Kat and I woke up at the same time that morning, so I was able to pack away my groundsheet without having to pull it out from under her. I said goodbye to the rest of the group and walked the road back into Agua Dulce where I would be meeting the trail angel, Mary, later that morning. I felt a bit sad about leaving my friends and being on my own again, but comforted myself with the thought of spending the morning stuffing my face and drinking tea at the local bakery.
By the time I reached the bakery, I desperately had to pee. I hadn’t gone since the restaurant the night before – there was nowhere to go where we had camped, after all – and I was still carrying that tequila shot and litre of Gatorade in my poor bladder.
It was a Monday, and as it turned out the bakery was closed only on Mondays. I was too desperate for a toilet to feel sorry for myself, so I scurried across the street and waited the longest ten minutes of my life for the grocery store to open. When it did, I faux-shopped around a for a couple of minutes and casually asked one of the store clerks if there was a bathroom I could use. She sharply said “no” and walked away. On my way out I saw a crudely handwritten sign posted to the stockroom door that said “No public bathrooms. Please do not ask.”
What was I supposed to do then? Why did this town hate me? I briefly considered squatting behind the dumpster outside, but some homeless person (or possibly another hiker, it was hard to tell) was sleeping next to it.
I shuffled back across the street to the hardware store next door to the bakery where I quietly but desperately asked the proprietors if I could use their bathroom. They were more than obliging. After an incredibly cathartic, incredibly long pee, they invited me to have some coffee and donuts and to hang out on the porch, where I was soon joined by the store cat, and then later a trio of old local men who it turned out congregated daily on that porch to gossip. They happily included me in their conversation and I spent the rest of my time that morning talking with them about camping and beer until Mary the trail angel showed up to take me to Acton.
On the drive we talked about normal PCT stuff like why I was hiking the trail, why she became a trail angel. But we also talked about horses and traveling. It was a relief in a way to talk about life and interests outside of the trail.
When we returned from the post office, Mary dropped me off at the hardware store. I was very thankful for her help, and told her so. I was excited to hike out with a brand new pair of shoes that – hopefully – fit, and weren’t painful to walk in. I sat on the porch and tried them on, walking back and forth as the old folks watched.
“They’re perfect!” I said out loud. It was sheer good luck that the shoes I ordered – a model and size I have never tried on – seemed to fit so well. I hoped it would still be the case after a day of hiking.
Somehow I managed to spend another hour chatting with the old men on the porch, and it wasn’t until noon that I managed to pull myself away. “It was nice to meet you guys,” I told them earnestly. “but I really, really have to get going!”
My pack was heavy with nearly a week of food. I wouldn’t fully resupply again until Tehachapi or Mojave, about a hundred miles away. Fortunately my feet felt fantastic in my new shoes and I was cruising so fast I nearly missed the trail junction out of town.
Back on dirt, I followed the PCT into a flat expanse preceding some intimidating looking hills. I could see the trail zig zagging upward, and I berated myself once again for timing the day’s biggest climb for the hottest part of the afternoon.
I passed Deejay and Paparazzi and reached a trail register at the base of the climb. I signed it and spent a minute flipping back a page or two to see who all was ahead of me. Not that I needed reminding about how far behind I felt. There was no way I’d catch up to my friends with the six hour lead they had on me.
As I sweated my way up the switchbacks I reminded myself of how I started the trail alone, and I had been prepared to hike the whole way by myself. I had been lucky to meet friends along the way, but I also needed to learn to be comfortable by myself – to embrace my independence. Despite these thoughts I still found myself racing onward, determined to catch up.
As I climbed higher, the wind picked up hard. It was a relief from the dry desert heat, but my sun hat was constantly being blown off my head, strangling me with the chin strap. Irritated, I stuffed it into my pack and slathered sunscreen on my face. Good enough.
At the top of the climb I managed to lose the PCT and ended up on a bike path where I was nearly run over by two people on dirt bikes who clearly did not appreciate sharing the trail. I saw a PCT marker on a pipe gate and rejoined the trail, following it down the north side of the ridge, surprisingly green and lush compared to the bare south side of the hill.
I reached a small spring where I dropped my pack, muttering out loud about the bees swarming and drinking from the tiny trickle. I heard a twig snap in the bushes and jumped, startled.
“Hey.” It was Bangarang, probably making his presence known to save me the embarrassment of talking to myself.
“Hey,” I said. I held my filter under the spring. “So why is your name Bangarang?”
He pointed to the Tinkerbell doll tied to his shoulder strap. “It’s the battle cry of the lost boys in Peter Pan.”
“Oh, cool.” In a moment of social ineptitude I didn’t know what else to say, so I finished filtering my water, doing my best to ignore the bees, and moved on.
The trail descended for a couple of miles until it crossed a paved road, and the began to climb up again. Up and down, up and down every day, I thought. Downhill was easy, but I dreaded it because you’d pay for it with another uphill climb every time.
