At least the early start proved to be a boon. With the San Felipe Hills ahead of me - a much discussed and feared 24-mile waterless section - I wanted to do as much hiking as I could before it got seriously hot.
So I packed up and walked. Walked uphill through chaparral and the occasional cactus, desert plants alive with spring color. Walked through canyons and around ridges as the path traversed and switch-backed across every nook and cranny of the hills' western face. Walked steadily, relieved that the bushwhacking near Rodriguez Canyon wasn't generally a factor, buoyed by the generally easy tread and grade (even if it did mean contouring around every land feature in sight).
There was - as I would come to expect from the desert - precious little shade, and that dropped to nil as the sun rose to its apex. But a mild wind and frequent rest breaks kept the hike bearable as I gradually ate up the miles and drank up my 5.5 liters of water.
Landmarks were few and far between. But within a few hours - and after passing Barrel and The Monk and a few others who were walking at a less demanding pace - I stepped through a cattle gate. Then, some time later, a second. The third gate - one half the distance through the hills, and site of the aptly-named Third Gate Cache - was my lunch destination, and I pulled in about mid-afternoon and gratefully collapsed underneath a chest-high shrub for quasi-shade, rest and food.
There were over half a dozen hikers doing the same, and plenty of water at the cache, so spirits were high - though most hikers were too tired to do much but rest and eat. I decided after my meal to press on and see how far through the hills I could make it.
After a few minutes of getting lost in a sandy wash where the trail tread turned to useless mini-dunes, and after a killer switchback that quite literally covered two miles and circled a ridge just to return to where it started about 150 vertical feet up, the fourth gate came and went. I started to have visions of perhaps doing the entire stretch of hills - out to Barrel Springs - in a day, and prepared to night hike (under a brilliant waxing nearly-full moon) the final stretch after a quick sunset detour for my first PCT wilderness crap. (Great views.)
With hurting feet but high spirits, I descended the hills' northern slopes in the cool evening - passing Billy Goat, who had holed up in what looked to be an old miner's cave shelter, one of the best camps I'd see on the early trail - and gates 5, 6, and 7 fell in quick succession. (The fact of there being seven gates had been leading me to filk Sting's "Seven Days" for most of the afternoon.)
The biggest morale boost of the day was pulling into Barrel Springs to find and honest-to-goodness campfire. Sunset, Junker, Rigg and She-Ra were settling in, eating more of Meadow Mary's gift oranges and apples and basking in the flames. I did the same, after refilling my water at the spring and trying to find a noisy but well-hidden toad croaking near the base of the trough built around it. The nearly full moon shone through a thin layer of clouds.