Mile 101 to mile 115
I woke in the morning and stared at the sheer fabric of my tent. The bullfrogs were no longer croaking in the trough.
“Good morning!” Said a woman. “Time to get up!” She bent down and peered in my tent. It was the trail angel who stocked the soda springs. She was wearing PCT earrings.
I wedged myself stiffly from my tent and stood. It was after dawn, and all the other hikers had left. I walked gingerly over to the stone trough on my sore bare feet. I reached into the water and selected a diet citrus beverage. I sat cross-legged in the cold morning and drank the soda and ate the last of my dried figs. Now I would have no food. Warner springs was seven miles away, and we would get our food boxes there. We had also heard that there would be burgers.
“What is warner springs?” I wondered, as I drank my diet citrus beverage.
A couple of hikers arrived while I was packing up. I’d met them before, but I couldn’t remember their names. They were all starting to look the same to me- fit white dudes in safari wear, powering over the passes faster than I would ever be able to. One of them I’d met at the third gate cache, where I’d slept beneath the tree- he carried a “chili pad”, which was a sort of towel that never dried. You draped it across your neck in the desert. Now he stood above the trough, and wrung out the towel into the water.
Today the spring was running, and a little water trickled from the pipe into the trough. But the spring was not always running, and hikers after us would have to filter directly from the trough.
No bueno, I thought.
Another man, dressed nearly identically, appeared and dipped his shirt into the trough.
No bueno, I thought again.
To get to Warner Springs we had to leave our little oasis of soda and croaking frogs and hike a winding dusty path through windswept yellow hills. The path went on and on, circled every hill, and sometimes seemed to double back on itself like the background in a video game. We were all out of food and crashing, and the anticipation of food, wonderful magical food, was growing inside of us like a crazy psychotic monster. I’d read that after day ten the “hiker hunger” sets in.
Today the hiker hunger is strong within me, I thought, as I plodded desparingly over those hills.
We passed some cows and a rock shaped like an eagle. We spread out in a natural way, fanning across the trail as we hiked. Each day we would go long stretches without seeing each other, and we would reconvene naturally at water sources and chunks of shade, talking all at once about everything that we had seen.
Angela and I arrived at the road at the same time. There was a fire station there. We stuck out our thumbs. It was a mile or two, we had read, to the post office, and the last thing we wanted was a two mile road walk. After walking on a soft sandy path for a long enough time that you feet are screaming in pain, nothing feels more violent than a road walk.
Several cars did not stop, and then a half hour had passed. Ben and Thyra had taken a side trail to the post office, and would be there by now. I was crashing from lack of breakfast, and I could feel the panic pounding inside me, the wild hunger. Burgers! Burgers! Burgers! Went my thoughts. We began to walk past the fire station and then we saw a woman, beckoning to us from across the road.
“Over here!” She said. “Over here!”
We followed her across an expanse of concrete to a low wooden building, the warner springs community center. Once warner springs had had a resort, and the resort had had a store, and showers, and that was where hikers had done all their business. Now the resort had closed, and so some local people had turned the community center into a fundraiser and a resource for thru-hikers in one.
Two dozen hikers were spread in the shade beneath an oak tree. A man was offering rides to the post office.
“Yes!” I said. “Yes please!”
The man was Billy Goat, a hiker who’d hiked more than ten thousand miles. He was short and wiry and had a long silver beard. The passenger seat of his car had been converted into a bed.
“Do you live in this area?” I asked him.
“I don’t live anywhere,” Said Billy Goat. “When I’m not on the trail I live in my car.”
At the post office we filled our arms with our packages. Thyra and Ben were there, sitting limply on the curb. I ripped open my box and ate a piece of beef jerky. I waited for my blood sugar to stabilize.
A nice woman gave us a ride back to the community center, and we spread our loot beneath an oak tree a little ways from the crowd. I stumbled into the building, feeling crazed.
“No burgers,” said a hiker. “No burgers til dinner time.”
“What?” I said. “What does that even mean?”
No burgers? I thought. The dissapointment within me was tangible and bright, like fire.
