In this desert stretch of the PCT, Cheesy Puff and I walk through the Mojave Desert, follow the infamous L.A. Aqueduct, get a little taste of the local film industry, encounter our first mildly dangerous viper, deal with the Santa Ana winds, bag another peak, and take an unexpected zero day. You know the PCT is busy when it has its own McDonald’s. The theme of this section is Hollywood! Bonus video: collecting nasty water from an underground cistern! Here’s the latest dispatch from Southern California…
Day 97: Tehachapi to Canyon Camp, 21 miles
It’s time to go back to the trail, and God it’s so difficult to leave this cozy bed. Cheesy Puff and I stuff our faces at the breakfast buffet at our luxurious hotel, and then head over to the post office once it opens. There are loads of thru-hikers there, getting their parcels after waiting out the Columbus Day holiday in town. Both Cheesy Puff and I have new pairs of shoes in our resupply boxes, and the new cushion feels so good on my puffy feet.
We go back to the room and start packing away our things, and the atmosphere is sorrowful. How can a bed make such a lasting impression on a person? We call Dalton, the local trail angel, to take us back to the trail, and our friend AP catches a ride too. We don’t start hiking again until midday, but we’re determined to get at least twenty miles in before we call it a day. The sun is ridiculously intense, and we have one hell of a climb in front of us through a wind farm. The hills are endless, vast and rolling, scorched by the sun and with thousands of stark white turbines rising into the sky. It’s Space age meets wild west out here; 2001: A Space Odyssey with the backdrop of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
We spend the day dodging cow pies, and walking through the hot wind. For a moment, we take a pause in the only shade available, beneath a scrawny juniper, and then continue on into the sandy hills.
As the sun begins to fade, Cheesy Puff and I come across a very welcome sight: an oasis of trail magic, with chairs and water, and on top of a hill and in the middle of nowhere. AP arrives shortly after, and we decide to have our dinners here, to avoid carrying excess water to camp. We watch the sunset over the hill behind us, and gaze off onto the amber desert floor, with its thousands of blinking wind turbine lights against the darkening sky.
We continue on, as a trio, into the night. The trail descends into a massive canyon, where we can see the tiny flickering lights of headlamps below us, and the sound of a wind instrument being played. Voices and laughter break through the pitch black, and we find ourselves in a dried up river bed at the bottom of the hill. We quickly make camp, and I notice a disturbing amount of poop pellets covering the ground; perhaps from desert hares? I can’t be sure and only hope that there’s no hantavirus among any of it.
I eat a bit of chocolate inside of my tent, and prep my coffee and Breakfast Essential powder mix for the morning. The wind picks up slightly before I fully lay down, but it isn’t enough to keep me from falling asleep.
Day 98: Canyon Camp to Hunting Club, 29 miles
Cheesy Puff and I wake up with first light, and bounce out of camp. AP is still making breakfast and says he’ll catch up. We face an enormous climb right out of the gate, leaving the dry riverbed far below us on the ascent.
At the top of the climb, we sign the oddly placed trail register, which is really just a few pieces of scrap paper torn from an old book. From there we descend again, into the canyon of Tyler Horse Creek, but when we arrive it, too, is dry. Our next reliable water source seems to be the cache ahead, and we can only hope that the water reports are up to date.
After we leave the canyon, we enter more wind farm, and the trail follows an old dirt service road for some time. I lose my mind in my surroundings, and have momentarily checked out and into my own world where the only thing that exists is walking and white light of the sun. Suddenly, I’m brought back, when a shadow bobs across the deep ravine that is to my immediate right. It’s AP, on the other side of the ravine and hustling down the trail; the trail we’re supposed to be on. Damn. Cheese is directly behind me, head down and focused on an audiobook, and I point across the way. Her face fills with disappointment.
We backtrack to the trail, an invisible and unmarked junction along the dirt road that we completely missed. AP is well ahead of us now, and we give up on catching up to him and focus on the rather infamous and surreal stretch that’s in front of us: the Los Angeles Aqueduct. But first, we collect water from the cache, and go about with second breakfast and another round of coffee.
