My copious water intake from the day before caused me to wake at 6:30 in the morning with a desperate urge to piss. I barely made it out of my tent, blissfully relieving myself behind a Joshua tree, hardly out-of-sight from our camp. The pain relief medication turned my urine an incredible neon orange colour that freaked me out for a moment before I remembered that the pharmacist had warned me that it would happen.
As I waited for the longest pee of my life to finish, I took some time to admire the scenery. The view that I had thought was beautiful the night before was now stunning; soft rays of light beamed through the pink and orange clouds, scattering across the infinite desert ahead. A few cars traveled silently below, east toward Las Vegas, and west toward LA. I was in one of those, I thought. I was a normal person for a few days, and now I’m here again. The same person, but different.
The boys woke soon after, but had only just started breakfast by the time I had packed up my tent. I told them I’d see them soon, and carried on ahead. The trail wound uphill for a way, but I was comforted by the elevation profile on my phone app with the knowledge that most of the day would be downhill.
Not forever, I thought. As of Tehachapi I was officially done with Southern California. Soon it would just be up – up into the mountains, the Sierra Nevada.
I was weakened by my illness, and listened to music to distract myself from the strain of my full pack and shaking of my legs. A layer of clouds clung to the hilltops, and a mild but cold wind chilled me to my core. For the first mile I kept my down jacket on to help regulate my body heat, but the combination of physical activity and fever chills forced me to remove it before I soaked it through with sweat. I felt weak and cold, and despite already wanting to sit and rest, I pushed myself to keep a fast pace to stay warm.
The trail rose to the top of some switchbacks and contoured lazily around rolling hills scattered with orange lichen covered rocks and olive-green chapperal. I saw no other hikers, and the scenery was quiet and calm and empty, before eventually joining a dirt road. It wasn’t the sort of road you could take a car on. The ground was radically uneven, scarred with huge ruts and giant rocks sticking out. I kept checking my map to make sure I was still on the PCT and hadn’t missed a turnoff, but the trail continued along the road for a long time.
Coming around a corner, I heard a roar – a sharp rev of engines, and dove sideways into the bush as two dirt bikers sped by. One waved at me. Whether it was to say “sorry”, or “get out of the way”, I wasn’t sure.
By noon, the fog still lingered. I passed a small row of wind turbines, quiet and inoperable in the mist. I thought it was strange that they were out there in the middle of nowhere, but – I thought – how did I know there wasn’t a town a mile or two away? I had no idea where I was.
The trail became a trail again, breaking off from the road, and soon reached the long-awaited Golden Oaks Spring. The name made it sound like a magical fountain of mystery, but the reality was a concrete trough of murky swamp water, fed by a clear trickle from a pipe.
A few hikers gathered around. One was hitting a small bongo drum while the other two others engaged each other in quiet conversation. I didn’t recognize any of them. Vegas had set me a few days behind and now I was out of my old bubble, and in a new one. I wondered if and when I would catch up to any of my friends.
We exchanged brief hellos, and I filled my gravity filter from the trickle. I hung it from a tree to filter as I sat in the dirt, shakily and hastily preparing my stove to cook some delicious salty Top Ramen – my first hot food on the trail in weeks.
The hikers left, and a few minutes later Rowan arrived, followed by Cuban B ten minutes later. We signed the trail register, studying the names of those who’d passed before us. Kat and Costco had been through first thing that morning. They were already half a day ahead of us.
We continued, planning to camp in ten miles at a large campsite listed on the map. The trail passed more clusters of small wind turbines, few of them moving. The trail dipped behind some hills and began contouring again. I didn’t mind the repitition, grateful for the even terrain to spare my aching muscles and poor stamina.
I sang out loud, trying to scramble up the morale to push me through the last few miles. Coming around a bend, my voice faltered as I passed by a hiker perched up on a boulder, eating a granola bar. I felt strangely vulnerable, like I was caught doing something embarrassing. She smiled at me, and I as I passed by I continued back into my song at a steady hum, eventually regaining my voice. From the hill opposite several minutes later I looked back and saw her still there, illuminated by her bright pink jacket. She waved – not to me, but to another hiker passing next to her. I recognized Rowan easily, despite not wearing any distinctive colours. I thought it was interesting how you could start to recognize hikers you knew from a distance, just by their gait.
The trail later passed through a small burn area and up onto a ridge where I had to hop over charred logs and dodge several large and sprawling poodle dog bushes. Then it was down again, into the trees and finally the campsite – an idyllic clearing surrounded with trees and bushes. Someone had set up a fire ring next to a beautiful big oak tree. I dropped my pack and admired it from below, shifting my weight back and forth between my feet as I thought about all the ticks that were probably crawling all over it. But fear gave way to childish excitement and I scrambled up the trunk and scooted as far up the largest branch as I could, where I sat and waited for my friends.
Rowan soon arrived and immediately began assessing the potential campsite. He leaned over the fire ring and lifted up a green paisley cloth.
“Someone left a bandana,” he said.
“Better drop it,” I called out from my tick-infested throne. “Never pick up a bandana on the trail! You never know if it was someone’s pee-rag.” He immediately let go with a look of disgust, and the cloth fell back into the fire pit.
I hopped down from the tree and together we decided to search for more sheltered camping in the bush. It had been foggy all day, and there was no telling if it would storm on us overnight. We found enough space for us in the trees, about thirty feet off the trail, and we set up our tents, leaving room for Cuban’s and keeping an eye toward the trail for tell-tale glimpses of his bright orange backpack through the foliage. He might easily pass us by if we didn’t catch him.
Eventually we caught sight of him, and both called out to stop him, before coming out to greet him and show him to the campsite. After he set up his tent we cooked dinner together, and each retreated to respective shelters to read or write or get a headstart on sleep.
I could feel the chill of night creeping in. I could still feel the fog in my bones from that morning. The leaves around me rustled without rhythm to the constant slow breeze, and below me they crunched and ground into the grass as I shifted in my sleeping bag. I felt like I was part of it all; I was just a leaf that had grown and trembled and weathered its season and was now sinking back into the Earth, ready to become part of something new. The desert section of the PCT – Southern California – had not been at all what I had expected. I was amazed and in love with it all. It had been physically and emotionally excruciating. But I felt a piercing sadness at the thought of leaving it behind, like a friend with whom every battle I’d fought had only brought us closer together.