Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Finding a Good Therapist

I've been to a LOT of therapists in my life, more bad than good. The reason for the high number is that I went to the bad ones between one and three times each, and I stuck with the few good ones until either I moved or they did. It was my first truly good therapist who taught me what therapy can and should be, making me far pickier the next time around.

Aside from that, I realized through my own research that the root of my problem is childhood trauma, which no therapist had figured out before. Even my good therapist hadn't treated me for trauma, and that's what I needed. A simple cognitive behavioral approach wouldn't do. I saw five different lousy, no good therapists before finding the right one on the sixth try.

In my family, we tend to see situations like this as our own fault. The thinking goes: I saw 5 different therapists and hated them all. The common denominator is me. I am being too picky or doing something else wrong. But it turns out that wasn't the case. So, for anyone else seeking a good therapist, here's my take on what makes a bad or good one, based on this recent experience.

Bad guy #1, seen as part of a migraine work-up at a headache clinic: At this point, I had no idea that I even HAD any mental illness. It was also before my brother had been diagnosed with anxiety, before my brother died of a heroin overdose, and before I knew my brother was into anything more than pot. My family is what you call a "covert" narcissistic family. Our problems aren't obvious. We look good. No drunks, no violence, no incest, not even a divorce. The guy asked me a series of questions utterly irrelevant to me. Does anyone in my family have an alcohol problem? Nope. Drug problem? To this I replied, "No, just pot." He goes, "That's a drug. It's illegal." Yeah, well, we differ on that. I replied something about it not being a big deal, and he kept insisting that pot is the devil or something. Years later, I realized my poor brother was self-medicating in the only way a teenager with no mental health resources who is living under abusive parents knew how. He was crippled by anxiety, and he smoked pot. If he lived in a different state, he could have gotten a prescription.

The guy kept going on with the questions: Domestic violence? No. Incest? No. Anyone in prison? No. Divorced parents? No. No, no, and no. And none of these questions did anything other than make me feel like this guy was wasting my time, and that if I said anything he didn't like (i.e. pot isn't a big deal) he'd correct me and basically shout me down until I shut up. Also, none of them picked up on the fact that I actually DID suffer from a big problem.

Then he asked if I had any anxiety? Sure. What about? Well, my migraines. Anything else? No. Just my migraines. Trust me, if you get migraines every day from common environmental triggers like fluorescent lights and television, you'll have anxiety too. I had to watch out for TVs and computer screens in stores at the time, ATMs on the street, fluorescent lights. Just leaving my house was about as risky as crossing the street in the game Frogger, and I had to do that every single day. One wrong move and I'd have serious head pain for the rest of the day. Yes, I had anxiety about that. But no, nothing else I was aware of.

As I think back, I was actually being bullied at work at the time, although I had not recognized it as bullying yet. It was just a few months before the bully got me fired. So there was other stuff going on in my life. Big stuff. But this guy never found out.

Bad Therapist #2: At this point, I had gone to a good therapist once, for a few visits. It was still just for my migraines, but one day I told him about my family. For the first time in my entire life, somebody listened. He said it sounded like my mom was narcissistic. My parents were toxic. I had a right to reduce the amount of contact I had with them. It was SO comforting to hear that. But then I moved, and told myself that I was being a baby by going to therapy. I was a spoiled little rich girl who came from a great family and had no right to complain about it. Maybe a year later, I decided I'd give therapy another go. A friend told me about a low cost program, and I went to whoever they assigned me to. I poured my heart out to this woman about my family. I revealed a lot of anger at my mother, and fear for the health and well-being of my brother, who was still living at home and suffering a lot of abuse.

This therapist did not listen or validate my concerns at all. About my brother, she told me that that was his problem, not mine, and he was a grown up and it was his job to solve his own problems, not mine. Yeah, well now my brother's dead. So thanks. That was great advice. Aside from that, even if that had ultimately was correct advice for a therapist to give a patient, it was wrong to invalidate my feelings like she did.

She also invalidated my feelings about my mother. I told her how I felt, and she said, "So what I am hearing is that there are both bad and good things about your mother." No, I told her. I just told you bad things. She corrected me, "There are bad AND good things about your mother."

OK, so you know what? There are bad and good things about every person. Probably Hitler had some good traits and Mother Teresa had a few flaws. That doesn't make it OK not to listen to your patient and to completely invalidate them like that. To show a complete lack of empathy and to refuse to acknowledge that your patient is in pain.

