May 30th, Friday
616ish to 637
I woke up with a gasp, feeling the residual panic of my waterless dream. Then I remembered that we did, in fact, have water, and I took a few precious gulps. Zach and I were up early, but not early enough: the sun was already blazing at eye level, pouring merciless dry heat into the barren lands.
We used some of our water to make oatmeal (a bad idea, in retrospect), and then packed up and took to the dusty trail again. The trail delved from the rolling hills into a winding path between pretty steep mountains. At a steep canyon, we paused at a side trail. Zach checked the GPS, and said that this was the turn-off for the three-mile detour to the only reliable water source for miles around, Willow Springs.
We had talked to other people about their water plans, and most of them said that they were just going to go straight to the next cache— it was 120 gallons, and according to the water report from the day before, it was nearly full. But Zach and I didn’t want to rely on a cache— and besides, as most PCT hikers will tell you, it’s bad form to rely on a cache for resupply. You should try to leave it for the people who really, really need it.
So, Zach and I left the trail and began walking down a narrow path into a canyon. At this point, I was so dry that I felt dizzy. My senses felt on edge, but everything looked far away. The trail got narrower and narrower, and then we came to a little cliff, and realized that we were going to have to scramble down cliffs and boulders for the final mile.
“It’s fun!” Zach kept saying. “Like Elephant Rocks, or City Museum!” I just cried a little and freaked out. He took off his backpack and swung down the cliff (it was only about seven feet). Then I handed him down the backpacks, and tried to scramble down myself. I was sweating like crazy. Zach forced me to drink some of our water, but in the back of my head I kept thinking, “What if the spring is dry? Or what if we can’t find it?”
I remember little about the scramble down the boulders. I was so exhausted and hot and sweaty and dehydrated that it all seems like a nasty dream. But at last, we found ourselves on a jeep road on a plain, and Zach was reading our map’s directions and trying to figure out where, in this desolate landscape, there was a spring. We saw a cattle trough nearby and ducked under some barbed wire to get to it.
It was dry.
If I had been by myself, I might have panicked. But Zach said, “I don’t think this is it. Let’s look around.”
We swept the area, trying to see anything that resembled one of the pipe springs that we had seen before. After half a minute of searching (and feeling panic rise in my chest), I looked up a hill and saw, peeking above the crown, the top of a deciduous tree.
“There!” I shouted, and we raced up the sandy hill. At the top was a barbed-wire fence encircling a grove of willows and a pond— a true oasis.
The owner of the pond had left one part of the fence wired without barbs, allowing hikers to step over and enter the cool shade of the willows. This little oasis, barely fifteen feet across, was teeming with life. Birds perched in the cattails, singing to one another. The pond’s clear water was skimmed by iridescent dragonflies and swarming with cute black tadpoles. A yellow tube piped the spring water into the pond, creating a little “faucet” where we could gather clear water. We filtered and drank and filtered and drank and filtered and drank some more.
I immediately felt better. My body was happy again, and here was water, and everything was okay. We cooked a meal, lounged around, and drank as much water as we pleased.
However, despite the wonderful coolness (and humidity in the air, and shade) of the pond, Zach and I knew that we wanted to press on. There was a huge dry stretch coming up, and we wanted to cover as much of it as we could today.
We filled all our water bottles to capacity, a total of nine liters for the two of us. We figured this would be enough to get us to Walker Pass, which was 31 miles away, if we were extremely careful and did no cooking. There was a spring in between there, only 17 miles away, but the water report said it was a “seep” (you had to dig a hole and wait for water to seep in), and the report hadn’t been updated in two weeks. It was with more than a little trepidation that we left our oasis, bottles and bodies full of water, to head into the desert again.
The trail back to the PCT was easy: a straight shot on a jeep road. It cut straight up the hill, an avenue of powdery dust between banks of scrub. Joshua Trees loomed up in patches on either side, still looking like gigantic Poodle Dog Bushes to me.
The climb up the hill was long and hot and hard, and I found myself lost in a determined sense to keep going. Eyes blinded by the light, body soaked with sweat, limbs sore but robotically jerking along. The heat, despite its dryness, pressed in like a suffocating blanket around us.
We finally rejoined the PCT, and found a picnic table and an informational sign about a rare desert tortoise. Feeling dizzy, I laid down in the shade of the table and propped my feet on the bench, trying to drain some of the blood from my feet. The sand was hot, but at least the sun was blocked from my eyes.
After a snack and a drink of water, we both felt revived, and continued on the trail. Now that we were out of the valley, there was a nice breeze— not exactly cool, but not hot either. It made the sun and the heat bearable.
As we passed through a grove of Joshua Trees, Zach said, “You know, these look like Dr. Seuss trees.”
“You’re right,” I said, looking at them in a new way. “They do!” If he hadn’t said that, I’m pretty sure I would have hated Joshua Trees forever.
In the grove, we ran into two people. The first was Blue Butterfly, a woman in her sixties, with wind-tossed silver hair and a smile with many lines that reminded me of my grandmother, Nonni. She was sitting out the heat of the day, and lugging an extra gallon jug of water.
