American Amazon

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Power-hiking. Usually, we think of men putting in those mind-boggling 30 to 40-mile days. But surprise. Judging from what I’ve seen on the trail the past few days, it’s women all the way.

Leaving camp at Velma Lake, at mile 1110, the PCT runs soft and fast, more like flat, forested Oregon than the up-and-down Sierras. It’s a landscape of deep pine forest, ferns and marshes and meadows exploding with blue and yellow flowers. To the west, the granite-faced ridges of Desolation Wilderness taper off and lose their snow, becoming more hills than mountains. “A moving sidewalk,” I say to myself. “I’m really gonna book it!”

Just then, a pair of younger hikers blast past in a clatter of hiking poles. Both women. As they pass with a cheery “Good morning,” one catches a root and falls in what she laughingly calls a “face-plant” — her second on the trail, she tells me, bouncing up.

Actually, though, it isn’t. Instead of pitching face-first, she twists in mid-air and lands safely on her pack. We dub this remarkable feat of trail acrobatics the PCT half-twist. It should be an Olympic sport, like the diving competition, we joke. And with that they’re off again, aiming to put in 30+ miles before the day is done.

Richardson Lake, another of of those sparkling blue alpine redoubts, makes a great place for a break. I’m sitting on a weathered log, dangling my feet in the water and admiring the view, when there’s a commotion in the bushes and a stripped-down Amazon splashes into the water, free-styles like a Mississippi paddle-wheeler out to the middle of the lake, disappears in a deep under-water dive, then re-emerges in a white-water-churning swim back to shore. “Hi,” she says, squirming back into her hiking togs, donning her pack and heading down the trail, all this in a very few minutes. Where do they even make these people, I ask myself?

Struggling up a rather gentle ascent to Barker Pass, 15 miles into the day, I wonder whether to camp for the night or go on. My maps show a long, steep climb to a crest high above the tree line. It will be beautiful, I know, but because of the steep slopes to either side there will be no camping for another ten miles. And it’s hot. Hothothot. And I’m tired. So tiredtiredtired.

And again, just at this moment as earlier in the day, a trio of young women — in dresses, no less — blow by me. When I catch up at Barker Pass, they’ve got their lunches laid out on a picnic table and are busily planning the rest of the day. Their strategies are similar but tactics differ.

MacGyver, in a sort of calico dress, says the goal is to get within striking distance for an early morning arrival at Donner Pass, where family will pick her up for a zero in Reno. Already today they’ve come over Dick’s Pass, about 20 miles back. “That means,” I say, “that you’ll do another 15 or 20 this afternoon?” Yup, she nods, scarcely giving it a thought. Seeing that it’s 3 pm in the afternoon, I think, that’s scary impressive.

I do a bit of silent mental mansplaining. Should they really be sitting around this picnic table, chatting with the likes of me? They should set off right now, if they’re going to put in that kind of distance. I mean, like this red hot second!

Another of the trio, the one in a black dress, shakes her head at this. Her trail name, Stuck to the Ground, reveals her intentions. “I like to nap,” she explains, and that shady spot under the pines looks just too inviting. She’ll catch up with her friends after a snooze.

And so off I go, both inspired and daunted, slogging up from Barker Pass to the ridgeline at 8300 feet, through forests of giant pines, Lake Tahoe resplendent to the east, over a snow drift at the summit and along a treeless crest that contours the steep mountain hillsides for mile after glorious mile, the land falling away forever on either side, range upon range of mountains fading into the blue distance. In the slanting late afternoon sun, it is one of the most beautiful places have ever been.

Ten miles on, the trail at last drops to Five Lakes campground. I wearily shed my pack and hurriedly put up my tent before the mosquitoes eat me alive. The Pad Thai dehydrated meal I’ve been rehyrating in my peanut butter “cooking” jar has not, well, hydrated. But then, after 26 miles today, I am too tired to eat.

I think of the Amazons, as I’ve dubbed them, still speeding along. My 31-year-old son’s birthday is coming up in a few days, and I find myself wishing I could wrap one of them up and send her off as a possible future daughter-in-law.

Trust me. I know how weird this sounds, and maybe it’s a measure of my deep fatigue. But wow, talk about women power. Made in America.

June 30

Rock Face

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Desolation Wilderness, so aptly named. Mountains of broken rocks. Towering ranges of granite faces, topped by heavy snow. It is the very definition of barren. For the longest stretches, almost nothing grows. Yet it is uniquely impressive, like no other section of the Pacific Crest Trail, north or south

I begin the day at Echo Lake, a small resort community at mile 1092, by stocking up at the local grocery. Fishing boats bob at the docks. A boat taxi ferries folks to cottages up and down the shore. The PCT follows a ridge overlooking the water to the east, winding among pines and massive granite boulders. With the morning sun glinting on the crystal lake, it is a gorgeous scene.

