Day 47- 18.8 miles from Landers Meadow Camp at mile 608.9 to slope near abandoned bus at mile 623 ish.

Chef, Jukebox and Milo were  not joking when they said they were waking up at 3. I’m half-awake, listening to them eat breakfast and pack up. The moon shines into my face. I really want to be asleep right now; eventually they leave and I get a couple more hours of sleep, waking up and falling asleep again several times until the sun is above the horizon. I look around; Outlaw is up, and is so expert at the lazy game that he packs away his sleeping bag without taking everything out, folds up his sleeping pad, filters some water from the spring, and is set to go. I don’t even think he set up his groundsheet under his sleeping pad last night. I can only aspire to such laziness.
I take my time in camp, trying to postpone standing up and having to feel my foot being sad. I go to filter some water at the spring with Peach and Tomäs, limping and hobbling barefoot across the ground. I clean my socks out in the outflow from the trough, rubbing them together under the water until they no longer bleed brown.

I hobble back, eat some food, dawdle some more. It’s 7 when I put my shoes on and walk back up the road to the trail. That’s horribly late. I limp along the trail for two miles, then stop to eat some licorice and a breakfast bar. I rummage through my pack and pull out my baggie of pills; I take out two Ibuprofen and swallow them with some water. Although I can walk on my foot, it hurts and jolts and it’s not very fun. It’s all I can think about. What happened to my foot? Could I have fractured it that night with the ants, and just assumed that the pain was an ant bite? Can I make it to Kennedy Meadows? I probably shouldn’t try. Peach is getting a ride from Walker Pass to Lone Pine from someone, and maybe I can go with her? Will I be able to get back on trail, or will my foot be injured enough that I won’t be able to walk any more? A lump forms in my throat.

I hear trekking poles clicking, and see Peach coming down the trail. “Hey, Peach,” I say.
I explain my situation, and she says of course, since Tomäs is hiking on. Someone from a trail angel Facebook page is driving her, and meeting her at the campground entrance at 9 am on Saturday. I talk with her for a while, and when she and Tomas leave I get on my feet and walk after them. Of course, with the Ibuprofen, my foot feels almost normal. I can suddenly see myself hiking to Kennedy Meadows, even though I know it’s just the painkillers talking. My foot is still screwed up. I cry as I walk, tears big and wet on my cheeks. I’m getting off the PCT. The idea of it is so awful to me that I convince myself that I can still walk to Kennedy Meadows if I take Ibuprofen.

I walk a couple more miles through a broad desert wasteland punctuated by rising hills and far-off mountains, to where the trail crosses a dirt road. There’s a water cache, and I join Peach and Tomas under a tangle of Joshua Trees across the road. My water is warm like tea in my water bottles, and so is the water from the cache when I go grab another liter.
I sit with them, talking and almost falling asleep. I tell Peach that my foot feels fine now, so I might be able to make it to Kennedy Meadows, but that I’m not sure and will have to see how my foot feels. Peach says goodbye to Tomäs, as they’re going to have to split up soon, with Peach leaving at Walker Pass for a few days to do some work for her business, and Tomäs heading to Kennedy Meadows to try and do the Sierra. They met a couple of days into the hike and have been hiking together since.
As I hike behind Peach, talking about Wild and the trail and our decisions to flip around the Sierra, I can feel the Ibuprofen wearing off. My foot feels tender in my shoe, sore like after a long hiking day on rocky trail, but not jolting yet. I start to favor it again.

I get ahead when Peach takes a break, sweating so much in the sun that sweat gets into my eyes and burns. I pour some of my tea-water in my eyes to flush it out, and stand there, waiting for my eyes to be okay enough to see with. I walk through stands of Joshua Trees, all bent over each other in a mass game of Twister. Or maybe it’s a yoga convention. I can’t tell. They peer at me friendlily, with their curious faces and their limbs bent in cheery hellos.

I sit under a patch of them and drink some water, waiting for Peach to catch up. The water source is coming up, and it’s a weird route down to it, through a steep gully to the valley floor. We reach the junction together, and after consulting all of our sources, head down the dry, sandy stream bed. There are supposed to be some rock scrambles “that might make some hikers uncomfortable,” and we pass a few rocks that we have to step down from. “That was super easy,” we laugh, shaking our heads at the Water Report.

After a few minutes, we round a bend and the gully drops away. My heart sinks a bit. There are 2 spots that I can see where we’ll have to boulder down or around some rock faces to move forward. The first one is not that bad, about as tall as I am; Peach finds a trail around, but I just sit down and try to scoot down the granite, using the boulders on the sides for handholds. My foot does not have the strength or ease of motion to try it on my feet. The granite is smooth from water running down the gully, though, and I start sliding down. I manage to hold myself up, but eventually have to just let myself go and slide down into my feet.

The second one is even worse. It looks like there might be a trail around, but Peach is worried this is the wrong gully, and I’m afraid I can’t get down easily with my backpack and bum foot, or if we do, there might be another drop-off that’s worse.

So, we turn around and take the trail up and around the first drop-off, and trudge back up in the heat and the deep, loose sand. There’s a road that’s 2 miles further along the trail and 2 miles down that will also take us to the spring.
My foot is sad after the strain of our little adventure, so I fall behind. We can see the gully and the spring and eventually the road from our vantage point up on the hill; it looks so far away, sweating and foot-sore in the heat. I drink some more of my hot water. Even hot it tastes good at this point.

Where the trail crosses the road that will take us down to the spring, there is a concrete picnic table, a big map of all of the ATV trails in the area, and cell service that will probably be the last until the wifi at Kennedy Meadows, according to our trail beta. I sit on the bench next to Peach under the shade from her umbrella and text my mom to tell her I’m getting off trail at Walker Pass and will be in Lone Pine. She says she’ll drive down from Reno to pick me up, and also we can drive down to Kennedy Meadows to pick my packages up with all of my snow gear.

I’m so happy that I get to see her soon, and I sit and talk to her for a while after Peach leaves. Then I say goodbye and tell her I’ll be at the service again tomorrow morning, and head down the road. I don’t even try to not limp, crying about having to get off the PCT. I hope my foot is okay and I’ll be able to hike some more of the trail this summer; at the very least, I can use the money I have saved up to travel.
I see the old willows crowded around the spring, bushy and green among the Joshua trees. There’s a magical spigot here, flowing from the spring somewhere behind a barbed-wire fence. I set up my cowboy camp on a patch of hard sand behind a bush, and filter a ton of water. I drink some Emergen-C for electrolytes, and carry my food bag down to the ATV road to sit in the shade with Peach, Finger Guns and Katherine. I spill out all of my food. I eat a bagel with the last of my cream cheese, which is incredibly still fine after a couple of days in the heat. I eat a tuna wrap with my last sad tortilla, red pepper flakes, and lots of mayonnaise. Then I eat a package of pop tarts, which I decided to try out in Tehachapi, and top it off with a Mexican hard candy my mom sent me, watermelon with chili powder inside. I give one to Peach, too. I make a pile of some of my extra food for her to give to Tomäs tomorrow, since he doesn’t have enough to get to Kennedy Meadows. Peach is allergic to gluten, so we talk about hiking the trail gluten-free, what with my long-deceased diet, which we agree is easily possible with supplemental food boxes of dinners and stuff. I think I adore Peach.

