In the morning I crawled out of my tent, bleary-eyed and dizzy, and navigated through tangled limbs of oak trees until I found a secluded spot to pee. My sides and abdomen still hurt, but not as badly as the day before. The medication was slowly doing its job.
I realized, as I pulled up my thermal bottoms, that I couldn’t remember which direction I stumbled from. I spun around, trying to get my bearings. All around me, it was the same: gnarled trees clustered close together throughout a dry, leafy bed of old grey leaves and dry, snapping branches. The forest was silent aside from the crunch of foliage under my flip flops.
I walked slowly in a direction that I felt somewhat confident with, thinking that if I was really lost, I could just yell and wake up the boys. I relaxed when I caught sight of the tents a minute later, but stopped short of entering the small clearing. There was Rowan’s tent, and Cuban’s. But mine was gone. I stood still for a moment, disoriented, briefly entertaining the possibility that I’d walked into the forest this morning, into another dimension in which I never existed.
Rationality quickly took hold and I bypassed the campsite, wandering only a little further before I glimpsed orange through the criss-cross of branches. I ducked through to find our campsite – all three tents including my own. Rowan was outside and stretching. I prepared breakfast in my vestibule, huddled in the comfort of my down quilt. I told Rowan about the other camp, and their identical tents, but the mystery vanished when their presence was announced by singing – a woman’s voice, energetic but tuneless, and loud enough even to wake Cuban.
As usual, I was packed and ready to go first. The fog from yesterday had still not lifted, and the first stretch of the morning was a long uphill. The first hiker I wasted was an older man that I hadn’t seen before. He wore all-white and grey hiking clothes. White hair, white beard. He passed me again when I stopped for a break, sitting on a rock. I passed him again soon after, and we leapfrogged like that for a large part of the day. We eventually spoke and he introduced himself as Shamrock.
The fog felt thick and wet, like rain suspended in air. The ground became muddy, and I slowed my pace, trying not to slip. The trail joined a rugged dirt road and I followed it upward, passing signs warning against trespassing. The premises was under surveillance. Trespassers will be shot. ‘Casa de Oso’. Then on the side of the road, outlined in gravel, ‘600’.
The road soon turned back to trail, pushing aggressively uphill. For miles I managed to zone out, listening to music and trying to regulate my water intake. Sometime after noon, the sun finally broke through the fog. I stopped at a road crossing with a trail register. Kat and Costco were still ahead – by almost a day now – along with many other familiar names: Bushtit and Tomtit, Squatchie, Treeman and Hedgehog, Fancypants and Bucket, Rally. Even further back in the log were others who I’d known and would likely never catch up to – Misery, Huck and Tour Guide, Papa Smurf, Shaggy, the Doobie Brothers, Marathon John, Cool Breeze, Puff Puff and Growler… and many names of those who I’d followed in the logs for hundreds of miles, but had never met.
I waited for Rowan and Cuban. We signed the register as a group – Team Biggest Blackest – and hiked on together to Landers Meadow Spring, where we filled up our water, then spread our gear out to dry in the sun. Rowan found a frisbee, which we tossed back and forth while Cuban spread out for a nap. Some hikers caught up – Clara, the girl who’d caught me singing the day before, and Yanko, who was new to me. Two other women arrived and began to set up camp as we packed up to leave. Rowan took the frisbee with him.
The beautiful forest quickly dissipated into a barren burn area. We were disappointed, having hoped to find an epic camp spot in a serene woodland glade. We briefly talked about turning around, but ultimately decided to push on. I passed charred fallen trees and granite boulders alive with the scurry of small black lizards. The low sun at our backs lit the wasteland in a soft rose gold. We followed the contour of a large bare hill, and on the other side were greeted with a long-anticipated view. In the distance, mountains peaked over the rolling arid landscape. We were in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
We set up our tents on a bluff with a great view of the landscape. We shared the area with a couple I’d met briefly before, Pebbles and BamBam. With the sun low in the horizon, Cuban and Rowan and I scrambled with our cooking gear up a large granite boulder and ate dinner together, watching the sunset and the shadows of the mountains moving slowly, stretching across the land. Lizards watched us curiously, flitting in and out of cracks and crevices in the rock. We said good night to each other, and I sacrificed some battery power on my phone to read until it was dark when when I transitioned into the perfect, easy sleep that had become so natural to me on the PCT.