From here, we leave the wind farm behind us, and enter the unusual section of the Mojave that has us following intersecting roads through a maze of Joshua trees, ramshackle homes made up of corrugated sheet metal and travel trailers, and endless amounts of dumped garbage and household appliances. To say the least, it’s appallingly creepy, and completely different from all the epic scenery we’ve encountered thus far.
For miles, we follow dusty desert roads, under the blistering sun, until we find a patch of shade under a prickly tree. We have our lunch here, and I drain through my second liter of water. We hear a vehicle coming up the road, but we are out of sight and decide to stay low. Everything movies have taught me about the desert is that bad things happen here, from mafia body dumping to Mad Max-like car chases, so I prefer to remain unnoticed for the time being.
By late afternoon, we reach the aqueduct, a wide riveted pipe that cuts through the sand from the mountains behind us. This pipe brings water from the slopes of the Eastern Sierra all the way to Los Angeles, having drained all the life out of the Owen Valley since the early 20th century. It was the center of the California Water Wars, the basis for the film ‘Chinatown,’ and a sordid piece of American history that has fascinated me for years.
We walk only momentarily on the aqueduct, before the rivets become too painful on our feet and we follow the road beside it instead. The wind is fierce now, whipping across the desert and spraying us with sand. We pass more homes, and a lonely teenager perched on top of the pipe talking on her phone. I feel bad for her, being forced to live out in this grimy isolation. As evening falls, we reach the open section of the aqueduct, and scramble down to get water. It’s dark and murky, and half of a dead fish goes floating by as I fill up my water bottle. Cheese makes noises of disgust, and I try not to think about it too much.
We walk along a paved road, past a public school where a furniture set has been dumped just outside. A severed cow’s hoof lays in the path in front of me; likely a coyote kill but I still don’t want to know the details.
The trail takes us across private farm land, and past Hikertown, another trail angel compound that’s been fashioned to look like a western film set. It’s getting dark now, and I want to get far from this place. Weird vibes abound, and we push to make camp in the encroaching twilight.
After crossing the highway, we find ourselves on another dirt road, a private gravel driveway belonging to a hunting club. Signs warn us to stay on the trail and leave the area quickly, but at the end of the road is a nice flat area perfect for two tents. We make camp, with a small farm in sight from where we sit. Dogs are barking, likely from our presence, but as soon as it’s dark they stop and I’m sure we go unseen. I lay in my tent, eating a small dinner and listening to the screeching of foxes on the hillside.
I hate this section, and can’t wait to put it behind me.
Day 99: Hunting Club to Abandoned Boy Scout Camp, 26 miles
Again, we climb.
The golden rays of sunshine fill the desert and the gulches with warm light, and follow a trail winding back into the mountains. The skeletons of Yucca reach for the sky, and I give one a whack with my trekking pole as I pass by, expecting it to be brittle and go tumbling. It’s strong though, and doesn’t even budge. It’d have to be, I guess, to stand up to these winds, and immature hikers.
We’re nearly out of water by late morning, and we go off trail to find a guzzler cistern in which the water reports mention that we may need to get crafty to collect water. The guzzler is down another dirt road, and off a side trail and hidden from view. Thankfully, the hikers before us rigged a clever contraption to collect water: a plastic bottle, cut in half to make a scoop, tied to a string and then attached to a stick. Cheesy Puff goes first, flinging the scoop into the dark underground cistern and carefully pulling up water. It takes several attempts to fill up all of her bottles, and I bide the time with some snacks until it’s my turn.
Once we’ve got four liters each, and have cameled-up a bit, we head out again. The trail continues through manzanita and an oak grove, which is a lovely change to our prior day’s scenery. By afternoon, more wind has graced our presence and a storm seems to be moving in. Thunderclouds darken the sky, and the midday heat gives way to cooler conditions. I’m not complaining, as I’m thoroughly convinced that I do not do well when hiking in the heat.
We enter pine forest, which then gives way to round hilltops and gulches formed from flash flooding. The days are noticeably shorter now, and it’s getting dark by 6 pm as opposed to when we began our journey, when it stayed light until 9:30. We race the clock, trying to find suitable camping before it gets too dark. According to Guthooks, there’s a boy scout camp just ahead, but when we arrive it’s been washed out and is now overgrown. All that remains is a busted picnic table, hidden in tall grass. We continue on a quarter-mile, and find a flat spot in the sand. It’s rather cold now, since the sun has gone down, and we quickly make camp.
