Day 102: Summer in the City
Camp to Lone Pine, mile 1903
I met the group again at mile 1,900, and the distance to Cottonwood Pass passed easily as we chatted. I told my favorite new joke: “Where is the PCT right now?”
“In yo’ National Forest!”
“I like that,” said Chickadee. “It’s very wholesome. It reminds you that public lands belong to you.”
I accosted a young couple at the Cottonwood Pass junction and got a ride before the descent even began. It was a long ride from a remote trailhead, and I got a little nervous about the hitch back up.
It was still summer in Lone Pine. I sweated on the streets as I moved from Priority 1, burger, to Priority 2, shower. In the hostel, I converted my rain jacket into a halter top and rolled up my Frogg Toggs as high as they could go.
Protein shake, protein powder, high-protein chocolate milk, a can of whipped cream. Protein cookies, protein bars, high-protein granola bars. I spent almost $100 at the overpriced grocery store. I wanted a stick of butter, but it was too expensive.
Day 103: Semester Abroad
Lone Pine to camp, mile 1915
I was back on trail at 3:00pm thanks to Ed, who saw me hitching and had nothing better to do. “How’d you find the time to do this?” he asked. “Did you take a semester off school?”
“Actually,” I said carefully, “I’m thirty years old.” Cue a long exclamation about the way I look. It wasn’t quite creepy, but jeez.
Don’t snow on me, I warned the dark clouds at the trailhead.
I ran into Gretzky, whom I had not seen since Sisters, Oregon. “Still packing out the cereal, I see,” he said, pointing to the massive bag of Marshmallow Mateys (a cocoa puffs/lucky charms combo) strapped to the top of my pack.
I cracked up. The only other time I packed out Marshmallow Mateys was in Sisters, Oregon.
Two miles up to the PCT and seven down the trail. I was back in the desert, all right. Even at 10,500 feet, sagebrush ruled the land. And it certainly was a strange temperature that evening, one I remembered from the old days. We called it warm.
I scrambled up a slightly rotten pink rock to see the sunset. I liked the view, but I loved that I had the energy to do it.
Day 104: Mo’jave, Less Problems
Camp to Crag Creek, mile 1944
I got distracted by cell service in the morning. I would have walked right past if another hiker hadn’t been sitting there on his phone.
I hate cell service. I go backpacking to live in a world diametrically opposed to cell service. But I got in the habit of checking during my family emergency and I hadn’t been able to shake it, especially when I was alone. Thru-hiking is different, I told myself. I need variety. I need connection. But it doesn’t keep the moment from deflating as the IRL view becomes a backdrop to somebody’s Instagram.
(Disclaimer: This is personal; I have no feelings about other people doing it.)
We had traipsed through the high desert in Northern California, and had the dehydration to show for it, but this was the desert desert — the Mojave, which receives less than two inches of rain per year, and is considered the driest stretch of the PCT. October is one of the driest and sunniest months in the Mojave, Wikipedia informed me. The landscape had literally transformed overnight. There were still ancient sequoias (they can live over 3,000 years), with bark peeling like old paint. I studied each one as I walked along, reading stories into their bent and twisted limbs.
I stopped to get water at Death Creek and groaned at the upcoming 1,500-foot climb, though at least it would be the last of its kind for a while. The trail had been trampled by either horses or cows, I wasn’t sure. On the way down it disintegrated into almost nothing.
Scratch that, I thought, looking at Guthook. I was way, way off.
The PCT was over a mile east as the crow flies. It was a bumpy bushwhack, but I saw the tracks of at least one other human. Finally, I spotted the perfectly groomed 18-inch tread.
At sundown, the desert lit up with bird sounds. Most of the bushes and flowers were dried and maybe dying, but they glowed in the golden light. The grays looked purple and the browns looked red. Yellow senna flowers shone like lightbulbs. I even saw my first cactus, a little cluster of pincushions.
