Day 126: Deflated
Big Bear City to camp, mile 2397
Big Bear Lake was one of those long, narrow towns with miles in between the post office and the supermarket. Mary Poppins finally unveiled his Halloween costume and I retrieved a resupply box from my friend Cerveza. She had offered to help me out as soon as I started running low on money. I was surprised it had taken this long.
Over burgers, we did something daring and reserved an AirBnb in San Diego. We didn’t want to lock ourselves into an end date, but after the delay in Tehachapi it was inevitable that we had to rush to make our flights home. We talked to our old friends and concocted a crazy plan. So crazy it just might work.
266 miles; ten days. A challenge. I announced to my friends and family that correspondence would be limited and the blog was on hold, which must have been devastating.
After an easy hitch and a few miles on a ridge, we dropped down to water and colder temperatures. I hiked in my puffy, which I almost never did. Mary Poppins admitted to us that he wasn’t in a good head space — he didn’t like the desert and he was itching for the trail to be over. (Of course, he was off to New Zealand to hike the Te Araroa after this.) I felt a little defensive of the desert, but tried to be understanding. After all, I had been there many times.
Another nineteen degree night. Setting up my tent wasn’t too bad; my fingers went numb and waxy but retained the dexterity to be efficient. I wore my Halloween costume over my clothes and under my puffy. I cinched my sleeping bag around my face so that only my lips and nostrils were exposed. It was bearable.
Around midnight, I woke up to a deflated sleeping pad. It took everything I had not to shout curses into the dark.
Day 127: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Camp to Mission Creek, mile 2427
Halloween! The icy hand of the night slowly unclenched and Six took off her monster costume. I had convinced the other two that this was an important American holiday. We even met two other hikers dressed as pizza slices.
We dropped and dropped down Mission Creek, but the magic of a river canyon made it worthwhile. There was a lot of fearmongering about the route-finding; as common in riparian areas, a flood back in February had washed out the trail. Trail work had corrected a lot of the damage, and at first I was optimistic that it wouldn’t be a problem. But as light disappeared somewhere beyond the canyon, there were a lot of river crossings left.
We faced the worst of the washed-out sections in the dark. I thought it would have been easier to follow the river than look for the trail — that is, if we could see. The terrain was not impassible, but it was slow going through clumps of thick vegetation and eroded dirt cliffs. We found short stretches of unaffected trail and cruised as fast as we could. Then it was back to guesswork and rock-hopping.
Poppins was madder than I had ever seen him, and Six looked quietly agonized. “I bet if we had packed out the Fireball, this would be fun!” I said desperately.
Later, Six thanked me for my positive attitude. “I like Type 2,” I shrugged. At least it was an interesting night.
Day 128: Flying Solo
Mission Creek to camp, mile 2456
We had a little bit left along Mission Creek. But the soft, warm morning carried none of the stress of the night before. I purposefully (for once) fell behind, savoring the shine of the dawn.
The canyon opened into a big wash, the Whitewater River. Guthook advised that it was the very last river on trail. I recalled Chef in Kennedy Meadows: Everything is the last something now.
Now that it was almost over, the PCT had flown so fast. Had I found what I was looking for?
Mary Poppins and Six waited for me by the river, but I sat for a while after they were gone. I realized that I wanted to be alone. Not for the rest of the time, but maybe for most of it. Should I text them and tell them that?
The trail through the wash was itinerant and I didn’t bother to look for it, just headed in the right direction. When I reached back to grab my sunglasses, I found that one of my water bottles was missing. Shit.
Going back would take forever and I wasn’t even sure of the route I had come. So I bushwhacked over to the river and filled up everything I had. There was no more water until the base of Mount San Jacinto some fifteen miles away.
I took a wrong turn and walked half a mile off trail. Well, that was that — I would definitely text the others that I wasn’t catching up today.
Once again, potential ice cream at the wind farm offices let me down. I roadwalked parallel to the sandy trail; I could see it next to me as I headed towards Interstate 10.
I wasn’t sure why, but I took the streets through the little town at Interstate 10 instead of returning to the trail. It looked deserted, but the sound of dogs barking, palm fronds flapping, and lively Spanish music floated in and out on the wind. I saw a woman doing laundry in her front yard. I waved and she looked at me quizzically.
Then it was under I-10 and across a flat expanse to the infamous mountain.
A tiny neighborhood on other side of the highway stood in stark contrast to the last. This was the neighborhood for people with money. There were no noises here at all.
The water source was a faucet at the point where the trail left the road. I gulped down raspberry electrolytes and made ramen. I could do whatever I wanted now! I texted NoDay about the rush for the last 200 miles. Maybe I’ll take some adderall and try for a 40.
Damnnn, she wrote. Hopefully she understood that I was joking. Was I joking?
I dreaded the twenty-mile, 7,500-foot climb. Who wouldn’t? But it was easy going as I started up the switchbacks, and I got my usual burst of energy that accompanied the dying light.
I passed a couple and stopped to chat. They wore shirts that looked familiar and the man had a visible prosthetic leg. “How’s it going?”
“Best day ever,” he replied.
It was him. “I saw you in the Sierras,” I stammered. They had been heading Nobo and I didn’t take them for thru-hikers. But he gave me the same answer then, and it stuck as the day beat me into the ground.
A thin slice of moon rose in a lavender sky. For an hour, the rocks carried an enchanted glow. There had never been a desert sunset that didn’t make the heat of the day worth it.
I passed a stone pillar. It read 2,450 miles and when I walked past, I turned around and saw 200.
