Week 6 (Minus a Day): Tehachapi! Toxins! Triumph! (Miles 570.2-702.2)
Back in the Backcountry
I’d like to say I woke at sunrise with a fire under my ass to push full speed ahead to Kennedy Meadows…but that would be false. Instead, I performed the most lethargic tent breakdown and packup in my hiking history before beginning the rest of the climb out of Highway 10 into “the bad water section.” I was exhausted and demoralized, irritated by the oh-so-unhikerly third degree I’d gotten the day before in Tehachapi from meddling meanderers, and sad I hadn’t packed out pastries. In retrospect, I was probably still in some physio-mental energy deficit from the epic 40-mile day, the subsequent weekend of festivities sandwiched between two 14-hour travel days and the crossing of a time zone – that one hour low-key disastrous back and forth! What is time?? – but the conversations with los hikers the day before had also left me depleted and dreading the upcoming stretch.
The first day out did not go well. I slogged up the hot climb with the sounds of highway traffic trailing me for too long, making it seem like I wasn’t progressing. It was hot, obviously, the omnipresent desert hiking factor that makes things slightly more challenging. But more than anything, I was fatigued! I hiked for about three hours before calling it under a large tree and passing out for an hour.
Sleep! The classic cure! Not.
Rocky Roads and Tainted Springs
The trail climbed an old dirt road that was steep and rocky and exposed. My poor pack, stuffed with dwindling water and seven days of basically just peanut butter, had reached its edge. The right strap was slowly detaching from reality, just like me. It squeaked – which made no sense because there’s nothing metal on it – every time I took a step. I trudged up the road, tripping on rocks and wondering what the literal fuck I would do if my pack broke. By the time I made it to the first water source, Golden Oaks Spring, running – if The Comments are to be believed – a rapid seven minutes a liter, I was ready to take another nap.
Please Shut Up
There are non-verbal cues – headphones in, reading, sunglasses on, resting bitch face, etc. – that indicate a lack of interest in communication. These work in most settings, the two major exceptions being the NYC subway after 10 pm and, apparently, the goddamn woods. At the Golden Oaks Spring, where I desperately wanted to fill my bottles and ignore the entire world, I found myself on what felt like the uptown A at midnight.
As a pre-hiker, I always imagined hiking as a solitary experience. Perhaps shorter hikes attract a more introspective individual. But these so-called thru-hikes, perhaps because of the mythos of The Big American Adventure, attract over-sharing extroverts who want to word-vomit their life story while you’re trying to hide from the world. It’s not that I’m averse to chatting! I love a good convo. But what goes down on trail is not that. People don’t ask questions but rather perform outdoor hipster soliloquies-slash-to-do-lists about how the next five years of their lives will play out:
“When I’m done with this I’m gonna take some time, you know? Probably build my car out, sleep on BLM land for a bit, hang out at my uncle’s house in Vail. Then I’m gonna hit up the CDT with Powerpuff and Eggshell, and go straight into the Te Araroa, and then, like, the Hayduke. Someone DM’ed me about monetizing my Reels, so that’d be sick. I’ll get my Triple Crown, even though the A.T. is total trash, and then I’m thinking about starting a small production of UL stake sacks using Priority Mail envelopes and dental floss.” Blah. If I had a dollar for every time my ears have spontaneously started hemorrhaging blood out here! It’s a wonder I’m still standing.
This pattern would continue over the next six days. I’d arrive at a water source, ready to relax before continuing my march. I’d assume the position: Ground cloth down, headphones in, hat over the face, shades in position. And then people would arrive and I’d find myself mired, yet again, in a banal discourse about Dyneema.
Did the pandemic shrink everyone’s world and make them super boring? Am I super boring? Is it because I’m on the wrong side of 35 and beyond jaded? Is it Instagram’s fault? The silver lining is there aren’t many water sources, so it only happened once a day.
The Desert Desert
I’d been surprised thus far at how infrequently we seem to be hiking through actual desert in the desert. Like cartoon desert, like cactus desert, like sand and tumbleweeds and snakes and scorpions. The Mojave, though, is exactly this. The trail climbed up sandy paths, sometimes traversing actual sand that sucked me in and made my legs scream. There were Joshua trees and scraggly plants and miles and miles of heat.
The toxic algae bloom rumor mill had caused many hikers to skip ahead to Walker Pass so the trail was fairly desolate. On the climb out of Bird Spring Pass, one of my Smart Water bottles fell out of my Stupid Backpack at an unknown point. From Bird Spring to Walker Pass is 22 miles; I needed the damn water. I cursed myself for frugality and cockiness, thinking I could hike with a 6-year-old destroyed pack. Who would help me out here? The answer was no one. The days off in Denver meant I didn’t know any of the few people out on trail. In any case, the PCT does not attract hikers who are willing to or capable of helping out their fellow hikers.
