Few words were exchanged that morning as we packed and hiked out. The following section of trail had been redeveloped following a recent fire. Rowan said that the older hiker with whom we had camped the night before, Zog, had been on the team that had fought the fire several years before. We caught up with him as we were talking about the fire.
“Sometimes it’s better for forests to burn,” he said, when we asked him about it. “It’s the natural way of things.”
The burn area, however, was overrun with poodle dog bush. As we hiked on it became so thick that we had to scramble up hills and around sections of the trail that were particularly covered with it. At one point I got too close and one of the stems grazed my sleeve.
“I’ve been poodle dogged!” I called out to Rowan, slightly panicked. I made a mental note not to touch the outside of my sleeve and to wash my shirt as soon as possible.
We passed another ‘400’ marker on the trailside – obvious left as a joke, which I found hilarious for some reason.
In the late afternoon we reached the North Fork Ranger Station, where there were gallons of water and coolers full of drinks and snacks for hikers. I helped myself to a couple granola bars and a pop and dropped a few dollars in the donation jar. As we filled our water we talked about our plans for the rest of the day.
“We could camp around here,” I suggested. Although it was still early, we had already hiked eighteen miles. Rowan said he wanted to catch up with our friends at the Acton KOA, in another eight miles. It would make for a long day, but we both felt up for the challenge.
We soon left the poodle dog area behind, and were left with exposed desert terrain, the trail dominated by soft beachy sand that was frustrating to walk in. I had no sunscreen and could feel my face and hands burning as I hiked westward toward the low sun. We reached a makeshift trail register – a small notebook in a mason jar – where I saw the names of friends who had passed through earlier that day. I saw Misery, Huck and Tour Guide next to yesterday’s date. I flipped through previous pages, finding a few familiar names, but mostly those of strangers. I wondered what happened to Dan and James, and Rachel and Katie, all of whom I’d last seen at Scissors Crossing or in Julian. I had a couple bars of service on my phone so I sent Dan a text message, asking where he was.
We pressed on slowly uphill and over a ridge where the Acton campground finally came into view. The day was cooler now, with the sun settled behind the desert hills, but I could feel the skin on my face still burning – damaged irreparably, no doubt. All my pre-PCT dedication to sunscreen and skin care had all been for nothing.
At the bottom of the ridge we crossed a highway and entered the KOA. It was a Saturday and the campground was filled with families and their RVs and tents. The sudden noise and activity of people felt surreal after days in the quiet wilderness. We passed what looked like a wedding reception and a quinceñera before finding the hiker area next to the camp office.
We greeted our friends and set up our tents on the grassy clearing. I stocked up on a few snacks from the KOA store right before it closed. I didn’t need much – Agua Dulce was less than a day’s hike away. I realized, however, that I’d had my new shoes sent to the post office in Acton, relatively far away, instead of to the KOA office. I wasn’t sure what could be done about it. Agua Dulce didn’t have a post office to forward the package to; I’d have to find a way into Acton before either my shoes completely fell apart, or before my feet were wrecked forever.
I put it out of my mind and focused on priorities: laundry, shower and food. Cuban B was the only one with service so we used his phone to order Chinese food from Acton. I gathered my clothes and started a load of laundry, then enjoyed a long, lukewarm shower in the public bathroom.
Once out, I joined everyone at the picnic table where Marathon John loaded up the New York Times website on his iPad. We read the newly published article about the PCT and watched the accompanying video footage of me at Warner Springs talking about pooping. Everyone laughed and I bid a silent farewell to a future in political leadership.
Someone suggested getting some beer; Hops said that earlier he had bought two off another camper for five dollars. Rowan suggested that I use my feminine persuasion to find a better deal – a challenge that I took with deadly seriousness. I wandered the KOA until I found a group of adults sitting near their tents with an open cooler stocked with brews.
“Heyyy…” I said as I approached them, twiddling my thumbs behind my back, “My friends and I have been hiking all day and I was wondering if you’d be willing to sell me a few beers.”
“Two for five dollars,” one of the women said.
I bit my lip. “Would you take ten dollars for six?” The woman looked over to a man – the boss of their beer racket, I assumed – who studied me for a moment and then waved his hand in assent.
I happily shuffled back to hiker camp with an arm full of beer bottles and a silly grin on my face.
Our food finally arrived, but by that time I’d lost my appetite and shared my meal with everyone else at the table. When it became too dark to see without headlamps we scattered to our tents. My laundry was still damp so I draped my hiking clothes over my tent. I grabbed some old grey sweatpants and a t-shirt out of the hiker box and slept soundly that night, swaddled in the warm and unfamiliar comfort of cotton.