In the morning I ate a handful of crushed Fritos for breakfast. It was all I had. Despite my effort to ration, I was officially out of food, and ravenously hungry.
I started hiking before the sunrise to take advantage of the cool morning shade in the otherwise exposed meadow. I saw a bunny on the path ahead of me. It hopped lazily out of my way. I thought about lunging forward and grabbing it. My mind graphically fantasized about roasted bunny rabbit. The thought was both appealing and horrifying. Nevertheless I found myself dropping my pack and jumping toward it. I missed, but just barely. I chased it some distance into the rocky meadow before giving up. I wasn’t sure what I’d have done with it if I caught it.
The trail remained flat throughout the morning, weaving through scattered forests and wide desert plains before meeting and running parallel to a river. I stopped for a while to fill and filter my water. I put on my puffy jacket; even though it was hot out, it was cool in the shade, and lately it seemed that the moment I stopped hiking my body temperature would plummet. I drank as much water as I could to fill my stomach. Already I was hungry, and the fact that I had no food caused me some anxiety, even though I knew I would be at Kennedy Meadows that morning.
The trail followed the river for some time. I passed Sobo filing her water, and then I was alone again. Through more exposed meadow, I passed next to some fenced property with an abandoned cabin. I did a double take as I nearly missed the ‘700’ mile marker, spelled out with chunky grey rocks in the dirt opposite the fence line.
I kept seeing evidence of civilization – the occasional bright reflection of a tin roof on a distant hillside – but I still felt very much in the middle of nowhere.
I pushed my way through a thicket of tall grass, following a set of muddy Cascadia prints in front of me. I reached a narrow paved road crossing, where a sign directed PCT hikers up the road to the Kennedy Meadows general store. I followed it, filled with renewed energy and excitement. Food and friends, I thought over and over again.
When I reached the general store I felt overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment. I had just walked across Southern California – 700 miles of desert. On the patio, dozens of hikers congregated, socializing and celebrating. I set my pack down on the porch and was about to open the front door when it was pushed open from the other side. It took me a moment to recognize the person in the doorway – now smaller, and stronger, but still the same friend that I had been missing.
“Squatchie!” I cried out, lunging at her. “PT!” she shouted, both of us startled and excited. We hugged and stood on the porch for some time, trying to catch each other up as quickly as possible, before parting ways to go about our hiker chores.
In the store, I grabbed a pint of ice cream and armful of snacks, as well as a package I’d ordered – a pair of socks, new underwear and a synthentic vest as an extra layer for the mountains. Rattles had one when we were at Hiker Town, and I eventually gave in and ordered the same one since I was tired of being cold at night.
I walked around the property to scope out a tent site and then joined the hikers on the patio, looking around and taking stock of everyone I recognized. There was Costco, Shaggy, Papa Smurf and the Doobie Brothers, Kat, Twist, Ninja and Jpeg who must have left camp that morning even earlier than I did, Bearly, Mr and Mrs Smith, Shepherd, Treeman and Hedgehog.
When Rowan and Cuban arrived, we staked out our tent spots near the general store. We spent the afternoon relaxing on the patio and mingling with the other hikers. After my pint of ice cream I ate a burger and took a shower in the makeshift shack outside. I kind of had to use the bathroom, but Kat warned me that all the outhouses were a nightmare, so I steeled my bladder until it was dinner time. Several of us hopped into a truck when one of the store patrons offered a ride to Grumpy Bear’s – a bar and restaurant a few miles up the road. I had to go there anyway to pick up my bear canister, which I’d ordered on loan, and we were all looking forward to making up for the food rationing we’d been forced into for the past few days.
We joined Shins at the bar, who was happy to see us, but made no motion of apology to me. I didn’t expect it, though. I was sure he had never realized that he’d said anything wrong. ‘It’s a generational thing,’ I had been telling myself. But I still couldn’t make myself like him as much as I used to. When he left for the bathroom, Rowan suggested that we pitch in to buy his meal to return the favour from when he bought us a round of shots in Agua Dulce. Part of me wanted to object, but I silenced that voice and went with it. He was a nice guy, and I’d liked him a lot before the last time he’d spoken to me. People mess up sometimes.
We were soon joined by Ninja, Twist, Jpeg, Jetlag and Ego. We perched on our barstools, devouring our meals as the bar dog – a tiny chihuahua with bulging eyes and that constant tremor small dogs often seem to have – jumped from lap to lap, absorbing as much attention and body heat as she could.
When we were finished, all of us except for Shins squeezed into the back of the owner’s old pickup truck. I clutched my bear canister to my chest as I swayed precariously on the edge of the box. The warm wind and glowing sunset made me feel peaceful and sleepy, but every bump and swerve on the road would jolt me back to consciousness.
Back at the store, Rowan and Cuban and I bought some beer and a couple bottles of wine and started a game of Crazy Eights. It quickly fell into the same pattern of repetition and sabotage that last night’s game had. When the generator shut off and we were left in the dark, we brought out our headlamps and played until the alcohol had made us too dumb and tired to continue. The three of us shuffled back as quietly as we could along the well-worn trail until we reached our familiar little trio of tents within the crowded forest behind the Kennedy Meadows general store.