I sleep in and wake up to someone hiking by, their trekking poles clinking on the rocks, their feet crunching on the sandy trail. The sun is well above the horizon. The windmills on the ridge ahead spin, no longer a sea of red in the hills, but powerful white pillars with revolving wings. I woke up in the middle of the night and saw the red lights dotting the hills, while I sat up to drink water and re position my sleeping bag.
I pull my feet out of my sleeping bag, and peel off my sleeping socks. My feet are definitely a little bit swollen, but the pain is gone. My pinky toe has the ghost of the bite, sore.
I pack up, and go over to the tentsite where I got bit last night. There are no ants, just like there where none when I set up yesterday. “FIRE ANTS,” I write in the dirt in the middle of the tent pad.
I get hiking, and pull 5 miles out quickly, the trail gentle as it goes along the side of the hill, spinning giants whooshing around me. I find a hiking umbrella in the middle of the trail, where it must have fallen out of someone’s pack. I shove it in my mesh pocket; I can carry it to the trailhead at Highway 58, where whoever dropped it will probably come through after resupply in town.
Then off I go. I’ve decided that even though I like music in the mornings, I’ll save it for the afternoons when I need the distraction and the miles go by slower. I think about being so close to Kennedy Meadows; less than 2 weeks until I get there. Holy cow. I’m excited to reach it and finish the desert. But, I’m also nervous about the snow. I don’t want to make a stupid decision and be in danger. People have already died in the snow in the Sierra this year; I don’t think any of them have been thru-hikers, but really, what is the difference in skillset between a summer thru-hiker and a prepared dayhiker? Alarmingly little.
Below, a little green valley cuts between the ridge I’m on and the next, a stream banked by green winding through it. I descend down from the ridge to the bottom of the valley and the first road to access Tehachapi; I’m going to use the second road. I cross a bunch of gates, and pass a picnic table, then across the creek, brushing through the soft, green plants overflowing from the creek banks into the trail. The area is maintained by a local riding club. I sign the trail register. “What a beautiful morning! I love you guys,” I write with a heart next to it, in a happy, sleep-deprived, sun-warmed state of mind. I love the trail and everyone on it right now, I’m a morning person, and I laugh internally when I think about grumpy hikers who are having a bad day having to read my overly-cheerful note.
The trail veers left to where it will cross the road. I squint into the distance, where I see an RV and some other vehicles parked. I have a good feeling about this, and strain to pick out details as I walk forward. Could it be Mrs. Focus? She’s driving along the PCT supporting her husband, Focus, as he hikes. But, then, I can see the spray-painted tropical beach and palm trees on the side of the truck parked there, and the wooden paneling and signs on the side. It’s Legend! My heart swells. I get to see Legend again! I was so disappointed when I didn’t see him at Cajon Pass. There’s an extra spring in my step as I walk through the grassy field, cars whooshing by on the road to my right.
Legend comes out of the RV as I walk up, and I get a hug. “Legend!” I say excitedly. “I met you at Whitewater! I’m Picnic now.”
“Picnic Now? That’s a funny trail name,” he says, and assures me he remembers meeting me. He tells me to set my pack down, and join him in the RV cabin, and sit in the swiveled driver’s seat. A hiker I’ve seen the name of in the registers is here too, Bear Can. Legend has a huge pancake sitting on the stove, and gives it to me, and a big bottle of water. I pour some syrup on the pancake and eat it with my hands like a big pizza slice. I put peanut M&M’s on top, the last of the ones I got from Twinkle in Wrightwood. Then Legend makes some fried eggs for us, too, and later fried egg sandwiches.
We talk with Legend for a while. He’s ragging on us for carrying extra water to Tehachapi when the creek here is flowing, even though the people who have updated Water Report said it wasn’t. And for using Guthook’s and Halfmile’s apps. I manage to brush it off because I know Legend is old-school, but I can tell it’s bothering Bear Can. Then he tells us about a thru-hiker that just died near Whitewater Preserve. They don’t know why he died yet, but I assume it must be dehydration or heat related. It’s not been hot here, but I later do some research and learn that is was almost reaching 120 degrees in that area recently. Apparently he was 57 and had planned 10 years for his thru-hike, and it’s really, really sad.
Then we talk about the snow; Bear Can heads out and his spot is replaced by Focus. Apparently there is a trail that goes lower around the eastern side of the Sierra, that would avoid all of the snow. I’ve heard the hike to Lone Pine is OK and not too dangerous, but afterwards is pretty dangerous and hard, with snow covering everything, avalanches, streams too deep and swollen to reach the bottom. I’ve talked with so many people who have no. Fucking. Clue. About how extreme the snow levels are this year. Former thru-hikers who hiked in the drought years stubbornly saying that it’s easy and that you’ll get to lower elevations where there isn’t snow where you can camp, when in reality I might not see the ground for days this year. People planning on hiking sections of the JMT in early July, when it will still be covered in snow, when the ski resorts will still be operating, when people are abandoning hard-earned JMT permits because there’s no way they can hike without it being a suffer fest.
