Our group had shrunk after we reached Warner Springs. Karaoke and Honeybear had to leave the trail for separate reasons, but we planned to meet up with them again at the Paradise Valley Cafe at around Mile 152. For now it was just Squatchie, Rally, Justa and me.
The wooded area that we camped in soon became desert again. We had topped up our water at the campsite stream since we were about to face another long, uphill waterless stretch. It was more of the same winding mountainside walking. Cacti, lizards, dust, rocks to stub my toes on. It was hard to stay positive; I had woken up with my throat on fire, my sinuses worse than ever. Thankfully my eye had gone back to normal, but the rest was worse.
I lagged behind the group, hacking and coughing, and rubbing my nose raw by constantly blowing it on my bandana. I couldn’t even speak more than a whisper without breaking into a coughing fit. By the twentieth time Rally sympathetically referred to me as “poor thing”, it stuck and I had officially earned my trail name – “PT”.
We took a break by a spur trail to a reported water source, but Chardonnay – a hiker we’d meet at Warner Springs – was already there. She said the water was pretty nasty and covered with algae. We were all doing ok for water so we decided to hold out for the next source. Before we moved on we watched a group of cowboys on horseback ride past. Over the years of living in a city, I’d deeply missed the feeling of being on horseback, and in that moment I wished I was riding lazily along the trail instead of dragging my feet. Some people did the whole PCT on horseback, though I imagined how much harder the trail would be, having to plan around your horse’s needs.
We quickly spread apart again, and I soon passed Canadoug relaxing in the shade and reading. We said hi briefly and I moved on, acutely aware of picking up my feet as I walked. At Warner Springs I had showed Canadoug my toenails, bruised black from constantly stubbing my toes on rocks the first few days of the hike.
“Do you think they’re going to fall off?” I asked. He glanced at them briefly.
“Oh yeah,” he said decisively.
So, that was something to look forward to.
I caught up with Squatchie and Rally on a wide bit of trail with a large oak tree curving over top, providing shade and seating. It was the perfect rest spot. A few other familiar faces sat around the clearing as well.
“Don’t sit on the tree,” Rally said, “there’s ants.”
There were. A huge cluster of red ants bulged out from a hollow in the trunk. I leaned back against the dirt bank of the trail with my pack still on. Another hiker, Sparrow, passed through without stopping.
“Hiker trap!” He called out. It totally was. ‘Sit here forever,’ the Trail seemed to say, ‘forget about water. Mind the ants’.
But we pressed on.
Late into the afternoon we reached the spur trail to our water source – a large tank provided by a trail angel who lived there. As we approached the tank we heard music, and then saw signs: ‘Welcome to Trail Angel Mike’s’, “PCT hikers rest and relax. Zeros and nearos
welcome’, ‘This way’…
We followed the signs down to a private yard. Around the corner we saw a man with long grey hair and a muscle shirt flipping burgers over a barbeque. He turned and saw us.
“You want cheese on your burgers?” He asked.
And so we spent the rest of the day at Mike Herrera’s. During hiker season he ran his home as a PCT hiker hotspot, feeding and housing hikers by donation. We visited with the other hikers – including Scott who now had the trail name Snackmaster – over burgers and beer and enchiladas. The Doors, Billy Joel, and Sinatra played on vinyl at top volume. There were no neighbors to complain; the place was in the middle of nowhere, deep in the desert.
“I feel weird,” Justa said at some point. I agreed. It was weird… like we were the last humans on earth, in the midst of a zombie outbreak, existing in this desert sanctuary with only our record collection and our backpacks.
Mike himself wasn’t around; the man serving us burgers was Tom from Kennedy Meadows. He said he liked to come down here in early hiker season.
Our group decided to stay the night. We set up in the bunk house, a dusty shed with a few cots and a makeshift bunk bed. I took the spacious bottom bunk. We were joined by Chardonnay and Mouse and talked about how awesome it was that we were all women, and that there were so many of us on the trail. Someone said it was the year of the woman. I had noticed many solo women hikers over the last week. Maybe even more than solo men. I thought it was great.
Around eight I suddenly felt exhausted – all of us, it seemed. The chatter died down and we crawled into our sleeping bags. In the background Ray Charles played at an ear-shattering volume, and I fell into a restless sleep full of bizarre, pointless dreams.