Oh wow did I sleep well, I think I might have needed it. It was a balmy night, with much higher temps compared to the night before, yet there was a touch of a breeze and the air felt lovely and fresh. I’d set my alarm again for 5:00 am and woke just as the pale blue light was appearing, the night stars still aglow, the black velvet sky slowly melting away. I got up to pee and checked my clothes draped over the bush and they were perfect and dry. I was not really ready to be vertical again, so I got back into my bed and snuggled in for a few more minutes.
Hurlgoat began to stir then, and no sooner than he was awake, he let the air out of his sleeping pad. Pssssssssshhhhhh……..“the sound of commitment” we used to say on the PCT, once you let the air out, there’s no going back, you’ve got to hike. I always dreaded that sound. I am not a morning person by any stretch. I never understood the type of person who does this, lets the air out right when they wake up. It seems mean. Like, give yourself a minute to wake up and greet the day. Take some time to look around, to take in your surroundings, to think about the dreams that came to visit you in the night. Linger in the comfort of your bed for just a little while….But lots of hikers just pull the plug, like ripping the band-aid straight off the leg with all the hair attached, get the inevitable over with, I suppose. Not my style.
I made my tepid coffee and got dressed, started packing up my gear, reluctantly letting the air out of my own pad, wishing I could go back to sleep. We’ve hiked 35 miles so far on this journey, which puts us a mere 15 miles from Panamint Springs, where we have grand plans of drinking icy cold beverages and eating at the cafe. There, under a shrub down the road, is where we cached our re-supply food. We dug a hole and buried it in very fine sand, covered it with rocks and crossed our fingers it would be there in a few days time. I thought about the chocolate bars I put in there and wondered how melted they may be when I retrieved them. Eating melted chocolate is not a bad thing at all.
I wasn’t hungry at 6:00 am, but forced myself to eat some cold granola soaked in water, and took the rest of my coffee, in my little plastic bottle, with me as I walked. We got on trail by 6:15 am with the goal of making it to Panamint by lunchtime. We can do this.
The sun had not yet emerged from behind the rolling margins of mountains. I wonder where exactly it will come up? I was soon about to find out. When we started walking it was 65 F, a perfect hiking temperature. If only it could stay like this….we had some really flat, really easy walking to do for the first 10 miles, so we pressed on at a pace of about 3.5 mph. It was lightening fast compared to what we’d been doing the past 2 days. Today was like the polar opposite of yesterday, and that’s to be expected, a break from the crazy steep climbing and descending and route finding. Today we would cross the Panamint Valley, our second of three desert crossings on this route.
The route here leads you down long stretches of gravely, rocky dirt road for several miles, mostly all flat and occasionally curving, but mainly just a very long stretch of straight, dirt road. One might think that it would be boring if not look intimidatingly far, or impossible, to do such a long, flat, seemingly endless walk. I found myself thinking, who even wants to do this? I walked along the dirt road leading to nowhere, really enjoying it. I was surrounded by nothing but wide open space and the contours of the stout mountains to my East and my West. Over East are the mountains we descended yesterday, and when you look at them from afar, they seem quite imposing. Yet, we climbed them, and we descended them too, just like that.
Yesterday as we descended I recall thinking how this route finding keeps you on your toes at all times. You are constantly shifting your plan to suit the terrain, and the terrain constantly changes in unexpected ways. If I did not have a GPS I would be taking so much longer to find my way. It’s not really that I would get lost, but I could much more easily end up in sticky situations, having to turn back, needing to try something else, or I suppose end up in the wrong place entirely. I am grateful for this technological tool that keeps me found.
By 9:00 am it was starting to get hot again, hot but tolerable. I experimented with using my umbrella for shade. It was indeed a great tool, but I found out that it sort of keeps any breeze from moving through, resulting in quite stagnant air. It was 85 F for the first few hours of hiking, and since the umbrella blocked the air from circulating, it actually felt better without it, so I ended up putting it away for a while.
Today we made it 10 miles by 10:00 am, I never even did this on either of my thru-hikes on the PCT. There were people in the “10 by 10” club, lots of them. They said this was the best way to get in big miles. I’d rather hike late, but that’s just me. So, 10 by 10, whew hew, I am officially part of the club! Does this count?
