Drippy heads out early, planning on pushing a 25 mile day to Barrel Springs- I get up and give him a hug and wish him a good hike.
Stretch and I dally around in the room. Her bus is at 8:45 and the lodge’s breakfast is at 7:30. I pack up my things slowly. I have to eat the edges off of my leftover pizza to fit into the two small ziploc bags I’m able to scrounge. Breakfast is good, I eat some blueberry muffins and orange juice and cantaloupe and a cute little can of apple juice, not because I want apple juice but because the can is cute.
I fill up my water bottles back at the room and head out with Stretch into town. I drop off some things at Carmen’s that Drippy had left on the dresser for the hiker box. Stretch buys some popped chips at the store to snack on for her bus ride, and then we go and wait at the bus stop. Four Cheese and Sangria are waiting for the bus back home, too, and so is another section hiker I don’t know. One of the employees at Carmen’s comes and I talk to her for a while about broken feet and how the walking boots screwed up our bodies, and Carmen selling her restaurant Monday. Hopefully the new owners will be welcoming. The lodge is expensive and fills up quickly, and without Carmen’s place open to stay at I could see a lot more hikers skipping over Julian. It’s a really pretty town.
The bus comes, and I hug Stretch goodbye. Once she’s in I wave goodbye and start walking down the road to the post office to hitch, past tourists in nice clothes and people walking their dogs. I talk with a hiker couple waiting for the PO to open, and then stand on the side of the road, holding my thumb out at passing cars. I grin at them, and wave as they pass by with my other hand. My backpack is propped up on the grass by my knee.
Soon enough I see a woman in a car motion towards the shoulder ahead and pull off. I sling my pack on and walk forward, thanking her profusely when I reach her. She’s a younger woman who speaks with a calm, soft cadence. In the passenger seat is her cream-colored cattle dog, Josie. I offer her my hand to sniff and she slathers my palm with kisses (I only remembered the dog’s name. Whoops).
I talk with her as she navigates the hilly and windy road down to the desert. Trees lining the road slowing give way to desert. She’s dropping Josie off with her parents near Scissor’s Crossing before going on a day trip to San Diego, and she’s working on getting a graduate degree in reading education.
She drops me off at the PCT at the first crossing, and I thank her and Josie and walk to the underpass. The rooster is still there, and I sit for a bit and talk with some hikers coming in and give the rooster some water. Then I head off.
I’ve been looking forward to this section, because just north of Julian are ocotillos and lots of different cactus, and they were in bloom when I came through last year. I’m walking as slow as I want, through hills that slowly fill with with enormous barrel cactus and beaver tail cactus and Joshua tree and blooming Yucca like enormous asparagus. A bit higher up are the ocotillos, long, dead-looking, slender, winding rods thrusting up from the earth, covered in spikes and tasseled at the tips with orange plumes of flowers. They’re alien and beautiful, and it’s a really nice temperature out with an occasional breeze.
The trail is gently graded and I take my time. The sunglasses that Stretch gave me stay on my face and they aren’t scratched to hell and that makes me happy. I’m only going a mile or so an hour. I’m no longer in a rush, or on a schedule to get at a meeting place for the night. I’m not worried about keeping up or waiting to take a break until I’m with my group. I only know that I have the trail to myself, in an empty bubble between hikers coming into Scissor’s Crossing this morning and those that hiked out yesterday, and that I’m going to go as far as I am going to go, to maybe before 3rd Gate Water Cache.
It’s the same feeling of relief and freedom that I got after I stopped hiking with my group last year. For the first time I feel like I’m enjoying myself and can make my own decisions. I really liked all of my friends in both groups, but what I’ve realized is that maybe I don’t thrive hiking in a group, or maybe that it’s good to fall behind every now and then so I can hike by myself. Or maybe I just needed some good sleep. I really don’t know. All I know is that I’m feeling much better today.
The trail winds along the sides of the hills, and the wind picks up, throwing up dust devils on the trail above me. Below is a grassy, golden valley with a road along the bottom. I stop and take breaks and eat my soggy pizza. My feet and knees are achey but I’m not pushing them. I think new shoes will be nice.
It finally feels okay to be thruhiking again. This is fun. I stop and read some blog posts Carrot put up about her Brooks Range Traverse this summer. The sky is an endless pure blue. I take pictures of cactus and feel happy. I sit perched in the shade of the mountain bushes and juniper and write this journal post. Life is going to be ok again after my hard days into Julian.
I get up and hike the last stretch to the 3rd Gate water cache. I sign the trail register at the junction. Maddy was here today recently, and so was Drippy. I haven’t seen Swayed’s name in any logs since that one time. I wonder if he’s still ahead, or just isn’t signing the logs. It would be good to see him again.
I walk down to the cache and sit with the group of hikers there. There are 3 different pallet loads of fresh gallon-jugs of water, covered in blue tarps. There’s a corral for crushed, empty bottles, and a peanut butter donation jar crammed to the rim with ones and fives.
There’s a girl named Regan with her name tattooed in cursive with a bunch of others on her shoulder, and some guys with light-looking packs who form a group. One of them wears a blue button-down shirt with a hood that’s so long it looks like a dress over his short-shorts, and who stares comically and tiredly into the distance as he eats a bar. There’s a guy with a stutter, who leads the conversation, and a guy with a short, wide build. I take some water and sit and talk.
Regan doesn’t want to camp alone, and I don’t want to walk any further when I want to give my body a break, so after the guys leave we climb up to where a German guy is set up. We find a hollow in the bushes that might be more sheltered from the wind. We squeeze in, my tarp flapping where I set it up, lopsided in the corner.
The German’s friends come and I sit with them to cook some noodles while Regan goes to look for cell service. “Don’t worry about me, you can keep on talking in whatever,” I say. Occasionally they break from German to explain what they’re laughing about. One of them wants to open a shop in Germany where they only sell Ramen Bombs- instant ramen and instant mashed potatoes. “Maybe… if you set up near a college campus and are open 24/7,” I tell him.
I crawl into my tarp and stay awake, waiting in suspense for my poor, cramped pitch to come loose as it billows and snaps in the breeze. Which stake will come out first? Eventually the stake counterbalancing the pole near my feet comes loose, silencing the worst of the tarp flapping and cocooning me in soft, rippling silnylon. And sleep.