[2, maybe 3 weeks ago] It’s 4:45 in the morning. I might have just enough juice in my phone left to write about “this.”
This – it’s 4:45 am. Hippie and I are sleeping by the side of a dirt road. We’re out of water. Sleeping dry as we call it. I hear Hippie tossing and coughing on her sleeping pad. 2 miles below us, the uninterrupted ramble of nighttime semi-trucks confirms civilization’s right there. But yesterday, we didn’t walk out fast enough to get to the road in daylight, and we don’t hitchhike at night, so, here we are. Road noise – so strange after the past 7 silent nights in the desert. Still, I’m glad we’re here. We made it. Hippie has been getting sicker for the past two days. Chills, body aches, fatigue, nausea … Mild heat exhaustion is my guess. When the sun rises, we’ll hitchhike to her friend’s home, so she can rest for a few days. We’re safe. The sun will be up soon.
This – this amazing trail, which delights my eyes with its raw stark beauty, currently covered in an explosion of flowers. This testing trail which breaks me down to rebuild me stronger, even taking down Hippie – a force of Nature by any definition. But, let me start at the beginning …
*** [My phone’s battery ran out just then. Hippie, hearing me stir in my bag, said she was awake too. We packed in the pre-dawn glow and walked down the few miles to Highway 86. Now it’s 7 days later than when I wrote the above paragraphs, and our Desert Trail journey has taken on quite an unexpected turn. So, yes, let me start at the beginning … ] ***
Day 1. We started strong. After the mandatory filming and photo taking at the border, we walked a mile. At mile 1, Hippie’s friend Stephanie poured her a tequila shot. We must have each been carrying about 50 Lbs then – 7 days of food, almost 2 gallons of water each, and everything from tank top to winter gear. The desert can get you from either angle, heat exhaustion or hypothermia. It was, after all, snowing just a week prior. It didn’t matter. We were fueled by excitement. Finally, after all the prep-work, the pouring over paper maps, the water caching, the waiting for the weather, the waiting on truck repairs … finally! we were walking. We flew up and over the Jacumba mountains. We probably flew too fast. I know I did. After the descent from Jacumba, we were done for the day, but the wind would not allow us to stop, so we hiked on in the dark. The wind’s dominion was total. No nook, no cranny was left untouched. We slipped into our bivy bags anyway, skipped dinner – too windy to cook – and felt the aches of the first day.
Day 2. A vibrant red sky welcomed our first morning on trail. We were eager to get to our first water cache. The Jacumba proved thirstier than we had expected, and we were both almost out of water, even with the previous night “dry” dinner (nuts and dried fruits, instead of an actual meal). We didn’t think that 20 miles from the start to the first water cache would be too far when we hid our gallons of water jugs, but it was. We made it 15 miles on day 1, and that was with pushing past dark. Pushing so much that I pulled a ligament in the back of my knee. It showed up a few miles into day 2, and gradually felt worse, until I was hobbling in pain down the trail. I pushed hard on my poles to get the weight off my legs, and within a few hours, my traps had bulged into two small hills of pain under the shoulder straps. Meanwhile, Hippie had sunburned her calves to a crispy lobster red. Both in pain, we collapsed in the shade of Canyon Sin Nombre, only at mile 27 into our tentative 2,200 mile journey. We felt like rookies, but we also knew the initial pain would pass, and the rest would be easier. We waited for the heat to abate, and managed another 7 miles to the entrance of Diablo Canyon. Big clouds rolled in. My leg hurt, my traps hurt, my head hurt from dehydration. But, the camp was dreamy – a flat, welcoming surface of just soft enough sand, surrounded by flowers and only 7 miles from our next water cache. A warm meal loaded with tuna and extra virgin olive oil completed the dream. I fell asleep happy, even with all the aches.
