A true friend is poached by the CDT

Day 35: Zero in Tehachapi

June 6, 2019

By zeroing in Tehachapi, I got to go to the spectacularly good German bakery in town. I sat drinking coffee and eating pastry after pastry with Midnight (another hiker tangentially related to our trail family), Foot Juice, Danish, and T-Pain.

Since I’d met him, T-Pain had talked about leaving the PCT in mid June to begin a southbound hike of the CDT (Continental Divide Trail). Because he is interested in guiding backcountry trips in Montana in the fall, a hike through the Bob Marshall Wilderness and some of the other areas he hopes to work in makes more sense to him than completing a PCT hike this year.

But the knowledge that a friend is leaving and the reality of saying goodbye are two different things. Today was T-Pain’s last day with the trail family, and we all wrote him notes to read on his train ride from Bakersfield.

In my note, I described the ways in which T-Pain’s presence had bettered my experience on the trail. He was one of the first friends I made on the trail, and he had helped think up my trail name. He and I had shared a room in Idyllwild on my first zero day on the trail, where we had gotten to know one another better while getting dinner and drying our gear in town. His upbeat demeanor and independent attitude had made him an inspiration to me as we worked our way through difficult weather and trying group dynamics. Perhaps most importantly, he had hiked with me all day through a hellish storm on the way to Agua Dulce, cracking jokes and expounding upon the details of his previous jobs and his life in Texas and Montana. That night, he had helped me pitch my tent in the driving rain and had kept up a smile even as he shivered in his tent. Losing him to the CDT felt like a major blow.

Sadly, due to a miscommunication about after-dinner plans, I wasn’t able to say goodbye to T-Pain in person. Instead, I had to leave my note for him with Hot Hands before going to bed early with the Danes. We planned to catch the first bus to the trailhead in the morning and wished our friends good luck on the section ahead.

T-Pain on our walk toward the aqueduct a few days before Tehachapi

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Bring on the Drugs

Day 34: Nearo into Tehachapi

Trail miles 558.5-566.5

June 5, 2019

In the dark morning, I met Danish and 70/30 (Hiccup recently changed his trail name by popular demand after he was asked about the odds that a mysterious stain on his pants was attributable to tuna juice and offered “70/30” as the answer) to hike the 8 miles to Highway 58 where we planned to catch a bus to Tehachapi. To make the morning bus to town, we had to hike at a brisk 3 miles per hour.

On our way into the wind farm, Eleven, another hiker who we met on our walk along the aqueduct, passed us. She was walking faster than any hiker I’d seen on trail so far, and the Danes and I struggled to keep up with her as she raced through the wind turbines. It felt as though we were running, and yet she seemed always to be pulling away.

When we finally made it to the road on the other side of the wind farm, Danish checked his gps and told me we’d been walking an average of 3.8 miles per hour (nearly a whole mile per hour faster than my normal pace!). We actually had time to sit by the side of the road and relax for half an hour before the bus came.

The infected bug bite that had forced me to seek out antibiotics in Banning, over 300 miles prior, was beginning to flare up again. On the bus to Tehachapi, I called my doctor and my insurance company for advice and decided to stay on the bus until it reached Bakersfield, where I could find an urgent care clinic.

Although it was frustrating to spend a whole day attending to a problem I thought I’d already solved while my friends were eating pastries from the famous bakery in Tehachapi, my trip to Bakersfield went remarkably smoothly. The bus station turned out to be only a couple blocks from the clinic I planned to visit. While I was having my blood drawn, I asked the nurse for a restaurant recommendation and was sent to a busy cafe across the street where I had a delicious omelette and a raspberry milkshake. I then walked to a nearby drug store to pick up my three week (!!) dose of antibiotics and finally completed my small loop by returning to the bus station. The whole endeavor took only about three hours.

Back in Tehachapi, we celebrated 70/30’s birthday slightly early by having dinner at a mediterranean restaurant where our party of 15 was so large we had to carry tables outside onto the sidewalk. After dinner, our trail family held a meeting in the motel hot tub to discuss plans for the Sierra, but it soon became evident that many people had either not done their research or were unwilling to make a decision until they absolutely had to. Personally, I had been convinced by my phone discussion with Jack, the PCTA’s Trail Information Specialist, that flipping to Canada and completing the hike southbound offered the best chance of safety and success.

Although my original plan had been to hike out early the next morning with the Danes to tackle some long days toward Walker Pass, I decided at the last minute to take a full zero day in town to complete some chores I had not yet been able to accomplish due to my detour to Bakersfield.

Eleven

As if we didn’t know?

