For quite some time I had promised myself to walk shorter days towards the end of the trail, as soon as I was away from the risk of snow. Surprisingly, here in the desert that snow risk kept lingering as the trail never dropped down into the low valleys for more than half a day and the calender kept ticking deeper and deeper into November. I had planned to slow down, bum around, chill, sleep, read and walk slow, slow days of 15, instead of 25, miles. The scarcity of water ruled out that option, and I found myself pushing on, bagging my daily marathon to reach the next water source in time and to not have to carry days worth of this terribly important yet awfully heavy liquid. Revenge came when I reached some sort of civilization, where I would kick it for a day or two, filling myself with delicious diner-food and a little too many beers. That counts, I did slow down, just not on the trail.
I’d heard about it, both good and bad. Deep Creek Hot Springs. A bunch of natural hot springs that, primitively and somewhat naturally, had been dammed-up by a bunch of pot-smoking hippies some 20 years ago. Accessible from a 2 mile road-connected side-trail and located only 30min drive from the northernmost suburbs of sprawling Los Angeles, it attracted a bunch of party-prone day-visitors. Located in a curvy canyon shaped by a cold but swimable river, in an arid landscape, where the yellow fall-colors of the trees beckoned to be photographed. No pretentious resort, no entrance fees and isolated enough to keep rules and their enforcers away from the anarchy. And oh yeah…clothing optional. Sounds fun to me. I packed extra food and had an amazing rest day on the trail. A slackline spanned the river as naked hippies balanced themselves across the 3cm “rope”, swinging around more than just their arms. People were drinking, flexing fancy yoga positions and painting. Some spaced-out dude informed me that he was tripping on mushrooms, and I had absolutely no trouble believing him. I see how some hiking-purists could get offended by this loss of wilderness, but hey, after almost 4000km of walking, I embraced the scene. And nature is here for all of us to use, hippies, hikers and hunters. If you can’t beat them, join them, so I “dropped my draws” and entered the pools wearing my “birthday suit” as one hippie preferred to call the naked body. Above me, somebody had carved “All bodies are beautiful” into a rock. Another rock read “Don’t mistake nudity for sexuality”. Nobody did.
But without food I’m dead, so I couldn’t get stuck too long in the hippie camp, time to get going, gotta reach new resupplies. Ahead of me, the largest, longest and most intimidating climb was luring: The San Jacinto climb. 2500m of altitude gain on a non stop 32km climb. That’s 8% average, which isn’t too bad for a trail, but is too bad when it continues for 32.000 meters. An all-day’er, in the warm desert, without shade, uphill, uphill, uphill. No water sources on the climb, so carry all the water that you think you might need and don’t guestimate wrong. Just don’t. I reached the foothills of the climb at midday and only made it halfway up that evening, a perfect excuse to split the notorious climb into 2 days. It was sooo beautiful to steadily climb out of the valley and rise to the sky and maybe that’s why I don’t remember it as being that bad. Or maybe its just because challenges, always, are so much easier in hindsight. Just ask any woman who gave birth more than once.
Getting really close to the end, I meet two other hikers on the same quest as me; one of them I had met 3 months earlier among the stunning volcanoes of Oregon. Guess they caught up with me as I was chillin’ in towns and skinny-dipping with the hippies. Company, I’ll take it! My 2 friends are on a little quest to finish the trail before Thanksgiving and their commitment is contagious. I wanna celebrate Thanksgiving, here in the US of A! That’s a major catch for a seasoned traveller with a giant appetite for culture and, after 5 months of dehydrated instant mashed potatoes, a giant appetite for a giant rich meal. Turkey with gravy, I’m goin’, that’s all there is to it. Don’t know with whom I’m celebrating yet, but that’s a minor detail that I’m sure will play out just fine. Let’s finish this trail, Thanksgiving here I come!
Loosing a trekking pole down a steep snow-covered mountainside a week earlier, I lost the luxury of my tent, that needed both poles to pitch; I had now shipped it home to not carry a useless 738 gram of weight. Shouldn’t rain anyways. But some clouds have been forming lately and it’s not good, cause the night temperatures are hovering just above freezing and hypothermia are hovering just above me if I get wet and can’t dry out. I go to sleep, a little wary. Drip. Fuck. Drip drip drop. No, stop, seriously! It’s 3 o’clock in the night, I’m sleeping under the open sky, it’s nearly as cold as ice. And it’s raining, it’s almost sleet, and I’m already cold. Think fast. I pack up my sleeping bag as the sky opens and the drops turns into an intense, sleety rain. Pack your gear in your bag, wear the only somewhat waterproof clothes you have, a shell-jacket, and start walking with a very fast pace. That’s my only option to stay warm. Not dry, forget that illusion. Just wanna stay warm. It keeps pouring but my strategy works, I keep warm not dry. As the sun breaks the horizon, rainbows are forming and it was beautiful beyond description. By 10 o’clock, large swaths of blue sky have pushed the rain away and I’m drying out my clothes and sleeping bag. Temperatures are climbing to 13 C, and I’m smiling.
For nearly two-thirds of this walk, the distance to the end had been measured in 4 digits. Mile 2619. Mile 1842. Mile 1210. It was simply a point of reference to keep track of the distance to the next plausible water source or resupply town, to avoid dying of hunger and thirst. I didn’t interpret mile 1452 as being what it actually was: the distance in miles to the end of my walk, because such a distance was simply to intimidating and long and unrealistic to walk. It was just a number. Then, one day, months ago, that number decreased to 3 digits. Mile 907. Mile 652. Still just a number, but maybe a number that represented a distance that I could potentially walk, if someone held a gun to my head. It kept dropping, slowly, steadily, day after day. Mile 263. I can walk that, I think.
And then one day the number only had 2 digits. I had 99 miles to go.