Miles today: 22
Total miles: 425
We "woke up early" (according to Papa Bear, who doesn't like to get up until the sun hits his tent) at 6:30, although this felt very late for Katie and I, who are used to waking up earlier. We were on trail by 7:30 with a new goal: to do 40 miles in two days so that we could make it to a KOA campground at mile 444 that had a swimming pool and hot tub.
Water through this section of desert is scarce, so we had to carefully check our water report and plan accordingly. We walked four miles this morning to a campground that supposedly had water. It took some searching to find it, and then another 30 minutes trying to fill our water containers for the day from the agonizingly slow drip of water from a rusty pipe. I will never again take for granted the pure, wonderful convenience of a clean, running tap.
When we resumed walking, we ran into the Chain Gang, who had finally caught up with us! We reunited with Dance Party, Sweet Tooth, Dog, Sunshine, Focus, Boulder, Scooter, and Buffalo and hiked with them for part of the afternoon.
Our path today took us through some burned terrain, which meant two important things: absolutely no shade, and Poodle Dog Bush. Everyone on trail is well aware of the poison-oak-like reaction that Poodle Dog Bush gives you if you accidentally brush against it. We have been warned and repeatedly taught to recognize the plant, which isn't very hard to distinguish. It grows big, and tall, and smells sickly sweet and sour, like marijuana. Generally it is pretty easy to avoid, but today we entered a section of trail that looked as though it hadn't gotten much maintenance. Poodle Dog Bush was everywhere.
Picture this: the PCT meanders its way through terrain that looks like something straight out of a Tim Burton movie. Burnt, craggy tree snags reach blackened fingers to the sky, low-lying shrubs litter the ashy earth and the trail barely clings onto the sides of charred hilltops. The trail is narrow, and steep, and the loose sand slips away under our feet and down the cliff as we walk. Everywhere, there is Poodle Dog Bush. It becomes harder and harder to avoid. It grows down the hillside, up the mountain, and directly into the Trail. We begin performing what looks like an elaborate dance: duck, pivot, weave, turn, spin, jump - trying not to touch any part of ourselves to the plant. But it is unavoidable, and often we are stuck with difficult decisions: do I crawl down this death-defying cliff to get out of the way, or do I risk brushing up against the Poodle Dog? Do I touch the plant or do I throw myself mercilessly into the thorny shrub on the other side? Often there is no choice. We risk life and limb to avoid the plant.
Katie, Rotisserie, and I were ahead of the rest of the group. We found a Poodle-Dog-less spot to take a short break and watched the others winding their way around the cliffside in a single row. It was funny to watch them bobbing and weaving and dancing down the trail, like characters in a complicated video game they jumped out of harm's way. I hummed the Mario theme song and watched, amused. Sunshine was the last to come around the bend. I could see him in the distance as he stopped and surveyed the large swath of Poodle Dog Bush blocking his path.
"This shit's ridiculous!" I heard him screech.
At last we were somewhat free of the plant, enough that it was easier to avoid. Katie, Rotisserie, Papa Bear, Milkman and I found a single tree growing in the burn and sit beneath it for lunch. For once the weather wasn't ghastly and we enjoyed a nice breeze as we ate. Papa Bear noted aloud that "every day is a picnic on the PCT" and I think he meant our outdoor lunch, but the comment had multiple meanings today.
The PCT detoured to a road walk for four miles (apparently due to the over-infestation of Poodle Dog Bush, though I think it was a little late for that) and ended up at a fire station at the bottom, where we refilled our water bottles. We only had six more miles to go to reach our tentsite for the evening, but they turned out to be surprisingly challenging. The first part was all uphill and the last part was through so much overgrown shrub brush that it was impossible to see where you were stepping. Each foot I set down I never knew whether it would hit solid ground or open air, as we were walking along a cliff edge. It was terrifying. I had to move slower as a result, and it made me cranky and irritated. I fell farther and farther behind my group, bushwhacking through high brush and hidden Poodle Dog Bush, and growling in frustration as I went.
When we reached our tentsite, we discovered in dismay that it had been completely overrun with Poodle Dog Bush, so there was no where to go but onward. It was getting late and we were running out of options. My maps showed that there weren't any official "tentsites" for several more miles, too far to walk tonight. We finally stopped at the only place that wasn't overrun with plants: on the Trail itself. It butted up against an abandoned jeep road and at the junction we set up our four tents for the night. It wasn't an ideal solution, but it was the only option we had. Before falling asleep we prayed the road was abandoned so we wouldn't get run over in the middle of the night.