Southern California: Agua Dulce to Mojave

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May 29, 2003
Although I was assigned to a specific tent cabin for the night, I slept out on the wonderful green grass, underneath the stars that had become so much a companion to me this summer. Early in the morning hikers began to stir. A little rustle here, another there. No one was leaving now. Everyone who had sense had departed last night of sometime after midnight. The Andersons, of Lake Hughes, were about 20 miles down trail and hosted hikers in a place called Casa di Luna, which some also called the Lunatic Lounge. With a little determination, a hiker could set out at midnight and make the Anderson's by 9 am, before it got too hot. Then, they might hangout and sleep until midnight the next day, before setting off on an alternate, flat, short route directly across the Mojave desert. The alternative route cut off quite a bit of elevation gain and distance and many hikers were taking it. I had decided not to. The walk from Soledad Canyon road to Agua Dulce excepted, I had done fairly well so far in the desert heat. Plus, I really like the scenery and I had two friends coming out to meet me and it didn't seem like a good idea to take them out for two nights of hiking, where they couldn't get a traditional view of the land. I'm positive that hiking through the desert at night would be an illuminating experience, one that is radically different than hiking across during the day. But, I wanted my friends to see the desert during the day. To appreciate what I had done so far and appreciate what I had come to love already. Many of the people taking the alternate route would be doing so to cut short their time in the Southern California. They wanted to get to the Sierra Nevada as quickly as possible. I had loved Southern California so far and didn't want it to end so fast. It had touched a part of me and I was looked forward to the upcoming section.

Breakfast called and called strong to every hiker remaining at the Saufley's. While there wasn't a place close enough to walk, there were two cars to drive to a local diner. Fifteen hikers descended upon this place with its single waitress. I felt truly sorry for her at first, but quickly realized my error. She was a professional and good at what she did. Moving gracefully from table to table and with an absolutely perfect memory, she took orders, told about the specials, answered questions, and generally made everyone feel at home, without ever looking flustered or overworked. I had never seen anyone so good at a task like this. The decaf coffees were properly distributed to the correct people, the tea drinkers and leaded coffee drinkers got the right classes. This person got their large orange juice and other their small one. Although waitressing is hardly thought of as an art form or anything to be mastered, just endured, the waitress worked so flawlessly that I couldn't help but be impressed. It seemed that anyone doing anything well, no matter what, merits respect and admiration. She could have been digging a ditch or painting a portrait. Designing a bridge or a sculpting a statue. It didn't matter, as long as it was done with grace and talent. I left a big tip and went outside in the open air.

Sharon, Glory, Will, Jim, and I took the Jeep that we had seen the hikers in the day before and drove to a large supermarket to buy supplies. I needed to buy a lot of food: $165 all told. I needed food for the five days it would take me to make it to Mojave. I needed to send 9 days of supplies to Kennedy Meadows, the start of the Sierra Nevada, where there was a little store with limited supplies. I needed three days of food to send to Vermillion Valley Resort, where I was assured that I could not buy food. I was slowly becoming adept at purchasing supplies, but this massive amount overwhelmed me. I resorted to shopping for each resupply box separately. It was like making three separate trips to the store. After checkout, however, I found that my neatly organized, painfully organized shopping system was for naught, as all the supplies were bagged up into seemly random plastic sacks. Sitting out in the parking lot in the growing heat of the morning, I was at a loss for which jar of nutella went into which box. Did I want the Nature Valley Granola bars in VVR, or I had I already put a box of Quaker Chewy granola bars in there? I sorted as best I could and hoped that it was good enough. Boxes sealed, a trip to the PO to mail them, and we were rolling back toward Agua Dulce. I had a 24 oz. can of Steel Reserve Malt Liquor and a copy of the LA times. My afternoon was set.

Back at the Saufley's, I lounged in the grass and read my paper. Grey Davis was a step closer to facing a recall election, the paper seemed to think. More and more voters were signing the petition. The Israelis and the Palestinians seemed to be playing nice, as the US backed Roadmap to Peace had gotten going. Fewer murders and robberies than in Big Bear. Life seemed a little more peaceful, now that I had reached Agua Dulce. T-bone, 'F 'n Shizz, Jason, and El Dorado were planning a slack pack (where packs are dropped off uptrail and hikers walk to them carrying just water and a bit of food) but couldn't decide who was going to drive up the road and stash the packs. A game of hearts ensued to determine the driver. Did I want to play? Sure. Drinking my malt liquor and playing cards seemed like sheer heaven. My mind was working on something tangible and immediate. Should I drop the Queen of Spades on El Dorado right now? Maybe wait a bit. Is 'F 'n Shizz trying to Shoot the Moon? Why is T-bone grinning right now. It seemed easy and refreshing, rather than my normal sequence of thoughts about how I wanted to live my life, or whether or not time and logic were independent of each other. What was an individual's responsibility to others? Determining when to play my Ace of Hearts was easy in comparison.

