PCT 2019: Desert Redemption
For our summer vacation Cosmo and I decided we would spend a month and a half walking in the Sierra Nevada. We made plans to hike the High Sierra Trail and explore new territory in our favorite mountain range. Much like our 2017 Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, the snowpack this year was high, resulting in a late snow melt on the high mountain passes. We were in no rush to dust off our ice axes and micro-spikes, so we headed first to the Mojave Desert to build up our trail legs. Our journey would begin on the PCT just outside of Tehachapi, a small city located in Kern County 20 miles west of Highway 14.
In 2017 our hike from Tehachapi to Walker Pass was my demise. My strength as a hiker peaked within the first couple hundred miles of the PCT and slowly began to wane around mile 500. By the time we reached Tehachapi, (Mile 566) we had been hiking for just over a month without a full day off. With temperatures wavering in the 110s, mid June through the Mojave is a masochistic endeavor. Under-fed and under-rested, we continued on through the driest and hottest section of the trail. As to be expected this section left me feeling weak, exhausted, and insatiably thirsty (to read about this harrowing tale pause here and read this blog post: Mind Melting Heatwave).
We trudged through that unforgiving section of trail back in 2017, but we always knew that with some better planning we could have done it better. This summer the time had come. The following post is the full account of my desert redemption!
June 17th, 2019
It was purely coincidence that we were brought back to trail almost exactly the same day we began this section two years prior. We drove to the Walker Pass campground, our terminal for this 81 mile hike. We turned left onto Highway 178, a secluded and scenic winding road enclosed by the steep walls of the Kern River Canyon.
As we neared the Walker Pass Campground we could hear laughter and feel the excited energy of the Pacific Crest Trail. The excitement was contagious! As soon as we parked the car we put on our sneakers and hiked up a short climb to stretch our legs. From the top of our climb we stopped to enjoy Magic Hour in the Mojave Desert as the sun set over the Tehachapi Mountains.
The buzz of the PCT hikers did not set with the sun. The campsite closest to the trailhead had a full buffet set up on a covered picnic table with hikers huddled around it like Zombies to flesh. Cosmo and I felt shy and unready (or unworthy) to approach them with our freshly washed clothes and a car full of amenities. We kept our distance and created the cardboard sign we would use in the morning to hitch a ride south to Tehachapi, the spot where our summer adventure would begin.
June 18th, 2019
We were picked up by a friendly fellow named Mike who gave us a ride all the way to Tehachapi. He was unfamiliar with the PCT and impressed by our ambitious summer plans. We enjoyed great car conversations about alternative medicine, health, and building your own business.
Our journey with Mike ended at a familiar turn out along Highway 58. Getting out of the truck with our full packs, Cosmo and I blended in a little better and we were welcomed by thru-hikers taking a siesta in a shady spot of gravel. We said our goodbyes to Mike, signed the trail register, and started our walk. The hike began with a long and exposed ascent into the Tehachapi Mountains. I remembered trudging up this climb in 2017, taking breaks at several switchback turns. But now, with fresh legs and a positive attitude I felt sprightly going up, and the miles flew by.
Almost immediately I felt the effects of nature on my mind and my emotional state. One task, no distractions, fresh air, MOUNTAINS! I thought about the amount of time and planning that goes into backpacking, especially long distance. When I am far away from a trail, and trail life, I find myself easily getting stuck in my mind and lost in my thoughts. I question every part of the planning process, I overcomplicate my plans and sometimes doubt my abilities. Ironically, as soon as I step foot on trail, the fresh air blows those anxious thoughts away. From my home I struggle to get out here, and from here I struggle to even recall the mental obstacles that tried to stop me.
Despite it being June in the desert, the temperature was pleasant and did not come close to comparing to what we had experienced before.
To our surprise, we even encountered a little bit of rain on our way to the first water source, Golden Oak Spring. Golden Oak Spring is a shaded oasis with water that pours from a pipe into a trough. Hikers are usually spread out on trail keeping the space quiet and seemingly solitary. But, in the desert, wherever you find water you are also like to find a herd of dirty hikers resting in the shade like a bunch like cows gathered under a lone tree in a field on a hot summer day.
We stayed at Golden Oak Spring just long enough to filter a few liters of water each and to finally meet some of this year’s thru-hikers, Deluxe and Craig.
We hiked until sunset and set up camp in a nice shaded spot tucked away from trail. By the time we finished eating dinner it was dark and we were ready to get into bed. I hung my trail shirt on a tree branch while I changed into my pajamas. I brushed my teeth, finished my chores, and grabbed my clothes off the branch. Cosmo was already in bed reading when I unzipped my side of the tent and tossed my clothes in.
“HEY!” He yelped and tossed my clothes back out of the tent.
“Woah, what is it?”
“There’s a million ants on your clothes!”
“What?! Are you kidding?” I asked alarmed, and a bit confused.
“No!” Cosmo was brushing at his arms frantically. I dropped my clothes like I had been thrown a hot coal and jumped and squealed like someone who might be scared of a mouse. I started to shake out all my clothes while Cosmo used his hand as a broom to sweep the ants out of the tent.
After about 10 minutes we both settled down and I crawled in the tent like a sad puppy with my tail between my legs. “Sorry about that” I whimpered.
