You are currently viewing Chapter 5 The Desert in June

Today we ascend Mount Baden-Powell, named in honour of the man who founded the Boy Scouts in 1910 and co-founded, with his sister Agnes, the Girl Guides in 1912. It is not the tallest mountain, at 9,407ft, but it packs a punch when the last 3,000ft of it will take you three hours to ascend. It is the bothersome Acorn Trail out of Wrightwood times two. As we get higher, two days shy of summer, the snow gets more plentiful and hazardous.

We soldier on past an older couple known as the Nosedives. The husband points to his Six-Million-Dollar-reconstructed nose. If he hadn’t told me of his accidental fall, I’d never guessed their joint trail name. I wonder if you can order this fine Roman Schnozz.  

They appear capable and are of similar age to me, but I detect an understandable hesitation in their advance. It’s funny how you see yourself as youthful and others, of similar age, as mature citizens. Shepherd and I put on our microspikes as the terrain gets slushier and the Nosedives breathe a sigh of relief. They’ve been struggling for a while up this steep ascent in their clunky protective spikes. Now, it’s our turn. The cloudless sky is assisting the snow melt. Falls are likely without the traction of microspikes.

For the moment, we encourage the Nosedives and guide them up a slope with no discernible path. Reminds me of bushwhacking in Australia–making your way through overgrown pathless terrain–except today I call it snow whacking. I’m having a ball guiding the Nosedives to the top. It’s exhausting work, but you forget the toil when excitement prevails.

There’s a stack of thru-hikers at the peak chatting, taking photos, and vlogging as we pose beside an American flag and a bronze monument dedicated to Lieutenant General Robert Baden-Powell. We’re thrilled to see Tripod and Medicine Man there. What a perfect opportunity for a team photo on one of my best days on the PCT.

The scenery is phenomenal from this vantage point but it’s the people atop it who matter the most. All of us have toiled to reach this peak. We congratulate each other and revel in the camaraderie springing from shared experiences. “Take more people shots on your journey,” a wise thru-hiker said. “Magnificent scenery can be found anywhere. It’s the interactions with others and potential lasting friendships you make that are priceless.” And he’s right. The human part of the PCT makes this trail so memorable.  

It’s time to descend via the same snow-covered path. It could be tricky. Male Nosedive suggests an alternative non-PCT route, which avoids the bulk of the snow. He is a fount of knowledge, but I’m not interested in founts. I’m enjoying discovering our own route and learning how to use the FarOut navigational app to guide us. It’s not part of my plan to have someone else’s itinerary and suggestions imposed on Shepherd and me. A lingering doubtful look persists. Male Nosedive can read my facial expressions.

“Trust me. I guarantee this alternative route will please you.”

“Okay,” I respond defensively. Shepherd says nothing. That quiet British non-confrontational response annoys me intensely. Do I have a point here? Are we Hiking Our Own Hike or are we Hiking Someone Else’s Hike? Am I being a dickhead?

The alternative route works, and we descend with ease. Not unscathed though. I slip in the snow three times, roll my ankle on a flat section, and fall over on the approach to Little Jimmy Creek embedding a half-inch thorn in my palm. I pick and scrape at the thorn for ages before it finally dislodges. My war wounds are mounting at an alarming rate.

I may not be giving the snow the caution it deserves as Helen watches me thud into another branch to arrest my slide. It reminds me of my youth when I played softball. As I advanced around the diamond, I slid into each base to avoid being tagged. Then stood up triumphant, covered in dirt and grazes. This time my efforts see me covered in pristine white crystals and sporting fresh snow burns. I couldn’t be happier.

After topping up our water at Little Jimmy Creek we head to Little Jimmy Campground, a public campsite with a plentiful supply of bear vault cabinets. The cabinets are there to discourage a rogue black bear from seeing this campsite as a regular food source. Before we retire, we’ll need to pack our food and scented products in the cabinets. We also need to be careful with meal preparation, cleaning teeth, and other activities where scents may linger. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Tonight, we dine with the Nosedives, Medicine Man, Indigo, and Water. Earlier that afternoon Medicine Man, who has the same tent as mine, gave me a lesson in optimal pitching. He knows I have fared well so far, but I guess another lesson can’t hurt. I listen to his hypnotic Arizona drawl and curse away when I don’t master it.

“For F@#*’s sake, why can’t I get these tent stakes in the ground?”

He looks on without saying a word. He’s calming and gives me confidence that I can complete this epic journey.

“Ta-da!”

If we thought yesterday was hard, today is brutal. Humongous ascents, annoying black flies, and a six-mile diversion around an endangered yellow frog species. A 16-mile day ends up being well over 19 miles (30 km). I hope that frog is thriving. I wake with ideal sugar levels but they’re too low for hiking. I mustn’t have eaten enough. To correct the problem, I eat a hefty carbohydrate-dense oat bar.  

To treat low sugar levels quickly, we feast on glucose sweets­ like gummy bears, Skittles, and jellybeans. And although not quite as quick-acting I do enjoy high-fat chocolate snacks like Snickers and M&Ms occasionally. They’re also a great after-meal reward on a tough day. 

By 11 am I still can’t get a satisfactory sugar reading. ‘LO’ means dangerously low. I eat more glucose snacks to raise it. Or I’ll be unable to walk. This explains my low energy levels and irritability.  

The only thing I can tolerate are the pesky flies. Aussies are used to these annoying critters. I swat them away without a thought. Shepherd, meanwhile, is deploying full Hazmat gear. Without a bug net, she wears her legionnaire’s sunhat backwards, so the neck flap covers her face. 

“Fetching, Shepherd. You look like the Elephant Man.” She mumbles something through the flap. “What’s that, Shepherd? Sorry, we’re losing the connection,” before I leave her to fight her own battles.

We reach Highway 2 which connects us with the PCT, and I motor along at speed. Shepherd is amazing at getting us up the trail’s steep ascents in record time. She says the walk is killing her, but except for today, I’ve seen little signs of her discomfort on the trail. Never a word of complaint in the foot department. Being hangry is another matter entirely. As long as she’s fed at the same time each day, without delay, we cope. Angry Shepherd is best avoided.

