing. First, she notes how easy it was to promise Coach Ted she'd come to swim practice and focus on swimming the next day and it seemed like an easy promise to make. What's unstated is that the next day she couldn't go to swim practice because she'd just found out her parents died. The second is the man in a suit who buys the girls root beer and comments on how good the girls have it. This shows how easy and carefree her life is at this point, and it's all about to change, both because her parents die but also because she has to confront her sexuality.

There are three significant pieces of symbolism that are established in the first chapters: bubblegum, the death of Cameron's parents, and Quake Lake. The girls kiss and realize they are both queer and the next day they shoplift gum and kiss some more. You'll notice that gum comes up again every other time Cameron kisses a girl, showing that she feels her attraction to women is deviant, just like shoplifting gum is deviant. A passage that shows how the gum represents the deviance of her kissing girls, and how her realizing she likes girls is the end of her childhood is on p. 24: "I still think about him on the other side of that door all the time, even now. How I still had parents before that knock, and how I didn't that. Mr. Klauson knew that too; how he had to lift his calloused hand and take them away from me at eleven p.m. one hot night at the end of June - summer vacation, root beer and stolen bubble gum, stolen kisses - the very good life for a twelve-year-old..." [emphasis added]

When Cameron is taken home to find out that her parents are dead, she is afraid she's been found out as a lesbian and she is in trouble for it. She feels guilty when she finds out her parents are dead, perhaps because she feels responsible because God killed them off because she kissed a girl, or perhaps because she felt relieved when she found out they were dead and didn't find out she kissed a girl. The death of her parents comes up later, representing her guilty feelings about being a lesbian.

The passage that really spells out the symbolism of her parents' death and her feelings of guilt it represents is on p. 30: "I didn't know it then, but the sickness, the prickly flush of heat, and the feeling of swimming in a kind of blackness I couldn't have imagined, all the things I had done since I'd last seen my parents bobbing around me, lit up against the dark - the kisses, the gum, Irene, Irene, Irene - all of that was guilt: real, crushing guilt."

The third is Quake Lake. Cameron's mom was there with her friend Margot, a lesbian, the day of the 1959 earthquake. Margot's mom left before the quake, but Margot was hit by the quake and her brother was killed. The day after Cameron kisses a girl for the first time, her parents die there. It feels like there is something symbolic here but I am having a hard time putting my finger on it. When we first hear the Quake Lake story, we find out that Cameron's mom was 12, "just like us" as Cameron tells Irene (p. 18). At 12, Cameron's mom, who is straight, escaped a real earthquake at Quake Lake. When Cameron was 12 her mom died at Quake Lake the same time Cameron realized she's a lesbian, and its impact on her life was like an earthquake, ending her childhood and innocence. That's not unlike what happened to Margot at 12. Realizing you are gay is like an earthquake.

We also start to see characters' inner thoughts and feelings shown through what might appear to be insignificant details. When the two girls are trying to figure out how to talk about kissing (or kiss some more) and neither of them can, this is shown as an ant keeps trying to walk but gets blocked by the girls and their flip flops several times and has to go around and try again (p. 15).

Aunt Ruth: Aunt Ruth's entry is also significant. She calls Cameron "Cammie," which Cameron hates, and she tries to comfort her for her loss by talking about God, which is not at all comforting to Cameron. In both cases, she feels like she is not being seen or heard by Ruth, and we can see the early makings of the mismatch between the two of them and Ruth's lack of attunement to Cameron. We can also see that a bit when Ruth buys Cameron dresses for the funeral that don't look like anything Cameron would wear. Cameron says she feels like she guessed it was right for Aunt Ruth to be there, since they are family, but she hardly knows Ruth, and they don't have much of a relationship. She also doesn't have any opinions on Ruth's born again Christianity yet, even though she knows it's not the type of Christian her parents were. Mostly she's just accepting Ruth as she is and taking Ruth's totally tone deaf response to her grief in silence - not embracing it or pushing back against it, but just trying to do her own thing and stay out of Ruth's way as she does hers. This is how their relationship develops for a while, especially as Ruth finds a new career and a boyfriend to take up her time and keep her out of Cameron's hair.

Ruth is described as usually looking perfect, but when we meet her she looks like sad clown Ruth. The use of the word clown calls up the image of someone with a false emotion painted on their face - in this case a sad face. But if she usually doesn't look like a sad clown, perhaps her usual perfect appearance is a happy clown? That is, whatever is going on underneath for Ruth, perhaps usually she has a happy expression painted on her face as a clown would, but the happiness is fake and not reflective of what she feels inside. In any case, we find out soon that Ruth usually looks perfect, and her personality is described as being a cheerleader or Annette Funicello - a member of the Mickey Mouse Club. This gives the image of Ruth as perpetually perky and happy and wholesome, but possibly inauthentically so. To add to that, we soon find out about her NF, the condition in which she grows tumors all over her body all the time. The introduction of Ruth shows her as badly mismatched with Cameron, not at all responsive to Cameron's needs, and constantly (perhaps falsely) cheerful, but filled with tumors. Something is not right about Ruth, despite the appearance of perfection and cheerfulness on the outside.

The Burial at the Trash Can: Given Cameron's crushing guilt her feelings for Irene, she avoids her for days until Irene sends a card. The house is described as smelling of all of the flowers people sent, and it sounds almost suffocating, which is a metaphor for how Cameron feels there. When Irene sends her flowers and a card, she takes the card up to her room, shuts the door and "felt as criminal as [she] would have had it been Irene herself there with [her]" (p. 32). The card represents Irene. Cameron memorizes Irene's words and then instead of just throwing the card away, she takes it outside and buries it deep into a trash can filled with hot, stinking, rotting trash. This is referred to as a "burial." Cameron is trying to bury her feelings for Irene as if they are dead, or at least she wishes they were dead. But of course they aren't. After all, even with the card gone - so thoroughly gone as it is under that stinking, rotting trash - she's memorized all of Irene's words.

Cameron's Funeral Arrangements and New Religion: Left alone in the house, Cameron takes money from her dead father, the VCR and TV, and a photo of her mom at Quake Lake. Then she goes to rent Beaches. She is totally alone as she does this. Grandma and Aunt Ruth are out making funeral arrangements, and she refers to what she does as making funeral arrangements of her own. This shows how she is dealing with her grief in isolation and in parallel to her guardians. There are two important elements here: the photo and the movies.

Cameron takes a photo of her mom at age 12 - her age - at Quake Lake, less than 24 hours before the earthquake that did not kill her, and years before she actually died there. Cameron had a loving family and a time of innocence in her childhood, right up to this moment at age 12. Keeping the photo of her mom right at that age, a few hours before the earthquake, is keeping a tie to that time in Cameron's life when she was innocent and had parents and had no idea she was a few hours away from a metaphorical earthquake that ended her childhood and innocence. This is reinforced when we learn later that Cameron's mom looked like her in that photo (three years after their death, the day Cameron and Coley go with Grandma to the cemetery, when the girls go back to Cameron's room afterward). It's also a reminder that figuring out she is gay hit Cameron like an earthquake, just like it did to Margot, whereas Cameron's straight mom escaped.

Cameron puts the TV and VCR in her room and then goes to the video store to rent Beaches. She says she is looking for guidance in how to navigate the situation of losing her parents and even though it's fictional, Beaches is something. In light of what comes later, Cameron's never ending search for the few and far between movies with the slightest representation of lesbianism in them, I think a note about representation is important here. In that moment, Cameron was looking for representation of herself as a recent orphan. Later, she is looking for representation of herself as a lesbian. It's hard to even understand this if you haven't experienced it, the real toll it takes on you when you don't see yourself represented in pop culture and mainstream society - or as with lesbians in film, when you do see yourself represented its often as a stereotype, or a fantasy for straight people, or the butt of a joke, or through themes of oppression or sexuality as if the entire experience of being gay is having sex and facing homophobia and nothing else. When lesbians are represented in film, it's often clear the characters were written by straight people who never even bothered to consult a lesbian to make sure if their depiction is believable. A quick way to tell if any actual lesbians were involved in the making of the film is by looking at the character's fingernails. Any lesbian with an active sex life should not have long fingernails, but in movies they often do.

Cameron Post starts out in 1989, two years before the "lesbian classic" Fried Green Tomatoes came out. At the time, homosexuality was so taboo that the lesbian relationship in that film is only consummated symbolically through a food fight and their relationship is otherwise never acknowledged once. The Color Purple came out in 1985, and the lesbian relationship that is very clearly described in the book is portrayed as a platonic friendship in which the two women kiss on the mouth a few times in one scene. According to film at the time, lesbians almost did not even exist. And yet, with the half second kiss between Jodie Foster and someone else, or the more overt lesbian themes of Personal Best, Desert Hearts, and The Hunger, Cameron can see herself reflected at least a little bit in these films whereas she can't see herself reflected at all in Miles City. She's guilty and tried to bury the gay part of herself, but she's also seeking a connection to it, however small, through the movies she watches. Just like she was looking for something "official" to show her how to act and what to feel as she grieved her parents with Beaches, she is seeking the same about being gay with many of the other movies she watches.