The lights of a city are seen in the distance, and voices can be heard down the dirt road that’s adjacent to us. Likely more campers, having a party. I’m too tired to care or be worried. In fact, the only thing that’s on my mind is what I’m going to treat myself to next time I’m in town.
Day 100: Abandoned Boy Scout Camp to Manzanita Alcove, 24 miles
I wake up to a damp tent, inside and out, and I’m forced to pack away this soggy mess until we can dry things out in the sun later on. We’ve been on the PCT for 100 days now, and we’ve got less than 500 miles to go. My body aches, and I’m tired, both physically and emotionally. I’m ready to get through this next stretch quickly. Bring it on.
We pass through more hills, in an area that was previously closed off due to wildfire damage, and that I had to bypass via road walking on my 2016 thru-hike. I’m grateful to be walking on trail this time around, since I despise road walking, but the scenery is either uninspiring or I’m feeling unmotivated. It never rained during the night, but the static and moisture is heavy in the air from nearby thunderstorms. Again, there’s little water on this stretch of trail, and we’re forced to ration what we have on hand.
It sprinkles rain on and off, with sun breaks in between that make it just uncomfortable enough to be wearing a rain coat. We take a break beside a trickle of a spring, coming from a pipe stuck into the hillside. Guthooks warns of E.coli at this source, and we hope our filters are still fully functioning.
Midday brings us to a USFS fire station, a quarter of a mile down the highway at a crossing. We wander down to fill up on more water, but there’s no one there so we help ourselves to the spigot at the residence. Another E.coli warning is posted here, but we’re not really sweating it too much. We pop a seat on the bench in their cactus garden, and eat some lunch. More gusts arrive, bringing rain with it, and we pack up and leave.
Back on trail, we follow manzanita lined switchbacks up into the mountains, and Cheese starts complaining about a bad stomach and feeling weak. Maybe our filters did fail after all? It can’t be, it doesn’t work that fast. We settle into a small gully in the shade to rest, and eat a few snacks. A crippled five-legged Jerusalem cricket goes waddling in between us, and Cheesy Puff squirms out of it’s way. I scoop it up, and toss him into the bushes on the other side of the trail.
By evening, we crest the hill and start heading down again, and I couldn’t be more grateful. The weather is beginning to look more dramatic by the minute once we arrive to our predetermined campsite for the night, and by the time I pitch my tent in the little alcove of manzanita, the sky is spewing fat drops of rain on us.
I crawl inside of my tent, and listen to the rain coming down on my shelter. I eat my dinner while laying in bed, and then fade into sleep.
Day 101: Manzanita Alcove to Acton KOA, 21 miles
We wake up before sunrise, intending on an early start so we can get to the town of Agua Dulce early in the day and spend a good chunk of time there. We’re both buying resupply there, and want to treat ourselves to some restaurant food.
We head out; the ground is damp from the rain and heavy clouds are still lingering at low levels. We can see the lights of L.A. now, and the heavily perfumed early bird trail runners that pass us confirm our proximity to the ‘thirty mile zone.’
At a trail register in a small river valley, we find a soccer ball and kick it around for a bit, but it’s mostly squishy, so we give up and keep going. Further up the trail, we round a hill and come to a dirt road crossing, and are caught off guard by nearby gunshots. We soon see hunters, and they seem surprised to see us. The fact that nearly every hunter we’ve encountered since rifle season opened is shocked by our presence scares me a decent amount. They do realize this is a hiking trail, right? With real hikers using it?
We descend under some high voltage power lines towards town, where we have a good view of the movie ranch in Mint Valley. We continue into town, road walking the busy highway past high-class homes and horse ranches, until we get to Sweetwater Market. The people in Agua Dulce are pleasant and friendly, and several have waved to us as we passed them by. Another suggested we sneak onto the Matt Damon movie set in town; an exciting thought, but that’s not really our style and we go about our shopping.
