Day 13- 19.4 miles from mile 146.4 to before Fobes Saddle at mile 165.8

+2 miles to and from Paradise Valley Cafe and +0.6 miles to and from Tunnel Spring =22 total miles! First 20 mile day!

The alarm I set last night doesn’t go off (I set it to PM instead of AM) and instead a mosquito is the one to wake me, flying into my face until finally I’m cognizant enough to wave it away. The campsite is much more welcoming in the daylight, ringed by cheery, oval-leafed manzanitas. I go to pee; it’s nice not to have to search for a semi-private spot among mass campsites. Solo camping for the win!

I pack up quickly. Down in the valley somewhere there is a ranch and a dog barks. Once, twice. The morning is bleary, the sun low so I have to keep my hat brim down and my head tilted to avoid blinding myself, even with sunglasses. I only went 2 ish miles last night from where everyone else camped, but that means I am 2 miles closer to Paradise Valley Cafe and Food!

The trail winds along the top of some sandy cliffs, then up the side of a ridge until I can hear cars moving somewhere ahead. I try to not think too much about how hungry I am. I fantasize about lemonade.

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Welcome to Idyllwild! These posters were literally actually everywhere in town

Finally the road is right there. I see a hiker walking back up the road to the PCT and say hi. He’s hiking the alternate. I want to, too, but I don’t want to do it alone.

I don’t feel comfortable yet hitching alone and there aren’t many cars heading down the road, so I walk the mile to the Cafe. I can see it a full half mile before I get there, taking an incredibly long time to come into full view. It’s only 8 and it’s already hot. I come up to the porch, where there are a ton of thru-hikers. Rachel, Nirvana, Tarantino, Baby Jesus, and a bunch of others I recognize but don’t know by name.

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I sit down with a hiker I’ve never met before, and the waiter gets me my a menu and some water right away. I try to order my omelette with a side of eggs – it’s already been a hot day and my brain is fried. While I’m waiting for my food I talk with my table-mate, Octane, who is originally from Germany but moved to the states 20/30 years back with almost nothing. He started a plumbing business and has traveled all over the world. The omelette is good but the hash browns are a bit soft.

Everyone is discussing the alternate and Baby Jesus has a map printed out that everyone looks at. It seems like everyone is just hitching straight into Idyllwild and skipping the alternate altogether. Karma comes up and she and Nirvana and Rachel say they’re doing the alternate, so after washing up and texting Colleen our plans (she’s still a couple of miles out from the Café) we walk the mile back up to the trail. A guy in a red truck with a bed-cover pulls over and asks Karma and I if we need a ride. “Umm…” pained, quick thinking“No, we’re good, thanks though!” We say, and then immediately regret it as the car pulls back into the road and we turn back to our long road-walk. Nirvana is waiting in the shade at the trailhead, looking at his phone. He was in the truck… Dammit. Thruhiker regrets.

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The map of the alternate in yellow. The alternate splits off of the PCT at Fobes Saddle, where a trail/dirt road goes down to the hwy. After a 3 ish mile walk along the hwy it follows forest service roads to the edge of Idyllwild, and then can be taken back up to the PCT proper.

I keep up with their pace for a while before slowing down. I can keep up with them when they’re not trying to be fast, and when I’m feeling good enough to hike without my little 5-second out-of-shape breathing breaks. When I can it’s good because I can hike faster. I know when it’s not worth it, though. As they disappear up the trail I feel my internal anxiety-pressure to keep up with them fade. Whoosh.

It’s hot, my sleeves are rolled up, my forearms glossy with sweat. I pass a hiker named Beast in the shade. Karma and Nirvana were planning on taking a break at a “shady campsite” 4 miles in and I plan on joining them. I stop to breathe in a green meadow crawling with ladybugs. They swarm like flies in the air and land on my feet. I catch Nirvana and Karma at the aforementioned shady campsite and immediately spread out my foam pad and lie down. I study the maps for the alternate. There are big black flies everywhere and it’s dry. The shade is pretty spotty. “Why didn’t we stop at the ladybug meadow?” I say.

“I don’t know,” Karma says.

I fall asleep and when I wake up I’m sweaty where my body was against the sleeping pad. We get going and Karma and Nirvana both quickly disappear again. The trail is climbing up the side of the ridge around giant granite mounds. The sky is blue and below a valley full of pine and green manzanita stretches out back to the Highway, which is hidden behind rolling hills. It reminds me of Desolation Wilderness and the northern Sierra: home!

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I continue the climb, head down and cruising in between breaks to look around and take the scenery in. I get to the signpost which marks the two side trails to water- Karma and Nirvana were planning to go down to Tunnel Springs so I hope I catch them there. I drop my pack and head down with my filtering kit. Beast comes up as I’m starting and goes down with me. It’s steep and I almost trip a few times.

