We caught a bus back up to Walker Pass from Ridgecrest, sadly waving goodbye to Moneymaker. He looked like he should have his own personal rain cloud over his head as we pulled away from the curb, but I was sure he was going to be alright. That should have been my first warning about what finishing the trail was going to be like.
Although we had a late start, we didn’t miss any miles that day. Me made it 24 to our campsite just as the last bit of sunlight disappeared, the shadows of the Joshua trees in the desert waving goodnight to us. The sunset was gorgeous, and as we sat around eating dinner and laughing, a blood moon rose. The highlight of the day was the fact that Gretzky packed out a 3 liter bag of wine, carrying it all 24 miles to camp. O’Well impulsively bought it the day before, but we ended up not drinking it. Gretzky volunteered to pack it out, on top of his full resupply and the extra water he was carrying (we would soon get used to 15-25 mile water carys). His pack must have weighed a ton, but I would soon learn that that was just the kind of person Gretzky was. It was a festive night.
The next day we did 26, but we did take a few long breaks throughout the day. My shoes were starting to deteriorate, they had gaping holes torn in them where the uppers were separating from the soles. This had never been an issue when it happened to other pairs of shoes, but in the desert sand was now an issue. Every step would let in more and more sand and it felt like I was walking on sand paper all day. The Sunnymooners gave me some duct tape to try to fix it (Lunar had an impressive array of gear repair supplies) but it didn’t hold for long, I decided I would try to sew them up in the next town. That night we camped at a small piped spring and horse camp (meaning bountiful manure, but at least we didn’t have to dry camp) and the Sunnymooners shared the apple cider and whiskey they had packed out. Between the bountiful alcohol we didn’t have to pack, the extra supplies, Solar’s excellent skills in keeping track of available water caches (it was like a game of Where’s Waldo trying to find water sometimes) O’Well and I were really excited about having a trail family. It was a tight space and we had to share a tent stake with the Sunnymooners for our tents to all fit, we soon got used to being very close neighbors with each other though.
The best part was having other people to talk to and laugh with though. Though we had hiked with Pineapples and Moneymaker before, we had always known that they were going to be getting off trail long before us. With this group, we knew we were in it to the end together, and we quickly developed a lovely dynamic.
Solar was, of course, our fearless leader. Solar and Lunar were teachers in real life, Solar taught English/Lit and Lunar taught Special Education. They were both full of tidbits of knowledge and trivia that kept things interesting. Solar was always listening to history podcasts while she hiked and more often than not at a break or at the end of the day she would announce, “So I was listening to this podcast and…” launching into a story interesting enough to make you forget about how much your feet hurt. She was bubbly and peppy and knew how to keep our energy up, even on the hardest days. Lunar was really into flora and fauna, and he would tell us about different plants, or the behavior of crows, or maybe a time he went fishing. He was quiet, calm, and mellow in a way that was comforting, nothing was ever a problem for him.
The two of them had been married for 13(?) years, and they bickered constantly. O’Well and I liked to tease them for it. We were in what Solar called the “Cute Phase” of our relationship, which basically translated to, “Just you wait for what’s coming.” They worked well together, they knew just what the other needed or what the other meant with just a few words. They had hiked the Appalachian Trail together, and now the PCT, I don’t think anything can shake a relationship after it has endured a through hike, and they have a beautiful relationship to show for it.
Gretzky was the glue that held us all together. At first I thought he may just disappear and hike alone again, he seemed to enjoy his solitude and he didn’t have any real reason to stay tied to our group. He had come to the Trail for similar reasons as me, he just graduated college, didn’t know what to do next but he wanted to live in the woods, so there he was. He was steady, solid, and goofy and he fit right in with us. He was the perfect mediator when O’Well and I were arguing about something, and he laughed along with our antics. He liked to do things simply. When he cooked, he put his stove on the lowest setting to conserve fuel. He would get it started boiling first thing upon getting to camp, and an hour later after the rest of us had eaten and gone to bed he would still be waiting for his dinner to cook. But he only used one fuel canister for the entire desert, while O’Well and I would get a new one at almost every resupply.
