Day 9- 18.5 miles from Mike’s Place (126.9) to Mary’s Place/Walden (145.4)

I wake up to Ziploc and Maddy conversing with each other from their tents. I was surprisingly warm last night, pinned under my tarp. I lift the edge of my tarp to see Maddy’s face and a sliver of incredibly gray sky. “Hello, good morning,” I say.

“Good morning,” she says, and laughs.

Apparently condensation has pooled into two little puddles at the base of my sad little tarp’s pitch. When I feel the outside of my quilt, its is a little bit damp on the outside from the internal condensation, but it’s not too bad. I finally gather myself to wriggle up out of my cave and onto the concrete slab.

The entire world is gray, but it didn’t rain. Ziploc thinks we’re just in a cloud. I pull my quilt out and pat it dry with my sleep socks and leave it to dry on the table on the front porch. I slowly pack up. Off-Trail announces there’s hot dogs and coffee in the food hut, so I get my pot out and get some hot coffee to warm my hands. Later I’ll make myself drink it. I don’t particularly care for coffee and it doesn’t look like it’s particularly good. I cook some couscous for breakfast, which is absolutely gross. I force down half of it and dump the rest of it in the food pile of banana peels in the field.

Ziploc and OT head out. Someone starts a drum solo on the drum set inside, I finish packing up and head out with Maddy into the cloud. At first it’s all grey and cold, but within a couple of minutes the cloud starts clearing and the the sun shines down on us, clouds shifting across the chaparral hills and faraway mountains like white, lumbering, ponderous giant snakes.

We stop and strip off our extra layers. It’s so pretty!! Last year this section was so hot, that it was 90 degrees by 10 in the morning. It was also early enough that the sun was too bright to see much. I can see what I assume is San Jacinto in the distance.

We hike together, Yogi and Boo Boo, chatting occasionally and taking pictures of the view. We hike with a guy named Clayton who we’ve been calling No-knees, since he has a technique of walking he says doesn’t use his knees. He also has rigged magnets to his trekking poles and pack so that he can just attach them up when he’s hiking.

“Magic Man, or Magician, or Magic Trick,” I say, “What’s better? Wait. What about Magneto?” I say.

Maddy likes it, and he doesn’t have any complaints. “Mag-no-knee-to!” she says. He’s funny and gets our humor and is fun to hike with.

We take a long break at the clearing above Tule Springs. Several people come back up without getting any water because it’s so bad. It’s probably the worst source in the desert, so maybe the entire trail, so we all skipped it.

Then onwards! I talk about ecology and I identify more of the plants around us. We look at agave plants and I postulate about their possible evolution, the way if looks like there were once several leaves that fused together. It’s cloudy and getting chilly. We listen to music on our phones and sing out loud on the downhills.

I briefly get behind her and catch up to her and Magneto at the water cache at the dirt road. We talk and hike to Walden, aka Mary’s Place, a section of her property that a local named Mary lets hikers sleep on and that she’s set up with an outhouse, picnic tables, a Little Free Library, and a water cache that Mary maintains herself. She comes in as we’re setting up our tents against the wind, and Ziploc stops by to talk to her and thank her.

We all sit at the picnic table to eat our dinner. Ziploc and OT and Magneto and Maddy and a section hiker/PCT veteran Girl Scout. It’s going to be a cold night and we’re all preparing for rain. The sky is gray with fast-moving clouds that don’t look like too much rain, but you never know. Whatever happens it will be chilly and I will be damp with condensation in the morning. I crawl into my tarp, which I’ve pitched low at the end with a stick I’ve found. I’m pretty sure my pitch will hold.

Day 8- 17.4 miles from Warner Springs (109.5) to Mike’s Place (126.9)

We pack up and get breakfast at Warner Springs Grill. Then we stop by the airstream to say goodbye to Pillsbury, and we’re off. Maddy and I hike together, talking, all the way up. We leapfrog Oldtimer as we go. Through some more fields, through the abandoned roles and obstacle course. Nearing Agua Caliente Creek we join a steady stream of dayhikers who look like they’re doing a guided or group hike, led by ecologists who are identifying the plants for everyone.

A hiker going the opposite way stops us. “Are you thruhikers?” She says.

We nod.

“I’ve got something for you guys, one second.” She rummages through her day pack and pulls out a half-gallon ziploc full of mini snickers.

“Thank you!” We say, although neither of us really likes snickers, and we are carrying a full resupply to Idyllwild already. We couldn’t refuse. Oldtimer comes by as she’s heading off and we’re putting the snickers into my mesh back panel.

“You were Yogiing that poor woman?” He accuses.

“No!” we say, laughing, “she gave them to us!”

“Yogi and Boo-Boo, terrorizing poor dayhikers,” he says, shaking his head, and keeps walking.

I stop and ask one of the hike leaders if they’re a local and the names of some of the chaparral plants around us. “Oh, that’s Chamise,” he says of the common scrubby plant that we’ve seen every day. The big tree/bush plants with bright, feathery green leaves and red bark peeling off the trunk in strips is Red Shank, the maple-oid climbing vines are Wild Cucumber, and he identifies the long pole-like cacti as something we can’t remember.

We stop and filter water near the top of Agua Caliente, and Maddy and I splash around in the creek and eat and sit in the sand while Ziploc and Oldtimer move on. We head off, too.

“Red Shank, Chamise, Wild Cucumber, Bob’s Cacaw Gordelle,” I chant as we walk. We’ve decided that that’s what we’re calling the cactus with the unmemorable name. I identify the other plants around us. Yucca, Manzanita, Joshua Tree, Agave, Cheat Grass, Sagebrush, Desert Mallow.

The trail goes up, up up, all the way up the mountains. Even though it’s cool out and breezy, with a cold front blowing in, my forearms sweat. Last year this climb was incredibly hot and I couldn’t take any breaks because of the biting flies.

