Day 40- 21.4 miles from campsite at 511.5 to before Cottonwood Creek/wind farm at mile 532.9

I pack up under an overcast and cool sky and join the girls as they pack up. I sit on my foam pad by the side of the trail as I eat a packet of peanut butter crackers for breakfast. Their packing is deceiving, as Spider Mama and Tetris put away their tent last, so I always think they’re a good 15 minutes from getting out of camp when actually they’re almost done. I put the last cracker in my mouth and hike out behind them. Hitch with her two bum knees is first, and we hike behind her, taking the short morning miles into Hiker Town slowly.

When we hit the dirt road down to Hiker Town, I go ahead. The trail crosses a busy paved road, then along a chain link fence bordering Hiker Town. I look in and can see the little fake wild-west town, facades with signs above the buildings marking them as the jail, town hall, and general store.

I read the sign at the gate asking hikers for a mandatory 10$ donation and then go through. I don’t have any cash on me right now, but when I go to Neenach’s, the cafe/convenience store, I will. The shuttle to Neenach’s arrives right when we all get there, and we all get in the back area of the white van. “Exactly what our mothers told us to do!” we joke. Twinkle Toes gets out as we’re getting in and I say hi briefly. I’ll see her when I come back.

We get there and set our packs on the bench outside. I order a vegetarian breakfast burrito and a bagel with cream cheese, then I go sit in the lounge area. There’s a fan blowing on the ceiling, and moody, electric Indian music plays. I plug my battery and phone into the wall and take advantage of the mirror on the wall to make sure my face looks presentable. The burrito is delicious when it comes, but the bagel with cream cheese tastes oily and synthetic. I eat it anyway.

Hitch makes a sign on cardboard for hitching to Mojave, since she needs to be at Kennedy Meadows by a certain date for one of Ned Tibbet’s PCT snow safety courses, which is guided over Whitney and Forester. She has to take it slow because of her knees but her hiking partner, Claire, who we learn via text is now named Woodstock, is trying to get there on foot.

I get some lemonade and Gatorade and more snacks for my food bag, and we wait for the next shuttle back to Hiker Town. The van comes, and we say goodbye to Hitch and then hop in, watching as she stands on the side of the road, smiling, her Stetson hat hanging on her back, her freshly braided hair swaying in the wind. We shut the van doors, and by the time the driver finishes filling up with gas and pulls out she’s got a ride and is gone.

At Hiker Town, I drop a donation in the box and Bob gives us a tour of the collection of ramshackle, themed buildings. People have said that Hiker Town is super creepy and weird; I don’t feel like it’s creepy, but it’s definitely weird. It’s windy and overcast, the wind shrieking as it rushes past the buildings, the gray sky threatening rain. We claim spots in the building with the indoor shower. I get in first, washing the dirt off my legs. There’s a cup on the sink counter holding a razor and a toothbrush that says “Bae Watch,” which is either hilarious or a little bit creepy, depending on how seriously I take the wild conspiracy theories that were touted in the first hundred miles of the trail about the owners of Hiker Town being creepy perverts who have hidden cameras in the bathroom.

Then I collect my rancid, stiff hiking clothes and drop them off by the laundry machine until it’s free. I join Spider Mama for a trip to the “Cat House,” where there are kittens. There’s a friendly black one, a skittish black one, and a shy silver tabby. We rub the friendly kitten’s fur as they purr. Then we go to the lounge and watch Forrest Gump on the little box TV. Some of the hikers get a bit teary as Jenny blows Forest off again right before he leaves for Vietnam. I watch until my clothes are washed and dried, then change into them, still warm from the dryer.

Hop Along and Kyra show up; they didn’t take a zero at Casa De Luna, but just barely. Apparently there was a band playing live music. What. Hop Along has developed what she thinks is shin splints, and so they’ll probably take a few zeros here. I pack up and say goodbye to them as they’re settling into the Cat House and loving on the kittens. I hug them, and Hop Along says that she’ll miss hiking with me. I really, really hope I get to see them again, but I have a sinking, swallowing feeling I might not.

I fill up my water bottles and head out with Twinkle Toes. She’s an English major it turns out, so we talk about books and having/not having children and other things. It’s cool out, the storm threatening the valley earlier having blown over. We hike along a road, along a big metal pipe, along the uncovered Aqueduct. We joke about aquablazing the Aqueduct (doing trail miles by boat). We reach the covered part of the Aqueduct, which looks like an asphalt road with another broad, smooth dirt road beside it. Spider Mama and Tetris catch up and pass us as the sun is getting low. Twinkle stops to pitch her tent, and for a while I rush to try and catch up with Spider Mama and Tetris so I won’t have to night hike alone. Then I stop. It’s not worth it; I kind of want to try and night hike the rest of the Aqueduct alone.

I stop and eat something I got at Neenach called a moon pie, as I look up at the crescent moon up in the sky. It’s like a double whoopie pie with actual marshmallow instead of cream filling. The horizon is still blushed with orange and Lancaster is a sea of lights far off. House lights twinkle in the valley from the direction I came. I shoulder my pack again and start walking.

The road is smooth and flat and I walk without my headlamp, the moon casting a faint shadow of myself in front of me. It’s only light enough to see the road ahead of me as a pale white lane, and possibly any bumps or dips in it that I could injure myself on. I try not to be freaked out by the darkness, and I don’t want to turn my headlamp on because it will ruin my night vision. As I’m walking, I remember a night when I was 8, in Deep Springs Valley where my dad went to college. My dad and I were walking back to our tent in the dark, along the wide, pale dirt road leading towards the dairy barn; I wanted to turn my light on, but he convinced me to walk beside him in the dark, looking up at the stars. He told me not to be afraid of the dark, and I held his hand, warm and rough and strong, until I felt safe.

I stop as a bat comes and swoops around me, big and silent in the night. Its wingspan must be more than a foot and a half; it flies around me like a manta ray in the water, big black wings moving in slow motion like they’re underwater. I watch it, turning in circles, until it flies off.

Joshua trees hunch over and watch me in the darkness. Every now and then I pass the gray shadows of PCT markers, and roads crossing the Aquaduct heading up to the mountains. A car in the distance sweeps its head beams on a lonely route through the desert. I stand still and watch it until it is out of sight again.

I hike in the dark with my headlamp off for several more hours. The wind farm appears in the distance and gets closer, lights blinking red in tandem, ominous eyes in the dark. The wind becomes stronger. I begin to yawn, and two miles before the water source I decide to stop and set up camp. Lancaster is a strip of lights on the horizon. Wind blows over me, rushing over my face and against my cheeks. The night is warm. Tomorrow it will be hot. It’s midnight; today will be hot.