Mile 71 to mile 91, plus .8 for the side trail
In the morning we hiked down the mountain and towards the blistering valley. After an hour of hiking we stopped to rest in a dry streambed on the mountainside, where there was shade from a jumble of boulders and the sandy ground was cool. We blearily ate our morning snacks. At 6:30 a.m. it was already brutally hot.
When we reached the valley floor, it was later than we figured. Ben checked his GPS, and it turned out we had miscalculated- it was six miles from where we had camped the the cache. So it would take us longer to cross the baking valley of no shade.
The trail cut across the valley among huge barrel cacti and over dry streambeds. I stared at the ground, following the footprints and the drag marks of trekking poles. I could feel the hot sand through the soles of my trail runners, and there were plenty of awkwardly-shaped rocks to stumble over. After an hour my feet were sore all over, every cell burning in pain. The bright sun reflected off the bright sand, and the backs of my legs were beginning to burn. Around me rose the mountains, shimmering in the heat. In the distance, traffic glimmered on the highway. I plodded and plodded, but it felt as though I got no closer. Why won’t this end, I thought. Why won’t this terrible valley ever end.
The scissors crossing cache was stacked-up cases of gallons of water in the cool sand of the highway underpass. I collapsed on the ground there and desperately pulled off my shoes. Other hikers began to arrive, filthy and sunburnt, and collapsed on the sand around us. It was 9:30 a.m.
I tried to stretch in the cool sand. Someone passed the trail register around. I didn’t look at it, didn’t want to see how many pople were ahead of me. It’s not a race, I’d been telling myself. Not a race not a race not a race. And besides, there were just as many people behind me. I was right in the middle. All that matters, I had told myself, is that you make it to Canada.
There was cell reception under the bridge and news arrived that the day before, on the last day of kickoff, a tree had fallen on five tents. There had been people in the tents. One of them had gotten a concussion. It was an oak tree, and ants had eaten away the base. And several people had arrived from the border that day with heat exhaustion. One of them hadn’t made it farther than Hauser Creek, and had to be air-lifted to a hospital.
The tree that fell at kickoff
“It’s hot,” I said to no-one in particular. “So hot.”
There was bleary talk of an RV resort nearby, with a pool of sorts. After a moment a man arrived and announced that he was offering rides in his truck the three miles to the resport. It was Larry, the man who stocked the cache. Larry was big and burly looking and he bent over the cases of water, gathering the empties, as the neck-shade on his desert hat blew in the wind.
We rode with Larry to the RV resort. For five dollars, he had told us, we could shower there and hang out at the pool. The resort was a handful of RVs on a wild stretch of baking sand. There was a little store and we bought icecream sandwiches and bottles of gatorade and sat at the shaded tables on the deck, deleriously consuming our snacks.
The icecream sandwiches put me into a coma and I stumbled across the burning sand to the shower house, feeling as though the light was blinding me. The women’s shower house was made of clean white tile and was cool and dim. There was a long row of white sinks. I plugged in my phone and waited a moment, but no-one appeared. I took off my clothes. I peeled the tape off my feet, grimacing at what was underneath. I scrubbed at myself in the shower, attempting to remove the paste of dirt and sunscreen. There was a quarter-sized patch of poison oak on my calf. Not so bad, I thought. Not so bad at all. After showering I filled the end-most sink with hot water and soap, plunging my clothes into it. The next sink became the rinsing sink and in this way I washed my clothes, churning them up and down in the scalding brown water.
I put on my wet shirt and bright yellow shorts (dirt brown, a dirt that would probably never come out again) and stepped gingerly outside in my bare feet, spreading the rest of my clothes on the bright ground to dry.
I found Thyra and Angela and Ben at the pool, which was a rectangle of cold blue water in a baking stone patio. Angela was pulling the bees from the water with a pool skimmer and Ben was standing in the shallow end, wearing all his clothes. There was no shade at the pool so I pulled a decomposing pool lounger into the tiny bathroom there and laid in it, attempting to write blog posts on my phone. My clothes had dried completely on the walk from the other bathrooms.
Outside there was a sliver of shade against the wall that bordered the pool. Ben and Thyra and Angela wedged themselves into this shade, attempting to cook food on their alcohol stoves in the wind. Woo woo woo, went the wind, blowing dust and grit across the stone patio.
We made up a story of why we were walking to Canada.
“I feel like I’m in some sort of post-industrial collapse,” I said.
“We have to find the others,” said Angela. “We’re walking to Canada to find the others.”
At 5:30 Angela and I got a ride from the Swiss woman who worked in the dusty little store. She wore a dress made from a sarong and I imagined her at home, batiking desert landscapes. She’d lived in the valley for twenty-nine years.
“This place really grows on you,” she said.
She took us back to the highway underpass. Ben and Thyra were already there, drinking bud light they’d found in a cooler, with ice.
“Very little ice,” said Thyra.
We had a long climb ahead of us, up into the San Felipe traverse. The shadows were long now and the air was a little cooler. We were night hiking the 14 miles to the next water cache, in order to avoid the heat. Our plan was to hike until 9 p.m., cowboy camp until the moon rose and then hike the last 9 miles. We would reach the “third gate” water cache by dawn.
We had a running joke where we reffered to dawn as “Don”, as in “Don is coming” or “Don will wake us”.
At 2 a.m. the moon rose and woke us at the trampled spot among the cacti where we had landed after dark. The wind had been gusting for hours, howling over the mountaintop, and we had slept restlessly on our groundsheets in the dust. Now we sat up, confused, and stuffed our things away, fighting with the wind for our sleeping bags.
There were two gates before the “third gate” cache, three gates made of metal pipes, stuck in the trail that hugged the side of the mountain. We stumbled forward in the dark, our headlamps trained on the trail. This side of the mountain was in a moonshadow, and it was difficult to see.
“The first gate!” I shouted, when it appeared as if out of nowhere. We had gone five miles. The miles had stretched out somehow, in this dark and sleepless hour, and each one seemed to take hours. At the second gate we sat in the dust and cooked breakfast on our little stoves. The sky was lightening in the east.
“Don is coming,” I said.
Angela making breakfast at the second gate
Ben and Don
We passed through the third gate and into a little garden of eden, a fragrant stretch of trees and speckled shade. The hot hills we’d been walking through had burned the year before, and there’d been “less shade than usual”. Now we stumbled down the side trail to the water cache, a mound of sparkling bottles in the hot desert. After gathering water we each found a patch of shade in which to curl. I pulled myself beneath the thorny branches of a tree whose name I did not know. There was a space in there just big enough for my body, and I spread out my sleeping pad. I arranged my things around me- water, sunglasses, hat, and a hanky to cover my eyes. I would be safe in here from the sun.
Other hikers were just beginning to arrive. It was 6:30 a.m. I put in my earplugs and slept.
Note: my posts are about three days behind right now. Also thanks for all your nice comments!!