Kennedy Meadows South to Casa De Luna: In Which I Try to Get Caught Up on Blogging
If I had to describe my PCT experience in one word, I’d probably say humbling. I wouldn’t say I went in overly cocky or arrogant, but I certainly didn’t come in thinking it was going to be harder than I could possibly imagine and I was going to spend a huge chunk of time repeating “ohgodohgodwhatthehellamIdoing” to myself, which is what I had mentally braced myself for on the AT. Second thru-hikes are easier, but thru-hiking is never easy, and you really should just banish the E word from anywhere near your brain when thinking about them, lest you set yourself up for a lot of failures. Plus I got Giardia, which I think may be the most humbling illness that exists in the world. Try thinking you’re hot shit while… well…
Most humbling is this blog. This site is littered with blogs that begin with apologies for a lack of blogs. I would venture it may be close to 50% of The Trek’s content. Thru-hiking is time-consuming and energy-depleting and largely Wi-Fi free. All those things make blogging hard. But MY blog has always been free from such apologies. I run a tight ship. I may never be the fastest hiker or have the most Instagram followers or the lightest pack, but I can write the most consistently updated hiking blog. But I started out from Kennedy Meadows South and reached Mexico 700 miles later without thinking about blogging once. In the section discussed in this blog (I’ll be breaking the last 700 into multiple blogs) I took two zeros when I really could have blogged but I spent those zeros sleeping and eating and watching Law and Order reruns. So I guess I’ll just have to give up the most consistently updated blog mantle.
Kennedy Meadows South to Walker Pass
Freshly cleared to hike after my bout with Giardia and having regained a whole four pounds, my dad and brother drove me all the way up to Grumpy Bears Retreat despite my insistence that I would be able to hitch it because apparently fathers are incapable of driving off and leaving their daughters on the sides of highways. I had a mini meltdown in the car realizing I didn’t have my California flag buff, which was one of my ever-dwindling list of OG gear—anything I had standing atop Springer that was still hanging around thousands of miles later. I found an identical one at the outfitters, which I took to be a good sign, and I stopped in at Grumpy’s for a beer and a veggie burger before restarting my stalled hike. The bartender (an ex thru-hiker dubbed Penguin) told me he invented a shot designed to look like thru-hiker laundry water. No longer under the age of 25, I had realized awhile ago that I didn’t actually have to drink shots if I didn’t want to, so I bullied other (under 25) hikers into ordering it so I could see what it looked like and somehow still ended up with one in front of me. It looked like muddy water with a nice layer of soap scum, but it tasted like pineapple.
I headed back to the trail and contemplated the first trail register I came across. No one I knew was ahead of me and based on the conversation I’d had with the four hikers at Grumpy’s, no one was close behind either. The hikers I had contact with were still in the middle of the Sierra and while I knew I wasn’t going to be crushing miles out the gate, it would still be awhile before they caught me. It was kind of bemusing. I had jumped back to Kennedy Meadows South on September 30, the day I’d always been planning to reach it. I had been KILLING myself to make it there by then. Most of my issues with Giardia weren’t from getting Giardia, but continuing to hike with it and pushing myself way, way too hard without getting to keep the calories I was eating or the liquids I was drinking. September 30 had stressed me out and ruled my hike for months and then most SOBOs were still in the Sierra on October 1 and they didn’t wake up that morning buried under four feet of snow. This boogeyman that had lived in my head all summer wasn’t real. I could have taken my foot off the gas. I could have taken a couple of days off trail when I first got Giardia. I could have maybe avoided going home. I slammed the trail register closed. “Well, that’s humbling,” I thought to myself and hiked on. Coulda shoulda woulda.
I probably could have been more frustrated or angry by this revelation, but Kennedy Meadows is the in-between for the Sierra and the desert and it was cold and quiet and still and serene. Relieved as I was to be back on trail again, I found I mostly didn’t care about how I had ended up where I was as long as I was there. The small group at Grumpy’s passed me and I expected I’d be reveling in this section by myself for a couple of days.
