By Robert Pitcher Nickelson, 2021 PCT NOBO Hiker Special to the Express On Saturday, May 8, I awoke 15 miles from my destination, Cajon Pass. My daughter Samantha, who lives in the area, was picking me up for a planned “zero day” and some rest and resupply. Just as important — a McDonald’s was located there. Good food is quite a motivator on the trail. I started my day at a brisk pace knowing the reward at the end. Every mile my pace picked up. I even indulged in a little trail running. I ordering my feast in my mind every step of the way, contemplating the pros and cons of every available item. I hiked 15 miles in six hours, a record pace for me. It was worth it — I had two cheeseburgers, large fries, McNuggets, large Coke and a McFlurry. Outstanding meal. My daughter picked me up right on time. Since I left Idyllwild (can’t remember when), things have changed. Geography, hikers, weather — everything. But not the trail. The trail does not change. It has no respect for you or your situation. It is the trail’s way or the highway, and it doesn’t care. I began this section of my trek with two other hikers close to my age — Louie, from Switzerland, and Dale, from North Carolina. Both strong hikers. We submitted to Mt. San Jacinto and headed down to the desert, west of Palm Springs. Weather was nice and hiking was good. We rested and watered up at the last water hole before we had to cross a section of trail to Interstate 15. You could see our destination, taunting us from five miles away. It was unusually hot that day, and we were without shade. Our water was warm. Warm water sucks. We walked on the trail (if there was a trail) just toward a target in the distance. We walked on six inches of sand. Every step was hard. My mind wandered, thinking this is bull. We knew we were close, but fellow hiker Dale sat down in the hot desert to rest. Louie and I rambled on, hoping to make it to some shade for rest. A quarter mile later, we arrived at the underpass oasis at Interstate 10. Trail angels had placed ice cold beverages, food and snacks there. I guzzled some cold drinks and started to go back for Dale, who just then stumbled around the bend. He made it. I drank four beers, numerous pops and ate cookies. It was three hours before I felt I could carry on. Dale left the trail heading for a hotel six miles away. Haven’t seen him since. I’m grateful to the trail angels who work to make a freeway underpass a lifeline for thru-hikers. It reminded me of a homeless camp with better beer. But basically, we are homeless and I love it. The trail leading up and out followed canyons with abundant water. I stopped at an amazing place — the White Water Preserve. There was a ranger station where I charged my phone. To my happy surprise, a trail angel was there with everything I could dream of, even shots of my friend Jack Daniels. Couple of hours later I was headed up the trail (it’s always up) to my next zero day at Big Bear City. I was still almost a week away. I stopped at a beautiful creek with many hikers enjoying the cool water, except one – Sloth. He was having heat problems: screaming, cramping, and vomiting. We got him into the water and helped him drink. He got better and said he would rest. Some hikers stayed the night with him. A few days later Sloth had to be taken to the hospital by some folks who happened to be driving by, and thankfully agreed to transport him. In Big Bear, I ran into Sloth at the Motel 6. He said he was getting better and had no permanent liver damage, so he planned to continue north. I told him he might want to rethink that decision, but the trail called him. This wasn’t the only swimming hole I happened upon, but some things that happen on the trail have to stay on the trail. Let’s just say that I, for one, kept all my clothes on. Later, leaving Big Bear, I caught up with my hiker friend Louie. He told me he didn’t like this type of hiking and he was done — headed back to Switzerland. I think I’m winning my age group. The trail is the trail. I still feel good. I still like my chances.