Day Forty Two

Today's miles: 18
Total miles: 631

Today was unanimously rated our worst day on trail thus far.

We knew it would be a rough day the minute we woke up. Sansei and Rotisserie woke up screaming, for their sleeping bags were overrun by thousands of ants. Focus's cookpot (though clean) was swarming with them, too, and he chucked it at a rock to dislodge the little pests. My shoes were crawling with ants, though my sleeping bag was fortunately free of them. It was not a pleasant wake up call. We shook out our gear and left camp as quickly as humanly possible.

The day didn't get much better after that. We hiked out of tree cover very early in the day and the PCT spit us back into the open desert. We traversed rocky, shrubby mountains through soft and silty sand, and the tallest things we saw were Joshua Trees, whose spiny leaves offered no shade.

We stopped at a water cache five miles in and relaxed as we filled up. The breeze was blowing but the sun was getting hot. As we pushed on, it grew hotter and the trail steeper, and we panted and sweated our way through the desert. I focused on watching Rotisserie's heels moving up and down in front of me and tried to ignore the heat and I forced myself to move my feet forward. It was exhausting. We took a couple of short breaks under the "shade" of Joshua Trees and decided we needed to find a better spot for our afternoon siesta if we were going to survive. Focus hiked faster than the rest of us, so we sent him ahead to scout out a good spot for the five of us to rest for the afternoon.

As we walked, we were passed by a decent number of hikers, and I fretted that they would find the only small patch of shade in the entire desert and take it for themselves.

Sansei said, "don't worry, that's why we sent Focus ahead. He's in front of them, and he'll save us a good spot."
Ten minutes later we discovered Focus wedged into a small, one-person shade of a boulder, shirtless and napping out of the sunlight.
"FOCUS!" Sansei shrieked. "What kind of reconnaissance man are you?!"
"Sorry?" Focus said.
"We sent you ahead of all those other hikers to get us a good patch of shade!" Sansei said, "and here you are, having let them all pass you, in a spot no bigger than one person!"
"Oh..." said Focus, "my bad...."
"Focus," I said, "you're fired."

We kept walking until we came upon an open area with a random picnic table and a couple of useless Joshua Trees. There was no shade to be seen, but it was too hot to keep hiking without risking dehydration and heat exhaustion, so we McGuyvered Sansei and Focus's tarps into awnings to create some shade. We lay underneath them for a total of 5.6 seconds until we realized that the tarps were simply greenhouses and were reflecting even more heat down onto us. So we squished ourselves around the small, patchy shade of a Joshua Tree and attempted to sleep. As the sun moved, so did we, carefully avoiding the cactus-like thorns that enshrouded the tree.
"Ow!" I grumbled as I was stabbed once again. "You know, when we started this trail, being in the desert was like, 'oh cool, everything is all spiky,' and now it's like, 'OHMIGOD EVERYTHING IS ALL SPIKY.'"

We sweated in the shade and had a difficult time napping, so we made ourselves lunch, instead. I made my usual tuna/cheese tortilla wrap, and Focus was doing something similar, but instead of a small pack of tortillas, he pulled a giant wad of 24 out of his food bag.
"Holy crap," I said. "How heavy is that?"
"Uh... I dunno... a pound?"
I laughed. "You know tortillas come in packs of 10, right?"
"Yeah, but this is for a whole week!"
I stared at him blankly and then repeated, " know they come in packs of 10, right?"
"Not when you eat 3-4 every day!"

And he proceeded to lay out several tortillas in succession and fill them with random assortments of things: ham, cheese, peanut butter, jelly, honey, and the small single-serve packs of cream cheese he had swiped from the Tehachapi continental breakfast.

We stayed under the Joshua Tree until 4pm, when we finally deemed it "cool" enough to start hiking again. Focus took off ahead of us and the rest of us dragged slowly behind. We had eight miles left to reach the next water cache for the night, and we desperately needed to get there. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a very painful and exhausting eight miles. It was still hot as hell and we pulled ourselves through the heat, muttering fuck, fuck, fuck! as we went, the hours dragging by, the sun never growing any cooler.

A quick word about cursing: for those of you who know me, you know I don't curse very often, and even when I do, I very rarely use the f-word, for I find it crass and distasteful. But the Trail changes you in small and big ways, and this was something that changed for me.

For there comes a day when you have been hiking for miles on end, through the worst kind of heat imaginable, pushed past all your physical and emotional and mental limits for the day. You have no energy left, and half a liter of water lingering in your bottle, and you know there are still five miles to go to reach water. You have no choice. You have to keep walking or die, even though every muscle in your body screams that you cannot possibly walk one more step. The sand beneath you is soft and fine, the kind of sand that makes your feet sink with every step, so that you feel as though you are running in slow motion underwater, not really moving anywhere. And the sun beats on your head, hotter and hotter, and the sweat drips from every pore in your body, and your nose bleeds with the dryness, and your throat aches with thirst. And just when you think the trail could not possibly get any worse, it begins to climb uphill. Slowly. Steadily. Painfully. And you drag yourself up the hill until suddenly a wave of desperation rushes over you and you throw down your trekking poles with an exhausted sob, for you were done hours ago, and you scream over the mountain with as much strength as you can muster:
And the word echoes in the emptiness and then fades away, and you stand there, defeated, at the top of the hill. And then, after a long, somber moment, you slowly pick up your trekking poles. And you gather what little bit of strength you had left, given to you by that single word, and you slowly push on. Because you have no choice. Because water is five miles away and you have to keep walking, no matter your limits.

I think there will come a day when I return to the Real World, and I find myself in a situation where someone is tossing around fuck in casual conversation, like it means nothing. And somewhere inside, I will feel sorry for that person, for until they have walked 600 miles in the desert and discovered what it means to push yourself beyond all of your physical, emotional, and mental breaking limits, until they have found themselves against a wall and know that they have no choice but to keep pushing, only then will they know the true meaning of the word.

And so we climbed. Through soft sand, through blasting heat, through walls that we built for ourselves long ago and have since destroyed. We screamed at the desert. We sat in the sand and felt our resolve slipping away. We watched our half liters of water slowly dwindle. We moved as fast as we could, but it was still slow, slow, slow.

At long last, when we needed headlamps to keep hiking, the terrain changed to firmer ground and steadier elevation. We skirted a valley on a high mountain ridge and for once enjoyed a beautiful sunset on a very trying day. It was dark by the time we arrived, and there were many other hikers camping and cooking in the area. We couldn't distinguish any of them in the dark, so we walked around yelling, "Focus! Focus!" until an Aussie called back, "oi! I'm here!"

We filled up our water at the cache and found a flat spot in which to roll out our sleeping bags. We lay in a single file line, squished close together: Focus, Sansei, Rotisserie, Katie, and me. The stars were brilliant above us, and we lay looking up at them as we played Sansei's letter game before bed.

"F," Katie said.
"Future," was the first word I thought of.
"You tell a story, Focus," Sansei prompted.
"In the future," Focus said, "all of us will reach Canada."
After today, it seemed a very worthy goal.