Chef, Jukebox and Milo were not joking when they said they were waking up at 3. I’m half-awake, listening to them eat breakfast and pack up. The moon shines into my face. I really want to be asleep right now; eventually they leave and I get a couple more hours of sleep, waking up and falling asleep again several times until the sun is above the horizon. I look around; Outlaw is up, and is so expert at the lazy game that he packs away his sleeping bag without taking everything out, folds up his sleeping pad, filters some water from the spring, and is set to go. I don’t even think he set up his groundsheet under his sleeping pad last night. I can only aspire to such laziness.
I take my time in camp, trying to postpone standing up and having to feel my foot being sad. I go to filter some water at the spring with Peach and Tomäs, limping and hobbling barefoot across the ground. I clean my socks out in the outflow from the trough, rubbing them together under the water until they no longer bleed brown.
I hobble back, eat some food, dawdle some more. It’s 7 when I put my shoes on and walk back up the road to the trail. That’s horribly late. I limp along the trail for two miles, then stop to eat some licorice and a breakfast bar. I rummage through my pack and pull out my baggie of pills; I take out two Ibuprofen and swallow them with some water. Although I can walk on my foot, it hurts and jolts and it’s not very fun. It’s all I can think about. What happened to my foot? Could I have fractured it that night with the ants, and just assumed that the pain was an ant bite? Can I make it to Kennedy Meadows? I probably shouldn’t try. Peach is getting a ride from Walker Pass to Lone Pine from someone, and maybe I can go with her? Will I be able to get back on trail, or will my foot be injured enough that I won’t be able to walk any more? A lump forms in my throat.
I hear trekking poles clicking, and see Peach coming down the trail. “Hey, Peach,” I say.
I explain my situation, and she says of course, since Tomäs is hiking on. Someone from a trail angel Facebook page is driving her, and meeting her at the campground entrance at 9 am on Saturday. I talk with her for a while, and when she and Tomas leave I get on my feet and walk after them. Of course, with the Ibuprofen, my foot feels almost normal. I can suddenly see myself hiking to Kennedy Meadows, even though I know it’s just the painkillers talking. My foot is still screwed up. I cry as I walk, tears big and wet on my cheeks. I’m getting off the PCT. The idea of it is so awful to me that I convince myself that I can still walk to Kennedy Meadows if I take Ibuprofen.
I walk a couple more miles through a broad desert wasteland punctuated by rising hills and far-off mountains, to where the trail crosses a dirt road. There’s a water cache, and I join Peach and Tomas under a tangle of Joshua Trees across the road. My water is warm like tea in my water bottles, and so is the water from the cache when I go grab another liter.
I sit with them, talking and almost falling asleep. I tell Peach that my foot feels fine now, so I might be able to make it to Kennedy Meadows, but that I’m not sure and will have to see how my foot feels. Peach says goodbye to Tomäs, as they’re going to have to split up soon, with Peach leaving at Walker Pass for a few days to do some work for her business, and Tomäs heading to Kennedy Meadows to try and do the Sierra. They met a couple of days into the hike and have been hiking together since.
As I hike behind Peach, talking about Wild and the trail and our decisions to flip around the Sierra, I can feel the Ibuprofen wearing off. My foot feels tender in my shoe, sore like after a long hiking day on rocky trail, but not jolting yet. I start to favor it again.
I get ahead when Peach takes a break, sweating so much in the sun that sweat gets into my eyes and burns. I pour some of my tea-water in my eyes to flush it out, and stand there, waiting for my eyes to be okay enough to see with. I walk through stands of Joshua Trees, all bent over each other in a mass game of Twister. Or maybe it’s a yoga convention. I can’t tell. They peer at me friendlily, with their curious faces and their limbs bent in cheery hellos.
I sit under a patch of them and drink some water, waiting for Peach to catch up. The water source is coming up, and it’s a weird route down to it, through a steep gully to the valley floor. We reach the junction together, and after consulting all of our sources, head down the dry, sandy stream bed. There are supposed to be some rock scrambles “that might make some hikers uncomfortable,” and we pass a few rocks that we have to step down from. “That was super easy,” we laugh, shaking our heads at the Water Report.
After a few minutes, we round a bend and the gully drops away. My heart sinks a bit. There are 2 spots that I can see where we’ll have to boulder down or around some rock faces to move forward. The first one is not that bad, about as tall as I am; Peach finds a trail around, but I just sit down and try to scoot down the granite, using the boulders on the sides for handholds. My foot does not have the strength or ease of motion to try it on my feet. The granite is smooth from water running down the gully, though, and I start sliding down. I manage to hold myself up, but eventually have to just let myself go and slide down into my feet.
