I followed my morning ritual of deflating my sleeping pad the moment I woke, sitting up only when all of the air had escaped. I zipped open my tent and reached for my backpack by the entrance, only to jerk my hand away and choke on my morning spit the moment I touched it.
Forcing my eyes to focus through the haze of sleep I saw that the side of my pack was covered in thick spiderwebs. I grabbed my knife from my tent and probed at the side pocket where the web was thickest. A huge, fat brown spider crawled out slowly and I flicked it away, brushing the webs off my pack and inspecting it for more uninvited guests. I grabbed my shoes and knocked them together upside-down and another spider fell out. I grimaced at the thought of how many times I’d shoved my feet into my shoes in the morning without bothering to check them first.
The trail followed a ridgeline from which I could clearly see the landscape below transition into foothills and then – now so close – into mountains. I drank water all morning, hoping to make up for the abuse I’d out my body through over the last couple of days. I sipped mindlessly, listening to podcasts through my headphones, until I came round a bend to see the old-guy trio – Shins and his friends stopped to eat breakfast on the trailside. I removed an earbud and slowed down.
“Hey look,” Shins gestured to me, “a blonde with a rubber hose in her mouth.”
I stiffened and removed my mouthpiece, clipping it back on my sternum strap. The men laughed and looked at me. At what, I didn’t know. My mouth? My blonde hair? Whatever it was, they were amused. I laughed a little bit too, because I didn’t know what else to do or say.
“Uh,” I struggled to turn the attention away from me, “where did you guys camp last night?”
I didn’t hear their answer because I wasn’t really listening. Shins turned his attention away and continued talking with the other two about some vineyard he visited recently. They had turned away and ignored me completely, which is more than I could have hoped for. I passed by them at a pace bordering on a run and didn’t slow down for miles. The only other hiker I passed was Sobo, whom I had met briefly at Walker Pass Campground.
After some precarious rocky terrain contouring steep mountainsides, the trail descended into an arid valley where I reached the junction for Joshua Tree Spring. It was a steep trail descending by a couple of rough switchbacks into thick mosquito-ridden foliage. A sign by the spring, which trickled into a large trough, warned that the water may be radioactive and was not potable. I scooped as much as I could with my filter reservoir and got out as quickly as I could to avoid the clouds of mosquitoes. I ascended almost to the trail junction where I stopped by a tree and hung my filter. I stretched out in the dirt, eating a granola bar while rolling my calved out on the foam roller I had bought at REI. My mind was all noise and static; it was something my brain did to push away unwelcome thoughts and feelings. I couldn’t think or feel at all. I just chewed, and rolled my muscles out, and stared blankly into the shrubs in front of me.
When Rowan caught up I gave him my filter and he left his pack with me while making a mad dash down and back for water. After he returned, Shins had arrived and stopped to talk. He spoke only to Rowan, who told him the distance to the spring, and about the mosquitoes. When he left, my brain noise fizzled out and I felt my eyes begin to burn. Why was I so affected?
I told Rowan about what had happened up on the ridge. Only as I told him did I realize how upset I was. I was angry with Shins. I had liked him, and he let me down. I felt betrayed and humiliated.
“I’m sorry,” was all Rowan said. He didn’t have to say anything, but I felt a little better with his support.
Cuban caught up as we left and we agreed to meet at the next water source. Rowan and I hiked spread apart by a couple of minutes. The trail went in and out of tree cover as if it was trying to cling to the desert as it was forced into the foothills of the Sierra. I passed a mile marker: ‘1/4’. I had hiked a quarter of the entire PCT. But the eight miles I had skipped at Tehachapi somehow made it feel like a lie. I didn’t even stop to take a picture. I hadn’t taken photos all day; my camera was shoved into a Ziploc baggy in the brain of my pack. Since the morning’s encounter I had felt numb and uninterested in taking photos or enjoying the scenery. My body was a mechanical hiking machine running on electrolytes and Fritos.
