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.

I come out at an access road and walk to the fast food. This is my last chance to get water for 14 shadeless miles and I might as well have a real breakfast. The helpful server suggests the deluxe, of course, and I eat every morsel. I check in with Richard and we try to decide if I should slow down now so he and my family can cheer me across the finish line. It’s still a long way away, so we decide not to decide.

While I eat, several people stop by to talk to me. One is so excited to have walked a few hundred yards to a gorgeous river I’ll cross tomorrow. He says he’d love to walk it but doesn’t know how. “One step at a time!” and he says he feels encouraged. Another tells me there’s a fire, but it’s not too close. They all wish me luck and I feel a bit like a celebrity. It’s a good thing I don’t smell too bad.

I head out into the sunshine hoping to get to a spot to camp a bit more than halfway between water sources. I’m still doing fairly big days, but I take long breaks and savor the day, plus I try to arrive by 5:30 so I can enjoy the sunset and organize before dark. The trail works its way up a narrow canyon before opening out onto eroded hills. I can see the cars and train stacked up as, from here, the road appears to stairstep the pass. I think more about what I’ve learned on this amazing hike and realize the phrase ‘hike your own hike’ has special meaning for me. Aside from the days I walked with Klaus in Northern California, I have done most of this walk alone. I enjoy it more, but I also am unable to find people who walk my pace. Most are far too fast. I find myself a bit swept up in their goals and it sometimes leaves me feeling anxious of being left out. What I’ve discovered is that it’s unhealthy for me to compare myself to others. Certainly I can learn from them or heed advice, but I am best when I march to my own drummer. Since I visited Dave and Ruth, I have been a day behind the ‘bubble’ and it suits me perfectly. Walking alone and camping alone make me very happy.

So I plod along at my speed, passing many pink TV antennae flowers as I wind up and down and over these hills. The wind is up and feels delicious as I am completely exposed to the sun. I decide to walk until noon and see where that gets me. It’s an odd way to hike, but ticking miles can be boring and having no framework at all in the desert could mean drinking all the water too soon, so I choose to discipline myself and have an entire liter at lunchtime.

The trail is slowly moving up, though not in the direction of the vehicles, which soon disappear, their sound swallowed up by the surrounding hills. I cross arroyos and wonder if a cat is watching me. Lizards dart in front of me, running the trail and looking back, more running before choosing a random bush to hide under. The poodle dog bushes are thick, their leaves apparently containing a toxin similar to poison oak, but I have long pants so just shove through.

I reach a high point above a canyon dressed in yellow and orange. A sign tells me the Arroyo Southwestern toad lives here, a rare and endangered creature of these special riparian zones in the middle of the desert. I don’t see them – or water – but birds sing to me in trills and filigrees. I wonder if these are natives or migrating visitors.

I’m used to it now, but it still makes me laugh how far around and deep the trail has to go to work its way around dry stream beds. It’s almost a fun house car taking a sharp, abrupt turn to head one direction, then take a U-turn and do it again. It makes no difference to me, but if this were a straight line, I’d be in Mexico by now.

I’m not there, but it’s noon and I’m thirsty, so I dump two electrolyte packets in my bottle and drink it down right in the trail, sitting on a stone step in the shade. Silverwood Lake looks so close but requires two hours of winding trail to get to. I pass the state park buildings tucked in a valley of spectacular fall colors before taking the cutoff to Cleghorn picnic area where the faucets have been left on for our use. It’s an absolutely delightful spot to fulfill this blissful hiker’s simple needs – water, picnic table, trash can, toilets (with paper) and shade. I ‘camel up’ with more water and make an early dinner here in my stove. There are a few people around, but no hikers. I relax and decide to carry three liters since it’s another thirteen miles to water, but I’ll be camping in between.

Three liters of water is not ultralight, in case you were wondering.

Fortunately, the trail is not steep as it follows the lake, a dammed Mojave River and part of the California aqueduct. The air smells fresh from the lake. Black coots with stubby light blue beaks float in battalions near the shore. Coyote scat litters the trail. A helicopter flies closely overhead and I look up, nearly stepping on a baby rattler, laconic and unmoving in the hot sun. People leave odd bits of rubbish – a cooler of empty beer bottles, a pair of denim shorts with a studded belt covering a pile of poop. A man walks his little white dog but looks away when I pass. An odd place.

Although I come next to an even odder one, road walking next to the power plant. Small farms line the road and cows are ‘outstanding in their field’ as I walk along a fence topped with barbed wire, a pile of tumbleweeds as tall as me smashed into the far corner. It’s industrial, overgrown, littered but mercifully short. The trail crosses a spillway, then under the dam, my only hope this is not the precise moment of the expected 8.0 earthquake.

Soon, I’m back up on a ridge above the road and houses. I still walk in and out of deep indentations, but not so much up as over. It’s a few miles before I come to my landmark of powerlines. There’s a bit of camping here, but I have my sights on a spot directly on the ridge. I arrive with the sun almost ready to dip below the mountains. It’s a cowgirl night, my friends, Little Legs’ tent floor held down by rocks, thd thermarest with Big Greenie on top looking like Princess and the Pea. With the world happening below, I feel like a mountain lion surveilling her domain. I eat a bar and handful of nuts as the sky turns pink. There’s only a touch of breeze but the air is cool. An owl hoots and the sky goes dark. I am the luckiest girl alive.

Published by alison young

Alison Young is the Blissful Hiker, a voice artist and sometime saunterer. 📣🐥👣🎒

Reader Comments

  1. “black coots with stubby light blue beaks…” Possibly Rudy Ducks. My wife and I were glassing them once near San Diego when I bunch of hats appeared in the bottom of our binoculars. They were migrants sneaking through. I then looked up and heard a thump, thump, thump which was a government helicopter. I looked up at it with my binoculars and saw an agent looking down at me with binoculars. I wish we could figure out this migration mess.

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