No shit, there I was.
There I was in Mojave, California. The day dawned -- as every day does on the desert side of Tehachapi Pass -- warm and windy. I staggered up from the bed in my Motel 6 room, where I had fallen asleep while reading The Handmaid's Tale (kadyg sent me some pleasure reading), and into the shower -- then back to bed for another two hours. Under the covers this time.
Town days are always a whirlwind of activity, and this one was no exception. Although the "whirlwind" was a little bit more literal than usual, with steady 30+ mph winds. I scoured my pack for unused and underused equipment to shave off nearly a pound of base weight; prepared a box to mail home to Kady; and managed to get everything cleaned up and laundry washed just in time to check out of the hotel. I then wandered off across the street and spread my stuff out behind an abandoned fast-food restaurant so I could dry my clothes and inventory my food prior to grocery shopping.
It's amazing how quickly you adapt to behavior that in more civilized days you'd recoil from on the grounds that it makes you look like a hobo.
Shopping complete, I proceeded to leisurely pack up my new purchases. There is a subtle art to this. It takes no skill to transfer boxed pasta dinners into Ziploc baggies and remove anti-diarrheal drugs from their outer packaging. What does take planning and shamelessness is doing so in a location that is as close as possible to the store's front door while still being out of the path of people trying to maneuver carts.
This will inevitably lead to someone remarking on your pack, or asking about your hike, on their way by. You engage them in conversation for a little while, enthusiastically drop a trail story or two, and then slip in sideways, with a helpless look in your eyes: "By the way, I don't suppose you know a way I could get to the post office?" They offer you a ride, out of the goodness of their hearts.
This is known as a "yogi." You can yogi rides, food, water; true masters can yogi showers or even places to stay overnight, but I'm not nearly shameless enough for that yet. It relies on the basic generosity of people, and their desire to get some warm fuzzies for doing a favor to someone in need -- but it's not quite the same thing as begging. I always try to make certain that I can give a little something in exchange, even if it's just sharing my adventures or answering their questions about the trail. Usually, I'll try to get an address so I can mail them a thank-you postcard later on.
In this particular case, I caught a ride to the post office (saving myself a windy, mile-long walk) from the head of the local Chamber of Commerce. We chatted about Mojave's industry and airport for a while. I asked whether the constant wind was a hindrance for pilots. Surprisingly, the answer is no: Planes take off and land directly into or with the wind, and a good engine can take up the slack from unexpected turbulence. (The smaller planes can have problems, but they have a fairly major airfield and get larger craft.)
After labeling all of the trail souvenirs for Kady and wrapping up some journal entries, I mailed her the box (and sent out a postcard for girlontime's Outward Bound trip), and strode off to the Chinese buffet to stuff myself before leaving town. It was ... average, at best, but quantity counts for a lot out here in thru-hiker land, and I did enjoy the food.
Then came the search for a ride out of town.
I tried to yogi a ride at a few of the gas stations along the main drag, with no success. (Plenty of nibbles -- everyone was quite happy to give me directions toward Tehachapi -- but no bites.) I'd heard that White's Motel had in the past given rides to hikers -- but they were carless and apologetic. They let me use their phone to call a cab company, but I found out the 12 miles out to the trailhead would be $30 and decided to keep trying my luck. I tried to yogi a ride at several other motels with no success; and then, running out of options, walked over to Oak Creek Road (the route back to where I'd left the trail) and stuck out my thumb.
Thru-hikers quickly learn that hitching is the least reliable (and, potentially, most dangerous) way to get a ride. Yogiing has a higher success rate because you get to size up your conversational partner before "asking" for anything; and because you get the chance to humanize yourself and show that you're just a harmless hiker. With a hitch, you have to rely on people being willing to pick up strangers sight unseen. In my experience, hitchers and hitchees are still both mostly harmless -- but without that chance for a little trust to accumulate, and without that chance for both sides to humanize each other, it becomes a lot easier for the driver to just look the other way and head on by.
