The PCT – Desert Sec – Days 43 – 58

Days 43 & 44: 24.9 miles

Hiker Town is an interesting place. Located right next to the trail, it functions as a way station before the long hot LA Aquaduct section. It’s amenities are water and shade which are no small things in this part. The facades make it look like an old timey western town and if you were to stay here you’d possibly sleep in such renowned places as the City Hall, the Flower Shop, or Circus Casino. I slept in the Casa De Villalobos. That’s all you’ll be doing in there too as each room is literally just a bed with no electricity or water. There are outdoor outlets at the main building and an outdoor shower. For 25 dollars I was able to shower and sleep in a clean flat bed. I washed my clothes in a washboard sink and utilized the intense sun for once to quickly dry them. The gas station market down the road will come pick you up and in fact had been making hourly shuttles. The Filipino family that runs it cooks a mean burger and I was able to supplement my snacks with Mexican candies. Martha, the caretaker, makes tamales at 1730 and you can have you fill of cheese, vegetable, or chicken.

Well technically I did all that yesterday. Today I was waiting around until around 1800 to leave and night hike the LA Aquaduct. The atmosphere during the day at this place is one of lazy somnolence. People who aren’t staying the night can lounge under the gazebo and large oak until ready to leave. I’ve heard it said from multiple sources that this place is “sketchy” and a “dirty shithole”. (Side note: what does a clean shithole look like?)

For a place that caters to hikers I’d say they’re doing pretty well and Martha is just the sweetest. I think people have high expectations for trail stops and yeah, Hiker Town might be a little dusty and run down, but it’s also not supposed to be a high end hotel either. I can see how if non desirable company were to show up it would be uncomfortable but I feel like Martha would be quick on that.

Anyways this isn’t an ad for Hiker Town, but it irked me that people were bad mouthing the place. I thought Bethany and Chris were up ahead in a hotel in Tehachapi sick with some sort of sinus infection (?) But it turns out they were actually in Palmdale and chose today to return to trail which meant getting on at Hiker Town. The band was back together! Well kind of. They were still feeling sick and stayed at a hotel for the past 3 days. They were concerned they might have Covid but their symptoms didn’t really line up with that, from what they told me. They said they were feeling better but to look at them you’d wonder what bad looks like.

My shoes showed up so I had some fresh foam under my feet for the tough section ahead. The LA Aquaduct was birthed in 1913 and diverts water from the Sierra to Los Angeles for irrigation and such. The walk along this area is very exposed, flat, and reported to be grueling in the daytime. At 1730 I started getting ready and the temperature began to cool. We headed out into the golden hour as one of the first of a herd of hikers to follow.

The aquaduct started out as an open air concrete river with ducks splashing around. A disappointedly short walk, as the water glowed blue and just screamed for a swim. The signs near it though warned of drowning and to stay out. We turned left towards the mountains and then began the longer pipe walk. This is the more famous part of the aquaduct as the riveted iron makes for a likable Instagram post. It is fun to walk on for about 5 minutes and then the pointed rivets begin to tear up your feet. There is a dirt road next to it that provides relief but also blocks the sunset out west. When the colors began to change in earnest as dusk fell, we got back up on the pipe to fully enjoy the show mother nature put on. The pink turned from a soft bubblegum to a vivid fuschia to an intense magenta. Cameras could never capture the experience of the human eye, even though I tried. It kept evolving and a jet flew through the cerise sky leaving behind rouged contrails. A cresent moon began to glow across the gradient of an ever dimming dome of coral to midnight blue.

The breeze kicked up and the trail turned east onto a dirt road with a concrete slab. The stars came out twinkling and the ambient light of the towns in the distance was enough to walk for awhile. About a mile into this B&C stopped with exhaustion and said they weren’t feeling well so they were going to turn back. I kept going on alone and by this time the herd of hikers had passed me by. It didn’t matter though, the calm of the night had settled and I actually felt energized and excited. I clicked on my headlamp and a podcast and cruised. I found out that I love night hiking.

