May 24th, Saturday
515ish to 542
We woke up early the next day— but not as early as Relish and Toto, who were already packed up and gone. We quickly followed suit, guiltily kicking the dry cow pies back onto our spot to cover our trace. It was still a few miles to the Hikertown Hostel, winding our way out of the mountains, into the “Rohan hills,” as I called him in my head, and down one last slope onto a perfectly flat plain.
The countryside almost reminded me of the Midwest. (Of course, looking back at the pictures, it’s probably because nothing I’d seen up to that point even came close.) The flat land, the green farmland, the roads that seemed to stretch in one direction forever— as we approached one farm, a rooster even crowed. Different from the Midwest: the desolate brown color of everything not actively irrigated, and the range of mountains in the distance.
We stopped just off the trail at Hikertown, a little complex put together by a set designer and rented out to hikers. It’s set up to look like an old west town, with buildings slightly too small, their facades brightly painted. “Hotel.” “Feed Store.” “Post Office.” Dogs, chickens and ducks ran around everywhere. An employee there picked our box out of a disorganized pile of other boxes, then said we were free to use the hostel common room (a room with a garage door opening) to sort it.
As we did, a plump middle-aged woman worked on cleaning the kitchen. We chatted with her, and somehow it came up that Zach was looking much skinnier, while I was holding my weight just fine (quite a plus on a long-distance hike!). She tch'ed her tongue. “Isn’t that just like men?” she said. “You know what they say— to men, carbs are protein, but to women, carbs are fat. So you need to feed him more pasta, and you need to stop eating pasta.”
I didn’t quite know how to respond to this comment— I couldn’t tell whether or not she was telling me to lose weight. So I just asked where the bathroom and water spigot were.
Everyone I talked to who actually stayed at Hikertown Hostel were very creeped out by it. Some intended to stay, but left in the middle of the night. It wasn’t anything in particular, they said— they just felt like the people there were kind of resentful of hikers, and didn’t know how to run a business, and were constantly acting like they were doing the hikers a big favor that needed to be paid back. I completely missed the vibe, and Zach picked it up a little, but it was less than an hour before our resupply was complete, and we were back on the trail with heavily-loaded packs.
The trail cut across the deadly flat plain, then fell in line beside the glittering aqueduct. At that point in the trip, I only had a vague sense of what a controversy this watery channel was, and how much many people in California resent LA for its presence. In the meantime, I just knew that the sparkle of it hurt my eyes. I was glad when we crossed it and took to a dusty road, very flat and straight. It was hard to find a place to go to the bathroom— there wasn’t any brush, and you could see other hikers a mile away!
The wind began to pick up as we walked. For the moment, it kept the hot sun bearable.
We walked on a perfectly flat, dusty trail for 17 miles.
This meant hours and hours and hours of mind-numbing plodding while a stereotypical old-West landscape crawled by. There were no trees, hardly any vegetation at all. The fine powdery dust danced in the air and stung our eyes. We saw a grove of Joshua Trees, and I nearly had a heart attack— those suckers looked way too much like giant poodle dog bushes for my liking!
At first we appeared to be heading for the mountains, but the trail veered to the right, crawling its way around the mountains to stay on the plain. Once in the distance I thought I saw a lake, but when we got closer I saw it was a solar farm, with dense rows of black panels soaking up the blazing star above our heads.
We found a little cache by the trail, a cooler that had some lukewarm green tea. I was glad for the extra liquid, although it didn’t taste very good. We plodded on. About two miles later, we were passed by two young German men who seemed in exceptionally good spirits. “Did you get that amazing trail magic back there?” one of them asked. Apparently there had been an arrow drawn in the dust that pointed hikers to a man’s residence around the corner, where he’d set up a tiki bar and was grilling burgers. But of course you can’t go four miles out of your way for a burger when you’re just trying to get through this miserable stretch of trail. I felt gloomy and fed up, and that increased as the day went on.
At last, we got to a bridge that had the next water cache, courtesy of Hikertown: a massive multi-gallon tank next to a dry river gully. By this time, the wind was downright intense, and Zach and I were sad to find that the gully was no protection unless you were right up against the pylons of the bridge— and these spots were already taken by other hikers.
Zach and I attempted to cook food. It would have been literally impossible with our homemade stove, but with our new stove it was barely possible. We set up our backpacks as a wind shield as he labored over a pot of chili.
Nearby, seemingly unfazed by the wind, was a group of middle-aged people who’d hiked the Appalachian Trail together (not the complainers that we’d met earlier). They were talking and laughing. One of the guys had a hiccuping “Hee hee HEE!” kind of laugh that grated on my nerves. The wind began to lash harder.
The chili was finished, and Zach spooned it into our bowls. We began to eat— or rather, try to eat. The wind was gusting so strongly that it blew the chili right off our spoons! In ten minutes, we and the surrounding ground were covered in a gory splatter of beans and sauce. My mood worsened even more.
People around us were trying to find spaces out of the wind to set up camp, but it was useless. Zach and I consulted the map and decided that we’d try to press on another seven miles to a campsite among the hills in the distance, where we hoped we’d find respite from the wind. The sun was dipping toward the horizon, but if we walked fast, it wouldn’t be a problem. We hoisted our packs and set out across the bridge and through a grove of Joshua trees toward the ever-nearing wind farm.
