Day 38: Aqueducts, Windmills, and Wind — Oh My!

At the start of the day, I watched millions of gallons of water flow right by me in a concrete canal; at the end of the day, I nearly got blown off my feet by the wind, and I’m not sure which one is stranger. When the trail heads out from Hikertown, it pretty rapidly comes across the California Aqueduct.

You could live in California for a very long time and know of the California Aqueduct without ever seeing it. It’s basically a system of enormous canals (open and underground) and pipes that transports truly vast amounts of water, basically from Northern California to Southern California. While water issues are in the news in California quite often (particularly this year, due to the intense four-year drought we’re in), it’s something else to actually experience the water works firsthand. The PCT, however, pretty much takes you directly there from Hikertown: you go across some flat farmers’ fields for a mile or so, ascend a little berm, and suddenly your jaw drops — because there’s a truly astonishing amount of water flowing past you in an enormous human-made concrete river. It’s one of those things that takes you a second to really appreciate, because the current is fast but not extremely so…you have to sit for a moment and think about how much water the aqueduct represents before you realize what a big deal it is.

We walked right alongside the aqueduct for a few miles, still sort of marveling at it, before making a left turn…and walking along the top of a gigantic pipe, maybe 15′ in diameter, sunk in the earth until only a couple of feet stuck up above the ground. It’s another piece of the California Aqueduct, this one looking very much like it was built in the 1930s. Eventually the aqueduct goes underground, and yet we continued following it for over ten miles in total: aboveground, it’s represented by a dirt road next to a paved (but unmarked) road, and occasional concrete boxes peeking up that apparently contain giant valves to direct the flow of water.

We ran out of aqueduct eventually, and had a few miles of hiking on relatively nondescript dirt roads in the desert, before running across the second huge public-works project of the day, this one a great deal newer: windmills! Well, wind turbines, more precisely; the trail took us through the middle of a huge wind farm, composed of literally hundreds of wind turbines. Now, I know pretty much everybody knows what that looks like, but it’s a very different thing to see wind turbines from a car than to see them up close: these things are huge. The scale is incredible: we felt like the tiniest of people when compared to these machines. From a ways away, we wondered out loud if the central shaft that supports the turbine was wide enough to allow a human to crawl up a ladder inside; from close by, we realized that you could fit an entire damned spiral staircase in there. There’s an access door, the size of any other door, at the base of the turbines, and it looks absolutely tiny compared to the size of the whole machine. And when we managed to walk through the shadow of one operating, the speed with which the shadow of the blades passed us was almost overwhelming: it may look like the turbine is turning slowly, but it’s actually unbelievably fast.

I found out later that we walked through both one of the oldest wind farms in the United States, and the single largest one, too. Each of the large wind turbines generates 3 megawatts — enough to power 2,400 US homes. Apparently you could drive a school bus through the housing at the top of the upright that attaches to the impellers. The scale of everything is just incredible.

However, the most impressive thing was yet to come. We should’ve realized that (duh) they build wind farms where there’s wind, and so it was going to be windy at this wind farm. But (again, we found out later) not only was there almost always strong wind here, but the last remnants of a storm were winding themselves down…which made the wind insane.

And I don’t say that lightly: as we started walking out of the wind farm, I was literally blown right off the trail a dozen times. (Don’t worry, it was a reasonably flat section of trail — I wasn’t about to get blown off a cliff or anything.) I’ve never experienced wind like this before in my entire life, and I’ve been in some pretty windy places before. You’d end up leaning really far to one side to compensate for the wind, but, when it gusted even stronger, still get blown off the trail — and then when it died down suddenly for a moment, stumble off to the other side since you were leaning so strongly against it.

I’m starting to be of the opinion that high wind is perhaps my single least favorite weather condition out here. You can compensate for rain, snow, cold, heat, drought, or pretty much anything else — but there’s nothing you can do about the wind. We battled the wind for about two hours, up and down canyons, worse at the top and slightly better (but still awful) at the bottoms, until we came to campsites and water. It was relatively late, so there were easily a dozen tents set up all up and down the canyon already…and I don’t think a single person there slept well that entire night. I heard stories of people having to get out and re-stake their tent three, four, or five times during the night because the wind kept blowing it over; other people didn’t sleep a wink. We cowboy camped (i.e., sleeping in our sleeping bags on the ground, no tent) just to avoid worrying about our tarp all night long or actually having it ripped apart, and managed to find a tiny spot just big enough for the two of us behind a dirt mound big enough to block at least some of the wind. It was far from perfect, and we maybe got half the sleep we should have, but I honestly think we did a lot better than most people.

Tomorrow, though, we’re headed to Tehachapi, CA, to take a well-deserved zero in a real hotel. I can’t even tell you how much I’m looking forward to sleeping with four walls around me, not having to worry about wind, cold, or heat…and to getting a good night’s sleep in a real bed.

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