Day 3 and 4. On day 3, I cheated. Hippie offered me a Neproxene – one of the time-release pain medication prescription pills she carries to allow her to thru-hike as if she didn’t have a herniated disk. We both took some. Magic! All pain dissipated, and for the next couple of days we walked with the gait of hikers with the full use of their trail legs. I usually don’t take meds, because I feel they mask the pain – the very system the body uses to limit further injury, but I wanted to walk. I’d been wanting to walk since August. And we could walk fast because we knew this part of the trail well. We’d walked it a few times as part of our Prude to Nude last year. The same canyons and washes we love, but this time with the addition of flowers, flowers everywhere. No navigation necessary. We both knew the landmarks. Because of the familiarity, I didn’t feel yet like I was thru-hiking, but at least, we were moving, and in good spirits.
Day 5. We reached highway 78 on day 5, after climbing up and over a small hill covered in granite boulders and hiking down a narrow wash. It was easy to be fast with my food bag down to just a few meals and very little water. I forgot my pack were even there. The next section, from 78 to Mecca had been the hardest to plan for. Even after hours exploring the terrain on Google Earth, laying on the carpet at Hippie’s friend’s house, we still couldn’t quite see how to get through the rough section. We figured we’d know what to do when meeting the canyons and washes in person, and trust that the GPS waypoints Dirtmonger had given us would lead us through the path of least resistance, one waypoint at a time. We also knew we’d need the full two days ahead to cross the section, so we hitched a ride to Borrego Springs, for a good meal at Carlee’s, intent on starting at dawn the next morning. The shade and fresh food seemed to cure most of what ailed up by then, and prepared us for the adventure ahead.
Day 6. Oh, Day 6 kicked our asses. We quickly learned that Dirtmonger’s waypoints were not numbered and that two that looked consecutive might in fact be separated by an impassable “Grand Canyon” with crumbly vertical sides, and that some shortcuts obvious on the map ended in drowned slot canyons, not an option without a rope. So, we went up, and down, and back up, and back down steep crumbly rocks, and we got lost and found our way more than a few times. By noon, we had only gone about 5 miles. We could still see highway 78, right there, as if we had not moved at all. It was also about noon when I got to the top of yet another climb to find Hippie hankered down under her sun umbrella, itself in the parsimonious shade of a tall ocotillo (the best shade around). “I’m not well.” she said. “I’ve got chills and I feel nauseous. I need a moment.” I knew that feeling. I’ve been there myself. The problem with heat sickness is that it feeds itself by hijacking your body’s wisdom. You should drink, and you should eat, and you should rest. But the body refuses to eat and turns its nose at water. It feels cold, yet is too hot. It’s just very confused. We rested in the ocotillo shade for a little less than an hour, but this being the height of the heat of the day, we knew we had to move on. Hippie wasn’t really feeling better, but better enough to get off the ridge. We descended and climbed and descended until past dark. After a full day, we made it only 10 miles, for a total section we believed to be 36 miles and with enough water for only 2 days. Regardless, it was beautiful. A naked, raw beauty, probably made grander in my mind by the dangers and remoteness. In spite of the “situation”, I began to feel the flow of all things as I do on long trails – the connectedness, the love, the power and tear-worthy gratitude.
Day 7. A strange phenomena occurs when hiking with a partner, I noticed. The body ailments of each balance out – When I was hobbling in Canyon Sin Nombre, Hippie’s back pain, somehow diminished. She patiently waited for me, and offered me words of encouragement. So it was on day 7, that all pain in my leg disappeared. As much as I trusted Hippie’s vast experience – almost 30,000 miles of thru-hiking – I also could feel by her unusual silence that she was sick, and that it was getting worse. I would have likely worried, if that was my style. But, it is not. In the face of contradictory evidence, I trusted that everything would work out, somehow. Down in a wash, we found a level surface in the shade. It was about 10 am, and the day was already growing hotter. As soon as Hippie hiked in the sun, the nausea returned. We sat in the shade and decided we’d rest until 3:30 pm, past the peak heat, then night hike if we needed. Hippie wrapped herself in her down jacket, hat and sleeping bag. “I’m shivering” she said. Nothing to be done but rest. I fell asleep too, and woke up at exactly 3:30 pm to find our shade had shrunk to touch the edge of our sleeping surface. By the time we packed, the shade was gone. The canyon had heard us and guaranteed us shade until exactly 3:30 pm. Luckily, the dirt road we were trying to reach was only another 10 miles – the original figure of 36 miles, we realized, included the 16 miles along the highway into Mecca, which we could hike later. We slept by the road, out of water, but secure in knowing we only had a few miles to go in the morning to hitch a ride. Back to Jacumba. Back to mile 0.