I gave up on therapy.

Then my brother died. I realized it was time to get serious. I wasn't some spoiled brat with trivial problems who was complaining for no good reason. Now that there was a dead body involved, I had solid proof that my family was actually fucked up. I got lucky on this one. I found a great therapist and went to her for a while. Ultimately, she moved away and so did I.

I was doing OK (or so I thought) until I went to grad school and shit hit the fan. Also, I had health insurance through the school and access to mental health services. Thus began my run of shitty therapists.

Bad Therapist #3: I pour my heart out to her. She replies, "So what do you want me to do?" Then, before we wrap up, she asks if I have an alcohol problem (no) or a drug problem (no) or if I'm about to commit suicide (no). I understand the liability issue for therapists that requires them to figure out quickly if their new patient is about to off themselves before their next session, but it came off as the most tone-deaf thing ever. It felt like she did not listen to a single thing I said. She lacked empathy. The right response to a patient explaining how much pain they are in is NOT "So what do you want me to do?"

It was around this point that I realized my root problem was trauma. I found the HMO's system of scheduling therapy really upsetting, because you call them to say you want therapy and then they have someone call you back to schedule it. Supposedly, the scheduler who calls has some special mental health skills to match you with a suitable therapist but in reality they don't. They just have the magic power to look at a calendar and say things like, "Well if you're free on Tuesdays then I can fit you in with Sven." And I'm not going to see someone named Sven. I want a female therapist. But, moreover, I'd like to find someone who will be a good fit in more ways than just availability on Tuesdays. The other thing is that you can't predict when they will call you back, so they call and catch you while riding the bus, or while in class, or at other inopportune times.

After trying Bad Therapist #3 with this HMO and then refusing to see Sven, I waited a while. After I figured out the issue was trauma, and further figured out I probably need EMDR, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I looked at the bios of the mental health staff on the HMO's webpage and picked out two women who deal with trauma. Then I called. They suggested one over the other, and made an appointment. The first available timeslot was two months away. So I waited. Then I saw her.

Bad Therapist #4: I actually like this woman. She was nice. Almost too nice. Sugary sweet, and constantly complimenting me in a way that made me not really believe any of the compliments. It's just weird to meet someone and after getting to know you for five minutes they've established that you're a fantastic, funny, likable, witty, smart, etc etc etc person. They barely know you! But at least she listened. She agreed with me that the problem was trauma. She agreed about EMDR. But she didn't know how to do EMDR. We had to refer me to someone who did. Which led to...

Bad Therapist #5: I took one look at this woman and thought to myself, "We're not talking about my sex life." I immediately did not trust her. Later I realized what it was. She reminded me of Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. She gave no eye contact and explained that she had to write everything I said down in order to remember it and that was why she gave me no eye contact. Still. It felt like she wasn't listening. When I began to tell her about my problems, she started insisting that I ought to use some special software that adjusts your computer's light to help you sleep better. She got really pushy about it, too. I realized before my second visit that I just did not trust her and was really bothered by the lack of eye contact. When I called to cancel, she got even worse. She called back while I was in a crowded, noisy coffee shop and couldn't really talk. She asked why I was canceling, and I gave her a short, polite explanation, that I did not think I could build a trusting therapeutic relationship with her. She challenged that. OK, lady, you just PROVED I can't build a trusting relationship with you. That's you not listening and validating my feelings, right there. I said I had to go. She wouldn't stop talking. I hung up.

Bad Therapist #6: This one was also awful. The first day I went to see her, she said she was diagnosing me with anxiety and depression. I'd told her I suffered from anxiety, but not depression. I've since started suffering from it but I had not really at that time. So I said, "I suffer from depression?" She said, "Well, they often go together." I said, "I'm not opposed to the diagnosis, but I wasn't aware that I was suffering from depression. How do you know?" She said, "Well, maybe we can assess it later. I'll just put anxiety for now." Yeah. Way to go. Diagnose me with something before actually examining me for it.

She was going to do EMDR. She said we were going to start by teaching me tools to handle any difficult emotions that would come up. She wanted me to envision a box with a lid where I could put difficult emotions if they came up in class or something, and then I could take them out of the box and deal with them later. "That sounds awful," I thought. I hate visualization stuff like that. I didn't think it would work for me, either. But, as luck would have it, I'm AMAZING at suppressing emotions. I don't even need her stupid box. So I said, "I don't want to." She replied sharply, "You have to."

