In the morning I found that I was unable to revive my phone after shutting it off the night before. The boot screen would load, and the screen would cycle from dim to dimmer, but never progressing past the Apple logo. I felt somewhat panicked and I wasn’t sure if it was justified. What was the worst that could happen? But I watched everyone else around the small hotel room staring at their phones and I felt like I was missing something important.
I convinced Rowan to come with me to the Danish bakery up the street, where I bought breakfast and a coffee, one of the very few so far that I’d had on the trail. We were joined by Bushtit and Tomtit who told us that there was a theatre down the street; they had gone to see Mad Max the day before, and were planning to see the Avengers that afternoon.
“We were just talking about going to see that!” I said. Truthfully, Rowan had been talking since the Andersons’ about seeing the Avengers before it was gone from theatres. I was just eager to sit in a theatre and watch anything while eating a huge bag of popcorn.
We met up afterward and sat in the dark through what I thought was an overdone, drawn out film, but with a stomach full of the buttery stuff I was satisfied enough when we re-emerged into the light of day.
We walked for a long time toward the outskirts of the town, where the grocery store was. Tehachapi wasn’t a large town, but its downtown area was cluttered with curio shops and Christian book stores, and seemed to have nothing of value other than the bakery and the theatre. Everything else was sprawled out over miles.
We did some basic resupply shopping with the plan to pick up the rest of what we needed in Las Vegas. Afterward we stopped by the AT&T store to see if they could do anything to fix my phone.
“I think I just need to connect it to iTunes,” I told them. “Can you do that for me?”
“Sorry,” they told me.
On the way back I stopped to see if I could use the library computers, but the library was closed. Back at the hotel I tried each of the guest computers, but something different seemed to go wrong every time, like the universe had conspired against my attachment to my phone.
“Maybe it just got too much sand and dust in it,” Rowan suggested. I hoped that it was just a temporary glitch. I couldn’t afford a replacement.
Rally had texted me the night before that she was also in town, at the Slightly Fancier Best Western next door. I recalled her room number and paid her a visit. She had a double room all to herself, so I lounged spread-eagle on her spare bed while we caught up and talked about my upcoming side trip to Vegas and what was ahead for us on the trail.
“I feel like I’m getting sick,” I told her. It was a familiar feeling to me, and one that I hoped I was wrong about: an unease in my abdomen and occasional slow burn in my lower back at the end of the day.
It was dark when I left the hotel, and I was unsure of what to do next. I didn’t feel like returning to my own crowded room, so I walked up the road in the opposite direction with the vague intention to find something else to do. I entered a local dive bar – the Dog House. Inside I found Rowan and Kat playing pool with a couple of regular Joes, who were more than a few drinks in.
“This is our friend PT,” Kat introduced me when I joined them. One of the men approached me and clasped my hand.
“I think what you’re doing is just amazing,” he said. “I can’t believe you young people.” He stammered through some reiterations, on the verge of tears. The other slightly more sober man leaned over.
“My brother is a bit drunk.” He said.
When I was able to pull myself away I headed to the bar and ordered a margarita. Kat and Rowan quickly joined me and together we celebrated our latest stop on the Southern California Margarita Tour before ending the evening with a few rounds of pool, each of which I played progressively worse. Rowan would complain about how bad is skills were, and win every time. I suspected it was a tactic.
We were loud and raucous on the walk back to the Smaller, Cheaper Best Western where we rejoined Cuban, Tent Fire and Costco. They were already asleep when we snuck in. Kat crawled into bed with Tent Fire and Rowan and I found space on the floor. I stuck my phone in the fridge, hoping that by completely draining the battery, maybe I could convince it to boot up in the morning.
Fortune did not favour my phone, and my biggest disappointment was that I was left with no music to contribute to our road trip.
Cuban and Costco picked up the cars first thing in the morning. They were both small hatchbacks – one black, and the other a delightful lilac colour. They were just big enough for the six of us and all of our gear. Rowan and Cuban and I claimed Team Biggest Blackest, and declared our undying rivalry with Team Periwinkle Fabulous.
We hit the road, stopping first at the Tehachapi post office. Cuban B waited in the car while Rowan and I went in to claim our boxes. I recognized Radish, who was waiting in line, and who I hadn’t seen since the Anderson’s. We also saw Physio, and I watched in awe as Thermometer sat on the floor of the post office, unpacking a resupply box that was large enough to fit a dishwasher. After a long wait in line I picked up my bounce box, reclaiming my stove, and sent it off, and also received my new backpack from Osprey. I opened it in the car, excited to find a wealth of included stickers, lip balms and beer koozies from Osprey to us PCT hikers.
We soon passed the PCT trailhead, which I immediately recognized strangely as the spot where Reese Witherspoon was dropped off in the movie Wild, where she trudged along next to the highway in the blazing heat. It was the first familiar spot from the movie, which I’d watched only days before my hike began.
