33.9 miles (501.0 to 534.9)
I leave at 4:45am by the light of my headlamp. Soon I reach a marker for the 500th mile…located at mile 501.8. The trail has obviously changed over time.
It’s already hot out here. I have some water left, but not enough to chug like I really want to. I stop in at a water tank just off the trail, hoping I can collect a little water. As noted in the water report, water level here is low and mixed with garbage. No thanks. A tenth of a mile later I check in at a guzzler. The water is so low that it’s not worth trying to collect. On I go, until mile 504.5, when I head off trail to another guzzler. Yes! This one has plenty of water, and it’s clean and cold. It’s my first time getting water from a guzzler. Not bad. I load up for the rest of the walk to Hikertown.
After the guzzler, the landscape changes from shrubland to oak forest. I descend, sometimes steeply, through several species of oak and associated shrubs. I see a doe and lots of deer tracks.
Then I’m in dense shrubs again, getting lower and lower while the temperature rises higher and higher. I stop for a break in what could be my last chance for shade. It’s about 10am. I only have 6.6 miles to Hikertown, which shouldn’t take too long, and then I’ll spend the afternoon relaxing in shade. I put on my shoes and backpack and descend to a paved road. Good. Now it should be smooth sailing to Highway 138.
From here, the trail…goes up. As I climb, I see what looks like a trail ahead on the next hill…still going up. What the hell? I pull out my phone and take a better look at the elevation profile. Oh, no. I’ll be climbing and descending over and over again, all the way to Hikertown. My skin tingles. I don’t know if I can do this right now. It’s too hot. There’s no shade. No wind. Why is there no wind? There’s a wind farm below! But not even a breeze stirs the air up here. Sweat streams down my face. Am I carrying enough water to get through this? I definitely don’t have enough water to sit around all day waiting for the heat to pass. I have get out of here.
I’m far outside my comfort zone. I need help. Distraction. Something. Normally I don’t play music while I hike so I can listen for rattlesnakes. Now, however, I’m desperate. Now is the time for music. I plug in my earbuds and play the noisiest album on my phone. Please get me through this. The first song covers the sound of my plodding footsteps. The second song is called “Welcome to Dying.” Hmm. Maybe this album wasn’t the best choice. Actually, it’s perfect. When I feel especially horrible, I laugh out loud. I’m really doing this. I’m dragging myself through the Mojave during a heat wave.
I catch only light, infrequent breezes. The trail keeps going up. Where is this trail taking me? How is there no breeze? My music ends. I play the album again, at higher volume. The trail merges with a dirt road and takes me up yet again. At the top, I can see straight down to Highway 138. Finally, the end is near. I shuffle down the dirt road, and across the highway, and then a little farther to Hikertown.
Some hikers – usually women arriving on their own – call Hikertown creepy. Well, here I am on my own. The whole valley is ominous: the lonely highway, the heat, the desperate feeling of being alone on foot in an immense desert. I pass through the gate and walk toward the tree in the center of the Hikertown compound. Ghandi, a hiker/volunteer, finds me and gives me an overview of the place, but I can’t focus. I put my feet in a tub of water, then rinse my shirt in the tub and drape the wet shirt over my shoulders. Better. For a long time I just sit. When I think my stomach can handle it, I eat lunch. Then Ghandi helps me collect my resupply box. I take the box into the shade of one of the huts and sit on the tile porch organizing my food. I need to get out of here tonight. I need to go as far as I can before I either fall asleep or my feet hurt too much to continue. The next water source is over 17 miles away. If I can get halfway there tonight, I’ll probably be ok; I can get up at 3:00 tomorrow and do the rest before the heat returns. I make plans to hike out at 6pm with three gals who spent last night in Hikertown. They’re friendly, they don’t take themselves seriously, and they’re nervous about the next stretch. My kind of people.
When 6pm arrives the temperature has already dropped significantly. Movement seems possible. My new companions are slow to get started, however, and at 6:15 I finally take off ahead of them. I’m carrying six liters of water, which I hope will get me through the next 17 miles of desert, plus a dry camp tonight.
Apparently I’m the first hiker to actually leave Hikertown this evening. Everyone else is congregated around the water spigot, not moving. Oh well. I walk on and reach the LA Aquaduct and follow it until it turns into a giant closed pipe. Then I follow that. Then, after nearly four miles, a few hikers finally catch me. The first to pass is a guy from Georgia with an American flag strapped to his pack. Dad and I met him on our way to Wrightwood when we met the day hikers who offered us bananas. Another guy passes me, one I don’t remember meeting before, then two ladies I’ve seen several times, most recently at Casa de Luna; they left shortly after we arrived.
I hike behind them as the sun sinks lower and lower. When it sets, the four of them pause on the aquaduct to photograph the view. I can’t resist photographing them.
I keep trucking while they remain behind; they don’t catch me again for over a mile. The aquaduct is now buried beneath a paved surface, and I’m cruising on the adjacent dirt road (easier on the feet than pavement) when the four of them breeze by me. I’d really like to hike with them – I’m going to need companions if I’m going to hike after dark without falling asleep – but they’re so much faster than me. I speak up and manage to insert myself into their conversation.
One of them says, “There’s room for one more on the aquaduct.”
“I’d love to, but I don’t think I can keep up with you.”
Well, not with that attitude. I have to try, so I do, and for awhile I struggle to stay with them. Then, somehow, suddenly I’m matching their strides. Once I settle into their pace, it comes easily.
My new companions are Joe, Sarah, Jackie, and Chadwick (apologies if I’ve misremembered your names). As darkness falls, I tell them about Dad having to leave the trail. I hear some of their trail stories. Joe asks us to share our biggest accomplishments.
“I recently recovered from Lyme disease.”
“I didn’t know that was possible.”
“That’s why it’s such a big accomplishment.”
This leads to a discussion of my career as a wildlife biologist. Joe is majoring in wildlife biology. We geek out on wildlife topics for awhile.
It’s dark, and it’s becoming obvious that I’m going to have to take a break. I don’t know how far I’m capable of going, but if I’m going to keep going, my feet need to rest. Someone checks the app and announces we’ve already done 8.5 miles – halfway to the water source. We stop and sit in a circle on the aquaduct and take off our shoes and eat snacks. Martin shows up and sits nearby. Others arrive and sit and eat. We pass around a bar of dark chocolate. Then we all start moving again.
Shockingly, my feet feel ok. My body feels ok. Walking feels good, or at least not bad. Can I stay with these guys for another 8 miles? Can I really pull off a 34 mile day? Suddenly, it seems possible.
Kangaroo rats race by in the dark. Red lights on the tops of wind turbines blink on and off. Close to midnight, one of the guys says that he’s running on fumes. I don’t even have fumes left in my tank, but somehow I’m still moving. The others want to take a rest stop; I could use one, too. We agree to stop at what will be my 30th mile. Thirty miles. And my body isn’t done yet. After the break I put my shoes back on. Except for the blister, my feet don’t hurt. This is incredible. We’re 3.9 miles from the water. I think I’m going to make it.
We arrive shortly after 1am. I find a place to pitch my tent and collapse inside. 34 miles. In one day.
*More photos on Instagram.