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.
It’s a magical wonderland of boulders, a sort of pink stonehenge in the morning light. They’re scattered like sheep, smoothed round and stacked in snowman piles, exfoliating in sheets. Ted asks how they got here. From the bowels of the earth, I guess, worked by water to conform to their crystalline shape. I touch them as I walk by, sticky to my climber fingers, though after a day, they’d be worn bloody.
The day is expected to be mostly down towards a town, but, as usual, we head up to go down through thick mesquite and thwakking overgrowth. The sun is intense and the wind non-existent, so gnats find us causing even Ted, sweating and enervated, to don a bug burka. We pass a sign for water, though it’s off trail and we’re carrying enough for the next hot miles to a running creek. A blacktopped road runs alongside and I hope for a Snickers bars cache, but we only parallel a few hundred feet before parting ways and heading towards our canyon.
The walking is silent now, both of us hot. Ted sips from his coke bottle while I chug a liter at a time. We pass a sign reading Adopt-a-Trail and thanking a woman and a club. I thank them too, knowing much of the PCT is maintained by volunteers. Down and down we go, Ted marching on with his giant pack, a determined look in his eyes. He passes beneath me on switchbacks as we enter a seam of orange, yellow and gold cottonwoods gleaming against the lapis sky. I hear water, but it’s another mile before we cross Agua Caliente Creek and lay our packs and sit our bodies on rocks for lunch. It’s a paradise in this oasis of shade and water flowing in V’s through sand, tule grass poking up on the soggy banks. How restorative to eat the rest of our food in cool air. I make an imprint of this moment in my mind to take home with me in a little over a week’s time, never to forget the contrasting intensity of thousands of miles walked over many months and the simplicity of resting and replenishing.
It’s hard to leave, as you can imagine, but we still have miles to walk and the days, though blissfully sunny and clear, are short. We walk in deep sand that fills our sneakers. I never really got interested in wearing gators, but I see why other hikers do. Leaves crunch underfoot, brown and curled. Fall is my favorite time of year.
We come out of the canyon back into mesquite-lined trail, the wind picking up. I hold out my arms to let it cool me, one underarm totally shredded now. In the distance is a huge brown meadow where the village sits looking back at these mountains. Two backpackers and a dog come up, a two-gallon jug of water tied to the man’s pack, the woman carrying a dog bowl and the dog, a fitted pack. We tell them of our beautiful lunch spot, perfectly situated for camping. Her eyes light up and I think of all the ‘beta’ passing hikers gave me over these past months, guiding my choices and quelling my fears of what’s ahead. I’m ready for a shower and bed tonight, but I know they’ll love being outside.
We meet the creek again, though now a dry, sandy bed lined with enormous yellow cottonwoods. I realize why our hiker friends looked relieved when we told them the water is flowing above since here it’s deep underground. We instantly lose the trail, and decide to follow the creekbed to the road. It’s not far, but confuses me as I crawl up through a pile of tumbleweeds to cross and we lose the trail again at the narrow bridge, cars whizzing by.
Ted walks the road confidently looking for the trail, but to me he seems oblivious to the possibly distracted drivers and I grab and pull him towards the shoulder. He shouts at me to take my hands off him and I’m mystified as to why he would risk getting hit. I continue looking for the trail in a bit of a fog then realize we were meant to walk under the bridge all along and not on the road.
Ahead is a small, shaded campground with picnic tables and a huge half-full water jug awaiting thirsty hikers. We sip the last of our own water before I ask what happened on the road. Ted tells me it was just instinctual, but then adds a bit of background. His parents were refugees from the war, Polish immigrants settling in England. Like many children of survivors, Ted internalized their ordeal and likely yelled back when I grabbed him in a kind of reaction to authority and being told what to do. His sharing is a moment of clarity for me, not only in our friendship, but in realizing how all of us are formed by our experiences and motivated to act based on deep subconscious drives. I realize in that moment, under huge spreading live oaks, that the recent seemingly irrational and impulsive behavior that hurt me deeply – and the very reason I am hiking the PCT to heal – is not personal. I just triggered it and received the bluntness of its force. Yes, it hurt, but I know I’m going to be ok and I’m able to forgive.
We walk the final miles back to the highway as it curves around Warner Springs, entering the huge grassy plain we saw from above. It reminds me of the wild emptiness of South Africa with tiny hillocks and a single chunky oak far ahead. At the road, we cross towards the fire station, a sign telling us fire danger is high, but thankfully not extreme. The first truck stops for us and we pile into the bed as Sharon speeds towards the gas mart. It’s Saturday, and I won’t be able to claim my resupply package until Monday morning, so we decide to stay a few nights and rest before Ted’s last two days on trail to Julian, where we’ll meet Richard. Besides, these last 33 miles are (again) a waterless desert that will require planning, rationing and a long carry. It’s exhausting and slightly irritating, although dry conditions do afford sleeping out under the stars.
But tonight is a sit down dinner of Mexican food and beer, followed by a bed where I can sprawl out. Funny how much I need this while walking, but once I’m here I miss the purity of trail life. Like everything in life, I attempt to feel joy where I am in the present and keep my memories close to savor whenever I choose. It’s only 109 miles until I finish and a few more nights laying on the ground with the sky as my ceiling. What will I ponder in these closing steps?
We’ll soon find out.