In the morning the three of us ate breakfast together on the giant rock overlooking the distant mountains. I broke camp and hiked out first, as usual. The trail had begun a gradual descent out of the burn area and back into trees. I felt awake and revitalized. For the first time in a week I felt healthy and well. But in my mind I struggled to silence the pressing anxiety that preceded these next couple of days on the trail. We were about to hot the longest dry stretch of the PCT. Technically, we were in it already, since Lander’s Meadow Spring the day before. But Kat had texted us to say that a large water cache lay ahead so we didn’t overload ourselves with forty miles worth of water.
The reality of the dry stretch sunk in when the trees dissolved into shrubs and cacti, and in only a matter of a few miles, gave way completely to a massive vista of pure, stark desert. I could see for miles: scattered trails and dusty roads crisscrossing through clumps of Joshua trees and sagebrush. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t help but wonder if those desert roads were traveled enough that somebody would eventually find my body when I inevitably succumbed to the elements, mummified and huddled in the nonexistent shade of some chaparral.
Far in the distance, the mountains were barely visible through the thick atmosphere. Bluish and undefined, it was like they weren’t yet real. But soon they would be – maybe in a week – and the desert behind me would eventually fade into its own distorted haze, never to be seen again.
The water cache consisted of several blue plastic ten-gallon containers, one of which was already empty despite the trail register saying that the cache had ben refreshed just a couple of days prior. I filled up with as much water as I could carry. I felt incredibly guilty for breaking my water rule and not only taking advantage of the cache, but relying on it entirely. Even with five and a half litres, though, I knew I would struggle to make it last the next 35 miles into Walker Pass. I sat in the dirt, forcing myself to drink at least a litre before leaving. I hoped that Rowan and Cuban would catch up so that I would have a reason to stay put, at least for a little while longer.
Someone did pass by – Clara. She did not stop for water. And then a couple who I hadn’t met before, but introduced themselves as Mr and Mrs. Smith. “It’s because we’re all-American,” they told me, when I asked, although I didn’t really understand what that meant. Another hiker, Bug, passed through, and by the time Rowan and Cuban arrived I was lying prone in the dust, clutching a baggy of melted trail mix at my side, my heart-shaped sunglasses doing nothing to block the sun’s assault on my face.
I watched Rowan and Cuban fill up their water and felt a little less guilty about my own consumption when as they both took at least two more litres than I did. We watched what looked like a Forest Ranger vehicle pull up on a bluff off the nearby road. A man got out and stood on the bluff for a long time, maybe talking into a cell phone. It was hard to tell, but we speculated for a while until we decided it was time to move on. Under the creaking strain of our laden packs we left together, hiking in slow motion up the soft sandy trail as it contoured for miles along low shadeless hills. Occasionally I would look back to see the ranger, still standing on the bluff. He never moved for as long as I could see him receding into the distance. Maybe I was just seeing things, like an optical illusion of the landscape. Or maybe he was staring back at us, and we were all watching each other disappear into the desert.
Ahead of our little group, I passed a hiker who was covered from head-to-toe in fabrics of varying sorts. His pack was huge and I couldn’t see his face through his scarf and sunglasses. He still had some evidence of body fat on him, so I knew he wasn’t a thru-hiker.
“This is brutal,” he said. I made a noise in agreement, and moved along.
When the sun was at its zenith we managed to find some meagre shade in a clump of Joshua trees. We took off our packs and our shirts, and hung them on the spines of the trees to dry. I stood still and upright in the shade between two trees, trying to stay as cool as possible while also not impaling my bare torso on the spikes. It was too hot to eat. I poured water into my collapsible mug and mixed in an electrolyte tab, shotgunning the mixture with some antibiotics.
We only went a few more miles before stopping again. There was a dirt road, and next to it a pulloff with a picnic table. The temptation was too great to pass by. Once again we took off our shirts, and also our shoes and socks. Slipping on my flip flops felt akin to dipping my hands into a bag of cool flour. The sun had gone behind some clouds so the heat was finally bearable. In this pulloff in the middle of nowhere, with its picnic table, was also a sign with information about the elusive Mojave desert tortoise. The three of us agreed to make it our collective team goal to spot one.
Some multi-seater off-road vehicles drove past, the drivers and passengers waving at us briefly before continuing on into the bleak and mysterious desert. We watched a helicopter fly overhead, and then descent and circle around us several times before taking off again. We wondered if they were searching for someone, and speculated about the welfare of our friends up ahead.
A hiker caught up and joined us. It was Shamrock, the older guy I had passed by yesterday morning on my way through Hamp Williams Pass. He had just taken a detour several miles up the road to filter some water out of a cistern.
“There was a dead raven in there,” he told us. “but all the other tanks were dried up.” I felt extremely grateful at that moment for the water cache. I sometimes thought about the scummy, larva-filled, gooey rat-corpse water I’d had to filter from in the past and it felt like a miracle that I hadn’t contracted some sort of parasite. “Have you seen Nick?” Shamrock asked. Through some questioning we determined that Nick was the bundled-up hiker we’d passed earlier. “He just started yesterday from Piute Mountain Road.”