Maintaining a 3 mph speed on flat terrain all morning, my butt muscles were cramping up and I kept wanting to stop. I’d set mini-goals for a place to stop, pee and stretch. That shrub way the hell up there, I will stop there. Hurlgoat was continuously well ahead of me though, so I pushed on, not stopping, not wanting to get too far behind. Right around mile 8 or 9, the long dirt road suddenly turned left and began the crossing of the Panamint Playa.
The Playa is not really a beach, as the name would suggest, or maybe at one point in time it was. It’s a completely flat, barren landscape. It is mostly made up of compacted soil. The salty sand bed was settled and hardened and cracked in places, resembling the driest of dry places on Earth. Then, it would suddenly give way to a soft little sandy ditch, that clearly at some point had flowing water, which supported the growth of grasses and tiny flowers. These little shallow ditches were attractive to me, and I tried to imagine when and how the water came through. Clearly, we were walking across an even larger floodplain, but who knows how long it had been since it flooded? I found it absolutely fascinating, this alien landscape. Time, so much time here. I wanted to stop and sit in the middle of it all, and stare off into the void, but I didn’t, because I must keep moving!
I hit mile 45 in the middle of the Playa and rejoiced. Mile 45, that means only 5 more miles to go! Whew hooo! I was keeping tabs on Hurlgoat as he approached the far edge of the Playa, getting closer to a paved Panamint Valley Road we would be crossing. I wanted to see where he would re-enter the textured terrain with plants and cacti again, and start the trek up to Panamint Springs Resort. It was another optical illusion, as I kept thinking he was at the road crossing, cars were zooming by in the distance, I could hear them, and see them, they looked fairly close. But the desert got me again, everything always seems so close, yet it never is. The boundary of space and time melted in the boiling sun and no longer could I gauge anything.
By 10:30 am, after the flat, empty Playa regained the texture of lava rocks, I crossed Panamint Valley Road. Cross the Panamint Playa, check! I was so excited to be making such great progress, I stopped for a celebration pee. Honestly though, I could not have waited any longer, and I desperately needed to stretch my ass muscles.
From here, we began to walk once again on a dirt road that was rocky, sandy and curvey rather than straight. I had been able to identify the location of Panamint Springs Resort off in the distance, so it had seemed like it would be a straight shot. Why is this never the case? Everything we had done today had been a straight line. Now, we had to weave through a wash and negotiate poky plants and rocks. This slows one down. Temperatures are rising. Thirst is increasing.
By then it was a legit 100 F. I was definitely sweaty, definitely thirsty and forced myself to muster up some energy for this last stretch. The thought of iced cold beverages danced in my head. My gait slowed down in the sandy wash and lava rocks, and I began to feel like I was not in my body anymore, like it wasn’t me who was walking, my legs propelled, and my body floated along. My head was clear and empty, and then I started having these thoughts…they just came to me.
“everything that is ever going to happen in your life has already happened”
“you think that time is linear, but it’s not”
I entertained these thoughts as I walked and that kept me occupied in a mysterious, metaphysical sort of way. I felt like an empty shell. I was not anybody, I was not here, I was not anywhere. There is no me.
I’d lost sight of Hurlgoat and gave up on trying to look for the little blue dot that was him. I focused my gaze on the large sand dune near the Resort and used that as my compass bearing. Just head straight for that hill, and soon you will be drinking iced tea.
Prior to setting off on this hike, my Dad told me about an “old trick I learned in the Army”. The trick was to put a pebble in your mouth when you get thirsty, and this makes you salivate, giving you the illusion that you are no longer thirsty. Or, at least your mouth is not so dry. Thirst is an illusion, right?
That last hour and a half seemed to go on forever though, and it’s always like that. It was not a straight line, no matter how hard you tried. We were supposedly following a wash, but it kept disappearing, as washes do, and diverting me on my path, forcing me to bushwhack through those scratchy poky plants. I was constantly trying to figure out which wash diversion to take in order to walk the most efficient way possible. I pulled out the umbrella again (obviously not to navigate) just to keep my brain from cooking.
Umbrella = Good.
Finally, I made it to the road at Hwy 190. Hurlgoat, at this point, I could see up ahead. He was walking with our food bags, one in each hand, toward the resort and I could see the heat waves coming off the black pavement where he walked. Part of me was bummed that I didn’t get to dig up our food myself, and enjoy the thrill of finding it all intact and undisturbed, like finding a treasure. But, I understood his need to get to the finish line. I presumed he was extremely hot, and most likely completely out of water by then. I swallowed the last of my now hot, disgusting water. Relief started to wash over me as I walked the last mile up the road, I made it, I am here.