I reached my intended campsite just as the color was leaving the clouds. My legs were sore and it seemed to take forever to pitch my tent and collect water from the little creek. I counted miles and calculated my earliest finish date for the PCT. If I really could average 30s in the desert, it was November 7. For some reason this displeased me. I also wasn’t sure about the 30s.
The wind roared overhead like a distant airplane, but never touched the canyon floor.
Day 105: New Kicks
Crag Creek to camp, mile 1959
A fierce herd of mini-Australian Shepherds greeted me at Kennedy Meadows. I collected my new shoes, a final pair of Hoka Torrents in a rusty desert red.
I found Chef in Grumpy Bears. “When I was leaving Sequoia I thought, this is the last national park,” he said. “And then I realized, shit, now everything is the last something.”
I ordered the Grumpy Burger, a classic double meat-egg-bacon-avocado-etc. “I had it yesterday,” Chef told me. “The only question is, will you consume it or will it consume you?”
Just a few minutes later, one guy at the bar said to another, “I can’t believe she ate that whole thing.”
A shipping container outside the bar housed Triple Crown Outfitters, selectively stocked with thru-hiking gear and resupply. Jackie was a veteran PCT hiker who enjoyed the off-grid lifestyle in Kennedy Meadows in the spring and fall. She told me that California had just shut off electricity for millions of residents in an attempt to prevent more devastation like last year’s Camp Fire, sparked by PG&E power lines, that killed eighty-five people and leveled a whole town.
“It has been really windy lately,” I said.
“It’s not just windy,” she replied. “It’s the Santa Ana winds.” The yearly devil winds, dark lords of fire season.
I wasn’t sure I had enough food for five days, but everything at Triple Crown Outfitters was single-serve and therefore too expensive to buy en masse. I hung around using wifi and chatting with other hikers. The bitter salami man from Pinchot Pass was back; I had made the mistake of announcing publicly that I wanted to hike out that afternoon and he followed me around, demanding to know if I was ready to leave. “A guy at the bar said he could give us a ride,” he told me. “He’s wasted and high, but I don’t know if there’s a better option.”
Jackie volunteered to take us. (“Hey man!” called the drunk guy from the porch. “I just saw the sheriff driving around, so I can’t take you after all!”) As soon as we hit the PCT I took off, hoping to shake the man for good. I accidentally hiked 0.3 miles past the last water source and had to double back. It was a quick jog — one moves so quickly when unencumbered! — but I cursed myself for the lost minutes. I had forgotten the rules of the desert: check carefully at each water source to see if it’s your last.
That’s the thing about the desert. Everything exists so carefully, so intentionally. Husks and skeletons stand long after life slips away, bending reverently in the cream sunset. Dancers frozen in dramatic tableaus.
I pitched my tent in the dark and somehow lost a stake. There were plenty of medium-sized rocks, so I dug a few out of the ground and built cairns to anchor the vestibules. The campsite had no protection against the devil winds.
Day 106: Dusted
Camp to camp, mile 1989
Around 3:00am I started shivering in my base layers, and awoke to a few hours later to the howling of coyotes and ice crystals on the roof of my tent.
Then it was two and a half hours of snaking up the endless drainage, which started out fine but turned into a disheartening slog. The wind at the top didn’t sting, but it was cold.
I was shocked to see acorns and oak leaves on the trail. The leaves crunched underfoot and the acorns would roll your foot like marbles if you weren’t careful. There were also houses visible nearly all the time. I didn’t like that.
Tonight’s sunset was candy to last night’s cream, and the moon too bright to look at. The Santa Ana winds howled and shook the tent. I had my earplugs, but with each great gust dust sailed under the vestibules and through the fine mesh, raining down on my startled, half-sleeping face.
Day 107: Nothing Like A Sunrise (Except A Sunset)
Camp to Bird Spring Pass, mile 2022
I brushed half-heartedly at the film of dust on my sleeping bag. I couldn’t tell if this was due to my poor choice of campsite, or just the Santa Anas. From my long-ago stint on a trail crew in the Great Sand Dunes, I knew that sand compromises gear — especially zippers.
