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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Zero Day in LA (I kid you not)

Day 27: Zero in LA

May 29, 2019

The appeal of a trip to LA on a rest day from a PCT hike may at first seem difficult to grasp. When I was confronted with a choice between spending a day in a folding chair eating overpriced food from downtown Agua Dulce or spending a day sitting on trains eating overpriced food from a big city I’ve never really liked, the choice was not exactly clear.

The juxtaposition of the hiker aesthetic in the big city was almost too much to pass up (imagine a cuben fiber food bag doubling as a purse, or a neon colored fanny pack that would fit right in in downtown Santa Monica if it weren’t so impossibly filthy, or a “white” sun hoody tie-dyed with sweat stains). But the offer that finally convinced me to spend my zero day in LA came from T-Pain, who promised to handle all of the transportation and logistics. He claimed to know a superb coffee shop and a number of restaurants serving food that is not exactly easily accessible on the trail (fresh seafood, for example).

I left Hiker Heaven just after sunrise with Hot Hands, Casper, and T-Pain, feeling oddly giddy, as though I were escaping some responsibility akin to school or work. I had not been more than a 20 minute car ride from the trail since I’d started hiking. Now I was on a multi-leg journey (car to train to second train) to a place almost perfectly antithetical to the PCT.

We sat on a commuter train, talking and laughing a little too loudly for the other passengers, considering the early hour. Watching the crosswalk signal countdown near the coffee shop in downtown LA, I realized that I could not remember the last time I had measured time in increments as small as seconds. I thought some more and found that I couldn’t remember using a time scale shorter than 10 minutes since starting the trail. Strange.

After a blissful cup of coffee, we returned to the train station and attempted to buy tickets at an automated kiosk. When it took T-Pain’s money without printing his ticket, he banged on the machine angrily with his hand. Immediately, the screen went a furious red, and an alarm began blaring throughout the station prompting T-Pain to walk away stone-facedly while Hot Hands, Casper and I laughed until we cried.

We eventually purchased tickets and headed to an In N Out on the way to Santa Monica (home to an REI and the beach). While Hot Hands and Casper got lunch, T-Pain and I resupplied at the grocery store nearby. As I made my way through the store, I saw T-Pain talking to no fewer than three people about our trip. I joined him for a conversation with two stunned security guards who wanted to know if we were crazy.

While checking out, a man in front of us made a snide comment about the amount of junk food we were buying and pointed to his pile of produce. T-Pain asked him how far he had walked lately, and when the man learned that we were on the PCT, his demeanor changed entirely, and he smiled and told us our 60 Clif bars “made sense.”

Back on the train, nobody seemed particularly keen to sit with us. People seemed confused by our unkempt hair and the wretched state of our expensive outdoors clothing. Were we sporty city folk who had fallen on hard times? Or were we homeless thieves who had robbed a gear store? Either way, we didn’t look or smell very good.

In Santa Monica, we visited the REI for some stove fuel and socks, then walked to a cafe selling acai bowls (truly the most SoCal thing anyone can possibly eat). Hot Hands was still wearing her paper In N Out hat when she ordered her smoothie (sweetened with bee pollen and guaranteed to align all chakras, seen and unseen), which earned her a strange look from the cashier. When asked for a name to associate with the order, Hot Hands began to give her trail name before stuttering, blushing and offering her real name.

With our smoothie bowls in hand, we walked to the beach near the Santa Monica Pier, where Casper and I ran into the waves and promptly got called back to shore for an admonition from a lifeguard about swimming too near a rip current.

A friend of Hot Hands and Bright Side met us at the beach. She’s been off the trail for a few weeks due to injury and infection, a terrible plight.

After the beach, we rushed back to LA Union Station on a crowded train. We split up for dinner and I bought some Thai noodles with fresh shrimp, which I ate while T-Pain finished his resupply in the convenience store of the train station.

We returned to Hiker Heaven just before 10. I was exhausted, but the day had been a blast and I could not have been more relaxed thanks to T-Pain shouldering the logistical burden.

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Hiker Heaven

Day 26: Stealth camp outside KOA to Hiker Heaven (The Saufleys’)

Trail miles 444.3-454.5

May 29, 2019

 

While I was rolling my sleeping pad in the morning, my nose began to bleed, streaming down my face and dripping bright red in the dirt before I could bring my hand up to pinch my nostrils closed. My nose has bled at least once a day for the last week, probably as a result of the drastic changes in temperature and humidity that have accompanied the recent storm cycle. During dinner last night, while attending to another nose bleed, I half-joked with Danish that my body was falling apart.

Although the extensor tendon pain that plagued me on the way into Wrightwood had largely abated on the most recent section of trail, a recent day without sun gloves (I thought the intense itching I felt in my hands was a heat rash, so I ditched the gloves and opted for sunscreen for a day) had left the backs of my hands covered with sun blisters. So while I felt the time had come to rejoice in my pain-free foot, my grotesque hands and my constantly bloody nose reminded me that I was not out of the woods (or the desert) yet.

I held my bleeding nose and watched my friends pack up and walk away from camp.

Many slow minutes later, my pack packed and my nose clotted, I set off on the steep climb into the hills. Massive faces of exposed conglomerate adorned the hillsides. I tried to keep my friends in sight, but eventually they disappeared over a ridge and I slowed to photograph the flowers and to ease the strain on my tired legs.

Hot Hands, who had slept four miles south of my camp at a beautiful site near a stream (in hindsight, I should have stopped early the evening before and enjoyed a quiet night there instead of camping near the KOA and the noisy road with our other friends) caught up to me at the top of a rise where I’d stopped to rest and to contemplate the traffic on the freeway in the valley below. It was stunning, after weeks of walking, to watch hundreds of people pass by along the freeway in cars and trucks. Even more overwhelming was the recognition that driving plays an absolutely central role in their lives and in the lives of so many other people in California, the United States, and the world. In my life off the trail, I am one of these people, driving a car between the often widely dispersed vertices of the graph that is my life.

Hot Hands and I walked down the hill together, catching each other up on the latest gossip in our trail family: who had camped where during the storm, and what people were thinking regarding the snowy Sierra (Hike through or flip? It’s the hottest question on trail now.).

We arrived at the interstate, where the trail travels through a tunnel with a small stream running through it. Many miles prior, after hiking out of Cajon Pass, where the trail traveled under an interstate and a railroad track, Hot Hands and I had discovered that we share an affinity for tunnels and manmade caverns. Now we wooped and whistled our way through the shady tube, reveling in the ghostly echoes the corrugated steel walls threw back at us.

We emerged on the other side in the Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park, where huge conglomerate outcroppings jut out of the ground at odd angles as a result of millions of years of tectonic faulting.

The sun beat down as we wandered our way through the park, craning our necks to admire the striated cliffs above us.

At the far end of the park, we followed the trail along a road into the town of Agua Dulce. T-Pain texted us from the Mexican restaurant, but on our way there, we saw a few of our other friends eating lunch on the patio of the local cafe.

“Do you want half a cheeseburger?” Fire Socks called.

Is the answer to such a question ever, “No.”?

Hot Hands and I stood with our packs on, just outside the patio’s cast iron railing, and ate the burger and salad Fire Socks handed us from her table. Revitalized by the fresh food, we headed across the street in search of T-Pain and burritos.

After lunch, we caught a ride with local trail angel Mike to Hiker Heaven, just one mile from the town center. Hiker Heaven is the home of Donna and Jeff Saufley, who have now hosted PCT hikers passing through Agua Dulce for 22 years. Their well-organized system for welcoming and caring for hikers reflected that experience.

I was greeted by a volunteer with a laminated sheet explaining the layout of the property, including where to pitch tents and where to find the portable toilets. After hanging my quilt on a trellis devoted to drying damp backpacking gear, I set up my tent in the shade and plugged my electronics in at the charging station, which I found inside a huge dome tent. In the same dome tent was an outgoing mailing station complete with boxes of all sizes, as well as stamps, envelopes, and a computer and printer for printing mailing labels. Also in the dome (it was enormous), I found shelves of loaner clothing and fresh towels. I picked out a t-shirt and some shorts and then availed myself of the outdoor shower, while a trail angel (either the Saufleys or one of their volunteers) did my laundry (anyone who will touch a hiker’s sweat-encrusted laundry is a special person indeed).

