Day 13- 17.3 miles on Mountain Fire Alternate from Spitler Peak Trail (mile 4 off of 168.6) to Saddle Junction (179.4)

I wake up and lie in my sleeping bag for a while. It’s my first night with it back and I slept very well, finally. Warm and secure. It’s so worth the extra weight. Maddy is still asleep. I start putting my sleeping bag away.

I see someone sprinting down the trail with no pack. The runner comes by and says hello. “Is this the PCT?” he asks.

I explain about the alternate around the fire closure, and he says good morning and runs off. Maddy is awake now. I have no idea where he started running from if he came down from Spitler. Fobes Saddle?

There’s condensation on our sleeping bags and shoes and ground sheets. I pack up first and head off, the alternate going from trail to road walking until the highway. It’s pretty though, and Maddy soon catches up. There’s a stream running alongside the road which doesn’t have much traffic. When it does the cars speed fast around the curves.

We get to the back fence of Herkey Campground. Maddy wants to walk to Lake Hemet and swim; it’s only a mile or so so I go with her. We walk along the side of the small highway for a bit, then see the lake and cut down from the road through some small copses of trees and bushes. We follow a sandy wash and step over a barbed-wire fence.

“No trespassing,” Maddy reads from a sign facing away from where we came. Oops. And then there’s the problem that is the heavy duty fence topped with barbed wire that runs along the dirt road we just trespassed to reach. “It looks like a private lake,” Maddy says.

We’d have to walk all the way around to the Hemet Store on the highway with no guarantees of being able to get in to the lake, so we give up and head back, the proper way this time. We stop at Herkey Campground back at the alternate and use the bathrooms and eat some food at the picnic tables.

Two guys come and sit down. They’re called the Girl Scouts, and I only remember Michael’s name. They bring out some vintage-looking Alpine Air meals with graphics that look like they were designed sometime in the 70s or 80s. Some older hikers gave them to them. They check the best-by date; they both expired last year. How far ahead do they date those things? They start heating water for them and we head off.

The alternate follows a different route from Herkey Campground from last year. Instead of broad networks of Forest Service roads, it follows a spindly and washed-out path through the hills at the bottom of the valley. Eventually it joins the old route on a dirt road by a grassy meadow, and the going gets steep, and I’m sweating even though it’s cool enough out, drenching my arms and giving me a sweat mustache.

Eventually we turn off the alternate into paved road, steep and winding and pavement-less winding down to the heart of town. Maddy sticks her thumb out as we walk down and eventually a car stops, and we’re spirited down the last 1/2 mile. Idyllwild is so different in the sun; hikers wander around everywhere, congregating to talk on the sidewalks, tourists interspersed among us.

We get lunch at the Red Kettle, leaving our packs inside. I get a sandwich with cream cheese, avocado, tomato, and sprouts, which is delicious, and a slice of blueberry pie. I finish before Maddy and the two hikers we sit with, Katie and? So I head down to the library to charge my electronics. I drained my battery taking pictures yesterday. I find a copy of the Silmarillion and read the creation story of Middle Earth.

Maddy finds me and sits with my stuff while I do a quick resupply. She has her box and we sit in the benches in front of our library, sorting our food away. Locals and hikers join us at the benches and talk to us. Finally we’re ready, and we wander through town one last time to get to the road. We stick out our thumbs and a retired couple picks us up and ferries us up the steep road walk.

We follow the road up to Ernie Maxwell Trail, which is gentle and graded and pretty in the trees. We pass dayhikers heading down from Devil’s Slide Trailhead, where we sit for a while. I eat my bag of chips and we use the bathroom, and off! I struggle with the steeper grade and elevation of Devil’s Slide and let Maddy go ahead. The sun starts setting, the mountains hazy and in rising gradient far off in the distance, the sun shooting light rays through the trees on the far slope. I catch Maddy sitting up on a rock ledge watching the sky, the squirrel! and we walk the last part up to the PCT again together.

There’s a no camping sign at Saddle Junction, but apparently it’s fine as long as it’s on the PCT side of the junction. We wander around looking for campsites, Maddy being indecisive. Finally we set up a bit away from some other thruhikers. I cowboy camp on a deep, soft layer of pine needles and put all of my non-shell layers against the creeping chill. I have a half-bagel and cream cheese and some chili lime ramen. Maddy comes and sits on my feet and eats her cold-soaked noodles and lentils.