Day 8 and subsequent 3 or 4 or 5 (I lost track) We stood by highway 86 for an hour and a half. This was the longest either of us had ever waited for a hitch. The highway was loud, smelled of exhaust and Salton sea and offered no shade in which to hide. Hippie alternatively sat on her pack and stood with a smile and thumb out, faking wellness. Finally, we began walking – movement felt better than sitting by the side of the road. Our first ride was with Otman. Otman from Jordan, a humble handyman in the small community of Salton City, but back home, in Jordan, the owner of a church – one of only two churches that survived the world-wide destruction of churches in the time of the prophet Jesus, because it was completely built underground. In fact, not just a church, but a full city, with sky scrapers, underground. Yet, empty, and secret. Only known to one person – Otman. “That is why I came to the States,” he said “to find good people to populate the empty underground city I own.” “Have you found any?” I asked. “No, not yet.” He seemed disappointed. He offered that we come to his house to rest. We declined his generous offer and opted instead to be let off at the nearest gas station. We needed water. He understood. It took another 7 rides, and 8 hours to hitch the 1.5 hour drive back to Jacumba. One back of a pick up, a couple of hippies in a van, some Canadians down for the flowers, two ladies exploring the southwest, a Floridian in town for a court date because he was caught going over 100 mph on Highway 8, and a sweet young man who drove us an hour out of his way when he found out it was Hippie’s birthday. We walked the last windy 5 miles. When we go home, Hippie collapsed on the sofa, and stayed there, pretty much, in pain for the next few days. Sensing danger was over, my leg and ankle swelled up, so I spent the next couple of days wrapped in ice myself.
Left turn. There were early signs that I wasn’t going to hike the 2,200 miles of the Desert Trail with Hippie as originally planned, but I missed them. They were too subtle. In hindsight, I remember feeling … “bipolar.” When my mind was on the trail, when I got lost in the beauty of the cacti or the delight of being on an adventure, I felt ecstatic – not just happy, but some larger feeling accompanied by rapid heart beats, a sense of being elevated and expanded, and tears of joy welling up from deep in my throat. But I wasn’t alone. I had a hiking partner. And whenever my mind locked on that thought, I felt restless, grumpy, and self-judgmental. I tried to transcend it. I tried to focus on the many benefits of hiking with Hippie, but in vain. Hippie is a fine hiking partner. She is patient, kind, generous, strong, and very, very capable. It wasn’t about THIS hiking partner, it was about not being alone with the trail. The best I can describe it would be like meeting the love of your life while traveling with your friend. As time goes on, the longing for alone time with the new love grows, and so does the resentment toward the friend for the lack of it. I changed my mind 15 times about what to do, but the restlessness grew until I felt insane. My mind was locked on the issue and would not let go. So, finally, I told Hippie I had to go. I didn’t know why then – I am writing this a week later than the previous paragraph, with the benefit of hindsight, and the contrast of now having hiked alone all week. She was gracious and said “If it’s not right, then it’s not right. You have to do what’s right for you.”
What’s right. I am writing the end of this post in the Catmobile. The wind is rocking and shaking the truck and lifting clouds of sands that completely obscure the view. When the wind rests, the view past my laptop screen is of the Eureka Sand Dunes perfectly framed in the Catmobile’s back window. I just dropped the last water cache. A couple of days ago, I finished hiking the first half of the Death Valley portion of the Desert Trail – Tecopa Hot Springs to Furnace Creek – and am about to complete the rest of the Death Valley section – Furnace Creek to the Nevada border. For the duration and length of the first section, I saw no other human. It’s been an epic week. It’s been dangerous. It’s been a dream. I love hiking alone. I love it. So. Much! I think I was built for this adventure, precisely. 🙂
Upcoming … Many tall tales about hiking Death Valley solo and a few side trips. I’m about 78 stories behind (random number), but at least, this one is published now.