The afternoon rolled on and a quart of strawberry ice cream came back to me, courtesy of T-bone, who hadn't lost the game of hearts, but somehow had to drive anyways. Will packed up and left around 3 in the afternoon, just past the zenith of the heat. Pretty tough, that kid, I thought, leaving when it was still hot. I don't think I'll see him again, unless he takes some serious time off. After Will left, I returned to my quart of ice cream. Hikers began streaming in to the Saufley's, looking like I looked just a day ago: Dirty, tired, and beaten by the sun. I felt for them as they straggled in, with some familiar faces and some new faces. Jenny B, who I hadn't seen since leaving the trail to go into Warner Springs, showed up with a man named Wall who was trying to break the PCT speed record, currently held by Brian Robinson. They picked up two packages, sat for 30 minutes, and then left. Not even a shower. Smokey, from the Trail Ratz water cache outside of Cajon Pass straggled in with several cold MGDs. Reminded me I should get some beer from the store. Dave Carson, whom I hadn't seen since Big Bear, showed as well. Even with a run to town (all of a mile away) for dinner and beer, it seemed as if I was stuck in time, without any worries or problems. Just eat and rest. The sun went down and the stars came out and I had, again, a fabulous viewing area from a little patch of green grass on the Saufley's lawn. That wonderful bed, with a view of the heavens. Tomorrow Patrick and Andrew would arrive and I would have to leave Agua Dulce to start the leg to Mojave, with two inexperienced, fresh hikers in tow. Challenges of a different sort were in store.

All days off seem be the same, even in the small details. A trip to the breakfast place. Back to the store to get some more food and a newspaper. Laying around in the heat of the day reading the paper, eating, and talking with other hikers. In the afternoon, perhaps some ice cream. This time was different, though, as I ate a half gallon of ice cream in the afternoon and then went off to dinner at pizza place in town. At the pizza place, I procured another Britney Spears sticker, this one for my map bag. Glory had left town and Sharon was on her way out after dinner. Patrick and his fiance Daisy, who live in LA, showed up at the pizza place. Now, all we needed was Andrew and we could leave. I wanted to get out of Agua Dulce in the evening and walk a mile or so into the desert before camping. That would fairly well guarantee us of an early start in the morning, allowing us to get in a few miles before the day got too hot and forced an afternoon rest. No matter. I was only planning on two 15 mile days and then a 5 mile day with my friends and that should quite manageable for them.

Great plans frequently are dashed, however. Although Patrick was here, Andrew was still in Utah. Something about a student of his (he is a high school teacher) needing some extra attention. He couldn't meet us until the next day. Sharon left and Patrick and I sat around as the sun went down pondering what to do. This wasn't how I wanted things to go. I just wanted to be out hiking, rather than thinking about how to meet someone at someplace at sometime, with nothing well defined. Eventually, I convinced Patrick that he could walk the 20 mile to San Francisquito road by tomorrow evening, where we could meet Andrew. Then, another 25 miles in a day and a morning to get to a road where Daisy could pick them up. It wasn't ideal, but I was hoping they could handle it. At 9, Patrick and I set off into the desert, camped, and slept under the stars in a big patch of shade. Rather than watching the stars for a while, I worried about my friends, particularly after Patrick told me that he had forgotten his food bag and had only a couple of snacks. Things were not going well.

I wanted to get Patrick up extra early to beat as much of the heat as possible. I had roasted hard coming into Agua Dulce and was worried that he would have difficulties if we didn't get into the mountains before the sun was too high. To my pleasant surprise, he was awake when I poked him at 4:30 am. We were up and going quickly, hiking for the first hour with lights until dawn began to break. That slight cracking of the air into a more purplish hue, barely distinguishable from the black of night. The disappearing of the stars as a slight, rosy glow begins to hover near skyline in the east. It would still be an hour before the sun was up, but there was plenty of light to follow the trail and avoid any animal encounters. Up we climbed, with Patrick keeping a good pace. I warned him over and over again not to try to keep up with me, but he seemed to be comfortable moving only slightly slower than I. After and hour and a half, we took our first break, the sun being slightly above the horizon, well up into the mountains: We would be safe from the worst of the heat. Almost immediately, we were passed by a caravan of hikers who had set out from Agua Dulce in the early morning: Jason and Amy (who was back after resting her feet), F' n' Shizz, El Dorado, T-bone, Dave, and Pinetar. Pinetar was one of my favorite conversationalists at Agua Dulce. An older physics PhD, he had a mop of stark white hair, boney legs with knobby knees, and was currently wearing some sort of diaper to combat chaffing. He had worked such disparate jobs as logging and nuclear fallout emergency plans. I liked him a lot.

Patrick and I continued our climb up and onto the ridge overlooking Agua Dulce, the majority of our work for the day done. All we needed was to put in a fairly small number of miles. The problem was, the miles were small for me, but large for Patrick. Jason and Dave were on top of the ridge along with us, admiring the view of the last bit of the mountains in Los Angeles. Saying goodbye to, hopefully, the last of the LA smog.

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As the heat rolled on, Patrick started moving slower and slower. Despite the mild (for me) temperatures of the day (perhaps in the mid 90s), Patrick was starting to chafe and hurt from the sun, with only a small baseball cap for protection. We stopped for an hour and a half rest in a small cove formed by trees, where there was water and a cache of beer. None of us wanted to drink any beer however; only water or juice. Others showed up, joining us for the a long siesta. I eventually roused Patrick to complete the final 6 miles for the day. Should be too bad, I thought. F' n' Shizz joined us for the first few, giving Patrick someone new to talk to. They talked about poker and wagering strategies for an hour, before F' n' Shizz took off ahead. Patrick was hurting. I'd walk for 20 minutes and rest for 10 before he would show up. Then, rest for another 10 minutes with him. It took about three times as long to reach San Francisquito road as it should have, but I didn't really mind. Across the road was a local fire station, where the rangers were kind enough to put out several 5 gallon jugs of water for thirsty hikers and let us rest in a covered memorial to a fallen comrade. Patrick was asleep almost instantly, despite the chatting going on between myself, Jason, and F' 'n Shizz. Amy was nowhere to be seen, but we were sure she wasn't too far behind us. When she did show, they left for Casa di Luna and a night off. Hooter, a semi-deaf hiker whom I had met in Agua Dulce, showed up and set off for some night hiking. Still, no Andrew. The fire station was open and they allowed us to call Andrew. Lost, somewhere in LA. A long sequence of directions and counter directions and Andrew eventually arrived. Dealing with the logistics of meeting people was becoming very tiresome, and having people around that I had to compromise with even more so. I just wanted to hike and live and be free. Instead, I was talking on the phone and looking at a road map to figure out how to get Andrew from the Antelope Freeway to Green Valley.

