The Attempt Episode 9: “I Don’t Like Sand”
It’s a rough transition, coming down from the Sierra. As he hikes through the desert, Benjamin starts to realize how close he is to the finish line.
The Attempt is sponsored by Gossamer Gear, manufacturers of functional ultralight backpacking gear, designed by hikers.
PREVIOUSLY, ON THE ATTEMPT
Trail Angel: I’m here with my friends and we are trail angel-ing today. Offering PCT hikers some refreshment…
Benjamin: Wow, that trail magic was just frickin’ incredible. I mean they did not need to do that…
Julia: I think the trail does glow. A singular line that draws people to it, to simply travel in one of two directions on their own two feet…
Benjamin: California, baby! Woo! No more borders to cross. Now I just gotta scamper down 1700 miles to Mexico.
Julia: …And the simplicity of that line is also what allows for magic to happen.
Benjamin: Oh man, ok, this is one of the best moments of the trail so far. I just got to the top of Mount Whitney.
Others: There it is! Wooo!
Julia: You’re listening to
Benjamin: A podcast my sister makes
Julia: It’s called the attempt
Benjamin: I see what you’re trying to do!
Julia: (Laughing) Alright…
Julia: We last left Benjamin at the top of the world, on the highest high point of the trail. The summit of Mount Whitney. But here’s the thing. After you come down from the Sierras, pretty quickly, you’re in the desert.
Benjamin: Oh it’s windy as fuck today. Sand blowing in my face, hard to set my tent up… But I think I picked a relatively sheltered spot… And I’m getting ready to go to sleep. Other things of note, I ran out of fuel yesterday so… I’ll do some cold soaking until Tehachapi. Dillon went home today and Matt went into town to charge his phone so I’m alone which… felt pretty good but also got pretty cranky today. I don’t think that would’ve happened had I not been alone. Maybe it would’ve been worse…Really sandy… Water tastes shitty in southern California… I think I’m really tired. I’m gonna brush my teeth and go to bed.
Julia: So, that was recorded on the night of October 10th. And on that particular night, Benjamin was not camping on a picturesque ridge or overlooking a lake. In fact, he was actually camping at a spot just off the road. And the next day, he set off on that same road, making his way toward the next town, Tehachapi.
Benjamin: Um, I am sitting on a dirt road that I’ve been walking along for a couple miles and I thought it was kinda emblematic of this section so I though I’d talk about it. This road has been very dry. And there’s basically 2 25-ish mile water carries. Which suck because either you burden yourself, and sometimes your water bladder leaks, which happens to me all the time. Or you go light on water and stay a little thirstier. Neither of which are great options. I also just – in general it’s dry, it’s windy, it’s hot, it’s dusty. I hope this isn’t what the whole desert is like. The views are pretty and I especially liked early on in the section. Right after Kennedy Meadows, we had this awesome sunset. But since then, it’s honestly not been great. I picked a pretty laughable tent site last night. It wasn’t really soil, it was just layers and layers of decomposing pine needles, and the stakes came out, it was super windy. I also added way too much water into my meal, so it was just like soup. Garbage bag broke. It was just a comedy of errors last night. I was feeling pretty negative. And today I wasn’t very happy either – I was just not having very much fun. I just decided to be honest with myself: I wasn’t having fun this morning. Um… I gotta check distance now, see if I can make it to town before dark tonight.
Benjamin: I started kinda thinking about how one reason I don’t like the desert is that you can almost always see cars. And I think the reason I don’t like that is because it makes me feel like the places I go are less exclusive. Which is kinda messed up. But when I look back at my favorite moments on the trail, they were places that were hard to get to or at least hard to get to. Sunrise up Whitney or something. And I think that I really value that exclusivity – feeling like I earned it and that everyone else who was there also had to earn it. Yeah, maybe that’s something to think about.
Julia: “Exclusivity” is one word for it. But I really liked another word he used: “earned.” He likes to feel like he’s earned things. I think it’s why he even wanted to do the PCT in the first place. He wanted to see those amazing views, but he also wanted to have to work hard in order to get see them.
