MAY 25th, Sunday
542 to Tehachapi
We woke up late that day, squandering the lead that the extra miles the previous day had given us. The last hiker besides us was packing up his tent, and he dryly remarked that we had gotten in late last night. I still felt grumpy and didn’t give much of a reply.
Tyler Horse Canyon was still as death, an incredible contrast from the night before. A nice stream burbled by our campsite, winding its way among the rocks and scrub. The trail zigzagged down one side of the canyon, then ran up the other.
We packed up our stuff, trying not to feel completely disheartened as the Appalachian Trail hikers from the previous day practically sauntered by, laughing and talking. We solidified our plan in our heads. Today was Sunday, so we’d pick up our package in Tehachapi bright and early tomorrow morning. The first place to hitch to Tehachapi was only 16 miles away, but we were okay with doing a shorter day today.
A stocky man with a shaved head and a beard, wearing a brown kilt, paused by the stream to get water. He introduced himself as Tracks. “You guys heading to Tehachapi today?”
“I’m resupplying in Mojave,” Tracks said, referring to a town on the east side of the trail, rather than the west. “It’ll be nice to have the break.”
“We’re going to pick up our package and get out of there as soon as possible.”
Tracks looked at us with a tense smile, and we realized he was about to say something bad. “…Tomorrow’s Memorial Day.”
I almost swore. Biting my tongue, I turned away and stared steely-eyed at the creek, sparkling in the sun. “Dangit,” was all I managed. We would be set back a full day. We could have stayed at the Andersons that night. We didn’t have to push so hard yesterday. I felt tears stinging my eyes. Zach laughed it off, but I could tell he was upset too.
Well, there was no sense in dawdling. We went ahead and packed up, then started a long slog over barren hills, which soon turned into barren hills covered in blackened and burnt trees. However, as ghostly as the gnarled black branches looked, this was the prettiest burn area yet because of what grew on the ground: tiny flowers, purple and yellow. They brought a sort of soft, almost macabre beauty to the dead forest. It reminded me that things will grow again even after a crisis.
We paused for a lunch break, and I noticed that there were lots of large black ants around. I didn’t think a thing about it until I felt a sharp sting on my shin. I jumped up and killed the ant that had crawled under my pant leg. It left behind a large welt.
All too soon, we left the flowers behind and were caught in a wasteland of sandy hills and dead trees. The sun bore down on us, without any trees to cast shade. I felt hot and sick and disheartened. Zach lent me his phone and I listened to Rubber Soul by the Beatles, retreating into a world of music in which my sweating body and wobbly burning legs were a dream. My feet felt like heavy bags of blood on the ends of my legs. I just wanted this section of trail to be over.
Once again, my will to live was revived by some trail magic. Someone had left some lawn chairs next to a case of bottled water and a bag of apples beneath the shade of a dead tree. A sun-browned man with black hair was already there, sipping water. he introduced himself in a Miami accent as “Paja.” Paja had been a boat mechanic for many years, and finally saved up enough money to quit his job and become a nomad, making small money on the side as a caricature artist. Then we noted he was only wearing flip-flops, which led him to an impassioned lecture about how hiking barefoot was a way to let his feet “evolve.” He only wore the flip-flops because the sand was too hot and the rocks too plentiful. He showed us his leather-like feet, boasting that he had never gotten a blister… just this crevasse in the inch-thick callus on the ball of his foot… and the massive split along his toes, and…
I admired him for his ideals, but I was glad for my footwear, blisters and all.
After a while, we said goodbye to Paja and continued through the burn area, wondering if it would ever end. Finally, we left the trees and continued over barren hills as before. We saw windmills close by and I nearly had a heart attack. Ever after, the sight of windmills struck terror into my heart. We did see some beautiful glossy black horses grazing near the windmills, though.
As we walked, a strange conviction came over me. I became convinced that I should ask God for a place to stay in Tehachapi— over Memorial Day. That seemed ridiculously presumptuous. Why should I? After struggling a bit, I prayed, “Dear God, I know this is crazy and sounds selfish, but would you please send us people who will let us stay at their place?” I didn’t tell Zach, because I wondered if this message was from God, or from wishful thinking.
Finally, around 6:00, we hiked into a marshy area where the trees, while still a bit sparse, at least had leaves. The water was slick with oil and cow pollution, and we walked over the board bridge to a little rest area near the road. On a picnic table was a piece of paper that had a list of trail angels in Tehachapi. Again, it was unclear if they were offering rides or places to stay, although one place said he would let hikers camp in his yard. I eagerly looked at the list, thinking this might be the answer to my prayers. “Do you want to write down any of this?” I asked.
“Nah,” Zach said, breezing past it.
I felt suddenly angry at him. I was trying to help! “Where are you going?”
“I think we should go to the road and try to hitch into town. I hear they have a Taco Bell.”
“And then what?”
“We’ll hitch out and camp here tonight.”
“Isn’t it a little late for that?”
He studied me, sensing my tension. “I think it’ll be all right. Do you want to try?”
Submit to your husband. The impression came clearly, clearer in my head than the prayer request before. I inwardly fumed for a second. “Okay, let’s go for it.”
We crossed the deserted highway and stood on the shoulder, waiting for a car. At last, we saw one. It sped up as it passed us, as if it was afraid that we would try to jump on it. After another five minutes, another car zoomed by.
