If you have the courage to fail, then you have the courage to succeed. – Shalane Flanagan
Desert sunrises are magnificent – orange light in the east as the full moon drops, deep pink on the other horizon. I sit up and make coffee noticing a tiny animal hole right next to my mat. OK, who did this? Were you coming or going? I never saw or heard a thing – no harm, no foul – hey, Ted, can I have one of your granola bars?
We pack up then fill our water bottles from the cache, rationing out the last of the electrolyte tablets. It seems only yesterday we had a huge pile of them, but it also feels like only yesterday Ted joined me to hike a few sections, and today is his last day on the trail.
Up we go towards the PCT, the air still chilly as we begin a balcony walk high above the valley, the mountains to our left like leopard skin, and to our right, melting green wax. I can’t totally take my eyes off my feet, still on the lookout for a sun basking snake, but also thorn nightmares reaching into the trail, one tripping Ted as he sips from his shoulder-holstered coke bottle. Amidst footprints and dangling walking sticks marking in haphazard lines is some perfect S’s preserved in the sand of a large rattler on the move.
Ted will walk nearly 200 miles in Southern California’s desert, helping me manage these surprisingly tough sections while mastering his own skills of leave-no-trace, rationing water he’s filtered with his brand new Sawyer squeeze and sorting out blisters brought on by hot, dry conditions. I wouldn’t say we never argued, but, to be honest, he didn’t complain once, even when we ate potato/salmon mash three nights in a row. On day two, with huge, burned tree trunks threatening to crunch an unsuspecting camper, Ted suggested we camp on a treeless ridge out in the open – his first ‘cowgirl camping’ – and he’s hooked. Those nights with a starry landscape above us as we chatted late into the night (7:30?!) – felt like some of the best slumber parties of my youth, this time with a few awe-inspiring falling stars. It was good to share these weeks at the end. I feel ready to go home and keep walking, this time into my future, though I must say I’m just a tiny bit nervous heading out for the final miles of the PCT alone and sleeping out by myself.
But that’s tomorrow. Right now, he’s plodding on ahead, setting a superb pace and turning around to see where I’ve disappeared to when I keep stopping to take pictures of this extraordinary landscape. It’s as though someone came here specifically to design rock gardens of agave and barrel cactus, an invading army of beefy thumb-shaped robots covering the mountainside. The trail curves around my garden features, in and out of canyons, rocky and falling deeply away. There’s a balance here in this snake-shaped trail, and a snake-shaped snake on trail that Ted spies before stepping on him. We see the trail on the other side of a canyon disappearing into a crevice. There’s shade, so when we arrive ten minutes later, we break for cheese and meat, doling out sweets for the hotter mid-day and our last miles to the road.
The road gets closer around several more giant U-turns, a final one before switchbacks revealing ocotillo for the first time, its leaves falling in line for autumn. Below is scissors crossing, the roads crossing on a flat section inspiring the Road Runner cartoons. We head down and instantly lose the trail, so head towards a parking lot with a sign explaining the setting aside of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park – hint: cowboys and their charges drank up all the water.
We’re told to wait at the ‘monument’ for a hitch to Julian. Ted asks if I know where it is. No. What is it for? To commemorate PCT hikers who managed a hitch – or is it for hitch fails? It makes no difference. We walk up the road against traffic and just when I see a car going our way, I run across and put out my thumb. The driver of car #1 flashes his lights and picks us up.
Kurt tells us he never does this, except for backpackers. What a guy! He also tells us we’re on the most serpentine highway in America, heading up into the little-mining-town-turned-tourist-attraction right on the Elsinore Fault. Don’t worry, it can only produce a 6.0 earthquake. He drops us at the historic Gold Rush Hotel where we’ll meet Richard, arriving in a few hours, which we fill by getting my free slice of pie at Mom’s and buying a few more items at the general store.
It’s a charming place, our room cozy in a big brass bed, a few beers are shared in the comfortable lobby accompanied by Frank Sinatra and friends on the stereo and tea is served at 5:00 in the parlor. Richard arrives safe and sound wearing an Innova discs hat – yes, he’ll be out throwing plastic and mapping while I hike four more days. I’m so happy my tall one is here at last. He sent me out here knowing I’d heal – and he was right, I have.