Benjamin: So for the second night in a row, I’m walking through an incredible sunset. Oh my god. Ok so last night, I didn’t know where I was headed so I was a little anxious, but then I just saw these stripes of cotton candy clouds, in this periwinkle—maybe periwinkle is the wrong word. The colors were like the stereotype of baby girl and baby boy. And they were just streaked across the sky, and it was just like humming with color. Then just a moment after, the sun dipped down and turned everything red, the blue and pink merged into this purple-ish red, and then I turn the corner and get blinded by the other sun, which is the moon. And last night it was in its final day of waxing gibbous. Anyway, so I’m walking south, the sun has about 15 minutes before it ducks behind these mountains and the moon rising. Today it is a full moon. Just soaking it all in. I don’t’ know, maybe I just hung out around Spark too much, who’s a poet and tries to phrase things nicely. But whatever. I’m really enjoying this walk.
Julia: Ever since Benjamin started at Hart’s Pass, he’s had it in his head that the desert is the last stop before the end. And now, he’s here. In these recordings, it feels like he’s starting to realize that this big thing he’d been looking forward to for years is now more behind him than in front of him. In fact, he’s even started to mark his recordings by saying what day it is and how far he is from the end.
Benjamin: So I am staying here in Tehachapi, California, which is at like mile 560 something away from the border, so that’s exciting. And I have a bunch of conflicting thoughts. I thought I’d verbalize them, I don’t know. One is: there’s this unimaginable kindness that people give PCT hikers. There’s the trail angels… I had someone— people warned me – let me know – that in Tehachapi they were exceptionally kind. And I was like, “Sure, ok, we’ll see about that.” And then sure enough, I got in for breakfast and somebody gave the waitress a $5 bill for my breakfast and before I could thank that person, they had left through the back entrance. It’s just crazy. And then they also said: wherever you go, people will offer you rides. And so walking back form the grocery store, carrying a couple bags from a resupply, somebody pulled over and offered me a ride. And it was really nice and I took it back to my hotel and I really appreciated that. The downside is: it’s weird, it’s like I’ve started to expect it. And when I knew that drivers offered rides here in Tehachapi, I kind of felt like I deserved it, which I hated, because I don’t deserve it. And cars would drive past and I would think, “uh, why aren’t you giving me a ride?” and I just didn’t like that feeling very much. And it’s weird to see this incredible kindness mesh with this entitlement that I’m starting to get. These people are kind to hikers, and that’s so wonderful and awesome. But it feels like we’re just sucking up all the resources and not giving anything back. People who – who should you be kind to? People who are down on their luck. Those are the people who should have breakfast purchased for them. Maybe I’m falling out of love more with the habit of the trail. But I just – I kinda crave to do something productive. (Sigh) Also I almost ran out of food last time and I have so much food this time and I know it’s too much. And I’m looking at it all on the table. Gonna pack it. It’s pretty funny. Ok I’m pretty hungry now, I’m gonna go get this motel free breakfast, probably call mom and dad, go to Big 5. Um, yeah.
Julia: In the over one hundred recordings I’ve listened to so far, this is the first time I’ve heard Benjamin talk about this – his complicated feelings about relying on people who help him on the trail. And at the same time, I guess it doesn’t surprise me that much.
He has never liked special treatment. And I think in the desert, you kind of have to rely on that special treatment – like, with drinking water. There just aren’t enough natural sources along the trail, and so people bring water for hikers. And on the one hand, that’s amazing. That people do that for each other. And I think Benjamin recognizes how special that is and he’s grateful for that generosity. But on the other hand, I think it’s hard for him to have to recognize that, if he’s going to get through this last part of his hike, he’s going to have to lean on other people more than he wants to.
Benjamin: Today is 3 months since I started, I just realized that, um, so, I know the exact date. It is October 15th. I’m starting to think more and more about what’s left, which is, as of right now, I’d guess just about 500 miles. And it’s funny because I have, in pretty recent memory, had a lot of pride about completing 500 miles back in Washington. But also now a new perspective on how small that is. We’re going into a section one that has a couple of famous trail angel homes back to back. First one is Casa De Luna. That’s – we’ll get there tomorrow afternoon, then we’ll get to Hiker Heaven the next day in the evening. They’re actually both people who have been doing this for decades and are both stopping at the end of this year. And they’ve given so much, that I think they’re kinda retiring. So I feel very fortunate to experience that. It’ll be tomorrow and the next day. We have another 4.5 or 5 miles tonight. Ok that’s all.
