18.3 miles (436.1 to 454.4)
We wake to a clear dawn. As we leave the ranger station, we leave what will probably be the last patch of forest for a few hundred miles. Two ravens circle us, cawing repeatedly. This goes on for maybe a minute and feels rather surreal.
We break for snacks. Back on the trail, I hear, then see, a Phainopepla – the first of the trip (if I remember correctly). We continue downhill and finally cross into what I assume is the Sand Fire burn area. Down a little farther, we reach the turnoff to the KOA. Dad has one serving of oatmeal left in his food bag; he hopes to find something for lunch at the KOA store, but the store is disappointing: high prices and low selection. We exit empty-handed and sit at a picnic table in the shade.
I eat my usual lunch of beans and crushed chips. Dad eats a bar. As we stand up to leave, Dad spots Beezer’s distinctive shorts across the lawn. Beezer and Noodle have arrived! They join us at the picnic table. A group of campers in a nearby site is packing up to leave. They have a lot of uneaten food, which they proceed to bring over to us, one armful at a time. Dad scores salad mix, ranch dressing, three hotdogs, and jam on a bun. Noodle, who desperately wanted a Snickers bar, receives a bag of mini-Snickers. He and Beezer also accept a hotdogs. I take a few spoonfuls of peanut butter. Trail magic has found us.
After lunch we face a sustained, shadeless climb. Today I’m slow on the uphill, frustrating after my strong uphill performance yesterday. My sweat soaked, dust encrusted pants stick to my legs, hindering every step. At the top of the hill, we’re surprised by a view of Highway 14. Lovely. The next stretch of trail drops us down to a memorable crossing under the freeway.
Next up: Vasquez Rocks. The rock formations are spectacular. We hike through the park, following PCT signs as best we can, and emerge on the outskirts of Agua Dulce. Now only a road walk separates us from Hiker Heaven and our next shower. The grocery store comes into view. As we enter the parking lot, a pickup pulls up next to us. The driver asks if we’re heading for Hiker Heaven. As luck would have it, she’s driving the shuttle that runs between Hiker Heaven and town.
The Saufleys who run Hiker Heaven generously provide PCT hikers with a place to spend the night, send resupply packages, take a shower, do laundry, and use the internet. My first order of business is to set up my tent so I can get everything out of my pack and find the things that needs washing. Then I’ll take a shower and change into clean loaner clothes. As I check out the few available flat and semi-flat tent spots, I turn around and find myself in a standoff with a rooster. This little guy won’t let me pass. I back up, he charges forward. I go sideways, he stays with me. I hope someone’s getting a video of this. (Unfortunately, no one is.)
Eventually I break free. I set up my tent out of the rooster’s zone, take a shower, and submit my clothes for cleaning. Mom stuffed a few extra goodies into my resupply box. Thank you! I get busy eating. Beezer, Noodle, Dad, and another hiker named Martin plan to go out for dinner in town. I don’t want to spend money on a meal when I have more than enough food, so I eat bean and rice noodles with olive oil, plus a whole box of paleo cookies, plus a whole chocolate bar. I then tag along when the guys go out to dinner; I end up eating some of Dad’s fries.
Back at Hiker Heaven, it’s already getting dark. I dive into my tent and try to organize my things. There are a lot of people here tonight and they’re surprisingly noisy, even at 9:30pm (long past my bedtime, but I’m still awake trying to finish my daily writing). Neighbor dogs bark and bark. Hiker Heaven is an awesome place, but I don’t know how well I’m going to sleep. I hope everyone quiets down soon.
*More photos on Instagram.