Looking back on the desert

It took me 51 days to get here. For lo, though I may act like it sometimes, I am not in fact God’s representative on earth, and I needed a bit more than 40 days and 40 nights to get through the desert.

I don’t need telling twice to slow down.

Arriving at Kennedy Meadows was a watershed moment I’d been dreaming about long before I started. In you stride to the General Store, with the steely glint in your eye that says ‘I have drunk water from a stagnant puddle full of dead lizards, man’, people clap you and it’s beers all round. 702.2 miles of sand, dust, snakes, plantlife that want to destroy your belongings, water reports, melted snacks, melted you, and deeply pondering the difference between spigots and faucets, are over. You are at the gateway to the Sierra Nevada.

The night before Walker Pass, a rich reward for tearing yourself from the Bird Spring Pass water cache and hoiking more water up the mountain.

The desert had seen me off in suitably dramatic style. The miles into Walker Pass – in theory a 40-mile waterless stretch, were it not for the grace of water-caching trail angels – were exploding with wildflowers. Wild lupin, sweet ceanothus quivering with bees, whole mountainsides flocked in pinks and purples. Then on my last night in cactusville, I began the final climb to some 8,000ft, which would set me up for the long descent to Kennedy Meadows the next day. What started as some pleasant gathering cloud and shade gave way to fat, slow raindrops polka-dotting the trail. I looked up to see vertical sheets of rain circling on every horizon like tattered grey curtains, and before long the downpour landed. A nice chap I’d been hiking near most of the afternoon looked to the sky in abject horror. ‘OH GOD. It’s… RAINING! God this is the WORST,’ he cried, as if the meteorological system was conspiring very specifically and personally to ruin his afternoon. A rumble. ‘Oh THUNDER! Oh no! Arrrrrgh!’ and he flapped around making dire assessments about Camp Now or Meet Certain Death as I quietly set up my tent and ate a biscuit. I may not have naturally sunkissed skin or the innate ability to surf and look rakishly good in a straw hat but by god, SoCal, I will be stoic in the face of rain.

The calm after the storm, pitched with a bush in each vestibule (so to speak)

The Californian relationship with precipitation has been fun to behold – where my British default setting is to expect to get wet and anything else is a bonus, here rain is very much An Event and A Bad Thing and to be dreaded and respected in equal measure. People will sidle up to you and whisper conspiratorially, ‘They say that…’ (*shifty look from side to side as though afraid of being overheard by a passing cloud*) ‘… it’s going to… to rain.’

It’s easy to scoff, but everyone meets their own challenges out here. I found only one unbearable day, where we were pushing on through the midday scorch to reach the Acton KOA campground, for it was blessed with a swimming pool and a shop full of ice cream that unsurprisingly trumped a siesta in a bush. I had to stop every half a mile, sickly swigging water as warm as blood (it turned out it had hit 36C that day). Then the KOA was so fantastic I only took one photo. Of my ice cream.

Smug ginger on a run of cloudy days out of Casa de Luna. I’ve no doubt I was insufferable.

And even without the crazy heat it’s impossible to carry yourself through this landscape and not be transformed in some way. I was expecting my dark night of the soul to catch up with me on the LA Aqueduct, a cruelly dry section where you are walking on top of  water for 20 miles but can’t get at it. There’s a tap about halfway along, but depend on it at your peril because the LA Water Board enjoy turning it off intermittently and unpredictably for spurious maintenance reasons. Some say you should walk it all at night. As it turned out, we set off from Hikertown in the dusky warm, the flat desert floor reaching for miles around us, a ragtag caravan of hikers heading for a horizon that never seemed to get closer. I treated myself to music for the first time in 500 miles and watched as crows wheeled and coyotes skittered through the Joshua trees, stopping after the final glow of sunset to camp among them, to begin again before dawn. It was harsh, and strange, and lonely, and beautiful, and wonderful. And not the terrible death march I was expecting. I still can’t fully explain what it was, all I know at the moment is it was a defining moment of this walk.

Walkin on water

I’m witnessing the transformation of my body too. Every time I get into town, the shower is the necessary first port of call. I stand under the flow, breathing in the petrichor as the water hits a week of sun, dust and sweat, running my hands over new and missing contours. While I haven’t lost any weight on the scales, it seems my body is ruthlessly efficient at redistributing the assets. Boobs? Who needs those! Away they go! But here, have calves as wide as your thighs to try on for size. Enjoying that nice Christmas cushioning around your hips? Well you can kiss goodbye to any comfort there and get ready to buy a smaller hipbelt from Granite Gear, my friend.

I will remember hot days and freezing nights. The strangeness of being in miles of oak groves, before suddenly being spat out onto the desert floor. The joy of finding a little stash of bananas or fizzy drinks, and knowing that someone, with the greatest love, has bounced their car up a rutted track to leave them there for you, you who they’ll almost certainly never meet. I will remember the way the desert actively demands you take care of  yourself at every step, of getting squeaky clean with just 4 Wet Wipes, of patiently filtering 6 litres of water and then carrying them for 20 miles, of keeping yourself balanced with calories, electrolytes, company, solitude, shelter, space…


But my overwhelming memory of the desert will be kindness. The workers at Mesa Windfarm, whose family fished and filleted all weekend so they could make fish tacos for passing hikers during the week (a completely surreal experience, stuffing my face in an air-conned staffroom, surrounded by HR posters. ‘Polygraph tests – your rights in the workplace’ etc). The incredible couple who picked me up in Lake Isabella because ‘no-one with their hair in a braid is bad news’ and installed me in their beautiful home in the Kernville hills for 2 days. The gentle healing hands of my trailbuddy Fran, who somehow deflated my locked-up shin and ankle overnight and returned me to 25-mile-crushin glory. The homes-from-home I found at Hiker Heaven and Casa de Luna. I will have to write more about these another time.

Old Me might’ve questioned bananas stored in a dumpster, next to an old sofa in the middle of the woods. Not any more!

They say that the desert is the training ground for the Sierra. I don’t know if I can say this without triggering an eye-roll felt around the world, but –  as I heave my Sierra-ready pack onto my back and leave the welcome of Kennedy Meadows behind –  it feels like it has built me up for so much more.