A lacy sunrise crept over the mountaintops and I got moving. By the time I reached Joshua Tree Spring, it had transformed into one of the most amazing sights of my life.
Was this real? Was this how life in the desert was going to be? What had I done to deserve it?
I kept my eyes on Guthook, counting the miles until 2,000. It came on an inauspicious slope and I didn’t see any marker, although Poppins told me later that he had built one the day before.
There was a water cache at Walker Pass and a passing fireman offered me a cherry Gatorade, the richest and most delectable liquid known to humankind. I considered hitching to a nearby town to pick up more food; there weren’t any good options but I was really going to have to ration otherwise. I said I would give it five cars, gave it ten, then gave up.
By now I had figured out a few things about the desert:
- Every day was contouring. The trail was gently graded and wound for miles in and out of each drainage, and due to the lack of tall vegetation, I could see its path a long ways ahead.
- It was almost unbearably hot in the sun, and sweater weather in the shade. Since the sun and the shade are adjacent, this felt very strange.
- The trail was forever lined with thorns and other scratchy bushes. Sometimes they abated, but never for long. I quickly accepted the fact that my expensive sunshirt would be snarled to shit.
- Anyway, sand was the true enemy.
I reached the top of the last climb at sunset. Faraway towns shimmered between the hills and I gaped at the gradient of colors, in a hurry but unable to move.
With a sinking heart, I realized it was time to start counting desert sunsets and desert moons. Is there a word for missing something you have not yet lost?
I had hoped to hike in the light of the full moon, but it wasn’t strong enough to illuminate the twists and turns of the trail as it sped down the mountain. It was almost three miles in the dark.
When I arrived at camp, there was a tent between the trees — the first trace of hikers I’d seen all day, and the first humans outside of Walker Pass. I set up my tent as far away as I could find a flat spot and listened to them whisper and giggle in what sounded like French.
The moonlight cast a shadow on the roof of my tent: the spidery arms of the Joshua trees intermingled in a one-dimensional dance. I swallowed some ibuprofen and closed my eyes as my knees throbbed and throbbed.
Day 108: A Dangerous Game
Bird Spring Pass to Jawbone Canyon Road, mile 2051
I deflated my sleeping pad and lay on the hard floor of my tent. Holy hell. How was I going to walk 65 more miles to Tehachapi? How would I walk 630 more miles to Mexico?
It was properly light by the time I poked my head outside. I was too sore, just dead fucking exhausted. My lips were burnt and painful; I had left my chapstick in town.
The couple were chatting and giggling again, and now it annoyed me. I imagined if I had another person in my tent. Okay, five more minutes, they would say. Then in five minutes, they would shake me roughly. Get up, get up, get up!
Did I want a person or a better alarm clock? Either way, all I had was a big spider. I groaned and shooed it out the vestibule.
There was a water cache at the dirt road, stocked by a trail angel who doesn’t wish to see people die in the desert. Hikers aren’t supposed to rely on them for obvious reasons, but we usually do. This one was 300 gallons strong.
For a while I tried to hike with my lips pursed, shielded from the sun. I angled my hat to best deflect the glare. But ultimately there was nothing to do except give up, and write myself a note to buy chapstick in Tehachapi.
The trail wound through mazes of Joshua trees and I paused often to take pictures, searching for the perfect silhouette to convey their absurdity. The comparison to Dr. Seuss was obvious. They made me think of a jungle, chaos in an otherwise orderly landscape. It was hard to get bored hiking through Joshua trees.
I tried to have patience with the sand, but soon I stabbed it with my trekking pole and cursed as though it were a living thing. Dust from ATVs rose like smoke plumes into the sky.
I broke up the day into sections between water caches. The Guthook comments from a day or two earlier indicated which ones were heavily stocked. Screw not relying on them; what else was I supposed to do? It wasn’t like I was hiking through a roadless wilderness. I could always flag down cars or ATVs.
