Mileage 17 (13.5 plus 1 mile side trail to water and the 2.5 mile Devil’s side trail)
Mile 166 to mile 179.4
I woke in the middle of the night thirsty but I had no water. I stared at the dark walls of the cave. When dawn comes, I decided, I’m gonna book it that last mile to the spring.
I was up and out of camp before the others. Usually I was slow in the morning- we were all slow. I was trying to be faster- I knew that it was one of the secrets of doing long miles, getting up fast and on the trail by dawn. But it was hard.
It was windy on the mountain just past the cave. It seemed we’d found the only wind-free spot, and as soon as I was hiking again the wind was there, battering me.
I followed a steep path downhill to where the spring would be. The path turned into a dim grassy road with dark trees overhead and then there was the spring, trickling from a hose into a huge plastic tub. Above the tub in the hill there was a little pool that trickled in the rock, and I filled my bottles there. I shivered. It was damp and cold at the spring, and I couldn’t get warm. The cold wind had taken all the warmth from me the day before, and I couldn’t seem to get it back. And I’d used the last ounce of my energy too. I felt as though I had nothing left for today. After filling my bottles I sat on the path and ate the oatmeal I’d soaked the night before, then I dug through my food bag- all the food I had left until Idyllwild was a salami log and some stale chocolate that had melted and rehardened a dozen times in its little ziploc bag. The day’s hike consisted of steep climb after steep climb after steep climb, for 14 miles, and then a 2.5 mile descent to the road. Well, I said. Well.
The path was rocky and narrow on the mountaintops and all day the wind blew. I dragged myself forward with infinite slowness, stopping constantly to drink water, to tighten my shoelaces, to try and suck the warmth from a patch of sunlight. Thyra passed me, then Ben, and I didn’t know where Angela was. For hours I saw no-one. I’m the only one on this mountain, I said. I looked down the steep, rocky slopes to the convoluted foothills below, feeling as though the wind would blow me off my feet. The path was at eight thousand feet, then ten thousand, then back to eight. I felt nauseous and I didn’t know why.
I tried to eat my salami but then I remembered that I’d handed my knife to Angela in the morning to cut the tape for her blisters and I’d forgotten to get it back. I sat on a rock in the dust and opened the salami with my teeth, tearing the casing with my fingernails. The salami was oily and salty and I ate half of it in big bites, folding the rest carefully away. It didn’t help my nausea, but at least I wouldn’t be hungry. Altitude sickness, I thought. I’ve got myself some altitude sickness.
There’s not enough blood in my blood, I thought.
I’m having a low moment, I thought an hour later, when I was sitting next to the trail again, unable to move.
As I hiked, exhausted, my anxiety overwhelmed me- I thought about situations that angered me, things that could go wrong, things I had no control of. I was overwhelmed by waves of my own anger- I was suddenly angry at everything, angry at life, angry at all humans everywhere, and there was no outlet for my anger. It was just me, alone on the mountaintop, dizzy and nauseous and fatigued, moving my legs along the rocky path by sheer force of will.
If I can just get down the mountain, I thought. We’d made a reservation for the night at the Idyllwild inn, the four of us a in a little cabin. I’d never been to Idyllwild, and I had no idea what to expect. I imagined a hot bath, a soft bed, a giant pile of food. I felt overwhelmed by my desire for these things. I lost myself in my longing for them, imagining how they would taste and smell and feel, but when I came back into my body I was still on the rocky path, stumbling along at eight thousand feet, the wind battering me and the earth dropping away on both sides into nothingness.
Everything is fine, I told myself. Forever and ever and ever.
In the early afternoon I reached the Devil’s slide trail that switchbacked down the steep pine forest into Idyllwild. 2.5 miles, I told myself. Just 2.5 miles more. My whole body hurt- all my muscles and tendons and joints cried out, and I descended slowly, stepping carefully so as not to hurt my achilles tendon. Going down is so hard, I thought. So hard when you are sore. Dayhikers passed me on their way up the mountain. I could smell their shampoo and laundry detergent, their hopes and dreams and fears. They stared at me, the dirty windburned person mincing slowly down the trail. I frowned back at them. You have no idea how big my desires are, I thought.
By the time I reached the trailhead parking lot I was nearly having an anxiety attack. I got this way, I realized, right before I was about to get the thing that I had been anticipating for dozens of miles. What if I don’t get it? I thought. What if none of it actually comes to be? Oh my god oh my god oh my god.
The parking lot was huge and flat and I couldn’t see the end of it. I chose a direction and began to walk, looking for the road, but then the lot just ended, and the thought that I had walked for five minutes in the wrong direction filled me with panic. I cut down across some brush to the road and stuck my thumb out, watching as the day hikers drove past without slowing. Then, after just a moment, a sedan appeared. A teenage boy was driving.
“You need a ride to town?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said. “How did you know?”
“I hiked the PCT last year,” he said. “Me and my brother came up here to go climbing. Today we’re just driving around looking for hiker trash.”
The boy’s name was Minor. I got in the car. I felt as though my head was buzzing.
“Thank you,” I said.
Minor dropped me at the Idyllwild Inn. It had just begun to rain. I limped to cabin 15 and pushed open the door. It was quiet and dark inside. There was a big couch, an easy chair, and a fireplace with a stack of wood. On the other side of the room was a small kitchen and a table with four chairs. In the back was a bedroom. Thyra and Ben were in bed, fresh from the shower.
“You made it!” They said when they saw me.
Angela appeared a moment later. She had been just behind me, apparently, but we hadn’t seen each other all day. She was haggard and windburned, scraps of fabric hanging off of her pack as though the mountain had shredded her.
“There are no words,” I said. “No words for today.”
In the shower it took me a long time to wash the dirt from my legs. After bathing I stretched, drank lots of water, and took two ibuprofen. Angela had some ginger tea she’d been carrying for almost two hundred miles, and she let me make a cup.
“I can’t believe we have a kitchen,” I said.
“And a fire!” Said Angela. “We can have a fire!”
Thyra and Ben went across the street to get pizza, and Angela and I limped in the rain to the grocery store. It was a small store, sort of yellowed inside, and the food was piled haphazardly on the shelves. I bought two bunches of kale, three apples, six eggs, three avocados, a bag of tortilla chips, a jar of cheap salsa, a lime, a tub of chicken salad from the deli, and a container of chocolate pudding. Angela bought kale, eggs, celery, apples, peanut butter and ritz bitz sandwiches. On the way back to the cabin we passed the pizza place. Thyra was sitting at a table outside, comatose.
“I ate two pizzas,” she said. “I ate two whole pizzas.”
I ordered a gluten-free pepperoni pizza, and Angela ordered one with basil on it. We ate our pizzas back at the cabin with the heat cranked way up and then I sat in the easy chair, which was, amazingly, a recliner, with my ankle up on a bag of ice and a big fleece blanket wrapped a hundred times around me.
“I feel so happy here,” I said. “I don’t want to ever walk again.”
Outside the rain fell harder. It was Sunday, and we had plans to stay at the cabin until Tuesday, after the storm had passed. I shuddered, deep in my blanket, as I thought of the hikers still up on the mountain. Apparently it was snowing up there now, way up on the rocky passes.
That night Angela and I slept on the foldout sofa bed while Ben and Thyra got the big bed in back. Climbing onto that worn mattress after so many nights on my rock-hard sleeping pad was like falling into a soft pit of euphoria. I lay there, waves of pleasure washing over me. I felt as though there was nothing below me at all.
“I’m on a cloud,” I said. “It’s like I’m laying on a cloud.” And then I was asleep.