Week 5: Aqueduct! Agony! Absence! (Miles 511-570.2)

A Brief Aside 

A dear friend was getting married exactly 30 days from my start date. Thus, my original plan was to average 14.7 miles a day for 30 days to get to Acton in order to engage in a series of planes, trains, and automobiles to a wedding slightly more than 15 miles from the trail corridor. I had hiked slightly faster, though, and was thus in a predicament. I’d gotten to Acton nearly a week ahead of schedule. I could hang out poolside at the KOA, take five zeroes, eating scraps from the hiker box. Alternatively, I could bump up my mileage and head towards Tehachapi, the next seemingly reasonable place to get into LA without spending hundreds of dollars on a shuttle. The only way to make it work, though, would be to do the slightly unreasonable overnight blitz from Hikertown to Tehachapi.

When I last wrote I was six miles from Hikertown and thus a day away from this much-feared Aqueduct section. For the blissfully unaware, it’s a a 17-mile exposed – but flat! – waterless stretch followed by a long climb into a wind farm and a big descent into Willow Springs Road, for a grand total of 40ish miles. There’s a longer challenge wherein hikers continue ten more miles to the highway, covering 50ish miles in 24 hours, but I’m not that fit and didn’t want to die. Despite being a trail name-less misanthrope adrift in a sea of tramilies, I had, as mentioned earlier, made a friend who was willing and able to complete this watered-down version of the Tehachapi 50 together. 

Part 1: Hikertown 

People have written extensively about Hikertown; at a certain point, it’s like beating a dead horse. Which is appropriate because it’s possible there is a dead horse in one of the ramshackle rooms scattered across the dusty desert property. It’s a warped base camp for the long stretch of trail, a place where hikers convene to wait out the scorching heat or try to sleep despite being in a wind tunnel. 

My hiking partner, who I’ll refer to as Crisis for the remainder of this blog, and maybe in life as well, and I gathered provisions at the Neenach Market and then found some trees away from the hiker chaos where we planned to rest all day in the shade. It was a great plan in theory. In reality, the sun stabbed through every branch, the wind blew our stuff away, and we were far too amped about the challenge ahead to get much sleep. Instead, we tried to load up on calories (and Perrier #NewYorkersInTheWoods), told friends and family about our impending night stroll (just in case), and counted down the hours to fucked up Christmas.

Part Two: Let’s Go

One of the traditions for this night hike is to amass a group of hikers, a bundle of glow sticks, and neon face paint. Throw in a little booze, a little acid, and some sick beats, and you have a night to remember.

Shockingly, we did not partake. 

Instead, armed with our favorite candy, chips, and other artery-clogging comestibles, we headed out with a very detailed plan of attack. Five-minute breaks every three miles with a 45-minute nap at the cache after 17 miles, a 30-minute nap at the water source 8 miles after that, and a dinner-but-probably-breakfast break somewhere in the early hours of dawn.

Part Three: The Aqueduct

We headed out at 6:30 pm, jittery with excitement about the distance ahead. A long-distance hike is a challenge, for sure, but after 500 miles it was beginning to feel like I wasn’t hiking to my limit. I could do mileage in the mid-twenties even with a solid siesta and still set up camp before sunset but I wasn’t pushing myself past that. The challenge was waning but my courage hadn’t grown so every day felt safe. This 40-mile night hike felt like an opportunity to see if I’d actually progressed as a hiker.

The trail was hard and flat and we were hiking over 3 MPH (Crisis has a Garmin watch and we were able to monitor speed and distance easily). It was daylight and the trail ran along the open pipe of water, a giant tease in this dry section. Our plan went well for the first few hours – we stopped, we’d snack, we’d continue. The sun set behind a bridge and we walked on the aqueduct pipe until the metal hurt our feet.

The interim between sunset and moonrise: It was night and we were still hiking. I started to become aware of the fact that we hadn’t slept during the day and it was far past our bedtime. We put music on after 7 miles and for a couple of hours felt that like a double espresso. Lancaster shone in the distance as the ominous red lights on the wind turbines flashed and got continuously closer.

The moon rose and we didn’t need headlamps as we walked on sand through a trail that seemed to get thinner and thinner as the scrub brush on the side got higher and higher. It was midnight and I was closing my eyes for ten seconds at a time, hoping to sleep in tiny increments. I became aware of my shins and the bottoms of my feet as the repetition of long steps on flat ground traveled up my legs. We barely ate; I choked down Peanut Butter M&Ms because I knew I had to. 

