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GUEST POST: In Praise of “Cowgirl Camping” by Ted Adamski

I met Ted Adamski on the John Muir Trail in 2012. He is an ultramarathoner, clocking elite finishing times in the Western States, Leadville 100 and The Fellsman, a race near his home in the UK that he’s run over forty times (and me, exactly once)

Ali was excited to tell me of her new camping experience as I meet her at Van Dusen road near Big Bear Lake to join her for some 200 miles on the final stages of her thru-hike – “cowgirl camping,” camping under the stars, no tent necessary.

I look aghast, images of rattlers and scorpions slithering into my sleeping bag for warmth. She smiles knowingly, whilst memories of seeing photos of snake bite victims during my visits to South Africa, who were visited by these cuddly reptiles in just these situations, swirl round my head. 

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après PCT

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style. – Maya Angelou

Thank you, Marc for this beautiful quote! I received it in his comments on my diary entry for the last day of the PCT. I read it while cleaning gear to put away for now until my next walk.

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PCT Day 139, Lake Morena campground to Mexican border, 20 miles

You don’t choose the day you enter the world and you don’t chose the day you leave. It’s what you do in between that makes all the difference. – Anita Septimus

I wake on my final day with the moon casting leaf shadows on our tent, Rich a giant breathing blue bag next to me. He’s more of a night owl, working on projects at home until the wee hours, but he’s always awakened with me when I need an early start, sometimes even walking me to work at 4 am. What a treasure I have, his muppet face peaking out then brightening excited for me on this last bit.

The campground was mostly silent, though the three hikers sharing our space yell to each other from tent to tent about sharing a joint and coffee, every other word beginning with an ‘F.’ The sun isn’t up yet and there are posted quiet hours. We’re offered an entire area for only $5 each and I wince thinking these guys are ruining it for future hikers. I pack quickly just as they start playing music. Guys, really? I hold back lecturing them as lesson learned is to simply remove myself. We find a rock in shade near the trailhead to drink coffee as a man comes by with a pair of pugs. My self-righteous indignation melts at the sight of these cuties. Another lesson learned – everything changes. They have the softest fur, too.

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PCT Day 138, Mount Laguna to Lake Morena County Park, 22 miles

To me, there’s no greater act of courage than being the one who kisses first. – Janean Garofalo

It’s quasi cowgirl camping in our enormous tent with no fly. The stars don’t disappoint before the moon rises over the ridge obliterating them. No campfires in this tinder box means everyone’s asleep when it gets dark. It’s quiet except for an owl and a few acorn bombs.

Richard and I pop right up before it’s light, packing up and getting me caffeinated. He comes to the trail with me, walking through closed Burnt Rancheria campground and hoping to spot the resident mountain lion. No such luck, though we receive a bird chorus and a stunning sunrise from the ridge. Richard takes most of my gear, leaving me just food and water for a fast day of mostly downhill ‘slackpacking.’

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PCT Day 137, past Sunrise Trail junction to Mount Laguna general store, 18 miles

I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within. – Lillian Smith

The moon is still silvery bright as the sky over the desert turns a Crayola 64 selection of oranges and reds. Light wind riffles my little cowgirl notch as I eat my final breakfast in bed. Oh, how I’m going to miss this. Being alone after getting myself and all I need to this soulful spot is deeply satisfying. I love my little backpacking routines and simply being inside this extraordinary beauty. It’s precisely why I came.

I take a moment to list some of the favorite moments of my walk – Goat Rocks in Washington where I climbed the peak above and had it all to myself, so many berries to eat and lakes to swim in, a chain of volcanoes like jewels, balcony walk after balcony walk, extraordinary sunsets, Crater Lake’s rim and the Sierra in rain, hail, snow and cold, the desert where I learned to cowgirl camp, walking really, really far, camping all alone, seeing three bears, making friends with some extraordinary women, never using my headlamp or earbuds (not once!), butterflies everywhere in Oregon, the varied warbler’s ‘signal’ call in Washington.

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PCT Day 136, Highway S2 to past Sunrise Trailhead junction, 18 miles

Dreams and reality are opposites. Action synthesizes them. – Assata Shakur

I wake up with the sun even though we were up late talking and laughing in the hotel’s beautiful lobby. It’s so nice to have Richard right there next to me, though he begs for more rest. I mess around with my pack on my last walk out of a town, at least my body’s clean, but dusty hiking clothes will have to suffice.

We love our stay in Julian. The guys shared a couple of pints last night at the brewery while I caught up. This morning, we’re served a two-course breakfast of granola, eggs and polenta along with wonderful homemade bread. We’re back at our table in the parlor, eating on a linen tablecloth and dabbing our chins with linen napkins, there are even doilies that fit into the historic period of Julian’s mining past. It’s very old school, but we like old school and everyone we met at tea yesterday chooses the same tables and seem quite happy to be served such awesome food. We share more stories and talk about where we want to hike next before piling into our rent car to return me to the trail.