I have to? Yeah, we're done. Wrong answer. The right answer would be something that implies that she's listening to me and validating me, such as "Can you tell me why you don't want to?" Maybe she'd learn something important about me that way that could help her in treating me. Maybe I have a concern about it that she could talk me through, and then I'd be willing to do her dumb box exercise later.

I wanted to do the EMDR though, so I did what I did as a child when my parents wanted me to do something I didn't want to do: I lied about it. Oh, yeah, sure I did that box thing. Yeah, super helpful. Mmm hmm. If you feel you can only deal with a therapist by lying to them, that's a bad thing.

The next time I saw her, she wanted me to brainstorm 10 traumatic events from my life to use in EMDR. For each one, she wanted me to come up with some sort of visual for it. I'm not really a very visual person. I relate for more to touch and even smell. And several of my traumatic events happened over the phone. It's also reasonably likely I had my eyes closed and even covered with an eye mask, which I do a lot when I have a migraine. So our conversation went something like this:

Her: And what did you see when that happened?
Me: I dunno. I was in my bedroom. It was over the phone.
Her: But you have to pick something.
Me: My bedroom.
Her: No, something specific.
Me: I dunno. I mean, there were the walls, the window, my four poster bed I had at the time...
Her: OK, the window.

I didn't really trust that this was a good way to go about picking something. She just picked that. How can you know if it is true or not? Shouldn't that come from me?

The third and last time I saw her was an even bigger mess. The idea was for me to tell her about a place that I found very relaxing. She'd write it down word for word and then I'd lay back and close my eyes, and she'd read it back to me. I'd get really relaxed and then, once I was relaxed, she'd lead me through the eye movements you do in EMDR. There were many problems with this. One is that I didn't find the idea of imagining myself being somewhere else very relaxing at all. Second, how the heck do I get relaxed with this lady I can't stand in the room? I decided to play along. I told her about a beautiful lake in the Sierras. Then I said I didn't want her reading it to me. It bothered me. I can't get relaxed with her talking. She said that experts developed this and we had to do it just like they instructed.

Finally, she relented. OK, I could just shut my eyes and she wouldn't talk. I tried that and realized it wouldn't work. How can I relax with this woman sitting there doing nothing? So I said, fine, read it to me. She said no, not if you don't want to. It took some convincing to get her to read it.

I shut my eyes like I was supposed to, and she read it back to me. Her voice bugged me. The way she altered my words bugged me. And it distracted me from actually imagining that lake. But if I really wanted to get relaxed, I think something like a mindfulness meditation would do the trick far better anyway. I decided to lie again. I'd just say I did it. I'd do her bullshit eye movement stuff, in order to get to the real deal EMDR. Then I got scared. EMDR and the eye movements changes real things in your brain. What if being furious and upset as I was and then doing those eye movements would screw up my brain?

I told her that I felt angry and I wasn't relaxed. She decided to use the rest of the session to give me a questionnaire to find out if I am... I dunno. A difficult person or something. Right, you're being a bad therapist, I'm responding to that, and I'm difficult. Uh-huh.

Bad Therapist #7: This was far less awful or dramatic. A friend recommended a good therapist, and that therapist had no availability. She recommended someone else. I don't like filling out intake paperwork, so I typed up a document with all the info they always ask, like who is your family of origin, who do you live with now, etc, and sent it to her. It included that I'm suffering from depression and I'm working on my PhD.

She started out by saying that it looked to her like I said a lot of bad things about my life, but I have a lot of positives too. I mean, a PhD! Well, for one thing, I don't have it yet. I'm pretty far from actually having it. And grad school is notoriously miserable for everyone (me included). But I decided to play ball. She asked why I feel so bad if I'm getting a PhD. I said that it's not very fulfilling the way friends or loving relationships are. A PhD does not give you a sense of love and belonging, which is what all humans need. But besides that, there's a lot of uncertainty between now and actually getting an academic position after graduating, and it's all really difficult. It's hard to find funding, and you might not get a grant at all. It's hard to find an academic job, and you might only get one in a place you don't want to live.

She kept insisting that my life is great because of my PhD that I don't even have yet. In other words, she was NOT LISTENING. Nor was she empathizing, or providing me with "unconditional positive regard" or validating me, and therapists are supposed to do those things.