I pick up the necessities: a jar of peanut butter, tortillas, Breakfast Essentials, Gatorade, instant coffee, candy bars, and a bag of Cookie Crisp cereal. I sit at a picnic table with Cheesy Puff outside, and we pack away our food. JuJu arrives, a hiker we haven’t seen since leaving Burney, and he asks to join us for lunch once the Mexican Restaurant opens.
The three of us are seated for lunch, and we all order massive burritos. More hikers trickle in and pack into our booth, some I know and others I’ve never seen before. It’s a bit of a party, but I don’t mind and the server keeps the tortilla chips and soda refills coming. After lunch, the others decide to go the Hiker Heaven, another trail angel compound, for the night, but it’s only noon and I really want to push on. Cheese seems torn between the two, but ultimately goes with me, something that I feel guilty about. I know the trail angels are an important part of the thru-hiking experience for a lot of people, but the idea of sitting around, drinking beer with a bunch of 21-year-old youngsters makes me uncomfortable.
After filling up with water, we get back on real trail again in Vasquez Rocks Natural Area, where famous scenes from Star Trek and Bonanza have been filmed, as well as my personal favorite, Blazing Saddles. I’m thrilled to be walking through this amazing area again, despite the incredible number of tourists appearing around every bend. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m somehow robbing Cheese of an experience at Hiker Heaven.
Onward we move, under the Antelope Freeway and up into the sun-scorched hills of the Sierra Palona Mountains. I spy L.A. to the west, somewhat hidden in a haze of pollution. After a long downhill traverse, we cross some railroad tracks and a marker of the spot where the PCT was completed, and make our way into the KOA campground. Just on the outskirts of the campground, we encounter a family, and the son informs us that the campground is the site of a Russian music festival. We decide to go for it anyway, despite the loud concert and crowds, and pay for primitive camping in the far corner of the campground.
The KOA lets us use the common room, attached to the office, where we charge our phones and I order a pizza, to make amends for skipping out on the party at Hiker Heaven. Just as the pizza arrives, about two dozen Russians pile into the room and begin viewing an art film, in which some of the present crowd are starring in. Cheesy Puff and I sit tentatively, watching the movie that we can’t understand and stuffing pizza into our faces. Occasionally, someone turns to stare at us, but as a rather large man is leaning against Cheesy Puff’s pack, we’re essentially being held hostage. Once the film wraps, and they turn on the lights, we pack up and head to the corner to our camp. The music festival kicks off again, and we also find ourselves surrounded by a herd of sugar-high boy scouts screaming bloody murder.
We sit at a picnic table together, near our campsite, laughing at our odd surroundings until we’re practically crying. We’re both too tired to shower, so we decide to put it off until morning. Just as we’re about to retire, one of the troop leaders announces “IT’S TIME FOR S’MORES!”
More earth shattering, inner ear piercing screams come from the boys, and we can’t control our misplaced laughter at this situation; we’re so incredibly tired and this is really the cherry on top of a noisy cake. What kind of monsters are they?
Surprisingly, they crash around the same time as we do, and I fall asleep rather easily.
Day 102: Acton KOA to Mount Gleason Road, 23 miles
I still manage to wake up early, before anyone else in the campground, and I gather my things to go to the shower block. It’s dead silent, like the aftermath of some hard-fought battle. I pass by rows upon rows of tents packed together, with picnic tables lined up and still filled with open bottles of vodka and grilled meats wrapped in tin foil. It’s a regular all-you-can-eat buffet for hung over Russians and raccoons with midnight cravings.
I take a long, hot shower and enjoy the stillness and quiet. Once I’m finished, I head back to camp and Cheesy Puff has broken down her tent and packed up. I hand over the small bottle of shampoo I bought at the front desk the day before, and begin taking down my things. We meet back up at the shower block, and then go to the common room to charge our phones up some more.
We linger around for much too long, but an employee has made a giant pot of coffee and told us to help ourselves to mugs in the kitchen. After about four cups of piping hot coffee, and a couple of pieces of leftover pizza for breakfast, we finally self motivate and get back on the trail.
It’s far warmer than the previous overcast morning has led on, and by the time we start hiking again, the sun is out in full force and cooking us. Naturally, we have a giant climb in front of us, gaining a few thousand feet over several miles. To make matters worse, we’re weighed down with four liters of water, that I’m desperately trying not to guzzle as I make this tedious climb through hell.