After ascending again into green, oaky trees, we reached what we thought to be our next water source: the smallest trickle of a stream – slightly off trail and barely more than a muddy seep – buried in buggy foliage. The water report had listed one water source among several dried up streams and seeps within a mile.
“I don’t think this is it,” Rowan said, watching me struggle to position my reservoir under the trickle while also swatting away mosquitoes. “I think it might be the next one.”
We abandoned the trickle and returned to the trail, following it uphill for a few minutes where we found two hikers resting in a tent space off the side of the trail.
“There’s no water here,” they warned as we approached. “If you didn’t fill up back there you probably should.”
We left our packs with them and jogged back down the trail with our filters, returning to the buggy seep. We intercepted Cuban on the way, and with the help of our collapsible cups, we managed to fill each of our reservoirs. We returned to break spot and rejoined the two hikers. I wasn’t able to focus on the conversation. Instead I stared lustfully at the bag of Cheetos sticking out of one of their packs.
Several other hikers caught up while we rested: Pounder, a friendly guy of ambiguous European descent, and three hikers I recognized from the Walker Pass Campground – Jetlag, Twist and Ninja, the blonde girl who’d asked me for ice cream.
After they passed I was reminded of something I had noticed earlier while scanning the elevation profile on my phone.
“There are barely any campsites up ahead,” I warned. If it was all ridgewalking we might not find a place to sleep. We all agreed to aim for a campsite in seven miles, at the top of a long climb. It was the only spot listed in Guthook’s app that would accommodate all three of us. After that there would be no camping for five miles, and it would be long after sundown by the time we got there.
We knew that we were in a race to claim the spot. There was little doubt that Ninja’s group were aiming for the same one. We didn’t deserve it any more than they did; it was just a matter of who got there first.
Rowan took off at an incredible pace. On flat and downhill stretches I was the fastest of our group, but uphill there was no way that I could keep up with him, especially when he was in a hurry. I followed as fast as I could, less focused on the campsite and more determined at first to find a spot on the trailside where I could discretely squat and pee.
The trail crawled up in steep gravely switchbacks. I kept an unusually fast pace, breathing heavily and sweating bullets. I passed Twist, and then Jetlag and Ninja. I could see Rowan far up ahead along the ascent, as well as a couple of other hikers ahead of him. I checked over my shoulder to see Cuban making good time behind me, but there was no guarantee that we would reach the campsite first.
I sped up even more, and after a mile or so I was surprised to come round a bend to see Rowan right in front of me.
“I pulled a muscle,” he said.
“I’ll go,” I said, wild-eyed and determined as if I was about to meet my destiny. “I will run ahead and stake out that campsite.”
I did. I ignored the weight of my pack slamming up and down against my back. My calves burned and my legs shook with exhaustion and weakness, like they might collapse with every footfall. I passed the pair of hikers we had breaked with, and then the first campsite – a single tent spot where Sobo had set up. I waved as I ran by and she glanced up at me from her dinner, raising a few fingers in greeting. I kept running along the ridge, passing another saddle that I evaluated as I passed by. It was too exposed, and not flat enough to camp except in an emergency.
I kept on running, not allowing myself to slow down or stop. I knew that if I did that would be it. I might not be able to get going again.
I reached the second saddle in a daze – maybe it was a runner’s high. There was plenty of room for more than just us. The race had been unnecessary, but I didn’t feel like I had wasted the effort. I felt like I had pushed myself in a new way. I had spent most of the day feeling upset and disenchanted with the trail, and now – hunched over and heaving at the top of this foggy ridge – I felt alive.
I cleared a spot for us in a patch of shrubs and had rolled out my groundsheet and inflated my sleeping pad by the time Rowan and Cuban caught up. The feeling of crawling into my quilt was pure bliss. My legs were numb and my entire body was sore. With no bugs at the top of ridge, it was the perfect place to cowboy camp.
The stars were probably beautiful, but I fell asleep before dark and didn’t wake up again until the sunrise.