Day 15- 21.1 miles from midway down Fuller Ridge (195.4) to before Whitewater Preserve (216.5)

Everyone is packing up around me. Having a comfy sleeping system makes it much harder to get up, so I lay there for a while before sitting up. I’m the second-to-last out of my sleeping bag and the first packed and hiking. I eat some licorice and cinnamon bears for breakfast (balanced).

The sky is just tinged with light, a small city lighting up, yellow, on the dark flat of the valley floor. The sunrise comes in a band of orange on the horizon, and suddenly I turn around a bend and the sun is up, bright and big and brilliant. The trail goes down for another 10 miles from here. We started the descent up at 10,800 feet and are going down to the highway at 1,300. It’s pretty gentle as far as 10,000 foot descents go, though, graded well. We’re able to go pretty fast down it.

Small, round, orange flowers and 4-leaved yellow ones form a tic-tac-toe on the side of the trail, little Xs and Os. We pass by the 200 mile mark and I take pictures, and then by the hyped-up angry bee hive without incident. Then, it’s all just down. Even as the sun was coming up over the the horizon it was hot, and now our first true 90+ heat is settling in. It fills the air, making it feel heavier. I’m sweating even on the downhill.

I drink my last 1/4 liter of water a mile and a half before the faucet and turn on autopilot, cruising down the last section with Melt and Boxtop and Firefly and Maddy.

I flop down in the shade of a small-tree sized boulder next to Pickle. I pull out my water filter and dirty water bag and fill up half a liter and drink it first, then filter the rest and drink some more. The faucet is a drinking fountain, and we laugh as we each try to aim the water stream into our bottles as it leaps around in the air.

We all head off in a big herd the last 3 ish miles to the highway. I walk in the back with Pickle and talk with him. He has a small Palaante Simple Pack and he walks super fast, and hiked the AT same year as OT, so I don’t think I’ll keep up with him for long at all, but I enjoy talking gear and trails with him and I’ll enjoy his company for now. That’s how most of my trail friendships work. Temporaneous but good.

He moves through the line of people and I attempt to keep up on the flat, deep, churning sand. It’s a game, and I manage to pass everyone except for Luke. The trail follows a dry riverbed and the walking is terrible. I hate walking on sand.

At the underpass, I walk under and set my pack down with everyone else’s as they come in behind me. There’s a strange vagrant person here who has an impressive halo of bleached hair like Einstein that stands almost a foot from their scalp in either direction, and a form-fitting striped cotton knit dress. They’re obviously not a hiker but trying to blend in and using the hiker boxes to get free food. Not a bad plan, to be honest. We politely ignore them as they fiddle with their things and walk past us to get food.

The highway 10 underpass is a weird place, regardless of vagrant non-hikers; there’s a kid’s play set, the kind with twisted wires that you pull a wooden bead along, and coolers of random food, and trash bags, and cardboard to sign your name on, and the cars overhead make everything shudder, and it’s dark and grungy.

We all walk to the road and figure out a game plan to Uber to Cabazon. There’re 9 of us, so we’ll need 3 Ubers, we decide. I have the app on my phone and order one. They keep on declining to pick us, but eventually we get it at around 11. The driver that Maddy and Melt and I get in with doesn’t seem overly friendly or keen to have us, and I’m self-conscious of the hands sweating dirt onto my knees, so I don’t move them the entire trip.

In-n-out is packed with extremely trendy southern Californians in floral prints and shorts, and I order and then stand bewildered in the middle of the restaurant, people roaring and milling around me. Anxiety rises up in my stomach and chest and shoulders, familiar. This place is horrible. I go to the bathroom and wash my hands and face, waiting until the coast is clear before I do it so the incredibly beautiful and well-dressed people won’t see the dirt coming off of my hands and face. There was a big smear of dirt across my chin.

I get my food and join everyone outside, which is almost as busy. It’s good, nothing remarkable – overhyped – and I eat too much and can’t finish my second basket of fries. Pickle comes and we go to the gas station and a touristy, overpriced “fruit market” to get some things to supplement our resupply into Big Bear.

We get back and decide to move to the Starbucks for the AC and electrical outlets to charge our things. We settle in the corner and I fill my water from the bathroom sink. We sit there for an hour or two, sipping our drinks, and then move on again to Taco Bell. I get some burritos to pack out. And then, around 5, Pickle and Maddy and I get an Uber back to the trail from an enthusiastic guy named Francis.

We head out, Pickle quickly leaving us in his dust. The heat radiates from the ground and is blasted into our skin by the wind. I fight back nausea all the way to Mesa Wind Farm where I catch up to Maddy. I don’t know if it’s from eating too much or maybe heat exhaustion, so I drink a bunch of water. Maddy’s hip is bothering her and she’s worrying about it, so eventually she tells me to go ahead and she’ll catch up.

It’s finally cooling down a bit, and I climb the canyon up into the crest, where I’ll finally see the beginning of Whitewater. The sun is setting. I come over the top and the wind comes. The sunset is visible from the top, incredible hot pink spilling across the sky, and I see the hills above whitewater. I love it, and sing songs on the way down. I’m content and happy in this moment, tired and footsore but happy, in one of my favorite sections of trail. My chest swells.

I jaunt down the switchbacks, the light slowly fading around me, and suddenly I’m very bummed that I won’t be able to see this section into Whitewater, one of my favorites. There’s not much camping though and it’s pretty windy, so I might be forced to miss it. Frick. Everything is turning black around me. I go searching up a hill for a flat spot but I feel spooked at the top alone. I turn my headlamp on, resigned to keep walking. Oh well, I guess.

I think I’ve been developing butt chafe for a while, and now it is starting to burn. I’ve been ignoring it so far. I’ve never had chafe there. It hurts and distracts me from the darkness.

I startle a kangaroo rat and a big toad. I’m still bummed out by my missing the views when I turn a corner and find a sheltered little camping spot against the wind. Aha! I settle my pack down and set up camp. The group I camped with last night walks past with their headlamps, and then Maddy with two hikers I can’t see. I’ll see them tomorrow, I tell them.

I eat a burrito and some crackers for dinner. The wind is loud but I’m sheltered and warm. The Big Dipper is right above me. I’ll wake up and bathe at the Preserve tomorrow and hang out with my friends. It will be another hot one.