Day 20: Variety is the spice of life…

Day: Thursday, June 2nd 2016

Miles: 469.5 – 478.2 (HIKE)

478.2 – 517.6 [Powerhouse Fire Closure – Road Route] (RIDE)

517.6 – 529 (HIKE)

Remote Camp 469.5 – Remote Camp 529

Many people have asked me how I can just walk for so long: what do I listen to, what books do I read and how do I keep my mind ticking-over? I wouldn’t say that I’m a well oiled machine that purrs gently from morning to dusk without distraction, but for the most part I have not listened to music, I jettisoned my reading material early on due to weight considerations, and I seem to be quite contented through each day dealing with the aches of the moment, the logistics of the next water stop, the view that surprises you unexpectedly or the snake on the trail that spikes your adrenaline during a quiet moment. The trail has been hugely varied, no day has been the same and the quiet times (which certainly do exist) have been filled with moments of quiet reflection, intense-thought on some aspects of work (surprisingly!) and often times a quiet and calm focus on the trail where I can honestly say I have managed to clear my mind of all but the sounds and views around me. It’s been an idyllic few weeks, living out of reality to an extent. Something I feel truly thankful and lucky to be able to experience. But then there’s aches too. I’m less thankful of the aches. I’ll try and focus on variety for this post, to just show how one day started on the trail with a beautiful unspoiled rural sunrise and followed a path of sheer randomness through to an equally beautiful sunset, before finally ending somewhere along one of the largest single pieces of public utility infrastructure in the entire US, where I hit the hay (concrete in this case) and turned in for the night.

My perch atop the mountain last night was a little less vegetated than I realized and quite exposed to the wind hat blew up during the night. I awoke to my tent covering my head, as the main support up-right (a hiking pole) had come loose in the night and fallen over. There was just enough taught-ness on the other pole to keep my little Hanley-Hilton standing, but not by much. I unzipped the tent to a beautiful view of green topped low-hills with no signs of human influence in any direction and signs of the sun creeping from the east. I was immediately surprised at how much the topology and vegetation coverage had changed. The wonders of night hiking bring the delights of the trail to you in many ways, today I pondered how I had rose over a high ridge and descended into a completely different temperature zone without even realizing. That being said, once again at 6am I could feel the heat, and spinning for too long in my morning routine would surely deprive me of morning miles so I decamped quickly.

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The trail from this point was virtually entirely downhill as far as the little village of Green Valley – a cute name for a small mountain village that is home to yet another iconic trail house of the Pacific Crest Trail – the beautifully named Casa De Luna, home of the Andersons and a must-visit spot. Whilst looking forward to some downhill hiking this morning, and visiting the Casa, I was also thinking ahead today. I needed to, as I have just a few days to make my intended destination of mile marker 566, (the end of the Southern California section on my maps), and the point where I intended to break off the trail for 2 weeks to tend to some unfinished work back in Boston. My schedule of night-walks and morning trail sessions would imply an arrival to the public-transit accessible town of Tehachapi on Sunday morning. This was important as Sunday at 2:31PM was the last bus that could get me to my flight in Burbank at 9PM. Everything was tightly coupled. As usual, the real world tries to muscle in on the alternate reality that is the PCT when it can!

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Green topped hills were a novelty after the sun scorched views of recent days.

The trail wound around little dry creek-beds and ranged from refreshingly cool shaded areas in north/west facing slopes through to hot and sweaty south/east facing sections as the sun rose higher in the sky, and I made a solid dent into my morning mileage target. Water was sparse but I had hauled my generous rations from Agua Dulce, with ample to get me to Green Valley. I enjoyed being a morning recluse with no other hikers on this part of the trail, indeed it was 7 miles into the mornings trek before I saw a soul (other than the usual lizards). The only difference this morning was the flies. There has been little to no mosquitoes or flies up to now but that is certainly changing. Hundreds of tiny little belligerent fellows who persistently buzzed my sunglasses. They had little interest in any other part of me except my glasses, which led me to believe that these diva-esque flies were only interested in staring at their own reflections, and not the layers of fragrant Factor-50 that I layer on early in the morning.

