22.8 miles (478.2 to 501.0)
Ok. Here it goes: 1) the stretch of trail I’ve been most apprehensive about, 2) during an excessive heat wave, 3) on my own.
I’ve dreaded the Agua Dulce to Tehachapi section since before I decided to hike the whole trail. I’ve read books and blogs by those who’ve survived. I know what’s coming. Long, dry stretches between questionable water sources. Whole days of nothing but wind farms. Intense heat requiring night hiking. Night hiking the LA Aquaduct. Hikertown, which is often called creepy by women traveling solo. This is the one section I don’t want to hike alone. The trail gods are testing me.
Trail angel Joe takes me and a hiker named Martin to the trail at 4:30am. We set off wearing headlamps. Hitting the trail without Dad is weird and sad. If all goes well, he’ll only be away for four days. But that’s almost 100 miles. Right now, that feels like forever. I choke up as I take my first solo steps. I really shouldn’t cry now. If I start, I’ll be a mess for most of the morning. I need to be strong, now more than ever.
The day begins with a climb. A few minutes in, I’m already sweating. Ahead, something reflects the light from my headlamp. Something red. I get closer. There’s a Poorwill sitting on trail! It’s huge eyes glow in my headlight. Awesome.
Only 45 minutes into the hike, I turn off my headlamp. Already my right foot doesn’t feel well. The ball of my foot hurts, a troubling new problem; my arch aches more than usual. I stop and switch insoles. For a few minutes, the aches and pains fade. Then they return. Is it the new shoes? I had two sizes sent to Hiker Heaven because I wasn’t sure which pair would fit. I went with size 10.5, rather than the size 10 I previously wore, because the 10s seemed slightly too small. Thankfully I’m still carrying my old shoes. I slip them on and strap the new shoes to my pack. The pain in the ball of my foot disappears almost immediately. The arch pain eases but doesn’t disappear entirely. It rarely does, these days. When I get reception near Lake Hughes Road, I order another pair of size 10 Lone Peaks. Live and learn.
I now face an uphill slog to a spring. I raise my umbrella. Even in its shade, even at 8am, sweat streams down my face. I haven’t sweat this much the whole trip! Martin is at the spring filtering water when I arrive. I collect and filter 7 liters for the next 20 miles (plus a dry camp). I shock Martin with this whopping amount of water. I carry more water than anyone else out here, but I never regret carrying so much. I know I’ll drink it all and still want more, especially in today’s heat.
I do 10 by 10. In fact, I do 13.2 by 11. Then I stop for a break in the shade of a live oak cluster. The shade feels great, but where there’s shade, there’s flies, and the flies are horrible. There are several species, including those out for blood. Martin arrives and rests for awhile, then heads off again while I stretch and massage my feet. When I get started again, my feet don’t hurt(!).
I break for lunch near mile 15 in a cluster of conifers. Flies swarm my stinky body. I swat as I eat. I have a blister on the tip of my toe, the same toe that blistered early in the trip. I pull out my first aid kit and pop the blister and bandage it. I lay down for a few minutes and manage to fall asleep between fly bites. Before long, I’m back on the trail.
To my surprise, I spend the afternoon wandering through forest. There’s so much shade that I put my umbrella away and hike in just my cap, no sun flaps necessary. The grade is mostly flat. The tread is easy. Down below I see desert and windmills. Up here, I’m surrounded by oak, pine, Douglas fir, and cedar.
I hit 20 miles at 4pm and stop for a foot care break. If I take care of my feet, I can do a few more miles. Stretching and massage complete, I head out and soon reach PCT mile 500. When I see the little numbers on the side of the trail, I get choked up again. Dad’s not here, and this is a big one. This is 500 miles. 500. Hundred. Miles.
I take my usual photograph and continue on, looking for a campsite. The topo looked promising, and I expected to find something near here, but the trail is a tunnel through shrubbery. There’s no room for a tent. Finally a little site appears, tucked into shrubs beside the trail. Perfect!
I stop and set up camp. At the back of the site I have a view of the desert. I enjoy the view while I eat dinner. Then I get into my tent and finally get away from the flies. I go through my foot care routine, which tonight includes popping a blister on my right heel. My feet feel good after such a long day. I’m encouraged. With the right size shoes and an appropriate foot care program, it looks I’ll be able to pull off big days.
*More photos on Instagram.