Nearing the top, there’s a water cache at another USFS fire station, maintained by the full-time resident. Some familiar faces from Agua Dulce arrive, including JuJu. After filling up another four liters, Cheese and I keep climbing, battling the intense heat for a few more miles.
We finally come to some pine forest at the top, which provides some much-needed shade. Unfortunately, it also brings on those pesky little gnats who have a taste for sweat, and suicide bombing your eyes, mouth and nose. We find ourselves in another burn area, with more climbing, and the added bonus of poodle dog bush to add to our current insanity. Great times.
By the time it’s getting dark, we’re still high along a ridgeline, desperately seeking out a place to make camp for the night. We scout an outcropping, but it proves too narrow for the two of us and we’re forced to keep going into the night. We hike by headlamp for a couple more miles, until we come to a dirt road with a small parking area near the trail. It’s not an ideal location, but we’re both too knackered from climbing all day to push forward, so we battle the forceful wind to put our tents up.
Inside my tent, I wolf down a dinner and some chocolate for desert, using the weak signal on my phone to text home. A truck pulls into the parking area, with its headlights shining into our tents, and I freeze up. My heart is pounding outside of my chest, but after a very long minute, they drive off. I decide to ease my tensions with a little classical music, and doze off almost immediately.
Day 103: Mount Gleason Road to Cooper Canyon Campground, 27 miles
The wind rips out a corner stake from my shelter in the middle of the night, and I scramble to secure it before the rest fail and my pitch collapses. I spend the rest of the night in restless anticipation of it happening again, but it never does. The wind is brutally fierce, and sounds as though it’s ripping my tent to shreds. The infamous Santa Ana winds are here for the season, bringing with them frigid mountain temperatures.
We break camp when the sun comes up, bundled up in several layers against the icy conditions. My nose is running, my fingers are numb, and the narrow strip of exposed skin on my face stings from the cold. We reach another fire station at a road crossing on the Angel’s Crest Highway, where a spigot on the side of the building is available to us to fill up with. We rest for a bit at a picnic table, out of the wind, where I devour several bowls of cereal mixed with protein powder.
We ascend some more from the fire station, into the San Gabriel Mountains, trying to warm up and put some miles behind us. We’re meandering through the rolling hills, through pine forests and across gullies, in and out of the sunshine and wind. I’m listening to an audiobook to pass the time and take my mind off of how cold I am, but it’s a story I’m revisiting from my childhood and it probably should have just stayed there as a fond memory.
We take our lunch at a low flowing spring, sitting in the sunshine. We’re not protected from the wind here, but I savor some red licorice and try to enjoy myself and the warm rays. We’ve been driven to a mild level of madness from this wind, and we’re borderline in hysterics with nervous laughter. Over what though? Anything. And everything seems to be funny right now, especially our misery. I laugh at the name of the spring: Fountainhead. Just awful. Fuck you, Ayn Rand.
We find some relief for a brief time in old growth forest, where I abandon my childhood novel and switch to listening to more classical music. We stop again at a boy scout cabin, where the water pump is off, but there’s a picnic table bathed in sunshine. We eat a few more snacks, and prep our dinners for the night, and then push on towards camp.
Tucked away in a valley, we come to the primitive campsite at Cooper Canyon, complete with a pit toilet and bear lockers. Below the camp, in a gully, is a few pools of water and we go about the tedious collection process. I eat a small dinner, as I’m not feeling too hungry. We’ve made it to camp in an impressive time tonight, arriving before dark, and after hiking 27 miles. By the time it gets dark, however, I’m more than ready to go to bed and toss my food in the bear locker, and bury myself in the warmth of my bag.
Day 104: Cooper Canyon Campground to Wrightwood, 26 miles+ Summit of Mt. Baden-Powell
When I wake up, it’s still dark and I can hear the wind passing over us like a freight train. I grab my food from the bear locker and crawl back into my bag to stay warm for a little longer. After breakfast, I grab some more water from the pools and the two of us begin our day, marching down the trail.
