I Would Walk 500 Miles: PCT Days 24-30
Day 24. Miles: 14.6 Total: 383.9
When I stop in the Village Grind again before hitching out of Wrightwood, the barista waves away my money.
“Oh, I got into town and had my free coffee yesterday,” I say. “I should pay for this one.”
He shakes his head again. “You’re good. Really.” I thank him, drop a tip in the jar, and head to the post office.
Based on the lodging prices in Wrightwood, I had expected a rich, inaccessible ski town. Instead, the community embraces the dirty, stingy hikers without reservation. It’s nice to have my expectations proven wrong and to witness thru-hikers and the “real world” interact with so much generosity and gratitude.
Back on trail, I summit Baden-Powell and hike past a giant hollow tree so massive I could have stood inside. The evening is clear and cold. Becky, Luca, and Billie Goat are behind somewhere. They entered and left town via the Acorn Trail instead of Highway 2, so they’ll catch up in the next few days.
Day 25. Miles: 22.7 Total: 406.6
Today, I miss trail miles for the first time. A portion of the official PCT is closed to preserve the habitat of an endangered frog species, so we are rerouted with a road walk on Highway 2 and then the Buckhorn trail back to the PCT. This detour adds mileage, so a lot of hikers stay on Highway 2 until the next PCT crossing, cutting down the distance instead of increasing it. Once I split onto Buckhorn, I barely see anyone. I come up on Jackrabbit at a water crossing and then pass an older German couple, but after that, I hike alone for hours. The Buckhorn trail follows a clear, deep creek. When it meets the PCT, the trail climbs a steep hill lined in wildflowers.
Knowing that hikers who stayed on the road will end up ahead, I feel an urge to hurry, to make up the lost ground. Lost ground? I think, catching myself. This whole thing is arbitrary. Whether or not people add a few extra miles to the frog closure should not affect my hike at all. The PCT is not a race.
I hike until evening, stopped once by a wild-looking older man hiking in what I hope are bike shorts but appear to just be boxer briefs. He wants to know my name and take my photo. Another hiker arrives behind me just as this interaction is taking place, and the crazy man seems to assume we are together. I have never seen the other thru-hiker before, but the old man is behaving strangely enough that I am happy to pose with the other hiker as if he is my partner. Luckily, the young man introduces himself as Buddha and says nothing to disabuse this weird man of the notion that we are hiking together. The eccentric day hiker rants at us for a few minutes about how hikers these days know nothing about navigation or real, challenging hiking, which is bushwhacking. He asks us where we’re camping and we both answer with something vague. Then we make polite farewells and keep moving.
Buddha is so fast that he is out of sight before I can tell him how grateful I was that he arrived when he did. Even so, I don’t think the man was dangerous, only a little self-righteous and socially awkward in a harmless sort of way. I’m honestly surprised that it’s taken 400 miles to have an old man rant that young people nowadays are hiking wrong.
Day 26. Miles: 18.3 Total: 424.9
I leave camp early, but throughout the morning, I am passed by Wild Card, Buddha, and Kenzie, another hiker I met yesterday who started from Campo ten full days after I did. She’s been averaging around a marathon a day. I wish her luck when she passes, because I will almost certainly never see her again.
Around lunch time, I’m hiking with Lana. We reach the fire station road and find a hiker offering trail magic. It’s a hot day, and the cold drinks and sweet donuts are impossibly perfect. I spread out my sleeping pad and relax in the shade for hours, chatting with the hikers who come through. When I see Billie Goat heading down the hill, I wave. Luca and Becky are not far behind. After they’ve had the chance to rest, we hike a few more miles and camp alongside the trail where it approaches a dirt road. There are lots of hikers squeezed into the minimal flat ground, and we dub the campsite “mosquito alley.”
Day 27. Miles: 20.0 Total: 444.9
Twenty miles feels routine now. Not easy, exactly, but doable. We hike 19 to the LA RV park, previously the Acton KOA, where we unpack the boxes we sent ourselves from Wrightwood. I gorge myself on ice cream and pay for a shower, even though it’s only been a few days since the last town.