This occurred several other times, on other topics. Generally, she'd relent after a while. I'd insist to her that I'm actually telling the truth about whatever it was (i.e. PhDs not being a cure for mental health problems) and she'd ultimately be like, "OK." But I don't want to have to prove to my therapist that I'm telling the truth. I want them to believe me the first time. If they don't understand, they can ask questions.

The other thing she did that stuck out was asking if I have any siblings. I was pretty rude about that. "A dead brother," I replied. "Oh right," she said. She forgot. I'm sorry but that's a big thing to forget. Yes, people forget. It's a common thing that normal, imperfect humans do. But a therapist just meeting a patient should really hone in on the big deal details of the patient's life that will be important in understanding and treating the patient. My brother's death and my lack of family (since he was my only sibling) are HUGE for me. I did not write that much on the document I sent her ahead of time - just about a page or so of stuff - but I wrote a paragraph of key details about my brother's death and the family's reaction to it. It should have been at the front of her mind.

None of these things alone were big enough to stop seeing her over. But all of them together were. So I did.

I ended up going to Psychology Today to find the good therapist who I just met. Here are the good things she did.

First, she invited me to an initial FREE visit to see if we would be compatible. WOW. I had to pay $75 for the privilege of having my time wasted by the last therapist.

Second, she sent over an online form with just a few questions. What are my problems? What are my goals for therapy? Do I use alcohol? How much? Do I use drugs? (no) Do I want to harm others? (no) Do I have suicidal thoughts? (no) Great. We got that stuff out of the way before the visit. It's also notable the way she just asked if I use alcohol and how much, and if I use drugs and I presume there would be questions about what and how much if I had said yes. A friend who is a therapist himself said that this is the right way to ask a patient these questions. It normalizes the behaviors instead of stigmatizing them. A patient with a drinking or drug problem might be willing to fill out a form that asks "Do you use alcohol? How much?" but could be more likely to answer "No" if asked instead if they have an alcohol PROBLEM.

Then, I met her. I sent over the same write-up that I sent the previous therapist. She remembered even minor details on there, like my ex-boyfriend's name, and that I have an aunt I like a lot. WOW. I didn't expect that!

And, she listened to me. She validated me. She was great. Here's one exchange that shows how great she is:

Me: Going to school gives me a lot of anxiety.

Her: What about it makes you anxious?

Me: Well, first there's getting there on time. You can't be even a little bit late, and there might be traffic or it can take a while to find parking.

Her: Does it arriving places on time always give you anxiety?

Me: Yes.

Her: Did it give you anxiety to get here on time today?

Me: Yes.

[OMG she was reading my mind!!! You should have seen me trying to get to this appointment on time. I set 2 alarms the night before, then overslept them both, left late, raced down the freeway, hit construction that brought traffic to a halt, and pulled into the parking space 1 min before I was supposed to be there, and then the credit card reader on the meter was slow. YES, I was freaking out!!!]

Me: And then, you have to eat before you go to school, or bring food, because there's no healthy food around there, and what's there costs money. And it's a half-mile walk from the parking garage to my building, and that bothers me.

Her: What bothers you about it?

Me: I feel trapped. I can't escape easily. And I feel exposed. Vulnerable. It's dangerous.

Her: OK. [She rephrases what I just said, proving she understand and was listening.]

WOW!!! Think about all of the other things she could have done. She could have told me it's nuts to feel that way about school. And it IS nuts. That's why I'm in therapy. She could have peppered me with questions about other options, like whether I could park closer to the classroom. She could have tried to fix me, by making suggestions, like telling me to leave my home earlier so that I'm not rushing around the parking garage freaking out that there aren't any spots before class. BUT SHE DIDN'T.

And you know what? Had she done that, she would have really freaked me out. Because that's how the very person who traumatized me in the first place would have reacted. I would have been completely triggered by such a response.

The way she DID respond was incredibly healing. She listened to me. She believed me. She HEARD me. I didn't have to prove to her why I have a right to feel the way I do about going to school. She just accepted it.

Both she and I know that this is not a healthy way to feel about school. We both know it's nuts to be this freaked out about minor every day things, like arriving places on time or finding parking or walking a half a mile. At some point, something about me needs to change so that I can attend school without as much anxiety. But we're not going to get there today. It won't be a simple straightforward fix, like telling me I'm feeling the wrong feelings. Retraumatizing the patient isn't the answer. And she gets that. Hallelujah.

