Now that we’re out of the desert and in the Sierra Nevada range I doubt I’ll come across any more cacti. So here’s a brief overview of some of the more beautiful cacti groups!
The prickly pears. A classic cactus shape that is immediately familiar to all.
Then the related but in my opinion much more beautiful beavertail cactus that is found throughout all of the desert section of the PCT.
Then there are the Chollas. A group of branching cacti that are formidable obstacles near the trail!
Then there is the barrel cactus! It’s only found abundantly near scissors crossing and then occasionally for the next hundred miles or so. They are big fat cacti up to 6 feet tall!
Then there is the beautiful hedgehog cactus which is also common around scissors crossing!
And finally the beautiful claret cup cactus. Uncommon along the PCT but can be found near Big Bear and Mission Creek.
Ephedra. Name sounds somewhat familiar, no? How about ephedrine or pseudoephedrine? These are the active chemicals in narcotic drugs like pseudophed which help prevent coughing and induce sleeping. They are also used to manufacture Heisenberg’s methamphetamine in trailers in rural areas if the states. Don’t try going and extracting these chemicals from the wild ephedra bushes because they contain very low levels of it compared to the species from the old world.
But back to ephedra. It is a very interesting plant that grows in dry parts of the world. It grows in the desert areas of the PCT, often on hillsides. It is unusual because it is related to pine trees and ginko trees in that it is a gymnosperm. This means that it is a plant that produces seeds but doesn’t flower like angiosperms. It looks like just a yellow green bush with stems but no leaves and produces little cones.
These green stink bugs covered many of the ephedra plants around the Mojave area. They obviously are hopelessly addicted to meth.
If you’ve been walking in the desert section of the PCT you have probably seen the large population of hummingbirds. And you’ve probably seen them hitting up flowers, mostly red flowers. And the insects mostly hit up the yellow, white and blue flowers. But why? The answer is pretty damn cool. Hummingbirds are attracted to red flowers and these flowers are usually tubular, allowing for almost only hummingbirds to pollinate them. The firecracker penstemon is the prime example.
Here are a few more hummingbird pollinated flowers of the desert.
Birds like these colors because they are very bright and showy against the desert background, but it interestingly, insects are hardly attracted to these flowers at all because most insects can’t see red. They see farther in the other direction of the electromagnetic spectrum and so are sensitive to blues, violets, and even ultraviolet light. Indeed some flowers like evening primrose have designs in ultraviolet that we can’t see without special filters.
It’s a quirk of nature that vertebrates and insects can see different wavelengths of light and flowers evolve to best attract their main pollinators more and more specifically. Science rules!
There is a pretty short list of things that fall from the sky and can kill you. Meteorites, tree limbs, perhaps coconuts? Nothing the average person ever needs to worry about, but on the PCT there is a curious new threat. Enter a one Coulter Pine. At first glance it looks like any other pine tree.
Not as tall, large, or handsome as it’s neighboring Ponderosa Pines but, like Ron Jeremy, what it lacks in looks it makes up for in reproductive prowess. It is the owner of the most massive pine cones in the world. Sugar Pine has longer cones but the Coulter Pine’s cones can weigh up to 10 lbs. Imagine a 10 lbs chunk of wood falling from 80 feet onto your head. Oh and did I mention that they are jagged and sharp as all hell? Because the are.
The chance of one if these falling on your head as you walk under them is pretty slim however, I wouldn’t lose sleep over them. Look for them in the higher elevations near deep creek and around mile 400!
There exists in the plant world some rather shady fellows. Several of these organisms live and thrive along the PCT and I thought you might be interested in learning about them. These are parasitic plants.
I will begin with the least sinister and most beautiful of them, the genus Castilleja commonly known as Paintbrushes. They are very diverse in the western states. Here are several species.
These plants make their living by sprouting near other plants and attaching their roots to these hosts. This way they can tap into larger more established plants root systems and steal water and nutrients from these plants, but they still photosynthesize their own sugars. The bright colored parts of the plant are actually bracts and not petals. They are modified leaves used to attract hummingbirds in most cases.
The next plant I want to introduce is mistletoe. This plant is similar to Castilleja in the way it makes a living except instead of growing in the soil, it grows right out of the branches of trees. Seeds that are pooped on to the branches by birds sprout and tap into the trees vascular system and take water and nutrients and in some species such as dwarf mistletoe also take sugars, being complete parasites of their hosts.
The next plant is the Snow Plant (Sarcodes sanguinea.) It is often noticed because of its scarlet coloration. It grows in the sierras and other high elevation forests and it emerges underneath conifers soon after the snow melts. It takes advantage of a mutual relationship between fungi in the soil and conifers. The trees supply the fungi with sugars and the fungi supply the trees with nutrients and water from the soil. The snow plant attaches to the fungi in the soil and steals the nutrients and sugars from the fungi. This is why the plant is red and has no green chlorophyll. It doesn’t need to make any sugars when it can more easily steal them.
