No, Really. You Really Need the Clown Shoes.

Day Eight: 21.5

At 5 a.m. my first alarm sounds and I snooze it, knowing I need to get up so I have enough time to tape my blisters and finish packing by 7. I’m snuggled in the comforter of a real bed, inside a tipi at Mountain Valley Retreat. It is difficult to exit the warmth, the night having been a particularly cold one. I get out of the blankets just long enough to fire up the propane heater, and then grab my cold clothes from the floor.

After a few minutes they are warmed by my body heat, and I put on pants and my down jacket. I drink coffee as I prepare to head back to the trail, yesterday having been my first zero and night away from the PCT. I had previously planned to spend a night or two here, and it came at the exact time I most needed it. Turns out, the shoes I’ve worn for the last few years on backpacking trips are completely wrong for thru-hiking, and I developed some pretty rough blisters. It takes me more than 30 minutes to correctly clean, seal, and tape them. A learning experience. But I have new Altra Lone Peaks, and I’ve started calling them my “disco waffles.” Shiny gaiters and what feel like giant clown shoes.

My host gives me a ride to the trailhead, and I begin walking the nine miles into Warner Springs. The super bloom is still in effect, and there are tiny yellow and lavender flowers embossing the rolling hills. I reach Eagle Rock, have my photo taken, and see many day hikers along the trail into town. And I remember that in the conventional world, it is the weekend.

Reaching Warner Springs, I check in at 2 Foot Adventures, the roaming gear trailer that moves along the PCT throughout the season. I double-check to make sure my shoes are the appropriate size, and when confirmed, I check out the resupply room at the community center. I only need a few things, but manage to score tortillas and a free orange.

I head back outside with my snacks and have a buffalo chicken wrap, the free orange, and a mini Snickers. There is a band playing old Tom Petty, while people mill around a car show and eat burgers made by Boy Scouts. Then the owner of 2 Foot Adventures gives my pack a shakedown, and we manage to trim a pound and a half. I know how to get rid of another two pounds, but I’m not ready to do it yet.

I end up hanging in Warner Springs for about three hours, really hitting it off with Mary and Charlie Brown. When I prepare to leave they tell me I have a really great personality, and I take it to heart. It makes me feel happy, as I walk among the intense array of wildflowers. It is the hottest part of the day, and I don’t see any more day hikers for a long time. I run into a thru-hiker who shows me a video of a bobcat he just saw crouching among the flowers.

I hike for several hours, gaining altitude and crossing streams. It is brilliantly picturesque, and I am so happy to be hiking again that it brings tears to my eyes. When I stop to fill my water for dry camping, I make ramen noodles with faux chicken, and dehydrated broccoli, cabbage, mushrooms, and cilantro. Then I hike into the late evening, watching the sunset from a ridgeline. I move quickly to set up my tent in a small spot directly next to the trail that doesn’t really seem to be made for camping, but it’s almost dark and I am out of options.

I crawl in and spend some time organizing my things, cleaning my wounds, and eating snack mix while watching a few minutes of Pineapple Express. This is a trick I use when camping alone. If I start to feel creeped out by the noises of the night, I drown them out with a few minutes of comforting media. I’m sure outdoor Puritans would frown upon this technique, but it works for me. And after all, this is almost half a year of my life we’re talking about. There will be movies!

As I write this, I can tell tonight will be a colder night than most I’ve experienced on-trail so far. I tuck my water filter and power bank alongside me in my sleeping bag, and turn off the light canopy. Another special day on the PCT. I wonder how long the honeymooning will last.

Day Nine: 17.3

The birds are singing as the sun rises over the hillside, and I consider their absence at night. The quiet gets to me sometimes, making every snapped twig or rustled branch more audible. Everyone has been talking about mountain lions a lot, and when I was at the retreat I heard one calling just after sunset. (I had to google it.)

I wake slowly, tired this morning. I have a new method of packing that takes a little extra finessing, but at 8 a.m. I am on my way down the trail to the water source provided by a trail angel.

It’s less than five miles and I arrive in less than two hours. There are people milling around, drinking soda, purifying water, smoking rolled cigarettes, and listening to some sort of music I find terrible. I look around for a few minutes, absorbing the log books and mason jars of table weed and loose tabacco. It’s not really my scene, so I wash my socks, filter my water, and head out.

After leaving, I am climbing. The trail is covered in loose rock. It is a trying three miles, all up, then right back down. After a few hours it is hot and I take a midday break in some patchy shade along the trail. I roll out my ultrathin mat, remove my socks and shoes, and assemble a lunch of smoked tuna and mustard in tortillas. I also eat some peanut butter, and some sort of oil that is supposed to be good for your brain when you put it in coffee. I realize this is the first liquid fat I’ve encountered since getting on the trail, and the residual film covers the inside of my titanium mug and makes me miss olive oil.

I lie down for a few minutes, but the angle is too sloped, so I sit up again, packing up my various items in their particular order. Then I am back on the trail, feeling a little perkier for the next five miles to the water source. I listen to a playlist made by a friend in Utah, and move carefully, trying to get use to these strange new shoes.

When I arrive at the water source, a man named Downhill is there. There isn’t much water flowing, but he’s dug a hole and built a small dam and I am easily able to scoop up a few liters. We chat for a few minutes and share a raspberry fig bar. I learn that The Walking Dead aren’t more than six to eight miles ahead of me, and I consider trying to catch them. But my feet have started to hurt, and I am ready to make it to camp. I hike the three miles to a concrete water cistern, scoop a few more liters, and continue on to the canyon just a half-mile down the trail.

There I claim a soft, sandy spot. I unroll my sit pad and weight it with rocks. It’s just after 5 p.m., so I have time to have dinner before setting up my tent. I have the same thing as last night (ramen with veggies and herbs), but I add some ginger chicken and some soy sauce packets I got from a trail angel cache today.

After I eat I set up my tent and crawl in, trying to clean myself as best I can. I sit in my tent and do the yoga poses I can manage in the small space. And then suddenly it is dark, and I’m exhausted. Tomorrow I want to wake up early enough to get ahead of one of my camp mates. He’s a clinger. Wish me luck.

PS: Things that have turned out to be crucial to the success of my hike thus far: Body Glide, sun gloves, trekking poles, chocolate, tortillas, and ibuprofen.

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