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PCT Day 135, water cache to Scissors Crossing (Julian), 14 miles

If you have the courage to fail, then you have the courage to succeed. – Shalane Flanagan

Desert sunrises are magnificent – orange light in the east as the full moon drops, deep pink on the other horizon. I sit up and make coffee noticing a tiny animal hole right next to my mat. OK, who did this? Were you coming or going? I never saw or heard a thing – no harm, no foul – hey, Ted, can I have one of your granola bars?

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PCT Day 134, Highway 79 to water cache, 19 miles

You never find yourself until you face the truth. – Pearl Bailey

I have seen lots of animals on this hike including black bears and marmots, rattlesnakes and golden eagles, but nothing has gotten too cozy or threatened to steal my food until my stay at one of the Warner Springs Resort cabins. There’s a mouse in the house and he chewed a little opening in my vanillacoffee. Fortunately, nothing spilled out and I simply transferred the grounds to another baggie after seeing his little body scurrying under the door. Run, little mouse, run!

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PCT Day 133, zero, Warner Springs

The more anger towards the past you carry in your heart, the less capable you are of loving in the present. – Barbara De Angelis

Behold! The final ‘zero mile day of this epic hike, and all I have to show for it is this haiku –

Luxurious rest
at mile one-hundred-and-nine.
Hop, skip, smile, the end!

♥️ Singet

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PCT Day 132, Mikes’s Place to Highway 74 (Warner Springs) 17 miles

Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith. – Margaret Shepherd

No beings – animal or otherwise – came round last night. I slept soundly in our little piece of sand next to a shack, the moon’s reflection in the windows looking like eyes. Mike doesn’t show, but I am so grateful he offers a place to camp, water from a huge tank affixed with an easy-to-collect spigot and a long-drop, clean and odor-free. I eat the last of my bars with vanillacoffee and have Ted bandage my back, my spine bones taking a beating from my pack before we set off.

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PCT Day 131, ridge above Anza to Mike’s Place, 19 miles

There is nothing more pathetic than caution when headlong might save a life, even possibly, your own. – Meryl Streep

I wake before dawn in time to see a grapefruit slice of moon setting. The wind picks up and I tuck deeper into Big Greenie. It’s too gusty when we wake to make coffee from my bed, so we pack up first and I notice my sit pad is gone – the third time I’ve lost it on the PCT, the first near Shasta when Pilot found it, the second near Casa de Luna when Brass found it. This time, it’s the wind’s fault and it’s only after breakfast I see it caught in some spiky grass. Hooray for the desert!

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PCT Day 130, Cedar Spring to ridge above Anza, 18 miles

I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world. – Mary Anne Radmacher

How strange it is to cowgirl camp under the big trees, acorn bombs falling most of the night and a nearly full moon shining through the branches. When I close my eyes, I’m just in bed, then open them to see stars and hear some creature – a squirrel? – chattering loudly. I sip coffee (vanilla at the moment) with bars in bed before packing up, including four full water bottles, to head back up the steep, overgrown side trail back to the PCT.

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PCT Day 129, Saddle Junction via Devil’s Slide to Cedar Spring, 20 miles

I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes. – Edna St. Vincent Millay

I set my alarm a bit too early this morning thinking I’d need more time to organize since going back after a ‘zero’ day is always a bit of a shock. I fill the time eating too much yogurt and granola and reading the Times. An article grabs my interest as I wait outside under a sky just beginning to lighten for handyman Dean to take us back to the trailhead. It’s about grieving and highlights a book by David Kessler where he takes the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – and adds one more, meaning. “Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen,” he writes, offering something hopeful, optimistic and, most important to me, active to the peace and groundedness of acceptance.

Dean arrives right on time and we pile our bags in the bed of his truck and head up to Humber Park. I think about the kind of meaning I’ll create out of the ashes of my loss, and decide, as Ted and I retrace our steps up to the saddle, that my experience will be meaningful and I will carry it with grace and dignity. It’s fitting to consider these things here as I walk up what I just came down, as though offered a kind of do-over and a chance to gain a new perspective.

Ted leads and powers up even with a full resupply. Taquitz – pronounced tah-quits or tah-keets, take your pick – looms over us, seemingly inviting me to come climb him. Giant firs hold their enormous cones at the tip of the boughs like poorly placed oversized Christmas decorations. Several dead trunks stand as beheaded sentinels, their bark stripped revealing a twist underneath from root to crown. Birds sing good morning and we’re at our junction before we know it.

