May 21, 2022
Campsite at mile 510.9 to Hikertown to campsite near Cottonwood Creek at mile 534.9
We sleep in. It is beautiful. There’s just shy of seven rolling miles to Hikertown, and we’re not in a hurry. So when I wake up, I look at the blue sky ringed by trees and listen to the sound of the morning. It hits me how lucky I am to be out here living intentionally and experiencing this trail. I’m surrounded by people I didn’t know thirty-four days ago, but I would trust them all with my life. It’s all so cool. Even the dull pain in the arch of my left foot, the whisper of my old achilles injury constantly reminding me of its existence, and the fact that my quilt smells like an animal crawled in it and died. These are all details. The morning, the mountains, my friends—these are worth the little pains.
When we start moving, it’s well after six. So late for the PCT! DLT, Petra, Catless, and I are packed up and ready to go, but Beetle is still cozy in his quilt. He tells us he’ll meet us at Hikertown. It’s been a few big mile days, and I think he’s feeling it. We all are. It’ll be good to have a little break today and then a proper rest in Tehachapi in a few days.
We start out together, and then DLT and I are ahead. It’s another mildly unremarkable day. We’ve descended from the England-ish hills and are now smacked in the face with the wide beige expanse of the Mojave desert. The trail rolls over more chamise and scrub oak territory and follows a windy ridge. Petra, having warmed up, zooms past us. Then DLT, trying to avoid having to dig a cathole, speeds ahead and winds up hiking with Snake Charmer. I hike a lethargic two miles alone, cresting one last hill and winding up on a flat dirt road heading straight into the brown desert. It gives me big Camino Francés vibes.
Soon, I see a collection of buildings inside a fence. I pass a hiker walking out of the gate. “You’re heading the right direction,” they tell me, I guess because I look confused. Hikertown is really something. Once I enter the gate, I see a cluster of buildings arranged in an L shape, with a few others gathered by the gate. Each building is designed to look like the front of something you might see in an old western film. There’s a sheriff, a saloon, a school, a city hall. In reality, each building is a themed bungalow where you can stay for the night if you want to. It’s charming in a creepy, kitschy way, but it is also hot by now and there is no shade. I do not want to stay here for very long.
I walk to the table under an awning, where I see Petra and Andy. Turns out, Andy has only been a couple of miles ahead of us for the past few days. We really could have just camped where he was, but that first night out from Green Valley would have been tough for me if we’d gone further. Plus, we all wanted to make it here today so that we could see him off before he begins his 50 mile challenge over the aqueduct to Tehachapi.
Andy, DLT, Rob, and I get a ride to Neenach Market, where I have a pair of new Topos waiting. Woo hoo, new shoe day! Right at the 500 mile mark! We order burgers and drink so much liquid. I have a Mexican Coke followed by an iced coffee followed by a Gatorade. I buy a few snacks to tide me over to Tehachapi as well. We sit there for a long time hydrating, talking, and catching up. Then I pick up my new shoes. They are so dang clean and fresh! My feet have really been feeling the miles the past few days, and I’m excited to get these babies on.
Back at Hikertown, I rearrange my resupply bag, throw away trash, and try to figure out the laundry and shower situation. The showers are apparently good, but I’m going to be in Tehachapi in a few days anyway, so I just rinse off with a hose instead. I try to do bucket laundry, but there’s no soap, so I end up just rinsing out some of the dirt from the more offensive clothing items in my pack. We talk vaguely about our Tehachapi plans, which starts making me nervous because no one seems to want to commit to a hotel or Airbnb.
Then it’s after 3, we’re leaving at 5 to start the aqueduct with Andy, and there are still so many things on my to do list. It’s hot, there’s barely any shade, and I’m going to be up so late tonight. It’s another hiker’s birthday today, and the owner randomly asks DLT and me to carry ice cream and cake to the table. It’s so nice of him, and it’s delicious and sugary, but there are too many people around and this place is so weird and we still haven’t figured out our plan for Tehachapi and I need to sleep. Now.
I start to feel my chest constricting. Then I’m hyperventilating and I can’t catch my breath. Oh no. I’ve been here before. I walk around in circles trying to calm down, then wind up around the side of the complex squatting in the dirt taking deep breaths. I’m on sensory overload. Where am I? I need to be out of this dusty ass place and back in the woods.
Then DLT comes over and asks if I’m okay, then stays with me until I calm down. Bless him, helping me decompress from freaking out over nothing. We end up reserving a hotel room for the six of us in Tehachapi, then I pack up as best I can, find a less-than-great spot in the middle of everything but with shade, and manage to take what just barely passes for a nap for half an hour. By the time I wake up there are even more people here and I am so keen to leave that I throw everything in my bag and am ready before 5.