We say goodnight and I snuggle into my sleeping bag. It’s going to be a cold night.

Day 12- 20.8 miles from Idyllwild via Paradise Valley Cafe/Hwy 74 (151.8) to Spitler Peak Trail on the Mountain Fire Alternate (mile 4 off of 168.6)

In the morning we pack up. Drippy heads out first to the shuttle to Devil’s Slide Trailhead. We sit outside of our lodge and see Herk picking up a bunch of hikers and giving them rides to various trailheads. He’s a local who’s retired and was doing the same last year. He gave me and my friends a ride to Devil’s Slide. We ask him if he’ll give us a ride to the PCT on highway 74, and he says he’ll swing by in an hour. We settle down.

Maddy and I decide we are hungry, even after eating pasta for breakfast, so we walk down to the grocery store to get something. It’s closed so we get ice cream at a gas station and eat it on the walk back. Then we sit and wait. I catch up on my writing and Maddy makes up a game about sliding a rock down her shin without it falling off. More than an hour after we talked to Herk we decide he must have forgotten us and we just walk down to the gas station outside of town and start hitching. An older woman quickly pulls over and we pile in. OT talks to her as we drive.

We’re soon back on-trail and the sky is cloudless and warm without being too hot. The trail wanders through and by enormous piles of granite, and through pine and chaparral and dry meadows. It’s pretty. I get distracted talking and trip and fall flat on my knees, and scrape up my left one a bit, but it’s not too bad. The trail then starts climbing up the side of the hills, the valley green and full below us. 5-6 miles in we reach the junction for Tunnel Springs. There are other hikers sitting there. I bring my water filtering things down but Maddy brings her full pack on the steep quarter-mile descent.

The spring flows from a pipe into a bent water trough, the water deep and cold and clear. I fill up my dirty water bag and filter two liters, and fill it up again to filter two more up top. Two hikers join us, Sage and Pinion, and I leave Maddy to talk with them and finish filtering.

I sit up top and filter my water and eat things out of my food bag. I see Maddy coming up. She throws her hands in the air. “I just realized that I left my trekking poles down there,” she says.

Nooo! That sucks. She leaves her pack with me and heads down again for them. I sit and eat some more and talk with Artemis, a hiker sitting at the junction who has a cold. Maddy comes up again, reasonably in a low mood from having left her poles down there, so I leave her to rest and eat. She’ll catch up.

The trail just after the junction opens up into a view of the desert and Palm Springs. It’s so beautiful, it’s so beautiful, it’s so beautiful. I walk with a section hiker named Bud and a hiker with a kerchief around his neck named Woody. We stop at a rise where the view opens up on either side, impossibly distant desert brown on the right and high green mountains to the left.

I take a cathole break overlooking the desert and Maddy catches up to me soon after. “Picnic!” she shouts. She’s feeling better and we walk together and gush about the views, walking on the top of the ridge and winding in and out of copses of fir and pine. Spreading Phlox starts appearing, and in between are sections of desert plants, rabbit brush looking odd in the alpine terrain, faded blooms like festive pom-poms. I’m happy to see rabbitbrush.

OT and Ziploc passed by when we were at the spring and are somewhere ahead. We reach Fobes Saddle and switchback tightly around a rocky knob, and past the junction- for the first time I’m on trail that I haven’t hiked before, since this section of the fire closure opened this winter. It climbs up out of the saddle, Palm Springs being swallowed up by the shadow of the mountain as the sun lowers. I just manage to keep up with Maddy on the constant up, out of breath and sweating in the cool evening air. And it’s all beautiful, so beautiful, and how could anyone skip this?

When we reach the far side of the mountain we’ve been traversing and start dropping down, the sun is bright and large and sinking in the suddenly smoky-looking valley. Smog, we decide, from LA? We reach the saddle and sit and eat. We both feel really good. Should we hike down to the bottom of the mountain? We’re both indecisive. Yes, we decide, and pack up and pull warm clothes and headlamps out of our packs.

The switchbacks are gentle and the sun is setting in bands of smoggy color, orange and yellow and red. The burned trees silhouette themselves against the sunset and it’s ridiculously beautiful, and the trail switchbacks down tightly along a growing stream flow, and soon it’s dark enough for headlamps. The lights of the houses in the valley below and Lake Hemet turn on.

