If it sometimes seems like our journey alternates between desire for the open trail and desire for creature comforts, well, that’s about how it feels to us, too. So far, it’s been a good rhythm: just about the time we start to get really smelly and gross after hiking for several days, we end up someplace with hot showers, real bathrooms, and a place to lay our heads…and these places tend to be really good motivators for getting the miles in, since, by the time you’re in range, the idea of a hot shower sounds wonderful. That’s what got us to set an alarm for 5:00 AM this morning. The side benefit was getting to see a truly beautiful sunrise: the early dawn peeking over the mountains just outside our tarp, the sun finally showing itself behind dramatic green hills as we threaded our way down one ridge after another, and the cascading light across rippled hillsides once the sun rose a bit higher.
Our destination, ironically, was a KOA, or Kampground Of America. The deliberate misspelling may clue you in to the general atmosphere there: most KOAs appear to be dusty, depressing RV parks on the edges of major metro areas…not exactly a place I’d choose to camp, given an alternative. But: the PCT goes right by the Acton KOA, and they have a jacuzzi. Also, two local restaurants will deliver, and they have showers and laundry. That pretty much hits every button a through-hiker has — it’s enough to make you feel like a completely new human being in short order. Hence the 5:00 AM start time, because it meant we arrived here by 9:30 AM and could start the process of taking in all that sheer glory.
The other piece of the puzzle is that we knew a whole bunch of our trail friends would be arriving today. Over the course of the day, Rally, Squatchie, Dilly, Dally, Sarge, Stump, and a bunch of other folks all showed up and started partaking in the festivities. Although probably 80% of the KOA was still non-hikers, we had our own soccer-field-sized area right next to the office to completely take over, and take over we did. Festivities started with lunch (Clare and I, along with two other hikers, managed to spend $102 on pizza delivery — I ate nearly half a large pizza with about eight toppings, half a lasagna, and a giant swath of garlic bread with mozzarella on it), and continued with showers and laundry. Next, of course, was beer: although the pizza restaurant would deliver beer, it was in the form of pints of Coors Lite…for $3 each. Cashmere (another hiker) and I found this completely unacceptable — the quality of the beer, especially — and so became completely determined to make it the mile and a half up the road to the nearest convenience store for something better. We hatched a plot to borrow bikes from the KOA; they weren’t really for use as they were in disrepair, but they seemed good enough. Our approach was: “If we leave all our stuff here, borrow two bikes, and come back in forty-five minutes, are you really going to call the cops on us?”. When the answer appeared to be basically “Yes”, we abandoned that plan…and tried to hitch-hike. Unfortunately, this was not Idyllwild, Big Bear, or Wrightwood; nobody passing by on the road knew what a through-hiker was (or maybe Cashmere and I just looked too suspicious), and not a single car stopped for us. We ended up walking the entire mile and a half to the store just to get beer, but a woman in the store, upon hearing our dedication to our task, offered us a ride back.
Returning with thirty beers to a through-hiker gathering makes you a pretty popular person, pretty fast, as it turns out. Of course, we then realized we didn’t really have a good way to keep them cold. But — and this is a good snapshot of what through-hiker culture was like — we realized what we did have was a giant tub that someone had put water and ice in earlier in the day, and people had been soaking their tired feet in all day. And you know what? Foot water isn’t going to hurt you! In the beers went, soaking in the ice-cold foot water until people wanted them. Out here, the concept of “dirty” takes on a whole different meaning: all you really care about is “will this actually make me sick?”, not “is this gross?”.
Of course, with beer came the swimming pool. And the KOA has all the old “hiker boxes” (where hikers put stuff they no longer need, or look for stuff they do need) from a local trail angel’s place that had closed down. They have a ton of clothing in them, men and women’s both, which people wear while literally all the clothing they have with them is in the laundry. A little beer, good friends, and that’s how I ended up doing a cannonball into the swimming pool while wearing something that can only be described as a “prairie dress” (as in Little House On The). It was, frankly, fantastic. We spent a long time in the pool, then in the jacuzzi, then hanging out with folks while eating dinner (which was actually on the small side after the unbelievably big lunch we’d had), dividing up our resupply, and getting our packs ready for tomorrow.
Did I mention this is a KOA? While most nights out here involve the sight of the stars, the gentle noise of the wind, and maybe a coyote off in the distance, this one is dominated by the noise of the road (a 55-MPH highway is literally twenty feet from our heads), long train whistles (a very busy set of tracks is about a half-mile the other direction), yes, a few coyotes, and — the strangest thing of all — what sounds like a tiger in heat. Apparently there’s another preserve holding large exotic game not far rom here, and some kind of creature is bent out of shape about something pretty intensely. (If you heard this sound while camped out on the trail by yourselves twenty miles from the nearest town, I don’t think you’d get any sleep whatsoever, all night long.)
We’re looking forward to heading back out on the trail tomorrow. It’s supposed to get increasingly hot and dry out there as we head into deeper desert soon, so we’ll see what that experience is like. For today, though, still smelling the faint chlorine scent of a pool on you as you lie in bed at night — that’s pretty awesome.