The only thing that creeped me out was a large cross in the distance that was lit up like it was made of neon lights. Everytime I glanced over to the right it was large and in the same spot. As I went down the trail it seemed to follow me, as in it didn’t fall back. Five, ten miles down it was still in the same spot. Eventually I turned north off the easterly trail and started climbing and at the top when I turned around it was Still. In. The. Same. Spot. Logically I know it was something to do with light and perspective being distorted at night but it still freaked me out a little.

Around midnight I took a small break on a concrete slab and was surprised to realize I’d already walked 14 miles. I felt I could go on and did. Around 0200 I began to walk into a wind farm and realized I should probably stop for a longer break before the real wind started. I searched out among the brush next to the trail and found a flat spot that I cowboy camped on. I was lulled to sleep by the constant whirring of the wind turbines above me.

I was wakened at 0530 by some hikers passing by and felt I should get going as I would be in direct sunlight soon. As I entered the wind farm proper the blasts and gusts would literally suck the air out of me as they punched me in the lungs. The trail began to snake up and down through some small hills. Walking out of the farm I began a climb up into the blinding sunlight only to go back down into Tylerhorse Canyon. There were two very large shade trees down a ways and I promptly set up my sleeping system to wait out a large block of the day and nap. Apparently a lot of others had the same idea because I woke up there were four others around me.

I got going again by 1600 which began a long 7 mile climb up a large mountain with a million switchbacks. At each corner the horizon lengthened and I could see the miles I’d already traversed. The closer to the top the wind picked up with a force. I began to lose energy quickly but picked up my steps to camp. Finally made it to my planned stopping point around 2030 and laid out cowboy style again. This time the lights of Mojave twinkling out down the mountain were the last thing I saw before I fell asleep.

Trail marker at the shower
New shoes!

Day 46 – 48: 8.8 miles and two zeros

I woke up frequently through the night because the wind blasts would lift my sleeping quilt off of me and try to fling it down the mountain with me in it. Luckily it was strapped to my sleeping pad and wasn’t going anywhere but still it a was disconcerting way to be startled awake. I gave up trying to sleep around 0500 and just started to getting ready.

I could smell rain on the wind which was weird because well, desert duh. I got walking down the mountain and saw off in the distance a river of clouds above a range in the distance. This explained the moisture in the air. At my second breakfast break the wind picked up my foam pad and whisked around in the air for about two minutes. I was sure it was a goner but it landed a ways down the slope where I could grab it.

Going down around one mountain the entire side was blanketed with the soft lavender of Bird’s Eye Gilia interspersed with pops of yellow California Suncups, and scented with the floral Desert Lilac. The trail cut through the pleasing wildflowers with easy switchbacks. I slowed down to enjoy the view and the overall ambiance of a “Maria on the mountain” moment.

The goal today was to get to Willow Springs road where trail angels Ted and Cheryl would pick me up and take to their home in Tehachapi. The closer I got to the trailhead the faster my legs went. A quick couple of hours and I on my way into town with Ted. He regaled me with tales of hikers past and took me to their house where I got to do all the town things. The fact that they do this for hundreds of hikers each season just blows my mind. Cheryl even cooked us dinner and we ended the night watching Forest Gump.

My plan was to stay here and relax for two days after getting my Sierra resupply sorted out. There are a few places up ahead that benefit from mailing drop boxes. I didn’t want to make these boxes at home because I knew my tastes would change dramatically along the trail. Now I have two boxes packed up and ready to go which a load of stress off my back. Now I’m just going to relax and enjoy some days off trail.

Day 49: 11.6 miles

I’m going to stop telling people I’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail. It always ends up like this after I’ve said so:

Really you?

Yes.

YOU thru hiked the whole thing? *incredulous look*

Non-commital Hm-mmm (For brevity sake I’m not explaining the whole thing.)

Huh…well…*disbelieving look*…how does it compare to the PCT?

And then I inevitably offend whoever when I say I’m having difficulty with the trail at points where I’m not entirely impressed. They look at me all judgemental and sneer as they say Well the Appalachian Trail just isn’t my scene. And well…I’m tired of explaining that not everyone loves exposure or requires wide open vistas to walk.