We talk and talk and laugh on our walk down, and when we reach the bottom of the mountainside where it’s flat enough to camp we set up our sleeping bags and quilts side-by-side underneath the widest sky I’ve seen, no trees to block our view, only the cradle of the mountains far off in the distance. The moon is still below the horizon. It’s the most beautiful section so far and my first 20 mile day of the trip, and I don’t even feel tired or sore. We’re going to swim in Lake Hemet tomorrow, and walk back into Idyllwild to resupply. It was a perfect day.

The stars are bright and just before I go to bed a shooting star streaks across the sky.

I wish to make it to Canada.

Day 11- 0 miles in Idyllwild

I don’t have much to do today, mostly just eat and get my box with my tent and sleeping bag at the post office, and send it back with my quilt. I think I’m going to keep trying my tarp.

We all meet up and have breakfast at The Red Kettle, which is good. I get pancakes, hash browns and scrambled eggs.

The rest of the day is spent vegging in our room, writing blog posts and post cards, eating leftover pizza, and going to the post office to get and re-send the big box my mom sent my sleeping bag in. Thank you Mom!! ❤️ Maddy and I wander around touristy shops and try on hats. Drippy was going to head out today but Oldtimer and I convince him to stay in our cabin on our extra couch.

We all meet up again for dinner. They choose the Gastrognome, and I’m too full of pizza to eat, so I get a fancy ginger beer and sip it and catch up on journal writing, skipping in and out of the conversation until Ziploc announces that my new trail name is “Huh, What?”.

I can’t decide whether or not I want to see Infinity War again tonight since tickets are half off and cheap and why not, so I call my family and talk to them on the way to the theater. The line is out the door, though, so I decide not and walk back.

I sit outside for a bit on the porch swing talking to my parents, and then come inside and watch Yes Man with Jim Carrey on the TV with Oldtimer and Drippy and Maddy.

Maddy and I look at the maps and water for the section ahead. We’re going to carry 1 liter from Idyllwild to Tunnel Springs. We’re hitching back up to the PCT at Highway 74 tomorrow and starting the section up to the alternate, and doing the alternate together- it looks like we’re the only ones in our group doing the full thing. Then we’ll swing by Idyllwild to resupply for the full section into Big Bear ahead.

Day 10- 6.3 miles from Mary’s Place/Walden (145.4) to Idyllwild via Paradise Valley Cafe/Hwy 74 (151.8)

I am awake. Wow. That’s cool. My makeshift rear tarp pole stick held up for a while last night, I think, but then I made the mistake of using one of the nail/peg stakes that I had leftover from my tarptent, which doesn’t stay very well, and it fell out, and now my sleeping quilt is being molested by my condensation-covered tarp, and now it is damp.

I was not feeling nearly that dramatic about it when I was there this morning, but I am writing this now, at night, and feeling silly and dramatic. So there you go. In reality I was feeling very practical and non-dramatic, and as soon as I woke and heard packing up I set about my task of packing up in the misting morning. I shoved the stake back into the ground where it came from and propped my spare trekking pole up against the roof of my tarp to give myself even more headroom. Ahh! I also usually write in present tense but you either must forgive me, or stop reading in disgust.

Then I pack up. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to pack up wet camp and gear with the intention of hiking that day. I get everything except my tarp and ground cloth and pad packed away, and then clamber out into the world.

Maddy’s still packing up her things inside her little cuben fiber tent, and Oldtimer pulls me towards her tent. “I want to talk to you two about something,” he says.

“What, did we do something wrong?”

“No, no. I’ve just got a bad feeling about one of the guys yesterday,” he says, and says his name.

Maddy’s eyebrows arch up as she glances at me.

I say his name out loud to confirm.

“Yes. I had a dream about him. God’s telling me you shouldn’t trust him. He was waiting for you to catch up with him so he could hike with you. I just don’t want you two to get hurt.”

Okay, we say. I nod.

Then I sling my pack on and start walking, Ziploc and OT just behind me. It’s cold. The world is buried deep in cloud, and I can’t see very far. The plants are wet as my shoes brush past them. I have my trekking poles strapped to my pack so the cold metal doesn’t drain the heat from my hands. I wear my sleeping socks on my hands and feel like Squidward.