Meanwhile, I relish the opportunity to pick up the pace along paved footpaths and roads. This is my terrain when walking the dog. I get in the zone and forget everything else. There is mileage to cover, and I go for it. With Shepherd lagging, I miss a vital turnoff to avoid an endangered frog species. After consulting FarOut, which tells me we are only 1.1 miles from reconnecting with the PCT trail, I suggest we continue along this road.

“Not the end of the world if we don’t walk every mile is it?” I enquire. 

“Yes,” answers Shepherd.

“You’re kidding me, aren’t you?” No, she’s not. 

“If I can, I want to walk every true PCT mile.”

We trudge on as I curse that endangered frog. I think of nothing but revenge. Well, it comes sooner than expected. The next day the PCT splits into a pedestrian and horse route. Shepherd, leading, heads for the horse route.

“Hey, Shepherd! You know we’re not on the trail anymore.”

“Yes, we are.”

“Nooo, we’re not. I’ll show you. See those two signs there. One has a horse on it, the other a pedestrian. Are we horses?”

Without commenting, she changes direction. The horse route will join the pedestrian route soon enough. It doesn’t matter if we walk it but if you want to be pedantic and only walk pedestrian PCT miles, we’re on the wrong track. It amuses me no end. Shepherd, less so.

The 400-mile mark arrives. Another hiker has written 400, inside a heart shape, with pinecones. We stand beside it and take the obligatory celebratory photo.

We soon arrive at Camp Glenwood, a privately owned campsite. The owner Maxx is hosting a Weekend Event for REI managers and their families. REI-logoed tents are everywhere. He points towards a distant ravine and says we can camp over there. It looks awful; barren, sloped, compact, and fissured soil. A compost toilet is available. The chances of using it are remote if I must traipse up that godawful hill. I’m not enamoured with the offerings so far.

“Oh, and you can write on a Camp Glenwood postcard, and I’ll post it for you for free anywhere in the world,” he announces. This sounds more promising. “After I finish setting up, I’ll bring you home-baked brownies.”

“Thank you so much.” Never underestimate a potential trail angel. I didn’t see these comfort morsels coming, and they’re divine. My sugar levels are still running low. The brownies are the perfect sugar hit.  

From Camp Glenwood, we walk 18 miles (29 km) to Mill Creek Fire Station. In the forest terrain, we spot what we think are red bandannas left behind by hikers. On closer inspection, I find they are the amazing red succulent known as the snow plant. It is a parasitic plant that derives sustenance and nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi attached to the roots of trees found in Californian conifer forests. It shares the forest floor with more purple lupines, white and yellow daisies, and abundant chihuahua flax, a yellow daisy with a striking red centre.

A few snakes too, including a baby rattlesnake, without a rattle, which they say is more poisonous than the adult rattlesnake. In truth, adult rattlesnakes are more likely to cause worse envenomations, but a bite from a baby rattlesnake is no joke and can still kill you if you don’t get proper medical treatment. Shepherd gets up close and takes a great photo, for the team.

But we both avoid poodle dog bush. It’s a mountain bush with a lavender-like stalked flower, and a smell of weed but don’t dare touch it. Akin to poison oak, it secretes a skin irritant which can cause severe blistering. And it thrives in fire-ravaged areas. We avoid touching it and adding further ailments to our woes.

There’s no cell reception along this section but FarOut comments from other hikers inform us you can make a Wi-Fi call and order pizza when you reach a particular mileage point. The Nosedives suggest we try this and share the expense. Shepherd places the order. Later that evening a car arrives at a remote parking lot with two mega-sized pizzas. There are ample leftovers for lunch tomorrow. We’re spoilt for variety, having partaken of a hot dog, jalapeno kettle chips, and a beer earlier this afternoon when we got the last pickings from another trail angel.

Can’t beat cold pizza with a view

We reach North Fork Ranger Station, our next campsite, after 18.4 miles (29.6 km). The wildflowers on this stretch are divine. Masses of the traditional desert varieties; Our Lord’s candle yukkas and the beavertail cactus. And many new varieties of yellow and purple daisies. The yellows are the Californian and Mexican prickly poppies, mariposa lilies, and the common dandelion. The purples are poppies, lupines, cerise fireweed, and prairie gentians, which resemble common morning glory.

Our Lord’s Candle Yukka

What’s morning glory you might ask? Don’t worry if you are unfamiliar with the names. Look them up if you are interested. Flowers held little fascination for me until I became consumed by them. I saw few in the countless YouTube videos I watched to familiarise myself with the PCT route. Endless hours of other people’s films showed a dusty trail and distant brown views. This never dampened my wish to walk the PCT, but I’m fortunate to be walking it in a year blessed with a super bloom. 

A high winter snow year has its benefits too. What many viewed as an impending problem for the 2019 PCT Class I now see as a massive bonus. I snap away consumed by the wildflowers’ vivid colours and variety. Shepherd even comes to the party highlighting a flower I mightn’t have photographed yet. Sometimes she points out a poor specimen. New, yes, but not worthy of photographing.

“It’s missing a petal, Shepherd. It hasn’t made the grade. I want a perfect symmetrical flower and no flaws. No half measures here.”

Sounding every bit the army general with this new hobby, she soon gets the idea. Later floral sightings will earn a photo when she points them out to me. To give her credit, Shepherd prefers wildlife. I’m fascinated by wildlife too, but they move and blur the image. This doesn’t help me in my quest for perfection.

It takes a tolerant and patient person to try photographing wildlife. Shepherd has this in bucket loads. And a fine compact SONY RX100 camera mounted on her pack’s shoulder strap for quick release when a photo opportunity arises. Well, as quick as dirt in the mechanism will allow. I nearly gift her the trail name ‘Quick Draw’ for the times it plays up. Click, click, click–no release. Click, click. Release!! But her patience pays off.

Her camera lens targets every snake, lizard, frog, caterpillar, butterfly, ant, beetle, and grasshopper. It takes something spectacular to impress me. I have seen bigger versions in Australia. For Shepherd, I can imagine the variety here is interesting with Yorkshire only having two species of snakes–the adder, and the grass snake.

Shepherd captures brilliant images of these unusual critters. The red velvet ant is the insect I find most appealing. It resembles two miniature walking cotton balls with red thistledown hairs covering its entire body. With further research, I find out our ant is a wingless female wasp. Excellent find, Shepherd!