Games became a big deal for us. It started with Cow Pie throwing. O’Well had discovered back in the Sierra’s that cow pies could be stabbed with your trekking pole (if it wasn’t too fresh or too dried out) and lobbed. He had almost hit Pineapples with one once and I banned him from it, but in the Desert there wasn’t much to look at sometimes and there were a lot of cow pies. Monotonous miles were broken up launching cow pies, but sometimes it was pinecones, and later it became small squashes with a hard outer shell that grew on vines by the trail. Gretzky made a game of stabbing puffy, spiky balls that fell off of a certain kind of bush and collecting them on his poles. He and O’Well developed a habit of picking things up and carrying them for miles at a time. One time it was rubber tubing or other random bits of trash on the ends of their trekking poles. Another time O’Well carried a tall, spindly plant that had seed pods growing at the top (if you hit these with your trekking pole they made a cool rattling sound like a rain stick) all the way to camp. One time Gretzky found a heavy, metal pole that he carried to camp to show O’Well. We also invented a fictional Instagram account called “The Daily.” Whenever someone said something entirely mundane which could only be interesting to a long-distance hiker, it was branded, “#The Daily.” Examples include:
- “Hey, there’s some screws on the ground! #TheDaily”
- “I just rolled a pinecone down a hill and it made it all the way to the bottom. #TheDaily”
- “A grasshopper hit me in the face today. #The Daily”
- “I ate two Family Size bags of potato chips today. #TheDaily”
It took us two more days to get to Tehachapi (just outside of Mohave). My feet were starting to hurt, a sign my shoes needed to be replaced, but they had to last me a week longer, holes and all. We hiked 23 miles, doing lots of ups and downs and camped on a wind farm that night. O’Well and I were surprised to learn that the desert is not at all flat, there are still mountains. Getting into Tehachapi we hiked through the craziest wind I have ever experienced. You had to lean at a 45 degree angle into the wind to keep from being blown over. We went down switchback after switchback to get to the highway, past huge windmills sprawling across the landscape. When you were hiking into the wind it was like you could only walk at half your normal speed. Then you would turn the switchback and with the wind at your back, it was like you were turbocharged; you had to run to keep from being blown over.
We did 13 miles, and Solar had a ride into town all arranged for us with a local trail angel group. We stayed at a hotel in town and ran into some old friends: Mary Poppins, 6:30, and Cloud. O’Well had given 6:30 his old tent back before Etna in Northern California, and we hadn’t seen them since then. They were fast and had pulled ahead of us, but they did part of the High Route through the Sierra’s which slowed them down, and then 6:30 got desperately sick, they had been in Tehachapi for 5 days when we saw them. We all had a movie night in their hotel room. We watched Wild, which was ironic since Cheryl Strayed had started her hike in Tehachapi and hiked north, ending her hike at the border of Oregon and Washington. The tendency was towards making fun of Cheryl for her various mishaps (“I mean she didn’t even hike the whole trail!” “Don’t just throw your shoe off the cliff, one is better than none.” “It took her 6 days to hike 20 miles?” “She packed out all that shit but couldn’t bring enough water?”) but Cloud was in her defense. Everyone comes to the trail for their own reasons, and they bring along their own baggage. Some are better prepared than others, but we all learn things along the way whether our packs weigh 10 pounds or 100. Cheryl achieved what she set out to do, and there is no shame in that, or in telling her story. Many people that start a through hike don’t make it to 1000 miles, which was how far she hiked, and that is quite a feat. While we watched the movie I repaired the holes in my shoes with some fishing line I borrowed from Lunar and some shoe glue I borrowed from Mary Poppins. That repair held up very well until I was able to get my new shoes at our next resupply.
The next day we loaded up on the Continental breakfast at the hotel, then went to Walmart to resupply. Gretzky teased O’Well and I for our resupply strategy. His resupply was nicely arranged on his bed, cliff bars in neat stacks, everything accounted for for each day. O’Well and I had dumped all of our food out in one giant pile and we were sifting through it to divvy it up between us. (“Do you think we have enough? I think we have enough. Oh we need to eat this watermelon before we hike out, and don’t forget to drink that juice. And eat this ice cream. And this papaya.” Gretzky packed out the papaya for us and we shared it over dinner.) O’Well and I did everything together at this point, and that included any money we spent. Back in Bishop I had gotten a call from my bank saying my account had been frauded and they were shutting down my bank account. I had no access to my money and no chance of getting to a bank to get it settled (there was not a branch anywhere near the trail). O’Well had enough to keep us both going to the end of the trail. If it weren’t for him my hike might have ended right there, or at least been significantly delayed as I tried to get off trail to a bank location and back again. It was a good test for our relationship. I wasn’t used to being so dependent on someone else; a lesson in humility for me, and a lesson in communication for both of us.