The second one is even worse. It looks like there might be a trail around, but Peach is worried this is the wrong gully, and I’m afraid I can’t get down easily with my backpack and bum foot, or if we do, there might be another drop-off that’s worse.
So, we turn around and take the trail up and around the first drop-off, and trudge back up in the heat and the deep, loose sand. There’s a road that’s 2 miles further along the trail and 2 miles down that will also take us to the spring.
My foot is sad after the strain of our little adventure, so I fall behind. We can see the gully and the spring and eventually the road from our vantage point up on the hill; it looks so far away, sweating and foot-sore in the heat. I drink some more of my hot water. Even hot it tastes good at this point.
Where the trail crosses the road that will take us down to the spring, there is a concrete picnic table, a big map of all of the ATV trails in the area, and cell service that will probably be the last until the wifi at Kennedy Meadows, according to our trail beta. I sit on the bench next to Peach under the shade from her umbrella and text my mom to tell her I’m getting off trail at Walker Pass and will be in Lone Pine. She says she’ll drive down from Reno to pick me up, and also we can drive down to Kennedy Meadows to pick my packages up with all of my snow gear.
I’m so happy that I get to see her soon, and I sit and talk to her for a while after Peach leaves. Then I say goodbye and tell her I’ll be at the service again tomorrow morning, and head down the road. I don’t even try to not limp, crying about having to get off the PCT. I hope my foot is okay and I’ll be able to hike some more of the trail this summer; at the very least, I can use the money I have saved up to travel.
I see the old willows crowded around the spring, bushy and green among the Joshua trees. There’s a magical spigot here, flowing from the spring somewhere behind a barbed-wire fence. I set up my cowboy camp on a patch of hard sand behind a bush, and filter a ton of water. I drink some Emergen-C for electrolytes, and carry my food bag down to the ATV road to sit in the shade with Peach, Finger Guns and Katherine. I spill out all of my food. I eat a bagel with the last of my cream cheese, which is incredibly still fine after a couple of days in the heat. I eat a tuna wrap with my last sad tortilla, red pepper flakes, and lots of mayonnaise. Then I eat a package of pop tarts, which I decided to try out in Tehachapi, and top it off with a Mexican hard candy my mom sent me, watermelon with chili powder inside. I give one to Peach, too. I make a pile of some of my extra food for her to give to Tomäs tomorrow, since he doesn’t have enough to get to Kennedy Meadows. Peach is allergic to gluten, so we talk about hiking the trail gluten-free, what with my long-deceased diet, which we agree is easily possible with supplemental food boxes of dinners and stuff. I think I adore Peach.
Then I head back up to my campsite, limping still. The moon has risen above the hills behind the road, and the sun is setting across from it. Clouds shift in bands across the sunset, and I stand on my Tyvek sheet and watch. This could be one of the last sunsets on the PCT I’ll have, at least as a thru-hiker, at least this year. I want to cry. Mourning doves wing across the air, their wings whistling and chirping as they fly. Their calls ring out across the silent desert. Quails send out cautious messages: Chicago! Chicago! There are so many birds here.
“Was that a bird that just made that cute sound?” Peach asks as the birds chirrup and talk around us.
“Yes, unless it was Big Sky,” I say, and she laughs.
I crawl into my sleeping bag and pull up the zipper. I suddenly realize how much I love getting into my sleeping bag each night, putting my feet in, pulling the hood behind me, tugging it towards my shoulder so I can finish zipping it. I’m going to miss it, and I’m filled with gratitude that this is my life, that I’m able to walk all day and then zip myself into my sleeping bag every night, this is a privilege-
The moon has a halo of light around it as it shines through the thin layer of cloud stretching across the sky, blue and endless and opal as I stare up into it.
Then, I start crying. I try to muffle them so that I don’t bother Peach or Big Sky, camped up the slope by the spigot. Tears swell down my face, and I can’t sleep, mind racing, thinking about getting off trail. I feel panicky and hot and restless thinking about it. I’m sweating in my sleeping bag, and it’s already 10:30. It’s just not fair.
I realize I’m probably not going to sleep, so I dig into my gray catch-all bag and take two Ibuprofen and start to pack up my things. I feel calmer now that I have a purpose. I write a message for Peach when I go to fill up on water and leave it under her trekking poles, telling her that I’m night-hiking and that I’ll see her at Walker Pass. Finally I roll up my backpack, attach my sleeping pad on top, and fold up my Tyvek. It crinkles softly against my chest; I tuck my chin against it to start the first fold, pulling my hands forward with the edges, then stuff it into my outside mesh pocket next to my sandals.