That was near the spring where we’d filled up yesterday afternoon. No wonder he was struggling – of all the sections of the PCT to start in, this was probably the most challenging.
Nick caught up with us shortly, and seemed to have no intention of stopping.
“How much water are you carrying?” I asked him, feeling uncharacteristically parental.
He pulled his scarf down to expose his face. “I have about half a litre in my Nalgene.” He shrugged. “The sequoias are coming up in twenty miles.”
The three of us must have appeared to have a collective spasm of disbelief.
“What the fuck!” Cuban exclaimed, his face expressing even more than his words.
“That’s just a boundary!” Rowan contested, “That doesn’t mean anything.”
“There’s water a couple miles down this road.” I said, trying to contain my frustration with his nonchalance and complete unpreparedness. “It’s dirty, but you don’t really have a choice. There’s no more water for thirty miles. If you don’t fill up here you’re going to die.”
While Shamrock gave him detailed directions to the cistern, the rest of us gathered our belongings and set out again. I felt strangely shaken and angry about what had passed. How could you be so irresponsible? What would have happened if we weren’t there to stop him?
We stayed together at first, but soon spread out. I felt weak and drained from the heat and possibly my medication, and fell behind for once. I struggled with hiking in the soft sand, trying to ration my water intake by hiking slow enough to avoid sweating too much. I caught up to Rowan who had stopped to check his phone and we hiked on together while talking, sporadically changing topics as if hiking and talking with someone else was an entirely new concept for us.
Off the side of the trail I noticed an unusual pattern of rocks and shouted excitedly at Rowan who was slightly ahead. I waved him over.
“Take a picture of me!” I demanded giddily, handing him my camera. I squatted down next to the rocks which spelled out ‘1000 km’. It was a number that really meant something to me, unlike the mile markers, where measuring distance in miles was still an unfamiliar concept to me.
We moved along and it didn’t take long for me to fall behind again. Far in the distance, Cuban made a steady pace uphill in the reddish sand. I couldn’t even keep up to Rowan, although I tried. It was a long time with what felt like very little progress before I caught up to them, taking a snack break and waiting for me a couple of miles later after the climb.
The sand finally gave way to slightly more solid ground, and the trail began a gradual descent, which mean it was my terrain once again. I moved ahead at my natural pace, listening to music and getting into a rhythm that felt comfortable. The evening sun had cooled, and the trail itself wound its way in the shady side of a desert hill.
We cooked our dinner at Bird Spring Pass. There was no spring there, and no water, despite a rumoured trail angel cache that clearly didn’t exist. Shamrock arrived later and left to set up his camp somewhere nearby. A hiker with dark features, whom I’d never seen before approached us, lifting an eyebrow in Rowan’s direction as he spooned some noodles out of his Jetboil.
“You still eating that ramen?” He asked disdainfully, pronouncing it like ‘ray-men’, “That shit’s a neurotoxin.”
I grimaced, trying not to laugh, as my attention jumped between the newcomer’s cartoonish sneer and Rowan’s unperturbed expression as he spooned more noodles into his mouth. The newcomer shook his head and wandered off, presumably to camp.
The three of us decided to push on so that we wouldn’t have to tackle a climb first thing in the morning. I left a few minutes ahead, reaching an elevated metal box on the trailside containing a trail register, a pen, and black pair of women’s underwear. ‘Power Thighs,’ I signed – plus, ‘Who left their panties?’
Like the trail, my energy levels were unpredictable, and despite the inclining switchbacks I hiked up at an unusually fast pace. Was this what they called a second wind? I felt like I could hike all night.
From the ridge I watched the most beautiful sunset I’d ever seen, enveloping the vast Mojave desert in a gentle rosy glow, the sun rays shooting out from the sides of the few scattered trees and rock formations at the top of the ridge. For a few minutes, everything was illuminated, and then the sun was gone, and in what might have only been minutes, the world faded in a calm dusky purple, and then blue, and then it was finally dark.
I put on my headlamp, feeling a little unsettled, like I might encounter a mountain lion around every bend. It was dead quiet. I jumped and caught a scream in my throat when a startled night bird squawked and took off from a nearby branch. The trees on this high ridge weren’t the green and brown sentinels of woodlands. They were rough and grey, stunted and twisted from the struggle of growing in this inhospitable climate..
I reached our planned campsite on the ridge. A couple of other tents were set up among the trees already, but I found a flat spot big enough for the three of us. When Rowan and Cuban caught up we were quick to set up, having already ate dinner. I chose to cowboy camp, thinking I’d save time in the morning and beat the heat.
When I closed my eyes, though, I thought about that mountain lion I’d been imagining all evening in the dark. She was close, now, watching me as I lay vulnerable in my bed of dry leaves. I reminded myself that it was just my imagination. A breeze picked up, blowing through my meager quilt – right through my body – and I began to shiver.