Day 32- 23.8 miles from Sulphur Springs Trail Camp at mile 406.6 to Messenger Flats Campground at mile 430.4

I wake up to everyone beginning to pack up around me. Swayed, Larry and Amanda are at the picnic table, almost ready to go. With my cowboy-camping superpowers, I’m up and walking before them. I hop over the creek to use the outhouses there, then walk down the road, looking for the PCT sign we saw on our walk in yesterday. I can’t find it, so decide to head back to the junction. The PCT split three ways, one heading south, and two heading north, which was confusing.

After bushwhacking my way across the creek, I see the PCT sign on the road, and take the trail across the creek again. I meet Swayed, Larry and Amanda there as they’re walking out. Swayed starts laughing, since I got out a good 2 minutes before them and clearly got turned around.

“I went in a bit of a circle,” I say sheepishly.

The trail goes along the road, and reconnects where the other trail from yesterday crosses. I think one of them was an equestrian route, but which one I’m not sure. I warm up my calves and feet, and then cruise for what feels like a hard two miles. I catch up to the Terrible Trio after falling behind for a snack break – as I will now call Swayed, Larry and Amanda, as they’ve all got an evil sense of humor. Or humour, since they’re all either British or Canadian.

I’m surprised to come upon Anika and Julian, since Julian looked knocked low for a couple of days, sick, after Baden Powell. Apparently the probiotic drink mix I gave them helped a lot, which I’m glad about.

I come upon the Trio, and turns out we’ve actually gone 5 miles, which is a great surprise. I sit down with them, and eat barbecue potato chip crumbs. “What is Swayed doing?” I ask, since he’s further down the trail, talking to someone. They tell me there’s service, after a day or two without it! Woohoo! I become the official announcer of cell service to passing hikers, and get to text my mom, and confirm my arrival date into Agua Dulce.

I pull myself up eventually, leaving a crowd of hikers with phones in my wake. It’s another 5 ish miles to the next water source, at a fire station. I put my head down and walk. A sobo stops me and tells me where the shortcut trail to the water is.

I come up to the water, and find about a dozen hikers crammed into the shade of the outhouse. I claim the picnic table with the Trio, and I filter water from the faucet and eat snacks from my food bag. The faucet sprays everywhere and I get soaked, which is good because it’s hot. A construction crew comes up and sets up shade and tables, but they’re just taking a lunch break from the heat and not feeding us. Entitled hikers, we are, who associate cars and people with magic surprise food.

Everyone leaves, one by one, and I claim a spot against the back of the outhouse where it’s shady and eat some more food. I’m the second to-last one out, before only Pascal, who is part of the big group/clique I’ve been traveling around. These big groups are so insulated. When everyone is all together they just talk with each other and largely ignore the other hikers. I’m pretty sure that’s how it was when I was with my group, which is now a day behind and completely morphed and amalgamated with another group. They’re now calling themselves “the Assholes” apparently. But now I hike solo so I’m not even a part of them anymore, and I just hop around from person to person and meet new people to hang out with every couple of days.

I follow some hikers from a distance back to the trail, through the Mill Creek Fire Station complex and across a road. The sun is hot, and I hike, looking up from my feet to check for snakes or Poodle Dog Bush, or to glance at the dry, burnt-out hills. The sky is a single, harsh blue under the brim of my hat. I can’t tell if I’m soaked with sweat or water from the faucet anymore. Sweat trickles down my bra. I have to wet the roof of my mouth periodically with my tongue, to keep it from being completely dry as I pant the hot air with my mouth. There’s a merciful breeze but it barely helps.

It gets cooler as I get higher and onto the other side of the mountain, where a wind threatens to take my hat away. I can smell the hot, sweet, cloying smell of Poodle Dog Bush before I can see the little castle-cloisters of bright green. It’s everywhere, and I’m careful to avoid it.

My feet start getting tired a mile before the stream, and I plop down in the shade for a couple of minutes with Cotton Candy, a hiker I haven’t seen since camping in the Boulder fields near Sunrise Highway on day 4. She has blue cotton candy colored hair that sits in buns on top of her head, and a hot pink shirt, and green leggings, and is generally colorful and spunky.

We get to the stream in a mile, and I filter water while sitting by the big group. Everyone leaves except for Kyra and I. I eat some peanut M&M’s from the huge ziploc Twinkle Toes gave me while Kyra soaks her feet, and then we hike together. Kyra is a super quiet person, but we stop every now and then to admire a view or a bunch of flowers or a burnt out tree that fell over, blackened roots holding enormous white boulders.

We’re hiking through some tall grass in an overgrown area full of Poodle Dog when the grass right by us erupts with buzzing. I freeze, and Kira jumps back. “Where is it?! Where is it?!” I ask. Kira tells me to move further down the trail. We watch the rattlesnake and wait for it to move. It disappears down the slope, and Kira moves by cautiously. We hike the long switchbacks together up to the top of a ridge, through forested slopes.

At the top, mountain tops rise faint and blue in the distance above a sea of white haze. Green mountains roll away below. The sun is bright and slowly falling to the horizon. It’s so beautiful I want to cry, and I slow down to a snail’s pace to enjoy it, walking with Cotton Candy while Kyra stops to put her knee brace on.

I throw down my groundsheet and sleeping pad at the campground, and dig out my sleeping bag to air out. The campground is officially closed, the tent-sites overgrown with grass, the bathrooms and trash cans locked. I sit and cook dinner, spaghetti,  with Cotton Candy, Hop Along, and Kira. We talk about our favorite Haiyao Miyazaki movies and I share the home vacuum-sealed bag of Parmesan I got in the hiker box in Wrightwood. The big group hangs out at another picnic table. We’re excited about the ice cream and pool at the Acton KOA in 14 miles- we debate getting up early to hit the pool in the heat of the day.

I watch the sun set from my sleeping bag as I brush my teeth, stratified pink and orange glowing on the horizon. My dirt tan is super intense right now.