Friday, June 3, 2016

Day 34 : The Path to Mojave

23 miles today
2105 miles to go

What was that? Lightning? A sudden light flashed. I saw it even with my eyes closed. There it is again, a light shining on my tent. Where am I? I'm laying on the floor of my tent in nothing but boxer shorts. The skin on my back is sticking to the floor. Everything's quiet. I remove my earplugs. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. I check my phone, one am. The wind has shifted a little and my tent has a significant sag, the roof is touching my forehead. Bam, bam, bam, the wind buffets my tent. Oh yeah, I'm missing a stake, I again feel the sharp pang of loss. May a spare be in the hiker box? Unless I wait for dawn I'm going to need my headlamp. I break out the fresh batteries using the light on my iPhone to see. I swap the batteries and check the light. Wow! That's better! I could hike with a light like this. My head has a dull ache that I get when I don't have enough sleep. I replace my earplugs. It's a little cooler, I throw my rain poncho over my sticky, stinky self and drift back into dreamland.

Lights again, more hikers. I guess this is not the best place to camp. Everybody does what I did, shines their light down here to see if there are any tents. Cooler air too. I'm chilled and am not staying warm. A check of my phone shows two am. I unpack my sleeping bag and put in over the top of the poncho. I don't want to dirty my sleeping bag by allowing it to touch my oily, sweaty self. Oh yeah, warmth. Cozy, goose feathery warmth. I sleep some more.

Three am, more lights. One of them is up the canyon a bit, someone else hunkering down out of the wind. I lay awake, removing my earplugs. Flutter, flutter, bam, bam, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. I may as well get up and start hiking. My headlamp is fully functional, I feel relatively rested. Still missing my stake, sharp pain of loss. I'll look for it. I get dressed and step out of my tent. The wind gusts a reminder of the gales I'll face when I get back up out of this sheltered spot. I peer around in the gloom, wandering around the gravel bar. There it is! About fifteen feet from where it was when I kicked the guy line last night. My tent is all saggy and floppy in the wind. Note to self: stakes don't hold well in sand, use rocks. I feel whole again, I have all my stakes, what a relief! It's strange how important a small piece of titanium seems to me out here. 

I climb back in my saggy tent and lean on one of the tent/trekking poles to help keep it upright. I have breakfast. Eating always lifts my spirits. I also need the calories it's going to be another long day on minimal sleep. Finally all the food I eat I no longer have to carry. I eat the remaining granola, I heat water and have a Starbucks via caffe mocha. I stuff my pockets with trail snacks. I want to try and transition completely away from ‘lunch’ stuff, no more tuna and tortillas. I don't like stopping for lunch. More trail snacks, eat all day!

I quickly pack my stuff and head out three-thirty am. Really dark! I put my headlamp in low white light mode. It's brighter than it was in high white light mode last night. I easily follow the trail. Reflective signs stand like beacons in the darkness ahead. I am walking a long straight path. It leads true north. It's straight. Straight north. For miles and miles. I look up in the sky directly ahead, Polaris, the North Star, as if guiding me, stationary in the sky while Ursa Major and Cassiopeia slowly rotate around it with the rest of the sky. The stiff wind blows out of the north right into my face, I'd estimate about thirty knots. Every step requires a willful step against it. On and on, up and up. Gaining elevation with each step. No deviation, no rolling hills, no meandering left or right. Literally the straight and narrow path. I am feeling a mixture of exhaustion and giddiness, am I coming down with something? I am pushing my immune system to the edge. The last thing I want is to get sick. I realize I'm hungry. I just ate breakfast and I'm hungry. I promise to eat better when I make it to Tylerhorse canyon, the next water source. I begin to talk out loud to myself. “I want to turn, I'm tired of going straight.” Higher and higher I climb. The scale of this place is staggering. I think I'm at the top and another hill appears, higher still. 