It was 12:00 pm when I arrived at the entrance to the Cafe. We hiked 15 miles in 6 hours, we did it! Wow, what a difference from yesterday’s 18 miles in 14 hours! I was pretty proud of us and I took a victory selfie as gritty bikers and tourists in clean pressed clothes looked on nearby. I smiled at everyone, feeling a certain sense of accomplishment for having made it there. I walked here from Badwater. Yes, Walked. I carried gallons of water the whole way. I slept under the big open sky. This monologue, of course, was only going on in my head.
When I walked through the heavy wooden doors of the Cafe entering the dark, dank cave-like bar, I remembered our stop here just a few days before, filling up our water bottles. Now, it had a whole new meaning. Hurlgoat was right inside and I plopped my pack down next to his with a thunk, pulled out a chair and gladly took a seat. We wasted no time ordering the iced teas we’d been dreaming of for days. The moment I’ve been waiting for is finally here! The cold, bitter-sweet liquid infused into my bloodstream and soothed my swollen brain. Ahhhhh, I can think clearly again. It was such a soothing balm for my veins, and my consciousness as I know it, slowly returned to my corporeal body.
I found out Hurlgoat was in bad shape though. He was definitely dealing with some form of heat exhaustion. He drank two iced teas in a matter of minutes, and then some water. He took a trip to the restroom and was gone for a long time. I found out later he threw up in there. When he came back, he’d rinsed off his face and head and looked better. He proceeded to order more icy cold beverages but was not hungry. In about an hour’s time, he drank 4 iced teas 3 sodas and 5 glasses of water. I ordered french fries and a salad, and he managed to get some fish and chips into his stomach, but very slowly and cautiously. I probably should have eaten more, but they didn’t have much to choose from on that menu, and I know from past experiences, sometimes town food is not the best idea, especially if you still have to hike later that day. So I focused on hydration.
We moved outside to the shady porch so we could organize our re-supply. We sprawled out on one of their large tables that wasn’t occupied. Shoes were off, gear was spilling out of our packs, I hung my socks and bandanna on the railing to dry out. Yes, we were hiker trash at it’s finest. Finally, the restaurant manager came over and politely let us know we needed to move, as we were in violation of health code with our bare feet and all our stuff everywhere like it was our bedroom. I understood, and he was nice about it. He offered to let us go sit in the shade under a giant tent they had next to the building. It was set up for a banquet that, unfortunately for them but fortunate for us, nobody showed up for.
We moved to the tent and I put up my feet and wrapped an ice pack on my ankle that was really hurting. We spent 5 hours total there waiting out the heat, resting and organizing. I looked over the maps for the next section and tried to gauge how far we could make it that afternoon. We were now going to be a little behind schedule since we stayed there so long. Really though, it was so hot, it made no sense to continue on mid-day.
We discovered we had waaaaaay to much food, and gave our extra food to a cute hippie girl who works there, who was really grateful. No hiker box here. I would have loved to take a nap, but it didn’t happen, too much caffeine. I popped some blisters on my toes and as I lay there I noted that I had extremely sore calf and quad muscles.
Hurlgoat started feeling better and ordered a personal pizza and a beer. Cured! I continued to rest as he ate and drank to his body’s content. I was glad he recovered so quickly and wasn’t feeling too motivated to get going, so I welcomed the extra down time. Finally, we couldn’t stretch it out any longer, it was time to hike again. We carried about 2 L of water each, knowing we only had 5 more miles to Darwin Falls, where we planned to stop again and enjoy the oasis.
Up the hot tarmac we went, leaving that little bit of civilization. It was 5:00 pm and still really damn hot. Hot, hot, hot, walking first up the paved road, then up the dirt road to the Darwin Falls Trail Head. My thermometer read over 100 F until well after 6:00 pm. It was a sweaty walk too, and I began to feel the familiar burning of skin around my bikini line. At first I thought it was razor burn, but when I stopped to investigate, I realized it was worse than that, it was crotch chafe, dang it. I stopped and took off my underwear right away. This was an excellent choice. This gave me instant relief. That’s it, I’m going to go commando from now on.