So, anyway, rant over. According to Legend, I could possibly take a lower route from Lone Pine and reconnect back with the PCT at Red’s Meadow or Tuolumne, where the worst of the passes are over. But it’s not even the passes or the snow that are the problem, but the stream crossings; I’ve heard they were bad north of Yosemite in 2011, which was a big snow year, but still small compared to 2017. I don’t know what I’m doing yet; I’m doing this one section at a time. Still, I can feel the anxiety slowly building as I get nearer and nearer. I’ll get through to Lone Pine first and see how I feel. I don’t want to die. The snow and water is on everyone’s minds, is the topic of every conversation now, as we approach Kennedy Meadows.
I head out with Focus to hike the last 8 miles into Tehachapi. Legend walks with us to point us to where the trail resumes at the edge of the parking lot. “Oh, look, you just cut a switchback,” he says, laughing and pointing at the official entry point a couple yards to the left.
I splutter. “What a bad influence!” I finally say, and the last I hear of Legend is his hearty laughter as he walks back to his truck. It’s hardly a cut, but I still make a point to never cut switchbacks, as this is one of my biggest trail peeves and badly erodes the trail.
The trail goes over another rise, through windmills and cattle fields. I have to swing open the rusty cattle gates and latch them behind me, stepping over the bars that deter bicyclists. It must be a lot of work to keep up relations with the property owners so that the trail can go through this private land. I’m impressed.
I just figured out how to pee standing up, which I’m super proud of, and now I’m experimenting with peeing with my pack on, and where I can hang my pee rag so I can reach it. My pee-game laziness grows stronger by the day. Soon I’ll just wear diapers.
Focus catches up to me as we make a long descent down to the Highway, and we walk together up over the overpass to where Mrs. Focus is sitting in the shade of her RV. She gives me watermelon and a camp chair, and they offer to drive me into town. I run up and drop the umbrella I found up by the trail, then carry my pack up into the camper and sit down. Mrs. Focus is making a quilt out of hiker’s signatures, so I sign a rectangle with my trail name.
The camper shakes and bumps as we get onto the highway and drive into town. We go to the airport for some reason, since both Focus and myself must be a little bit sun-addled; I want to get a hotel room, and they’re not camping there, either, in the grassy area where they let thru-hikers pitch their tents. They drop me off in front of the Best Western, and I say thank you as they drive back off.
There are hikers in front looking very homeless, food spread out in a jumble of paper bags and priority mail boxes in front of the sliding doors as they figure out their resupply. Obviously I’ve gone to the right place. There are hikers everywhere. I check in, and get a single-bed room at the far end of the motel.
I walk over, hobbling and stiff. I push my key card in and drop my pack in the corner. I strip my shoes and clothes off and leave them in a pile to go shower. Then I sit on my bed and don’t move for a very long time. Rick texts me and says he’s at the pool, so I rinse my hiking shorts out in the sink so I don’t leave a dirt cloud behind me, and hobble to the pool. There are tons of thru-hikers here, and I hop in between the jacuzzi and the pool and talk with Rick and the other thru-hikers. I feel anxious, with so many things to do. Then I go back to my room and veg out some more. I text Twinkle Toes and Cotton Candy, and we decide to meet up for dinner in a bit. Cotton Candy walks over to my room and we hang out and talk as Twinkle finishes up a phone call and walks over. We all decide to meet at the Thai restaurant.
Cotton Candy and I walk down Tehachapi’s Main Street, past murals of famous local people, past a water tower by the railroad tracks, past a cafe that sells pie. We cut through a cute cobblestone alley. We see the sign for Thai Hachapi, the Thai restaurant, and walk around to the front of the store. Kevin and Eric come across the street to say hi. Twinkle comes up, so we say goodbye to Kevin and Eric and find a seat inside the restaurant. Twinkle and Cotton Candy have never really met, which is really odd and confusing to me because I’ve hung out with both of them so much with Kyra and Hop Along at around the same times.
I order Thai iced tea and drain it as I’m looking at the menu, and the waitress comes and says there is one free refill! What! We order spring rolls, curry fried rice, yellow curry, and spicy rice noodles with basil and mint, and share the dishes between us. It’s delicious. We all went to the Thai restaurant in Big Bear and agree it wasn’t very good, but this is incredible. We discuss Sierra plans. Both Twinkle and Cotton Candy are going to get off for a couple of weeks when they hit Kennedy Meadows, and then flip around the high Sierra when they come back. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but it’s not worth dying to get through the Sierra, that I know. I’m not sure about anything and there is so much fear being passed around and I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t know what I’m going to do, I really don’t.
I eat so much food that I feel nauseated sitting there. It’s worse when I think about food, and scraping my curry rice into the to-go carton is an act of bravery. And it’s not even a huge amount of food; my stomach has definitely shrunken from all of the trail food. We all head out; Cotton Candy and I say goodbye to Twinkle where she leaves to cross the railroad tracks, and we both head back to our motel rooms. I say goodnight to Cotton Candy and go to lie in my big, comfy queen bed, and fall asleep.