Mile 541.55 to 566.44 — Today’s miles: 24.89
I hear Cowboy’s alarm go off at 2:30am. In the dark, I lie awake in my quilt and listen to the sounds around me: EarlyBird folding up her tent poles, and then the crunch of her shoes on the sand as she hikes out; Sprout clipping her pack closed and hiking out; Cowboy hitting snooze on his alarm four times, but finally joining the morning exodus. I’m dressed and starting to stuff my quilt as he walks past, and by the time I finish rolling up my tent (the last thing I pack every morning), I can see the tiny light of his headlamp on the trail above. I stop by the stream to filter a liter of water, replacing the one I drank overnight in an effort to pre-hydrate for this long waterless day. Jacob is just waking up, and asks how much water I’m packing out. “Four liters for 24 miles?!” he gasps. It’s a sign of how thoroughly I’ve internalized desert hiking that I interpret his incredulous tone as a belief that I’m taking too much water. “Yeah, it’s gonna be hot today!” I say, mildly defensive. He stares at me, and says he’s taking six, maybe seven liters. Oh. I doubt myself for a half-second, but I know I’ve developed a very good sense of my personal water needs by now. I pack up my four liters and walk into the dark morning, gingerly stepping around others’ tents and back to the trail before 4:30am.
The first few miles are a gentle, rolling uphill, and as I climb I see in the distance a group of blinking red lights. It takes me a moment to realize that these are lights on the Tehachapi wind farm turbines. I hope this means I can look forward to a nice breeze today. The stars are out, and I can see the Milky Way again this morning (it was also visible as we left Hikertown yesterday). The trail winds in and out along the folds of the mountains, and I hike slowly in slippery sand and dim light. But it feels good to be out this early. As the sky lightens, I hike down into a valley where a few folks are still asleep in their tents. There’s a dead kangaroo rat in the middle of the trail here. (Later, I learn that it ran right under another hiker’s foot this morning, and he stepped on it accidentally. I feel terrible for him, and for the animal, and I think back to the lizard that I accidentally stepped on a few days ago.)
Here in this valley I can look up and see today’s major ascent right in front of me. It’s several miles of climbing. I don’t stop in the valley, just cruise right on through and begin the uphill while I still have early morning air. The sun is coming up, but for much of the climb I’m still shaded by the mountain, only emerging into direct sunlight intermittently. When I finally reach what I think is the top, I check my GPS app to confirm. I’m tired, but I see a campsite marked on the app that’s 0.2 miles ahead, so I hike on, thinking it will be a nice flat spot for a snack break. Best decision ever: there’s a cache of trail magic here! A group of angels has set up what they cheekily call “The Mile 549 Bar & Grill,” with chairs, water, apples (!!), and little individual baggies of cookies. It’s just before 8am, and I’ve hiked a third of my miles for the day. I prop my sore leg up on a chair and relax, savoring the fresh fruit. A bit later I’m joined by Ironman and Mashed Potatoes, and just after them, A-Game and Gusher. We are all tremendously buoyed by this trail magic after a tough climb. Still, I hang out only for about half an hour, anxious to get some more miles done before the day really heats up.
Now that the uphill is complete, it’s a long, mostly-exposed downhill for the next eight miles or so. I speed along, my leg doing much better than yesterday (though still a bit sore and swollen). I’m all alone for most of this segment, only crossing paths with one southbound hiker. I want to get to the first road before I take another serious break, but I start to slow down with a couple of miles to go. It’s officially hot out now, and the descent is a little steeper, and my leg’s hurting more. But there’s no shady flat spot to rest anyway, so I just keep walking as usual. The last mile is a slog. Finally I drop down to the bottom and see some big trees ahead. A hiker is lying down under them — it’s Dexter, and I gratefully collapse onto my Tyvek in the shade near her.
It’s a little after 12pm and I’ve hiked 16 miles so far: two-thirds of the day done. There’s cell service here because we’re right next to Willow Springs Road. This road goes into Tehachapi, my final resupply stop and tonight’s destination, but I’m going to hike another eight miles or so to the highway and go into town that way. It’s a waterless stretch that I want to do now, while my pack is at its lightest, instead of when I’m leaving town with a full load of food. I text Cyn, book a hotel room, and — once my body temperature lowers a bit — eat a bunch of calories to prep for my last leg of the day. It’s so cool and comfortable here that I really have to force myself to pack up again. Around 2pm I leave Dexter, Ironman, and Mashed Potatoes napping in the shade.
I cross Willow Springs Road and am greeted by a biker named Dave, who has stopped here to have an afternoon beer. “A hiker!” he says with interest, and then asks me many questions. Is my hike like the one Reese Witherspoon did in Wild, he wants to know? “Um, kinda,” I tell him. There’s a small water cache here by the road, a few gallon jugs stashed under a bush. Dave wonders if hikers left these behind because they’d brought more water than they needed, but I explain that some generous soul left these for hikers who need more water. After saying goodbye, I try to hike quickly to make up the time I’ve lost. During my lunch break I realized that it’s Memorial Day today, and I’m worried that will make it difficult to get a hitch into town. But the trail is just gently rolling here, and suddenly my leg is magically pain-free (how? I decide not to question it), so I zip along through the wind farm, uphill in the breeze, and around the mountains until I arrive at a memorial bench overlooking the valley below. The wind is constant up here, and I can look down and see the highway below. I eat a quick snack and then it’s down into the valley, and a short road walk to the highway crossing. As I get closer, I’m increasingly anxious about hitching; in addition to the holiday, the highway doesn’t look like an ideal place to hitch, and I’m arriving right at dinner time. But just as I approach the crossing, a pickup truck slows down and the driver asks if I need a ride. What luck! John is one of the local trail angels and a hiker himself. On the way to my hotel, we share stories about the Sierra Nevada and he helpfully points out the most exciting restaurants to me. Like every other person who’s given me a ride on this trip, he refuses my offer of gas money. Thanks, John!
In the hotel room, I peer into a mirror for the first time in many days and am a little shocked by just how sweaty, grimy, and weather-worn I look. I take a long shower, call in a pizza order, and then head out for food. I find my pals in the Kmart. It’s Sprout’s birthday today, but I got to town too late to join for her birthday dinner. We’re all taking a zero here tomorrow, so there will be more time to eat town food together. I lose all self-control in the refrigerator case section and leave the store with: a pint of chocolate ice cream, a Sprite, three single-serving bottles of apple juice, and two big red Gatorades. I pick up the pizza on my way home, chat with Cyn over dinner, and try to fall asleep despite the weirdness of a real bed and indoor ambient noise. Ah, town.
A basket of apples welcomes us to the “bar and grill” trail magic — thank you, generous people! In the chairs: Ironman in front, Gusher in the middle, and A-Game almost-not-visible under an umbrella in back.
These giant bushes were lush and green and thriving even though they grew on ground that was as hard and dry as a rock! I know this because I tried and failed to dig a cathole behind one that was farther off the trail.