Water: 4L (and a bit) from tap at Subway Cave
Just after sunrise, our happy party scatters south and north and sideways. Unicorn and Charlie head toward the road in search of a ride. It’s shaping up to be insanely hot today, official expectations of 108F or more, and the exposed waterless stretch that is Hat Creek Rim will be no place for a dog. Or humans, really.
Though the sun has barely peeked above the horizon, the heat of the day is already settling in, weighing oppressive on sticky skin, in struggling lungs. I make a breakfast beeline for JJs café with Tikimon, who I met yesterday at the lake. We find all kinds of interesting things to talk about, the decline of traditional animation (surprisingly computer animation is not at fault), and shared admiration for television series the Wire. Tikimon, it turns out, is a veteran of the 1980s and 90s hand-drawn animation scene. I ask if he’s worked on anything I might know, and to my immense delight, get “The Land Before Time” as response. And to think I camped with a Little Foot just last night. You never know who you will meet out here.
Over eggs and potatoes, I share desert strategy with Tikimon, who began the trail after the SoCal stretch, and realize how much I have learned these past few months. Back in Mojave mode, the plan is to rest away the hottest part of the day, hiking out in the late afternoon and into the night. We linger over countless refills of water and coffee, ceiling fans above spinning enthusiastically but to little avail. I eye piles of food left barely touched by a family of non-hikers on a nearby table. I would devour the remains in a second if no one was looking.
I retreat from temptation to the shaded front patio, with a ziplock baggie of ice provided by the kind and ever so hiker friendly cafe staff. My knee is visibly swollen worse than ever, and was sending out new kinds of pain signals this morning. Signals that translate roughly as “COLLAPSE IMMINENT.” I am seriously considering ending this summer’s hike here, looking at maps, asking others what they know about connections to nearby towns. But to leave the trail just before a notorious tough stretch feels too much like quitting. “Never quit on a bad day. Never quit on a bad day,” the hiker truism becoming sound advice as it reverberates in my feverish head. Still, though my heart aches at the thought, my time is dwindling fast and I must choose an exit soon.
I round up a few other hikers, all older-than-me dudes today. And we walk in the general direction of the Subway tunnel: a large lava tube that is impressively cool inside on this scorching afternoon. We wander from end to end and back, checking out every nook, reading every interpretive sign, loath to leave the comfort of the earthly air conditioning.
At 5pm, I finally hike out with Tikimon as most welcome company. We wind up the switchbacks to the rim, where miles of trail skirt a long, steep drop off to Hat Creek, and the only water, far, far below. The heat continues to beam down, even at 7pm it is warm; the sun stuck in the sky, refusing to set. But ever so slowly the burning orb sinks lower, filtered light illuminating the desert landscape in warmest green and gold. The sky glows bright orange against the cool purple-blues of volcanic peaks in the distance, Lassen behind and Shasta finally in view to the North. Walking through dusk and into darkness, I am completely and utterly enchanted by this desert-in-the-sky.
Though mostly flat, the trail is unforgiving, rife with toe-stubbing lava rock camouflaged in dust and almost impossible to see in the dark. Eventually the semi-regular stumbling gets old, and we search for a flat enough, clear enough place to cowboy camp for the night. I type this by bright moonlight, as crickets chirp a summer song, the odd disturbed cow bleating in the distance. Yes, there are cows up here. Lots and lots of cows. I fall asleep hoping not to get trampled in the night. Hoping that there is indeed water in the cache six miles ahead. Though I still have three liters, just enough to make the remaining twenty miles if need be.