Then I head back up to my campsite, limping still. The moon has risen above the hills behind the road, and the sun is setting across from it. Clouds shift in bands across the sunset, and I stand on my Tyvek sheet and watch. This could be one of the last sunsets on the PCT I’ll have, at least as a thru-hiker, at least this year. I want to cry. Mourning doves wing across the air, their wings whistling and chirping as they fly. Their calls ring out across the silent desert. Quails send out cautious messages: Chicago! Chicago! There are so many birds here.

“Was that a bird that just made that cute sound?” Peach asks as the birds chirrup and talk around us.

“Yes, unless it was Big Sky,” I say, and she laughs.

I crawl into my sleeping bag and pull up the zipper. I suddenly realize how much I love getting into my sleeping bag each night, putting my feet in, pulling the hood behind me, tugging it towards my shoulder so I can finish zipping it. I’m going to miss it, and I’m filled with gratitude that this is my life, that I’m able to walk all day and then zip myself into my sleeping bag every night, this is a privilege-

The moon has a halo of light around it as it shines through the thin layer of cloud stretching across the sky, blue and endless and opal as I stare up into it.

Then, I start crying. I try to muffle them so that I don’t bother Peach or Big Sky, camped up the slope by the spigot. Tears swell down my face, and I can’t sleep, mind racing, thinking about getting off trail. I feel panicky and hot and restless thinking about it. I’m sweating in my sleeping bag, and it’s already 10:30. It’s just not fair.

I realize I’m probably not going to sleep, so I dig into my gray catch-all bag and take two Ibuprofen and start to pack up my things. I feel calmer now that I have a purpose. I write a message for Peach when I go to fill up on water and leave it under her trekking poles, telling her that I’m night-hiking and that I’ll see her at Walker Pass. Finally I roll up my backpack, attach my sleeping pad on top, and fold up my Tyvek. It crinkles softly against my chest; I tuck my chin against it to start the first fold, pulling my hands forward with the edges, then stuff it into my outside mesh pocket next to my sandals.

I look around, at Peach’s and Big Sky’s tents, at the moon glowing with a halo under a layer of clouds. The wind rattles the bushes, humid and cool. I shiver a bit, switch my headlamp onto the white light, and head off. My foot splays uncomfortably to the side as I walk down the hard-packed dirt to the road bed.

And then I walk, at first quietly and determinedly, then furiously, angrily, my grief washing over me in waves. My feet churn over the soft road, my right foot clumsy and painful when I let it push down too hard on the little mountains and valleys of sand. My feet throw up a thousand little notes of dust that swirl in the light of my headlamp and obscure my vision in between the blur of tears. Every couple of hundred feet, everything hits me and I stop to cry, my face scrunched up and hot, my chest tight. I howl and wail and whimper at the dark desert, at the lonely pale road, the wind, the stars. The thought of having to leave the PCT, the mountains, the people, is unbearable. This is what I’ve always wanted, what I worked so hard to get a chance to do, and now it’s just gone; I won’t even get to finish the last 80 or so miles of desert, I won’t get to walk up the road at Kennedy Meadows to the porch with all of my friends and have them cheer as I walk up, because I’ve done it, I’ve almost hiked 700 miles to the end of the desert. I’m so close.

I’m mostly too angry and sad to be afraid of the dark around me. The Joshua Trees are in bloom, their crowns clustered with seed pods like alien eyes, threatening in the dark. Sometimes, though, in spite of my grief, I feel small again, and stop, heart racing, looking at the desert around me. “Let a mountain lion come and swallow me whole,” I then think angrily, “I don’t care.”

I finally reach the picnic table, the wind rising into a swift howl that pushes against my pack and makes the bushes sway underneath it. There are tents clustered around it, so I lower my light and sit and text my mom what I’m doing, and that if I don’t have service before then I’ll be in Lone Pine with Peach on Saturday.

Then I walk. The wind runs across the landscape like a comb, brushing against my cheeks and leaving the skin in my cheeks cool. I walk as fast as I can, not caring if I hurt my foot, it can rot for all I care. I cry, walking in the dark. Pale flowers catch my headlamp, the dark silhouettes of Joshua Trees bending in yoga poses across the dark vista. My stomach feels empty but I don’t want to eat, I just want to walk and be miserable. I feel slightly feverish. My mouth is dry. Tingles brush up and down the skin on my leg from my foot.

I think about all of the people who’ve decided they want to quit, because it’s too miserable, too hard, not for them. It leaves a hollow feeling in my gut. I’m angry at them, for being able to choose to leave, even though I’m not really angry at them, but I just I want to be here, following this trail through the night, forever. I don’t ever want to leave. I love you, I love you, I cry. No, no, no. My face wet, I face the stars and howl, bending my knees and cupping them with my hands.
I finally stop to drink something and pee, where a bush shelters the trail from the wind, its branches trembling. Slowly my tears dry up, nothing left to give, and I’m empty, walking along the trail, listless, the wind chilling me slowly and bringing me to my senses. I can feel my foot now, throbbing. I can’t walk with it straight now, but completely splayed to the side to keep the pressure away from the ball of my foot. It really hurts and starts to feel really weird and swollen into the roof of my shoe. I think I can feel things shift around inside there somewhere if I lean into it. I sit down as the trail starts climbing up, and drop my pack on the trail beside me.

I sit staring into the dark, sobering up to reality. I have to decide what to do. Walking the 28 miles to Walker Pass seems hellish now. I could make it, but it would be a slow and painful and long walk. And stupid. And my foot could get much worse and I’d have to resort to using my Spot to alert Search and Rescue. Or, I could walk back to the picnic table with the service, by the ATV road; I could somehow find someone to drive up and get me, or walk down to the highway that I can see it connect to on my map, Highway 15, which would be less than half of the length to Walker Pass.

But, right now, I’m cold and tired and can’t walk much, and maybe my foot will magically be different in the morning. I stand up, letting my good foot catch my weight and my bad foot stabilize. I grab my pack shoulder strap and swing it around onto my back. I adjust my shirt over to center it, and buckle my dusty hip belt over my stomach. When I grab my trekking poles, I notice a scorpion sitting half out of its hole right by where I sat. I poke it with my trekking pole and it disappears. Hi, friend.

I look around me, switching my headlamp to a beam that searches the landscape for anywhere flat and away from the wind. There’s a ridgeline back down the trail to the left, but there’s also a use-trail going to the right that looks like it might be flat enough to sleep on, a strip of pale white in the gray landscape. I hobble down and set up my camp as quickly as I can on the narrow strip of flat ground, using water bottles to hold my groundsheet in place. I’m so exhausted, from crying and thinking about my foot. It’s 1 in the morning of the next day. I pull all of my sleeping clothes on, pull my hat over my face, scrunch up my sleeping bag, and fall asleep.

Day 46- 19.8 miles from campsite under windmills at mile 589.1 to Landers Meadow Camp at mile 608.9 

The sun is above the horizon when I wake up. The cheatgrass below me last night was like a mattress cradling my body, the moon a searchlight. The windmills rumble like a train. I hear the gate ahead screeching on rusty hinges as someone passes through.