It's getting lighter now, faint hints in the northeast of coming light. The windmills are silhouetted and the sky. Such a wild and strange place to be walking. As it lightens up, the trail get even steeper. “Really, you've got to be kidding.” I say out loud. The trail begins to turn and wander, not quite switchbacks. “Turns, I love turns,” I say. There are steeper paths shooting straight up the ridges in places. The PCT is kinder to me than that, it stays at a reasonable grade. Up and over, it looks like it's going somewhere the foot prints in the dust prove that there are people just ahead. Over and around the down. The path drops me into Tylerhorse canyon. Tents, sleeping bags dot the flat spots around the creek. A flowing creek! Real moving water! It's beautiful, and still in the shadows of the hills around it. I drop my pack and gather and treat water. I cook dinner. I eat another breakfast. The giddy, sick feeling diminishes. 

I pack water for the next sixteen miles. I am excited because I miscalculated the miles to the trailhead, thinking it was twenty three miles. I only have sixteen more miles till I zero in Mojave! I really need the rest. My right knee doesn't like this additional stress and is starting to complain. Sixteen miles, how hard is that? Just yesterday I pumped out twenty miles in six and a half hours, a solid three miles per hour pace. 

What a difference a day makes. That was then, this is now. I am carrying more water. This is a lot more climbing. Most of this section of the trail is sand, like at the beach. Except I am going up or down. Each step slides a little bit. Either backwards or sideways. Parts of the trail are sliding down the hill. My knee flares and screams at me if I place it or lift it wrong. The day grows hotter and hotter. Then it gets hotter. This section of the trail burned a while back. There is no shade. Then it gets hotter. I come around a corner and there is a looming canyon stretched out below. Directly across the canyon is a ribbon of switchbacks going up. I am directly across from about halfway up. “You’ve to be kidding me, really? Really?” I say out loud. I descend down, down deep into the canyon. The air is still. The gale force winds from last night have blown away. The heat settles around me like a stifling wool blanket. Down, with every step the switchbacks across the way grow higher and steeper. Soft sand down. I reach the bottom. It's up in every direction. The long hot climb begins. More soft sand. More heat. Water’s not a problem. I drink it. With each swig my pack gets lighter. I'm so tired, this is a theoretical. My pack seems to grow heavier. My shirt and pants are dried out like stiff cardboard. My sweat evaporates before it can wet my clothes. I am dry and dusty. My skin is sticky and the dust cakes to my calves under my pant legs. The dry fabric tugs and pulls at the mud cakes plastered to my legs, ripping out hair and irritating my skin, chafing. The finer particles of sand filter through the mesh of my shoes and fills in the spaces between and under my toes. Every step is sanding off the layers of skin from around my toes. The instant I stop moving, my feet feel instant relief. “I can't stop, there is nothing for me here.” I say out loud. My feet burn and feel hot. After I have lost all sense of time, way past anything I could possibly imagine. The top arrives and with it Water Cache five forty nine. There are trail angels here. There are chairs to sit in there is a banana and a bottle of water. I instantly chug the entire bottle of water and sit under my umbrella and slowly savor each wonderful bite of the banana. My feet don't hurt. Nothing hurts. Pain? What pain? I'll sit here forever. I chat with the trail angels and the other hikers. This is bliss. This is magical. This is nine miles short of a shower in Mojave with my name on it.

Thanking the trail angels I regretfully stand to my feet. I limp down the trail while trying not to limp. “It's all downhill from here,” I say out loud. Downhill is not fun when you're backpacking with an angry knee. However long the trail up here was, the trail down to the road was just as long, just as hot, arduous barely captures the feeling. For the second time so far I think to myself, “is it really worth it? This is so hard. Am I insane? Why not just hike the easy parts?.” I stumble into the trailhead and see the most amazing sight. A blue plastic plate with black sharpie stating “Coppertone is here.” I want to cry, but it's so dry I have no tears. I hobble to the parking lot and Coppertone’s signature Izuzu truck. He's rigged a white tarp to the side. Under the shade of the tarp are camp chairs. “Root beer float?” He asks. I slowly consume the best root beer float I have ever had. 

I walk a quarter mile down to Oak Creek road. The first car that approaches me stops and Dave and Cindy give me a ride into Mojave and nirvana, one of the most difficult days so far is over.

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