We were back on the trail early that afternoon, Solar had again arranged a ride for us. We did an easy 8.5 out of town through the biggest wind farm I have ever seen (I believe the biggest in existence). O’Well is very into mechanical things and, though the landscape was relatively mundane, he stayed occupied looking at the wind turbines (“That one lost it’s propeller!” “That one looks like it’s super old.” “I wonder how much power these produce.” “You go little guy!”) Our packs were heavy with full water (4 liters) and a full resupply. We camped on the wind farm that night and I spent several hours awake that night, trying to block out the noise of the tent flapping around wildly.
The next day was about the same. I felt like I would never get the sound of the wind out of my ears. We took a break at a water cache together, which was equipped with an umbrella, deck chairs, and a friendly trail angel to chat with. Apparently he maintained the water cache and he could see the trail from his property. When he saw hikers coming along he jumped in his truck and drove up the mountain to meet us. He was very excited to tell us about a hiker he met in 2018 who yo-yo’d the trail, starting at the Mexican border, hiking to Canada, then turning right around and coming back. He had seen the same guy twice that year. I was exhausted just hearing about it. I was getting to a point where I could sense the end of the trail approaching. We still had a long way to go, but I could just about count our remaining resupplies on one hand. I thought I would be relieved when the trail finally did end. It’s a long hike, and one would be enough for me, I thought.
While we were at the water cache we flew the kite Lunar had packed out (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), then that afternoon we had a nice long, gradual downhill to the water source we would camp at. O’Well and I saw a fox, we were still hiking through windmills (we hiked through windmills for 3 days straight), and it was October 19. We had 1 month left on trail.
My feet were sore and every time I got up after sitting for any length of time I was waddling, the so called “hiker hobble.” After the Sierra’s, however, pain didn’t seem to bother me like it used to. I remembered hiking on blisters and the pain of every step. I remembered how my lungs burned and my legs strained up passes. I remembered my numb fingers and toes, my sore back, my aching calves, my stiff shoulders, my empty stomach, and my aching heart. I felt my tender feet with every step, and it was hard. With everything I had been through, when things were hard, I knew how to let them be hard. Pain was temporary, and so were the good things. Either way I would be hiking, living the greatest adventure of my life. I was focused on staying present, experiencing every moment of what I knew was a temporary time in my life. I remember walking through the windmills and thinking about how I only had a month left, asking myself if I had done everything I had set out to do on my hike.
“The thing is,” I told O’Well as we lobbed cow pies and traipsed towards the setting sun, “I don’t think I really did. I came out here to figure out what I wanted, to think about things I wanted to do in my career, or to figure out what really mattered to me in life. Like, way back in Washington, before I met you, I talked to this girl who asked me what my passion was, and I couldn’t answer her. I tried to think about that for a while, but I couldn’t come up with a good answer, and I thought I needed to. But every time I try to think about my ‘list’ of things I was supposed to think about, there was always something more important.
Like month one I was just trying to figure out how to live in the woods. Month two I was fully embracing the experience, and that’s when I met you so we were kind of learning about each other and how to coexist. Month three I still thought, ‘Well I’ve got a lot of time to figure out what I’ll do after the trail, it’s not too important right now.’ Month four I didn’t think about it at all, because it was the Sierra’s and things were hard and I was just trying to make it through each day. And now it’s the start of month five and I’m thinking about that list, and I don’t even think any of those things I cared about at the start of the trail are important anymore.
I used to think I needed to have a road-map of my entire life laid out before I could start on anything. I don’t care anymore though. I don’t want to distract myself from how incredible and wonderful and painful and beautiful this moment right now is by worrying about what my Destiny is, like it’s this big, important thing that will only happen if I know what it is. So I guess I’m throwing away the list.”
