454.4 – 478.2
morning is coming earlier & earlier. we begin to stir while the sky oscillates through all the pale shades of pink & tangerine. today we hike again & we wander around making last minute readjustments to our food bags & gear organization. my pack is heavy, i feel like i’m carrying too much food again but it’s so hard to know. i’m emotionally prepared to eat my normal trail breakfast of a clif bar but pepa is not & it’s not hard to convince me to stop at the diner for breakfast on our way out of town. apparently everyone from hiker heaven had the same idea & the patio teams with hikers. patchwork is heading back to poland for a few days & we’re sad to say farewell but i’ve got a feeling we’ll be seeing her again one of these days.
we leave the diner late in the morning, 9:30, & we hike along the road for a couple of miles with sierra. she’s 21 & has already spent three summers hiking in the sierra. we swap solo hiking stories & gear chatter & plans for the day, this section, the upcoming sierra. 24 trail miles from hiker heaven is casa de luna, the home of trail angels terri & joe anderson & a place affectionately referred to as hippie daycare. apparently they serve a massive taco salad buffet every night & pancakes & hot coffee in the mornings. some are pushing to get there tonight but we’re moving slow & our late start means that we’ll be hiking in the heat of the day. we pause our conversation on the climb back into the hills & leapfrog all morning until the little spring where everyone seems to have decided to take lunch. i eat some of those strange cheesy sandwich crackers but they taste like nothing so i spread some peanut butter on them & they’re a little better. pepa pokes at the gps app for a while- there’s a listed campsite twenty miles in which feels reasonable. we’d only have to hike four miles to get to casa de luna tomorrow & then we could take the whole rest of the day off!
there’s a miserable uphill to a chorus of buzzing powerlines. i slump upwards, eyes downcast watching lines of tiny red ants carry shards of purple flowers across the trail & then it’s a long curving downhill to a road crossing where butcher is sprawled on his new sleeping pad with a gallon sized ziploc of snacks at his elbow & his phone in his hand. “so,” he says, “if you follow the trail it is six more miles to taco salad plus a hitch. or, we could road walk… looks a little shorter & i figure we’re still walking to canada.” it’s 4:45 & taco salad is at 7 & suddenly there’s no question of whether we’re gonna try to get there or not. butcher’s waiting for young gun & boots but we’re suddenly galvanized. “we’re having taco salad tonight!” i shout at pepa as we follow the dirt road & then spunky canyon road down into green valley. there’s no chance of a hitch, the road feels deserted but i don’t mind. at casa de luna we find a quiet little grove in the magical manzanita forest out back for our tent & we each eat two plates of taco salad & we see our friends & my heart is happy.
the rooster who lives here is clearly confused because he begins his wake up call far before dawn & carries on intermittently throughout the morning. i roll over, savor the earthy smells & little scuffling sounds of the horses & chickens & hikers all stirring in the fresh morning. i bum a coffee tea bag from boots & eat yogurt & frozen peaches from the bag with my spork. the house dogs mill around & i snag cuddles whenever one comes near enough.
days off, zeros as hikers call them, hold so much promise for relaxation but my in-town to do list always seems to be out of control & the logistics of making everything happen are overwhelming. today we’ll have to walk the mile into town to do our resupply, we have to sort our things & mail some stuff home or ahead & i have to catch the twelve o’clock shuttle to rei to buy a real two person tent! that’s right- we’re moving out of pepa’s one man shelter & into something that was actually designed to accommodate two humans!! butcher is tossing his old sleeping pad & i snag the bottom few squares. i have a sit pad now! i take a moment to imagine how comfortable breaks will be. i can even use it as a pillow!
pepa buys dozens of sausages at the grocery store & butcher agrees to grill them. late in the afternoon as the air begins to cool, the package that pepa’s been waiting on arrives & we gather around to watch butcher work his magic. pink fingernails flashing, he stacks the bunned sausages like jenga blocks & we devour them hungrily. toggs & patchwork roll in as it’s getting dark & we’re so happy to see them but so so sleepy. pebbles is getting one of young gun’s signature stick n poke tattoos in the kitchen of the guest house & i want to hang out but my new circadian rhythm is begging me for sleep.