I pack all of my stuff up without even standing. Ah, cowboy camping! I love thee. I stand up; my foot still hurts when I start walking, but it’s not as bad. I really hope it’ll be fine if I rest it for a week in Reno. I continue mulling over the skip-and-flip in my head as I walk, trying to be nice to my foot and not have it hit the trail too hard as I step. If I’m nice to it, it will be nice to me.

I have service and text my mom my plan; I’m going to come home for a week after reaching Lone Pine, then head north from Sierra City. I’ll reach Canada (hopefully) then come home and hike south from Sierra City, ending on Whitney. I know there will still be lots of snow and there will be less people so I might be alone, but it will be much more manageable as far snow and stream crossings than down south. At least, that is what I hope.

I passed an older woman before the gate, and when I’m sitting down talking to my mom, she comes up. “Hey, you didn’t lose a jacket, did you?” I ask.

“Yes, a black Patagonia one. Did you see it?” she says. She has an eastern European accent and looks like she’s in her 70s, with a small purple ULA pack.

“Yah,” I say, and pull it from the back of my pack to hand it to her.

She tells me she lives on the East Coast and is hiking from Tehachapi to Kennedy Meadows, or beyond. She tells me to call her Oma (meaning grandma). She tries to give the jacket back to me, saying she only brought it for the plane ride and it was expensive to ship back, but I refuse. “I already have a jacket,” I say, and anyway it’s way too small for me. She asks me if I know anyone who wants it but I shake my head. It’s beautiful here, with a long, drawn-out view of the mountains, creamy desert terrain sloping down, slowly transitioning to pine forest and meadow. I say goodbye to Oma and head off.

After about 8 miles I stop and take a lunch break to rest my foot. I make a salmon wrap with mayo and tartar sauce and cream cheese and cheetos. I hold it together with my hands as I eat it, falling apart and dripping with juices. I’m sitting on a pine log in the middle of a shady dry meadow. It’s become Sierra-like, with granite boulders for sitting on, delicious pine groves, and sloping fens. I pick the salmon pieces that fell from my wrap out of the pine needles.

A hiker named Squarepants catches up to me as I’m heading out, and we hike the next 5 miles to the spring together, talking about school and other things. He asks me about homeschooling, and whether I liked it; as usual, I answer and then ask the same about public school. I figure if I have to constantly put up with answering all of the questions about homeschooling, I get to ask a few questions back.

We reach Robin Bird Spring, and join Five, Jukebox, Milo and Chef as they siesta. Outlaw comes, and a guy named Greg who just started. I’ve yet to give a trail name and have someone take it, so I jump on my opportunity; “I’m going to throw a trail name your way,” I say. He looks a lot like the antagonist from the movie Split who has Dissociative Identity Disorder, played by James MacAvoy. I explain the plot and character, probably poorly, and say his trail name should be Hedwig, after the antagonist’s child personality. Greg thinks that you have to take any name that is given to you, but we assure him that he gets to decide whether to keep any of them; anyway, I hope he takes it. Hedwig is a cool name.

I sit and don’t actually do much for a couple of hours, then filter some water and cook ramen for dinner. Then I put my shoes on, heave my pack on, and wince as my foot jolts with pain until I walk a few steps back up the trail. Then it feels okay.

The sun is low and casts the shadows of pine trees across the trail. I read the description for the water source I’m camping at, and apparently there’s car camping and porta-potties. “Are there picnic tables at Lander Camp?!?” I write in the trail register half a mile before.

There are not, but Chef tries to console me by pointing out the water tank and the outhouses, which she explains are apparently almost overflowing but still useable. I am not convinced that this makes up for the lack of picnic tables, and sit down in the dirt and eat bagels with my normal cream cheese and grape jam and trail mix on top for dinner. The air is cool, and the dirt warm and soft. Chef has leftover cookie crumble she made at Robin Bird Spring, which she shares with us. It’s delicious. Outlaw sits and makes cold apple and cinnamon instant oatmeal, which is hilarious as Chef is eating fresh hummus and bagels like a queen. She pours some of her dessert crumble into his pot, which he accepts like a poor person receiving alms, outstretching his pot for donations. We tease him for not having a stove, and call his oatmeal “depression oatmeal,” Chef and I cracking up together in the gloomy, empty campsite ringed by pines.

I manage to stand up, and crawl into my sleeping bag. Outlaw goes to cowboy under the pines. Chef, Jukebox and Milo warn us and say they’re getting up at 3 am tomorrow, which I think they’re joking about. The moon rises up between two pines. I want to do another longer day tomorrow so I can see my family soon, but I also want to enjoy the last stretch before Kennedy Meadows, before I flip up and am no longer in a bubble of hikers. Before I’ll probably be hiking alone.

Day 45- 19.7 miles from campsite at mile 569.4 to campsite under windmills at mile 589.1  

The wind is loud all night and buffets against my sleeping bag, entering through the scrunched-up hood and filling the entire bag with air like a parachute. I have to pee, but I can’t get up because then everything I own will blow away into the dark. I just endure the night, finally drifting off into a full sleep sometime before the sun rises.

Twinkle is already packing up as I open my eyes and pull myself out of my sleeping bag. As I’m stuffing my sleeping bag into my backpack, the extra empty water bottles I picked up in Tehachapi go flying off. I can’t move otherwise my groundsheet will probably fly away, too, but Twinkle runs after them and brings them back to me.

I stuff my things haphazardly into my bag, stopping to eat some breakfast, oreos and a fruit roll up, some of the causes of my health-nut anxiety while resupplying the other day. This resupply has gotten progressively less healthy. My backpack rolls up and the bulge on top is much higher than the top of the frame with all of the food. My sleeping pad perches, lop-sided, on top.

I head off after Twinkle. I’m fighting the wind; even as I’m going straight along the trail, I have to walk diagonally. Several times I’m forced off the trail by an unexpected gust. It rams into me like an ocean wave, and I inch my way up the hill. What is much more concerning is the state of my right foot; I have to walk with it sticking to the side until I warm it up, one of the metatarsals painful and tight. It stops bothering me as much once I’ve been walking for a while, and then I can walk with it straight again. It could be a stress-fracture. I probably shouldn’t be walking on it, but Kennedy Meadows is so close and turning around right now is something that doesn’t even cross my mind… Anyway, it will probably get better. At Kennedy Meadows, I’ll go to Lone Pine and see my family and be able to rest it. Part of me thinks it would be relieved if I was forced to quit before the Sierra, so I didn’t have to skip around it.

I’m still grappling and struggling with the idea of a flip-flop as I’m walking. In a way, I’m mourning the compromise, mourning giving up on what I’ve always imagined, of hiking to Canada in an unbroken line, of going through the Sierra as a PCTer. The idea of getting to the monument on the Canada border and not being finished makes me feel sad. But, I’m slowly warming up to the idea of it. Skipping around to somewhere around Tahoe, hiking to the Canada border, then hiking south and ending my hike on Whitney, watching the line of lights bobbing below me in the dark as people try to get to the summit for sunrise. The lights of Lone Pine below in the darkness, the glow growing on the horizon a dusky, muted orange, until suddenly the sun winks above the horizon like a ball of molten metal.

