The sky was calm when I woke.
I was still rattled from the day before. Struggling against the windstorm nearly sent me into an all-out panic attack. I was angry with the wind, with the trail and with myself. I had been spoiled with good weather, and one storm nearly broke me.
That morning the sun filtered lazily through layers of cirrus clouds as I mindlessly hiked the contours of the northern edge of the desert valley. I caught up with Kat at the same time that we reached a trail register. I was surprised to see that the Tits had hiked on past the canyon during the windstorm, having signed the register the previous evening. Three people had come before us that morning: Fancypants and Bucket, forty-five minutes earlier, followed by Costco. Across a gully I saw the trail switchbacking steeply up a large hillside. I glimpsed a pair of hikers approaching the top – Fucket, I assumed.
I was dreading the long exposed climb, but grateful for the downhill in the meantime. I tightened my hip belt to keep my pack from bouncing up and down on my shoulders and started down at a fast jog, letting gravity do most of the work. As I descended I watched a group of dirt bikers cross the trail below and ascend a steep rise, doubling back once they lost momentum and leaving clouds of dust floating down the hillside. It looked like fun.
After I reached the bottom and started up again I lost my energy quickly. I rested on a rock and was soon passed by Rowan, powering up the hill at a near jog. I pushed myself to keep going. I needed to take fewer or shorter breaks. I didn’t know why I felt the need to set an arbitrary rule like that for myself, but doing so gave me a small sense of control, and through it, a small sense of peace with myself.
Eventually I passed Costco and Fucket, and then Thermometer, who I hadn’t realized was even ahead of me.
I caught up to Rowan at the top of the hill at a water cache. We rested and spoke with the man who had come to restock the cache. He brought his golden retriever who I pet wistfully, running my hands through her thick fur. I missed dogs. I missed warmth and contact. The dog selfishly made its rounds as the other hikers arrived, and I filled the hole in my heart with a granola bar and a handful of turkey jerky. Rowan and Thermometer moved on, but I stayed for a while and visited with Fucket and Costco, while sinking deeper into the cheap plastic lawn chair in which I was seated. I finally forced myself up before risking becoming a permanent fixture at the water cache.
I was grateful, at least, that the climb was over with. Four miles up, and now ten miles all downhill to Tehachapi. Beds! I thought. Food! Vegas!
Less than a mile out I encountered a southbound hiker with a giant mesh bag of snacks attached to his pack.
“You look pretty set for food,” I told him.
“I’m giving out trail magic,” he said. “Do you want a soda, chips, or instant coffee?”
I gratefully took a bag of Fritos. He introduced himself as GoalTech.
“You were the first person to comment on my blog!” I said excitedly. We talked about gear for a while – we had the same tent.
“Overall I like it,” I said, “but not the entrance. I always need to do an awkward barrel roll to get in and out of it. I think I’d prefer a tent with a side entrance.”
We parted ways and I continued on, renewed with corn chip energy and picking up the pace.
Maybe you wouldn’t need to take so many breaks, I thought to myself, if you could just hike at a normal pace.
I passed Thermometer again, who had stopped to dry out his tent, and then a little later passed a horseback rider – the first equestrian I’d met on the PCT. Her name was Horsing Around and I had been hearing about her since Wrightwood. This was the first time I’d actually encountered her, though. She rode one horse and led another behind her. She had stopped for a while to let them both graze.
“My husband is meeting me at the highway,” she said, “I’m going to give this guy a break.” She gestured to the younger horse on the lead rope.
I had thought before about doing the PCT on horseback, and often yearned to sit on a horse for a while instead of hike. But now it just seemed like a lot more trouble.
The trail soon disappeared into crisscrossing dirt bike tracks, but I caught a flash of blue over the next hill, and went over to see Rowan up ahead, standing very still. He was hunched slightly and staring at the ground. I got the sense that he was concentrating, so I walked softly and didn’t call out.
A second later he lunged forward and grabbed something in the grass. As I approached he turned around and held out his hands.
“A horned lizard!” I said excitedly. The little toad sat still in his hands, and he placed it in mine.
“They’re pretty easy to catch,” he said. “They’re really lazy.”
The creature stared blankly at me from my palm, moving only slightly with its breath. I ran my fingers gently over its rough, spiny back, and took a picture before setting it back down.
“I think we’re off the trail,” I said. “I saw you and came over here, but before that I think I was following a bike trail.”
We backtracked and quickly found the PCT again, following it down and through contours into another wind farm. From a distance I could see the highway where we would hitch to Tehachapi. Unconsciously I sped up. Pace yourself, dammit! I thought. I didn’t listen.
I passed whirring, buzzing wind turbines, and nearly stepped on another horned lizard that was too lazy to move out of the way. The trail passed through more corporate wind farm land, forcing me to stop and open and close gates behind me, but otherwise I was unstoppable. At least I felt unstoppable. Not as a woman full of life and energy, but more like unprecedented raging storm rolling through the desert hills, aimless and destructive and carried by the imaginary jet stream of the Pacific Crest Trail.
I passed some day hikers before finally reaching the highway. A hiker was already hitching across the road. Rowan caught up and we watched him stick his thumb out and throw his hands up in frustration every time someone passed without stopping.
“He’s never going to get picked up with that attitude,” I said to Rowan who’d just arrived after me, “and he’s probably going to make it harder for us.”
Nevertheless, we headed up the highway a bit, past Angry Hitcher, and stuck out our thumbs.
The woman who pulled over for us was one of the day hikers I had passed on the trail. She called out to Angry Hitcher who also joined us in the car, along with one other hiker I didn’t know who had caught up just in time.
I didn’t listen to any of the back and forth conversation as we drove to town. I was pressed up against the door in the backseat, watching the landscape pass by at what felt like a terrifying speed as my arm tingled, pinned at my side. Both of my arms had been getting worse over the last week. Sometimes they just tingled. Sometimes when I put weight on them, or tried to grip something, the muscles would seize or collapse. I had heard of nerve damage from other hikers, but in most other cases I’d heard of it occurring in one leg, not both arms.
Our ride dropped us off at the Best Western where we reunited with Tent Fire. We talked about our plans to go to Vegas and decided we’d head out not tomorrow, but the next day. In the meantime we’d wait for our friends to arrive and do our resupply shopping.
When everyone arrived, we agreed to split the room between the six of us: myself, Rowan, Tent Fire, Kat, Cuban B and Costco. We all went out for dinner and beer at a local diner and I senselessly ordered a giant plate of barbecue, which was cooked terribly and didn’t satisfy my hiker hunger at all.
When we returned to the hotel we took advantage of the barely-lukewarm jacuzzi.
“Worst trail town ever,” someone said. I agreed. Tehachapi kind of sucked.
Regardless, I was grateful that night when I curled up in the comfort of a real bed. The echoing roar of the wind seemed to rattle my eardrums, although no one heard it but me. The sky outside was still, but in my head it had felt like the storm would crash through at any moment, and I would only be safe while I was still moving.