436.1 – 454.4
neither of us sleeps for longer than a half hour at a time. i blearily stuff the space between the concrete walls & ground with my food bag, my pack, anything to keep the biting wind from creeping in. every time i stir i glance out at the night. is the sun coming? pepa normally sleeps warm, radiating, but tonight he shivers. we try to share heat but our quilts don’t have zippers, much less any way to attach to each other. when finally dawn begins to crawl over the hillsides i am still damp & so SO cold & hazy with sleepiness.
shivering, pepa somehow manages to convince me to get into my wet clothes from the day before. “if it weren’t for you,” i laugh, “i would just freeze here until a warm day came along.” today though we have a goal. just eight miles from here is the acton KOA. i’m not completely sure what it is but supposedly there is a store with ice cream! & ten miles after that is agua dulce, the little town where the arguably most hotly anticipated trail angels live: the saufleys & their hiker heaven. we’ll take a day off there, we agree. i wear my gloves all morning. it’s not raining but the air is still stingingly cold & my hands still haven’t recovered from yesterday. after a while, pepa’s newest blister is bothering him & i kneel down in the trail for a blister pedicure. his feet look how mine must look, too, just totally saturated & mushed by the wetness. “should we amputate?” asks butcher as he steps over us.
the KOA is an elaborate private campground complete with pool & plenty of space for RVs. i buy an ice cream samdwich & a bag of cheetos & pepa has snickers ice cream & microwaved frozen burritos. we devour our treats under a light mist on a bench in front of the shop & then wander over to where our friends are stationed underneath a peeling gazebo. i take my shoes off, maybe my socks will dry finally? i hope.
the trail this afternoon takes us through golden hills dotted with strange boulders. heaving clouds hang over us. will we be caught in a second storm? i hope not. our feet are crying for their day off but we pick our way down the hillsides as quickly as we can. as we enter the otherworldly vazquez rock formations just outside of town, a crack of thunder startles us. the dark skies contrast with the tilting rocks & i snap a few photos as we trot through & then along a road & then a kind man in a pickup truck drives us the last mile to hiker heaven.
i’m overwhelmed, there are so many people here that i don’t recognize… did we jump another bubble? but then we see butcher & young gun & boots. we set up our little shelter next to a chicken coop out back & catch another hitch to mexican food. drunk on cheese, we wander around the grocery store gathering snacks for the next day. i shower, wash my hair three times, & then sleep. the horses & chickens & hikers all make strange little animal noises & it’s peaceful & good.
411.8 – 436.1
“happy seven months,” murmurs pepa as he rolls over & snuggles into his quilt in the pearly dawn. seven months! how have i only known him for seven months? i crawl over him & unzip our shelter. just beyond the edge of the plateau where we’re camped a sea of clouds clambers through the valley. misty fingers reach upwards. “wow,” i gape & as we drop downwards in the first few miles of the day the mist thickens & chills our skin. the trail feels deserted this morning- nobody we’d camped with are early to rally. we both wear our jackets, the iced heavy air reminds me of hiking in the columbia gorge near home.
we stop to fill up on water at the fire station. a trail angel has posted a note offering rides into town & a fellow hiker mentions a forecast for snow above 5000 feet. i glance at the menacing sky. should we take the ride? to make things more complicated, we’re meant to climb up & over 6000 feet today & the only places where we’re allowed to camp (because of fire restoration efforts) are at either 5000 feet or after nearly 25 miles at 4000 feet. camping below the snow line would make today my longest day on trail yet & there’s still no guarantee that we’d miss the worst of the weather… but i’m stubborn & i can’t bear the thought of bailing when things get challenging. we hike on.
