I’m exhausted, fighting to stay asleep. There’s a sinking, uneasy feeling in my gut. I’m going to have to figure out how to get off-trail today, and I want to feign sleep as long as I can, like a little kid who is pretending to be asleep in the hope that they don’t have to go to school. Above me I can hear a steady stream of trekking poles, probably all of the hikers who camped at the springs and at the picnic table back at the road. The sun is bright and it’s already warm. Curiosity to see the faces walking past above me, to see if any of them are my friends (will I ever see any of them again?) and the burgeoning undeniability of my wakefullness make me poke my head out of my sleeping bag hood and twist around to look at the trail. Three or so hikers are walking across the slope above me.
I recognize Twinkle Toes and shout out. “Twinkle!”
She stops and turns. “Picnic!”
“I think I have a broken foot!”
“Yah! I know!” I shout, glumly.
“I’m coming down!”
She turns around and picks her way down the slope to me. I unzip my sleeping bag and sit up. Everything is much different in the daytime. Everything is sandy and brown and bright instead of windswept and black. The strip of paler dirt that I camped on last night is a faint use-trail that hikers have formed, leading down to an abandoned, rusted-out bus. I’m too distracted to be curious about how it got up here, on the side of a ridge in the middle of no-where. I’m much calmer, all of my emotions waning and emptied, drained. Twinkle reaches me and asks me what happened, and I explain my situation, and my plan to go back to the picnic table two miles back and find a way to get to civilization.
“I’m coming with you,” she says.
I don’t even argue, and start packing up all of my things. Twinkle makes me eat something for breakfast so I nibble some peanut butter bars, which clump in my mouth like dry sand as I chew them. I sit on my empty tyvek and put my shoes on. My foot is swollen and my toe socks stretch tight against my toes. My brain isn’t working. As I pack up I ask Twinkle about where she camped last night and where she’s been the last couple of days; she’s only been a mile or two behind me. Then we start walking, Twinkle behind me.
I walk with my foot splayed out, to keep pressure off. Someone’s replaced my foot with a swollen log. I focus on my walking, so we don’t talk much. Two miles. The trail is sandy and with each step churns under my feet. And there are so many hikers! Every minute or so a group rounds a bend, and passes us. I feel like I have to explain myself, why I’m walking south when I should be walking north, my obvious injury. I don’t know any of them. It’s like a walk of shame, except I don’t feel ashamed, but only mildly embarrassed. Still, I feel like I owe them an explanation. They’ll all gather together at the next water source, and not unkindly ask eachother if they saw the limping southbounder, and why was she limping and why was she walking south? So as they pass I offer the explanation that my foot is broken and that I’m getting off-trail, and have a nice hike.
The trail is washed out in places, and I have to cross small, sandy ditches to get across. The PCT crosses a saddle to the other side of the hill, and now the views all stretch off to my left instead of my right, a maze of washes and long-armed ridges washed out, hazy in the harsh morning light.
And then we’re there. Twinkle and I set our packs on the benches of the empty picnic table, and I take out my phone and text my mom. She answers immediately and says she’s going to drive down to get me, that she’ll leave Reno in an hour or two. I ask if she’s bringing our dogs, I want to hug my dogs, but she’s not. Meanwhile, Twinkle has found a list of trail angels in the area online. There’s a map of the area posted nearby, and we debate which of them would be closest, and who we should call. Twinkle says she isn’t enjoying this section, it’s too hot, and she would be happy to skip it, so she’s coming with me. “Are you sure,” I say, and she is.
We decide to call a trail angel based in Ridgecrest, Erica. Twinkle calls, explains the situation and our location. I fidget beside her. Twinkle gets off the phone, thanking Erica profusely.
“What’d she say?” I ask.
She was taking the day off of work today, so she can drive up in her jeep and get us! We send her our GPS coordinates and settle down to wait. I text my mom the new info and Twinkle and I play Ani DiFranco out loud on our phones – she has some of her older music, and I have some of her new. I lay out my food and eat some of it. Other hikers start showing up and we tell them about the cell service here and I offer them my water. The wind is blowing our belongings away, which I weigh down the best I can. After a while Erica calls us to tell us the road was blocked by a gate a few miles down and they’re finding another route around. Twinkle and I feel bad – I can walk down, I say – but she’s coming. We wait some more. I scan the faces of all of the hikers passing through, either heading down to the spring our sitting down with us, but I don’t know any of them.