When Cameron rents Beaches we also get a glimpse into how she didn't fit in as a queer girl in rural Montana, but how her parents had been accepting and loving and on her side. The woman at the video store was Cameron's teacher and she didn't like Cameron for failing to live up to hetero norms. When the teacher wrote a strange comment on Cameron's report card, Cameron's parents thought it was strange and funny. Even if the rest of Miles City didn't get Cameron, her parents did. Later, the person at the video store is a straight guy who is creepy in a sexually suggestive way to Cameron. It seems symbolic that as Cameron is seeking her connection to lesbians through the movies she rents at that store and mostly coming up short, to rent them she has to go through these two video store employees who are symbols of heteronormativity. Cameron is in a heteronormative environment seeking anything that will give her a glimpse of herself as a lesbian.

The period of time after Cameron's parents die is one in which she feels extreme alienation. Mostly it appears that her alienation is due to her status as an orphan - especially as everyone tries to extend kindness to her (the "orphan discount") and it makes her feel worse instead of better. It's possible that this feeling of alienation is simply the result of being an orphan but given the symbolism of her parents deaths and her discovery she's a lesbian, it's also possible that her alienation represents her alienation as a young lesbian in a town that has no place for one.

The Fair and the End of Childhood: It took me a long time to work out the symbolism of the fair. But if you consider it a metaphor for the end of her friendship with Irene, it makes sense. They "haunted the midway like ghosts... watching like we'd already seen everything there was to see but couldn't pull ourselves away." It's already over, but she can't let go. And then, as the girls go on the ferris wheel, she does. She and Irene keep touching knees, and for one full rotation they hold hands and pretend things are the same as before. Up on the ferris wheel they can see the entire layout of the area clearly from above, separate from it. And then as the friendship truly ends, Irene cries and cries and cries, and Cameron feels sick. With that, although the girls pretend everything is normal afterward, their friendship is truly done, for good.

I think the end of the friendship could represent two things. The first is the end of Cameron's innocence and childhood; the second is her attempt to end her feelings for girls. In this scene, it's the latter that seems more plausible. Cameron feels like kissing Irene resulted in the death of her parents, and she still has the feelings, and she doesn't want to. At this point, she's entirely separating herself from her lesbian feelings in real life, even though she's still watching movies with lesbians when she can find them. However, given the description of how the girls had "done up" the fair in the past, and how thoroughly their childhoods are intertwined, the fair might be the last gasp of childhood.

Margot: Margot's gay. She's a tennis player, which is not the gayest sport, but it reminds the reader of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, both famous lesbian tennis players. She wears a watch that looks like a man's watch, and she takes Cameron out and does thing that violate hetero gender norms, like opening car doors for her and ordering her refills of her drink. She didn't want to wear a dress at Cameron's parents' wedding. She has an asymmetrical haircut. And she says she loved Cameron's mother. Her visit to Cameron shows how poorly she (and lesbians) fit in in Miles City as she makes reservations at a restaurant, which is not something anyone from there does, and her haircut is cited as "non-Miles City." Cameron doesn't realize Margot is gay, so it's never overtly stated in the book, but Cameron feels she could come out to Margot, and she doesn't want to. Cameron has an opportunity here to accept her sexuality, and she still chooses to reject it. Still, we can see that Margot is more attuned to Cameron than any other adult Cameron has met so far and makes Cameron feel comfortable. It's a shame for Cameron that Margot can't stay around, because Cameron's life might have unfolded differently if she had. Margot's closeness to Cameron's parents is also another sign that Cameron's parents, had they survived, would have accepted her sexuality - or at least accepted it more than Aunt Ruth does. I'm not sure, but Cameron secretly taking the photo of Margot at her parents' wedding might be a sign of Cameron kind of secretly holding on to her identity as a lesbian who doesn't fit straight gender norms. That photo was taken when Margot did not want to keep wearing a dress and Cameron's mom bribed her with champagne to do so. Cameron secretly stealing it might be showing the continued link between lesbians and deviance for Cameron.

The Dollhouse: Cameron's dad made her dollhouse for her 5th birthday. It's an "amazing" dollhouse, a scale model of a fancy house in San Francisco, and the outside is perfectly completed but the inside is unfinished. This represents Cameron. Her parents gave her an incredible start to life and a foundation of herself as a person, but they died before the job was complete. Now, as Cameron begins decorating the inside of the dollhouse herself, she's also forming herself into an adult, continuing the job her parents started, but on her own. What she puts into the house is creative and off-beat but also often involves deviance, as she steals some of the items she puts in there. The self Cameron is making doesn't fit societal norms and Cameron feels it's deviant. This is most clearly shown when she makes a gum wrapper rug because she's thinking of Irene. She's incorporating her feelings for girls into her self, but she still feels it is deviant like shoplifting gum.

It's also interesting that Aunt Ruth suggested giving away the dollhouse to charity and getting rid of it, and Cameron insists that it's hers: "My dad made it for me and I'm not giving it to some stranger," she says. Aunt Ruth wants Cameron to get rid of the self that her parents helped her create during the first 12 years of her life, and Cameron refuses to do so.

The Christmas Tree: Ruth lets Cameron keep some of her traditions until their first Christmas together. These traditions, like having a live Christmas tree and attending Cameron's family's church, are links Cameron has to her past with her parents, and also to the self that she was with them. Ruth is trying to change Cameron from how her parents raised her - first by wanting to get rid of the dollhouse, and now getting a fake tree, and switching to an evangelical church. It seems fitting that fake perfect Ruth wants a fake perfect tree, whereas Cameron's genuine but wonderfully imperfect mother loved having a real one.

Cameron doesn't like the fake tree, but her rejection of evangelical Christianity is less immediate and complete. She seems openminded to an extent, even though she knows it's not what her parents believed. This new version of Christianity comes with the first overt rejection of homosexuality Cameron confronts. She's always implicitly known that being gay wasn't accepted, but once she gets her new teen Bible from the evangelical youth group, she finds hard proof for the first time that - at least based on Ruth's version of Christianity - being gay is not OK. Throughout the book, Cameron doesn't fully buy into this point of view, but she doesn't fully reject it until the very end either.

Ruth's Sally Q Tools: This is an interesting view of gender roles and femininity. On one hand, using tools is stereotypically masculine. Selling tools for women is already violating traditional gender roles, but the tools Ruth is selling are needlessly gendered, reinforcing the strict gender binary that Ruth believes in. Perhaps it also shows something about Ruth's ideas about how she does her gender as a woman. She thinks she's doing gender so correctly that she can sell tools for women and help other women do their genders properly. She certainly wants to change how Cameron does her gender, because she thinks she's right and anyone who differs from her is wrong.

The Hospital: I wasn't sure what the hospital represented until I found a few passages that reveal it. Breaking in there is deviant, so that's important. The first time Cameron goes there with the boys, they are wandering around in the dark, in the basement, with a bad excuse of a flashlight that stops working about four minutes in. In light of what happens later, it feels like this is a glimpse into Cameron's subconscious and her feelings about her homosexuality. She's blundering through a basement without a light. Later, after she meets Lindsey, they go together to the key room and have their first kiss. At that point, Cameron has found the key and the fireworks the boys are setting off as she finds it are "the stuff of mushy movies when the main characters first kiss... rockets and starbursts." She's a lesbian. For real. But it's still deviant.

Lindsey: Irene was Cameron's childhood and innocent past. Lindsey represents Cameron's guide into the world of being a lesbian, her "personal lesbian guru." She likes to act superior and stay in the role of teacher or mentor, and Cameron doesn't have the same feelings for Lindsey that she had for Irene or will have for Coley, but Lindsey still helps Cameron understand that she's not alone and gives her hope that there's another part of the country (Seattle) where being gay is OK. She introduces Cameron to music, books, and music in lesbian culture. It's through Lindsey that Cameron fully commits to her identity as a lesbian instead of trying to bury her feelings. Gum comes up again when Lindsey initially asks Cameron if she would go to Pride with her and Cameron knows that a "yes" means coming out to Lindsey. Cameron says yes, but Lindsey's gum reminds us of Cameron's feelings that being gay is deviant.

At the end of the summer, just before Cameron begins high school and meets Coley Taylor, during her last scene with Lindsey, there's a storm coming. This is foreshadowing. In addition to the actual storm that happens one afternoon, there's a storm coming in the story.

