Days 110-113: Five Nights in Tehachapi
Poppins and Six had been staying with a trail angel named Brenda. She worked as a nurse at the prison, which was Tehachapi’s big employer along with the windfarm. She had a large house on the outskirts of town that she opened to an indefinite number of hikers, including full use of her kitchen and closet and children’s beds when they weren’t home. There was no screening process. When Brenda got off work in the morning, she volunteered to drive us wherever we needed to go. She refused donations of any kind, though she did let us clean her bathroom and kitchen. She treated us to dinner at a sushi restaurant. I didn’t know what to make of it.
Brenda’s house had a hot tub and a full-on movie theater with rows of comfy leather chairs and a massive T.V. Six Thirty had gotten sick overnight, so we took a zero.
On the second day, Poppins got sick too. That made me nervous. But I used the opportunity to hold a film premier for my critically acclaimed Sierra High Route short, which I put together earlier that day while we binged-watched Grey’s Anatomy.
On the third day, we tried to hike out. There was a trail register at Willow Springs Road and Poppins wrote, Still struggling south.
We hiked slower than we ever had, stopping almost constantly. Finally, three miles in, Six collapsed in the dirt and admitted that she was too sick to walk. Poppins insisted on taking her pack (it was so dire that she actually let him) and we slogged three miles back to the road.
Six lay down on the shoulder and I walked out into the middle of the pavement, unwilling to wait for a hitch while she looked so bad. I waved my arms in what I thought was a universal distress signal, but to my shock at least fifteen cars sped past. The two women who picked us up turned around to do so; they were on an impromptu trip to the beach to honor their recently deceased grandmother when they saw me standing in traffic. I felt bad and gave them a large bag of weed.
We checked into a motel so as not to infect other hikers, though we still weren’t sure if the illness was contagious. Poppins and I walked to Kmart and bought Pedialyte, Ensure, anti-nausea pills, ginger ale, and saltines. Six ignored all of them and slept feverishly. She felt better by the following evening, and a few other hikers gathered in our room to watch Wild. When Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed began her hike at the real live trailhead in Tehachapi, we cheered.
I had read the book and seen it once before, but I was still struck by the familiar story. It took me years to be the woman my mother raised, Cheryl said at the end, as she walked across the Bridge of the Gods. It took me 4 years, 7 months and 3 days to do it, without her. After I lost myself in the wilderness of my grief, I found my own way out of the woods.
It had been three years, five months, and twenty-five days since I set foot on the CDT, I reflected. And here I was, still walking.
Day 114: Take Two
Tehachapi to camp, mile 2108
Poppins was ill. He curled rigidly on the bed and didn’t move, didn’t even talk, which was how we knew it was serious.
Six and I deliberated. Time and cash were running low, but we felt guilty about leaving. “Go,” he moaned. “Hike. This is getting ridiculous.”
So we did. The woman who gave us a ride spoke disparagingly of the wind farm before admitting that most of her friends worked there. “I like it when they catch on fire,” she said.
Cloud and Six, take two, I wrote in the trail register.
Every night in the desert had the best sunset. Each sunset rocked my world. This one so happened to occur at a water cache with a seating area, like the world’s greatest movie theater.
We seriously discussed night-hiking the infamous L.A. Aqueduct, a hot and waterless twenty miles for a total of forty since we left Tehachapi. (Ready for a night with the stars in L.A.!, I wrote in the next trail register.) But after a couple hours in the dark we sat down for a break in a convenient campsite, and you know what happened next.
Santa came again that night… the Santa Ana winds. I tried to readjust my tent during two night-pees, but it continued to shake and shake.
Day 115: Yellow-Blazing Fake Vegetarians
Camp to HikerTown
I didn’t mind the aqueduct. The dirt road stretched ruler-straight as far as we could see. Underneath, water churned on its journey from the High Sierra to the faucets of L.A. The miles were easy, if increasingly hot.
Six minded the aqueduct. It was too long, too boring. Over and over, she muttered words that shocked me: “We could hitch.” Some hikers are very serious about a continuous footpath from Canada to Mexico, and for a while Six was one of them.
We hiked about ten miles of the Aqueduct’s twenty, and that felt like a good taste of what it had to offer. The next truck that passed stopped for our outstretched thumbs, and I approached the driver’s window.
“I’m not going very far,” he said. “A mile or two. My house just burned down in a wildfire.”
I stammered that I was sorry.
We rode in the pickup bed with a few plastic grocery bags of belongings and a small dog bed. Six and I exchanged a pained look, not wanting to guess where the dog was. We soared past fences and a trailer park, but mostly open sky. “THIS is the way to see the aqueduct,” I said.
The man dropped us off after a few miles, and I went to the window to thank him and say sorry again. He handed me a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet, but his pitch was half-hearted. Feeling compassionate, I took it.
Our next ride was a little disconcerting. It was hard to say whether he was quite old, had gotten a lot of sun, or something else had left him waxen and dusty, bumping his hands awkwardly on the steering wheel as he ranted about the government. When I said something about a cold beer, he smirked and said, “You girls like to party, huh?”
“Nope,” I said quickly. I would have been nervous if I was alone. I tracked us surreptitiously on my phone to make sure we were going the right way.
