I can hear the rustle of people packing up. I look over and it’s Hop Along and Kyra. The sky is still dark, but it’s warm out, warm enough that I could be perfectly comfortable naked if that were my wish, which it wasn’t. I pack up quickly with my red light and force myself to chew a couple of handfuls of trail mix. I sit to put my shoes on and decide to change to my second pair of socks, since the ones I’ve been wearing are encrusted with a mud that is a mixture of sweat and dust. They’re dark and when I move them they crinkle like paper. My second pair have holes in them, in the big toe and on the bottom of my forefoot. But, they’re clean and smell like laundry detergent.
I fold up my accordion foam pad, and wince as I fold up my crinkly Tyvek groundsheet. Hop Along and Kyra have already left, headlamps bobbing away in the dark. The noise I’ve made packing up has woken up other people, and I can hear their zippers zipping. Tents begin to glow like fireflies around me.
I head out. There’s the faintest smudge of sun on the horizon in the crook of the mountains, greyed-out purple and orange. I smell the Poodle Dog Bush in the dark, and realize that I need to watch out for it still. I hike slow, my feet and legs warming up. I dip into a forest with hanging mosses and dead trees piled up on the slope, and think about every single horror movie I’ve had to watch the previews for, the horror TV shows I’ve accidentally watched the pilot episode of, every creepy pasta video I’ve watched over my brothers’ shoulders, the time when I was in middle-school and after my classes all of the kids would play Slenderman under the tables with the lights turned off.
Then the sun breaks over the horizon and the valley below slowly fills with golden light. All of the evil things are gone. I come up on Hop Along and Kyra, and sit to eat a more proper breakfast (basically just more trail mix). Across from us, we can see the trail cutting across the sides of the mountain, so far away.
I hike with them the next couple of miles to North Fork Ranger Station, where there is a cache that is the last water source until Acton. Hop Along got in first and comes out of the restroom, and announces that there is toilet paper, to which we cheer. Then we walk down the road a little bit more, everything still shaded from the sun by the mountain we just came down from. There’s a cooler of sodas and ice and trail bars maintained by the rangers, which are a dollar each. I only have a 20, so Kira throws in a dollar for me and I get a cold Coke. I sit on the picnic tables and drink it, watching the big group roll in. I lick my barbecue Kettle chips bag clean, then follow after Hop-Along and Kyra down the trail.
It’s hot, and my feet are sore. I leapfrog with a couple, Cowboy and The Flash, as the big group passes by us, practically running down the hill. I try to keep up with them for a while to see what it’s like, but I have to slap my feet down clumsily to match their pace. My feet hurt so I stop. At what point do I switch to a new pair of shoes? Mine feel pretty shot, the foam compressed down to almost nothing in some places so I can feel the sharp edges of rocks.
It’s hot, and I’m sweating. I can see the ribbon of green down below where the road must be. A raven croaks and circles around in the strong updraft. The wind buffets my face. The sky is so blue i have to squint. I put sunscreen on my hands and the back of my neck, but it just slides around and mixes with a film of sweat.
I try to learn how to whistle as I go around the flanks of the last hill before the road where I’ll walk to the Acton KOA. I blow air through my lips and try my tongue in different positions, but end up just raspberry-ing in frustration. I plop down in the dirt by the side of the trail and use my service to read articles on how to whistle. Everything contradicts everything else.
Kyra catches up and we hike the last mile to the road together. My shirt sticks to me with sweat, even though there’s a beautiful breeze that picks up my hat and throws it onto the side of the trail.
Kyra stops to leave a note for Hop Along, whose other knee is bothering her now, and I walk past a movie warehouse place to the KOA. There’s a big teepee and a field of grass with a rotating sprinkler head spraying water into the air. I see the glint of the blue pool water and squeal a bit about it with Kyra when she catches up.
We plop our packs down on a picnic table in the shade, and we go into the store to register. I pay for showers and pool access, then go back and get a pint of rum raisin ice cream. I sit with Kyra and eat it with my spoon. A guy who is looking for This Way comes up and gives us cold sodas. I tell him I haven’t seen him since he passed me walking up out of Cajon Pass.
Then I go down to the showers and clean myself, and wash my hiking clothes in the shower, rinsing them until I don’t squeeze out gray water. It’s glorious to have a shower room to myself and not have to rush to finish. I hop into the pool and swim around for a bit, stretching my left knee, which has been tight and sore like the right one was a couple of days ago, before Deep Creek. I think it’s just normal grumpiness after pulling a 24 mile day yesterday. I sit in the sun to dry, almost falling asleep.
I pull myself back to the picnic tables, where Hop Along and Kyra are. Cotton Candy shows up, and we all get pizza delivered from a place in Acton. I almost finish my half of a large veggie pizza, olives and mushrooms and onions and slices of green bell pepper. I shove the rest in a ziploc bag and pack up to leave with Hop Along and Kyra. I will gladly pay 15$ for pizza, apparently, but I refuse to pay 15$ to set up my tent here on a patch of dirt. Priorities.
We hike out, slow, complaining about the uphills in commiseration. We hike in the wind through wavy rock formations, the beginning of Vasquez Rocks. They’re named after an outlaw named Vasquez, who hid here for a while. A bunch of TV shows and movies have had scenes shot here, including Star Trek and The Lone Ranger. It makes me happy that Leonard Nimoy was probably in these hills.
We consider a spot along a ridge, but decide it’s way too windy. Nowhere is flat, it’s all hillside, but we find another ridge line that is more sheltered from the wind a minute later, and set up cowboy camps side by side. Hop Along eats her leftover pizza from a ziploc with her spoon, and we show each other pictures of our families and pets. Eventually we all cuddle up into our sleeping bags and stop talking and fall asleep.