Installment No. 7 of My PCT Journey
I’ve been told that my hike will rarely go to plan, and to always expect the unexpected. That’s what makes it an adventure! I began this trip expecting to hike from Hiker Town to Kennedy Meadows, but that’s not what happened at all.
Yet again, my dearest friend Sabrina rose to the title of Trail Angel. After cooking dinner and helping me pack the night before, she followed me hundreds of miles all the way to Kennedy Meadows. We left my car there by the trail and then she dropped me off at Hiker Town on the western side of the Mojave Desert.
Day 1: 14.5 miles
Hiker Town isn’t actually a town, it’s just the quirky home of a couple of Trail Angels who’ve built a fabricated western town for hikers passing through. Debbie, a Hiker Town caretaker, told us a previous hiker, trailname UB, had reported there being no water at all between Hiker Town and Tehachapi. It seemed odd for there to be no water in the two natural sources just after the recent rains. Rather than take the chance of dehydrating, I decided to carry 12 liters of water- that’s 26-1/2 pounds!
Sidenote: I first heard of UB while reading Muk Muk’s blog on hiking the PCT in 2013. It was totally cool, then, to be hiking three days behind him!
Since I was starting late and carrying so much more weight that I had ever before in my life, I didn’t expect to put in as many miles as I had planned for the day. After making a few calls to parents and Art, I hiked along the open Los Angeles aqueduct for a couple of miles. It was so pretty having the open water right next to the trail, it’s a shame that couldn’t last.
The trail next followed a spillway pipe that was fun to walk along and gave me great views of the surrounding desert. This section of trail cuts along the most western reaches of the Mojave Desert before it climbs up into the Tehachapi mountains. When I came upon what looked like an old outhouse, I checked it out as a shady place to rest. Low and behold, there were three liters of water cached inside! Since the building seemed clean and didn’t smell at all, I got comfortable on the floor and relaxed in the cool of the stone building. I drank one liter of the cached water, quietly thanking whoever had put it there.
My pack was so heavy with water that I was moving at maybe a mile and half per hour, which is slow for me! I had to stop and rest every thirty minutes. When I’m struggling that much, I start having second thoughts about whether I’m doing things right or not. Will I have enough water to carry me through at the rate I’m going? Do I have TOO MUCH water and it’s slowing me down more than necessary? Most hikers choose to night-hike this section to avoid the heat and water issues. Even though I was hiking during the day, it still wasn’t as hot as it would be when the thru-hikers come in May.
There were a few buildings in this lonesome corner of the desert. I couldn’t help but wonder what people did out here, other than own cheap land. One of the buildings turned out to be a gun club and, as I passed and waved, two men invited me in for lunch!
Steve and Vic were an earthy couple of gun-lovin’ dudes who were delighted to brighten my day with a hot dog, soda, and clementines. We talked for an hour about the aqueduct’s history and how I shouldn’t be out alone because the lions or snakes would get me. They joked about giving me a loaner gun for the trip. When Steve asked how my father felt about me hiking alone, I told him my dad doesn’t really give me his opinion, and just seems to let me do what I want. He replied saying, “He’s probably too proud to let you know how frightened he really is about you doing this.”
I felt so refreshed after the Gun Club lunch, and so full that I didn’t think I’d eat dinner later. As the day went on, I saw only a couple of cyclists and dirt bikers. The cyclists and I talked briefly about the trail and they told me about meeting Heather “Anish” Anderson, a lady hiker who attempted to set a PCT speed record last year.
My body was aching so much by that evening and I decided to just set up camp on the side of the dirt road. I made sure to find a spot with a view of the twinkling windmill lights and hopefully a bit protected from any nighttime wind. Indeed, I didn’t eat anything else that night because I was too full from the hot dog. I was stoked to see I had excellent cell phone reception, so I called my parents and Art.
Just before falling asleep, I heard voices in the distance. Immediately, all exhausted evaporated. Images of drunk bikers going for a nighttime joy ride in the desert flashed through my head. I turned out my little lantern and hoped maybe they wouldn’t see my tent in the dark. The next morning, I realized it must’ve been the cycling couple speeding by on their way home.
