Redemption at Lake Hughes Road
Wait…. this isn’t the AZT!
Billy and I parted ways quickly and abruptly at Henry Reid International Airport, we both had flights to catch back home and it was too early for much conversation.
On the AZT I became fascinated (maybe a bit obsessed, I’m either 0 or 100, and in this case I’m 100) on a continuous footpath. I must admit, this is a change from my attitude last year. But let’s be real for a second, as humans, we are ever evolving, or at least you’d hope. I made a spur of the moment decision – I will be going back to SoCal to finish that section of the Mojave. Remember the one? The complete shitshow? Where I got rescued? Oh, the hospital bills…. Where I realized my relationship was doomed and maybe also my dream of thru hiking??? Yeah, that’s the one.
Peggy is a good friend of my grandmother’s. They were neighbors before the Camp Fire destroyed both of their homes. My grandparent’s rebuilt, while Peggy moved to Ridgecrest to be closer to her family. Peggy has a beautiful home, she told me that her brother is an architect and he built it for her. It overlooks the Tehachapi Mountains, and she can even see Olancha Peak on a clear day. She has windows that go from the ceiling to the floor, I tell her she has a beautiful home, and I’m so happy for her. She wants to help me finish this trail, if angels are real, she is it.
I make the long drive down to Ridgecrest. My car is garbage, I have no AC, but I’ve spent my money on gear and long trails, so car repairs (along with other responsible things) have sadly taken the back seat. I find a group of hikers at Walker Pass and I’m excited to take them to Ridgecrest, more than anything, I want to pay it forward.
I am already dehydrated and exhausted by the time I get to Peggy’s house, perfect! She drives me all the way to Lake Hughes Road. I feel emotional but I can’t show it. She drops me off, and I find the bench that I laid on as I called 911 – the flashbacks start. Feeling alone, feeling scared, feeling disappointment in myself…. I remember the firefighters taking my vitals and asking me the standard questions… that day fucked me up pretty bad. Not just physically, but mentally.
But today is a new day, today I conquer the section that quite literally brought me to my knees, today I will prove to myself that I can. I sit on the bench and I touch the PCT sign, I say “thank you” and I start walking.
Tears well up as I make the climb. I sometimes wonder what propels me forward, but it’s so compelling that I can’t deny it. I find the first water source. There is a plethora of hikertrash and I’m excited to meet some new friends. I spend too long there socializing, it’s time to get going. People comment on my tiny pack. I tell them my good friend Billy helped me be lighter – I feel like he’s had an indescribable impact on my life in so many ways. I continue on – determined to do at least 20 miles, despite my late “alpine” start of 10am.
I spend most my days hiking alone, I don’t mind. I feel like I need the time to 1) decompress the entire experience of the AZT and 2) evaluate what exactly I’m doing out here in the Mojave. I break camp. I cowboy camp and I think about my first time cowboy camping, I think about how much I’ve changed, I think about how I might actually be falling in love with myself. There’s been moments in my life that I wished I were someone different, and I think more people than I realize have felt the exact same. I’ve found others who aren’t afraid to be their true self, I find such courage in that, they inspire me. I want to be me, more than anything.
Attitude is everything. I make it to Hikertown, the man there insists I take a shower, I refuse. He insists again, I again, refuse. I am on a mission, I want to hike the aqueduct during the day. I have a point to prove – to myself. I want to prove to myself that I can do hard things. I want to do the thing that took me out. I will hike the aqueduct at 2PM, yes, PM. I need to show myself that I can. Billy showed me how to hydrate, I listened, and it works. It’s amazing once you put your pride aside and actually listen to someone who has experience. Sometimes it’s better to just shut your fucking mouth and listen.
Fellow hikers have no faith in me, someone tells me “you will die”. That only fuels the fire. When someone says “you can’t” it just makes me want to do it more. I do it.
It’s not actually bad, I find ample shade, and the water carry isn’t that bad, especially because it’s only a two day food carry to Tehachapi. I listen to music, I call my loved ones until I lose service while talking to Dave. I am able to get a call out to my grandma while under the shade of a concrete block, we say “I love you” at the end of every call – and I mean it. I hike into the night until I see the lights of off road vehicles. I know the type back home and decide to call it a night. I take a B-Line through the desert to a small grove of Joshua Trees, way off trail so I can’t be seen. I kick my shoes off – my feet hurt from the hard service road. I contemplate cowboy camping until I see the palm sized wolf spider crawling into my shoe. I say “oh fuck that” aloud to the desert sky as I use my trekking pole to flip my shoe – the spider is now trailing my headlamp beam – I take a chance and turn on the red light, it works and the spider doesn’t seem to register it. I craw into my tent. I marvel at the commitments I take, it’s scary that I actually follow through sometimes.