I point this out because I had this very discussion this morning as I was about to leave Ted and Cheryl with some other hikers there. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth especially as you are getting back on trail. I put it out of my mind though and Ted dropped me off at the highway. This particular trailhead is where Cheryl Strayed began her PCT journey. I expect it has changed a bit since she did it though.

The trail parallels the highway with all its gaseous noises for about two miles and then snakes its way up 5 miles into the Tehachapi mountains. I felt like a slug trudging ever upwards, switchback after switchback. The punishing wind knocked me about the trail like a pinball and cut through my clothes with cold precision. I don’t know if it was the two days off or what, but my legs and lungs felt like they were on day one.

I found a wind break in a stand of pines and brush in which to have lunch. I didn’t sit for very long – not my normal siesta – in the cold wind. My hands went numb and bluish. For the first time all trip I pulled out my mittens. They still smelled of Downy and made me feel a little homesick.

I kept wondering when do I get better? When will this get easier? Putting one foot in front of the other just to get to camp. It occurred to me that a month ago I wouldn’t even be able to comprehend doing this bit. I found a windless grove of pine trees only 11.6 miles in that called my name. I sat in my tent and ate half the chips I packed out. Maybe hiker hunger is hitting.

Day 50: 14.8 miles

It was frigid this morning, but the wind stayed out of my grove. I could hear it howling on the other side of the mountain so I knew I’d be dealing with it soon enough. I layered up in all my clothing and set off.

The trail skirted some wind farms and the droning of the turbines kept me searching for the skies for jet planes that don’t exist. I found an area with cell service and looked up the weather which was ironically funny.

I made it to lunch with my puffy still on which I thought unlikely to happen in the desert. My extremities still felt a bit frosty so after I ate I laid out in the full on sun and warmed myself up like a Hot Pocket (blazingly hot on the outside, frozen in the middle).

The trail itself was mostly easy stuff, nothing much to note. I put on some podcasts to get to my next stopping point. I camped on a breezy hillside just before a reported difficult stretch that I’d be tackling in the morning.

Day 51: 16.2 miles

I woke up to find a little town of tents surrounding me. I quietly packed up and set off to begin what I thought would be a slog. I’m glad to say that reports were overblown. I started with a gentle climb into a lovely pine forest, the soft needles carpeting the trail. I suspect there was a storm that took out much of this small forest because there were quite a few blow downs, but they were easy to cross.

At the top of the climb it was cool, breezy, and wide open. To the east was a desert valley and north was more mountain forest. The slope was grassy and filled with wild oat grasses waving to and fro. The sun was high enough to be warm but not burning. Everything seemed high def with colors popping through faded desert sandstone.

The water source was conveniently timed for a lunch spot. The refreshing spring provided crisp and clear water to enjoy in the heat of the day. After lunch I almost got lost at a large downed tree near a sharp switchback. Thanks to GPS I quickly realized my mistake and got back on trail. I met an Australian hiker, Mick, who walked with me for awhile and didn’t seem to mind my slower pace. We returned to a forested area with the path shaded by the canopy. I remarked that if there was more water and red clay it would look like Georgia.

Camp was an established drive in campground. There was trail angel Chesire, who was handing out fresh fruit and the spring water was bitingly cold. What a treat and a great end to a beautiful day.

Day 52: 22 miles

The trail started out up in the pines with their sharp resinous scent permeating the air. About an hour in the trail started changing with more boulders and less trees. Eventually it descended into the desert proper and sand up to the eyeballs. By 1000 the sun was beating down on me with baseball bats and I searched in vain for shade.

At a road crossing a water cache provided much needed water but was not shaded so I kept going. By noon I was DONE. The trail was starting to climb up and the oven heat sucked all moisture from my face. I could feel a salt infrastructure being built on my cheeks and nose. Joshua trees started popping up and their crazy poses made me think they’d been frozen in a wild dance. I found one copse a bit off trail that had a substantial amount of shade! Bliss!

After a long siesta I got up and dusted myself off to find out I’d gotten a bunch a nettles stuck in my shorts and hands. Even though I managed to remove most of them there were still a few stuck here and there to add a bit more spice to my day.