Of course, my foot needs to not die on me if I’m going to do that. Whelp.

Big Sky, a hiker named Outlaw, Twinkle, and I all leapfrog up the hill. I ask Outlaw how he got his name, since I’ve met another Outlaw before the trail, and he just says, “I can’t tell you. It’s a really stupid story, so I just tell people that so it’s mysterious.”

I get up front, in a dry forest now, out of the wind. The trail goes on a forest service road for a couple of miles, MK10. The sun is bright and it’s not too horribly hot, but the shade is inviting. I sit underneath a big bush and discover that the smoked salmon cream cheese can be put to use much better as a dip for Jalapeño Cheetos. After an hour of taking their own breaks, my leapfrog buddies pass me again and I head after them, my shade patch having nearly been depleted.

After less than half a mile, I join Twinkle in another patch of shade. The ground here is littered with Cicada husks. I throw down my sleeping pad and take a nap. I wake up blearily to Twinkle leaving, crawl further up my pad where the shade has moved, and fall asleep again.

I wake up to move my backpack out of the sun, and slowly pack away my things. Big Sky walks by, having just woken up from his own nap a hundred yards down the trail. I pass him, and get my foot in order. Grr.

The walking is easier after taking a break, and I power through a few miles until I catch up to Twinkle and Outlaw as they’re talking. Twinkle and I start talking about peeing, which is a popular conversation topic among female hikers, and Outlaw comically loses interest in the conversation and leaves. Twinkle and I laugh and call after him. “We’ll stop talking about peeing!” we promise, but he just disappears around the bend.

I walk on the next 2-3 miles to the spring. It’s in a big trough, green with algae. Tadpoles swim around, peeping out from under the algae. A PVC pipe carries water from the actual spring and it spills into the trough. The trough is overflowing and spilling water across the trail, making it muddy. I sit with Outlaw and Twinkle Toes, as well as Peaches and Tomas, and Finger Guns and Katherine. Outlaw is apparently perfectly fine with us as long as we’re not talking about female urination, and we joke around. Someone’s left a cache of water bottles at the trough, which we find amusing; a water cache at a water source. We filter water and eat food. I make teriyaki noodles with vegetables, and boil some water for Outlaw, since he’s going stoveless, which makes him happy. I eat the rest of my smoked salmon cream cheese.

Then off we go! Twinkle only wants to go a mile or two further, so she drops off while I hike on, talking with Outlaw. He’s 20 and has taken 2 gap years, traveling around Asia on his own, and is starting college this fall. He says Nepal, Vietnam, and Japan were his favorites. He says I’m the only person younger than him he’s met so far, and I tell him that now he’s an old man.

The sun is below the horizon. I don’t want to go too far with my poor foot, so I fall behind and find a secluded flat spot below a ridge of windmills. I’m carrying a fuzzy black Patagonia jacket we found on the side of the trail and hang it up on a tree for the night to keep it clean. I set up camp on a soft bed of cheatgrass. The moon is full and makes my Tyvek glow.

I just hope my foot gets better and that I don’t make it worse.

Day 44- 3 miles from Tehachapi/ Highway 58 at mile 566.4 to campsite at mile 569.4  

I stretch out under my blanket and get out of bed, Twinkle already up and mucking around in the bathroom. Kelsey texts us and says he’s downstairs with Chris. It’s his birthday today, and Twinkle bought him a little cake and candles at Albertson’s yesterday. We take the elevator down, and I walk around the corner to scout where they are. “I don’t see them, I don’t think they’re here,” I say, coming back around the corner, and Twinkle blows out the candles. Then I see Kelsey’s beard and see them sitting down. He motions at me and mimes to ask me what I’m doing. I walk back around the corner and tell Twinkle that they’re there, and we walk over and sing happy birthday to Chris. He’s so embarrassed, and gives us the stink eye, and everyone laughs it off. PSA: I am a terrible scout.

There are hot cinnamon buns, and I grab some yogurt. I just have a lot of yogurt and cinnamon buns for breakfast. Yay. I sit with Twinkle, Chris and Kelsey, and Chris’ girlfriend and Kelsey’s sister. Then we say goodbye and head back up to our room.

We sit and start packing. I spread the food all over my bed again, and try to separate it into food for my Kennedy Meadows box and food for the next week into Kennedy. I just end up winging it and throwing things into the different piles randomly. I don’t know, I’ll figure it out.

We rush the last hour to finish getting our stuff together. I walk down with my pack and two different bags of food. The plastic grocery bag I have my food in is stretching down and cutting into my fingers as I carry it down to the lobby. I sit at the computer and try to figure out how to print a shipping label out; it says I already have a USPS account for my email address, which I don’t, and I don’t know the username if I do, so Twinkle lets me use hers. I pay for the label and print it out. The really nice younger woman at the lobby desk, Itsel, only has regular tape, so I do my best, then Twinkle runs down to the gas station across the street and brings back packing tape! Twinkle is MAGIC!!! Now I can leave my package here and they’ll give it to the mailman, so I won’t have to stay another night. Whew.

We leave our packs with Itsel, who is super nice and curious about the PCT, and asks how much our packs weigh as we moan about how heavy they are and dramatically carry them over. My right foot hurts when I put pressure on it a certain way when I walk. I hope it’s nothing bad, although a bad foot would certainly solve any Sierra dilemmas.

We walk along the road in the bright sun, a wind blowing and keeping us from sweating. Twinkle half-heartedly throws her thumb out as we are walking, which will most likely not get us a ride. We cross the railroad tracks, and walk down to the Best Western to drop a bunch of stuff off at the hiker box there. Godongo and Zydeco and David, who I met once walking out of Whitewater Preserve and who is now Thirsty Detour, are here, and we all go to get lunch together. The sushi place is closed, and so is the Mediterranean deli, so we walk down the street again to the Mexican place. I order a burrito and we all talk about what we’re doing about the Sierra and how dangerous the passes and rivers are. We pass around reports Twinkle digs up on her phone from hikers who have gone through and who say that it’s Very Dangerous and it’s going to be Bad For A Very Long Time, about stream crossings that are up to people’s chins. I tell them about my alleged route through Owen’s Valley around the worst of it. Or, Twinkle and I might skip up to Carson Pass and start hiking there. I don’t know. But then, people are hiking through! People are posting pictures of the snow. I feel like if I skip the Sierra I’ve failed, I’m a Bad Hiker, I’ve given up and quit, even if I go back and finish it later in the year. I want to experience the Sierra as a PCT hiker, going through in the early season like I’ve always imagined. What am I doing? Everyone seems to be quitting or skipping ahead. How much of the stuff I’m hearing is fear-mongering? How much isn’t?

Afterwards, Twinkle goes to the hair salon to see if she can get a trim, and I walk over to the convenience store to get some more water bottles for a big 40 mile dry stretch ahead. The gas station store smells like incense and there’s Indian music playing. Twinkle and I meet up again at the hotel. Twinkle calls Connie, the lady who drove us back from Albertson’s yesterday, and she says she’ll pick us up in an hour and drive us to the trail head. It feels really weird to call people and ask for things like that, even if they’re more than happy to help out.