With Andrew's arrival, though, all was forgiven and I was just happy to see my friend again. Patrick revived and Andrew pulled out a few beers, which we were happy to drink in the cool of the evening. Where to camp? A few yards down the trail, under a large oak tree would do nicely, even if it was a bit lumpy and close to the road. Tomorrow would be a challenging day for Andrew and Patrick. Because of Andrew's difficulty in getting here, we were looking at a 20 mile day followed by a 15 mile day, done before noon. I was unsure if Patrick could make it, but I hoped he would. Night fell, and I still worried. I wanted my friends to have fun, but I think the trip might be too much. Even though the next two days would be short for me, they would be longer than anything either the two of them had ever done before.

Its dawn, and I'm ready to go. The two days off in Agua Dulce and an easy day yesterday have me fired up for some hiking. The Mojave is ahead. The dreaded walk along the aquaduct to the Tehachapi mountains, geologically the start of the Sierra Nevada. My enthusiasm is curbed a bit, as I remember that the people stirring next to me are my friends and we are out here together to have some fun and be together. Not for me to go firing off on my own. The sun isn't up yet, but we are hiking already. The morning should be fairly easy, with some elevation change but also good water. Hauling two gallons of water is tough and I've decided that we should rely upon some up coming water caches, something I would not do if I was by myself.

The clarity of the early morning light and the cool temperatures make everyone feel good. Patrick has recovered somewhat from the previous days exertions. His longest day ever seems not to have crippled him this morning. Up into the mountains we climb, with the arid mountains slowly giving off the sweet smell from live oak and other desert dwellers. Later in the day, when the sun has had a chance to warm up the plants and release their intoxicating smells, the visual component of the hike will be complemented by an olfactory one. Small birds chirp in, not welcoming, but rather cursing, the sun and the coming heat.

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Five miles go by, and Patrick is slowing, stopping to put on Vaseline every half mile to alleviate chaffing. His feet are sore,partly due to the Puma sneakers he is wearing, but also to the fact that he has hiked more in a day and a morning that he would on a three day trip. The day gets worse for him when, during a break, he accidentally kicks his water jug down into a ravine and has to spend precious energy recovering it. We begin our descent toward Lake Hughes, moving comfortably in the shade, but with a lingering feeling of exertion in our bones. After 10 miles, we reach the road. Looking at Patrick, I know what is coming. After a long break, Patrick says he is bailing out. He'll call Daisy and they'll spend the night in Lake Hughes and pick up Andrew in the morning. The break becomes longer still as I don't want to say goodbye to my friend. The previous day just took too much out of him: Too much, too soon. It makes me feel a bit like a heel for dragging my friend along for such a long hike. The original plan was for two 15 mile days, but Andrew's crisis in Utah forced a longer hike. Otherwise, Andrew would have gotten a 15 mile hike for driving 300 miles. A thruhiker shows up, intent on taking the alternate route through the Mojave. It starts in Lake Hughes and sets off through a patch work of private landholdings to the desert. It then runs straight across the desert to the Los Angeles aquaduct, which drains the Owens River, siphoning away the precious snow melt of the Sierra Nevada mountains to feed the lawns and kitchens and toilets of Los Angeles. The Owens Valley was a productive agricultural center at the turn of the century, before the aquaduct was put in. Now, it is a wasteland. The thruhiker sets off, intent on his destination, which he'll probably reach early the next morning. I'll get there two days later, picking up a few more miles and feet of elevation gain, but also two more days in this spectacular land.

Andrew and I dust ourselves off, refill on water at the cache and set off, saying our goodbyes to Patrick. The heat of the day is on in full, and it does no good to warn Andrew about trying to keep up with me: The heat is slowing my pace dramatically. Up we climb, with the sweat flowing, eventually passing the thruhiker who had meant to take the alternate route. I ask him, "Weren't you going to take the alternate route?". Yes, of course I am, that is what I told you. "I see. But aren't you supposed to go into Lake Hughes?" Yeah, I'm going to take the road into it. "Um, wasn't the road to town back down the hill?" No, I'm taking a different road. Shaking my head, we push on. The hiker will eventually figure out, when we are gone, of course, that he made a wrong turn and has to go back down.

Reaching the top of the ridge, the world opens up onto the Mojave desert, that fearsome spectacle that the PCT has taken pains to avoid. The most direct route to the Sierra Nevada would have done due north from Idyllwild, brushing past Joshua Tree National Park and striking across the Mojave desert. Not an easy or safe walk, by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, it bobbed west, to walk the mountains which ring the Los Angeles Area: The San Bernadino and San Gabriel ranges. Andrew is doing well in the heat, but I don't want to push things. He has a large hat and is carrying a small load, consisting mostly of water. Smart man. We find a small clump of trees with plenty of shade and decide on a long lunch and a nap. Andrew is instantly asleep, unaware, or uncaring, of the flies circling him. I rest, but do not sleep, enjoying the slower pace. My anticipation of the Mojave crossing has been heightened by the views we've had of it so far. From a far, it looks very hot, very flat, and completely devoid of shade. Plans start to formulate in my head. When do I want to cross it? Can I get to the Tehachapi mountains without doing any night hiking? How will it feel to finally get out by myself. An hour passes, and Andrew is still asleep. I wander out into the sun and heat to find a comfortable spot to go to the bathroom, eventually settling on a clear spot between sage and mazanita, with a view of the flats. My anticipation grows. Still full of thought, I return to our oasis and wake Andrew, who promptly makes himself several massive peanut butter burritos.