After about an hour or so, we reached the Trail Head for Darwin Falls, where several cars were parked. It’s a pleasant one mile to the waterfall, following a beautiful canyon with steeply rugged cliffs and towering canyon walls on all sides. It was immediately cooler in that shade of the canyon. Ahhhh, relief at last! We followed the wash until water started to flow across the trail and suddenly we found ourselves in a magical place, a true desert oasis.
Lush plants and tree branches hung over the trail and green matter was abound, creating little oxygen rich tunnels to walk through. There were a few rock scrambles and eventually we found the waterfall we’d been anticipating for the last 50 miles. It was significantly cooler in there and we soaked our feet in the shallow running water. We had company too, some locals hanging out there with their kids catching tadpoles in plastic water bottles. One of them was like a tour guide, very friendly, offering to take our photo and welcoming us to “their place”. They were from the nearby town of Trona. If I lived in Trona, you’d better believe I would hang at Darwin Falls too.
We agreed to let them take our photo and by then it was 7:15 pm, I was starting to crash. I needed food. Since I am cold soaking all my dinners, I assembled my beans, couscous and veggies on the spot, knowing it needed about 30 minutes to soak up the water and whip into a delicious, nutritious dinner. Once that was set, I washed my socks in a zip lock and ate some chips to hold me over. I sat down on the cool, compacted mud, mesmerized by the steady flow of water. What a lovely, lovely thing. Shortly, the locals started leaving and it was getting a little dark. We still had to figure out where to camp for the night so we, too, began walking back out into the wash, away from the falls.
We headed back down the canyon and found a cool little beachy spot above the trail to call home for the night. We set up our beds and then we both wanted to bathe. Hurlgoat went back to the waterfall again to rinse off next to the stream. I was actually too tired to walk all the way back there again, and I was chilled, so I walked just 50 feet up the trail to the closest water access point. I crawled under some snarled tree branches into a little Hobbit like hollow where there was access to the flowing water below.
I had to lay on my stomach, flat like a pancake, and dangle my hands over the ledge to reach the water. I dunked my shirt, nasty bandanna and bra, getting everything rinsed out one by one. Then I stood up and did a hobo shower, wiping the last 50 miles of sweat, sand and grit off my goose-bumped skin. It was then that I realized just how bad my chafing was and I knew I needed to address it further, it was raw, yikes. Vaseline, that will do the trick! I put my sleep clothes on and walked in the comfortable evening air back to our “loft” in the sand. Bats flew overhead and I felt so refreshed and free.
Now, it’s time to eat!
We had made a rough plan for this next section, which was to take the Darwin Falls alternate, which connects up the canyon to a place called China Garden Springs, where there is another oasis. We’d originally intended to make it that far today, but you know what happened. So, from here, we intend to hike 44 miles over the next two days, leaving only 10 miles to get to Lone Pine on day three. It just took us a little over 3 days to go 50 miles, so we were going to have to step it up.
We got this.
Tomorrow we are attempting to make it to China Garden Springs, where apparently we have to do some class 3 scrambling so we will see how that goes. With a loaded pack, it could be tricky. I was prepared to turn around and backtrack if we needed to, as I really wasn’t too sure what to expect. A Class 3 definition is so vague, I looked it up prior to this hike. According to the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS): “Class 1: Hiking. Class 2: Simple scrambling, with the possible occasional use of the hands. Class 3: Scrambling; a rope might be carried”.
A rope might be carried….okay? And what would one do with said rope?
I suppose we will find out for ourselves soon enough. We do not have a rope, so I just hope we can make it all the way to China Garden Spring. We will be in need of water again.
Journal Excerpt: It’s 70 F here at 9:30 pm, super comfortable and peaceful, with the sound of rushing water in the distance. Never did I think we would be sleeping next to any water on this hike! I heard an owl hooting and saw bats flitting at dusk. The half moon floats in the sky above the canyon wall opening, there are tree silhouettes, casting mysterious shadows around us. The smell of plants and sage dances in the air. I can even hear the wind blowing the leaves on the trees, yes there are trees with leaves here…trees with leaves! This hike has been so amazing so far, I love it so much. I love cowboy camping out here, falling asleep every night with the sky, moon and stars casting their wide arc above me, I gaze into their glittering eyes, my last connection with the world before I sleep. What a Privilege, this life.