Excuse me, sir. Would You Like a Rat with your Drink?

 

 

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The weird thing is the cream Rolls Royce. After a long meander through otherwise bare golden-grass hills, the PCT dumps you on the fringe of the Mojave Desert, where beauty immediately fades. But wait. Past the fenced lot of broken electronics, past the rusting cars, past the dilapidated warehouse of what looks to be abandoned movie props, across the highway of on-rushing traffic, through a picket-fence gate — and a surprise awaits: Hikertown.

Could it be a mirage? A hallucination brought on by the first full blast of desert — 95 degrees in the shade, even in the growing cool of late afternoon?

A Wild West cowboy town rises out of the dust and sand and tumble weed, straight from Hollywood. There’s a Jail, storing old appliances. A Gun Shop, a School, a Post Office full of hiker boxes. The Hikertown Church opens into a dusty chicken coop, next door to the Saloon and a house of ill-repute known as The Cat House, with topless manikins in the window and a sign: “Meow is spoken here.”

The Hotel doubles as bedrooms, as do the Doctor’s Office and a bunch of other small buildings framing a tree-shaded town square of tables and chairs where hikers to hang out, the Rolls parked ostentatiously in front. Mattresses line the floors; there are sleep sofas on ranch-style porches. A scattering of trailers, pick-up trucks, rusted-out cars, shipping containers packed with broken electronics, dune buggies, golf carts, old boats, hoists and ancient tractors with flat tires completes the sort of lost-in-time Blade Runner effect, all slowly disintegrating in the scorching desert sun.

But, I get ahead of myself. The day begins in sublime reality, not theater-prop make-believe.

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From Sawmill campground, the trail is nothing less than a dream. It spends the better part of a day winding through deep, beautiful groves of oak and enormous pines. Birds sing, doves coo, owls hoot in the slanting early morning light.

The track is soft and fast under the spreading trees, so different from yesterday. Occasionally it emerges from the leafy glades onto another of those sun-baked brown hillsides. But unlike yesterday, where shade was rare, the PCT today offers long and almost uninterrupted runs under the cool cover of the trees, broken most notably by one long, sharp two-mile uphill beginning at the unofficial 500-mile marker and ending just before the Red Rock water tank, where no one of right mind would drink. And even along these stretches, the trail is lined with a flowering bush a lot like lilac and just as fragrant — blue, white and lavender-pink.

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At times the oak groves are less forest than shaded meadows, the grass growing long and green, so in contrast to the desert far below. I stop for a morning break in one such grassy spot beneath a massive oak, gazing into the blue distance across the Mojave toward the mountains beyond. A cheery shout echoes from the trail as Two Fly passes by: “Hey, Pause!”

On and on it goes, to the point where you grow reluctant to take another step, the sort of day you wish would never end. Small wonder so many consider this to be one of the most gently beautiful stretches of the southern PCT.

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Water is scarce. I carry three liters from Sawmill campground — enough for the next 21 miles to Highway 138 and Hikertown. But I have my eye out for the “guzzlers.” Reading about them, I imagined pristine repositories of cold, clear, fresh, drinkable rainwater. The reality was rather different. Coming to one, I found a hiker lying prone amid swarms of bees, trying to scoop water out of a muddy cistern with a plastic bottle tied to a stick. It broke.

At another, a hiker I’ve been walking with jumps up as I approach, throws a bandana over his arm like a waiter’s napkin and asks, with mock formality: “Good afternoon, sir. Would you like a dead rat with your drink today?” It seems that decaying lizards and other former animal life were not good enough for this particular guzzler. Only a rotting rodent would do. Or something.

All these wonders cease three miles from Pine Canyon Road, when the trail drops a few thousand feet into the Mojave. Suddenly, the green glades are gone. Hot vanquishes cool, dust displaces fragrant breezes.

Once again, Rodeo is there, positioned perfectly. One woman has been fantasizing all the way down the mountain of hitching the last six sweltering miles of saw-tooth ups and downs. Another arrives, out of water and almost reeling along the road where he hoped to find an elusive pond. “Never, ever,” he says, “have I so needed some trail magic.” Rodeo gives them both a lift to Hikertown, as well as water and a Coca Cola float.

We have the “honeymoon suite,” so named because it has a king-sized bed and its own bathroom. It costs $20 a night, or $10 a head, and takes up a whole wing of the Hotel. There’s also a porch with a mismatched set of torn and broken chairs. It’s charming.

All day, hikers come and go. Some stay the night, others sleep away the afternoon before starting off again in the evening when the temperatures drop. There’s a patio for grilling burgers. Buckets to wash clothes. Showers. Trucks roar by on the adjacent highway. A blustery wind blows across the flat valley floor, churning the wind turbines in the distance.

By 7:30, the heat of the day is gone and hikers are moving out with a view toward crossing 17 miles of desert by dawn. It’s a full moon tonight. They won’t even need to flick on their headlamps. I am asleep by 8, after shooing away a cat who wants to sleep on my head.

May 29

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