Monday, May 30, 2016

Camping Under a Tree to Playing at Being Sardines: I Don't Want A Trail Name Because I Like How the Aussies Say My Real Name Too Much

     Last night it seemed as if the sun would never set. I looked around, listening to the murmurs and laughter of the two men camped nearby. Bored, I walked around the tree to where they were sitting and sat down across from them. "Well, hello there," J said. After a half hour, Butters went and got his Captain Morgan and passed it around and as we sat there sharing stories, J told us how he had Giardia and when he told someone about it, they gave him the rest of their antibiotics and a weeks worth of the Mountain Men dehydrated meals plus desserts. I gasped. "Apple cobbler!" He nodded, "Yeah, you wanna try it?" I shrugged, "Well I don't want to eat all your dessert." When he assured me he had been wanting to share it with someone because of its size, I ran and got my water and spoon while he set up his stove. As we passed it around, we laughed at the moans of pleasure escaping our mouths. When the apple cobbler was gone, we all went back to our sleeping bags and crawled in, full and warm.
     The next morning I awoke to J stuffing his sleeping bag into his backpack and crossing the clearing back to the trail. I ate a couple handfuls of my Shredded Wheats, braided my hair and started stuffing all of my dry sacks back into my bag.
     I got back on the trail and immediately started climbing back up to 6,500ft. When I neared the top, the trees opened up to a long mountainous field with rows of wind turbines. The trail scooted around them and snaked along the side of the surrounding mountains.
     Six miles in, I reached the first spring which was an algae filled trough with a drizzle of water coming from a small pipe above it. The line of men was eight deep and I stood behind them, listening to their banter and raucous bouts of laughter. I filtered two litres of water into my Camelback and then packed away two more in my platypus bag, knowing that the next water source was 19.8 miles away.
     Two miles out of the spring, the back of my pants began to grow cold. I felt underneath my bag and noticed the water dripping from it. I stopped, pulled my Camelback out and saw the amount of water it had leaked. Three litres. Three litres I had left for 18 miles in the heat of the day through a burn zone. Awesome, I thought. Awesome.
     I walked, stood and hunched, walked some more. I made it seven miles, twelve, seventeen. I stopped when my shirt stuck to my skin with salt and sweat. I laid out my sleeping bag to dry in the sun and I took a nap under a pine tree, up above the trail so hikers passing by wouldn't see me. I waited until it got cooler, walked 3.5 more miles, uphill. I rationed my litre of water. At the top of the hill, I drank a half litre and ate a Snickers bar. After five more miles I drank my other half litre. I talked to myself as it grew darker. I'd never gone 25 miles in a day, but I talked myself into it. I hit the 600 mile mark, I pulled out my camera slowly. I told myself, You have to take a picture. You've walked 600 miles. You need documentation for yourself. Only 2,000 left.
     The sun set, and I walked onto the side trail where the spring was. I came around the corner and there, surrounding a small pipe in the ground were tents and sleeping bags and people. A ton of hikers. I filtered some water, drank all I could and asked another hiker, Tracker, whether there was room at the top of the hill where all the guys were. He told me he was sure they could fit me in somewhere. I pulled my bag back on and walked up the hill and sat on one side of the circle of men sitting in the dirt eating dinner. I pulled out my stove and cooked my pasta, listened to them discuss songs they would hear on the radio as they hiked. Patrick said, "There's one that plays over and over that says something about it being a sad song. It just says it's a sad song." Fruit Cup looked over, "That's Mike Posner. I Took A Pill In Ibiza." Patrick looked at him, "Oh, no. I don't think that's it. I haven't heard anything about Ibiza." Fruit Cup smiled. "I'll bet you a litre of filtered water it is." As I ate, they debated until Fruit Cup found someone that had the song on their phone. Patrick nodded. "Yep. That's it. But I don't think it should count because I never heard that Ibiza line." When everyone was done eating, we all went to our respective places, blowing up our sleeping pads, brushing teeth and sliding into our sleeping bags. When I sat up, looked around, all I could think was that we were all sardines in a can, packed in nice and neat, side by side and in the morning, still in my sleeping bag, I heard Fruit Cup ask Patrick. "Is this my litre then?"

