July 30, 2015
There’s only one cache. Cache 22. Carry enough water, and the weight slows you down until you need more water. But to rely on the cache is to carry the weight in worry. How much water do you bring when too much is never enough, and less than enough can kill you?
I try to beat the impossible water-logic, semi-cautiously carrying what I think I need to not die, with hopes of a good drink at the only cache on Hat Creek Rim: cache 22. I am eager to get off the exposed plateau, no longer so magical without the rose-gold glaze of sunset. The grass looks dead, the trail dusty, the sky faded. Already it is too warm; soon it will be blisteringly hot. At least the cache is fully stocked and I can take a bonus drink without diminishing the few essential liters that will get me to the next water oasis, now 14 miles away.But the heat seems to intensify with each step. With relief, I follow the trail as it winds down off the rim, only to find myself walking through an expansive field of black lava shimmering with heat. Resilient trees grow out of the meager pockets of soil, but they stand too far apart to mitigate the intensity from above. My head feels all wrong, feverish and heavy. Everything looks over-exposed, an all day movie flashback sequence to the menacing desert that I never encountered in SoCal. The harsh sun is tearing through space-time; the trail at my feet too distant to be here and now.
I drift a few more miles until there is a road, a surreal, newly-paved black ribbon cutting through the lava-forest. Where it goes I do not know, but where there are roads there could be trail magic. I hope desperately for a cooler full of icy beverages. Several deserted gallon jugs of water sitting in the bushes will do. I was hoping to do my first thirty mile day today, to rock it all the way to Burney Falls State park. Where, I am working on accepting, this year’s hike must end. But it is too hot to press on. I collapse in the meager shade with Tikimon. It is over an hour before any others catch up. No one is moving fast this afternoon, if at all. By the official weather on my phone it is 99 degrees, but our bodies says otherwise. “Coffees ready” jokes Tikimon, as he passes the water, reeking of plastic, almost too hot to drink (the next day I will learn that it was actually 114 degrees. In the shade).
After a nap, I rally for more miles, for the next water. Across the baking tarmac, then mercifully downhill until I hear a strange sound, like the crackling of high voltage power lines. Instead I find water bursting from a large pipeline. I stand and stare at this excess. The arcs of clear liquid, too good to be true. Can I touch it? Is it sewage? Fashion Plate Dan appears, sticks his head in the water without hesitation. I follow, and Tikimon too. An icy blast for a heat swollen brain. Three of us sit on the cold pipe, until I ask if it is possible to have an ice cream headache in your butt.After a week of wavering, today has been a day of resolving to leave the trail. My new job comes with a deadline, measured now in days not months. I search the landscape for justification, finding poetry in the return of the desert. A linear journey turned cyclical. Walking again among sagebrush and cactus, pace dictated by water. Cowboy camping under expansive night skies, on just big enough dusty patches of ant-covered ground with new friends close by. Returning to where I started, but never the same. With strong legs immune to sunburn, no longer phased by hills or darkness or drought. No longer fearing rattlesnakes under every rock. Walking with quiet confidence alone into the dusk.
And with this quiet confidence, I renew my plans to make it to the falls tonight. Until I stumble upon the Wild Bird Cache, mother of all trail magics. The Oasis to beat all oases.
A coffin-sized cooler stocked to the brim with icy cold sodas. A whitewashed cupboard of food. A proper camp stove and lantern. Picnic table, umbrella, chair! Wind up flashlights! A sun powered USB charging station! There is nothing to want for here. A solar shower, with soap and razors and mirror. Others arrive and we guzzle cold liquids in the still, warm, air. Watching the moonglow filter through drifting clouds and dark treetops. I could not ask for a better last night, so good it undermines my resolve once again. “Why is it so hard to leave?” I ponder aloud. “Because you love it so much,” says Fashion Plate Dan.
And I do.