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PCT Day 128, zero, Idyllwild

The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for. – Maureen Dowd

I’m amazed at how exhausted I am. Another zero seems to do the trick and I have just enough time to enjoy it in this lovely village tucked into the mountains. I should finish walking in less than two weeks. How about them apples?!

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PCT Day 127, San Jacinto River to Saddle Junction (Idyllwild via Devil’s Slide) 10 miles

You have to allow for the impossible to be possible. – Lupita Nyong’o

I’m pleased we found a site to cowgirl camp at the bend in the switchback, but it’s not completely flat and we wake up cranky and sore. The three sets of night hikers park themselves close by also on sketchy terrain. We pass them still in their bags not yet ready to face the crisp, cold air. One places a tent nearly in the trail and we float quietly. Another spring comes down in beautiful faucet-like falls just a small distance in the wrong direction from the peak. I collect for our climb, but soon my fingers are numb as I filter.

Such a success yesterday climbing in tough conditions and this morning proves a frustration. I tell myself, “This too shall pass,” and to try and not let things get the best of me.

But they do anyway in spite of my good intentions, as the climb begins in earnest over granite boulders flanked by sharp scrub oak and thorn bushes. The sun does not reach this side of the mountain for hours and I’m freezing cold – well, my hands are. I hope climbing warms me, though it’s fingertips that need to hold walking sticks, not my core. Maybe I should have stayed in my bag a little longer, or skipped the peak like the other hikers do. But I’m in it now, rising slowly to a flat area filled with designated campsites, a ranger station and a rushing stream. Hmmmm, could we have gotten here last night? Everything is silent now way past hiking season. Bright purple lupine blooms like it’s early spring, ignoring the coming snow. No, we would not have gotten here and the climb surely would prove a misery, or worse, in the dark.

Another steep uphill on switchbacks brings us to a saddle, Ted begging to take five and my yelling down to him to keep going l just a few more meters to the junction. I feel like a drill sergeant, but it turns out to be a good idea as the sun is bright and warm shining on a large log begging for us to sit on. The mood lightens a bit, and lightens even more when Ted pulls out the last of the smarties.

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PCT Day 126, water faucet to North Fork San Jacinto River, 20 miles

The road to success is always under construction. – Lily Tomlin

It was a night of dueling owls and a morning of dueling doves. A falling star flew through the sky just as Ted informs me it‘s 5:00. I guess manually changing your iPhone clock ahead of daylight savings doesn’t work since my clock reads 4:00. I much prefer a bit more sleep, but he’s up surprisingly fast and packing already, so I make coffee and top up our water. One glorious part of cowgirl camping is not having to deal with a tent, setting it or packing it up, so it’s relatively easy in dry sand to pack up and go. A huge day awaits us – twenty miles and 7,200 feet of climbing, and we’ll have to carry all the water we’ll need for the climb.

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PCT Day 125, Tamarack Road to water faucet, 4 miles

Dreams are illustrations from the book your soul is writing about you. – Marsha Norman

It’s a sleeping in kind of day, the walk coming up only about positioning for a big climb and water carry tomorrow. I dream about boyfriends-of-the-past, mostly conjuring them back into my subconscious so I can shake my head ‘no’ and send them back to the past. I hop out of bed and grab us coffee from the tiny lounge where a woman defends her unease with Pride weekend. Fortunately I move along quickly.

We pack up and I can’t find one sun-glove. I choose not to make a Michael Jackson fashion statement and simply throw the single glove away. Only a few more weeks, I think, and I still have my fleece hand tubes to protect at least most of my hands, my fingers turning a tawny brown in all this sun. In fact, most of my clothing is a bit ‘on the verge’ with stains and holes. It’s a wonder I still get told I do not look like a thru-hiker.

We bounce to Starbucks where everyone is in a good mood, though our neighbor explains that’s only because it’s November and cool. Summer brings misery in 120 degrees and encourages a different vibe. Next, we grab brunch at the downtown icon called ‘A Bit of Country’, filled with camp and nearly all men in short shorts, peacock feather earrings, sleeveless tie dye and sass. The foursome at the next table eye me eating a massive Carne Asada Fries and I assure them, I’ll eat it all. When they leave, the one in tie-dye congratulates me on walking so far on the PCT.

