Mile 395.21 to 414.69 — Today’s miles: 19.48
I sleep well next to the creek and get up when I hear the whoosh of Whiz Kid’s stove starting up for her breakfast. It’s cold again, but not like yesterday. Still, I head out of camp before the other two just so I can get moving to warm up. There are signs about bears in this area, so I watch carefully and try to make noise, especially around the many blind corners that the trail takes. We’re climbing this morning, and I’m not too speedy, especially once I hit the sunlight and start to get warm. Whiz Kid passes me and hikes in front, music playing on her phone. Her earbuds broke recently, but I enjoy her choice of hiking music and also think it’s a good idea to have this auditory alert for possible bears.
It’s not long before we hit the 400 mile marker, as always made with stones by previous hikers. Whiz Kid takes my photo — only 302 miles to go now! Less than a mile later we reach a scout camp with picnic tables and a water source, and take a snack break. The water faucet sprays into the air and it requires some skill to fill our bottles. Sprout arrives, and we consider upcoming water sources and potential mileage for the day — these topics are related because if you decide to stop for the night where there’s no water, you need to pack out extra for overnight and to get you to the next source in the morning. Water planning takes up so much of my brain space out here — I’m a little sad that I won’t get to experience the shift away from it in the Sierra Nevada section (though this year especially, water will still be of utmost importance — it’s just that the worries will be about huge snow fields and high water crossings, not how much there is to drink).
I hike out first, headed to the stream in five miles. It’s getting hot already. Whiz Kid passes me again and we both gratefully plop down in the shade by the stream. I scoop water from a pool filled with algae blooms. But the water is cold and clear (and I filter everything out here). Sprout shows up and the three of us take a long lunch to wait out the hottest hours. We are joined by a literal swarm of ladybugs. I’ve never seen anything like it — they just swirl all around us, for the few hours that we’re there, and continue another half mile down the trail as we leave. We discuss our next water source, Fountainhead Spring, another five miles ahead. “I wonder if Ayn Rand will be there,” Sprout jokes, and Whiz Kid and I simultaneously recoil. “She does have water there!” Sprout says. “Yeah but she won’t share it with anyone,” I reply, feeling very proud of my joke.
It is hot when we head out after 2pm. I hike in front on a steady but not-too-steep uphill. I start sweating immediately and it rolls into my eyes and burns like fire. I try to make my eyes tear up to flush the sweat out, hike with one eye squinted closed, then realize this is throwing off my depth perception. This is also our first day really dealing with the dreaded Poodle Dog Bush, a very toxic plant said to be worse than poison oak. It grows up in previously burned areas and must be avoided at all cost. It is everywhere. I keep a nice steady pace until it shows up, then lose my rhthym in order to dance around it. It takes a remarkable amount of mental energy to be vigilant for it — scanning both sides of the trail, distinguishing it from all the other plants, and planning footsteps to avoid brushing it even with our clothes. Damn that PDB.
Finally, the spring. We filter water, eat, chat for a bit. I see a guy named Rosie who was suffering from (probably) heat exhaustion when last I saw him around Paradise Valley Cafe, and he is fully recovered now. I need to dig a cathole but we’re on the side of a mountain with just big rocks and PDB around. Looks like the landscape flattens out in a mile or so, so I leave early to take care of business, telling my pals that I’ll see them in four miles at a campsite we’d considered.
But then not too far from that point, my left leg starts hurting between the ankle and the shin. It’s definitely a tight muscle or something. Maybe because I just shifted to downhill after so much up? But it’s no fun, and when I see a beautiful campsite a few tenths before the spot we’d discussed, I just take it. It’s mercifully free of PDB. I’m on a ridge but able to pitch my tent against a little crop of trees and shrubs as a buffer against possible wind. As I’m putting the last stake in, I hear a few loud flaps above my head and look around. A hiker flapping their jacket or tent fly? No, it’s an enormous bird flying overhead. Even this ornithophobe is pretty awed. I sit on a log and text Cyn, eat a quick dinner, watch the sun begin to set over the mountains. Whiz Kid appears on the trail. “Oh, you are here! We just wanted to make sure you didn’t fall off a cliff!” she says. I feel bad that I made them worry, but am also touched that she came to check on me. I get into my sleep clothes and pull up my quilt, talking to Cyn on the phone because my cell service is remarkably good up here. I hear other people setting up camp nearby and say goodbye to Cyn — I hate hearing other people on the phone, in public in general but especially on hiking trips, and don’t want to mar the experience for anyone else. The sun is almost down anyway, and it’s so peaceful up here that I fall asleep instantly.