PCT Days 48-50: Triple Zero in Lake Isabella

We did not one, not two, but three zero days in Lake Isabella—giving the recent Sierra snowfall some time to melt, as well as waiting on my very necessary new shoes to arrive. Three glorious days of hanging out with other hikers, eating and sleeping and ordering gear and more eating and also some floating on inflatable pool toys.

(I ordered a bunch of shoe options to try—Zappos overnight shipping with free returns is THE BEST.)

We stayed at the Lake Isabella Motel, which I 100% recommend to hikers. The rooms are “basic” and a little bit funky, but the owners are incredibly sweet. The night we arrived, we were hustled directly down to the garden patio, where hikers were being treated to a huge, home-cooked (and free) dinner. Homemade pizzas, a giant salad, huge slices of watermelon (with the rinds cut off), and cake for dessert. This continued to happen the next three nights we were there. Go to the Lake Isabella Motel.

Also, they have the best neon sign in the world. Red letters in the daytime that glow teal at night.

Days 48-50: Zero miles, three days in a row!  😀

Photos: PCT Days 43-47

PCT Days 43-44:

PCT Day 45:

PCT Day 46:

PCT Day 47:

(All photos are also on Flickr)

PCT Days 43-47: We are like the rocks, worn by wind and water

The climb up from Highway 58 is brutal. The trail goes up more than 2,000 feet in about five miles, most of it bare, south-facing desert hillside. And with packs full of food and water, after two and a half days of lying around drinking Oreo milkshakes, Fancypants and Rally and I were moving especially slow. The views of the Mojave Desert were spectacular, but, oh, it was tough hiking.

We camped after less than 12 miles—my ankles were aching intensely, and the uphill really wiped us out. The next morning we got up early to make it to the next water source, a concrete cattle trough with a great sign warning of all the things that could be pooping in your water:  

The day was cloudy and windy and cool. We walked past mist-shrouded turbines and through a huge burn zone covered in scorched, bare trees and wildflowers. It was nice to not be sweating under a hot sun for a change.

We camped in a green, misty forest and the next morning woke up to more mist, more clouds, more cold. The trail at this point went through private land, and we passed evidence of cows everywhere—fresh cow poop, hoof-marked paths through the trees—but never actually saw the cows themselves. Rally claims to have seen one, but for the most part they remained Ghost Cows in the Mist.

The trees rained on us, the clouds we were walking through rained on us, the trail took us through soaking wet grass, and we all had squishy shoes and squishy wet socks around Mile 600. And while I can appreciate escaping what the PCT guides say is usually an incredibly hot hike, the cold and the wet can get tiring. 

Day 46 was finally sunny again, and we had a relatively easy walk along hill contours, passing pizza-sized cow patties before finally spotting five lonely-looking cows. We started the day at Mile 612, only 90 miles left to go before Kennedy Meadows and the end of the Southern California desert section of the PCT. Yay, we’re almost done! But the desert was saving all its desert for the last minute.

We’d already had some long water carries—18 miles, 20 miles without an on-trail water source—but now we were facing a 31-mile dry stretch. Our individual average water consumption is somewhere around one liter for every four or five miles of hiking—more in the heat, more uphill—plus a liter per person if we have to dry camp (i.e., camp somewhere not next to a water source). Since we knew we’d have to camp once before the next water, I ended up carrying eight liters of water from Willow Spring, a water source 1.6 miles off-trail. That’s over 17 and a half pounds of water—more than my entire pack with all of my gear (sans food or water) weighs.

Our packs were heavy, and the sun was hot. The water had to be rationed, but I found myself thinking, The faster I stuff all this heavy food into my mouth and then crap it back out, the less I’ll have to carry! I tried to snack frequently. Then the desert decided to quit farting around with gently rolling, scrub-brush-covered hills and just go for it. After 620 miles, we found the Real Fucking PCT Desert: mountains covered in sagebrush and Joshua trees, deep-sand trail that went straight up, and—of course—gale-force winds. Sideways wind that had us lurching across the sand like drunks. The views were incredible, but the walking was exhausting.

We finally staggered into Bird Spring Pass, where there was an empty water cache and one giant rock to huddle behind to escape the relentless wind. We cowboy camped rather than deal with a flapping tarp. Looking at the mountains around us, it’s easy to see the effects of wind, of water—of slow-moving glaciers and the upheaval of tectonic plates. Walking through this landscape, buffeted by wind and exposed to the cold and dripping rain, I find myself identifying with the rocks. New edges cut and then worn smooth. Slow, progressive change.