Tehachapi to Camping Under a Tree: Walking to Chase Away Boredom

     Melissa left and I am sitting here with my tent footprint spread out in the cloying sand, my jetboil burning away. I made Broccoli and Cheddar pasta tonight. I poured the whole packet in thinking that now that I'm alone, my appetite will have to keep me company instead of Melissa. My sleeping bag is positioned under a tree, away from the wind that has swirled past me all day.
     My legs ache in a way they haven't yet. The first week it was a pain I couldn't control--one that was intense and expected. Now, it's dull and welcomed. The past four days we spent in Tehachapi. Two before Melissa left and two with Schweppes, Mayor, Scabs and Mason. Last night we all stayed in an empty home, one that belonged to a family about to move in. The lady saw me walking out of the pizza place with my backpack. "You guys have a place to stay?" "Not really," I said. "I was just headed to the airport campground." The airport campground was about a mile from the places we most went in town and was filled with earwigs and was situated right beside the railroad tracks. "Go discuss it with your friends and let me know." Half an hour later, the five of us were all packed into her and her husbands car, getting ferried to this empty home on the outskirts of town. We all spread out our sleeping bags, positioned against the walls and looked at each other, amused. Schweppes and I laid side by side, my earphones shared between the both of us, taking turns finding songs we once loved, but had forgotten about.
     During the night, my stomach seized and dropped, and I scrunched myself up in a ball and tried to forget where I was, pretended that Melissa was laying to the right of me and all I would have to do is turn over and she would be there, but when I did, it was red hair I saw, not blonde.
     In the morning I sat up and realized I needed to get back on the trail alone, knowing that the other four would be shortly behind me, but if I lingered in the town much longer, the antsy feeling that had crowded around me on the third day would finally grasp me hard enough where I would lose my cool; that nice little bubble that Melissa and I created on the trail would pop and evaporate and I'd be left with just me on the trail alone with people I don't really know.
     At 8 o'clock, I called for a ride, getting to the trail at 10. I walked away from the SUV with the nice old man in it and chuckled nervously. Instantly, I began talking to myself, a habit that had been ignored for the month and a half I had an actual other human being to talk to whenever I felt like it. The first eight miles passed quickly, taking only two and a half hours, but once I crossed the highway and started making my way towards the incline, my stomach began grumbling and my foot ached something fierce. I stopped under a cluster of Joshua trees, nibbling on Goldfish and beef jerky. When my stomach was satisfied, I hoisted my bag back on and made my way to where I assumed the trail was. For half a mile I followed a dried creekbed uphill, continuously in search of footprints, but as I got farther along, the footprints thinned and creekbed looked as though it had only been a washout from the steep part of the mountain. When I checked my phone to see if I was still on trail, it told me I was not. I scrambled up the side of the washout and walked 100ft to my right. Off on a small knoll about 500ft away, I saw that thin ribbon of dirt snaking up the hill. I grinned and started bushwacking my way over to it. I passed by a pile of boulders and there, making their way up the washout were two other hikers. "The trail's back that way." I said, while pointing in front of me with my trekking pole. "Oh, huh. We were just wondering where you had gone to. It's really not marked well, is it?" I shook my head, my stride bouncing, excited that I had been the one to find the way back. When we got back to the trail, they let me in front and I pushed ahead up the hill, climbing away from the highway and wind field. After a few miles, I scurried underneath a wide tree that had bark that peeled as cedar does and took a nap, waiting for the sun to fall alittle in the sky.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Wrightwood to Hiker Heaven: Four Miles of Switchback Hell

     I lay in the tent, curled sideways, listening to the voices around me. I hear Jetpack laugh, off near the fire, feel my stomach gurgle, then gurgle again, making sure I'm listening. We've found Goofy Canadian again, but this time he's acquired his name-- Rattlesnake. The tent beside ours houses a tall Israeli, Animal Style who apparently doesn't snore, but we inform him that we do. We've found ourself in a new pack of people. The people who've been ahead the entire way. Those people. The ones who offer us beef jerky and laughs after the sun sets. We haven't found ourselves near this type of person yet. We leapfrog with a pair of older men, and Melissa warms to them. "I want them to be our best friends."