the rain starts in earnest after a while & soon everything is drippingly heavy. my pack is supposed to be made of a waterproof material, i guess we’ll see how true that is, & i have my rainjacket layered on top of my down. i fret that it might be soaking through…. if my down jacket gets wet then tonight will be a very cold night since i usually sleep in it. my hood obscures my vision & all i can see for much of the afternoon is green & overgrown & wetly slaps me as i trot through. my hands are numb claws that grip my trekking poles stiffly. somewhere in the distance i hear a chainsaw. how? is it coming from the road below? but i round a bend & pass through a gauntlet of seven trail maintainers dressed in goretex & armed with power tools. “normally,” says a lanky older gentleman wielding a chainsaw, “you’d get a great desert-y view from the saddle up there but today…” he mimes walking bent over into imaginary wind. “yeah,” i laugh manically, “it’s like hiking in a storm cloud.” soon it somehow becomes even more punishing & as we traverse an exposed ridge, tiny ice daggers fly at us, raking our skin. “how far?” i cry to pepa over the howling wind. “let’s hurry, we gotta get off of this hill!” he shouts back. from a mile away i can see the tents, at least a half dozen of them. so this IS where everyone is camping. but it’s awful here at the ranger station. it’s situated in a saddle & the wind rages through camp, tossing & shaking the tents.
we wander around, packs on, for a while. i don’t know exactly what we’re looking for, everywhere is windy & nowhere is protected & our little tarp shelter is deeply underqualified to stand up to the storm. even if it doesn’t get completely obliterated by the wind, it’s single walled & filled to capacity- a little rain will probably have us both soaked. & it’s cold, SO cold. my fingers are still too numb to work properly. “looks like we jumped a bubble,” says boots, nodding towards the unfamiliar tents. he’s packing up & heading to the KOA campground eight miles away. a part of me wants to hike on at least a mile or two out of this saddle but we’re both exhausted & i’m beyond demoralized. “where do you wanna camp?” asks pepa. i point towards the privy. there’s a covered concrete vestibule where it looks like people have been cooking. shivering, we strip off our soaked hiking clothes & bundle into everything else. we lay out our sleeping pads & quilts. “my hands don’t work for cooking,” i say to pepa between chattering teeth. trail wisdom is that fatty foods eaten right before bed will help with heat retention so i eat some peanut butter with my spork for dinner. in the greatest act of generosity imaginable right now, pepa shares his pot of ramen. he urges me to drink the broth & i snuggle into his shoulder. warmth is unimaginable but we crawl as deep as we can into our quilts & peek out at each other. “goodnight,” i whisper, “happy seven months.”
383.9 – 411.8 (but w roadwalking only ~21 miles)
pepa must have been telling people to ask me about the upcoming road walk detour because when i slither out of our shelter to go pee, pebbles & nick wave me over to their tent. “what even do we do?” they ask, & i laugh cause i don’t know either but i pull out the diagram i’ve been referencing & kneel outside of their tent.
pepa & i walk downhill towards the highway through a shaded pine forest. i’m still not totally sure how today will play out… there’s a five mile section of the trail that’s been closed to protect the habitat of an endangered frog & it seems like everyone’s approaching it differently. the trail crisscrosses the highway four or five times today & it feels like the options are endless. but after the last couple of easy days my body’s feeling fresh & the cool air makes me optimistic & easygoing. when we find wet dog smoking a cig at the highway with a suggestion to roadwalk through till after the closure i shrug & say “yeah, why not?”
the two lane highway is deserted, we fan out over the pavement & count three cars in our first few miles. “this,” says wet dog, “is what the apocalypse will feel like,” & i know what he means. we pop back on trail just after mile 398 so that we can see the 400 mile marker & agree that we’ll probably camp at sulphur springs at mile 406.5.
for the last two hundred miles i’ve been told to watch out for poodle dog bush. supposedly it shows up in burn areas & causes a reaction worse than poison oak. “do you smell that?” asks pepa. i do, something’s a little skunky, a little weedy in the air. “poodle dog bush,” he says, & we spot it again & again through the afternoon. if past accounts can be believed this is still hardly anything but it does add a new element to the day’s walking.