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Water is now our concern. I didn't want Andrew hauling too much water, so I've planned on departing from the trail and walking, sigh, downhill to a developed campground about 3/4 of a mile off the trail to fetch some. Moving well after his rest, Andrew's spirit drops when he realizes we have to cover a bit of distance and lose some elevation to find more water. It is always a struggle: Carry lots of water, and hence more weight, to avoid extra distance, or carry a smaller amount of water and have to hike further to get more. Down we drop, finding the campground deserted, but with a great, cold stream for water. Dinner ensues, with a few problems. Andrew has only brought lentils and rice (and not instant, at that). On my little alcohol stove, it would take forever to cook them. He and Patrick were going to cook together, but Patrick has his stove with him, back in Lake Hughes. I heat him some water for chicken noodle soup (tough man, drinking hot soup in 98 degree weather), and then start water for pasta. We share the 1/2 lb of pasta, regroup ourselves, and start the hike back uphill for the trail.

Now firing strong, Andrew is moving well, although he mentions a few times that his feet are starting to bother him. No matter, there is a campground not too far up. It isn't developed, nor is there much of a road to it. I'm not sure what special property it has that warrants the name "Sawmill Campground" in the guidebook, but it doesn't really matter. We reach the turn off for the campground with just enough light left over to find our way to it and find a nice patch of grass to camp in. A nice patch with a nice, clear view of the heavens. What a joy, the end of each day is: The heat goes away, the sky lights up with that special glow of a distant sun, its rays fighting hard to get through the thick atmosphere of the earth, refracting and bending and throwing off colors for a poet.

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When it is all done, and the sun is gone, I share a few cookies with Andrew and wait for the stars. I can hear the deep breathing of sleep coming from near me, and know Andrew is dreaming. I'm dreaming too, only I'm still awake, looking at the light of stars generated thousands of years ago. Millions of pinpricks of light against the black sky are the last thing I see for the day, drifting off to sleep without a thought of the Crossing tomorrow.

Waking up in a field of dry grass, ringed by fragrant trees, with the sky only starting to change color, is one of the great pleasures of life on the PCT. The morning air is very clear and walking is easy without the heat and glare of the sun. Andrew and I set off with dawn, before sunrise, on a mission. We had to cover 15 miles by noon, at a road where we would meet Patrick and Daisy. Andrew would go back to Utah, and I would be on my own again. Fifteen miles by noon would be an easy hike for me, if I was alone. Andrew did well the day before, and I was confident he would make it. I was counting on a water tank about 10 miles north to get a refill on our water. Strolling through the land, talking constantly, I didn't think at all about my trip or my future. Just chatting away and smelling the plants and looking off into the distance every now and then. Seeing some strange bump on a tree or a funny lizard under a flower. The ten miles to the tank passed quickly in this manner and Andrew and I climbed to the top of it to find it filled with nice, cool water. Ordinarily, drinking old water that had been sitting in a concrete tank for some undetermined period of time would be not be considered pleasant. Out here, and for me, it was cold and wet and it felt like I was sitting down to a feast, rather than drinking stale water. We lounged in the sun as Dave pulled up, having spent the night in the bushes near us.

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Dave was in a good mood also: His girlfriend was meeting him in Tehachapi, only two days away. Dave didn't hike very far each day (at least, comparatively), but he was consistent. I was hiking more miles per (hiking) day than he, yet we had been bouncing around each other since before Big Bear City. He took less time off and was doing his own thing out here, not getting caught up in a group or hiking at someone else's pace. Andrew and I set out, with views down into the flats that I would have to cross today. Hot and dry and no shade. It didn't matter, though. I would be on my own and free. All I had to do was drink water and walk. If I lost some sweat in the process, was that a reasonable price to pay to be out here? Andrew and I talked about how I might cross the flats without too much suffering. The Tehachapi Mountains, on the other side of the aquaduct area, were my goal, but I would not be able to get there today. I wanted to get to them before the sun was up the following day, which meant hiking near 30 miles today.

Gazing at my map during a break, the flats gained a name: The Antelope Valley. With a name, they didn't seem so fearsome. After all, antelope lived there. If they could live there, I could certainly cross it.

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Dave arrived just as were leaving our last break before the road. I felt a strange sensation on my left arm, like an insect was crawling on my bicep, underneath my shirt. Without thinking, I swatted at it, only to have my arm erupt in pain. I smashed and smashed at whatever it was that was biting me and the crumpled corpse of a yellow jacket fell out. In a bit of pain, I took my shirt off to examine the sting. A small stinger was evident, fortunately still intact after my panic. Tweezers from Dave extracted the stinger, I put my shirt back on, and set out with my first injury of the trail. Five hundred miles of hiking, and I suffered the first bit of pain so far and it was only a little sting.

