PCT Desert Day 34: Aqueduct Day

Mile 517.59 to 541.55 — Today’s miles: 23.96
After a restless and uncomfortable night on my lumpy, not-quite-reclining recliner in Hikertown, it is almost a relief when 3:30am arrives: time to get up. I gently announce the time to wake up Whiz Kid, who immediately rolls clumsily off the sofa. “Sports!” she cheers, only half-awake but already cracking jokes. We quickly pack up our sleeping bags by the light of our headlamps, and are heading out of this weird, somewhat unsettling place about 20 minutes later. It’s quite windy out still, but it’s not cold. I try not to think about what that means for daytime temperatures in a few hours.

We have to do a little route finding in the dark. Most of the day will be spent walking the aqueduct in a straight flat line, but there are a few turns to make before that, which I navigate slowly in my headlamp’s dim ray of light. I see something move by my feet. A mouse? No, wait, it’s — I shriek this quietly, joyously, to Whiz Kid — a kangaroo rat! Wow! I have always wanted to see one of these! It’s adorable, huge eyes and extra long tail, softly hopping around on the trail. We see three in total, and they’re not particularly afraid of us, though maybe they’re just confused by our headlamps. The last one almost hops onto my foot, and when I shuffle my feet gently, it pops straight up and bounces off into the brush.

With the sky just barely beginning to lighten, we pass a few homes nearby. A dog barks incessantly at us — I wonder how much its owners must hate the hikers whose presence riles it up every morning — and a rooster crows. We make a turn and walk alongside the open aqueduct for a short period, and pass two people fishing (I think? Are there fish in the aqueduct?) in the dark. At last, just at dawn, we make a final turn north and are walking on top of the L.A. aqueduct. It’s a particular kind of beautiful up here, walking on this enormous metal tube in this light, the desert all laid out around us. But after a few minutes we realize it’s not the most practical hiking terrain. My feet can’t land flat on this big pipe, and the rivets aren’t very comfortable on the bottoms of my feet. We see many trail runner prints on the dirt road just to our right, and though it’s not technically the PCT, we shift over to it instead. My lower leg is starting to ache again, and I feel like I’ve got a tiny pebble in one of my shoes. It turns out to be a loose thread in my sock, which has already created a thin blister on the sole of my foot. Argh. We see a couple of small birds chasing a big raven (away from their nest, probably). One of the birds keeps up the chase for a long time, flying above the raven and then dipping down to peck its head, over and over. The raven lets out a squawk every time it gets pecked. I watch until they’ve flown so far away that they’re just tiny dots, the small bird still doling out punishment. We see a house with a Confederate flag flying, and exchange a look. This exposed, flat landscape and the unusual proximity to houses, even if only a few of them, already make me uneasy. The flag ratchets that feeling up a few notches. Whiz Kid snaps a photo of it, but I’m too anxious to do so.

I move slower than Whiz Kid, trying to manage my leg pain, and then catch up to her for our planned break at 10 miles in for the day. It’s 8am. We’ve left the giant metal tube behind — now the aqueduct is underground, under the flat concrete that we walk almost like a sidewalk. We sit on top of a big concrete block — they’re spaced intermittently all along the aqueduct — for our break. Maybe it’s a spot where workers can access the pipe beneath? I can hear the water rushing down there under the big slab of concrete. Water under our feet all day, but no way to access it. I eat, stretch, use my trekking pole to roll out my calves, elevate my leg. I need to dig a cathole, but there’s no cover; I duck behind a pile of sand and make Whiz Kid be my lookout.

It’s 7.8 miles to the next water (if the faucet is on). Whiz Kid walks on ahead of me, disappearing around the bend as I grit my teeth and try to walk through my leg pain. It’s bad today. Every step is hard. I pull out my music — I need something to distract me, so put on a Mountain Goats album and let John Darnielle tell me some stories. The music feels unexpectedly appropriate for this dry and unforgiving landscape, though he’s singing about West Texas and I’m walking through Southern California. All around me is sand and dust, dry and exposed as far as I can see, and I know the water is right underneath me but I can’t have it — I’m basically walking in the land of Mad Max: Fury Road. I put my head down, focus on the music (“hi-diddle-dee-dee, goddamn, the pirate’s life for me”), and try to forget about the pain. After a while of walking on flat ground, my leg does seem to improve a bit, but I’m barely at a 2mph pace, disappointingly slow on this day of no elevation change. And it means it’s taking me longer to reach my break spot at the water source, longer out in the sun. A couple of miles before the faucet, I’m hot and sweaty, limping along, a new blister beginning, feeling depleted. Around every turn I wonder if I’ll see my friends ahead, sitting in makeshift shade and enjoying a snack. Nope.