Ray: Ray sells frozen food. The symbolism here is not something that would be easy to spot except Cameron explains that she's sentimental about frozen foods because she re-watched the Care Bears movie. I'm too lazy to spell out the entire complicated metaphor, particularly because I haven't seen the Care Bears movie since I was a small child, but it seems the Ray's frozen food job represents thawing Ruth's frozen heart. It's kind of an odd humanizing element to the book for Ruth, who mostly comes across as fake and perfect-looking and well-meaning but basically in Cameron's way since she can't love Cameron for who she really is. For Cameron, Ray mostly serves as a nice guy she has little to do with who (along with Ruth's Sally Q job) keeps Ruth out of her hair.

Coley Taylor: After Cameron has spent most of a semester staring at Coley in biology, she finally really meets her at church. The two girls, from the start, have great chemistry. Coley is sweet, and funny, and touches Cameron a lot, and puts her face close to her at times, and responds well to Cameron's sense of humor. She feels totally genuine, like she truly likes Cameron and isn't playing games or holding anything back, at least in the context of a friendship between two totally straight girls. Also, their friendship has a classic plotline from novels about teenage lesbians: Cameron's a tomboy who hangs out with the guys, and Aunt Ruth wants her to be more feminine, so she encourages Cameron's friendship with Coley. FYI to homophobic parents: Pushing your tomboy lesbian to hang out with her gay crush won't help in the way you intend it.

The sexual tension starts to heat up when Coley asks Cameron to go to prom with her on a straight double date with her boyfriend and a date Cameron needs to find. In that moment, there's gum again, and Coley keeps touching Cameron in ways that gets Cameron's attention but Coley doesn't notice. Lindsey gives the first foreshadowing about the trouble at is coming aside from the oncoming storm at the end of the summer. She warns Cameron that nothing good will come from pursuing a straight girl like Coley. Lindsey's instincts are reliable as Cameron falls for and pursues Coley.

Prom is the first time when a straight person (Jamie) tells Cameron he knows she's gay. As it happens, some drama kids are walking by and Cameron says they are like the chorus in her unfolding tragedy. That's yet another clue that things are not going well for her in the near future.

Bucking Horse Sale: We get some foreshadowing about Coley's relatives. First, Ty, her brother, makes Cameron uneasy for some reason. Second, although Mrs. Taylor keeps telling Cameron to call her by her first name, Cameron does not feel comfortable doing that. Something is not right between Cameron and either of them. The important parts all come after Cameron and Jamie have officially broken off whatever they were doing by making out occasionally and Jamie went off to find a straight girl. A storm is coming, both a literal one and a metaphorical one, and Cameron and Coley go to Coley's ranch. Cameron and Coley are in sync with one another, but when Coley tells her mother that Cameron said Bucking Horse was a "bitter mistress," Coley's mom doesn't like it, perhaps because it's too gay for a girl to refer to having a "mistress."

Their first kiss happens when Cameron is wearing Ty's boots and the girls are out feeding the cattle after the rain. They are listening to a very straight Tom Petty mix (that belongs to Ty) that Lindsey does not approve of because Tom Petty is a "chauvinist" with a "prurient" interest in teenage girls. This is a sign that Cameron and Coley's kiss is ill-fated. They listen to "The Waiting" several times and then "Free Fallin'." As they kiss, Ty's boots (on Cameron's feet) sink into the mud and Cameron is stuck. Once she's kissed Coley, she is stuck. The badness that is to come is coming. The fact that they were Ty's boots that got stuck and led to her fall (she literally falls over in the mud) and it's Ty's copy of "Free Fallin'" they are listening to foreshadow Ty's role in Cameron's downfall. So does Coley's role in Cameron's fall into the mud: Coley got scared when Cameron touches her and as she reacts to it, she knocks Cameron down. Afterwards, Coley retreats into straightness even though she liked the kiss, at least for a little while, and even the girls' friendship gets weird for a bit. After Cameron gets home, when she sees her grandma in her purple housecoat, she is reminded of the night her parents died. That reminds us of her guilt about kissing girls.

There's a bit of foreshadowing when Lindsey asks Cameron to come to Alaska with her and Cameron doesn't. Cameron says she wonders what would have happened if she had. She's letting us know that something big happens because she stayed in Miles City that summer. We get more foreshadowing that something big is coming when Cameron traces the four big things that happened that summer: Ruth and Ray got engaged; Mona Harris came out to her; their youth group at church gets a talk about gay conversion therapy; and Coley gets her own apartment. Those are the four ingredients leading us up to Cameron's downfall, although as was shown by the reference to a Greek tragedy and Cameron's boots getting stuck when she first kissed Coley, Cameron's fall was inevitable. She was already stuck, and it was going to happen.

Cameron and Coley: Their next kiss takes place after they visit the cemetery on the three-year anniversary of Cameron's parents' deaths. Gum appears before they kiss, as does the photo of Cameron's mom at age 12 at Quake Lake before the quake. All of this is heavily symbolic to remind us that Cameron still feels deviant and guilty. Adventures in Babysitting is playing on the TV in the background. I don't know the movie well enough to make anything of it, but I wouldn't be surprised if the movie choice is meaningful.

The night Cameron and Coley lose their virginity to each other, it's "magma hot" in Coley's apartment. The plot is very, very hot right now, and there's a lot of pressure that is about to blow. We get an immediate sign that it's not meant to be. When Cameron arrives at Coley's apartment, a Trisha Yearwood song "about being in love with a boy" is playing. This is not the place or time for lesbian love. Cameron tries to change that by putting on The Hunger, a movie she got from Lindsey. There's no gum this time and no reference to Cameron's dead parents, and instead of thinking about guilt and deviance, Cameron is trying to follow a seduction suggestion by her personal lesbian guru. She and Coley have sex, but Coley gets upset when Cameron confesses she loves her. Cameron has previously said that she thinks Coley has convinced herself that their relationship was some sort of college experimentation come early. It's not the sex that freaks Coley out, but Cameron's confession of love.

The next day after her disastrous night with Coley, Cameron is kind of flipping through different options and not at peace with any of them: she looks at dresses for Ruth's wedding (a symbol of straightness, see below) and doesn't see herself in any of them, so she tries to listen to songs from Lindsey (a symbol of lesbianism) and can't get into those, so then she puts on a Tom Petty song (a symbol of straightness again) and nothing is really right.

As was hinted at before, Ty is the instrument of Cameron's downfall. Coley tells Ty what happened that night, and the next day Coley goes to Mrs. Taylor (who Cameron never felt comfortable around) at Ty's urging, and they go to the evangelical church. The day after that Pastor Crawford goes to Aunt Ruth, who is full of tumors under her beautiful fake exterior and doesn't get Cameron at all, and Aunt Ruth puts Cameron in conversion therapy.

Ruth and Ray's Wedding: This is a symbol of heterosexuality. At first Ruth plans it and set the date, feeling certain that heterosexuality was safe. She gives Cameron a catalog of maid of honor dresses and circles the ones she thinks Cameron might like, and Cameron says she can tell Ruth was trying to find dresses she'd feel comfortable in, but she can't see herself in any of them. Ruth is trying to make heterosexuality work for Cameron, and Cameron doesn't feel like it's a fit. When Ruth finds out Cameron is gay, she postpones the wedding. Heterosexuality is still the long term plan - it's just delayed a bit. After Cameron spends a semester at God's Promise, Ruth reschedules the wedding and wants Cameron to be maid of honor. She's hoping that heterosexuality is safe again, and Cameron is on board with it after a semester of attempting to pray away the gay. Cameron, significantly, refuses to play along. She'll go to the wedding, but she won't be maid of honor, and she'll wear her God's Promise uniform, showing that she's still present in the hetero world but she's living her truth: she's there as a gay person being forced into a doomed attempt at straightness.

God's Promise: Cameron's introduction to God's Promise is seeing the serenity prayer on her door, posted there by her roommate "the Viking Erin." Is being gay something that you need to change or accept? The prayer asks for the wisdom to know the difference. That sets the tone for what Cameron will be doing there, and for the differences between Cameron and Erin. Cameron soon realizes that the value of being here is learning the stories of other people like her and not being alone anymore. Through meeting other kids like her, Cameron can make sense of herself.

Jane Fonda's first name is after two women - one grandmother who committed suicide and another who survived breast cancer. It seems like her character can go either way. The book hints at similarities between Jane and Jesus, like both of them being born in a barn, or having Jesus and the celebrity Jane Fonda on the cover of the same magazine. Cameron says she likes following Jane (on a hike), and Jane also gives her a literal tour of God's Promise, and later helps Cameron navigate away from Promise to Quake Lake for the book's heavily symbolic ending and to freedom. In that way, Jane is like Cameron's guide and savior. However, it's Cameron's own decision to leave Promise, not Jane's. Jane also offers Cameron a lot of trustworthy advice, like telling her to be "wary" of Mark. She's also the resident weed farmer. Cameron, Jane, and Adam need to deaden themselves a bit with weed to get through their time at Promise and Jane's the one who provides it. I can't work out why Jane takes Polaroids of everyone (usually candids) but rarely shows them to anyone. It must mean something. I've got no idea if Jane's background story about her life on the commune, history of playing doctor, accident that killed her friend and mentor, and amputated leg mean anything either.