Day 2: 16.5 miles
I awoke to a beautiful sunrise and made myself breakfast. I’m not a big fan of oatmeal, but Trader Joe’s makes a really yummy multigrain hot cereal that I haven’t gotten sick of yet! I was determined to climb out of the desert that day and so aimed for the top of the mountain ridge near mile 548 for my camp that evening.
The walk through the windmills and Joshua Trees was really incredible. Some people may poo-poo having to walk through flat, dry desert and pass giant man-made structures, but I found it fascinating. The windmills had an elegance to them that reminded be of massive wildflowers spattered across the valley floor and hillsides.
Since food is one of my favorite elements parts of backpacking, I just had to try my hand at making some trail yogurt. It was so easy and exceptionally tasty! I’ll soon post on How to Make Yogurt on the Trail for those who are interested.
It was a long climb out of the valley and up into the foothills, especially because I’d lost the lid to my stove and had to backtrack to find it. It felt great to finally reach the creek in Tylerhorse Canyon. I wasn’t sure if I’d find water there because the previous hiker, UB, had told the Hiker Town peeps there wasn’t any. Well, either he missed it completely (which I doubt) or there was some kind of miscommunication between him and Debbie, but Tylerhorse Canyon had a sweet little stream of water cutting through it. Anyhow, the canyon’s Coulter pines and junipers offered a lovely spot to relax and wash my dusty feet.
I had a hard time taking my mind off how heavy my pack was and how much further I needed to hike for the day. So, I decided to check out for an hour or so with my iPod. I’m totally hooked on the Stuff You Should Know (SYSK) podcasts, but I only listen to them or music when I’m really struggling mentally. I usually enjoy the quiet of a solo hike, plus my mind is chatty enough to fill that silence. I also think it’s important to listen for animal sounds.
I climbed up and over one set of hills and then up, up, up another 1,600 feet to the ridge at the top. It gave an incredible view of the valley below and I set up my tent for another great view of the windmills and city lights. When I get lonely or scared, it’s comforting to look out on some little bit of human civilization.
I settled in for the night with a Mountain House Beef Stroganoff- one of the few prepackaged camp meals I’ll eat- and a cup of tea. I felt dehydrated and after counting my remaining liters of water, I determined I hadn’t drunk nearly enough for the day.
Since I still had reception and a fully charged battery, I decided to try to make a phone call or two. While waiting for responses to my text messages, my phone completely died. I tried everything I could think of to bring it back to life: restarting it, popping out the battery and warming it up, charging it with my external battery. Nothing worked on it, and I immediately burst into tears. I suppose the day of carrying too much water and not drinking enough of it had worn me down, and I had just found my breaking point! I thought about how I wouldn’t be able contact my trail angel, Christy, in Tehachapi, or take any more pictures and videos. It was so depressing! I told myself to stop crying or I’d run out of tissue, and then I’d really have a problem!
I gave up on the phone, tossed back my tea, and put myself to bed as quickly as possible. I knew that somehow everything would work out the next day and I stared out at the twinkling lights of civilization as I fell asleep.
Day 3: 10 miles to Cameron Canyon Road
Since my phone was as dead as a dodo, I have no pictures or videos of hiking from mile 548 to Cameron Canyon Road, but it was an incredible day all the same. My mood was greatly elevated when I woke the next morning. My hike was almost entirely flat or downhill, wound in and out of junipers and pine trees, and offered views of both Oak Creek Canyon and the Mojave Desert.
After about six miles, I sat myself down near a dried up water source called Tiger Tank. As I snacked on fruit leather and gazed out over the green Oak Creek Canyon, I heard a sudden thundering behind. I turned, thinking for sure there was a rock slide. To my amazement, I saw two wild stallions charging downhill straight towards me. They stopped just eight or ten feet from me behind the Tiger Tank barbed wire fence and immediately began bucking, biting, and whinnying. Their fight was so ferocious I stood up and wondered if I should yell or throw water at them, as if they were fighting cats. One horse was knocked to the ground and the other bolted over the hill. The first horse stumbled up to standing, turned, and stared at me, as if to say, “What are YOU looking at?!” He then breezily trotted over the opposing hill out of sight. It turns out one of the last remaining herds of wild horses, descended from the original Spanish horses, live in Oak Creek Canyon. I counted over thirty as I hiked the rest of the morning.