On reaching North Fork Ranger Station we saunter over to the office where rumours of food precede us. The gentleman managing the station greets us with the offer of free hot dogs and carrots. Unusual combination but who’s judging? Fat or fat-free, meat or vegetarian. They cover every base. Drinks too–Diet Mountain Dew and Coke Zero which we can both drink–for $1 each. The complaints over cool weather are long gone. Soda infatuation becomes a recurring theme for me in this parching heat.

A final unrelenting slog today before we reach the much-hyped Hiker Heaven at Agua Dulce. Our feet are sore. In the afternoon. I need hourly stops to give them a breather. They’re swelling and expanding in my shoe cavity and sprouting new blisters at every opportunity. And I’m experiencing burning nerve pain, diabetic neuropathy, which feels like blisters. In a nutshell, I can’t fathom what is happening to my feet without inspecting them. This will add minutes to our journey. It’s best for both of us if we continue walking.

A welcome diversion is Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park formed by rapid erosion during uplift 25 million years ago. The location has been a popular backdrop for movies and TV shows. They include Blazing Saddles, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, and the Flintstones movies. Male Nosedive says this spot is where the San Andreas Fault lies which has contributed to further tectonic reshaping, uplift, and exposure of the buried sandstone. I envisage John Wayne, a Western movie star from the 50s, ambling on his horse through these fascinating rock formations.

Vasquez Rocks

I hope we don’t experience an earthquake. Funny I should say this. Four weeks later, 62 miles west of Lake Isabella where we were staying, the Ridgecrest earthquake struck on July 4, 2019. A 7.1-sized earthquake ruptures the earth in the Mojave Desert unleashing the power of 45 nuclear bombs. It is California’s biggest earthquake in 20 years. Multiple aftershocks follow. Did not see that one coming.   

The last miles into Agua Dulce are torture.

“I want a lime spider.”

“What’s that?” enquires Shepherd.

“Oh, it’s one of Australia’s great culinary delights. Just add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to green lime-flavoured lemonade. You get a spider web reaction when the ice cream hits the drink.” Blank stare. “Don’t look at me like that! It’s the perfect thirst quencher. You’ll feel like a kid again. Trust me. As soon as we get to the convenience store, I’ll show you how to make it.”  

We find Diet 7up. Not green or lime-flavoured but lemonade will do. Next, vanilla ice cream. Forget the sugar content. This is a well-earned indulgence. We buy 20 large Styrofoam cups, use two, and throw the rest away. I make the drink up outside at a wrought-iron table setting. Once we add the ice cream, we have a veritable Mount Vesuvius on our hands. A sticky mass of milky-coloured liquid is everywhere, dripping through the table and forming a pool.

“Oh no! Are we going to get in serious trouble again Shepherd?”

We can’t stop laughing. We both agree it was worth the mess and expense. The Nosedives look on in disbelief but male Nosedive scoffs off the remaining ice cream when I hand him the tub.

Now where is this Hiker Heaven? The 2019 PCT Facebook Group advises us they won’t accept hikers if you arrive by car. You must walk the entire way there. It’s a few more miles from downtown Agua Dulce. The sun’s warmth and glare are persistent. A lift would be great, but we can’t accept one. A pickup truck arrives in the car park and offers us a lift.

“Thank you but we need to walk.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Oh, yes we do. Those are the rules.”

“We’re Hiker Heaven’s free shuttle service. We make the rules. Does that make you feel any better?”

“Yes, a L-O-T better.”

But can we trust them? Will they turn us away if we accept this lift? After much convincing, we jump in the truck, and they whisk us away to a most novel camping experience.

Ever since 1997, Donna and Jeff Saufley, have opened their Hiker Heaven home to PCT Hikers. 90 or more hikers can descend on them on any one day and they offer camping grounds; portable toilets; cooking facilities; free laundry; showers with free shampoo, conditioner, and shavers; multiple ports for charging your electronics; lounge areas to enjoy a movie with others; plenty of outdoor seating to relax and consume weed; hiker boxes full of food and clothing, and a full mail service, both in and outbound. It’s overwhelming but still welcoming. Trail angels on duty give us a brief orientation of the facilities available and give us a laminated map for later reference. At a glance, I hazard we arrive on one of those 90-hikers-are-resident days.

Where is the nice little wild camping spot in the woods Shepherd and I so enjoy? I feel my sugar levels dropping. Downing a few jellybeans to ease the low and continue functioning we weave our way through the crowd. More hard, compact ground to make pitching my tent a challenge. I’m not looking forward to 180 eyes watching me.

Next, the garage to retrieve our replacement boots and shoes we ordered from REI just before Memorial Day. I ordered a full size up, to cope with my expanding feet, but this puts me into a Men’s D-width shoe size. Right length but they’re too broad in the heel. I’ll need tight lacing to keep them on my feet. I throw my smaller shoes in the Hiker box with everybody else’s shoes. I must make this new pair work. Shepherd’s boots fit well. And more excellent news. Our six-day food resupply, sent from Wrightwood, has arrived.

We use this rest time to seek shade and relax with other thru-hikers. We are amongst the privileged few to experience Saufley’s hospitality. At the end of the 2019 PCT season, they announced they were selling up and moving to Washington. To find a buyer prepared to continue their tradition will be a tall order. It takes a special person to help such a diverse hiker community for so many months of the year. I couldn’t do it. I take my hat off to them.

Sadly Donna passed away after a long illness on Oct 6, 2023. She was accredited with creating the generous Trail Angel culture on the PCT and she will be forever remembered for her spirit, warmth, and generosity. It was a privilege to have seen her in action in 2019.

Today we farewell the Nosedives who are only section hiking and must attend to pressing matters back home. I’m not unhappy with this turn of events. Male Nosedive is getting up my nose, so to speak. He is a major know-it-all and a No. 1 fear mongerer always questioning our schedule. He thinks our approach is too rigid and not adaptable to change should the High Sierra prove too snowy.

Shepherd and I listen to his recommended alternatives. Many involve flipping every which way. Male Nosedive is not considering our budget and six-month visa restrictions. Nor Shepherd’s need to arrive at specific places where she’s sent her insulin supplies. He assures us he’s listening. I assure you he’s not. I shouldn’t let him unsettle me. Shepherd’s conciliatory manner is the perfect foil to my sometimes-strident streak.

“Nosedive has stopped addressing me, Shep.”