It’ll be so much fun to take these twice a day for 21 days, especially considering I’m not allowed to eat for two hours before and after taking them…

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Night and Day

Days 32 and 33: Wee Vill Market to Willow Springs Road

Trail miles: 517-558

June 3-4

We spent the day at Wee Vill Market, researching snow conditions and trying to figure out the best options for continuing our hikes. Sitting outside a cafe/convenience store is a dangerous game for a hiker. Hunger is omnipresent and boredom often disguises itself as hunger, doubling the desire for burgers, milkshakes, and anything else available.

In the cool of evening, 10 of us crammed into the market’s beat up minivan and got a ride from a Wee Vill employee back to the trailhead.

“Here comes the clown car!” Hiccups’ voice was muffled and came from a pile of packs in the back seat.

We piled out and started the walk along aqueduct, breaking off into small groups in the gathering darkness. The trail in this section is along a dirt road that follows the aqueduct, which is mostly covered by concrete slabs. Road walking is notoriously boring and hard on the body. As much as hikers complain about ups, downs, and uneven trail tread, the variability these challenges provide allow different muscle groups to take turns handling greater or lesser loads. By contrast, a flat road demands the same muscular response with each step, leading to fatigue and serious pain after several miles. There is one advantage to walking a road like the one next to the aqueduct, however, and that is the opportunity to walk abreast of your companions.

I walked with Hiccups, Foot Juice, and Carjack for a couple hours, gossiping about romances in our trail family.

Then, when everyone else took a break, I decided to keep walking with Fire Socks, who was eager to get to camp before midnight (9pm is often referred to as “hiker midnight,” so real midnight feels like 3am when your body is in the habit of sleeping at 8pm.). We powered through the last 6 miles to the first water source since the market, 17 miles back: aqueduct water piped to a small faucet complete with aggressive warnings about the necessity of treating the water before drinking it.

After tanking up, we spread our groundcloths under some shrubs, trying to escape the constant wind (pro tip: if you want to avoid the wind, don’t camp in a wind farm), and fell asleep to the whoosh of the massive turbines.

I woke several times before my 5am alarm and opened my eyes to see the dark foliage above my head dancing in the wind, silhouetted against a sky bursting with stars.

In the gray light of morning, I stuffed my quilt and groundcloth into my pack and set off through the wind farm toward the hills beyond the turbines. The day was hot, and once I finally escaped the relentless blowing of the lowlands, I was thankful to have my sun umbrella to deflect some of the heat.

In the early afternoon, I stopped for a long break in the shade of some low pine branches. The ball of my left foot had developed a large blister during the road walk, and every step of the 17 miles I’d walked that morning had felt as though I was treading on a sharp rock the size of a marble. I pulled my socks off, put my feet up on my pack and dozed in the afternoon heat for a few hours.

When I got up to continue walking, my foot was still quite sore, and I felt lethargic. I wasn’t in a rush, but I was disappointed by my slow pace as I made my way past another wind farm and toward camp.

Strange thoughts circulated in my mind, ranging from memories of awkward and unhappy personal interactions to feelings of worthlessness and failure. I was suddenly overwhelmed with sadness and shame and could not understand why. Walking on, I had to work to hold back tears, then wondered why I was holding them back and scolded myself for trying to stifle my emotions. This only worsened my sense of hopelessness.

After suffering these cyclical thoughts for nearly an hour, I began to find my ordinary mind again. I did some math and determined that I had walked 40 miles in the last 24 hours. I also realized that I had nearly run out of snacks and had not had enough to eat during the day considering my mileage and my lack of sleep. The only thing to do was to get to camp and cook dinner. When I arrived at the picnic table near the road where I intended to camp, I was lightheaded and had to will myself to cook and eat a pot of rice.

The starch made all the difference, and I set up my cowboy camp in the coarse sand, feeling happy that I was just 8 miles from Highway 58, where I planned to hitch into Tehachapi in the morning.

Good thing this isn’t a wilderness area, or our group size would be a serious problem

T-Pain enjoying dinner

Foot Juice

From left: Carjack, Foot Juice, and Hiccup

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Matters of Great Import

Day 31: Sawmill Campground to Wee Vill Market

Trail miles 498.2-517.6

June 2, 2019

If you wake up at 4am on the ridge between Casa de Luna and Hikertown, you can look east and watch liquid sunlight spill over the mountains across the valley and pool in gleaming fields of solar panels on the desert floor. That’s where I was and that’s what I did this morning.

