Mile 656.88 to 680.91 — Today’s miles: 24.03
We’re lucky we got to this campsite early, because as dusk arrives, so do several other hikers who are looking for a place to get out of the wind and sleep. Fortunately for me, the wind is kind of like white noise that covers most of their sounds — except for the two people who are trying to talk over the wind, across two tent sites, resulting in the person nearest me yelling “WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” Sigh. Otherwise I sleep very well in my little cove, and wake around 3:45am to see the red light of Sprout’s headlamp as she’s finishing her morning pack-up routine. I emerge to roll up my tent around 4:30am, and find a note under a heavy rock. It’s from Sprout, letting me know that she and EarlyBird hope to see me at today’s major water source, Spanish Needle Creek, about 12 miles ahead.
It’s just barely dawn when I start hiking, just a smidge lighter than the dark of night, and the first few miles are a steady climb along a cliffside, over lots of rocks and rubble. In the dim light I have to move more carefully, and it takes me a long time to get through this stretch. For the first time in weeks, I’m nervous about mountain lions, since there are big boulders all along the cliff above me — perfect places for them to hide and stalk. I keep an eye out, try to look big and make noise, and soon the morning light is fully present and I relax a bit. I pass a ridge just below and two hikers there call to me. It’s the Aussies, Redback and Drop Bear, who cowboy camped here and are just waking up. I stop to chat with them briefly — they were pummeled by the wind last night, but are in good spirits as always. They do have a magnificent morning view.
After I leave them, I begin a long descent, slowly at first across uneven rocks, then faster as the trail pops me out on the other side of a mountain onto smoother terrain. I pass the turn-off to Joshua Tree Spring, a water source said to be tainted by uranium. No thanks. Around 7am, the trail takes me into full sunlight, and I realize that it’s at this point each morning — when I am no longer able to hike in the mountains’ morning shade — that I think of my day as really beginning. I move in and out of shade, continuing to descend, then hit a steep uphill in the sun. The gnats are beginning their day too, and hover right in front of my face. Now I’m heading down again, the last downhill before our water source. I feel some strange pain in my right leg, sort of in the quadriceps, but maybe it’s more about my IT band. As with my previous leg pain, it’s worse on the downhill. But what can you do? I keep walking and hit the first creek crossing. The water is running deep and cold, but mosquitos surround it. I grab a few liters and walk back up to an open area to filter. The bugs are bad enough that I’m not surprised that EarlyBird and Sprout aren’t here. I figure I’ll catch them at some point.
I hike uphill in the heat, hoping that elevation gain will take me away from the bugs. At the third crossing of Spanish Needle Creek, they’ve thinned out slightly, so I take the opportunity to sit and have third breakfast (!) and gather more water. I meet two SOBO section hikers here, Nicky and Vanessa, who started at Kennedy Meadows and are heading to Tehachapi. They’re queer and from San Diego, and so we find that we have a lot to talk about — a very enjoyable break for me. We trade information about water and likely campsites.
I carry on, hiking uphill in full sun. My leg continues to hurt, this mysterious pain that has come out of nowhere and doesn’t seem placated by stretching or massage. The gnats are in my eyes, in my nose, in my ears, and finally I just put on my headnet for some relief. It’s the first time I’ve used it on this trip. I am hiking very slowly, stopping to stretch my leg and catch my breath, and then, of course — of course! — I have a sudden and immediate need to dig a cat hole, but there is literally nowhere to go. I’m on the side of a mountain. The relentless heat, the swarming bugs, the pain in my leg, the urgency of my bowels: I am miserable. Finally, I reach a little plateau with some campsites and walk back behind them for a long way until I find a suitable spot for a cat hole. I roll out my IT band with my trekking pole and then continue on.
Another mile up finds me nearly at the top of the climb, with beautiful trees and flowers, and as the trail curves around I am delighted to see Sprout and EarlyBird lying down under a big tree. It’s a big morale boost to catch up to them, after a long tough morning. While I’m lying in the shade, a bee becomes fascinated by me. It buzzes all around me, landing on my shirt, on my hat, on my sungloves and then crawls onto my thumb and I shriek in whispers and try to hold still until it finally leaves. But it keeps coming back, so I end my break early. Sprout and I hike out together, making short work of some rolling terrain before beginning the long, long descent to our planned campsite. I let Sprout go ahead so I can baby my leg. The last few miles feel endless as I half-limp along, the sun baking me from above and reflecting off of the white granite and sand to heat me up from below as well.
I arrive at Chimney Creek around 4:30pm. The water is shallow but flowing steadily, and I hastily wash my face and hands before filtering some water. I’m bitten twice by giant yellow flies, one of which draws blood, and we retire to some shade away from the water for snacks. Redback and Drop Bear soon join us, and tell us some stories about their Appalachian Trail thru-hike. These women are unflappable, and I really enjoy their company.
Sprout, EarlyBird, and I set up our little neighborhood of tents in the back of a big meadow area, hoping to buffer ourselves from noisy late-night arrivals. There are flies and gnats everywhere, and we pitch our tents as quickly as possible so we can throw our belongings and bodies inside them, away from the bugs. EarlyBird goes on a water run and very generously brings me back two liters. Sprout and I convince her to sleep in tomorrow and leave with us at 5am, which feels so luxurious at this point! I sit in my tent and eat dinner: the last crumbs of my Pringles, half a bag of beef jerky, a few big handfuls of peanut M&Ms. I’ll probably hit Kennedy Meadows with only a few hundred calories left in my food bag — there’s something very satisfying about getting your food and mileage matched up like that. I’ve only done it once before, on the section that ended in Big Bear.
The moon is nearly full, and I lie in my tent for a long time before I fall asleep, staring out at the night sky. I try to imprint this feeling of comfort: under my soft puffy quilt, the trees above me, the bright moon shining into my tent, the clean night air all around me. I’m very aware of how soon my hike will end — only about 20 miles left now — and I’m trying to really savor these beautiful moments so I can remember them well.