Day 131: The Cold and the Cactus
Highway 74 to camp, mile 2535
The patch held. I was up past midnight looking for the hole, beyond the point when senses begin to fail and tears merge with hysterical laughter. I ran my trembling fingers over the thin fabric of the sleeping pad, back and forth in a grid. I shook, but my core temperature must have been buoyed by spite, and at last I found two narrow slits right next to each other. Snake eyes. I rubbed on a patch and it held.
The morning air sucked the feeling from my hands and I didn’t leave camp until 6:30am. I retrieved a fuel canister from underneath the bush where Chef had hidden it for me, since I hadn’t been able to buy one in Idyllwild.
My plastic water bladder lost half a liter before I realized it was leaking. I almost angry-hiked past Nails and Skipper, who liked to sleep in. I met them in Stehekin, right at the very start. Now we shared a joint and a very likely goodbye.
I had to ration my water in the raging heat. I tried to focus on what was good and beautiful for the day: cacti. I named each type that I saw. Cholla, beavertail, pincushion, prickly pear, barrel… How intimate, to know the desert.
I followed a dirt road to today’s water source. The most recent prints were lumpy animal tracks; the sand held their shape but no detail. A big coyote? A small mountain lion? In the desert, we share.
My knees throbbed as I eased down the bank to the spring. The water seeped through a sheet of rusty red mud. It looked yellow in my bottle and tasted like sour metal. I spread out my Tyvek and pretended I was having a picnic. It felt very sophisticated.
At night my headlamp lit up the mica in the sand, and suddenly I was walking on a carpet of stars. My campsite was flat and warm, a miracle. I spread out my Tyvek to cowboy camp and lay down, a little white raft in a big black ocean. The patch held. Even the Santa Ana winds were off somewhere in the distance, keeping someone else awake for once.
Day 132: Are You Ready?
Camp to water cache, mile 2562
If there was an award for Most Dangerous Roadwalk, the highway into Warner Springs would be uncontested. A sign told me to take a spur trail and I had ignored it. Now I pressed myself into trees and fences, dodging the cars that took the twists and turns at hyperspeed.
Robert stopped in the middle of the one-lane road and I ran to hop in. He was on his way to open up the gas station, my intended destination. “I’m so excited,” I gushed. “Don’t tell me — no, tell me — do you have ICE CREAM?”
The gas station had everything one could desire from a gas station, plus a strange little cocktail table with a green tablecloth and plastic flowers. I sat down with a couple microwave burritos, chocolate protein shakes, and cherry Pepsi for an even more sophisticated picnic than yesterday. Then I slunk into the bathroom to wash everything. Robert pretended not to notice when I returned wearing my rain jacket as a skirt.
Chef arrived and I told him about my plan to hike forty miles. Tomorrow. If I did that, I explained, I could relax for the remaining few days. Or I would die of exhaustion. It was a gamble I was willing to make.
For some hikers, a forty might not be a big deal — they do it on the regular! — but for others it’s inconceivable. My lofty goal for the PCT had been thirty-five. (Faithful readers may recall that I hiked thirty-six miles into Tehachapi, but only because I ran out of food.)
My second stop in Warner Springs was the Community Center, to fill up on water. It was one of those places that had hiker season down to a science, and the woman in charge insisted on “checking me in” before I got my water.
We chatted about their operation and how the PCT bolsters a small town’s economy. “The northbounders more so than the southbounders,” she said. “The Sobos are all out of money by the time they get here.”
Then it was time for the interview portion. So far this year, she had talked to hikers from thirty-nine countries. “Are you ready to stop walking?” she asked.
“Oh god, yes.” Only one Sobo this year had said no.
Then she asked me what lessons I had learned and I stammered. The lessons were always coming to me while I walked, and I never wrote them down because surely they were so important that I would remember them the rest of my life. But I couldn’t think of any.
“For me it’s been learning about myself,” I finally said. “And healing. What are some of the other answers?”
“Oh, everything,” she replied. “One guy said, chairs are good.”
The conversation turned over and over in my head until it became this poem.
The famed Eagle Rock looked no more impressive than it did in pictures. But it was a good opportunity to take a break and get my Gandalf on.
I chatted with a young family who had hiked the 3.5 miles in with their three-year-old daughter. She was excited about pinecones, the sky, and posing like a model in front of the big bird. Her dad asked me tons of questions about the trail. By then, it was easy to tell who was simply curious and who was secretly considering this kind of adventure for themselves.
“And I have a hard time on our twenty-mile overnights!” laughed the mom.
“Twenty miles is a lot,” I replied. “Twenty miles used to be too much for me.” Now it was 1:30pm and I planned on another fifteen before bed. We change, you see. We get stronger and faster and older and more forgiving. Back in Oregon and the Sierras, I was angry at myself all the time. But I was still here and still moving. How could I not love someone with that persevering spirit? That had to be the truest joy of thru-hiking: finding out what you’re made of.
