187 to 205
We woke up in the morning to see our breath floating above our heads in huge clouds of steam. I sat up, and saw a thin crust of ice over the foot of our sleeping bag.
When we disentangled ourselves from the tent, we saw that many things were covered in ice: the dead trees (still intact and not fallen on us!) had beads of ice hanging from them, the ground and rocks were slick, and the water bottle we’d left outside the tent was frozen almost solid. I looked out at the opening in the trees where the cliff dropped off and saw a ridge of mountains a few miles away, sandy-colored at the bottom and a faint blue at the top. They were cut by a horizontal swatch of white fog— no, not fog, clouds. The rising sun shone intensely on the mountains and the stratus clouds, and I was transfixed by them.
We consulted our map and elevation chart and discovered that our entire walk today would be downhill— very downhill. 6,040 feet, to be precise. It was 4.3 miles as the crow flies, but 15.2 miles of trail. We were eager to get off the mountain today, no matter how beautiful it looked in the morning sun, so we quickly started our hike down.
The air was clear on Fuller Ridge where we had camped, but when we left the ridge for the first set of switchbacks, we descended into clouds. They were billowing, torn by a breeze— wafting up the side of the mountain and plummeting over the ridge in puffy tatters. The clouds were freezing and left water droplets on our clothes, but the wild breeze and the buoyed clouds were beautiful. Soon we were lost in a mist, winding our way downward between pine trees. We looked up to see that these pines were covered with frost— frozen fog.
Despite how wet the air was, our water supply was running low. There hadn’t been a stream since the night before, and the next water was marked as “seasonal.” We paused in an open field that was still haunted by tatters of chill clouds, and sat down in the long, dry grass. “What can we eat?” I asked. Almost all our food required water to rehydrate it. I rummage through my orange stuff sack, looking in despair at the mashed potatoes, the pasta, the chili, the hummus. All of it was useless without a quart of water, and we didn’t have that much to spare.
We decided to try some “Atkins diet pasta.” Zach pulled out the dehydrated chicken, the parmesan, and our little bag of bacon bits. We put them in a bowl with a bit of water and olive oil, let them soak for a minute, then ate the concoction with a spoon. It crunched loudly because the chicken was still quite dehydrated. But it was calories, with a good dose of fat and protein, and it would hold us.
Eventually, we left the trees and the clouds behind us, and found ourselves switch-backing down a huge, steep desert mountain. The plain lay below, crisscrossed in a grid of thin roads that indicated a town of some kind. The trail wound between a jumble of boulders, interspersed with scrubby bushes and clusters of yellow wildflowers that sprung up on long stalks from clumps of grayish-blue leaves. Drops of rain began pattering on us, swept by the wind down the mountain from the wispy clouds high above— but the sun was shining all around us, warming our faces and throwing sharp light on the pebbly-looking mountains half a mile in front of us. As we watched this stark and gorgeous landscape, a double rainbow formed, arching in front of the sunlit mountains. The beauty of this picture was absolutely surreal: I felt like I had left real life behind and landed in the middle of an REI calendar.
What put on a damper on this gorgeous scenery was my first real trail injury: shin splints. I sometimes got these at home, and the strained pain in my shins was nothing to ignore. The splints had developed the day before on the steep stone steps up to San Jacinto’s peak, and they came back with a vengeance today as my body weight, plus the weight of my water-laden pack, came slamming down on my shins with each downward step. I was grateful that we each had a trekking pole now, and leaned heavily on mine.
The rest of the day was the same scenery, the same steps, the same never-ending zigzag down to the valley floor. It was a beautiful landscape, but after several hours we didn’t notice as much. I limped along, cringing with each step, feeling more and more anxious. A wind whipped up and we realized that we’d be spending another night on the face of the mountain, albeit at a much lower elevation. We looked at our map and saw that our camping options would be very limited.
We passed the 200-mile mark that day, but I felt like we hadn’t really earned it, because we had skipped 30 miles near Idyllwild.
It was getting dark again, and the rain clouds threatened, and we had passed five or six other hikers taking up the precious camping spots, when we finally found a narrow patch of sand, surrounded by boulders, next to the trail. We set up quickly, trying in vain to position our tent so that it wouldn’t be flapped and shaken by the wind.
We snacked that night because the wind and threatening rain made it too hard to cook. After a chocolate protein shake, we decided to do something we hadn’t done yet on trail: Zach pulled out our Kindle, opened Return of the King, and started reading aloud. We had been working on reading Lord of the Rings for months now, but this was the first time on trail that Zach had the time or energy to read at night. I lay next to him and listened to a chapter of my favorite book. And for a while, I forgot all about the threatening rain and the exposed campsite and the raging wind and the shin splints. It was a pretty good night.