PCT Desert Day 21: Ridge Walking

Mile 328.71 to 349.29 — Today’s miles: 20.58
After everyone finally settles down, I sleep well at the picnic area. In the early morning I think I hear a tiny patter of rain on my tent, but it’s so brief that I decide it’s just leaves. No one is up yet, and I sleep a little more, but then the sound is back, and it is raining, very lightly. Folks who slept without their rainflies on are hurriedly packing their things away now, so I reluctantly do the same. I take advantage of running, potable water to brush my teeth in the sink and fill up my bottles for 13 miles. When I head out into the cold drizzle, the others are still huddled under the overhang near the bathrooms, cooking breakfasts and talking.

As I hike the rain comes on steadier, but it’s never a real storm, just a soft continual rain. Combined with my weather on Fuller Ridge, this has me rethinking my choice to leave my real rain jacket at home. I figured I would be fine with a windshirt (marginally water-resistant, far from waterproof) and umbrella. I guess I have been fine, just slightly less comfortable than I might have been.

It’s not so chilly after a few minutes of uphill hiking, and there are several brilliant rainbows to cheer things up this morning. They get better around every turn, including a big double rainbow that I was too wet to stop and take a photo of. I climb up into the hills, feeling at peace with the weather (imagining that I am hiking in Oregon) and only frustrated that my glasses keep getting raindrops on them. It’s useless to dry them off, so I just look over the top of them for a while. There’s some wind as the trail flattens out more, and as we cross a dirt road the clouds begin to break up at last.

I speed along, eating bars and snacks from my hip belt pockets as I walk. It’s McDonald’s day, and every part of me is anxious to get there as soon as possible for food, soda, a real bathroom, a place to sit for a while. I check my GPS app: already halfway there! I hike even a little faster.

But now the trail climbs up to the ridges, up and down along them like a roller coaster. It even looks like a roller coaster track from some of the high points. But I can’t take a photo of that because the wind is so powerful up here that sometimes I can hardly keep walking. Yesterday’s wind was just a practice run for this. I can see the whole valley floor spread out beneath me, mountains over and over into the distant horizon, while up on the ridge tiny Apple Juice fights his way through the wind. There are one or two times when I think that it might really blow me right off the mountain. I am still pressing forward, but I do stop at one high point, plant my poles in the ground, and just embrace the wind’s strength as it whips against me. I may never experience this feeling again.

And then, finally, the real descent, down toward the highway, into the flat, the wind still making occasional appearances as I wonder whether this next turn in the trail will produce that famous sign pointing my way to fast food happiness. It takes longer than I expect to reach that point, but then I gleefully turn right, off the trail and onto pavement. Just 0.4 miles now. But these are some disgusting tenths of a mile: all garbage and broken glass and the smell of raw sewage along this outlet road next to the highway. I walk fast, keeping my eyes on the parking lot ahead. It’s 11:15 when I open the door, and I’ve hiked over 13 miles without stopping.

McDonald’s: just like every other fast food stop on a highway, packed with bleary-eyed drivers and shrieking children, but this one is also swarming with hikers. Hikers crammed into at least two-thirds of the booths, tables piled high with huge trays of food or the remnants thereof, backpacks and hiking poles lining the walkways. “Apple Juuuuuuice!” I hear, as I stumble through, wholly overwhelmed by this chaos and enclosed space. It’s Dos Tacos and friends, who’ve already eaten most of their food.

I place my first order: a quarter pounder with cheese, fries, a Sprite, and an apple juice. This I eat very rapidly while I try to adjust to the utter chaos and full sensory overload of my surroundings. Two small children occupy the booth next to mine, jumping up and down, screaming, chasing each other. They’ve been in a car too long, and I feel bad but I’m relieved when the parents get their order to go. Every five minutes a non-hiker asks a hiker what we are doing, where we started hiking, how much longer we will be out here. The same conversation plays in a loop.

Space Jam shows up just as I’m polishing off my last fries, and the rest of the folks from the picnic area soon follow. I refill my Sprite and make a second order: egg, sausage, and cheese McMuffin; apple pie; and an oreo ice cream thing. By the time I finish this round, I am blissfully full. Our table is literally covered with wrappings from the food we’ve just consumed. Space Jam drinks two apple juice boxes and then says he feels sick. “It’s not for amateurs,” I say, “you gotta pace yourself.” I go outside with my phone and book a zero day in Wrightwood, straining to hear the hotel owner over the wind and cars.

We all fill our water bottles at the soda machine’s one water dispenser. The next source is 22 miles ahead, almost all uphill. It looks like it’ll be cool weather, but I pack out a little more than four liters anyway. We set off in a big group around 2pm, most of us still with distended bellies, and soon stretch out according to hiking pace, each hiking alone. I am in back, dragging. I used up my good energy this morning. It’s windy and cold, and looks like it might rain again.

We ascend, on and on, into the wind. Suddenly I look up and see a few hikers — maybe it is Sprout and Mowgli — way up on the top of the ridge, tiny little figures above me. I’m going up there. The wind gets bigger as I climb, pushing me around as I turn the small switchbacks and emerge on top of the ridge, blasted by the wind and looking out over the whole world. It’s incredible up here. Speck arrives behind me, looking just as amazed by this experience. A part of me wants to be here forever.

But the roller coaster track goes down, of course, and I can see the others far below me now. Eventually I catch up to a few having a shoes-off break in an old dry creekbed, and join them until the grey clouds look too threatening. We’ve all decided to do seven miles past McDonald’s, to make tomorrow’s hike into Wrightwood shorter. But now we’re going up again, and I’m worried about where to camp. A lot of the trail winds around mountainsides with no real flat areas, and there aren’t even any campsites listed on the apps for many more miles.

After two miles of uphill, during which I am really lagging, I see Whiz Kid, Cowboy, and Sprout in a rocky ravine just below the trail. They’re trying to find spots for their tents. I can’t figure out what to do, and just as I’ve almost decided to press my luck and hike on, Whiz Kid shouts out that I should join them. “Yeah, it’s pretty shitty and slopey down here, but there’s no wind,” Cowboy says. I find a “tentsite” that is not even close to flat, and am very impressed that I’m able to achieve a relatively stable pitch of my tent. It’s the worst campsite I’ve had so far, definitely. We eat and chat and do foot care. I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only one still getting blisters. I try to settle into my super sloped tent, knowing I won’t sleep well but looking forward to good rest in town tomorrow.

One of the many morning rainbows. Some of the best rainbows I’ve ever seen!

After a climb, en route to McDonald’s.


A small part of the hiker swarm.

We walked through a tunnel under the highway, and then through this big pipe.

Tiny hikers ridge walking above.

Panoramic from the top of the ridge. The wind was so strong, I can’t believe I held my phone steady for this.

Ridge walking.

Roller coaster trail!

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