Day 3 An unexpected town vortex

Miles: 9.5
Total: 41.5
Water: 1.7L still had at camp

A major appeal of long-distance hiking is being part of a crazy cool community and the incredible generosity encountered along the way. That said, I was still not expecting to find myself on day three, in a full-length yoga practice on the floor of the Pine House Cafe and Tavern, safe from the cold winds raging at Mount Laguna.

It was chilly the night before, cold enough to justify what i thought was an overly warm sleeping bag. I spend the morning walking up into the clouds, ghostly bits of mist wafting across the trail. For several miles I worry about whether or not it is raining before deciding that if I can’t tell then then it’s probably not raining. The 10 miles to Mount Laguna pass quickly, wind and chill increasing with elevation severely limiting the appeal of breaks.

The trail spits me out into Burnt Rachera campground. I often have trouble navigating these interfaces between trail and town and walk over to a pair of hiker dudes to ask the way. You’re though-hiking? they ask, voices tinged with incredulity. Yes, and I left the border 48 hours ago, I reply in my defense. They seem suitably convinced and are themselves looking for the way back to the trail. Several others from last night’s camp have arrive in the meantime and we walk together to the Cafe for food before figuring out whether or not to go further. The air feels ever colder now without hills to climb. I check my phone: it is 36 degrees, 27 with the windchill. And it is almost noon.

The cafe sells us warm bowls of homemade chili, and makes and offer few can refuse: the chance to sleep inside on the floor beside the fire for the evening. The weather report is bleak. Rain or snow. Winds up to 70 miles and hour on the ridge a few miles down the trail. We are strongly warned to stay put for two nights. A few hikers head out into the cold anyway, hoping to beat the storm.

I wander down to the local outfitter, famous for pack shakedowns, helping over loaded hikers lessen their burden (and, of course, happy to sell you lighter gear). The shop is packed to the proverbial rafters with the latest lightweight gear, including cottage brands not usually found in stores. The man running the store offers a cautionary tale of a woman who tried to hike out in similar conditions last year. The wind was so strong she could not stand, and was forced to crawl off the trail to the road and hitch back into town. I buy a fleece hat and gloves.

At the nearby general store I buy supplemental provisions for the next leg. Crackers, chips, tuna, and unfortunately pop tarts as the breakfast selection was limited. Back at the Cafe hikers have continued to arrive. We exchange names, laugh and talk about the weather. As dinner time nears we are asked to help wipe tables and set cutlery. There’s a flurry of action as 12 of us rush to complete the chores. The woman who runs the restaurant calls out instructions, watching bemused as an hour’s work is done in minutes.

After dinner service (and rounds of most excellent burgers and beers), we again help out. First clearing and wiping tables, then sweeping the floor. When three of us join the kitchen staff doing the dishes, the mangers decides the entire group (there are 18 of us now, at least) have earned free beers. Merry dishmas! says the manager as I rinse and stack cups and cutlery. The atmosphere is jolly to say the least. Halfway through my beer, i join a group yoga class (one hiker is an actual instuctor). We downward dog and warrior pose on the floor (maked “pack parking” for daytime use) to the accompaniment of gentle live guitar music, courtesy of yet more hiker talent.

As I write, it is now below freezing outside. And twenty hikers sleep beside the fire, warm with new friendship. And free beer.

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