We finally climb over to the other side of the mountain, the weather chilly and windy. Giant rosy granite boulders stand upright, speckling the mountainside. Maddy, a climber, is excited about them and points out different ones with cool textures that she’d like to climb. She stops at one. “That is a nice boulder,” she says, and I laugh and repeat what she said in Donkey’s voice from Shrek.

Clouds and wind start moving in. We stop and take a break together in the shade, OT and Ziploc and Maddy and I, and we quickly become cold. Brrr. We jump up and keep moving to the water tank at Mike’s Place, fighting the wind. It’s not quite enough to throw me around but it’s biting and chills me. I’m worried about camping in it. We reach the hand-painted signs pointing up the side trail and follow it up a rise and then down onto Chihuahua Valley Road. Maddy and I swing our packs down and Ziploc and OT come behind us. The sky is turning grey and stormy.

“You know, I hate to say this, but we may need to go and camp down at Mike’s Place to keep out of the wind,” Ziploc says. The only camping up ahead is on a ridge-top that was windy even on a nice night last year. I hate to agree, as I don’t particularly want to spend a night at the property, but in a group I should be fine. And hopefully we’ll be sheltered from the brewing weather.

The inside spots are all taken, in the sun room and the ancient, dilapidated RV. We set up in a row against the house and pound our stakes into the ground with a hammer. I pin the bottom of my tarp flat to the ground and crawl under to spread my groundsheet and sleeping pad and quilt down. It looks very, very miserable, dirt already encroaching onto my Tyvek.

Off-trail, the person who takes care of Mike’s property and the hikers, pulls out a veggie pizza and it’s warm in my freezing hands and it’s soft and good and makes my sleeping situation feel a little bit better. I put all of my possible clothing on and still I’m not quite warm, fleece and sleep clothes and rain gear and wind pants.

I stand around and contemplate my sleeping situation. I want a tent. Finally it’s cold and dark enough outside that I give in and literally slide myself under my tarp, which lies flat against the dirt. Yep, a tent sure would be nice. I sit up and write bullet notes for the day. My hands are too cold to type on my phone and even the short 3-word notes are riddled with typos.

It’s actually not too bad under the tarp, kind of warm and snug, and the ground which required a hammer for our stakes because of how rock-hard it was is not too hard under my foam pad. It smells like weed here, from somewhere, and the porch light shines on my left side. The worst of the wind is blocked by the house and I’ll have a dry porch to pack up under tomorrow if it rains. I hope it doesn’t rain.

Day 7- 18.3 miles from 3rd Gate Water Cache (91.2) to Warner Springs (109.5)

I wake up to my collapsed tarp. I get out by reaching down and pulling out the stakes and pulling the tarp behind my head. I pack up and pee, Regan still sleeping. Then I’m up, my feet feeling good and the miles gentle.

The trails continues to curve around the hills, rising up and down. The grade is so gentle it feels flat, though, and I only see one of the German hikers from last night all morning as we flip around each other. The trail traverses to the other side of the mountain and I judge each bend to remember which holds the 100 mile mark. I don’t stop except to drink water, and finally reach it.

The miles are flying by, and now I’m thinking about getting into Warner- I’ll be at Barrel Springs in an hour or two, and then if I don’t go to Warner today I’ll have to sit around today, do a really short day in tomorrow, sit around some more, zero in Warner Springs (more sitting), and then wait for the post office to open on Monday. Which is absolutely ridiculous and I would go wild. I check the time and mileage left until the PO closes at 1:30. It’s 10 miles and 4 ish hours. I think I can make it as long as I keep a 3 mph pace. I can bounce my box coming on Monday to Idyllwild. Then I’ll see Ziploc and Oldtimer and Drippy and maybe Maddy again.

I reach Barrel Springs and the bottom of the mountains at 9:30 with 8.5 miles left to go. It’s a big flat clearing under old-growth trees, with a big trough fed from the spring by a pipe. One of the Germans is sitting down on a log. I set my pack down and check that I have water, and pull some snacks from my bag. I stuff a fruit bar into my mouth. “I’m goffing to tfy and mak it to the posf office,” I explain, with hand gestures, and then head off.

I’m glad I measured my walking mph while training this spring, because now I know when I’m making 3 mph. I am. The trail wends though golden grassy fields with mountains in the distance and knolls of trees and hills in between them. I follow two hikers at a distance. My left knee is a little painful, but not too bad. I pause to drink water at the tops of the crests of each of the little hills, and check my time. I think I’m gaining.

I see eagle rock in the distance, the trail dipping up and down through a golden field sprinkled with bright orange poppies. The granite outcropping is congregated with dayhikers in bright colors. I stop by and get a picture and keep going.

Last year I asked whether people would go see Eagle Rock if eagles didn’t exist, I think to myself, but this year I ask- what if it was a rock that looked like a pigeon instead?

File that under, “Deep thoughts, Picnic 2018.”

I pass dayhikers and horse riders and a band of Boy Scouts on the last couple of miles in. The trail is shaded by trees and dropping down alongside a stream to the road. I walk up to the road, through a chained gate, along to the Community Center gates and the parking lot, and see Drippy and OT as they walk around near the camping field. I have 45 minutes to get to the PO. I register in the community center, and ask if there are rides. Nope. I set my pack down under the tree in the camping area and head down the path to the PO. I can’t figure out a latch on a gate and duck under the barbed wire instead, and alternate between walking and jogging. My knees are pretty sore.

I get to the PO and get my packages and bounce my Monday box with my sleeping bag and tent to Idyllwild, and then walk slowly back to the Community Center in a happy, tired daze, hugging my packages to my chest. The sun is bright and my eyes are half-closed, and I sing out loud as I walk. Mariachi by Ani Difranco, and Country Roads by James Taylor, and snatches of whatever comes to mind.

