Day 14- 17 miles from Saddle Junction (179.4) to midway down Fuller Ridge (195.4)

Maddy pokes me awake. Ugh, it’s cold, and my sleeping bag feels damp with condensation inside. I think I’ve been breathing into it at night too much. I will myself out of my bag and pack myself up. I eat a half of a bagel with cream cheese and head out with Maddy. I keep up with her for a while through thick, still-dark but brightening pine forest. It’s hard uphill, though, especially with the altitude, so I tell her to go ahead. The trail traverses along the side of the mountain, the trail rocky so that I have to step up, and I’m unmotivated and it’s hard work. I stop and breathe every minute or so. Finally I realize I might need to eat, and I stop for salmon jerky and cookies.

I feel a bit more energetic afterwards, and make my way through the granite and manzanita and pine to the top. I reach the junction a third mile from the summit. Almost there! I pass the emergency shelter hut, the windows covered with stickers. The trail disappears near the top and I start scrambling up granite boulders, bending over and grabbing tree branches. “Maddy!” I call out. I hear her reply, and I scoot along a rock and around a tree, and I’m there. There’s a guy named Cricket, and Maddy, and the view. 360 degrees, all the way around, desert and mountains and cities. I can see the mountains the PCT goes through across Hwy 10. It’s worth the climb. Maddy and I do a photo shoot and head off. We beat the Boy Scout troop who camped down at the junction to the top!

As we head down, the trail becomes inundated with day hikers and backpackers and thruhikers heading up to the peak. There’s a big group of 15-29 hikers from Vietnam, and when they find out Maddy and I are PCTers they get super excited and take a picture of us with them in it, too. They tell us we look very clean, and we just laugh because we smell pretty bad and I have dirt stains all over my shirt. Another woman wishes us a happy Cinco de Mayo, and then “have a nice meal!”

“What meal?” we ask ourselves. We’re not even going to be at a road until tomorrow at noon.

We stop at a fork of the Jacinto River and filter water and eat lunch. Cricket is there, and a guy named Cody who has been a hiking guide in Denali and Yosemite. Then off! I’m looking forward to the picnic table in 4 miles at Black Mountain Road. I hike with Cricket for a while and talk.

Soon enough I leave him behind on a climb and crest over to the north side of Fuller Ridge. Last year, this section of trail was covered with slushy, slippery snow. Now it’s completely clear, sunny and warm through the sloping pine forest. I catch glimpses of the windmills on the brown desert floor below.

Dropping down into Black Mountain road, I see cars and car camping tents. No, no no- and yes, I walk into the clearing and see they’ve taken the picnic table. My picnic table. I sit down in the pine needles across the clearing with a hiker I learn is named Pickle.

“Is it wrong that I feel entitled to the picnic table because my name is literally Picnic Table because I like picnic tables? Like, shouldn’t I get an automatic claim to it or something?” I ask him, grumbling and comically shooting dark glances in the direction of the campers, and he laughs.

Maddy comes and sits with me after getting threatened by the car campers’ dogs, and after a break eventually we move on. Pickle and I are both going to go to Cabazon tomorrow for food and we’re going to try and recruit more people for an Uber.

I stop to pee and when I come back Pickle comes by. I stop him to show him the old Miller Light can I found, and a tall woman hiker in colorful green tights who he knows comes up.

“Hi Pickles,” Pickle says.

“What?” I say, confused.

I finally figure out they’re both named Pickle, except the woman is plural Pickles. They both like pickles. They get ahead, and I find their entire trail group of 7 or so people plus Maddy at the campsite we’d planned to meet at. We all decide to head down to a campsite 2 more miles down. They’re all crushing it down the trail, and I am the last in the big line, even though I’m going as fast as humanly possible without jogging. We all reach the campsite and sit around, too lazy to start up camp. There’s just enough room for all of us to squeeze in and cowboy together, and when we start unpacking it’s like hiker tetris.

It’s a fun group and we talk and crack jokes. I make risotto for dinner that’s really good. We learn Pickle knew OT on the AT when they hiked in 2016. OT and Ziploc are camped 12 miles down at the faucet, and will probably stay ahead for a while from them skipping part of the alternate.

Maddy spills salmon juice all over the front of her jacket, and we throw variants of Salmon Juice and Smoked Salmon at her as trail names. I’ve tried both Stickeen and Power Goat for her because of the way she jumps fearlessly down steep trail, and Hiccup because of her constant yet sporadic, loud hiccuping. I don’t think she likes any of them.

We all journal and laugh into the dark. Some of the hikers find red ants crawling all over them across the flat spot and move to empty spots near me. So many names- Pickle and Pickles, Melt, Boxtop, Luke, Firefly, Captain. We’re getting up early tonight for In-n-out. It’s nice camping like sardines.