As the trail gains elevation, the trees thin out, then largely disappear. The gray granite vistas are starkly beautiful, in their way, but unrelenting. Sometimes the trail is no more than a faint dirty streak across featureless slabs of rock. Other times it is an ankle-twisting, foot-bruising gauntlet of sharp, sun-split stones.

For good reason, the area is popular with day-hikers. Many carry picnics and fishing poles for trout in the high-altitude lakes. They glisten like pearls beneath towering cliffs, streams splashing down from the melting snow. From time to time, huge boulders come tumbling down as well, decapitating hikers or smashing limbs. I watch, aghast, as one lands splat on a little girl’s pet dog. Game over, Toto. So sad.

Actually, I’m making this up. You can only wander in the heat through these rocks for so long before going a bit crazy. Striking as Desolation Wilderness may be, at the end of the day I’m just not a stone-lovin’ kind of guy, I guess.

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All this changes as the trail rises toward Dick’s Pass, at mile 1105, the last of the High Sierra’s major ascents. At the summit ridge, I clamber over a stubborn berm of snow. It’s surprising how much remains in the forested upper reaches of the north face. You slip, slide, fall, posthole — but without risk.

A few miles from Dick’s Pass, I stop for the night at Middle Velma Lake and bushwhack to a camp site on a rocky promontory of, naturally, smooth granite. The setting sun lights up the hills to the east, again mostly granite. But it’s nice even so.

June 29

Call me by my name

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Los Angles. Nairobi. Geneva. London. Boston. San Francisco. Reno. South Lake Tahoe.

I think of them as stations on the cross: duty calls after leaving the PCT at the beginning of June, and now back again, with stops in-between. Some 17,000 miles, five days of traveling, three continents, all to set foot once again on this 18-inch path of sand, dust and rock winding its way from Mexico to Canada.

The Mellow Meadows hostel in South Lake Tahoe is, well, mellow. A private room for $60; a bunk in a shared room for a fraction of that — appealing in this pricey resort town of casinos and strip malls where the Reno airport shuttle drops me off.

Out front in a circle of chairs, a female hiker announces that she’ll soon turn 21. Another practices balancing on a zip line between two trees. In the common room, a set of somewhat older hikers cook dinner and watch a video of a trail runner named Karl setting a world record for the fastest “supported” hike of the Appalachian Trail. That’s when an essentially professional athlete recruits a support team of feeders and tenders and dashes off into the woods to do something as fast as possible that, by rights, should be done slowly.

A dozen of us watch him moan and groan, lance blisters, trip on rocks and repeatedly fall on his face, suffer from angst and self-doubt and the existential pain and agony of striving to “do it ” — that is, “conquer the AT.” That’s the language, and of course he does, along the way passing (without a glance) all the impressive sights of the Appalachian Trail, which the veterans in our group happily point out from personal experience. As in: “I remember that bridge.” Or: “Yeah, that ledge is the most photographed spot on the whole Appalachian Trail!” And: “The AT makes the PCT look easy!”

That last is true enough, but the whole spectacle strikes me as neurotic, this lunatic near-killing himself turning something that should be a personal adventure, an encounter with oneself, into some extreme faux-sport.

Picking up the trail once again at Carson Pass this morning after nearly a month away, in all its sheer beauty, reminds me that the PCT is not about miles, or “making it” to Canada. It’s what John Muir famously called a “saunter” through the best our Earth has to offer. It’s about the pause. The moment. A freedom that few people ever get to experience.

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So I forget about logging a 25-mile day, the better to position myself tomorrow for one of the Sierras’ last formidable climbs over Dick’s Pass. Instead, I amble along, taking the time to drink everything in, as befits my trail name, Pause. The snow on the high ridges. The soft path winding through sunny meadows in the valley. Flowers everywhere. The rippling Truckee trout stream catching the light as it crosses and re-crosses the trail. It is a fresh, warm, perfect spring morning in the mountains.

Later, the trail becomes a tangle of boulder fields, more like the dread AT than PCT. But even then there are cliff-top glimpses of Lake Tahoe in the distance. Woodpeckers sound amid the pines. There’s running water everywhere. The slopes burst with spring grass.

I call it a day at Berkeley Camp near Echo Lake, a modest 14 miles from where I began, and settle into a deck chair on a bluff overlooking Lake Tahoe, as deep blue as the purest Mediterranean.

“Gag me with a spoon,” you might think, as I likely would, reading such seemingly sentimental drivel from afar. But from where I sit just now, on this bluff, it is a real and precious slice of life.

