In this section of the PCT, my trusty trail partner and I leave the Sierra behind and enter the Southern California Desert, meet the adorable locals at Kennedy Meadows, encounter some questionable water sources, deal with some extreme wind, and see some frightening wildlife. Bonus: we find a special treasure just before our trip into Tehachapi, where we enjoy a zero day.
Sorry for the delay in journals folks, the holidays happened, despite my best efforts to resist them.
Day 90: Kennedy Meadows to Fox Mill Spring, 20 miles
Three months I’ve been on the trail, exactly. And I can’t think of a better place to wake up on this anniversary than Kennedy Meadows.
I try desperately to sleep in, but naturally I’m awake in a panic by 6:30 and I’m wondering where the hell I am and why I’m not walking yet. My mind is put to ease when I hear the gentle snoring of my camp mates. Why do they all have the ability to sleep in and I don’t? I dig into my food bag and pull out the pastries I had bought the evening before at the store, and savor their sugary decadence: a cheese Danish with the shelf life that could outlive the apocalypse, and some old-fashioned Circus Animal Cookies.
A rooster crowing seems to get everyone stirring, and the boys pack up quickly and move to the porch beside the store. Cheesy Puff and I pack up slowly, organizing our food resupply as a group of free range hens invades the campsite. As I’m shoving my things into my pack, a chicken ducks under the vestibule of my tent. Oh shit, I think, and I try to remain calm so as not to scare it further inside my shelter. Thankfully, it leaves on its own free will and without incident.
Back at the store, the shopkeeper fires up the generator and I’m able to charge my electronics. She offers up a blueberry pancake breakfast with bacon and eggs for $5, and I can’t say no to such an awesome deal. She works the grill while I wash my socks, and then I inhale a plate of delicious food while a herd of puppies stares intently at me, trying to destroy my will with their cuteness.
After breakfast, Cheesy Puff messages Triple Crown Outfitters to see if we can get a ride down to the shop. Yogi, the author of the infamous PCT guidebook, comes and picks us up, with another cute pup in tow. At the shop, I talk trail a bit with Yogi and her partner Matt, also known as World Wide, and Cheese finally finds a sleeping bag liner to keep her warm through the chilly nights.
Back at the store, I mail home my bear canister (good riddance) and have a wash in the sink of the bathroom while Cheesy Puff stuffs her pack with food. We’re the second round of hikers to set off, with Dorothy in the lead. Zappy, The Kid and AP hang back, and we say our goodbyes for now.
It’s just past noon when we push off, and it’s already uncomfortably hot and desert-like, and we’re facing an enormous climb into the parched countryside. Steadily we make our way into the hills, through a burn area that’s showing new signs of life with sage, bitter bush and cactus. We’re making our way above a canyon, winding in and out of the occasional gully. The path is rocky, and we’re tired and heavy with our sugar-laden breakfasts. We can see Zappy on the opposite side of the canyon wall, and we wave wildly to him.
As night falls, the Jerusalem crickets creep across our path. We hurry to find Fox Mill Spring, and hopefully a suitable campsite. It’s pitch black when we arrive to the spur trail for the spring, and we leave our packs and head down the steep hillside to collect water. The spring is nothing more than a trickle coming from a pipe, and emptying into a murky black pool in a trough. We filter a few liters and then head back up to our packs, and then decide to backtrack a bit to some flat ground we saw beside the trail. The boys catch up to us, and continue on to the spring as we’re making camp.
I’m full of food from my recent resupply, so I have a rather large dinner that night, eaten from the comfort of my tent. It’s dead silent outside, which makes me feel a bit uneasy for some reason, but I fall asleep with ease.
Day 91: Fox Mill Spring to Tent Site Above Walker Pass, 29 miles
In the morning, we head back down to the spring to get more water after breaking camp. Now we get a good look at the water we’ve been drinking; it’s slimy and green, and thicker than it should be. Even after filtering it, there’s a noticeable yellow tinge to it and we can only hope for the best at this point, so we keep walking.