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PCT Day 124, zero, Palm Springs

What I learned crashing in Palm Springs for a ‘zero’ on Halloween and Pride weekend:

  • desert weather is better than the upper great lakes
  • …in November, anyway
  • snag the motel next to the action
  • try on a costume/disguise/different personality/gender – sometimes it’s all you need
  • people love having their picture taken –> [see day 123]
  • no one really cares how you look if you’re wearing a smile
  • a hot tub soak just might prepare a blissful hiker for what’s next – the hardest steps she’ll walk in So Cal
  • people really are nicer out here
  • you gotta grab the moment while it’s there for the grabbing
  • dance more

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PCT Day 123, Whitewater River to Tamarack Road (Palm Springs), 11 miles

If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought. – Peace Pilgrim

I know I repeat myself, but it’s cold. The water bottles are chunky and, unfortunately, I left the Sawyer Squeeze outside Big Greenie and it freezes solid, no flow at all. My emergency purifying pills to the rescue! I squat at the fast moving river, and set up the operation of one tab, two electrolyte fizzies, chased with Whitewater River water and lots of prayers. Up ahead is all dry and exposed and sunshine and uphill. The wind farm six miles ahead apparently has its office in a pre-fab building on trail and offers water and (maybe) ice cream to hikers. As always, it can’t be counted on, so four liters are loaded on our backs and we get started.

Did I mention we see cougar tracks in the sand passing through our cowgirl sight? They’re so yesterday and our star-filled night is undisturbed except for one chopper and his search light. We don’t have far to go, so wait for sun before crossing the river on well-placed logs. Jumping cholla cactus line the path, and thorn bushes with long, clingy tendrils that snap after you unhook them, right into your hiking partner’s face. No blood, just a little wake up slap.

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PCT Day 122, ridge above Mission Creek to Whitewater River, 18 miles

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Remember, you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. – Harriet Tubman

It’s cold. But that’s a good thing, right? Because we’re in the desert still and it makes for deep sleeping cuddled in Big Greenie wearing all the clothes I brought. Furthermore, it’s ideal hiking weather. A couple of hikers walk by us still wrapped in our bags drinking coffee their headlamps competing with the eastern sky’s orange glow. We lounge a while and take our time before packing up and setting off. Ted takes immediately – and absolutely naturally – to cowgirl camping and I think appreciates not having to pack his tent. This blissful ‘guide’ scores a win.

I look down from our perch on a canyon with seemingly no path or even an exit. Things begin on actual trail, though it’s an eroded dirt/fallen trees maze almost immediately. It reminds me a bit of Paria Canyon in Arizona as we pass a riparian zone of huge cottonwoods turning yellow, willow and a kind of maple, though I’m not certain it’s big three-fingered floppy leaves come from the same family.

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PCT Day 121, Arrastre Trail Camp to ridge above Mission Creek, 18 miles

Sometimes questions are more important than answers. – Nancy Willard

Because it was so cold down in the creek canyon, I shared Ted’s tent, a tiny two-man tent, the one he uses with his son every year on an overland marathon in Scotland. It felt like an animal’s underground lair, tight and warm in a dark feather-lined tunnel. I slept soundly even as the wind rattled through the night.

We wake slowly and linger over muesli, the air crisp now. I am so glad I didn’t send my rain gear back home as I’m wearing it now and have a feeling it will be on me all day. The Santa Ana winds have kicked up in Southern California. I always thought they brought heat, but up here above 8,000 feet, they’re icy cold. I can’t complain, though, since it makes for ideal hiking weather, especially with no guaranteed water source for 17 miles.

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Day 120, Van Dusen Road to Arrastre Trail Camp, 19 miles

A man told me that for a woman, I was very opinionated. I said, ‘For a man, you’re kind of ignorant.’ – Anne Hathaway

A bed, a shower, loads of coffee and a comfy chair are all taken advantage of before trail angel ‘Papa Smurf’ comes to pick us up to return to the trail up bumpy Van Dusen Road. I suggested Ted practice loading his pack last night so he could move a bit faster in the morning, though honestly it was to help calm his nerves which were threatening to take over. His gear is hardly ultralite, but everything fits and it really doesn’t weigh all that much.

It’s clear and beautiful but noticeably colder. I shiver a bit, but decide not to put on my orange puffy and simply keep moving. But moving does not happen immediately since Ted’s waist belt buckle snaps the minute we arrive. I figure we can make it work aa Smurf drives away in a cloud of dust. I have no cell service to bring him back and we’re all alone out here faffing about trying to tie the busted belt.

To his credit, Ted’s a good sport not really wanting to waste a day driving back into town looking for a buckle. So we’re off on an easy uphill grade, looking down on the road we drove in on before we break away over the ridge. A new fire is raging in west Los Angeles this morning, but far from us. The air here is clear except for some dust over the desert just coming into view. As we contour high above, the trail changes to rocks, so much harder to walk on. A section hiker approaches having started at my southern end-point in Campo. He exudes a joyful demeanor, excited for a particular ancient pine he’ll see in the coming days. He makes us smile.

