Monday, February 16, 2015

PCT 2014, Day 14: Tension Rising

DAY 14
May 8th, Thursday
Whitewater Trout Preserve to 238.6

I was hoping that everything would feel better in the morning, but it didn’t. Not only was I still feeling and acting cranky, but I began acting like a control freak. I pored over the map as Zach tore down camp, determining where we’d get our water, where we’d stop, where we’d try to get to tonight.

That didn’t sit very well with Zach. He endured it for a while as we headed back to the trail, but when I barged in front of him to lead the way, he snapped at me. “I’m the leader,” he said.

“I know that,” I snapped, because I did. “I’m just trying to help!”

“No, you’re trying to take over.”

I glared at him as he took the lead again, but I didn’t have anything to say to counteract it. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I just wish you wouldn’t treat me like a child.”

“I wish you’d stop acting like a child.”

My hackles raised. “Just because I’m acting like a child doesn’t mean you get to treat me like one!” (You’ll notice that I didn’t try to contradict him, because he was right.)

He was silent for a while. “I know.”

Feeling as if I had scored a point, I walked in silence until guilt crept in. I really was being a jerk. After a while, I mumbled, “I’ll try to do better.”

“Me too,” Zach said, turning and giving me as much of a hug as our backpacks would allow. 

We walked a little further.

“It is really humid,” I observed with a wrinkled nose. We were following a sandy wasteland with a creek seeping between the rocks, and the humidity combined with the heat made my long sleeves feel unbearable. Still, I didn’t have enough sunblock to justify putting my arms to the test against the blazing sun. 

Zach sighed. “I’m miserable too,” he said. “We just have to push through.”

And push through we did. After all, we had realized that we had to make big miles for the next couple days if we were going to get to Big Bear Lake before the post office closed on Saturday. It was the first of many races against time to get our next resupply box.

Soon we left the sandy riverbed behind and entered a canyon with sparse trees, sticking close to the bank of Mission River, which was more of a rushing stream. We decided to stop in the sparse shade of a tree and cook some lunch. As Zach was setting up the stove and started cooking some pasta, I saw two other hikers on the opposite bank, washing their clothes in the stream. It was Matt and Sam! I waved hello and they waved back.

Just then, Zach accidentally bumped the stove, which knocked over the pot of boiling water and the gas. He swore loudly, grabbed the pot and righted it before too much pasta spilled out. I fell very quiet, and I think for the first time, it occurred to me that everything that happened was just as hard on him as it was on me— he just dealt with it differently. I really took it to heart, but unfortunately, that didn’t help much on a practical level.

Actually, I think this barely even counts as a "stream…"
As we waited for the pasta to cook, we watched ants trying to carry away the bits of ground beef that had spilled out. Then we ate in silence, and I remarked that it tasted particularly good today. Unlike our other meals, today we finished the meal easily. I guessed that the hiker hunger was starting to kick in.

We continued along the trail, which crossed and recrossed the river, delving into a forest with grasses and sloughs. There were tons of caterpillars on the trail and clinging to different grasses, sometimes a dozen with a cubic foot.

On this particular day, we ran into a dilemma that we hadn’t encountered before: we were beside water all morning and most of the afternoon, constantly crossing the stream, and so we forgot to be mindful of water. So, when we left the valley and started a gradual climb, we didn’t think about it. 

At this point I was feeling doggedly determined to pack in the miles, but Zach was slogging, suffering a complete energy lag. At last, he asked if I wanted to walk in front, and I did, plowing forward with a strong stride that he paced, despite his exhaustion. The sun shone down hotly on us, and we were both sweating. 

That’s when I heard Zach say, “Uh-oh.”

I glanced behind me. “What is it?”

He sucked on the Camelbak nozzle. “We’re out of water.”

I stopped short, remembering that we had no water in reserve, none in our bottles. But now all was silent, except for the distance sound of rock doves cooing. We had left the river.

We paused and checked our GPS, comparing it to our map. We were two miles past the last river crossing. There was a seasonal spring in about a mile, and then a river in two and a half miles.

Zach checked the water report he had downloaded onto his phone when we were in town, which we were still figuring out how to use. “It says that the seasonal spring is dry. The river is flowing in a trickle.”