We passed some hills scattered with wind turbines as Lady Gaga blasted through the car’s tiny speakers, and then suddenly the terrain flattened out and we continued forever in a straight line through desert. I tried in vain to stretch out comfortably in the back seat, staring at the persistent Apple logo on the dim screen of my phone and imagining all the writing I was sure I’d be catching up on if it would just boot up.
Instead I watched the land fly by in an orange-grey blur. The mojave desert stretched out for miles on either side and I imagined what it would be like hiking through it all. Just the thought of it made me thirsty.
As we crossed the state line into Nevada, we drove under rolling dark clouds which soon began to unleash a torrent of rain over us. Lighting flashed close by, but I couldn’t hear the thunder above the music and the roar of the rain against the car.
When we reached the city, the rainstorm had diminished to a light shower. Our first stop – for my benefit – was the Apple store, where an employee successfully restored my phone. I had no new messages. No email. For all the stress and lack of ‘connection’, I had missed nothing.
We all agreed that we didn’t want to wear our dirty trail clothes in Vegas so we stopped at Goodwill, where I found a dress, and then Old Navy where I bought a pair of jeans, a shirt and a two new tops to hike in. It was more than I needed, and more than I could afford, but it was as if being in a city had evoked an emotional need within me to spend money and acquire things and be normal.
We met up with the rest of our group, including Costco’s girlfriend Shelby who’d joined us on arrival, at our hotel near the Strip. It was cheap by Vegas’s standards, but beyond luxurious for us tent-dwellers. We divided ourselves between two bedroom suites and a foldout bed in the living room. Even for seven people, it felt like more than enough room.
I changed into my new city clothes, and the group of us drove to REI where we all had extensive lists of wants and needs to fulfil. I purchased new synthetic base layers, new Injinji toe socks (mine had holes in most of the toes), a new sports bra, a hydration hose, a collapsible cup, a foam roller and energy bars. After returning to the hotel the group of us, except for Costco and Shelby, went out for the night to experience whatever it was that Paradise promised its visitors. The pedestrian pathways, lined with promoters and showgirls and panhandlers, crossed over the strip and passed through colourful casinos and shopping malls full of expensive, trashy clothes and overpriced Asian restaurants.
We stopped at the Bellagio fountain for the bi-hourly show. Lights illuminated the streams of water as the shot intermittently in all directions, somewhat in time with the music – some sort of bizarre parody of American propaganda to which Cuban B sang along, hand across his heart. When I realized it wasn’t satire, I cast sidelong looks at my friends, relieved to see on their faces that I wasn’t the only one who found the song ridiculous.
We went to a casino – The Flamingo, or something to that effect. The air was acrid with cigarette smoke and I didn’t have any desire to gamble, but Rowan sat down to play Blackjack, while Cuban B, Kat and Tent Fire stood by to watch. I figured I might as well try the penny slots.
I made change from a five dollar bill and sat at one of the tacky, brightly lit machines that promised me lost Egyptian riches. My money was gone in less than two minutes. I wandered away, bored and somewhat disgusted with the atmosphere. After meandering through a quiet, closed section of mall I eventually found myself outside of the building and on an unfamiliar backstreet.
I saw a Starbucks. Not knowing what else to do or where to go, I went inside and bought a cup of fruit yogurt and a latte. I sat at the bar, staring out the window and into the street, but mostly seeing my own disheveled reflection. I looked tired and burnt out. My shirt that I had bought earlier that day at Old Navy was dumb and unflattering and – worst of all – cotton, enemy of the thru-hiker. I had just spent ten dollars on a plastic cup of sugary yogurt and a child-sized, flavourless caffeine bomb. I looked like I was playing dress-up; I was playing pretend, trying to fit in and look like I was on vacation like everyone else. But really, I just wanted to go back to the cold, quiet nights in the wilderness. This city of make-believe was everything I had ever wanted to escape in my life.
I got a text from Rowan asking where I was. I realized it had been a couple of hours. He said they’d moved on to another casino – New York New York.
I didn’t know how I’d gotten so far off the Strip. I walked for twenty minutes through dimly lit empty backstreets before I found the place. New York New York was divey and cheap as far as casinos go, and unlike the Flamingo made no effort to hide the fact. I much preferred it. I found Rowan and Cuban B at the blackjack table, and took a seat for myself at one of the penny slots nearby. I tried another $5, and within ten minutes had racked up nearly $40 in credit. Wanting to end my halfhearted gambling experience on a high note, I cashed out and said good night to my friends before heading back exhausted to the hotel.
I took the elevator to the rooftop pool. The effort I made to conceal the beers I’d wrapped in my towel was for nothing, since the patio was deserted. The night air was warm, but not warm enough to swim, so I settled into the hot tub and didn’t leave until the beer was gone.
Things happened in Vegas that I’m not going to write about in detail here because it’s not very PCT-related and the details are fuzzy (with good reason) but in short:
- I ate a lot.
