I slept restlessly that night, cold and dehydrated, and deflated my sleeping pad at the first sign of morning light. I lied motionless on the hard ground for what felt like a long time before finally getting dressed and crawling out of my tent.
Kat had already taken down her tent, and I watched her hike out as I fumbled to pull my own stakes out of the solid ground. Getting them in there in the first place had been hard enough. I’d stupidly tried using my shoe to push them in the night before, which only resulted in my puncturing a hole through the soft sole of one of my new Hokas. Eventually, persistent pounding with a rock had driven the stakes in, but now pulling them out had become a full body workout.
When I finally had my tent and gear packed away, Rowan was up and stretching. I could see the Tits milling about their camp through the trees, and I thought I also recognized Fancypants and Bucket from a distance. Zog was already gone and Cuban was still silent in his tent. I trekked out on my own, taking notice of campground signs riddled with bullet holes, and copious amounts of broken glass that I hadn’t noticed the day before. The grey and clouded sky had been threatening rain since yesterday evening, but I could feel a damp chill in the air and I wondered if this would be the day I regretted not carrying a waterproof pack cover.
It didn’t take long for me to catch up to Kat. We exchanged a couple of words about the weather, and I stopped to make sure all of my electronics were safely secured in ziplocks.
“See you at Mile 500,” I told her, going on ahead.
The trail began to climb uphill on an exposed ridge covered with low manzanita shrubs. Without the shelter of trees, the cold wind whipped my hood back, piercing right through my jacket and into my bones. My eyes stung and my face grew numb and frozen. The two miles I had expected to cover until the 500 marker had become something like five or six.
When I eventually made it, I found that I was more excited to sit down and take shelter next to a large boulder than of the fact that I’d just walked 500 miles. I waited patiently for my friends, snacking on fruit gummies and trying to think of another song – any song but that one.
Kat showed up soon after and we waited together for what felt like ages before Rowan showed up. We took each others photos next to the marker.
“I was going to wait for Cuban,” I said to them, “but I’m freezing. I have to keep moving before I die up here.” It was dramatic, but not entirely untrue. As long as I was moving I could stay warm enough, but otherwise I wasn’t prepared for this weather. I made a mental note to invest in some warmer base layers.
I followed Rowan uphill, through more manzanita, and when the trail began to inch back down, the wind was lost above us and we descended into silent fog. When he stopped for a break I kept going, gradually speeding up to stay warm in case the wind hit again. We stopped to replenish our water from an underground cistern, taking cover under a sheet of corrugated steel and sharing a cup of hot tea in a futile attempt to warm up. As we left we passed by the Tits who had caught up and come to fill up their water. The trail soon entered a beautiful but eerie forest, decorated with gnarled oak trees and vibrant red and green undergrowth that looked like plant life from another world. I felt like I was Snow White, heart racing as I rushed through the evil woods, branches reaching out at me and fog threatening to close in and pull me under.
I stopped to take a panoramic photo, and when I started walking again I winced as pain shot up my leg – the same one I had injured on the way into the Anderson’s two nights previously. I’d overdone it. Again.
I took two ibuprofen and hobbled another mile or so before Rowan caught up. I complained about my leg, and he offered be a Tylenol which I gladly accepted. Within minutes I felt better and we hiked on together, following a dirt road in terrible shape, which took up downhill and below the blanket of fog. Through breaks in the clouds we could see the desert ahead, sunny and bright and flatter than we had ever seen it before. The land seemed to just keep going and fold up into the sky – just yellow sand and rocks and wind turbines forever.
We passed Zog and a couple of hikers we hadn’t met before. One of them, Thermometer, I recognized from the PCT Facebook page. He was Korean and didn’t speak any English, but had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail the year before. He was doing the PCT this year, and he planned to Triple Crown and hike the Continental Divide Trail in 2016. His pack was fairly big and he didn’t hike very fast, but I could tell just from meeting him that he was a forced to be reckoned with. I had no doubt that he’d finish the trail – probably long before I would.
As the trail descended the sun grew hot. I stuffed my jacket into my backpack, and tucked my beanie into one of my pack straps. Soon we hit the bottom of the hill and were back into desert hiking. Rowan and I threw down our packs and found a shady spot where we sat and ate trail mix for a long time. Kat passed us, and so did Cuban B. Zog caught up to us and held out some sort of green textile. My beanie!
“Oops!” I said, “I don’t know why I didn’t just put that in my pack.”
The last stretch of the day took us past signs warning us that people took advantage of this open area for target practice and that we might get shot. We followed the trail, contouring around sharp bluffs and steep ridges – the last we would see for a while, if the flat desert ahead was any indication. The trail took us through private property, and then joined a road that stretched ahead for eternity. I felt like I was walking on a treadmill, heading nowhere for nearly half an hour, until suddenly I hit a highway. The day’s goal was across the road – a bizarre mock wild west town set up on someone’s private lot. HikerTown.
I entered through the gate and looked back. I could see Rowan and Zog five or ten minutes behind me still, so I went in alone. The place seemed to be empty. I went around the back to find the entrance to the central building, some sort of garage. I opened the door to be greeted enthusiastically by at least a dozen hikers. I was most excited to see Rally. We walked around the property and sat down in the trailer that she was renting for the night for $20 with Fancypants and Bucket. We talked for at least an hour, catching up and texting Justa, urging her to hurry up and join us from wherever she was.
‘I’m at the Acton KOA,’ she texted. ‘There’s a guy who’ll give me a ride to HikerTown that I’m waiting for.’ I texted back, asking if it was IronMan. She said yes. I glanced up at Rally, realizing she hadn’t experienced the terror of riding in IronMan’s car.
“I just hope he drives safely.” I said. I texted Justa to insist that she keep her seatbelt buckled.
When I returned to the garage, Cuban and Kat were sitting with Rowan, who called me over.
“There are two big snowstorms about to hit the sierra,” he said. “Apparently a bunch of people are held up at Kennedy Meadows because of it.”
“Huh,” I said. I hadn’t really thought about how close were to the end of the desert and the beginning of the mountains of Central California.
“We’re going to rent a car in Tehachapi and go to Vegas for a few days! Do you want to come?”
“What? Yes! Definitely!” I grinned, thrilled with the thought of a new and unexpected adventure away from the adventure.
I spent the rest of the evening browsing through the PCT register, finding names of friends who’d come and gone only a day or two earlier – like Limey, Bangarang, Costco, Hops, Marathon John, Rachel and Katie, whose trail name was now Stummie. I found time to take a cold shower and do laundry. A hiker named Rattles braided my hair while I sat and waited in the warm laundry room while the dryer did its thing.
That night some hikers retired to their tents or to makeshift shelters and trailers around the property, and some of us remained in the garage. I curled up on my sleeping pad on the floor, warm and content, hardly minding the dust. I thought about Vegas and food and what I should buy at REI. And then I dreamed that I was walking on a long dusty trail, following my shadow and going nowhere.