He was headed to the local store. “I heard there was gonna be a pig roast tonight,” he said.
“How come?” I asked. He shrugged.
At the store, Six and I toasted to half-the-aqueduct well done. We learned that the pig roast was a birthday party for someone named Glen. There was mention of heading back to the trail, but we were quickly paralyzed in our chairs as a strange and fantastical dream unfolded before us. There were meat skewers on the grill and an array of Filipino dishes: noodles, egg rolls, stew, curry, more grilled meat, and gelatinous desserts. Each cook visited our table to ask whether we had tried their dish yet. We said we had, because it was all amazing.
“You came on the best possible day,” someone said. Couldn’t argue with that.
And the pièce de résistance:
“I just remembered why I was a vegetarian before the trail,” Six said.
Glen’s birthday party was LIT. At 3:30pm the DJ started blasting early 2010s club hits, then transitioned into classic rock as more guests arrived. A loose parrot fluttered around the patio. The owner, grizzled as a pirate, could call him like a dog.
More old men hovered by our table to ask questions about the trail, often a little too closely. (“I want to get up and dance,” I told Six mournfully, “but we don’t need any more attention.”) A few said they were proud of us. One said that it was cheating to skip half the aqueduct. And one told me sternly that I should be thankful, because I’d never get the chance to do anything like this again.
I told him he was wrong. I would do this for the rest of my life.
“How old are you?”
“You’re not going to do it again,” he said. “Remember I told you.”
As the party wound down, Six and I hitched back to the PCT and the strange hostel-ish Hikertown. A Hollywood-western facade with jails and schoolhouses ringed a large grassy area, each door leading to a tiny room with a cot inside. We made one last attempt to hike out before turning around and succumbing to our meat comas.
Day 116: Return of the Fog
Hikertown to camp, mile 2167
I heard a rooster crow on the hike up from the highway. It took me a moment to figure out why I didn’t like it: I was reminded of living in New Mexico, where the desert was gorgeous and I was very, very alone.
At least this rooster had the correct time of day. My fingers went numb in the frigid dawn and I scanned the hills, looking for patches of sunshine.
The Santa Ana winds had been hard at work, littering the trail with branches and other debris. A sign warned us that the trail was adjacent to a “Hunt Club.” Every so often I heard a singular gunshot — another unexpected element of a Sobo hike. But I didn’t mind, because fall in the desert was an extravaganza. I crunched and scratched my way through its fiery palette.
I loved the desert. I loved it so, so much. My favorite section of the PCT, I thought. Fighting words.
And then, when I thought the desert held no more surprises, a dark cloud descended and clasped the mountain in eerie mist.
The Fog had found us. The eternal thorny carwash reminded me of something too. “I have a name for this section,” I announced. “Hot Washington.”
The sun returned and I called out for Six to wait. “It’s the 500-mile mark,” I said. She cocked her head quizzically. “500 miles left.”
I expected celebration, not the weird, sad face in the photos. She looked very small against the landscape as she hiked ahead.
Our second water source was a half mile from the trail, a cistern sitting below a large rainwater collection system. It was a neat piece of engineering, even if it was hard to squeeze underneath.
We hiked into the dark again, but not without a brief stop to check out the cave! It was actually an old mine shaft, but with Halloween impending, anything spooky would do.
Day 117: All Hikers Go To Heaven
Camp to Hiker Heaven (Agua Dulce), mile 2199
The sun came each morning from the same place in the east. Who cares, I asked myself, if we miss one? But every sunrise on the spotted hills was unique, a delicate and intentional creeping of light. My head spun with every step.
Mary Poppins had skipped from Tehachapi to Casa de Luna, home of famous trail angel Terri Anderson. She drove him to meet us at the next major road. Right as she was taking our photo, she turned around and mooned us — an age-old PCT tradition. We would be some of the last hikers to see it, however; along with the rest of the well-established trail angel stops, Casa de Luna was closing at the end of the year.
As requested, Poppins brought iced tea for Six and an ice cream bar for me. I was jealous of the iced tea. It was always funny to consider the depth of my longing for a cold drink, given its ease of access anywhere except the trail.
Each day had become a strange contradiction. Some of the miles and the climbs were still tough, and with each lift of each foot I begged time to speed up, just as I always had. Then I thought about how few climbs and miles were left. The thought wringed my heart like a washcloth and I tried to memorize every leaf on every tree, as if they contained the multitudes of the last four months.
The shade at the water cache felt like a walk-in refrigerator, but the water itself was hot. The desert held every imaginable contradiction.
Slippy had texted Six to tell her that he was back on trail after two weeks in Vietnam. We hatched a crazy plan. Hurry up Slippy! we wrote in the logbook. You got this, Slips!
We roadwalked to Agua Dulce in the dark, headlamps affixed backwards and blinking to warn oncoming cars. The tiny town had a Mexican restaurant, and it was open until 8:30pm. Dimly, I knew that many towns had all kinds of restaurants and this was totally normal, but on trail it was nothing short of providence.
We ate. Then we searched just for the hell of it, and found an Uber to drive us the one mile to Hiker Heaven.
Up next: What makes a person sleep inside a pit toilet? The answer may surprise you.