Despite my lack of sleep, my planning worked out well and packing up camp took only minutes. I skipped breakfast, trying to conserve water. Despite my careful effort, yesterday’s intense sun and uphill struggle had resulted in me depleting more than half my water supply. I had only about two and a half litres to last me for the next twenty-six miles. One hundred millilitres a mile, I thought anxiously. I had been used to drinking one litre for every five miles, and that was in average conditions – not the blazing hot desert.
Fortunately, it was early morning and the trail descended the ridge in the scattered shade of trees. At the bottom of the descent was a junction to a spring that the water report had recently listed as dry. I saw a note scrawled in sharpie on a length of wood. It was for another hiker, to let them know that ‘Twist, Ninja and Jpeg’ were camped nearby. There was no way to know how old the note was, however.
I passed Clara who had stopped for breakfast. My own stomach was growling loudly for food and water, but I kept ignoring it until I realized the trees had begun to grow sparse and the air had become much warmer. The trail began to emerge back into arid desert, so I stopped in the shade of a single tree to rest, until the sweat on my skin cooled my body to the point of shivering and then I sat in the sun in the tall dry grass and finally ate a Clif bar to satisfy my hunger, and took a few sips of water to help mitigate my overwhelming thirst.
It had become a sort of ritual for me to wait for my friends after my daily breakfast break instead of moving on alone. When they caught up we talked apprehensively about our dwindling water supply. Even though both Rowan and Cuban had taken more than I had from the cache, we were about on par. We agreed that we’d have to push on to Walker Pass that day because camping another night without water was out of the question. It would be a long day, but not impossible.
I followed Rowan up the trail, toward the humming sounds of off-road vehicles. The PCT merged onto an uneven dirt road, and a couple of people on dirt bikes sped by. I thought about how pathetic we must have looked – dehydrated and caked in dirt, hauling heavy packs up a dirty desert road. Even through their helmets, I felt their eyes on me. Who would subject themselves to this torture? What was wrong with us? With me?
Most days on the trail I had been too tired get philosophical about my situation. But some days I felt those same thoughts begin to creep in that had plagued me in the very beginning. How could I have left my life and the people in it to hike this trail? What was I expecting to gain? After a thousand kilometres had I really grown in any way, or had I just built an even bigger wall between myself and the rest of the world?
I passed Rowan and was on my own again along the endless rough dirt road. There was no more shade, and the heat caused me to sweat heavily through my clothes. I sipped cautiously from my hydration hose, trying to parch my sore throat and animalistic thirst, while also terrified that each sip would end in the rattling suction sound that indicated that my water bladder was empty.
The trail broke away from the road and I followed it for a mile or so before I reached a small boulder off the side of the trail with just a tiny amount of shade. I collapsed against it. Only a portion of my torso was in shade, but it was enough to keep me there. Everything in my field of vision seemed to drift, blurring slightly and then snapping back into focus. My extremities tingled and my lungs heaved involuntarily with deep and rattled breaths; I felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack, except I didn’t know why.
I tucked my head between my knees and kept my eyes shut until the sound of footsteps brought me back to attention.
“You doing ok?” Rowan asked. I shrugged and said that I wasn’t feeling well. Cuban, who had just caught up, looked at me and shook his head.
“I told you to take more water, PT,” he said reprovingly. “If you start pissing blood again don’t say I didn’t tell you.” He was right, and I felt dumb.
“I packed out all I could,” I argued weakly. It was true, in a way. I had filled my bladder and two collapsible water bottles at the cache. But I knew that this stretch was coming and I could have packed out an extra Gatorade bottle or two. Truthfully I had been more afraid of carrying extra weight than of dehydration. Even after a trip to the emergency room I’d rather risk injury than slow myself down. I realized the truth of it, but didn’t understand why.
“Try some of this,” Rowan detached the hydration hose from his sternum strap and offered it to me. I took a deep sip. It was sickly sweet, like Mountain Dew. “I put all my electrolyte tabs into my bladder,” he said. “It’s like hummingbird nectar.”
The three of us hiked together to the top of the climb, where I checked my phone and saw that I’d received a text from Rally. She was in Lake Isabella with Fucket. ‘Come stay with us!’ she pleaded. I texted her back: ‘Almost at Walker Pass. Not sure if we’re hitching in. If so, see you tonight!’
Rowan and Cuban and I had talked about skipping Lake Isabella for resupply and pushing ahead to Kennedy Meadows, but my food supply was dwindling and figured we’d probably reevaluate once we reached Walker Pass.