I sit around and read blog accounts of hiking through the Sierra in 2011, the last big snow year, until Connie comes. She drives us out of town, the windmills covering the hills like whirling, mesmerizing hordes of insects. I ask her how she feels about them, and she says she doesn’t like them at all.  We get out, and in the distance I see a hiker who’s just hiked in start running towards the car. “Would you want to give someone a ride back? He’s probably pretty smelly,” we say, laughing, as he jogs across the overpass with his backpack on to try and catch Connie before she leaves. Two other hikers come out of the wood works from the north, and Connie seems excited to help out and meet more hikers. Both of her brothers are trail angels but she’s never done anything, even though she’s been wanting to.

Then Twinkle and I head off. Twinkle is complaining about her pack being heavy in her silly dog voice. The trail parallels the highway for a while, then we lose it for a while after a bunch of bee boxes and another water cache that Connie’s brother maintains. We follow a dry creek bed for a while, then climb over a sandy ridge to find the trail.

We make it 3 miles from the road before I find a sheltered camp spot under some Joshua trees for us. I eat a blueberry bagel with smoked salmon flavored cream cheese, which was kind of a mistake, but it’s not inedible, so… Twinkle is feeling grumpy so we compose a Yelp review about the poor hotel amenities at our campsite. No electricity or running water! No continental breakfast! Dirt everywhere!

“Towns are so comfortable to be in, wouldn’t it be cool if you could just live there full-time?” I say.

Katherine and Finger Guns join us to camp. The wind is blowing and tugging at my sleeping bag, and puffing it up with air so that it feels like a sail. Maybe I’ll just blow away.

Day 43- Zero day in Tehachapi 

I wake up at 8, after staying up well past hiker midnight. I finally pull myself out of my bed, get dressed in my hiking shorts and puffy, and slip out of the door. I walk across the parking lot in the warm morning sun, my puffy already sticking to my chest with sweat. Tents are hanging to dry on the railings on the second floor of the motel. I go into the breakfast room and raid the continental breakfast bar- eggs, English muffin with butter, a big waffle, yogurt, a muffin.

Then I head back, feeling anxious because I should be doing things. Twinkle texts me and says she got a room for free with some points she had and I’m welcome to join in. I pack up my things; then Hop Along texts me. She says she’s getting off trail and heading back home to Canada because she thinks her ankle might be broken. Kyra is continuing on her own. I text her for a while, and lie in my bed and cry for a bit. I’m love them both and I’m going to miss Hop Along, her hugs, her cheery, optimistic personality, her Canadian “eh?”s at the end of her sentences. I really wish I could have hiked with her more. Maybe Kyra will catch up with me.

I sloppily pack up all of my stuff, and start walking across town to the Holiday Inn, where Twinkle has our room. I stop at the German Bakery, squeezing through the crowded room and focusing on trying not to hit people with my backpack. There are a bunch of discounted day-old pastries on the counter so I buy a cherry coffee cake, in the hopes that it tastes like cherry pie.

I head across the railroad tracks which parallel the main part of town, and follow the directions on my phone through a nice neighborhood with bright, mowed grass and small, pretty yards. The road widens into an overpass over the freeway. Walking on the shoulder, I can see what must be the post office in the distance, and a swathe of trees which hides the hotel. I go up to our floor and knock at the room number Twinkle gave me. She opens the door, and I flop my things down near a bed and present her with the cherry coffee cake.

I walk up the road to the PO to get my package, and see Spider Bite and Chris on my way out. Back in the hotel room I open the package, which my mom sent me. There is a package of jalapeno cheese puffs, and bottles of coffee, as well as other snacks to add to my resupply. I don’t usually drink coffee but I have one anyway and leave the rest in the room’s mini fridge. Then we walk back into town to get lunch and resupply. As I walk I try to stretch out my right foot- it feels tight, like the muscles are bound up in the arch and forefoot, but it feels better once I start walking. We get lunch at a small diner off of the main road. I order a big lemonade and drink several glasses of water. The food here isn’t very good though, and I poke at my cold breakfast burrito made with ready-eggs.

Then we start the long walk to the Albertson’s, which is in another part of town. Tehachapi is almost as big as Big Bear, so there’s lots of walking. We stop at a Kmart to be in the air conditioning and see Legend again; then again at the Starbucks. We get to the Albertson’s and I walk around with a cart to do my resupply. I get blueberry bagels, and spend a long time trying to find the cream cheese, which isn’t in the normal dairy section against the back wall, but in a refrigerated aisle. There are a bunch of different flavors – chive, blueberry, strawberry, smoked salmon.

“Do you think I should get smoked salmon cream cheese for my blueberry bagels?” I ask Twinkle.

“No, I think that’s a terrible idea and you’re crazy,” she says, and I start laughing.

I turn to a man nearby who is looking at some Brie. “Doesn’t smoked salmon cream cheese on blueberry bagels sound good? She says I’m crazy but I think she’s just jealous she didn’t come up with it herself,” and he looks and me and starts laughing, too.

“I think you should try it,” he says.

“See? I’m not crazy,” I tell Twinkle.

She just shakes her head at me. “You know what, I can’t stop you. When you come to me later saying how terrible it is I won’t feel sorry for you.”

I put the smoked salmon cream cheese in my cart.

As I continue shopping, I feel anxiety rising up in me in waves as I see how much junk food I’m getting and worrying about getting enough food to send to Kennedy Meadows for the Sierra. Twinkle finishes and is waiting for me, and I’m finally done and check out, feeling anxious and helpless.

We sit in the front with our food, and try to find an Uber back to our hotel. There aren’t any cars running now, though, even though there was one this morning, and we don’t want to carry all of this food all the way back in the heat. Twinkle runs inside to ask for materials to make a hitching sign, while I sit outside guarding our food. I feel stuck, stuck in the town vortex, stuck in making a decision for the Sierra, stuck with how little planning I’ve done to resupply for the Sierra, stuck at Albertson’s with no way back to our hotel, and anxiety and panic wells up in me, and then I feel even more anxious and panicky because I feel bad about being so frozen and useless. Then Twinkle comes back and says that she found someone who will drive us back to the Holiday Inn. Twinkle is magic!

Connie comes out and we follow her to her car. She’s super nervous and quiet. Her brother is the person who maintains the water cache up before Tehachapi, and her other brother trail angels in Lone Pine. She drops us off and we say thank you, thank you, thank you. Twinkle gets her number just in case.

Back in the room, I spread all of my food out and try to repackage it as best I can and separate it into a food resupply for Kennedy Meadows. Maybe iIshouldn’t have drank that coffee, maybe that’s why I’m so wired and anxious. Twinkle heads off to get sushi for dinner, and I stay behind and try to figure stuff out. I have no idea how much food I need to send, where I’m going to go after Kennedy Meadows. I try to research alternate routes- I could walk along 395 in Owen’s Valley? I call my parents, flustered and overwhelmed. Maybe I need to take an extra zero day just to figure this all out. Maybe I need to just flip around the Sierra right now. Thinking about this is both an immediate relief, and a gut feeling that this would be a wrong decision. I feel like by skipping around the Sierra, I will be quitting or failing. I feel stuck and unproductive and I don’t know what to do, and part of all of this is just the lack of direction and underlying urge to leave and get back on trail that I always feel in towns. What is my thru-hike going to look like? I feel stuck in my purism, because at heart I’m a trail purist- I want to be able to hike every step of this trail in a continuous, unbroken line, from Mexico to Canada.

