Week 3: Wilderness This Is Not (Miles 226.2- 361.7)
The Desert: Inhospitable?
With 13 miles left to water and hours to go before sleep, the desert is a malevolent moonscape in an otherwise bright shiny galaxy that exists only in my memory – once I walked under lush trees, right? I filled bottles from fast-moving creeks, right? – far from anything thrumming with blood, water, life. Everything is sharp; my legs amass cuts, scrapes, lines. My skin cracks and peels and itches. The grade of the trail feels worse under the weight of sweat. The few animal encounters are fleeting and crazed: Dive-bomber beetles, zippy rabbits. Lizards, blue and iridescent, run north on the trail, frantic, as though they don’t know they can make a quick left or right to escape our thundering steps. Brown and dark green extend for miles and miles in every direction with nothing but a random house dotting the landscape. It can feel post-apocalyptic, frightening, futile.
In Reality, Two Things:
One, the desert, despite initial appearances and sun-fever fear, is more than alive. The wind breathes constantly, our forever companion, whooshing around at inopportune moments, blowing sand and dirt into every orifice. A blood-crusted nose is normal. Flowers explode through harsh soil, field mice emerge at night, snakes laze around planning their next meal. There is water, sometimes, seeping out of a shaded switchback. This area has sustained life for longer than I can imagine. We just have to sustain our lives for a day or two at most.
Because two, despite how isolated it feels from the top of a climb, there are towns near the trail. SO. MANY. TOWNS. And the other sky fact no one seems to mention, lest it spoil the image of us PCTers as hardcore hikers disconnected from mundane “synthetic” society, is that there is cell phone service ALL. THE. TIME. Not just 1x-eke-out-a-text service to let the good folks at home know you’re surviving. I’m talking LTE-half-hour-Face-Times so they can see you’re thriving, or at least know you’re not going without your daily visit to the church of IG. Let us pray, indeed.
Miles, Meals, Madness
In Big Bear Lake, I lunch with a group that includes two big-mile hikers who said they’ve had a burger and a beer in a town every day for the past five days. The following day we hit the Cleghorn Picnic Area, where people ordered pizza and KFC via Uber Eats. (I, a martyr, did not, though it was not above me to scavenge the remains of a veggie slice and a chocolate chip cookie.) I spent the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend camped behind the Joshua Tree Inn, a delightful desert dive bar with cold beer and microwave pizza, with dozens of other hikers. The last morning of the week ended with the Cajon Pass McDonald’s, a.k.a. the most iconic PCT stop after Kennedy Meadows.
I know the concept of “wilderness” is a white colonial construct and that a globally-recognized, uber-maintained trail was never going to be a grueling test-your-mettle outdoor adventure. But the non-wilderness-ness of the early PCT is out of control! It’s a tour of rural SoCal towns with some hiking in between! This is not to say I’m not reveling in the outdoor aspect but like…it’s hard to care about colorful cacti when there’s Coors Banquet within reach.
Umm, Just Don’t Go?
Now, there’s an argument to be made here that I could just skip these places. Stick to the well-worn path, communing with sun and sand, choking down my ProBars and drinking my tears. But people, don’t let the hiking resume fool you: I’m a negroni-sipping, subway-loving, big earring-wearing, cell phone-gripping biatch who, to her chagrin, happens to enjoy walking far distances. This whole outdoor business didn’t even enter my consciousness till my late twenties! I will never skip town. I have nothing to prove and everything to gain. Pillows, for example. Cucumbers. Perrier. Ugh, talk dirty to me!
Typical millennial! No self-control! Please. Walk 300 miles in the desert and then talk to me.
There’s definitely a type of hiker out here who’s like, “I’m just going to go straight through, man. I’ve lived in towns my whole life. I’m here for the trail.” They claim they can’t sleep in a real bed because they’ve gotten so used to “cowboying” outside. You know how long it takes to make a habit? Three weeks. You know how long we’ve been out here? Not three weeks. You know where I always see these people? Town. Town! It’s irresistible.
Perks of Distance
The rhythm of the desert is choppy but consistent: Wake up early and hike as far as possible before the sun slows you to a slog. Post up in shade for a few hours, chatting, reading, writing, or sleeping. As the heat weakens, pack up and hike fast and hard to regain the ground you didn’t cover during the siesta. Starting in May as a normal hiker, there is a constant undercurrent of stress with every choice you make: If I do X, will I make it to Canada before the snow starts? Then the mental anguish about pondering the future when I’m trying to be present. Longer days in the desert will mean a more leisurely time in the Sierras – these incomprehensible mountains that seem a lifetime away. But longer days in the desert mean pain, sweat, blisters, sand in places you shouldn’t have sand. Snow seems like a myth; surely it could never snow on this trail (famous last words, I think, as I write this post-summer-snow-squall in the Sierras, but we’ll get to that in a few posts time…).
The Map Unfurls
By the end of the third week I was loosely hiking with a small group of similarly-paced individuals. We walked from a quiet desert tent site six miles south of the McMuffins across an interstate teeming with cars that could bring us to LA in a matter of hours. It was concrete hot. The trail crossed a low wash and went through a tunnel, winding past brokedown cars in frustrating sand that sucked me down. We crossed a train track where the goods of America are transported back and forth before starting to climb and climb and climb.
Walking brings the map to life beneath your feet. You get to understand what the 2-D topo lines of mountains and valleys mean in terms of distance, elevation, grade, terrain, ache, sweat. The light dwindled and the air got colder as we trudged into pines towards an arbitrary mile marker that would make it a marathon day. At the crest of the hill, the sun was setting pink and the chill turned quite cold. There was Wrightwood in the distance, lights on, eight miles away. Time for town, again? Yes, please.
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