PCT Desert Day 33: A Night in City Hall

Mile 498.22 to 517.59 — Today’s miles: 19.37
Despite the weather, physical exhaustion puts me to sleep for a few hours, but then I wake regularly to the wind’s persistent howls. My tent flaps noisily. It is quite cold. Things finally quiet down around 2:30am, and when I wake up for the day three hours later, I hear Whiz Kid already hiking out. There’s some condensation inside and outside of my tent. Sprout and I leave together a little before 6:30. My leg still has a dull ache, but I push it out of my mind, because just two miles after leaving camp, we hit the 500-mile mark. Wow. Cowboy strolls up right after we arrive, and we’re all pretty giddy and proud of ourselves. During our photo shoot, Valley and Jacob show up too. But as with most momentous events on a long hike, we don’t have time to celebrate for long. We’ve got many miles to hike still today, before the mid-day heat really sets in, especially since we’re descending into the flat landscape below, which is sure to be hotter than these mountains we’re up in now.

There’s a few miles of uphill that don’t feel too difficult, and then flat/down for a bit to a water tank that’s a few tenths off-trail, seven miles in for the day. My leg is really hurting on the descents, even the gently sloped ones. Somewhat concerning, but what can you do? Just keep walking. I head off on the side trail to water and see Whiz Kid having a snack, her belongings spread out to dry last night’s condensation in the sun. I do the same, and because I realize I have enough water to get to the next spring, I just enjoy a nice shoes-off break here with her. I never see Sprout or Cowboy come by, and figure they must have tanked up at the earlier water source instead. They’re probably ahead of us now. Whiz Kid and I take off, chatting as we go. My leg pain continues, slowing me down, but Whiz Kid seems fine with this pace.

We reach the next water source, a spring below Horse Camp. A bunch of hikers are sitting at a picnic table here, including a couple of folks who recently started a short section hike. I lie down in the shade for lunch and examine my leg. It is noticeably swollen compared to the left one. Well, that’s definitely not optimal. I throw back a couple of ibuprofen and prop my feet up on my pack, hoping the elevation will help. I have some cell service here, and on Cyn’s suggestion I text my friend J., the bodyworker, for advice, then lie back again. Thirty minutes later I wake up. Accidental nap! It happened to Whiz Kid too. All the other hikers have gone now, and I blearily pack my things while Whiz Kid heads to the spring for water. The water report notes that this spring is a three-minute steep climb down and a six-minute climb back up, without a pack on: “Don’t go in your flip-flops, it’s not the PCT.” That doesn’t sound appealing, but this is our last reliable water until we hit Hikertown to camp tonight. I begin the descent, which is indeed quite steep. Halfway down I pass Whiz Kid, on her way back up. “That sucked,” she says, out of breath. “You’re going down there.” She points. Oh. I carefully scramble down, and finally hit the bottom, where a piped spring is producing cold clear water. I wish I could just take a bath in it. But instead I climb back up, and realize that although this is hard work, it’s not nearly as hard as it would have been a few weeks ago. I’m also reminded that going up is far less nerve-wracking for me than going down. We filter our water, shoulder our packs, and look out over the utterly flat expanse of desert that awaits us below. Somewhere down there is Hikertown, and beyond that the 17 miles of fully exposed, flat, waterless walking that we’ll do tomorrow along the L.A. aqueduct.

The good news is that some combination of nap, ibuprofen, and elevation has significantly lessened my leg pain, and I’m able to take the downhill from Horse Camp at a steady pace, though not my fastest. It’s 9.5 more miles to Hikertown, and there we are anticipating a shower, a bed, and a shuttle to a small store and restaurant. I’m motivated. The heat settles onto us as we descend, but the conversation keeps me going. There are a few uphills sprinkled in to keep things interesting — this is the PCT way — and we grumble for a moment but make quick work of them, stopping only briefly atop one hill for a five minute standing-up snack break. We pass one of the new section hikers, and soon come up behind another one. Usually if I clack my trekking poles against some rocks or cough or something as I approach, the person ahead of me will step aside to let me pass. But that doesn’t work this time. We’re right behind him now, and he’s moving at about half our pace. I say, “Hey, mind if we pass?” Nothing. He has earbuds in. Whiz Kid and I both yell out, “Excuse me! Hello?” but he never notices. I will have to make physical contact, and I know this will scare him, because he’s completely unaware of our presence. I don’t want to do this, and yell a few more times to procrastinate, but finally reach around to tap his shoulder. He nearly jumps out of his skin, eyes wide, and before my hand has even left his shirt I am apologizing, “I’m so sorry, we kept trying to get your attention, I’m so sorry to startle you.” (Days later, recounting this story, Whiz Kid will reveal that she videoed the entire encounter, and she will laugh and laugh at the memory of my immediate flood of apologies.) He recovers, decides to hike with only one earbud in from now on (a good call, for hearing rattlesnakes if nothing else), and we zip past him, up and over the next hill.

