Day 14- wherein the brutality we hadn’t anticipated becomes real

Mileage 19- 17 plus 2 mile side trail to the cafe
Mile 149 to mile 166

In the morning we were up in a flash and at the Paradise Cafe by the time they opened at 8 a.m.

The Paradise cafe is next to a winding country highway intersection bisected by the PCT and suddenly we were out of the desert hills and sitting on chairs (Chairs! Real chairs! When was the last time we sat in chairs!) surrounded by talking people and traffic and music and our server was bringing us fresh-squeezed orange juice and the hunger monster was so large inside of me that the anticipation was impossible and I was, of course, dissapointed.

“My orange juice is sour,” I said to Ben. “Is your orange juice sour?”

“No,” said Ben. “My orange juice is awesome.”

I ordered some crazy breakfast that I didn’t understand and when it arrived it was a huge hamburger patty, three runny eggs, and a wet strip of hashbrowns. I gave my toast away but later took it back and greedily smeared it with strawberry jam. I can’t eat gluten or dairy without feeling sick, but my hiker hunger overrode any rational thought and I was on an epic quest to Eat All The Things. After finishing the burger, hashbrowns, eggs, toast and my juice, I ordered decaf coffee with a slice of apple pie with ice cream. The pie was warm and flakey and euphoric, and as soon as I was finished I wished that I could eat it over and over, again and again for all of time. I drank three cups of decaf with cream and sugar.

“Will you be staying for lunch?” Asked our server.

“Yes,” we said in unison. “We’ll be staying for lunch.”

I ordered a chocolate shake.

Other hikers had arrived and filled the tables on the patio, along with a motorcycle gang made up of wealthy retirees. I was eating the whipped cream off the top of my shake when there was a terrific crash. We all turned and caught the last moment of a three-car accident at the intersection in front of the cafe- an SUV slamming into a pickup truck and then a prius slamming into the pickup truck.

“Oh my god,” said our server, as she ran out into the intersection. A few men hopped the fence around the patio and ran into the road. The door of the pickup flew open and a woman raced around the truck, yanking open the passenger door. She pulled out a toddler and held the baby to her.

“Oh my god,” I said.

“Someone call 911!” Screamed our server, as she raced from vehicle to vehicle. All the persons present with any sort of helpful experience were clustered around the cars, trying to be of assistance. The people in the Prius stumbled from their vehicle, but the SUV was strangely still. Soon it became apparent that the people inside were hurt but trapped by both their airbags and the frame of the car itself, which had been crushed during the impact.

A fire truck appeared, and they began to cut the occupants out of the SUV. It was a man and a woman and they were alive but bleeding and injured. Then there was the pounding of helicopters and the dust was blowing everywhere. The woman with the baby sat in a plastic patio chair and held him while he screamed. She stared off into nothing. No-one on the patio wanted to eat any longer.

Ben appeared. He had dissapeared as soon as the accident had happened.

“Where did you go?” Said Thyra.

“The man driving the SUV handed me his phone,” said Ben. “I asked him if there was anyone he wanted me to call and he said his sister. So I called his sister and told her that he’d been in a bad accident but he was alive. She started to cry a little on the phone.”

A man with a red beard appeared and leaned over the woman holding the baby, cradling her and stroking her hair. He took the baby from her and the baby screamed.

“Daddy’s here,” he said. “It’s ok, daddy’s here.”

The woman went into an ambulence and the ambulence drove away.

“What happens when you’re in shock?” I asked Angela. “What does shock do to your body?”

“Your vitals go all over the place,” said Angela.

It was noon, and we ordered our lunches to go. I got a large order of fries and they came in a huge styrofoam carton, which I tucked carefully into the top of my pack. We had fourteen miles left to go that afternoon. And all of it was uphill.

We left the little valley of the accident and hiked towards the looming San Jacintos. I was a few minutes ahead of the others and I felt naseous and ill, as though I might vomit. All that food was like hot bricks in my stomach. Each patch of dappled shade I passed called to me. Just lie down here, said the shade. Just lie down here for a little while.

At the place where the trail crossed the road a little tent was set up- it was Dr. Sole, the foot specialist who was also a trail angel. Hikers were slouched there in camp chairs, drinking coors light from a cooler. Dr. Sole was washing a woman’s foot and carefully tending to her blisters.

“Are you the foot psychic?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Dr. Sole.

“Can you tell me if my shoes are too big?”

Dr. Sole had me lift my foot onto a little table and he squeezed around my toes.

“I think your shoes are fine,” he said. “You can wear two pairs of socks if you like.”