We passed a hiker I hadn’t met before who sat on a huge boulder while smoking a joint.
“You heading into Lake Isabella tonight?” He asked us. Probably, we answered, in a flurry of shrugs and sidelong glances. “I am,” he said, “The first thing I’m going to do is eat a pint of ice cream.” My mouth watered at the mention, and I didn’t even like ice cream.
The trail began its final five-mile descent into Walker Pass. I picked up my pace to a methodical slow jog that kept the descent easy on my knees and my exertion level low. The trail finally descended again into trees, but by this point late in the day, it was hot even in the shade. I took a modest sip from my hose, and was met with only air and a slurping sound. It was what I had been afraid of all day. I was still miles from water, and severely dehydrated. I couldn’t help but pick up my pace, desperate to get to water as soon as possible.
I stopped to check my phone again, and heard a sudden yell behind me. I spun around to see a flash of orange. Cuban nearly knocked me right off the trail as he sped by with uncontrollable momentum. He glanced back apologetically as his short legs took him faster than I’d ever seen him move before. I looked up the trail behind me, expecting to see a mountain lion or bear chasing us down, but there was nothing. I wondered if he was also out of water.
I soon caught sight of the highway in the distance, and the flashing glint of vehicles at what must have been Walker Pass campground. I jogged mindlessly, focused on reaching water. My animal brain left room for no other thoughts.
I caught up with Cuban at the junction to the campground. Together we walked in To find a large group of hikers gathered around a sheltered table. There were picnic supplies in boxes – mostly condiments and bread – and large plastic jugs of water. We said hello briefly to the other hikers who we did not know, and each carried a jug of water over to a nearby tree where we met with two familiar faces, Shamrock and Shins. I was glad to see them, and eager to catch up and talk about the monster stretch of trail we had just done, but all I could do was drink half a gallon of water and curl up on the ground in a daze while I listened to the murmur of conversation between them and Cuban, and later Rowan when he arrived.
We learned that a famous trail angel, Meadow Ed, had celebrated his birthday at the pass the day before. We had missed the trail magic, but there were leftovers still at the picnic table. I walked over to inspect what was left. A tall blonde girl with an accent asked jokingly if I had brought any ice cream.
“Uh… N-no,” I answered awkwardly under the gaze of everyone. “I wish,” I added. Although there were a lot of things I’d rather be eating than ice cream in that moment.
I grabbed a loaf of bread and returned to our spot under the large oak tree where we stuffed our faces. We talked about whether or not we should hitch to Lake Isabella, but decided that between the three of us we’d have enough food to last us for a couple more days, and by the time we ran out we’d be at Kennedy Meadows.
Cuban and Rowan left with my filter reservoir to find the water trough to fill up for our next stretch. I stayed with our packs, curling up on Rowan’s Z-lite and drifting in and out of consciousness until they returned an hour later. We used my gravity filter to fill all of our bladders and hiked out into the late afternoon sun to tackle as much of the climb out of the pass that we possibly could that night.
We crossed the highway and signed a trail register. I saw that the Tits were days ahead. I hoped we’d catch up with them at Kennedy Meadows. Also in the register, ahead by only a day or so, were Costco and Kat and – to my surprise – Papa Smurf, Shaggy and the Doobie Brothers. I had thought that our Vegas side trip would have put us far behind anyone we knew.
The climb out of Walker Pass was easy. Much like our evening climb the previous night, the day’s heat was almost gone and the slight evening wind kept me cool. We stopped a few miles out on a saddle along the ridgeline where a few trees offered some shelter. There was just enough space for our three tents. I left my rain fly off, determined to watch the stars that night. I took a dosage of antibiotics along with a generous helping of water, still cool from the trough. We sat together within our circle of tents, cooking dinner and watching the remainder of the sun’s light fade out from the stretch of desert below us. Shins and two other hikers new to us – all older men – stopped by to chat with us briefly while we ate. We introduced ourselves. Rowan gave his real name and one of the men scoffed. ‘I can’t call you that,’ he had said. ‘You need a trail name.’
Sometimes I was reminded that the PCT had its own rules and cliques. Even so far removed from civilization, ‘hikertrash’ culture felt like an exclusive club rampant with elitism and judgement.
After dinner I took off my clothes and spread them out on bushes and hung them on branches to dry overnight. In my tent, I moved my down quilt to the side, and fell asleep, clutching a bottle of water, with only my thin silk liner protecting me from the night’s warm breeze.