My lips were still numb and swollen in the morning so I took a Benadryl before setting out. We were camped only four miles from Deep Creek bridge, where I’d eat breakfast and wait for the team to catch up.
I could tell that I was the first on the trail that morning since I kept walking through invisible lines of spider web at face height. The desert terrain persisted, the sandy trail rolling up and down and around boulders and shrubs, and the occasional pine tree outfitted with pinecones the size of my head.
By the time I reached the bridge the Benadryl had started to make me drowsy. I was dragging my feet, stubbing my toes on rocks, and swaying off-balance with the heavy weight of my pack. I rested under the bridge and watched a pair of ducks in the creek while eating an oatmeal bar.
Afterward I sat at the end of the bridge and chatted with other hikers passing by, including Jaybird and an older couple who were documenting plant life around the creek. They said they had hiked the PCT before, and this time around they were taking it slow and paying more attention to their surroundings.
After the others had caught up, we set out in the early morning heat, following the rushing creek a hundred feet below the trail which contoured the canyon. A few miles later we reached an access road to the creek where we decided to take a break and go for a swim.
The woody area next to the pool seemed to be a popular spot for off-roaders. Two men sat on a rock overlooking the water, watching us as we tentatively took off our clothes.
“Going in?” They asked us.
“Yeah…” We replied hesitantly. The water was freezing, though, and I didn’t like the way the men were watching us. Squatchie, who had opted to stay dry, stood by like a sentry, arms crossed and staring death at the two men until they grew uncomfortable enough to leave. After a few minutes Justa and I stripped to our underwear and lowered ourselves into the water. I stopped when I noticed the men still leering at us from their bikes on the access road. Squatchie doubled down on her death stare, and they eventually left for good. Rally, fully nude, crept out from behind a rock and joined us in the water.
We dared each other to dip our shoulders under; although it must have been at least 80 degrees, the water was almost unbearably cold. When some ATVers pulled up, however, Rally was forced to dunk herself to hide her nudity. Justa and I perched on a rock in the middle of the pool, submerged up to our waists with our arms crossed. We sat there like wet, stranded chipmunks as half a dozen people gathered around the creekside, smoking and taking photos of each other. It was weird, and the water was still too cold, so as soon as they left we retreated to dry land and put our clothes back on.
We set off on the trail and soon spread out. I passed some familiar hikers, but for the most part it was quiet, and I was alone with my just my music and the midday sun. I stopped for a quick break after a couple of miles and perched on a rock while eating a snack. An older hiker I hadn’t seen before caught up and introduced himself. I did likewise and answered his questions about where I was from and when I’d started the trail. He made a disapproving comment about my headphones which were still in my ears – although silent – and of listening to music while hiking.
“Sometimes it’s nice,” I said. “I try not to have the volume too loud so I can listen for rattlers.” The man grunted and then pulled out his camera. He took a picture of me perched on my rock, food in hand.
“Another Canadian girl,” he said, and walked away.
I reached Deep Creek Hot Springs a few miles later. It was a Saturday afternoon and it was crowded. At least fifty people were in the water, and more camped in the nearby trees or relaxed on the sandy beach. The way down to the hot spring was filthy with trash and toilet paper, and human and animal waste. It was disgusting and I wanted to keep moving, but thought that I’d better wait for my group.
I sat on a somewhat secluded part of the beach, facing away from the water and toward the trail. People milled about in various states of undress – the hot spring was clothing optional, and most people appeared to take advantage of the option. There were a lot of small children and several dogs running about. After a quarter of an hour someone called me over from across the beach.
“The hiker group is over here if you want to join!”
I carried my pack over and introduced myself. The one who invited me over was called Mojave. I also met O’Terry, Cool Breeze, Misery, and a non-hiker named Brian who sat on a boulder next to the group and blasted tunes on his iPad. He wore swim trunks and a hat that said “Spiritual Gangster” which I coveted desperately.
After an hour or so, Squatchie and Rally arrived and Rally and I decided to get into the water. I tried not to think too much about human filth or infections or brain eating amoebas. The water was pleasantly warm, and in the hot pools it was at least hot tub temperature. I relaxed neck-deep in the hottest pool next to an old naked guy who asked me questions about the PCT.
I rejoined the group on the beach, sharing some whiskey with Brian and talking to Mojave about my first week on the trail. He had just started hiking a section and was only covering about ten miles a day.
“I have no appetite,” he said, “I just feel like throwing up sometimes.”
“It was like that for me too when I started,” I told him. “But you get used to it. Your body acclimates.” I felt strange giving advice like I was some sort of expert on thru hiking, but a lot of the difficulties and fears that Mojave shared were ones that I had experienced myself. I wished someone could reassure me about my current struggles.
As the sun lowered in the sky and the air cooled I began to feel anxious. I turned to Squatchie.
“I can’t camp here,” I said. “It’s gross and there are too many people. I’m going to hike out a couple more miles until I find a campsite.”
I said goodbye to the hiker group and to Brian, the spiritual gangster of Palm Springs, who gave me a hug, and set off with a bountiful supply of energy – possibly from the healing properties of the hot spring, but more likely thanks to the whiskey. I took off at a jog along the orange-lit rocky contours of the Deep Creek canyon. I was soon surprised when Misery caught up with me.
“You’re so fast!” He huffed.
“I feel like jogging,” I said. “You must too if you’re keeping up with me.”
“I like to catch people,” he said. “When I see someone up ahead I try to catch up with them.”
I continued racing through the canyon, Misery never more than a hundred yards behind. Soon I caught sight of the impressive Mojave Forks River Dam at the mouth of the canyon, glowing in the fading sunset light. I had left the hot spring only an hour and a quarter before and had already covered six miles.
I set my tent up on the gravelly bank of Deep Creek at the base of the dam. Misery layed out a sheet of Tyvek to cowboy camp. We didn’t say much; the exhaustion of the last stretch of trail had caught up with us – or with me, at least. I watched the last of the sun set, and then the moon rise from behind a desert hill, and then fell asleep to the sound of rushing water only a couple of feet from where I lay my head.