I look around, at Peach’s and Big Sky’s tents, at the moon glowing with a halo under a layer of clouds. The wind rattles the bushes, humid and cool. I shiver a bit, switch my headlamp onto the white light, and head off. My foot splays uncomfortably to the side as I walk down the hard-packed dirt to the road bed.
And then I walk, at first quietly and determinedly, then furiously, angrily, my grief washing over me in waves. My feet churn over the soft road, my right foot clumsy and painful when I let it push down too hard on the little mountains and valleys of sand. My feet throw up a thousand little notes of dust that swirl in the light of my headlamp and obscure my vision in between the blur of tears. Every couple of hundred feet, everything hits me and I stop to cry, my face scrunched up and hot, my chest tight. I howl and wail and whimper at the dark desert, at the lonely pale road, the wind, the stars. The thought of having to leave the PCT, the mountains, the people, is unbearable. This is what I’ve always wanted, what I worked so hard to get a chance to do, and now it’s just gone; I won’t even get to finish the last 80 or so miles of desert, I won’t get to walk up the road at Kennedy Meadows to the porch with all of my friends and have them cheer as I walk up, because I’ve done it, I’ve almost hiked 700 miles to the end of the desert. I’m so close.
I’m mostly too angry and sad to be afraid of the dark around me. The Joshua Trees are in bloom, their crowns clustered with seed pods like alien eyes, threatening in the dark. Sometimes, though, in spite of my grief, I feel small again, and stop, heart racing, looking at the desert around me. “Let a mountain lion come and swallow me whole,” I then think angrily, “I don’t care.”
I finally reach the picnic table, the wind rising into a swift howl that pushes against my pack and makes the bushes sway underneath it. There are tents clustered around it, so I lower my light and sit and text my mom what I’m doing, and that if I don’t have service before then I’ll be in Lone Pine with Peach on Saturday.
Then I walk. The wind runs across the landscape like a comb, brushing against my cheeks and leaving the skin in my cheeks cool. I walk as fast as I can, not caring if I hurt my foot, it can rot for all I care. I cry, walking in the dark. Pale flowers catch my headlamp, the dark silhouettes of Joshua Trees bending in yoga poses across the dark vista. My stomach feels empty but I don’t want to eat, I just want to walk and be miserable. I feel slightly feverish. My mouth is dry. Tingles brush up and down the skin on my leg from my foot.
I think about all of the people who’ve decided they want to quit, because it’s too miserable, too hard, not for them. It leaves a hollow feeling in my gut. I’m angry at them, for being able to choose to leave, even though I’m not really angry at them, but I just I want to be here, following this trail through the night, forever. I don’t ever want to leave. I love you, I love you, I cry. No, no, no. My face wet, I face the stars and howl, bending my knees and cupping them with my hands.
I finally stop to drink something and pee, where a bush shelters the trail from the wind, its branches trembling. Slowly my tears dry up, nothing left to give, and I’m empty, walking along the trail, listless, the wind chilling me slowly and bringing me to my senses. I can feel my foot now, throbbing. I can’t walk with it straight now, but completely splayed to the side to keep the pressure away from the ball of my foot. It really hurts and starts to feel really weird and swollen into the roof of my shoe. I think I can feel things shift around inside there somewhere if I lean into it. I sit down as the trail starts climbing up, and drop my pack on the trail beside me.
I sit staring into the dark, sobering up to reality. I have to decide what to do. Walking the 28 miles to Walker Pass seems hellish now. I could make it, but it would be a slow and painful and long walk. And stupid. And my foot could get much worse and I’d have to resort to using my Spot to alert Search and Rescue. Or, I could walk back to the picnic table with the service, by the ATV road; I could somehow find someone to drive up and get me, or walk down to the highway that I can see it connect to on my map, Highway 15, which would be less than half of the length to Walker Pass.
But, right now, I’m cold and tired and can’t walk much, and maybe my foot will magically be different in the morning. I stand up, letting my good foot catch my weight and my bad foot stabilize. I grab my pack shoulder strap and swing it around onto my back. I adjust my shirt over to center it, and buckle my dusty hip belt over my stomach. When I grab my trekking poles, I notice a scorpion sitting half out of its hole right by where I sat. I poke it with my trekking pole and it disappears. Hi, friend.
I look around me, switching my headlamp to a beam that searches the landscape for anywhere flat and away from the wind. There’s a ridgeline back down the trail to the left, but there’s also a use-trail going to the right that looks like it might be flat enough to sleep on, a strip of pale white in the gray landscape. I hobble down and set up my camp as quickly as I can on the narrow strip of flat ground, using water bottles to hold my groundsheet in place. I’m so exhausted, from crying and thinking about my foot. It’s 1 in the morning of the next day. I pull all of my sleeping clothes on, pull my hat over my face, scrunch up my sleeping bag, and fall asleep.