Day 47 started with a big uphill into forested trail that wound around the tops of the mountains before giving us our first clear view of the Sierra Nevada. We saw what we’re pretty sure was Mount Whitney, and it was completely covered in snow. After an extremely low-snow winter, a series of late-season storms had been dumping snow in the mountains—a lot of hikers were slowing down or taking detours (going home, going to Vegas) to give it time to melt.

My feet were absolutely killing me, every step was agony, but after 20.5 miles we finally reached Walker Pass Campground. We met Meadow Ed, a famous trail angel (who was, yes, in Wild) who had an elaborate trail magic setup going, but we were headed for Lake Isabella and a motel.

Day 43: 11.7 miles, Mile 566.5 to 578.2, “two” tent site
Day 44:
17.7 miles, Mile 578.2 to 595.9, misty woods campsite
Day 45:
16.1 miles, Mile 595.9 to 612
Day 46:
20.2 miles, Mile 612 to 630.9 via Willow Spring alternate, camped at Bird Spring Pass
Day 47:
20.5 miles, Mile 630.9 to 651.4, Lake Isabella

PCT Days 38-42: Blowin’ in the Wind

Day 38 was our introduction to the beauty—and grinding reality—of the next 100+ miles of trail: wind farms, Joshua trees, and yet more—and fiercer—wind. The two-day walk from Hiker Town to Tehachapi was new and beautiful and intense.

Right after Hiker Town the trail joins the Los Angeles Aqueduct, following alongside the open channel and then actually running along the top of a section that starts as a huge half-buried iron pipe and then becomes visible only as a long, flat, paved ribbon running across the desert floor.

It’s a notoriously hot, ironically dry (you are, after all, walking directly on top of millions of gallons of water) section of the trail that many people night-hike in order to avoid the heat of the day. When we walked it, we lucked out with a cool, cloudy morning and a breezy afternoon.

The flat aqueduct was easy walking, with only the occasional speeding dirt bike or utility truck to dodge. We started passing huge Joshua trees, approaching a distant wind farm. The trail climbed some hills and then took us directly through acres of massive turbines.

The scale was breathtaking. I’ve always been fascinated with large-scale infrastructure—bridges, dams, huge things with a practical purpose—and these were just wonderful. Giant. Huge. Sooooo big. Impossibly tall. And a local guy (who was railing against them, but whatever) told us that you could drive a school bus into the housing behind the blades, they’re that big.

Oh, and there was wind. Not just wind farm wind but post-storm, low-pressure-system, this-may-be-the-apocalypse wind. As we climbed towards the mountains that would take us to Tehachapi, it got worse and worse until we were staggering forward, heads down and poles out, struggling to stay upright as gusts threatened to knock us off the trail. Pure adrenaline kept me going despite my aching feet, twenty-four miles of hiking to a bitterly windy canyon where hikers were trying to keep their tents upright behind trees, bushes, rocks, anything that might block the unrelenting wind. We cowboy camped rather than attempt to set up the tarp, and all night gusts would come through that felt like someone grabbing and violently shaking our sleeping bags.

The next day was a 17-mile trek through sandy hills and dirt bike trails and more close-up wind turbines, brightened by two moments of trail magic: one water cache with chairs to relax in, and one southbound section hiker handing out chips and sodas to all the NOBOs he met. (GoalTech, you’re awesome!)

Did I mention the wind turbines? I love the wind turbines.

We finally made it to the road to Tehachapi, where a fellow hiker who was taking some days off for medical issues and had rented a car gave us a ride into town. Much food was eaten, and what began as a single zero day became a double zero (so decadent!!) plus a nero (low mileage day) of slack-packing (hiking with mostly-empty packs) the eight miles from Tehachapi Willow Springs Road to Highway 58. It was a glorious and much-needed break, filled with food, sleep, hot tubbing, and even a real movie in a real theater. (Mad Max, which was phenomenal.)

Day 38: 23.9 miles, Mile 517.6 to 541.5, Tylerhorse Canyon
Day 39: 17 miles, Mile 541.5 to 558.5
Day 40: 0 miles hiked
Day 41: 0 again, booyeah!
Day 42: 8 miles slack-packing, Mile 558.5 to 566.5

Day 38:

(More Day 38 photos on Flickr)

Day 39:

Days 40-42: