I Was Told the Desert Would be Dry (ft. Failed Cowboy Camping)

So, I was always under the impression that the desert was dry. I was ready to carry eight liters of water in the desert every single day, knew fully well never to trust a cache, had it ingrained that there would be no reliable water sources, and never forgot that people bailed out on day one. I went into the PCT feeling like things were risky.

Apparently this year, in 2019, in April, that is just not freaking true.

And it is awesome, ladies and gentlemen. Well, other than it raining the first five miles, anyways.

But! I haven’t had to carry more than a mere three liters of water yet (**yes, I know it’s only day four, but let me bask in this glory, please**). Going from being mentally prepared to carry 16 pounds of water to settling with a casual four to six pounds? Miraculous.

The desert is just so green. We’re always coming across streams and creeks, and everything around us is so much more alive than I could have ever imagined.

That magic is currently being bolstered by the fact that I’m hiking with a fairly large group of some of the coolest people. Pit Stop, Lightning McQueen, Macarena, Squish, Rachel, Jeremiah, Emily, and me, Gucci. Full disclosure; these names are all still in the probationary period and fully subject to change the second someone does something stupid enough to replace the last stupid thing they did to earn their first trail name.

I don’t know how long we’re going to stay together— I’m definitely a slower side of the group— but it’s been a wonderful mentality of waiting for each other and helping each other out to make sure everyone’s OK. It’s just been nice to start that way, even if it won’t last.

So yesterday, one of the guys, Pit Stop, was looking at a paper guide that he had and said, “Hey, there’s a waterfall a couple miles up. It’s like a quarter-mile off trail. Let’s do it!” Obviously there was a communal, “Hell yeah!” and off we went. Bringing up the rear are me, Emily and Squish. We quickly got left behind by the rest of our group (which usually happens, nothing strange there).

At point we’d already done 11 miles from Hauser Creek, past Lake Morena (where I’d realized my Sawyer water filter was broken, just in time to nearly drink some yummy E. coli water), and up some more. We were exhausted. As we hiked up and up and up, left far behind in the dust by the rest of our group, we passed some day hikers and asked them about the waterfall. We apparently missed it.

Well, shit.

So then we asked if they’d seen a bunch of dudes and one chick, most wearing blue. “Yep! They’re gone.”

Great. Perfect.

Now let me be clear that Emily, Squish, and I really only agreed to go farther than those first 11 miles (where there had been a perfectly nice campsite) because we wanted to go to this waterfall. It was supposed to be three miles to it and three more on to the next campsite, bringing us to a total of 17 miles for that day, which is a lot for second day of the PCT. We were exhausted. We were hot. My arches were killing me.

But when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you really don’t have a choice. So hike on we did.

About two miles later we heard some shouting and screaming. We look out a little bit ahead and down into the riverbed far below us—and there was our group screaming and waving at us! We look closer— people were swimming, eating, and sleeping in this huge riverbank meadow, which had apparently come out of nowhere. Paradise.

If we had physically and emotionally been able to jump, we would have. “How do we get down there?” I shouted. “Just go for it!” Macarena screamed back from the riverbed, situated at a steep angle below us, off the edge of what was more or less a cliff.

I looked at the cliff edge. I looked at Squish. Squish looked at Emily. The air was thick with apprehension. But when a meadow and a swimmable river call you, off the cliff you gotta go.

Now, I’ve only been on the PCT four days, but the descent down to the water was easily one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, considering I had my sharp trekking poles and my fully laden pack. I’m fairly sure that I only made it out of the sheer determination to soak my feet in the water in the glow of the setting sun.

And I did.

The meadow was huge, the grass was plush, and the water was peaceful, so there was a collective “Screw the next camp site,” and out the tents came.

We dined waterside for the evening, the menu featuring an astonishing array of awful food, not limited to but including, instant mash, packets of tuna, peanut butter tortillas, and my own milk and butterless mac and cheese, garnished with crackers and Cheetos.

I sort of forgot that you had to drink or eat everything you cook, so after adding way too much water, I ate mac and cheese soup, garnished with a delectable “cheese finger” as Macarena called it, never before having seen string cheese in Germany. (Note: we wanted this to be his trail name, but he resisted, unfortunately. Lame. Also, we still call him Cheese Finger in addition to Macarena, so.)

I also accidentally dumped a ton of pepper inside. Chug chug chug chug!

After washing our pots with our tongues and fingers (doesn’t this all just make you want to sprint out the door to thru-hike, lmao?), Rachel, Emily, and I decided it was the perfect time to try cowboy camping for the first time. The view was insane, we had safety in numbers, and honestly, we just wanted to feel cool.

So out the pads and bags came, tents set up neatly in the background. “It’s like camping in your backyard,” we laughed. “If you get scared you can just go inside.”

Feeling thoroughly bad-ass, we called Macarena and Lighting McQueen over to take our picture, only to touch our bags and realize that in the ten minutes since we set them out they were fairly soaked from the humidity. I can only assume it was from the river; the singular pitfall of a watery desert, it seems.

Yikes, yikes, yikes.

Into the tents we went, ready for a soggy night. (Luckily, my REI Joule 21 dried out in about an hour. I don’t think the others’ down quilts faired as well.)

The real challenge came the next morning: how the hell do we get back up the slope and onto the trail? I cannot lie, I was extremely nervous for most of the morning, picturing tumbles and blood and sprained ankles, but…


Paradise paradise paradise.

My feet hurt. My shoulders hurt. My hips hurt.

I’m so incredibly happy.

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