Andrew and I continued our talking, now about our futures rather than about my hot hike over the next couple of days. He was going out to meet a young woman that he had seen once or twice so far, and was very excited. I asked him about teaching in a boarding school for troubled teens. One topic morphed into another and we both arrived at the road somewhat surprised. A large cooler full of sodas was in a small ravine, and I fished out a couple of Grape Sodas for me, and a PBR for Andrew. Patrick was there with his dog, looking and smelling clean and much healthier than when I last saw him. Daisy and he had spent the night in Lake Hughes hanging out with some thruhikers there who were planning on taking the alternate route. They had missed our views down into the Antelope Valley, and I pitied what they had missed. But, they had their own hike to manage, just as I had mine.

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Andrew had done well, covering 35 miles in a day and a half, although his feet were blistered and sore. I offered some words of encourage before they left, and then returned to some shade and some thought. For the first time since Chariot Canyon, my hike was completely my own again. I had no one to meet, no schedule to keep. I could camp where I wanted, when I wanted, without anyone around to consult. The sense of freedom was overwhelming, sitting there in the shade, and pondering the fact that I had an entire country to walk across. To wander through and appreciate. Anyone could come out and do it: The lands were mostly public and cost nothing to come out and use. With a pack on my back, some water and food, and a few pieces of gear, I could travel, on my own, through the land without any restrictions upon me except those imposed by my own conscience. If I committed a murder, I would certainly be prosecuted. But, there was no restraint other than the fear of retribution and my own ethics. There was restraint upon the act, only consequences. I could sit where I wanted or walk around naked, if I saw fit. I could sleep where it looked comfortable, not where a regulation told me to sleep. I could be.

Ahead of me was the Tejon Ranch, a massive, private landholding that the PCT crossed with the permission of the ranch. The Tejon Ranch was founded by one of the moving forces behind the Los Angeles aquaduct. Before the aquaduct, the land was close to worthless from a business perspective: To dry to raise crops or graze livestock. After the water began to flow, however, the Tejon Ranch became valuable: The LA aquaduct passed right by it. Gaining permission to cross the ranch took many years of legal wrangling on the part of the federal government but in the end a compromise was struck. Rather than crossing the ranch through a scenic area, hikers would cross through on a direct route. A gate with a sign warned me not to leave the trail, smoke on it, or camp on it. So much for my unlimited freedom, I thought. It didn't matter. I'd be across six miles later, when I ran into Highway 138. The heat of the day was nearing its apex, but I didn't notice. Even here, on private, restricted land, the feeling of freedom still flowed within me. I still felt that sense of being alive and unrestricted, despite the fact that I had to stay on the trail. In a parched and seemingly dead land, bits of beauty stood out here and there. A flowering cactus. A old tree.

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I passed a few hikers sleeping the shade, dodging the heat. Burrito and Gnome were tired of the heat and the sun and Southern California in general. There was a hostel ahead at the former home of one of the PCTs most famous characters: Jack Fair. Jack Fair died two years ago, but before that would provide hikers with water and a little shade, and perhaps a lift to a store, in return for conversation. For philosophical conversation sometimes bordering on the absurd. But, still, it seemed like a fair price to pay for a little water: Talk about the nature of good and evil and how human beings blend the two in return for a few liters of precious liquid. Jack was dead and his place had been purchased by another man who had plans to turn it into a hostel for hikers. Not having been stressed much during the past few days, I was only planning on getting some water, cooking dinner, and leaving by 5 to hike part of the way along the aquaduct. Burrito and Gnome were going there to stay for a while, to rest up before making the push across the Antelope Valley and the Tehachapi mountains on the other side. We didn't need to say our goodbyes: They would meet me again in a few hours at the old Fair place.

The direct route across the Tejon Ranch left the hills, passing several ranching areas, and made a straight line through dry grass for the highway, following a barbed wire fence for guidance. Along the way, someone had placed a set of skis, one of the more surreal moments I had experienced so far. Skis, in one of the driest places on earth: The Mojave.

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I reached Highway 138 around 3 and walked over to where the old Fair place was. A sign hung up on a pole said: Water. That was enough. I sat by the side of the highway to have a smoke before going in, under a small bush with cast just enough shade for my head and torso. I watched the traffic go by, wondering where people were going. The trucks had an obvious purpose: Haul goods from point A to point B. But, what about the cars? We were fairly far from any large settlement and not all the cars could be local traffic. Where were they going to? Such nonsense filled my head as I walked into the old Fair place to get some water and rest for an hour or two while I had my afternoon meal. Barking dogs greeted me, but they looked like they were more sound than substance. A workman told me to drop my pack in the bunkhouse, which I had mistaken for a tool shed. I noticed several other hikers about, and found more in the house itself, relaxing and sleeping. In general, not moving much. There were hikers here that I recognized from Agua Dulce and directed me to the water. I filled up a water bag to drink and sat in a comfortable rocking chair. Within two minutes, however, an elderly man came into the house and walked up to me. The owner. I thanked him for his hospitality, which he countered with a demand for $10 or two hours of labor painting his fence. He explained that he was building a hostel and the hikers were expected to contribute their labor or their money to pay for it. I explained to him that I only wanted a little water and a couple of hours to rest before leaving. He explained to me that hiking at 5 in the Mojave would be very dangerous, but it I wanted to, then I wanted to leave then, I had to paint the fence for only 40 minutes. I was slightly incredulous, not knowing is he was serious or just pulling my leg. I said nothing and he left.

Quickly, the owner returned and called me over to him. He wanted to show me something interesting outside. Ready for some sort of amusing bit of desert humor, I was instead presented with a box of rose clippings that he wanted moved into a barrel and watered down. Seeing no way to escape the situation without being rude, I complied. He was providing hikers with a service and wanted something in return for it. I wasn't quite sure what he was providing, however, other than water and showers as there was not hostel as yet. Just a bit of grass on which hikers could sleep. It was his place and he could do with it was he saw fit, charge what he wanted. However, his advertisements on the trail mentioned nothing about a fee or labor and I felt extorted.

