Facts versus feelings, science versus psychology.
Ask a PCT thru-hiker where the desert ends and the mountains begin, and the answer will be unequivocal: Kennedy Meadows, gateway to the Sierras. That’s where alpine peaks, glacial streams and pine forests supplant sand, sun and cacti.
Scientists, however, will tell you differently. Geologically, the Sierras begin at Tehachapi Pass, bisected by Highway 58. To the south is the Mojave; to the north, the foothills of the Sierras. We hikers may find they look a lot like what we’ve been walking through for the past 500 miles. But in fact, Tehachapi marks a new beginning, a climactic and geological fresh chapter. Which is great. Because, psychologically, I am done with desert. So is everyone else.
The hike from Cottonwood Creek to the Tehachapi – Willow Springs road is 23 miles. I start a bit after 6 am. In the soft sand beneath Cottonwood Creek bridge, hikers are rousing themselves from tents and sleeping bags, preparing to start the day. As predicted, a weather front has rolled through. Temperatures overnight were in the 40s. They will not rise much above 70, according to forecast. This could not be more welcome.
Like many, I’ve been anxious about this last stretch of desert, almost to the point of not wanting to do it. The heat is one reason, the long carries between water sources another. But none of this is new. There have been hotter days, including the very first from Campo. So why the uncharacteristic jitters?
Maybe I sense it’s the end of something. We are all so eager to have the desert behind us. And yet, it has been wonderful — surprising in its austere beauty, even more in its diversity, from featureless scrub to high alpine meadows and those beautiful oak glades in-between.
There’s also fear of the new. The Sierras are still bound by snow; stream crossings can be dangerous in the spring melt. Trail angel Mary, driving me from the train from LAX to Hiker Heaven just a few days ago, warned me against venturing in too soon. Within the past ten days, she said, there was as much four feet of fresh snow around Mt Whitney.
Last year at this time, she gave rides to a pair of Asian girls, Tree and Buttercup, one Chinese, the other Korean. Both died in stream crossings. “I had a terrible premonition about them,” she told me on the road to Agua Dulce. “They were so small, not even five feet tall.” And they seemed over-confident. “Don’t go alone. Don’t cross those rivers without other hikers,” she told them. As it happened, neither listened. “We’ll be ok,” each said. The Korean girl hadn’t told her family she was hiking the PCT. They learned when informed of her death.
Perhaps this is my age speaking. And I am a father of four. In a long career as a correspondent, I have seen wonderful and terrible things — wars, revolutions, the strength and triumphs of ordinary people in the face of danger or adversity, but also their weakness, their capacity for bestiality or mere foolishness. By nature, we behave as though all will be well, however difficult whatever it is we might undertake. But with years, we also learn how badly things can go wrong, often beginning with the smallest things. Like underestimating the force of a small river, perhaps only ten feet wide and three deep.
Whatever my doubts, they vanish on the trail. A brisk winds blows; hikers are bundled against the chill in fleeces and rain jackets. The land is completely featureless — grass and sparse sage — save for the ubiquitous wind turbines, ghostly in the dawn light. They tower above us, in endless rows, emitting a weird whirring noise, their spikey blades miming the even weirder Joshua trees doing their Joshua tree thing. The mountains to the south are cloaked in cloud.
After a steep 3500-foot climb, six miles along, the trail plunges into Tylerhorse Canyon. Three guys who left Hikertown last night are gathering water from the trickling stream and smoking weed. I quickly camel a liter and refill my bottle. “Man, one guy last night was doing acid,” one says. Another: “At midnight, I just sucked down a beer and kept going.” An older guy with a white beard, soft-spoken Bill, listens off to the side as the other three cough roughly after their hit. One hiked 42 miles yesterday and looks wasted.
That turns out to be the pattern. Up one canyon, down another, repeat. All this through the brown, brown hills of southern California where the tallest bush is scarcely knee-high. And yet: even at mid-morning, the day remains cool. The wind blows atop the ridges. With the Mojave and its wind farms stretching far below, it is like walking on top of the world. I gulp huge breaths of air, drinking it in like water.
At 10 am, about ten miles in, I take a break at the bottom of Gamble Spring Canyon. It’s faintly disheartening to walk down the long switch-backs in full view of another set rising 1500 feet on the other side. At the summit ridge of Burns Mountain, there’s an improbable water cache with eight or ten chairs clustered under a red parasol. It even has a name: the “549” Bar & Grill — Fine Dining with a View.” House specials: Lizard Chips, Jack Rabbit Stew, Rattle Snake and Eggs.
Brandon, Penguin Pants, Ranger and Missing Person are there, along with a few others. The talk is of Odysseus, the sacred weight of hospitality in the ancient world and its echo on the PCT. As the Greek mythic hero was blown around the Aegean, he was taken in by various tribes of the Greek islands, like the Lotus Eaters, after their fashion – much as we are by trail angels. “Contrast that to Cyclops, who ate his guests,” says Yoseki. “And look what happened to him.”
Yoseki is one of the few who trail-named himself, a composite of his three favorite places in the world – Yosemiti, Sequoia and King’s Canyon national parks, all just a skip up the trail at this point. Thinking of my own imminent departure, I mention how hard it is to leave the trail, even briefly, and how I (at least) display symptoms of withdrawal, as if from a drug. “We live in Valhalla, everyday day,” Yoseki replies, still in his mythic meme. “It’s a hard place to come down from.” That’s why he recently retired from his legal practice, he adds. “So I can do stuff like this.”
The trail drops down to Willow Springs Road along pine-speckled ridges and field after field of wind turbines in their thousands. The reason they are here by now is obvious: this is one of the most consistently breezy places on earth. At times, the wind is strong enough to knock you sideways on the trail – bam, Bam, BAM! But it’s exhilarating, as well, and I keep gulping in the fresh gusts like someone who has just emerged from a vast desert into a land of cool and refreshing lakes.
It’s another of those very special days, perhaps uniquely common on the PCT, where all feels well in the world, and that deep within the gods are with you.
Where the trail dumps you at the highway, there’s magic. Rodeo happily offers up sandwiches, apples and ice-cold lemonade; the legendary Coppertone, an angel who parks his camper at trailheads up and down the PCT for as long as a week at a time, dishes out his trademark Root Beer floats. Neither expects anything in return. For the Wandering Wayfarers that R Us, it is the embodiment of that caring-sharing PCT ethos — and the antidote to fear.