The real issues at play here are the ones underlying these interactions. This therapist is telling me, by listening to me, that I'm worthy of being heard. That I have a right to my feelings. I don't have to convince her that my truth is my truth. She believes it. She's showing me that I'm important enough not only to listen to but to remember what I tell her. She's also showing me that I can trust her. And she won't trigger my trauma with her response to what I tell her.

The other therapists, on the other hand, conveyed the opposite message. I'm not worth listening to. I'm not important enough to remember what I say. My feelings aren't valid. I can't trust them. In one case, I could only deal with a therapist by lying to her.

This is big for all patients going to therapy. Many patients doubt their own self-worth and their own right to be heard by others. Many patients have had people around them prove that people cannot be trusted, and that if you are vulnerable in front of another person, you will be hurt. For a patient to open up to a therapist, and for a patient to heal, they need to learn that they ARE worthy of being heard, and that people CAN be trusted. Some people can be trusted, anyway. They need to learn how to trust, and also how to figure out who to trust. That's what my new therapist is doing for me, that the others did not.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

JMT Resupply Planning

Planning your resupplies for the John Muir Trail is, to say the least, a pain in the butt. The up side to doing it is: you're going to hike the John Muir Trail! So it's at least a little exciting to prepare for your trip.

Last time around I planned to hike the whole thing, start to finish, with 3 resupplies at Tuolumne Meadows (TM), Red's, and Muir Trail Ranch (MTR). I didn't hike all of that - it's a long story - but I'm going back to finish it up this year. In fact, I'm hiking my favorite part of the trail in its entirety in addition to finishing what I didn't do last time. I'm going from Tuolumne Meadows to Charlotte Lake, then over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley. I swore I'd never do Glen Pass again since I've already done it twice but, well... it's happening.

Last time around, I messed up when planning my food. I packed things I didn't like to eat. I bonked a few times. I planned to go from MTR to Whitney Portal without a resupply in the middle. My plans just sort of sucked all around. So here's what I learned:

  • I get really sad any time I have to carry more than 5 days of food at a time.
  • I don't actually really like Snickers.
  • I don't like trail mix at all.
  • Dried fruit gets really unappealing really fast, but if I have to eat any of it, prunes are my favorites.
  • It's nice to have a cup of tea at night.
  • Cheese and jelly beans are pretty much my favorite trail foods. I would live on them if I could.
  • The brewery in Mammoth is awesome. I am absolutely eating there when I reach Red's. No need to pack dinner that night.
  • The food at Red's is atrocious. I'd rather eat my dehydrated crap than what they've got. (Note to others reading this: I'm a foodie. If you aren't into organic, healthy, pasture-raised, whole grain, free range, hippie foods, you'll probably like their food just fine. But I don't.)
  • The food at VVR is amazing. Eat there.
  • You've probably heard it said already but MTR won't feed you unless you are a paying guest. Really.
  • However, the hiker bins at MTR are a place to find wonderful treasures and deliciousness.
  • The lodge at Tuolumne Meadows, which is right on the trail, sells these amazing breakfast burritos to go, but it's even nicer to eat there if you have time. If you started in the Valley, then by the time you reach it, you will REALLY appreciate their little fruit salad cups.
  • Good To-Go brand meals are delicious, despite the high price. The best one I had was Herbed Mushroom Risotto. However, I suspect the chili made me fart.
  • DO NOT take the ultralight people's advice and repackage your meals if you are eating curry!! That shit gets ALL OVER EVERYTHING and then all of your food tastes like curry.
  • If you DO feel the need to repackage your curry-flavored meals, pack up your neutral flavored food FIRST. Start with the most neutral tasting foods, get those squared away, and THEN handle the more flavorful stuff.
  • Adding a few dried herbs to basic, boring dehydrated meals available for purchase can really help them taste better.
  • Adding cheese to dried bean dishes REALLY helps it out.
  • Oatmeal tastes like paste after three weeks of having it for breakfast. I think adding sugar helps.
  • Granola, on the other hand, was too sugary-sweet for me for breakfast. I tried that on a subsequent backpack after the JMT and it was gross.
  • Mary Jane's Farm has some good meals but they all tend to use different permutations of the same so you can get sick of them easily even if you've packed different meals. For example, Curry in a Hurry is just Lentils, Rice, and Indian Spice with cheese. The same cheese that is in Chilimac and Cheesy Noodle Casserole, which are also almost identical to one another. Some of the Mary Jane's meals were too salty (Chilimac and Cheesy Noodle Casserole) and others (Black Bean and Corn Chowder) weren't salty enough. I fixed that by mixing them together.
  • Variety is IMPORTANT!!!! Last year I bought 2 Mary Jane's Farm meals in bulk and planned to eat them on many nights. It got gross by Day 2. Switch up your food, because if your food isn't appealing and you can't eat it, well... that's a big problem for multiple reasons.
  • One set of batteries in my Petzl headlamp was enough for the whole trip, although I still brought spare batteries anyway. My old Black Diamond headlamp constantly turned on in my pack and that thing ate batteries constantly.
  • As a female, one roll of toilet paper lasted approximately 8 days on the trail.

