Mile 577.26 to 596.46 — Today’s miles: 19.20
I sleep like a rock in our beautiful campsite, waking briefly before dawn to the sound of EarlyBird folding up her tent poles before hiking out. True to her trail name, she’s always up and out first, but I almost never hear her packing up. Which means she must be employing some kind of witchcraft, because hiking gear is noisy. Almost everything I own sounds like a potato chip bag when I move it. I don’t know how she manages such a silent morning routine! I fall back to sleep, and wake again just after 5:30. The cold night air is lingering, and I don’t want to emerge from my cozy quilt yet. I peer out to see if anyone else is stirring, and am relieved to see them all still in their bags. Yay! I lounge and doze for a bit, and finally start my morning tasks. As we all pack up, we discover that each of us surreptitiously checked to see if the others were awake yet, and each of us felt that same happy relief! We have a lazy morning in camp, wishing Cowboy a happy birthday, and finally hike out around 7am. It’s an uphill right away, challenging hiking on a rough, rocky road. But I still feel strong, especially once the terrain shifts to beautiful rolling trail with mountain views.
At six miles in we reach today’s water source, Golden Oaks Spring, where water is piped from the spring into a large trough. We all spread out for a long break under the trees here. I alternate between eating and lying flat on my Tyvek, nearly dozing off on a few occasions. Whiz Kid reveals that she packed out from town a loaf of sourdough and a glass jar (!) of pesto, and she shares slices with each of us, which is one of the highest forms of hiker generosity. (Two others I was the lucky recipient of: a fellow hiker carrying something in or out for you, as when Sprout went back for a package I’d missed at Hiker Heaven and carried it all the way to Casa de Luna for me! And a fellow hiker going on a water collection run for you, as EarlyBird did for me one evening when all I wanted was to get in my tent and escape the bugs.)
I toss Cowboy a packet of chocolate-hazelnut spread as a birthday gift, since he’d been raving about them but unable to find them in town. Somehow, two hours pass in this restful spot without me even noticing it, and we all reluctantly pack up. I take 3.5 liters of water for the next 18 miles or so, having hydrated thoroughly on this break. It’s truly a luxury to relax next to clear, flowing, easily accessible water. We zip along together for a while, trading the lead back and forth, but then organically spread out. It’s getting hotter. For the first time in days, the dreaded Poodle Dog Bush appears along the trail. I was hoping we’d seen the last of it. These are big flowering specimens, and I weave around the branches that reach out into the trail. Just as I’m getting tired, Whiz Kid calls out from a shady spot to my left, and I join her for a snack break. When Sprout and Cowboy arrive, we consider our camping options and decide on Hamp Williams Pass for tonight. Some crowdsourced trail notes suggest that there may be loose cows in the area that could annoy/terrorize us during the night, but we’re going to stop there anyway. Only 6.3 miles to go.
This last section of the day is a tough one for me. My legs are moving like molasses, not helped by the return of pain in my lower right leg. I fall way behind, and hike alone for a few miles, which turns out to be just what I needed. Without anyone else in sight ahead of me, I don’t feel any urge to try to keep up, and just amble along, enjoying the scenery. This section is an easement through private property, with signs telling us to stay within ten feet or so of the trail. It means the trail route is constrained, so the big uphill here isn’t done by switchbacking, but just goes straight up. It’s pretty steep, and it feels very difficult. I take a brief break just to breathe, and realize that I haven’t needed to do this in quite a while — my body is a hiking machine now. I keep my head down and follow my friends’ footprints, observing that Whiz Kid’s shoes make prints that look like Nutter Butter cookies. And now I really want Nutter Butters.
At the top, the three of them are taking a sit-down break. We all agree that this was an unexpectedly difficult climb. I only sit for five minutes, and start hiking again when they do instead of taking time for a snack. It’s 1.4 miles to camp, and I am very, very hungry. So hungry that I feel weak, but it’s a gentle downhill slope, and I zombie hike it the whole way, just letting gravity do the work until I round a corner and see EarlyBird just off to the side, her tent already set up in the middle of a ring of very large branches. She suggests this ring might be an anti-mountain lion effort by previous folks who camped here, but I think it’s probably guarding against cows. We’re in a small clearing under pine trees here, and there aren’t many flat spots. I hem and haw, and finally set up on a slight slope right next to Whiz Kid. We’re all camped on dead grass, and I suspect that will mean more condensation than usual overnight. We see no signs of cows.
After dinner, Whiz Kid produces a hiker birthday party from her pack: paper masks, ingredients for what she calls “magic pudding” (instant chocolate pudding made with water instead of milk, topped with mini Oreos), and two tiny bottles of whiskey, the kind you would get on an airplane or in a hotel room fridge. Cowboy is thrilled, as are we all. It’s so thoughtful. I reflect on the first few weeks of my hike, when I was mostly hiking alone (except for those few excellent days with Scissors!), waiting to see if I would find people I connected with, watching everyone around me seem to click with a group right away. I’ve always enjoyed my solitude — in hiking and in the rest of my life — but it also feels really good tonight to share this space under the pines with people whose company I genuinely enjoy, and with whom I have been able to talk about things beyond the standard hiker small-talk topics (i.e., food, bodily discomforts, and on-trail pooping). It’s remarkable how quickly a sense of trust and camaraderie can develop out here, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to forge it with this particular constellation of people.
A pair of hikers from France join us just as we’re finishing dinner, but I’m wiped out and apologetically climb into my tent as the others chat. We’ve got 5.5 miles to water tomorrow morning.