At a trail junction, we leave the closed PCT for an alternate route, one that takes us down a long river canyon and brings us to a car campground along the Angel’s Crest Highway. The main trail is closed, and has been for years now, to protect an endangered species of frog; from here on out we road walk on the twisty highway, and rejoin the trail at Eagles Roost parking lot. First, however, we use the surprisingly clean pit toilets and take the opportunity to get rid of our trash in the bins.
The road walk is easy enough, albeit in the direct path of the coldest wind I’ve ever felt and long the shoulder of the very narrow road. It’s only 2.5 miles to Eagles Roost, and once we arrive, the wind has become even more powerful, sweeping through the mountains with unbelievable force. From here, we climb up and over Islip Saddle, where we must brace ourselves several times against the wind so as not to be blown off the mountain. We finally make it to another crossing of the highway, where our friend Later Gator has caught up to us, and he asks if we heard him yelling.
“The wind knocked me over and I started swearing at it. I’m embarrassed.”
He takes the lead, and we struggle with continued climb before us. We walk along more exposed ridge, braving the blustery, cold conditions. There’s the town of Wrightwood just ahead, and it’s keeping us motivated. I find a second wind on the switchbacks near the cutoff for Mount Baden-Powell, and charge up the trail, passing several day hikers in the process. A group of women says we’re crazy girls, but we only smile and move on.
We decide to make a quick summit of the mountain, via a side trail that’s less than a half mile out of the way. At the top, a woman is there with her adorable dog, and offers to take our picture. I shiver the entire time, and once we’re done with the photo shoot, we run down to the PCT and begin our long descent towards Wrightwood.
On the way down, we run into a couple on the way up, and they start handing us piles of Halloween candy. They tell us if they see us later, trying to hitch into town, they’ll pick us up. The rest of the way down, I’m shoving candy into my mouth, and it’s so incredible. At the trailhead, we cross the highway yet again, and climb back up to another ridgeline.
We stop only for a moment to catch our breath, and strip our puffies off. The candy was great, but I’m starving for real food now, and town is within our grasp. We hustle down from the ridge, and towards the trailhead along the highway.
At the highway, we bundle up again, and stick our thumbs out for any passing motorist heading east. But this highway isn’t too busy, and the cars we do see aren’t stopping. Just when I think I’m about to freeze to death, a small sedan with two brothers pulls over. We have to share the back seat with their dirty laundry, but I’m just so happy to be going into town tonight and getting a hot meal.
They drop us off in the center of town, and Cheese and I beeline it to the brewery. We order up some flatbread, beer and a giant soft pretzel with cheese dipping sauce. I send an email to a trail angel that I’ve found in a forum, and they say they can pick us up after 9 pm. While we’re waiting, some locals pour in and buy us a round, which I can’t resist. It feels so good to be warm and out of that damn wind, and I might actually be sleeping in a real bed tonight.
Right on time, our beautiful trail angels, Luis and Tawna, arrive to take us to their home. Tawna takes our filthy clothes, and we each have a hot shower. They make us hot drinks before bed, and for the first time since Tehachapi, I lay my head on a soft pillow.
Pure, warm, bliss; I couldn’t be happier.
Day 105: Zero day in Wrightwood
I wake up to the smell of breakfast being cooked: eggs, bacon and sourdough toast. I’m being spoiled, and I love every second of it. We sit down to an amazing meal, but Cheesy Puff suddenly disappears after only a few bites and doesn’t return. I go to check on her after I clear my plate, and she’s back in bed and curled up in the fetal position.
“I don’t know if I’m hung over, or if I ate something bad,” she says, and I ask if she’s vomited. She nods, and I know we’re going to be in town for another day. An unexpected zero, but shit happens.
Luis and Tawna invite us to stay another night, which I’m grateful for, but also anxious about. I hate over staying my welcome, and they’ve been more than generous with us. I offer to go to a motel instead, but they insist. Tawna doesn’t hesitate to whip a grilled cheese and tomato bisque for me for lunch, and we give Cheese a hot Thera-flu to help her sleep. I go through my food bag, and then I go through hers, and somewhat shockingly, pull out a package of rancid turkey bologna. I think I found the trouble, and toss it in the garbage bin straight away.