Before I left for this trip, I had pre-arranged to send a resupply box to Christy Rosander (trailname Rockin’) in Tehachapi. We had also agreed that I would text her when I was close to Hwy 58 and she’d come pick me up. Since my phone was completely dead and wouldn’t charge at all, I jumped at the opportunity to beg for help from a technician working on a windmill. We managed to get a message out to Christy, but after I was 20 minutes down the trail, I realized I had completely mixed up the distances and time-frame for her to pick me up. Argh!
As I approached Cameron Canyon Road, I could see a single car parked near the trailhead, and I thought maybe I could catch that person and use his or her cell phone. Tumbling down the hill to the trailhead, I almost ran striaght into Sam. Trail Angel Sam (trailname Tortoise) stocks the water cache at Cameron Canyon Road and was overjoyed to help me. In fact, before I could even ask for help, he greeted me with an enthusiastic, “Are YOU a PCT hiker?!?” He insisted on taking me into town, and even though I had eight more miles to go before reaching Highway 58 I agreed. I was eager to make things as simple as possible for Christy, so if Sam wanted to help out, too, that was great! I’ve since decided I’d come back and day hike the section between Hwy 58 and Cameron Canyon.
Sam drove me into town and treated me to a Saladwich at the incredible Kohnen’s County Bakery. We talked about the trail and I learned his interest in the PCT was a new romance, and like all new romances, he just couldn’t ge enough. He’s planning on section hiking the entire trail, starting with Kern County. You can read about Sam’s PCT adventures on the Tehachapi Loop, where he’s writing a series of articles for the newspaper. Little did Sam know at the time, howl much PCT he was going to get himself into when he met me!
Christy arrived shortly after and, even though it was our first time meeting, I immediately felt she was a kindred spirit. I’d already read so much about her from her blog, Lady on a Rock, that I really did feel like I knew her already. She wasted no time and whisked me away on the errands I needed to do. First, I need more fuel from Big 5, as I’d decided my new quilt wasn’t warm enough and that I’d be needing to boil more water to use my hot water bottle for warmth. Next, we needed to figure out why my phone wasn’t working. We tried the little Verizon store in Tehachapi, but it turned out the phone (brand new, mind you) had some programming error from the factory and needed to be completely replaced. Christy drove me 45 miles to Bakersfield so I could replace the phone. <3 THANK YOU, CHRISTY!!
That evening Christy’s husband, Dan, made an incredible shrimp pasta and salad dinner, complete with a decadent chocolate and fruit dessert. We talked about adventures, family, and life. Christy also helped me figure out water sources for the next section between Hwy 58 and Kennedy Meadows. We said “Goodnight” and I went to sort out gear and food for the next eight days.
Day 4: 16.8 miles to Golden Oak Spring
The next morning, we realized my new phone hadn’t charged because the connecting cable was broken. ARGH, AGAIN!! Christy took me to Walgreens at 7am to buy a new cable, then we sat in Starbucks waiting for the phone to charge. She is truly the most patient Angel.
She dropped me off at Hwy 58 and we talked briefly about the light rain showers Tehachapi was expecting for the next afternoon. After a big “Goodbye and thank you” hug, I teetered down the trail feeling really good about the next section.
The trail was long and exposed all the way to the top of the ridge, but the views were wonderful. I was lucky not to have the infamous wind that usually catches hikers on this stretch. The incessant and fierce wind is caused by the temperature difference between the hot Mojave Desert and the cooler coastal air.
The trail heading up north from Highway 58 marks the beginning of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range for the PCT. To me, it’s exceptionally exciting because I love those high and dramatic mountain climbs and views. Straight from the guidebook:
“The charm of this section lies not only in its diversity of flora, but also in the unobstructed views of rows of sharp ridges and deep valleys, of sprawling desert lands and distant peak silhouettes, of faraway pockets of populated, sometimes historic enclaves, of evidence of the human quest for riches and energy to power our lifestyles.” -Schifrin, et al. Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California.