At the top of a climb, the ground is saturated from a recent rain, and thunderclouds loom ahead. We run into Zappy and The Kid again, perched on an outcrop and having lunch. They share a bit of cheese with us, and we take a few minutes to chat and rest. It’s already been a strenuous day as far as terrain goes, and we only have more to look forward to. Water is another worry, with none in the next thirty plus miles, or until we reach Walker Pass. Even then, the water report is outdated and it’s uncertain if the cistern at the pass is full or not. We may have to hitch into town just to get water; something we would like to avoid if possible. With our packs heavy with several liters to see us through, we push forward.
Thunder rumbles in the distance as Cheesy Puff and I stop in a gulch to eat our lunches, joined soon after by The Kid. I bushwhack my way down to the neighboring creek bed, but all I mind is a puddle of sludge that would only clog up a filter if tried. A duo of fat gray squirrels entertains us while we snack, and rain moves in.
We climb a series of switchbacks, at which point the urge to use the toilet hits me suddenly, and I’m faced with pooping on a dramatic angle overlooking the canyon below me. I somehow make it work, hoping that other hikers can’t see my deed from the trail above. The more we hike, the closer we get to the impending storm, and our current elevation and rocky ridge line we’re traversing makes me nervous. A warm wind picks up, and my heart sinks into my gut.
We find ourselves inside another creek canyon, filled with joshua trees and the familiar grooves in the earth from flash floods. There’s a sign for a spring, a quarter of a mile off trail, but there’s a warning that the water is contaminated with uranium. We choose to skip this one, despite the urge to attain superpowers. Further on from the spring, we come across possibly the most hair-raising, yet fascinating wildlife that we’ve witnessed yet on the trail: a tarantula, casually creeping along.
We make haste through the storm, leapfrogging The Kid and Zappy into the night. The four of us gather again in some sparse trees on the ridge, where we can see the desert floor thousands of feet below us. The Kid decides to settle in here for the night, and we continue on with Zappy for a few more miles, walking in the dark. Flashes of lightning pulse across the sky, and after finding some flat ground in the trees, Cheesy Puff and I decide to ride out the storm here. Zappy wants to make it all the way to Walker Pass, and continues on, the glow of his headlamp fading away down the mountainside as we pitch our tents.
I lay in my tent, watching the flashes of lightning in the distance and wonder if it will make its way over to us. The wind slowly dies down, and I find some ease.
Day 92: Walker Pass Tent Site to Joshua Tree Alcove, 27 miles
The storm has cleared when I wake up, but I can still hear the wind across the sky overhead. My tent is dewy with condensation, so I try to avoid touching the walls as I make my morning coffee in my water bottle. This is the last of my water, and I’m hoping that there is either a cache left by some trail angels, or the cistern is full at the pass. Maybe I can just ring out my tent?
We get to hiking just after sunrise, hoping that there’s good news at the Walker Pass Campground regarding the cistern. The trail descends from the brown hills to the highway below, winding through skeleton trees and sagebrush. When we spot the highway, we pick up our pace.
Once we arrive at the Walker Pass campground, we see Zappy waving at us from a tent site. “Is there water?” we shout as we approach him. He gives us directions to the cistern, which is not only full, but flowing. Thank goodness. Cheesy Puff and I lay our tents out in the sunshine, hoping to get them dry, then make our way towards the water. We follow the road out of the campground and to the highway, where we hang a left until we reach a road sign. At the sign, we can make out a primitive footpath leading off into the billowy puffs of sage. We pass a trough, but it’s dry, and I spot a gathering of tall reeds in the distance. Sure enough, the reeds lead us to the cement cistern, where cool water is overflowing into a metal pan. I filter four more liters, indulge in some instant coffee, and rinse my socks. It’s a tiny oasis, only known by savvy hikers and the herds of cattle that free range the area.