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A trail work shovel provides a novel trail marker

I was very happy to find the trail register at the end of this section by Green Valley Fire Station, and briefly spoke to a hiker there, both of us a little disappointed to realize it was a 1.5 mile walk to the town. I think Hiker Heaven spoiled us with the pickup truck shuttle! There was a note inviting us to Green Valley and to visit the Casa so it seemed a shame not to.

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I wandered across the highway to inspect the next section of the trail – the (hopefully) last major closure area caused by the Powerhouse Fire in 2013, smaller than others I have passed through but just as devastating for the PCT route and homeowners in the region. The trail is almost rebuilt in this section and certain pieces are open already however it’s a somewhat difficult conundrum of logistics and road walks to piece them together.The road walks, ranging from 13 to 21 miles use a busy road with no margin, and whilst I normally wouldn’t wince at the road walk, due to the heat it becomes a difficult proposition, you can’t walk at night (for obvious reasons on a busy highway) and in the morning the walking window is very tight (you need enough daylight to be safe and visible, but not too much so as to roast you alive!). I pondered whether this could imperil my ability to make Tehachapi by Sunday.

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I ventured back to the highway and decided that the decision was moot until later on today. I approached the highway and saw two cars coming towards Green Valley, as I started to raise my thumb, the first car took an aggressive braking maneuver and swung into the lay by beside me – score! This was the easiest ride yet! The two local girls in the car were pleasant and straight to it – do you want the gas station or the Andersons? A  little unprepared for the question, I went for the gas station, the idea of a cold soda was too good to pass. We had a quick chat on the short ride, they asked if I had seen any mountain lions yet as apparently every squirrel, rodent and anything else edible had disappeared from Green Valley in the last few months and the talk of the town was that some mountain lion must be lurking in the hills! I hopped out at the gas station and bid them good wishes, thankful that I’d made it to Green Valley so quickly, although guilty the other hiker back at the trail head hadn’t snagged that first easy ride! The gas station was a funny sight, I had heard that Casa De Luna provided Hawaiian shirts to visitors as a loaner during laundry time but I was very surprised to see 5 obvious through hikers clad in the finest Hawaiian shirts intently gazing at the soda cabinet. One side effect of thru-hiking seems to be our complete inability to choose foods or drinks when the choice is more than just one. I’m not sure soda bottles get as much attention from anyone as the through-hiking community.

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I wandered back out into the hot sunshine with my Cactus Cooler – which brings back memories of “orange splits” which I used to eat as a kid. The quarter mile wander down to the Casa was obvious on my map although the absolute absence of any cell coverage confused Googlemaps at one point, “it’s at the end of the road on the left, you can’t miss it” came a random voice from behind a large garden gate. He was certainly correct, a suburban home a little further ahead presented itself, surrounded with comfy couches and lawn furniture in the front yard with a motley crew of Hawaiian shirt emblazoned scruffies hanging outside – looks like my kind of joint! I received some instructions on the ways of the Casa and ventured to the back yard to set up my tent (I figured I’d sleep this afternoon and head out tonight). Afterwards I lazed about and took a shower from the blissfully cool outdoor makeshift shower – no signup lines, none of the formality of Hiker Heaven but a certain cool calm efficiency and order about the place. I can see why people warned me that it was a vacuum!

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Random pieces of gear, hammocks and lazing about was the nature of the day. The Casa’s friendly dogs seemed bemused by all the activity, mostly concerned with their own issues of shade.

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My celtic inspired Hawaiian shirt for the day

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The class of 2016 banner

I talked to a few fellow hikers during the day, again I seemed to have flipped into another steady group due to my pace. I was a little out-of-time of sorts, rushed with my pace and looking at my schedule for the next few days, I had a set of goals and pending tasks that were at odds with the chilled out crew I sat amongst but there really wasnt too much time to fret over it. I set-up my tent in the middle of a huge complex of vines out the back, with the intention of resting during the day. The sheer heat nix’d that idea early on however, so I lazed in a shaded hammock all afternoon. Later, I spoke with two hikers from New Brunswick, who were thinking of taking a ride to the next major stop, Hikertown which was just beyond the fire closure. Disappointed to miss some open sections of trail, it seemed like the best option given the intense heat wave passing and my own impending deadlines. There was a ride-share sheet at the gas station, with instructions to wait for a White Ford Ranger at 4pm. With little time to spare I packed up my gear, tent and set off again. The Casa was a brief stop but a very enjoyable rest from the sun, and importantly I was able to get my class of 2016 official bandana, for the simple price of performing some Riverdance moves (to prove my grit I completed the challenge wearing my pack).