I finished my assignment and saw a few hikers getting ready to paint his fence, finding that laboring in the sun in the Mojave heat at 4 in the afternoon was preferable to pushing on. Not for me. I was ready to go, just as Dave pulled in and I informed him of the situation (wishing, of course, that my fellow hikers had informed me of it). He went to get water and Burrito and Gnome showed up. I told them of the situation as well, but they were too tired to go on. They would have to pay up or paint the man's fence. Dave and I set out on our own and I was angry for the first time this trip. It was the first real negative emotion I felt so far, and it disturbed me. I should be angry, I told myself. It does no good and is petty anyways. Wasted emotional strength that only served to lessen my joy. Slowly, my anger turned to pity. I pitied the owner and how he lived his life, at how small his life must be. Even my pity faded, and all that was left was a small pictured in my head of how events unraveled, without any emotional attachment to them. I was happy again and unperturbed.

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Reaching the LA aquaduct was a milestone, of sorts: This was my first evidence of the Sierra Nevada. I had not gazed upon their heights, nor had I reached them geologically. But here was thousands upon millions of gallons of Sierran water. Who needed the water that the owner of the Fair place provided? There was plenty here, and all for free. The trail now took and interesting turn: I would follow the aquaduct until it became buried under a lid of concrete, then walk that lid until near the Tehachapi mountains. Even with water a plenty, I had two gallons strapped to my back because it would soon be inaccessible: Once under the lid, it could not be tapped for a long stretch and hikers could be taunted, like Tantalus by the sound of rushing, cold water just beneath their feet and out of reach.

Bits of homes were scattered here and there through the valley on the aquaduct. Some still inhabited with nice gardens and lawn furniture. Others run down with angry dogs, separated from me by a very small fence. Others were no longer inhabited, and gave the area a ghostlike feel. Soon, the houses were passed and the inhabitants forgotten, and I was out there alone. Dave had stopped before the aquaduct was sealed up and I was confident that no one was around. Most people were still at the old Fair place, planning to set off during the evening and hike through the night.

The trail took a left, the first turn in a couple of miles, and became more road like, as the lid to the aquaduct was graveled over. No rise could be seen, except for the mountains far in the distance. I found a little shade underneath a small bush and cooked dinner: Macaroni and Cheese with a lot of olive oil. Dave passed me, and we exchanged greetings. I probably would not seem him after today, as we were going into opposite towns to resupply: He to Tehachapi and me to Mojave. The day began to cool as I set off down the long road to the mountains, with a warm, friendly breeze lapping against my bearded cheeks.

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I pass Dave as he burrows into a clump of brush, looking for a campsite for the night. I wave goodbye to him, and strike out by myself, completely alone in the stillness and rebirth of the early evening in the Mojave. Not a sound is made save for the crunch of my steps and the meek gurgle of thousands upon thousands of gallons of pure Sierran water, rushing down the Los Angeles aquaduct, sealed before a thick lid of concrete and buried under gravel. The air is heavy with the perfume of sage and juniper, ripened by the intense afternoon sun. The land has exploded in a riot of reds and pinks and oranges and purples as the sun begins its descent to the mountain ridges in the west. A light that poets write about and artists search for is all mine, here in the most maligned of all sections on the PCT. Why is it so hated, this magical section of trail?

The time has arrived. The magical hours of twilight when the world becomes right again, when the inhabitants of the Antelope Valley emerge from hiding and life begins anew with the cooling of the land. The scorching heat of a June afternoon has faded and the intense sun, reflected harshly off the white concrete of the aquaduct and the beige sand, has left. I am all alone out here, crossing the valley floor with the distant Tehachapi mountains my beacon. The sun slowly dips behind the mountains rimming in the valley, bringing the lightshow to an end and leaving the dark, bluish-purple light that will quickly fade to black with the onset of night. Finding a spot to camp is simple: There is nothing but sage and juniper, aquaduct and bits of barbed wire. A grove of Joshua trees, there arms outstretched to heaven, beckons me over to share a bit of sand with them. As I settle in to my home for the night, the stars come out. The desert stars. One last display of beauty before sleep calls me off, ending the day. As the Milky Way begins to shine and my mind takes the first steps into the realm of dreams, the sight runs seems absurd. Imagine, I think, I can see a whole galaxy from this little patch of sand.

My eyes open, and I rapidly blink the sleep of the previous night away. It is still dark, but the blackness of a desert night has retreated into that purple that heralds the end of the stars and the approach of the sun. The approach of the light that will bring so much pleasure to my eyes in the early hours and so much difficulty to my body later on. Packing up from my camp in the grove takes only a few minutes: Stuff the sleeping bag, fold the sleeping pad, roll the ground cloth. Although the air is cool this morning, and the sun is still well below the mountains, water is already on my mind: Seven miles. Then the climb into the Tehachapi mountains and hopefully a cooler afternoon, above the valley floor. As the stars disappear and the purple grows to a pale rose, I reach the water source: A small breach in the aquaduct that the Los Angeles Water Department has made for hikers. A swarm of bees, numbering in the tens of thousands, I'd like to think, has made the pooling water a home; the only home with running water for miles. A hiker, presumably exhausted from a night time hike across the open desert on an alternate route, lies snuggled deep within his sleeping bag a few yards away, sleeping away the cool of the morning. The bundle of nylon and down and flesh is as close as I've come to human contact in the past day, and the last I'll have for another. I couldn't be happier out here, racing the sun for the cooler heights of the mountains, with only the birds and lizards and snakes and bees for company.

