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!
We take off sidling our mountain above the little town in the valley. In only a few minutes we arrive at ‘Brooklyn Ferry’ at mile 145.3, set up with two picnic tables, a Little Free Library and life-size cutouts of Walt Whitman, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. We came for the water in a tank, but stayed for the inspiring quotes. These trail angels even offer copies of ‘Leaves of Grass’ for the taking, an extra tiny font version for ultralite hikers. The trail register is on a podium and asks us to follow Whitman’s lead and name a place that has a special connection for us to our community. I name the Drakensberg in Africa, “No planes, no lights, no nothing, just wind and stars.” I guess my community is the natural world.
We filter enough water for the 8 1/2 miles to a spring, then keep moving. I wonder if maybe some female nature writers might be included in the lineup, like Helen MacDonald, Melissa Harrison or Terry Tempest Williams as we make our way into an area that feels even more like desert. We lose trees entirely, but in the trade, gain lots of thorns. A garden of cholla, their spikes glowing in the sun, opens up in a small dip, evidence of their spring super-bloom everywhere. Mica catches the sunlight and sparkles in time with my pace.
I see bright yellow cottonwoods below and we work our way towards it even though there’s no water. We have plenty and it’s time for a break and we use their shade to sit below yellow leaves crackling in the wind. Ted asks me if it’s too early for smarties. Never! So we gobble the last of our chocolate before returning to the sunshine and more of this splendid, mostly easy going desert walk.
We pass agave and one stunted fir making a purring sound in the wind. I see my first barrel cactus and lean in to take a picture when I realize there are several crowded into this spot, their spikes curved, red and sharp even if they appear whimsical and worth a touch. A sign appears pointing down a dirt road to Tule Spring. It’s a bit steep, ending at a grove of cottonwoods. Ted tries the faucet on a pipe, but it’s useless, so we head down a steep, dusty trail to flowing water filled with a kind of brown algae. The only way to manage this situation is to set up our filtering operation above under the cottonwoods, let me take my pot as a scoop and fill all our bottles below before returning up and filter.
A hiker adds his cryptic note to comments in the map app about this spring, “Tastes like butt doe.” That must be from the algae, the clear spring flowing well below it. I manage to get most of the floaties out by filtering and Ted adds an electrolyte pill to each in hopes the water won’t taste like the infamous ‘butt doe,’ or anything worse. We take a nice long lunch in the shade before the last ten miles up 2,000 feet. Ted insists on carrying more water than he needs, but to his credit, he moves well and stays focused like the ultramarathoner he is.
Just getting back to the trail is steep and rocky. We notice a cache of gallon jugs at the junction that we missed heading down. They’re empty which, in an off way, is a bit of a relief. The trail is gentle at first, heading up gradually. We leave our cacti and head back into mesquite, their texture reminding me of New Zealand’s manuka trees. We’re surrounded by them, feeling all alone in this vastness until we notice a few pre-fab houses on a nearby ridge, then bump into two section hikers. Their trail names are Swahili – ‘Fundi’ which means master, and ‘Akili’ which means inspiration. They’re all smiles, friendly and helpful, likely energized as they’ll finish their section tomorrow.
We move on, taking note that this last 1,000 feet is much steeper right up a cleft in the mountains. Ted walks ahead, pushing through sharp overgrowth that thwacks back in place as he passes. I keep a good distance behind before pushing myself through, thorns grabbing and twigs smacking. We’re not particularly fast, but we creep steadily up this monster, the mountains playing their trick of growing in front of us.
It’s a balcony walk looking back towards Anza and San Jacinto. Huge mountains surround us as we power up, bending in and around the contours, but always up. I split a bag of jelly beans with Ted to use as a kind of thirst quencher and motivator. My little game with myself is to pop in a handful after each mile walked. It’s such an interesting combination of seeing the views open and delighting in flying so high, along with an eagerness to get to the next water before dark. Thru-hiking, I realize, is a totally different animal to section hiking.
Each corner opens to another huge ramp stretching ahead up and over to likely even more ramps. We press on and on. The wind kicks up and we’re now in shadow. It’s not cold yet, only cool enough to make this climb comfortable. Finally, we reach the top or at least a part of the balcony that no longer goes up. Ted gives me a fist bump then continues ahead, passing a campsite at the ridge and seeing the huge water tanks at Mike’s place.
It’s further than it looks since we have to walk every fold and bend in the landscape, but we eventually arrive at Chihuahua Valley Road before the sun sets, finding an empty cache and a full trash can, though not too full to take my trash. We walk up the road and find a residence with an array of out-buildings and motor homes scattered about, along with trash caught in the bushes and other odds and ends of desert dwellers. Signs welcome PCT Class of 2019, but not a soul is around. I am a little uncertain, but Ted feels fine saying we’ve been welcomed, at least by sign. We set camp in a spot a bit out of the way. He finds a couple of chairs and I make dinner under a nearly full moon. Perhaps Mike will show up later, but it’s dark now, the crickets sawing away and a light breeze in the trees. I’m proud we’re walking so well and I realize this is why my friend Ted and I hike together so often, because we’re well suited in pace and (mostly) temperament. I really have to hand it to him willing to sleep under the stars without a tent, and washing the dust off his feet with just a wipie so we don’t waste precious water. It feels a great way to end this solo journey – to share it, especially with someone so keen to experience the oddness and the challenge of the desert.
He’s already fast asleep and now I’ll close my eyes, hoping the rustling and banging I hear in this deserted spot is just the wind…