Benjamin: Hey, it is evening time, 5:00, sun’s going down, got about I’d say 3 miles left to hike and we are in Southern Claifornia, under 500 miles to the border. Still with my buddy Spark. There are some new folks in our little bubble – new and old. G Punk, they’re from North Carolina, then Rook and Trooper, and they are a couple from New York, and they’re super sweet. And then there are two people I had met a long time ago… I don’t really know their names but they’re super lovely, and they’re another couple. So it’s kind of a big group! And last night we all arrived at Casa de Luna, which is another famous stop along the trail. Just a house that belongs to the Andersons in the town of Green Valley and they’re just lovely people. Starting 22 years ago, they started hosting hikers for free, feeding them for free, letting them camp in the backyard which is this awesome Manzanita forest. We arrived on a weird day – first of all, it’s their last year of hosting. After 22 years they’re moving to Washington, selling the house. So they’re very bittersweet about that. It was also a weird day because Joe, Terry’s husband, was in the hospital for back surgery and so we got there just as Terry was leaving to go pick him up as he was getting discharged. So we wound up just cooking dinner for ourselves and it was a nice way to all hang out. And it was just a nice time. I felt very welcome at Casa de Luna. We learned that it was called that because she takes a photo of all the hikers in front of a banner that she has everyone sign, and she always has someone else take the photo and at the last minute Terry, who is like 60-something years old, turns around, bends over, and moons all the hikers in the photo, which is just hilarious. So “Luna” – moon – so that was very funny and completely unexpected. I just felt very comfortable there. Definitely still don’t feel like I deserve it, but it’s appreciated. You might be able to hear the static of power lines above me because I’m now descending into a town. Yeah. (Steps)
Benjamin: It’s Saturday, the 19th of October. And I’m walking through Angeles National Forest. So we’ve been in the area of LA for a while, in this forest that’s just around it. And if I’m being honest, I don’t like this section very much. Um… it’s pretty repetitive. The novelty of the desert is cool. And I liked the first bit just after Kennedy Meadows. But I don’t like the desert that much. In the words of Anikan Skywalker form the critically acclaimed Clone Wars, “I don’t like sand, it’s coarse” – how does he say it? “It’s coarse… it’s… and it gets everywhere.” He has another adjective for it though. So I kinda screwed up that line. But anyway… it’s sandy, there are these very thorny bushes that hem in the trail, especially when you go over hills, and you can just walk through and completely scratch up your legs and tear your clothes. And dust in my face, mouth, nose. I just feel a little icky right now, but, I don’t know. I think what the desert has going for it is a really solid infrastructure of towns and trail angels. Tehachapi is great. I hear Idyllwild is great. Big Bear is coming up. But I just don’t love it here. 5:00 right now. I’d guess I have about another 8 plus miles… 8.5. So it won’t be a particularly early night but it’ll set me up pretty well to get into LA when I want to get in, which is the morning of the 22nd. I’ll hit thirty today, so I feel good about that. Ok that’s about it.
Julia: At this point, Benjamin’s been in the desert for a week or two, and I think it’s fair to say that the landscape isn’t growing on him. But the one thing that’s making this section feel special, is actually the thing he found himself struggling with earlier: accepting help from strangers. Casa de Luna, Hiker Heaven – even the town of Tehachapi – were total highlights. They were these loving, welcoming places where he felt so taken care of. And, after hearing about all of the amazing people who help hikers along the trail, I think I have a bit of a theory about trail magic.
I think it isn’t really about “helping hikers,” exactly. I mean, of course, it is about the hikers in a way – these people are bringing hikers into their homes and cars and feeding them and getting to know them, so it ends up being about the hikers. But I think it’s more about the trail and wanting to be a part of something big. In an earlier episode we talked about how the trail kind of draws people to it – and back then, I was just thinking about the hikers. But it also draws other people – people who, for whatever reason, aren’t out there hiking it right now, but still want to be involved.
