My alarm blares in my sleeping bag at 5 and I dive down to find my phone and turn it off. We get out of camp while the sun is still right on the horizon and there’s still the remnants of sunrise. My right knee feels all wobbly when I walk like it’s going to give out, my calf and muscles on the top of my knee are tight. I stop to stretch my quads a couple of times per Karma’s suggestions and as my muscles warm up I feel better (she is a massage therapist and knows all of the muscle things).
They quickly lose me on the switchbacks and soon I’m down on the valley floor walking along Fobes Saddle Road, a little stream running beside it. The alternate route is well-established and marked with official reroute signs. The road is wide and I follow the scuffed foot marks of the other hikers. I put my sunglasses on to fend off the miserable early morning rays. I cry for the first time while hiking. It’s hard to be the slower person in the group, the person who only sees everyone else at breaks and camp- I feel lonely, am I actually their friend or am I just a random person who’s attached themselves to the group? I run through all of my insecurities, in a low mood. Finally I stop to blow my nose and wipe my face dry with my dirt-stained hands and feel better.
I follow the road for maybe another hour, Highway 74 coming into view below. I see two dayhikers with their dogs below me as the road is going down an incline, and try to walk faster than my slow mope so I can maybe meet their dogs. As I get closer to the road I see even more people stopping to let their dogs run around, probably people from LA taking road trips. I catch up to the two “day hikers” as they’re getting into their car. They ask when I started and offer me a ride into Idyllwild. I say no, but thank you, continuous miles and all that, but secretly I want to ask them if I can pet their dog.
I cross the highway and let myself through a gate. As I’m following a small use-trail that connects to a forest service road, a red fox walks across the path ahead of me and runs off. I hurry down the trail for a while in hopes of catching another glimpse of it, but it has disappeared.
I hurry down the road walk, under power lines that give off an oily creosote smell. I want to catch Karma and Nirvana at the Hemet Market. I get to a barb-wire fence that I’ll have to cross to get to where the alternate joins the highway for a couple miles. I look up and see them starting the road walk. There’s a sign asking people to close a gate behind them, but there’s no gate, so I swing my pack over the fence and carefully step over the crotch-height barbed wire.
Then I’m off, trying to walk as fast as I can on lumpy soft grass off of the highway shoulder, shaving off inches so I can catch up. Karma and Nirvana turn around, see me, and wave, then keep on walking; oh. I’m in my funk again, not trying to catch up anymore. I’m only 30 seconds behind, and they wouldn’t wait for me to catch up? I want to cry again but don’t. I’m a little bit quiet as we set our packs on the patio and go into the market to get some food. I get an ice cream bar dipped in chocolate and a Hershey’s bar and some orange juice and sit with them on the patio. The chairs are tied to the tables so people won’t take them, but it makes it impossible to have more than one person sit at a table. We huddle in our chairs against the strip of shade by the wall. Then I squeeze into a chair at their table and we discuss Idyllwild plans. They’re going to stay at the campground tonight to save money, and I’m not going to pay for a hotel room just by myself so I’m going there too. The store allows hikers to fill up their water bottles with the hose out back so we fill up and head off. The water tastes rubbery and chemical-y and warm from the hose.
I’m the only one with my phone not dead, so I navigate, walking through an empty Herkey Campground, then down a nature trail that parallels the highway. It’s the middle of the day and hot so we stop often in the shade, delirious and laughing, drunk with heat. The alternate goes along a broad, sandy-white road with no shade, and we’re sweaty and hot and not making much sense and cracking ourselves up. Karma sticks pine needles in Nirvana’s leg hair. We come upon a lone pine tree and run to the shade. I play music and we eat food and talk about first drinking stories. “My first drink was amniotic fluid,” I say. I can’t remember the first drink I had; my parents have always let me sample whatever they were having.
Then we pull ourselves up from the shade and Nirvana and Karma use their long legs to power into town while I stumble up the road lined with lilac bushes and grassy meadows that look perfect for a nap. I find my way through a maze of wide, empty dirt roads until they spit me out onto pavement. Locals have posted friendly hand-painted signs pointing hikers in the direction of the road into town. There aren’t any sidewalks and I walk on the side of the curvy road, stepping onto the side whenever cars come by. Cute little houses with shingles line the road. I stop in front of a Christian camp to put my poles on my backpack and walk some more, reeling in the sights of so many things as I start hitting the center of town, my eyes wide and glazed, stumbling past the post office and shops and restaurants.
Eventually I get to the campground and go into the Ranger Station to pay my 3$ fee for staying in the PCT section. I feed a dollar into a machine out front to get a shower token. The ranger points me in the right direction, to the back of the campground. There are RVs and palatial car-camping tents, and then I see a familiar and welcoming sea of UL tents. Twerk is there charging his things, so I stop and say hi.
Karma and Nirvana aren’t here yet; I set up my tent underneath a big manzanita bush, grab my town clothes, and head to the bathroom and showers. It feels unbelievably luxurious to have a room all to myself; concrete walls and a toilet and a mirror and a trash can and a sink. I wash my hands and face and feel clean, then go over and take a shower.
Karma and Nirvana are setting up when I come out. They got their packages at the post office, which I kick myself for not doing. While I wait for them to take showers I hang out at the picnic table where hikers are getting ready to make kebabs over the fire. I find out it’s Cinco de Mayo. They also have a big 20-gallon tub that they’re making Sangria in. I ask what Sangria is (apparently wine and fruit juice and fruit) and someone hands me a cup so I sip it. It tastes very good, and afterwards I go to drink some water and talk to some hikers at the spigot, Tani and Catch ‘Em. Catch ‘Em grew up in Russia but doesn’t have an accent, since his household was English, and he was born in Italy. He is a self-proclaimed nerd and loves Pokémon.
Someone who I follow on Instagram and who hiked the JMT last year and summited Whitney a few days after I did is in town, so we text to meet up. She walks up to the campground and we get to meet, which is super cool. She’s up here doing a Wilderness First Responder course. I think her trail name is Long Spoon.
I’m starving and once Karma and Nirvana are showered we head out with Twerk and Baby Jesus to The Lumbermill for dinner (and drinks for them). There’s karaoke and I order fish tacos. I get most of the way through them before realizing how full I am. Watching everyone else eat makes me want to barf a little bit so i focus on the table. Erin joins us, Nirvana sings “Jude” by The Beatles, which he’s been humming for days. The karaoke is fun but I’m tired and they start playing a bunch of songs I don’t know and it’s a little bit boring since I’m the only person not drinking. I go to pay my bill and head back to the campsite in the dark.
I go to the bathroom and organize my stuff in my tent. Everyone comes back and there’s lots of talking by the campfire; I put my earplugs in and go to sleep.