“Could be the vibes you are giving off, Kit Kat. Just saying.”

I could learn vital lessons from Shepherd. How to get along with people unlikely to be my best buddies is a suitable starting point. Instead, I continue to promote discord and tension with the ones I dislike.

Blast off today is set for 10 am but the heat is stifling, and we delay our departure. Instead, we catch the shuttle into town and enjoy a delightful lunch with another couple, Grim Reaper and Pinky Purple, who are struggling with motivation to continue the trail. While I buy super glue at the Hardware store for my cracked hands and another gas canister for cooking, I notice sodas in a small fridge display and start craving one.

“Is Diet Dr Pepper good? What does it taste like?”

“Acquired taste,” they respond.

“Well, let’s give it a burl. Interesting! It reminds me of cough mixture. Urgh! Urgh!” Another sip. “Wait a minute! Mm, Mm, Mmmm. I like it,” and so begins my love affair with Diet Dr Pepper. I drink it at every opportunity. No longer distributed in Australia, I must savour these memories.

Over lunch, we listen to Grim Reaper and Pinky Purple’s story. Grim Reaper has a sister with diabetes who would be in awe of what Shepherd and I are attempting. As a thru-hiker himself, he knows first-hand how difficult the PCT can be. He can’t imagine how we handle the added logistical issues.

One person who could understand is his girlfriend, Pinky Purple. This is her second thru-hike after completing the Appalachian Trail (AT) on the East Coast of America a year prior. The AT is harder than the PCT. What is causing Pinky Purple’s despondent and lethargic mood? We never find out as our paths never cross after Agua Dulce. They have the credentials, but you need the right mindset to give yourself the best chance of completing the PCT.

On this occasion, I suspect Pinky Purple needs time out to heal before she can tackle another thru-hike. 38 days in, we have 142 days to go. Do we have the right mindset? How will Shepherd and my friendship develop? Is walking with a stranger preferable to a friend?

Late afternoon–86°F (30°C). We grab a lift into town before hitting the trail at 4.45 pm. My pack weight is near capacity–22lbs (10kgs) of gear, 13lbs (6kgs) of food, and 9lbs (4kgs) of water–equals a 44lb (20kg) carrying weight. With an umbrella in hand, we trudge along the road before we start our ascent towards the mountains. Shepherd suggests an early dinner, to ride out the heat before we set up camp around dusk. We set our alarms for 4.30 am the next morning to beat this heat but noisy night hikers wake us at 3.30 am.

Sleep deserts us, and we are soon on the trail with head torches lighting our way. I recall with joy these early starts. Peaceful, the morning is so invigorating–birds’ first chirps, slivers of dawn light, and dew-drenched wildflowers unravelling and coming to life. I’m at peace with the world. How privileged I am to be walking the PCT in 2019.

Not feeling my love for Dawn starts

This enormous PCT challenge would not be possible without my husband’s continued support and encouragement. Affection for Mike is at its strongest with this magnificent landscape spread out before me. Mixed with sadness too, for his inability to undertake such a trek with me. But not too much. He hates long-distance walking. I resume my selfish contemplations and focus on why I’m here. Hardships aside, I am indulging in this challenging walk. Earlier doubts, during the coldest of Mays, are now a distant memory.

The next few days throw us fresh challenges. Despite our early starts the heat always wins. By 11 am we have wilted. Talk of midday siestas dominates our discussions. No sooner have we selected a suitable shady spot and dropped our heavy loads than small biting March flies descend on us. Shepherd seeks alternative rest spots to no avail. This time her down hoody affords her a warm bug-free lunch. I just put up with them and use the Aussie Salute–a quick one-handed wave in front of my face–to prevent them from entering my mouth or nose.

The flies are only manageable if we resume hiking. It’s tough to move in these conditions. My feet are cooked. Understandable. We are averaging 18.8 miles (30 km) a day with a laden pack. The extra width in my new shoes is playing havoc with my pinky toes, rubbing them to shreds. And my corns are back. They’ll need treatment when we arrive in Tehachapi. To cap it off, we are dirty beyond belief. With limited water supplies, we stay dirty. Survival trumps clean skin every time. What fresh tortures does the PCT have in store for us?

A 20-mile (32km) traverse of the California Aqueduct in 91°F (33°C) heat with no available water sources awaits us in a few days. We are nailing it, with discomfort, but the Double Ds are a force to be reckoned with. The 500-mile mark comes and goes. Nothing will stop us. Our resilience and determination grow as the PCT difficulties mount.

The next stop on our itinerary is Hiker Town. It resembles an old Western movie set with rooms marked Saloon, Hotel, Sheriff, City Hall, and Feed House. Behind each door, is a bed with grubby sheets and zero amenities. Other hikers describe the proprietor as unusual. I’m creeped out by the unsavoury reviews and beg Shepherd to find us alternative arrangements.  

It doesn’t tick her boxes either and we find Weevil Markets, a convenience store eight miles away. The place serves meals, allows you to camp out the back, and has shower facilities. Sold. The best part is they’ll pick you up from Hiker Town at the highway junction and drive you up to their establishment for free. 

I’m most uneasy when we hit civilisation but not here. Weevil Markets is abuzz. It has a friendly atmosphere. We meet Cous Cous, Lebowski, Pin-Up with a chronic autoimmune disease, Naps with Narcolepsy, and French Canadians, Keif and Heavy Loaded, who never pass us. Funny that. I wonder why? They’re a friendly group of young adults with trail names well suited to them.

We eat the entire day–scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, fried chicken and chips for dinner. Each hiker presents their strategy for crossing the California Aqueduct. The consensus is night hiking is our only safe choice. We intend to leave at 5 pm the following evening. Meanwhile, time with our new hiking buddies is a welcome respite.

Our departure moves to 7 pm as we await our turn for Sochia, the chef’s assistant, to transport us back to the trail. I’m looking forward to our first night hike. Until a fellow hiker texts me.

“Be careful out there. Remember to use the red light setting on your head torch.”

Why? So serial rapists can’t find me? Now I am getting scared. Oh, to hell with this suggestion. It might be true, but Shepherd and I can’t see more than a few metres using the red light setting. Everything is blurry. How other hikers walk by moonlight we’ll never know.

