Total miles: 26
In the morning when I woke up in a sandy wash close to the border I knew and when I opened my eyes and looked up at the brightening sky I knew.
And when Iooked over at Jupiter and John and they had both almost packed up (but they felt too bad to wake me) I knew for sure.
It was time to begin it all again.
We smooshed into the car, packs piled in the boot, eyes bleary, heart edgy and the air thick with excitement. The flat road falling away to make way for the mountains that rose from the dusty ground. The stars that had scattered the sky, twinkling so bright last night faded in morning light. The mountain tops edged in a golden glow. I wound down the window a little feeling the dry wind on my face. It was here. I could feel it. I could almost hold it in my hands.
And then we drew closer and closer and the horizon grew brighter and brighter. The concrete turned to dirt and there it was. Just like last time. And there I was just like last time and all that fear and doubt I had been holding fell away unlike last time, but I didn’t cry like I thought I might- there was too much going on, too many people, to much commotion. I knew I could have my own private moment later.
John and Euron
I signed the register, reading other entries on the pages before mine. They were smothered in trepidation, I could tell. Each person not knowing yet if this life is for them, if they would make it until the end, if the search for meaning or purpose or happiness in their life would be found even if that’s not what they think they are looking for.
And then there was nothing to do but walk.
The trail starts in the opposite direction than you think it will, through a small gap in the trees and at first you don’t feel like you are far away from anything at all. The signs of the world all around you, but soon they fall away.
I was cruising on the flat dusty path with Jupiter asking him about his yo-yo, about life – about everything. I looked at the tiny pack on his back, silently comparing it to my own as we climbed up the switchbacks.
We crossed a stream that was flowing he filled up again and I didn’t know it yet but I should have to. Two boys from California appeared at the stream also. Their packs bobbed along things hanging off everywhere, dangling and clanging, but they were so excited and were almost running down the trail.
The sun was rising higher in the sky, vaporising everything it touched. I was sweating already, but this was welcome. The heat. I remember the heat. Welcome back it was cooing, in some sort of twisted way. Welcome back to the oven.
We climbed and climbed past the prickly pear and the desert shrubs and past all the little tangled plants that line sides of the trail. Lizards darted across our path, barely missing our footsteps.
I fell behind, as I do when I’m taking too many photos and then suddenly one of the boys doubled over and vomited – he walked a few steps more then vomited again and then he can’t stop.
I boosted ahead trying to find shade, but there is none. I was almost running the switchbacks. Then finally like magic a little patch of shade in the bushes 9 miles in. They lay half in and half out of it. They are going to rest in the shade, take it easy until they are feeling better. They had enough water but maybe they would turn back if they need to? This first stretch was more brutal than I remembered.
Snuck this one in here
An hour later I was hiking along with another little giddy group. I recognise to my horror that now I’m the one who is struggling and my ego takes its first hit. I had imagined myself finding this easy. I’ve done this. I only bought three litres of water. I thought I knew how this worked, but I’m stumbling over the rocks and weaving along the trail feeling mumbly and my throat felt so dry it’s almost sticking together.
Hauser I just needed to make it to Hauser I told myself. Then I can break for a little while, regroup. My brain was hot and my eyes seemed a little off focus. I had dumped a caffeinated drink packet into one of my precious litres of water and a berated myself a little for this – electrolytes was what I needed.
Finally after a life and a half we arrived at Hauser and I collapsed in the shade of the trees. Shoes off food out. Look after yourself. I told myself. I went into this overconfident and I realised it then. The trail was testing me already. Trail 1 ego 0.
Hikers came and went and I lay on my groundsheet feeling my body cool in the shade. It was 11:30am when we headed out again. We had done 15 miles. Now we had just five to go – to get to Lake Morena.
In 2016 I had done this climb in the morning, under low hanging cloud and I remembered climbing up and over barely feeling it. This time it felt like someone had poured hot concrete in my shoes. I was trying to lift my legs and feet, but they wouldn’t agree with me. I constantly feel like I’m panting, like I can’t get enough air and I knew I was going to be in a bad place if I continued.
The mythical cave
So I dumped all my things in the shade to wait for my body to cool again, but just a few steps later an oasis appeared. A cool stone cave that the sun has not found it’s way into. Felix rounded the corner, a tattooed German that has the tiniest pack of anyone. My friends hiked some of the TA at home with him so it’s almost like I know him already.
We sat in the cave as more and more hikers trickled in, their faces all red from the sun. We spread our ground sheets out, playing Tetris with the shapes, trying to find space for everyone to be out of the heat. I pass around my dried mango and we laugh and eat and talk about nothing. Oh trail life. It’s been awhile.
I got antsy even thought the sun has barely cooled and we all packed away our things we had left to dry in the sun and start walking again.
Damn this heat. It gets me again and I’m panting. It was like I never even took a break. I grew more and more frustrated with myself. Why can’t I do this? I want to cry or start this day all over again or make more water magically appear today almost feels like a bad dream.
Then there are just three of us still struggling and we had collapsed into a tiny bit of shade again. We lay there for what feels like hours mumbling to each other. Hikers pass and my ego shrinks further. They look exhausted, but they can still walk. It seems the trail still has so many lessons to teach me. Patience is one of them.
Then finally the wind kicked up and the sun has cooled and we emerged from our dusty little spot of shade squinting in the sunlight. We had only been 1.5 miles to the top and what had once felt impossible was now possible and we slowly climb up only to discover just on the other side of the climb that the path is shaded. It was lined with shrubs large enough to block the sun. We wound down and down this path, only stopping a couple of times to drink more water and catch our collective breath. Then I was out of water, but in good spirits.
Palante gang (I’m not special) Felix, me, Drew, Hartime
We finally made it to Lake Morena in the evening. Jupiter had left an hour or so ago and John was there with a whole bunch of hikers I hadn’t met yet. It was 6pm, but I felt strong again. I convinced Felix we should keep going.
We walked into the sunset along a wide dusty path. Hardtime, a hiker I met in 2016 just behind us and then he dropped behind.
We pass a hiker around the 22 mile mark setting up camp. It was tempting to stop but by this point I was mile hungry for no real reason so we continued on until the golden light bled from the sky and the air became cool all around us.
We walked in silence through a moonlit meadow with long swaying grass, when it became too dark we pull out our headlamps and continue on as the stars appeared one by one in the sky above us.
We made a wrong turn in the dark and ended up walking south on the trail for a few minutes before Hardtime appears, he calls us losers (fair) and turn around the right way. We all continue the last few miles to the campground under he cover of darkness.
26 miles later I’d eaten dinner at the picnic table in the glow of the little lights and then I was tucked into my quilt under the boughs of a tree. We are all cowboy camped in the dirt.
The trail never went the way I thought it would go last time and this time is exactly the same. I thought I would be running out of the gate smashing out 30s or more, but the trail has a way of surprising you – this I know already. What does it have in store for me this year? – I wondered as a drifted off to sleep.