I go to look at maps and the Sierra snow report at a computer downstairs until Twinkle comes back from sushi. We head down to the outdoor pool in the dark and sit in the Jacuzzi for a while. My foot feels weird when I walk on it. Twinkle leaves, and I sit for a while, alone, in the lukewarm, chlorinated Jacuzzi before a family with a little kid comes in and breaks the tepid night-quiet. Chlorine water drips from my clothes onto the textured concrete, the night air warm and, in my mood, vaguely uneasy. I open the gate to the pool with my room card and let it click shut behind me. The door we came through to leave the hotel is broken and only opens from the inside, so I wander around the outside of the hotel trying to find a way in. The door that leads into the darkened gym is locked, so I backtrack through another set of gates and go through the yellow light of front lobby, wet and holding my small towel the best I can around my waist. I wait for the elevator and join Twinkle in the room.

I take another shower and sit on my bed, watching crappy reality TV with Twinkle. In one show, a bride comes in with her family to choose a dress. She really loves the first one, you can tell it on her face, and so does her father, but then they ask the sister and she says she hates it, and the bride’s face just drops. After a couple more brides, we switch to a house remodeling show. Twinkle and I make fun of the shows, but it’s kind of nice to watch them and it keeps my mind off of things, even though inside there’s still a constant undercurrent of me mulling over my options for the Sierra, and it’s exhausting. What am I doing? I really want to be home right now.

Day 42- 12.7 miles from just before Tehachapi Wind Farm at mile 553.7 to Tehachapi/ Highway 58 at mile 566.4

I sleep in and wake up to someone hiking by, their trekking poles clinking on the rocks, their feet crunching on the sandy trail. The sun is well above the horizon. The windmills on the ridge ahead spin, no longer a sea of red in the hills, but powerful white pillars with revolving wings. I woke up in the middle of the night and saw the red lights dotting the hills, while I sat up to drink water and re position my sleeping bag.

I pull my feet out of my sleeping bag, and peel off my sleeping socks. My feet are definitely a little bit swollen, but the pain is gone. My pinky toe has the ghost of the bite, sore.

I pack up, and go over to the tentsite where I got bit last night. There are no ants, just like there where none when I set up yesterday. “FIRE ANTS,” I write in the dirt in the middle of the tent pad.

I get hiking, and pull 5 miles out quickly, the trail gentle as it goes along the side of the hill, spinning giants whooshing around me. I find a hiking umbrella in the middle of the trail, where it must have fallen out of someone’s pack. I shove it in my mesh pocket; I can carry it to the trailhead at Highway 58, where whoever dropped it will probably come through after resupply in town.

Then off I go. I’ve decided that even though I like music in the mornings, I’ll save it for the afternoons when I need the distraction and the miles go by slower. I think about being so close to Kennedy Meadows; less than 2 weeks until I get there. Holy cow. I’m excited to reach it and finish the desert. But, I’m also nervous about the snow. I don’t want to make a stupid decision and be in danger. People have already died in the snow in the Sierra this year; I don’t think any of them have been thru-hikers, but really, what is the difference in skillset between a summer thru-hiker and a prepared dayhiker? Alarmingly little.

Below, a little green valley cuts between the ridge I’m on and the next, a stream banked by green winding through it. I descend down from the ridge to the bottom of the valley and the first road to access Tehachapi; I’m going to use the second road. I cross a bunch of gates, and pass a picnic table, then across the creek, brushing through the soft, green plants overflowing from the creek banks into the trail. The area is maintained by a local riding club. I sign the trail register. “What a beautiful morning! I love you guys,” I write with a heart next to it, in a happy, sleep-deprived, sun-warmed state of mind. I love the trail and everyone on it right now, I’m a morning person, and I laugh internally when I think about grumpy hikers who are having a bad day having to read my overly-cheerful note.

The trail veers left to where it will cross the road. I squint into the distance, where I see an RV and some other vehicles parked. I have a good feeling about this, and strain to pick out details as I walk forward. Could it be Mrs. Focus? She’s driving along the PCT supporting her husband, Focus, as he hikes. But, then, I can see the spray-painted tropical beach and palm trees on the side of the truck parked there, and the wooden paneling and signs on the side. It’s Legend! My heart swells. I get to see Legend again! I was so disappointed when I didn’t see him at Cajon Pass. There’s an extra spring in my step as I walk through the grassy field, cars whooshing by on the road to my right.

Legend comes out of the RV as I walk up, and I get a hug. “Legend!” I say excitedly. “I met you at Whitewater! I’m Picnic now.”

“Picnic Now? That’s a funny trail name,” he says, and assures me he remembers meeting me. He tells me to set my pack down, and join him in the RV cabin, and sit in the swiveled driver’s seat. A hiker I’ve seen the name of in the registers is here too, Bear Can. Legend has a huge pancake sitting on the stove, and gives it to me, and a big bottle of water. I pour some syrup on the pancake and eat it with my hands like a big pizza slice. I put peanut M&M’s on top, the last of the ones I got from Twinkle in Wrightwood. Then Legend makes some fried eggs for us, too, and later fried egg sandwiches.

We talk with Legend for a while. He’s ragging on us for carrying extra water to Tehachapi when the creek here is flowing, even though the people who have updated Water Report said it wasn’t. And for using Guthook’s and Halfmile’s apps. I manage to brush it off because I know Legend is old-school, but I can tell it’s bothering Bear Can. Then he tells us about a thru-hiker that just died near Whitewater Preserve. They don’t know why he died yet, but I assume it must be dehydration or heat related. It’s not been hot here, but I later do some research and learn that is was almost reaching 120 degrees in that area recently. Apparently he was 57 and had planned 10 years for his thru-hike, and it’s really, really sad.

Then we talk about the snow; Bear Can heads out and his spot is replaced by Focus. Apparently there is a trail that goes lower around the eastern side of the Sierra, that would avoid all of the snow. I’ve heard the hike to Lone Pine is OK and not too dangerous, but afterwards is pretty dangerous and hard, with snow covering everything, avalanches, streams too deep and swollen to reach the bottom. I’ve talked with so many people who have no. Fucking. Clue. About how extreme the snow levels are this year. Former thru-hikers who hiked in the drought years stubbornly saying that it’s easy and that you’ll get to lower elevations where there isn’t snow where you can camp, when in reality I might not see the ground for days this year. People planning on hiking sections of the JMT in early July, when it will still be covered in snow, when the ski resorts will still be operating, when people are abandoning hard-earned JMT permits because there’s no way they can hike without it being a suffer fest.

So, anyway, rant over. According to Legend, I could possibly take a lower route from Lone Pine and reconnect back with the PCT at Red’s Meadow or Tuolumne, where the worst of the passes are over. But it’s not even the passes or the snow that are the problem, but the stream crossings; I’ve heard they were bad north of Yosemite in 2011, which was a big snow year, but still small compared to 2017. I don’t know what I’m doing yet; I’m doing this one section at a time. Still, I can feel the anxiety slowly building as I get nearer and nearer. I’ll get through to Lone Pine first and see how I feel. I don’t want to die. The snow and water is on everyone’s minds, is the topic of every conversation now, as we approach Kennedy Meadows.