Thank you for reading.
May all your adventures, whatever they are, fill you with joy.
We left Jacumba with about 60 gallons of water packed in Gary, Hippie’s truck. 60 gallons of water to be dropped at strategic locations between the Mexican border and the Nevada state line ~ 400 miles or 1/4 of the Desert Trail. These are the notes I took on the road.
~~~ Day 1 It was all rainbows and butterflies when we started this morning. But that’s because we were surrounded by storms and because the heavy rains of last week have triggered the beginning of a flower super-bloom, quickly followed by a butterfly baby-boom. The rain is predicted to keep coming in the week ahead, which means 1) that we’ll be staying out of slot canyons, and 2) that we’re in for the treat of a LIFETIME when next we walk through here.
The first couple of water caches were along familiar roads. Collectively, Hippie and I must have criss-crossed the Mojave about a dozen times in the last few years. PCT at scissors’ crossing, San Diego Trail, Prude to Nude, and the random “let’s see if we can connect these two towns through the middle of nowhere.” adventure. Driving along our old tracks felt like visiting old friends and family. “And that’s where the kangaroo rat jumped on your face.” “And that’s the ‘designer’ section of the canyon that’s so beautiful that it made me cry.” “Hey, remember that time it was so cold we dug a hole under that tree to stay warm? …” I remembered each rock and each tree, and I felt they remembered me. Actually, their memory is probably more accurate than mine. “Wasn’t that tree over there? I remember it over there. I think it moved!”
This time though, we weren’t walking, we were barreling down dirt roads in a fully loaded extended cab, long-bed Ford F250 named Gary. We took this kind beast through scratchy brushes and up the narrowing Diablo slot canyon. Honestly, we didn’t think it would go. We figured we’d just drive as far as it would be willing, then walk the rest. But, Gary maneuvered that canyon with such grace and nimbleness, you’d have thought it was a Toyota Tacoma! “We made it! It’s Garicle!” Hippie said. ‘A Garicle?” “yeah, A Gary-miracle.” We dropped off 4 gallons under one of our favorite trees, and performed the same Garicle in reverse down canyon. (click here to see the Garicle)
The next section, past S22 was more new to us, more like a distant relative. It still looked familiar, but not as intimately. Or maybe we didn’t recognize it. With all the rain, the desert is green – green green green! – grasses on the desert floor, flowers about to pop everywhere, the cacti are fat, engorged with water. And it hasn’t even exploded yet. Right around our third water cache, dispersed among the pricklies, a small colony of the rare desert lily have already unfurled their long-limbed curly leaves and bobbing fuzzy heads – a lady among the hardies. No flowers yet. They wait. Oh, do I hope they wait just a few more weeks. Because we’ll be right back.
Mecca was rough. Towns usually are when you’ve been in the middle of nowhere. Mecca, population 8,000, felt like a thriving metropolis, a cacophony of cars, freeways, Salton Sea smells and Mexican bakeries. But that last one definitely made up for the others. No water caching in Mecca. We’ll have a truck or two there, as we are truck-supporting ourselves. It will be nice to see my truck and sleep in my bed at regular intervals. And I can resupply from my own stash of dried kale, plantain chips and such health treats not usually available in the resupply gas station marts along the way. I’ll supplement with pastries from the Mexican bakeries. Hippie, I believe, will try to resupply on the go. She should have an interesting diet for the upcoming months.
Beyond Mecca, the trail heads uphill, but the road that would have allowed us to cache half-way up was closed, leaving a 45 mile stretch without water. We’ll likely carry 2 gallons each. That’s about 17 extra pounds in our packs – my PCT pack, fully loaded was 18 Lbs – and that was before the Gopro, the extra battery packs, the solar charger, etc… I guess we’ll get smart, and come up with a solution to cache that section, or we’ll get tough.
