When night falls and I trip over a rock for the third time, we bust out our headlamps and keep going. We’re hiking through a wash, cradled by black canyon walls and a star-lit sky. Now and then, a wall of vegetation rises up in front of us and we climb into the thicket of green, wrestle with branches and leaves as we try to find a way through. “Thou shall not pass!” The trees roar, so we turn around and scramble over the sandy berms, back down again, press on.
We’re nearing the spring, it’s getting late. We are hungry. We are tired. We are silent in our own thoughts, or lack there of. Carrot wants to get water and keep hiking into the night to shorten our trek tomorrow; Chance wants to sleep at the spring, see this section in the light of day.
“What do you want to do?” They ask me. Hiking in a group is a democratic sort of thing.
“It doesn’t matter either way,” I say.
We continue on in silence. Carrot spots a bighorn sheep skull glittering white among the desert rubble so we stop, admire the decay, hold the petrified head in front of our own. Hours pass and then we come to a thicket that our GPS (and Chance and Carrot’s memories from last year) tell us is the site of the spring. We take off our packs and jump into the brush, push back branches and reeds and spiny desert things in search of our holy grail. Finally Chance lets out a triumphant cry. Carrot and I follow her voice and find her crouched beside a yellowish pool as small as a dinner plate and not much deeper. The ground is damp and marshy and sucks at our shoes while we fill our water. It is a slow process, feeding the mouths of our plastic bottles into the hole, angling them just right to keep out as many chunks and floaty bits as we can.
“Aiiiieeee!” My quads scream while I squat, heels sinking deeper into the mud as I fill all six liters. When our bottles are full, Chance announces that she’s calling it. It’s eleven o’clock. We’ve been hiking since dawn. I couldn’t be happier with her decision. Carrot is hesitant, still wants to make more miles, but she decides to camp here with us instead.
We find three flat spots close to one another amidst shrubs and rocks on the berm of the wash. I lay my sleeping pad and bag on the dirt and boil water for ramen. My headlamp catches something white amidst the brown and beige and dusty green, and upon closer inspection, I see that it’s an animal’s jaw. I swing my headlamp around and notice dozens more bones scattered throughout our campsite.
“This spring,” Chance says, “is where every animal within miles comes to fight and fuck.”
We wolf down our dinners and retire to our sleeping bags. Thoughts of mountain lions devouring bloody carcasses and burros mounted in coital frenzy lull me to sleep. It’s past midnight and Carrot’s alarm is set for four thirty. I lay on my back and stare at the stars, do the math in my head: If I fall asleep in ten minutes, that’s roughly four hours and fifteen minutes of sleep; if I fall asleep in twenty minutes, that’s four hours and five minutes of sleep; and so on and so forth. It’s warm tonight, unusually so for the desert. I unzip my sleeping bag, let the outside air in. Welcome, tarantulas and scorpions, I sigh. Four hours even.
Just as my eyes lilt shut, a soft whining in my ear jerks me back to life. I smack the side of my head. The mosquito buzzes away triumphantly. “You fucker,” I say, and rub the tender spot of skin. This goes on for minutes, hours, I have no idea. I can hear Chance and Carrot stirring in their sleeping bags, swatting and cursing and scratching, too.
“This is bullshit,” one of them says.
“Arrrrrgh!” says the other.
I zip my sleeping bag all the way up. Cinch it tight over my head. No more buzzing or biting, but now I can barely breathe. And it’s so hot. I unzip my bag again, rifle through my pack and pull out my tent. I slide the shelter underneath myself, shimmy it up around my head, zip it closed. Turn on my side and scooch around just so until the back of my body is pressed against the cuben fiber and the bug net is draped over the front. Sweet, sweet relief.
* * *
Carrot’s alarm bleeps and blurps and we come to life slowly. I unzip my makeshift bivy contraption, sit up, wipe crust and sand from my eyes. None of us want to wake up yet, but there are twenty miles of shadeless desert to cross today, and the threat of walking under the blazing afternoon sun is greater than our desire to sleep in.
“Well that sucked,” Chance says. Carrot and I grumble in agreement.
We pack up our stuff, top off our water, set out into the black morning. For as little sleep as I got–One hour? Two?–I feel surprisingly not too terrible. Because walking in these wee hours of day, watching the sun slide up over some distant horizon and wash everything gauzy pink and anew, it’s hard to feel anything but.
The three of us hike together for the first few hours of morning. We follow the crooked wash until another wall of dense vegetation blocks our path. We stop, scour the cliffside, spot a pencil-thin burro trail etched into the slope above us. We climb up to it and continue, our footsteps careful and calculated. I take my time, I take deep breaths, I try not to look down. And then we’re out of Tuber Canyon, following an old mining road. Rusty bed frames and scrap metal and the skeleton of a wood burning stove are strewn across the desert floor, eerily intact in their abandonment. I’m not sure if we’ve stumbled across some post-modern art installation or a distopian tragedy. Sad and haunting and beautiful all the same.
Nearby, we find a burned-out Impala riddled with bullet holes and mystery that we each take a shot at solving. Meth deal gone awry? Murderous husband? Unpaid gambling debts? We examine the wreckage and take photos in front of it, laugh hysterically when Carrot tells us about the comment left on her blog when she wrote about seeing this same car on her and Chance’s L2H hike last year: “I’d be surprised if African antelope were hanging out in Death Valley.”
We continue across the rutted road, each of us put in our headphones to distract us from the heat that’s building all too quickly along this flat, exposed slog. I listen to a hip-hop mix, try to pump myself up and ignore the pain that shoots up through my feet from the jagged gravel. It works until it doesn’t. I’m limping, playing with my gait to ease the pressure on the hot spots. “Ow, fuck,” I wince, shift my weight to the outside edges of my feet. “Unngggh,” I snort, realign my stride.
I find Chance sitting cross-legged beneath the half-shade of a Creosote bush, eating snacks and smiling. Blissful in her element. It’s curious, what with her Ohio upbringing and deep Pacific Northwest roots. But despite enduring all that snow and rain and every shade of grey (or because of it, maybe), she’s a desert rat through and through.
I sit down beside her. Stretch my long dirty legs out in front of me.
“How are you feeling?” She genuinely wants to know. Hopes I’m enjoying this sufferfest as much as she is.
“Good, I think.” We laugh. And, despite the unimaginable heat and my raw, chewed up feet, I do feel good.
“This is fun,” Chance says. Pops a sweaty gummy worm in her mouth, hands me the bag.
“Fun,” I say, chewing the candy, chewing the word over. “Or something like it.”