Night hiking, rattlesnakes, and heat: Wrightwood to Agua Dulce on the PCT

Miles 363.4 to 464.5

This section officially marks my longest backpacking trip ever. When I spent 4 weeks on the Colorado Trail, I had to quit before finishing to return to work. I remember that dissatisfied, unfinished sense of wanting *more* and feeling like I was leaving half my heart on the trail. So it’s especially amazing to realize I’m on my longest trip – and I’m not even 20% of the way through the experience yet.

Camping solo

Up until now, Granite has been with me every step of the journey. But he’s about to head home for the summer, so I need to get used to managing the trail on my own. We tested this out for a few days before he left and I left Wrightwood on my own. I felt a little anxiety about finding a good spot for my tent and getting through the big mile days all on my own, but it went really well. I had two 16 mile days and a 20 mile day before I saw him again, and I felt a lot more confident once I’d managed those.

I also met a nice woman who was car camping. We met before 6 AM as I headed up Mt Williamson solo. She and her partner hiked last year and came back to repeat this section, since it was closed last year. She said they had gotten within 150 miles of Canada only to have a snowstorm come through and make hiking impossible. I asked when that happened, and she said it was mid September.

I took a breathe, told her my schedule doesn’t even have me getting to the Canadian border under a few days after October 1. We sort of shrugged at each other and then I headed up the mountain.

Whatever happens, happens. I tell myself not to worry about something so far in the future.

Trail magic and hot climbs

The heat finally showed up this section. We’d been so lucky with the weather so far. I’ve gotten into the habit of hiking the overwhelming of my day before noon, so I only have a couple of afternoon miles to hike. Most of the time this keeps me out of the worst of the heat.

But not this time. This time I was panting and struggling with the heat at 9 AM as I was climbing. I got a shred of cell signal and texted Granite and suggested he not come back to the trail because the heat was just too intense. He texted back immediately: “If you’re going to do it, I’m going to do it with you.”

Thankfully, this section was rich in trail magic. A root beer, Gatorade and 2 bags of chips got me through the worst of the day.

I made it to the Mill Valley Fire Station and collapsed in the shade for several hours to wait for Granite to arrive, deeply regretting that I didn’t order any pizza when I was still on the ridge and had cell signal.

Granite arrived and we hugged like we hadn’t seen each other in months, rather than just a few days. I transferred the tent back to him and we headed out in the late afternoon heat for our final, short climb of the day.

Our First Night Hike

With the heat so intense by mid morning, I wanted to switch to night hiking. Granite was willing to give it a try, so we set my phone alarm for 1 am.

But for the first time on the whole trail, I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake for hours, stomach roiling and feeling lousy. I finally fell asleep at 10 pm but then was wide awake by midnight. I just hunched in my sleeping bag for an hour waiting for the alarm.

We broke down camp and we’re walking before 2 am. There was a full moon and we have strong headlamps. We heard that this section of trail was overgrown and difficult to navigate, but actually the footing was pretty easy.

Hours went by as we walked through the night. We didn’t talk much, and my brain ran away with me for a while. But I triedto focus on the experience- the sound of footsteps, the low hanging moon, the way the air dropped in temperature whenever we went into a ravine with a trickle of a creek. There were lights from the city in the distance though I’m not sure which one.

Dawn came on subtlety at first, and then saturated the sky with soft colors. My mood lifted with the oncoming sun, and with the hot breakfast we stopped to cook.

And I’m glad we did because we got to see not just one but two huge rattlesnakes crossing the trail, my two very first rattlesnakes of the PCT.

Our plan had been to hike 20 miles, but we were still going strong at 9:30 AM. We decide to push ourselves to a 23 mile day and make it to the Acton KOA (with ice cream and showers!). We were back on trail at 10:30 AM and I rewarded myself with peppy music to keep me company during the last 8 miles.

Arriving at the parking lot just after 2 felt like a major accomplishment. A 23 mile day and our first night hike. The trail angel who brought Granite back to the trail the day before was relaxing with some other hikers at a picnic table, and we gave them our backpacks to take in the car to the RV park while we walk the last 1/3 of a mile.

The KOA gets some bad reviews because it has bright lights blaring over the camping area all night and kids screaming in the pool all day, plus a very loud train that blows its horn when it goes by the campground. All of which is true. But I didn’t care at all because I was exhausted and they had showers, soap, and ice cream.

The best part about the KOA? There’s a big cat park across the street. “If you hear lions roaring in the morning, don’t worry about it,” said the woman who checked us in.

I didn’t hear lions, but for the next 24 hours, I had The Lions Sleep Tonight playing on repeat in my head.

Getting sick

By the time we reach the RV park, I’m well and truly sick. I have a sore throat, my nose is running like a faucet, and I can barely move. I feel horrible. It’s not one of those subtle maybe-I’m-sick things. It’s a I-should-be-in-bed thing.

I scrounge up a few cold meds from the RV park but they have a limited supply. Thankfully I’m so tired that I can sleep even through a horrible cold. We doze a bit and then I’m fast asleep by 8 pm, bright lights and screaming children and all.

It’s a 10 mile walk to Agua Dulce, which sucked with a cold. My face was already raw from blowing my nose by the time we were 5 miles in.

But we also got to walk through the alien shapes of the Vazquez Rocks, which are weird and wonderful. The walk isn’t hard and we made it to Agua Dulce in time for a very early lunch.

My plan had been to stay in Agua Dulce and leave early the next day, but I’m too sick to consider that. We take a day in Agua Dulce and then head to Santa Clarita where there is a real pharmacy.

I’m a little annoyed that I got sick but I’m reminding myself that this is actually not a terrible time for it: Granite is still here and I have an easy way to get to and from a major town. So as frustrating as it is to be sick when I want to be hiking, I still count myself as lucky.

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