Through the beginning of the night I’m cold and unable to sleep. I feel exposed and alert. The cold comes seeping in and stabbing at my sides through spots in my sleeping bag where the down isn’t distributed. My Tyvek groundsheet is crinkling. It sounds like footsteps. My brain, already on alert, sharpens and my heart starts pounding. It’s just the Tyvek, I tell myself sternly. I force myself to breathe.
There it is again, quiet treading very close to my head. I yell in alarm and lurch up in my sleeping bag and twist around in it to look behind me. The space I have under the trees is dark so I can’t see much, and my lurching covers most of the noise, but I see a shadow leap back and stand still by the trunk of a tree. I stare at it, heart thumping. Windbreaker shifts nearby on his sleeping pad, probably disturbed by my shout, and the shadow streaks away across the meadow and disappears. The moon illuminates it enough to show the lithe shape and long tail of a raccoon.
I don’t see it again the rest of the night, but I can hear it, it’s there, and I stay awake for most of the night, listening for paw-steps and breaking twigs. Several times I turn on my flashlight and shine it into the woods. “Go away, leave us alone,” I say into the woods, the wind stirring the grasses and tree branches, the night air cool on my cheeks and sinking, chilly, on where my quilt is tightened around my shoulders. The light only shows the bare tree trunks. I turn my quilt the other way around on my groundsheet so I lie facing the trees.
I finally fall asleep sometime after 3, and wake up a couple hours later to everyone packing up. My eyes are so heavy that they feel like there’s a weight on them, sinking down onto the rim of my skull. I sit in my sleeping bag, exhausted, until I give in and get out of my quilt.
“If anyone heard someone yelling last night that was me,” I say, mincing barefoot to the picnic table with my food bag. “There was a raccoon right by my head and he kept me up all night.” Several of them heard it too, but only I didn’t sleep. It’s so cold, and we shiver and complain as we pack up.
There’s a single cracker on the ground where my food bag was last night, I discover after finishing. I hope it didn’t get into my food bag, which was right by my side all night.
I hike out with Stretch, only Windbreaker left in camp cooking a warm breakfast. The sunrise as we approach the viewpoint is incredible, and I take pictures of Stretch looking into the desert below. The trail is rocky and I am low-energy and my right foot starts feeling tired and weird, so I quickly fall behind Stretch. As I walk, the top of my foot hurts when I lean too far over my ankle. It might be my hammer toes stressing out my mid foot. And both of them are very achey and sore. Anyways, I take it slow so I don’t over stress whatever is going on.
The trail overlooks the brown desert below, winding through manzanita under wind. It’s much warmer in the sun. My foot feels a little bit better as it warms up.
I reach the junction for Granite Peak, and stop. I wanted to go up last year but wanted to get to camp with my trail friends, and I’ve been planning to go up. My feet are sore, but I carry my pack up a little bit and leave it hidden behind a rock outcropping, and then bound up the rocky, steep trail. It feels good to be walking without a pack. It’s a half mile up, and at the top the world drops away. I scramble up the last granite outcropping, the wind blasting my face. I find a package of cookies in the trail register and eat them on the way back down. They’re called Oricouris, and are a square, thin cookie with strawberry flavored marshmallows on top, which are rolled in dried coconut. They’re delicious.
I get back to my pack and onto the PCT again. Windbreaker catches up a bit later (he went up Garnet Peak, too), and I get to Pioneer Mail Picnic Area after him. Everyone’s taking a break at the picnic table there, waiting for me to show up.
“We were a bit worried since we haven’t seen you,” Ziploc says.
I tell him that I’ve just been taking it slow, tired from the raccoon, and then about the cookies I found. I show them the empty wrapper. They head off because they’ve been waiting for a while, but it feels really, really nice to have a group of people that I feel care about me and will wait. I’m grateful for them.
“You say you don’t care but you’re not convincing me,” I shout after Ziploc, and he laughs. He has a running joke about rolling our bodies off the trail if one of us dies.
I take my time filtering water from the concrete horse trough. The trail leads up an abandoned stretch of highway, marked by rock slides and biker memorials. My feet are hurting with all of the rocks and I’m behind again and incredibly sluggish. Even though it’s not too hot out there’s a lot of sun exposure. I don’t take any breaks, wanting to catch up to my friends. Do I need to stop in Julian to rest my feet? Everyone else is planning to keep going there. My feet are more important than keeping up with them.
I catch up and sit with them for a while as they cling to a dwindling patch of shade, and then we get moving again and I’m bonking out hard. I should probably eat something. I’m going so slow the last 6 miles or so. My knees feel painful and raw, and I’ve developed two identical blisters on the bottom of my pinky toes that hurt pretty bad, and my feet complain with each step. I keep pushing through because that’s what you’ve got to do when you thruhike, you have to walk even when it hurts or you don’t want to. You just do.
I can see the trail up out of Chariot Canyon along the opposite ridge, but the trail just keeps going along the top of the flat. It’s infuriating and miserable and I mentally will the trail downwards towards the canyon bottom and camp. I’m all alone and I start laughing as I shuffle painfully along, the sun golden above my right shoulder, and crying. It hurts but this is exactly where I want to be. I feel lucky to be here right now. I’m exhausted but stubborn.
The trail starts down, steep and rocky, and I shuffle even slower, my entire body aching with each step down. The water weight of this 30 mile carry has beaten my body down. All I remember of this descent from last year was coming out of it and thinking, “that was hellish, I never want to do that again,” and it doesn’t disappoint. I listen for my friends as I near the bottom.
I find them in the shade of a tree, and I sit in the space between them. Drippy is taking a nap and camping in the lower part of the creek bed. I’m done for the day! A rattlesnake slithers across the camping area and Windbreaker scares it off trying to get a picture.
I set up my things to cowboy, and as more hikers trickle in to camp the clearing by my bed becomes the spot where everyone comes to sit and eat. There’s a section hiker named Tod and a group of friends from the AT, Roadrunner and Giggles and Jang. I discover the hole the raccoon chewed through my food bag last night, and Stretch patches it with tenacious tape. In the middle of it all I feel the earth shudder and I hear it, too. An earthquake. Only a couple of us felt it.
I’m waking up at 4 with Drippy to head to Julian. I go to the bathroom and snuggle into my quilt against the cold, sporadic, restless wind sweeping through the canyon. Goodnight.