Cheesy Puff later emerges from the room, saying she feels well enough for a run into town to buy her resupply. Tawna takes us, and I grab my resupply box from the hiker-friendly hardware store, with my brand new rain jacket from Outdoor Research in it. I meet Cheese at the supermarket, and buy a hot coffee to pass the time while she shops. She’s still weak, and drained of all her color, as she shuffles around the store filling a basket.
That night, Louis says they’ll have to drop us off early back at the trail the next morning, as they’re driving down to Mexico for a few days. It’s no problem, of course, and we head to bed early, just as the color is beginning to return to Cheesy Puff’s skin.
Day 106: Wrightwood to Cajon Pass, 29 miles
Luis drives us back up to the trail in the dark, around 5 am, and gives us big, warm hugs as we depart. We walk the first several miles in the dark, passing a couple of primitive campgrounds. The air is still cold, but the wind has died down since we were here last. After the sun is up, we stop for a break to warm up in its rays, in a bed of soft pine needles. I eat some chocolate, that for once isn’t melted into an odd shape, and check my Halfmile app. I discover that our next indulgence is only 25 miles ahead: the McDonald’s at Cajon Pass, and I’ve overjoyed. I tell Cheese the good news, and her non-stop chatter about ice cream confirms that she’s feeling much better.
We walk under ski lifts, through pine forest where the air is crisp and fragrant. We pass the snow-capped Mount Baldy, and begin a long descent towards the pass through an old burn area. At a dirt road crossing, we take another break, soaking up the sunshine.
The more elevation we lose, the warmer the day becomes, until it’s downright sweltering once we get back to the desert. There’s no water anywhere, and as we round the bends of the hills, I slowly sip on my remaining liter. The freeway over Cajon Pass is noisy, but still seems so far away from us. We collect water from another cache that’s hidden away from the sun inside of an old cupboard, and start another climb, at which point a magnificent barn owl flies out in front of me. At first, I’m quite startled by the white mass that’s suddenly appeared right in my face, but once I realize what it is, I’m in awe. I turn back and look at Cheese.
“That was so awesome! This must be a good omen!” she shouts.
“Am I a wizard?”
The freight trains of the Union Pacific can be heard pushing their way up the pass, and around the many bends. From a distance I see them, but I’m tired and weary, and pop in my ear buds for an audiobook distraction. I’m trudging along, deep in the throes of ‘Annihilation’, when I hear a commotion behind me. It’s Cheesy Puff again. I pull out my ear buds, and she’s yelling about a snake and pointing into the bushes. I go back to look, and sure enough, there’s a tiny rattler coiled up in striking position.
“How’d you see that?” I ask her. She looks panicked.
“How didn’t you see that? It was beside the trail and then winded its way in between us, and then snapped at me!”
I decide it’s best not to continue with my book, and hike on with vigilant awareness, and with my eyes on the trail. Only a few more miles to go.
At the freeway, we make our way through a collection of dumped and rusty trash, and around the biggest poodle dog bush I’ve ever seen. We go under the freeway via a cement tunnel, which is dark and unnerving to be in. On the other side, we walk down the road to the McDonald’s, something we’ve been enthusiastic about all day. Again, we’ve made excellent time, as it’s only before 5pm, and this affords some time to hang around and use the WiFi.
For round one at the Golden Arches, I order the cheeseburger meal, with an extra-large soda and fries. Round two comes an hour later, and consists of an apple pie, a strawberry shake and some chicken strips with buffalo sauce. We sit there until it gets dark, chugging buckets of soda and using the bathroom, rinse and repeat. At sometime around 7 pm, we decide it’s time to get going again, and Cheese orders another round of cheeseburgers to go before we go.
We walk into the night, which I’m not crazy about due to our rattlesnake sighting previously, through a river canyon for a few more miles. At some high voltage power lines, and well away from the freeway, we make camp in a flat, sandy area. The terrible food we’ve just consumed had caught up to us, and our flatulence is not only offensive, but damn funny too. We’re laughing hysterically as we pitch our tents in the tight spot, and I wonder how Cheese can continue eating the cold burgers she’s packed out with her. It doesn’t seem to be an issue for her though, as I hear the crumpling of wrappers as we lay in our tents.
Only 340 miles to go; Mexico or bust!