(I’d already posted some of my entry for this day, but I figured I might as well include it in the whole narrative.)
Rodriguez Pump (68) to 86.6
The day dawned as only a day in the desert can: a sudden, sharp, overwhelming pouring-out of ochre light that melted away the frost. I crawled out of the tent, snuffling snot into a bandana. My head cold was definitely worse today.
We ate our oatmeal and Zach filtered some water from the Dead Rat Pump. It was tepid, but, fortunately, it didn’t taste like rats. We filled up six liters for the two of us. My backpack felt like lead when I heaved it onto my back. Water is heavy! Still, we were skimping. We were counting on a water cache that people said was beneath the overpass of a highway. If the cache wasn’t there, we’d try to hitchhike into Julian, 12 miles west of the PCT.
The day was overall quite demoralizing, despite random nice things in between. We descended into a wide valley, stopping to rest in the shade of boulders. The mucous had all moved to my ears, stuffing them almost completely, and now my sinuses and throat felt raw and dry. I was exhausted, and Zach gave me the trekking pole so I could drag myself along. “Do you want to stop?” he asked.
“No,” I said, sniffing messily. “We have to get through this dry stretch.”
Eventually I tied a bandana over my face like a bandit. This recycled my mouth vapor and kept the bandana handy so I could continue blowing my nose. The sun beat down, but I kept my hat on and my long sleeves, so I was almost completely covered. No sunburn was going to get me!
We trudged across a long plain, studded with cactus, barbed wire, and brush. At last we were hiking in the area that looked most like the desert I had imagined. Little pink ribbons fluttered on the bushes, marking the path. We slogged through the sand, and by the time we reached the overpass of the road, I felt dizzy and exhausted. We also found a nice cache there, and sat down next to it. We debated hitching into Julian, but a guy there, named Strawberry, said it was a hard hitch. He gave us some cheese. We shielded our stove from the whipping wind and cooked some pasta with the cheese.
We also saw a rosy boa, a cute snake about three feet long and quickly turned back when we spotted it. I was still excited at the prospect of seeing our first rattlesnake.
We ate our food and sat glumly side by side, grateful that at least we had a shady spot to rest. My head pounded and my ears remained stubbornly plugged. Soon we were joined by a trickle of people returning from Julian. They all seemed ridiculously happy and well-fed: apparently the store in town gave out free food and pie to hikers. But I was already swollen with food (at that point we could barely eat our huge meals). We had missed the pie, and there was no going back for it. I felt even glummer.
Another troupe of people came under from the highway. They were three men and two women, all middle-aged, with the kind of Southern accents that I usually find familiar and nice-sounding (my extended family is from the South). But they were using their pleasant voices to brag.
“The PCT is so easy.”
“Yeah, it’s not even like hiking!”
“On the AT you’re just hiking on rocks all the time, straight up one hill and down another, all day long!”
“Not like this— nice and dry and so flat.”
“Most people on the AT can only do three miles on their first day.”
“We did 15 miles on our first day.”
“It’s great that this trail is SO EASY!”
I almost burst into tears.
At that moment, another hiker entered the scene. He practically bounded down the slope from the highway, picking up his trekking poles that he had accidentally left at the cache. “Hey guys!” he said. “How’s everyone doing?” He was middle-aged, with a profile like a Roman emperor and a disposition as cheerful as a spring afternoon.
“They give you free pie in Julian,” he said. “They’re so nice, too! The guy who gave me a hitch was great.”
His cheerfulness made me want to let out some sort of loud howl. Why did everyone on the trail but us seem to be so chipper and think it was so easy?!
I half-listened as he introduced himself as The Animal, and showed his little mascots he brought with him: two stuffed animals, a wombat and a pika (a creature that looks like an adorable cross between a rabbit and a hamster). I perked up a little when The Animal said he had hiked the Continental Divide Trail. I knew the CDT was much harder than this. Less marked, more remote, and more grizzly bears.