I get back and pick out some loaner clothes that look like they belonged to crotchety old men, and take a bucket bath out back, and rinse some of the grime out of my clothes. I walk with Maddy and OT and Ziploc back to the grill to eat dinner. We get back to the Community Center, full, and sit and talk at the picnic table. Apparently there’s a storm coming into Idyllwild. Pillsbury, the owner of the mobile gear shop here, 2 foot adventures, comes and chats. I go with Maddy to her airstream to get myself new shoes since mine have ~400 miles and we talk inside together about life and gear and belonging on trail and with people, until it’s dark out and Maddy and I head back and sit at the picnic table. I sort my resupply and set up my tarp and then we go to bed. I hope I get to hike around Maddy for quite a while. It’s really fun being around another young person, and even beyond that I feel like we get along pretty well.

I get in my quilt in my tarp. I can head the cars on the road. My neighbor is snoring. Birds are calling from the trees. Goodnight.

Day 6- 13.9 miles from Julian (77.3) to 3rd Gate Water Cache (91.2)

Drippy heads out early, planning on pushing a 25 mile day to Barrel Springs- I get up and give him a hug and wish him a good hike.

Stretch and I dally around in the room. Her bus is at 8:45 and the lodge’s breakfast is at 7:30. I pack up my things slowly. I have to eat the edges off of my leftover pizza to fit into the two small ziploc bags I’m able to scrounge. Breakfast is good, I eat some blueberry muffins and orange juice and cantaloupe and a cute little can of apple juice, not because I want apple juice but because the can is cute.

I fill up my water bottles back at the room and head out with Stretch into town. I drop off some things at Carmen’s that Drippy had left on the dresser for the hiker box. Stretch buys some popped chips at the store to snack on for her bus ride, and then we go and wait at the bus stop. Four Cheese and Sangria are waiting for the bus back home, too, and so is another section hiker I don’t know. One of the employees at Carmen’s comes and I talk to her for a while about broken feet and how the walking boots screwed up our bodies, and Carmen selling her restaurant Monday. Hopefully the new owners will be welcoming. The lodge is expensive and fills up quickly, and without Carmen’s place open to stay at I could see a lot more hikers skipping over Julian. It’s a really pretty town.

The bus comes, and I hug Stretch goodbye. Once she’s in I wave goodbye and start walking down the road to the post office to hitch, past tourists in nice clothes and people walking their dogs. I talk with a hiker couple waiting for the PO to open, and then stand on the side of the road, holding my thumb out at passing cars. I grin at them, and wave as they pass by with my other hand. My backpack is propped up on the grass by my knee.

Soon enough I see a woman in a car motion towards the shoulder ahead and pull off. I sling my pack on and walk forward, thanking her profusely when I reach her. She’s a younger woman who speaks with a calm, soft cadence. In the passenger seat is her cream-colored cattle dog, Josie. I offer her my hand to sniff and she slathers my palm with kisses (I only remembered the dog’s name. Whoops).

I talk with her as she navigates the hilly and windy road down to the desert. Trees lining the road slowing give way to desert. She’s dropping Josie off with her parents near Scissor’s Crossing before going on a day trip to San Diego, and she’s working on getting a graduate degree in reading education.

She drops me off at the PCT at the first crossing, and I thank her and Josie and walk to the underpass. The rooster is still there, and I sit for a bit and talk with some hikers coming in and give the rooster some water. Then I head off.

I’ve been looking forward to this section, because just north of Julian are ocotillos and lots of different cactus, and they were in bloom when I came through last year. I’m walking as slow as I want, through hills that slowly fill with with enormous barrel cactus and beaver tail cactus and Joshua tree and blooming Yucca like enormous asparagus. A bit higher up are the ocotillos, long, dead-looking, slender, winding rods thrusting up from the earth, covered in spikes and tasseled at the tips with orange plumes of flowers. They’re alien and beautiful, and it’s a really nice temperature out with an occasional breeze.

The trail is gently graded and I take my time. The sunglasses that Stretch gave me stay on my face and they aren’t scratched to hell and that makes me happy. I’m only going a mile or so an hour. I’m no longer in a rush, or on a schedule to get at a meeting place for the night. I’m not worried about keeping up or waiting to take a break until I’m with my group. I only know that I have the trail to myself, in an empty bubble between hikers coming into Scissor’s Crossing this morning and those that hiked out yesterday, and that I’m going to go as far as I am going to go, to maybe before 3rd Gate Water Cache.

It’s the same feeling of relief and freedom that I got after I stopped hiking with my group last year. For the first time I feel like I’m enjoying myself and can make my own decisions. I really liked all of my friends in both groups, but what I’ve realized is that maybe I don’t thrive hiking in a group, or maybe that it’s good to fall behind every now and then so I can hike by myself. Or maybe I just needed some good sleep. I really don’t know. All I know is that I’m feeling much better today.

The trail winds along the sides of the hills, and the wind picks up, throwing up dust devils on the trail above me. Below is a grassy, golden valley with a road along the bottom. I stop and take breaks and eat my soggy pizza. My feet and knees are achey but I’m not pushing them. I think new shoes will be nice.

It finally feels okay to be thruhiking again. This is fun. I stop and read some blog posts Carrot put up about her Brooks Range Traverse this summer. The sky is an endless pure blue. I take pictures of cactus and feel happy. I sit perched in the shade of the mountain bushes and juniper and write this journal post. Life is going to be ok again after my hard days into Julian.

I get up and hike the last stretch to the 3rd Gate water cache. I sign the trail register at the junction. Maddy was here today recently, and so was Drippy. I haven’t seen Swayed’s name in any logs since that one time. I wonder if he’s still ahead, or just isn’t signing the logs. It would be good to see him again.

I walk down to the cache and sit with the group of hikers there. There are 3 different pallet loads of fresh gallon-jugs of water, covered in blue tarps. There’s a corral for crushed, empty bottles, and a peanut butter donation jar crammed to the rim with ones and fives.

There’s a girl named Regan with her name tattooed in cursive with a bunch of others on her shoulder, and some guys with light-looking packs who form a group. One of them wears a blue button-down shirt with a hood that’s so long it looks like a dress over his short-shorts, and who stares comically and tiredly into the distance as he eats a bar. There’s a guy with a stutter, who leads the conversation, and a guy with a short, wide build. I take some water and sit and talk.