With lots of time to myself, I spent the time hiking into Walker Pass deciding I needed a different approach for the desert. I had the luxury of time now and the gift of hindsight to tell me I’d spent way too much time on this hike doing the thing hikers should never, ever do: thinking about anything other than the moment I was in. I probably couldn’t have defined what the phrase “being present” meant before thru-hiking, but I understand it deeply now. Looking ahead on a thru-hike is just so daunting with thousands of miles ahead of you and the problems you’ll be dealing with 200 miles down the line are not going to be the ones you foresaw anyway. Thru-hiking is literally the simplest thing in the world: every morning you wake up and put all your stuff in a backpack and walk in a predetermined direction until you decide to take all the stuff out of your backpack and go to sleep. And somehow I was still filling it with all the overthinking and second-guessing that held domain over my regular life. I couldn’t let it rule this thing I loved the most too. I could tell I was desperate when I started coming up with a mantra, that staple of endurance sports that always makes me feel like a dork. I settled on “respect the whim”; if there was something I wanted to do, respect that there was a reason I wanted to do it and not worry too much about what it meant in the bigger picture. Armed with a game plan for a better head space, I trotted into Walker Pass with my trail legs a little weaker and my shoulders a little lighter.
True to the reporting of my fellow hikers, I saw absolutely nobody after they passed me by. I didn’t mind the solitude necessarily, but it did occur to me that if I wanted to see any hikers I had met before, I should probably slow roll things for a while, so I respected the whim and took a zero in Inyokern, which wasn’t the most exciting zero but was the most frugal minus the nearby Mexican restaurant where I spent a small fortune.
Walker Pass to Tehachapi
I knew the real water carries of the desert started south of Walker Pass, so I glanced through Guthook comments to get a sense of what was flowing. The perils of being early to the desert meant that most sources hadn’t been updated since the NOBOs came through, so I figured I should operate under the assumption that anything seasonal would be dry by now and anything else could be. Sure enough, I generally got about one running source per day. If I have one backpacking superpower, it’s that I seem to need to drink less water than others, so I showed up to each one with extra water.
My extra day off had done the trick and there were a few hikers around, although I hadn’t met most of them before. Almost all of them, for whatever reason, were 2017 AT thru-hikers and while I knew there were a couple of extremely fast SOBOs ahead, for a good while it felt like we were the only ones in the desert.
I figured out pretty quickly that shoving lip balm up my nose stopped the desert nosebleeds but I lost my tube somewhere along the way and it took less than 24 hours for my lips to split and join my nose in bleeding everywhere. (I lose Chapstick tubes with the same frequency as I lose sunglasses. I call it sacrificing to the trail gods to avoid calling it what it actually is, which is littering.) Never before wanting to purchase a tube of lip balm quite so desperately, I decided it was time to pick up the miles a bit.
At some point the day before I got into Tehachapi, I started feeling the trail didn’t look quite right. It had been intersecting with ATV trails all day, so it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had ended up following one thoughtlessly. I glanced at Guthook and saw my little blue dot on the red line, so I ignored my instincts and kept walking. A half an hour later, things really didn’t look right to me, so I glanced at Guthook again and saw my dot hadn’t moved from the last time I checked. How long had it been stuck there? Where the crap was I? “This is probably what people mean when they talk about an overreliance on navigation technology on trail,” I thought to myself. To make things worse, I wasn’t carrying my InReach because for some reason I don’t like peace of mind and had left it at home. I did have service, so I texted my parents around what mile marker I had gotten lost at so they would have an idea of where to find the body if I couldn’t find my way.