So.... here goes planning for this year. I am going to drive up to Mammoth, drop a resupply box at Red's, grab YARTS to Tuolumne, and start there. Then I'll hike out Kearsarge, hitch a ride to Independence or Lone Pine, and grab ESTA back to my car in Mammoth. The only resupply that needs to go out ahead of time is therefore the big, stupid MTR bucket that makes me angry at MTR even as I look at it, since they are so unfriendly to hikers and they charge so damn much. But that's the price I am paying to avoid carrying too many days of food at once.

So here's what I need:

  • TM to Red's: 3 breakfasts, 4 lunches, 3 dinners (getting a burrito at the Lodge in Tuolumne for 1 breakfast)
  • Red's to MTR: 5 breakfasts, 6 lunches, and 5 dinners (Taking a zero in Mammoth, eating dinner out, and eating a dinner and a breakfast at VVR)
  • MTR to Kearsarge: 8 breakfasts, 8 lunches, 7 dinners (Taking a zero at MTR so it's OK if a full day's worth of food is kind of heavy or bulky because I'll eat it there.)

So here's the plan:

Breakfast: Oatmeal with raisins, again, even though it tastes like paste. I'm packing brown sugar in a separate bag so I can add it to my oatmeal to taste each morning. Last year I tried mixing in the sugar ahead of time and I didn't add enough. Starbucks Via again as my coffee. It's gross. But the other options are worse.

Lunches: On my zero at MTR I'm going to have cooked veggie quinoa and wild Alaskan salmon. I don't want to carry around a fishy-smelling salmon wrapper, so that's something to eat where I can toss out the packaging. Otherwise, I've got cheese, salami, Jelly Bellies, bars (still looking for the kind I want to get for this year), Amy's brand candy bars, prunes, and olives. I only got a few packages of olives. They are a brand called Oloves and I've tried them. They are tasty. I don't know what kind of cheese I'm going to get yet. I might send one kind that is very shelf-stable in the MTR resupply and then bring something like an aged cheddar for the first part of the trip. I've got the salami already. It's a brand called Olli and it tastes good.

Dinner: I've got a mix of things for dinners. I've got five nights of Good To-Go brand. Three of them are the Herbed Mushroom Risotto, one Indian Vegetable Korma, and one Thai Curry. I'm going to repackage the risotto, but not the other stuff. The down-side to this brand is the packaging is obnoxiously huge and inflexible, and hard to shove in a bear can. For the remaining nights I'm going to have dehydrated soups I got from the bulk bins at my local food co-op. I'm going to be mixing it up between split pea, corn, black bean, refried beans, and curried lentil. I'm adding thyme, rosemary, cayenne, and dried kale leaves to several of them. I also added a dried shiitake mushroom or two to one of the split pea packages. I'm bringing dehydrated veggies separately and adding them to my food. I think I might also mix some of the black beans into the refried beans to take the flavor down a notch because I've tasted this stuff and it's a little over the top with the seasoning. The black beans, on the other hand, are nice and bland. For tea, I bring coca tea. It's good for altitude and you can buy it online from Peru.