Regan doesn’t want to camp alone, and I don’t want to walk any further when I want to give my body a break, so after the guys leave we climb up to where a German guy is set up. We find a hollow in the bushes that might be more sheltered from the wind. We squeeze in, my tarp flapping where I set it up, lopsided in the corner.

The German’s friends come and I sit with them to cook some noodles while Regan goes to look for cell service. “Don’t worry about me, you can keep on talking in whatever,” I say. Occasionally they break from German to explain what they’re laughing about. One of them wants to open a shop in Germany where they only sell Ramen Bombs- instant ramen and instant mashed potatoes. “Maybe… if you set up near a college campus and are open 24/7,” I tell him.

I crawl into my tarp and stay awake, waiting in suspense for my poor, cramped pitch to come loose as it billows and snaps in the breeze. Which stake will come out first? Eventually the stake counterbalancing the pole near my feet comes loose, silencing the worst of the tarp flapping and cocooning me in soft, rippling silnylon. And sleep.

Day 5- 13.7 miles from Chariot Canyon (63.6) to Julian (77.3)

I sleep badly, exposed to the wind and too close to a dark patch of small cottonwoods and poison oak to feel entirely safe. Especially after seeing the rattlesnake slide from them and through camp yesterday. I had an alarm set for 4 but I kept waking up to check the time, so I turned it off. I am awakened at 4:30 anyway to Ziploc packing up, so I start shoving my things away by the light of my headlamp, too, and am ready just a minute or two after he leaves.

I stumble off to go pee and discover I bled through my shorts last night, and now there’s probably a big spot on them, although it’s kind of hard to check squatting behind some shrubs in the middle of the night. Great.

I head out, passing Drippy packing up in the dark. I hike up alone in the pitch black, up part of a dirt road before finally joining trail. Last year, when I woke up at 4 to hike this, the wind was blowing and I was spooked even hiking with Twerk. Now the darkness is comfortable and safe.

I race up the far side of the mountain to catch the sunset, a blaze of brilliant orange over ranges of mountains across the valley. Drippy catches up. I break briefly with him and Ziploc before starting the descent. I pop music in and feel like a zombie, tired and achey and mindless, my brain glazed over as I endure the long descent.

During the last flat bit across the valley floor, I’m absolutely done. I’m bleeding, my knees hurt and feel swollen, my foot muscles hurt and pain lances across the top of my feet with every step, my pinky toe blisters scream, and I haven’t slept much in more than a week. I’m covered in sweat and dust and grime and I don’t know why I’m doing this. I want to cry but am too tired to. I think this is the most miserable I’ve ever been.

I reach the road and cross it, walk along it towards the underpass. As I approach I hear a rooster crowing. A little bantam rooster wanders around in the shade, pecking at the dirt. I set my pack down against a pillar and sit down. One of the hikers said Drippy just left to hitch. Ziploc comes in, OT comes in and says he’s hitching in because he’s low on food, and I jump up to join him. We catch Stretch and she joins us as we walk to the highway junction under the sun.

There aren’t many cars, and I remember the long, hot wait last year. We stick our thumbs out, and one of the first cars pulls up. It’s the mail woman in Julian coming back from her route. She’s technically not allowed to pick up hikers on the job but she gives us a ride anyway, and talks about the history of Idyllwild on the windy road up, pointing up at different mountains as we go. She drops us off and we thank her.

I don’t know where Drippy is or if he has Sprint service up here, so we head up to Carmen’s. He’s there, so I give a hug to Carmen and go with everyone to get food. I get a veggie melt, which has cucumbers. I’ve never had cucumbers on a sandwich, let alone a hot sandwich, and it’s good.

I think I need to stay in town and let my foot rest for the night and ice it, and Stretch is staying. We convince Drippy to share a room and walk down to the Julian Lodge. The earthquake we felt last night (a 3.9!) shut off all the power in town, but the guy is able to use cell service to get us checked in. He has a dog behind the counter which we lavish with affection. We take showers, Drippy and Stretch bond over Pokémon Go, and Stretch and I set up a ice bath for our feet. We rinse our clothes out as best we can in the sink.

We go to the Italian restaurant for dinner. I get a veggie pizza but I’m so stuffed from lunch that I can’t even think about eating any of it. I get it to go.

We go back to our room. It’s dark out, and I’m still feeling tired and overwhelmed from this morning. I need sleep, I can’t function like this, so I go out into the parking lot and call my mom and let everything out, crying, watching a cat clean its fur in the light of a tourist shop. It feels good to talk it all out with her, and hear her voice. I ask her to send my sleeping bag and Fly Creek tent to Warner Springs so maybe I can sleep better on trail, so I’m not cold and uncomfortable at night and so I am enclosed and feel safe.

We finish talking and I sit and wait for my tears to dry before going back to the room. I sit in bed and talk with Drippy and Stretch. The bed is so comfortable and I am so, so tired, and it’s not long before I am asleep.

Day 4- 17.6 miles from Laguna Campground (47.5) to Chariot Canyon (63.6)

Through the beginning of the night I’m cold and unable to sleep. I feel exposed and alert. The cold comes seeping in and stabbing at my sides through spots in my sleeping bag where the down isn’t distributed. My Tyvek groundsheet is crinkling. It sounds like footsteps. My brain, already on alert, sharpens and my heart starts pounding. It’s just the Tyvek, I tell myself sternly. I force myself to breathe.

There it is again, quiet treading very close to my head. I yell in alarm and lurch up in my sleeping bag and twist around in it to look behind me. The space I have under the trees is dark so I can’t see much, and my lurching covers most of the noise, but I see a shadow leap back and stand still by the trunk of a tree. I stare at it, heart thumping. Windbreaker shifts nearby on his sleeping pad, probably disturbed by my shout, and the shadow streaks away across the meadow and disappears. The moon illuminates it enough to show the lithe shape and long tail of a raccoon.