Then I catch the small figure and distinctive ice axe of Greg coming up, the hiker who I tried to name Hedwig back at Robin Bird Spring. I say hi, ask him if he’s keeping the name. He is!! I’ve finally given a trail name! Just in time, too. I high five Twinkle.
I’m sitting and listening to the other hikers talking, and although right now I don’t feel sad, I think I refuse to think about what is happening, I already feel like an outsider. The title that was magically bestowed upon me the moment I stepped out from the southern terminus is gone. I am not longer trying to walk north. I am not a thruhiker anymore. And then just like that, on this ridge top that feels remote and entirely separate from civilization and real, normal life, there is a shiny white jeep rumbling up the ATV road.
A short Hispanic woman hops out of the driver’s side, and a tall, cheery young man who speaks with a European (? I am bad at accents) accent of some kind steps out from shotgun. Twinkle stands up to greet them. Erica asks who has the broken foot and I wave and say hi as I work to pack my things away for the last time. Twinkle and the young man, who I learn is named Kitchen Sink, put my pack in the back of the car and I slide into the backseat. I try to sit as straight and still as I can so I don’t get more of my dust on the seat. Twinkle hops in next to me, and as Erika turns the car around we thank her and apologize about the trouble it took to get us. The drive back to paved roads is longer than I thought, and steeper- a huge maze of double-wide, deeply rutted ATV roads. Sometimes they are so steep or slanted that it feels like the car is going to tip over, and I clutch the seat. My mom could never have gotten up these roads in our car, and would never have found her way up without GPS tracks. I am deeply grateful, overwhelmed, that Erika is here, and I don’t think that anyone else would have been able to come up these roads and get us. She’s a confident driver and barely blinks at the road conditions, the road dropping off steeply at times down the sides of hills. Kitchen Sink, who apparently met Erika last year on his PCT hike when she hosted him and is dropping by to visit on his road trip, keeps up a conversation with Erika through most of the drive. I sit there in a shy, quiet daze and occasionally interject a sentence or two into the conversation.
Finally we reach the highway, a lonely two-lane road with dry, sun-paled asphalt. Erika turns off of the dirt road and we speed along through an empty, bright valley. Soon enough we’re approaching Ridgecrest, a sparse, scattered, porous town built next to and serving a military base. The town is splintered, different loci separated by large empty spaces in the middle of an enormous desert valley. We enter a neighborhood and pull into Erika’s house, park under the metal car port.
Erika sets Twinkle and I up in a guest bedroom. I am granted first shower. I take off my shoes, my foot swollen and useless, and hobble over to the bathroom with my weight on my heel. I scrub my PCT dust off as best I can, and then go and sit in my clean clothes in our room and in the living room. I wander around, restless. I feel guilty, like an intruder, like I want to be helpful and do something or have a conversation or anything, to prove that I’m not fundamentally injured. This is not a part of me.
I am introduced to Erica’s partner, and Erica’s goats, hens, dogs and turkeys in the backyard. The goats want to chew on my clothing, and there is a little chihuahua that wants to be held, and several pony-sized dogs in a fenced-off area. My mom calls or texts me every now and then to let me know where she is. Another big group of hikers is brought in, who were picked up at Walker Pass.
Then my mom calls to let me know she’s in Ridgecrest, and that she’ll be here in a few minutes. I limp outside to stand in the driveway under the carport. My mom sees me waiting and jokingly drives by the house, and then she parks and is out and we hug – it feels really, really good to see her. I bring her in and introduce her to Erica.
It’s decided my mom will share a bed with me and stay the night here. Dinner is made, and honestly I don’t remember much of the rest of the night. I’m quiet and numb and exhausted, trying to process everything. Everyone goes to bed, hikers in both guest bedrooms and sleeping on the couches and rugs in the living rooms. I stay up a little bit longer to write up a journal entry for yesterday, before it leaves my mind. The details, still fresh in my mind, are important. Just yesterday I was on the PCT, sitting cross-legged in the middle of a dirt clearing while contemplating my injury and the willpower of standing up, my shadow stretching in front of me. I was asking Peach if I could join her getting a ride from Walker Pass, and talking to her about gratitude that the trail exists and for the people that hike it. I was drinking sun-broiled water and washing sweat out of my eyes. I was talking to Joshua Trees. I was fleeing in grief in the middle of the night by the light of my headlamp, and now I’m lying down in a soft bed with one of my dearest humans sleeping next to me. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, when I will be getting back with on-trail, but for now I am clouded and ready to sleep.