Lowest to Highest Route Day 2: Life on Mars

Carrot’s alarm wakes me from a deep wonderful sleep (the best I’ve had in a long time!) and the three of us slowly come to life, rustling in our beds on the sand, making morning noises. We sit up in our sleeping bags and turn on our headlamps, shooting little beams of light into the vast darkness. It’s 4:30 in the morning, which means we slept for roughly five hours. But that’s the way it goes out here. Our schedules are dictated by the sun–we take advantage of the hours of relative un-hotness before and after it grows high and fierce and blasts us with evil death rays. “Sleep deprivation,” Carrot says. “Just one of the facts of life on the L2H.” 

I eat pop tarts and make my backcountry coffee concoction–three Starbucks Via instant coffee packets, one vanilla instant breakfast, 1/3 liter of water. Shake vigorously. Enjoy. As we pack up our stuff, I’m flooded with a warm contentment, a feeling of coming home. It catches me off guard–this surge of emotion brought on by such a simple ritual–and I can’t help but smile. 

Chance takes off while Carrot and I are still shoving pieces of gear into their places in our packs. I’d heard lore of Chance’s ridiculously fast packing routine, but it’s remarkable to see in person. I guess after hiking 12,000 some-odd miles, she’s got it down to a science. Carrot hangs back to take care of morning matters and I head out into the glittering darkness, the stars my guide. We’ve still got eight more miles or so of the washed out road to walk, so there’s no need for more light to find my way. 

It’s warm already, even in these pre-dawn hours. The stillness takes up space in that special way it does in the desert. Out here without the crunch of leaves underfoot, without tree limbs creaking in ancient tongues or woodsy critters doing their woodsy things. “No clutter!” Notachance says, crouched beneath the shade of a Creosote bush, when I ask her what she loves about the desert most.

I listen to the tapping of my trail runners against the pavement and get lost in my thoughts. Memories of the AT, mostly: months of walking alone through a tunnel of never ending trees; the feeling of wet Rhododendron leaves like shiny leather pressing against my skin; climbing mountains swathed in mist; stupid jokes with friends for life; Porkchop. There are still some nerves about what’s to come rattling around in my bones, but they’re calmer now, more manageable ones. It feels good, comfortable, to be out here alone in the desert with my beautiful, funny friends. What great adventures lie ahead? What will go right? What will go wrong? I am so excited to see.

The three of us join forces for the final few miles of road and we pretend we’re the only humans left on earth, the last remaining survivors trudging through some post-Apocalyptic haze. The sun begins to rise over the Black Hills as we reach the empty Badwater Basin parking lot, splashing orange light across the dark desert floor. We set our packs on the ground and take turns using the outhouse (an unexpected luxury!) Chance points to a tiny sign resting precariously on the side of a cliff beside the road, 280 feet high. SEA LEVEL, it reads, and we wonder aloud who placed the sign up there, and by what means. Carrot sets her phone atop a plastic water bottle stacked atop her pack, then sprints into place beside me and Chance. We hold our awkward smiles until we are sure the camera has caught them, then Carrot runs back to set up the self-timer again, for good measure. 

And then we’re off! Eighteen miles in and we finally begin our hike of the Lowest to Highest Route. We spread out across the salt flats which, it turns out, are not so much flat but crusty and convoluted and sharp as hell, so we slow our steps lest we fall and get sliced by the jagged salty puzzle pieces. It feels like we’re walking on Mars (or what I imagine it would be like to do such a thing) and already this is nothing like anything I’ve ever seen before. Above us, the sun throbs red hot, but the dry desert air does its thing and zaps the moisture from our skin before we barely begin to sweat. We take small sips of our water, rationing what we’ve got left until Hanaupah Spring, the first source we’ll come to after this 33 mile stretch. Piece of cake, I think, and take another swig.

It’s only six miles across the salt flats to the mouth of Hanaupah Canyon, where we’ll climb gradually on a rough jeep road for nine miles until we reach the spring. This should go by quick, two hours tops, we’d imagined, filling our bottles at Furance Creek with just enough water for just enough time. What we didn’t imagine, though, was that two miles into our traverse across the hottest, driest place on earth, the ground would become thick, sticky mud from the previous week’s record-setting rains. Mud that would suck our shoes right off our feet, slurp at our calves like quicksand. Mud that would slow our clip to a crawl.

We make it across in a little over three hours, then stop to take a break in the half-shade of a gnarled Mesquite tree. Our spirits are high, as is the midday sun, when we set out into Hanaupah Canyon, zigzagging cross-country through scratchy dry brush and hot sand and rocks as old as time. We reach the jeep road and Chance shoots ahead, her arms swinging at her sides, her tiny pack like a child’s book bag between them. Carrot and I hike side-by-side, talking sometimes, breathing heavy as we climb beneath the sun. Last year, on the L2H, she found her heat edge, went over it. This year, she doesn’t want to find it again, so she keeps her pace steady, manageable. I’m grateful for this. 

Late morning turns into early afternoon and I’ve only got a half a liter of water left. The heat, the sun, they’re slowing me down, shorting my circuits. I fantasize about chugging my water all at once, but I know I have to ration it. I do some rough calculations and the panic starts to set in when I realize there are still about five more miles until we reach the spring.

“How you doing, Tick Tock?” Carrot is ahead of me now. She stops, waits for me to catch up. A bubblegum pop song blares tinny from her phone. 

“I’m ok,” I say.

“Let’s find some shade,” she says, and I follow her off the road, down into a rocky wash. We walk along jumbles of stones smoothed by ancient flash floods until we come to a bend in the wash where a piece of crusty earth juts out just enough to shroud us from the sun. We take off our packs and collapse into the puddle of shade, moving rocks out from underneath us to create some semblance of comfort. I force down a bar, even though I have no appetite from hiking in the heat. What I wouldn’t give for a cold glass of ice water to wash it down. 

Resting in the shade feels like heaven, but we’re both almost out of water so we must press on. We continue up the road, under the devil sun, dreaming of water. Carrot is ahead of me, less dehydrated than I am. There’s still some pep left in her step. Mine is long, long gone. Eventually the gravel road ends and we slog upwards through a sandy wash. Carrot’s silhouette becomes smaller and smaller until she’s a pinprick among the desert beige, then she dissappears and I’m alone, my mouth a starchy cottonball, my water all gone. 

You’re almost there, I say to myself. You can do this. I want to believe what I’m saying, I do, except for the first time I’m not sure that I do. I have never been so thirsty in my life. 

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