It also doesn't help when, as with Oak Creek Road, traffic in that particular direction is almost nonexistent. I watched four cars pass by in ten minutes, eyed the sun sinking toward the horizon, and trudged back to the am/pm, steeling myself to just start approaching random drivers and offering them $10 for a ride (rather than $30 for the taxi).
No sooner had I walked into the am/pm lot than a white truck pulled in -- one of the ones that had passed me a minute or two earlier. The young woman driving (and her younger brother and boyfriend) waved me in -- and, since they were heading to Tehachapi anyway, even refused my offer of gas money. Trail magic at its finest.
After the brief and conversation-filled ride back to the trailhead, I started hiking down Cameron Canyon Road. (The trail basically parallels it on that eight-mile stretch, except a few hundred feet higher and a lot windier [in both senses of the word]. So I just shrugged and hit the pavement.) My stomach protested a bit as I struggled in the gusting headwinds; I'd overeaten for sure. But I pressed on, and I was keeping up a steady if not fast pace when a barking dog ran out onto the road from a driveway labeled "Heaven Canyon."
His owners soon called him back, and recognizing me as a hiker, called out to me: "Want some water or anything?"
"I just came from Mojave -- I filled up in town," I shouted back over the gusts of chilly evening air.
"Want a cold lemonade then?"
"Heck, I can't resist a lemonade," I gave in.
Randy handed me a can of ice-cold Minute Maid. I popped the top while we chatted. The dog's name, I found out, was Sparkle. Sparkle seemed to greatly enjoy being scratched behind the ears.
After guzzling the lemonade, I thanked them and set off again. Sparkle trotted past me and wormed under the barbed-wire fence across the street to go check on the cows. And then, after I'd rounded a corner, bounded up behind me and shadowed me for a quarter mile or more, tail wagging.
I finally stopped and tried to gently shoo him back home. He walked on past and looked back at me expectantly. I took a few more steps, and Sparkle matched my pace, escorting me forward.
At this point I was getting a bit concerned. Randy might not appreciate me taking both his lemonade AND his dog. I turned back and started walking the quarter mile back to Heaven Canyon; Sparkle obediently turned around and trotted by my side. "Go on back home," I urged him, but he wouldn't get more than a few paces from me.
I walked back to the corner near the house and set a brisk pace toward it. Sparkle bounded on ahead of me and around the corner. I did an about-face and snuck away back up the road as quietly as I could. Ha, I thought, that'll do it.
The silence lasted for about fifteen seconds before I heard little feet bounding up the pavement behind me.
Defeated, I backtracked almost all the way back to the driveway. "Hey," I yelled out to Randy, "you might want to call your dog back. She seems determined to head out on an adventure with me."
It took Randy a good half-minute of coaxing to get Sparkle back down the hill to the house. I must give really good ear-scratches.
Between dinner, ride-scrounging, and backtracking, it was pretty much dark at this point. The moon was a little bit past full, but wouldn't be rising for several hours. So I walked several miles of road by starlight. It was a pleasant experience -- cool, with the wind easing off a bit, and the road undulating on a mostly level route down the canyon -- marred by an increasingly protesting stomach. Chugging a can of ice-cold lemonade on top of an already huge Chinese meal had taken me from full to the verge of food coma (and the internal temperature drop wasn't helping digestion any). The next hour and a half passed in a haze of staggered steps, occasional cars, and barking dogs (no more of which, thankfully, were able to get out to the road).
But soon enough, I crossed the railroad tracks underneath Highway 58 and walked up the incline to the Cameron Road overpass. Hooray! The official end of the guidebook's Section E, at mile 566.6. The end of the Tehachapis and the official beginning of the Sierra Nevada range. Not much immediate difference in terrain, but what a landmark! I dropped my pack behind a guardrail with a huge sense of relief, and took a few minutes' rest break, watching scores of cars pass by underneath but practically none of them climb up to this middle-of-nowhere exit.