Erin's another one I don't totally understand. She's a huge fan of the Minnesota Vikings, but I think there's something more symbolic in the way she's referred to often as "the Viking Erin." She's incredibly innocent - smelling of fabric softener, described as round and soft with bouncy curls and a giggle. She's entirely sincere in all ways, and she's totally bought into the idea of conversion therapy. She's trying to improve herself to fit into a straight, Christian society but also to fit into a society that values women who are thin and fit. Perhaps her daily Christian aerobics practice is symbolic for how she is trying to reform her body to make it fit with Christianity through daily practice in other ways as well. She wants Cameron as her partner on both of these reform efforts. Cameron joins her for the aerobics, but only gives the appearance of joining her in trying to pray herself straight. And yet, Erin does not end up straight. She ends up having sex with Cameron in their dorm room. The aerobics worked, the prayers didn't. Erin, who put the serenity prayer on her door, does not seem to have a good grasp on what she needs to change and what she needs to accept.

Reverend Rick has no sense of smell. Maybe that's why he can't smell bullshit and he believes in conversion therapy. He seems like a good guy. He's genuine and loving and well-meaning but very misdirected. As Jane tells it, Rick is a decent cook but he buys the cheap scratchy toilet paper. He's providing for the kids' material needs with food but his toilet paper purchases literally scratch up the kids' sex organs. There's a metaphor.

Lydia, on the other hand, is mean-spirited and abusive. She's very controlling not just about every aspect of the kids' lives but also how they express themselves (for example, not allowing Cameron to go by Cam, not allowing Adam to chew on things when she catches him at it, not allowing Cameron to take off a layer of clothing when she's hot, not allowing the kids to call themselves "homosexuals," and so on.) When Cameron gives her a short, one-word answer to a question, instead of taking a kinder approach of saying something like "Good, could you expand on that?," she scolds Cameron for her brief answer and forces her to give a longer, more precise one. That kind of nitpicking makes the point that the kids are not acceptable as they are, not just because they are gay, but because to Lydia every little detail about the kids is wrong.

The Dollhouse, Again: Cameron's dollhouse is back at home in Miles City, and she hopes Aunt Ruth didn't throw it out. Remember, the dollhouse is a symbol of Cameron's self. Her father gave her an incredible start to it and she's been working on it by herself since her parents died. At Promise, she's away from it, unable to continue building herself. Jane calls what happens at Promise forgetting yourself. Cameron calls it plastic living, or living in a diorama, and then compares it to a prehistoric insect preserved in amber if it were still alive. Cameron is like the insect that was born and lived in an earlier time and is now here in the present in a world entirely separate and foreign compared to her past. She mentions how she has nobody around who knew her before to remind her of that past. Just like the dollhouse that is back in Miles City where Cameron cannot work on it, Cameron's self from her past is not something she has access to, not something she can work on here, and she's existing in a sort of stagnation, almost like that perfectly preserved insect in amber.

Still, Cameron decides to try to build a new self here - a new dollhouse-like project. Since she doesn't have access to her beautiful dollhouse her dad started for her, she gets what she can get, some used buckets from a Christian creamery that she steals. Building her self here is deviant and forbidden, and she's stuck using something not very good but very Christian as a base for it. She tries to get a collection of materials to work on it, including some markers she tries to shoplift. Erin prevents her from shoplifting the markets, and she gets in trouble for it. Building her self here with the good materials she wants requires breaking the rules, and Erin and then Rick and Lydia prevent her from doing it. When Cameron tells Lydia about the dollhouse, Lydia sees it as a manifestation of Cameron's sinfulness. Lydia thinks that Cameron building herself as she sees fit is sinful.

The Lights in the Wind: When Cameron goes home for winter break, during one night Ruth and Ray are gone and she's home alone with Grandma. Grandma, although deaf, truly loves Cameron. At first it seems like Grandma is as anti-gay as Ruth. However, I think there might be some symbolism in the letter and care package she sends Cameron. Grandma is diagnosed with diabetes around the time of Bucking Horse Sale, which is also when Cameron first kisses Coley. Grandma has always been loving to Cameron, and she has a sweet tooth. I see her love for sugar as perhaps symbolic for her sweetness for Cameron. She sends Cameron homemade brownies and blondies along with a letter saying that it was difficult for her to bake with sugar without eating anything and the confesses she did eat some of it. She seems to be unable to help being loving and sweet to Cameron even if she's not supposed to. Grandma's also the one who hides the package from Margot so that Ruth won't see it and gives it to Cameron. Although Grandma doesn't know it, it contains $300 cash, which Cameron uses to escape God's Promise. Grandma's inability to deny love to Cameron helps enable Cameron's escape.

That night when they are home alone together, they hear a sound outside, and then they go watch a strand of lights that came loose from the house and flies around in the wind. Ray put up the lights and the next day when he gets home, he nails down that escaped strand again. It feels like the lights that remain lit even as they are tossed around by the weather symbolizes Cameron, whose spirit remains bright and strong despite everything that is happening to her. Cameron steals a few lights to put in her Christian buckets that serve as the substitute for her dollhouse project at Promise.

Quake Lake, Again: Quake Lake symbolizes the earthquake that realizing you're gay felt like in the lives of Margot and Cameron at age 12. When Cameron got dragged off to Promise by Ruth, she still had not come to terms with that earthquake. Promise is only a few miles from Quake Lake, and while being there is painful of course, it allows Cameron to examine and come to terms with being gay. After Mark hurts himself, Cameron almost fully rejects the program at Promise. She never bought into it before, but she was also never really at peace with being gay either. Now she calls Promise abusive and she decides to leave, but at the same time she sort of really gives it a chance. She seems very ambivalent about giving it a chance. She starts cooperating with Lydia and Rick so they won't interfere with or suspect her plans to escape, and she says that just being totally honest with them for a change is easier than the alternative. However, she also says something about wanting to really give the conversion therapy a try before running away from it, which makes it sound like she has mostly rejected it but not fully.

During her last weeks at Promise, Cameron does an independent study on the earthquake at Quake Lake. She really gets to the bottom of it, studying every detail. Symbolically, she's studying and gaining an understanding of herself as a lesbian. She rediscovers her link to Margot, a survivor of the actual earthquake and symbolic one too. At last, Cameron, Adam, and Jane go to Quake Lake and Cameron does a sort of ritual, going into the water naked with a candle and fully submerging herself. At last, she's at peace with her sexual identity. She also finds closure with her parents and resolves the guilt she felt for being relieved that they were dead because it meant they wouldn't find out she kissed Irene. She's not alone either. Cameron the orphan was almost entirely alone as a queer person in Miles City since she kissed Irene and her parents died, and she now has a family of choice, her fellow queers who also aren't accepted by their biological families. The last line of the book is a full rejection of conversion therapy. Cameron's future is not beneath (as in the iceberg bullshit at God's Promise) but beyond, beyond, beyond.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Ecology of PCT Section A

My pet peeve is when PCT hikers refer to the first 700 miles of the trail as "desert." Some of it is desert, but some of it isn't. Within Section A, from the border to Warner Springs, most of the trail is not actually desert. This site provides an explanation of the many different plant communities within California. Some non-desert ones that you encounter in Section A are: Chaparral, Oak Woodland, Riparian, Mixed Evergreen Forest, and Coastal Sage Scrub. A desert plant community you may encounter is creosote bush scrub.

Coastal Sage Scrub
I have a hard time distinguishing between coastal sage scrub and chaparral, but as you start the trail, you are certainly in one of the two most of the time until you nearly reach the top of Mt. Laguna. The way I've been told to tell the difference is that chaparral is woodier and harder to walk through off-trail. Some call it "elfin forest" because, to a tiny elf, it would look like an enormous forest.

Common plants in Coastal Sage Scrub are: "California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) Buckwheat (Eriogonum spp., notably E. fasciculatum), California Lilac (Ceanothus spp.), Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.), Monkey flowers (Diplacus spp., the drought tolerant types), Sage (Salvia spp.), Gooseberry and Currant (Ribes spp.), Coyote Brush (Baccharis sp.)."

You certainly see these plants as you go along your first section of trail. In the early spring, the ceanothus, also known as California Lilac, is blooming everywhere. Trees are absolutely covered in white to lavender to dark blue-purple flowers. They are very hard to photograph (trust me, I've tried for years) because they are so tiny and they flutter in the wind non-stop.

