We set out from Tehachapi last Sunday, our packs laden with seven days of food, determined and eager to conquer the final one-hundred-fifty miles of desert leading up to Kennedy Meadows and the Sierra Nevada. We hiked aggressively despite 90+ degree heat and the bleakest, most barren stretch of rock and prickly, shade-miserly shrubs we’ve yet passed. Gummy Bear was with us when we left town. Together we completed 25 miles on Sunday. 22.7 miles on Monday. Tuesday morning Lisa and I limped 5 miles and had to stop. Gummy Bear had to go on. Younger, stronger, and seemingly impervious to thirst, Noah has his own hike to hike. Lisa and I are utterly exhausted and my feet have expanded beyond the capacity of my boots. Monday night, the little toe on my right foot was painfully blistered. Tuesday morning the skin at the root of my toenail was swollen and red and additional blisters formed a crusty rind around my heel and ankle. Each step drove my toenail backward into the toe. I hiked without a sock hoping to free up some space for my poor little piggies but the pain was too much. We decided to rest until evening by a spring-fed cattle trough and miss out on the heat of the day. That evening we made our way slowly into the night, spotting our first kangaroo rats (headlamps render them directionless idiots) and keeping an eye out for the scorpions that supposedly come out in the dark. We covered an additional 8 miles before midnight, slept for six hours, then hiked another 11 miles before noon on Wednesday. With morale low, we took a siesta beneath some scraggly pines atop a jagged, windswept peak overlooking the desert. After some debate, Lisa and I decided to head to Lake Isabella, order some new boots from REI and wait for my feet to heal. I say feet because favoring my sockless, wimpy little toe had caused new blisters on my opposite foot and strained my left knee as well. Despite that, we ended up completing 23.5 miles by Wednesday evening and another 9 miles to the highway on Thursday. A lovely pair of trail angels, out replenishing a water cache, picked us up and took us to Lake Isabella. REI is overnighting a pair of new, larger pair of boots but because they weren’t shipped until today (Friday) Lisa and I have to lie around a small motel in this faded, one-horse town until the package arrives sometime on Monday. We’re a little concerned about the expense we’re incurring but at the same time we’re giving our muscles a rest while completely indulging in the ice machine and pool. The motel has a sun-bleached, great-place-if-you’re-on-the-lam-vibe, although it’s evident that the owners do their best to care for the place and keep its lovely little gardens and shrubbery vibrant and trim. The manager is a congenial fellow, although he seems surprised to have hikers show up this late in the season. He keeps dropping hints that we’re behind and I’ve found myself several times defending our progress, arguing that we’ve covered 600 miles in a month and that we regularly pass other hikers. He doesn’t seem to believe me. When I added three more nights to our stay I could it see it plain in his face, his belief that Lisa and I are a pair of lollygaggers.
I’d post a picture of my foot but why worry anyone? Honestly, it’s already heeling up nicely and the new boots will feel like stretch limos as we cruise out of here Monday evening. Parental units, do not concern yourselves.
The last hundred miles have not been all doom and gloom. Actually, there was additional gloominess not associated with my feet that I should relate. On Tuesday we encountered a gentleman enjoying an illegal dirt bike ride on the PCT. He rolled up behind Lisa, revving his engine indicating his desire to pass. We tried ignoring him for a while in a petty attempt to teach him a lesson, but realized we were being silly. When we did finally step off the trail to let him by, he drove up alongside us and a civil and intelligent conversation ensued, and by civil and intelligent, I of course mean hostile and worthy of Fox News. He insinuated PCT hikers were selfish for not wanting to share the trail, we mentioned that his presence was illegal, dangerous, and damaging to the trail itself. He countered that that merely was our opinion before tearing off down the narrow trail, flying around the corner toward our good friend Gummy Bear. We chased after him, yelling for Gummy Bear to watch out although, really, the sound of the dirt bike was its own clarion call. G.B. stepped out of the way well before the rider reached him. Then, rendering our argument even more pointless, the PCT joined an official dirt bike trail for the next four miles. We didn’t see any more motorcyclists, but I assure you, the ironclad diatribes laced with hilarious zingers that I formed in my head would have made them instantly repent, jump off their dirt bikes and cast them off the mountainside.
On Tuesday, just as my foot was truly becoming a bother, Lisa and I stopped at a spring where we met a new hiker. We’ll call her Clover, and she sat down beside us, looking for friendly folks with which to vent her frustrations. Clover had started the trail back in April and had repeatedly injured her ankle. Her most recent injury was not the worst but Clover was simply fed up with the heat, her discomfort, and sluggish progress. She was quitting the trail. Lisa and I both tried to console her, commending her for the huge section she had completed, the longest and arguably most challenging stretch of the PCT. Clover nodded politely but she really just needed someone to listen to her own thoughts. We asked if she needed assistance getting to the next road/campground but she assured us she could hobble there on her own. We never saw her again although we met several trail angels the next day who rather overzealously mounted a small search party equipped with SUVs and ATVs until Clover finally emerged from the woods.
Quitting has not truly entered our minds, although Lisa and I joke about taking our funds and catching a cheap flight to Hawaii, taking up surfing and living on the beach instead. Seriously, what’s the use of sand without the ocean to go with it? That said, we certainly don’t blame Clover for her decision. Pain sucks the joy out of the hike, especially when every other footstep hurts. We keep meeting hikers only to see or hear about them hitching around large sections of the desert. When we reached the highway leading to Lake Isabella we learned from a hiker about a party of ten or so others that had simply decided to hitch around the last fifty miles before Kennedy Meadows. It’s hot as hell out here and the scenery has gotten old. We get it. But at the same time, Lisa and I are proud that we’re sticking with the desert. I just hiked thirty miles on mangled feet! That’s an accomplishment, right?! Maybe not, but reaching the Sierra Nevada on our own feet will be, and while we might be delayed in town, we’re not giving up on the desert. We’re going to blast out of here Monday night, rejuvenated and with sweet new footwear. “These boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do.”