Part Seven – Once Upon A Time in the West (mile 454 to mile 702.2)

Our group, now composed of Beer Slide, Shortcut, Twigs, Ghost, and I, left the oasis of Agua Dulce and headed back into the high grasses and dry forests of Southern California. Firefighting planes circled the area above us, but no smoke was in sight. This must be some training, I hoped. A couple of days later, we hit the 500-mile marker. 500 miles. This didn’t feel real. Probably because of how much we have left. We celebrated this milestone while listening to The Proclaimers’ song “I’m Gonna Be (500 miles).” It’s the tradition. In the afternoon, I caught up with Shortcut and Twigs, both struggling with the heat. It’s getting warmer and drier. We are approaching the Mojave desert.

Welcome to the Mojave

Last night, before reaching the campsite, I came across a wide opening at the top of the mountain we had just climbed. From there, I could see the LA aqueduct cutting through the desert. To the east, wind farms. To the west, the sun setting and projecting its golden light one last time on the whole desert floor. It was beautiful. But this morning was different. This time I was down there, in the heat of the Mojave.

After making it to the infamous Hiker Town, a hiker haven modeled after Spaghetti Western movies, Shortcut and I joined the rest of the crew down the road to Neenach Market, where we could get food, resupplies, and wait out the afternoon heat. Later in the evening, as the sun started to get low, we made our way to the LA aqueduct: an infamous 20-mile stretch through the flat, hot, and exposed Mojave desert, with no water except for the one flowing inside the aqueduct. I had been waiting for this section, which to me encompassed the spirit of the Pacific Crest Trail because of its uniqueness. Who could expect to walk on a structure that provides all the water to Los Angeles, what is more in the middle of the desert? I was in awe in the face of the landscape surrounding us. On top of the aqueduct, we walked as the sun set and created a palette of blues, oranges, and magentas in the desert sky. We could see miles away all around until darkness set in. That night, we walked until 1:00 a.m. among the windmills and under the stars.

The Gateway to the Sierra

In Tehachapi, Beer Slide, Shortcut, Twigs, Ghost and I enjoyed a taste of city life for the last time in a while. We stayed at the Hippy Hiker Haven, where we met with Buddy again. He would get back on the trail and hike with us to Kennedy Meadows. This last stay in town also allowed us to plan ahead for our upcoming traverse of the Sierra. We ordered the necessary snow gear. We established an itinerary. We sat down together and established rules for how to function as a group: leave no one behind; if someone isn’t comfortable doing something, everyone turns around; stay as a group at all times. We all seemed to be on the same page, each one more determined than the other to make it through. I liked it. For me, there was no alternative, no plan B. I was going to make it through, even if it meant pushing myself further than I ever did before. I needed it. I had a word to keep.

Two days later, I was back on the trail at Highway 58, where Cheryl Strayed started her journey in “Wild.” We were now a week away from reaching Kennedy Meadows South, our last resupply stop before entering the Sierra. This stretch felt like a real desert, offering long water carries, dry heat, and its share of scorpions and rattlesnakes. The landscape too was worthy of Western movies. Surrounded by large sandy plains filled with Joshua trees and dry brush, I would have not been surprised to see a bunch of cowboys and Indians fighting to the death on their horses over that hill. One afternoon, as I walked across one of those exposed plains in the heat of the afternoon with nowhere to get shade, I was put to a sudden stop: “Oi!” I heard someone screaming at me. The voice was very close to me, but I couldn’t see anything. I took a few more steps. “Oi!” I heard again. I do a 360° turn to scan the area. Nothing. Am I crazy? Is this the heat getting to my head? Somehow okay with that thought, I started walking again but suddenly got a jump scare after passing a big Joshua tree on the side of the trail.

“Holy shit Shortcut! You scared the shit out of me. I didn’t know it was you!” Shortcut was huddled on the ground against a Joshua tree in what little shade it could offer to get some relief from the heat. It was also a great camouflage.

– Yeah sorry… That heat is crazy, I needed to take a break!” I asked her if she needed anything, and then hiked on, laughing at what just happened.

We were getting closer and closer to Kennedy Meadows South and the Sierra. At the top of Walker Pass, we could see it in the distance: white snowy mountains covering the horizon. I was filled with excitement, apprehension, and wonder. I knew it would be our toughest challenge, but it would also offer us the most beautiful landscapes we’d ever seen. We would see the Sierra like no one has ever seen it before, and maybe will ever again. That was already a good enough reason for me to go in.

The next day, we hiked together the last remaining miles of the desert. We were officially done with it. After celebrating reaching 700 miles, we finally reached it: the Gateway to the Sierra, Kennedy Meadows South.

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