The last three miles take forever, though the terrain is not difficult. It’s hot, and I keep thinking the end is right around the corner, but it’s not. Finally we emerge from the rolling hills onto a straight, flat dirt road, which leads us into Hikertown around 4:30pm. Hikertown is not a real town. It is a small piece of land upon which several tiny dilapidated buildings sit. On the outside, the buildings are made to look like key parts of a town: doctor’s office, hotel, post office. There are also some trailers and campers scattered about, some old cars and trucks, and various junkyard items. I think only hikers ever come here. We wander in, finding a bunch of hikers in what must be the town square, a little patch of grass with a bit of shade and some lawn furniture. I see Rosie, and he gives me the rundown — water spigot, shower, toilet, free shuttle to the restaurant a few miles away. Camping for $5, or a “room” (one of the trailers or little buildings) for $10. Whiz Kid and I inquire about a room and are given the last one remaining: city hall. It is a building without electricity that consists of one room, with an almost-broken doorknob, a shabby old sofa with a sheet on it, and a half-busted recliner. Okay, we’ll take it. The room is fairly disgusting and definitely a bit creepy, but I drop my pack and decide to think about this later because the shuttle is due soon. There is for all of Hikertown a single flush toilet in one of the trailers (BYOTP — bring your own toilet paper), which I wait in line for, and then several of us pile onto the bare floor of a van with no back seats to be driven to the holy grail of real food.

At the store/restaurant, we find Cowboy and Sprout and EarlyBird, and many other hikers who are all either eating with gusto or digesting the giant meal they’ve already finished. I get a big asada burrito, fried cheese sticks to split with Whiz Kid, a coconut water, and a Sprite. There’s no apple juice in the store. In fact, Bananaman, whom I met at Horse Camp earlier today, comes over to show me the bottle of apple Snapple he bought — since learning my name earlier today he’d been craving apple juice too, but could only get this poor substitute. We eat. Whiz Kid ordered a 2.5 pound giant burrito and makes a valiant effort to consume it, but wraps up the last fourth for breakfast tomorrow. I buy a huge red Gatorade and we cram into the van to go back to our strange, creepy junkyard of a home for the night.

Almost everyone I know seems to be here tonight. I don’t think I could stay here without all the company — the place is too weird. I take a shower. It is an outdoor shower that’s unheated. In truth it is just a garden hose with a sprinkler attachment to spray the water out. There’s a little wooden stall built around it, with a door that doesn’t fully close and a wood floor with some rubber mats. I can’t figure out how to turn the water on. Finally I see a small sign telling me to flip the red switch for the shower. The red switch is the “on” button on a power strip that (I now notice) is hanging in a corner of the shower stall. Well. This seems like maybe the most unsafe and ill-advised thing on the trail so far. Standing on the wet shower floor, I flip the switch on a live power strip and sure enough, the garden hose begins spraying water. And I am not electrocuted. In the hot mid-day, this cold water was probably the most refreshing thing ever, but now it’s early evening, cool and windy, and I shiver my way through a very fast shower, giving my filthy hiking shirt and socks a good rinse at the end. These I pin to the clothesline, and then sit on the porch of city hall to deal with my feet.

While I drain blisters and apply new tape (and officially lose a second toenail), a group of hikers next door does a pack shakedown for Melinda, who got on trail at Agua Dulce for a long section hike. In a shakedown, you empty your pack and someone looks at every single item and suggests what you could leave behind or easily/cheaply replace with something smaller/lighter to save weight. Melinda has a lot of extra clothes and some other redundant items (a back-up light, I think I hear, or maybe just lots of spare batteries for her headlamp, because a chorus of “just use your phone!” goes up at one point). I’m not sure how much they are able to convince her to ship home. I get a text from J. with some advice for my leg pain, which is still present, and try to do the massage and stretching that she suggests.

I watch some hikers leave around 8pm to night-hike the first several miles of the aqueduct. Whiz Kid and I have opted for a super early morning start instead: we’ll be hiking by 4am. This way we should get a good chunk of it done before the sun heats up, and can get away with carrying less water. I am taking four liters, and hope that the faucet is running at the 17 mile mark. The water report notes that the Forest Service can shut it off without notice. If it is off, it’ll be another two PCT miles and then 1.3 miles off-trail to the next water. And no one wants to do off-trail miles. We try to settle into our accommodations in city hall. Whiz Kid takes the sofa and I wrestle the chair into a relatively reclined position. Other hikers curl up on the porch and the ground outside. They might have made a better choice. But the torn flag hanging outside city hall flaps violently in the wind, and I realize I’d be sleeping poorly out there in that wind as well. I lie awake in the dark for an hour or two. Tomorrow is going to be a very long day.

500 miles! This matched our GPS apps’ mileage count.

The formal 500 mile marker, a few miles later. A reminder of how the “official” trail changes from year to year.

So green in the first half of the day.

But we’re headed down there, into the flat and dry.

Yikes. (Photo by Whiz Kid.)

Going to look at Hikertown’s city hall. (Photo by Whiz Kid.)

Interior of city hall. (Photo by Whiz Kid. Recliner not pictured.)

Van ride back from the store/restaurant. I was feeling full and sleepy. Left to right: me, EarlyBird, Sprout, Valley. I think that is the back of Jacob’s head? Whiz Kid took this.

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