No matter where you are, if you wake up at 4am, 9am is lunch time. And despite my hunger and general feelings of lethargy, today I skipped lunch in favor of hiking with Danish (this ultramarathoner hikes fast) down and off of the grassy, oak covered ridge we climbed yesterday. As we walked, we took advantage of the cool morning, using our as-yet unscrambled brains to discuss the basics: whether free will is an illusion and whether there exists knowledge that the human brain is physically incapable of understanding.

With the trivial questions out of the way, we turned to more pressing concerns: would we be able to get root beer floats from Hikertown (a strange collection of tiny buildings in the desert, built to look like an old west town, that rents basic rooms to hikers for $10), or would we need to hitch to the Wee Vill Market for supplies?

As it turned out, Wee Vill Market offered free rides from the trailhead and free camping on the lawn outside their cafe/convenience store. Danish and I met Spartan at the highway crossing and called the market for a ride.

The next hour saw all our needs met: we pitched our tents, bought a pint of vanilla ice cream and ordered root beer with our sandwiches, showered in the low concrete shack behind the restaurant, and did laundry in a 10 gallon bucket, scrubbing our clothes by hand and changing the water until it ran clean (truthfully, the laundry water never ran clean, and I suspect that it will never run clean again considering the amount of dirt and sweat my clothes have absorbed this last month).

Throughout the afternoon, the rest of our trail family trickled in to find the oasis that is Wee Vill Market. I took advantage of our early arrival by relaxing in my tent while the others ordered their own food and drink. One perk of getting up at 4am is that you can walk 20 miles by early afternoon. A major disadvantage is that by 5pm, the sleeping bag inside your tent looks almost irresistibly inviting, especially when the thunderheads that have been threatening rain since morning finally open up and drop another dose of rain on the “desert” you’ve been walking through.

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Zoom out

Day 30: Casa de Luna to Sawmill Campground

Trail miles 478.2-498.2

June 1, 2019

Thru hiking is a strange endeavor. From a certain perspective, it is extremely selfish. I voluntarily give up time I would otherwise devote to school, work, or family to walk nearly all day nearly every day for many months.

My time is my own, and I use it to think of things that are important to me. But often, the most important thing is getting up or down the next hill, which sometimes requires me to empty my mind and simply walk. What does all this empty time do to my brain? At times, I find that I am more present in a moment’s pleasure or pain. Other times, I discover myself far away, adrift in a space of memories and aspirations.

My walking takes place on a path routed and built to accommodate horses, and I use maps produced using GPS data. Navigation is therefore trivial. The scenery is stunning, the friendships burn hot and bright, and the rhythm of the days thrums in time with the sunrise and the changing seasons.

I feel a consistent sense of accomplishment when I retire to my tent each night to check which pages of the map I walked across that day. And I feel a thrill as I leaf through the next few pages to check my water sources and camping options for the coming day.

Not long ago, a twenty mile day seemed huge. Today I hiked 15 miles before noon, took a two hour lunch break, then breezed through the final five miles to camp, feeling fresh.

A stretch of 100 miles no longer sounds like a daunting week’s hike. It sounds like 5 days of food: 25 bars for breakfasts, a pound of peanut butter and 15 tortillas for lunches, some noodles or rice and five tuna packets for dinners, and a few pounds of snacks to fill in the gaps.

My food often makes me wonder about my environmental impact as I walk this trail. Because I am pushing my body more than I would in normal life, I am eating far more than I ever have at home. Moreover, the packaging I use on the trail is wasteful, and far exceeds what a normal person needs in daily life. Nearly everything I eat comes individually wrapped in plastic and foil. It couldn’t stay fresh otherwise.

On the other hand, I don’t use much water. My showers are infrequent at best, and I’ve been wearing the same outfit, unwashed, for the better part of a week. The water I drink on the trail comes mainly from springs and small streams, and I treat it myself, by passing it through a filter, rather than relying on a municipal water treatment plant.

Although I travel mostly by foot and although I carpool in towns when I hitchhike, my travel by car to start the trail and my transportation when I eventually go home are fuel-intensive and cannot be construed as necessary in any way.

In fact, no part of this trip is necessary, which returns me to the thought that thru hiking is a selfish endeavor that utilizes a large number of resources I would not otherwise need.

But an obvious counterpoint to this argument is that the experiences I have on the trail may shape me into a more environmentally conscious person who takes a greater interest in protecting public land and wilderness areas in my life off the trail. And by sharing some of these experiences, through my writing and my pictures, perhaps I can foster these same intertwined senses of inspiration and responsibility in other people.

The effect that my time on the trail has on the rest of my life is hard to fathom now, and the changes it is inducing in my outlook are far from complete. But once in a while, it feels important to take a longer view of this trip and ask myself again, “Why hike?”