Impatiently, I asked, “What about that list of trail angels? We could call one of them and ask for a ride.”
Why not? I was about to snap, but the voice in my head stopped me again. Trust your husband.
I stood awkwardly next to him in the orange evening light, watching him placidly gaze at the road.
An SUV appeared on the horizon, speeding toward us. We held out our thumbs. I held my breath.
The SUV skidded to a halt next to us, and a middle-aged couple asked, “Where you guys headed?”
I tried to say, “Tehachapi,” but since I didn’t know how to pronounce it (te-HATCH-a-pee), I blurted out, “Teha-choppy… Or, Teha-chappy? Uh…”
They both laughed. “Throw your stuff in the back.”
The next minute, I was sitting next to Zach in the back seat, feeling a bit washed out, but happy that we were at least getting a ride into town for Taco Bell. The couple were named Bill and Lisa. Bill, with a silver head of hair, kindly blue eyes, and many worn smile lines, drove, while Lisa, tan and blonde with sunglasses adorned with rhinestone skulls, asked us about what was going on. They were on their way home from a weekend blues festival.
She asked us about our plans for the night. After telling her about the Memorial Day problem, Zach said, “So tonight, we were hoping to go to Taco Bell.”
Lisa laughed. “Are you guys spending the night?”
“No, we’re planning to hitch back to the trail. We don’t have much of a budget.”
I saw Lisa and Bill exchange glances, and I saw the unspoken conversation between them.
“Would’ja like to stay at our place tonight?” Lisa asked.
My hope soared so high it was dizzying.
“It’s a really nice cabin,” Bill said. “We just bought two Nigerian goats— they’re very sweet. And Lisa is a great cook.”
“We promise we’re not serial rapists,” Lisa added.
“Yes please,” we said in an awed whisper.
“We’re not trying to make you uncomfortable,” Lisa said in a no-nonsense sort of way. “Just say the word, and we’ll just drop you off at Taco Bell.”
“No, we’d really love… thank you…”
“Great,” Lisa said. “We’ll stop by Taco Bell first, then.”
We drove into Tehachapi, and Bill and Lisa paid for a few tacos for each of us before we could protest. Then we continued on to their home: a town that was a gated community in the mountains outside of Tehachapi, a forest rather than desert. Bill pointed up to a hill on our left, and we saw a huge cabin with tall windows on top. “That’s our place,” Bill said.
We pulled up in the driveway, and Zach and I looked around in awe. The grounds were beautiful— Lisa kept several gardens and window boxes full of flowers. The cabin was large and smelled of fragrant wood, overhung by pines. It had a large deck that overlooked a valley and the small mountain across the way. Inside, the house had gigantic ceilings and a wall of windows. A small dog ran around our feet, while two others barked at us from outside.
“You guys can stay here over Memorial Day,” Lisa said. “I could take you to pick up your package on Tuesday.” I was so shocked I couldn’t even respond.
Before we could even process her offer, she marched us downstairs, where there was a huge game room with a pool table, with a bedroom adjacent to it with a queen-sized bed. “This is your room,” she said. It even had its own bathroom/laundry room and door to the outside. “There’s the pool table. There’s the bed. There’s the big screen and remote if you want to watch TV. Laundry has this glitch— here’s how to fix it. Shower— use any shampoo you want. If you want to take a bath, you can scrub the tub with this first.”
Bill called from outside, “Come see the goats!”
Dazed, Zach and I stepped out the door to see a pen on a sloping stretch of ground. Bill was inside it with two Nigerian dwarf goats, which were only as tall as his knees. They obviously adored him: they were dashing back and forth in the pen as he made feints at them. They leaped around on their pen and a bench, randomly stopping to head-butt each other. Bill crouched down, and both goats leaped up onto his back, shoving each other until one of them fell off. Bill’s eyes— his whole self— sparkled with delight as he played with his new pets. Zach told me later, “With some people, you can just tell that they’re good. When I saw him playing with the goats, I knew he was a good guy.”
I stayed outside with the goats and Bill, while Lisa corralled Zach back inside. When I wandered back into “our room,” Zach was sitting on the couch with a massive pile of individual-serving snacks on the coffee table next to him.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Lisa went to the cupboards and began grabbing stuff and giving them to me.”
I laughed. “This is ridiculous!”
Within the hour, we were showered, and with our clothes in the laundry, we wandered upstairs in our raincoats. Lisa sent us out to the back deck for supper, and we sat at the table among the fragrant wood and looked over the wide valley with the road winding through. It felt like such a different world from the wind-ravaged desert we’d just crossed. There was even a chill in the still air. I sipped orange juice and Zach drank a can of Pepsi Throwback, and we snacked on chunks of fruit and slices of cheese and crackers that Lisa had set out as appetizers.
She soon reheated and brought out the main dish: homemade gumbo. I savored every flavorful bite. After so much bland food, anything with spice in it was an incredible adventure for the senses. I also got the feeling, though, that this was a really amazing gumbo, even without the hiker hunger.
Lisa and Bill left us to ourselves that night, and Zach and I played a game of pool. Then we sank down into the memory foam mattress and mulled over their proposition.
“Do you want to stay here?” Zach asked.
I tried to make a show of hesitating, but it didn’t last long. “Yes,” I said. “I really would.”
And we decided to take our first zero.