The community center had set up a little store, stocked with big boxes of little packages of things. I bought a roll of toilet paper, a bottle of ibuprofen, and two icecream sandwiches. I picked up a bottle of HEET, which you can use as fuel for your alcohol stove. I was out of fuel.
“You want the yellow HEET,” said a man standing next to me. “That’s the red HEET. Use the red HEET and it’ll cover your pot with soot, and the flame won’t ever get hot enough.”
“Walmart was out of the yellow HEET,” said the woman who worked at the community center.
I sat in the grass and ate my icecream sandwiches. My heart pounded with sugar, and time began to slow. I went back into the community center and dug through the hiker boxes. A hundred different kinds of oatmeal, some instant mashed potatoes, and one injinji toe sock. A man was dumping his probars into the hiker box.
“You’re sick of probars?” I said.
“Kind of, yeah,” said the man. I took the probars, which were smushed from being carried a hundred miles, and a little bottle of olive oil. And then, in the bottom of the box, I found four esbit tabs. Esbit tabs are little squares you can light and boil water over.
“I can cook!” I said. “Hallelujah!”
What is an esbit tab? I thought, as I put the squares into my pocket.
A woman walked from the back of the community center with a burger.
“Can I order a burger?” I asked her.
“Well of course you can hon, until four o’clock.”
I looked at my watch. It was 3:30. I could order a burger! My first town burger! After all this time!!
“Can I have a burger with a double patty?” I asked.
“Sure. What color gatorade you want?”
I enjoyed this for a moment, the fact that she had asked me what color of gatorade I wanted, and not what flavor.
“Orange,” I said.
Next to the hiker box was a little table with carafes of coffee and a glass jar of fresh cookies. I returned to this jar throughout the afternoon, and at last count I think I’d eaten a dozen. I ate my burger sitting in the grass beneath our oak tree, squirting the bare dry patty with mustard and ketchup until it was dripping. Still I could barely get it into my stomach.
“I feel sick,” I said. “I think I feel sick.”
“Do you think this is enough food for four days?” Said Thyra, holding up her tiny food bag. We had each jettisoned much of our resupply boxes into the hiker box, as food, we had decided, was heavy, and our next stop was only a few days away. It was 65 miles till Idyllwild, the little mountain town that was our next stop. We would be hiking uphill for almost all of those 65 miles. We would hike from the baking desert up into the freezing, wind-blasted peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains. It would be one of the steepest climbs of the entire PCT.
Of course we didn’t know any of that yet.
“Yeah, that looks like enough food,” I said.
When we’d first arrived at the center I’d washed my socks with my tiny bottle of dr. Bronner’s in the spigot behind the building, and now they were dry where I’d laid them to bake in the sun. I put them on, happy that they were warm and smelled like peppermint. Foot care is important on the PCT, more important than you can possibly imagine. There are blisters, hot spots, small injuries, and at the end of each day the kind of radiating foot pain that keeps you from sleep. Some days it feels as though you are literally wearing your feet away on the jagged surface of the earth.
My ritual is this: After every ten miles I wash my feet. If there is no running water I use my “PCT class of 13″ bandanna, pouring a little water onto it. When you hike dust and sand infiltrate your shoes, and that sand will abrade your skin until they are a pulpy, bloody mess. So I wash my feet every chance I get.
I also wash my socks a lot. It’s best to change them twice a day, wash the dirty pair, and hang them to dry on your pack. If you can’t do this then at least bang the dust out of them on a rock.
Every night before bed I remove the tape from my blisters and wash my feet again. I don’t wear sleeping socks, because I like to let my blisters dry out at night. In the morning I retape my blisters and the whole process starts over.
Now it was almost evening, and our plan was to hike the last few miles to Agua Caliente, and to camp next to the creek in the dusk. A real creek, with water running over stones! The first one we had seen on the trip so far.
I was flying high on my burger and reached the campsite before the others, climbing high into the beautiful hills and then along the burbling little stream. I soaked my feet in the water, listening to the little noises of the forest. Night came and at last the others arrived, headlamps swinging in the dark. We pitched our tents in the sand and slept.