I go down below my tent site to get some water before hiking out in the morning. The water is sitting in what the water report calls a guzzler- there’s a big concrete area that catches melting snow and funnels the water into a concrete-covered pool. There’s a scoop made out of a milk jug and I use it to lean down and scoop some water out. The water in my dirty bag is orange and has squirming mosquito larvae. I squeeze my dirty water bag between my legs (my normal water-filtering technique, since I hate squeezing it with my hands) and the water comes out a slightly lighter shade of yellow. I sip some from the top of my water bottle, and it actually doesn’t taste bad at all.
I head out. The mosquitos that I hid from last night in my tent swarm around me, and I speed down the trail, holding back panic as they fly around my face. It makes me mad because I know they’re not even bad right now; they’re not buzzing, or trying to land on my or bite me. I don’t know how I’ll manage once I hit the bad ones.
I fly past Big Sky on my mission to out walk the mosquitos, but I don’t see anyone all morning. I know the 500 mile mark is soon, so I keep up my pace. Then, there it is, the arranged rocks catching my eye before I can register what they actually spell. I do a little dance as “I’m Yours” ends, which I’ve taken to playing out loud on a loop to boost my mood, ever -since Hiker Heaven. There are two more rock-500s immediately afterwards, and 500s written in the dusty trail with trekking pole tips. Everyone is excited. I add a lopsided smiley face in the middle of the trail with my hiking pole.
The mosquitos have finally gone, but now there are flies everywhere. I try to take a break in the shade and 40 of them swarm around my face and try to bite my legs, so I jump up again and start walking. I’m in a bad mood with the nonstop bugs, and I realize that I’m probably bonking out and need to stop and eat so I’m no longer grumpy, but I can’t, the flies will swarm me. I struggle on for another half-hour, drenched in sweat, walking slowly, flies everywhere but manageable as long as I’m moving.
I finally force myself to stop. I’m wet with sweat. I throw down my sleeping pad on the side of the trail and flop down. I make myself eat some trail mix and cheese puffs, crying as flies try to crawl into my mouth and bump into me and land on my legs. It feels like I’m sitting here and people are standing around me and poking me with their fingers. I want to tell the flies that I need space, I need a bubble, but they won’t listen.
After eating I feel in a much better mood, but still on edge as they flies continue to try and land on me. I killed a bunch of them and they’re skittish now, and won’t land for more than a second.
I put my earphones in and shuffle all of my music, and hike.
After a long time, I see Christine aka Hitch walking ahead of me, with her double knee braces. I catch up to her where the trail crosses a road and we flop down together in the shade under a tree. There is a breeze here, keeping the flies occupied, and they mostly bother Hitch. Ha. Spider Mama and Tetris, the Danish and Netherland girls from last night, catch up. They left before me, but stopped to get water at a cistern that had a fox skeleton in it. A guy named Seabiscuit joins us. We sit there for a couple of hours, eating “food from ziplocs” as I say mysteriously when they ask me anything about what I eat. We joke that Scylla and Charbyllis are down at the water cistern since none of the hikers who have gone down for water have returned. “Or there could be trail magic,” one of them says, and we are very sober about it for a moment. Trail magic is no joking matter, but we decide there must just be a nice shady spot down there. We talk about our plans to night hike the LA Aqueduct across the Mojave tomorrow. I might do it with them, and I’m definitely going to join them in camp tonight for more Harry Potter.
Around 3, we hike out to pound out another 3.5 miles to Horse Camp, which has a spring that a south bounder told us a day ago had delicious cold water. The miles are downhill and it’s cooler, the trail going down the flanks of the hills among fields of grass and stands of oak trees. Spider Mama and Tetris catch me as I finish peeing, and chide me when they realize I walked maybe 10 feet off-trail behind a bush, when they usually just stop in the middle of the trail no matter what. As it was, they almost walked up on me. I pass them again as they’re whipping out their matching pee rags in tandem.
The trail starts its descent into the Mojave valley. It rises beyond the hills below us and stretches off like a dusty, flat moonscape to the far-off mountains. We’re going to cross that. I search for the Aqueduct where we’ll cross straight across the valley tomorrow.
I get to Horse Camp and set my pack down on the picnic table. The trail down is steep, but the water is cold and someone has rigged a plastic pipe so that we don’t need a water scoop. The trail back up is hard and when I get up I collapse at the picnic table, panting, hugging the sun-warm wood with my face.
I eat some peanut M&Ms and filter the rest of my water, then head out for another couple of miles after Hitch and the Consistent Talkers. The trail is lined with big bushes with feathery, perfumed white flower heads. The sky is marbled with clouds. I come up to the girls as they’re sitting up on a hillside with only their bras and shorts on, letting the sweat dry from their skin. I take my shirt off, too, and carry my backpack up to the hillside to quickly set up my cowboy camp. I bring my food bag down and cook a Knorr pasta side for dinner, to which I add too much water so it’s more like a noodle soup. They have pasta sides too and add ramen.
I stand up to walk back to my camp to put some things away. “Look!” I say. The sun is glowing like an orange burst in the crook of the hills, the marbled clouds catching aflame like colored glass in front of the sun.
I come back and lay my sleeping pad down in the middle of the trail and listen to another chapter of Harry Potter as Tetris and Spider Mama take turns reading it aloud from their Kindle. Harry, Ron and Hermoine go to visit the Hogwarts kitchens and find Dobby there. The house elves give Harry and his friends food to take back to the dorms with them. “Mmm, chocolate eclairs!” says Spider Mama.
I stumble back through the bushes to my camp, and cuddle into my sleeping bag. Tomorrow we are going to hike the short 7-8 miles into Hiker Town, and nap and eat food and shower in preparation for the long night hike ahead, more than 20 miles across the dry valley floor along the Aqueduct with no water.