The other one was Shutter, a broad-shouldered, bearded man we had met earlier. Right now, his face was beet-red, and he was lying in the shade with his shirt unbuttoned, sweat dripping from every pore. “How’s it going?” we asked.
“I’m waiting until dark to hike out,” he said, taking a sip of water.
“Do you have enough water?”
He assured us he did, but he was going to conserve it for his night-hike. Zach and I were feeling pretty good at this point, if a little thirsty, so we wished him luck and continued on.
From Willow Springs to the next cache was a seven mile trek, up and down mountains, winding between hills, and finally zigzagging down a set of switchbacks. Zach and I carefully monitored our water, but my hopes were high for this cache, since it was 120 gallons just yesterday. We were hoping to have enough water to cook a meal and drink a little extra.
As we zigzagged down the hill toward the base, we tried to catch a glimpse of the cache. Soon we saw a pile of gallon jugs under a clump of Joshua Trees. We saw nearly a dozen hikers lounging in the shade of the deciduous trees nearby, as well as people who appeared to be filling their water bottles from the jugs. Our hopes high, we walked the last quarter mile, ending up under the trees.
“How’s the cache?” we asked the nearest hiker.
The hiker shook his head gravely. “Dry.”
We stared at him in shock, then glanced over at a couple of women who were filling their bottles. “So what are they doing?”
“Getting the last few drops. The girls are completely out of water.”
We stared over at them, and saw it was true. The girls returned to the shade of the trees, having gathered half a liter. “That’s it,” one said. “That’s all.”
I stared at the massive pile of milk jugs, which had been full just yesterday. I felt a little angry. Not that I deserved the water, necessarily— but I was angry that everyone had been so inconsiderate as to skip Willow Springs and refill there. With every hiker taking three to four liters, the cache had run dry in a day.
There was still possible water ahead: Yellow Jacket Spring in five miles. But at this point, nobody could bet that a seep, updated two weeks ago, still had any water.
Zach and I decided we might as well sit in the shade and cool off, at any rate. We counted seven hikers who had skipped Willow Springs who now had to backtrack to get water there— seven miles one way. Part of me said that they deserved it for skipping the springs, but mostly I felt really sorry for them. That was almost a day’s worth of walking, lost. The ones who had to return said they would warn anyone they met along the way, and leave a sign at the entrance to the Willow Springs detour.
Blue Butterfly showed up, still lugging her gallon of water. She gave the two girls enough water to help them make it back to Willow Springs, and gave the rest to an insane section-hiker who was trying to make it to Walker Pass by tonight.
Zach and I ate packets of tuna, wrapped in tortillas. The tuna was packed in water, which quenched my dry mouth, if only for a moment. We had very little food left that didn’t require rehydration. I wished that we had packed ourselves twenty packages of tuna.
After about an hour, Zach and I realized that we had to get a move on it or we wouldn’t reach our destination— Yellow Jacket Springs— before dark. We got our things together and set out, crossing the jeep road, passing the dry cache, and winding through a valley before starting a massive set of switchbacks up a mountain. We had only three liters left— to split between the two of us, possibly for another 21 miles.
Despite the cool of day creeping over us, that was the driest time of my life. I felt really anxious about our water supply, and wanted to save it for tomorrow, during the heat of the day. I took tiny sips from the Camelbak, and kept a bandana over my parched mouth to hold in the moisture of my breath. But that would often get too hot and I had to pull it down to get some fresh air.
The sips of water I took on that grueling climb were the best water that I have ever tasted in my life. I don’t think water will ever taste that good again.
I was terrified that we were going to have to travel in this awful, dehydrated state for another 21 miles. But God began reassuring me. He had taken care of us before— heck, think of where we were two days ago— and he could take care of us now.
Still, “If anyone offered me a cold Sprite right now,” I said, “I would pay them a hundred bucks.”
At last, Zach and I found ourselves on top of a mountain, with the sky turning into a pastel rainbow of sunset on our left. With the coolness came a slight abatement to the thirst, although I still felt dry and shriveled.
We considered taking a campsite on top of the mountain near Blue Butterfly, but decided instead to push on to the spring. We had to find out whether it had water or not. I was not hopeful, but a tiny glimmer of possibility kept my tired and shaky limbs moving.
We plunged down the other side of the mountain, which was wooded with thick conifers. The sunset sunk into darkness at an alarming rate, and we used our headlamps to keep track of the trail, trying to make sure that we didn’t miss the exit for the trail to Yellow Jacket Springs. GPS helped with this.
As we turned a corner, fumbling in the complete darkness, we saw a headlamp ahead, coming toward us. It was Sizzler, a middle-aged guy we’d met before. “This is the junction for Yellow Jacket Springs,” he said. “I went down today and checked the water— there’s plenty!”
Those were the best words I’d ever heard in my life. We thanked him profusely and set up our tent nearby. Water. There was water. Knowing that we could get some in the morning, we chugged a full liter, and made some oatmeal, and chugged some more.
That night, we slept under a tapestry of stars. I don’t remember any dreams.