There was a water faucet where we camped that night, and we tried to get out of the wind by camping in a dry creek bed. We lined our tents up in a row, sharing tent stakes again to try to huddle behind the one bush in the ravine. There were no trees and no shelter to be found. O’Well and I woke up to the wind tearing at our tent at 3:30 am. We were worried about a possible tear, so we decided to pack up and start hiking. While we were packing up we realized that everyone else was awake from the wind too. They stayed put, but caught up to us around midmorning. We were walking along the Los Angeles aqueduct, a 420 mile pipeline that carries water down to Los Angeles. For us it was just an 8 mile, dry road walk through the desert. Normally we didn’t hike all together as a family as we kept varying paces, but we did that section together and many jokes came out of that long, boring walk in the heat. We played rock soccer for some time, kicking rocks down the concrete. My feet were very sore, and Solar suggested to me that we might switch up our plans and do a shorter day to hang out a place called HikerTown. I was tired from two nights of poor sleep and struggling with my sore feet so I readily agreed, the boys followed along.
We walked in, eager for a place to rest our feet and get out of the sun and wind. We were immediately confused, a feeling that lasted until we finally left. There is no good way to describe HikerTown; it was a trap, but I don’t know that I can adequately explain quite why. The place consists of about 15 small outbuildings, some built out of repurposed shipping containers or Uhauls that are decorated to look like different buildings in an old-timey western movie. Walking in felt like we were walking onto a movie set. It has the sort of run-down feeling of a place that was once great but has been neglected. The owner was a multi-millionaire who had bought the property and house in a tiny town in the desert as a place to stay while he developed a shopping plaza across the road. He had a long origin story about how, 20 years ago when he bought the property, these bums (hikers) kept showing up on his doorstep looking for water, so he installed some water spigots for them, and it developed from there. The outbuildings were all rooms with beds for hikers to sleep in, and apparently in the summer when the northbounders came through the place was crawling with hikers and it was more like Woodstock than anything else. Now the place felt like a ghost town. We were the only hikers there, but we were just glad to have a place out of the wind to sleep.
We had only done 18 miles to get there, but we figured we could spend the night and hike out the next morning. It was a pleasant evening, except when Solar and Lunar got locked out of their room. The latch on the sliding glass door got stuck and they couldn’t pry it open. The owner was of no help, when they went to ask him to do something about it he apparently distracted them with more stories and tried to get them to watch a movie with him (it was 9 o’clock, well past our bedtime). Meanwhile, I showed O’Well the garage I had discovered full of tools and he popped the door open with a couple screwdrivers so we could all go to bed.
There was something odd about the place, a vague allure despite some obvious flaws on the surface. The next morning we were hanging out and enjoying the sunrise, getting ready to hike out when the owner came out of the house. O’Well had mentioned the day before that he liked to work on projects, and now the owner wanted him to stay for a few days and work on things for him. Long story short, O’Well agreed (against his better judgement). I didn’t want to leave him again after what happened in the Sierra’s, so I stayed to, on the condition that I would hike out the next morning to meet back up with our trail family. We were tired and wanted a zero day. Hiking was becoming mundane and dull, with the end so near it was becoming more and more of a chore, so it seemed like it would be a nice change of pace to hang out for a day. Our friends hiked out, confused and I think concerned that we might not catch up again. I remembered how long it took Gretzky to catch up to Pineapples and Moneymaker when he was just a couple days behind all along, and I also felt nervous. I told myself that I had been through bigger challenges, hiking extra miles for a couple days was doable, and maybe some rest would be good for my feet (spoiler alert, it didn’t help).