The trail continued to climb up through a canyon with far off mountain ranges to look at but I more interested in moving from shady spot to shady spot. California jointfir bloomed in cheery yellows among the green/white Joshua Trees and added some colors to the sun bleached environment. There was one last big climb that I would have stopped before but the next water source, another cache, was on the other side.

The sand was like walking on the beach and the grade was positively Appalachian. One step and my foot would fall back, and another I’d stumble over. I imagine anyone watching me would think I was drunk. The heat radiated back up from the sand and the sun was at such an angle to sneak around my sun hood.

I finally made it the crest and turned to see the moon peaking over some wild looking boulders. A fluorescent yellow-green lichen made the surrounding landscape glow radioactive. The last few miles were a slow descent to Bird Spring Pass where some kind trail angels maintained a large water cache. If not for these, there would be no water source for 40 miles. I found a spot out of the wind and prepared to cowboy camp. The moon seemed put a spotlight on everything and I fell asleep thinking that an eyemask would be nice.

Day 53: 20.5 miles

I woke super early because there was a large climb ahead I wanted to do out of the sun. It was 3 miles up and some the easiest gentlest climbing ever. I flew up the mountain hardly out of breath. The sun, however, soon took care of all my good feelings.

The trail went back down the other side into a sparse forest with the heat baked into the soil. I took an early lunch to stretch out my feet and nap. Eventually I had to move again, even in the heat. Once again water sources were far apart and necessitated larger miles. I saw Mick the Australian and once again he walked behind me. I think it actually helped me keep a steadier pace (having someone walk behind me).

The sun started to wane and we let gravity do most of the work going to to Walker Pass. The hills were dotted with Desert Lupine filling the air with grape Kool Aid scent. I took an Ibuprofen and my feet seemed to float above the springy dirt. About a quarter of mile before the campground someone had written on the trail in the dirt BEER with an arrow. Which usually means trail magic of some sort (even if I wasn’t going to partake of the alcohol). The pace quickened and I practically flew to the end!

Sure enough a nice trail angel St. Patrick was handing out ice cream and icey cold beverages. I had a Limon Cello La Criox. If had any water in my face I would have cried in happiness. As it was, I profusely thanked Patrick who bemusedly chuckled and ducked away from the crazed salt crusted hiker who wanted to hug him. I found a spot on the hill to set up my tent and watched the sun set through the mesh.

Day 54: 0.8 miles (its still a Nearo, lol)

A quick walk over to Walker Pass and a trail angel named Pancakes picked me and a group up for a Town Day! She was letting us stay at her house and do all the human things like shower, laundry, and even cooked us food! I chose to stop here because I have a feeling it’ll be awhile before I experience such luxury once I enter the Sierra, which are coming up on 50 miles!

Day 55: 16.6 miles

Pancakes took me and Mick back to the Walker Pass after getting us some frozen drinks. I had a matcha which was pretty good. The climb out was reasonable for the first five miles or so. It circled the mountain with switchbacks and eventually we headed towards a eastern ridgeline where you could see the desert valley and Ridgecrest in the distance. The path got rocky and steep and points with sheer drop offs. The stark rock walls and cliffs kept me moving with no places to rest.

Mick walked behind me for a long while. I kept telling him he could go ahead, but he was fine to go slow for now. He’d been convinced to drop his heavy boots for some trail runners and wanted to take it easy his first few miles in new shoes. I found it interesting to have someone walking behind me. On the one hand it was triggering an intense feeling of unease, but once that abated, it also kept my pace steadier. I hadn’t realized how much I tend to stop.

We got to the next water, a barely flowing stream in a marshy crook of a mountain slope, around 1830. The sun was dimmer with the hills and trees blocking light. Mick decided he was going to continue on and night hike. His wonder at how light his feet felt was amusing. The crickets started up their chirping and I realized I hadn’t heard nighttime noises in a long time. I feel asleep to their soothing song.

One of Micks goals was to pick up a snake. I guess that’s a normal Australian thing?

Day 56: 20.3 miles

I started early to get up the huge climb without sun blasting me in the face. I was mostly successful. The last mile up I was in full sun, but the wind buffered the heat and I was actually chilled. Most of the late morning was going down into the hot desert hills. The next water source was either a mile off trail or two miles up a hill. I was lamenting this with a passing hiker. We decided it was best to stay on trail and do the climb.