Non-Food Items: Omnifix for blisters, any other first aid items, a roll of toilet paper in the MTR resupply. Dr. Bronner's soap in the MTR resupply. Trail maps for the next section of the trail after each resupply. Tampons... still need to work out when I'll need those. Hopefully not at all. And I'll buy fuel when I get there, so I think that's it!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

PCT Miles 42 to 49

This post goes from the South Boundary of Burnt Rancheria Campground at mile 41.6 to where the the GATR road at Penny Pines where there is water at the Noble Canyon Trailhead at mile 48.9. I did it in two out-and-back hikes, stopping and then starting again at mile 44.7, where the PCT meets the Big Laguna Trail. If you take the turn-off for the Big Laguna Trail, it's 0.5 mi to a parking lot on Sunrise Highway. There's no water or anything else useful there, just a parking lot. The Big Laguna Trail parking is not listed in the PCT Guidebook I'm using but if you're a day-hiker looking to do a part of the trail or a thru-hiker who might need to get to the highway to hitch a ride somewhere, it's useful to know.

This post will go from south to north (a.k.a. NOBO) beginning just north of the southern boundary of Burnt Rancheria Campground. The trail here overlaps with the Desert View Trail, which has numerical markers along the way:

About mile 41.8

It's a pretty stretch of trail at sunset:

Mt Laguna Sunset

Black Oak at Sunset

Well, it's a pretty stretch of trail all the time. The leaves in the photo above, by the way, are Black Oak, Quercus kelloggii. You saw a lot of live oaks at lower elevations, but up here on Mt. Laguna and at mid elevations throughout the state, you'll see black oaks. You might also see a granary tree, a tree where an Acorn Woodpecker has stored the acorns of the Black Oak:

Granary Tree

You come to the water at Burnt Rancheria campground, which has a spur trail to the campground itself. But the water is right on the trail. It is at PCT Mile 42.3 and it is only available when the campground is open, May to October. Here is what it looks like:




If you take the spur trail to Burnt Rancheria, it lets out at campsite #76... which isn't useful info necessarily if you are a PCT thru-hiker, but if you are looking to do a day hike or section hike on the PCT starting at Burnt Rancheria, it's good to know.

Keep going along, and you hit the spot where the Desert View trail leaves the PCT. It's well-marked with signs.



You can see the huge drop down into the desert:



At mile 43, you come to the Mt. Laguna resupply at a paved road to Stephenson Peak, near Desert View Picnic Area. It is marked with signs:


You're at an unnamed, unmarked paved road, which is just off of Sunrise Highway:


If you are looking for this spot from Sunrise Highway, it's near address 703.

You can see this thing that looks like Epcot Center:


Once you get back on the trail, keep going to another paved road at mile 43.6. This is also unnamed and unmarked. From Sunrise Highway, it is blocked off to cars:


It has this thing (not quite a sign) to the north:


And to the south:


And it is nearest to this address:


Walk past the gate and there is a nice sign telling you the PCT is here:


The trail is marked at either side of the road:


Just over a mile up the trail, you hit the junction with the Big Laguna Trail at PCT mile 44.7:


If you need to get back to Sunrise Highway, take the turn-off for the Big Laguna Trail (leaving the PCT), and you'll reach a parking lot at Sunrise Highway half a mile away.

I passed a Coulter Pine with its huge cones:


I took this photo of a Coulter Pine cone next to my hiking boot, so you can see the size of it:


Yeah. Seriously. The size of pineapples.

Here's the trailhead for the Big Laguna Trail:


And some nice maps:

Big Laguna Trail is near Mile 25 of Sunrise Highway, and you can see where it hits the PCT just northeast of the highway. The "You Are Here" arrow is pointing to the Big Laguna Trail trailhead.


Here is another map, for the rest of this section of the trail covered here:

The "You Are Here" arrow points to the Penny Pines parking area.

As you can see, the PCT remains east of the highway, toward the desert. It goes away from Sunrise Highway for a ways, and then comes back toward it and goes alongside it for a bit, until it reaches Penny Pines.

This was not my favorite section of trail. As you continue on past the Big Laguna Trail turnoff, you walk through a lovely area shaded by oaks and pines and protected from wind. You don't see it until you are past it, but you are walking around this peak to your east, and it is doing a great service shielding you from the wind. I think it's Monument Peak.

Lovely, shady woods.

Monument Peak
A view of Monument Peak once you've hiked past it heading NOBO.

