Mile 30.2 to 47.5
We woke up and I was surprised to see a tent over my head. Once I remembered myself, though, I was even more surprised that I still didn’t feel very sore. We were still draped in shadow, and a chill hung about the air.
I started packing up while Zach collected our water for the day from a stream. He used our water filter for the first time— a Sawyer that screwed onto a squeeze bag. My hands still felt numb, and I kept bundled up. As we were climbing out of the valley, the sun peered over the edge of the mountain to the east of us, bringing immediate warmth. It was about nine o’clock.
Today, Zach and I were determined to put in 20 miles. A lot of people at the beginning of the trail insisted that when you were starting, you should try no more than 10 or perhaps 15 miles a day. We were aiming for 20 right from the start; we meant business. (But of course, this didn’t actually work out in practice.)
We continued in a landscape at first unbroken from yesterday: brush-covered mountains. We discovered that Matt and Sam hadn’t gone that much farther after all. We walked faster than them on flat sections, but much slower on hills, and we took more breaks. Matt and Sam (and several other people, too) kept on passing us while we were taking a break, and after a while it was hard to think of cute or clever things to say. Matt started saying, “Tag,” whenever he passed us, and we took that up.
When the sun rode high in the sky, we delved down from the mountains into a forest. I was amazed. When people said 700 miles of desert, I assumed that there wouldn’t be any trees at all until the High Sierra (and maybe not even then). But here we were in a forest of handsome fir trees. I heard a honking, clown-like sound and saw an acorn woodpecker on the tree, chattering with another one. They were stashing acorns in the bark, drilling holes to cubby the nuts in, so tightly that you couldn’t pull them out if you tried.
In the afternoon we ran across a sign advertising the tiny town of Mount Laguna, just half a mile off trail. Zach and I paused and agonized. Going a mile out of our way just to go to a town! What a moral dilemma! (Now, I look back and laugh hysterically. If there is a town where you can get a cold soda just half a mile away, I don’t care how much of a hurry you’re in— you go to the town!)
Eventually we decided to take the detour, and soon emerged onto the paved road of a campground. We walked toward the main road, glimpsing acorn woodpeckers all over, and found ourselves at a long, low log cabin restaurant. We walked in the front door and found a sea of backpacks scattered about. We left ours with the gaggle.
The tables in the restaurant were long, seating a dozen people, and the waitress seated us with some other hikers. One of them was the lady with the shaved head and the kilt that I had seen yesterday. She told me her name, but I don’t remember it. I want to say it was Alice.
Zach and I, mindful of our budget, ordered a piece of berry cobbler to split. Everyone else at the table got halfway through their meals and began tapering off. The hiker hunger hadn’t kicked in. I offered to eat everyone’s leftovers. Kilt Lady (as she will always remain in my head) said, “Hey, I have some cooked Mountain House chicken that I don’t want... would you like it?”
“Sure!” I said. “I’ll eat pretty much anything. I’m like a garbage disposal.”
Everyone chuckled. Kilt Lady said, “You’d better be careful, or your trail name’s going to end up being ‘Garbage Disposal.’”
I laughed nervously, realizing that this was a real possibility. Kilt Lady left and came back with a bag half-full of day-old chicken mixture. “How about ‘Leftovers?’” she asked. “For your trail name.”
I smiled. “I’ll think about it.”
After leaving the restaurant, we stopped by the gear store. Zach liked his walking stick, but a trekking pole was clearly an order. There was one for sale, a single one, for $30. We cringed and Zach picked it up to buy it. I stepped outside to wait.
A group of people was gathered around, including some people we had briefly met before, George and Karen. A guy I didn’t know walked up to me while I was standing next to my gigantic, bulky backpack.
“Would you like a shakedown?” he asked.
I was familiar with the term— a veteran backpacker would sort through a novice’s pack and tell them what to keep and what to throw away.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, his tone turning suddenly sarcastic. “I see. You need everything, huh?”
“No,” I snapped, feeling insecure and testy. I just didn’t want some stranger rooting through all my personal belongings. “I know I don’t need it all. I just haven’t gotten a chance to sort it.”
“I could probably get rid of two pounds.”
I openly glared at him. “No thank you.”
Scowling, he retreated. I was relieved when Zach came out of the store, and we shouldered our packs and headed back to the trail.
We only walked in woods for an hour, trailing and then passing a group of five hikers, before we emerged into a landscape that would become all too familiar: a forest that had been ravaged by a fire. Tufts of grass were the only living things to be seen, and all around were blackened, naked trees. Since this was our first burn area, it seemed all strange and somewhat beautiful. (Hundreds of burn areas later, I was not so happy!) We were also caught in a “no camping” zone. I didn’t know that there were areas like this on the trail— I had assumed we could throw out our bedroll anywhere we liked. No such luck. But if we could do another several miles that night, we could get out of the no-camping zone.
We looked ahead, across a barren hill speckled with blackened stubs. And for the first time, we saw the first view that really took our breath away.
About ten yards away, the hill dropped off steeply down to the desert floor. In front of us was a barren, alien landscape that looked like piles of dust that had turned to stone. The late sun cast sharp shadows over the hills that rose up from the plain, with writhen lines like dried-up streams flowing from their peaks.
“Wow,” I said. “Oh, wow.”
We just stood staring at it for several minutes. Matt passed us up, and when Sam walked by, we asked him to take our photo. He introduced himself officially. We followed him back into the burn area.
By this time, Zach’s knee was starting to hurt a lot— so badly that he could barely walk. I imagined us having to give up the trail on day three because of injury. It was not a pleasant thought. We sat down in the grass and felt anxious. Finally we realized we were forced to go to the only place to camp in the area: the paid campground that charged 23 bucks a night. We were not thrilled.
When we arrived at the campground, we saw a handwritten note that said eight people were allowed in each slot, and some guy named Happy Man had already claimed a spot and invited others to join him. We found him. He was the only remotely ethnic person I’d seen on trail yet— from Mexico, I later learned. He was polite, if quiet. Matt and Sam ended up joining us, and another couple camped with us later in the evening. We all kicked in money to Happy Man so he could pay for us.
A campground host drove by and shouted something about a hard frost coming in tonight. “It’s going to be a cold one!” he yelled, barely concealing a huge, somewhat sadistic grin. “I hope you guys have warm blankets!”
“Go to hell,” Matt muttered under his breath.
That night, Zach tried to use the little wood-stove we had brought. The twigs we gathered were damp, and the stove just smoked and fumed. Happy Man and Matt and Sam sat at the table with their Jet-Boil stoves, which cooked their food in less than two minutes. Zach labored with our stove for half an hour. He made mashed potatoes and dumped the chicken meal in. The potatoes were strange and grainy, and he couldn’t get them to heat up. By this time I was feeling delirious with hunger. While we still worked on our stove, everyone else went to bed.
Finally, Zach didn’t want to mess with the stove anymore. He cracked a joke. “You ready for some lukewarm, grainy, weird mashed potatoes?”
I burst into tears.
Zach tried in vain to get me to be quiet. I wanted to calm down, but I felt so hungry and tired and in despair that the best I could do was press a hand over my mouth and silently sob. Zach herded me into the tent and tried to get me to eat. The meal was awful and I had to choke it down. Already a deadly cold was setting in. I thought, We are never going to make it.
I’m sure Happy Man and Matt and Sam thought the same thing.