The beady dark eyes of a small mouse shine in the moonlight. The mouse is crouched beneath a creosote bush. It darts out across the open space of a campsite. Its moonshadow follows close behind. Out from behind the brick bathroom building comes another mouse. There’s a single dorito, discarded beneath a picnic table. A bonanza!
We’ve hung our packs from the metal frame of the canvas wall tent, and they creak and sway gently as the tent rattles in the wind. Moonlight pours in the square mesh window. I’m tossing and turning, and as far as I can tell, so is everyone else. I take another ibuprofen for the ache in my legs. Ibuprofen carry me away, I think, as I stare at the moonlight puddled on the floor. When it comes to insomnia, sometimes the placebo effect is all that I need. If I think that something will help me sleep, often it does. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If I believe a thing will keep me from sleeping, it does.
Someone’s alarm goes off at 6 a.m. I can’t think of a motivational song to play on my phone. Oh well. I sit up in the dark tent and drink the can of cold brew I bought from the store yesterday. Right away I am awake. I’m really starting to see why people love coffee on trail so much.
The sunrise is Lisa Frank colors. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning, I whisper to myself, although I don’t even know what that rhyme is supposed to mean and anyway, we’re not at sea and also, there’s been a neon sunrise every day so far and not a single storm has come. Meaningless rhyme notwithstanding, one of my favorite things about long distance hiking is collecting obscure tricks and skills to predict/anticipate/bend oneself around the sun/moon/wind/weather. It’s a way of seeing, a way of knowing. It’s come to me slowly and I treasure it.
Yesterday we met a group of L2H hikers who’d stashed a car here and this morning we see them at their campsite, rustling around. We say hi and they tell us that they’re driving one of their vehicles to Lone Pine. We ask them if they have another person who would maybe be down to shuttle another vehicle? And amazingly, they do. One of them is going to drive Pilar’s car to Lone Pine today, so we won’t have to hitch back and retrieve it at the end! What luck!
My body doesn’t hurt today. 24 hours of minimal movement and bam, I’m able to walk again. Without pain. What wonders our bodies are. What magic is contained therein. Mysteries we’ll never understand, no matter how hard we try. It’s comforting, really.
We walk the highway as the sun comes up and then leave it for a jeep road that follows a wash into Darwin Canyon. The canyon is bare, dry, just different kinds of rock, and the suddenly it’s a riot of plants, there’s the smell of water, birdsounds, an impenetrable jungle with a path whacked through. We pick our way through mud, under low hanging branches, over boulders.
The canyon dead ends at Darwin Falls, a small deluge and a shallow pond half eaten by reeds. We eat second breakfast here, contemplating the shadows on the water, then begin to pick our way up the canyon wall via class three rock scrambling. It’s not very sketchy, the hard thing is just that you have to figure out which way to go. At first there are more worn bits of rock- that’s obviously the trail! But later on not so much, and we have a few dead ends at sheer cliffs that require we downclimb things we just painstakingly climbed up.
We reach upper Darwin falls, a long noodle of water in a cleft in the canyon, and afterwards we just cannot figure out where to go. Up? We can’t see that way. Down? We can’t see that way either. We choose up, and it goes for a bit and then we are cliffed out again. Repeat this a half dozen times. It’s fun, just slow.
By and by a shelf appears that contours, uninterrupted, along the cliff, and we follow this shelf, shouting with joy every time we see a cairn. The sun is straight above us, bright but not too hot.
The cliff ends in a slope with a tidy burro trail and this takes us to the huge cottonwood over China Garden Spring, the clear pond stuffed with brilliant, trout-sized goldfish. We stick our fingers in the water, shrieking when the goldfish nibble us.
We throw down our packs and sit in the dirt among the burro shit, stuffing chips and candy into our face. We take photos in the concrete mine ruins, where someone has graffitied China Garden in huge letters. We enter another canyon and walk along its gravel bottom as it twists. We climb out onto a sloping plateau, peppered with lava rocks just big enough to work our ankles. There are Joshua trees. The afternoon is thirsty. I pop open my umbrella and eat clif shot bloks, turn my brain off.
I can see the highway when it’s still two miles away, the tiny toy cars. I step over lava rocks and around cacti, fatigue starting to creep up on me. The highway is where our cache is, behind a berm next to a dirt pullout there. At our cache we can rest again. I will never make it, though. I’m tired. It’s not getting any closer. I will never, ever make it. This moment is infinite. And then, in the way of moments, I am there.
Each of us left a soda with our gallons of water but the only soda left is mine, the diet coke. Animals can tell the difference between real and fake sugar, I guess. Animals also punctured one of our gallons. We wander the open desert, gathering trash, and then lug our remaining liquids to a huge tractor tire next to the road. Laurie plops down into it. Pilar passes around her bag of candy corn, for which I am eternally grateful. We transfer water into our bottles and bladders and then crush the jugs, stuffing them into or strapping them to our packs however we can. Just eight miles down this dirt road to our second cache, where we’ve got six more gallons. We’ll camp there. The slow scramble out of Darwin this morning means that we’ll reach camp in the dark. At least I have a good audiobook.
The light is long on the road. What a wonder to be outside for every moment of the sun’s arc across the sky. We’ve been climbing since Darwin Falls, although sometimes the uphill is subtle enough that I can’t figure out why I’m tired. The proof is in the pudding, though- as the last of the light slips over the Inyo mountains it’s straight up chilly here amongst these Joshua trees. Last night we were camped around one thousand feet. Tomorrow we’ll be at nine thousand. Right now we’re halfway between. So it goes.
I take a shit and fall behind. Me time! My fucking feet hurt. Goddam road walking and the way it makes my feet feel. A cold wind picks up. The stars are out. I feel upset for some reason. Am I dehydrated? No, I’m just tired. My legs move but in the dark nothing shifts, I’m suspended in space again. Then the lights of the others’ headlamps. This cache was intact. We find a sandy open spot in the desert and plop down. There are prickers everywhere and I carefully sweep my spot with my shoes before laying down my tarp as a groundsheet, then my thin foam pad, then my precious, fragile neo air.
It’s been magic to cowboy camp every night on this trip. I like it when the air touches me while I sleep. My cold instant beans taste good tonight. I pull on all my layers, even my rain jacket, preparing for the cold. Twenty miles today.
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