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Leaving the water and the bees, I began the climb into the Tehachapi mountains and their, hopefully, cooler air. The cool air was not to be found, however. By 9 I was sweating profusely over easy terrain. This would be a hot day. Staggering forth, I found water in Tylerhorse Canyon and spent an hour under a bush recovering and drinking. Making the climb out of the canyon, I felt refreshed enough to think about future trips. Many hikers do this, I'm told. At the start of a long journey, many things are so new and fantastic that plans are instantly hatched for future travels. As the present journey wears on, the enthusiasm fades and all that is hoped for is the end. I do not want this to happen. I want to feel this good inside for the entire trip, if I can. Let me desire the things of home only when I actually get home.

With the heat of the day at its full, my movement slackened until I felt I was barely walking. I passed to hikers asleep under the shade of their tarp. I was almost at the top of the Tehachapi mountains. Just a little further. I remembered my struggle to get to Agua Dulce and it brought me courage. It can be any hotter now than it was then, and I made it then. I talked to myself for a little company and shouted at myself for a little spirit. I broke out in song near the top of the nameless mountain I happened to be climbing, with my clothes as wet as if I had just stepped out of a shower. Trudging slowly, I found a cave formed by thick trees, went inside and collapsed on the cool dirt floor. Here, out of the sun, it was very pleasant. I didn't move and my clothes and body dried quickly in the desert air. For a half hour I sat still, not even drinking water, until I found the strength to drink down a liter or two of water and have a smoke and some food. Another half hour passed and I was not yet ready to leave. Forcing myself after a third span of 30 minutes, I hoisted my pack back on, and stepped out into the furnace once again.

The day had cooled slightly and I was strong again. Moving with a purpose, I bounced along the trail, which was rather eroded from off road vehicles (despite their not being allowed on it), and passed through a checker board of private land. This was the most private land I had dealt with since beginning my trip. No National Forest out here. Just BLM land and private holdings. Signs warned me not to linger, not to camp or leave the trail. I passed on, intent on reaching Tehachapi-Willow Springs road, where there was more water. As I came out of the private land, I reached the windmills. Big, sonorous turbines with attached propellers, they were generating clean power, even though they marred the landscape. A reasonable compromise, I thought.

I reached the water source before the road and was instantly dejected. The source was a marsh. I dropped my pack and went searching for some moving water, eventually finding a little waterfall approximately 1 inch high in the midst of the marsh. I filled up two water bags and sat down to ponder. The road ahead would take me into Mojave and should be an easy hitch. Smaller, local roads are easier to hitch on than big state highways, I thought. This water will probably make me sick, I thought. I could take a shower and sleep in a soft bed tonight. Sharon and Glory are still in Mojave, probably. No, I don't want to go to town. I want to be out here. On my way to the road, I signed in at the trailhead and noticed that Sharon and Glory had come through in the morning, which almost certainly put them in Mojave. I didn't want to link up with others. I was enjoying my time out here by myself and didn't want to spoil it. I'd see them in Kennedy Meadows, the start of the Sierra and the end of Southern California.

I crossed the highway and walked a quarter mile through the sage, to a large juniper tree whose scent I was following. There was a nook inside of it just large enough for me to sleep in, ensconced in its sweet arms. Cooking a pasta dinner with the sun going down, camped in a place that no one (except me) would possibly call ideal, I was in absolute heaven. I drank down large droughts of the water from the marsh (heavily iodized, of course) and reflected on my day. The most important point, it seemed to me, was that I was out here sleeping in the desert, when I could have easily hitched into town and slept there, with all the pleasures Mojave could afford. The lights and sounds of the road were not far away and I could still see the windmills and bits of fencing from local ranches.

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I wasn't in the wilderness, but rather in the land of the hobo. My Huck Finn instinct was awakened and I laid back, under my juniper, to watch the stars come out and finished eating my pasta. I slept deep and well, content and happy, without a care in the world. Would I have slept as well wrapped up in a motel bed?

I was up early this morning, fresh and powerful and wanting to get to town. Although I had a great night, the proximity of the town of Mojave, or, rather, the proximity of all its luxuries, put a spur to me. Cruising through the early morning life, crossing the bits of sage and manzanita, I headed up into the hills that form the southern fortress above Tehachapi Pass, my destination. A mere 8 miles away, I would be able to make Highway 58 by 9 easily. However, how long would it take me to hitch in? This was going to be my first solo hitchhike and I was a bit wary. Not so much for safety reasons, but because I was trying to hitch without a female companion. Would anyone stop on a busy state highway for a bearded, smelly, dirty single man?

Passing more windmills, I wound up into the hills, barely sweating in the cool air and came to take a break on a bench on top. I wasn't sure why the bench was there, as no day hikers or families would come out this way, but there it was. A nice, pleasant bench with a view down into Tehachapi pass and the highway.

