April 25 (~07:10 – ~19:30)
Before Lake Hughes Road – Forest Service Road 7N23 (21 mi / Total: 504.6 mi)
Weather: Hot but manageable as the afternoon has more shade, and at times there’s a little wind.
It’s not even 5:30 when I hear the first early morning hikers march right past me. It’s dark and I’m exhausted. Yesterday was a long day. My fear of mountain lions dissipate with the rise of morning and slowly I start my day. Everything I own is sticky and clammy and wet and now I understand why other hikers write about dealing with wet sleeping bags. I guess I’ve just been lucky while cowboy camping – until now.
I stuff everything into their respective stuff sacks and continue last night’s trail towards Lake Hughes Road and the valley where I really should’ve camped last night, just a few miles ahead – but I didn’t because I got too scared in the dark. I see a few tents around the space, and it’s a large flat area with trees for cover from the nearby road.
I cross Lake Hughes Road and check the elevation for today. It’s all ascend. I’m at 3000 ft and the chart goes up and up and down and more up, to somewhere around 5500 feet. I’m dreading it already. I begin the climb up and it’s a killer. My legs feel like lead. Everything around me is littered with small hills and dry ground sprouting single round bushes and yellow wildflowers.
Halfway up the first ascend is a small water source coming from a pipe in the steep mountain side, and I sit and collect water for a while. When I continue up the hill I suddenly notice I’ve left the plastic cap of my water filter at the water source – I have to go back. I throw off my pack and run down, find the cap and hurry back up. It’s hardly any effort – it’s astonishing how much easier it is to walk without a heavy pack. I could walk for days without any issues if I didn’t have to carry all this weight.
I get back to my backpack and trudge up again. I get into it more, and find the ascend is actually not as bad as I thought it was, and soon I reach the first high elevation of the day. The landscape opens up – I’m on top of the mountain, a huge undulating plateau that looks like giant dunes. I’m going up and down as the trail snakes around, making it a fun morning.
Halfway through the day the trail parallels Maxwell Road, a barely used dirt road with tentsites and a water cistern just before. I sit down at a scenic spot underneath a pine tree, and take out all of my damp gear: my quilt, rain jacket, top, puffy and spread out everything on the grass in the strong sun, drying everything almost instantly. I linger endlessly, enjoying a long, relaxing break, until it’s time to move on, and I pack up my things once again and head over to the cistern.
The cistern is the last water for another ten miles – where there are two water tanks of which the first may or may not have water, and I’ve completely run out of my supply from the early morning stream. The cistern, I find, is filled with stagnant water, and it’s discoloured and covered in dirt. But I have no choice – I get out my two bottles and fill them with the distressing yellow concoction. I don’t dare to fill up my additional soft water pouch, and decide I can go with just a litre and a half. When I drink a little through my filter, it tastes absolutely repugnant. A district punch of garbage accompanies what was once water – at some point in the very distance past. It’s positively repulsive so I add some electrolytes in an attempt to somewhat hide the worst of the taste. It barely works.
As I continue walking, I realise the break did not propel me into a lesser sweltering part of the day – and that my litre and a half of dodgy cistern water isn’t actually enough for the coming ten miles. I’ll have to ration. I decide to drink 150 ml every mile. I can do this. The water is awful anyways, it will help me to not drink it. So I go, and move through the forest, which provides some unexpected and hugely welcome shade.
The trail remains beautiful and summery and just a few miles later the best thing ever happens: a surprise stream trickles from big rocks next to the trail. I run towards it immediately, discard of the cistern water and place my bottles underneath the few trickles left. It’s the most splendid, fresh water. My afternoon and my taste buds are saved.
I collect enough water for the rest of the day and for possible dry camping tonight, now only resenting the fact that my filter has kept the cistern aftertaste – something I can only hope to get rid of when I get a chance to backwash it in town, or I’ll have to buy a new one. But an aftertaste is better than drinking that actual water, so I’m happy enough. I’m so relieved my early PCT start date allows opportunities for these unexpected seasonal streams to still flow.
I spend the rest of the afternoon walking leisurely in the shade. I have all day to get to where I want to, and there’s no need to hurry in the heat. By the time the trail moves above tree line and surrounds itself by low bushes, the sun has weakened, and all I want is a spot with a good view for a last break. Somehow I’ve passed all the spacious locations, and I’m stuck just walking and walking and instead of just sitting down next to the trail, I don’t stop and get more and more tired.
I walk until I run into another hiker, who’s holding the 500 mile marker and is just trying to lodge it back in between the two loose rocks where it’s supposed to sit. He asks if I was the person cowboy camping next to the trail that morning, and I realise him and his friends were the people who’d passed so early in the morning. He tells me his friends are wanting to do the same thing – cowboy camp. After he moves on the sign drops to the ground, right next to me.
I take some horrible pictures with the sign, when Speedy and Prince appear. We walk on together, and the trail goes down mostly, so I feel like I’m flying. We pass the first water tank that doesn’t have any water, and I leave both of them at the tentsite in that area they’d been aiming for. I continue for a little longer, but don’t make it far – I walk just a few miles to a dirt road, and stop just beyond it when I find a pretty little spot in between the trees, and set up my tent for the first time in what feels like ages.