At one point I saw a cup hanging from a branch with a small spooky doll in it. It was weird, and probably put there as a joke to scare people but I was too distracted with making miles to care. I passed a couple other man-placed objects on the trail side later. I could tell from the symbol on the containers that they were geocaches. I thought about logging them on my own geocache account, but I didn’t have service on my phone.
This climb wasn’t steep, but I could see the thin light line of the trail contouring west for miles. The repetitive hiking made me tired and hungry, so I stopped for a quick dinner break and continued on at a fast pace, hoping to make it to the Anderson’s Oasis by nightfall.
I was nearly at the top of the ridge when I stopped to pee. When I was finished and moved to put my pack back on, I realized something was wrong.
“Oh no,” I groaned, “oh no no no.” One of the side pockets on my backpack was gaping wide open, and empty. The zipper had separated and broke from the strain of my overloaded pack, ejecting its contents somewhere between where I was now, and where I had stopped to eat. I knew exactly what I had lost – my ‘small things’ bag. All of my first aid stuff, spare batteries, hygiene products, retainer and prescription pills were in that bag. I had no choice but to find it, so I left my pack and poles at the side of the trail and started running back in the direction from where I’d come.
I scoured every tangled mess of bushes on the trail for two miles before I crossed paths with Bangarang again. He looked surprised as I rounded the bend at a jog, sans pack.
“Did you see a black mesh bag anywhere in the last couple miles?” I asked desperately.
“No,” He said. “Just those containers and that doll.”
Defeated, I turned around. It took me a long time to get back to my gear since there were a few steep climbs that I had to tackle for the second time that day. I pulled a muscle in my calf trying to run uphill and on the verge of tears from pain and frustration I wrote a note with my phone number for anyone who might have found the bag and left it visible under a rock beside the trail.
I felt like I had completely lost my drive, and took it slow, limping the rest of the way up to the ridge. The sun was low in the sky now, and I still had several miles until the Anderson’s Oasis. Trying to forget about my loss, I focused my energy by running. My pack bounced up and down on my shoulders, slamming against my back with each footfall, but the gait was easier on my strained muscle than walking, so I kept up the pace.
I caught up to Bangarang again at the Oasis, a trailside niche with lawn chairs, tropical inflatables and coolers full of pop. I had thought for some reason that this spot was at the junction to the Anderson’s, but realized upon checking my map that it was in another seven miles.
The sun had set, but as I sat in one of the lawn chairs I started to sink into an emotional hole thinking about my broken pack, lost items, and the fact that I was injured. The only thing I could do to feel better was to keep moving.
I said goodbye to Bangarang and hiked on into the twilight. I went as long as I could without using my headlamp, but put it on when I started to trip over rocks in the dark. The stars came out with a calming brilliance and I felt like they gave me the energy to hike as far as I needed to that night. I kept on at a jog since the trail remained fairly flat as it contoured through the hills. I only stopped to check on the listed campsites to see if my friends were there. I didn’t see them, or anyone else. They must have gone all the way to the Anderson’s.
It didn’t matter. I would make it, or I would just hike until I dropped. I didn’t have the emotional energy to wake up the next morning, injured and alone, behind my friends and thinking about my missing gear.
I listened to music as I ran, occasionally slowing to a walk and checking around me for stalking mountain lions. The pain in my calf disappeared as my legs grew weak and numb. I was half delirious with exhaustion when I reached the road crossing to the Anderson’s. I passed three figures in their sleeping bags, trying to be quiet, but I heard a voice behind me.
“Who was that?” Someone said quietly.
“It’s PT.” I answered. One of the figures sat up. It was Papa Smurf.
“Oh, hey.” The other two poked their heads out of their bags – the Doobie Brothers.
“Are you guys going to The Anderson’s?” I asked.
“In the morning,” Papa Smurf answered. “We didn’t want to wake anyone up.”
He had a point, but I decided that if I found the place shut down for the night I would find a nearby bush or a ditch to stealthily sleep in.
I said goodbye and followed the dark road. The headlights of the occasional passing car would blind me so that even my weak headlamp wasn’t helping much in the inky blackness. I didn’t really know where to go. I had taken a photo of the rough diagram posted at the junction, but hoped I wouldn’t get lost in the dark.
In two miles I hobbled slowly through the residential neighbourhood, unsure of where to go next, until I heard music and laughter, and saw a row of portapotties lined up in front of a residence – Casa de Luna, at last.
My vision was blurry but I as I walked out of the darkness and onto the illuminated driveway-turned-hiker-lounge, I recognized nearly everyone who was sitting around on the couches.
“Hey,” I croaked. “I just had the worst day ever.”
“PT!” Rowan and Marathon John gave me a hug and I sat down on a couch next to Kat and Cuban B. Someone handed me a beer. I mumbled something about losing my stuff and having to hike 30 miles, but I don’t know if anyone understood me. Marathon John led me to the backyard to find a spot for my tent. The Anderson’s backyard was a huge manzanita forest, enchanting even in the middle of the night. I set up in the same grove as Marathon John, Rowan, Kat, Cuban B and Limey. I was too tired to dwell on the day’s events – definitely too tired to join everyone out front – and fell asleep as soon as I crawled into my tent.