Still, when The Animal looked at us and said, “How’s your hike going?”, I vented spleen. I told everyone there I was sick and it was miserable. An uncomfortable silence followed, and then everyone started to disperse. Zach graciously said nothing to me about it. I felt awful. I had broken one of the PCT rules of conduct: Do not think the world revolves around your problems.
The trail continued across a desert plain, headed toward the San Felipe “Hills” (they looked like mountains to me!), rocky and barren. Once we were alone, I cried a little bit. I cried because we hadn’t gotten any pie, and I was feeling horrible, and my blister had grown to the size of a nickel. Then I stopped crying and gutted it out.
We ended up walking with The Animal for a few minutes, and I apologized for being whiny. “That’s okay!” he said, quick to forgive. He told us about hiking the CDT, which was fun.
By the time we crested the murderous climb and began cutting a straight path that wound through the steep mountains, I had calmed down. Then we met a man hiking southbound toward us. He was older, tanned to leather, wearing sunglasses, blocking our way. “Do either of you have blisters?” he asked. “I’m a certified nurse and have a lot of experience with blisters. I’m hiking south on the PCT so I can meet hikers and help them out.”
I glanced at Zach, who shrugged. “Well, I do have a blister,” I said.
“I’m Bipolar, by the way,” he said.
It took me a second to figure out that was his trail name.
“Would you like to step into the nurse’s office?” he asked, gesturing to a flat rock. “I can pull a thread through your blister if it’s too big.”
I hesitated, wondering about the safety of allowing some dirty stranger to stick needles in my foot. But years of traveling had made me willing to take risks, even if something didn’t sound appealing at first. I sat down on the rock and took off my sock and shoe. We saw that the blister had popped, leaving behind a painful patch of deflated skin. I was a bit relieved, and Bipolar told me just to keep treating it with disinfectant.
After that, he began rambling about anything and everything. He finally settled on the topic of women hiking the PCT. “Women have a leg up on us men in long-distance sports,” he said. “The PCT speed record’s held by a woman, you know. She did it in 59 days. It’s like they say: ‘Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, just backwards and in heels.’ I’ve been to plenty of Ironman competitions. After the men finish, they drag themselves over to the first aid tent for some Gatorade. When the women finish, they pull out their cell phones and ask if little Johnny has finished his homework yet.”
His speech, while not entirely unbiased, made me somehow feel like things were going to be all right. I had the advantage— Bipolar had told me so. And in the end, it turned out to be true.
That night, after debating endlessly whether we were going to take a sandy nook of the mountains as a camp spot and then moving on to trudge through another mile or two of desert, we finally ended up in a huge dry creek bed, spotted with dead trees, cactus, and yucca. For the first time on trail, we were camping more or less alone: another couple was camped a few hundred yards away, but they were out of sight around a corner of the cliff. I practically collapsed on the sand, utterly at the end of my strength. We managed to set up our tent and crawl inside. We didn’t eat supper that night.
We left the rain fly off, so I stared up at the stars coming out, one by one, the Big Dipper wheeling upside down in the sky. The silhouette of the yucca was black against the deep blue sky, rattling faintly in the wind.
At that moment, the loneliness and horrible feeling of homelessness crowded in on me. We were homeless. We would be sleeping in a different place every night, trapped under the canopy of the vast, untamable night sky. We were humans without a shelter— no shelter from the vastness of nature, no shelter to root us in the ground, to give us permanence and stability and a sense of home.
Homeless. This word kept ringing in my head like a gong, making me feel trembly and vulnerable down into my guts. I stared at the dry yucca rattling in the wind against the night sky, and it seemed unreasonably terrifying.
All at once, a memory floated through my head— a song my dad had written at a dark point in his life. In my head I heard my dad’s voice singing, distant but clear.
There is no home
There is no home
There is no home but You in this world…
I remembered that I was homeless. On the trail or off. No matter what I did, I would always be homeless until God called me to my real Home. This life, and everything I associate with home— this was all a tent, flimsy and temporal as the polyester structure around me.
Relief, and perspective, washed over me. Gazing at the silhouette of the yucca against the stars, I slipped into a deep, untroubled sleep.