Day 133: Not A Forty
Water cache to Pioneer Mail Picnic Area, mile 2601
Poppins and Six had recorded their time yesterday in the log book at the water cache. So I wrote Cloud @ 5:00am, snickering when I imagined the reactions.
Around 7:00am, I heard what I thought was a gunshot. At 8:00am I saw my first ocotillo of the trail, plus some towering agave. At 9:00am I scissored down the switchbacks to Scissors Crossing, and at 9:30am I drank a root beer from the cache at the road. Fourteen miles down, twenty-six to go.
Then it was a long, slow climb followed by a short, egregious one. Fifteen miles later I reached the top and crouched in the patchy shadow of a juniper bush. All desert breaks were about hiding from the sun.
It occurred to me that I was doing it. I was dirty and dazed, barely conscious really, with so many bloody scratches that I lost count. Little liminalities between inside and out. Nothing had any meaning besides the socks I peeled off my dust-blackened feet, a warm mouthful of water, and the scaly skin that I scraped from my lips with my teeth.
There was something about these days that opened up the bitter, sweaty truth of being alive.
I lowered my head between my knees and closed my eyes. I did know what the PCT had taught me. It was pounded into the soles of my feet every day for the last four-and-a-half months, radiating through my bones until it finally reached the processing center at the top of my head. It was so many things.
Life is too short to hate my body. Life is too short to hate other people, even if they deserve it. Everyone is trying. I’m trying and I shouldn’t be mad at myself. I should be kind. I should always keep trying. I should always be honest, be gentle, be hopeful. Life is too short to pretend.
I reached the Sunrise Trailhead at sunset. I stopped to chat with two men in a car and asked if they had any extra water, successfully avoiding what I heard later was the most disgusting trough of the entire trail.
In the distance, I spotted the Salton Sea. It was a white, watery glow amidst other swirls of color that could have been rocks or light. The weightlessness of the evening took hold and I floated to the last viable campsite for a while. Honestly? I didn’t even feel too bad.
Turns out, it wasn’t a forty. It was a thirty-nine. But I actually forgot that until I came back to reread the day’s notes and write this blog. It was a forty to me.
Day 134: Lacuna
Picnic to camp, mile 2617
My alarm went off and I lay with the exposed half of my face stinging. I wasn’t going to miss the cold. Imagine, a world in which it was not a colossal effort to pull back the covers! My old life felt closer than ever, but the thought didn’t bring me joy.
Stones in the dirt spelled 50. The number hit me hard in the chest, but it didn’t bring me joy.
In the morning, everything hurt. I hit the road and stuck out my thumb for the quarter-mile roadwalk to Mount Laguna. “I think you’re the first hiker ever to buy whipped cream,” said the man at the general store.
The whipped cream brought me joy. I sat on the porch to wait for Poppins and Six, who had spent a night in Julian and fallen behind. I hoped they would take a while.
The name of the little town tugged at the strings of my brain until it pulled the right one. Laguna, from the Latin lacuna. A hole or gap, typically in an old manuscript. Maybe in a memory.
I bought postcards and tried to think of the important people in my life. They were silly postcards and I wrote mostly jokes, plus hasty scribbles about the end and the amazing void that’s left between happy and sad.
“Like crying and dancing,” said Mary Poppins. I split a six-pack with him and Six and for once, they seemed content to loiter. I had missed them, which I supposed was good practice. I told them my time alone had been everything I wanted and they said they were glad, though I still wasn’t sure if they understood.
The sunset teased us, crying across the horizon: Look what you’ve decided to leave.
As Six and I contoured around the mountainside, a sudden noise echoed across the slopes. It sounded like a cat coughing up a hairball. “I have an idea,” I said. “Let’s stick together!”
“I was afraid to come here,” Six Thirty said. “Before I left. Now I’m afraid for it to end.”
Day 135: The Boys Are Back In Town
Camp to camp, mile 2642
Slippy always catches up.
It was an old saying. He was our late riser, our joke-teller, our carrier of untold luxury items. The rest of us left camp at staggered, reasonable hours. We used to hike through the heat in NorCal, taking breaks at every water source and wondering about Slippy. What time Slippy had unzipped his sleeping bag. When Slippy would catch up.
He always did. Just as Poppins or Six began to worry, he came clomping around the corner with his chunky green backpack, headphones in and jamming to an absolute banger. He had promised to catch up in the desert, after he got back from Vietnam for his cousin’s birthday.
But he hadn’t responded to texts or instagram messages for days. As we set out on the last full day of the PCT, we were faced with a troubling question: would Slippy really catch up?