Hallelujah, I thought. I sat in one of the camp chairs and waited for the mess in my stomach to calm down. Angela, Ben and Thyra appeared, looking antsy to hike.

“You guys go ahead,” I said. “I just need to rest here for a minute.” Why had I eaten so much food? I thought. And all these things I couldn’t even digest? The hiker hunger was an animal and it was trying to destroy me.

Other hikers arrived while I rested- we’d been told again and again in the last few days that there was a huge group of hikers “just behind us” and now, this morning, it seemed that they were catching up. Even though we were averaging 16 mile days, which felt like plenty to us, we still considered ourselves “slow”, and every day a handful of people passed us. Still, there were a thousand people thru-hiking this year, and when we signed the registers in town we saw that we were around number 350. There were still more people behind us than ahead of us, and we were getting faster every day. And anyway, it’s not a race. Right?

I walked. The trail began to climb. And climb, and climb, and climb. I was leapfrogging with some other hikers and we walked and talked together, and then I happened upon Ben and Angela and Thrya, eating their takeout lunches in a bit of shade. I sat down and had some french fries.

“Going up, huh?” I said.

“Yeah,” they said.

The afternoon cooled and a breeze came up. We climbed and climbed and climbed, our hearts pounding like crazy, sweating in our dirty clothes. After eight miles Angela and I stopped to stretch in a leafy little area next to the narrow trail. A woman appeared and leaned on her trekking poles.

“Are you two going to camp here?” She asked.

“No,” I said. “We’re just stopping to rest.”

“Well ok then I will,” said the woman. “It’s the last spot before the wind.”

The wind? I wondered. What does that even mean?

A few moments later the trail curved around to the west side of the mountain and the leafy forest turned to stunted, twisted shrubs and a seventy mile wind came out of the valley below and began to beat us so hard we could barely breathe.

“It’s freezing!” I said. “It’s fucking freezing up here!”

The trail was a narrow rocky path between the steep jagged mountain and the nothingness of the great empty air below. We were way up high and still climbing. How did we get so high? The wind was like a rolled up newspaper, battering us with all its might. I clutched my hat desperately and stumbled down the path. The wind was a hand pushing me off the trail to my death. The wind was so cold. I’ll stop and put on my down jacket, I thought. But there was nowhere to stop.

The rocky path narrowed and became steeper, the wind only increased. We wound up and over a rocky peak, across a tiny saddle, and over a still higher peak. We repeated this into forever. The rocks in the path were sending bright hot pain into the soles of my feet and I was impossibly cold.

“The rocks are blessing us!” I screamed to Angela. “The rocks are our teachers! They are teaching us about suffereing!”

Angela laughed.

“Thank you rock teachers!” She said. “Thank you thank you thank you!”

“Everything is fine, forever and ever and ever!” I shouted. I was laughing. I had some resevoir inside of me, some emergency thing I didn’t know I had, and I was using it now, for this 14 mile climb into the freezing wind and altitude on top of the world. My muscles burned in pain and I was dizzy with alititude and fatigue. I stumbled down the trail, one small step in front of the other, against the wind. My joints were aching and my hands and face and legs were numb with cold. I only have running shorts! I thought. What is this place?

We’d planned on camping at our next water source at mile 166.5, but a little ways before it the trail wound around to the east side of the mountain and suddenly the wind was gone, and we were in a peaceful leafy forest once again. It was nearly dark, and we swung our headlamps around, looking for a flat place to camp. We were all in some state of stiff-legged limping, running on fumes. Next to the trail was a cave made of huge boulders leaned against each other, and there was a little flat place to camp. Thyra went to check it out and came back spooked. There was an old blanket there, and a bowl and  fork, and the cave was dark and creepy. But if we kept walking we knew we’d end up back on the west side of the mountain, where the wind was, and we’d be totally fucked.

“I think there’s room for us here,” I said. “And the ghosts of old hermits will protect us.”

Ben and Thyra pitched their tent in the little flat spot, and Angela and I lay our ground cloths in the cave, over the ashes of many fires. We were all thirsty and cold and had very little water. I lay in my sleeping quilt in the cave, feeling the remnants of the cold wind moving through my body. I tossed and turned. My legs and feet ached so bad that I couldn’t get comfortable, and every time I closed my eyes I imagined an old hermit ghost, wild and weird and crazy, poking about in the dark, looking for his matted blanket. At last I pulled the quilt all the way over my head, making a space that was dark and warm and close, if a little airless, and I slept. 

Note: for awesome photos, check out Thyra’s blog-

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