Karma and Nirvana aren’t there- I don’t think I was being that slow so where are they? The spring is a PVC pipe streaming clear water down into a battered metal trough. The water trickles out where the rim of the trough has been bent down (there’s a sign asking people not to sit on the trough) and as Beast and I filter a bird takes a bath in the runoff. Butterflies flutter at the water’s rim. We talk about hunting. He asks if I have a trail name yet and I say no; I say I’d like someone to name me Quickbeam, after the ent in the Lord of the Rings, because he is one of the youngest ents- Beast decides to call me Quickbeam from now on, but I still feel like I should wait for a name to come to me. I’m being so impatient! But it sucks to have to say that I don’t have a trail name yet when people ask. And I want one! But I want it to be right!

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I hobble up the climb, clutching my dirty water bladder and smart water bottle to my chest. Then I head off. I’m definitely slow, the trail here is steeper than it’s been, winding up the sides of mountains. Far below is the milky brown desert floor, patterned with washes, and a marching row of coffee mountains. I come up to the top of a ridge and just stop to take it in. From here I can see both the desert behind me, incomprehensibly distant, and rolling green mountains on the other side of the ridge. I stuff food in my mouth, a stiff but warm pleasant breeze blowing the thick green grass, making it brush against my ankles.

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I walk through this ridge-top Shire, grassy meadows cradled by pine groves as they gently slope down towards views. I’m going slow and I’m tired but it’s beautiful. The sun is getting low in the sky. I look for Karma and Nirvana’s footprints- i can see Karma’s Altra tracks clearly, and can almost see Nirvana’s. I try to hurry as the sun becomes a ball of orange in the sky, with Saturn-rings of pink. I’ve entered part of the opened burn area, and the sunset paints the bare white tree husks gold. I stop seeing Karma and Nirvana’s tracks on the trail at this point, but I don’t see them off trail either.

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The sun goes down below the horizon, and I wait as long as I can before getting out my headlamp, the corners of the forest filling up with shadows and the bumps in the trail losing their clarity. There’s a campsite half a mile ahead, the last one before the switchbacks down the mountains and the Fobes Saddle Junction, where we all said we’d meet to camp. Everything is getting black now, and I’m getting jumpy. I check my Guthook’s app and I’ve just passed the campsite, so I head back up the trail 20 feet and stumble down to the campsite. It’s by a big creepy granite rock with a witch-cave. I play music as I set up my cowboy camp by the light of my headlamp. Below, a city has lit up the darkness in the valley.

I’m sitting in my sleeping bag with my headlamp on, getting ready to sleep. I hear trekking poles and look up and see headlamps! “Hello?” I call, sitting up.

“Amelia?!” Karma says. “Is that you?”

“Yah!” I say. “Come down, there’s room!”

“Is it an actual campsite?”

“Yes!”

Nirvana is with her- they didn’t get water at Tunnel Springs and tried to find a trail down to a spring a couple miles back. There wasn’t a trail and there wasn’t water and they wasted a lot of time trying to find it. I have plenty to share, though, and I’m super happy I don’t have to sleep alone next to a creepy witch cave.

We stretch and talk for an hour. For the first time I don’t have the heart or energy to write out a journal post, so I write notes about the day and mileage, set my alarm, and then put my phone in my sleeping bag. Then, sleep.

Day 12- 17.2 miles from mile 129.2 after Mike’s Place to mile 146.4 after Walden Picnic Area.

I’m asleep when Colleen leans over me in my tent. “Amelia. Amelia. Wake up!” I am awake now, my sleeping bag is toasty hot even though the sun has only just risen. I take my time in camp, learning how to pack up with a different tent. I’m going to try putting the poles on the side of my pack today, I think it was too rigid inside yesterday and was hurting my back, not too mention poking into my butt.

I’m out after everyone except Twerk. The trail is in the shadow of the opposite ridge at first, the sun just brightening a spot on the horizon. 6 ish miles in I stop to take an extended bathroom break to clean myself up, finally changing my socks, which are stiff like cardboard from the salt and sweat pounded into them. Everyone is ahead of me now. It’s very hot, even though the sun is still low and the side of the ridges that the trail follows are still mostly in shadow. It was forecasted to be 100 degrees today. I pass Karma, Colleen, and Twerk just before the trail down to Tule Spring and fire tank. Kathleen is there, and she decides to walk the quarter mile down with us to wait out the heat of the day. It’s only 10.