I don’t see it again the rest of the night, but I can hear it, it’s there, and I stay awake for most of the night, listening for paw-steps and breaking twigs. Several times I turn on my flashlight and shine it into the woods. “Go away, leave us alone,” I say into the woods, the wind stirring the grasses and tree branches, the night air cool on my cheeks and sinking, chilly, on where my quilt is tightened around my shoulders. The light only shows the bare tree trunks. I turn my quilt the other way around on my groundsheet so I lie facing the trees.

I finally fall asleep sometime after 3, and wake up a couple hours later to everyone packing up. My eyes are so heavy that they feel like there’s a weight on them, sinking down onto the rim of my skull. I sit in my sleeping bag, exhausted, until I give in and get out of my quilt.

“If anyone heard someone yelling last night that was me,” I say, mincing barefoot to the picnic table with my food bag. “There was a raccoon right by my head and he kept me up all night.” Several of them heard it too, but only I didn’t sleep. It’s so cold, and we shiver and complain as we pack up.

There’s a single cracker on the ground where my food bag was last night, I discover after finishing. I hope it didn’t get into my food bag, which was right by my side all night.

I hike out with Stretch, only Windbreaker left in camp cooking a warm breakfast. The sunrise as we approach the viewpoint is incredible, and I take pictures of Stretch looking into the desert below. The trail is rocky and I am low-energy and my right foot starts feeling tired and weird, so I quickly fall behind Stretch. As I walk, the top of my foot hurts when I lean too far over my ankle. It might be my hammer toes stressing out my mid foot. And both of them are very achey and sore. Anyways, I take it slow so I don’t over stress whatever is going on.

The trail overlooks the brown desert below, winding through manzanita under wind. It’s much warmer in the sun. My foot feels a little bit better as it warms up.

I reach the junction for Granite Peak, and stop. I wanted to go up last year but wanted to get to camp with my trail friends, and I’ve been planning to go up. My feet are sore, but I carry my pack up a little bit and leave it hidden behind a rock outcropping, and then bound up the rocky, steep trail. It feels good to be walking without a pack. It’s a half mile up, and at the top the world drops away. I scramble up the last granite outcropping, the wind blasting my face. I find a package of cookies in the trail register and eat them on the way back down. They’re called Oricouris, and are a square, thin cookie with strawberry flavored marshmallows on top, which are rolled in dried coconut. They’re delicious.

I get back to my pack and onto the PCT again. Windbreaker catches up a bit later (he went up Garnet Peak, too), and I get to Pioneer Mail Picnic Area after him. Everyone’s taking a break at the picnic table there, waiting for me to show up.

“We were a bit worried since we haven’t seen you,” Ziploc says.

I tell him that I’ve just been taking it slow, tired from the raccoon, and then about the cookies I found. I show them the empty wrapper. They head off because they’ve been waiting for a while, but it feels really, really nice to have a group of people that I feel care about me and will wait. I’m grateful for them.

“You say you don’t care but you’re not convincing me,” I shout after Ziploc, and he laughs. He has a running joke about rolling our bodies off the trail if one of us dies.

I take my time filtering water from the concrete horse trough. The trail leads up an abandoned stretch of highway, marked by rock slides and biker memorials. My feet are hurting with all of the rocks and I’m behind again and incredibly sluggish. Even though it’s not too hot out there’s a lot of sun exposure. I don’t take any breaks, wanting to catch up to my friends. Do I need to stop in Julian to rest my feet? Everyone else is planning to keep going there. My feet are more important than keeping up with them.

I catch up and sit with them for a while as they cling to a dwindling patch of shade, and then we get moving again and I’m bonking out hard. I should probably eat something. I’m going so slow the last 6 miles or so. My knees feel painful and raw, and I’ve developed two identical blisters on the bottom of my pinky toes that hurt pretty bad, and my feet complain with each step. I keep pushing through because that’s what you’ve got to do when you thruhike, you have to walk even when it hurts or you don’t want to. You just do.

I can see the trail up out of Chariot Canyon along the opposite ridge, but the trail just keeps going along the top of the flat. It’s infuriating and miserable and I mentally will the trail downwards towards the canyon bottom and camp. I’m all alone and I start laughing as I shuffle painfully along, the sun golden above my right shoulder, and crying. It hurts but this is exactly where I want to be. I feel lucky to be here right now. I’m exhausted but stubborn.

The trail starts down, steep and rocky, and I shuffle even slower, my entire body aching with each step down. The water weight of this 30 mile carry has beaten my body down. All I remember of this descent from last year was coming out of it and thinking, “that was hellish, I never want to do that again,” and it doesn’t disappoint. I listen for my friends as I near the bottom.

I find them in the shade of a tree, and I sit in the space between them. Drippy is taking a nap and camping in the lower part of the creek bed. I’m done for the day! A rattlesnake slithers across the camping area and Windbreaker scares it off trying to get a picture.

I set up my things to cowboy, and as more hikers trickle in to camp the clearing by my bed becomes the spot where everyone comes to sit and eat. There’s a section hiker named Tod and a group of friends from the AT, Roadrunner and Giggles and Jang. I discover the hole the raccoon chewed through my food bag last night, and Stretch patches it with tenacious tape. In the middle of it all I feel the earth shudder and I hear it, too. An earthquake. Only a couple of us felt it.

I’m waking up at 4 with Drippy to head to Julian. I go to the bathroom and snuggle into my quilt against the cold, sporadic, restless wind sweeping through the canyon. Goodnight.

Day 3- 16.2 miles from Cibbets Flat Campground (32.6) to Laguna Campground (47.5)

A mosquito kept me up last night. It was a single mosquito, and it kept trying to land on my face, even when I scrunched my hat and quilt so there was only a small gap for air. After an hour or so of it buzzing my ear I let it land in my right ear and then jerk my head, crushing it against my quilt. The stars were out, an owl was hooting, frogs chorusing, and I finally was able to fall asleep.

