The Desert Is Finally Behind Us
We headed out of Hiker Heaven late in the evening to beat the heat. Night hiking was something that we had avoided as long as we could. I particularly didn’t want to do it since we wouldn’t be seeing much of anything, let alone the landscape, which was a big part of why I came out here. But it had to be done if we were going to continue on. There were new sounds and new creatures to be found, and that’s about the highlight of it. We don’t have a lot of pictures from these few nights but the first night we swore we heard mountain lion cubs off in the distance. Since we still happened to be in service range Michelle was able to confirm this was the sound we were hearing on her phone. Luckily we were headed away from it up and over a few mountain ridges and didn’t hear it the rest of the night. Later that same night we also explored a couple of small caves along the trail, which was surprisingly easy to do since it was just as dark outside as inside the caves. It totally took the creepy feeling away, and you almost felt safer inside of them… especially after hearing the cat noises.
By the end of the night our feet couldn’t have hurt more. We had both been breaking in new shoes and after putting 20 miles on them the first night we both decided we were unable to walk the one last mile or so down the road to Casa de Luna, another trail angel that housed hikers. It happened to be the last weekend that they were open. On top of that our friends were all there. Some who had hitched ahead and others who had left Hiker Heaven before us were there so we had all the motivation in the world to get there. The highway we were sitting along was rather busy for it being just after sunrise. After an hour or so we finally gave up on hitching to Casa de Luna and cowboy camped in a thicket of trees and bushes. We picked a good spot and had shade the entire day, relatively no bug problems, and it wasn’t that hot so we both slept great. The Benadryl we took might’ve helped a little bit too I suppose.
Over the next few days we continued to hike during the night and sleep during the day, though this didn’t prove to be easy. With temperatures reaching well into the 100s F during the day we had to pick a campsite with shade cover for most of the day if we hoped to get any sleep. One morning in particular stands out above the others. Both of us were exhausted and our feet were hurting from breaking in new shoes (20 miles a day on new shoes wasn’t fun for the first few days). We searched for literally anywhere that would work to pitch our tent. One area seemed perfect, except it was populated by a family of skunks, another was flat but had no shade, most had shade but were too steep to sit on let alone lay down and sleep, We gritted our teeth and continued trudging onward until we reached a campground. By this point the sun was already high enough in the sky that we were easily able to identify a row of trees that appeared to line up with its path for the day. We pitched our tent there, in hopes to be shaded while we slept during the day. It worked fairly well, but like most daytime sleeps it wasn’t nearly as restful as sleeping at night.
Hiker Town and the Wind Farm
Our next stop was called Hiker Town, not to be confused with Hiker Heaven, right before the aqueduct section. Hiker Town was full of a bunch of little town buildings that had been built to house hikers and protect them from the relentless wind and sun. We took a day, or night I guess, off to rest our feet. Both of us had been breaking in new shoes over the last few nights and our feet didn’t enjoy the 20+ mile nights we had been putting them through. That, combined with the lack of quality sleep, was leaving us both a little on edge with each other. In the garage there was a small kitchen for us to use; eggs and bacon happened to be on sale at the store so we were able to cook ourselves a large country-style breakfast, complete with pancakes.
We returned to our room after breakfast to find that another couple who hiked the Appalachian Trail last year had shown up. We briefly met them a few days prior in Hiker Heaven and were happy for the opportunity to spend time with another couple out on trail. We set out with them that night to do the aqueduct section of the trail and head toward the windmill farm. It was a full moon so we walked the very flat 16 miles without turning on a single headlamp and cowboy camped next to our water source, out of the wind. We woke up after a couple hours of sleep to the other couple saying they would see us later. Michelle and I knew that was a lie, seeing how we both struggled to keep pace with them on the flattest section of trail. We knew we’d never see them again. We continued the next day through the wind farm. Honestly, this wasn’t our favorite section. Hot, exposed, and to no surprise… windy. It seemed like the entire section was uphill and into the wind. Doesn’t that sound lovely?
The last evening we had in the wind farm was interesting. It was late one night and we were hiking up to where we planned on camping, a small cache with potentially other trail magic. We knew other hikers would be there too as we had all talked earlier and all shared the same plan. We were right in the middle of the pack, less than an hour behind the people ahead of us, less than an hour ahead of those behind us. We were getting close to camp, maybe two to three miles away when Michelle stopped dead in her tracks and said, “What’s that?” pointing at what I immediately dismissed as a sign reflecting off in the distance. “Your ‘sign’ just moved,” Michelle said. We walked slowly up the trail as the large green eyes followed us, less than 75 yards away. Careful not to take our light off its position, we continued up the trail. We never did find out what was watching us that night. However, unlike the other animals we had encountered in the past, this is the only one that seemed to be trying to hide when seen. Deer, foxes, coyotes, and all the other animals we had seen while night hiking all ran away. Not this one. We asked the other hikers when we ran into them the next morning and no one else had an experience similar to ours. Maybe it was our imagination?