My siestas were long and I struggled the first couple of days to hit my goal of 25 miles. I camped alone nearly every night, hiking past dark to get closer to Kennedy Meadows. The notes I took are sparse and do not denote a positive state of existence. For example: “At times I felt sad and depressed and hot like I was never going to get out. Tehachapi and the wind farms felt ages away but Kennedy Meadows felt increasingly unattainable. I had horrible food and I didn’t want to eat any of it so I was sucking on M and Ms and waiting all day for my Fast Break, the only good moment of the fucking afternoon.” Whew! Isn’t extreme exercise supposed to increase endorphins and dopamine? I want my money back.
The morning before Walker Pass, I woke up with a vengeance. 62 miles remained but I absolutely had to get to Kennedy Fucking Meadows by the following evening. I didn’t want to camp in this barren stretch again. I didn’t want to keep finding myself in dick-swinging rants decrying the people who skipped this section as fake news hikers, pussy-ass weaklings. Cynicism is great everything but it gets toxic after a while, kind of like the mythical algae bloom.
Over the next two days of hiking I took timed breaks and naps, allowing myself 30 minutes twice a day to close my eyes before I plodded on. Water was more frequent after Walker Pass, relieving some of the stress from the previous days, though my carrying capacity had diminished by a liter. I didn’t know what Kennedy Meadows was – and after being there, I still can’t say I have a cohesive definition – but it had now become the place I wanted to go more than anywhere in the world.
Men on Trail, Ugh
When my hike is over, I’d love to share my list of all the fabulous comments I’ve received from all the bad hombres; it denotes a pattern for sure. For the moment, though, this will suffice.
I was in the midst of a 15-minute snooze at Chimney Creek, just over 20 miles from KMS, when a man and woman arrived. There was ample space but they plopped down next to me. I raised my hat off my face in what I assumed was a classic “WTF” but social cues are hard when you’re out of society?
“Hello,” I said.
“Have you hiked any other long trails?” The guy asked.
What? Just like that? No greeting, no commiserating, just an immediate desire to see where I fell on the experience spectrum in order to mentally sort me.
I said that I had, in fact, hiked previously, which immediately triggered a variation of the soliloquy described above. He was going to hike the Arizona Trail, and then maybe the Appalachian Trail, but he heard it was soooo overcrowded and not worth it. His hiking partner said absolutely nothing. Sisterhood? What sisterhood?
When he stopped to breathe, I asked if they were headed to Kennedy Meadows as well.
“That’s like 20 miles away,” he said.
“And you think you can get there today.”
“Seems pointless. There’s nothing there anyway.”
“There’s beer and friends,” I said, exploding with joy. An injection of motivation! Nothing gets me hiking faster than an arbitrarily hostile dude, who may have kidnapped his silent hiking partner and forced her to hike a long trail OR ELSE, telling me with utter self-assurance that I will, in fact, fail. I have never walked so fast.
The final eight miles before KMS were glorious and flat. I blasted music and my foodless pack was weightless and the desert was beautiful as it came to an end (or so I thought at the time, joke’s on me). When I got to the road I put my poles away and wandered the final 0.7 to the General Store. It was finally cooler and the sun was setting. I saw the gas price sign first, seven something a gallon, then heard the eruption of applause, a desert’s end tradition marking your arrival to the wooden porch in front of the store. I’m not saying I had the best welcome in PCT history but I do highly recommend pulling up at sunset on a Saturday in the throes of the bubble when everyone is drunk and exploding with happiness about finishing the desert (again, not actually done, haha to us).
Crisis, previously mentioned in the Tale of Tehachapi Trauma, and I decided to temporarily suspend the concept of the Loose Alliance of Similarly Paced Hikers and actually stick together through the Sierra. We spent the day off planning and preparing and sorting the influx of gear we’d mailed to ourselves, namely the notorious BV500, a.k.a. the bear canister. The claim that 7-10 days of food can go in that thing would be true only if you filled it with loose lard and unjarred peanut butter. After packing it to the brim, everyone had food shoved into every orifice of their packs and was frantically front-loading calories so we’d have some space. My pack was unsustainable and painful to wear, not to mention weakened from the Tehachapi blitz I’d just done.
I camped at the General Store for two nights. The fecal cone was above the seat in the porta-potty and the shower was unavailable and we had to run the washing machine four times before it washed the clothes and the grill cook took lunch at lunchtime so no one could order lunch and it was all incredible. I organized my resupply on a wooden spool-turned-table while drinking beer and talking to people I’d met in the desert and calling people back home on weak wifi. Yet I’m writing this many weeks after it all happened and I can say with confidence that nothing has been as exciting as passing the 700-mile marker and walking triumphantly into the Kennedy Meadows chaos. We’d be fine…right?
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