Mile 80 to mile 96.5
At 5am it’s still dark and I wake up to a noise. I see a red light and realize someone is walking down the trail with their headlamp on the red setting so as to be unobtrusive. Well. Nothing like someone else overachieving to get my ass out of bed. I sit up and start getting ready for the day.
I eat the rest of my burrito from the night before for breakfast and pack up camp fast and then I’m back on the ridge, walking the miles I’d meant to make last night. It’s been so hot during the day it’s hard to hike effectively, so I’m attempting to do ten miles before 10am – just for efficiency.
I panic texted Hot Legs and Taylor last night to ask about the o-ring coming out of my Sawyer filter – Hot Legs because he is my hero, and Tay because she’s my go-to person when I want to learn more about my gear without enduring any mansplaining. Hot Legs has texted me back, bless him. “Call me if you have a minute and I’ll explain,” he writes. I have service and I’m entirely alone on this ridge – I literally haven’t seen a single other human being yet besides the person who passed my tent before I woke up today – so I call him. It’s 7:45am. The phone rings and he answers.
He explains that the o-ring on the Sawyer often comes out and that’s fine, you just need to pop it back in. He says I can buy some replacements at the next gear shop I get to, if that will make me feel more secure. Well okay then! I’m relieved that my filter isn’t broken and I don’t need to spend $40 on a new one and I’m bemused at how little I know about everything and I’m grateful, as always, to Hot Legs. I tell him my feet feel amazing and he sounds so genuinely thrilled.
After my early morning phone date I keep hiking. Sometimes when I’m in a rush I challenge myself not to take any photos until I’ve made a certain amount of miles. I love taking pictures while I hike – it’s a huge incentive for me to be out here – but to be honest I could probably hike 1-2 miles more every single day if I just didn’t take so many photos. That’s not to say I’ll stop – I would never, it brings me way too much joy – but it’s good to keep in mind when I’m trying to hustle or beat the heat. And I’m always trying to beat the heat; we all are. It’s so hot.
The next reliable water source is the only cache the PCTA recognizes on the entire trail, the Third Gate Cache. Water caches exist because there’s not enough water in the desert and people are angels and want to help hikers – they are spots on the trail where people literally just bring gallons of water and leave it for hikers to use. You can’t rely on caches because they might be empty when you get there – sometimes a cache is fine in the morning but by noon 200 hikers have gone through and all taken 2-3 liters and it’s pretty much done. But Ed, the sweet man who gave me a ride into Julian yesterday, told me that the Third Gate Cache is maintained by the PCTA and is the only cache on the whole trail that is considered a reliable source. There’s also a cistern there, so if the cache were empty there would still be that option. So I’m counting this cache as a reliable water source and I want to get there before noon so I can take a lengthy break there.
The hike is a bit of a climb but I feel good. My knee has relaxed since that intense day of down down down and the ridge I’m walking remains beautiful. It’s such a beautiful year to be hiking the desert. I wonder where all the people I saw in Julian yesterday are – Colleen and Amelia and Alan and Justin and Tommy and Rachel. I’m a little self-conscious about being so alone, which is unusual for me. I like being alone! But this is an intense journey and it’s nice to have a little group of people, a clique, I guess. I’m used to my close friends at home. I was used to hiking with Cate and Mike and Lynn and Shakedown. I feel a little unmoored now, a little jealous of everyone and their close friend groups. I’m just a bit on the outside.
As I’m walking I keep an eye out for shady spots, which are not abundant at all. I need to make sure I take my shoes and socks off and air out my feet to help my current blisters and prevent future blisters. And I need to be eating more. Nothing tastes good in the desert, it turns out – not a single thing in my food bag is appealing – but I need the calories. I can make myself feel a little excited about the Justin’s chocolate hazelnut butter packets and the homemade jerky Susie sent me, but honestly, the heat just makes me crave cold water and Diet Coke.