- I drank a bunch.
- I became best friends with the rooftop hot tub.
- I bought a t-shirt at Walmart that had kittens on it that I planned to hike the rest of the PCT in.
- We had brunch at the Bellagio and nearly cleaned out the buffet with our collective hiker appetite.
- Cuban B, Rowan and I went to the stratosphere to do the rides and had silly pictures taken of us that we refused to pay for.
- Rowan and I attended a zombie-themed burlesque show for which we’d bought tickets days in advance, expecting it to be awesome. It was.
Three days later, it was time to go. We left by five in the morning in order to get the rental cars back in time. I sat in the front seat, in charge of the music this time, while Cuban B drove and Rowan enjoyed the slightly more spacious back seat. The drive back was uneventful, but the creeping twinge of sickness that I had felt in my body days before had spread and I knew something was very wrong.
I asked Cuban to stop at a gas station, where I rushed to the bathroom. I shifted restlessly while I waited for the elderly lady in front of me and her caretaker make their way very slowly into the facilities. When I reached a stall and was finally able to piss I cringed and clenched my teeth from the pain. I checked to confirm what I already knew would be present – blood. Not the right time, and not a good sign.
Back in the car I didn’t rejoin the conversation. I tensed my body, worrying about how I was going deal with the situation. It would be weird to share my gross bodily details with my 30-something male friends. Wouldn’t it? Why did it matter, I asked myself. This could be something serious. It felt worse than the average urinary tract infection, of which I’d had more than my fair share of experiences. And besides, Cuban B was a med lab tech. He’d seen and heard of much worse. Rowan, on the other hand… wait, why was I worrying about what anyone thought at this point? I had to see a doctor, and I couldn’t hide the fact. There wasn’t a decision to be made here.
I told them as we pulled into the rental lot in Tehachapi.
“Hey guys,” I stammered, trying too hard to sound confident, “I won’t be able to hike out with you today. I think I need to see a doctor. I’m peeing blood and just… feeling awful.”
They were more than understanding. Rowan said he’d hang back with me since he was nursing a sinus infection that he had started medication for while we were in Vegas.
Tent Fire’s boyfriend Evan had driven down in his van from Portland so that the two of them could take a break from the trail and go climbing for a while. He met us at the rental lot, and we all piled into the van and drove to the trailhead. I said goodbye to Cuban B, Kat and Costco, hoping I’d eventually catch up. The remaining four of us made our way back to Tehachapi while I desperately searched for nearby clinics on Google Maps.
“There’s nothing nearby!” I said, frustrated. “I called one clinic and they can only make an appointment later this week. There’s no urgent care or anything.”
By the time we returned to town we had all agreed that the only option was for me to go to the emergency room.
I sat on the hospital bed, wearing a plastic bracelet with my name on it and wondering what it cost per minute for me to sit there while I waited for the doctor. The med lab tech asked me some questions and gave me general advice on preventing UTIs that I’d heard a million times over. The doctor finally arrived, clipboard in hand.
“You have a very serious kidney infection,” he told me in an overly cheerful way that reminded me of Dr. Spaceman from 30 Rock.
“What should I do?” I asked. I explained my situation, including the fact that I was hiking the PCT and about to hit a huge waterless stretch. Visibly disapproving, Dr. Spaceman insisted I not continue hiking. He might as well have been talking to the wall.
I left the emergency room with a handful of prescriptions and a desperate hope that my insurance would cover the visit. I walked to the Kmart pharmacy where I picked up a bottle of Pedialite to supplement electrolytes for the massive amounts of water I was about to drink, as well as antibiotics, and tiny red pills for the burning pain
Rowan and I decided that we’d hike out from the trailhead we’d passed on the way to Vegas, eight trail miles north of where we’d dropped our friends off. I felt some guilt about skipping trail miles for the first time, but I knew that what I was doing was dangerous to my health, and any miles that I could shave off the waterless stretch would make it more likely that I could continue hiking.
We hugged Tent Fire good bye and thanked her and Evan, and hiked on. The trail paralleled the highway for a mile or so before heading up into the Joshua tree riddled desert hills. Around five miles in, we came over a ridge to find Cuban B, Kat and Costco taking a break by a clump of Joshua trees on the side of the trail. They were surprised and clearly happy to see us, and we quickly explained what had happened – my diagnosis, and the fact that we skipped the section between the highways.
Kat and Costco decided to hike on ahead while Cuban B and Rowan and I agreed to hike only another half-mile or so and set up camp for the night.
We found a great spot on the ridgeline with a view of the desert and highway expanse we’d driven to and from Las Vegas. From within our tents we chatted and played games with each other on our phones until our batteries drained. I felt at peace, finally back in my tent, and relieved and surprised that my friends hadn’t abandoned me to fend for myself when I wasn’t able to follow the group. I wasn’t alone, and I didn’t have to be anymore.