PCT Desert Day 41: Great Expectations

Mile 638.38 to 656.88 — Today’s miles: 18.50

A few hours after we go to bed, a small group of hikers arrives at the campsite. It’s a large area, with many different flat spots for tenting, all spread out. There’s plenty of space, but for some reason they camp right next to our tents. They’re mostly pretty quiet, though at 10:30pm I wake to the sound of someone shuffling their belongings around — it’s so like the sound of someone packing up that for a moment I’m convinced that it’s already 4am and time to get going. I’m relieved to discover that I still have several hours of sleep left.

EarlyBird leaves first, and Sprout and I slip between the neighboring campers’ tents and onto the trail shortly after. As usual, Sprout leaves me in the dust. My legs always need some time to warm up. The first few miles are beautiful, winding through trees and along the mountainside in the dim light of early morning. Then I hit a wide dirt road and waste some time searching for where the trail picks up across it, only to realize that the dirt road is the trail for this next stretch. Duh. The road is all rutted out, not that fun to walk on, and I feel like my speed’s been cut in half, though the cadence of my footsteps doesn’t sound any slower to me. Perhaps my brain still connects “road” to the speed of cars or bikes, giving me the impression that I’m going more slowly just because I’m on different terrain. I see many tiny bunnies hiding in the brush, and a few quail who hurry worriedly across the road, their little hats bobbing in the sun.

The three of us meet up again near the turn-off for McIvers Spring, our morning water source. It’s off the PCT a bit, but worth it: there’s a big area for camping here, a little run-down one-room cabin, and a piped spring that is just gushing clear cold water. Beautiful. I filter almost two liters for drinking, and then we all take turns washing up. I scrub my face and head with a wet bandana, and thoroughly rinse out my spare underwear and socks. The spring is such a gift on this incredibly hot and dry section. I’ve been sweating more than ever, so my shirt is stiff and scratchy with crusted salt, and my socks are all like pieces of cardboard — but there’s never enough water to spare for cleaning. We all feel delightfully refreshed as we chat over snacks. Finally, EarlyBird jokes, “Well, I was thinking about walking some more, and then maybe camping. How about you guys?” We agree that this sounds delightful — maybe we’ll even do it again tomorrow!

Back on the PCT, there’s a little more uphill in the morning sun, and then the long descent to Walker Pass. I’m still getting used to the idea of a pass being at the bottom, since last summer on the JMT, the passes were at the top. EarlyBird has explained to me that here, the passes are for cars to pass through. I fly through these miles, thinking about Whiz Kid’s report that there’s always great trail magic at Walker Pass. I know I shouldn’t get my hopes up, but it’s too late. I’ve already envisioned shade and chairs and cold drinks and hot dogs on a grill, and reuniting with Whiz Kid and Cowboy who will already be there, and just relaxing in comfort before we have to climb again. I catch up to Sprout, whose foot is hurting a bit, and keep going. Down down down, until I can see the road, and then I crest a small hill and see a picnic table below, and a couple of hikers signing a trail register as they leave. Sprout comes up behind me and we make our way down to the table. Three hikers are sitting there next to what is, technically, trail magic. And I am spoiled and bratty, I know, but also disappointed to see that it’s just several loaves of bread and jars of peanut butter. We’re all so tired of peanut butter. “But… where is the Walker Pass campground?” I ask Sprout. “I think this is it,” she says. There’s almost no shade at all, just a few bare picnic tables scattered about. I’d envisioned weekenders out with their campers and lots of shady places to rest and eat special treats — but it’s almost desolate here. Our friends haven’t lingered here, for obvious reasons. There’s not even any toilet paper in the pit toilet. It’s my own fault for having expectations, for letting myself spin out a dream on the hike down here.

I find a bottle of cheap pancake syrup amongst the peanut butter jars and make a few syrup sandwiches. There’s a small water cache here that means we don’t have to trek to the nearby stream and filter, and for this I am grateful. I fill two bottles, bringing me to four liters total, and we set out for another long climb at 11am. I sign the trail register and see that our friends left us a note here a couple of hours ago, saying they’re putting in more miles before lunch.

We cross the highway and spread out on the uphill. It is very hot and completely exposed. I try to take things slow and steady, and hike mostly on autopilot for the first three miles up. A little after that, the terrain changes some and it’s another rolling two miles with nice views before I see a small campsite just off the trail. Whiz Kid, Cowboy, and Rip are just leaving this spot, and I chat briefly with them before joining Sprout in the shade for my own break. Whiz Kid and Cowboy are a few miles ahead of me every day lately, and I realize that I might not see them again until we all reach Kennedy Meadows in a couple of days. Kind of a bummer, but also the way of the trail. EarlyBird shows up and the three of us contemplate camping options. We decide we’ll just go another 0.8 miles to a spot that looks promising. Beyond that, it’s not clear that we’d have any viable camping for several more miles.

We arrive at camp just after 2pm, and I’m starting to really enjoy ending my days early like this. It’s nice to get a bunch of miles done before the sun is even at full strength, and then to have a luxurious afternoon in camp. We have cell service up here for the first time in several days, and a silence falls over us for a bit as we all try to send check-in messages to friends and family. It’s extremely windy. Someone has created two little windbreaks out of stones, and my friends kindly let me have the larger one, since my tent is more susceptible to being blown down (it’s not freestanding like theirs, though by this point in the trip I’ve devised some good tricks for reinforcing it). It’s quite a cozy little spot, and I feel lucky to camp up here with these views. I put some ramen in my jar to soak, lie down and read for a bit, and then emerge from my tent for dinner conversation. Two passing hikers, Drop Bear and Redback, stop to chat. They’re both Australians who met when hiking the Appalachian Trail a few years ago; I met them briefly in Big Bear, and am happy to see them again. They’re tough cookies, hiking in this heat without any complaint. They don’t even seem tired.

The wind picks up a bit and we retreat to our separate spaces. EarlyBird and Sprout both plan to be hiking well before 4am. I haven’t decided how early I’ll wake up, though I’m planning a 24-mile day, so I definitely need to get out before dawn. Against the windbreak, the noise is minimal and my tent is hardly flapping at all, so I snuggle down into my quilt and fall asleep easily.

Hiking into the sunrise.

This way to “happy.” (Sign pointing toward McIvers Spring, which was indeed very pleasant.)

I love these layered rock formations, and love it when plants grow right out of the stone.

Sprout took this one of me on the way down to Walker Pass.

Views in the early afternoon, a few miles before camp.

The sun made it difficult to get a good shot of my campsite, but here’s the glorious windbreak behind my tent. This was another night that I pitched the tent using only rocks, no stakes. Most nights I also wedged a stone or two against the bottom of the front pole (as shown here), which helped prevent it from sliding out of place.

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