I turn a ridge corner and see a familiar figure under a sun umbrella – Tim! I’m so stoked to see him, we haven’t seen one another since Mt. Laguna, which seems like ages ago! Last time he saw me I could barely walk because of my blisters! We share a sweaty hug and catch up for a bit. “It’s so nice to see you back on trail looking so happy,” he says. It makes me feel really nice. We leap frog each other all the way to the water source.
As I turn one of the last corners, I look down and yelp – a snake! It’s the first one I’ve seen in the daylight, and the first big one I’ve seen. The two tiny ones we saw while night hiking on the third day were somewhat anticlimactic. This snake is silver and beautiful and fast – she slithers off the trail before I can even take a good photo. Whew, okay. Bye, snake!
When I finally arrive I look at my phone: I didn’t make 10 miles by 10 but I did make 11 miles by 11:30! I’ll take it. Now to get water and rest.
A huge group of humans has congregated here, and I think once again how we are like a herd of animals moving through this landscape. What must the lizards think of us, the snakes, the bunnies? We are so weird.
I see Alan sitting with everyone else and feel very excited to see him. I don’t think he’s quite as excited to see me but he humors me. I am hungry for friendship right now; I don’t really like the feeling but I let it happen. It’s okay to be lonely, I tell myself.
I sit in the dirt and eat lunch: tortillas and a tuna packet and potato chips. It’s mediocre. Then I follow the water signs to the cache because Alan says it’s running low. He’s been at the water source since 9:30am and has no plans to hike during the day. He’s done with the sun, only wants to night hike now. I wish I felt brave enough to do that because the heat is brutal but I’m slow so I’d always be alone, and that makes me feel not great. I don’t know.
I walk down the hill where the cache is and pass a few more pockets of friends. I fill up my bottles and say a silent thanks to the people who keep this cache stocked. I’d be carrying 7+ liters of water (at 2.2 pounds a liter) if this source weren’t here. Thank you, thank you. With my water taken care of I climb back up the hill and go to find Alan and the little group he is resting with. Rachel, Tron, Alan, and Justin are lined up in a row under a shady tree. I ask if there’s space for one more and Alan and Justin kindly adjust to make space for me. I roll out my thin grey sleeping pad and join them. Siesta time.
We snooze, fuck around on our phones, eat snacks. The flies are obsessed with us; we smell disgusting, I guess. I realize I have to poop for the second time today and feel super annoyed. Every time I use the bathroom feels like an opportunity to irritate my dormant butt chafe. Sorry for being real y’all, but This Is Reality On A Thru-Hike. Anyway I’m gonna be here for hours and I really have to go, so I grab my bathroom bag (shovel, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, baggie to put used toilet paper in) and take a walk to find a private spot. Sure enough, when I’m all done my chafing feels irritated. Fuck. I’m also down to just a few squares of toilet paper. I thought I’d have more than enough to last me from Julian to Warner Springs, but I didn’t anticipate pooping more than once a day. I bet some of you are horrified to know so much about my bathroom habits. Regardless, now I’m worried about toilet paper. Will I ever get the hang of how this all works?! This all being my basic needs in the backcountry? I dunno.
I sadly head back to my spot under the tree with these people who are nice but aren’t really my friends. My butt chafe hurts and I just feel sort of blue. I have cell service so I can text with Alley, at least.
Eventually everyone gets tired of actually napping so we’re all just sort of sitting on our mats, chatting about nothing. Food, our feet. The usual. I think about if it’s appropriate to ask them if they have spare toilet paper. It’s kind of embarrassing but not having toilet paper would be horrible, right? I know I can theoretically use things around me – sticks, stones, leaves – but I don’t really want to. So.
“Hey, guys? I have kind of an embarrassing question to ask…” They all look at me. “Um, does anyone have any extra toilet paper…?” The boys all three dutifully go into their packs and pull out their bathroom bags. Soon I have three different shades of off-white TP sitting in my lap; they have each donated a small amount of their small stash. “My body only seems to go to the bathroom in town anyway, so I guess I don’t need any of this,” Tron jokes. I am intensely moved by their act of kindness. Sharing toilet paper on a thru-hike: maybe these people really are my true friends!
At around 3pm Rachel gets antsy and hikes out. I know she wants to catch up to her group. I’m alone, have no one I need to catch up to, but decide to hike out at 4:30pm anyway. I’ve been hanging out for a few hours and I’m ready to move. Aside from my butt chafe my body feels good and I want to see how many miles I can make today. I pack up and say bye to the boys and then I’m all alone again.
The hiking is hot. It seems like the earth just doesn’t want to cool down. The PCT is busy and many of the camp spots I think I might stay at already have 1-3 tents there. Damn.
I decide I’ll stop at mile 96.5 no matter what. I’m getting tired, it’s getting dark, and that will be a 16.5 mile day. Cool. At around the 95 mile marker I see Tim, setting up his sleeping pad and quilt in a little crevasse tucked away from the edge of the ridge. It’s not an official camping spot but it’s definitely big enough for one person. I’m jealous that he’s brave enough to cowboy camp! How cool. “Hey Scissors, there’s already a tent set up at that spot up ahead!” What? I’m crushed. I don’t want to walk anymore today! But how does he know? “I walked up that way because I thought I’d camp there, but then when I saw a tent I quickly scurried back to this spot!” Ugh. I can’t imagine turning around and walking 1.5 miles extra BACK to a sleeping spot. “I’ll figure it out,” I tell Tim. Maybe there will be room for my tent at the spot up ahead, too.
The next 1.5 miles are easy. I’m really booking it, so ready to be done, and also hyped on adrenaline. Will I be able to camp here? I arrive and see the tent Tim mentioned. It’s situated a bit above the trail, up a gentle slope. I climb up and survey the space – there’s a lot of room for another tent. The woman in the tent stirs – I’m not sure if she’s awake or asleep, if I should say anything or just let her be. Camp etiquette is confusing sometimes.
Then she sits up and looks at me so I say, “Hi!” I ask I can camp with her and she says of course. “I wake up really early though so I hope that doesn’t bother you,” she says. I tell her it’s no problem, I wake up early too. “Like how early,” I ask. “I like to be on trail by 4am,” she says. Oh! She explains she hates the heat and tries to get 10 miles done before 10am. That’s everyone’s motto, I guess! I say I’m not up that early but it’s fine, I’m a heavy sleeper. Worst case scenario she wakes me and I’ll roll over and look at the perfect sky before going back to sleep. I’m just so excited to be at camp.
We talk a tiny bit more. Her name is Heidi and she’s from Utah. Then she rolls over to go to sleep and I move away from our tents to cook my dinner. I make mashed potatoes with olive oil, kale flakes, teriyaki jerky, and seasoning salt. I let it sit in my homemade insulated pot holder to fully hydrate while I go about my other evening chores: take off shoes and wear flip flops, pitch my tent, blow up my mattress, change into sleep clothes.
Taking off my pants I realize my chafe is even worse than I thought. Fuck. I’ll sleep naked on the bottom to try to air things out but I really don’t know how to deal with this ongoing issue. My spandex shorts are amazing at stopping thigh chafe but they seem to encourage butt chafe. As an experienced nanny I can say with certainty: I’m basically getting diaper rash from the wet fabric up against my skin. CUTE! Hi Alley, don’t you love dating me? Ugh. What to do, what to do. I text Carrot: “Is butt chafe just something that never goes away and can attack at any moment?”
With all my chores done I get into my sleeping quilt and grab my dinner. It’s okay. I make myself eat all of it because what else is there to do, but by the time I’m done choking it down it’s dark out, and I just can’t bring myself to get out of my tent and clean my pot. The stars are out, my pants are off, and tomorrow I’m going to hit the 100 mile marker and then Warner Springs, a tiny town where I’ll apparently be able to take a bucket shower and hopefully finally catch up with Cate and Mike and Lynn.
I close my eyes and go to sleep.