Buckwheat is hard to tell apart from another plant, chamise, unless the two are blooming, but buckwheat has umbels of tiny white flowers that turn rust-colored as they dry. Even after the flowers are gone, you can see umbrella shaped umbels sticking out from the plant. Chamise also has white flowers, but they are not in umbels at all. I've seen both on the trail. The first mile or two of the PCT is covered in chamise, which should be in full bloom in May. Red and orange monkeyflowers are also common, and you''ll also see (and smell) plenty of white sage and California sagebrush.

Buckwheat flowers with tarantula hawk wasp on it on Mt. Laguna, ~ mi 48

Chamise in bloom, on the trail in the first mile

Monkeyflower at mile 3

As noted before, Chaparral is sometimes called "elfin forest." It's similar to sage scrub but it would be harder to hike cross country through it because it's woodier.

"The aspect of a hillside can make a great difference in the makeup of the chaparral. North facing slopes are a lot moister and can support Toyon (Heterromoles arbutifolia), Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.), Scrub oak (Quercus spp.), Pitcher sage (Lepechinia spp.), Climbing Penstemon (Kekiella cordifolia, K. antirrhinoides), and Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum). The dry arid south facing slope is dominated by Chamise (Adenostoma spp.), Black sage (Salvia melifera), Yucca (Yucca spp.), Woolly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) and Bush poppy, (Dendromecon rigida)."

Of these, I saw a lot of chamise, manzanita, scrub oak, poison oak, yucca, and woolly blue curls in the early part of the trail. The poison oak was mostly limited to wetter areas like creeks. You can tell the manzanitas by their gorgeous red bark. Woolly blue curls are one of my favorite flowers of all. I saw quite a few in the first mile of the trail.

Woolly Blue Curls
Woolly blue curls, in the first mile of the trail

A manzanita at mile 2

More chamise, mile 3

Poison Oak
Poison oak at mile 1. Keep an eye out for more of it at the creek at mile 4.4.

There are a few other plants I saw quite a bit in the first few miles. They include:

Basket Bush
Basket Bush, Rhus trilobata, which some confuse with Poison Oak

Ribbonwood, also known as Red Shank, in the first mile or two of the trail

Sugar Bush
Sugar Bush, Rhus ovata, at mile 2. This shows the fruit and leaves in May.

Sugar Bush flower buds in March at mile 1

This year, you'll get to see an interesting phenomenon as you hike toward Lake Morena. When you pass the several miles that burned in the Campo fire last year, you will see a lot of "crown sprouters." The crown is the part of the plant where the roots meet the top portion of the plant. A lot of chaparral plants are adapted to burn above ground in a fire, but stay alive below ground. After the fire, they re-sprout from the crown. In March I saw several miles of nearly entirely bare ground with dead shrubs poking up all over. At the base of each, the plant was resprouting. At that time, the only other plants growing tended to be wild cucumber vines (with nothing to climb on since everything had burned) and California peonies.

Wild Cucumber
Wild cucumber fruit starting to grow with its flower still intact. Note: These are NOT EDIBLE fruits

Wild Cucumber
Wild cucumber flower

California Peony
California peony

Sagebrush, Oaks, Buckwheat, Elder, and Golden Yarrow
Sagebrush, Coast Live Oaks, Buckwheat, Elder, and Golden Yarrow around mile 21

As you hike your first miles of PCT, you also pass Riparian plant communities along streams. One example of this is right as you go under the 8 freeway, just north of Boulder Oaks. Riparian plant communities are always along streams, although sometimes the water dries up in SoCal during part of the year.

You commonly see three kinds of trees here: Cottonwoods, Sycamores, and Willows. You may also see blackberries, wild grapes, yerba mansa, California wild roses, poison oak, Douglas mugwort, cattails, and Juncus.

Blackberry near the footbridge just north of the 94, ~ mile 2

California Wild Rose
California Wild Rose, mile 24

Oak Woodland
Despite the description of Oak Woodland as containing both Coast Live Oaks and Engelmann Oaks, you'll see mostly Coast Live Oaks at the lower elevation. I saw a great example of oak woodland at Lake Morena, complete with acorn woodpeckers all over the place living on the acorns. Fred Canyon at mile 32 looked like another good example.

Coast Live Oak
Coast Live Oak leaves at mile 2

Oak Tree
Coast Live Oak at Boulder Oaks, mile 26

I thought I might have found one Engelmann Oak around mile 22. They are not very common trees. In general, most of the time you see a tree (not a shrub) and you aren't near water, it's probably a coast live oak.

Right now, our oaks are in trouble from a bug called the Gold Spotted Oak Borer. It is invasive, probably from Arizona, and scientists believe it came to California in firewood. That is why they encourage you to "buy it where you burn it" when you buy firewood. Pests can be transported in the wood. The Gold Spotted Oak Borer lays its eggs in the bark of the trees and the larvae eat the inner bark of the trees, ultimately killing the trees. Then they boroe their way out to reproduce so the next generation can kill more trees. They only like older, larger trees, so it's the big, old trees that are in trouble.

Mixed Evergreen Forest
At last you reach Mixed Evergreen Forest on Mt. Laguna. I was surprised how far up the mountain I was before I truly reached it. I hiked to mile 36 in the dark and camped there, and then I woke up the next day and continued. I don't think it was until I was really around mile 40 or so that I felt like I had at long last reached the Jeffrey and Coulter Pines and the Black Oaks (Quercus kelloggii) I associate with Mt. Laguna. Coulter Pines have pine cones the size of pineapples so they are easy to spot. Black Oaks are deciduous so they drop their leaves in the winter. Their leaves look much different from Coast Live Oak leaves. Their acorns are different too. Coast Live Oak acorns are long, skinny, and pointy, whereas Black Oak acorns are more rounded and fatter.

Black Oak at Sunset
Black Oak leaves, mile 47

Coulter Pine
Coulter Pine on Mt. Laguna

Coulter Pine Cone
Coulter Pine with my hiking boot in the shot to show scale

It's not until you leave Mt. Laguna that other ecosystems transition into true desert. The miles before and after Scissors Crossing (mile 77-78) are truly desert. There you will see lots of different kinds of cacti, creosote bush, cat claw acacia, honey mesquite, and other desert plants.


As you climb out of the desert in the San Felipe hills, at a certain point the landscape changes and it's not truly desert anymore. I don't know at what point that is. You go up, up, up until about mile 96, and then you start going down the other side. And THAT is where you truly see a change. It's especially remarkable from about Barrel Springs (mile 101) onward, into Warner Springs. You can see this photo below, from near mile 106, is clearly no longer desert.


It's interesting that you are hiking between about 2000 and 6000 feet in elevation for all of Section A, and you are about 50 miles inland and going north the whole way through a cross-section of San Diego county. Why is it not all desert?

The answer lies in the mountains. Think about the miles you hike on Mt. Laguna from about 43 to 49. You are at about 5800 feet looking down over a vast, dry desert. Moisture comes in from the coast and it rises and cools. A lot of the rain falls on Mt. Cuyamaca, named from the Kumeyaay word for "rainy place." What's left falls on Mt. Laguna. Very little moisture remains after that, creating the desert. But without such tall mountains to cool the air and wring all of the moisture out of it, other areas of the county that are equally far inland are not equally dry.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

PCT Day 7 - Miles 105 to 109.5: Warner Springs

My last day on the trail was a short one. I had just 4.5 miles to go, and they were flat, easy miles at that.

I'd been naughty and camped near a creek the night before, and I resolved not to go to the bathroom the next day until I was well away from it so that I did not pollute the water. I packed up, ate a bar, and got going, eager for the moment when I was far enough from the creek that I could do my business.

The trail crosses the creek and then climbs above it, eventually entering a meadow. This part of the trail is beautiful. I could not get an adequate picture of it, but imagine mountains all around in the background and green, rolling meadows filled with wildflowers of all colors. There were fiddlenecks, baby blue eyes, daisies, lupines, ground pinks, red maids, cryptantha, California poppies, and a creamy white flower I did not recognize.




California Poppy




Baby Blue Eyes

Red Maid

Ground Pinks

Before long, the trail reaches Eagle Rock, which is what it sounds like... a rock that looks like an eagle. The meadow gives way to some chaparral, and then the trail reaches another meadow, one I'd camped in before. I was now firmly on familiar ground. From there, the trail enters oak woodland and goes along a creek. For much of the way, the creek is not easily accessible from the trail. But just before the trail reaches the highway, there are some good campsites near the creek, and then the creek crosses the trail and I had to step through the shallow water.

The road is Highway 79, and the trail reaches it next to a fire station. Instead of continuing on the trail, I crossed the road and went right, walking about a hundred yards to the Warner Springs Community Resource Center.