Shepherd shepherding her flock

We make good progress in the cool night air on flat easy terrain. The Aqueduct starts as a pipe that you can walk on and then it goes underground beneath a bitumen roadway. It conveys water collected from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and valleys of Northern and Central California to Southern California. This stretch has plenty of water, but you can’t access it for 20 miles. It’s a sensible idea to walk at night. You will consume less water and avoid exposure to the sun.

We rest most of the afternoon to prepare for our night hike, but I can’t get by without eight hours of sleep each night. To counter this urge, we buy coffee shots to keep us awake and focused. Revolting, but they work, or I give credit to the Joshua trees–the creepiest looking trees at night. They scare the bejesus out of me. No way am I falling asleep with masses of these trees lining the Aqueduct. We see no snakes. Just a few bush rats and howling coyotes in the distant hills.

In nine and a half hours with only a one-hour break we walk 19.7 miles (32kms). We cross the much-feared California Aqueduct. Our first-ever night hike and we nailed it. Woo Hoo!! Pumped as can be, but exhausted. We pitch our tents at 5 am behind a tall shrubby tree beneath whining wind turbines before the sun forces us to walk an extra four miles to Tylerhorse Canyon. There we find a reliable water source and shade.

I manage a five-hour nap this morning so I’m as refreshed as can be. Shepherd’s tent catches the sun early, and she only gets two hours. While I write in my journal, she shelters under a canopied tree. There’s another thru-hiker resting nearby. He looks beaten.

“Hi, how are you going? What’s your name?”

“Beats.” How ironic, under the circumstances, but I suspect it relates to the headphones he wears, Beats by Dre TM, or a musical talent.

“I’m Kit Kat and my walking partner is Shepherd. We’re leaving soon. Will you be alright if there’s nobody here with you?”

He thinks he has food poisoning from Weevil Markets but many of us ate there and we’re fine. I suspect he has gastro or giardia. With my limited medical knowledge, I suggest, that whatever he has, he starves it as soon as possible. No dairy or fat of any kind. If he can tolerate food, dry crackers, boiled rice, and glucose for energy.

“Keep up your fluids. Continue to filter your water and keep out of the sun.”  

He listens. I hope he understands the gravity of his illness. We’re far from immediate medical attention. Other hikers offer him Imodium to control diarrhoea. He says he will follow my recommendations. I’m uncomfortable leaving him. We risk getting ill ourselves if we don’t continue.

“Wait until dusk before you walk. You’re only two days from Tehachapi and help. We hope it improves soon. Best of luck.”

I hope he heeds my advice. We keep in contact with other thru-hikers who pass us. Beats makes it to the next trail-angel-maintained campsite in a remote location and calls friends for help. The trail angel arranges his transportation to a hospital. Without warning, the PCT has snatched another hiker’s dream to complete this trail. It’s a relief to hear Beats survives this ordeal.

Signing one of the sparsely located PCT Hiker Register

After leaving Beats, we slog our way through enormous PUDs, those Pointless Ups and Downs. We meet another hiker chilling at the base of one of these hills. No formal introductions on this occasion but when he takes his sunnies off and removes his hair from a ponytail a few days later the Surgeon has serious competition.

A Swede this time, known as Semi-Pro. Very polite, engaging and so good-looking with his penetrating, turquoise blue eyes. I wish I were 30 years younger. Shepherd rolls her eyes at me in despair.

“Just dreaming again, Shepherd.”

Being an older, more mature hiker has its advantages. Often the youngies enjoy conversing with us without the pressure. Romances are forming on the trail, but conditions are extreme. The chances of people bonding on the PCT are high because we’re tackling similar challenges and have a common goal to complete. Do these romances last when couples return to their regular world? An interesting statistic to know. When wildflowers are not captivating me, radiant blue eyes become my second most popular motivator. 

A silhouette for our Facebook followers

We say our farewells to Semi-Pro and start ascending, a sheer dropoff on one side. The soil is sandy and difficult to walk on. I’m concentrating hard. As it gets darker, I walk closer to Shepherd. In the Hiker Comments Section of the FarOut app, there has been mention of a mountain lion in this area. They hunt at night; an excellent reason to avoid solo hiking. We make a tremendous racket keeping our eyes and ears on full alert. A manic tent staking five hours later with a piece of wood, and I’m tucked away in record time.

“That was quite a performance last night. Do you need help to get those stakes out by any chance?” from Shepherd when we awaken the next morning.

“Shut up. Rather not be eaten.” So glad we have each other to offer safety and support. Embrace the fear. The rewards are worth it.

The next day we arrive in Tehachapi for another well-earned rest. Earlier on, we called to book a room at the Sure Stay Best Western, popular with other hikers. Central location, laundry, pool, hiker box, free breakfast, and a reasonable rate are the deciding factors.

Shepherd needs to pick up insulin from a trail angel here. The Head Co-Ordinator of trail angels in this town, Brenda Masalin, is an absolute dynamo. She thinks we have an amazing story to tell and has arranged for a journalist to pick us up from Willow Springs Road around 10 am.

We motor through 14 miles (22 km) of the most amazing wind turbine farms on the outskirts of Tehachapi. Darla Baker, the Tehachapi News’ reporter, is there to pick us up at the agreed pickup time. She transports us to a quiet restaurant, sets up her microphone, and conducts a one-hour interview.

Shepherd and I speak of the challenges we face doing the PCT with diabetes. We tell her how much fun we are having and how eager we are to walk together again someday. We’re on an absolute high with our 15 minutes of fame. Can’t wait to read the article. A few photos later Darla farewells us at Walmart’s.

“Better you than me, Girls. Can’t say I see the attraction. Good luck, all the same. Sure do admire your efforts.” We thank her and then enter the store.

What do we need here? Band-aids, waterproof tape, sunscreen. Does she have a point? How much more housekeeping can we endure? With a few more bags to lug around, we leave the store to walk the few miles back to our motel in the unrelenting heat.

We groan, moan, and groan again before a woman drives by and lowers the passenger window. “You girls like a lift somewhere?” We’re only a half mile from our destination at this point. “No worries. Jump in.”

This town is super trail angel friendly. Brenda instructs her network of trail angels to offer a lift to any person who looks like a PCT hiker. We do. Or maybe they are just taking pity on us. Whatever possessed them to walk the PCT?