 

I grab my water filtering ziploc, food bag, maps, and sleeping pad and shuffle down the road. I set up in the shade as the crew filters in. I try the fire tank pump but it’s empty. Laziness defeated, I scramble down a steep bank to get some water. Then we sit around in the shade, talking, eating food, napping. I make Mac and cheese and my fuel runs out halfway through. Karma lets me borrow hers. I welcome people and point them to the water and shade. Everyone looks beaten by the heat as they come down the road for water. Scissors is here, as well as Twerk, Karma, Colleen, and Rawhide. We talk with Toby, who is a gender and queer studies professor, and Shipwreck and Iguana. We finally start out at 4, after 6 hours of waiting for the heat to die down.

I’m now ahead. I see my second rattlesnake as I’m pulling myself foot-by-foot up a hill. I hear something rustle by my foot, and look down to see the zebra stripes and supple, muscular curves. I quickly step back. It doesn’t rattle, but begins making its way up the hill, then changes its mind and goes across the trail again. It hides behind a granite rock, peeking its head over to watch me. Iguana and Shipwreck come up and it decides to head down the slope.

A few minutes later, Twerk sees me coming from his perch up by a behemoth granite slab. He says there is another rattlesnake by the trail. I step around and join him on his slab and watch as the snake meanders its way along the rocks. The sun is hiding behind a cloud so it feels like dusk, even though we have a few more hours of light. It’s still hot as heck. My sleeves are rolled up and they gleam with sweat.

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I’ve decided I want to try and walk the fire-closure alternate into Idyllwild tomorrow instead of hitching down, and want to get as close as possible so my day isn’t so long tomorrow. I join Twerk briefly at the Sandy Road Water Cache, then head across the beach-sand road at a clip. I get to the campsite where we were meeting tonight at mile 144 and call out Karma’s name. She replies, and I find her and tell her I’m going to go ahead and night hike, and that I’m trying to get into Idyllwild tomorrow on the alternate.

I stop to pee and stuff my hip belt pockets with snacks and get out my headlamp. Then off I go, weaving in between views of the valley and the twinkling lights of houses, and dark manzanita. It’s light out, but it starts getting darker as the trail bends back into the folds of the ridges. I start to think of all of the horror movie commercials that I’ve ever been forced to watch on YouTube because there’s no skip button.

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Finally I stop and pull my ear buds out, and turn on Jack Johnson’s album, Brushfire Fairytales. If I walk fast enough and focus on the music, which is happy and bouncy and brings me to a sunny beach in Hawaii, I’m not too freaked out. I think about yetis and cougars. My right trekking pole rattles like a rattle snake with each step and the squeak of my backpack sounds like angry hissing.

I come upon a picnic area called Walden. There’s a library box and cutouts of Thoreau with Walden quotes and the group of guys camped there invite me to stay, but I feel antsy as well as uncomfortable camping with a bunch of dudes I’ve never met. I shake my head no and wish them a nice night before heading out again. They seem impressed, but I want to keep going and I had caffeine Mio from Rawhide during the break today so I have energy.

I’m sweating, jumpy from being alone in the darkening maze of looming manzanita bushes. Finally it gets dark enough that I decide to stop at the next campsite. For sanity’s sake. Even though I’ve only gone maybe two miles further than everyone else. The sun is now just a slightly lighter-colored red smudge on the dark horizon. I set up a cowboy camp alone, with Jack Johnson still playing. The Big Dipper is upside down across the horizon. Everything is dark but I feel safe with the music playing and with the routine of setting up camp. Goodnight.

Day 11- 14.2 miles from Agua Caliente Creek at mile 115 to campsites at mile 129.2

Kathleen, now known as Rawhide because of a mixture she had one day of blisters and sunburn, is already packed up and disappears down the trail as I’m pulling myself out of my tent. I head off before the others and hike with myself for a while, until Nirvana and Karma catch up. I trail behind them for a while, but they’re deep in a conversation about salmon and fishing and I feel like I’m third-wheeling (Nirvana has spent summers on a fishing boat in Alaska and has a fisheries degree). I stop to let them get ahead, and then join them again later when they stop for a snack break.

I pack my food away first and head off. I’m ahead of everyone, hiking through a maze of chaparral, lilac bushes and manzanita with pink bell-shaped flowers, as well as a big bush with soft feathery leaves. There are big black flies everywhere so I don’t stop longer than it takes to get a sip of water. Sweat plasters my shirt sleeves to my arms.

It’s getting hot, so I take a break underneath a big rock overhanging and ruffle through my food bag. Karma walks by and I invite her into my shade. We eat some food and then head out again, the last 3 miles to Mike’s Place, a trail angel who has a house in the middle of the desert and lets hikers sit on his porch and fill up on water. The trail is sparkling with mica, and I put my head down and hike. There are hand-painted signs down to Mike’s, and I take a side trail down to the road.

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It’s a bit run-down and creepy; I don’t think I’d approach this place if it wasn’t on the PCT. I set my pack down against the side of the house with everyone else’s and walk under the porch. Everyone is sitting there in a dead stupor, blank-eyed and dusty, eating watermelon slices from a rusty soup pot. “You look too peppy,” Rachel says.