Once again it’s fitful. I wake up early in the morning to someone crying out in their sleep, night terrors. I coast to wakefulness and start my day at 5:30. I pack up and head up to the road after Drippy after shoving some food in my mouth.

It’s 10 miles to Mt. Laguna, winding around green hills with streambeds winding, too, in the canyon bottoms. I leapfrog with a couple of people, rushing the miles while the trail is still shaded. It’s enrollment day at my community college, and I check my service several times before I get some at the top of a high ridge. I sign up for my classes. It’s my backup plan in case I don’t make it to Canada, and what I call reverse Murphy’s Law. If you plan for the worst, the worst won’t happen. If I make it all the way to Canada I’ll still be hiking when the semester starts.

Drippy is making good time today, and as we near Mt. Laguna I find myself hiking with Stretch and a woman named Meesha who’s hiking with her mother. I enjoy talking to her and makes the long last mile feel a little shorter. I lead them through the campground. I wash up and walk with Ziploc and Oldtimer to the Café. I order lemonade and cobbler and egg scramble and sit down at the big table to socialize.

I eat my food and after a while move down to the general store steps to give other hikers room in the cafe. I get some ramen and an ice cream cookie sandwich before realizing that I’ll need to buy more food since I’m not hitching into Julian. I do my hip PT exercises and buy more food, and am given by Maddy some bagels, Girl Scout cookies, and a big bag of Doritos that someone else had left her. Ziploc, the perpetual planner, rattles off water logistics and daily hiking mileages. He gives Meesha’s Mom a mini shakedown and helps her drop 5 lbs of gear.

We have a 30 mile dry stretch before Scissor’s Crossing. Maddy’s Dad is leaving tomorrow so I tell her she should catch up and join us.

Eventually I get up and leave with Oldtimer, Ziploc close behind. We walk up the road and turn right at the community church to find the trail again. I stop to pee and fall behind Ziploc, through wooded slopes parallel and above the road that goes through Mt. Laguna.

We get the first glimpse of the stark drop off to the desert floor that we’ll be seeing for the next stretch. The plateau we’re on is green and lush with low bushes, and beyond the drop off is the desert floor, milky and faded-out from the distance. It must be several thousand feet to the bottom, which even then is studded with mountains that look miniature from this height. It’s completely indescribable.

My foot’s not quite hurting but it’s really beat and it’s lower lip is very slightly beginning to quiver, in preliminary threat of a meltdown. I’ve been doing a lot, and could definitely be taking it slower. I like this group, but if I have to I’ll fall behind. I can’t really do much to slow down with the long waterless stretch ahead, though. You can only carry so much water. Speed is the key to getting through. I can’t wait until a double near o into Warner Springs.

I take it slow to the wooden outlook, where Drippy and Stretch and Ziploc and Oldtimer are waiting for me. Yes, they’re a good group. We head off Trail and up Sunrise Highway to Laguna Campground. We have to walk a long ways into the spread-out campground to find where Windbreaker is set up near some showers. We chip in to pay the fee for our site.

I set up my cowboy and then head over to the showers. I strip off my sweaty clothes and feed my quarters into the slot. After the fourth one the shower comes alive and I step under the stream of hot water. Ahhh. It feels incredible on my shoulders, which I burnt a week before leaving. The burnt skin rubs off under my fingers. I clean my shirt and underwear, too.

I finish and sit down at the picnic table with everyone and cook my ramen. As the sky is darkening and everyone’s gone to bed I fill all of my water capacity and let my foot sit under the cold stream of water at the pump. There’s a toad by the bathroom. I’ve finally started my period. Then I go to my quilt and snuggle in. I think I’ll finally sleep good. Foot, hang in there. Amelia, don’t fuck this up.

Day 2- 16.7 miles from ridgetop north of Hauser Creek Canyon (16.7) to Cibbets Flat Campground (32.6)

I wake up and turn on my phone to check the time. 5:30. I’m 3 and a half ish miles away from Lake Morena and the malt shop opens for breakfast at 7, so I’ll be there just at the right time. I start packing up. When I start stuffing my sleeping bag into its compression bag, it crinkles loudly and I begin to hear everyone stir and start to pack up, too.

I’m first out, stepping past Drippy who looks a close second. The sun’s not up yet but it’s light out. I’m the first on the trail this morning, and clearing the spider webs across the trail. They cling to my hands and face. I’m on the top of the ridge, the trail hugged by in bushes almost as tall as me. The sun simmers behind the ridge to the north, the sky turning a brighter orange around each turn until it boils over the rim and the rays light up the spider webs and shine into my eyes. The spider webs stick to my face in front of my eyes and are now enchanted threads that simmer rainbow. I wipe them away with balled-up hands.

I finally see Lake Morena shining in the gentle valley below. As the trail descends and approaches, I catch the scent of horses and farm. I come down into the campground and wait for Drippy to catch up. We wash our hands and faces on the bathroom and then walk down the road. The Malt Shop sign is a white rectangle that comes closer quickly and mercifully.

I grab an Arizona Tea Arnold Palmer and order French toast and vegetarian breakfast burrito, and sit down outside to wait. Hikers trickle in; my friends from camp last night, a Swede with a bright white button up, and a guy named Sparrow, who has the largest black backpack I’ve possibly ever seen and claims to be so fast that no-one ever passes him. I get my food first and eat. It’s quite good.

I drop the heavy sandal I found and have been carrying with Drippy since mile one, and am thrilled to find its pair there. They are reunited! They’re super heavy, but if someone was having shoe trouble they might find them a useful switch.

Then we stop by the bathrooms again and I fill my water bottles and drink. Stretch comes up. “Are we supposed to filter?”

I look at the water report. Apparently we are, but I just shrug. “ I didn’t filter last year and I’m not dead,” I say.