We were able to laugh off our first hiccup of the hike and settled in to our first cozy night.
June 19th, 2019
We woke up with the sun instead of alarms. We didn’t feel the same pressure we did in 2017 to wake up before sunrise and hike before the heat of the day. We passed the spots that I struggled with the first time around and it was hard to imagine what that was like. Today we had occasional clouds, a periodic cool breeze and even a trickle of rain in the middle of the day! We hiked on single track ridge line trail overlooking sandy rolling desert hills with wildflowers and cactus shrubs.
We approached Robin Oak Spring and again found a herd of dirty hikers sprawled out and napping next to the spring. We overheard some folks talk about how brutal it is to hike in the heat. Cosmo and I felt strengthened by past experiences and with that perspective found this weather to be quite pleasant.
The day got cooler and the scenery became far more dramatic. Wildflowers sprinkled the sand with yellow, purple, magenta and orange. We hiked for a few miles through a surprisingly green forest that opened up to a sandy trail which circled around giant white rocks. We enjoyed 360 degree views with the snowy tops of the mighty Sierra Nevada sticking up far in the distance.
We hiked through the sunset until we found our perfect spot, a secluded campsite nestled behind a rock overlooking the mountains. The winds began to pick up but we were too excited to set up our tent. Instead, we suffered through the occasional wind slap of sand in the face, a small price to pay for a perfect cowboy camping spot, sleeping directly under the stars.
June 20th, 2019
What a luxury to jump right into quality time with my partner. We wake up in the morning knowing exactly what we need to do, where we need to go, what we will eat. Out here we are liberated from the mundane daily decisions of everyday life. These seemingly arbitrary pieces of information can be paralyzing in home life. Out here there is no agree or disagree about what we are doing, there is no need for additional planning and decision making. Once we are out here our distractions dissolve and we get to enjoy life in the moment.
We packed up our camp and started our hike down towards the next water. The morning was sunny and pleasant with a cool breeze. I find myself hiking with no one in sight, but I am not alone. The variety of shoe prints in the sandy trail remind me that I am amongst a community of hikers. This trail is the connective tissue uniting heros on their journey, creating a shared experience. At the water cache we found other hikers taking a well-deserved break.
The last time we were here we made the mistake of hiking out without enough water only to spend the heat of the day sweating under the tiny shade of a lone yucca tree. This time, we passed by our tree but just stayed long enough to take pictures.
Before I become too comfortable in my assumption that this experience will be far less brutal than the last time, I am reminded, and humbled, that the desert is still the desert. An intriguing landscape that will lure you in with its unique beauty and then prick you with its sharp cactus needles.
By mid day the temperature rose significantly. The temperature heated up so much that it melted the plastic on my headphones and the metal tip broke off.
‘‘Oh, well.’ I thought. Not a big deal.
I unsnapped my pack, swung it around my body and placed it down in the sand leading against a yucca tree with a trunk that looked like an animal paw.
Within seconds of stopping I felt a sharp stinging sensation in my ankle. “OUCH!” I yelped (with no one around me to hear). I pulled down my sock and shook out the fire ants that (somehow within seconds) had climbed up my ankle and bite into my flesh as if to say, HEY! Watch where you put your pack missy!
Okay, desert…I get it.
II continued on and caught up to Cosmo who’s Positive Mental Attitude had taken a slight decline. The winds had picked up quite a bit and caused every step forward to feel like a sandy slap backwards. The problem with the wind is that there is no escaping. The wind has a way of making any normal task extra difficult, like moving the hair out of your face or trying to walk with your eyes open.
The last time we were on this stretch of trail we were silently slogging towards the next water cache wondering if we would keel over out of dehydration. This time it was the wind.
We arrived at the second water cache and took a short break to fill up our bottles and recharge our bodies and minds. The last time we were here I relaxed next to the water and stared at the towering switchbacks ahead of me. I felt so exhausted and weak and did not know how I would get the energy to make it to the top. I feel much stronger now. After our snack break I put my pack back on, found some acceptance with the wind, turned on some good tunes and actually enjoyed the climb!
By the time we reached the top we were out of the exposed sandy desert and reunited with green trees. We made it up the last big climb into the woods all before dark. DESERT REDEMPTION!
June 21st, 2019
“Once a year, hikers swarm the trails in their birthday suits to celebrate June 21, Hike Naked Day” (How Eastern California Celebrated Hike Naked Day, Outside Online). I was feeling strong approaching this final section of the desert so I figured I’d liberate myself and join Cosmo, and my fellow hikers, in the celebration.
We hiked along a sandy ridge lined by wildflowers and desert scrub. Views of the snow capped Sierra mountains peaked up in the far distance, previously, their majesty made us feel intimidated and uncertain, now I feel excitement as we continue on with our summer adventure.
By late afternoon we arrived at Walker Pass Campground. We were covered in dust, dirt and sweat, we felt strong and happy…finally we fit in! Being that Walker Pass is a public campground and may attract families, Cosmo and I put our hiking clothes back on and made our way to the picnic table of snacks. We were no longer feeling shy or unworthy. We now blended in with the thru-hikers and felt apart of the crowd. We have officially achieved redemption of the desert section!