I think about what OT said as I walk. I trust him. He may not be right, but I trust his intuition and experience with people, and I trust him as a person. The guy OT was talking about is charismatic (I removed that part of my journal from yesterday because I don’t want to hurt anyone when it’s just a hunch), but that’s exactly what someone who would take advantage of us would be. I didn’t find him creepy. But I’d rather trust OT and be wrong than not pay attention and have him not be wrong. I’m not assuming that he has bad intentions, but I’m going to keep up a guard and I’m not going to seek to further a friendship.

OK, that’s a decision.

My bad foot is hurting. The blister isn’t healing very well, I should probably be covering it or something. The skin is new and raw in a patch where the skin came away, and it presses against my shoe every time I step down. I start altering my stride to alleviate the pain, which puts strain on the muscles and bones on the outside of my foot. On top of that, my hammer toes are arching up and there’s a slight, dull pain in the ball of my foot from the weather and barometric changes.

We came to the decision before leaving that we were going to hitch into Idyllwild on the highway 6 miles from camp and take our zero early. Ziploc and OT and I stop to look at room availability and online booking, and Maddy catches up. The Idyllwild Inn is full, but I snag a room for 2 nights at the Silver Pine Lodge for Maddy and OT and me.

Then we hike to the highway in the fog. Ouch, ouch, ouch. I want to be warm and clean and full. We get there and stand on the side of the road on the gravel shoulder, and Maddy and I stand up front and stick our thumbs out at passing traffic, looking cheerful. “Maybe if we look more miserable they’ll pity us and stop,” I say. More cars pass by, headlamps emerging from the fog, turning into cars, then speeding away and around the corner.

We decide to walk down to the Paradise Valley Cafe where another road joins, where there will be more traffic, and so we’re not sitting around getting cold. Oldtimer sticks a thumb out as we’re walking and a car pulls up. Maddy and I laugh and run partway there.

“See, they’ll stop for the old guy,” OT says, grinning amiably.

“You’ve just got to show more leg,” says Ziploc, pulling up his pant leg and baring his calf to the road.

The woman was only going to bring us to Paradise Valley Cafe, but then gives us a ride to a gas station a couple miles past the turn-off. We stand and stick our thumbs out some more. A white truck with a covered bed pulls off. There’s already some hikers inside, but Maddy and I squeeze in the back with our packs and OT and Ziploc find room in the front. We’re dropped off in Idyllwild. “Thank you so much,” we repeat emphatically.

We walk to Silver Pines Lodge. Our room isn’t ready, so we sit and call our families in the warm sitting room, with deep leather couches and two fireplaces. We finally get in, and explode everything from our packs into every surface and corner of the room. We set up our sleeping quilts and tents in front of the heater to dry.

We meet Drippy down at Idyllwild Pizza Co., where Maddy orders gluten-free pizza and I get a large Gourmet Veggie, which considering doesn’t have many veggies on it, or any colorful ones. I have plenty extra pizza to graze on. Drippy has a room at Idyllwild Inn, and has been sick with a cough and chills.

We go back to our rooms and veg. We’re going to all go see Avengers: Infinity War At 7. It starts raining outside, and briefly snows. We’re all incredibly happy to be inside and warm, and not sleeping outside in it. We get our laundry done at the lodge. We walk to the theater together in the cold- I’m super excited for the movie, and to see which characters die. I’m super hyped up about it, after watching all of the movies this fall and winter with my injury. I take pictures of all of the old posters with women swooning and showing leg and pathetically clutching the chest of the male heroes.

The theater has blankets, and we put them on our laps. The movie starts, and it’s funny and entertaining and nice. I start feeling chills running through my body though, so I really hope I don’t have whatever Drippy got. Towards the end, one of the group of teenagers behind us starts breaking into loud sobs, which is distracting, but also hilarious, and the movie ends and Poof! Poof! Poof! (If you’ve seen the movie you know what I mean by poof). I find it all absolutely hilarious and am not sad at all, and when the lights turn on I laugh and laugh. It’s a mean cliffhanger and not entirely fair. Jerks.

We walk back in the dark and freezing cold. Ziploc goes off to try and find some ice cream. It’s cold out! Ridiculous. The rest of us walk back to our cabin and get ready to sleep.

I got ice cream! Ziploc texts me later.

Nerd, I tell him.

But I got ice cream!

Neeerdd, I say.

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.