I have discovered an amazing meal, and I’m not sure how it took me so long to devise it. A squeeze packet of applesauce poured in a peanut butter jar, sprinkled with chia seeds and graham cracker crumbles. It is special, well and truly, and it is my lunch of choice since discovering it on the afternoon of Day 7. But I digress…
As has become my pattern on the trail, I woke up at 4:30 am, wide awake, staring up at the milky way above. I’ve always had a fondness for the darkness of out of the way places, and most of my campsites along the trail have certainly qualified. The stars are amazing at night, truly breathtaking, and one of my major regrets is that I’ve been too tired from hiking all day to fully take photographic advantage of them. Perhaps as I grow more used to life on the trail I’ll be able to accommodate a few late night photography sections. I hope so.
I went back to sleep, waking at 6:30 and giving my girlfriend a call as she walked the dog and got ready for work. Work has been tough on her and I could hear the weariness in her voice, the stress and sadness. It makes it difficult for me to be out here knowing she’s struggling back at home, all I want to do is hold her and help her make things better, but I know we’re working out our own paths right now, and in the long run we’ll be stronger for it. Still, the caretaker in me finds it difficult not to want to be there.
No Trace and Unbreakable passed me while I lay in my tent, already four miles into their day while I talked on the phone. It still upsets me somewhat that I’m not an earlier hiker, there are many advantages to doing so that I should be allowing myself to partake in, cooler morning weather in the desert, less direct sunlight, finishing my day earlier, but I haven’t worked it out yet, though I’m sure I will.
By the time I got on the trail around 8, it was still cool, and I made good time hiking the two miles from my camp to the fire tank at the Rodriguez Spur road at mile 68. As I hiked I met Bill and Jennifer, a couple from Ashland, Oregon hiking in support of the PCTA, and the constant revitalization and repair efforts being done by trail workers and volunteers all along the trail’s length. They had an easy pace, and we walked and talked amiably, about the cacti and animal life we saw, about our lives back home, about their reasons for doing the trail. It was the first time I’d hiked with another set of hikers and had such a relaxed walk, and I definitely appreciated the conversation.
The Rodriguez Spur fire tank was yet another communal gathering spot for hikers along the trail. Rumors had been flying for the past two days that it was the last water on the trail for the next 32 miles, and everybody was worried at the prospect, myself included. Remembering the lack of water on my second day, and how dehydrated I got just in that 16 mile section, the prospect of 32 hot, waterless miles through the Anza Borrego desert had me petrified.
I filled my water at the tank, purifying it as I collected, and loaded up all 8 liters into my pack. The weight of it, nearly 17 lbs of extra weight in my already heavy pack, brought back memories of the time before Mt. Laguna, unpleasant memories I was not happy to be reliving. Still, the majority of the day’s hike would be downhill, so I thought it would be a little easier at least.
The heat of the day caught up to me around 1:00pm, the cloudless sky blasting me with intense sunlight on the mostly shadeless downslope into the Anza Borrego. I took a two hour break under the branches of a small tree, eating lunch and calling my family and girlfriend, and generally not exerting myself.
The whole way down I saw Scissor’s Crossing, the intersection of Highway 78 and the Great Overland Stage Route at mile 77, and even watched as I seemed to walk past it, away from it. The trail was designed by idiots, I told myself. Why not cut straight across the desert from where I stood to the intersection and save 4 hot, merciless miles? There was no logic to it. It was a lesson in inefficiency.
I reached the bottom of the hill as the sun started to sit low on the western horizon. Sunsets in the Anza Borrego are magical times, the two or three hours before the sun finally dips below the mountains casting an ethereal golden light across the whole of the desert, causing cholla and barrel cactuses to glow as if rimmed by halos. It’s always been one of my favorite times to photograph the desert, and this particular sunset did not disappoint.
I continued on, meeting a Vietnamese hiker named Half Slope that was doing a reverse hike for the first two weeks, starting in Warner Springs some 35 miles to the north, and hiking south to the Mexican border for the Kickoff celebration in a week’s time. He carried his pack not on his back, but on a small wheeled cart behind him. As impractical as it looked, I was jealous, still feeling the weight of the 7 remaining liters of water on my own back. We chatted for a time, and he told me of the water situation ahead of me. A cache had been left at Scissor’s Crossing, he said, and another at mile 91, enough water for everyone and then some. I would be fine, I didn’t need all the water I was carrying, according to him.
I frowned and moved on, stumbling through the flat trail like a staggering drunk. I passed a sign as I approached the crossing with the number of a trail angel named Misty, who was offering rides to the town of Julian (where there were amazing pies and milkshakes to be had) or the equally appealing Stagecoach RV Resort in the opposite direction, which advertised swimming pools, electricity, ice cream, and beer. The temptations were almost too much to bear, but I declined, and moved on. At a small cooler left by Misty, I applied some aloe lotion to my blistering sunburns, and then turned down Misty herself as she drove by. I thanked her for the lotion, but could not accept the ride. I was foolishly determined to climb the next set of mountains before me that night, to escape the heat and set me up to reach mile 91 in the morning.
At the crossing I saw about a dozen other hikers, including Bill and Jennifer, all camped out for the night and looking comfortable, at ease with the dozens of gallons of water left by some enterprising trail angel there. I waved but moved on. I would not be tempted.
I climbed out of the desert and up the switchbacks to a spot where I could sit and watch the sunset from a high vantage point and made dinner. I ate and rested my feet, and when the sun had gone down, continued onward and upward. At mile 80 I finally stopped, a hot, miserable day behind me, a nice cool night in a small box canyon immediately ahead of me, and just 29 miles to Warner Springs, and my next resupply. It was all going according to plan…