I head out with Focus to hike the last 8 miles into Tehachapi. Legend walks with us to point us to where the trail resumes at the edge of the parking lot. “Oh, look, you just cut a switchback,” he says, laughing and pointing at the official entry point a couple yards to the left.

I splutter. “What a bad influence!” I finally say, and the last I hear of Legend is his hearty laughter as he walks back to his truck. It’s hardly a cut, but I still make a point to never cut switchbacks, as this is one of my biggest trail peeves and badly erodes the trail.

The trail goes over another rise, through windmills and cattle fields. I have to swing open the rusty cattle gates and latch them behind me, stepping over the bars that deter bicyclists. It must be a lot of work to keep up relations with the property owners so that the trail can go through this private land. I’m impressed.

I just figured out how to pee standing up, which I’m super proud of, and now I’m experimenting with peeing with my pack on, and where I can hang my pee rag so I can reach it. My pee-game laziness grows stronger by the day. Soon I’ll just wear diapers.

Focus catches up to me as we make a long descent down to the Highway, and we walk together up over the overpass to where Mrs. Focus is sitting in the shade of her RV. She gives me watermelon and a camp chair, and they offer to drive me into town. I run up and drop the umbrella I found up by the trail, then carry my pack up into the camper and sit down. Mrs. Focus is making a quilt out of hiker’s signatures, so I sign a rectangle with my trail name.

The camper shakes and bumps as we get onto the highway and drive into town. We go to the airport for some reason, since both Focus and myself must be a little bit sun-addled; I want to get a hotel room, and they’re not camping there, either, in the grassy area where they let thru-hikers pitch their tents. They drop me off in front of the Best Western, and I say thank you as they drive back off.

There are hikers in front looking very homeless, food spread out in a jumble of paper bags and priority mail boxes in front of the sliding doors as they figure out their resupply. Obviously I’ve gone to the right place. There are hikers everywhere. I check in, and get a single-bed room at the far end of the motel.

I walk over, hobbling and stiff. I push my key card in and drop my pack in the corner. I strip my shoes and clothes off and leave them in a pile to go shower. Then I sit on my bed and don’t move for a very long time. Rick texts me and says he’s at the pool, so I rinse my hiking shorts out in the sink so I don’t leave a dirt cloud behind me, and hobble to the pool. There are tons of thru-hikers here, and I hop in between the jacuzzi and the pool and talk with Rick and the other thru-hikers. I feel anxious, with so many things to do. Then I go back to my room and veg out some more. I text Twinkle Toes and Cotton Candy, and we decide to meet up for dinner in a bit. Cotton Candy walks over to my room and we hang out and talk as Twinkle finishes up a phone call and walks over. We all decide to meet at the Thai restaurant.

Cotton Candy and I walk down Tehachapi’s Main Street, past murals of famous local people, past a water tower by the railroad tracks, past a cafe that sells pie. We cut through a cute cobblestone alley. We see the sign for Thai Hachapi, the Thai restaurant, and walk around to the front of the store. Kevin and Eric come across the street to say hi. Twinkle comes up, so we say goodbye to Kevin and Eric and find a seat inside the restaurant. Twinkle and Cotton Candy have never really met, which is really odd and confusing to me because I’ve hung out with both of them so much with Kyra and Hop Along at around the same times.

I order Thai iced tea and drain it as I’m looking at the menu, and the waitress comes and says there is one free refill! What! We order spring rolls, curry fried rice, yellow curry, and spicy rice noodles with basil and mint, and share the dishes between us. It’s delicious. We all went to the Thai restaurant in Big Bear and agree it wasn’t very good, but this is incredible. We discuss Sierra plans. Both Twinkle and Cotton Candy are going to get off for a couple of weeks when they hit Kennedy Meadows, and then flip around the high Sierra when they come back. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but it’s not worth dying to get through the Sierra, that I know. I’m not sure about anything and there is so much fear being passed around and I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t know what I’m going to do, I really don’t.

I eat so much food that I feel nauseated sitting there. It’s worse when I think about food, and scraping my curry rice into the to-go carton is an act of bravery. And it’s not even a huge amount of food; my stomach has definitely shrunken from all of the trail food. We all head out; Cotton Candy and I say goodbye to Twinkle where she leaves to cross the railroad tracks, and we both head back to our motel rooms. I say goodnight to Cotton Candy and go to lie in my big, comfy queen bed, and fall asleep.

Day 41- 20.8 miles from before Cottonwood Creek/wind farm at mile 532.9 to before another wind farm at mile 553.7

My alarm wakes me up at 5, after about as many hours of sleep. I heard people walking past me without headlamps last night, and I felt snug and secretive in my cowboy camp, where they couldn’t see me even though I was less than 10 feet away. I pack up and walk through an orange sunrise, following a dirt road towards the silhouetted wind mills, undulating in slow unison. The wind buffets against my bare legs. I feel cranky. There’s service here, but it goes in and out with the wind.

Below the road and before a big concrete bridge, I see someone filling up their water from a spigot on the side of a concrete box. I hide behind a concrete pillar from the wind to check the water report- there’s a source in only a couple more miles, but I don’t know how much water I still have. I walk down to the spigot and check my water, and decide to carry on. I talk to a hiker there who says that there was really incredible trail magic last night- a guy had driven up with tons and tons of pizza and other things. He had so much that the hikers camped down in the ravine couldn’t finish it all and he didn’t know what to do with it. I glumly mull over the life decisions I made yesterday that got me two miles away at midnight. Was spending those extra hours at Hiker Town for laundry worth it? Just kidding. My clothes really stank horrendously.

I start walking again, having decided that I have enough water and not wanting to meet another hiker who would surely only extol the trail magic in more detail.

The wind runs right at me like a swollen, roaring stream. The PCT becomes trail again, winding through a golden landscape of bare grass, juniper and hulking wind mills. Their shadows are large enough that I could lie down length-wise in them. Every now and then the trail passes close enough to a juniper that the wind abates, enough to feel how much faster and easier it is to walk normally. As it is, I’m walking half my normal speed; I wear my sunglasses so I can even keep my eyes open, pushing them up my nose again every minute as they fall down.

I leapfrog with a hiker who got her trail name, Little Dipper, on the Colorado Trail because she liked swimming in lakes. The wind makes much conversation difficult at first. We come upon two hikers, Kevin and Eric, who are finishing a break in the fold of a hill to hide from the wind. They look very clean and fresh, and are carrying their ice axes. We talk and wait for them to pack up. It turns out they’ve just started yesterday at Hiker Town; they decided to skip most of the desert and are doing this section to get their trail legs before the Sierra. They’re funny, and I hike with them and Little Dipper for a while before falling a little bit behind to drink some water.