     The hike from Wrightwood bent our bodies forward towards the end of each day. Up over Baden Powell, into Jimmy Springs Campground where there had been recent bear activity, we looked through the opening of our rainfly and tried counting all of the spaceship tents along the flats of the campground. "Twenty seven?" Melissa shrugged. We ran out of food on the last day and a half. Two tortillas, spicy peanuts and broccoli cheddar soup. All of the things we don't eat...but we must!
     On morning four, after we stopped at the ranger station for water and sodas, we hiked the eight miles to the KOA in Acton, the sun baking us. With my phone charged, I switched the music on, making spastic arm movements along with the beat. Melissa would look behind at me and I would stop middance and grin maniacally. When we made it to the KOA, we set our bags down at a picnic table closest to the pool and bathrooms, ate all the ice cream and chips, drank our sodas and Gatorade. After twenty minutes,  Mayor and Schweppes set their bags down on the picnic table beside ours. Later, we sat across from each other, pulling PBRs out of the box sitting on the ground and Schweppes would look at us, "So, like... what are your guyses hobbies when you aren't hiking?" He would ask us this question throughout the night and the next day, keeping his face free of any emotion and we would answer, our responses becoming more and more bizarre.
      I cut Mayor's beard, asks if it's weird for a stranger to be doing this. "No," he says. "I've had strangers do a lot weirder things." The next day, he trims the ends of my hair. "There," he says. "All the split ends are gone. Would you recommend me to all of your friends?" He has a dog with him- a small fox looking dog. One that he carries over his shoulders when she gets tired. Katana. I look across the lawn, see Schweppes poking at the large pizza we have on the grill. Later, we eat it- both of us consuming half of it in slightly under three minutes. The top of it still doughy, the bottom burnt to the point where both of us grin, chew chew chew and grin again. Mayor looks at my hat, "What's in New Orleans?" I look at him, look away. "My daughter." "Oh! You have a daughter? That's cool." I shook my head, "No. I don't really. I was kidding." I don't smile and we find ourselves nodding in appreciation of each other.
     The four of us hike out together and when we reach Hiker Heaven, we look around, overwhelmed by all of the hikers milling about, and all the information spewed out during the tour of the place. I put my socks and random pieces of clothing in the laundry bag and wander over to the trailer with couches and TV. Pogue plays the guitar and when he gets up, he hands me a beer, running his fingers through his hair. Barbie points out the likeness of Pogue has with the grown up Simba and he strikes a pose, whipping his hair around. Now, fifteen hikers sit on the couches, focused on the TV playing Kung Fury. We all know the longer we sit here, the greater chance we have of not being able to leave, but all the hikers move in a cyclical pattern and we can't seem to leave each other. We take showers, walk to our bags, back up the hill to the charging station, throw the football back and forth to each other and we smile and sigh, comment how we need to leave, but someone nearby always reminds us that it just snowed in the Sierras and most likely we'll all be stuck in Kennedy Meadows, underneath the snow and miles and raw need to keep moving north.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Cajon Pass: Hello...trail? Are you there?

     My feet step down- one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. I feel the bones in my feet grinding together, the third blister on my heel pushing against the shoe wall, my big toe wrapped in med-tape flattening under the weight of my body. To stave off the boredom, I change my stride from long to short, move from the balls of my feet to heel, scrunch up my toes and then stretch them out making sure I haven't caused them to shrivel up and fall off.
