Mile 183.5 to mile 205.7
It was one of the coldest nights we’d had on the trail. Twenty something degrees- and in the morning we shivered from our sleeping bags and sat eating bits of food with numb fingers, staring out at the frozen world.
We hiked in our down jackets, our feet crunching on the frozen trail. The sun rose and the light shot through the ice that clung to the trees. In a few hours we’d begin our great descent, through a fourteen mile waterless section that was usually so hot that several hikers had had to be airlifted off of it in 2012. But right now the mountain was covered in a bit of snow and there was water trickling everywhere- it was hard to imagine the desert.
I stopped to get water at a burbling stream and sat in a patch of sunlight, eating my pepitas. I’d decided, after the first week, that pepitas tasted disgusting- sort of like woodchips and then every now and then you’d get one that tasted like mold. But I’d sent a pound of them to myself in every resupply box, and they were one of the highest protein foods I had. So I’d suffered through, and then in Idyllwild I’d discovered something that turned them from a pulpy burden into an exciting trailsnack that I just couldn’t wait to eat-
I only got a liter of water at the stream. There was another stream in a few miles, in a little meadow next to a dirt parking area, and although the stream was seasonal I figured that today of all days, with the melting snow everywhere, it would have water. I would fill up there for the long descent to the desert floor.
The clusters of pine needles on the trees were each encased in a block of ice the size of a stick of butter, and as I walked the sun hit them and they began to fall, all at once and in unison. It became a bit like a video game, as I darted along the trail attempting to avoid the things that were crashing from the sky. I put on my wide-brimmed hat and laughed out loud.
I got to the dirt parking area and Angela, Thyra and Ben were there, their things spread out across the picnic tables. They were cooking food and attempting to dry their sleeping bags, which were damp from condensation the night before. I took my bottles and walked through the woods to the little meadow where the stream would be. The stream was dry- just a patch of brittle grass surrounded by wilted tufts of white flowers. The next water source was fourteen miles away- a drinking fountain, of all things, at the very bottom of the mountain.
Well, I thought. Well.
On the ground beneath the pine trees were the mounds of ice chunks that had fallen from the needles. I crouched down and broke up this ice with my fist, stuffing it into my bottles. I felt happy and resourceful. In fact, I’d woken up that morning feeling incredible- and now the idea of hiking fourteen miles on not much water seemed more like an adventure and a challenge than anything else.
I filled one plastic gatorade bottle, shaking it as I did to compact the ice. Then I added the last of the liquid water that I had- about a half liter- and it filled in the spaces in the ice until the bottle was full. So that means that a liter of crushed ice makes about a half a liter of water, I thought. Maybe a little less because the ice will lose volume as it melts.
I filled my other gatorade bottle with crushed ice. (Side note- thru hikers love gatorade bottles. They are wide-mouthed and nearly indestructible and about a pound lighter than nalgenes.) Now I would have about a liter and a half of water, once everything was melted and accounted for. A liter and a half for fourteen miles. I smiled to myself, excited for some reason. I usually carry a ton of water, way more than anyone else. I had been wanting to get over my fear of not carrying enough water, and today the odds were in my favor- it was cool and overcast, and the trail was downhill all the way. I can totally do this, I thought. No problem.
I didn’t wait for the others, who had filled up at the last stream and had more water. I had to get to the bottom of the mountain, and I had to do it fast. A few minutes after leaving the dirt parking area the trail turned a corner and suddenly the pine forest was gone- I was in a burned desert again, the path strewn with rocks, and I could see the mountain falling away, all the way down to a flat dusty valley. On the other side of the valley were mountains, partly obscured by smog. Rows of wind turbines marched across the valley floor. As I walked I imagined that I was leaving the enchanted mountains and descending into the windy valley of a dark lord.
The trail was nicely graded if stuck all over with rocks and I was walking quickly, feeling good. Now and then I stopped to take a sip of my water. One bottle had dirt and bits of sand mixed in with the snow, and the other had pine needles and tiny cones, and tasted like pine needle soup. They were both gross in their own way and I alternated back and forth, keeping the weight in my pack balanced. I thought about things that made me happy as I raced down the switchbacks. I thanked the universe for the clouds, for the fact that we had braved the storm and caught the nice cool edge of it on what would have been a hot, hellish descent. I didn’t see any other hikers- I didn’t see anyone at all for hours. As I descended the rocks turned to huge, rust-colored boulders, arranged as though there had been a great avalanche of them and then, suddenly, time had been frozen. Some of the boulders looked like faces, or strange animals, or huge clamshells. There were little caves tucked between them, tiny dark spaces of mystery. And in the limestone ones were little bowl-shaped holes, made by the native peoples grinding seeds and things over thousands and thousands of years. The desert here is magical, I thought. The desert here is magical for sure.