Another group of hikers is getting profoundly drunk at the pool, and the noise increases as we sort through our food at a nearby picnic table. This is the first time I’ve felt embarrassed out here on behalf of my fellow thru hikers. I have to dodge vomit in the grass on my way to the restroom. We debated camping here, but I am eager to leave despite the fading daylight. Billie Goat stays to finish her laundry, but Luca, Becky, and I hike one more mile to camp in peace on a grassy ridge.
Day 28. Miles: 19.1 Total: 464.0
At 2:30 a.m., I am woken by a sound I haven’t heard since San Diego, the morning before I started the trail. It’s feather-light but unmistakable: rain.
I poke my head out of my sleeping bag and grimace as the rain dampens my face. I touch the outside of my sleeping bag. The rain is beading in the tiniest of droplets. I could get up to pitch my tent, but this is the desert. Surely this is just a cloud passing through. I go back to sleep.
At 4 a.m., it’s still raining. Most of my things are wet. No point in pitching the tent now. By 5:30, it stops. Becky, Luca, and I bemoan our misfortune at first. Then we remind ourselves that this is the first time it’s rained in four weeks. On the AT, it rarely went four days without a downpour. Becky is from the UK. “This actually feels like home,” she jokes. Luca makes us all coffee to raise our spirits.
Eventually, we pack up and get moving. Billie Goat got an early start from the RV park, and she catches up soon. As the clouds evaporate, they reveal beautiful views of golden desert hills and distant mountains.
Today we hike through Vasquez Rocks and along the road into Agua Dulce. We eat at a Mexican restaurant with Wild Card and Lana to celebrate Luca’s upcoming birthday. After many suggestions, he has accepted a trail name, Poseidon, so we celebrate that, too.
Day 29. Miles: 21.6 Total: 485.6
I pitched my tent last night. It didn’t rain this time, but the condensation is so dense that my tent is dripping wet. As I roll it and stuff it into its bag, my fingers feel numb with cold.
We hike down from the misty green mountain, back into familiar desert. By midday, it’s hard to reconcile the heat with bone-chilling cold of the morning.
Day 30. Miles: 22.5 Total: 508.1
I’m struggling today. The trail has a lot of uphill, and my feet are aching in my flat, threadbare shoes. I should have gotten new shoes in Wrightwood, but we were there over the weekend, so I ordered them to Hikertown instead. These Altra Lone Peaks have lost any semblance of support over several REI trips, half marathon training, the Trans Catalina Trail, and now 500 miles of the PCT.
Nonetheless, I make it through the day. The second half includes more gentle downhills, and I listen to podcasts and music. I pass the 500-mile mark, and I am proud of my aching feet, my tired legs, of my lungs and my heart and my lone, hard-working kidney.
Last night, tucked in my sleeping bag, I looked through photos on my phone as I outlined this blog post. I don’t like the photos of myself on Baden Powell. The pose and the angle makes my thigh look thick and flabby. I wish I’d taken one of just the summit sign alone, without me in it.
Thru-hiking is a funny thing. I’m often the first to sing the praises of a huge physical endeavor, how it refocuses your mindset from aesthetic to functional. Instead of resenting my waist for not being small enough, I can appreciate my body for all the miles and miles it’s capable of. I felt the same way about the kidney transplant. Why did I waste so much time disliking my ears or my teeth, when I was young and fit and healthy enough to spare an organ and save a life?
I think this refocus is both real and valuable, but it’s also important to remember that it isn’t automatic or permanent. So many of us pursue a long trail hoping to leave bad habits or mindsets behind, and the adventure helps with that, but it’s not a magic cure-all. When I caught myself hating how my thigh looked in my Baden-Powell photo, it was a reminder that it takes effort, both during and after a thru-hike, to learn from the journey and maintain those takeaways, not just revert straight back to our old habits.
I’ve hiked 500 miles so far, but over 2,000 are still left. I hope there are lessons to be learned, but more importantly, I hope to find ways to make those lessons stick.
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