So, that’s about it for today. We’re camped near a “gaging station” (as written on the map) – where hydrologists measure water flow in the aqueduct, not a place where people gag. That’s good. I’m glad we looked it up. It’s already dark and the moon is very skinny. But the stars! Oh the stars. Milky Way, right here and all the way from one side of the sky to the other.
A day of Rainbows, Stars and Butterflies. Luckiest people on earth!
Right here … Here’s my love, the Western Mountaineering UltraLite 20 degree bag:
#1 – Weight. When I first ordered this beauty, back in 2011, as I was getting ready for a PCT Thru-hike, it came in the mail at the same time as some hiking shoes, mini gaiters, a headlamp and other small miscellaneous objects. When I picked up the box, my face grew long … they hadn’t included the sleeping bag. I just knew. The box was too light. Then I opened the box, and lo’ and behold’ the bag was in there! I tossed it in the air, and it fell back gently in my arms. Yep. Love at first sight! Then a week ago, sending it to the WM factory for repairs, I was charged extra because “the package was too light.” Customers in line at the post office suggested I put a rock in the box – That’s light!
#2 – Comfort. The 20 degree UltraLite is not actually a bag, it’s a regeneration cocoon of love, fluff and warmth. I slept in it for 105 night straight of cowboy camping (no tent) on the PCT, without a wash (I have dedicated sleep clothes and socks), like in the arms of Angels. When I stopped walking and moved back into the truck, this was still the bag I used. If it was too cold, I added a blanket on top, if it was too warm, I used it as a quilt, or rolled it into a small body size friend and hugged it all night (yeah, single life in the truck …) It’s been damp and wet a few times, and I expected it to let me down, as down bags are wont to do, but no, a space blanket around it, and it was back to excellent zzzzzs.
#3 – Durability. When I didn’t know anything about gear and read all I could about it, I learned that one cannot expect a bag to last more than one thru-hike. That’s just one of the costs the repeat thru-hiker must factor in. Well, mine’s looking at a full PCT, several AT sections, all the New Hampshire 4000ers, 2 San Diego trails, a trip to humid Cuba, a trip to dusty India, Alaska, Canada, etc. … and 6 years in the truck, in some fashion. And that bag is not even close to being done yet.
#4 – Customer Service. Okay, so, with the oil from my body and the constant use, the bag did eventually lose a lot of feathers – I mean, you would too after 6 years of almost daily use! So I called Western Mountaineering. When I was on the AT, they were able to give me an emergency refluff – I think they mostly washed it a bunch of time. It wasn’t completely back to its former glory, but I was still impressed with WM tracking me down on the trail and getting the bag right to me without impairing my walk at all. Now, 2 years later, I contacted them again after spending a few cold nights on the San Diego trails. Boom! Refluffed, broken zipper is fixed, all in a courteous, understanding, expedient fashion, and again they were able to work with my nomadic lifestyle and are shipping the bag right where I’ll be able to get it.
#5 – Everything else. I love its gorgeous deep blue, that hasn’t really faded. I love that it’s quiet when I sleep in it, no annoying nylon rustling. I love how small it compresses. I’ve even carried it in a day-pack to spend the night in a cave once. I love how it smells – oh, wait, that’s just my smell … I love that my best trail family members have the same bag, so we can feel like a special clique of people who scored in the gear department. I love the two drawstrings that keep the chill of the night away from my body, but my face still out to see the stars and breathe clean air. I love that the 6′ length gives me wiggle room for my feet, and extra storage for my clothes (I’m 5’4″). And … actually, there isn’t anything I DON’T like about this bag.
I get no kickback of any sort from Western Mountaineering for shamelessly bragging about their bag. I’m just assembling gear for my next adventure, and felt my gratitude and love for this loyal gear-friend needed to be passed on.
Note: You’re actually looking at my bivy bag covered in dew here, the sleeping bag is inside. It turns out, I don’t have a picture of me in my bag, because either I camp alone, or I protect it with the bivy. You get this idea though …