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A note appended to this board offered a ride to Hikertown at 4pm

Around 4PM, right on schedule, the Ford Ranger showed up. There was a motley crew here including Jonathan from Oregon, two girls from Florida, a guy from Sweden, the two Canadians and myself. I wondered for a moment if we’d fit, but Dominic the driver was pretty sure that between the gasoline cans, spare-tire, toolbox and everything else that we could do it somehow. After some tetris-like packing and repacking of the little truck, we seemed to be jammed in pretty well and away we went. It was immediately obvious Dominic didn’t really think that having 5 people in the back of the truck warranted any additional care in driving, so we literally took-off at speed and held on to whatever we could. The ride was a lot of fun I must admit, not least when Dominic ran out of gas after 5 miles (the ride was 21miles). With a shuddering halt and grumbling noise, we pulled in off the highway, ‘dont worry guys! this happens all the time!’ he quipped. Now we understood why he carries around a gas can in the truck. After a quick refill we continued to the next gas station where he took on a precautionary refill. The views around rapidly changed as we entered the Mojave. It seemed like we have been looking at the Mojave from on-high for 2 weeks now, but finally we have descended to the actual basin. The heat was intense, the wind was intense, and the views sparse in every direction as we arrived to Hikertown.

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Hikertown is another well-known spot for Pacific Crest Trail hikers, and certainly one of the more unusual waypoints. The complex was set-up as a compound far away from anything, but just on the trail. In the center, a private residence and along the sides was an unusual mix of campervans, farm equipment, shacks dressed up as wild-west themed businesses, along with scattered wagon-trains, old trucks and a general air of decaying miscellany. Most people restock on water or food packages and move on straightaway, and I intended to do the same. It just wasnt a particularly comfortable place to be. Welcome to the desert.

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After about 2 hrs at Hikertown, some might say 2hrs too much, and with the sun dropping into the hills to the west, it was time to hit one of the most despised sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, the 20-odd miles alongside and atop the Los Angeles Aqueduct. It was a beautiful sunset at the very least, and as I hit the trail I really was a bit worried about what lay ahead. This section of trail is known for its heat and general boredom levels, and hiking it at night was not going to assist the boredom issue (if at the least defeating the heat). Initially the trail followed a route alongside an open water-way, before turning north and venturing onto a sandy service road alongside the giant aqueduct pipeline. It was not pleasant to walk on (think of walking on a beach with 25LB on your back), but with  some light to the west, the twinkle of lights in the distance from towns and other hikers and a nice cool breeze, it wasnt the soul destroying walking-dead type impression I expected. I will say it was a little blunt and industrial in terms of signage and frequent orders to stop, go, turn, do, dont, and, well, you get the idea.

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Eventually, the trail entered an area with a concrete roadbed, where the aqueduct is buried far beneath. This made for some good progress, just like a road-walk, I no-longer felt like every single step was a half-step due to the sand. Still, it was intensely dull with very little sounds and very little to keep the mind going, and so this was one of the moments I listened to music. Even my own brain had clearly run out of things to do after 3 weeks. I completed a good number of miles, and around 6 miles short of the next water source, I decided it was a good time to call it quits.

The concrete surface was punctuated every mile or so by a large surface valve and some kind of service panel for the aqueduct below. Given the PCTA and other organizations overtly request that you do not camp on the aquaduct due to road traffic during the night, this service duct seemed like a safe spot, raised 3 feet off the roadbed and well covered in reflectors. Tonight would be a night of cowboy camping for me, quickly to bed and quickly away in the morning. As I lay my head down on a supremely hard and uncomfortable concrete surface (my Thermarest is well compacted by now and virtually useless on concrete or rock), I couldnt help but realize what an incredible star filled night it was. In looking ahead and pushing on-wards all evening, I had negated to realize what a beautiful clear and moonless night it was. Contented with a day of variety, I fell asleep listening to crickets and looking at the twinkling stars above. The ambient noise of Los Angeles water supply sloshing below every now and then! From collapsing tents, to running out of gas, to sleeping on top of a water valve, it was a pretty varied day I’d say.

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