I am just warm enough. My pad partly deflates and I toss and turn, making unfortunate potato chip noises. When the alarm goes off I play Papa Roach on my phone, making my friends laugh. Gets em every time.
We find the explosion of trees in the wash that signals water, somewhere, somewhere there will be water. One puddle is too shallow to gather, muddy, a little sulphuric. There’s a tangle of grass that sucks in our feet, but there’s no way to fill our bottles. Everywhere the earth is trampled, bare dirt is marked with animal tracks. We push our way through dense plant matter, scramble up and down steep, loose slopes. The tangles of tree branches create a fortress. Somewhere in there is the water. How to get to it.
“I found the source!” It’s Plants, shouting from deep within the tree. We cannot even see him. If we crouch, though, we can throw him our bottles via a tunnel in the branches just high enough for a coyote. We toss him all of our bottles, and Laurie crawls into the tree to assist. I sit in the dirt and tape the hotspots on the pads of my feet. I slept maybe six hours last night. We’re walking twenty five miles today, across the broad flat Panamint valley. The fatigue is really starting to catch up to me.
An hour later we’ve each got seven liters, and we bushwhack our way out of the fortress of trees, packs newly heavy on our tired backs. Wild burro trails braid down the canyon and then carry us out and contour along the steep canyon wall, a feat of burro engineering.
By and by we are deposited onto a jeep road, just before the rusted out impala that is the real mascot of this hike.
We stop to take a naked photo shoot and then set out across the valley, silver sun umbrellas blooming like strange alien flowers. It’s hot today, but only around 90 degrees. Uncomfortable hot, but not scary hot. We can do this!
I drink a lot of nuun. Sherman Alexie’s memoir drones from the speakers on my phone. I get 4G and try to call Muffy but the phone is too sweaty and sticks to my face. There is very little shade in this valley. At 3:30 pm a ditch calls to us and we crouch in the band of shade there, propping our umbrellas on the ledge to make more.
We stay until 5 pm, eating gummies and laughing at nothing, unable to move. When we continue on I stop to shit and fall behind the others and then hike shirtless, enjoying the alone time. I watch the sun set. The heat in the air dulls.
I find my friends just before we reach the playa, that expanse of perfectly smooth, formless dried mud. The land of zero texture. The stars come out and the milky way unfurls above us. We are marching without our headlamps through space. This valley is so flat, this day is so endless. My feet are screaming in pain. My body aches to sleep. I could lay down and sleep on this playa right now, no pillow. I have never wanted anything more.
The store at Panamint springs, where we left our resupplies, closes at 9:30 p.m. If we keep walking in spite of the pain radiating up through our bodies, in we just keep putting one foot in front of the other! We just might make it. Morale tanks and I am empty again. I keep walking, though. We’re across the playa and winding through lava rocks. The final insult of the lava rocks. No, the final insult is the mile of dark, paved highway walking that comes after the lava rocks. Roadwalking hurts my body in a way I cannot describe. Intense, sharp, throbbing, traveling pain. Hot pain. Crippling pain. This whole valley is a packed dirt road, just hard enough to cause this pain. And then, pavement. A last single mile entirely of pavement. The hardest thing there is.
I can see the glowing “open” sign of the general store in the distance. I’m not sure I’m going to make it. I want to crumple to the ground in a heap. I wish I had a wheelchair. Plants is far ahead, Eye of the Tiger on constant loop in his head. Laurie is just behind him. Pilar and I are here, talking ourselves through this last twenty minutes. Ten minutes. Five. What a wild fact of embodiment, that time can be so excruciating. So fast, and then so slow.
We reach the store ten minutes before closing. I buy a banana and a bar of Irish spring soap. We carry our resupply box across the street, to the campground where we have reserved a large canvas wall tent with four cots for $55. The fact that we won’t have to set up our shelters and that we get to sleep on cots! Fills me with so much pleasure that I could cry. I stashed a can of chili, a can of pears, a can of peaches and a can of corn in the resupply box for this moment. I think what has to come first, though, is a shower. My skin is crawling with hot chafe. I cannot rest before I care for it.
The water in the first shower won’t get warm. A woman comes into the bathroom and looks at me, standing there in my billowing white desert shirt with the huge brown sweat stains, rinsing my socks under the cold tap. I try the other shower, it works better. I strip out of everything and let the water rinse off layers of sunscreen while I scrub my clothes with the strong smelling soap, throw them down and stamp on them to squish the dirt out. I wring them between my hands and walk back to the tent in a towel. Movement is difficult. After hanging the wet clothes from the rafters I collapse on the cot with my canned items. Sitting feels so good, I almost scream with relief. The peaches taste like nothing. Three days in and my palette has already adjusted to a diet of straight candy, so much so that fruit tastes like paper. I rub olive oil all over my scratched, chafed, sun-roasted skin. I carry the oil for my dinners but this is my favorite on-trail use. What the wind and sun takes out of me, olive oil puts back in.
The others have eaten and are prone on their cots, silent with relief. The moon shines in the open window like a streetlight. The wind blows through the valley, but it can’t reach us in here. It’s midnight. I take a single ibuprofen. I’m so comfy I almost want to stay awake, so as to enjoy it longer.
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