To my surprise at the bottom of the descent on a dirt road a trail angel named Kim’s Dad had ICE COLD sodas and water! And it was lunch time. And there was shade. Things were coming up Compass. I parked it under a tree with my cold treat for a midday break.

After my nap I got going up another hill. This time in the heat of the afternoon which made it feel like I was walking in molasses and carrying a 50 lb dumbell. By the time I made it up to the spring I’d drunk about a liter already. The incline evened out after 1000 ft of elevation climb and kept to ridgelines with epic views. I wound down the day in a burn area where everything seemed super saturated. I found an old sandy creek bed to put up my tent. The moon rose as I ate my couscous and everything was eerily quiet.

Day 57: 12.5 miles

Today was technically my last day in the desert! It started with a gentle descent into a green valley with the Sierra rising intimidatingly in the distance. I zoomed along the roller coaster of sandy hills and boulders in anticipation of getting to Kennedy Meadows. A bunch of small orange butterflies fluttered in the warm air over the dandelions. I took a break under a sappy pine that had a bed of needles to rest on.

The trail got to the Kern River which was a beautiful site. A large body of clear cold moving water just beckoned for another break. Even though I was eager to reach the General Store the first occurrence of real water required that I put my feet in it. So that’s what I did for an hour and a half. Another hiker stopped by and we had a nice conversation about the AT. She did it the same year I did and I’m surprised we didn’t meet then.

It was getting hotter so it meant either I hole up at this river or get going. The siren call of cold drinks and hot food were too much to ignore. I set off and slowly made my way up a large climb around the river. Up there I saw a beaver dam in the distance and got the Angry Beavers song stuck in my head.

Eventually the trail turned away from the river and shade into some harsh desert terrain. There was one last mile to the road and it was hard. I was zombie walking but I got there and began the half mile to the Kenneday Meadows General Store. Somehow that was even harder. Once in view of the store the crowd in front started cheering (which I had forgotten happens) and I thought they were doing that for someone else they knew and turned around to see. Like doofus I remembered they do that for everyone that shows up.

So now I’m done with the desert, just over 700 miles. I still find it wild that I’m here doing this, that I even get to do this. This disconnect between reality and my feelings has been a challenge and I can slowly feel myself being more present. I suppose that is also why I’ve found it so hard to “make new friends” (what is this, grade school?) All I can really do is put one foot in front of the other and let things work out as they will. It’s the first thing you learn when thru hiking: show up and keep walking and the scenery will always change.

I’m pointing at the Sierra.

Day 58: 0 miles

I’m getting ready for the Sierra Nevada and reorganizing my pack. A bear cannister is now required and I’ll be bringing microspikes as well. Reports of the trail ahead indicate that much of the trail snow is gone. Most people don’t even start the Sierra until early June because of the snow but this year has had the lowest snow pack ever. It sucks for California and their water supply.

I sat on the porch outside the General Store trying to be social, but everyone was drinking and getting loud. Among 50 or so hikers on the deck, I know only a few. Most of them have their own groups with their own language by now. I ingratiated myself with one group I’ve been bouncing around just so I’d have a place to sit. I typed on my phone as everyone around me got louder and more rowdy. Eventually I decided to retire to my tent (free camping at the store) and watch some cat videos on YouTube.

This isn’t how I thought it’d go, not idea of the adventure I was going to have. I’m only beginning to realize how much I used alcohol as a crutch in social situations and without it, I’m in uncharted waters. As much as people want to decry it, the social aspect of thru hiking is a huge component of the experience. Its not all just views and walking. Or at least that’s what I expected.

I lay there watching my feline therapy and thought about how I could reset my hike with the Sierra. I decided to lay down the baggage I’ve been carrying (literally as well). Everything I was expecting before this trail, all my nagging Harpy thoughts, and the debilitating worry of “shoulds” I was going to leave at Kennedy Meadows. Entering the Sierra is a serious business. It’s one of the most dangerous and remote sections of trail. I don’t want any unnecessary weight holding me back.

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