After several hours I passed a Japanese man mincing slowly down the mountain. His name was Toyo, and he was seventy-one years old, and he was thru-hiking.
“Only eight more miles to water,” I said to him as I passed.
“Eight?” He said. “Eight more miles to water?”
“Maybe six,” I said.
“Maybe six,” I heard him repeat as I passed.
A moment later I reached mile 200. I thought about how hard that first 100 miles had been, what a journey it had seemed. This second hundred miles, I felt, had past by comparison- by god, I thought. I am getting better at this.
As I walked my feet began to hurt, my knees, my tendonitis. Long descents, especially on rocky trail, are brutal on the body. I took some ibuprofen. Gotta make it down this mountain, I thought. Just gotta make it off the mountain. I was thirsty but I was rationing my water, taking little sips whenever I wanted, and it wasn’t uncomfortable yet.
Five miles before the water fountain I felt myself slowing down. I was trying to stay focused on the trail but I kept getting distracted- staring off at the windmills, wondering about the rocks, looking at the bright beetles on the path. Stop and rest, my body was saying. Take a break for a little while. Today would be a twenty-two mile day- my longest yet. I was tired and thirsty and my feet and joints were screaming at me in pain, even through the ibuprofen. I had about an inch of water left in my bottles.
No breaks, I said to myself. Just walk, Carrot. Walk as fast as you can.
The last three miles were like pushing through molasses- my body wanted to slow down so bad, to stop, to lie in the shade next to a rock. But I needed to get to that water fountain, and fast. I began to have a bit of a spiritual experience.
You’re already at the water fountain, I told myself. All this has already happened. Your whole life has already happened. There is no time, and yet isn’t it incredible to be here, on this dusty trail, in this body in May of 2013?
I felt lonely, and I wanted someone to talk to. I wondered how far the others were behind me. I stopped to pee and just then there was another hiker, rounding the bend. I slung my pack onto my back and then he was right next to me.
“How’s it going?” I said.
“Just chillin,” he said. “Trying to get down off this mountain.” He had trekking poles and the smallest pack I’d ever seen. He was wearing a button down shirt and long desert pants. He passed me and raced on along the trail, his poles clack clack clacking. He’s so fast! I thought. I decided to try and keep up with him. I wanted to talk to him, to ask him if he’d hiked all the way from Idyllwild today. To ask him if he was slackpacking, and if not, how he got his pack so small. (Slackpacking is where you drop off most of your gear at your destination and then hitch back and cross the mountain with just a couple of things.)
I walked as fast as I could, but each time I rounded a bend he was farther away. No! I thought. Come back! And then he was gone, this mysterious speedy person, and it was just me, alone in the desert again.
The wind picked up in the last two miles to the fountain, adding another challenge to my walk. I clutched my hat, terrified to lose it, and stumbled forward, trying not to be blown off the trail. Walk, Carrot, I thought. Walk walk walk. The valley was close now, the eerily churning windmills, the smog and the hazy mountains in the distance. And then I turned a corner and I could see the fountain below me, and the tiny figures of three hikers clustered around it, their shirts flapping in the wind. One of them, I knew, was the speedy hiker. Wait for me! I thought. In that moment I felt as though he was a sage, some sort of oracle- as though he would have all the answers I sought.
And then I was at the fountain, and I was holding my bottle up to the little nozzle, and the wind was spraying the arc of water all over the desert, making it hilariously difficult to fill my bottle. And then I sat in the dirt and quietly drank a liter of water, and spread out my sleeping pad to stretch. I texted the others. Will you make it to the fountain? I asked. Are you camping down here or on the mountain?
Just the water fountain and the mountains we just crossed, NBD
I got a text back- Ben and Thyra were camping a mile back- they’d found a cache hidden at the dirt parking area after I’d left, and they had plenty of water and they were tired. Angela, though, would make it. It was dusk, and I sat on my sleeping pad and washed my feet with a little water and my hanky. Then Angela appeared, windblown and practically limping, and we walked a little ways to a flat spot and spread our groundsheets in the sand.
It was warm, and the stars came out, and the little red lights of the windmills blinked across the valley. We made little pots of food and ate them, and then we went to sleep, warm in our bags in the endless desert.