PCT Day 15: What Goes Up Must Come Down

May 3, 2022

Campsite at mile 190.5 to I-10 near Cabazon

19 miles

It’s not as cold this morning as it was last night, and it seems like my packing routine might be turning a corner: I’m ready in close to half an hour. Andy still isn’t moving by the time I’m nearly ready, though, so I try waking him up by talking, then almost shouting, then shaking his tent. I look at Petra. “Is he okay?” I ask. We start to get concerned, but eventually, he gets up. Within 10 minutes he’s ready to leave. I still have to stuff my puffy into my pack, and he leaves first. It’s not fair.

Anyway, the morning is beautiful. We are still high up in the sky island, where it smells like winter and pine needles and sap. Down we go, coasting switchbacks. There’s a view of the valley far below, covered in a soft blanket of clouds. We’re going all the way down to the desert floor today: nearly 20 miles of descent.

I quickly give up on trying to hike with Andy. He’s a machine today. I breathe deeply and appreciate the morning and the views. I can’t say I’m not excited about a day of all downhill, but it will be interesting to see what it does to my knees.

I walk with Petra for most of the morning. I tell her about my dream last night that I met Neil Gaiman and was fretting about which book I’d have him sign. That gets us onto a conversation about our favorite books and authors, which leads into languages and dialects and the relationship between Czech and Slovak. By this point, we are near Andy, Beetle, and DLT. I hike with Andy for a bit, but I just can’t keep up today. It’s too rocky and I’m too tired.

The trees thin out and give way to smaller scrubby bushes. Then there are cacti and huge white lily-looking flowers I haven’t seen before. I keep walking with Petra for a while until we run into Andy waiting on a rock. Across the trail from him is the 200 mile marker. I can’t believe we’ve walked 200 miles of the PCT! We all take photos, then start walking again as a group, then quickly fall apart again. It’s just too hot. I am a puddle melting on the side of the hill.

I put on some music that DLT sent me last night—King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s newest album—and at first this seems to help, but then it starts to make my mind go to weird places. I spot the rest of my tramily squeezed under a huge boulder by the side of the trail eating lunch. I join them, making myself as small as possible, and feel the immediate relief of being out of the sun.

After lunch, it’s five more miles to the water faucet, which we’ve been working towards all day. It feels interminable by now. The sun is glaring down at us like the Eye of Sauron. It is chewing us up. There is sweat streaming down by back. Down, down, down, we hike over rocks, around turns, and still the valley floor never gets any closer.

Petra and I find the one boulder that lends itself to a pee break. Then I put my headphones in and go into my little cruise space and pound out the last couple of miles to the water. I can see it forever before I make it down there. The boys are already hydrating, and it is making me crazy not being at that faucet. Finally, after an interminable-feeling amount of time, I arrive. I filter three liters of water and gladly accept when Beetle offers to pour some of his water all over me. I could die with pleasure at the feeling of the cold water on my neck.

Water is life. I have already seen that on this trail. It all boils down (no pun intended) to that. We gather at water sources, we plan our days around water, we stress out about carrying or not carrying water. There are questions to be asked and conversations to be had about that. What would it be like to be fleeing violence in your home country, only to die of thirst in this desert? When you do not have water, or when you are worried about having water, it becomes so much more apparent how precious this obvious-seeming resource really is.

So, water. We load up on it, take showers in it, pour it all over ourselves. Then we resign ourselves to the one mile trudge to the road. There’s a rumor that there is trail magic happening there, which turns out to be true. There is a couple cooking hot dogs and serving up cold beverages to a hot gaggle of hiker trash. TRAIL MAGIC! It’s the best! I’m directed to wipe my hands off with baby wipes and to gran a cold slice of pineapple, which tastes like heaven. We stand and sit around in the heat eating hot dogs and fruit and drinking cold drinks. Thank you, trail angels!

Eventually, we work up the energy to start walking towards the I-10 underpass, which is near a road where we can hitch into Cabazon to pick up our next resupply to get us to Big Bear. After walking the wrong way for a moment and being redirected by a man on a four-wheeler, we get back on the trail for the 2.5-mile slog across the burning-hot desert floor.

It is absolute torture. It’s sandy, and every step sinks deep before you can make another one. I’m holding my sun umbrella in one hand and my poles in the other, but it’s windy so I have to put the umbrella away any time the breeze picks up. I feel my soul start to leave my body. The sun is sucking every last bit of energy from me. We trudge in a clump, stepping stupidly on the sandy highway towards the underpass that never, ever seems to arrive.

I haven’t once hated the trail. It has been incredible all the way through, even the last few days with all the climbing. But I hate this. It sucks. I need to be out of the sun.

Finally, after an immeasurably long amount of time (probably 20 minutes), we arrive. We collapse under the train bridge, then Beetle tells us there’s more trail magic ahead under the actual interstate bridge. It’s true! It’s Mama Bear, who is giving out cold wet rags, cold drinks, and snacks. She also gives us PCT Section B buffs and lets us write postcards with the PCT logo on them, which she will then mail. Trail angels are the best. Thank you, Mama Bear!

I sit and recover for a minute, sharing a cold Dr. Pepper with Andy and trying to bring my body temperature down. Then we try and fail to get a hitch to town and end up calling an Uber that takes us to the Dollar General. It’s not just us there; the other group we’ve been hiking around is there too, and it’s an absolute hiker trash party in the aisles.

I run to the restroom, and when I come out, Andy, Beetle, and Rob are gone. DLT, Petra, and I finish packing up our food bags and then DLT sweet-talks a woman into giving us a ride to the In-N-Out Burger to meet our other three friends.

The food tastes amazing, better than I remember from the last time I ate here. I order a cheeseburger, fries, and a chocolate shake. DLT gets a double-double and animal style fries, which he is extremely excited about.

Andy, Rob, and I Uber back to the trailhead while Beetle, DLT, and Petra try to score a free ride. Back at the bridge, we find a good campsite and I struggle to pitch my tent in the sandy soil. The highway sounds are like white noise, broken by the occasional freight train rumbling by. I can see San Jacinto’s shadow above us. It’s hard to believe both this and that exist in such a small space. The PCT is wild.

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