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