March 30, 2014
Mile 96 to Mile 109.5
Last night I fell asleep around 9 after setting up my tent in what I thought was a relatively sheltered site.
LaVonne was camped in Billy Goat’s cave, a tiny horizontal cylinder carved into the rocky hillside just off the trail. Due to a dearth of suitable sites, David had camped on the trail directly in front of the cave. My site was roughly a tenth of a mile down the trail from the cave.
Around 2:30 in the morning, I was awakened by the violent flapping of my tent wall in the wind that has become so familiar over the past few days. I rolled over, trying to blot out the incessant noise, but the gusts were gradually growing stronger. By 3:30, the wind was blasting sand through the mesh wall of my tent. I closed my mouth, feeling the grit crunch between my teeth. A gust crashed into the wall of my tent and my trekking poles shifted under the load.
I knew that sustaining more wind like that was a recipe for tent damage, so I sat up and tried to brace the flapping nylon while cramming my gear haphazardly into my pack.
I unzipped the tent and stood up into the roar. Pulling stakes, I was careful to shift a chunk of granite onto my tyvek groundsheet so it wouldn’t be blown down the mountain.
When I had finally rolled my tent and groundsheet and stuffed them sloppily into the mesh panel on my pack, I flicked on my headlamp and headed through the brush towards the trail. After about 30 seconds, I realized I was too far down the slope. I had missed the trail.
Swinging the dull halo of light cast by my headlamp, I eventually worked my way through the darkness back to the PCT and started towards David and LaVonne’s camping spot.
When I reached David’s tent, I spread my groundsheet out directly on the trail and unfurled my quilt. I crawled under it and lay there under the clear sky, expecting to cowboy camp for the next few hours until we could hike out in the morning.
But shortly after lying down, I felt a sprinkle on my face. I opened my eyes to a purple-gray sky. The hills were shrouded in mist, and the distant lights of Warner Springs glowed eerily through the gloom.
Realizing that a soaking fog could reduce my lofty quilt to a soggy sack of heat-robbing feathers, I sat up and stuffed the quilt into a dry bag. I stretched my pack cover over my things and then I sat on my foam in my rain gear and pulled my tyvek around my legs. My watch’s yellow display read 4am. I closed my eyes, wondering whether I could simply sit for another few hours until the sun arrived to deliver hope and light through the layer of clouds.
The lights below appeared and disappeared through the swirling haze. I wiggled my fingers in their gloves and realized with dread that they were growing numb. It was only 4:30, and I knew I couldn’t remain outside unsheltered for another two hours. I felt nauseous. I heard David shift inside his small tent, and I flashed my headlamp across his reflective tie outs, but he didn’t wake up.
I agonized over my decisions. Cowboy camping had just been knocked out of the running. The only campsites within half a mile involved backtracking and were very small and exposed to the same winds that had nearly torn down my tent just an hour before. David certainly couldn’t fit me comfortably in his tent.
I packed up my things again and stepped towards the cave. In it, I could see LaVonne wrapped in her mummy bag. I felt like a fool.
Quietly at first, I whispered her name. I was trying not to wake David, but I needed to make myself heard over the wind. “LaVonne,” I repeated more loudly, “my tent was blowing over.” LaVonne started and in one smooth motion rolled to the side and said, “come on in.”
A crippling wave of shame, relief, and gratitude swept through me. It was 4:30am and exhausted, defeated, and on the verge of tears, I squeezed into the cave next to LaVonne and slept in the warmth and shelter of the mountain itself.
When David called from the mouth of the cave to wake us up, I found myself face down in a warm puddle of drool. I dragged myself clumsily into the gray light and ate a convenience store pastry. Soon we were on our way down, down to Warner Springs. My peroneal tendonitis, which causes a burning sensation that shoots from my lower calf around the outside of my ankle and into the bottom of my foot, was flaring up again and I stopped briefly to stretch, knowing it wouldn’t do much good.
My eyes drooped as I walked. To keep myself awake, I ate another pastry. And then a Clif bar.
By the time we reached Barrel Spring, a cool spring-fed horse trough near mile 100, I was chewing absently on some dried apples and the last crumbs of the walnuts I’d carried for the last 60 miles. My brain felt like a brick.
We crossed a highway and began traversing low, rolling hills covered in soft grass and wildflowers. We slowed to pluck miner’s lettuce from the shady undergrowth. Within arm’s reach we found prickly pears soaked in sun. The trail curved across the valleys, a thin strip of whitish sand winding through verdant fields.
We stopped at San Ysidro creek in the shade of a massive sycamore to stretch and to munch on coconut shreds and cheez-its. After our break, we pushed into the wind past boulders white as bone and across vast meadows that rippled like the muscles of an enormous beast.
Some day hikers warned us of a snake ahead, but we never saw it as we descended into a canyon cut by a trickling stream. We stepped into the shade, and David put his hand on an enormous Oak tree and smiled, “Hello, Granddaddy!”
The last couple miles passed swiftly, and soon we stepped through a livestock gate and were officially in the tiny town of Warner Springs.
I sat on the hot asphalt at the community center, which was closed for another two days, aiming my solar charger skyward to gain a charge so I could call Warner Springs Monty about a ride.
Within minutes, a tan pickup with a camper on the back bumped into the parking lot. Monty jumped out and opened the back, and inside were Dynamo, Alphabet Soup, and Johnny!
After 100 miles, we were all on the same page. The awkward interactions and general unfamiliarity had vanished and we were immediately swapping stories and comparing campsites and mileages. Crunched between packs and legs black from desert dust, I smiled all the way to our stop: a biker bar where, according to Monty, we were listening to a blues band for the next hour.
We stepped past the band and into the bar filled with rough-looking bikers with beards and leather jackets. But looking past the faded denim and heavy boots, I saw two tables crowded with sunburned hikers in running shorts and funny hats. “Biker bar?” Monty grinned at the waitress, “I thought it said hiker bar.”
I’d never met half of these hikers, but we were an instant community. We’d all struggled through the first 100 miles and we were all excited to hike the next 100. And we were all starving.
My entire table ordered half-pound cheeseburgers. I could barely hold mine in my hands.
Our plates were devoid of food in minutes. Someone, still chewing, pointed to a half-eaten pickle spear mumbling, “You gonna eat that?”
Back at Monty’s, we washed the dirt of Section A from between our toes then stomped around in our rain gear while an overworked machine pulled the grime from our laundry. There’s no room for a change of clothes in an ultralight kit.
Later, 10 hikers sat in a loose circle in Monty’s living room, feet soaking in buckets of warm Epsom salt, while being schooled in blister management.
Exhausted from a day of absolute emotional extremes, I rolled out my sleeping pad on the floor and fell asleep to the breathing of other hikers, no flapping nylon to be heard.