June 28

Fear

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

May 31

The Wee Ville Plot

The Wee Ville Plot

 

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The alarm goes off at 4:30 am. Dawn breaks faintly to the east. I really should be going. But no. I just do not want to do this: get up and start hiking the Aqueduct, notorious for its flat, dull, hot, dusty, monotonous path across the corner of the Mojave northeast of Hikertown.

By contrast, this bed is so warm and comfy. My wife Rodeo and I have the honeymoon suite. And a porch of tattered comfy chairs and sofas. And our own shower and bathroom. Give this up? Besides, I’m tired from yesterday’s 21-mile trek from Sawmill campground to Hikertown. My legs hurt. It’s cold out.

What do I do? I discipline myself and make the hardened hiker’s responsible choice. I go back to bed. Today’s forecast is for heat, I tell myself. Tomorrow, a cold front rolls through. Hike the hard part in cool 60s and 70s, says the rational part of my brain. I nod in agreement with my Id’s reasoning — and wake up four hours later. It’s Zero Day at Hikertown!

Behind the counter at the Neenach Café, a couple miles down highway 138, Joanne is dancing to a Pandora track of 70s and 80s hits. At a neighboring table, Mission is robot dancing at his table, bemused dad looking on. Mission got his name for his determination to hike the entire PCT in 100 days. On the wall is a world map, with pins marking hikers’ home ports of call. Nothing for Africa, except a couple for South Africa and one for Zimbabwe. I push in mine: Nairobi Mike.

“All these hikers, rushing through. They look just exhausted,” says Joanne, noting my lingering over coffee. She brings a free vanilla-iced espresso. “I wish you a happy and safe journey,” she adds with a kind smile. Along the trail, and life.

Just then that country classic plays, “You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes.” Ridiculous as it sounds, I am suddenly overcome with emotion. Life is so sweet, even the most mundane music. We rush through it, on the PCT making time and mileage. Maybe I’m simply tired. Maybe it’s that 4:30 alarm and my abrupt decision to take a zero. But I realize how important it is to pause, to take notice, watch life, slowly. To live up to my trail name.

Back at the ranch, a mini-drama plays out. Seems there’s a rival hiker hang a few miles down the road called Wee Ville. (This is right out of Dr Seuss, but I kid you not.) It also seems that the Wee Villians have taken umbrage at Hikertown’s profile on the PCT and want a cut of the action. So they allegedly started spreading mischievous rumors: how Hikertown’s owner, Richard Skaggs, so zealously guards his domain that he tosses out hikers who patronize the Wee Ville store and restaurant rather than his own Neenach Café. He’s further reported, according to the often dubious hiker network, to possibly use less detergent when washing his place’s bed sheets than the Wee Villians. And also that his place’s breakfast tacos aren’t as delicious as those of the Wee Villians. It’s war, declares the Wee Ville chief, who stocks an award-winning $42 bottle of white wine made by his daughter-in-law, I believe, that nobody buys. Another Hikertown plot hatched in the mind of the diabolical Richard?

As it happens, the purported villain in this tale has just loaded half a dozen hikers into his Rolls and driven them to Wee Ville for dinner. As none of them likely bought that $42 bottle of wine, alas, the Wee Ville sense of conspiracy against them goes on unabated. But really, who knows the truth about such things?

Richard himself finds it all quite funny. A retired Disney executive, he bought his Hikertown spread as a sort of desert getaway without ever having heard of the PCT. Soon after the deal closed, he and his wife (also a major Disney exec) awoke one morning to find their yard filled with sleeping hikers. “I thought they were hobos,” he says. So he did the obvious Disney thing. He went out and offered them money to leave. “They wouldn’t take it,” he said. It seems they looked like hobos. They smelled like hobos. But they weren’t hobos. “They were hikers on the PCT!”

Richard still marvels as this wonderful discovery. In true trail angel tradition, the Skaggs got into it. His wife gussied up the various farm buildings around the place, re-creating them in the Wild West motif we see today. As the trail’s popularity grew and the numbers of hikers passing through increased, Richard turned Hikertown into a bona fide operation, taking on a manager named Bob, who’s been there more than a dozen years, and installing all the things hobo hikers need – beds, showers, water, soap. Hikertown was born.

He does all this for modest donations that do not come close to covering his costs. But so what? He’s loaded. Besides, he likes the company, the camaraderie and diversity of all the folks from around the world. He also likes giving the younger female hikers a spin in his souped-up, Blade runner dune buggies. But that’s another story. Along the way, he finds time for some high-profile good works. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines some years ago, he marshaled food, fresh water, medicines, blankets and the like from around the county, chartered a plane and flew it all to those in need, personally directing his own humanitarian relief operation.