     I look up and am able to find the demarcation of the trail along the next hillside. I am able to tell if my ankles will be tilted at an odd angle and if I need to tighten my waist strap so that my shoulders won't throb as much on the downhill. When I step in holes, my ankle twists until I give in and fall under the weight of my pack. Rather than a broken ankle, I instead trade the skin peeled from my palms and knees, calves and elbows. I leave it there as a sacrifice. Let me make it off this mountain, I plead. Melissa always looks back at the commotion, gasps, sees me lying on the ground laughing, unable to get up. "I have to pee soo bad! I was looking for a bush when I fell."
     When we see the dark mass of clouds over the mountains, we sit in the sand and watch them tumble above until we get tired of sitting and decide that getting wet isn't such a bad thing- if only it weren't so windy.
     We hike eighteen miles and then sixteen the next morning, just to get to the McDonald's and a convenience store before the heat of the afternoon. During the nights, I dream about creatures unzipping my tent and places I'll be in the future, always unshowered and carrying my backpack.
     For the last two days I've been munching on what I refer to as my "leftover snacks" which means dried fruit, nutella on tortillas and beef jerky we acquired from a hiker box that doesn't taste like anything, but gives you something to chew on.
     When I take a shower, the water runs brown down the drain. I scrub at my body, at the calluses harboring all of the hidden dirt that makes me look tanner than I am.   
I open the door, jump onto the bed towards Melissa. She spreads her eyes wide, her face stretched in a grin. "This is the happiest I've ever been!" We both laugh as the TV freezes on Sandra Bullock bouncing onto a hotel bed and we sip at our Coors Lite. When we lay in the bed long enough, it's like we haven't walked and walked and walked, yet we still think about going back out there, away from the roaring overpasses and trash covered shoulders- back to sunburn and dirt caked fingers, to complaining about the never ending aches and coming up with snarky comments that maybe one day we'll be able to use on unsuspecting passer-bys. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere to Idyllwild: Why Sleeping In a Tent Feels Much Warmer Than Sleeping In a Bed

Melissa says as we walk to the bar, "Is it strange that I feel this weird kind of guilt that I won't be walking at all tomorrow?" No, I want to answer her. No, not at all. I'm laying in this bed in the small town of Idyllwild after a couple whiskeys neat and an argument with some locals of why IPAs are meant to be served near room temperature, trying to talk myself out of us ditching the zero day and walking over Fuller Ridge before the storm front comes through.
A few days ago, we woke to the rainfly slapping against our backpacks, the air outside bracing. I dug through the dwindling supply of food in my bag and found the Ziploc bag with the meager amount of Nutella left. One of our main troubles, pitiful as it may sound, has been trying to find a way to get the peanut butter and Nutella out of the bags without them slathered all over our face and hands. I grabbed the bag, turning it inside out, both of us scraping the dripping gooeyness as fast as we could, my hand showing more and more as the Nutella made its way from the bag, to granola bar to mouth. When the bag was clear once again, we stuffed it into our trash, groaning as we curled our legs up and over the outside of our sleeping bags. As the morning moved into afternoon, the wind became harsher and harsher, pushing us sideways so that all we could do was shuffle forward, our miles per hour plummeting. We passed houses and RVs not far from the trail, greenhouses dotted the landscape. Near the first cache of water, we passed a sign that read "Beware: The 'local farmers' are pot growers. They are not friendly to hikers." We nodded, continued on in the hot sun. When we rounded a bend, getting ready to climb again, we passed a few section hikers, one of them raising his trekking pole at us, "Little windy huh?" "Yeah, just a bit breezy." His smile looked more like a grimace and he said, "Well, wait till up top, there's picnic tables and soda pop." I nodded, thought his attempt at humor sorely lacking and walked on. Forty minutes later, I found myself looking for flat spots hidden from the wind. Everywhere I looked, the sand was picked up from the ground and scattered, the branches twisted wildly and the sun lazered in on all the spots not tormented by the gusts. "Hey, can we start looking for a sheltered spot?" I called up. "Been looking for the last half hour," Liss yelled back to me. Our heads swiveled from side to side, growing tired of the game neither of us seemed to be able to win. We walked up over a knoll and saw a half of a surfboard sticking out of the sand covered in writing. Further on, sat a picnic table and coolers, gallons upon gallons of water and a little free library. I laughed, "Oh my goodness! I feel so bad about not believing that guy, but I also don't care because we have SODA!" We scurried down to a spot next to a large boulder that saved us from the wind and laid out the tarp, fixing our bags under our heads, opening all of our snack bags of food and ate until we fell asleep.