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…and back to relaxing

Day 29: Camp above Green Valley to Casa de Luna

Trail miles 471.3-478.2

May 31, 2019

I packed up quickly and left the grove of low oaks where I’d camped the night prior, eager to find a place to dig a cat hole.

Randy blueberries

At Casa de Luna, the Andersons host hundreds of hikers each year, offering unlimited taco salad for dinner and a pancake breakfast with similarly unrestricted portions to anyone who walks the PCT to Green Valley.

I hitched to the convenience store (really the only store in town) with Casper and a couple other hikers we met at the road crossing. While buying a watermelon popsicle and a spicy V8, I met AK, another Dane who has been leap frogging my trail family since the Mexican border and who has recently been camping with us. She walked me back to Casa de Luna, where Danish showed me a camp spot in the manzanita forest behind the Andersons’ house. On the way through the trees, he pointed out the many colorful rocks painted with symbols, quotes and outdoor scenes by previous visiting hikers.

With my tent set up, the relaxation truly began. Although I did not feel exhausted from the short hike to the road, I felt like I was coming down with a cold and was grateful for a bit of a rest day.

We sat under a large oak, lounging in lawn chairs and hammocks, eating snacks out of our food bags and taking turns walking back to the convenience store for ice cream. At one point Casper borrowed a small guitar (designed to be carried, the instrument was short and thin but had four strings tuned like the four upper strings of a guitar) and played and sang a few folk songs masterfully.

After washing our hands with a hose, we gathered with the fifty or so other hikers staying for dinner and snaked through the outdoor buffet, heaping our plates with chips, beans, cheese, tomatoes, cabbage, onions, sour cream, and hot sauce. We cleaned our plates and returned for more.

As dusk fell, Terry Anderson switched on strings of colorful lights and turned up the music for the most hallowed Casa de Luna tradition. Again, we lined up and, one by one, danced up to Terry to earn a coveted PCT Class of 2019 bandana.

Fractal Hillsides

Hiking is hard

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Back to work

Day 28: Agua Dulce to Camp outside Green Valley

Trail miles 454.5-471.3

May 30, 2019

After we’d packed up and climbed into her old diesel pickup, L-Rod (Donna Saufley) drove a group of us back to downtown Agua Dulce. We thanked her for her incomparable generosity and headed up Agua Dulce Canyon Road toward the distant hills.

The trail follows the road out of town for roughly three miles, and I walked with T-Pain, who, at one point, spotted a kangaroo rat hopping in the dust. “I told you they lived around here!” he shouted.

After weeks of cool weather, the promised heat finally arrived. I sweated my way up, up, up into the hills through small-leaved shrubs and prickly chaparral. But when I crested the ridge and crossed from the south-facing to the north-facing slopes of the mountains, the vegetation changed entirely. I descended to Bear Spring through shady oak groves, stopping to pick a few leaves of Miner’s Lettuce for a snack.

At the spring I found most of my friends, who had hiked out earlier than T-Pain and I had. They were in siesta mode, and again I found it difficult to sit still, though the shade and abundant water were enticing. I compromised by taking an hour break, eating lunch and filtering water while talking with Hot Hands and Bright Side before setting off again into the sun.

Shortly after leaving lunch, I was descending a sunny slope when I noticed a dark cylinder lying across the trail. I stopped short and realized the cylinder was a thick rattlesnake. It appeared not to see me, but I gave it ample time to glide into the bushes and then gave those bushes a wide berth as I made my way around them and down the trail.

The rest of the afternoon involved steep uphills on exposed slopes, and I utilized my sun umbrella for only the second time this trip. It proved an invaluable asset as I sweated my way up and over another major ridge towards Casa de Luna, another popular stop for hikers that is run by the Andersons (trail angels in Green Valley).

In the evening, I stumbled upon a few campsites nestled in some small trees. Eager for shade, I decided to set up camp and wrote until Spartan, the Danes, T-Pain, and Foot Juice showed up. The women in our group had camped a few miles away, so it was a night for the boys. We cooked dinner while making jokes and talking about the snow in the Sierra (a common theme, if you haven’t been following along).

It was a perfect evening for cowboy camping, except for the mosquitoes, who had made themselves known by humming around my ears and taking stabs at my legs during dinner. Danish, Hiccups, and T-Pain braved the onslaught, but I set up my tent and unzipped the rain fly for a view of the sky through the bug mesh, hoping for a rare night of undisturbed sleep.

My favorite edible plant on trail so far.

North-facing slope covered with trees

What’s that??

Ohhh

Campsite in the “enchanted forest”

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