After you reach the other side of the peak, there are a few turnoffs toward the desert but you keep going straight. Now, and until you reach Penny Pines, there is nothing shielding you from the wind. And boy is it windy. The vegetation is all short, and you can see that it burned in the past and it once was a bit taller. It seems like a catch-22: there's no shielding from the wind because the vegetation is short, and the vegetation remains short because of the dang wind.

The wildflowers change too. There's no more Diamond Clarkia, no more Chinese Houses, and no more Grand Collomia here. I saw gorgeous early June flower displays, and it made me sad that few thru-hikers would get to see some of my favorites, like Scarlet Larkspur. Then - right after I thought that, a thru-hiker came past me. He started on June 11. Well... it's not how I'd go about thru-hiking the PCT but at least he got to see the scarlet larkspurs that way.

By the way, this is not cool:


Leave our beautiful manzanitas alone if you are lucky enough to hike among them, please.

I see Giant Four O'Clocks, a flower that grows above 3000 feet in desert transition ecosystems here:

Giant Four O'Clock

Giant Four O'Clock

Giant Four O'Clock

And short-lobe phacelia:

Short Lobe Phacelia

Short Lobe Phacelia

You'll notice you're in an area that burned relatively recently:

Burned Area

You pass a turn-off to Foster Point:

Sign for Foster Point

A cute little California Kingsnake crossed the trail:

California Kingsnake

And there's a nice view of the desert:

Desert View

On the trail, there's Yerba Santa growing:

Yerba Santa

And this little flower:


You are still in an area that has obviously burned:

Burned Trees

Burned Area

As you continue to hike back toward the road, you see this observation point from a distance:

Observation Point at Sunrise Highway

You can't walk straight there, without going steep down and back up. If you look at the highway just south of there, you can see where you're headed. The trail kind of switchbacks around this area where the elevation drops off steeply, before bringing you to the road:

Sunrise Highway from the PCT

From there you go past the observation point, which I don't think is marked on any maps I've seen:

Observation Point at Sunrise Highway

The trail has a cement bench there, and there's also a trail from the PCT to the observation point (and the highway).

Bench on the PCT

From here on out, the trail basically hugs the road. Due to the steep drop-off however, the trail goes below the highway and you can't even see the road from the trail. But it's just above you. And... now you start to pass several of my favorite flowers.

Scarlet Larkspur, which typically bloom in early June:

Scarlet Larkspur

And a purple variety of Larkspur:


Turn around and you'll see the burned area you just switchbacked through:

Burned Area

When you are about to Penny Pines, here's your view of the desert:

View of the Desert

If you look south to the area of the mountains you just came from, you see this:

The View from the Trail

The gorgeous fuchsia blooms of the wild peas are now giving way to peas themselves:

Wild Peas

And more scarlet larkspur:

Scarlet Larkspur

Scarlet Larkspur

Scarlet Larkspur

(If you can't tell, I really like this flower.)

During this last bit of this section, you'll see blooming ceanothus during much of the spring, but they are done blooming by now. Now there are lots of California thistles, Yerba Santa, and morning glories, which grow on vines have white flowers and leaves shaped like arrowheads.

When you reach the Penny Pines turnoff, the guidebook says there is a "GATR road." Well, whatever that is, it just looks like trail. Not even a very long trail. You're practically at the road already. And it is delightfully well-marked. You'll want to follow this sign, to your left:

Trail Sign

Were you to skip the water and continue forward, you'd follow this sign toward Garnet Peak:

PCT Sign

Assuming you want water, hang that left and go to the road. There are actually two trailheads at the Penny Pines parking area that get you to the PCT.

This one:

Trail Sign

Which is near this thing:

Penny Pines

And this one:

Trail Sign

The trail sign marked "Water" send you to the latter. You can still see the radio tower and the Epcot looking thing from the road.

Radio Tower

View from Penny Pines

Not that you'll have any serious land nav situations here, but those are nice landmarks to have if you did. Or, if you're a newbie to land nav, those are good to use for compass and map practice.

In any case, look across the street for the water. There's a large board with signs and a map, and the faucet is nearby, very low to the ground. I've seen thru-hikers camped here. It's a nice place to camp, and certainly a handy spot to be after a stretch without much water when the campgrounds aren't open and before the next bit, which has a water cache at Pioneer Mall (mile 52.7) followed by 24.9 miles without water. When I was there in March the ground was covered in Baby Blue Eyes and California Buttercups. Now this were Common Goldenstars all over:


For all of my posts on the PCT, click here