It hurt. It felt good, but it hurt.
My headlamp died and I stopped to fish out my battery charger. I saw two people blinking their lights at me from the switchbacks above. Must be Six and Poppins. I stopped somewhere short of their camp.
Cerveza had repackaged Idahoan instant potatoes into ziplocks and labeled them, For ramen bomb. As I heated the ramen, something brushed against something else and just like that, my pot toppled off the tiny stove. I supposed it had to happen at least once on the PCT. I supposed every bad thing from now on would have that silver-lining shrug.
I managed to get most of the noodles back in the pot. But the potato mush did little to mask the texture of sand.
Day 129: Going to Heaven
Camp to Humber Park Trailhead
It was a sunrise for the history books. Clouds bled into thin air and red ridges decorated the horizon like piped icing.
The true summit of San Jacinto involved a two-mile detour from the PCT, and I decided not to go. I was tired, I was sore, and I needed to get to Idyllwild in time to resupply and hitch back out. But the FOMO was strong as I made the final agonizing climb of the PCT.
I ran into Six near the turnoff for the summit trail. She said that Poppins was going to Idyllwild to resupply for both of them while she climbed San Jacinto. I told her I wanted to hike on my own for a while, but meet up before the end. She seemed to understand.
On the side trail down to Idyllwild, my knees hurt like they had rarely hurt before. I was kind of scared they were damaged for good — how much pain was too much pain? How much pain before you really should stop?
As soon as I reached to town, Poppins summoned me to the post office and met me outside with a cold Coke. He had an extra brand-new sleeping pad mailed here by mistake, and said I could borrow it rather than deal with my leaky one. My heart swelled and I told him what a wonderful friend he was. And that I was ditching him for an undetermined amount of time, again.
Suddenly I got a flurry of texts. Six was at the top of Mount San Jacinto. JESUS CHRIST THERE’S SO MANY PEOPLE. One guy was pissed off cause I passed him and he was like do you do this hike often? And then when I was leaving he told his girlfriend: it’s because she has trekking poles and we don’t.
these people beside me have a full-on charcuterie board, she continued. On a WOODEN BOARD
THAT THEY BROUGHT UP IN A WICKER PICNIC BASKET
I’m so not prepared to go back into society
I’m kinda freaking out.
Just as it turned officially dark, I caught a ride with Ted. He informed me that I had been hitching in the wrong direction, but took me to the trailhead anyway.
Idyllwild, he grumbled, had changed. (Like everywhere, I thought.) Ted blamed Orange County emigrants just like people in Colorado blame Californians. “Everyone used to stop on the street and say hello,” he told me. “Now they don’t even make eye contact.” He was right, but I had assumed it was because of my smell.
Ted had three jobs: wood-splitter, gem-miner, and paramedic. He loved them all. Of the last he said, “I tell you what, I better be getting into heaven.”
Ted’s heaven seemed to work on a point system. Maybe giving rides to PCT hikers helped too.
I set up my tent in the trees at the trailhead. There were climbers bustling and calling out, maybe drinking beer, sleeping in their trucks before tomorrow’s adventure. I could go out and meet them; I used to enjoy things like that. I could have stayed in town for karaoke night too. But current Cloud was too tired for talking, too pensive for fun. So I lay with my face down for a while, thinking I should really put something between my filthy legs and Mary Poppins’ new sleeping pad.
I had the bright idea to ice my knees and ankles with cold bags of water. It was a very pleasant way to fall asleep.
Day 130: Deflated, Part Two
Humber Park Trailhead to Highway 74, mile 2501
The light was wrong when I opened my eyes. I realized it must be daylight savings and my phone had automatically switched over. In trail currency, an hour of daylight was three miles. Robbed!
I climbed back up to the PCT and a long ridge. On my left was Palm Springs with its many distant highways and homes. Dry creek beds lined with cottonwoods traced a route down to the city. Beyond it, more piped icing. More jagged ridges to faraway peaks. But every day was just a hair different than the day before.
I rounded a corner straight into a massive clump of poodle-dog bush and imagined Mary Poppins yelling, Everywhere! Everywhere!
The one sketchy move of the whole PCT was waiting along the ridge. It was a holdover from last year’s rockslides; a massive boulder blocked the trail on a steep slope and someone had tied a rope to aid hikers in the scramble.
I did not trust the sun-bleached rope to bear my weight. I pretended it had cooties as I eased across.
Then it was a roller coaster for a while. I took a nice long break under a tree and listened to music on my phone. It was fun to know that probably, no one was coming.
Signs at road crossings warned of mountain lion danger, which never bothered me during the day. Rationally, it didn’t bother me at night either, but I still made a lot of noise as I picked my way between massive rocks and under twisting manzanita. It was never quite bright enough to hike by the light of the moon.
The air was doing something strange. At night the desert had pockets and depending where I was, the temperature ricocheted violently.
I planned to camp at the water cache by the highway, and unfortunately that pocket was freezing. I wanted to want to keep going, but I was intensely tired. I don’t know how anyone can roll into their intended camp and decide to take one more step. Your mind and your body plot as you count down the miles; at camp, it’s all over.
I got ready to wrap myself tight again. It had to be twenty degrees. And then:
Poppins’ brand-new sleeping pad deflated. It deflated almost instantly.
I screamed like I had not screamed in a long, long time.
In the series finale: Cloud tries to hike a forty. Will she reunite with her friends? Did she learn anything from this very, very long stretch of dirt?