My alarm wakes me up at 5, after about as many hours of sleep. I heard people walking past me without headlamps last night, and I felt snug and secretive in my cowboy camp, where they couldn’t see me even though I was less than 10 feet away. I pack up and walk through an orange sunrise, following a dirt road towards the silhouetted wind mills, undulating in slow unison. The wind buffets against my bare legs. I feel cranky. There’s service here, but it goes in and out with the wind.
Below the road and before a big concrete bridge, I see someone filling up their water from a spigot on the side of a concrete box. I hide behind a concrete pillar from the wind to check the water report- there’s a source in only a couple more miles, but I don’t know how much water I still have. I walk down to the spigot and check my water, and decide to carry on. I talk to a hiker there who says that there was really incredible trail magic last night- a guy had driven up with tons and tons of pizza and other things. He had so much that the hikers camped down in the ravine couldn’t finish it all and he didn’t know what to do with it. I glumly mull over the life decisions I made yesterday that got me two miles away at midnight. Was spending those extra hours at Hiker Town for laundry worth it? Just kidding. My clothes really stank horrendously.
I start walking again, having decided that I have enough water and not wanting to meet another hiker who would surely only extol the trail magic in more detail.
The wind runs right at me like a swollen, roaring stream. The PCT becomes trail again, winding through a golden landscape of bare grass, juniper and hulking wind mills. Their shadows are large enough that I could lie down length-wise in them. Every now and then the trail passes close enough to a juniper that the wind abates, enough to feel how much faster and easier it is to walk normally. As it is, I’m walking half my normal speed; I wear my sunglasses so I can even keep my eyes open, pushing them up my nose again every minute as they fall down.
I leapfrog with a hiker who got her trail name, Little Dipper, on the Colorado Trail because she liked swimming in lakes. The wind makes much conversation difficult at first. We come upon two hikers, Kevin and Eric, who are finishing a break in the fold of a hill to hide from the wind. They look very clean and fresh, and are carrying their ice axes. We talk and wait for them to pack up. It turns out they’ve just started yesterday at Hiker Town; they decided to skip most of the desert and are doing this section to get their trail legs before the Sierra. They’re funny, and I hike with them and Little Dipper for a while before falling a little bit behind to drink some water.
Once we’re up in the hills and out of the windmills, the wind dies down. The trail climbs up into the beginning of the hills, then dips down into Tyler Horse Canyon. Tyler Horse Creek trickles along the bottom, the water clear and quick for such a small stream. I set my pack down in the shade of a juniper and sit for a while, drinking some water and eating. Little Dipper and I give advice to the new hikers- this is their first time filtering water and it takes them a while to figure it out. Little Dipper starts heading out, which convinces me to get up and filter some water. There’s no water, only a cache, until Tehachapi in 24 ish miles. I fill up all 6 liters of my water capacity. I treat caches as surprise bonus water and generally ignore them as possible sources; they can run out quickly to it’s not responsible to rely on them.
I climb out of the canyon. The trail climbs up the side of the mountains, then down again, the trail sliding away where the hill slope is made of loose sand; I can see the switchbacks going up the hill opposite, and hear people talking somewhere. I find Little Dipper, Kevin and Eric sitting almost in the middle of the trail in the shade of a large, sprawling juniper. I plop down beside them and stay and talk until they all start heading out again.
The trail switchbacks up the sandy slope onto more solid ground; I have to pee and so I wait for Little Dipper to pass me, watching for her to turn around the side of the hill. I start walking again and I consider stopping in the shade of a juniper, but someone’s left a note on the trail saying there’s a rattler. I set up my earphones and listen to music, put my sunglasses on against the glare of the sun. I’ve already walked ten miles and I feel like I’m cruising. As I walk I stop to push the sunglasses up the sweaty bridge of my nose. My earphone cords sway with the squeak of my pack, and I stay hunched over a bit so they don’t fall out of my ears. I pass Little Dipper taking another break.
I crest a rise with Kevin and Eric and Kevin gives an excited shout. I look up. A battered sun umbrella sits in a clearing. Plastic lawn chairs cluster beneath it. I grin, briefly, then hurry down the trail to it. There is a long wooden shelf with a trail register, and boxes and boxes of gleaming bottled water lined up beneath it.
I sit around in a daze for a minute or two before plopping down into a lawn chair in the sun. I make a tuna wrap using another chair as a table and watch in amusement as Kevin and Eric try to make the broken umbrella relinquish a patch of shade. One of them admits to being a structural engineer, which I tease them about as they unsuccessfully finagle the log that is propping it up for a good 15 minutes. The umbrella flutters and tilts under a contrary breeze. Finally they give up and just curl up under the chairs and take naps. Little Dipper comes and goes.
