To just north of Belle Campground: about 11 miles
To my relief, we had a blissfully wind-free night. I fell asleep almost instantly at 7pm and woke a little before dawn to pull on my puffy jacket and snuggle back into my bag, watching the sky lighten as the sun slowly crept over the mountains. Last night we discovered that the door zipper on Cyn’s side of the tent was failing, the little zipper teeth refusing to connect near the top. We closed it up as much as possible and are now down to one tent door for the remainder of the trip, which is okay, just a bit inconvenient. After a lazy breakfast, we did our best to erase visual evidence of our presence at the campsite and headed back to the trail. It was much closer than we’d anticipated: as we’d wandered off-trail in our quest to find a viable tent site the night before, we couldn’t see that the trail curved around towards us, so the campsite we’d thought was the required 500 feet away was really not. Ooops.
It was already pretty warm when we left camp around 8.30am, and stayed hot for the duration. I was grateful for the constant gentle breeze that followed us. We navigated a beautiful rocky downhill section in the morning, but otherwise, the trail was very flat and straightforward and had us gazing at the same distant mountains most of the day. We certainly weren’t complaining about the views, but we did wish for some landscape features that would throw off a bit of shade.
A few miles before Geology Tour Road, the trail turned into deep beach sand again, and we slogged through it silently. Well, silent until my pack decided to interject with a persistent squeak somewhere. After a few failed attempts to locate the squeak, I resigned myself to its companionship. At the road crossing, we took a quick look at the map on the backcountry board. This “intersection” seemed close to the Jumbo Rocks area, which is supposed to be pretty incredible, and I’d envisioned a little side trip to explore there. But we realized it would actually be several miles roundtrip, and in the mid-day heat we immediately discarded that plan. Instead, just a few more miles to Twin Tanks, where our last water cache waited and where we hoped we might find shade for a lunch break.
Right after the road crossing, my left hip began to ache with every squeaky step. Cyn’s feet started to hurt. The beach sand continued. The last mile or two into Twin Tanks consisted of total zombie hiking: no thinking, no talking, just one foot in front of the other, ticking off the mile markers as we passed them. We did stay alert enough for a few special moments. A very, very large lizard skittered across the trail. Cyn spotted a hare off to our right, who seemed a bit nervous but loped around gently between the bushes, looking oddly like a miniature deer as it moved, before quietly ducking out of sight altogether. And once I looked up just in time to spy a big blooming cactus full of bright fuschia flowers.
Finally, just before 1pm, we arrived at Twin Tanks, retrieved our water cache, and lugged the two gallons over to the backcountry board. To our tremendous delight, we found that the board produced precisely enough shade to cover the two of us. I spread out our Tyvek sheet and took off my trail runners, dumping a few tablespoons of fine sand from each shoe. We exploded our packs, rummaged through our food bags, and ate heartily. We’d walked about nine miles so far, without seeing a single other person.
A car arrived at the board and a fresh-smelling tourist got out and looked at us, sprawled on the ground, covered in dust, stinky, sweaty, surrounded by dirty plastic bags and half-eaten junk food. “Spending some time in the backcountry?” he asked. We nodded and smiled, though his question was obviously rhetorical. But after he left, I lay in our tiny patch of shade considering the term “hiker trash,” which many backpackers fondly and humorously use to describe the grimy, smelly, hungry, unrefined characteristics of long-distance hiking. I’ve said it myself a couple of times, but always felt uneasy afterward. My general discomfort with the phrase stems from its similarity to poor/white trash, and what it means for so many hikers to be able to actively choose and take pleasure in “homelessness” for a finite period of time, to be able to enjoy being “trash” while essentially vacationing for a week or six months. Not all backpackers are economically privileged, of course, but if you read around in trail journals or talk to folks on the trail, it’s not hard to glean that most are at least economically stable. It was the tourist’s question, to which he already knew the answer, that helped clarify one reason I’m apprehensive about the “hiker trash” joke: for so many hikers, it can be a joke precisely because “hiker trash” might look like involuntary homelessness or poverty, but actually is not. (And even if that difference isn’t immediately clear, hikers can validate their trash status by citing the joy/hard work/interesting stories of the trail. Backpackers might be mistaken as “actually” homeless, but many (most?) of us will have the option to correct that mistake: oh, no, I’m thru-hiking this trail, not actually living on the street.) As a few other people drove up to the board, some chatting with us while they studied the map, I also considered how “hiker trash” might resonate differently for hikers of color, especially in town. So much to think and write about this…
While Cyn lounged in the shade, I applied our little massage ball to my left hip and glute muscles, relieved to feel the pain disappear. Before leaving, we dealt with the cached water: funneled a gallon or so into our containers, used some to thoroughly wash our hands, and left the remainder under the board for others. As the trail turned north for the first time, we passed two day hikers who cautioned us about the deep sand they’d been walking through. Cyn and I shared a disappointed glance, not that excited about slipping through beach sand for the remainder of our hike. After a mile, we hit Belle Campground and used their pit toilet. All of the tent sites there were full and I was glad we were backcountry camping, avoiding the stressful first-come-first-served policy for the park’s established campsites. A small child yelled out of a tent, “Hey mom? Do you think this is gonna be our best day ever?!” The mother’s “yes” came back in a distracted, weary voice, and as I squinted at the giant rock formations surrounding us, mountains in the distance as far as I could see, I affirmed that kid’s question/desire as hard as possible in my head. YES. It is going to be our best day ever, kiddo.
We hiked on another half mile or so, and then veered off-trail to the east toward some enormous rock clusters, looking for a place to set up camp. Tucked away behind one set of boulders, we found the perfect secluded spot for our tent. It felt like a secret hideaway, though I could still see some footprints left by past adventurers here. We each took some time to climb and explore among the boulders, then sat in the shade fending off a bee and eating our last dinner of the trip. I contemplated our surroundings and determined that everything inside of me runs more smoothly when I spend time outside. Like making a tiny adjustment to some mechanical contraption that makes every little part click into place with ease. It’s not as if it was broken before, but there’s a new effortlessness about it after that tweak is made. Day-hiking and short walks at home are good for maintenance, but I’m realizing that extended exposure to the outdoors makes a huge difference to my emotional and mental landscape.
I had a hard time falling asleep, wanting to watch every second of our last desert sunset. Only a few miles to finish up in the morning. –Toby
ps. We thought our non-backpacking friends might be interested to see our sleep set-up. This is what a “two-person” lightweight backpacking tent gets you, folks. We do okay (we really like each other, we’re both pretty short, and we don’t hang out in the tent unless we’re actually going to bed), but I’m thinking about something a smidge roomier for our long trip this summer…