The ground is loose damp sand— easy for getting tent stakes into but not easy for getting them to stay in. I weigh each stake down with little piles of small rocks (there are no large ones to be found) and I pray: Wilderness gods, please keep my shit up for the next eight to ten hours I say quietly. I will repay you by digging perfect six inch cat holes, picking up all stray micro trash, and by never ever using the term “bagging peeks”.
The great wildnerness nods, and the pact is sealed. My shelter stays up, which is one lucky fact in a bunch of unlucky ones.
It is 35 degrees, then it is 30 degrees, then it is 25 degrees. My shelter doesn’t have a floor, and it’s cold and damp everywhere— the kind of cold and damp that sticks with you no matter how many ultralight layers you wear. I wake with tight pain coiled in the pits of my knees and my elbows, little hard rocks of tension from squeezing myself in a ball for warmth.
My neck aches, my water bottles are frozen and my shoes are pure ice. I shove my swollen feet into them like smashing bricks into tight crunched tin cans and I am grumpy. I am grumpy because it’s freezing and why am I even here? I don’t like my own attitude and I can’t get away from it, and that makes me grumpier still.
I make a double Via instant coffee, pull out my phone to check mileage and hatch a plan. We are at the 51 mile mark. At the 77 mile mark, we hit the Sunrise highway where we can hitch to Julian for a motel room and my resupply box. That’s sixteen miles I think. We can do sixteen miles.
“We should hustle today!” I shout at Jelly Bean and Pineapple, explaining the mileage and that we can TOTALLY get there by five, absolutely make it to town before the post office closes.
Jelly Bean fires up her own GPS and rolls her eyes.
“Great plan, Muffy” she says. “Or it would be if your math wasn’t bad.”
I look again. We’re at mile 51. Town is at mile 77. That’s 26 miles that I’m proposing, not 16. There’s no amount of hustle in the world that is going to get the three of us 26 miles away by 5PM, not with these elevation changes and conditions and our track record so far.
“Oh.” I say. “Okay.”
I feel like screaming but I do not. Instead I reorganize my food bag, drink my Via, and pack up my tent. 26 miles. I think. We will be in town tomorrow.
That has to be good enough.
I decide to hike alone, to listen to my audiobook, to let the landscape overtake me. The day warms up as we continue our descent, full of gentle rolling hills. I am blissfully away from my grumpy ass rumination with the help of someone else’s story (do you use the Libby app to check out library books from your local library? IT’S INCREDIBLE) and eventually the dark cloud above me dissipates. I am out here because I like to be out here. I am out here because hiking is fun. I am out here because it is a privilege, and I get to be.
I stop for lunch in a crop of huge boulders. I set all of my gear out to dry (again) and I make myself some ramen with peanut butter for lunch. I don’t usually cook for myself mid-day but last night the cold got into my bones and I need to clear it out. I’ll hike alone. I’ll listen to my stories. I’ll make myself soup. My mood will brighten, I will smile once again, forever and ever amen.
Today, we’re walking about a mile off trail to the Stagecoach. The Stagecoach is an RV park and a convenience store with a small deli built in. There’s a bathroom and clean water and a trash can, which are my favorite luxuries and also kombucha and ice cream and fries which are special luxuries that I usually try not to hope for lest I be disappointed. There is winding trail and then twisty road that heads for the Stagecoach eventually, but if you bushwhack you’ll get there a lot faster. I do just that, using Gaia to orient myself toward landscapes, making sure I am on the right path despite not being on my pre-prescribed GPS line. Jackrabbits weave in braids, coaxing my forward toward the little town. I like how this sort of thing is getting easier, how I now understand what topo lines mean, how the animals and landscape don’t intimidate me like they once did.
Things get harder, and then they get easier. Sometimes several times in the course of a day.
I slip under and over rusted barbed wire to get to the Stagecoach. I smell terrible, a fact I am acutely aware of as soon as I am in the presence of indoor people. They’ve all showered, their shampoo smells so fruity. And me? I smell like feet. I take my kombucha and my water and my fries and I hide in the back corner of their seating, waiting for Pineapple and Jelly Bean to arrive. I zone out, charging my devices and slowly dip fry after fry in ketchup before lazily leading it to my mouth. I am tired, but if we hike a couple more miles, we’ll be primed for a super easy day into town tomorrow. Pineapple and Jellybean arrive and I propose just that.
We road walk a couple more miles as the sun sets. Everything is golden all around, we are warm and low, and I feel really good. Eventually, we set up shelter amongst fields of cholla, gently scanning the ground for wayward burrs, hidden little gremlins just waiting to pop our neoairs or stab into our Cascadias.
Jelly Bean shares dehydrated lentil curry with me, and though my lips burn, it is incredible. I wonder what the burning is all about I think as I start to drift off to sleep. I’ve never really felt that before.