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PCT Day 118, Holcomb Creek to Van Dusen Road (Big Bear Lake) 18 miles

I don’t think life is about the I-could-have-beens. Life is only about the I-tried-to-do. I don’t mind the failure but I can’t imagine I’d forgive myself if I didn’t try. – Nikki Giovanni

Another glorious night solo by a stream for a change, the sound so relaxing until an acorn bomb crashes on the alicoop. It’s getting cold now and my fingers suffer as I prepare three liters to carry these upcoming 18 miles towards Big Bear Lake. I’ll meet my English friend Ted there. We met on the John Muir Trail and have hiked in some interesting places over the years. There’s some confusion on where to meet, and in my distraction my frozen fingers spill half the electrolyte powder on my hiking trousers. All I can do is laugh at myself and open a new packet.

It’s all uphill today along this gorgeous creek, the orange oaks reminding me of a special place in Texas I backpacked with Richard before we married called ‘Lost Maples.’ I remain stunned this canyon exists in such a dry location. Cool rock formations appear again, seeming to grow out of the canyon. I’m high enough to see back to the big mountains I crossed near Wrightwood. I breathe it in and smile in my delightful solitude, “Yay for me!” I exclaim just as a massive tree falls over and slides down the other side.

So a tree falls in the forest and I was there to hear it, does that mean I exist?

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PCT Day 117, ridge above highway 173 to Holcomb Creek, 26 miles

The thing that is really hard and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and starting the work of being yourself. – Anna Quindlen

My cowgirl night is heavenly. It got absolute silent except for an owl, “Hoo’hool hoooool hoo,” and a snake’s rattle twitching a few times, though I can’t be sure that’s what I heard. One lone buzzing bug came round and I had to put on the bug net, but that allowed me to peek at the stars just as two long shooters burst above me.

I make breakfast as the sky goes pink and cars move along the highway. It’s hard to believe my little self was up here sleeping with the high desert creatures and no one ever came past. I walk for some time without sun and enjoy the fresh morning, arroyos I pass throw out cold air that makes me shiver. I meet two section hikers happy to be out and already congratulating me. I’ll pass the 300 mile mark today, so I’m getting closer.

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PCT Day 116, dry river bed near Cajon Pass to ridge above highway 173, 24 miles

I was built this way for a reason, so I’m going to use it. – Simone Biles

I adore my camp spot just over the hill from the trains chugging up Cajon Pass. I hear their horns through the night – some long and steady, some short and sassy – but it calms me, somehow. It makes me smile from this dusty arroyo by the junipers. I am left alone in the starlight, sleeping nearly 11 hours.

I make chococoffee with one of my liters, carrying the other the short distance to McDonald’s. I guess I’m desert trained now to be prepared. I come over the hump just as a train snakes around the sharp corners, doubling back on itself, appearing and disappearing behind white rock. I cross one set of tracks, then enter a metal pipe tunnel underneath. The trail directs me crouching under a low overpass, then through a dark, curving tunnel beneath the highway. I sing a little tune that includes lines like, “There’s no fat on these old bones,” and, “I might have a gun, don’t make me use it.” But not a soul is around to enjoy my creativity.

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PCT Day 115, Inspiration Point to dry river bed near Cajon Pass, 26 miles

You’ve just got to follow your own path. You have to trust your heart and you have to listen to the warnings. – Chaka Khan

I hit my alarm after its first semi-quaver. Jeremy pokes his head in to tell me he’s awake. He grind beans in a vitamixer and uses the jumbo size coffee press. I down it fast, plus two glasses of water, before we head back up the mountain in the pitch dark. It’s really early, but we’re tailed by a commuter and Jeremy needs to head back fast to get the girls to school.

The moon is a crescent, stars and city lights twinkle and I sit a while to let the sun lighten the trail a bit more. The air is fresh and cool, it’s absolutely silent and still before dawn. I feel so thankful for my trail angel family and think about Kim asking me what I’ve learned. Perhaps the most useful skill is patience. I can’t go any faster and I can’t know any more than I do in the moment, so I have learned to stay present and have that be enough. Of course, I plan and prepare, but there is a letting go of control on a thru-hike, a letting the day unfold and being surprised that is a real challenge to type A personalities.

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PCT Day 114, ridge below Mount Hawkins to Inspiration Point (Wrightwood) 14 miles

I can’t imagine people telling me what to do – I just can’t imagine it. – Jane Campion

This night turns out to be one of my favorite of the hike. I’m snug as a bug in Big Greenie, thermarest on a tent footprint held down by a row of rocks on all sides. The wind just ruffles the bag a little, even as it sounds like the ocean high in the pines. The stars and city wink at me, the temperature is perfect. No dew, no bugs and it’s so easy making coffee next to my bed in the calm morning.

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PCT Day 113, Highway 2 and Three Points to ridge below Mount Hawkins, 20 miles

It’s very important to take risks. I think that research is very important, but in the end you have to work from your instinct and feeling and take those risks and be fearless. – Anna Wintour

Again, it’s dreams all night of walking, then waking and seeing I haven’t gotten anywhere. Ruth and Dave and I share a long breakfast that begins healthy with eggs and toast, but soon the leftover chocolate birthday cake comes out and tastes so good with a second cup of coffee. We talk non-stop, exactly what I need, and continue all the way up the Angeles Crest Highway to the trailhead on another splendidly beautiful day. Dave is wowed by the big pine cones and big views. We hug and I set off, my fabulous gel toe separators working as advertised, the infection healing up.

