(updated June 1)
So here I am in Kennedy Meadows after the first 703 miles of the PCT. I'd like to sum up my experience so far.
Scenery and terrain
Most of what I've covered can be classified as semi-desert. I've passed through almost all the major mountains of Southern California. There's been a lot of desert scrub, tons of chaparral, and occasional stretches of pine, oak, and fir forest. I'm looking forward to being into higher mountains for the rest of the trip.
Water and snow
I've never needed to carry more than 4 liters of water at a time, by carefully planning my water resupplies. Caches have been more frequent and reliable than I initially expected. There was not too much snow on the northwest side of San Jacinto this year to create any difficulties, and the Baden Powell trail was almost entirely snow-free.
I quickly fell 4.5 days behind schedule in the first 10 days of the trip, but now I have caught back up to my mostly arbitrary schedule and am even two days ahead, with possibly more gains expected in the coming weeks. At this point a 20-mile day sounds super-easy, a 25-mile day sounds like an easy day, and a 30-mile day sounds like a normal goal. After a month on the trail, my body seems to be ready for consistent 25+ mile days.
After weeks with no blisters when others were suffering, I got a bunch in the week before my shoes were due for replacement. Grit in the insole seems to have something to do with it, as well as not letting my feet cool off as often as I should have. My new inov-8 305s feel great. Before the blisters came, I got a slightly inflamed ankle tendon at the end of a 33-mile day that took nearly 10 days to disappear. Now I have sore feet at the start of each day or after long breaks (when you stand up and feel like your feet are bruised on the bottom), but it goes away after a few minutes of slow walking. I expect this to be last for the entire trip and a few weeks afterwards.
The biggest challenges have been keeping a positive attitude despite foot problems and feelings of loneliness. There were at least 2 points where I was seriously considering returning home early -- right before Idyllwild and a couple days before Agua Dulce. I was feeling lonely and down because I'd fallen so far behind people I'd made friends with during the first few days (the first time) or because of foot problems that weren't going away (the second). Both times, these feelings passed within a day. Ups and downs are to be expected. I've spent more time hiking and camping with others recently and feel better emotionally as a result. You don't connect with everyone you meet on the trail, so not every chance meeting with another thru-hiker will necessarily lift your spirits.
I'm really pleased with my food strategy so far. A diet of 4800-5000 calories per day seems to be about right for me, and I have not lost weight. I've slightly increased my breakfast size, added tuna and onion powder to my buckwheat dinners, and am still wondering whether or not to keep the Oreos with peanut or almond butter. That's the only thing I'm getting tired of. I really like my breakfast granola and evening buckwheat dish. Now my trail name is "Buckwheat," by the way. I like to soak my wild groats, I tell people.
My kitchen setup has been optimized as follows: 1 liter grease pot, peanut butter jar for soaking buckwheat, and a lexan spoon. I do not miss hot food. I have not had food cravings, nor do I spend much time thinking about food. That is a good sign that my food situation is pretty good.
I've pared down my gear to only what I'm actually using for this section. It has not rained once so far. Heat has been more of an issue than cold. I'm enjoying the bivy for use in windy areas and for occasional wonderful naps in the heat of the day, but it often gets hot inside at night. It's hard to regulate the temperature with everything closed off to the passage of air. I might choose a bug bivy if I did the PCT again, and if I kept the bivy sack, I'd sew loops on the corners for staking out (useful in wind).
I've been using the poles in the morning and sometimes later evening, with the umbrella dominating during the day. The Chrome Dome is stable in winds and does not break, but occasionally it has been too windy to use it.
My pack is doing great, the map case is superb, the sleeping bag (quilt, actually) is perhaps a bit too warm.
I'm very satisfied with my clothes and would not change anything at this point. I always hike in my polyester running shorts and merino wool T-shirt. An insulating layer seems superfluous for the conditions I've been in so far out here. Nylon socks are awesome. I use the "rinse only" method for washing clothes. On certain stretches it has been impossible to wash clothes, but those always end eventually.
Next to come are the Sierra Nevada. I have a heftier ULA backpack for this section, as well as an ice axe, Microspikes crampons, gloves, and a plastic pack liner (important for river crossings).