We are all so excited for Andy. We wish him luck on his absolutely bonkers challenge and take pictures. It feels like we’re sending our hometown hero off on an adventure, or like we’re taking our son to the bus stop. We all know he can do it, but it’s an unfathomable amount of miles in such a short time, and I think we’re all excited to see exactly how long it takes him and how he feels afterwards.
We bid a not entirely unwelcome adieu to Hikertown as we leave together: Andy, Petra, DLT, Rob, Snake Charmer, and me. Beetle is coming, but he decided to throw some last minute tasks in, and Andy gets tired of waiting, so we embark. Snake Charmer is walking up ahead with Andy at first, but I’m feeling pretty good so I ask him if I can pass. I wind up walking with Andy down the dirt road and next to the aqueduct for 17 miles.
Andy never messes around with hiking, but tonight he’s really on a mission. We’re clocking a cool 3.5 miles an hour by the time we hit our stride. I know I’ll pay for this later, especially with the repetitive flat pounding of this road, but I want to go with him for as long as I can.
There’s an odd kind of beauty in this section, especially in the evening. The aqueduct is infamous in the PCT community, and it’s weird to be here in person after seeing so many photos and videos of it. At first we’re walking along the open stream of water that is the California Aqueduct, and then we turn left onto a huge half-buried metal pipe: the LA Aqueduct. It is wild to think that the water in this stinking huge pipe is carried from the Sierras to Los Angeles, and that the city could not survive without it. There it is again: Water is life. We gather around it, walk by it, think about it, plan around it. I know nothing intricate about California’s history with water, but strikes me as absolutely wild that this vein takes so much water from one part and carries it down for human consumption to another.
The world turns into soft gloaming. The pipe disappears, replaced with flat concrete. Andy and I talk and talk. We talk about his strategy for the challenge, what the past 100 miles have been like for us, Tehachapi, what we’re looking forward to, and so many other things. My knee starts to hurt, but there’s no real stopping, apart from a few two-minute snack breaks, when Petra catches up with us and then keeps going. We run into her again and the three of us walk together as it gets properly dark. Now the real challenge begins.
Petra and I play Ketchup or Mustard, which ends up extremely existential. She asks me if I believe in free will and we talk about what its opposite would be. Andy chimes in from just ahead every once in a while. Petra and I stop for the fastest pee beak of our lives, then have to jog to catch up with Andy.
Shortly after we have to start using our headlamps, we see red dots and a car in the distance. Someone parked? Police? Or could it be… It is! It’s trail magic! Qwerty, another hiker who has done this section before, is doing incredible nighttime trail magic! There is beer, Gatorade, Honey Buns, and muffins. I inhale a Honey Bun, half a muffin, and a whole Gatorade before speeding away with the hiking robot that Andy has become. Qwerty, you’re a legend! Thank you so much!
Things get weird when it gets dark. Petra nearly steps on a snake. Andy trips over a rock, the only rock on the entire road. “Milkshake” by Kelis gets stuck in my head because DLT and I have been working on a cover: “My ankles bring all the ants to the yard / and they’re like, ‘Is that Tiger Balm?’ / Damn right, I slather it on” … and so on. Petra has never heard the original, so Andy pulls it up on his phone. Petra is not a fan.
Soon we start walking through a wind farm. The red lights on the turbines look like alien eyes in the darkness. (Andy says a Christmas tree is more accurate, but we agree to disagree on that.) The sound of the blades is oddly comforting: a soft deep rhythmic whoosh. They start to relax me, almost too much. I could fall asleep to the noise so easily.
I start flagging for real around 9:30. We’ve made it pretty far, and my body is used to being asleep by now. I fall behind Andy, then Petra. My feet are screaming, even in the new shoes. My achilles hurts, my arch hurts, my knee hurts, my hip hurts. I think I’m done. We stop at Cottonwood Creek, where there is supposed to be water, but there’s none there. I tell Andy I need a break, and the three of us sit down on the curb and have a snack. I say I’m done, then I give Andy a hug and tell him good luck. Petra and I wait for the others for a bit, then decide to set up to camp. I simply cannot go any further.
A huge group goes by, which includes Beetle, Snake Charmer, and DLT. Of the three of them, DLT decides to stay with us the minute he hears that we’re done. He, Petra, and I form a little cowboy camping cluster under the stars and the whirring turbines. I have a feeling that I will sleep like a rock tonight and hurt very badly tomorrow.