We reached the water cache – true trail magic in this section – around 1 am and collapsed in the dirt. If I’ve gained one skill on the PCT it’s the ability to see a sloped spot under a bridge among microtrash as a bed. We set alarms for thirty minutes, slept hard, woke up and kept going.

Part Four: The Wind Farm

The ascent into the wind farm was under six miles but will be imprinted into my mind as the most grueling few hours of this hike. 

The nap was adrenaline. We walked and talked and for some reason had to pee a dozen times as we entered the wind farm. Turbines towered white with red lights and swift blades. The wind was ferocious, like stop-us-from-progressing fast, as we started climbing. Fat mice ran across the trail. My eyes felt squeaky clean but were vibrating and I felt more and less awake than ever before. They say nothing good happens after two am and I can confirm that applies to hiking as well. The post-nap energy was malevolent and grimy, on-the-street-what’s-open-who’s-delivering-shakiness: I couldn’t eat, we couldn’t hear the music over the whipping of the wind, the turbines seemed angry, the red lights flashed danger, not asking why we were there but telling us we shouldn’t be. Lancaster’s lights were inaccessible, taunting. We kept hiking.

We got to a dirt road that crested the climb around four am and sat for a minute. We’d gone 22 miles in just under 10 hours, the fight through the wind farm having negated any progress we’d made on the flat aqueduct. A friend on the east coast called to check in. My voice was raspy and weak as I relayed our progress.

“I thought you’d have gone further by now.” 

Shot to the heart, fury, sadness, rage: Morale, already low, plummeted to depths previously unexplored. Note to self: Put phone on airplane mode for all future 24-hour hiking challenges. The remaining miles were insurmountable. The endeavor was pointless. We’d never make it. 

Part Five: Water Surprise

We walked the remaining miles down into the canyon where water and another speed nap awaited us, demoralized and exhausted. I, too, thought we would’ve gone further by now. The lack of sleep and the fact that the sun was rising was frightening, echoes of nights in my twenties where I’d stayed out far too late and night slid into morning and I’d have to somehow – somehow – pull it together to go back to work in a few short hours. 

When we got to the water, we crumpled to the ground again, this time with alarms set for 30 minutes in the future. I passed in and out of sleep, trying my damndest to rest, but a group of hikers had camped there and were waking up loudly. I resented them for being well-rested, for choosing to split the hike into two days, for being loud as hell at 5:45 in the morning. One girl bragged about her stellar commitment to LNT:

“At this point, I’m barely even burying my shit. I literally don’t care! I’ll never be back here.” Was this real? Delirium? Hiker trash indeed. Their voices grew distant. My alarm went off. Damn.

As we scrounged around trying to gather our stuff yet again, another hiker showed up, happy because the first leg of his two-day aqueduct stretch over. 

“Y’all know about the cache, right?”

We did not know about the cache. We’d thought this stream was the last water for 18 miles and had loaded up accordingly. Apparently there was a long-standing cache about eight miles away, a cache with water and umbrellas. Morale launched into the stratosphere. I wanted to hug this person. I wanted to hug the person in charge of the cache. Most of all, I wanted to fucking get to the road into Tehachapi.

The hike to the cache involved a steep descent immediately followed by a steep ascent. Luckily it was early enough that most of the climb was shaded but we’d now been awake for most of 24 hours, running on fumes and the occasional handful of Peanut Butter M&Ms. I’ll be honest: This stretch is nothing but a blur of sand and sun and legs acting independently of my brain. We hiked and hiked and hiked until we saw actual red umbrellas in the desert, red umbrellas and giant cisterns of water, sweet relief. 

Part Six: Lost

At the cache, we were not doing well. We hadn’t planned a third nap but it was getting hotter and we were breaking down. By the time we left it was after 11 am. I was stressed about the heat, I was stressed about my lack of appetite, I was stressed about hitching to town. 

Prior to this hike, Crisis and I had hiked together in the general sense but we hadn’t actually hiked together. For both camaraderie and safety, we’d agreed to stick together for the 40 miles; for 31 of those miles, we’d been successful. The final stretch, though, was mainly downhill and I wanted to be done. I started hiking faster and faster, sun burning skin, throat parched, turbines omnipresent, the road on the horizon still miles away. I found myself on a path that seemed a little less defined than the PCT, with brambles and scrub brush nipping my ankles. Crisis was nowhere to be seen. I checked Guthook; the blue dot representing me was indeed on trail. I kept hiking.

My phone rang: Crisis. “Where are you?”

“On the PCT; where are you?”

“What mile?” 

I checked the app and told him my mileage. 

“Are you sure?” 

To be honest, I wasn’t sure of anything. I was hot and should’ve been sweaty but the wind was keeping my super dry. I noticed multiple trails crossing the hills in front of me. Was I on the PCT? What if the pixelated blue dot that.id been relying on for a month wasn’t, in fact, reliable? What if the heat glitched my phone?

“Are you on the trail?”

I was, though. 

“Where are you?” I said. 

“A mile and a half behind you.” 

We were confused. I’d obviously taken the wrong trail at some point and lopped off over a mile of trail, but where? When? And dammit! My first 40-mile day was now reduced to a 38.5. I sat under my umbrella and waited for him to catch up. I was sweating, I was exhausted, I was done.

Part Seven: To Tehachapi!

The remainder of the descent…happened. Again, my brain turned off and the mechanics of my lower half took over to propel my aching body to the trailhead. I ripped my shoes and condemned socks off, sipped hot water, and felt no relief. Crisis arrived shortly after and dove into the dirt, arms and legs out like a starfish. 

“That,” he said, “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Physically. Mentally. Holy shit.”

Vacation Within A Vacation 

I wish I could conclude with a tidy paragraph wherein I process the challenge but the next few hours were a flurry: Easy hitch in, a shower in Crisis’s hotel room, a burger and fries on a bench in town, the bus to Lancaster, the realization that I’d missed the last Metrolink, an extremely expensive Uber to the City of Angels.

And just like that, I was looking at the Pacific Ocean. I got dropped off in Santa Monica on a Thursday night, the beginning of an early summer weekend. I wanted to eat but felt too messy to sit down anywhere. It’s not that LA isn’t hiker friendly; I just wouldn’t call them hiker aware. The ocean was on the other side of the highway so I sat on a bench, repacking my pack, throwing out the scraps of wrappers that had accumulated during the long night. I watched two fights break out on the street; someone threw a plastic chair at someone else. Someone eating food out of a trashcan asked if I wanted to hit his bowl. I said no. I had to pee so badly and there was nowhere to go. I took two buses and a shuttle to the airport. I got there too late to go through security so I slept in the lobby with a small group of people, with music blaring and florescent lights blazing. I blew up my air mattress and squeezed into the corner. a guy told me it was smart to bring an air mattress. I said thanks. He asked if I wanted to be his wife. I didn’t know if I was alive, delirious, or dead. I fell asleep. 

I spent the weekend in a different city in a different states wearing different clothes I found at Goodwill. I talked to people who don’t hike about things that have nothing to do with hiking. 

I flew back 48 hours later, took a bus to the train LA, took the MetroLink – a 2.5 hour ride, for the record – to Lancaster, and then the bus.an hour and a half back to Tehachapi. I was famished but there was no food open so I got a Laffy Taffy and A tall boy for dinner in the Ranch Motel. 24 hours earlier I’d been in a secondhand red lace dress sipping orange wine at a wedding; I was definitely back on trail.

The Return 

In the few days I’d been living an alternative existence, a lot had happened on trail. Social media and the Far Out comments section were exploding with claims about a toxic algae bloom in “all the water sources” between Tehachapi and Walker Pass. People were skipping ahead, some to Walker Pass and others straight up to Kennedy Meadows. Luckily, my hiking accomplice had ignored the fearmongering and hiked into the allegedly poisonous water section where, strangely, all the H2O he was encountering was just fine. I was still whacked out from the post-Tehachapi wedding weekend and wanted to hang out in town during the heat of the day.

I spent a somewhat pleasant afternoon at the German bakery, though my relaxation was frequently punctuated by hikers I didn’t know asking me if I was going to skip the next section and then telling me I was stupid when I said I wasn’t, an odd application of the Hike Your Own Hike mentality. Yay!

I resupplied at Walmart with enough food to get to Kennedy Meadows and headed out in the evening into – wait for it – an even bigger wind farm. Maybe it was all the same wind farm? Doesn’t wind farm seem like an abstract concept? My pack was heavy with food and water as I climbed next to the highway in the dark. 72 hours ago I’d been twenty miles into the epic hike. 36 hours ago I’d been dancing at a bar in Denver. Where would I be 36 hours from now? If nothing else, closer to Kennedy Meadows and the end of the desert.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 1

  • Michael lewallen : Aug 1st

    Love the writing! I feel like i am hiking with you. Keep walking and writing.


What Do You Think?