I wake up and turn on my phone to check the time. 5:30. I’m 3 and a half ish miles away from Lake Morena and the malt shop opens for breakfast at 7, so I’ll be there just at the right time. I start packing up. When I start stuffing my sleeping bag into its compression bag, it crinkles loudly and I begin to hear everyone stir and start to pack up, too.
I’m first out, stepping past Drippy who looks a close second. The sun’s not up yet but it’s light out. I’m the first on the trail this morning, and clearing the spider webs across the trail. They cling to my hands and face. I’m on the top of the ridge, the trail hugged by in bushes almost as tall as me. The sun simmers behind the ridge to the north, the sky turning a brighter orange around each turn until it boils over the rim and the rays light up the spider webs and shine into my eyes. The spider webs stick to my face in front of my eyes and are now enchanted threads that simmer rainbow. I wipe them away with balled-up hands.
I finally see Lake Morena shining in the gentle valley below. As the trail descends and approaches, I catch the scent of horses and farm. I come down into the campground and wait for Drippy to catch up. We wash our hands and faces on the bathroom and then walk down the road. The Malt Shop sign is a white rectangle that comes closer quickly and mercifully.
I grab an Arizona Tea Arnold Palmer and order French toast and vegetarian breakfast burrito, and sit down outside to wait. Hikers trickle in; my friends from camp last night, a Swede with a bright white button up, and a guy named Sparrow, who has the largest black backpack I’ve possibly ever seen and claims to be so fast that no-one ever passes him. I get my food first and eat. It’s quite good.
I drop the heavy sandal I found and have been carrying with Drippy since mile one, and am thrilled to find its pair there. They are reunited! They’re super heavy, but if someone was having shoe trouble they might find them a useful switch.
Then we stop by the bathrooms again and I fill my water bottles and drink. Stretch comes up. “Are we supposed to filter?”
I look at the water report. Apparently we are, but I just shrug. “ I didn’t filter last year and I’m not dead,” I say.
Then off! The trail traverses the bottom of the valley, and then up the side of a small rise. I come up to Drippy sitting in the shade and join him. Soon Stretch is with us, and I recognize Ziploc and Oldtimer’s voices before they come around the corner and sit down, too. We’ve become a little bit of a group, 3 PCT vets and 2 ATers. I kind of figured it would be this way, people more experienced gravitating to each other. I think it’s a good group.
We traverse the rise and descend down to the Cottonwood Creek underpass. We pause to sit there, too, and then head off again, 2 miles to Boulder Oaks campground.
It’s getting pretty hot. The trail goes through a strip of sagebrush spotted by ancient cottonwoods, in between a highway and private land marked by barbed wire. I’m walking when I see horses in front of me. They stop, and I hear a lazy rustling in a big sagebrush to my right that sounds like it could be a rattlesnake- they move a certain way. I peer into the bush and see it stretched out. I warn the horse riders as I go by and ask them to warn my friends behind me. They head by. One of the women has a Make America Great again T-shirt.
Drippy was right behind me and we walk the last half mile. I see the gate to the campground and wash my face at the first spigot. I walk by the horse corals that Jono leaned against as he told me his Trail name was Nirvana. The water dripped sweat and sunscreen into my eyes and they burn. I can’t see. I wash my eyes clean and sit with my little group at the picnic tables where I met Chris and Kelcey, where Chris operated on Colleen’s bluster.
We all sit and talk in the shade. Last year I was here, Twerk and Alpo and Karma and Colleen and Farkle invited me to sit at their table. I camped with them, and they assumed me into their group. I was lonely and wanted to make friends, but now I already have some and I don’t feel any of last year’s anxiety. It feels nice to have started with Drippy and Ziploc. And I like Stretch and Oldtimer. Oldtimer is kind and looks almost exactly like Ian McKellan as Gandalf with his long, golden-white hair.
There are lots of people here and I can’t possibly remember all their names or faces. We sit for an hour or two until our picnic table is usurped by incoming faces, and head out in the heat. The climb is hot and sweaty until it gets higher up, where there’s a nice breeze to drive the heat away. Ziploc and Stretch pushed through the heat and are somewhere ahead. Oldtimer hikes behind me, companionable. Drippy is a bit behind, but catches up in less than a minute as we takes breaks in the rare spots of shade.
I came through this section last year in the morning with the sun too low to see much, but now I can look down at the view freely as the trail hugs the side of a mountain. Small poppies with starbursts of darker orange pepper the sides of the trail, and little white flowers. The mountain falls away into a dark green chaparral valley with a couple of scattered meadows in lighter green.
We’re camping at Cibbets Flat, down off the PCT. The last couples of miles feel incredibly slow, above the small canyon of a dry creek bed. I pull ahead of Oldtimer a half mile before the junction and find Stretch and Ziploc waiting. I sit down and so does Oldtimer and we all talk. Drippy comes in quite a bit later right as we’re about to give up and head down without him- he found Sprint service a bit back and sat for a while.
We head past the Unexploded Military Ordinances sign and down a dirt road to the campground. Ziploc says it was empty last year, but it’s now filled with hikers and a woman traveling in a Ford van with a camp fire going. She’s reading by the fire with her miniature boxer, and lights strung up on the trees. Stretch and I discuss ways of going down and asking if we could pet her dog, but in the end are too lazy to walk the short distance over.
We set up our camps and sit at the picnic table and eat our dinners. I have Mac and cheese with barbecue sauce and coconut oil. I joke about ninja sneezing and Stretch and Ziploc and I good-naturedly tease each other about things. One by one we head to our beds. I put on my socks with hurricanes on them and slip into my sleeping quilt as the sky’s already dark. There are some clouds in the sky and there are mosquitos. My legs itch in their presence.