Then off! The trail traverses the bottom of the valley, and then up the side of a small rise. I come up to Drippy sitting in the shade and join him. Soon Stretch is with us, and I recognize Ziploc and Oldtimer’s voices before they come around the corner and sit down, too. We’ve become a little bit of a group, 3 PCT vets and 2 ATers. I kind of figured it would be this way, people more experienced gravitating to each other. I think it’s a good group.

We traverse the rise and descend down to the Cottonwood Creek underpass. We pause to sit there, too, and then head off again, 2 miles to Boulder Oaks campground.

It’s getting pretty hot. The trail goes through a strip of sagebrush spotted by ancient cottonwoods, in between a highway and private land marked by barbed wire. I’m walking when I see horses in front of me. They stop, and I hear a lazy rustling in a big sagebrush to my right that sounds like it could be a rattlesnake- they move a certain way. I peer into the bush and see it stretched out. I warn the horse riders as I go by and ask them to warn my friends behind me. They head by. One of the women has a Make America Great again T-shirt.

Drippy was right behind me and we walk the last half mile. I see the gate to the campground and wash my face at the first spigot. I walk by the horse corals that Jono leaned against as he told me his Trail name was Nirvana. The water dripped sweat and sunscreen into my eyes and they burn. I can’t see. I wash my eyes clean and sit with my little group at the picnic tables where I met Chris and Kelcey, where Chris operated on Colleen’s bluster.

We all sit and talk in the shade. Last year I was here, Twerk and Alpo and Karma and Colleen and Farkle invited me to sit at their table. I camped with them, and they assumed me into their group. I was lonely and wanted to make friends, but now I already have some and I don’t feel any of last year’s anxiety. It feels nice to have started with Drippy and Ziploc. And I like Stretch and Oldtimer. Oldtimer is kind and looks almost exactly like Ian McKellan as Gandalf with his long, golden-white hair.

There are lots of people here and I can’t possibly remember all their names or faces. We sit for an hour or two until our picnic table is usurped by incoming faces, and head out in the heat. The climb is hot and sweaty until it gets higher up, where there’s a nice breeze to drive the heat away. Ziploc and Stretch pushed through the heat and are somewhere ahead. Oldtimer hikes behind me, companionable. Drippy is a bit behind, but catches up in less than a minute as we takes breaks in the rare spots of shade.

I came through this section last year in the morning with the sun too low to see much, but now I can look down at the view freely as the trail hugs the side of a mountain. Small poppies with starbursts of darker orange pepper the sides of the trail, and little white flowers. The mountain falls away into a dark green chaparral valley with a couple of scattered meadows in lighter green.

We’re camping at Cibbets Flat, down off the PCT. The last couples of miles feel incredibly slow, above the small canyon of a dry creek bed. I pull ahead of Oldtimer a half mile before the junction and find Stretch and Ziploc waiting. I sit down and so does Oldtimer and we all talk. Drippy comes in quite a bit later right as we’re about to give up and head down without him- he found Sprint service a bit back and sat for a while.

We head past the Unexploded Military Ordinances sign and down a dirt road to the campground. Ziploc says it was empty last year, but it’s now filled with hikers and a woman traveling in a Ford van with a camp fire going. She’s reading by the fire with her miniature boxer, and lights strung up on the trees. Stretch and I discuss ways of going down and asking if we could pet her dog, but in the end are too lazy to walk the short distance over.

We set up our camps and sit at the picnic table and eat our dinners. I have Mac and cheese with barbecue sauce and coconut oil. I joke about ninja sneezing and Stretch and Ziploc and I good-naturedly tease each other about things. One by one we head to our beds. I put on my socks with hurricanes on them and slip into my sleeping quilt as the sky’s already dark. There are some clouds in the sky and there are mosquitos. My legs itch in their presence.

Day 1- Mexican Border (0) to ridgetop north of Hauser Creek Canyon (16.7)

We wake 30 minutes past the alarm we set, which never went off. We pack up. I shove all of my extra little things into my hip belt and Fanny pack pockets, and walk down the motel stairs in the dark to our car. I get shotgun and we drive past the shopping center and onto the highway. We listen to “the only classical rock station in San Diego”. The sun is rising and the drive is familiar. I’m nervous. I navigate us to Campo, the sun rising pale orange above fields and ranches and hills covered in green chaparral and studded with granite.

We get briefly turned around in Campo and then we’re driving along the dirt road to the monument. We pass two hikers walking, one with an impressive mane and beard of silver hair.

And then there’s the border wall, corrugated, rusted metal sheeting patched with paint and marked with graffiti. My mom pulls into the parking spots, white sand crunching under our tires. And then I’m out, buckling my fanny pack on and my pack. I lengthen my trekking poles as I head up the washed out path to the monument. I feel like crying. After all I’ve been through this last year I’m here again.

We sign the logbook- there are only two other names down for today so far, one is an ATer. We take a multitude of pictures, the sun shining into us and making us squint, I’m feeling tired and a bit crabby for a bit, and then we walk back down on the PCT. I hug my mom and brother goodbye.

And then Drippy and I walk. We’re about the same speed. The one mile marker. We find a heavy Coleman brand sandal on the trail and pick it up to carry to Morena. Scout and Frodo’s cars come by to drop hikers off at the monument, I see Scout in one. We just beat the crowd! Then walking up and around green bouldery hills, and over train tracks at the 3 mile mark.

We meet the guy with the beard we saw while driving in, an ATer named Oldtimer. It’s warm but not too hot, not as hot as last year, when the breeze couldn’t even alleviate the heat. The burn is greener than last year, and there are more flowers, too. Drippy rolls his ankle and I get ahead, clearing the first big climb onto the bushy plateau. I’m on a roll, and stay ahead. Slowly the Scout and Frodo crowd catch up to me: there’s a dad and young daughter, Mike and Maddie; she’s 17, and peppy and cheerful with a small blue MLD pack. And Sangria and Four Cheese, LASHers doing a section up to Julian. And Taco, who we saw walking with Oldtimer that morning.

My foot is feeling incredible. It’s like the PCT is working some kind of magic on it that has taken the pain and discomfort of my training hikes away. As I descend into Hauser Creek on the road, my feet are achey and sore, but in a normal way, like how they felt last year on the brutally steep descent.

