Long-Distance Walking, USA
Comments 2

Lament for a Lost Lead Weight

A landscape, like a man or woman, acquires character through time and endurance ~ Edward Abbey, ‘A Voice Crying in the Wilderness’

Walking to the station today, enjoying the blazing morning sun, I happened to glance into a local’s cactus garden. And that got me thinking about deserts, and old Edward ‘Cactus Ed’ Abbey, and cacti, which transported me back to the first days on the Pacific Crest Trail last year. I recalled the joy of striding for days through hillsides ablaze with cactus flowers in southern California…and my 3oz lead weight. The lead weight! Haven’t seen it since…when? 

Home here at Club Mountaingoat is part library, part un-swingingest bachelor pad ever — and part museum. I like to collect little trophies and mementoes of my walks, and I know the significance of every object in the place. Here’s a sample:

Museum exhibits & delicious red Formica

But something’s missing….

A lot of PCT thru-hikers — probably most — say the Sierra Nevada is their favourite part of that 2,655-mile caper. For reasons I’ll get to in time, my memories aren’t quite as unreservedly sweet. At the time, I far preferred the arid landscapes in the south. Right off the bat, you do 20 miles of skin-peeling heat and dust from the border to Lake Morena and certain H2O. That’s a nice intro to what’s ahead. I threw down — a phrasal verb I’ve never heard in Australia — at Lake Morena that night, and was back out among the chaparral and reptiles the next day:

Fellow sun-lover

Fast-forward a couple of days, bypassing the undignified night spent hiding out in the Pioneer Mail toilets — for now. Ditto the unplanned zero in Julian. When the wind and rain had dissipated, it was back to the glorious vistas…

Campsite Sunset, Day 5

The way a trail should be

..and the sweet granite campsites. I shared this one with two ladies, Compass and Motor, and told them they needn’t worry, I could hold off an Indian attack for days. They seemed reassured:

Desert Stronghold

Those early days on a trail! You still have energy to burn, nothing has become routine, you walk a line between caution (Just my luck if I were to bust a tendon or step on a snake in my first week…) and a crazed urge to just go bounding at full tilt down the path. Every morning the excitement wakes you before the sunrise even hits your eyelids; if you don’t screw up, you’re gonna make Canada (or Maine, or wherever), no worries.

And this incredible desert (only portions meet the true desert criteria, but tell that to the cactus, the rattlers and that broiling sun)… I grew up on westerns, my fave movie is The Searchers, and even as a kid I had a cactus garden. Staggering in a happy daze  though saguaro forests in Arizona in 1993 was great enough, but today was succulent bliss.

APRIL, 2010

I hike out of camp alone, into a crisp clear dawn, already hot, and progress is slow ’cause I just have to keep stopping to admire the admittedly prickly locals:

Cactus encounter

Maybe the higher (or longer-lasting) snowfall this year has set off this florabundance (you won’t find that word in a dictionary)…

Through the cactus garden

..or maybe my timing is just perfect. Either way, it’s a magical morning, and the day just gets better.

A Western Welcome

There’s some Trail humour, and I hit the road at Scissors Crossing.

Scissors Water Cache

Motor’s there at a well patronised water cache. While we top up, some agitated Border Patrol officers pulled in to check us out and scare off an innocent local who’s stopped to see if we need a ride. Other hikers later report encountering a small group of illegal aliens whose main concern was, understandably enough, water. Hell of a place to be trying to hide out and make miles with little more than the clothes on your back.

Soon I’m again, across the highway and back up in cactus country. The rest of that day is a wide-screen, Vista-vision, Technicolor daydream. The road below, with its sparse, speeding machines and its human dramas, diminishes to irrelevance. Interminable switchbacks commence, each one taking me higher through a landscape dominated by barrel cacti, yucca and prickly pear:

The Succulent Landscape

Yellow and silver aree in fashion among the in-crowd…

Switchback # 3,756

..along with flashy accoutrements of pink.

Pink Prickly Pear

The sun climbs; an unseen hand turn its furnace up to MAX. I’m out of the cactus zone, shade and water as rare as vending machines. A lunch stop, a cup of something caffeinated, a brief restoration of spirits, then the ongoing grind, gears starting to creak, enthusiasm blowing away with the dust.

Late in the day, more trail humour:

Someone has too much time on their hands

And at the 3rd Gate Cache, where a local angel lugs in gallon jugs of water the next morning, I lay down my quilt, right there among the cholla, and dig out my little whisky flask:

Don't roll over in your sleep

Which brings me, at long last, to that lead weight. Next morning, heading out, yet more trail humour. Some masochist has hauled in this box of lead weights as trail souvenirs. A range of sizes, shapes and flavours:

Go on, you know you want one

Those Trail Angels; they think of everything. On an impulse, after months of counting every gram, I dig out a nice hunk of lead, tie it on a string, and carry the thing another 2,000 miles. Maybe it’s the heat.

Now it’s gone. And there’s a gaping hole in my PCT exhibit.

Post-script: I later found the lead weight in my mouldering piles of memorabilia! You can admire its functional beauty on my “Trail Treasures” page, above.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. I note you love of Ford’s masterpiece “The Searchers” and the cactus plant. Another apt film, though it never goes on the trail is Ford’s equal masterpiece “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”(1962). The cactus rose is a central metaphor in that film : untamed, primitive, wild, beautiful but yet to be passed over by progress and civilisation (with daming and irrigation) for the equally beautiful but cultivated, regulated, ordered garden rose.

    • Damn those regulated garden roses! Actually, in Switzerland I often came across wild roses rambling free. Not too many cacti though.

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