From a few miles before golden oaks spring to robin bird spring
I’ve got ants crawling in my hair, I can tell, but it’s the middle of the night and I just don’t care. I brush them off my face, doze, do it again. Finally it’s J’s restlessness that wakes me up. “We’re crawling with ants!”
“I know. Why don’t you just turn your bag around?” I mumble, mostly asleep.
“The little buggers are biting me! And now I smell like distressed ant and they won’t leave me alone!”
We get up and drag our sleeping pads to the next best flat spot we see (good thing we’re just cowboy camping tonight). Hopefully no ants here. The movement finally penetrates my exhaustion and I’m awake. J and I lay on our backs and look up at the stars.
I thought I would see a lot more stars on this trip. I think I saw them more often when I was living in the city, in Tucson. At least then I was sometimes awake after dark. I’m lucky if I make it to 9pm these days. With the late midsummer nights, it’s still twilight then. If I do happen to be awake, the moon is probably out.
Tonight, though, the half-moon that lit our way has set. There’s no tarp between us and the sky, no lights to dim the sky, and the sky is brilliant with the splash of the milky way. We see three shooting stars before drifting back to a restless sleep.
We get up because the sun is beating us with death rays. I pee for the first time since noon yesterday. We’ve got one liter of water left and nearly four miles before water. We each take a couple swigs and get after it. Only way out is through.
We finally get to Golden Oaks Spring and it’s a sad mud puddle and an algae& tadpole filled trough. A little walking around and we find the flow – a tiny trickle off an old aluminum can, opened up and shoved in the mud. Good enough. We swap turns filling up the water bladder, slowly, and squeezing the water through our filter, more slowly. I get out my collapsible bucket and manage to fill that too. “Do you think anyone is coming,” I ask.
“Possibly,” replies J. It doesn’t look like it to me. I look around one more time, then strip completely. I use my mug to douse myself. “Hoo! Wow! Hoo! Hoo!” I gasp. J laughs. It feels amazing.
By the time I’ve bathed and rebraided my hair, we hear someone coming. “Sounds like a kid,” I wonder.
“Must be Little Buddy,” comments J. Little Buddy is a six year old hiking the PCT with his parents this year. I’ve read his blog. He section hiked the entire Appalachian trail last year, when he was five, but they’re all thru-hiking the PCT this year, and I know they’re in the area. Little Buddy (because it is Little Buddy) bounds in. His parents come behind, dragging hard. They don’t talk much, just grab four liters and head back into the trees to sleep off the hot part of the day. “It must be so hard to be a parent here,” says J. “It’s hard enough just to take care of yourself.” No kidding.
Another group filters in – they immediately lay down in the shade and pass out.
J and I are busy filtering the entire time. I’ve gotten out our arsenal for delicious beverages: raspberry-lime imitation nuun tabs, emergen-c in tropical and super Orange, the lemonade mixes they market to dieting women- some flavoring and stevia – in pink lemonade and black cherry limeade, and chia seeds. I mix up batch after batch in every combo I can come up with. Our goal is to be peeing clear before we leave. (I think a lot about peeing these days.)
By the time we’ve filtered a gallon apiece and drank them, then another gallon apiece for the road, we’ve been at the spring for three and a half hours. (The sawyer squeeze is great for one liter, but kind of a pain for 16.) It’s 1pm and we’ve got 19 miles to the next water… this is going to be a long, hot, afternoon slog, just like yesterday. Blast.
We slog out right into a burned section. Blast. Brown ground, black trees, blue sky – the colors are flat and depthless in the shimmering midday heat. I know the trail preceded the burn, but it feels like it was designed by a sadist with a thing against hikers. Every time we veer close to a green section, the trail bends sharply to take us away. We hike through the burn all afternoon.
Late afternoon and still twelve miles to go. We’re back in trees, oaks, and the mountain itself provides glorious, blessed shade. It helps for the two long uphill humps. We climb all the way up and suddenly we’re in a tall pine forest, green, with grass, green, with sunlight filtering in, gold. “It might all have been worth it,” exclaims J, surprised and pleased.
“I hope we don’t just walk right back out of it,” I reply, thinking of yesterday.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about that,” returns J. “The irony and shame of thru-hiking. We blast through the glorious places because we have to cram the miles in, then camp or rest in whatever crappy place we crash at.”
“What makes it worse is that I remember the places I stop at really well, but stuff I see while hiking is just a blur,” I add in. I look around myself sharply. I want to remember this place.
In the golden forest we come across a couple of other thru-hikers. “Howdy howdy!” I call out.
“Yikes!” the woman jumps across the trail. “You surprised us! Thought I was going to get eaten by a mountain lion!”
“You’d be ate already,” I think, but keep it to myself. They introduce themselves as Purple and Carnivore. They’re just back on the trail, they explain. Carnivore had a stress fracture.
“Was that you guys who signed the trail register, ‘back on the trail after 23 zeroes?” asks J.
“Yeah, that was us.”
“Just in time for the heat,” I chime in.
“Yeah,” says Purple. “We had great, cool weather all the way to Tehachapi, then get back on in time for the heat wave.”
J and I are going a little faster, so we move on ahead.
We’re ready to stop for a snack when we see another hiker just ahead of us, stopping for a snack. His name is Spike. This is his fifth (?) time hiking the PCT. He’s done the stretch from Campo to Mt Whitney four times, but never made it any farther.
“Why don’t you just start at Mt Whitney then?” asks J.
“Oh, you know. Then I’d have to wait longer to start, and I get bored. Then I get to Mt Whitney and I don’t feel like going any farther. You guys don’t happen to have any electrolyte mix thingies you could spare?”
“Sure,” I say, and hook him up with a raspberry-lime-super orange tablet/emergen-c mix. For the look of bliss on his face I’d have given him ten more. He tells us it’s been a record heat wave- 108 degrees in Bakersfield. No wonder this stretch has been so durn difficult. Punishing, more like.
After chatting we move on. We’ll meet up at the next spring.
The sun sets, and it’s glorious. The fading light through the trees is heavenly. We’ve got a 3/4 moon and a mile left, so we leave off our headlamps and move through the moon-dappled groves. It’s exquisite in black and white, but also the longest mile of our lives. It’s such a relief to reach the spring. 9:15pm. Time for bed.