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I go help Blue’s Clues make banana pancakes. I’m in charge of the bananas while he flips. I join Karma and Nirvana and Rawhide at the porch out back to talk and avoid the growing crowd of hikers out front. I eat lots of pancakes, filter water, and make jalapeño refried beans with rice noodles. I have to be careful now with what I cook so I don’t make something gross, ever since I wrote that I’d take the trail name of Polenta if I screwed up some food a third time. Twerk interviews Karma for a video series he says he’s calling “Trash Talk,” which is honestly a little bit offensive and I’m sure someone’s feeling are going to be hurt. Everyone’s talking about whether or not to hitch around an upcoming trail closure, or do the long road walk. I have no idea yet what I want to do; I can’t think more than a day or two ahead, and everyone is throwing around contradicting information on the alternate route options.

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We finish eating our dinners and head back on the trail. We set up in a big group campsite with a ton of other people. There’s a group that are obviously a big trail group, and Scissors tries cowboy camping for the first time with them. Below us is a small town. Colleen and I sit on Karma’s Tyvek and pretend it’s a magic carpet. The sunset’s streaks of hot pink turn dusky orange, and the town lights up below. The silhouette of our ridge in the foreground is sharp and black, the mountains far away a smoky gray.

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Tent flys are rustling, Karma’s Tyvek crinkling. One by one our headlamps go out and all that is left is the wind.

Day 10- 5.5 miles from Warner Springs Community Center at mile 109.5 to Agua Caliente Creek at mile 115

The sun is bright but it’s still cool enough to lie in my sleeping bag, my eyes tight to block out the light. I can’t hear anyone packing up near me; it’s hard to get out of towns early. A group of guys is sitting at the picnic table, talking loudly and audibly about guy things (later, Colleen will joke about waking up early in the middle of a big camp and talking loudly about menstruation).

Blah. I have to force myself, one step at a time, out of my sleeping bag. First, uncinch the drawstring that holds my hood tight around my face, then unzip it, then get out. The first thing I do each morning is stuff my sleeping bag into the bottom of my backpack so I’m not tempted to get back in.

I stumble to the bathrooms and brush my teeth, then wander around aimlessly listening to conversations. Karma is up and I say hello. Then it’s 7:25 which is an acceptable time to start walking to the post office. The walk is long and the low sun hits my face so I have to walk with one eye shut.

Once I’m there I sit and talk with a guy who’s a Triple Crowner (has hiked all three of America’s popular long trails, so the AT, PCT, and CDT). I don’t remember his name, but he’s hiking a section up to Cajon Pass between jobs and he did both the CDT and AT and AZT in one summer.

I get my package at the desk, and am about to walk off before I realize I should have two. I text my mom to get the tracking number. Apparently it was in San Diego last night, so it’s probably just come in and needs to be sorted. I go to get some breakfast to wait. I join Karma and Colleen and Rachel and order an avocado-feta-tomato-spinach omelette with hash browns. Yum.

Back at the post office, I get my second package with my new tent in it, and go to sit out front and open my first package, which is my food. There are notes from home, and a picture of my puppy Wren, and locks of her and Zephyr’s hair. The top of the box is filled with cookies and salmon jerky and delicious things that my parents packed. Underneath it is all of the random food-things that I threw in before I left. Condiment packages and other food-things that look gross and unappetizing.

We’re just about to try and walk back when Chris and Kelsey, who we hiked around a few days ago, drive up. Kelsey has an insanely long beard that flops around as he talks, and Chris is a doctor and carries an enormous medical kit (I first met them at Boulder Oaks, the same night I met Colleen, Karma and Twerk). They spent the weekend off-trail with one of their girlfriends, and offer us a ride in the back of their hitch-on trailer back to the community center. We climb in. Driving is so much faster than walking!

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I putter around camp some more, doing who-knows-what, it seems important at the time. Sorting food, dropping off things in the hiker box and picking up crumpled bags of salt and vinegar chips to bring back. Charging my electronics, setting up my mom’s Fly Creek UL 2 tent for the first time. I feel bummed about sending back my tarptent and I go to the gear shop twice to get advice from Pillsbury, the owner, about which tent I should take. I don’t get it, I hated my protrail so much just a while ago, but now I’m super attached to it. What. When it comes time to throw away all of the notes that my family sent me, I can’t bear to throw away the puppy hair for some reason and decide to carry it with me. I’m sitting with Colleen and Karma and laugh-cry about it, my eyes watering while I’m doubled over with laughter. Really I think I’m just crying.