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PCT Day 112, zero, Montrose

I like to be a free spirit. Some don’t like that, but that’s the way I am. – Princess Diana

Things I learned hanging with my friends Dave and Ruth and their family –

1. All you need in life are three things: someone to love, something to do and things to hope for.

2. A person who has not experienced bitterness can not truly know sweetness.

3. A soak in the hot tub is good for the body and soul.

4. Naps work.

5. It’s impossible to be grouchy when a baby’s smiling at you.

6. Eating good food feels really, really good.

7. Count your blessings but make your blessings count.

8. All families have their quirks.

9. I’m doing something really cool right now.

10. Good friends make everything better.

See you back on trail tomorrow!

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PCT Day 111, Messenger Flat Campground to Highway 2 and Three Points (Montrose) 27 miles

There are hazards in anything one does but there are greater hazards in doing nothing. –Shirley Williams

Argh! Just as I drift off, loud voices and bright headlamps arrive pointed at my tent. I ask for them to use red lights, finding out it’s Brass, apologetic and quiet after that. He and ‘Slow Burn’ cowboy camp (sleep without a tent) near me, but all is quiet soon enough – until Wheelz’s alarm goes off at 5 am. There’s a reason I normally look for soulful single camp sites when I backpack – so I can actually get the sleep I need.

I give in and pack up early, not needing my own headlamp with a bright moon. The stars are still shining, slowly going out one by one as the sky lightens. Huge ponderosas in silhouette, branches starting thirty feet up, surround me. The wind shushes through their long needles as I sling on my pack and head up the mountain. The ‘Meditation from Thais’ floats in my mind, city lights still gleam far below. As a cowboy camper, this sky is my ceiling.

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PCT Day 110, Hiker Heaven to Messenger Flat Campground, 25 miles

Everyone is a complicated human being, and everyone is strong and weak and funny and scared. – Laverne Cox

Cowboy camping amongst the cactus and waning gibbous moon is splendid. I can see my friends curled up nearby and we all seem to readjust in sequence like The Three Stooges. The horses are quiet in their stalls, but cars, planes and helicopters fill the sky. Up before dawn, coffee is brewing and food getting swapped from resupply boxes. No one even mentions the news that we received last night via the LA Times – an 8.0 earthquake is expected any day now.

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PCT Day 109, San Francisquito Road to Darling Road (Hiker Heaven) 24 miles

I think that passion is the secret ingredient that drives hard work and excellence. – Kelly Ayotte

Terrie warned me and they came. Tree rats exploring the manzanita in the moonlight. I’m up before sunrise, pack up and head inside where Terrie offers coffee – and another fantastic hug. She is such a generous soul, opening her home to PCT hikers for 21 years. We gab a bit as the television blared, talking about Mulholland, the man who essentially made Los Angeles possible by building the aqueduct. He’s seen as a hero and a villain all at once, his biggest failure, a disaster really, was building a dam in this very canyon. Cracks appeared and he declared it not a problem. The next day, the dam came crashing apart, killing hundreds of people, except one worker who didn’t trust Mulholland and slept above the dam.

Another program comes on that highlights desert plants – dried desert plants. People have arranged them artistically in vessels, like a tumbleweed tornado-ing out of a teapot. The curator explains most people see the desert as boring and monochromatic, but once they notice things and perhaps know what they are, they see the desert differently. Terrie mentions a hiker she met from Israel who was enamored by the desert when everyone else was just hot and tired. He compared the Mojave to the Negev, “Things are alive here!”

I’m so glad she told me this because I see things differently today. Everyone is up and packed, but only Number Seven and I are loaded in the first shuttle. I’m scared about the lack of water for this long section, so I drink several glasses of water, pack 3 1/2 liters and schedule my drink stops at 15, 10 and 5 miles to go. I know it all sounds a bit bizarre, but as I’ve gotten to know my speed and my needs, and also pretty much how I get through the day. Although I continue to be startled by how far I walk each day. Before the PCT, walking twenty miles in one day was a rare occurrence, a huge accomplishment. Now, it’s my average distance – and I am below average on the trail as many go further each day, and definitely faster.

Water still has me a bit freaked, so I take a lot and choose not to depend on the possible caches or seaps. Adding to this challenge and the unknown terrain is Terrie’s warning of Mountain Lions. She uses ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ we run into one, don’t run. Back up slowly. “They’re just curious.” I make a note to sing a lot today when coming around blind corners. With that, another hug and signing the register, we’re off, Seven flying ahead and me getting a good speed up the hill. The white sand and scrubby plants look beach dunes-like, the wind is blowing and the gnats under control. It actually couldn’t be more perfect.