“should we push on after the water?” we ask each other & it’s galvanizing & the answer of course is yes. we agree that we’ll camp somewhere in the mile after the water source at 411. by midafternoon i’m feeling the miles & pepa & i are a little bit snappier with each other than we normally are. we hike ten minutes apart for a while but i miss him quickly & slow down so he can catch up. when i see him around the corner my heart melts. i love him! hiking is boring sometimes but i get to be with him!
i stir peanut butter & a little tapatio into my ramen & huddle in close to the campfire that butcher’s been tending. boots & fibs & lucky winner have already eaten but they snack out of their food bags. the wind is strong & i am so SO sleepy & full. i clean my pot with a little water & my fingertips & we stumble to our shelter. the wind pushes the walls inwards, makes it even smaller than it already was, but we sleep.
372 – 383.9
we have a lazy morning gathered around the picnic table with patchwork & bailey. pepa pulls out the pizza he packed out & passes it around & i eat one of my precious bananas & we share an instant coffee packet. somehow this is the first time on trail that i’ve sat down & had breakfast… normally i just snack on bars while i’m walking. it’s nice! but finally at 7:45 it’s inarguably time to go. we get a head start on rob & bailey & patchwork, they’re all moving slow this morning. but today we climb 2600 feet in just under four miles to the top of mt. baden powell & then drop down again. pepa’s memories of this stretch are far from fond so we figure we might as well just get it over with. i ask him whether there are any redeeming qualities at all that he can think of. “there’s a great tree at the top,” he says, “actually it’s my favorite tree.” all the way up i complain both out loud & in my head. morale is low & my lungs are screaming in disgust. the snow at the top is patchy & our microspikes are totally useless & my feet are soaked & leaden. the descent is somehow uphill too & after a while i have to laugh. how is today so dumb??
at little jimmy campground we sit at a picnic table from which we can see the trail. pepa cooks mac n cheese with beef jerky & i stir an avocado into a tuna packet & eat it with crushed up cheezits. “where is everyone?” we keep asking each other & come up with wilder & wilder theories. we can’t have left more than an hour before them & we took it REAL slow today & rob & bailey are DEFINITELY faster hikers than us. “maybe someone fell off the mountain & they had to help them?” i offer. we’re confused & also don’t really know whether we should hike on tonight or nah. there have been reported bear encounters around here & we’re not sure whether it would be better to camp with a group or to camp somewhere where the bears don’t expect dinner? & then suddenly rob & bailey & then boots & young gun & butcher & pebbles & nick & fly trap & josh & & & everyone else from wrightwood is streaming in. the picnic tables are crowded & everyone trades stories from the day. clearly we’re staying & rob hangs our food with his & bailey’s. i tear myself away from everyone after eight (late!) & clamber into our little shelter & fall asleep to the comforting sound of laughing friends.
369.3 – 372
in the morning, i fill my tiny pot with frozen peaches & banana & greek yogurt & eat it all sprawled over the clean white sheets. it’s agonizingly delicious but a few minutes later i’m still hungry so i eat my leftover pizza dipped in marinara sauce & also the slice of carrot cake that the swiss couple inexplicably didn’t want last night. i’ve never been hungry like this before. WOW.
we wander around the tiny town doing little errands. everyone here is inexplicably nice. if it weren’t so lovely it would be kind of creepy. people cruise by & roll down their car windows to wish us luck & the clerks in the shops offer words of encouragement. we find our friends clustered on the porch of the coffee shop. pebbles eats tortilla chips & young gun gives fly trap a hair wrap. the afternoon slips between our fingertips & we go back to the pizza joint & fill up on pasta & the meatiest salad of all time & then it’s time to hitch back to the trail.
a buick pulls over & we pile in. a minute in we realize something’s not quite right. the guy in the passenger seat is slurry & hard to understand. they say some pretty gnarly stuff but our packs are in the locked trunk & we do our best to be agreeable & friendly. my heart sinks & pepa & i hold hands & cast each other sideways glances. i try to catch a glimpse of the driver’s face in the rearview mirror but all i notice is his make america great again baseball cap. fuck. i guess this is the dark side of small town america??
we’ve agreed to only hike a couple of miles in & rob & bailey build a cozy campfire. we can see city lights from where we are & i pass around the focaccia that i packed out & i feel safe here in the woods.