Day 6: Sweet, Sweet Zeroes

Clean! After 77 miles out hiking through the desert, it really is just about impossible to describe how good it feels to be clean again. Layers and layers of desert dust mixed with sunscreen are now gone from our bodies, and (mostly) from our clothes.

This is due to the glory of that supreme hiking day: the zero. Through-hikers often refer to days by how many miles they completed; a “twenty” is thus a pretty standard day once you get rolling on the PCT, while a “thirty” is a feat, usually reserved for much later in the trip when you’re in terrific shape and on pretty easy terrain. (“Forties” are a feat of superhuman strength, while a “ten” means you’re really taking it easy.)

Hence, a “zero” is a day in which you go zero miles — in other words, a rest day. Occasionally this means you’re actually stopped on the trail somewhere, just camping in the same place for two nights and not hiking. But, more often, it means you’ve stopped in a town, checked into a hotel for two nights, and spent the intervening day doing a combination of several things:

  • Taking as many hot showers as humanly possible, trying to finally get truly clean (without actually wearing your skin off);
  • Standing around wearing nothing but your raingear in a laundromat, washing every single item of clothing you have with you in an only-mostly-futile attempt to make it look non-disgusting again;
  • Eating everything, from a giant steak to an enormous salad (you have no idea how good fresh vegetables sound until you’ve been without them for a week straight);
  • Sleeping in a giant, soft, plush, wonderful, amazing bed (by which I mean anything at all that has a mattress on top) as much as possible.

Actually, our first zero isn’t really a zero at all: this morning, we woke up about nine miles back on the trail and hiked to a road crossing — then hitchhiked (our very first time ever!) to the town of Julian, CA, where we’re wonderfully ensconced in a historic, tourist-y hotel. They did our laundry for us — we assume with a haz-mat suit and those six-foot tongs they use in biohazard situations, since nobody in their right mind would want to go near our clothes otherwise — and served us afternoon tea. Yes, believe it or not, the PCT sometimes includes afternoon tea. And tomorrow morning we’re looking forward to a two-course breakfast! It won’t be a true “zero” because we’re planning to head back out midday to hike at least a few miles tomorrow, but it’s close enough that it feels like a zero, and that’s what really matters.

Our first experience hitchhiking was incredibly easy (and, I suspect, highly atypical): the very first car that passed us going the right direction picked us up! A local-ish couple driving a minivan that has teenage sons (who, fortunately, weren’t in the minivan, or we’d never have fit) picked up we three smelly hikers and brought us into town. I’m enormously grateful to them, and to the good hitchhiking karma we seem to have had today. I’ll try to remember this when, later in the trip, we’re stuck for two hours trying to get a ride.

Another huge bonus of this town: free pie! Julian, CA is an old mining town, and full of shops selling “old-timey” antiques, candy, and whatnot, along with plentiful B&Bs. One of the shops, Mom’s, sells nothing but pie: about a dozen different varieties, all homemade, and (at least by our experience) absolutely delicious. Out of the goodness of their hearts — and I mean this completely; they don’t even sell anything else they’d be trying to get you to buy — they give away a free slice of pie, with ice cream and drink, to any PCT through-hiker presenting their permit. And so that’s how we sat down, freshly showered, to homemade pie and ice cream in the middle of the day today in Julian, CA. Amazing!

The hike this morning was, particularly at the end, hot, flat, low (only 2,000 feet of elevation) and fairly desolate: this desert was much more like the kind you’d probably imagine if you heard someone was hiking through the desert. Fortunately, we heard from Andy and Allison (an awesome couple we met and had tea + a huge, great Italian dinner with) that there isn’t all that much of this kind of thing on the PCT — just a few places, mostly where the trail connects with towns like it does here.

As I’m about to fall asleep in a real bed tonight, with fresh sheets and freshly-laundered clothes, I’m amazed by just how refreshing even a short time in a town can be. We rolled in here less than ten hours ago, sweaty, aching, and with grime everywhere, a little tired of beating relentlessly through the desert heat. Yet, even as I look forward to how delicious breakfast is going to be tomorrow, I find myself really excited to be back on the trail again, too — to see what’s out there, what’s next, what we’ll see tomorrow.

Maybe that’s the real thing that gives one the disease passion of through-hiking: an almost unquenchable desire to see what’s out there, what’s next, what all those places will feel like, even if they’re full of sweat and sunscreen and grime and dirt in your food and not enough water. It’s the desire to explore, to keep moving, to see what’s beyond the horizon.

At the very least, that’s what’s in my heart tonight as I fall asleep, thoughts of the possibilities of tomorrow still in my head…






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