When we emerge back at the highway, cars go zooming past, and I wonder if they think we’re vagrants or worse, junkies.
Back at the campsite, Zappy is getting ready to head out and our things are nearly dry. I leave a note in the trail register, detailing the directions to the cistern, and then we head out too. The trail winds us up into the hills, where the wind has picked up again, although the thunder and lightning storms are long gone. We cross paths with many hunters, all rifling hunting for deer. We’ve seen deer nearly every day now, including this morning, but we don’t indulge that information.
At the top of the climb, we find some relief in a shady campsite, along with Zappy and The Kid. We all sit cross-legged in a circle, discussing movies and how much we despise ramen at the moment. After lunch, and on the downhill side of the mountain, a fierce wind picks up and nearly knocks Cheesy Puff and I off the trail. At a trail register, she writes:
“Oh good, the wind is back.”
And I write nothing. At the bottom of the hill, there’s a dirt road crossing with a huge water cache hidden beneath some joshua trees. We take another break to fill up, sitting together with Zappy in the sliver of shade that one of the joshua trees can spare. From the road, we face another climb, up a sandy hillside and under some power lines. The sun is fading behind the hills now, and with the intensity of the wind, we wonder if we’ll ever find a suitable campsite.
Darkness falls quickly, and the lights of wind turbines and a sprawling city can be seen stretching for miles across the desert. There is no escaping the wind tonight, no matter how hard we try, and we scurry to set up our tents behind a cove of joshua trees. I stake out my tent, but as I’m pitching it with my trekking pole, the wind whips up suddenly and tears my tent out of the ground. The soil here is too soft and sandy, and I lay over my tent so it won’t be blown away, and I can feel my frustration overwhelming me. I bow my head, and the tears stream down my face. Then, out of nowhere, Cheesy Puff grabs a corner of my tent and pounds the stake through it, firmly into the ground. She ties the guylines to the tree, and I snap out of it enough to make my pitch.
My savior, with a red, chapped nose and sporting shorty-shorts.
It’s difficult to fall asleep, with such a violent wind battering at my shelter, but somehow I manage. Although it is restless, as I despair at the thought of my shelter being ripped to shreds.
Day 93: Joshua Tree Alcove to Foggy Ridge Camp, 26 miles
The morning is still windy, and frigid.
We start hiking with the rising sun, not having had the best night’s rest. But the scenery here in this high desert is stunning, and makes you forget these things. We cross several dirt roads, and then enter a sun drenched canyon that’s protected from the wind. We stop here for a bit, leaning up against a flat rock and soaking in the warmth of the sun.
After our break, we continue on to the top of our climb and out of the canyon. Here, there’s several ATV trails zigzagging through the forest and across the PCT. We’ve seen quite a few more hunters, this time riding four-wheelers and eyeing us oddly, as if they’re surprised to see hikers using the trail. This makes us nervous, obviously. What if they’re shooting towards the trail? We keep our wits about us as we go.
Midday, we go off the main trail and follow a dirt road to a primitive campground where there’s a spring flowing into a trough. We sit here for a while, eating lunch and rinsing the dirt from our bodies. My feet are starting to feel raw again; the lack of available water sources for rinsing is taking its toll on my skin and I’m suffering from painful chafe in between my toes and on the soles of my feet.
Further down the trail, more weather seems to be moving in, and the sky is suddenly filled with dark clouds. I’m listening to an audiobook, but as I round a corner I hear the unmistakable sound of a rifle shot, and it’s very near the trail. Cheesy Puff stops dead in her tracks, and yells out “there’s hikers here!” We then hear the sound of a two-stroke engine firing up and taking off, just above us. Wide eyed and on edge, we leave the pine forest and enter oak grove.