When we arrive at the motel, I nab a hot pink bikini bottom from the hiker box for the pool. A bra is fine for the top. A swimming costume is a superfluous and weighty addition to our wardrobe so none of us bother. Improvise is every hiker’s mantra. In the afternoon I loll by the pool, a perfect hydration bath for my calloused feet.

I am awaiting an Australian golfing friend who agreed to meet me if I was within 100 miles of his present location. Unbeknownst to me, Andrew drives 325 miles from Mesquite to visit me. He looks tired, but I appreciate the effort. It’s so nice to meet someone from home and hear about their adventures. 15 games of golf in 17 days plus driving over 1,850 miles. I love golf and his US West Coast golfing holiday, playing on America’s best courses, sounds fantastic. Testing your golfing skills on tough golf courses would be challenging but nothing compares to our PCT challenge.

This once-in-a-lifetime PCT journey is my primary focus. I’m glad to be doing it. I enjoy walking with Shepherd. Still, it’s nice to meet up with a fellow Australian. Hearing a voice from back home gives me the motivation to continue. Tomorrow we have many chores to complete. Grocery shopping, a contact lens prescription for Shepherd, a small screw to repair my sunglasses and a podiatrist.

The podiatrist appointment is a no-go. There are plenty of them, but they don’t accept cash. You need health insurance to cover the costs, but they won’t recognise our international travel insurance providers. I become proficient in self-surgery with the pointy end of my nail scissors. Mixed results, but the best I can manage under the circumstances. We’ll try again later in another town if my rudimentary podiatry skills are insufficient.

After completing our six-day resupply at Albertson’s supermarket we spend the rest of our time eating and relaxing. A visit to a Japanese restaurant has me teaching Shepherd how to use chopsticks. Andrew treats us to one of the best steaks at Jake’s and we can’t get enough of Kohnen’s, the authentic German Bakery.

Kohnen’s Bakery with air-con, food, and wifi – hard to leave

Kohnen’s food offerings are healthy and unhealthy at the same time. The salads are huge and full of fresh ingredients and the bread is real bread–multi-grains, seeds, fibre-dense, and not sweet tasting. The pièce de résistance is the cheesecake. New York style for me and Raspberry coulis for Shepherd. Food obsession consumes most hikers’ thoughts. Lightweight calorie-dense trail food doesn’t cut it when presented with perfection. I can still remember the taste of this divine morsel. 

The bakery also has Wi-Fi reception. The perfect place to update your social media posts and complete your blog. After breakfast with Brenda, we aim to set off after lunch. The heat builds. Cocooned in the air conditioning we avoid venturing outdoors. We delay our departure until 3.00 pm. Still too hot. At 4.00 pm we force ourselves to make a move and Ann, another obliging trail angel, drives us to the Highway 58 Trailhead to resume our hike.

Without a cloud in the sky, we lumber along the pathway with another laden pack. We’re aiming to complete 12 miles today, but our delayed start sees us achieving only 6.4 miles (10.3 km). One mile into our journey bees swarm us from a commercial hive. The PCT pathway leads us straight through the middle of the hives and we think nothing of it. Without warning, they attack our faces with a vengeance.

“Arghh! Arghh! WTF!” we yell.

We run in every direction trying to flee the attack careful to shut our mouths fast to prevent them flying inside. They sting Shepherd on the neck, and I take three hits to my eyebrows and one to my hand. Most unpleasant as we remove the poison sacs from each other. In the commotion, we lose our direction and need to consult our FarOut app to find the trail again. The incident has shaken us. No serious allergic reaction but we need a rest; an early 5.30 pm dinner to settle our nerves. Other hikers pass us, having walked the same path with no consequences. Luck of the draw, I guess.

After dinner, we climb and climb. A spectacular sunset awaits us. Wind turbines spin for miles in every direction. The swarming incident has given us a shock. We find a nice, sheltered camping spot at the top of the hill. Time to rest before our 3 am wake-up call tomorrow to beat the heat, reach water, and make up for lost time.

My iPhone won’t charge. The cable keeps popping out. What can I do? Is it damaged? I recall a small water spill near my phone in the motel. This incident may have corroded the charging port. I’ll be miserable if I can’t access my phone for photography and navigation. No way do I want to be reliant on my walking partner. I treasure my independence. Shepherd looks on, tells me not to fret too much, and says she will Google a solution when she gets cell phone reception. “Thank you so much.” But I stay cranky.

It is a tough, scorching day. Overall, we ended up covering an impressive 20 miles (32 km). Midway through, Shepherd suggests we rest under a tree to avoid the hottest part of the day. I fall into a deep sleep. When I awaken from my afternoon nap, I find my pack covered in tiny ants. I go mega ballistic.

I thrash the bag to disperse the ants while I curse my head off. Shepherd takes offence and feels I am directing my anger at her. Yes, she selected this rest spot. But she’s so wrong in her interpretation. I could’ve selected the same spot. It looked ant-free and innocent enough when we agreed to rest here.

My phone doesn’t work. I’m hot. I’m tired. I’m filthy. And the dry air has cracked the sides of most of my fingers. The thought of putting on an ant-laden pack is ‘the straw that breaks my camel’s back’.

Our first tiff and I didn’t see it coming. I have hurt her feelings and I must fix things. We resume hiking in our allocated positions. Shepherd leader. Kit Kat flock. I apologise.

“I’m so sorry, Shepherd. I don’t know why I reacted that way. I wasn’t directing my anger at you.” I know perfectly why I reacted this way. The thought of tiny ants entering every crevice I own is most displeasing. Still, the rant may have been a touch excessive.

Not much response from upfront. I apologise again later.

I don’t wish to walk the PCT in stormy silence. Regardless of how one interprets the scene, we need to work together. Shepherd is a terrific walking companion. I’m the irritable one. No more day naps, I tell myself. You’re an absolute horror when you wake up unrefreshed. Today’s occurrence is perfect proof. I never nap again.

That evening, after googling a fix, Shepherd repairs my phone. On closer examination, the phone’s charging port has corroded preventing the charging cord from attaching to it. She manages connection, enough for a partial charge. I’m most grateful. We say our good nights. I hope I’m forgiven, and we can start afresh tomorrow.