Towns are really hard to get out of. Colleen and I catch a ride back to the post office and I send my tarptent home, as well as a bunch of other things. We get a ride back in a truck bed. The wind is pressing into my face. Colleen is just sitting there, grinning and clutching the side. “Wait, are we past the community center?” I shout. The hills rush past, golden and empty of buildings. Suddenly, the car brakes, we slide forward in the truck bed and clutch the sides of the truck bed. The truck makes a 3-point turn, and we’re rushing back the way we came. The community center comes into view as the car brakes again, and we’re pulling into the parking lot.

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We hop out, and the driver apologizes. “We almost forgot you were there.”

More procrastinating and slow packing-up. I reach escape velocity, buckling down my backpack top and heading off. I weigh my pack at the gear trailer. 25 pounds with food and almost 2 liters of water. Then off!! We all plan to meet at a campsite by a creek 5 miles in. It’s hot out, the trail threading through an outdoor obstacle course (??), under a highway overpass, through tight winding hills. I’m already just as sweaty and gross as when I came into Warner Springs yesterday.

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We come into camp and I help Tarantino set up his new tarptent protrail. Everyone’s been telling him it’s a bad tent, including me, but I feel bad that we’re giving him a scare about his new piece of gear. I tell him it’s a definite upgrade from the 5 pound tent he was carrying before.

We sit around in the sand in a circle and cook our dinners. Frogs are croaking in the creek. I make a ramen bomb, rice ramen mixed with mashed potatoes, and it is delicious. It gets dark and finally we pull ourselves away to go to sleep.

Day 9- 8.4 miles from Montezuma Valley Road/Barrel Springs at mile 101.1 to Warner Springs Community Center at mile 109.5

I slept with my earphones in last night and my sleeping scrunched as right as possible around my face. The sounds of hikers waking up and the sunlight are muffled. I un-cinch my hood to a surprise. “I love my tent!” I announce.

“What made you love your tent overnight?” Colleen says.

“Look at it. It’s collapsed.”

“Oh, I was wondering what made you change your mind…” she says.

“No, it turned into a rainbow tent and gave me cupcakes and apologized for everything it’s done.”

I stay in my sleeping bag for a while before trying to move. It’s only 9 ish miles to Warner Springs today, so there’s no rush. Finally I wiggle out and pull everything out after me. Stupid tent.

I decide to make some more instant mashed potatoes for breakfast, since they were so good last night. They’re Betty Crocker brand today vs. Idahoan last night. They fill up the pot to the top and I still need to add more water, and there’s no room to stir. It’s cold on top and hot on the bottom, and super bland. I decide to try and “polenta it” to make it taste better. I sacrifice a lemon pepper tuna packet, chili cheese Fritos, and a packet of barbecue sauce. It tastes even worse. I can’t believe I’ve polenta’d a second meal. I can’t eat it and decide to pack it out. I announce that if I do this a third time I’ll have to take the trail name of Polenta.

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I’m about to head off when Twerk starts another stretching/dancing/twerking circle, so I drop my pack to join. Scissors comes up and takes a video. Then across the road and through rolling hills of brown and purple cheatgrass. I can see everyone hiking before and behind me, stretched out. We stop and start. At a break everyone finds out I have no clue who a guy named Will Smith is, and they tease me about it until I decide to leave. They weren’t trying to be mean but it still stings a bit and makes me pissed for half an hour. Will Smith’s movies are probably all really stupid and lame anyway. Or so I tell myself.

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I stop at Eagle Rock and I take a picture. There is an enormous group of day hikers taking pictures and I feel like a tourist on my own trail, and a bit overwhelmed. I almost skipped when I saw the mass of bodies, even though dayhikers are nice and smell like laundry detergent.

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Then it’s just two miles down to Warner. This is the first time I’ve really seen day-hikers. We pass a big group of Boy Scouts out backpacking, they look like cute little mini versions of ourselves, half our height and marching in a bouncy line.

I’m just getting over being mad about Will Smith when I start the final descent through trees. So many day-hikers, and horses, and horse poop. I step through a final gate and hike to the Community Center. I walk up a porch and into the building, and sign in at a table. My hands are dirty and I’m conscious of the fact that I smudge dirt on the white paper as I write.

I set my pack out in an empty spot out back, under an enormous oak tree. There are tents everywhere, clustered by the base of the tree in the shade. It’s in a field of golden mowed grass that’s rough and smells like straw. I can imagine a pumpkin patch here in the fall. Then I go get some loaner clothes- it’s a walk-in closet full of hand-me downs. I find brown pants and a big red T-shirt that says “I’m not lazy, I just enjoy doing nothing.” Then I go to the washing area, where I get in a stall and pour pitchers of water over myself from a Home Depot bucket, and then wash my clothes. Rachel looks amazing in her loaner clothes, like a model with white Bermuda jeans and a red shirt- Twerk wants to give her the trail name Ralph Lauren. Colleen has a Little House on the Prairie dress. Karma has a turquoise dress and her hair up in a towel and looks like the woman sidekick to Gru in the Despicable Me 3 trailer.