The trail is well built and I think of the conversation this morning amongst the hikers objecting to the trail crew reinforcing the trail as it sidles a steep mountain. They felt instead the crew should sped their time trimming bushes. I certainly agree things are overgrown and exposed flesh gets slashed, but the trail is eroding into a sand pile and would definitely be impossible to walk if not repaired. One hiker shared when my trail crew friends in the Sierra told him they built seven stairs, he responded he hates stairs. I explained they need to build stairs on the trail or it will erode, but I was a bit shocked at the attitude – and lack of gratitude.

Oh well, I love hiking today seeing things differently and enjoying the cool air. I come to a bench dedicated to the man who created a race, the Leona Divide 50 which Minnesota native Scott Jurek won five times. Perhaps this is why the trail is so good. Horny Toad Two scrabbles out of the trail and up the bank. At the top, I see a giant, blue reservoir. I find a tiny spot off the trail in shade to lean against a rock and sip my first liter of water and eat a bagel. When I break, my entire body goes limp and I relax deeply. But I don’t stay long, deciding break two will have a wonderful symmetry at the top of the next climb.

I walk downhill and crickets pop into my hat. There is a cache at the road, but it looks empty and I’m glad I brought enough. A mother holding a baby with two little girls come down this rise. It’s humbling seeing them skipping along, happy and carefree as I tend to take myself too seriously geared up with sticks and backpack. She asks where I came from and is impressed I’ve come so far. I enter more oak forest and have to tell the gnats to ‘gnock it off!’ but it doesn’t last and I am extremely grateful.

I am way too skinny but still strong flying up this hill, at the top I can see down to Agua Dulce as numerous helicopters fly over, likely monitoring the fire which is nearly half contained now and hopefully won’t affect us. The air is cool in the wind and Vivaldi’s ‘Goldfinch’ concerto is on my lips in rhythm with my feet. A huge ranch spreads out below with one tree. I cross under snapping power lines then head down to a road that brings me right back to civilization. I head towards Hiker Heaven, another incredible trail angel offering accommodation, showers, laundry and a fantastic place to hang out. I stop for a snack, but the Mexican restaurant is closed but they offer a free soda. Then Little Legs and her pals find me and we share a pizza – well, three pizzas – and then catch a hitch to Heaven. Oh, friends, everything is clean, my toes are soaked and I’ll give ‘cowboy camping in the desert’ my first try.

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PCT Day 108, Maxwell Road to San Francisquito Road (Casa de Luna) 15 miles

Success, they taught me, is built on the foundation of courage, hard-work and individual responsibility. Despite what some would have us believe, success is not built on resentment and fears. – Susana Martinez

My bashful bear – or at least somewhat easily controlled bear – never returned. The food bag acted as a head rest and I was undisturbed in the silvery moonlight. The morning light is orange, coyotes yip and I have breakfast sitting on a log stripped of bark. The trail heads up onto a plateau looking back at fans and solar panels, a small community on a slightly lower mountain. I walk on white rocky sand around many blind corners, so I talk loudly and bang sticks hoping not to bump into a lion.

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PCT Day 107, Hiker Town to Maxwell Road, 25 miles

I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values – and follow my own moral compass – then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own. – Michelle Obama

No spiders last night at least that I was aware of. I slept well even with a bright moon and highway noise. I interviewed caretaker Bob for my ‘Peeps of the PCT’ series and he made a huge mug of coffee for me. A three-time Emmy winner, he’s a character and said his favorite hiker guest was Nicholas Kristof.

Last night, Erin told me she nearly stepped on a rattler. It camouflaged perfectly on the aqueduct, never gave a warning before coiling up in striking position. She said, “No, no, no!” and jumped back, much to Rook’s dismay who said she ought to have stayed still. Would you?! I walk today with a little mantra – no sneaky snakes,

no felonious felines,

no brown recluses becoming less reclusive or black widows taking a break from their widowhood. Everyone stay in your own space!

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PCT Day 106, Tylerhorse Canyon to Hiker Town, 24 miles

Never be ashamed of what you feel. You have the right to feel any emotion that you want, and to do what makes you happy. That’s my life motto. – Demi Lovato

It wasn’t long before the sky lightened above the canyon walls and a huge moon emerged turning my little lair silver. I heard the wind out in the desert all night, but where I slept was dead calm – and no visits from felines or other creatures. I take down the tent and the multitude of boulders I piled on since the ground was like concrete. After being battered by the wind above Walker Pass, I’m extra careful how I set.