When we woke up, we agreed we both would be absolutely miserable if we went all the way down to Paradise Valley Cafe where we had planned to get that night. For some reason, hiking nine miles in that wind seemed utterly impossible with how we were feeling. As we walked along, I would look back at Melissa and see her shuffling along, her head down, face burnt from the blowing sand and know I must not look in much better condition. An hour and forty minutes of shuffling along, I looked back at Melissa, "We should be there. It says we've gone four miles." She shook her head, "No, we still have a mile to go. That mileage we said earlier was wrong." Right then, I became furious. Mad at the trail, at the incessant wind, at the rocks that roll around under your feet as you step down on them. I would come around a corner and look across the small canyon and see more switchbacks climbing yet another ridge. My fury turned into seething rage as I climbed and climbed, my jacket still on through the heat of the day, sheltering me from the wind, but with the anger, I became the furnace that I had escaped from all day, I was the one that I now had to shelter myself from. When we reached the top of the ridge, I couldn't help, but think how much more exposed we were, but at that point, I wasn't sure I cared. As long as I could stick the bottom half of my body into my sleeping bag, I would have the top half busy heating up dinner and shoving as many goldfish into me as possible.
In the morning, I woke to dripping noises. Every few minutes I would hear it. A couple on my sleeping bag, a couple on Melissa's. When we unzipped the tent, there on the ground surrounding us was a thin layer of melting snow and we laughed, knowing we would be down at the cafe in a couple hours time having a large breakfast and hopefully, if our luck was right, finding a ride into Idyllwild. On our way down the mountain, we joked about best and worst case scenarios. Best case was we got breakfast, stayed at the cafe until lunch while we found a ride, and worst case was there was no breakfast and we couldn't get a ride. We walked on, "What if when we walked towards the cafe, someone pulled up alongside us and offered us a ride before we had breakfast? Would you take it?" Melissa nodded. "That's the bestest best case. Cause they probably have awesome breakfast in Idyllwild." As we walked down the hill, the road got closer and the cars on it grew larger, but the cafe was still a mile from the trailhead. We crossed the field and watched as a few cars sped by. Across the street we saw an SUV that was backed onto a side street pull up alongside the road. The driver rolled his window down. "You guys need a ride?" We looked at each other, "Where are you headed?" "Anywhere you need. The cafe. Idyllwild. Wherever." We looked at each other again. "So, the bestest best case then?" We hopped in the car, introducing ourselves as the man pointed out the sodas in the back, along with donuts and snickers bars. He explained to us how he had hiked the trail last year and this year had an extra week after Coachella, so he decided to drive hikers back and forth from the trailheads as they needed. We both sat there stunned at the generosity of the people we had encountered so far. We stopped by the cafe so he could see if there were any other hikers on their way to Idyllwild. After a few minutes inside, he came out and told us there would be two more joining us and right behind him strode the British couple that somehow seem to find us at the oddest times. We squealed, excited to catch up with them again and slipped into the backseat grinning.
The seventeen miles of road between Paradise Valley and Idyllwild twisted its way up into 6,000ft drizzling mountains. The man dropped us off near the center of town, pointing this way and that to help us orient ourselves in the town, all to no avail. It seemed funny to us, how we could be in the mountains, following a single footpath for days and not even get a smidgen lost, but being in town for five minutes, we found ourselves wandering streets in circles, confused by the only three intersections the town had. Finally, we wandered into a small diner, The Red Kettle and both ordered what's called their Junkyard Omelet with everything in it. Out came our omelets, the size of a pan itself and in no time at all our plates were empty, the waitress smiled at us, unimpressed by how much we just ate because it seems they've all seen it so many times before.