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Then we all head off along golf course trails the mile to the restaurant. It’s a blasphemous amount of walking. Soon we’ll be too lazy and just hitch everywhere. Nirvana the Seattle-ite is dying in the midday heat and I write his last request in case he expires. He gives his cat to his mom.

Then we’re in the restaurant, conscious of our awkward loaner clothes as we walk past tables of golfers in pastel polo tees. I drink two glasses of lemonade. I fantasized about lemonade on the mile’s walk here. Then delicious fish tacos. We sit there, stunned and lethargic after our food consumption. We head out to the gas station and I get some ice cream. We go out to the parking lot and stop to smell all the big roses planted there. The chocolate dip from my ice cream bar falls off onto the asphalt and I pick it back up and eat it without blinking. Hiker trash is real.

Then back to the community center. I buy a double wall charger from the mobile gear shop, 2 Foot Adventures, which is in an airstream. The owner and I (her trail name is Pillsbury) follow each other on Instagram and she takes a picture of me. Kathleen is here recovering from blisters, and Colleen’s dad is here with fruit and pizza and Gatorade magic. I hang around and talk to people, unable to keep up with all of the new names. It’s only in towns when I truly realize how many hikers there are.

I’ve set up my tent but it keeps on falling. Stupid tent. Why won’t it stay up? Someone suggests that it’s the stakes, but it’s a little late now. I feel bad giving up, but I’ll have my UL Fly Creek tent tomorrow. It’s not much heavier than my Protrail. I’m cowboy camping tonight.

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The sun is setting slowly. I sit with everyone else under the shade awning on picnic tables and eat a slice of veggie pizza. It smells like weed smoke and beer, and I’m falling asleep so I go to my sleeping bag. Everyone talks late into the night. It still smells like weed over here as well as laundry detergent from my loaner clothes, and I listen as another group of hikers make their plans to get to Idyllwild. Everyone else here seems to be going for 20 mile days and then they’re crashing and burning, getting off trail or zeroing for several days because injuries and blisters. I think I’m going to stay with my trail family for a while longer and doing 15s.

The moon is finally here, a crescent moon lying on its back. The light bores into my eyelids. I rummage around for my headphones to quiet the noise, pull my hat over my eyes, and try to sleep.

Day 8- 15.8 miles from campsites at mile 85.3 to before Montezuma Valley Road at mile 101.1

I wake up naturally at 6. It was warm tonight and I always sleep better in my tent, even though I stayed up late last night writing. I talk with Karma and Colleen in my sleeping bag until finally we muster the heart to unzip our sleeping bags and get up. I eat random things out of my food bag and once we’re up we pack up super quickly. At first I was at a loss to how to pack my things efficiently since I don’t have to pack around a bear can anymore. Now it’s natural.

Then off we go. Sometimes Karma is in front and sometimes I am, with Colleen taking caboose, slow but steady. I’m still really jumpy from my rattlesnake encounter last night. Everything is a snake- a curved shadow, a twig on the side of the trail, anything patterned white and black or bulbous or S-shaped. Cliffs by the side of the trail are now scary, and bushes by the side of the trail are evil snake traps. Several times I jump back at what I think is a rattlesnake. I don’t feel confident or safe on the trail now, it sucks, and I’m frustrated.

Karma catches up with me and it feels great to have someone hike in front of me. I trail right behind her, and we talk about our favorite books and book series, and LOTR character trail names (Bombadil is both awesome and would be a great trail name. Why is everyone named after Aragorn and Frodo and Bilbo on the trail? Where are all of the Treebeards and Quickbeams?). Every now and then we stop so Karma can make some of her famous trail messages with rocks. The miles are going by quick and having someone hike in front of me eases my anxiety about rattlesnakes. I had no idea my first encounter would leave me so traumatized. We see plenty of other snakes slithering for cover.

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We reach the Third Gate Water Cache junction, and hike down. There is a giant mound of crushed plastic water jugs in a structure of plastic webbing, and three pallets under some tall bushes. There are only maybe 8 jugs left. I take only a liter and hang around taking to people. We met a girl named Alfalfa because she’s sprouting alfalfa on-trail. Just as I’m about to leave Nirvana pulls up! Apparently everyone was camped less than a mile behind us. I pass Tarantino, Mousetrap, Twerk, and Rachel as I head back out. I catch back up to Karma as she’s building one of her trail notes with pebbles on the trail and then we hike together for the rest of the day. The trail winds along the side of the hills in chaparral and we keep checking our Guthook’s app to see how far we are from the 100 mile point. 4 miles… 2 miles… We’re cruising in between snack and water and shade breaks.