Figuring the ATV trail had to lead somewhere, I kept following it and sure enough, it took me to some actual ATVs with humans on them. They had no idea where the PCT was, but they gave me directions to the nearest road. Guthook has roads on it so once there I was able to make a fairly accurate guess as to where I was and wound my way through private drives littered with No Trespassing signs, crossing my fingers no one would shoot me on sight. I rejoined the PCT about two hours later and seven miles after I left it, trying to text my parents I was OK the whole time. I started along the trail, getting more and more anxious I’d left my parents in a lurch and they were going to call search and rescue. A couple of miles in, I started to jog, checking for service every 15 minutes or so, and a couple of miles later, I was running down the trail, pack bouncing awkwardly on my shoulders. Some five hours after first texting them, I finally found service and texted the group chat that I was fine. They were entirely unconcerned. “I just assume you always have a handle on it at this point,” my dad texted, apparently unmoved that I had just run four miles straight with 20 pounds on my back. Two years ago they had a meltdown when I told them I was feeling sick in the Smokies and then lost service for a day. Apparently we’ve all grown and relaxed a bit.
I got to Tehachapi the next day after what felt like hours and hours hiking with a full view of the highway I needed to get to. I bought Chapstick immediately and, still feeling an absence of any need to rush, I decided to zero again and give people I knew more time to catch up.
Tehachapi to Casa De Luna
I arranged a ride back to the trail with Tehachapi’s incredibly organized network of trail angels, and on the way we discussed the high wind advisory and red flag warnings going into effect that night. Tehachapi’s power was getting shut off that afternoon and she was concerned about Tehachapi’s ability to host hikers. I was concerned about hiking straight into a fire. I didn’t give any thought into what it might be like to actually hike through these wind advisories, nor did I realize that this wasn’t the only trail town I’d come across without power for my last 500 miles. As a whole, I always feel bad when my concerns are trail closures and charging my phone when people in town have actual concerns, like fires near their homes and days-long power outages that seriously affect their lives, so I tried not to think much about the weather outside of that context.
It was noticeably breezy when I got out of the car. There are wind farms all over this part of the country for a reason and one thing that had never occurred to me when choosing to go SOBO was that I would be hiking through the desert in the height of Santa Ana season. I could tell the day was warm—my hike down to the highway two days before had been in 90+ degree weather—but the combo of my sweat and the wind made things pretty chilly so I pulled on my rain jacket as a windbreaker, which I would be happy to have the next 500 miles despite the fact it never rained.
I didn’t really have a specific goal of where I wanted to end up that night but as the sun started to set, I passed by campsite after campsite because they all felt too exposed to the wind. I pulled out my headlamp and wandered on in the dark. Around 9 p.m. I decided to call it at a site that didn’t feel as windy as the others, despite the fact that it wasn’t sheltered in any way. I set up my tent with extra care, using all my stakes and burying each one under a pile of rocks. “There’s no way this is going to last the night,” I thought as I clambered in, the walls billowing in toward my face already. I pulled all my things into my tent, not trusting my shoes not to blow away from under my vestibule.
At around 11:30 p.m., my tent collapsed and had I not had everything I owned inside it, I’m pretty sure it would have been swept away with me inside. The wind had noticeably picked up in the two hours I had slept and my tent snapped and billowed around me claustrophobically. There was a pretty significant chance my tent was going to be destroyed if I stayed and a zero percent chance that I would sleep at all, so I shoved all my things into my pack without any of my usually methodical precision and climbed out to take down my tent the wind was working hard to shred to pieces. The two stakes holding the side of the tent facing the wind were now at 90 degree angles.
I shuffled down the trail at midnight, yawning sleepily, dressed in some weird mix of my sleep and hiking clothes. My plan was to walk until I found a place out of the wind and, if I failed to do that, to just keep walking the 30 miles over the LA Aqueduct and hopefully find a place to sleep with four walls at Hikertown the next day, which, horrifyingly, was supposed to have worse wind speeds. Around 2 a.m. I found a drainage culvert tucked away from the wind and crawled in, abandoning the idea of sleeping in my tent altogether. I passed out immediately.
I woke up with the sun, curled up into a small ball inside my quilt. Only the top of my head had stuck out while I slept, so when I poked my head out, it took a second to process the light and the sound of the wind and the fact I had been buried alive over the last few hours. I spent more time than usual yanking my things out of the dirt and going through a mental checklist of my belongings to make sure there weren’t more things buried in the drainage culvert. I thought about taking out my braids and brushing out the layers of dust that must have surely accumulated in my hair, but decided I didn’t have the energy. The wind was still ferocious and while my legs were safe in the culvert, the rest of me was not.