The next day, I arrive at the water but only for a moment. I could have arrived the night prior, but as someone with chronic insomnia, I thought it would be best to camp away from all the commotion that was imminent at 2am due to all the night hikers. I continue on to the next water source. I meet some people from Instagram, it feels weird to be recognized from social media and I’m not sure how to feel about it. I push on, despite the heat. There is a big climb ahead, but I remember my hot peak bagging expeditions in Tahoe. As Billy would say – “can of corn”.
At the water cache, I meet Friend Zone and Sweets. I bond with them instantly. They are crushers, doing big miles, I respect their grit. They offer a camp at a later OHV road but I decline. I am optimistic about a camping oppertunity in the wind farm. It doesn’t pan out at all. Three miles in, I realize I’ve totally fucked myself. I contemplate turning back, but I can’t bear to turn back. I commit to hiking 10 miles that I didn’t want to – I have to make it to the road – word says there’s a wind break there. I hike late into the night.
The wind knocks me to my knees. I look down only to illuminate a scorpion! At first I am alarmed and propel myself backwards…. only to realize that I’m actually excited to finally see one! I will see three more this night. I take a quick picture and send it to my mom, she tells me that she feels un-nerved by the wind farm – which quite frankly, should be the least of her worries. I think about my brother and I wonder if the neighborhood cat is keeping him company. I break camp around midnight, maybe later. Exhaustion takes hold, I fall asleep but it’s interrupted by the cry of the wind turbines.
I am broken, mostly physically which is a nice change of pace. I decide to take a nearo in Tehachapi and book a hotel. An absolutely amazing man, Abel, picks me up. I am relieved to not have to hitchhike and I tell him that I appreciate his time and generosity. I spend the day resupplying, doing some laundry, calling my good friend Blair, then falling asleep. Before drifting off, I take a moment to be thankful for the good people in my life, Blair’s positivity radiates to everyone he meets and it inspires me.
The next day, an old friend gives me a ride back to trail. I had heard through the grapevine that this climb was heinous. It was anything but. There is a lot of fear mongering out here. On the AZT, switchbacks and smooth trail didn’t exist. I found it to be ridiculously nice and make short time of the next water. I meet back up with Friend Zone and Sweets, we’re all aimed for the same camp, might as well camp together! We cowboy camp under the stars – except the stars are quickly replaced by clouds and lightning. Sweets is concerned about the chance of rain, and we try to convince him to chill out. Until we start to feel drops, PANIC! We set our tents up in the nick of time, it rains hard, followed shortly by an impressive display of lightning. I guess I was wrong about the rain.
I sleep in, it’s a habit I’ve developed since hiking solo, I’m on my own time, after all. I lose Friend Zone and Sweets. The terrain changes and I suddenly find myself in a forest that strongly resembles a familar place at home. I commit to a camp, only to discover a family of bears has claimed it first. It be that way sometimes. The bear family happens to make eye contact with me at the exact moment that I stow away my trusty Fritos, and I quickly make my way down trail to put some miles between us before deciding on a gorgeous pine needle filled cowboy camp near a creek (and also near two other campers, which I felt better about being that we’re apparently in bear country and all I have is my stupid Dyneema food sack).
The water situation quickly turned to shit and I was relying on caches. My Pandora also decided to suddenly delete all my offline stations so I was only alone in my own thoughts. I get to the cache and decide to only carry enough to get to the next cache, the only shade being a BLM fire truck – too fitting.
I meet another hiker, we know each other and we’ve been leapfrogging. They are trying to hitch around the hill because it’s too hard, they’ve been hitching around everything that’s hard but online they act like they’re hiking all of it. Online, they look like a hero, but in real life, fellow hikers notice this behavior. You can’t fake real life. The unfortunate thing about social media, this website included, is that you only get a small snapshot of someone’s life – usually the best parts. I think about this persons online presence, and how often they’re featured, and how often they give advice on a trail that quite frankly, they haven’t even really hiked. I don’t say any of this out loud, but I am relieved when they decide to leave and walk down the road to hopefully have better luck finding a ride. The company that you keep matters.
I think about how social media is kinda poison in that way, and I think about how people like that really take away from those who go out there and give it their absolute best. I know it shouldn’t matter, and I’ve met some amazing people who are absolute crushers. They pour their heart and soul into this, they’ve spent months or years planning and training, they’ve made great sacrifices to make this happen, and it’s a slap in the face that someone can fake it and get all the credit. HYOH I guess, but it puts a sour taste in my mouth. You meet some great people on trail, but you also meet some really crappy ones that represent thru hiking culture extremely poorly. But I don’t stew on it for too long, I have to get going. I think it’s important to talk about though.
I trudge up hills of sand, the sky becoming increasingly dark. Just before cresting the hill, I realize that I may have actually really fucked myself. Thunder rolls, and the lightning strikes – just like Garth Brooks said. I take a deep breath and realize what I’m about to do. My surgeon told me I am more likely to be struck by lightning. One step after another, I have accepted the choice that I made. I took a chance and it didn’t work out.
I walk right into the thunderstorm. I am out of water and I have to continue. I run from bush to bush. I wait for the lightning to strike, then I run with everything I have. Suddenly, there are no more bushes to hide under and I am completely exposed, hail the size of quarters pelts me and I know I have no choice but to protect my pack – nothing inside was protected from water, it cannot get soaked. I wrapped myself in my Tyvek ground sheet and crouched as low the ground as I could, holding my pack against my abdomen. I felt the electricity in my teeth and my hair stood up. Lightning struck around me, I was at the mercy of the weather and all I could do is crouch on my toes and hope for the best.
I thought about a lot. I thought about my spinal fusion and how I thought I’d be crippled forever, I thought about when the fire took my home and community, and I thought about when the Podiatrist told me my feet where broken and surgery might make me unable to hike. I thought about everything that shouldn’t make this possible. I thought about all the people back home rooting for me. I thought about the courage that it takes to be yourself and truly yourself. I was proud of myself, I am fucking brave. Sometimes stupid, but also really fucking resilient. I remembered when I was standing on Burnt Bridge back home, scared shitless to jump 45 feet into the water below, and the thing that made me do it, the thing that has made me do all of this is the fact that I made it through the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. If I can do that, I can do anything. I am from Paradise, I am proud. I lost everything, I have hid from myself for years, I walked onto this trail with an open heart and I am ready for life to do what it wants – because at the end of the day, you have no control over what life is going to do. Life is temporary and that’s what makes it so special.
The lightning passed. The rain picked up. I somehow managed to shove everything into my trash compactor bag, my backpack was now waterproof and it was time to move forward. I ripped the Tyvek off, tried to put my rain jacket on, and of course the zipper was stuck! I yelled “get it together!!” – I’m still not sure if I was yelling at myself or my jacket. As I descended towards Bird Spring Pass Camp, I started laughing at how dumb it all was. I laughed so hard I cried.
I made it to camp. Sweets was there and it was nice to see a familiar face. I was completely frazzled from the existential roller coaster I had just been on. Someone was continuing on and offered their camp, I gladly took it. I set up my tent and dried out my belongings, thankful to have shelter in case the rain came back. I felt unsettled still, and found a faint use trail. I followed it for a while, it overlooked the desert. I took a moment to reflect on the day, on this trip, on the AZT, on my life. I cried. I watched the sunset and bawled my fucking eyes out. This is a beautiful trail and I am so grateful that I took the chance to come back out to experience this. I felt more lucky than I ever have.
The next day, I hobbled through 21 miles with a shin splint. All the running and crouching from the day prior had taken its toll on my body. I took some Advil and sucked it up because that’s what you have to do sometimes. I finally arrive at Walker Pass Campground. I see my friend there, she’s following my other friend in her van and I’m relieved to see a familiar face after enduring pain all day. We smoke a joint and wait for our friend, she doesn’t arrive and I’m worried. I find their company comforting though, there are some really good people out here. I could have called Peggy to pick me up, but I wanted one more night, I am not ready for this to be over even though my body feels broken.
The next morning, Peggy picks me up at Walker Pass, I’ve been out of food since last night and she’s brought me food and drinks from Starbucks. I can’t believe the kindness of people. We get back to her home and I suddenly feel compelled to go back to the campground, I have unfinished business there. I drive to Walmart and pick up some water, beers and sodas to leave at the campground. I drive back, I feel weird in my car and street clothes. My friend in the van is still there, and our other friend has thankfully shown up, I am so happy to see her. I am so thankful for the amazing people I’ve met out here, and I drive away from the campground feeling nothing but gratitude for this experience.
This experience has been swirling in my head since returning home again. Thru hiking wears me out and breaks my heart in the best way. I made a commitment on the AZT, I will be finishing the PCT, but am now going SOBO. I am walking home again, to my beautiful little burn scar. It’s funny, with the high snow year, there is so much regrowth here that you almost can’t tell this town was decimated four years ago. It feels like it was yesterday, but also feels like an eternity ago. I’m not sure if time will ever feel normal again, but I do know that I will always be coming home to the ridge that I love. I am Paradise Strong.
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