Reaching the top of the ridge delivered me to an entirely different world. I was surrounded by a forest of pines. Before the spread of European civilization, the Native people of Kawaiisu lived off these mountains, hunting and gathering all the way to the South Fork Kern River Valley. As the trail wound around the Sweet Ridge and Cache Peak, I could see peaks in the distance, but I had no idea I was viewing Olancha Peak, Pointy Owens Peak, Mt. Jenkins, and even Mount Whitney, far, far in the distance.
This area used to support native bighorn sheep, but they were wiped out by domestic sheep infected with scabies in the early 20th century. Mountain lions, bobcats, mule deer, and black bear still roam those mountains, and I could see their signs now and again on the trail.
As the wind was starting to pick up, and my feet were aching, I was glad to finally reach Golden Oak Spring. It was a mucky mess, but the spring water flowing from the pipe was clear and clean. I walked up hill from the spring to find better camping and happened upon what looked like a campsite next to a dirt road for 4WD vehicles. I scouted for the most protected spot I could find and battened down the hatches! I placed large rocks on top of each of my stakes, knowing the winds frequently reach 60 or more mph in this area (that’s why they put in the windmills). I fell asleep after a dinner of Pea Soup and listening to the happy little frogs down the hill at the spring.
Day 5: 12.7 miles
The wind blew all night and the rain began around 2 or 3am, but my little Zpacks tent held up. The rain didn’t surprise me, since I had been expecting a few hours of showers. I was a little surprised to see it was still raining when I prepared to pack-up at 7:30am. Packing up in the rain is tricky, especially when your only rain protection, in this case, a Zpacks poncho, doubles as your ground cover.
By the time I had packed up my dripping tent, my legs and feet were already wet through. (My poncho covered only my upper body.) I struggled to get the poncho wrapped around both my body AND my pack, which it was designed to do, but it’s tricky without a friend to pull it over your pack for you.
All morning, I hiked in and out of the storm. Strong winds, rain and hail alternated with peaceful sprinkles and patches of lifted clouds, sometimes even a bit of blue sky showed through. Around 10am, I thought for sure the storm was passing, so I wasn’t terribly concerned about how wet and cold I felt or about how much battery I was using on my phone. As long as I kept moving, I felt warm enough and I assumed the sun would come out soon enough to charge my phone.
I crossed paths with some cows who were taking protection amongst some low scrub oaks, and still felt really good about hiking up into the higher elevations.
Only an hour or so later, the winds picked up and the sky darkened again. I yelled out loud to the sky, “I get the point! You’re the king of this mountain! So, pass on through already!” The stormy sky could care less, of course. The winds were so strong, I had to take refuge behind a rock, pulling as much of myself into my poncho as I could to take a snack break.
Climbing higher brought on a deeper cold and the rain turned again to hail. My fingers and toes were getting dangerously numb, so I hoofed it to a campsite at mile 593. The hail started to pound down upon me like marbles dumped from a bucket, so I threw up my tent under a tree as quickly as I could.
Once inside the tent, I changed into my wool base layers, unpacked my down quilt, and boiled water for my MSR hot water bottle. I warmed up as I peered outside and watched the earth turn white. I was tempted to take a video, but my phone battery was down to 50% and I had no way to recharge it without the sun. (I couldn’t use my external battery to charge it either, because it mysteriously decided to stop working! ARGH! ARGH! ARGHH!!!!)
After sitting for an hour inside my tent, the hail stopped and the clouds seemed to lift a bit. I packed up and aimed for Hamp’s Pass or, better yet, Robin Bird Spring nine miles away. Not fifteen to twenty minutes after I left camp, the wind picked up again. It seemed to be playing with me all day. Snow began to fall quickly and surprisingly soon it was three and four inches deep. I only managed to hike for another couple of miles, having to intermittently stop to warm up my fingers and toes.
Around 4:30 or 5pm, the wind became so fierce that I would lose my balance with each gust and my visibility was down to ten or twelve feet. The snow was now above my ankles and my fingers and toes were so numb, I became worried about frostbite. I decided to set up camp at the very next place I could find, and settled on a spot just about a mile or so from Hamp’s Pass. I cleared the snow from a spot beneath some smaller pine trees, hoping they’d offer some protection. Thunder clapped all around as if it were taunting me about an approaching finish line. I struggled to get my tent up in the wind with my fingers frozen inside my wet gloves.
