Cadence of Pain | Hiking the Trans Catalina Trail
As I sit down to write and reflect on my time along the Trans Catalina Trail, I can see my feet just past the top of my laptop screen. One big toe is bright purple, pulsing as I type. To be honest, the throbbing keeps me up at night. Two other toes are raw pink, the top half of the skin on them literally fell off after the 360 degree blister bulbs burst and were subsequently ripped off (nails included). When I got off the ferry in Avalon, I had no idea I was embarking on what I would come to refer to as the “cadence of pain”. To be fair, bouts of laughter so intense they hurt my gut offset said cadence, but my cankles still need to return to being ankles so there’s time for healing.
We arrived at the resort town of Avalon at around 10:30am on a Thursday morning via the 90 minute Catalina Express from Long Beach. The golf carts zipping through Disneyland-like streets lined with beach homes and surf shops bore no foreshadowing to our future plight. The plan was to complete close to 50 miles over the course of four days and three nights.
The Trans Catalina Trail is a 37.2 mile hike that starts at Pebble Beach in Avalon and transverses the island, finishing at Starlight Beach, 11 miles from Two Harbors. Basically, it starts at sea level and brings you up to the ridge line each day until sending you back down to various beaches for lunch breaks and camping before rising once again to the top of the ridge. Completing the trail means 9,500 feet of elevation change, so bring your duct tape or moleskin or whatever it is you use to tackle blisters. You’ll need it.
The conversation on the walk from town to the “start” of the hike was upbeat and superficial. Where are you planning to go next? Oh, you have a friend that’s in Costa Rica? Yes, Catalina does feel like a different country with all the walkers and quaintness. Did you see that trio of boys at the playground with rat tails? I guess that’s one way to spot ‘em in a crowd. That’s mine over there, with the rat tail.
I say “start” of the trail because the laid back vacationers and locals we encountered directed us to A trail, but not THE trail. We clipped a decent four miles off of our expected 15 miles for the day following their directions. I secretly wasn’t upset about it, and the organizer of the trip said she wasn’t upset about it, but when she brought it up another five times throughout the day, I knew she actually was quite disappointed. Our revelation of missed miles came about around 3 miles into the hike. We stopped at a little pergola on the ridge that provided shade along an otherwise exposed trail. In either direction, we could see the ocean. It would be the first of many panoramic views.
While chewing on my Mint Chocolate Chip Clif bar (my favorite flavor), I noticed a sign that said “Don’t Feed the Foxes”. Mid-sentence of exclaiming, “I didn’t know there were foxes on the island!” I saw a fluffy white tipped red tail float across the trail in my peripheral vision. “I just saw one! Did anyone else see that?” I asked, newly energized by this nature sighting. I wasn’t hallucinating, Emily had seen the fox. Putting two and two together (the sign that says don’t feed the foxes and the fox that comes out when people are around), I figured the fox might be trained to people noises. Making kissy noises, I circled the pergola hoping our adorable friend would show his face. No dice. I sat back down in the shade. What would make the fox come out? I reached into my side backpack pocket where I had stashed my Clif Bar wrapper and pulled it out. Crinkle, crinkle, crinkle. From below the pergola, a fox peeked its head through a bush, waiting for a treat. Of course I didn’t feed the fox. But I did alert the group and called Libby, who would be taking the “B Roll” pictures for the trip, to come over and take a pic before the fox ran away. Unfortunately, evolution won against technology and the fox is indiscernible in the bush from what Libby could clearly zoom on her iPhone, its gray face blending in with the chalky bush.
While we were fussing over the fox, a lone traveler had come from the other direction of the trail to find shelter from the sun under the pergola. As he made himself summer sausage tortilla wraps (something that is truly only appetizing while backpacking) Fran moseyed over to chat.
Tom, or at least we think his name was Tom based on the “Tom” written on his backpack, relayed that the trail wasn’t that bad toward Blackjack Campsite. The only real hiccup he encountered was “hundreds of buffalo”, forcing him to stop for an hour until the herd moved elsewhere.
In the 1920’s, some filmmakers brought 12 buffalo to the island for a movie. When filming wrapped, they left them on the island, and now there are close to 150 bison roaming the hills of Santa Catalina. However, Tom turned out to be a poor estimator of crowds. The herd, still impressive at around 50 in number, was a far cry from the “hundreds” he described.
The next three days were a mixture of miles, blisters, laughter, wine and whiskey. We camped at Blackjack, making friends (read: brought whiskey in exchange for bonfire warmth) with a Boy Scout Master and his 17 year daughter, and a solo backpacker whom we’ll call Young Gina. Young Gina ended up joining our group for the remainder of the hike, showing us all up on Day 3 by completing the six mile hike two hours quicker than the rest of us.
The plan for Day 3 was to hike from Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing, drop our packs at Parson’s, continue to the end of the Trans Catalina Trail at Starlight Beach, and then return to Parson’s Landing to camp. It was supposed to be our longest day at 16 miles.
By the time we got to Parson’s Landing however, everyone’s feet were torn up and it was almost 2:00pm. The rest of the group decided to soldier on and try to finish the trail. I told my friends I was staying put. After they left, I sprawled out on Libby’s lime green thermarest and pondered, “What mileage would I have hiked to get to the end of the trail? 3 miles? 1.5 miles? 0.5 miles?” No, no miles I concluded. The answer was none. There was no mileage I would have continued on at that point to be able to say I completed the Trans Catalina Trail. I needed the beach and I needed to lay down. Pride is overrated, anyway, I told myself.
You might be thinking that I’m being dramatic. Whiny even. That’s fine. As part of a discussion topic on my 40 mile hike (I’m rounding up here), we assigned strengths to each member of the hiking posse. Mine were (and you can really gauge my value here), comedic whining and photography. That’s it. Let’s do a round up of the group and assess the strengths identified on the trail:
Perfect scorer on the English section of her SAT, therefore Vocabulary Star.
Knowledgeable about all things political and foreign policy.
Ability to go from 0 to aggressively passionate before you can say Trump.
Innate sense of direction.
Great at handling difficult people and reacting to difficult situations.
Makes people like her.
Steely resolve / ability to withstand great amounts of pain.
Only person in the group to not get blisters.
Supportive when others try to knock someone down.
Balance to Fran.
Photography / documentation.
A bison blocking the trail to Starlight Beach ended up forcing the crew to return to Parson's early. Not one to sit around, Fran had the genius idea of climbing the lone boulder on the beach (a surprise to the group of young men napping under its shade). I proved some worth by conquering the rock, prompting an "oh shit!" from one of the guys as I scrambled to the top.
For Libby, Emily, and I, the trip culminated with a six mile hike back to Two Harbors for burgers and beers at the one restaurant there. Fran and Young Gina woke up at 4:30am to hike to Starlight Beach.
We (mostly) did what we set out to do and couldn't have had more fun along the way. My abs had to recover the same amount from laughing that my feet had to recover from blisters.
Hats off to challenging, yet rewarding trip. It was worth every drop of B.O.