My mind began to flash back to my younger days.
Back when I was finishing college -- I took a few final summer courses at a community college to wrap up the credit requirements for UC Santa Barbara -- I took a photography class, and ended up doing some experiments with night photography to finish a class assignment. At that time, I had driven out to the Altamont Pass near the San Francisco bay area -- my old stomping grounds while growing up -- and gotten some time-exposure shots of cars rushing down the interstate under a full moon that backlit the Altamont's windmill farms.
Suddenly, here I was, back on top of a major highway's overpass -- in the midst of wind-blasted foothills, surrounded by turbines, in the middle of the night, with a nearly-full moon coming up in several hours. I couldn't resist pulling out my camera and tripod for some nostalgia-tinged timed-exposure shots.
They turned out well; my respect for the Sony W5 is still growing. But, of course, each shot required 30 seconds of exposure and at least as much for processing, on top of the time spent planting the tripod and lining up the shot. So I was there for nearly 20 minutes. I barely noticed at first when a white SUV pulled off the highway and parked alongside the offramp; some dude flipping through his maps driving in unfamiliar territory at night. When the car got moving again and swung over the overpass, that got my attention, of course -- I had to stand up from tending the camera to make sure they didn't absentmindedly run me down. But it wasn't until the driver reached the other side of the overpass, turned around, and stopped that I began to get a little concerned.
Ooooookay, I thought. I checked my camera, keeping one eye on the SUV, and walked out into the middle of the overpass in order to get a straight-on shot down the river of headlights.
The SUV gunned it as I reached the middle of the bridge, roared back past me, and went back to the side it had started on. Then turned around and waited again.
Now definitely getting concerned, I shot a shortened exposure -- keeping an eye on the vehicle and on my pack, hidden behind a guard rail uncomfortably close to it. The SUV idled while I worked. I decided this was getting creepy and made a beeline back for my pack so that I could grab my stuff and move on to the relative safety of the trail.
As I approached -- because going over to my pack meant getting closer to the SUV -- it gunned the engine and roared past me, across the bridge again.
To heck with this. I was getting fed up with the game of cat and mouse. I about-faced and walked over the overpass, looking straight into the headlights of the SUV and waving. I figured I could explain I was just doing some night photography and try to figure out why they had stopped; no sense in having us keep passing each other and getting more and more creeped out. But at my approach, the SUV peeled out past me one last time, swerving out to the onramp and tearing away down the highway.
Well, shit, I thought. That has all the look of someone who's running down to the next town to call 911.
I took one last photo, grabbed my pack, and hustled across the overpass to the trailhead. The next section of the PCT turned sharply eastbound, paralleling the freeway a few dozen feet away, so I wouldn't exactly be out into the wilderness, but at least I'd have a barbed-wire fence between me and any more curiosity-seekers. On the other hand, I was now hacking through a brushy trail instead of a wide, clear road, so I had to pull out my headlamp to make any progress.
I got a good half-mile down the trail, winding around chamise and through foxtails and occasionally past overgrown, sinister barbed plants. Then, without warning, there was a dull snap from somewhere near my back. The right side of my pack sagged.
I slowed down and prodded at my pack frame. What the ...? I thought. This thing's indestructible. It couldn't have. Especially not while just randomly walking down the trail, after 550-plus miles of steady use.
But my fears proved true. I gently prodded at the pack frame and felt a sharp edge. Two of the Velcro loops holding the cylinders to the frame were hanging loose.
Then I'd better stop and try to figure out what happened, I thought --
-- and noticed a car creeping down the side of the highway. With spotlights on, sweeping the side of the road.
Oh boy! I quickly realized. That would be the cop that SUV-moron summoned. And now I've looked straight at him. With my headlamp on. So no sense ducking into the bushes. Can't look suspicious now. Really don't want to waste another half-hour tonight trying to get everything ironed out with the authorities.