With such a short hike, my body felt fine, but my feet HURT. I thought about it and realized that my hiking boots were probably at the end of their lives.

Unfortunately, even at Highway 79, my stupid T-Mobile phone STILL had no reception. I borrowed a man's phone at the Warner Springs Community Resource Center (he had Verizon, which has service) and called my friend to come get me. Then I enjoyed all of the creature comforts they had to offer: a flush toilet, a chair, and the opportunity to take my hiking boots off and put my camp shoes on instead.

My brief little adventure on the PCT was over, although I still have 28 miles of Section A to hike (from mile 48.9 to mile 77) that I plan to do within the next year. It was so much fun, I think I'll hike Section B next!

PCT Day 7 - Miles 93 to 105: Barrel Springs

  • Started: Mile 93.2, 4052 ft
  • Stopped: Mile 105, 3370 ft
  • Miles: 11.8
  • Elevation Gain: 300 ft

I woke up on Day 7 with just eight miles to go to the next water at Barrel Springs at mile 101. This is a spring that often flows through a pipe into a cement cattle trough. When it isn't flowing, you have to just get your water out of the trough. After Barrel Springs, water would be available regularly for the 8.5 miles to the end of Section A, Warner Springs. I wanted to hike as far as I could that day, maybe even all the way to Warner Springs.

As usual, I got a late start, not waking up until 8am. I got on the trail and continued hiking along the contours of the hills in the snakelike fashion the trail winds around. It meanders gradually up until about mile 96 and then starts to go down again to Barrel Springs.

As you begin your descent, you can see roads and buildings in the distance. The last miles into Warner Springs are through meadows and cattle pasture, so I knew I was not truly near the end until the chaparral gave way to meadows. Throughout this section, wildflowers were everywhere.

I took note of the appearance of Baby Blue Eyes, a flower I first saw at Warner Springs and have never observed in the desert. Was that a sign I was getting close?

Baby Blue Eyes
Baby Blue Eyes

At last, the trail descended into Barrel Springs. The spring was running, and there was trail magic!!!!!!

Trail Magic at Barrel Springs

I excitedly rushed to it and saw it was Coors, apples, and candy. Unlike PCTers who burn 4000 calories a day and eat or drink anything, I was not doing the kind of miles to eat anything I liked. Also... I want to find a way to say this properly. I was SO grateful to the kind, kind people who left the trail magic. I wanted to write a thank you note. I felt such joy at seeing it. Not only was it so extremely generous and thoughtful, it also made me feel like a "real" PCTer to be the recipient of the kindness. And yet... Coors is disgusting. Even when hot and tired, I wasn't interested. But that did not decrease the amount of gratitude I felt. Most PCTers would probably drink anything, so it's unfair to impose my picky beer standards on beer left for them.

In any case, I went over to the spring and felt like the constant flow of water was an incredible luxury after relying on caches for several days. I refilled my water, made and ate dinner, did my laundry, bathed myself, and washed my dishes.

I sat there for two hours waiting for my clothes to dry, resting, and watching a wild turkey scratch and peck around nearby. I only washed one of my two shirts, pairs of socks, and pairs of underwear, but I washed my only pants and I was afraid hiking in them wet would lead to chafing. They dry quickly but not instantly.

Finally, impatient, I put on my damp pants and got going. I have hiked a few miles SOBO from Warner Springs before, so at some point I would join up with a part of the trail I was familiar with. I considered whether to attempt to go all the way to Warner Springs that night and decided against it. I would have to call a friend to come get me from there, and I wasn't going to call her late at night. Nor did I want to call her first thing the next morning. I decided to camp a few miles short of Warner Springs so that when I arrived and called her, it would not be too late in the day, but I wouldn't be waking her or inconveniencing her before she had a chance to have breakfast and coffee.

The trail south of the road (S-22) was not all meadows as I'd expected. It still went up into some chaparral and then back down into meadows. I might have considered camping in the meadows, which you absolutely are not supposed to do, but there was cow manure everywhere. Where the heck could I camp to avoid cow manure?

The answer presented itself at mile 105. The trail descends to San Ysidro Creek and there is a beach-like area of exposed sandy soil with room for several tents. Leave No Trace principles say no to camping near water just like it says camping in meadows - you should be 100 feet from the water - but I didn't feel like I had a whole lot of options.

So I resolved to camp near the water but behave myself... no going to the bathroom within 100 feet of the water, or bathing, or doing laundry, or anything else that should be done away from water.

There was one other camper there with me, a man from Europe on a thru-hike who I did not find very friendly. At dusk, a very loud chorus of Pacific Tree Frogs started up. "Are they going to do this all night?" he asked. "Yep. Bring earplugs?" I replied.

I love the sound of frogs. They don't keep me from sleeping at all. But I privately thought that if a couple of noisy frogs bother him, well... he's going to find bigger challenges than that on the trail.

I was surprised after the fact to do the math and realize I'd gone almost 12 miles. My feet hurt but I felt fine otherwise. I could have kept going. Maybe I felt so good because I mostly went down hill? Who knows. (I can go more than 12 miles when I'm in shape, but prior to this trip I'd done no training. I guess I was getting my trail legs back!)

In any case, having already eaten dinner and done everything that needed to be done at Barrel Springs, I changed into my clean, dry clothes, got in my cozy sleeping bag, and went to bed.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

PCT Day 6 - Miles 84-93: The Third Gate

  • Started: Mile 84.5, 3310 ft
  • Stopped: Mile 93.2, 4052 ft
  • Miles: 8.7
  • Elevation Gain: 1124 ft

I did not wake up until about 9am. I was in a cozy little campsite that was shaded by the hills around me, and despite being in a 15 degree down sleeping bag in the desert, I was comfortable until then. Once the sun hit my tent, it turned it into an oven. That's usually what gets me up in the morning when I'm camping. If I want to wake up at a reasonable hour, I need to put my tent where the sun will hit it as early as possible.

Once I got up and got going, I saw what a pretty area I was hiking in. Like the night before, I was surrounded by flowers. Maybe even more so in the section I was hiking now. Entire hillsides were covered in lupines. The trail was gorgeous.

Like the day before, the trail hugged the contour of the hills, snaking around as it went. It felt like a waste of energy in such hot weather to walk the curves of the hills, around and around, instead of going anywhere in a straight line. I repeatedly had to convince myself that I would use more energy, not less, if I left the trail and climbed down the slope of the hill and back up again where I could see the trail on the other side.





Flower with mites on it (the red specks)

I did not take as many photos as I might have done because it was so dang hot. As much as I love wildflowers and photography, my interest in both goes down when it's hot out, particularly when I am carrying a heavy pack. Especially when getting a good photo means getting down on the ground in the dirt and perhaps taking off my pack.

Again, like so much of Section A on the trail, there was almost no shade. When I did find some, I sat. Usually I just sat right down in the dirt, because there was so little shade that it seemed to never coincide with the placement of good rocks to sit on.

Two hikers passed me as I went along. One spoke to me briefly. The other one spoke too, but unintelligibly. His words made no sense, and I resolved to stop attempting any conversation with him.

Another hiker reached me but, believe it or not, did not pass me. It's rare that I'm faster than anyone.

The goal for all of us was the Third Gate. This is a wonderful water cache at mile 92.1. Whereas every other water cache on the PCT should not be relied upon, the Third Gate cache is 100% reliable. It's 14 miles from the last water, the cache at Scissors Crossing, and 10 miles from the next water at Barrel Springs. I also knew from a PCT memoir I was listening to on audiobook that the Third Gate Cache has shade. Lots of it. You can sit there, or even lay down and nap, in the shade.

I had 6.6 miles to hike to get to the Third Gate, and I was single-mindedly heading for it all day. Not stopping to nap. Not stopping to eat. Not taking pictures. Just hiking on in the heat until I got there.

I wanted to use the liter of water I had left when I was nearly there to cool myself off, or to wash up with. But I forced myself to go all the way to the cache, to make sure I found it, and make sure it had water, before using up my last liter. And I did.

It's called the Third Gate because the section of trail between Scissors Crossing and Barrel Springs has seven pipe gates. The first one was at mile 86. The second one was at mile 88.2. And the third one was at mile 91.2.

Not long after going through it, I saw a fork in the trail. To the left, a sign marked the PCT. To the right, there was a sign that said "Water." I went right.

As promised, there were lots of shady trees! And campsites. Wonderful campsites. And even logs and rocks to sit on. But where the heck was the actual water?

I heard a few people talking and I called out to them and asked where the water was. A guy came out and pointed down the trail but said "It's quite a ways." So... just keep following the trail. Down, down, down it went. I did not look forward to coming back up this trail. But once I got to the cache, I did not plan to go anywhere fast. I was parking myself in the shade with some water and staying put until the weather cooled off.

