A late start after a late night, floating in the pool. Finishing laundry as the generator is turned off. I have way too much food: the Chester stash, a full resupply box and a belly full of restaurant dinner. Waking up in the car campground where we crashed close to midnight; deciding not to pay for the campsite for six hours use. Allaying worries about acting like an entitled thru-hiker with vague self-promises to donate to the National Park system at a later date.
I wander through the campground looking for the trailhead, letting my phone app do the work, when a silver-haired women wearing a skirt, tights and cascadia’s approaches. “Everyone wears skirts now,” she says with a spark in her eyes, “but I think I was the first.” I gently ask for details, and learn of her solo PCT thru-hike in 1999. Before phone apps. Before trail angels. Before water caches. She tells of major route finding, and having to backtrack over high mountain passes crossed by mistake. She concludes that “more was lost than gained,” as new kinds of support sand the rough edges off the challenges, making the trail more accessible, but also dampening the sense of adventure and accomplishment.
I want to stay for stories, but it’s warming up and I have Hat Creek Rim on my mind. One of the infamous waterless stretches, thirty miles long, that I have to face tomorrow. I need to pick up a bottle since I only have a three liter capacity at the moment. It’s 23 miles to a store, which closes at 7; not looking good.
The way is gentle and uneventful. I have the woman’s stories turning round in my head, as I imagine what it must have been like then. To be the first woman in a skirt on the PCT, wandering alone over the wrong pass. Wondering if I would have made it then, or would have even dared to try.
I stop for water and a snack at a creek, and sitting right there is an empty plastic bottle. In its usual mysterious way, the trail provides. I no longer have to push for the store closing and can relax a bit. I pause for lunch at the lake, beachy and beautiful, and set about eating as if it is my job. There’s one other hiker here – Tikimon – the only other person who seems to be out here today. I must have landed myself between bubbles again.
Just after the lake, there’s a long burn area with its fickle bands of shade. The trail is far more exposed than I was expecting, and it is suddenly hot. Hot like the Mojave was supposed to be. I probably do not have enough water, but there’s none to be found in this scorched land. Three miles later, drowsy with lunch and blaring sun, I take a tyvek nap in the meager shade of a dead tree. When I wake at four, the heat has only marginally subsided, if at all. The trail is almost imperceptibly downhill, flat and smooth, but I am barely moving, as if the air itself wants to keep me in my place.
Finally I reach the creek, where water burbles and live trees offer proper shade. Soon after, Happy Feet, who I have not seen since the rain day in the Mojave, appears from the North, much to my confusion. She flipped this section, and is southbounding with Little Foot to mix things up. As is almost always the case, I was not alone in feeling the heat today. Little Foot informs me that it was in fact 106 degrees. In the shade. Not that there was much of that. Tomorrow is supposed to be even warmer.
I sit in the little waterfalls in the creek, ‘icing’ my knee that is swollen again, and rinsing away the heat. “This is the best thing I’ve done all day,” I say to my friends sitting on the bank, trying to salvage a rough day. I stand up, and see some bits of creek grime stuck to my legs. But when I go to brush them off they curl up. Baby leeches. My bottom half is covered in baby leeches! Maybe fifty of them, a half inch long. I calmly pick them off, thankful I was wearing underwear, amazed that I am not more upset. I have become so wild, I think.
As it gets dark, Unicorn and Charlie show up, and then Granny and Ornie. Alone all day, I was just a few miles from all kinds of friends. It’s a happy convergence, and one of the few occasions PCT women have outnumbered the men. We sip sweet cider, made for all by Happy Feet, and laugh as Unicorn recounts her tale of sneaking Charlie through the National Park campground: dog on her shoulders like a big fur scarf, umbrella up, strolling through as if nothing at all was out of the ordinary.