All I could do was try to look like a simple hiker. Just a hiker passing through, officer. Figured I would night-hike this section. Don't a lot of people? It gets hot during the day and the next water source is 18 miles away. Besides, I can't camp by the highway; I've got another mile or two before I'm back on BLM land --
Except, of course, my pack frame is now broken and my pack is trying to splatter itself all over creation.
I lean forward to rest the pack weight on my back, wrap my arms back around my pack, keep my head looking straight down the trail, and project hiker vibes. A few steps forward, a little load shifting, a little more hiking. Settling back into a rhythm, keeping that headlamp bobbing. Is the cop stopping? I risk a look. He's slowed down to a steady crawl, but that spotlight's not aimed my way. I glance at the cop car a few more times for good measure -- can't afford to look too disinterested -- and keep walking, holding my pack together with sheer force of will.
The cop passes by, and crawls off toward the now-half-mile-distant exit. Of course, that might just mean that he's going to stop at the trailhead and try to walk back to catch up with me. So no stopping hiking now. He'll give up pretty quickly if I've got a half-mile lead and am setting a usual thru-hiker pace.
So I walk another 10 minutes down the trail with my broken pack. Then another 10, for good measure, in case he was turning around at the exit and making a second sweep. Then I reach a dry riverbed that drops down underneath the freeway. Veer toward it and crouch down, gently lowering my broken pack to the sand, out of sight of all the cars for the first time since leaving the overpass.
The frame pole snapped clean through. (It is -- I discover the next morning -- aluminum; and so the pack manufacturer would keep expressing surprise that it showed no signs of buckling, fatigue, or deformation before going.) It took with it the load-bearing internal cable -- so, even though I was able to jerry-rig a splint together out of some duct tape and two tent stakes, I didn't have any confidence that it would last me for more than a few miles. (The manufacturer recommended the next morning that I lash the frame top and bottom together on that side with a few coils of cord. Which did help, but my repair is still far from long-term stable.)
After half an hour of repair work -- during which, let it not be forgotten, I'm still freaked out by my SUV/cop encounter; feeling nauseous and bloated from overeating/lemonade-chugging; and on the verge of passing out from exhaustion because it's creeping up on midnight -- I finally get to a point where I'm satisfied with my efforts, and gingerly lift it to my shoulders. I stagger up the trail, which is finally veering away from the highway, and get as far as the first little cluster of Joshua trees before I set up a quick camp and collapse. I call Kady on my cell phone and relay the news, then spend a restless night, with the moon shining into my face and constant train and vehicle traffic roaring above the background drone of the windmills and white noise of wind gusts.
I dream that queenofstripes, postrodent and I are hanging out, having some fascinating conversations while curling up on the couch together and trading literary analyses of some high-school students' poems about the weather. queenofstripes then gently tells me he's somewhat uncomfortable with the way postrodent and I are casually lying down on the couch together while looking over the same piece of paper. "Oh," I think while apologizing profusely and scrambling upright. "This is awkward. Now all of a sudden everything I do is going to have a totally unintended sexual subtext to it, and it's going to poison our conversations for a while."
Then I wake up, back in the inescapable wind and the sun, freeway roaring beyond the Joshua trees, a few lone red ants beginning to crawl onto my groundsheet.
Seriously. All true and unembellished. I couldn't make this stuff up.
The bottom line is -- after the continual foot woes, the Memorial Day break, the giardia slowdown and the unexpected sick days, and the tenuous progress I've been finally making -- I backtracked to the freeway (day 51 = negative trail miles!) and hitched back into town, and now I'm stuck here in this area until Monday, when my replacement frame should be arriving in Mojave.
Every time I think I'm going to start making some real progress, some new and creative disaster strikes. This time, though, it's just gone over the top straight into absurdity.
I'd cry if it weren't so hilarious.