Around 11:30 I see a big colored flag and a tent type structure ahead. But I talk myself out of the idea of trail magic; I’ve seen some dirt bikers in the last mile or so, and suspect this structure is for them. Then I see backpacks along the edge of it. My hopes rise again. Oh please, please have a cold drink for me. As I get close, a woman walks out and greets me, explains that she’s part of some Burning Man group that’s set this up for hikers today. Huh. She says they have hot dogs and cold sodas and asks if I’d like some. I wonder if anyone has said no to this question today? At the tent, there are maybe 15 hikers sprawled on chairs and bean bags and pillows. But the only thing left for me is the ground. I shrug off my pack and collapse, overheated and exhausted. It feels so good to be in the shade. Eventually I eat a hot dog, some kimchi, an orange, a kimchi-grilled cheese sandwich, and a diet soda (the only kind of cold drink left). This shade, after 17 miles of completely exposed hiking, is a miracle. Most hikers are talking about staying here until mid- or even late-afternoon, to wait out the sun. Several folks have unrolled their Tyvek or sleeping pads and are napping. But around 12:30 I hear our hosts say something about packing up. Oh god. They are taking away the shade. The feeling of profound loss is visible on every hiker’s face as we pack up and move back into the sun’s heat. The water faucet is on (hurrah!) and because it draws from the aqueduct, the water is nice and cool. As we all filter, there is some light debate about whether it’s better to have a brief taste of shade and relaxation but then be thrust back out into the harsh afternoon, or to have never known that feeling of respite at all. I am grateful for the time I had to recover, and for anything that trail angels offer, though I have to admit it feels a bit cruel to take the shade away right as the hottest part of the day begins. Several folks have found a bridge nearby and plan to rest in its shade for a few more hours. Like Whiz Kid and Cowboy, though, I just want to get through the last 6.6 miles of the day.

So, holding my umbrella against the sun, I hike. My leg feels better, and the first two miles pass at a steady pace. I see my pals in a shade break and join them for some electrolytes. After this it’s harder. The heat is worse, the uphill is steeper, and the wind makes it harder to hold my umbrella. With 2.5 miles left, I stop to put the umbrella away. Cowboy passes me, face flushed from the heat and exertion, but says with good humor, “I’m really workin’ for it!” I fall behind as the trail further steepens, until even Cowboy is out of my view and I am climbing alone, wondering where the wind went, trying to ignore the ache in my leg and just get to camp, get to water. At the top, the breeze returns and follows me along the winding ridge and over the other side, down to Tylerhorse Canyon where I can see even from here that water is flowing.

It’s 4pm when I reach the bottom and find my friends spread out next to the water. Sprout and EarlyBird are here, along with Cowboy and Whiz Kid. There’s a little sandy slope down to get to them, and just as I’m saying I don’t want to fall down it, I fall down it. Oh well. I drink a liter of water and lie flat on my back for many minutes. I am exhausted from the usual daily physical challenges of long-distance hiking, all exacerbated by my constant leg pain. Whiz Kid is cooking an enormous meal (I think this time it’s a cheesy Knorr pasta side with chicken from a foil pouch, extra shredded cheddar, and “Dorito topping,” crushed Doritos that she puts on everything), because she plans to hike another five or six miles tonight. The other three are heading down the stream to grab some nice campsites under the trees there. Moving in any way sounds impossible to me, and I declare I will just pitch my tent right here and see them all tomorrow.

But after a rest and some food, I drag my pack downstream to the trees where my three friends are all already in their tents, ready for an early bedtime in order to have an early morning start. As I’m trying to set up my shelter quietly, Cowboy leans out of his tent and sees me. “Apple Juice!” he says warmly. “You came!” This reaction is so heartening to me — it means a lot to feel seen and appreciated out here, especially on a day as hard as this one’s been. We discuss plans for tomorrow in a whisper: it’s a little over 24 miles into Tehachapi, with one huge climb in the morning and no reliable water sources all day. I decide that if I wake very early and do most of the climb before the sun’s fully up, I can carry only four liters. Sixteen miles in, there’s another road to town that I can take if my water situation turns out to be desperate, so I feel okay about this plan. By 7pm I’ve finished my nightly foot care and am getting under my quilt to sleep, when a bunch of other hikers arrive and talk loudly with each other about where to set up their tents between ours. They eat dinner together and talk and talk, finally heading to bed near 9pm. I try to be forgiving of these different schedules, but it’s hard sometimes. Being kept awake this late will make my early start much less fun, and I’ll have to make noise packing up before dawn near people who are probably not planning to wake up that early. In these moments, I miss the nights that I’ve camped all alone in tiny little hidden spots. But as water sources have become scarcer, folks are camping in groups more often. And I’m aware of how little time I have left to spend with the friends I’ve made out here. I finally drift off to sleep as the latecomers all settle into their tents, leaving only the faint sound of flowing water in the background. Such a luxury, that sound.

Kangaroo rat!! Squee! (Photo by Whiz Kid, lighting jointly provided by our headlamps.)

Joshua Tree sunrise.

Whiz Kid under the aqueduct at dawn. There was an unexpected collection of abandoned furniture in this immediate area.

View as we walked north on the aqueduct.

Me on the aqueduct. (Today’s photos of me taken by Whiz Kid, obviously.)

Whiz Kid, and behind her to the south, the mountains we came over yesterday.

Tiny me walking the road next to the aqueduct.

Tiny me walking on the aqueduct (or at least, it’s under that concrete). This is what the majority of today’s miles looked like.

Mad Max-ish landscape.

In the afternoon, but before the climbing. As usual, everything is super dangerous but go ahead PCT hikers!

Looking back over the windfarm at the top of the hot afternoon climb. I was so exhausted when I took this photo.

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