PCT 23 | Santa Ana comes to town

Day 118: On the Road Again

Hiker Heaven to dirt road, mile 2207

I’m not sure what I was expecting from Agua Dulce, but what I saw was a lot of rich people. We left Hiker Heaven after a lazy day and strolled past mansions with elaborate gates and many types of cacti landscaped into the yards. I pointed out agave, which makes tequila. It was fun to know things about the desert.

In the minuscule downtown, we stepped over horse poop on sidewalk. Where were we? The freezer in the liquor store was broken and they didn’t have the ice cream I had craved for the hot walk out of town.


At Vasquez Rocks State Park, we stumbled onto a film shoot. The actors stood on a red rock next to a tent, and we mused that we could walk through the set and be mistaken for stars. Maybe help ourselves to some food.

The guy running security didn’t care. He said it was a commercial but they didn’t tell him what for. “Could be REI, could be a pharmaceutical company or something.” The snack table had been packed up for the day.

Night fell and I was disheartened. The trail followed the curve of the highway, and I didn’t bother to restrain my sarcasm about the PCT’s lack of roadwalks. “I think it’s kind of beautiful,” said Six. The headlights and taillights streaked through the black like a long glowing snake. It reminded me of sitting in the car as a very small child, enjoying the colors without much context for their existence.


The trail curled up an inhospitable slope. We hiked well into the dark and missed our intended campsite; after lengthy debate, we decided to sleep on a dirt road. It clearly saw frequent use, but probably just for the power lines, and we doubted any trucks would come before dawn.

We cowboy camped in a tight line. I insisted it was better to block the road and be seen, but Poppins and Six stuck to the shoulder. It was mercifully flat.


I unzipped the foot of my sleeping bag and let my feet hang in the warm air. The power lines snap-crackled overhead. Dogs barked and the train whined a few miles away. Los Angeles was due south by only a few dozen miles, and the night sky twinkled with planes. I lay back and watched through the frames of the wires as they mingled with the dim and distant stars.

Day 119: Cloud, A Real Thru-Hiker Now

Dirt road to Mill Creek Fire Station, mile 2235

For the second day in a row, I was denied the ice cream that haunted my footsteps. The store at the KOA wasn’t open when we rolled through at 7:30am.

There was a big ass climb, but oh god, how could I complain? The view made me emotional. The drama was real. Hiking moved my moods like other things used to, things that were long since gone.


Another intense contradiction was the flora. My legs were coarse with long white scratches, hot thorny brands. But even as the sting lingered, it couldn’t kill my appreciation for the intertwined colors and strange geometry.


A less inviting challenge was poodle dog bush, a noxious shrub that took root in the burn areas of Southern California. It had leafy tendrils with hair like marijuana flowers, and a brief brush could cause weeks of blister and rash. We had to concentrate to dodge them. “Left!” Mary Poppins called behind him, unsolicited. “Right, right! Left!”

“Everywhere!” I mimicked to Six. “The whole world!” We had several close calls.

And then it was time for the best part of the day, our nightly reward for all the thorns and heat.



I had resigned myself to a daily three hours of night hiking. We finally made it down to the trailhead by the fire station on the Angeles Crest Highway, which we would criss-cross for several days. In the wide open parking lot, the Santa Ana winds whipped with violent gusto. We huddled in the alcove by the pit toilet to try and keep our stoves lit. The heavy log book on the picnic table blew down the hill.

Poppins and Six claimed the alcove, sheltered on three sides. I knew I wouldn’t sleep if I tried to cram a third pad in with them. Attempting to set up my tent was pointless.

“Well,” I said with a heavy sigh, “they say you’re not a real thru-hiker until you’ve slept in a pit toilet.”

I tried to think of my Tyvek groundsheet as an island of sanitation. It wasn’t so bad, I thought. Spacious. Like a studio apartment.

I cracked the door by securing it to the toilet paper rail with a length of cord. The constant wind kept it taught and straining slightly. The dust found its way in as the wind howled and howled.

Day 120: Safety Is Best

Mill Creek Fire Station to Islip Saddle, mile 2267

I awoke to Six crying that her shoes had blown away. Our trekking poles had scattered across the ground. The water from the spigot flew sideways as I tried to fill up. The log book blew away, again. No one bothered to retrieve it.

We rounded a corner sometime in the morning and saw a dense plume of smoke just a few miles north. The Santa Ana winds meant fire season for SoCal. Could this spell the end of #NoFireClosures2019?

A few miles of the PCT were closed for frog habitat restoration (What’s wrong with the frogs? we wondered. Why aren’t they reproducing?) and the reroute took us onto a narrow, shoulderless highway. There was no debate over whether to hitch — if we could get a ride. One big, empty pickup truck passed, then two. But sure enough, a sedan pulled over as soon as he saw us wave. A man hopped out and started clearing items from the backseat.

Jerome told us that the Crest Highway had been closed all season due to last year’s heavy snow. “As soon as I heard it was open, I drove straight up,” he said. He was still in his work clothes. I hadn’t know it was so easy to escape L.A. for a sky island.

“You guys are amazing!” he continued. “I’m so glad I met you today. Because lately I’ve been wondering… what does it take, you know, to leave it all behind?”

“You make the decision,” I said, echoing something Rampaige told me long ago, “Everything else falls into place.”

The sunset on Mt. Williamson was so beautiful that it hurt like a gut-punch. Would each leap of my heart be so painful if we weren’t this close to the end?


Another desert contradiction. I was living and dying at once.


We camped next to the highway. I pointed my headlamp at a sign that read, On the crest, safety is best!

