Ben, Emily, Duncan, Mathew and I are in the friendly town of Tehachapi, CA. We got here three days ago in the early evening and have been camping on the lawn of the local airport, the cheap lodging of choice for PCT hikers coming through. I’d usually be antsy after this amount of time off the trail, but I’ve really enjoyed the rest, especially because it gave us a break from the hot desert.
The last stretch of hiking, speaking of which, has been a real challenge for all of us. I’ve been told by a couple locals that the current heat in Tehachapi is above the seasonal norm, which means the areas we’re currently hiking through are also hotter than usual… fine by me, in a bring-on-the-challenge kind of way, but also, I kind of hate it. Heat and unbroken sunlight compound onto the physical exertion of backpacking in a way that’s hard to describe. The obvious things are that you’re hotter, sweatier, more thirsty (and as a result more dehydrated)…. but also, I find my heart rate kicking up higher on uphills, feel my muscles ache more than usual, feel the combined challenge of walking, carrying weight, and dealing with the heat as somehow a lot more than the sum of its parts. I have to take breaks more often when going uphill. It can be a lot harder to get into a groove. And in a more intense and barren landscape, with often 20-25 miles between water sources, it’s harder to feel happy about being out in the middle of nowhere.
Four days ago was my worst / most challenging day of hiking on the trail. We started out that day 7 miles into a stretch of the Mojave. We woke up at 4:30 in the morning to get a jump on the heat, but most of us had barely slept the night before due to extremely high wind. (High wind makes your tent flap around and hit you, even without a rain fly on.) The trail was flat for the first maybe 10 miles, of which we spent several unchanging miles walking on the LA Aqueduct in a straight line. I was pretty fine for the first 10 miles or so. Then it started getting hot, and my feet started aching, but I had a strong desire to just push through it until the next water source, 16.5 miles into the hike. 16.5 miles is not a crazy amount to us right now, but it is more than I’d done in the first half of a day, and more than I’d done in that kind of heat, so I think I underestimated what pushing to do that as quickly as I wanted to would do to my body. It also didn’t help that I had really bad acid reflux that morning, which made me not want to snack during the hike, so I was hiking on a definite calorie deficit.
Anyway, on that stretch I took two short 15-minute sit breaks in the shade – enough to get out of the heat for a moment but not enough to actually give myself a good rest. After my second break there were still 4.25 miles before the creek. 4.25 miles is easy, I thought to myself. It’s hot, and it’s going to be uphill, but I can push through that.
It was so much harder than I expected. Those 4.25 miles went painfully uphill, and while in normal conditions I’m pretty able to climb without too much resistance, in the direct sunlight and in my fatigued, calorie-deprived state it was torturous. I had to stop to take a breather more times than I’d like to admit, and there was no shade to stop in for that entire stretch. I had to take my headphones out because my growing fatigue made me unable to focus mentally on the podcast I’d been listening to. I drank so much water, yet still felt so tired and hot. When I finally came to the creek, I walked immediately to a shaded area under a tree downstream (thank goodness for that tree) and collapsed on the ground. It was 11:30, only halfway through the day, and still getting hotter outside.
This was the most spent I’d felt from a stretch of hiking, and it was considerably less mileage and incline than I feel confidently capable of doing in a day. Granted, the heat and the fact that I did it without really stopping to rest or eat made it much more difficult than it would have been otherwise, but even after resting there for a few hours (an hour or two of which I spent napping) I still felt tired and spent. We still had to hike more to where we were going to camp. It still felt hot. I got up at one point and felt that my butt cheeks had started chafing, and it was extremely painful. I went to go pee and realized my period had started early. Ugh. I went back and sat under the tree, and the next time I stood up I got jabbed with a low-hanging branch in the middle of my back. That was the moment I broke down. For the first time on this trip, I cried. I felt so stupid, so utterly defeated by the heat and the trail, and so unenthused about continuing on in my weak state. Mathew came and gave me a hug and I cried on him. It was comforting but also embarrassing… I mean I know everyone has low-feeling moments, and I’d rather cry than hold it in, but it still sucks to feel weaker than you want to be.
We didn’t get up the motivation to leave that shady tree until after 5:00, and we only made it 3.5 more miles that day. I was tired but better than I’d been before when it was hotter. Duncan threw up on that last stretch of hiking; it had also been his hardest day on the PCT. We made it down into a sort of valley between hillsides, which from above looked like it would be protected from the wind, but it was not. It was another stupidly windy night. All I wanted was a real night of sleep and when I got in my sleeping bag and the wind was whipping the side of my tent into me, I cried again, for a long time. Then I calmed down, and somehow I fell asleep and stayed asleep through most of the night.
This stretch of hiking feels like our rite of passage. 140 more miles to Kennedy Meadows, and then we’ll be heading into the Sierras. It’s hard to believe that we just have to keep walking, and that this desert will slowly but surely turn into mountains. I’m so ready to be out of the desert. We have a 42-mile waterless stretch coming up! We are going to have to carry so much water! It makes you feel so small and powerless, hiking out here. I guess it’s a test of strength for us. I probably wouldn’t change it, even though it’s difficult, because at the end of the day it’s something to be proud of that you still kept hiking when you were tired and cranky and dehydrated and whatever else.
The other news is that there’s currently a fire burning north of here, which is why we’ve been hanging in town instead of heading back out right away. The Chimney Fire started 3 days ago at the Chimney Peak campground around mile 680 of the PCT, and it has been burning in an area adjacent to the PCT between Walker Pass and Kennedy Meadows. News of the fire threw us and all the other hikers in the area for a loop, because we weren’t entirely sure how things were going to progress and what our own next moves needed to be. Luckily for us, the fire never burned the actual PCT, and after closing that stretch of trail for a couple days and fighting back the fire, the trail is now reopened. Woohoo!
I’ll call that good for now. Next time I write I’ll probably be long gone from here! Wish us luck with the rest of the desert! I hope everyone is doing well, and as usual I’m sending my love and gratitude to all of you following along.