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Part of the way through a King Size Snickers bar, I heard some shuffling, like some one was coming up the trail. A thin young man came running by and gave me a nod of his head, blazing away down the trail. Who could be out here running? It must be some sort of local out for some exercise! Outstanding, I thought. I can probably get down to wherever he is parked before he leaves and get a ride from him into town. That is, if he is going to Mojave rather than Tehachapi. Finishing up my candy bar, I moved on down the trail with a quick pace, hoping to catch the runner before he left. Winding down through the scrub, I hit an access road with a foam cooler stashed underneath a brush. Inside were several empty bottles of Gatorade and a note. The note was from an Appalachian Trail hiker named Ganj who happened to be out west doing some hiking in the Sierra. I knew Ganj from an AT bulletin board, Whiteblaze and was surprised and happy to find someone I knew way out here. There was no one at the parking lot and I lost hope of finding an easy ride. Walking the access road out to the highway, I became further disappointed. HWY58 was big and fast, and the exit where the trail crossed had nothing: No houses or businesses. No reason for anyone to get off the highway here. The runner was perched at the exit ramp with his thumb out. I decided to better the chances of a hitch by standing on the on-ramp, figuring that seeing two people would help, and having them spaced out might give the drivers a chance to think about picking us up. Ten minutes go by. Twenty. Thirty. Not so much as a look. The runner came over to talk. He was a PCT hiker with the name of the Northerner and had gotten into Mojave the day before. The good news that he had was that the White's Motel in Mojave had dropped him and several other hikers off at Tehachapi-Willow Springs road a few hours ago and was to pick them up again in another hour. A ride was assured even if I had to wait for it.

Another thirty minutes passed without a look and I decided that it was just best to wait for the people from White's. Moving to the access road on the other side of the highway to wait, I found just enough shade under a stop sign to make waiting comfortable. Even at 10 am, the desert was hot and the sun merciless.

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The Northerner's friends arrived: Marko and Special Agent, with Apple Pie just a few minutes behind. We exchanged the standard greetings. I detected a note of jealously in their voices when they saw that I had some shade: It was the only shade around, and I wasn't about to give it up. Small jokes came out. Little bits of laughter and short stories made their appearance. Even though we had only known each other for 5 minutes, our common experience gave us much to talk about. The fact that it was physically and mentally difficult gave that experience weight. We felt like we were doing something that mattered, and that made us close right away.

A large white SUV arrived and a few hikers poured out. Hooter, who I hadn't seen since San Francisquito road, was among them. He always seemed to be one step ahead of me, despite not hiking very far each day. He was staying ahead of me by taking fewer days off. I suspect that he also took the short cut from Lake Hughes across the Mojave, which cut off a day of travel. The Whites were used to dirty hikers, as the seats in the SUV were carefully lined with old, white sheets.

The town of Mojave was very flat and very hot, even in the late morning. But, the motel provided sanctuary. I got my own room with plans to meet the others for breakfast at Denny's. I turned the air conditioning and ran down the street to pick up my bounce box and a new pair of shoes that I had coming in the mail. Upon my arrival, the room was nice and chilly, providing a shocking contrast to the air outside. Of course, I turned on a really hot shower and tried my best to get clean. Mostly, I just liked the sensation of the water coming down on my body. It felt so luxurious, so perfect. All it was was a shower, but yet I was having some sort of transcendental moment. Spending a lot of time outdoors does that to you. Simple things become important, and more complex trappings of society and culture seemed irrelevant. I washed my clothes out and set them out in the sun to dry while I went off to breakfast. My new shoes felt great. They had better, as I was going to finish off Southern California in them and hike across the Sierra Nevada after that.

Special Agent and Marko were in the Denny's, along with another PCT hiker named Gretzky. Gretzky had hiked the PCT a few years before and was out for another tour. He looked about 20, which means he had hiked the trail for the first time at a very young age. The standard gluttony ensued at Denny's, after which I bought a newspaper and a half gallon of iced tea to drink. I actually had things to do today. I had forgotten my PIN for my ATM account, so I had to find a bank to take out a cash advance on my credit card. I had to resupply at the grocery store. I had to sort through my bounce box and mail it up the trail. I had to call my mother and I had to rest and eat.

The time spent in town is much different than the time spent on trail. Time in town passes quickly, whereas the time on the trail passes slowly. I think that the distractions of town keeps my mind busy and so I do not notice much around me. When I am out hiking, I do not have these little distractions. My mind focuses on more important things, and time passes slowly in contemplation. I ran into El Dorado on the way to the store, which surprised me a bit. He and Tracy had hitch hiked off the aquaduct, which explained their early presence in town. We made plans to meet for dinner, although I ended up breaking those plans. The day was just too short, and I had promised myself a nap to boot. By 9 pm, I had finished all my chores, including a 2 hour nap, and set about to do some serious relaxing for the next few hours before bed time. I chose to walk about town a little to find some denatured alcohol for my stove. The heat of the day was gone and a strong desert wind was blowing. Strolling from one gas station to another, the wind became an object imbued with properties beyond what it presented physically. The blew not from side to side, but swirled, blowing in vortices that seemed to massage my body. A strong, warm wind, blown off the furnace of the desert. A wind that seemed to capture the essence of the land that it passed over. And, now, it was blowing over me, carrying part of me away with it to spread over the rest of the town, to spread back into the desert. My search futile, I sat in a patch of unlit sidewalk, looking at the stars and letting the wind move me about, gently. I felt like crying, there in the darkness and wind, on a side walk, next to a motel, in the desert of southern California. In the joy of walking about in the wind, a fear had crept up, slowly and silently from behind. When the end of the summer came, and I went back home, how would I be able to be happy without events like the night in Mojave? I didn't know if I would ever be able to regain the feeling of perfection that I felt tonight. To return to this state of grace was in doubt and that scared me and frightened me. I soberly returned to my room and turned on the TV, hoping that its mindless transmission might drive the fear away. As a sign of its power, it did and I spent a few hours sitting numbly, watching one program after another. I don't remember what any of them were. A few hours of my life, without memories. Those hours would never come again, and I had nothing to show for them. I slept deeply, without dreams.