When we get to Robin Bird Spring, a layer of fog has fully moved in and visibility is low. Not more than two hours earlier, we were struggling with the heat, but now it’s downright cold and we sit shivering as we eat our dinners. We decide to keep going, although there’s no indication of a campsite ahead for several miles. Yet, after a few miles in, we come to a level spot along a ridge, and it’s protected by a stand of trees. The trees are an obvious shelter for the local cattle, as there are cow pies everywhere, but we’re unfazed by poop by now.
We cram our tents into the small space, and dive inside as the rain moves in. I eat my second dinner, which is mainly just snacks, inside my tent, and bundle myself up to my eyeballs.
Day 94: Foggy Ridge to Windy Juniper Camp, 25 miles
Everything is damp in the morning; our tents, my hair and clothes, and the earth beneath us. The fog has lingered through the night and into the morning, although a steady breeze is encouraging it along. We wind in and out of a burn area, with the whirring sound of wind turbines, still unseen and rather eerie sounding, spinning overhead. At the top of a hill, it finally clears up and we can see our surroundings, including more hunters on ATVs, giving us a shocked look.
By late morning, we plop down into the dirt beside the trail to strip off our various layers and have a few snacks. The sun has finally decided to show its face, and things are warming up quite nicely. We kick up plenty of dust as we continue on, coating our legs and filling our shoes with fine sand. We pass under a smaller wind farm, pushing on until we reach our water source for the day at Golden Oaks Spring.
The spring is just another cow trough, green and slimy, but with a decent flow coming from the pipe. We make an early dinner, with Cheesy Puff seasoning her ramen with a packet of ground red pepper that she had snatched from an MRE kit she found in a hiker box in Kennedy Meadows. As we’re eating, AP arrives just in time for the show: Cheesy Puff has turned crimson from the spice she’s inhaled, and is gasping for air through her mouth. A few pathetic wimpers follow, and I can’t contain my laughter. AP further entertains us with his critical review of the film ‘Roadhouse’, and I agree that it is an 80’s national treasure.
The trail that follows is less than pleasing, scenic and otherwise. We’re forced to follow a rugged Jeep road, uneven and steep in many sections. The ground is also littered with bullet casings, and any sign markers have been used as target practice. It’s quiet, at least, and I don’t feel an ounce of threat. When the three of us finally reach the actual trail junction, leaving the road behind, AP pushes onward in an effort to get into Tehachapi by tonight. It’s ambitious, and Cheese and I are happy just doing another five miles and heading into town the following morning. We’ve decided to treat ourselves on our next break, and get a nice hotel room, one that we want to fully enjoy for an entire day.
And so the trio becomes a duo again, and as we cross a ridge above a massive wind farm, the wind picks up again with full force. The sun is setting quickly, lighting the sky ablaze with the neon hues of orange and magenta. We find a charming little campsite, mostly blocked from the gusts within some juniper trees, and agree that this is the best spot for the night. I struggle a bit to pitch my tent in the soft dirt, but finally make it work with the help of some heavy rocks holding my stakes in place.
From my vestibule, I watch the sunset, eating chocolate and the few left over snacks that I have. Even with the wind, I manage to get warm inside my bag and fall asleep quickly.
Day 95: Windy Juniper Camp to Tehachapi, 7 miles
We wake to our alarms, when it’s still dark, but our excitement for town has us getting out early. We walk the first few miles in the dark, guided by our headlamps and the city lights in the distance. We talk about food on our way down to the highway, which is taking us on a ridiculously winding route instead of the most direct path. The sun comes up like a fiery ember, igniting the sky in brilliant, glowing shades.
We hustle as fast as our wobbly legs can carry us, weaving through joshua trees and prickly junipers.
The trail skirts the highway for a mile or so, trapping us between the stifling exhaust of commuters and a barbed wire fence. We finally reach a highway overpass, with an on ramp warning travelers not to hitchhike. Cheesy Puff points to something shiny on the ground.
“Is that a crack pipe?”