For some people, that means taking a chance and giving some grungy looking person a ride into town. Or maybe it means setting up a snack station one day at the side of the road. And for a few special people, it means devoting their summers to it. Hosting hikers year after year, or feeding them along the way. And in that way, these trail angels become institutions along the PCT – each one becomes a part of the trail itself. And in turn, the PCT provides a sort of purpose and a sense of identity for everyone involved – for hikers, for trail angels, for anyone who steps a foot on the trail.
Benjamin: Alright, it is about 3:30 on Monday the 21st. The last 3 days I’ve been able to see LA and her suburbs as we’ve been in the hills above LA. And I’m finally on my way down. I’m out of breath. It’s been a long day already. I think today will be my longest day when it’s all said and done. Probably between 36-37 miles. I’m feeling it, so I thought it would be a good time to make a recording, try to distract myself. Yesterday I did some recordings of Ken, a trail angel from Lancaster. And Spark and I first met him a couple days ago. He was sitting at a highway waiting for hikers to come by, giving us water and stuff. And when he saw us, he’s like, “OK, I’ll see you at Highway 2 on Sunday.” And we’re like, oh, ok, maybe the timing will sync up. And the trail crosses Highway 2 several times, it sort of snakes up the mountains and one of those times, we’re stepping out of the woods and we see this car cross a lane of traffic and we look in the window, we’re like, “Oh my god, that’s Ken!” He sees us immediately and gets his driver, his buddy Gustavo, to pull over. We give him a big hug, cool to see him again. Incredible that the timing worked out like that… (Fade)
(Radio playing music)
Ken: So when you came to the house, Terry went…
Ken: That’s a tradition. That’s the reason why it’s “Casa de Luna.”
Benjamin: Casa de Luna! Yeah!
Spark: Full moon tonight!
Benjamin: Then he pulled out pasta and a cake. And was like, “eat, eat, eat!” And as we’re serving ourselves, he’s like, “eat, eat, eat!” And I’m like, “I can’t! I can’t do it fast enough!” (Fade)
Ken: Ben, I’m so proud of you, son! Ben! I’m so proud of you, son! You did it!
Benjamin: It was more pasta than I thought I could eat.
Benjamin: He’s such a cool guy – he was a cross country coach. Now he’s a trail runner. And for 20 years he’s been a trail angel. (Fade)
Benjamin: It’s rolling. Tell ’em who you are Ken. (Pause) Just what are you doing?! What are you doing here?
Ken: Hi, my name is Ken and I do running and I do… I am a trail angel.
Benjamin : How did we meet?
Ken: I met Spark and Ben on the PCT coming down to Boca Canyon.
Benjamin: And then we just met up again—
Ken: We are on the side of the highway right now having cake and pasta.
Ben: And do you bring cake to every hiker?
Ken: I bring cake to every hiker going North or coming South.
Ben: How long have you been doing it?
Ken: For the past twenty something… years? 24, 25 years?
Benjamin: Why do you do it?
Ken: Because I like doing it. I enjoy talking with the hikers.
Benjamin: So you take time out of your weekend to go hiking…
Ken: I take time out of my running to come – like with you and Spark
Benjamin: That’s pretty cool. We appreciate it!
Ken: Any time!
(Song on the radio ends)
Benjamin: Life is good right now.
Ken: Life is always good, man.
Julia: You’ve been listening to The Attempt, produced by me, Julia Drachman with editing help from Doug Beyers. We are a production of Bad Cat Media, created in partnership with The Trek – a media company dedicated to thru-hiking and long distance backpacking enthusiasts. Find all the episodes of The Attempt at thetrek.co/the-attempt. You can find more information about Bad Cat Media on our website, www.badcat.media. Or you can follow us at @badcat_media on instagram and twitter. The music you heard in this episode is from Blue Dot Sessions. Thank you so much for listening. Next episode will be out in a week.
Benjamin: In the words of Anakin Skywalker from the critically acclaimed Clone Wars, “I don’t like sand…”
Anakin (from movie clip): I don’t like sand…
Benjamin: “It’s coarse…” How does he say it?
Anakin: It’s coarse…rough, and irritating…
Benjamin: ah, shit, how does he say it? “And it gets everywhere!”
Anakin: And it gets everywhere!
Benjamin: He has another adjective for it though, so I kinda screwed up that line.
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