The cache consisted of pallets of bottled water by the gallon, covered in tarps. A sign asked hikers to take only 3 liters, but I did not see that until I was leaving, after I had already taken more. I tried to use my water sparingly, to not be wasteful, but I used what I had to wash up a bit, and then I used the water from the cache to refill my five liters and to cook dinner.

Another thru-hiker, one who passed me earlier, was sitting by the cache in the shade. I joined him. His name was Joel. For the first time, I introduced myself with my new trail name, Nightcrawler. Once I cooled off a bit and felt a little better, I made dinner.

Then the weird hiker who I had resolved to avoid showed up. I'd passed him napping by the trail shortly before the cache. He came, went about his business, ignored the two of us sitting there, and left.

Last, the slow hiker arrived. He was planning a thru-hike, but this was a training trip for him. He was absolutely dying in the heat, and he had planned a 24 mile hike from Scissors Crossing to Barrel Springs that day followed by 8.5 miles the next morning to Warner Springs. He'd had a rough day, and he still had 10 miles to go. His name was Ken.

I ate Good To-Go Thai Curry, which was delicious, and he cooked Alpine Aire Pineapple Orange Chicken, which he said was so disgusting it was nearly inedible.

Joel left first, and soon Ken and I saw him on top of a nearby hill. I assumed he had done some crazy thing climbing up it for fun, and that the trail did not go quite so high. I found out later that the trail did go up there.

I left second, leaving Ken at the cache, but he said he'd catch up to hike with me. While I hiked back up to the trail, I met another man coming down. He said he'd seen four rattlesnakes in the last hour or so. Right after that, I saw this:

Third Gate Rattler

I counted, and it had 13 rattles. It was right in the trail, going nowhere, but not rattling either. Until I poked it in the tail with my trekking pole, that is. Then it coiled. I wanted it to get out of the trail so Ken wouldn't have to encounter it.

Third Gate Rattler, Coiled

After I started hiking again, I was of two minds. On one hand, I wanted to set up camp and get in my sleeping bag as soon as possible. On the other hand, I did not want another long hot day in the sun the next day. The more miles I did at night, the fewer I'd have to do when it was hot the next day. And, as Ken reasoned, it was best to get the uphill bits out of the way at night if we could. (I think his resolve to actually hike all the way to Barrel Springs that night was crumbling a bit... now he was talking about getting to mile 96 or so, to finish all of the uphill at night and go down to Barrel Springs in the morning.)

In the end, I made it two more miles and stopped at mile 93.2. If I had gone on, the next campsites, "may be hidden by brush" according to my map. Assuming I could not see them from the trail in the dark, I would have to hike to mile 95.2 or mile 95.9 for a place to camp. I didn't feel like risking it, so I said goodbye to Ken, set up my tent, and went to sleep.

PCT Day 5 - Miles 77-84: San Felipe Hills

  • Started: Mile 77, 2276 ft
  • Stopped: Mile 84.5, 3310 ft
  • Miles: 7.5
  • Elevation Gain: 1034 ft

The 24 miles from Scissors Crossing to Barrel Springs (miles 77 to 101) has no water at all. None. In fact, the waterless stretch extends beyond that for most of the year, because usually San Felipe wash at Scissors Crossing is empty as well.

The good news about this dry, desert stretch of trail is that it is extremely well supplied by water caches. The caches are maintained by trail angels specifically for PCT hikers, which is far better than other man-made water sources like taps at campgrounds that are only on when the campgrounds are open whether PCT hikers need them or not. I cannot emphasize enough the appropriateness of the term trail angel.

I was not sure if I was going to get back on the trail after I left it. At first I just wanted a shower. I wanted to shave my legs. I wanted to wear clean clothes. I got my tent, which I'd left in my friend Leslie's truck by accident, and I was thrilled to have my cozy little home away from home back. But after three days off the trail, I was itching to get back on it. I decided to pick it back up again at Scissors Crossing.

I made a somewhat rushed decision, late afternoon on March 17. I wanted to get back on the trail! And since I'd always planned to do the section starting at Scissors Crossing at night, it made sense to go immediately.

From Scissors Crossing (mile 77), one ascends into the San Felipe Hills. It is desert. It is hot. There is no water. The next water cache is at mile 91.2 (the "third gate" cache). One needs far more water hiking when it's hot and sunny than when it's cool and dark. I figured it was both safer and easier to do this bit in the late afternoon and evening. The more of those 14 miles I could hike at night, the better. I planned to hike until midnight and then camp. And I took water bladders capable of carrying five liters.

Although I'd heard the water cache at Scissors Crossing is no longer maintained and cannot be relied on, recent information was that there were gallons and gallons of water cached there. I still filled up as much as I could before heading over there, but I decided to pack up and go in such a rush that I did not have even my five liters of bladder capacity filled up. Fortunately the cache was there, and I filled up the rest of my five liters before leaving the road.

The desert near Scissors Crossing was busting out in flowers. There were lupines and phacelia and a flower I assumed was a four o'clock of some sort and cryptantha, and much more.

Four O'Clock?

By the way, a pet peeve of mine is when people refer to the first 700 miles of the PCT as "desert." Those 700 miles go through plenty of desert, but most of Section A really is not desert at all. There is chaparral, oak woodland, pine forest, riparian areas, and so on. But this part of the trail, before and after Scissors Crossing, THIS is desert:


I saw a few hikers ahead of me when I crossed the road, starting the section. They were faster than me, and soon they were long gone. I was alone as I hiked up, up, up into the hills. The trail snakes around following the contours of the hills, which have almost no flat areas whatsoever. Before long, you can look down and see the highway running toward Warner Springs, the same place the trail is going. Those cars have it easy compared to us hikers. Their route is straight and flat.

The sun set, and when it was just too dark to see well but I had not yet taken out my headlamp, I was startled by a rattle.

Crabbiest Rattlesnake I've Ever Seen

That's the first snake I've seen in several years. Not only that, but it seemed uncommonly grumpy. Most of the snakes I see are either sunning themselves or slithering off to get somewhere. Very few rattle, and fewer coil. The two I can remember that coiled were both provoked. This one rattled and coiled. And it's true, I was walking along and not looking at the trail as I should have been, so you could say it was provoked. But I was still five feet from it when it rattled at me and I stopped. It remained coiled in the trail while I waited for it to leave, and then started considering my options of either throwing rocks near it or walking around it.

I had just started to walk around it when the snake decided to leave. So after another moment, I was able to continue on the trail. I took out my headlamp at that point, and was much more careful for the rest of that evening and each night thereafter.

After about five miles, I came upon two men camping at mile 82.4. They introduced themselves, and we established that they were the two I'd seen back at the road. I told them how much further I'd hoped to get that night, and they hesitated for a moment, as if I had no idea how long that would take me. I realized they assumed that, like a normal hiker, I was on the brink of setting up camp and going to bed soon. So I added, "Well, I plan to hike until midnight."

With that, they gave me my trail name: Nightcrawler, because I am slow, and I hike at night. I took it. While I do not always hike at night, I certainly do so more than other hikers it seems. And I'm definitely slow.

Campsites are infrequent in the San Felipe Hills, and they are often just enough room for one tent in a wash, with a half mile or more before you reach another spot flat enough to camp. The only true downside to night hiking, in my view, besides missing whatever scenery and photography opportunities you would have during the day, is that it is hard to find campsites. Headlamps are great for reading, and good enough for seeing the trail right in front of your face. But campsites can be off the trail quite a ways - in the Sierras, the rule is 100 feet from the trail - and your headlamp cannot help you see that far.

Fortunately, in this hilly area, most of the campsites were directly next to the trail, making them easier to find in the dark. But finding a campsite was a source of anxiety nonetheless. If I opt to hike past one, how far will it be to the next one? And will I even see it at all? (In a period when there are more hikers on the trail, another question would be "And will the next campsite be available?")

Thus, at 11:20pm, after hiking 7.5 miles, I pitched my tent at mile 84.5, leaving myself about six and a half miles to go in the hot sun of the next day to reach the Third Gate Cache at mile 91.2. That was more hiking that I'd like to do in 90 degree desert, but at least I felt I would be safe, if uncomfortable. I had enough water, with most of my five liters remaining. I chose not to cook dinner that night, and instead I ate a few Babybel cheeses. Then I went to bed.

PCT Day 4 - Miles 36-42: To Mt Laguna Resupply

  • Started: Mile 36.1, 5282 ft
  • Stopped: Mile 42.6, 5942 ft
  • Miles: 6.5 plus a mile of road walking, plus the amount by which I got lost
  • Net Elevation Gain: 660 ft

I woke up late on Day 4, March 14, 2017. I was snuggled into my sleeping bag, wet with dew because I had cowboy camped again. It was to be a short day. I did not mind sleeping in until 9am to let the sun dry my sleeping bag, since I did not think it would take me long to hike a mere 6 miles. And I would prefer to never pack my gear while it is wet.