Karma makes an excited sound as we round a bend, and we see a big “100” marked on the side of the trail with rocks. We take pictures, then head off. The hundred mile mark unfortunately wasn’t graced with shade or sitting rocks.

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We descend the last mile to our campsite, the vegetation turning greener and less desert-y as we go. When we get there, the hikers already there point us to the road where there’s some people doing trail magic. Glow In The Dark and 3-Guy offer us cold drinks and fruit and I take a lemon-lime soda. They’ve hiked sections and their daughter is somewhere between here and Julian, they’re hoping to surprise her and her boyfriend.

I go back and claim a spot with my tent. It’s a pain in the butt to set up, the stakes falling out of the loose sandy ground several times and collapsing the tent before I get it up for good. I love it so much when it’s set up, incredibly spacious, but it needs a huge tentsite and it’s just not worth struggling with it every night when I’m tired. I shouldn’t be having to cowboy camp just because I get too frustrated with trying to get it up in the loose soil and wind here in the desert, even though I like cowboy camping. I’m getting into Warner Springs tomorrow, Sunday, and will be able to pick up my packages the day after. One has food and the other has my mom’s Big Agnes Fly Creek tent. I’m excited to see what special things my family has added.

I sit in a circle in the dirt with the other hikers and eat food from my food bag. We go around and do Rose-Bud-Thorn, where we say something great about our day, a low point, and what we’re looking forward to. A couple people are grumbling because they think it’s goofy. It’s definitely goofy but why be negative about it? I mention hiking with Karma today, looking forward to Warner Springs, and my rattlesnake trauma. We make plans to see Guardians of the Galaxy 2 at the theater in Idyllwild. I cook instant mashed potatoes and then a hiker named Whizkid, who knows a lot of cool trivia facts, gives me her already-cooked Mountain House dinner of beans and rice and quinoa. I mix it all together with my potatoes and it’s incredible. Colleen, Rachel, Nirvana and Twerk all roll into camp, with a bunch of other people: Tarantino and Mousetrap and Jesus, who is currently being called Baby Jesus by the group in an attempt to make the trail name stick. I’m not sure if he’s happy with all of that or not.

Colleen and Karma and I go off together to find someplace to pee, announcing it in exaggerated valley-girl accents as our special girl expedition, pee rags swinging at our hips. Then we settle into our tents. No rush tomorrow to get into Warner Springs! People are still hiking into camp and somewhere a big group of hikers are talking and laughing, even though it’s 9:17, past hiker midnight.

Day 7- 8.3 miles from Scissor’s crossing at mile 77 to campsites at mile 85.3

Sleep is delicious. I wake up and want more of this sleep, unpunctuated by cold or shifting around to find a comfy spot on my egg-carton foam sleeping pad. Colleen isn’t in the room. We take turns using the bathroom and text her to find out where she is. She’s waiting for the continental breakfast downstairs. We sit around on the two beds looking at our phones and half-heartedly pushing our piles of gear around. Finally we get the will to go down. I pull my windpants over my sleeping pants to look less pajama-y and follow Twerk and Karma downstairs.

It’s a great continental breakfast. Yogurt, big pieces of fruit, lots of breads and cereals, instant oatmeal, orange juice. I go back for more.

Then more puttering around with our gear and talking about upcoming water sources. Colleen isn’t sure how reliable the two sources between here and Warner Springs are, and this convinces everyone to fill 6 liters worth of water. I groan dramatically as I pick up my water-heavy pack. I leave last and go over to Carmen’s to drop off my little moleskin journal and my tornado tube I tried to use for a gravity filter system in the hiker box. I order a big breakfast burrito and sit around in a confusion of hikers arriving and leaving, coming and going. I feel like I need to get going but I also feel I need one more meal before heading out. Carmen seems annoyed in general even though she breaks into smiles for incoming hikers and I feel uncomfortable being here.

The burrito is huge and delicious. Gluten tortillas and burritos are probably the things I’ve missed the most, a big gooey and stretchy and supple pocket stuffed with potatoes and eggs and cheese and salsa spooned on top. It’s gorgeous and heaven.

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Then I sit around and wait for someone I can hitch out of Julian with, antsy to leave. I walk down to the Post Office with Colleen and meet Karma there. Karma shows us a Facebook post Carmen made yesterday, complaining about hikers not tipping her waitress and wanting 2$ in change for the 3 dollar breakfast burritos. I feel even more uncomfortable now. I would have paid 5 dollars for that burrito, gladly. But I don’t think I did anything wrong? Aghhh!!!! The amount of generosity we’ve received at towns and roads is astounding, but sometimes I feel like it can be a little bit too much. For both the hikers, and the trail-angels who have welcomed hikers, now in ever-swelling numbers. I feel so bad.

