Mile 43 to mile 57
In the morning I sat at the picnic table in our campsite at kickoff and made a pot of oats with chia seeds and dried mango. I had too much food and was trying to offload it; while the oats cooked I piled up things on the picnic table to leave behind- hippy fritos from trader joe’s, an exploded bag of sweet potato chips, the oatmeal. When my breakfast was done I ate it too fast, burning my mouth. But at least my pack was lighter now.
I met my ride by the bathrooms; he was a talkative ranger who was section hiking through the desert. He drove me to Mt. Laguna, which is where I’d gotten off the trail, along with a good-natured german who was sunburnt a bright red. The morning was warm, and my pack was full of water; I set out happily through the dusty pine forest, so glad to be back on the trail I could barely stand it.
An hour later I’d left the pine forest behind. It had been an anomaly in the creosote desert, a little island on the mountaintop where moisture gathered. Now it was only the desert, sweeping away in all directions. To the east, cradled in the mountains, was a wide flat valley; this valley roasted in the sun.
In a few days I would cross this valley.
There would be no shade.
Photo: Just some shadeless desert to traverse.
I’d gone three miles and my ankle was just a little sore. This is promising, I thought, as I took an ibuprofen, seeing as a few days ago it had hurt to walk at all. I’d gone to a talk at kickoff put on by a man who’d healed his brutal shin splints during his thru-hike by changing his gait, and now I tried to imitate the gait I’d seen him do. Short little steps, and walking upright as though a string was coming out of the top of your head. Like ballroom dancing, I’d thought, as I’d watched him mince around the room. Now I held my arms out in front of me as though I was holding a partner, and imagined that I was two-stepping. Immediately my gait changed. My posture went up, my stride shortened, and I could feel the muscles in my legs tense, taking more of the burden. I wasn’t slapping so hard on my heels with each step.
“You’ve got 2600 miles,” the man had said, “to experiment with your gait.”
At mile ten I stopped at a strange empty picnic area next to the highway and filled up my bottles at a horse trough. I was in the desert now; my daily distance and where I rested, cooked and camped would be dictated by the water sources scattered sparsely along the trail. This wooden horse trough was filled with murky green water. I turned on the spigot for the trough and was relieved when clear, cold water came out. The tank for the trough was filled by a fire truck and was often empty; some hikers would have to filter directly from the trough.
After filling my bottles, I dropped my pack on a picnic table in the shade of an oak tree. I did some stretches. My ankle felt fucking fantastic. Thank god, I thought,. Thank god it’s healing. Or rather, thank the angels. The trail angels. I spread my things out on the picnic table, elated. I would cook dinner here, I had decided, and then hike on a few miles to what on the map was labeled as “the campsite among the boulders”. Then, in the morning, I would be only two miles from the next horse trough. And I would meet Angela, Ben and Thyra there, who would just be leaving kickoff.
I boiled water in my little pot on my little popcan stove and added rice noodles, dried vegetables, and freeze-dried beef. I stired in some salt and a spoonful of coconut oil. While I was eating my dinner a man appeared, and sat down opposite me at the table.
His name was Jean Francois, and he was from France. He was sixty years old, and he was thru-hiking the PCT. He’d left Campo two days before. I did the math- he’d been hiking more than twenty miles a day. He took off his hat and scratched his sunburnt scalp. He was wearing a wool beret.
“Made in France,” he said, pushing the beret across the table to me. He’d knotted his “PCT class of 2013″ bandanna around the beret, to protect his neck from the sun. Fumbling into his pack, he pulled out an orange.
“I have not been hungry,” he said. “Maybe just a little hungry.” He peeled the orange slowly, trimming the pith with his pocket knife. He offered a few wedges to me.
Jean Francois and I hiked together into the afternoon. He did not speak much english. We came to a dusty road that looked out over the hot desert valley. There were wilted flowers there, and headstones set into the rock.
“Oh,” I said. “Ashes!”
Jean Francois frowned.
“Do you understand ashes? When people die, they bring the ashes here, and throw them out into the air!” I made a sweeping motion with my arm. I wished I remembered my French from highschool. Now there was only rudimentary Spanish there. Jean Francois frowned harder.
At 6 o’clock we reached a jumble of rose-colored boulders that looked out over everything. Among the boulders were soft flat places in the sand. Jean Francois picked a spot along the trail. “Goodnight, Jean Francois,” I said. I walked back among the boulders and found a spot that was hidden. The sun was setting over the hills to the west; I felt tired, but not overly so. I was not sore anywhere; my feet didn’t even hurt. I am getting strong, I thought. These next few weeks I will take it easy. Slow and steady wins the race.
I spread my groundsheet, which looks like a sheet of saran wrap, over the soft sand, and weighted the corners with hunks of quartz. Then came my two foam pads; one full-length one the thickness of a yoga mat, and a torso-length one with an inch of padding. On top of these went my sleeping quilt, which I’d just discovered I could affix, via straps, to my sleeping pads, shutting out the drafts. I’ll cowboy camp tonight, I thought. No tent for me. I felt safe, I’d realized, way up here under the stars, with the big boulders jumbled all around me. I patted my ground sheet. This is a scorpion no-fly zone, I said, to no-one in particular.
A warm wind was blowing as I tucked myself into my sleeping quilt. Being on the trail is the best thing in the world, I thought, as I watched the stars wink on above me.
Spoiler: my tendonitis heals.