In normal circumstances, two and a half miles of walking without water would be no big deal. But here, in the middle of the wilderness, with sand all about and a searing sun overhead and 30-pound packs on our backs, and us already tired and dehydrated, it was not happy. And what did “a trickle” mean? What if the trickle had already dried up?

Suddenly, we found ourselves in a difficult situation. And as usually happened in a difficult situation, Zach and I forgot all our grumpiness and all our bickering and united with a common goal: find water, get to water, keep each other strong until we reached the water.

Zach took the lead now, and I followed him. My mouth, which had felt perfectly fine a minute before, reacted dramatically to the news, turning dry as parchment. My ears strained for the sound of water, and I thought I heard it half a dozen times— only to be disappointed to learn it was wind rushing in the needles of scattered pine trees. 

We saw that we were making for a mountain, and the stream was supposed to be at its base. It would be a little off trail to our left at first, and then we would cross it. I felt anxious and stuck close nearby Zach. What would happen if there wasn’t any water?

After about thirty minutes of walking, I saw a little canyon off to our left. “I have to see,” I said, running over to the edge. Zach followed.

We stood and looked down into a river bed. It was dry as dust.

My heart fell. My knees quailed. Zach gave my arm an encouraging squeeze. “Remember Agua Caliente? The water might be flowing upstream.”

I nodded mutely, and we continued. I hung onto this thread of hope for another fifteen minutes, straining my ears for the sound of water.

We turned a corner and followed the trail into the dry river bed. And there in front of us was a millimeter-deep, six-inch-wide stream of clear water seeping over the sand.

“Thank God!” I yelled. “Oh, thank God thank God thank God.” We ran over and skimmed some water off the top, quickly filtering it. Zach let me have the first sip. The water tasted heavenly, and all my fears vanished.

“Okay,” I said, after we had both drunk deeply. “From now on, we are always keeping water in the bottles, so we can see how much we have.”

We agreed on this at the time, but of course, we didn’t live up to it.

Matt and Sam were camping next to the stream and said there was room for our tent, but we declined, saying that we were going to try to get to the next campsite, 3.6 miles away. They looked at us as if we were crazy. But with our water bottles full and our bodies rehydrated, we felt pretty good. Despite the gathering twilight, we started hiking up the mountain.

We stopped as we saw that someone had written in Sharpie on a smooth stone on the ground. It said, “Poodle Dog Bush,” with an arrow. We had heard about Poodle Dog Bush— it was a poisonous plant similar to stinging nettles that would inject you with a horrible toxin. If you got a PDB rash on any significant portion of your body, you needed to be rushed to the emergency room.

Zach and I looked at the rock. “I wonder which bush it is?” Zach asked.

I looked, and saw. There was a slender plant in front of him, as tall as he was, and leaning directly over his head. It looked nothing like the pictures we’d seen online, but it fit the verbal description: a tall stalk covered in long, narrow, fuzzy-looking leaves. The clusters of leaves looked like they might be good for wiping.

“Zachary,” I said, trying to sound calm. “Lift your head slowly.”

Zach looked up and saw the poodle dog cluster inches from his face. “Yeesh,” he said, backing up.

“Well, now we know what to avoid!”

This turned out to be a challenge, even at first. As soon as we started up the mountain (which was steeper than many climbs we’d done so far), we found the PDB all along the trail: ugly brown stalks poked out from the sides of the trail, only green on the ends, leaving the rest of the clustered leaves a shriveled brown. Night was falling faster than we expected, as usual, and we often found ourselves inching around PDB with a sheer cliff on the other side. I could feel Zach’s anxiety. We still only had one headlamp, and we had to make it 3.6 miles before sundown or we’d be stranded between a cliff and a bunch of poisonous plants. The trail switchbacked up steeply, and there was certainly nowhere to camp.

At last the trail straightened out, dipped down into a forest, climbed into an open ridge without any PDB, and headed straight for an appealing-looking pine forest, although it was nearly black in the evening darkness. Within minutes, the desert valley was far behind us, and we were wrapped in a dark forest of pines. We saw a nice camping spot under huge conifers. There was a tent there already, but plenty of room for us. The occupant of the tent, a nice guy named Tim, welcomed us there. We set up quickly and settled in. It had been a long day, and a stressful one, but we had made good mileage.

“We need to get a headlamp,” Zach said.


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