The aqueduct is totally flat, totally exposed, just miles and miles of trail on flat desert landscapes with nothing but wind turbines around you. It was probably the worst place to be in a windstorm. Nowhere was sheltered, nowhere was safe. As the day progressed, I developed a dirt tan on the left side of my body from being pelted with dust. I tucked my face in my buff and kept my sunglasses and hood on. I eventually gave up on eating and drinking water and peeing; they all took too much effort in the wind and they all slowed me down from my only goal, which was to get to Hikertown and find someplace inside where I could sleep. “The only way out is through,” I repeated to myself, again and again and again. “The only way out is through.”
By the time I shuffled into Hikertown, I was more exhausted than I’d ever been. My whole body was flush with relief when I looked at the little buildings, imagining what still air would feel like again. I also really had to pee. I walked in and looked around awkwardly, unsure of what I was supposed to do. I wandered around, knocking on doors looking for humans and finding none. I stood in the middle of the courtyard, my heart sinking, staring longingly at the walled buildings. And then I shuffled out and called the market down the road in Wee Vill that let hikers camp in their yard. It wasn’t the four walls I had been dreaming of, but at least I could eat inside.
And eat I did, shoving food into my mouth after hiking 30 miles without eating anything. I ate a grilled cheese and french fries and a taco salad and drank a liter of Gatorade. I was working up the energy to go look for dessert when Maria, the cook, wandered over. “Are you camping in the yard?” she said, a look of concern on her face. I was shivering pretty badly, which was probably less because it was cold and more because I hadn’t eaten all day. I nodded. “Honey, it’s freezing, why don’t you stay in my extra room? I live just out back. Then you can shower too.” She glanced at my left side dirt tan and what I can only presume was several pounds of dust in my hair.
I could’ve cried. Four walls. Still air. A shower. She led me back to her house before returning to close the market, with the warning that she would be up and back at the market way before I woke up the next morning. And then she left me, a random stranger with several pounds of dust in her hair that she’d met an hour ago, alone in her home. It’s one of the most incredible acts of kindness I’d experienced on this hike and all night, as I heard the wind howl and the house creak, I was grateful.
The next morning I awoke, got a fat stack of pancakes and a hug from Maria, and returned to the trail. I was heading to Casa de Luna, the home of the Andersons, the most famous trail angels on the PCT. Between them and Hiker Heaven 24 miles later, it would be awhile before I had to worry about camping in wind advisories again. Both the Andersons and the Saufleys were moving and hanging up their trail angel hats after years and years of opening their homes to hikers, so I felt extremely grateful that I was getting a chance to meet them before they closed shop for good.
I got a hitch quickly with a driver who already knew where I was going. When he dropped me off, I stood in the drive awkwardly for a second. At the end of the day, it is their home and it was hard not to feel like I was intruding as I walked up to their door. But before I even knocked, the door flew open and Joe came out, relieving me of my backpack and introducing himself. Terrie wrapped me in a hug with a warm, “Hello honey.” I’ll probably always associate this stretch with hugs and being called honey. I was sort of baffled by how warmly and energetically they greeted me; they’ve been doing this for decades and have had thousands of hikers come through. The real testament to their kindness is how hard they work to welcome each individual hiker when they deal with hundreds each season.
Another 2017 AT thru-hiker came in later (I’m telling you, for a good two weeks we owned the desert) and we spent the evening the way I imagine the first hikers to come through Casa De Luna experienced it—lounging in the Anderson’s living room eating pizza and watching Forensic Files. The biggest perk of going south on the PCT is the feeling you’re not overwhelming towns and trail angels with sheer numbers; it’s been a way more intimate experience, especially at places like these. At the end of the night we got to sleep inside and out of the wind and the next morning we hiked out after one more hug from Terrie, who really does give the best hugs.
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