PCT Desert Day 40: The Desert Isn’t Finished with Us Yet

Mile 617.08 to 638.38 — Today’s miles: 21.30

It is hot all night. I sleep restlessly, my quilt just draped over my torso, tossing and turning in the heat and worrying that I won’t wake up on time. But at 3am I hear my watch alarm beep, hear Sprout and EarlyBird start to get ready. I peer out: the stars are unbelievable. A pair of hikers, lit only by their headlamps, passes by quietly as we pack up. We’re not the only ones getting an incredibly early start today.

We hit the trail just after 3:30am and hike together for the first few minutes, during which we see a couple of kangaroo rats at our feet. Then Sprout pulls ahead of me (she is always off like a shot in the mornings), and EarlyBird falls behind me, and now I walk alone, occasionally glimpsing the shine of Sprout’s headlamp as she makes a turn up ahead in the distance. We’re on a steady uphill now, the first of three big climbs today, and the desert is silent except for the sound of my breath. Once or twice I hear a rustle in the brush nearby, and it’s too dark to see anything. I have to remind myself that a mountain lion wouldn’t make any noise, so it’s probably just a cute little nocturnal rodent. I don’t much like hiking in the darkness like this, especially since my headlamp isn’t as powerful as some. But just an hour in I’m already sweating, and it’s still well before sunrise. Today’s going to be brutal.

I finish the first climb before dawn and have hiked more than five miles when the sun first peeks over the mountains. As I reach a little junction with a picnic table (and an informational sign about desert tortoises — why have I not seen any tortoises out here?!), I notice Whiz Kid and Cowboy packing up their campsite nearby. Whiz Kid and I hike together up an agonizing hot climb in deep beach sand. It goes on and on, my feet slipping and sliding, never getting good purchase to push off for the ascent. It is exhausting. For a while the trail tread undulates, so it is a constant two-steps-up-two-steps-down, over and over, sliding in the deep sand, almost like swimming against gentle but persistent waves. I pull ahead for a little bit, winding around the mountains, and then urgently need to dig a cat hole. It’s all exposed here, and Whiz Kid passes by as I’m wandering around uphill of the trail, searching for some kind of shrubbery as cover.

Later, I round a corner and am surprised to have already caught up to her. She explains that she also had to make a bathroom stop. “Our poop cycles are in sync, that’s how you know we’re really bonded,” she explains. Have I mentioned how much I like the friends I’ve finally made out here? We push on, up and up and up in the heat, making little leaps across the chunks of granite. Finally the trail begins to descend, and it’s not far now to the next water cache, but I’m starting to worry about whether it will be stocked. The crowdsourced trail notes on our app report something like 50 gallons a few days ago, but that could well be depleted by now. I’ve been rationing my water so far today, constantly measuring my bottles against the miles remaining to the next natural water source. If the cache is empty, I can still make it safely, but it won’t be pleasant, and I’ll probably need to finish today’s miles at night.

The last half-mile to Bird Spring Pass — and the possibly empty water cache — is mentally tortuous. My anticipation and trepidation increase with every step. Will there be water? I desperately want there to be water. Finally we round a bend and I see a truck — does this mean a trail angel is stocking the cache? Many hikers are clustered under the single Joshua tree, squished in next to each other and contorting their bodies to fit into the shade it provides. Cowboy waves, and I call out to him, “Is there water?!” Yes. Yes, there is water here. Relief floods through my body. I squeeze into the shade next to Sprout and make an electrolyte drink, and then another. It feels amazing to be able to drink more than a few swallows. It’s not quite 9:30am, and I’ve hiked over 13 miles so far.

The truck was not for someone stocking the cache — it belongs to a crew of volunteer trail maintenance workers, who are building a wooden fence where a wire one once was. I’m really grateful for their hard work and care, though we hikers whisper amongst ourselves about how frustrating these fences are to climb over. A few of the volunteers are discussing how to get a hiker out for (non-emergency) medical treatment, a task made more difficult by a language barrier.