The day before I did most of the elevation gain to reach the top of Mt. Laguna, hiking from 3170 feet at Boulder Oaks to about 5282 feet, by my estimate. Today I would go down a little bit to Long Canyon creek at 5230 feet, up to a maximum of 6005 feet, and down very slightly to the Mt. Laguna resupply.

There are two possible places you can send your resupply on Mt. Laguna. One is the lodge, which charges a $5 fee for the service, and the other is the post office, which charges no fee other than the price of mailing your package. I'd opted for the lodge, because they have better hours. I did not want to risk getting to the top of Mt. Laguna only to find the post office closed.

Leslie was waiting for me at the lodge, and I did not want to keep her waiting long. Unfortunately, my little six-mile hike with minimal elevation gain seemed to take me forever.

Like the day before, it was hot. Probably in the 80s but by my standards that's too hot. I had some shade early in the morning, but by mid-day there was none. The views between miles 36 and 37, at least, were nice.

The View Hiking Up Mt Laguna

The seasonal creek at mile 37.1 was no more than a puddle. But the "Long Canyon Creek Ford" at mile 37.7, while not a "creek ford" (I hopped over it on some rocks) was flowing well enough to fill up my water in.

Water ~ PCT Mi 37
"Stream" at mile 37.1

Granary Tree
Granary tree of an acorn woodpecker. They drill holes and shove acorns in them for storage.

Around mile 40, I ran into what I first thought were two day hikers having a snack, seated on a log. "Where are you hiking?" I asked.

"Canada!" was the reply.

Leslie and I had met one thru-hiker before, a man named Mike with a 52-lb pack who was cheerfully hiking along at mile 12, on his way to Lake Morena despite his heavy load. Aside from him, these were the first ones I'd met. Their trail names were Raven and Freebird. Raven is an artist and she wore a hiking skirt with a beautiful design of a raven and the sun.

Freebird was on his fourth thru-hike of the trail. He's done heavy snow years before. Raven did part of the trail last year too. They are taking it slowly and enjoying it, but planning to reach the Sierras in May. Freebird prefers to go over the snow before it melts, before there are nasty water crossings and swarms of mosquitoes. I must say, I see his point. So long as there is not an increased danger of avalanches, at least, but no doubt he is mindful of that too since he's already done it so many times.

We hiked along together for a little bit, but then they passed me because I am so slow and could not keep up.

I just kept going, feeling like these short six miles would last forever.

I did not take the first turn-off from the trail that pointed to the road and the lodge. Leslie had mentioned she might hike to meet me and I did not want to miss her. I continued going to Burnt Rancheria campground, to the drinking fountain, which is now off. Raven and Freebird were there cooling off in some water in a trough near the drinking fountain.

I made a dumb move. Instead of hiking on a ways to the next turn-off from the trail to the road, I decided to cut through the campground. Only once I entered the campground, I could not figure out which way led to the road. I decided to just go straight in the direction of the road, off trail, and not following the roads of the campground. My short cut was a long cut instead. I bypassed the post office and lodge, exhausted myself, and felt very foolish too.

When I got to the road, I could not tell which way I needed to go to the lodge. But a building to the south looked like it was the right one. I turned left and walked along the road to it. Thankfully, I was right. There was Leslie, waiting for me. I could only think of a cold beer.

I had planned for us to spend the night at mile 48.9, at the Penny Pines Noble Canyon Trailhead. There is water there, although it is off now. But there is a spring I know of nearby. And, in any case, I had no intention of going anywhere on foot for the rest of the day. The heat had just done me in, and I wanted to take off my boots and sit.

Leslie, on the other hand, had spent the day waiting for me, and she was eager to go hike. She suggested we camp at the El Prado/Laguna Campground, the only nearby campground that was open. It was a few miles up the road, or about 5.5 miles by trail. She would hike there, and I'd hitch a ride later.

I sat a while, and ate, and drank, and checked the trail water reports posted at the lodge, and I got my resupply box and packed it. I went to the bathroom in a real toilet. And I went over to the gear store to get sunblock, aloe, and a hat that gave my poor burnt neck more coverage. I looked to see if they had anything to cover my burnt calves too but they didn't. Well, they had pants, but I didn't want pants. I like hiking in my capris.

At the gear store, I met a few more thru-hikers, Dr. J and Inchworm. They said they'd share a campsite with Leslie and me, since it was $24 per night for a site at the campground.

Later, back at the lodge, I could no longer resist temptation to buy a Julian pie. They only sell entire pies, not slices. But between so many thru-hikers, Leslie, and myself, we could eat a whole one. Right? So I got an apple-cherry.

(By the way, there is a restaurant on Mt. Laguna but we were there on a Tuesday and it was closed.)

Then I did the last thing I intended to do before heading to the campground. I refilled my water at the Laguna visitor's center. I heard voices nearby and I looked around. There were Raven, Freebird, Dr. J, and Inchworm. They had all decided to camp there, for free, instead of going several miles further to the campground where one had to pay. They urged me to stay, but I could not leave Leslie.

I gave them all pie and had some myself. Then I tried to hitch a ride to the campground. And I had no luck.

It was getting to the time when I had promised Leslie I'd meet her there. I really needed to get there. After a few minutes standing by the road, I started walking. Whenever I heard a car, I'd stop and stick my thumb out. Nobody stopped.

I'd gone a mile before finally a car did stop. The man said, "I bet you're going to meet your friend. We just saw her. It's a long way to get to her." There was a woman in the car too, and a dog. They'd met Leslie over at the campground, or maybe on her hike, and they knew she was waiting for me. They kindly brought me to her.

We got a campsite and got set up for the night. Leslie had looked for a place to pay without success. The campground had some faucets working, we were told, but the showers were off. We found out the next day they were actually broken.

Leslie loved her short hike that afternoon, but her feet were now giving her bad enough problems that she thought it wise to stop hiking altogether. She had a trip coming up that she is looking forward to, and she did not want to jeopardize it. It was going to be her daughter's first backpacking trip, and she wanted to be there with her daughter of course. Plus, it required a hard-to-get permit, whereas the section we were hiking does not. She can come do this trail any time, but not the other one. And she has only one chance to be there for her daughter's first trip. So she was done.

Leslie offered to trail angel me, but at that point I got cold feet. I'd met a ranger on the trail that day and he told me what I already knew, that Pioneer Mall had no water, and then scared me by saying he thought Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail had no water either. To get down Mt. Laguna to the desert without running out of water, we needed several places to have water, and we needed to know in advance which ones did. The water report said that Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail had water. I did not feel good about the conflicting information.

What's more, Leslie's phone can get internet from the trail to check the water report, whereas mine doesn't, and Leslie's phone can often make phone calls too. Mine can't. And she has a DeLorme InReach, and I don't. She has the means to get information and get help if an emergency strikes. I don't. And I still didn't have my tent, and now we were getting a forecast for rain the second to last day of our hike.

I think some part of me also just wanted a shower and a flush toilet. And I felt it was probably safest to let my sunburn heal before going out in the sun all day again. (Despite buying sunblock, I did not want to use it. It was some awful chemical mess that I did not want on my body, I did not want getting on my sleeping bag, and I did not want washing into the environment.)

One last part of my decision had to do with the flowers. At the lowest elevations of the desert, a superbloom was taking place. The trail goes through the desert's higher elevations. Thus far, there were very few flowers on the trail. If I got off the trail, I could day hike around in the desert, shower regularly, eat real food, not risk my life, and go each day to the places with the best wildflower blooms.

The next day, the two of us found the camp host and paid for our site, and then we got a ride back to the Lodge, where Leslie had cell reception and where we had a better chance at getting a ride. We ended up calling a shuttle and paying them to take us back to Leslie's truck in Warner Springs. The shuttle was expensive but they misquoted us the price and accidentally gave us a 50% discount, making the cost very reasonable.

As we drove down Mt. Laguna to Scissors Crossing, I immediately felt I'd made a mistake. There was water everywhere. The landscape was green.

Also, the low elevations of the desert (where all the flowers were) was forecasted to be in the 90s for several more days and then cool down to 70. Wouldn't it be better to wait until the weather cooled to go down there? And in that case, what was I going to do for several days? I might as well hike the PCT.

I ended up skipping the section of the trail between Mt. Laguna and Scissors Crossing. I've day hiked the flat stretch on Mt. Laguna to mile 48.9 before, so I basically skipped 28 miles of Section A overall. I hope to hike that bit later this year, or early next. A few days later, freshly showered and with clean laundry, I started up again at Scissors Crossing and finished the hike to Warner Springs.