When we finally made it through we opted to hitch into the town of Mojave rather than Tehachapi. Mojave was a cheaper resupply and cheaper to stay at. Simple as that. Though it did prove to be a bit harder to get out of as well. We found a cheap motel room, resupplied, and waited out a heat wave for a couple of days before pushing forward toward Walker Pass and the driest section of trail yet, not to mention the reason our friends skipped ahead.
Coming to Terms with Reality
We spent the afternoon waiting for the bus at a Carl’s Jr. Being in public can be fun sometimes, especially when in a town not directly along the trail. On rare occasions people will ask how our hike is going, but most of the time they just stare and assume we’re probably homeless. An even smaller number aren’t ready to make assumptions yet and will come ask what we’re doing. That evening we caught the last bus out of town and enjoyed seeing the faces of the other passengers as we got dropped off on the side of the road in the middle of the desert halfway between two towns. “You’re getting off here!” someone asked. “Enjoy your hike,” another said. You could hear them trying to hold back a snicker in their voice. We stepped off the bus at an overpass along the highway and started climbing back up into the refuge of the mountains.
Somewhere near the top we sat down to rest when Michelle turned to me and said she was thinking about quitting. She said she feels like she is slowing me down and holding me back and this way, if she quit, I could still potentially make it to Canada on my own. I didn’t want her to leave. I had to make her understand that the moment we met and she agreed to join me, that everything changed. It wasn’t just about the final destination anymore, it was about finishing the trail together, even if we had to come back to do it. We entertained the idea of jumping to the Canadian border after the Sierra and hiking southbound in hopes to beat the snow in Washington. Ultimately we decided to continue northbound and accepted that if we don’t make it all the way to the border this year, we will come back and finish next summer. This way we don’t have to feel rushed and we can slow down and take our time through our favorite sections and really experience them (once we’re out of the desert, of course).
Some Days Are Just Harder than Others…
It was now the first week of July and summer was in full swing. The heat was beginning to really take its toll on us. Obviously some days were better than others. One day in particular we both woke up feeling more fatigued than normal. We had successfully beaten the heat the day previous and were both still feeling it a bit that morning. Motivated to get to our next water source we continued forward. It was a mere nine miles away, no big deal right? Wrong! Having apparently exhausted all of our energy the day before we both seemed to be running on fumes. Somehow we managed to muster the energy to snap a photo at the 600 marker on the way by. A few grueling miles later we made it to the spring in the early afternoon. We snacked and guzzled down as much as we could before setting up our midday camp in the shade next to the spring. When we awoke several hours later it was much cooler out. The sun was beginning to retreat from its high position in the sky and the shadows were growing longer, and despite our long afternoon nap we still felt like we had no energy. We reluctantly decided to listen to our bodies and just stay and camp next to the spring for the night, despite having done only nine miles. The spring we camped near that night was our last known reliable water source for about 40 miles. Thankfully for us and the rest of the late-season hikers there were two well maintained water caches in this stretch, which made it possible for us to attempt. (We truly can’t thank those who supply water for thru-hikers enough. Without them sections like this would only be possible for a very small population of hikers.) The terrain wasn’t that bad over the next few days and the weather somewhat cooperated with us by giving us a light breeze.
It’s My Birthday and I’ll Cry if I Want To
The hottest day of all landed on my birthday. We left ourselves 18.5 miles to the bus stop that day, mostly downhill, and were planning on catching the 1 p.m. bus. The sunrise that morning was gorgeous and it was hard not to gawk at while briskly walking down toward the bus. Along the way we saw our first set of bear tracks as we walked the exposed ridge of the mountain. Despite the rising temperatures we couldn’t afford to take too long of breaks since we were racing the clock to get down to the highway before the bus arrived. By the time we made it down to the road it was approaching 105 F. Michelle had had enough; she was hiking ahead of me and by the time I made it down to the road she was sitting on the side of the trail with her head in her hands in tears. We made it in plenty of time to catch the bus to Ridgecrest and went straight to Walmart to resupply.
