Day 46: After 600 Miles, We Finally Found the Desert

Sometimes I think of my coworkers, perhaps reading my blog on a Monday as they get to work, hearing about how I hung out in the hot tub all day yesterday. But then sometimes I think of my coworkers, perhaps headed out to a Memorial Day party of barbecue and beer, looking outside at beautiful weather, as I struggle to carry a 50-pound pack up a steep, sandy hill with insane wind at my face. After that, I don’t feel bad for my coworkers any more. πŸ˜‰

Today was the day we truly found the desert: all that stuff you’ve been imagining about what it’s like to “hike through the desert”, that all hasn’t been true up until now…is finally all true. We’re crossing the Mojave, and the landscape out here is exactly what’s in your head for the California desert: vast stretches of bleak nothingness, Joshua trees from time to time, huge amounts of sand everywhere, and no water to be found anywhere. It’s truly beautiful, that kind of stark beauty that I’ve loved for a very long time and that sits deep in my soul, but it’s also intensely inhospitable and worthy of respect. The hills really do seem to be made completely out of sand, which is really difficult to hike uphill on β€” every step you take, you move forward some, then right back some. The Joshua trees are gorgeous, sticking up out of the landscape in such bizarre and interesting ways, forming clumps of shade sometimes but mostly hanging out solo.

But, most of all today, we noticed two things: the enormous weight in our packs from carrying 31 miles’ worth of water, and the intense wind that blasted us β€” from the side, from the front, seemingly anywhere but from behind β€” for mile after mile as we climbed through the desert. 31 miles’ worth of water, for me, means maxing out my entire capacity of 8.5 liters; my iPhone tells me this weighs 18.7 pounds. That is, of course, on top of the weight of everything else I’m carrying plus my food. The end result is a very heavy pack β€” and, by the end of the day, every part of my body that touches the pack is in pain. The hipbelt is so tight around my hips to support the weight that I have to constantly adjust it just to stand it, and the shoulder straps dig into my shoulders, painful no matter what I do. I know this weight is only for a couple of days, and that it starts diminishing almost the moment I put the pack on as I drink, but, still, it’s painful and makes the hike a great deal more difficult. I will be so glad when this stretch is over and I can go back to carrying a more reasonable amount of water.

The wind, too, was insane. I’ve written about the high wind before, and, at least for now, it’s definitely my least favorite kind of weather. As we slowly ascended the mountains this afternoon, it just blasted us, left and right and center, left and right and center again. It’s exhausting, trying to keep moving forward in this craziness, uphill in the sand…it’s not demoralizing, it’s just tiring, with us badly wanting to make camp as soon as we possibly can.

Just before lunch today, we took a cutoff from the PCT itself to a spring β€” water is so scarce here that the only spring for many miles is still a mile-and-a-half-each-way hike off the PCT. To avoid doubling back, we cut down through a gully in the desert here; it’s not a trail, but easy walking for the most part β€” except for two places where you have to do some pretty serious boulder scrambling, albeit (fortunately) only going down. I’ll tell you, very little makes you feel like more of a Serious Hiker badass than scrambling down boulders in the middle of the Mojave just to get to the spring that holds your desperately-needed water. After this, I suspect many hikes will feel quite a bit easier to me. πŸ˜‰ The spring itself, once we got to it, was also beautiful, if odd: right in the middle of the desert is a huge stand of reeds in an actual pool of water, and it’s green everywhere, with a whole nesting flock of birds all over. Getting to sit and have lunch at a place like that in the Mojave was really quite a treat.

During the afternoon’s hiking, we ran across an amusing marker that was likely put there by some enterprising European hiker. Every hundred miles so far, we’ve seen at least one (and sometimes five or six!) markers made of small rocks to commemorate that segment of the trail β€” 100 miles, 200 miles, and so on. Today, we were coming down a hillside and found a marker in rocks: “1000KM”. Ha! Appropriate, and in some ways a bigger deal than just every hundred miles. There are actually quite a few folks from other countries on this trail β€” we’ve met a half-dozen Australians, a couple of Kiwis, a smattering of English, several Germans, an Italian, and so on. It was kind of cool to see this reminder and to have at least one four-figure progress marker to go on.

Tonight, we’re at a place called Bird Spring Pass, out in the middle of nowhere β€” there are some ATV trails/roads that come through, but not much else β€” that had a spectacular sunset, and which is also supposed to have a spectacular sunrise tomorrow. We were quite worried coming in here that the wind, which was just blasting us nonstop for about the last three hours, was going to make sleeping nearly impossible; we’ve tried before to camp in very high winds, and it’s just awful, making raising our tarp impossible and making getting any actual sleep extremely difficult. But, somehow, we were some of the first people here, and so we managed to snag a campsite directly behind three or four enormous boulders that actually do a pretty good job of blocking the wind. We’re still cowboy camping tonight (i.e., just straight on the ground, no tarp or tent above us) so that we don’t have to hear things flapping in the wind all night long (and worry about whether they’ll hold up), but it’s a huge relief to find a spot like this. If we hadn’t, it could make tomorrow just brutal β€” hiking on only a couple of hours’ worth of sleep is truly painful, as I’ve found out before.

Tomorrow will be our last full day before our next town stop, and, more importantly, will be a day when we get to drink through most of this blasted water, reducing our pack weight down to something a bit more reasonable. I look forward to seeing the sunrise β€” and what awaits us next.

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One response to “Day 46: After 600 Miles, We Finally Found the Desert”

  1. […] here, there’s a 26-mile dry stretch on the trail, with no water at all. With memories of the only other dry stretch of that length still in our heads β€” mostly involving incredibly heavy packs β€” we were not remotely eager to […]

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