I eventually hike out with my earphones in, listening to shuffle. I go another couple of miles, leapfrogging with Kevin and Eric. The trail follows the top of the golden-brown hills. I turn a corner while singing loudly, and stop when I realize that someone is there. “I wasn’t singing at all,” I say sheepishly and keep walking, and they laugh. Below I can see the creek that I’ll cross tomorrow, a strip of lush green across the brown valley floor. Windmills appear on the tops of the hills ahead, spiraling.
“Cacaw!” someone shouts at me. I’m absorbed in my music and jump; I turn around and it’s Kevin and Eric setting up camp. They invite me to camp with them, and I sit there and think about it for a while. I always feel weird about camping alone with dudes, even if I feel completely, totally safe with them, and the sun is still pretty high, and I’m on a groove, so I reluctantly tell them that I want to make a couple more miles even though I kinda want to camp with them. I head off – but not before warning Kevin that he’ll get the name Cacaw if he keeps crowing at people.
A couple of hours later, a couple of days later, months even, and I will wish I would have just camped with them.
Just as the windmills loom on the hills right before me, I decide to stop after looking at the topo maps on my phone. It looks like there’s nowhere flat and I don’t want to camp right by loud wind machines. Plus, I feel like I deserve to stop and get to sleep early after night hiking across the Mojave last night. My brain feels tired and my eyes heavy.
I throw down my cowboy camp after inspecting the area for the best spot, then put on my sleeping clothes and sit down on a log a bit away to cook dinner. I feel like I’m treating myself, and I’m really looking forward to a nice, relaxed evening.
I finish my Mac n cheese and walk back with my food bag. I look down and notice that there are red ants swarming all over my Tyvek groundsheet and sleeping bag. I stare at them stupidly for a few seconds, pacing back and forth a few steps in agitation. What do I do now?
A sharp pain erupts on the top of my left foot. One of the fire ants got stuck underneath my sandal straps and bit me. More ants are crawling all over my feet and sandals. I stumble back a few steps on the soft, lumpy, gopher-tilled ground and another, sharper pain erupts near the pinky toe on my right foot. I pull the fire ants off of my feet.
Oh! Damn it hurts. I pull my sandals off and pick the ants off of them, make sure there aren’t any more on my feet, and sink down to the ground. I whimper through the pain. This was supposed to be a nice evening, and now I’m in pain and I have to get up and get all of the ants out of my stuff and move. For someone who has never been bitten by a fire ant- it hurts. It’s worse than a bee sting, and it lasts much longer.
I force myself up, trying to ignore the fire gently lapping at my feet like waves during a rising tide. I carry everything except for my sleep set-up several yards away, since the ants haven’t gotten on that yet. I hobble back, and pull my sleeping pad with my sleeping bag still on it off to the side. My Tyvek has gotten soft enough that the ants can cling to it; after shaking most of them off I stand there and crush their heads to pick them off individually. I have no choice; they curl up and sink their mandibles into the material, so that the only way to get them off is to hurt them. I splutter and some tears leak out of my eyes and I clench my teeth against the pain, so I can’t feel too bad about killing them right now.
Then I do the same with my sleeping bag and pad, which aren’t as bad. I turn my sleeping bag inside out to make absolute certain none are inside. I should have camped with Kevin and Eric. I bring myself over to my second camp, lay my sleeping bag out, flop down on top of it, and sob and scream into it to deal with the building pain. It feels like someone has broken my foot and then lit it on fire. I barely care if someone walks by, the trail less than 10 feet away.
I turn facing upright. I writhe my legs and clench my teeth and scream silently through them, my face wet with tears. If someone did walk by they’d think I was dying. I text my mom and ask how many ibuprofen I can take at a time, and then take one before waiting for a reply. A minute goes by and I take one more. I feel like a baby because I can’t deal with this pain, instead I’m sitting here on top of this mountain crying my head off, but I’ve quickly decided if a someone cries on top of a mountain and no one is there to hear them, they can cry all the hell they wants if it helps them.
I have service and look up what to do about fire ant bites; I rub hand-sanitizer on it and wrap my right foot, which hurts much more than my left, in a wet bandana. My nose starts bleeding in the middle of everything; I lurch to dig for my TP roll to stop the blood from getting everywhere. I pull my sleeping sock over the foot with the bandana to compress it. My mom calls and I talk to her until the sky is darkening and the stars come out, talking distracts from the pain, the throbbing heat in my foot slowly, slowly fading.
When we finally hang up, my foot is still pulsating and feels tender. I’m exhausted from crying and my 5 hours of sleep last night. The windmills on the hill across from me rumble and their lights blink red, a warm breeze dries the last of the wetness from the corners of my nose. Tiredness laps against my body, and I decide to not write tonight. This was the crappiest evening but happiness is welling up in my chest, I’m so happy to be here, safe and warm on this mountain, having defeated the pain, the earth cradling my tired body. I barely get down some notes so I can recreate my journal entry before my eyes close and I fall asleep.