This turned out to be a terrible idea. Neither of us were in great moods, partly due to the scorching temperatures, and partly because we were both hangry, myself in particular. I wasn’t much help as I followed Michelle around the store. I probably wasn’t too far off from one of those kids that doesn’t want to be at the store with their parents. If it was up to me we would have eaten before shopping, even though I knew her way made more sense in our plan for the day. She put up with my shit with a smile on her face and we eventually got everything we needed, cake equipped with candles and all. (And by cake I mean three pounds of Tres Leches covered in strawberries.) We headed to a hotel to shower before heading to a delicious dinner. The following day we were treated to a couples of massage that my parents had graciously gifted me for my birthday and then headed to the theater to catch an afternoon flick. We (I) somehow managed to finish off that beast of a cake before heading out the following evening. We caught the last bus out of town and hit the trail again around 7:30 p.m. We received similar, shocked reactions from the other passengers as the bus dropped us off at the trail. Only 50 miles of the damn desert remained.
You Pack It in, We’ll Pack It Out
After getting back into the mountains and logging ten miles or so we decided to set up camp. The next day we met a hiker that started the day before us that we had never seen before. We sat and talked with him as we filled up water about how it was possible that we hadn’t run into one another before in nearly 700 miles. As we talked Michelle noticed that there was a large bear can packed full of random shit (D batteries, random clothing, a large bag of pasta, and a bunch of other rather useless things for thru-hikers). In total it probably weighed upwards of 15 pounds. Not wanting to leave all of the stuff in the wilderness, Michelle was quick to snag it up and we divvied out the weight of the junk between our packs. It wasn’t fun but it was worth packing out the extra weight for a free bear can, especially since they are required through the Sierra. We continued to climb up and over the last few mountains toward Kennedy Meadows. Along the way we met some botanists who had some plants tucked in their hats. They explained that the sage brush helps keep the flies away. So we tried it… head nets work better.
Welcome to the “Meadow”
We spent our last night in the desert camping atop the high point of the last mountain, leaving ourselves a long descent to the meadow below. When we got to the “meadow,” which seemed more like the desert than we thought it would, we began looking for a place to rest. Not paying much attention to the trail and more focused on looking for a place to sit down and take our packs off, Michelle nearly stepped on the biggest rattlesnake either of us had seen yet. Instead, she leaped backward, hurling herself and her pack straight into my chest and nearly knocking us both to the ground. As for Mr. Snake, he wanted nothing to do with us either. With his tail buzzing he hastily slithered off the trail under the cover of a rock before we could get any pictures. Not wanting any more snake encounters we pushed forward a little farther before taking our break.
The rest of day seemed to last forever; neither of us could wait for a change of scenery. And finally, we stumbled upon WATER! Not just water, a full blown river. This may not seem like much, but when you’ve spent the last two months trying to filter water from trickling streams and pools it was as if we had just stumbled upon an ocean. We quickly stripped down and took a swim to cool off from the afternoon heat before finishing our trek to Kennedy Meadows. As we strolled into town we saw rain and could hear claps of thunder off in the distance, and it felt almost as if Mother Nature was applauding our arrival. When we arrived at the general store we were surprised to find a group of our hiker friends we hadn’t see in weeks, who actually did welcome our arrival with applause. We spent the afternoon on the porch eating hot cooked food and drinking ice cold beers while we all continued to cheer on those who arrived after us. Before long the storm made it to town and for the first time on our hike we got rained on. How fitting. We spend two months in the desert without getting rained on once and the very afternoon we leave, it downpours.
Fuck you desert, we’re out!
Michelle here: Seriously, the desert was miserable. There were some pretty views and fun, memorable moments but I found myself dreading each day the closer we got to Kennedy Meadows. Most of my thoughts while hiking in the heat revolved around quitting and how to convince Nolan to continue without me. I am not usually a crier but I had breakdowns most days. Some Nolan was aware of and others I managed to hide. I really enjoyed hiking at night. I liked seeing all of the little critters but, more than anything, I was able to enjoy what I was seeing since I wasn’t so hot. Nolan didn’t enjoy hiking at night as much so there was a time during the desert that we were never on the same page. We didn’t fight much but we would definitely go for long periods without speaking and being generally on edge around each other.
The desert showed me that the mental strength required to thru-hike is just as vital as the physical strength and sometimes more so. As Nolan mentioned, I was also dealing with a tremendous amount of guilt. I felt like I was ruining his plan and that I was the sole reason we won’t finish this year. He did a fantastic job explaining to me that his journey and ultimate goal changed once we met.
The one thing I had to keep reminding myself of is why I wanted to do this in the first place and that is: to prove to myself that I can do something this physically and mentally challenging without giving up. I’ve never had any issue with quitting- if something isn’t enjoyable, why continue? I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy any aspect of hiking in the desert but the bad thoughts definitely came around more often than the good ones. Poor Nolan had to put up with my moody self for too long.
Anyway, we spent more time in hotels than we probably should have, but I’m glad that we tended to my mental health because I’m still here. We will address this more later but let me just say that being in the Sierra after making it through the desert makes it SO rewarding!
I don’t think I’ll mind much if we never visit the Southern CA desert again. ✌?
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