Water: six from fire station, two of which I drank there
Shivering at dawn, but already sweating by the time I start hiking, it’s not quite seven am. The desert is near. Warning me it is near time to become nocturnal.
The station fire raged through here a few years back, and we must traverse its remains. For miles and miles and there is Poodle Dog Bush in thickets all along the trail. Bits and pieces need dodging, demanding almost constant attention. A swarm of little flies circles my face, somehow flying backwards as I walk. My face stings with sweat or fly nibbles. Or, maybe, I worry, poodle poison transported to my face by tiny fly feet. Focus, I think. Do not walk into PDB on behalf of the flies. I am slowing losing it, just past nine am.
The day keeps getting warmer, heat beating down and reflecting up from the earth, like walking through an oven. The sickly sweet stench of PDB fills the air until my skin itches. We rename it: Rottweiler bush, devils bush, shit bush, Voldemyrtle.
Water today is at a remote fire station, all shiny-new rebuilt after itself burning down. The shade of a pit toilet never looked so good. We huddle close, taking a long break, following the shadow as it shifts around to the next side.
I am fully hydrated, and freshly rested, but eight pounds of water weighs heavy in my pack. It’s hot as your favorite metaphor, white-dead tree skeletons casting only the barest stripes across the trail. The PDB gets worse. We do the poodle dance, turning and twisting to avoid the spiky leaves and flower buds leaning over the trail. There are loads of other flowers strikingly in bloom, but we only have eyes for danger. It appears as stealth poodle, hidden in other innocent plants, and as baby PDB crouched behind bushes ready to pounce. Grey brushes his pant leg, Shenanigans her hand. We stop and soap and rinse and hope for the best. I think I got the ankle of my pants in the end. The dangerous substance inspires Grey to tell stories of chemistry lab mishaps, sulfuric acid explosions and fume hoods on fire.
I am so tired, so hot. Can’t focus, feel nauseous. I scour the trailside for a poodle free patch, and sit on a rock. Though I urge them on, friends stay and share electrolyte mix. I chug the fake-sweet punch, my rock seat a radiator.
There are still five miles to go. Most of them poodled, most of them uphill. There are steep detours around large patches blocking the trail. We cannot imagine what this looked like before the trail maintenance crew risked their skin for ours.
I cannot go up any further, but still the trail climbs, and somehow I follow. For the last few miles I am on the verge of tears, absolutely exhausted. With the heat. With the climb. With the constant vigilance. With the flies whose last wishes involve drinking my sweat and crawling up my nose to die.
After an eternity, we reach the ridge. The sun is setting over a horizon of rippled hills, layer after layer fading blue. This, along with the discovery of a long-lost jolly rancher candy, makes the struggle worth it. I cowboy camp with my food, semi-alone. We are all spread out across the campground, laying exhausted. There are bear proof garbage cans here, never comforting. Hopefully there are no visitors in the night, and I wake without blistering rashes.