Dear reader: I wrote this piece about the desert after my 2013 thru-hike, for the Pacific Crest Trail Communicator magazine. Now I’m making it available here for you online, for the first time. Enjoy.
I am sitting on the Stehekin shuttle bus in the early morning, bumping down the pitted road along lake Chelan, when the question comes up behind me.
“What part of the trail was your favorite?” says a hiker in polar fleece who I have not met.
“The Sierras,” says his companion.
“And what was your least favorite?”
I bite into the bacon and cheddar-stuffed croissant that I am clutching and flakes of pastry fall into my lap. I also have two pieces of pizza, a chocolate cookie and a giant cinnamon roll, all safe in a greasy paper bag stuffed into the top of my pack. We are eighty trail miles from the Canadian border and the northern terminus of the PCT, and we have just been to The Bakery. The Stehekin Bakery, to be exact. I usually do not eat gluten but I ran out of food in the last section in a major way- fifty miles on 1500 calories and I almost blacked out from hunger. One of the things that kept me going in those dark days was the knowledge of this bakery, where piping blackberry pies sit cooling on glass countertops and beautiful, rosy-cheeked young people pull golden trays of cinnamon rolls from the oven. Now I am eating this dense beast of a croissant as we bump our way back to the trail and thinking about what the hikers behind me have said.
“I loved the desert the best,” I say, turning to face them. They glance at me, frowning, and then continue their conversation.
It’s true. I think about this while I stare out the window at the lake, the bacon and cheddar monstrosity slowly coagulating my stomach, where it will become glue. I can feel the glutenfog descending already, like ghosts. I think of the desert and I imagine the soft desert sand, the extravagant spread of the Milky Way. The thorny little plants, the temperamental nature of the wind. And the hot sun at midday, hot enough and bright enough that if you stayed out in it long enough it might vaporize you. Like Mars. Or Venus, as a hiker once corrected me.
The Kelso Valley Road cache, where there is no shade, just a mound of plastic water jugs glittering in the sun. Where MeHap and I sat against the wire fence, our sleeping pads pulled over our heads to make a sort of awning, and fed ourselves melted peanut M&M’s. And then Spark and Instigate and NoDay arrived and we charged up the hill to the single, solitary Joshua tree, with its ever-shifting poles of shade. We sat half in and half out of this shade, sweating profusely in the bleary heat, until several hours had passed, at which time it was still hot. Thankfully there was another Joshua tree in a mile and we collapsed there again, until dusk.
Cowboy camping in the desert. The warm sand, releasing the heat of the day and the night sky, in which every single star, every single other planet and possible far-away reality can be seen. All of it, all of space and time and possibility, the future the past and the present, suspended above me and singing its song of eternal, never-ending magic. Just up there, twinkling. All for me, in my sleeping bag on the warm sand, a little breeze crinkling my ground sheet, my shoes lined up next to my head. I’ll check those for scorpions in the morning. Remembering the Far Side comics of my youth, which formed my most basic ideas about cowboy camping in the desert. Men in cowboy hats in neat square bedrolls, big rattlesnakes curled up on their laps.
Rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes everywhere. Rattlesnakes stretched across the trail, lounging. Almost tripping over big, fat, rattlesnakes, catching myself at the last moment. Rattlesnakes slithering away. Always there are rattlesnakes, slithering away. Under every bush. After a while I am no longer afraid of them; they became like a reassurance to me. Rattlesnakes exist. Rattlesnakes exist therefore I am.
Water. Water in hot gallon jugs, water in troughs that wriggle with little white worms. Water from campground spigots, from hotel bathrooms, from springs labeled “Danger! Uranium!” and contradictory reviews in the water report. Best water I ever had! DO NOT drink this water! Before I started the trail I was the sort of person who carried a big steel water bottle everywhere I went and sipped on it nervously, like a baby’s bottle. What if I’m dehydrated? I would think. What if I’m dehydrated, like, right now? Then I ran out of water right before the fourteen mile descent off the San Jacintos and when I reached the maddening drinking fountain at the bottom I was still alive. Well how about that, I thought. Soon stretching the distance between water sources became almost as fun as it was frightening- can I make it five more miles? Ten more miles? Fifteen? Even so, I was never as good at this game as my hiking partners, who were shocking in their disregard for hydration. After the desert, Spark never carried water at all. It’s heavy, he said.
The wind. The air, which is like a living thing, which moves all around you. The smell of the chaparral, the dystopic burns that ring with the sounds of chewing insects and smear your arms with charcoal. The windstorm before Mojave, where I was all alone on the mountain, breathless, my nostrils smashed against my face, struggling to stay upright. Just blow me off the mountain, I thought. Just blow me right off the mountain. In the valley below they had rerouted the highway and when I reached the Motel 6 in Mojave after dark I slammed the door against the wind and sat in the shower under the hot water for a very long time.
The Mojave. The Joshua trees against the stormy sky, the slowly churning windmills, the bleak plots of land with rusted trailers that remind me of scenes from Breaking Bad. Hiker Town, with its strange shacks filled with cats, where I ate a giant salad and replenished my dwindling food stores with Trader Joe’s oatmeal cookies from the hiker box.
And the people. There was all of this, and then there were the people. A gaggle of us gathered around the water trough in a bit of dappled shade, our shoes and clothing bright, staring at each other thinking Can we do this? Are we really going to do this? Walk this whole way, over all this convoluted earth, rise to meet all of these obstacles? Passing around a Ziploc baggie of melted gummy bears, saying Touch it, touch it. Laughing until we cannot breathe, gasping for air, our voices filling up the empty desert with its rattlesnakes and resident cougars, rising up to the night sky and the milky way, everything that is possible and not possible swirling around above us, forever and ever and ever.