Going Solo: Agua Dulce to Tehachapi on the PCT
Miles 454.5 to 566.4
It felt like starting the PCT for the first time: Granite said goodbye to me at an Airbnb in Santa Clarita and I took an Uber at dawn to a dirt road by Agua Dulce. I felt weird bouncing butterflies in my stomach on the drive over, and even five minutes after leaving Granite I already missed him. Plus, the Uber driver was extremely concerned when I showed him the stretch of dirt where I was getting out. But I smiled and waved and headed out anyway. It was just after 6 AM and already getting hot.
I had taken two and a half days off trail—a day and a half in Agua Dulce, and then a day in Santa Clarita. That meant that in addition to leaving Granite, I was also days behind everyone I knew on trail. Plus, my closest friend on the trail, Lupine, had come off trail due to injuries in Wrightwood. I felt untethered.
The first day was a long climb through very hot weather. I made friends with a guy from Denmark named Pilot who was struggling with shin splints. The sun felt like a physical weight on my shoulders but every scrap of shade was thick with poison oak and teeming with attack gnats.
I met a couple of trail angels refilling a water cache. They invited me to their house—Casa De Luna in Green Valley—and gave me a grape popsicle. I wished I could accept their generosity, but I knew I’d never make it to Green Valley by the end of the day. Plus, I was still a bit sick and didn’t want to sleep in a house with other hikers when I might still be contagious.
I slept in a sandy, flat campsite mostly shaded by manzanitas. I was in the tent panting and hot, feeling vaguely feverish and exhausted, by 6 PM. I took some cold medicine and passed out on top of my sleeping bag before 7 PM.
Finding Water in Difficult Circumstances
I woke up early feeling slightly better the next day, and left camp early. Since my campsite was totally solo—the first time that’s happened on the PCT—I could enjoy getting ready without trying to stay silent and avoid turning on my light the way I normally do in the morning.
By 7 AM, I’d made it to the paved road leading to Green Valley. I hiked a half mile along the road to take water from a faucet outside of a fire station marked with a “Do Not Drink” sign. Then a half mile back to the trail, wondering if my Steripen was adequate for treating all this water.
Over 30 hikers stayed at Casa De Luna the prior night, and I think every one of them passed me on the hot climb out of Green Valley. They were all exclaiming over beer and taco salad and pancake breakfasts, and they were energized and sociable. I was still feeling low energy from my receding cold. Getting passed all day by other hikers is a bit demoralizing. I thought the trail would make me feel strong, but it’s actually quite humbling. I see every day how just a few extra pounds of water weight or a few extra degrees of temperature can be so debilitating.
The best water source for the day was a spring just below a many-mile climb. Since I still had enough water for the climb, I decided to skip it. I didn’t want to drag liters of water uphill, and I figured I’d need to use either the cistern at the top or find the stream a half mile off trail.
22 miles into my day, I had to make the decision: the cistern that people said had occasional dead animals in it, or walk an extra half mile off trail to find a stream that other hikers reported was difficult to find and tasted like rust.
I debated it for a long time and at 4:45 PM took the turnoff for the stream, descending steeply to Upper Shake Campground. I figured I had plenty of time before dark to find the stream and make camp.
After 30 minutes of searching for the stream, I realized how hard it could be to find water. The stream bed was easy to find, but everywhere I looked it seemed dry. I walked up and down the poison oak-clogged stream bed in vain, rereading comments from other hikers about how to locate the water. I was completely alone; everyone else must have chosen to get water from the cistern. I turned on my Garmin so I could message Granite and tell him the stream was bone dry. Was I seriously going to climb a half mile back up to the trail and backtrack to the cistern, then start looking for camping? Or maybe I could just get by with the water I had until the water tank I’d pass in the morning. Except multiple people reported that tank was also dry…
I saw two birds diving and flitting near a steeper bit of the embankment, and decided to try once more. Wading back through the brush and poison oak, I clambered back down to the stream bed and found a thin stream of water. I quickly used a sawed-off Smart water bottle to scoop enough up to treat, doing my best to avoid the poison oak as I did.
There was nobody to celebrate finding water with. Maybe that’s part of this whole being-self-sufficient thing. I have to figure out complicated challenges—like finding water in a mostly dry stream—without anyone to ask for help, and then I need to manage the outcome of that on my own too, whether joy or disappointment or frustration.
Feeling at least a bit proud of myself, I hiked back to Upper Shake Campground, a long abandoned Angeles Forest Service campground that commenters on FarOut called “eerie,” “desolate” and “gives Blair Witch Project feelings.” The latrine was described as not having been serviced in 20 years. I chose a campsite far from the pit toilet and set up my tent.
It was honestly weird to be so alone in a campground—I didn’t see anyone from when I left the trail until I crawled into my tent at 7:30. But it wasn’t creepy. There was golden light slanting through the trees and bird song coming from every direction. After almost a month on trail of crowded campsites, I had my second night totally alone.