I stick my thumb out and the first car stops, a couple on a business trip down to San Diego who are visiting the Anzo Borrego Desert for a few days before going back home. They know about the trail and the husband is currently section-hiking.

They drop us off and we walk to the Scissor’s crossing underpass to wait out some of the heat. We meet one of the people who maintains the cache and he says that both of the water sources we were worried about are very reliable. I drink one liter and dump another one over my head in celebration so I only have to carry four. There’s a trash can, recycling, a log book, and bins of water jugs and bins to leave the empty jugs. The pillars are graffitied with charcoal. Someone drew smiling cat faces everywhere.

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Scissor’s Crossing underpass

I eventually leave, Karma and Colleen packing up behind me. I’m stopped by an eager couple trying to do trail magic and I accept some tangerines, then point them to the underpass where all of the hikers are. They’re hiking next year. Then up! All of the plants are different on this side of the valley, barrel cactus and prickly pear and ocotillo with spiny snaky branches reaching up to the sky and tasseled with orange blooms. The switchbacks that looked so scary from yesterday’s descent are actually quite nice and gradual, winding around bends in the hills.

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The big plant in the center is an Ocotillo. They are one of the coolest plants I’ve ever seen, and I only saw them just north of Julian!

We cruise and leapfrog each other. I try to text my friends that are still back in Julian to see if they’re staying, but no-one replies. I’m up ahead, the sun setting, less than a mile from our tent site, when I have to stop and break out my poop kit. I scramble up the hill to find somewhere private. Colleen and Karma walk by below. I’m digging my cat hole when I see them walking along the other side of the ridge. (They can’t see me, or at least I hope not, though they know I’m there because I left my pack). “Amelia, we heard a rattlesnake by the bend so be careful,” Colleen shouts. “Okay!” I say back. A hummingbird flits by and stares at me. There’s a huge owl or eagle feather on the ground.  “It’s on a ledge,” she says. “Okay!” I shout again.

I finish up and start walking. I’m watching for the snake, looking for it especially at knee level where there are some ledges.

It’s right there by my foot. Stretched out about a foot away from me by the side of the trail. I utter something and run back several steps. I scream for 15 seconds, staring at it, and then scream for 15 seconds more. Then the sheer reaction wears off and I stab the trail with my poles, insulting the snake and yelling. It still hasn’t moved at all. I throw a small rock at it to see if it’s alive and it still doesn’t do anything. I take a picture. I talk to it as I’m doing this, calling it a good snek-snek and telling it to go away and asking it if it’s alive. There’s a orange rock cliff right against the trail and a steep drop off below, so it would be difficult to get around. It’s a dusty orange just like the rocks. I throw more rocks at it to try and make it move and suddenly it realizes I’m there, and is hissing and rattling and coiling up. Fff fff ffff f.

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I text Colleen. Halp, I say, It’s right on the trail and it’s pissed. I stand there for a long time. Finally two other hikers show up, Aaron and Ashleen, and we try to figure out what to do. It’s getting dark and I’ve been sitting here for 10 minutes. Luckily it’s not cold. It won’t move so eventually we go below the trail to get around. We have to throw our trekking poles up onto the trail and pull ourselves up some rocks. The snake is still right there and it’s started moving towards us but we’re around it. The sun is down and we walk the darkening trail in our headlamps. There’s a sliver of the moon and the valley below is maroon with dusk. I walk in front and jump at every stick or round thing or striped object. It’s fully dark when we get to Karma and Colleen, and they help me set up my tarptent in the wind with my headlamp on. My tent stake breaks and I hold my tent up while Colleen gets the extra stake I gave her back at the boulder field. Then I sit in the dirt in front of my tent and eat things from my food bag. Two babybel cheeses, and Almond Joy, handfuls of trail mix and granola and chili cheese Fritos. “Am I hungry or am I stress eating?” I ask. “Hungry,” says Karma, and I realize I’ve only had two oranges in the past 5 hours.

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It takes a long time to upload these images hence me sitting here writing snarky captions. Except the last one was deleted. So this is really the only snarky one. Oh well. Hello, reader! Nice to meet you. ♥

It feels kind of sad and lonely for all of us this evening and we talk about it as we rummage through our food and eat it. Most of our trail family is not here anymore, either ahead several days or probably still in Julian, and we’ll probably spread out soon, too- I might want to start trying for 20 mile days after Warner Springs in a few days, and would probably start sooner if it wouldn’t be Sunday when I’d hit it, with my first resupply boxes. It’s inevitable but it’s hard. I want to stay with my trail friends for a long time, because they really are like a family and I love being around them and laughing with them about silly things, but we have different bodies and speeds and needs for mileage. This trail for me is about saying goodbye to people. I hate saying goodbye and I think I’m going to cry just thinking about it. I think I’ll have to get used to it, though.