I couldn’t sleep in a pit toilet two nights in a row. I just couldn’t. So I searched until I found a spot in the trees next to the highway.

Six and Poppins did, though. And we had dinner inside.



It was best not to think too hard about what we had become.

Day 121: Too Much Walking

Islip Saddle to Wrightwood

The view from Mt. Baden-Powell was underwhelming compared to the previous day. Suddenly there were day hikers again, in droves. I caught a whiff of homesickness as I watched two women take a selfie and crack summit beers. But I didn’t envy their crisp clean clothes or the car they drove away. I didn’t envy L.A., where they would wake up and look at the clock all day long, then go back to the same apartment every night, stuffed with possessions that sat for days, maybe months, barely noticed and untouched.


Another generous family offered up their home in Wrightwood. Again, we got to sleep in their absent children’s beds. They took us to a dinner party and informed us that we were ambassadors, so that their friends might take an interest in hosting hikers too.

“You must be so healthy,” one woman said.

I exchanged glances with the other two and we laughed. “Walking thirty miles a day isn’t good for any part of your body,” I said. “I’ve lost fifteen pounds and eat nothing but candy.”

“It sounds like too much walking to me,” interjected one of the dads.

I nodded. “It is absolutely too much walking. But we’ve chosen to do it anyway.”

Day 122: Return of the Jumping Mouse

Wrightwood to camp, mile 2301

Smoke from the Old Water Fire dominated the horizon. Smoke or Pollution? had been the we’re-hiking-around-L.A. game, but now it was always smoke.


The interstate twinkled in the distance and the bumpy city spread like lava in the dark. Camping was yet again scarce, but we managed to find a few cowboy spots in the bush. A kangaroo rat made sporadic appearances from a hole right next to Six. We had long since dubbed them the jumping mouse, Mary Poppins’ literal translation from Swiss. It sounded like a fable.

The jumping mouse didn’t bother us in the night. But we woke again to a substantial coating of sand.

Day 123: McDonald’s Day

Camp to Cleghorn Picnic Area, mile 2325

It had been a while since I got high purely for the occasion of eating. But if there ever was a good reason, it was the on-trail McDonald’s of the PCT.

On the way to the interstate, Six and I stopped to investigate a car graveyard. They were old enough to belong to a different era and completely rusted out. “This is what I like about the desert,” I said. There was a fruit-laden prickly pear cactus and I collected a snack.


The employees of the I-5 McDonald’s knew what they were doing. They offered free cookies in exchange for a customer satisfaction survey, and made sure to target thru-hikers with the ask. After filling in rave reviews, I lay down in our booth for a few hours. “Let’s sleep here,” I begged one more time.

But the others kept me on the straight and narrow. Well, the uniform and winding. We hiked on.



Our campsite dreams came true that night. The spots at the picnic area were soft, flat, and shrouded by trees. But I tossed and turned with fire in my knees and a stabbing at the front of my hips. Slowly but surely, my joints were failing.

Day 124: Spa Day

Cleghorn Picnic Area to Deep Creek, mile 2351

I walked into a branch so hard that my head rang. Swearing furiously, I checked for blood.

There was a river crossing with a tangle of tall bushes instead of a trail, and no way to avoid wet feet as we hacked our way across. My friends complained loudly and I was annoyed. I snapped that this happens on a thru-hike and muttered under my breath that the PCT was for amateurs — my own exhaustion and discomfort manifested as a totally absurd thing to say. I hoped they hadn’t heard.


We had to be nearing a popular party spot for questionable people, because the trail graffiti turned vile. The spray-painted dicks weren’t so bad, but a rock further along the trail read, Fuck Jews.

Guthook reviews on Deep Creek Hot Springs were mixed. Apparently it was overrun with trash and germs during Nobo season. “First one to get a rash wins,” smirked Mary Poppins.

But it was wonderful.


We stayed until 4:30pm, when the light began to fade.



Day 125: I’m Walking to Mexico

Deep Creek to Big Bear City

I woke up in the morning with an itchy rash on my inner thigh. Reluctantly, I informed the others of my victory.


I kept waiting for the landscape to transform into the Sonoran Desert I knew, but it never quite happened. Still, when I saw knobby rocks and yucca, I got excited. And it was fall!


But fall had its downsides, and the forecasted low that night was eighteen degrees. We had done fifteen miles by lunch and calculated that twenty more would get us to Big Bear. Shitty, but possible.

We hiked as fast as we could and I hated it. I tried to float out of my body and imagine that my legs were really wheels spinning along the ground. Ten miles left! Eight!

When we crossed the gravel road shortcut to town, we took it. We played games as we strode side-by-side. I’m walking to Mexico and I’m bringing… a massage chair, a hair dryer, new shoes, a gay frog… an N-64, a poodle-dog bush, giardia meds… a magic crystal, a machete, a real poodle dog, a tiny rainbow flag for my gay frog…

At the cheapest motel on the trail, I showed Six my rash. (She’s a medical student.) It was very close to what would be my underwear line, if I wore underwear. Gravely, she informed me that it was a large cluster of spider bites.

“WHAT THE FUCK?!” I cried, hopping around the room in sheer horror. “WHAT THE FUCK?!” And then I laughed and screamed and laughed. At least it would go away.

We watched Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and evaluated the hobbits’ route planning, campsites, and gear. On the long climb up Mt. Doom, they run out of water. There’ll be none left for the return journey, says Frodo.

I don’t think there will be a return journey, Sam replies.

Up Next: With 266 miles to go, time is ticking and the group is strained. Cloud reassesses her plans for the last few days of the trail and takes an unexpected gamble.