It was supposed to be a 22 mile day, but I think I walked closer to 24 or 25 with the extra hikes to find water.
500 miles and a Hot Day into Hikertown
The next morning I reached 500 miles on my journey, and ran into another hiker named Lucky Charm who took my photo—and showed me how to do burst photos on a iPhone.
It was a hard, excessively hot 24.2 miles into Hikertown. I delayed taking a lunch break till after 1 PM to enjoy cooler morning miles, then dropped down to eat at a water cache a mere 7 miles from Hikertown.
Unfortunately, I must have leaned against something with thorns during lunch. Two miles later, I was swiping at my sweaty back trying to get the thorns out. I finally took off my shirt and found a few thorns, but it was clear there were more embedded in the back of my bra or in my back. I figured Lucky Charm would catch me and I’d ask her for help.
But she didn’t catch me. Instead I caught up with a hiker called Reaper, a 62 year old man who recently retired from the park service and was hiking the PCT for the second time. I asked if he’d help get the thorns out of my back and he immediately worked to remove the tiny thorns from the back of my bra and my back. I was beyond grateful, and we hiked together for the rest of the trip to Hikertown.
I had been dreading Hikertown before I got there. I heard it had bed bugs and that people got drunk and acted inappropriately, and that it wasn’t a great place for women traveling solo. So I was guarded. It was definitely a dusty, ramshackle place with hikers lying around and drinking, one toilet for about 40 people, and no working sinks. But I asked the caretaker Bob if there was any place left for me to rent and he said “Only that trailer, which has air conditioning.”
I felt like I had won the lottery. I passed him my money and dragged my stuff into a rustic but adorable teardrop trailer and turned on the AC. I barely moved for the next 24 hours.
Night Hiking the Aqueduct
Walking the LA Aqueduct is notoriously tedious and can be extremely hot, so many people hike it at night. I would have happily left after midnight to take on the 24 miles to the first water source, but I also wasn’t sure I wanted to hike alone.
There was a large group going out at 5:30 PM called “Dudefest West,” organized by a hiker in his 50s who had previously hiked the AT and went by the trail name The Dude. They planned to have music on a Bluetooth speaker and glow sticks and body paint. I figured I’d hike with them. It could be fun, and there’d be someone around if I got in trouble.
It was sort of thrilling to hike out single file with a group of 30 backpackers as the sun set over the desert. Energy was high and everyone was chatting and laughing. I got to connect with folks I’d seen on trail but hadn’t had much time to talk with. But trying to stay with the group was a challenge. When I wanted to adjust my shoelaces or fix my water hose I’d fall behind and have to play catch up. Two hours in, the group stopped for a break. I wasn’t sure how long they’d be, so I decided to hike on, figuring they’d catch me.
But, other than a few folks walking ahead, the group didn’t catch me. I ended up walking solo for hours in the nighttime desert. Sunset was lovely and the desert had so many Joshua trees.
The wind kicked up after 10.30 pm, and by 11 PM I was getting bombarded by heavy gusts that were pushing me around the road. There was so much sand and dirt raining into my face that I couldn’t even look ahead and instead had to turn my face to the side as I hiked through the dark. I definitely had a “what the heck am I doing this for?” moment then, but of course by then there was no way out but through.
I reached the water cache 17.5 miles in at 11:30 PM. I abandoned my plans to reach the creek at mile 24; the wind was too intense and I needed a break. I found a campsite down a ditch with some shrubs for wind protection and did a terrible job setting up my tent. It was dark, the site was a sandpit, and I was on a slope. I crawled into my tent and passed out, putting in ear plugs to try to block out the near-deafening sound of my tent snapping and flapping in the gusts of wind.
On to Tehachapi
My alarm chirped at me at 5. Normally I love waking up early but the day after Dudefest, I struggled. But I yanked myself out of the tent because I knew it was going to be painfully hot and every minute later would mean another hot afternoon minute of hiking.
Hiking back up out of the desert floor took a whole day. It was incredible to look back at the desert below and behind us, at miles of wind and solar farms and far-distant hills. I hiked much of the day with a woman named Commando. “Can you believe we hiked all that?” I asked her.
“It’s monumental,” she replied. That felt like a great word for it.
I enjoyed the next two days. Most of the PCT is focused on appreciating the majesty of nature, but this section is actually a testament to the enormity of societal infrastructure: endless miles of aqueduct and wind farms that feed the cities.
At the last road crossing before highway 58 I met a guy calling himself Magic Man. He said he’s been supporting hikers for 7 years, following the bubble up sometimes as far as Oregon. He had a cooler of cold drinks, Twinkies, and a scale so hikers could see if they were losing weight. I was glad to learn I’d only lost 6 pounds so far—not quite keeping with my plan to maintain my weight during the desert, but much better than many hikers, many of whom have lost 10 or even 20 pounds already.
I was floored by the generosity of Magic Man, who said he was afraid his recent hip replacement would prevent him from supporting hikers. Like many trail angels, he refused any money and just wished us well.
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