All I can say about our time at HikerTown is that it was the strangest day I had on the entire trail. The plan was to have O’Well fix a solar set-up for the owner as well as install some electrical wiring in a new hiker bunkhouse. He took us to HikerTown 2.0, a huge hunting lodge a few miles away which would become the new HikerTown when the trail was rerouted in a couple years. It was a beautiful house with a ton of room for hikers, but it needed a lot of work to say the least. The owner had a very lofty vision for the place, including an in ground swimming pool, numerous private bedrooms and bathrooms, a game room, and a balcony overlooking the trail where hikers would sit and cheer other hikers as they arrived. Throughout the day I came to realize that he could easily have hired a contractor to do the work for him and get it done quickly, he certainly had the money. He owned several homes and was a top executive for a major oil and gas company. However, he was also a cheapskate. According to O’Well the solar set-up at the hunting lodge was very shoddy, and O’Well didn’t even want to touch it, despite his passion for solar power. We also learned that luring in hikers in to do work was not a first for this man, he often tried to get people to stay for a week or more and finish up his various and plentiful projects. He told us a lot of things, “I could hire you two to come run HikerTown 2.0 when it’s up and running, you could make 70k a year!”, “I’ll feed you, we’ll have a nice dinner, I know hikers like food,” and “When you two get married I’ll be there and get you a nice wedding present, maybe a vacation for your honeymoon?” Needless to say, we felt very manipulated and confused. The owner spent a good deal of time telling us about some interpersonal drama in the community; we didn’t want any part of that. We did a lot of driving around and I got pretty car sick, and he didn’t get us food until late that night (a major sin for a hiker).
O’Well installed the wiring as it got dark while I chatted with some other hikers who came in that day. I missed our trail family though and overall it was not an enjoyable zero day (although he did feed us, as promised, I used his kitchen to cook for myself). I’m sure that HikerTown is a wonderful oasis for some, but for us it was an odd and uncomfortable experience. The owner seemed very willing to throw around his wealth, status, and connections, but in the end he not only didn’t pay O’Well for his labor, but he was an exhausting person to be around. In terms of trail angels I met, he was one of the least generous, despite his seemingly endless resources. We left early the next morning before he woke up, and we felt like we were making a jailbreak, we were on the run.
We were determined to catch up to our trail family quickly. We had Solar’s spreadsheet with their intended mileage, and we figured that we were about 20 miles behind. If we just did a few more miles than they planned to do for 3 days, we would catch up to them. So O’Well and I hiked 28 out of HikerTown, 29 the next day, and then 25, catching up to our trail family that morning. Those were a long couple of days. I didn’t write much in my journal apart from our mileage. From memory I remember that there were long water carys, my feet were killing me, and the miles passed by in a fog of discomfort and determination. The terrain wasn’t too difficult and we managed, though we had to nighthike well after dusk for several days. There was one exciting moment when we saw a two-legged desert mouse. We also got a nice view of the city lights, night hiking down into the Agua Dulce valley. The morning we caught up to our trail family we hiked 6 miles into Agua Dulce to meet them for breakfast at a cafe (I finally received my new shoes from the mail, my last pair for the trail!) The food was incredible and it was quite the celebration.
We picked up our resupply then got out of town. O’Well and I made it to camp around 8 pm, well after dark, and we were fully spent. I remember hiking in the dark along a very narrow and treacherous path above a ravine, and O’Well slipping on some loose gravel. I yelled at him for not being careful enough, and that’s when I knew that the past few days had really worn me thin. I practically stumbled into camp, relieved to be there. We camped at a ranger station, and there was a little cell service. We found out that the roads in and out of Agua Dulce had been shut down that afternoon, not long after we hiked out, due to a wildfire that was encroaching (we had seen the fire planes directly overhead all afternoon as well as the huge plume of smoke on the horizon). Some neighborhoods in town were being evacuated. The wind had kicked up, but it was blowing North and we were going South. We had quite literally outrun a forest fire without realizing it.
The winds were pretty high so we sheltered behind a building at the ranger station to cook, it was nice to be back with our trail family again. We had pushed hard to catch up again, and it was worth it. Every time we had passed a trail register and seen their names it had been like a little wave from them, a reminder that we had a purpose, a reason we were working so hard. I learned in a short time that community is better than isolation. I had grown attached to almost complete strangers who I had little in common with in an inordinately short period of time. I knew so much about them: their habits, insecurities, flaws, and strengths. Every night we went to bed together, and every morning we woke up together, we took breaks together, we saw each other at our best and our worst. The phrase “trail family” took on a whole new meaning for me, and our time trying to catch up to them had a similar flavor as when I was separated from O’Well. There was an urgency to be back in their company, and when we were it was a relief.
We filled them in on our misadventures, they shared some gossip from being around some other hikers at a trail angels house in Agua Dulce, and O’Well killed a black widow crawling on the wall above Gretzky’s head; friendship.