I settle down in the shade with Mike and Maddie and a ATer who’s going to Julian as well named Stretch. She had her fractured sesamoid bone removed and bunion surgery in November, and we commiserate about feet troubles together. Hikers trickle in and Drippy comes- he rolled his ankle again and fell into a bush, ouch- and the shade has moved. We go to another spot with some more hikers. Ziploc comes and I give him a big hug, and I listen to everyone talk and it’s good.

We don’t want to camp in Hauser so after a while we get up and start on the hill- we’re going up another mile or so, and Stretch might join us.

I’m hiking in front of Ziploc when I see a rattlesnake moving to my left. “Rattlesnake!” I quickly back up and maneuver behind Ziploc. It’s pretty big and is just chilling out, so we move around him and wait to tell the hiker behind us. He’s gray and speckled with white dots like stars, and very pretty.

I crest the ridge and find Ziploc and Stretch in a big flat area with some camping spots. I move around a bit to find a spot to cowboy. There’s a lot of cat holes and TP and unburied feces in the back, but I find a clean spot and set up. It’s still bright out and hot, so we sit and talk. Drippy comes in later. The trail’s kicking his butt today so he’s taking it slow. I cook a Mary Janes’ Naked Burrito and hug it to my chest as it cooks in its pouch. The sun is finally lowering- Oldtimer comes up and joins us.

The sun sets a glowing orange ball in the crook of the canyon far off. I stand and watch it and eat my chips. One by one we settle down into our beds.

Today was a good day. I felt good and in shape, and most importantly my foot was kicking ass. It still doesn’t feel real that I’m back and I don’t trust my foot’s sudden turnaround, I really don’t, but I like it a lot. I hope it decides to stay that way. I would like that a very whole lot.

Day 0- Reno to Tehachapi to San Diego

Once again it’s the day I leave to find my way down to the Mexican border in Campo and to the southern terminus of the PCT. It doesn’t feel real this time. It didn’t feel real last time either, but this time I’ve spent so much energy and time telling myself not to let myself get my hopes up that I’m not thinking about it as leaving home for 5-6 months. I spend time in the morning before we start driving planning the classes I’m going to take in the fall, as a back-up plan if my foot doesn’t allow me to hike.

My good trail friend Drippy came to Reno on Wednesday. He’s driving down with my mom and brother and I to Campo, and starting the same day as me and Ziploc – aka Rick, who I hiked around quite a long time last year, bumping into each other every now and then in between Julian and Tehachapi. I’d talked to Drippy on Instagram before the hike last year, and then we hosted him in Reno when he got off-trail to head home. Together we are team do-over, or we’re not exactly a team, but whatever. It sounds cool.

I say goodbye to my dogs and hold back tears. They are so soft! And warm and smell good! They are concerned that we are leaving on a big trip of some kind with all of our packing.

We stop to say goodbye to my dad at his work, and then continue south on 395. Once we get past Carson City, it’s less routine and slowly more nostalgic. Last time I was on this road, my foot was broken and painful and swollen beyond belief. We have lunch at Burger Barn in Lone Pine, and peer up at Kearsarge Pass and Mt. Whitney as we pass by.

We stay at the Best Western in Tehachapi, the same Drippy and I both stayed at, and walk through town to the Thai place I went to with Cotton Candy and Twinkle Toes. Last time I was here I had a foot that displayed the first signs of injury, though it wasn’t bad yet.

Then we sit in our hotel room and watch bad TV. The TV starts up on a game show called “The Joker’s Wild” with Snoop Dog hosting. It’s mindless and stupid and amusing.

The next day we pack up back into our car and drive to the SaveMart to pick up some food to do some trail magic: lemonade, orange juice, cupcakes, a veggie tray and watermelon. We drive through the desert and the forests of windmills to the trail near Acton KOA, and set up in the semi-shaded picnic table.

A hiker named Bookworm shows up first, and then Chameleon, and Wallet, and Safety Chute and Dirt and Your Highness and and… too many names to keep track of. Safety Chute recognizes me from Instagram. We follow each other. It’s fun, and we shuttle them to the KOA or Acton after they’ve eaten their fill. I want to hike so bad. I want to start walking with them.

Then we’re on our way to LA again. We pass Vasquez Rocks. I went this way with the shuttle from Hiker Heaven to the REI.

LA is huge and overwhelming. There are too many cars and people and it scares me that this can all exist, it seems too much to exist at the same place. We find our way from the Highway to the birthplace of Los Angeles, Alvera Street, and wait in line for parking. Everything is dirty and busy and filled with people and trash. We wind our way through the busy cobble alley-street stuffed with vendors selling Mexican art and bags and food and clothing, until we finally decide to go into a bustling, loud restaurant to eat. There’s a mariachi band serenading tables. We order. The tacos I get are delicious, and I eat it all, and get stuffed.

Back on the highway, the traffic is constantly shifting and the road never seems to end, a shifting maze of highways compared to Reno’s measly two. I’m exhausted.

We reach San Diego and find a motel and crash our room. Then we leave to find some food to eat for breakfast tomorrow, since we’re planning on leaving at 5, before anything is going to be open.

I need a haircut but have put it off, and now it seems like I’ll just have to make do- until, as we’re crossing the road, I spy a hair salon that looks like it could be open. We walk over to check it out, hovering in front to read the hours. It’s closed, but then the woman inside comes out and tells me she’ll cut my hair.

So we come in and I sit down in the chair. We tell her about the PCT and she’s intrigued and excited, and asks a million questions. She cuts my hair a big short, but she’s so sweet and excited that it’s fine, honestly. It’ll just look weird for a while. It now matches the short length I started with last year.

We buy some food at the grocery store and walk back to our motel room in the dark. And we set our alarm and sleep. I’m going to miss my mom and brothers and dad and dogs and home. But mostly I want to hike. I want to hike so bad.