We left verbal messages with a group of trail adopter trainees. “Slippy. Slippy. Giant backpack and long black hair. Tell him we’re going to the malt shop in Lake Morena.” We taped a note to a stop sign. If you’re reading this, we’re still at the malt shop.
We sat outside. There was no reason not to wait, even if it seemed like he wasn’t coming. We drifted in and out of phoneland. I was talking to Six when she turned her head and screamed.
There he was in a shiny new Hawaiian shirt, camera draped around his neck with a hint of safari. He regaled us with tales of Vietnam and the uproar that his feet caused when he went for a scrub and massage.
The last sunset on the PCT might have made me feel sick, but we walked in a tight line and laughed into the crisp air. We found a secluded little grove to cowboy camp and it was really the same as ever, the dim air speckled with headlamps and a ramen bomb in a titanium pot. I asked what Squirrel had asked me on the last night of the CDT: What were your favorite towns? Best trail magic? Least favorite day?
We didn’t know it then, but we were picking out memories. Some to keep and tell our friends over and over, and some to disappear in a blur of color and light.
Day 136: Just Another Feather in the Wind
Camp to Mexico, mile 2653
Slippy left first. That was wrong and we knew it. Six sat in her sleeping bag and stared at the rocks, the trees, the sand. It was upside-down.
I wanted to love the last miles, I really did. But they were hot and laborious, and in truest fashion I thought, Can we just fucking be there already. I would literally die for a cold Gatorade.
I had no water when we walked into Campo. For the first time in the whole desert I truly, helplessly, ran out.
We sat in the shade outside the general store and made a playlist for the Royal Mile. “Let’s go to the beach, beach!” we sang, strutting down the road out of town. A car honked obnoxiously and we whipped around, ready to scatter.
But it was a shiny white rental car. It came to a stop in the middle of the street and Oily Boy hopped out.
His brand-new clothes hadn’t seen a day of hiking. He had finished the PCT a week ago and gone to Mexico with his friends from the Czech Republic, knowing he would be back in San Diego today. We had known too, but it wasn’t quite real until this moment by the Cadillac: doors open, hazard lights flashing, hugging in the street.
“The boys are back in town!” we howled. “The boys are back in town!”
And we danced all the way to the southern border. If we had stopped, if we had paused the belting and air guitar, we might have had to face the final moments of the PCT with a halting step. But the trail died the way it had lived: merrily, with the best of friends.
I didn’t want to touch it. The five wooden pillars were not as exciting as I had expected them to be. But here I was on two crusty legs, trailing 2,653 miles behind me — and that was everything.
I believe the term for what we did is tailgate. Oily Boy had a clear plastic bin full of ice and more beers and Dr. Pepper than we could hope to consume. We plunked a jar of queso in the dirt and huddled. Our final campfire.
We blasted music and took an obscene amount of photos. (Everyone had their own vision; mine was ‘flipping off the border wall.’) Our revelry was periodically interrupted by groups of motorcyclists from a local rally. They were on a scavenger hunt and touching the PCT monument was one of their challenges.
Border Patrol was worse. They pulled up without warning on ATVs, stood and surveyed the area overdramatically, and took off without acknowledging our presence. We were protected by our backpacks and for most of us, the color of our skin. “Crazy,” Slippy said, watching them go. “Is it really just motivated by racism? Like that’s all?”
I nodded sadly. I had been trying for months to explain our militarized border and the detention crisis to my friends from abroad. (“I assume this reminds you of Canada,” I said sarcastically to Six as the helicopters roared overhead.)
We do what we can in the dark times.
I thought about the person who hugged a very similar wooden monument 2,653 miles north. She was me, all right: same intensity, same bursts of odd humor, same relentless pursuit of connection to people and the land. But she was bitter. She was always trying to hide her insecurity, even from herself. She had been poisoned by a long string of bad seasons, and there was almost no trust left in her eyes.
I took out my phone and opened the letter I started writing in Oregon. I would get to finish it after all.
Dear Cloud of 4 months and 2 weeks ago,
There were times I cursed you. There were times I hiked with my head down and called you stupid. There were times I said you made a mistake.
You wanted this trail to give you answers. Turns out there’s no such thing, just little steps on the path to understanding yourself.
You should have seen me cry. You would have said I was ungrateful. You wanted something picture-perfect, endless ridgelines and a cool breeze. You would have been so angry to hear the word ‘quit.’
But without that, what would any of this mean?
I love you. I love that you quit your job right after a pay raise because you couldn’t wait another second. I love the indomitable way you pushed through branches and blowdowns to slap your hands on that wood in the pouring rain. I love that you believed in me with 100% certainty. You believed so strongly that I turned to you when I stopped believing in myself.
Here’s the deal: the rain’s going to stop, eventually. It won’t be easy, but you’ve got this. Enjoy the PCT.