And finally, the most sinister of all the parasitic plants… Dodder. Cuscuta californica is the species found out here on the PCT. It takes plant parasitism to a whole new level. Imagine the vines from Jumanji or the vines from the maze scene from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. They grab onto you and constrict you. But dodder is worse. It then sinks organs called haustoria into you which merge with your vascular system and slowly drain all you’re life out. This is just what dodder does to its host plant. It appears like little orange strings all over shrubs in the desert and the tendrils it sends out whirl around slowly until they contact a stem where they proceed to coil tightly around it and sink their haustoria into the plant. It then proliferates until the host is overwhelmed or it reaches another neighboring plant and then attacks it. To make things worse, it can even transmit viruses and other pathogens between plants if they’re both under attack by the same dodder. After it’s seeds sprout it can actually smell nearby plants and grow towards them. It’s lifestyle is so extreme that as soon as it reaches a host plant it’s initial root system dies off and the plant isn’t connected to the ground at all. It is orange because it has no need for chlorophyll since it can steal all it’s nutrients and water and sugars from its host plant. It’s basically a life sucking, strangling, STD spreading monster.
I love learning about where plants we all know come from. The arid region of Southern California is home to some native edible plants that we often see in stores. Two plants that are common during the first 300 miles are flax and chia. Especially chia. You can find tons of it growing on dry hillsides along the trail. The species of chia around here is Salvia columbariae. Chia seeds are simply seeds from a species of salvia which are all in the mint family.
The flax found around here is Linum perenne. It’s not the same species as the one who’s seeds you buy in the store but are very similar. It’s also the source of linen fibers for cloth.
The past few days have been awesome and at times terrifying. After staying in Idllywild with Not A Chance, Carrot, Twinkle Toes and McButter, we decided to try and keep hiking together as a group known as the Trails Angels. Coming down from San Jacinto mountain we knew we couldn’t make it to the water fountain at the bottom of the 7000 foot elevation change over 20 miles. We slept about halfway down the mountain in an awesome open area surrounded by huge, snow capped mountains and the dry windy valley below, which was filled with wind turbines. We ate and laughed with Hi-Tek and Guthrie who were already there. The X-Men couple and two girls also joined us.
The next morning we headed down the mountain for 10 miles with little to no water. By 7 a.m. it was already burning hot and I was sweating profusely. Going downhill also really hurt my left knee. About 5 miles left and I had maybe 1/3 if a liter of water left, clearly not enough, but enough to moisten my dry mouth ever half hour or so. Carrot was completely out of water the whole hike down and was looking in real rough shape. About 3 miles from the water which we could see from our high view point I started suffering. Your brain starts to feel hot, your mouth and lips are bone dry and cracked, you start spacing out really bad as if you are drunk and you get a bad headache. It made me start to panic even though I was pretty sure I could make it to the water. I ran out about a mile before the water fountain and the thought of having no water in a burning dry desert is truly scary. Things go through your head like what if for some reason the water fountain doesn’t work? I am screwed, we’d all be doomed. There’s no more water for miles and you have to cross a valley that was over 100 degrees. Luckily we did make it to the fountain and it did work, but better yet, a trail angel named Tarzan had camped there and had fresh veggies with hummus for us as well. We dug in and almost cried at having all the water we could possibly desire. We were all really worried about Carrot but she finally came down and made it to the water but in very rough shape. She seemed so happy to be there but at the same time just beat, too exhausted to say anything. After awhile we all recovered from our ordeal and headed across the burning hot valley floor between the mountains and got to Ziggy and the Bear’s. We ate and resupplied there, met many friends and hang out for about 5 hours. Then at 4:30 we all headed out for another 10 miles or so along with Not A Chance who had been ahead of us all day. We slept in the white water river’s dry bed next to a small silty creek that disappeared under the gravel a little bit down the riverbed.
This first week has flown by. I’ve learned a bunch of lessons the hard way but seem to have adapted enough to make it through the desert. First off, my boots that were awesome on the Appalachian Trail, are bad on the PCT. Your feet swell in the heat and I slammed my toenails into their beds enough on the first day that both the big toenails have died and turned purple. So I got some new Cascadia trail runners at the kick off.
The second day out here it rained, sleeted and snowed. Then the next couple days were relentless heat and sun like I’ve never experienced before. It was only around 90 most days but just no escaping the sun. There are no plants or rocks taller than you so in the heat of the day there is no shade to hide in. I overheated the fourth day and luckily a girl named Birdie had a sun umbrella she didn’t want and have it to me. Then a guy with two pairs of sunglasses gave me one. And I found a pink bandana which I wet and put on my head.
The next day we ate a ton at warner springs and then hiked out in the heat. I’ve been waking with Dust since day 2 and he was telling me how your body can’t digest food and cool off at the same time in the heat. I had awful indigestion and kept gagging up cheeseburgers and water. Finally rested a few hours and felt better.
Then yesterday we were walking by 5:37 a.m. and did 18 miles by 11:30. Then pushed the final 31.1 by 4:45 but I hardly ate all day and had low sugar problems for the first time. I tried avoiding the indigestion problem by not eating much but then I almost passed out. I gobbled down some energy chews that Dust gave me and felt better after a few minutes.
Resting in Idllywild today and hitching around the burn closure tomorrow!