It is wickedly hot. I eat a few bites of many different things in my food bag. Not much tastes good to me when the heat is this intense, though I can always eat peanut M&Ms. I had initially envisioned resting here in the shade for a long while. But soon Sprout starts packing up, making the very good argument that we should finish the next climb — and it’s a doozy — before noon. I know this is true. If I stay here much longer, I really will be stuck here for many hours as the hottest part of this sweltering day lingers on. Reluctantly, I clip my pack closed and carefully fill my water bottles from the cache. I clamber over the half-finished new fence, beginning a 2,000 foot climb over 3.5 miles or so. It’s 10:30am now, and very, very hot. Occasionally, a mild breeze drifts through, and I stop to enjoy it with gratitude every time.

Very near the end of the climb, there’s a short flat section with some trees. I shouldn’t take a break when I’m almost finished with the tough part, but these rocks in the shade are too tempting to pass up. I eat a bar and admire the view, and when EarlyBird walks by, I wave her over to join me. But just as she settles in on a neighboring rock, I feel a sharp sting on my lower back. And then another, and another. I brush my hand across my back and it comes back covered in fire ants. When I jump up, I see they’ve swarmed my rock — they’re all over my back, down my waistband. EarlyBird helps as I frantically sweep them off. So much for a restful break. I move on, finding a few stray ants in my hair as I leave.

Here at the top, just before we begin to descend, I can see the snowy mountains of the Sierra Nevada for the first time. I’m starting to feel very sad about my trip coming to a close, not least because I know what it feels like to hike in those mountains, and I’d do it every year if I could. I make good time on the downhill for a while, and then the heat gets to me again. The last mile to our planned campsite feels endless; I finally stumble in just at 2pm, having hiked over 21 miles today. I find Sprout sprawled under a tree. She looks up at me and says wearily, “Fuck. This. Day.” I’m so relieved to hear that I’m not the only one feeling this way. We lie on our backs in patches of shade, too exhausted to move. Sprout reports on some bodily functions stuff that she then worries is TMI, and I say, “You think that’s TMI? How about this: for the last few miles I’ve been feeling sharp pains on my butt, and I’m not sure if it’s from fire ants stuck in my underwear, or sweat making my butt chafe sting.” At this point, I’m not sure TMI is even possible out here.

EarlyBird arrives and is likewise depleted, though optimistic as always. I sit up to eat and hydrate, then lie back down again. Repeat. An hour or so passes like this, and Whiz Kid shows up and joins us for a break. I try to convince her to camp here with us, but she didn’t plan to dry camp and needs to get to the next water source tonight. On her way back out, she says she’s heard from multiple sources that there’s always great trail magic at Walker Pass, which we’ll hit tomorrow. This is exciting news.

We put up our tents and eat dinner. There are lots of small flies around, but it’s too hot to sit in the tent, so I resign myself to mild discomfort either way. Long-distance hiking really is about continual mild discomfort — but the payoff is pretty fantastic. EarlyBird has a bag of Nutter Butters and generously shares them with me, not knowing that I’ve been craving these cookies ever since I noticed Whiz Kid’s shoe prints a couple of days ago. It’s still warm out, but I’m ready for bed by 6:30pm, noticing that this is the filthiest I’ve felt in a long time. It seems that everything I own smells like dirty socks now. I lose my fifth toenail during the nightly foot care routine. Good riddance, I think, and promptly fall asleep.

Sprout, in the Mojave at dawn.

Whiz Kid took this one of me in the morning.

Hot and exposed on the way to Bird Spring Pass. Not sure what road this is.

Hikers crammed into the shade at the Bird Spring Pass cache. Clockwise from lower left: Rip, two hikers from France whose names I don’t know, me, Whiz Kid, Sprout, Cowboy (hidden in the branches), DJ. You can see the fence they were building, on the left there. Photo by EarlyBird.

At the top of the last big climb of the day, after the fire ants attack. Snowy mountain range in the far distance: the Sierra Nevada, my love.

Afternoon views just a few miles from camp.

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