At the Kelso Road cache, I flopped into the patchy “shade.” The air was thick with bugs, but at least they weren’t trying to suck my blood. I counted my food again. I was down to a handful of bars and some chips that I knew would not last, so I cooked ramen and thought about my options.
- Hike the next two days with this food. Probably backslide into nutrient deficiency.
- Find a car, hitch to Tehachapi. Probably skip the remaining part of this beautiful section.
- Make for Tehachapi tomorrow in a record-breaking 36-mile day. Probably die trying.
It would either be #1 or #3, I decided. At least I had enough water.
As I hiked on, a murder of crows suddenly took to the sky. There were at least a few hundred. They circled… a portent of doom?
Before and after each road, the trail had gates and low metal bars to keep bikes and ATVs out. My knees were so swollen and sore that I could barely step over them, and I winced in pain each time. For the first time since Bishop, I felt really shitty. This would be a good day for a trail family.
Day 109: Cloud Provides
Jawbone Canyon Road to Tehachapi, mile 2087
It wasn’t that cold in the morning, and I hit the trail by 6:30am. The first water carry was 20 miles, and I drank as much as I could in the cold. With 2 liters and a 20-oz Gatorade bottle, I set out.
Mid-morning, I reached the famous Tehachapi wind turbines. The squeaking sound that I had attributed to birds was actually their slow rotation. I had never been this close to them before, or seen them from so many angles. They had heads like little airplane with giant propellers. I heard the noise that Trump finds so offensive — a tiny whirring, barely audible from fifty yards away. I realized I had very little idea how they worked.
Golden Oaks Spring was the last water before Tehachapi. Redfeather, the first Sobo of the year, had posted a sickening image to Instagram: a giant mound of trash, hundreds of Clif bar, tuna packets, and ramen wrappers. It had to be thru-hikers. It was an inconceivable insult to the values of stewardship and the land itself, which — you would think! — is what those people came out here to enjoy.
Subsequent hikers had written on Guthook that they packed out what they could and I was delighted to see only a few wrappers left, caked in the dirt and clinging to the barbed-wire fence. They fit easily in my trash bag. I mentally thanked those who had come before me, and thought that maybe we weren’t so bad after all.
But the wildlife told a different story. I saw eyes and tawny fur advancing on me from the trees, and let loose a shudder of fear before I realized it was just a deer. Several of them walked right up to the log where I set down my food bag, waiting for me to turn my back. Birds and squirrels descended. It felt like a horror movie.
This is why we can’t have nice things, I wrote in the trail register. I stretched a little and gave myself a little shoulder massage.
The trail was shitty and it slowed me down. Steep slopes of scree and dust barely held the tread, compromised by water, wind, and thousands of hikers’ footsteps. Again, I wondered what could be done. I wanted fewer permits (easy for me to say!), but that would just mean that people who didn’t care about the law would get to thru-hike instead of people who did.
There was a long walk on a dirt road, 700 feet down and 900 feet back up. I thought about giving up on my 36-mile day. I still had enough time to make it before dark, but what was the point if I couldn’t get a ride? I turned on my phone data to ask Six Thirty about the sitch in Tehachapi, since she and Poppins would have passed through a day or two ago.
She told me they found a trail angel who would certainly pick me up. And that wasn’t all! I hustled up the road, a new bounce in my step. I was eating town food tonight.
The overpass hovered in the distance like a desert mirage. It didn’t seem like it was getting any closer until I threw my bag down on the pull-off and collapsed next to it, sprawling on the cozy dirt. It wasn’t dark, and then it was. I pulled on my puffy and hat. Finally, a windowless white van pirouetted off the highway. The door opened with a blinding light and I squinted to see if it was the ride I was waiting for.
“Aughhhhhhh!” I heaved my backpack inside and fell into the waiting arms of Six Thirty and Mary Poppins.
Up next: The gang is reunited, but things don’t exactly go as planned. Will our heroes ever make it out of Tehachapi and into the infamous L.A. Aqueduct? And why are they at a pig roast?