Today we reach 600 miles. It’s been a delightful day with filtered light beneath a pinyon-juniper forest. We take the obligatory StickPic selfie moment with genuine smiles. Easy to smile for the camera but the reality is we’ve never worked so hard in our lives. This walk is work. Our job is now this walk. Recent hiccups aside, the Double Ds are back on track. Go the power of two!

Mid-June and it will be 100°F (37°C) on the valley floor today but we know of a guaranteed water cache near Kelso in 7.3 miles. How can we be so sure? “Never rely on a water cache,” they say.“Plan as though it doesn’t exist. If it exists, count it as a bonus.”

We’re fortunate to meet Cinnabun earlier in the evening at Landers Meadow Campsite. She ought to know as she is the trail angel who maintains the Kelso cache. A dirt bike rider from way back. From the look of her, I dare not dispute what she says. She knows her stuff and will answer questions. A genuine softie as she hands us sugar-laden donuts for our evening sugar hit.

“So, tell us, Cinnabun, how difficult is tomorrow’s walk?”

“All I can say is, it’s a gnarly one.” We get the idea.

Spindly Joshua trees are our only form of shade. We find a suitable picnic spot at noon with the bonus of intermittent cell coverage. I upload a few Instagram posts. Nestled under Joshua trees I am doused in tons of fine needle fibres. Not too debilitating but my hands are prickly, and the fineness of the fibres makes them difficult to remove. Time moves on.

Shepherd plays with a Joshua Tree fruit pod. The greenish-brown fruit is two to four inches long, oval, and edible. The Oxford Companion to Food informs us we can roast mature pods. They have a sweet, candy flavour. We won’t cook it but how does the flesh inside taste? Shepherd cuts into it with her knife and tries it after getting Google’s permission to do so.

“Disgusting,” she mutters.

“Handy to know. It’s 3.30 pm. Shall we get a move on?”

We both acknowledge we need to advance towards a giant dune we can see ahead of us. It proves to be a lengthy climb. Shepherd is suffering in the heat but stumbles forward. I lead on this occasion and try to push her up the hill.

“Is there no end to the abuse this walk deals out to us?” another thru-hiker mutters as he passes us.  

I promise Shepherd an early dinner or tea in her language. She rallies and pushes herself beyond her comfort zone. The PCT rewards us with a slow-setting orange sunset from the crest of the dune. 19.3 miles (31 km) done and dusted. Woo! Hoo! Yee! Haw!

Our aim today is another 19 miles (30.6kms). We leave at 5 am and walk eight miles to the next available water cache where we treat ourselves to breakfast. There are masses of full water bottles at this cache, but the empties are fast accumulating. This cache supply may be only two days old. It is dwindling fast. Most thru-hikers are mindful of others’ needs and only take the bare essentials; a handy one or two litres. We do likewise.

Rejuvenated after food, Shepherd sets a cracking pace. It’s my turn to be sluggish. My sugar levels were low overnight. I’m having trouble getting a decent reading. Once again, a case of too much insulin or not enough food commensurate with the energy spent to achieve a healthy reading for safe walking.

I want to siesta, but I don’t relish a repeat episode of my last unsavoury performance. Instead, we walk, achieve the mileage planned, retire early, and agree to a leisurely 5.30 am lie in the next day.

Kit Kat getting into the groove of thru-hiking

It’s only four miles walking today before we hitch a ride to Lake Isabella. We think a nearo day (one night’s accommodation only with minimal mileage) will be sufficient time to complete our resupply and washing.

I find myself back on hitching duties. I reapply my Infinite Raspberry lipstick for optimal results. Thumb out, I smile at everyone even those travelling in the wrong direction.

“In case they take pity on us and turn around, Shepherd. There’s method in my madness.”

I see a slow vehicle approaching in the right direction. A camper trailer. I stick out my thumb but what is the point? On second thoughts you can never be too complacent. I leave it stuck out.

Four minutes into hitching we hail the infrequent bus service. We can’t believe our luck. For $3 we get one of the most divine scenic drives into Lake Isabella. Reminiscent of Glen Coe Pass in the Scottish Highlands with dramatic cliffs on either side, I enjoy soaking up my surroundings. I even see impressive birds of prey guarding their nest on a rocky outcrop.

The bus comes to an abrupt halt and breaks my daydream. The designated bus stop is several miles from the main township. Figures. An exposed hot road-walk follows before we get to Nelda’s for an iridescent-coloured berry shake which Shepherd devours in a single inhale. I suspect she’ll need a mega dose of insulin to enjoy this guilt-free. I order a cup of miserable tea and toast instead. Should have gone the thick shake.

Nelda’s is in a convenient location, near both the laundromat and grocery store. We work out a plan. We strip in the laundromat toilet and put on our town clothes or PJs so we can wash our hiking clothes. Next, Vons supermarket to complete a three-day resupply. We discuss the food we will share and who will buy it. We’ll work out who owes whom what later.

For now, we split and head to the aisles for dehydrated meals, sweets, tortillas, and cereal. Back to the laundromat to dry our clothes; Nelda’s for lunch; collect clothes; order Uber to USPS; retrieve bounce boxes; remove what we want and then redirect bounce boxes to Bishop, our next town stop. Next, book another Uber to take us to Lakeview Motel just out of town.

Within seconds this neat clean room resembles a tip. Our food resupply is strewn everywhere. An overwhelming sight. A hot shower and clean hair rejuvenate us before we decant the contents from their packaging and make a fresh pile of mess. We escape for good Mexican before returning for last-minute electronics charging and completion of blogging duties. Tomorrow we return to the desert.

Feeling dizzy reading this account? Good. Walking is the romantic part. The daily grind, the toil. Many leave the PCT because of logistics, not injury or distress faced on the trail. The intense planning and problem-solving are unending. This is a self-supported hike. Many hikers find it easier to return home. For Shepherd and me the motivation to continue is still strong. At the very least, we want to complete the desert section and are eager to see the High Sierra.

Today we must find our way back to Walker Pass, 35 miles away. Our only choice is to hitch. The Vietnam War veteran who runs the motel gives me a large piece of cardboard to write ‘PCT Hiker to Walker Pass’ on, to help attract a ride. It works a treat and a long grey-haired 60-year-old man, and his buddy pick us up within five minutes.

“Hitching is fine. Just don’t get in with a meth head,” the Gas Station attendant advises us the previous evening.

“How can you tell a meth head?”

“Oh, you’ll be able to tell. If not, they talk real (sic) fast.”