There’s a flyer attached to the metal gate near the on ramp, with a phone number for a trail angel called Dalton. We shoot him a text, and he responds surprisingly fast. He’ll be there in ten minutes, and he’s right on time, and we’re more than happy to leave the crack pipe dumping ground behind.
Dalton drops us off at the most luxurious hotel in Tehachapi, a place where hikertrash dreams come true: the Holiday Inn Express. It’s too early for us to check in, but upon seeing us eyeing the breakfast buffet from the lobby, the receptionist tells us to go at it. We rush into the dining room, grabbing plates full of pastries, eggs, bacon and fruit. There’s also fresh coffee and juice, and I’m convinced I’m in heaven. The other patrons look at us nervously, and I’m sure we’re quite the sight; caked in dirt, greasy hair going in every direction, a smell that could repel a skunk, and inhaling food like a couple of stray dogs.
Once in our opulent room, we peel our disgusting clothes off and each have a shower. As it turns out, AP is staying in the same hotel, and has invited us out for a round of beers at the local brewery. We can’t say no to that, and spend the rest of the evening with a flight of craft brews in front of me, as well as some smoked brisket and a few tacos. Once back at our lodging, we take advantage of the much-needed hot tub, and then bliss out in front of cable TV the rest of the night.
It’s pure heaven, and I never want to leave.
Day 96: Zero in Tehachapi
We have discovered that it’s Columbus Day, a holiday in which everything is open except the one thing that we need: the post office. This means another day in town, not that we’re upset about it since we could use the rest, but it’s an inconvenience anyhow.
Cheesy Puff and I make a pact to lay in our ultra plush beds all day, after the breakfast buffet of course, and not leave for anything. It goes off successfully, as there’s a Halloween movie marathon on TV and we’re both huge campy horror film buffs. The only exception we make is to do laundry in the on site laundromat, and then later grab some dinner from Denny’s, which is right across the street.
Our beds are ridiculously cozy, and I envelop myself in all four pillows as I eat my leftover brisket in the white bread I grabbed from the breakfast buffet, and a couple of packs of Twizzlers, all while watching the Addams Family and Dark Shadows.
We revisit the hot tub once again, but the bed keeps calling to us and we return to bury ourselves into its fluffy comforters.
This is my fourth pair of Altra Lone Peak 3.5 Trail Running kicks, and these will see my the remaining 566 miles to the end. I’m really happy with these shoes, and I plan on using them again on the future thru-hikes that I’ve low-key already started to think about.
This last pair got me from Old Station all the way to Tehachapi, with the high Sierra in the middle of all that; that’s around 700 miles!
So this is actually the third pair of shorts that I’ve gone through on this trail. I started out with a pair from Under Armour, which were okay but they seemed to fit me rather oddly. It’s not something that I can quite put my finger on, but I was always making adjustments and tugging on them, and that’s really just annoying to say the least.
My second pair was a cheap off-brand that I had bought on Amazon. I liked the fit of these, and they had pockets, which is always a bonus. However, they were thin for being a knit material, and although they were synthetic (polyester), they weren’t quick dry. The butt and crotch were really starting to wear thin and my biggest fear was that I was going to rip them when I bent over one day.
I’m now rocking a pair of compression shorts; Champion brand from Target. They’re a bit short for my liking, but I’ve lost some ‘junk in the trunk’ lately from all this hiking and I feel I can pull them off more now than ever before. Something I really like about them is that since they are tight against the skin, I can pull my leggings on over them in the evenings and mornings when it’s chilly, and avoid having a lumpy, wedgie butt like I would with running shorts.
Gear Failure: Rain Jacket
Also worth noting, the zipper has suddenly started to fail on my Outdoor Research Helium II Rain Jacket, a piece of gear that I use daily as a light layer and wind breaker. I’m not too shocked by this, as the PCT notoriously ruins zippers. I’ve already contacted the company and since it’s under warranty, they’ve offered to replace it, free of charge, and it will be waiting for me in Wrightwood.
You can find my original gear list here.