Poles in hand, I headed up the mountains north of Hwy 58. Technically, we were now in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Although, so far it didn’t look much different than other mountains we’d hiked over. The land changes slowly when you’re walking at 3 miles per hour. You don’t miss anything. There isn’t that “blur” of the ground whizzing by you, and you’re always only one step away from a complete stop. I would often stop for just 30 seconds or so to take in a view, listen to the sound of the wind, or just think about where I was. Even though I was hiking with a group of people, we were all really alone. We all knew that there was no obligation to wait for anyone or to keep up with the group. It was a great feeling of freedom – I had nobody to appease except myself.
I had switched to some heavier boots in Tehachapi. I knew we’d be heading into some snowier, rougher, more remote mountains up ahead and I wanted to break-in these boots while I still had more scheduling options. It didn’t take too long for me to develop some nasty new blisters. The new blisters were on the backs of each of my heels. Standard procedure for dealing with blisters is to lance them, drain them, try to let them dry out as much as possible, and then cover them. The “covering” part is somewhat of an art form though – everyone has their own favorite methods. This time, I had some stuff called “compeed” with me, so I tried that. It’s neat stuff (made by Johnson & Johnson), it looks, feels and acts like an additional layer of dead skin. The compeed worked fairly well, but I still had to shuffle my feet along the trail to minimize the pain.
That first night out, we made it to a flat area on top of the nearby mountains. We still hadn’t made it past the reach of the Tehachapi wind farms.
The next day started out with more rolling dry hills. By early afternoon, we had passed the last of the windmills and entered “greener pastures” – literally. The hills were covered with grassland and scattered trees, cows were wandering about. By that evening my blisters were really painful, and I had fallen behind the rest of my hiking companions. I camped alone just off a jeep road.
I got an earlier start the next day, hoping to catch up to the people in front of me. By about noon, I finally did meet up with them. They were cooking and eating near a stream… which was the last water source for quite a while. Whenever we entered a long dry stretch, it was a good idea to cook & eat at the last water source before the dry stretch. Cooking consumes a lot of water, and this way we didn’t have to carry as much heavy water. We had some discussions about how far it was to the next water. One of us had calculated it as ~28 miles. So, we took enough water to cover that distance. I didn’t take quite enough, but I figured I’d be OK. After going about 10 miles, we looked at the map again and realized that this dry stretch was actually 36 miles! Oops. I was still fine, but I knew I was gonna be damn thirsty by the time we reached the next water. To make matters worse, my blisters were really hurting and I fell behind again. The landscape in this area became more barren and desolate every mile I hiked. After stopping for a good hour to tend to my blisters, I hiked on. I kept moving until about 10pm. The moon was about 3/4 waxing (perfect for a night hike) and it made the the sandy trail glow a bluish-white. It was almost surreal. By the time I quit, I only had about a liter of water left, and another 16 miles of desert hills till I could get more.
I woke up thirsty and quickly finished most of my water. The sun was getting hotter and there was no shade. Still, I plugged on… I didn’t have a choice. I kept looking at the map, thinking if I looked at it more I’d somehow “get there faster”. There was a huge mountain to my right with a trail visibly zig-zagging up it. I felt sorry for the poor suckers who had to climb up there. About a half-hour later I realized that the zig-zagging trail was the PCT going up Skinner Peak, I had to climb up there and down the other side before I could get to the next water. By this time I had a headache (most likely from dehydration) and was looking at the map trying to figure out where the next water anywhere was… didn’t matter if it was miles off the PCT – I had to get some! Just then, I came across a miracle. A couple of my hiking companions were sitting on the trail next to about a dozen half-filled water jugs. I was saved! The jugs were left there by a local resident for people just like me. They had the name “E. Chavez” on them. I never found out who E. Chavez was, but judging from all the notes left by PCT hikers at the water stash, he was a pretty popular guy (or woman…). I took just what I needed to get me to the next water, and left feeling much better.
The climb up Skinner Peak was beautiful. Much of the trail was lined with flowers, and later, Joshua trees. I had views over miles of endless desert mountains. Shady trees cooled off the trail at higher elevation. The landscape slowly got greener and more inviting, and I eventually made it a small backcountry cabin (McIvers Cabin) where I camped with some other hikers.
I left a little late the next morning, just before another hiker caught up to me. Frank was one of those hikers who I had heard about for a while. I finally got to meet him. We hiked the next 8 miles or so to Walker Pass where Frank left to get re-supplied. I got re-united with my other hiking “crew” and we all headed over Hwy 178 and up still more mountains.