The moment the tent seemed stable enough, I threw my pack and body inside and stripped down to get out of my wet pants, shoes, and socks. Once unpacked, I boiled more water for the hot water bottle, all the while dancing and wiggling as much as I could inside my down quilt. I shifted gear around here and there in the tent to protect certain things from getting wetter and using other things as barriers to the wind and wet coming in through the bug netting bottom of my tent.
I didn’t sleep more than 45 minutes total that night. With each massive gust of air, it sounded like the chariots of the gods themselves were flying over me. I had to hold onto my trekking pole (which held up my tent), bracing it against the wind so my tent wouldn’t collapse. Every hour I boiled more water and placed the water bottle in my quilt to stay warm. [This would’ve been an excellent opportunity for some drama in my video blogging, but my phone battery was too low.]
Later, I checked the weather for Tehachapi and did a bit of math, taking into account the trail’s additional 2,000 feet of elevation. I believe the temperature up on the mountain was 30°F that night, with wind gusts at 40 mph, and a wind chill of 17-13°F.
Day 6: 9 miles to Jawbone Canyon
The next morning the wind was still howling, but the temperature seemed warmer. I packed up and aimed for Jawbone Canyon Road. I had examined my maps the night before and decided that Jawbone, being a different color then the other dirt roads, would be my best chance for an exit route, should I need one. My plan was to hike for the morning and see how the weather developed.
Putting on my wet hiking clothes was the worst. I felt so cold with the wind pelting me and had a hard time warming up even as I hiked. Very quickly my toes and fingers were numb again, and I shook them madly as I hiked to try to get some warmth into them. There came a point when the winds almost knocked me off the side of the mountain again, and I couldn’t bend my wrists because they were so cold. I was scared and knew I had two options: either set up camp to warm-up and wait for the storm to pass or exit as quickly as possible.
Since there was no way to know how large this storm actually was, or how much snow may have been dumped on the mountains ahead of me, I decided I needed to exit at Jawbone Canyon Road. I also made the decision to push the “Non-emergency HELP” button on my SPOT device, hoping that either Sabrina or Art would see me on the road and drive out for me. [Later, I learned my “HELP” request never even reached them. I’ll be contacting SPOT about that one.]
Reaching Jawbone, I guessed that turning left would take me deeper into the mountains and turning right would take me lower toward the desert. Right, it was! As soon as I stepped onto the other side of the mountain and into slightly lower elevations, the snow and wind evaporated. It was a whole other world outside of the cloud!
I walked about three miles down the dirt road and hobbled up to the only cabin with a vehicle in front, calling out greetings as I approached. An intimidating gentleman in his sixties came out and approached me with suspicion. I had been tough as nails the night before, but as I started explaining to him my situation and that I needed some help getting out to a town, I burst into tears and could barely speak. His wife came out, invited me inside, and made me coffee.
Their names were Richard and Dee and they manage the cabins on the Piute Nature Preserve. They live off the grid and are quite happy to be far away from everyone else in the world. They were tough, as people would be living out there, but they were so kind to me. They Skyped their daughter, who called Trail Angel Sam in Tehachapi. Sam drove all the way out to rescue me from the canyon and brought me back to Tehachapi to regroup and replan my hike. He assured me it was to his benefit to come out and explore the area so that he knew where all the PCT access points were.
Sam and I decided that if I were to continue hiking while the next couple of storms went through, I needed to go to lower elevations. I stayed that night in a camper named “Harvey” in Sam and Claudia’s backyard, and early the next morning I was off to Mill Creek Station on the Angeles Forest Highway to hike Sections D and E.
Without the help of Sam, Richard, Dee and Christy I would’ve been in some serious dilemmas. I cannot thank all of them enough for their generosity and compassion. Over and over again, the trail teaches me how wonderful the world is and how incredible people can be! And, in addition to being better prepared for nasty weather, this hike has become a grand lesson in gratefulness.