I took my time in the morning and made breakfast before attempting the daunting stretch north. Today was the day we would hike the LA aqueduct, infamous on the PCT for being a barren, flat, and completely exposed and dry stretch of trail where heatstroke and dehydration were serious risks.
The trail crossed through some more private property, before following a paved road to a dead-end, past which was the massive aqueduct. It was strange to see so much water in the desert, right before heading into a long dry stretch. I wondered where all the water was coming from – which natural sources were being siphoned to fill the swimming pools and water the front lawns of the affluent in Los Angeles? Hiking the PCT had given me a renewed appreciation for water. I brushed my teeth without it now. I’d been excited to come across scummy, stagnant pools from which I’d gratefully filled up my bottles. I never spilled a drop if I could help it.
I followed the water east for some time before turning north where water flowed into the open aqueduct from a huge semi-exposed pipe. The PCT followed the pipe directly on top for over a mile alongside a dirt road. Some hikers stuck to the road. I walked on the pipe, in a rhythmic sort of dance where I avoided stepping on the patterns of nuts and bolts while also trying to keep pace.
I could see hikers for what seemed like miles into the distance. The trail eventually dropped from the pipeline to the road, and I hiked faster to catch up to see who was ahead of me and to help alleviate what was beginning to feel like the most boring stretch of trail yet. I was grateful for the persistent cloud cover, at least. The weather had been mild and if ‘boring’ would my biggest complaint about this section, I would consider myself lucky.
I passed Sherpa and Dreamweaver, and then a couple of other hikers I didn’t know. I passed Zog and Paparazzi, alongside a forest of joshua trees. I stopped at one point to watch a farmer herd sheep with his border collie. He called out commands in Spanish, and the dog would run around the sheep, then stop and stare alertly at his master for instruction.
The trail broke away from the aqueduct and took a sharp right, heading east. The road was surrounded by fields of sagebrush and cacti and joshua trees, and sometimes cows. Occasionally I would see a derelict trailer or RV parked in the distance, and I wondered how many were secret meth labs.
Even hiking fast wasn’t enough to keep me energized. My lids were heavy and I found myself nodding off and propping myself up with my trekking poles rather than propelling myself forward. I reached a large concrete block – maybe a cistern or some sort of aqueduct access and set down my gear. I put my phone in my cook pot as an amplifier and played music while stretching out on my back on top of the cistern. I sleepily acknowledged hikers as they passed. Eventually Rowan, Cuban B and Kat caught up and we all hung around on top of the cistern, eating and talking and playing music and Youtube videos while we still had cell service. We all got a text from Tent Fire, who told us she’d made it to Tehachapi and would wait for us there.
Slightly more energized, we hiked on together. I stopped a few minutes later to put away my jacket. When I dropped my pack to the ground I heard a loud snort. I looked up to see a huge bull staring at me from the other side of a flimsy barbed wire fence. I had apparently startled it – it braced itself on all fours, staring at me intently. It let out another loud snort.
“I don’t think he likes me,” I called out as the rest of the group caught up behind. I slowly and carefully put my pack back on, imagining the headline, ‘hiker mauled to death by cow’. I scurried away, glancing over my shoulder as I gained distance, only to see the bull still in its aggressive stance, head and eyes following me until I was out of sight.
The dirt road led toward a wind farm in the distance. The walking had become almost unbearable tedious, and eventually we caught up to Rattles and Nomad whose packs were on the ground. Rattles held up her water bladder, studying it carefully.
“There’s a hole in it,” she told us. “I didn’t realize until I felt water running down my back.” She had tried patching it with duct tape, which didn’t work. Rowan lent her one of his water bottles to use until she could fix or replace it.
We kept going for a while, but tedium quickly took over as we trudged down the endless dirt road.
“You guys want to stop for a while?” I asked. “I kind of want to take a nap.”
No one objected. We found a flat spot off the side of the road, partially in the shade of a joshua tree. Rowan and Cuban played out their foam z-lites and stretched out. Kat sat against her pack and took out her phone. I curled up in the dirt, using my pack as a pillow and quickly fell into a state of half-sleep. My consciousness drifted from dreaming to listening to the sound of my own slow breathing. I felt totally at peace. I was disappointed, in a way, when the others began to stir, and we all silently agreed that it was time to move on.
The road eventually reached the wind farm, where the mild breeze from earlier in the day started to pick up into more intense gusts. Dark clouds hung over the distant hills where the trail would eventually lead, and although the weather was still beautiful from where I was, I wondered if I was about to walk into a storm.
We filled up our water at a reservoir left by the wind farm company especially for PCT hikers. After that we continued along the road for some time until finally breaking away into actual trail for the first time that day, which slowly began to climb upward and wind its way around the turbines. The turbines hummed like spaceships, blending with the rushing sound of the wind. It was like white noise, but somehow unsettling. I wasn’t sure if it was the change of scenery or the nap I took, but I was wide awake now.
The wind only grew stronger, and since I was walking against it, I started to slow down. Rowan passed me and quickly gained distance. I followed the trail over a large hill and saw him pass Zog – always recognizable by his neon orange sunhat – right before disappearing over the next crest. By the time I caught up with Zog, the storm clouds had swept overhead and the wind was so strong that walking against it was like walking through an ocean current.
“This sucks!” I yelled to Zog over the howling wind. “I can barely stand up, let alone hike!”
But I kept going. It was only a few more miles to Tylerhorse Canyon. With any luck, the canyon itself would be sheltered from the wind and I could camp there.
The trail climbed up onto a steep ridge. I looked back and could no longer see any sign of Zog, Cuban or Kat. On top of the ridge I could hardly stand. The wind whipped my hat off my head, strangling me with the neck strap. I snatched it off and tied it haphazardly to my shoulder strap, at which point a strong gust blew my sunglasses right off my face. I lunged forward and caught them as they blew across the ground and nearly off the ridge. The effort knocked me over and I barely had the strength to get back on my feet, using my poles as leverage. I tried to follow the trail, but the wind knocked me around, back and forth like a rag doll.
“FUCK!” I yelled in frustration. I could barely even hear myself above the competing scream of the storm. It felt like for every two steps forward, I was knocked back a step.
Finally, over the ridge, the trail led down into the canyon. I let gravity pull me down to the bottom, which was unfortunately no better off – the orientation of the canyon made it a perfect wind tunnel. I could see other hikers struggling to put up their shelters. I found Rowan searching around for a spot. I tried setting my tent up next to a pile of rocks that I hoped would act as some sort of shelter. It didn’t help. Once I managed to prop my tent up with its poles and pull over the rain fly, the wind literally flattened it.
When Cuban and Kat arrived we went a little deeper into the canyon and attempted to set up our shelters in the bushes. Setting up each tent was a two or three person job, and when we were finished, our little tents were each tucked almost entirely in the shrubbery. We were joined by Costco who set up his tent right below us by the stream. We threw him our water bottles, which he’d fill and toss back up to us. When we settled down I watched longingly as everyone cooked dinner, resolving to pick up my stove again when I reached Tehachapi. I was cold and exhausted, and nothing sounded better than a hot meal at that moment.
That night the bushes protected my tent for the most part, but the structure whipped back and forth, constantly threatening to collapse on me at any moment. Outside it sounded like jets were flying through the canyon. It was deafening, but somehow I was able to fall asleep as the sounds became white noise, and then at some point in the night, faded as the storm dissipated.