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.
I’m still cold this morning – of course, nowhere near the chill of the Sierra – I keep my rain coat on and my buff wrapped around my ears as the wind picks up. Over the top I see a new world of softer mountains in brown wrinkles. I work down on zigzags towards a road far below, funky shaped rocks mixed with sage and clumps of flowers dried to a brick red follow me. I feel good this morning, happy to see the scenery change at nearly every pass. It’s dry and austere, but the wind keeps it a perfect temperature for hiking, the sun bright.
Just before I reach the road I see an unnatural blue color – a cache of water bottles! I didn’t trust it would be here, but is it ever with over twenty enormous containers put here by a caring trail angel(s) to help us through this dry section. I look around for a more manageable way to transfer water to my bottle, unsure how I can even lift one of these enormous jugs when, in my moment of need, G-Punk appears. I haven’t seen her since way northern Northern California. She looks well, still wearing her orange ‘summit’ dress over thermal leggings. We help each other with water and wish each other well as she races off, a far faster hiker than I, her dress flapping in the wind.
It feels good to see her after hiking all alone yesterday and early this morning. I can’t keep up, but I feel more confident when others are doing what I’m doing. This section crosses dirt roads often, and barriers have been put in place at every crossing – as well as signs – to discourage off-roading on the trail, which I imagine is very tempting. There are plenty of options for them as I can see dirt roads clear to the top of peaks and nearly everywhere else. It really feels like I am on the Pacific Crest now as I fly high on the ridge looking to the west towards more mountains and the east towards the desert. It does require quite a bit of up and down and sidling to stay on the crest, but I feel powerful and free, even as the wind gusts and I’m thrown off-balance. It makes a glorious ocean-waves sound in the Joshua trees, standing singularly or in pairs up high, then gathering in groups to march down into a gully. The young ones have no arms yet so look less like Joshua and more like Marge Simpson. I walk in sinky sand that tires me out watching a silky black crow glide into the wind, his feet like landing gear hanging out ready to grasp.
As I come down to another dirt road, I see G-Punk sitting in the shade. I hoot at her and ask how she is and she tells me she’s sad. I see she’s crying, so sit beside her and ask what I can do. She tells me she wants to stop hiking because she feels so anxious and cries all the time. I ask her what she does like about hiking and she describes some of the same things I like – the freedom she feels in a place so expansive, feeling strong. But then she says she feels overwhelmed. We talk about our friend Catherine who knew she was done after Washington, so just up and quit. G-Punk is ambivalent, and that’s hard to simply live in. I ask her how she feels when she takes a break because in the past she told me all she wants to do is get back on trail, but, now when she got out of the Sierra, she couldn’t face going back in. I tell her that’s why I didn’t leave!
G-Punk gives me a pile of food because she can’t eat – and I can’t stop eating! I tell her that her honesty and vulnerability allows me to be brave and feel all my feelings. I suggest she play games like noticing things, writing and taking pictures. I do this all day, every day and it makes the hike something living and present and less an ordeal. I also tell her she’s almost finished and might as well carry on – or not, the trail will be here next year. I then carry on myself, knowing the days are shorter and I need to keep moving.
Walking a long trail is not easy mainly because it is really, really long. If I don’t break it into small bits, I’d be totally lost. I wonder if being older helps because we automatically move slower and have less pressure to push hard. Well, this hill straight up is pretty hard, but I ate two of G-Punk’s bars and they’re powering me right up and over to an abandoned mining operation and a rusted out sedan with steer horns mounted to the hood. Nearby is a sign describing the endangered desert tortoise and how to protect it. I’d sure love to see one of those.
The views take on an odd dimension from up here as things in the near distance move past at a different rate than what’s in the far distance. The mountains layer upon layer with trees and rocks in odd shapes. I see my first cactus with Teddy Bear arms and legs, only soft to look at. I find a sheltered spot to make lunch, cooking up one of Sandy’s Ramen with salmon and a little potato. From here, the scenery changes again to a landscape of colors – rust, olive and lavender set against a robins egg sky. Another cache awaits at a paved road which I see serpentine on a mountain. But it’s miles away, up and over several folds in the landscape before I parallel the road up and up, with a few dips for dry creek-beds, and at last, I reach it finding again dozens of massive water jugs.
G-Punk apologizes she can’t help me and takes off when she sees a man called ‘Mary Poppins’ walk up. His girlfriend ‘Six’ has headphones in and it takes her some time to enter the present moment. I exclaim how much we’re loved that people would cache water for us and he says, “Better than rescuing us.” True, but his tone feels a tad ungrateful and I attempt to make a joke, saying something like they could just roll the bodies into the ravine, but no one laughs. I met these two at Kennedy Meadows North and next try to catch up since the Sierra, saying how interesting the changes have been in the terrain. He makes a face and says, “It’s boring.” Friends, my filter must have been out of service at that moment because I retort, “Good grief, go back home then.”
He’s Swiss and could care less about a middle-aged woman’s feelings about the desert, but Six does seem to at least try to be nice at this point, asking where I’ll camp and if I’m going into Tehachapi. But they rush off, barely waiting for a reply. If they end up miles ahead, it’s fine with me. I was in love with today and all I experienced, and I’m sick of these one-dimensional thru-hikers. It makes sense now why they walk so fast and walk so many miles – because they can’t do anything else. Do they know the names of the trees or rocks or something about this environment? What do they see or notice? Did they learn anything, even about themselves? Did they hear the crows cackling in the wind or the sound of the sea in the Joshuas or the snake winding through the sand? Can they smell the sage, taste the minerals in the water, feel the difference in textures of the many types of pine, see the mountains slowly slipping away as we approach the desert? Does the natural world engender awe, humility and a sense of something greater in them than their little selves? What’s boring is this hiker – and his girlfriend, too, who I liked after our first meeting but now only engenders sadness seeing earbuds jammed in her ears so she doesn’t have to think or be alive and present when she walks.
OK, rant is over (for now) as I slowly work my way uphill into a ravine, its steep sides littered with rock blocks in odd geometrical shapes seemingly growing out of the ground with a few stacked on top for good measure. The views look to mountains far in the distance, places where my feet – and me – have been. Soon, I spy windmills which all day seemed like a logical step to take with all this wind. At the top, I rise a bit more through rock, looking for a camp spot. The wind is dying as I locate a good flat spot next to a jungle gym of boulders. I set the alicoop, then take the cook stove, food and water to the top to watch the sunset. I carried my water here from the cache just for drinking, so my feet remain dirty, most of it caked on so thick, it really shouldn’t dirty up my bag. It’s potatoes and oreos tonight with the pink light fading to blue and the air cold, my body ready to crawl into Big Greenie.
I think about something I told G-Punk when she was crying, about how filled with joy all the John Muir Trail hikers were. They didn’t wear headphones or sour expressions, they weren’t in a big hurry or full of anxiety and wanting to stop, most of them had little interest in moving fast for the sake of moving fast, rather they simply loved how it felt to embrace the hike and challenge their bodies. I realize a thru-hike is a different animal and requires a much bigger commitment and likewise takes more out of us in return. But I long for that type of joy and I refuse to allow the cynicism of many of the PCT hikers I have come across to affect my experience. Perhaps this is one of my toughest challenges, to hang onto the person I am when surrounded by negativity.
But tonight, just as Ursula said when setting her tent and waiting for everyone else to set first, I heard Poppins mention walking another seven miles, so when Six asked where I was camping, I knew it would be fewer miles than they planned to walk. And here I am in a soulful place all to myself – just the way I like it.