Once we’re up in the hills and out of the windmills, the wind dies down. The trail climbs up into the beginning of the hills, then dips down into Tyler Horse Canyon. Tyler Horse Creek trickles along the bottom, the water clear and quick for such a small stream. I set my pack down in the shade of a juniper and sit for a while, drinking some water and eating. Little Dipper and I give advice to the new hikers- this is their first time filtering water and it takes them a while to figure it out. Little Dipper starts heading out, which convinces me to get up and filter some water. There’s no water, only a cache, until Tehachapi in 24 ish miles. I fill up all 6 liters of my water capacity. I treat caches as surprise bonus water and generally ignore them as possible sources; they can run out quickly to it’s not responsible to rely on them.

I climb out of the canyon. The trail climbs up the side of the mountains, then down again, the trail sliding away where the hill slope is made of loose sand; I can see the switchbacks going up the hill opposite, and hear people talking somewhere. I find Little Dipper, Kevin and Eric sitting almost in the middle of the trail in the shade of a large, sprawling juniper. I plop down beside them and stay and talk until they all start heading out again.

The trail switchbacks up the sandy slope onto more solid ground; I have to pee and so I wait for Little Dipper to pass me, watching for her to turn around the side of the hill. I start walking again and I consider stopping in the shade of a juniper, but someone’s left a note on the trail saying there’s a rattler. I set up my earphones and listen to music, put my sunglasses on against the glare of the sun. I’ve already walked ten miles and I feel like I’m cruising. As I walk I stop to push the sunglasses up the sweaty bridge of my nose. My earphone cords sway with the squeak of my pack, and I stay hunched over a bit so they don’t fall out of my ears. I pass Little Dipper taking another break.

I crest a rise with Kevin and Eric and Kevin gives an excited shout. I look up. A battered sun umbrella sits in a clearing. Plastic lawn chairs cluster beneath it. I grin, briefly, then hurry down the trail to it. There is a long wooden shelf with a trail register, and boxes and boxes of gleaming bottled water lined up beneath it.

I sit around in a daze for a minute or two before plopping down into a lawn chair in the sun. I make a tuna wrap using another chair as a table and watch in amusement as Kevin and Eric try to make the broken umbrella relinquish a patch of shade. One of them admits to being a structural engineer, which I tease them about as they unsuccessfully finagle the log that is propping it up for a good 15 minutes. The umbrella flutters and tilts under a contrary breeze. Finally they give up and just curl up under the chairs and take naps. Little Dipper comes and goes.

I eventually hike out with my earphones in, listening to shuffle. I go another couple of miles, leapfrogging with Kevin and Eric. The trail follows the top of the golden-brown hills. I turn a corner while singing loudly, and stop when I realize that someone is there. “I wasn’t singing at all,” I say sheepishly and keep walking, and they laugh. Below I can see the creek that I’ll cross tomorrow, a strip of lush green across the brown valley floor. Windmills appear on the tops of the hills ahead, spiraling.

“Cacaw!” someone shouts at me. I’m absorbed in my music and jump; I turn around and it’s Kevin and Eric setting up camp. They invite me to camp with them, and I sit there and think about it for a while. I always feel weird about camping alone with dudes, even if I feel completely, totally safe with them, and the sun is still pretty high, and I’m on a groove, so I reluctantly tell them that I want to make a couple more miles even though I kinda want to camp with them. I head off – but not before warning Kevin that he’ll get the name Cacaw if he keeps crowing at people.

A couple of hours later, a couple of days later, months even, and I will wish I would have just camped with them.

Just as the windmills loom on the hills right before me, I decide to stop after looking at the topo maps on my phone. It looks like there’s nowhere flat and I don’t want to camp right by loud wind machines. Plus, I feel like I deserve to stop and get to sleep early after night hiking across the Mojave last night. My brain feels tired and my eyes heavy.

I throw down my cowboy camp after inspecting the area for the best spot, then put on my sleeping clothes and sit down on a log a bit away to cook dinner. I feel like I’m treating myself, and I’m really looking forward to a nice, relaxed evening.

I finish my Mac n cheese and walk back with my food bag. I look down and notice that there are red ants swarming all over my Tyvek groundsheet and sleeping bag. I stare at them stupidly for a few seconds, pacing back and forth a few steps in agitation. What do I do now?

A sharp pain erupts on the top of my left foot. One of the fire ants got stuck underneath my sandal straps and bit me. More ants are crawling all over my feet and sandals. I stumble back a few steps on the soft, lumpy, gopher-tilled ground and another, sharper pain erupts near the pinky toe on my right foot. I pull the fire ants off of my feet.

Oh! Damn it hurts. I pull my sandals off and pick the ants off of them, make sure there aren’t any more on my feet, and sink down to the ground. I whimper through the pain. This was supposed to be a nice evening, and now I’m in pain and I have to get up and get all of the ants out of my stuff and move. For someone who has never been bitten by a fire ant- it hurts. It’s worse than a bee sting, and it lasts much longer.

I force myself up, trying to ignore the fire gently lapping at my feet like waves during a rising tide. I carry everything except for my sleep set-up several yards away, since the ants haven’t gotten on that yet. I hobble back, and pull my sleeping pad with my sleeping bag still on it off to the side. My Tyvek has gotten soft enough that the ants can cling to it; after shaking most of them off I stand there and crush their heads to pick them off individually. I have no choice; they curl up and sink their mandibles into the material, so that the only way to get them off is to hurt them. I splutter and some tears leak out of my eyes and I clench my teeth against the pain, so I can’t feel too bad about killing them right now.

Then I do the same with my sleeping bag and pad, which aren’t as bad. I turn my sleeping bag inside out to make absolute certain none are inside. I should have camped with Kevin and Eric. I bring myself over to my second camp, lay my sleeping bag out, flop down on top of it, and sob and scream into it to deal with the building pain. It feels like someone has broken my foot and then lit it on fire. I barely care if someone walks by, the trail less than 10 feet away.

I turn facing upright. I writhe my legs and clench my teeth and scream silently through them, my face wet with tears. If someone did walk by they’d think I was dying. I text my mom and ask how many ibuprofen I can take at a time, and then take one before waiting for a reply. A minute goes by and I take one more. I feel like a baby because I can’t deal with this pain, instead I’m sitting here on top of this mountain crying my head off, but I’ve quickly decided if a someone cries on top of a mountain and no one is there to hear them, they can cry all the hell they wants if it helps them.

I have service and look up what to do about fire ant bites; I rub hand-sanitizer on it and wrap my right foot, which hurts much more than my left, in a wet bandana. My nose starts bleeding in the middle of everything; I lurch to dig for my TP roll to stop the blood from getting everywhere. I pull my sleeping sock over the foot with the bandana to compress it. My mom calls and I talk to her until the sky is darkening and the stars come out, talking distracts from the pain, the throbbing heat in my foot slowly, slowly fading.

When we finally hang up, my foot is still pulsating and feels tender. I’m exhausted from crying and my 5 hours of sleep last night. The windmills on the hill across from me rumble and their lights blink red, a warm breeze dries the last of the wetness from the corners of my nose. Tiredness laps against my body, and I decide to not write tonight. This was the crappiest evening but happiness is welling up in my chest, I’m so happy to be here, safe and warm on this mountain, having defeated the pain, the earth cradling my tired body. I barely get down some notes so I can recreate my journal entry before my eyes close and I fall asleep.