The trail heads back up and I look down into this tiny V in the mountain, and its tiny seep of water – the only natural spring of the section. It’s life-sustaining down there and I thank it for housing me for a night. I then head into the wind farm, a fan ballet of sorts in progress as these huge turbines move slowly, almost sultry. The temperature is perfect, the air dry and still crisp. A bird sings – up a fifth, down a step ending with a flourish. I sing back and we carry on for several minutes. The desert is dusty, the sun shining through lending a mist-soaked forest feel. Blade shadows casually cut off my head over and over.

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PCT Day 105, Highway 58 overpass (Cameron Road) to Tylerhorse Canyon, 25 miles

I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much. – Mother Teresa

As nice as it is to sleep in a bed, I miss the alicoop and night noises. I wake early, organize Olive Oyl and cross the street to Kohnens bakery to have breakfast and meet Rae. I can’t choose between a bear claw and an apricot strudel, so have both – and coffee with cream. Rae has a miniature scone with coffee, and how often does this happen – I have exact change. We sit down to eat and chat just as the giant clock announces 7 am by playing ‘Edelweiss’ and sending two life-sized dolls in lederhosen out to spin around. It actually kind of creeps me out.

Rae is the trail angel I contacted last night asking if she might take me back to Cameron Road to pick up the trail. She was a flower child in the ‘60s living in a commune in Sonoma. She moved to Tehachapi forty years ago to take part in the birth of wind farms and in charge of collecting wind data. As we drive through the canyon, she points out the small turbines as the older ones, when only so much power was thought harnessable. Now, there are massive turbines with three blades spinning slowly but creating far more juice. I find the windmills beautiful on the hills, glinting in the bright sun.

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PCT Day 104, below windmills to Highway 58 overpass (Tehachapi) 20 miles

I found that ultimately if you truly pour your heart into what you believe in — even if it makes you vulnerable — amazing things can and will happen. – Emma Watson

It takes huge discipline to save three Clif Bars until the last day of six out on this section, but am I ever glad I held out because they taste so good with the last of my water used for coffee. I get a late start, and I needed the rest, my whirring fans and nearly full moon as companions. I love the chill of the morning, being all alone in my dusty site, the quiet of my own thoughts.

The trail winds up and up, over towards one set of windmills on a hill and then towards another. The mountains are drab tan and green, a kind of sameness creeping in here as one pine crowds everyone else out. I walk to the final water source called golden oaks spring and glad to see it’s smack dab in the middle of the trail as I told Spark last night, who likely arrived as it was getting dark. It’s possible to camp here, but it’s crowded and smelly. I’m glad I chose beneath-the-windmills last night.

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PCT Day 103, ridge above Kelso Road to below windmills, 25 miles

If you’re one of those people who has that little voice in the back of her mind saying, ‘Maybe I could do [fill in the blank],’ don’t tell it to be quiet. Give it a little room to grow, and try to find an environment it can grow in. – Reese Witherspoon

I rushed to pack up because the sunrise from my rocks was superb, a deep reddish-orange accented by a few frilly clouds. It’s cold and my hands are cupped around the heated pot. The lighter broke on my stove. I have a backup lighter, but I loved not having to use it. It’s inevitable things give out with how much they have to endure. My pack has lost two tightening straps and a hole is widening where I keep the water bottles. A zipper on the alicoop won’t close. And one bottle cap has pulled apart. Thankfully, so far, that’s it. Even I’m holding together!

It really is cold this morning as funky stones and views give way to ponderosa pine forest and a trail of needles and cones with sharp points. I hear Prokofiev ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as I walk through this unexpected terrain that feels intimate somehow, as it goes up and down, following dry creek beds and ravines. Soon, oak join the flora in fall dress of bright yellow leaves. The color is so intense, lit by the sun it has a stained glass window effect, almost coloring the very air.

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PCT Day 102, ridge beyond Yellow Jacket Spring to ridge above Kelso Road, 24 miles

Drama is very important in life: You have to come on with a bang. You never want to go out with a whimper. – Julia Child

The night is cold, but Big Greenie keeps me warm and the wind dies down after a few hours. I have my first real throbbing headache of the thru-hike and Tylenol only slightly dulls the pain. I wonder if sun, wind, dust and pollen brought it on as I dress and pack and add an extra scoop of chococoffee to the pot.

It feels good here all by myself. I know I’m somewhere in the middle of the SOBO (southbound) pack, but I enjoy hearing the wind, an owl, a mystery twig snap and my own voice as I hum and talk to myself in the morning. There’s little view here but orange sky and that’s by design so I’m out of the wind. But it’s only a few minutes before I’m at the top of this mountain with views back into the Sierra. I can just make out higher gray peaks above the mass of peaks I’ve walked since then. I smile remembering how wonderful it was there – and how happy I am that I walked it all in relatively superb weather.

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