“I can give you a lift to Onyx 10 miles up if that’s ok,” announces the driver.

“That’s fine. Thanks so much.”

As soon as we’re in, the driver is speeding along as fast as his little sedan will go. His buddy in the front passenger seat is trying hard not to look as spaced out as he is. The driver talks real (sic) fast. Keeps referring to the devil, his ex-wife. Helen and I say little. We stare at each other in disbelief.

We’re taking colossal risks hitching with strangers, but the PCT is not everyday life. This is an adventure, right? The car stops outside Onyx Post Office. Everything is innocent enough, but we can’t get out.

“Oh, those blasted child locks. Sorry, girls.”

I had visions of a “Hand over your possessions and give us your bodies” moment. Weed growers, meth heads. Who will offer us a lift next?

We grab our sign and head back to the road to try our luck hitching the remaining distance. This time a lovely lady on a mercy mission to mind her grandchildren for her sick daughter gives us a delightful ride. Roomy SUV with full air conditioning. We can relax again. We chat on every topic–us, her recent holiday to Hawaii, and the exceptional wildflowers. I tell her I spotted orange desert mariposa lilies, white thistles, morning glory, and Fremont’s monkey flower on this recent stretch.

“In October we have sunflowers,” she responds. I can only imagine this lovely scene; both sides of the highway lined with happy yellow faces, before the car halts and I’m reluctantly returned to the present.   

“We’re here. This is Walker Pass,” she announces.

So soon. I want to stay in this car forever. I’m clean and refreshed. It’s over 86°F (30°C) outside with zero shade, and we have a whopping big mountain to climb. I disembark. We thank her for offering us a ride. Her parting gift is a bulky ‘PCT hiker to Walker Pass’ cardboard sign I now hold in my hand.

I had tucked it deep in the car’s trunk hoping she’d miss seeing it. I become a litterbug and dump it beside the road. I can’t carry unnecessary bulk even if I can repurpose it. “Leave no trace” (LNT) principles weigh heavily on my mind. I reason a SoBo (Southbound) hiker might come along and transform it into a ‘PCT hiker to town’ sign.

Umbrella out, we trudge towards our next mountain. There are switchbacks to help us, but the ascent is steep. We’re dirty and sweaty within moments. Today the terrain goes from exposed desert to semi-shaded Pinyon Forest. We rest hourly to cope with the many ascents. I retire the umbrella when the pathway becomes wobbly scree. Instead, I wear my bandanna under my baseball cap to shade my neck from the sun. Both hands grip my trekking poles as a sheer cliff face accompanies us most of the way.

At day’s end, we replenish our water supply from the meagerest of trickles. Filtered, our water is clean, cool, and tasty to drink. Enough to prepare our evening meal and breakfast. We’ll reach our next water source tomorrow five miles from here. To bed now to rise early for another exhausting day.

In Sydney, I wouldn’t walk in this heat. It’s too dangerous. I bring the umbrella out to prevent being overcome with heat exhaustion. Heat stroke, a more serious form of heat exhaustion, can be fatal. It is a known fact people with diabetes can have difficulties regulating their body temperatures. We need to make sure we don’t put ourselves at risk. The key aim is to keep our fluids up and rest often. And I’m taking salt tablets to help with fluid retention.

As our six weeks in the desert section conclude, I am blessed with a final cameo of California’s best wildflowers. They serenade me. My favourite beavertail cactus returns to boost me to the finish line. For Shepherd, the desert paintbrush is her mascot. A maroon-coloured thistle I have admired from afar blesses me with a closeup photo opportunity. And a small purple prostrate-growing daisy, bridge’s gilia, which my macro lens can never capture, excels itself with mass plantings over the surrounding slopes. This lovely springtime scene is reminiscent of Europe’s best alpine meadows.

At mile 681, we arrive at Chimney Creek Campsite. At mile 703, we will reach Kennedy Meadows South, a town most consider the official end of the desert section. Shepherd plans to camp five miles short of this town and then have two nights’ accommodation there. I agree with her, in principle, but her plan puts us two miles short of a magnificent milestone; the 700-mile mark. Goal-driven I want to reach it today.

“Shep, can we try to push on to reach it? Pretty please.” No happy camper here. Shepherd has rotten blisters from disintegrating orthotics and each step is painful. I’m hurting too.

“Please, Shep.” I get her approval, but the conversation dies. We switch to survival mode. A less than impressive assemblage of stones representing the 700-mile mark awaits us. Shepherd helps me secure the StickPic gizmo to my trekking pole for our StickPic moment for which she has little enthusiasm.

“Buck up sis! We’re in this together. This is a wonderful moment. How many people can say, ‘I walked the Mojave Desert’?”

“Not many.”

“You’re dead right. I’m so proud of you and your wonderful leadership. Now, smile for the camera.”

I look back on our first exhausted photos which tell the genuine story and our put-on-your-best-face photos which make it to social media. Can I push Shepherd more?

“You know what this means, Shep?”

“No, what?”

“Well, we’re now only three miles from a hot shower and a decent meal. I’ll shout you dinner! Don’t you think we should tolerate the pain a wee bit longer and get ourselves to Kennedy Meadows South?”

Not a further word out of her as we weave our way around Kern River, scramble up sandy banks and then walk along a blistering hot bitumen road that never ends.

When we reach the General Store, we get a rousing welcome with thru-hikers sitting out on the balcony clapping our last advancing steps. This is a thru-hiker tradition for other thru-hikers. They know the pain it takes to get here. I detect a slight smile from Shepherd. We greet many hikers we have met along the way but first things first. Shepherd deserves a beer. And if I can find Diet 7Up I might just join her with a Shandy, instead of my usual Pinot Gris.

We plonk ourselves at a table and chat with other hikers. Not sure Shepherd knows this yet, but we just walked 22 miles (35.4 km), our longest distance to date. This is the mileage we must do to give ourselves a reasonable chance of finishing the entire PCT.

Can we do it? It will be a tall order. We focused on getting through the desert and today Day 54, Thursday 20 June, we achieved it. Our next challenge is crossing the High Sierra with the recent winter bringing a bumper snow year. Our summer hike may turn into a mountaineering one. Are we equipped and skilled enough to cross this mountain range? There is much to consider. Time now to heal and resupply.

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