Clean, and clothed in cotton for the first time in weeks, I stepped across the driveway to the garage, where I scanned the shelves of alphabetically sorted packages until I found the box of maps and snacks my mom had sent from home. I then spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with other hikers, sifting through the row of hiker boxes*, and sharing a pizza ordered from town.

The amount of time and organizational energy devoted to running such an efficient and comfortable hiker resting place is mind-boggling. And each year, the effort required to maintain a clean, comfortable space increases. While I was dropping off my dirty laundry, I heard Donna Saufley say to another hiker that on many individual days this season, the number of hikers staying at Hiker Heaven (often well over 50) has exceeded the total number of hikers she and her husband welcomed in their entire first season as trail angels. Even more astounding is that the Saufleys are able to manage this intricate operation year after year without a formal funding source. In their own words: “Hiker Heaven is not a business, non-profit, or any type of formal organization, (we’re a family that is fortunate enough to have some truly amazing volunteers).” They rely on donations from hikers as well as their own finances to support the entire operation.

Some of the most inspiring encounters on the trail have nothing to do with wildlife or scenic landscapes, but rather stem from the goodwill and generosity of trail angels like the Saufleys.

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Oh glorious sun

Day 25: Godforsaken ridge above Acton to stealth camp near Acton KOA

Trail miles 424.3-444.3

May 27, 2019

I opened my eyes to the sound of my 5:30 alarm. My breath fogged and hung in the still air between my tent walls, which glistened with beads of ice. Curling deeper into my quilt, I closed my eyes against the gray light.

An hour later, I peeled back the frozen door of my tent and peered upward at a blue sky. The sun had climbed over the ridge and was beginning to defrost our frozen camp. Reluctantly, I jammed my feet into my frosty shoes and walked down the hill in search of a place to dig a hole.

When I returned, I could hear T-Pain rustling his gear behind the cuben fiber walls of his tent. I poured some of my water, chunky with ice crystals, into my pot and lit my stove for some hot chocolate.

In the meantime, I packed my things, taking breaks from stuffing wet gear into my pack to warm my fingers on my neck or under my arms.

The previous night I had gone to bed without cooking dinner, opting to eat snacks instead, in order to avoid the hassle of cooking in my tent vestibule. Now I was ravenous. I finally left camp at 9am after devouring a bag of chex mix, a few heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter, and a quarter pound of salami.

The morning dragged on at an agonizing pace. I was tired from the previous day, but I took comfort in the good weather and in the gorgeous views surrounding me. Now that the storm had passed, vistas of distant mountains and low desert presented themselves at every turn.

I ran into Fire Socks, Bright Side and the Danes at a fire station. There, for a two dollar donation to the fire crew, we were treated to a hot dog, a bag of chips, a can of soda, and, the true highlight: a fresh, crunchy carrot.

I set up my tent so that it could dry out from the previous night, then sat on the asphalt driveway outside the station enjoying my first real hot dog lunch since grade school.

The final few miles of the day were all downhill, but I was so tired that I felt I had to drag myself down the trail. My pace was slowed further by the stunning scenery. As a layer of cotton ball clouds moved across the sky, it dappled the evening light across the mountainsides, highlighting rock outcrops and casting ridges and deep drainages into stark relief.

I finally caught up to the Danes, AK and Spartan at a stealth camping spot half a mile from the KOA. The Danes had already set up their tent, but had then decided to cowboy camp and were letting it stand empty until morning. When I struggled to find a clear spot to set up my tent, they offered to let me sleep inside theirs.

I gladly accepted the offer and was preparing myself for bed when T-Pain, true to form, arrived in the gathering darkness.

We all cheered, and he quickly accepted the Danes’ offer to sleep in their tent with me.

We drifted off, thinking about the walk through Vasquez Rocks to Hiker Heaven the following day.

The view from our campsite. The night before, our site was totally socked in.

Some residual snow near the top of the ridge

Abstract art or moss and lichen?

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Some creative shade

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