Mount Laguna Campground (47.5) to Rodriguez Pump (68)
When I woke up the next day, I had a head cold. I felt the mucous in my head like a giant plug through all my sinuses: throat, ears, and nose. If I had felt like this at home, I would have curled up in the blankets, slept in, and avoided anything but the mildest physical activity all day. But today, we had a specific goal in mind: we wanted to get to the Rodriguez Pump Fire Tank, a piped spring that was the last dependable water for a 32.7-mile stretch. It was 20.5 miles away.
We got up early and packed up. Happy Man, Matt and Sam said nothing about our strange stove or my breakdown. We were all aiming for the same camping spot, so we said, “See you up the trail” and started walking.
Most of that day is a hot, hazy blur in my memory. I was caught up in the awful existence of trying to breathe through my mouth while climbing hills, blowing my nose onto every clean inch of a bandana, and feeling anxiety as my ears steadily grew more plugged. It’s not uncommon for me to get ear infections that cause pressure, pain and plugged ears for weeks at a time. I couldn’t bear the thought of that happening.
Zach observed that day that our hike felt less like a hike and more like a pilgrimage— we were almost always hiking in front of or behind someone, although our strange pace (really fast on flat ground, painfully slow on hills) made it so we didn’t pace anyone.
The scenery we passed through was open, huge hills covered in low brush with the occasional yucca plant, a four-to-eight-foot-tall plant with a spiky head of flowers. Dimly watching the slopes, all I could think of to describe these mountains were phrases that I’d read in Lord of the Rings or Victorian novels— “writhen hills,” “trackless waste.”
We plunged down into a valley down a steep trail, and I felt my shoes rubbing against my toes. Already I had bashed holes into my fragile trail runners by running into rocks. By the time we reached the dusty bottom, I felt exhausted and footsore. A huge hill, where the trail coincided with a jeep road, rose above our heads. A steady stream of hikers filed ahead of us, and a cluster of people rested in the shade of some brush. Zach and I continued on without stopping. As we started our climb, I heard someone from the group at the brush shout out, “Hi, Leftovers!”
I turned, saw Kilt Lady, and waved to her. “Well,” I told Zach, “I guess my name is Leftovers now.”
I never saw Kilt Lady again, and I don’t even know if she finished the trail. But I will always remember her fondly as the person who gave me my trail name.
The hill out of that valley seemed unbelievably murderous. In reality it was a mere 300-foot climb— less than half the height of the mountain we had practically sprinted up on our first day. But a blazing sun, dusty road, and snot-stuffed head conspired to make it a slow death march. I stared directly at the ground, trying all sorts of mental tricks to keep my body going. “You’re on the Katy Trail,” I said aloud to myself, referring to the perfectly-flat hiking/biking trail that runs by my house in Missouri. “And when you’re done, you’re going to go home and eat pizza with the family, with Mom, and Dad, and Eric and Sarah, and Christian, and even Mary will be home from San Diego! And you will eat lots of pizza.” As I spoke these words, I felt a deep ache in my heart. I already missed everyone, and I’d hardly been gone nine days.
At this point, we were determined to knock out the last three miles so we could camp at the water. People who had a water report (a magical document we didn’t learn about until later) said that some people said the water tasted like a dead rat was in it. It became the “Dead Rat Pump” in my head after that. I had a tiny pebble in my shoe that scraped and hurt, but it seemed like too much work to stop. I felt like we were in a stream of people, swept onward to the Dead Rat Pump. The trail was pretty flat, winding along the steep sides of these “writhen hills” in this “trackless waste.”
At last we reached the area where the pump was: the crossing of Jeep roads that looked out into a vast desert plain. I felt utterly exhausted, and plopped down in the dust. I took off my shoe to empty out the pebble, and to my alarm found it was no pebble at all, but a blister on my toe that stabbed me with pain when I stepped on it. I was much more upset than I should have been— by mile 68, some people had a blister on every toe. But it was just the cap on how miserable I was feeling.
It was also hard to find a place to camp because there were almost 20 people there, setting up their cute little bivies and tarps. Zach and I set up our tent and began blowing up our air pads, which were huge and had to be wrangled into our sleeping bag. I could feel people staring at us, wondering how long we were going to haul around our bulky set-up. Everyone else seemed so confident in their cute, light, super-expensive gear.
Man, I thought, we are not going to make it.
But that night, when I woke up in the pitch dark and stepped outside to go to the bathroom, I saw the desert stars for the first time. I stood still, staring up at the tapestry of diamonds above my head, clearer and brighter and more overwhelming than I had seen in years and years.
Then I realized I was freezing cold, so I did my business and jumped back into the warm tent.