Soon we came to a barbed wire fence that surrounded a massive wind farm. Huge, slender turbines tossed over and over above our heads, giving the illusion that they were massive fans causing all this wind. Struggling a little against the wind, and trying to keep our hat cords from lashing our cheeks and necks to death, we followed the trail as it skirted the barbed wire. Eventually, we came to a narrow opening in the fence, with a nearby sign:
PCT ACCESS OPEN
Despite my foul mood, I had to laugh. We crossed the gate and followed the narrow track through the dead plain as the wind rose to a howling, rainless gale around us. The setting sun cast the windmill shadows as huge monstrous shapes, wheeling around us as we struggled onward. The sandy ground scattered around us. And a tiny grain of sand, something that seemed so insignificant, flew into my eye.
I blinked, trying to get it to go away. It burrowed in deeper. I began wiping it, feeling like I could almost get it off. It didn’t work. Zach and I huddled in a tiny pocket of mostly-windless area in the lee of a large bush. I began squirting water, trying to irrigate my eye, which was getting raw. The sand felt like a huge rock in my eye, scraping it down. I was exhausted and hot and windblown and grumpy, and I could not take one more thing.
I fell into an all-out breakdown, lying on my back, sobs wracking my body. Zach was in no mood for this and squirted water in my eye and tried to convince me to calm down. It didn’t work. I was at the end of my rope.
After half an hour and a liter of water squirted at different angles, the sand fell out of my eye. I collapsed backward onto the ground, chest heaving. “Zach,” I said through a sob, “if I react like that to a grain of sand in my eye, how am I ever going to have kids?”
Zach laughed mirthlessly. “That’s what I was thinking.”
And then I don’t remember how it happened, but for some strange and inexplicable reason, we decided to leave our tiny haven from the wind and try to make it to the campsite we were originally hoping for. That was a horrible, horrible idea.
The brain plays all sorts of psychological tricks. For instance, when I saw the sun setting, I somehow expected the wind, along with the heat and the blazing brightness, to fade away and die. On the contrary, the wind began blasting stronger than ever. Not in one giant steady power— that would have been easier— but in knock-you-to-the-ground gusts that were probably 70 to 80 miles per hour.
My memory of the next few hours are strange and sensory: the way the wind wrenched my trekking pole or my legs every time I lifted them from the earth; the sinking of my feet in firm sand; the darkness that raced over us; the blinking red lights on top of the windmills; the trembling of every muscle in my legs; the overpowering weakness; the feeling, as the sun set, that it wasn’t the sun setting— it was me slowly and surely passing out.
All at once, in the dark of the swiftly-encroaching night, the flat plains heaved upward into hills— hills that, after a day of dead flatness, seemed impossibly steep. Zach’s impatience with me turned to concern as I silently stumbled behind him, feeling like my trekking pole was all that was in between me standing and me collapsing in a heap. The wind lashed us mercilessly. Our headlamps cast pathetically faint glows in front of us, revealing a rougher track, and, eventually, steep drop-offs to the left and then the right. We hiked into the mountains as the sky turned into a tapestry of stars above our heads. In a distant, almost trippy sort of way, I marveled at those cold stars, at how beautiful they were.
If Zach hadn’t been there to lead me, I might have just wandered off the path. I felt trapped inside my body, experiencing the exhausting lashes of the wind, yet strangely outside of it, floating ethereally among the stars.
As we turned a corner around a hill, we passed a large utility pole that was tethered with great wires that were strung with lights. Of course, I knew that’s what it was, but in my windblown mind, all I could see were giant bobbing lights, like an alien entity ready to crash on my head. “Those lights are scary,” I yelled to Zach over the howl of the wind.
He turned and gave me a reassuring squeeze on the arm. “Just another mile and a half!”
That last mile and a half seemed like a timeless wasteland, a place where wind was all that was or ever would be. Vaguely I realized that we had crested the ridge, and were now headed downward— down into Tyler Horse Canyon, the place where we hoped to find shelter from the wind.
And then, all at once, we were in the bottom of the canyon, with a pleasant trickling stream— and the wind was still there.
In despair, Zach and I realized we could go no further. We crawled among the tents of other hikers, trying to find an empty spot. At last we found one only a few feet from the other hikers. We tried to be quiet as we were setting up. “Shh,” I told Zachary as he was making noise. “The others are trying to sleep.”
“Well, if they don’t like it, they can go to…” Zach trailed off into a mumble, wrangling the tent out of his backpack. He had finally snapped, too.
I still don’t know how we got the tent set up with the wind howling all around. We had no tent stakes (perfect timing!), so we lashed our tent to our backpacks to keep it from blowing away. We stuffed our un-inflated pads in the tent and didn’t even bother blowing them up at first. We crawled into the tent and collapsed. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as tired in my life as I did at that moment.
We each ate a Clif bar. We half-inflated our pads with much difficulty. Then, with the wind screaming in our ears and slamming our tent into us, we plunged into an exhausted sleep.