It’s already warm when I wake up at six a.m. in my sleeping bag on the soft dirt at Hiker Heaven. When I strap my pack to my back at 9:30, the heat is oppressive.
“I wish you weren’t leaving in the heat of the day,” Donna Saufley says as she hugs me hard.
“I know. But I have to walk,” I say and hug her back. A real hug. The kind you give your mom. The ones you save for people who matter.
I hike out of Hiker Heaven by myself. Need the solitude. The head space. The quiet aloneness to think about all the weird shit that has been tumbling around in my brain like damp clothes in a dryer since I started the trail a month before. To make sense of my nonsense thoughts. To dry them out.
The climb out of Agua Dulce is hot, but the air is alive with a desert wind that blows through the dense chaparral and dries the sweat on the nape of my neck, my lower back, forehead, every inch of my dirt-caked skin. And then the air goes still, everything brought to life is dead again. Brown and beige and crispy.
I hike on. A rattler sun-bathes across the trail. I stop, stomp my feet in the sand. It slithers off into the thick brush.
“Thanks snake,” I say.
Keep walking. Climb out of a canyon on switch-backs lined with brittle yellow grass. At the top, a tree. Just one. I set my pack beneath if, take off my sweat-sodden socks, eat a handful of sour watermelon candies. Shoulder my pack. Keep walking. Fill a bottle with water from a cache of jugs at the bottom of the canyon for another climb. Always up, always down.
“This trail,” I think to myself. “This trail.”
A two-foot tall plastic Frankenstein stands guard in front of a tree. Behind him, another cache. Water, camping chairs, sodas, beer.
Then dusk. The sky changing colors. Softer, more forgiving ones. Movement behind a stand of trees. Rustling.
“Hey Tick Tock!” Lorax and T Fox poke their heads through a cluster of tangled branches. It’s nice to see them. I’ve barely seen anyone on the trail all day.
I wave goodbye and keep walking. Turn on my headlamp as the last light of day fades behind the mountains. The trail climbs again, gradually though. Only two more miles til the road to the Anderson’s. Less than an hour. I’ve gone 23 miles already. I’m tired, but hiking in the dark–in the cool quiet–feels good.
“Shit,” I say as I look down at the dirt and sand lit up by headlamp’s glow. Mountain lion tracks. Big ones. Fresh ones.
“Shit,” I say aloud again.
I take some deep breaths. Try not to panic. Chill out, I say to myself. They’re probably just dog prints, coyote maybe.
I look down again. More kitty prints. Definitely mountain lions. Feel the panic rise back up in my throat. Push it back down. Less than two miles to go. You’ve got this, I tell myself. Raise my trekking poles above me. Make myself bigger than the cougar. You are big and tough. You are unfuckwithable. Play it over and over in my head as I bang my poles together like a metronome.
“Big kitty, big kitty paws, you keep me run-innnnng,” I make up my own lyrics to the Scorpions song, belt them out as loud as I can. You are big and tough. You are unfuckwithable.
And finally I’m at the road at the bottom of the mountain. Still alive. It’s a couple more miles to the Anderson’s house from the highway, although I have no idea how to get there. Take my phone out of my hip pocket–Donna Saufley gave me the Anderson’s phone number–told me they might be able to pick me up at the trailhead. My phone, of course, is dead.
“Shit,” I say, shoving my lifeless phone back into my hip pocket just as a white van pulls off the road and slows to a stop in front of me. Its lights glare into my eyes and I can’t make out who’s behind the wheel, can’t tell if it’s time again to turn big and tough. Unfuckwithable.
I walk around to the passenger side of the van. A woman sits in the driver seat.
“You must be Tick Tock,” she says. It’s Terrie Anderson. A trail angel if there ever was one.
She drives me up the road to Casa de Luna–the home she and her husband, Joe, open up to hikers every season. We get out of the van and I hug Terrie, throw my pack on the ground, open a beer. My friends are there: Young Clint, Sammy, Tea Bag, Nick, Cheese Snake, Red Light, Mike and Micah. I’m so happy to see everyone but so ready to crawl inside my sleeping bag for the night. I wander into the backyard, up into the enchanted forest where weary hikers cowboy camp under a canopy of trees. I find Dewey in his sleeping bag, propped up on his elbow, reading a tattered copy of True Grit in the soft red glow of his headlamp.
“You made it.” He looks up at me and smiles. Puts his book down in the dirt.
I lay out my Thermarest beside him, wiggle into my sleeping bag, tell him about my day. We lie on our backs and share a cigarette, staring up at the moonlit branches overhead.