In other words, he did what he does for thousands of hikers at Hikertown every year: jump to it for those in need, however modest.

I survey this Hikertown scene, replaying itself each day, from the vantage point of my little porch in the early evening, glass of wine in hand, and think about the next 17-mile stretch of trail – essentially a dirt road-walk along the Los Angeles Aqueduct, sometimes open, sometimes running through a huge pipe, but mostly buried in a concrete tunnel. It is notoriously hot and long. Hence the number of hikers opting to do it at night.

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I have a day left before flying back to Nairobi for work, just once more before committing myself in earnest to a long march on the trail. How to spend it – on the flats of the Mojave along the aqueduct, or in the hills rising from Cottonwood Creek at mile 435 and on to Tehachapi, 23 miles away?

For me, it’s a no-brainer.

May 30

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

So F**king Done!

 

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Give and take, take and give. That’s the Pacific Crest Trail. One day you will ask yourself, “What the hell am I doing here?” The next you exclaim, “It doesn’t get better than this!”

Today, however, is mostly “take.” Departing from the San Francisquito highway, in Green Valley, the trail gains a quick thousand feet in little more than two miles. Reward: a first glimpse of the Mojave Desert, the sweltering boilerplate we are to cross the day after tomorrow.

To beat the heat, a small pod of us left Casa de Luna at dawn. We heard that this section would be no picnic. Temperatures by mid-morning would nudge into the 90s, and higher later. From the topmost ridge, we pause to admire the view – and angst about the coming desert passage, so vividly demanding – then plunge into a cool green oak grove. “Nice,” I say to myself. “Maybe this won’t be so bad.”

But the shady grove soon gives way to the day’s leitmotif: interminable contours along sun-beaten hills of brown scrub. The only break from the hot monotony is an abundance of blooming wild flowers. “Flowers, nice flowers,” I repeat to myself, almost robotically as the heat builds through the morning. “Think flowers, not heat.” Flowersflowersflowers.

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The trail drops sharply to the Lake Hughes road, its melting tarmac sticky underfoot. On the other side, it rises even more sharply – unusually so for the generally gently ascending PCT. The south-facing slopes offer no protection from the beating sun. At one point, I crawl into the maw of an abandoned mine shaft, to escape even for a bit.

I fall in with Brandon, an Australian, and a blond Viking named Karsten, who painted a boulder in the likes of Puff the Magic Dragon last night at Casa de Luna. By the side of the trail we come across a small spring trickling from the rocks. We drink straight without filtering, joking about giardia but too hot to wait. An hour later, a herd of 30 to 40 hikers would queue up for more than an hour to laboriously fill their water bottles.

The steep climb that began the morning lasted less than an hour. So what is this?  The trail shows no sign of easing up. On and on it goes as the morning turns to early afternoon and the heat builds inexorably. Up up up. Hot, hot hotter. As an hour turns into two, then three, I grow irritable. When the f**k will this ever stop!?!

With the temperatures approaching the mid-90s, I’m weaving on the trail, despite drinking a liter at the spring and carrying three more. No shade, no rocks, no trees, no bushes higher than my waist. Atop a distant ridge I see a grove of tall pines, but of course the trail gives it a wide berth in favor of yet another sun-blasted and seemingly endless series of ever-rising switchbacks. As if in mockery,  the trail parallels the Mojave, flat and shimmering in an endless blue distance, reminding us what real heat will be like.

Nearly four hours after the Lake Hughes crossing, around 5000 feet in elevation, this particular slog ends as the trail enters a sparse stand of trees amid sand dunes that gradually thickens into a forest of oak and pine.

Salvation! One of those high-altitude alpine Edens, cool and delicious. Trouble is, we are all too whupped to enjoy it. Between the heat and the unremitting elevation, many of us are half off our feet by the time we reach Sawmill campground, 20 miles in.

But if the PCT beat us down, the day ends with a last, saving grace. Where the trail dumps into the gravel parking lot, there’s Rodeo. Cold apples, sandwiches, impossibly delicious iced lemonade. Half a dozen hikers gather for glass after glass after thirsty glass: Whistler, Karsten the German, Brandon the Aussie, Pot Hole and a few others. Seldom has trail magic been so welcome.

We sit in a sort of shell-shocked silence for a spell, savoring this improbable miracle high in the mountains whose only access is a rugged dirt track. Whistler, I notice, looks especially deep in thought.

“Dude, penny for your thoughts,” I say.

“I’m thinking,” he replies. Long pause. “I’m thinking that, all in all, I am done with the desert. So f**king done.”

Aren’t we all, I agree with a nod. Aren’t we all.

May 28