Day 28- 22.1 miles from Swarthout Canyon at mile 347.2 to Highway 2 and Wrightwood at mile 369.3

I relied on the sound of other campers waking up early to wake me up, but when I open my eyes the sky is brightening and there are only two other people here, almost packed up. Dang it. I really need to get a cheap watch with an alarm.

I pack up and grab a water bottle from the cache to top off my bottles. I drink the rest of it with my breakfast, and filter the liter I carried in my dirty water bag. Then off I go, crushing the early miles up the base of the mountain with my early-morning energy. I-15 is still busy in the distance, reminding me of those video games where you need to dodge cars to get across an endless series of roads.

I feel like I’m the only hiker on the trail; that everyone is either ahead of me or vortexing at Cajon. It feels nice. I take plenty of breaks to eat snacks and pee, making my way up gentle switchbacks. It’s all up today, but if it’s all gradual like this I’ll be a happy camper. The desert is like a crumpled piece of old parchment below, the trail rising slowly above it all through burnt areas slowly turning green with new life. Tall dried grasses line the side of the trail at points, yellow seed cases swaying like so many stars around me in the early, golden light.

I start seeing some other hikers, passing them as they lazily enjoy camp and the view, or as they take second breakfast. I’m feeling good today. Whatever knee issue I had around Big Bear is gone after Deep Creek Hot Springs; I think it was just complaining and acclimatizing to the miles. The hot springs probably loosened all of the tight muscles up and helped fix it.

I have service and look at my phone; my friends are posting group pictures of each other and it makes me a bit sad even though I love the freedom of being solo. A older guy named Minion sits with me, who says he carries one liter of water for ten miles. Im sure I look at him like he’s crazy, which he is. When I get up again, the chafe on my inner thighs starts hurting, like it always does before I start walking again.

I come up on Sprite, Soulshine, Roadshow and Dr. Feelgood as they’re taking a break. I plop down by them, my thigh chafe burning. I put on some Glide, which makes it sting worse. They suggest I get some men’s spandex boxers for under my shorts so my thighs can’t rub at all. I’ll look in Wrightwood. It’s good to see them all again; I started with Sprite and Soulshine and cowboyed next to them at Hauser, and probably haven’t seen them since sitting with them under Sprite’s tarp with Karma and Nirvana on day 5. I crush out some more miles, stopping to eat and drink often in short 5-minute breaks.

I pass Twinkle Toes, who is having a slow off-day with frequent breaks, and is not having fun. I take a sun break with Roadshow, Sprite, Soulshine and Dr. Feelgood again, and lick my chips bag clean of the last of the chip crumbs. I’m hungry pretty much all day now, and have to eat constantly so I don’t hit a wall. Twinkle passes and says she’s going down Acorn Trail to get to Wrightwood earlier, and I say I’ll get in with her on a cheap hotel room if there are any.

Up, up, up!

Just before Guffy Camp and Springs, the trail turns very steep for a hundred yards, and I power up it, leaving Soulshine and Co. behind for a bit. A guy says the trail down to the water is very steep and it takes 8 minutes to collect a liter. I decide to move on, and text my friends behind me about the water situation. They’re at Cajon Pass stuffing themselves right now.

I have enough water to make it to the Highway, so I book it there as best I can after my long day. The trail winds along the top of the mountains, snow banks crouching in the shade. There are ski lifts here, with signs marking the difficulty of different ski routes. I pass a campground where people are making campfires, the smoke washing over me and making me hungry. But I’m out of things I want to eat. A dog barks at me.

When I’m a mile out from the highway and first glimpse it, Twinkle texts me and says she’s going to stay at a couple’s place in town and they’re picking her up in an hour. “They have a dog and a cat! Can you make it here in time?” she asks.

“Yep!” I say, and renew my pace. I hobble down into the trailhead parking area as a car is coming up. I half-heartedly stick out my thumb, not expecting anything, but they turn around and drive back. It’s a couple from LA out for the weekend to hike Baden Powell and go camping. They have two dogs and a baby and I squeeze into their front seat, thankful that my pack is light and small right now, before resupply. I don’t catch their names, but the guy went to UNR, the university in Reno, for a football scholarship! So cool.

They drop me off at Pine Street by the school, and I head off to the Yodeler to find Twinkle. She’s at the bar with a hiker named Bug Juice. I ask the bartender if I can get a black-bean burger in less than 10 minutes, and when I get it I scarf it down. Heath and Michelle, the people who are picking us up and letting us stay at their house, show up and get a beer after going jeeping out in the desert all day.

They drive us the mile to their house, and we get to meet Thor, their pit bull and bull dog mix. He’s not sure about us at all at first, but after Twinkle and I shower we meet him properly and he falls in love with me in particular. I realize I’m wearing my wind pants that I haven’t washed since I wore them at the Nobody’s place in Big Bear, so they probably smell like chihuahua and wolf.

We sit out on the porch and talk, while I rub Thor’s tummy. He complains whenever I stop, lying on the deck with a big smile on his face.

It’s a gorgeous house, which Heath and Michelle bought when it was a dump and have slowly been restoring. We look at pictures of the house when they first got it. The room we are sleeping in was pink and neon green, with a big asymmetrical blue star painted on the ceiling and Hannah Montana posters on the walls.

Eventually we go to bed. The bed is so soft, and I’m in my warm pajamas fresh from the dryer. They’re dropping us off back in town tomorrow early and I’ll get out without taking a zero. Life is good.