Day 33 – May 6, 2022
Mile 517.6 (Highway 138/Hikertown) to 558.5 (Willow Springs Road/Tehachapi)
40.9 trail miles | 39.7 tracked miles | 6,282 ft elevation gain | 73.4 F / 23 °C
Today, I walked 12 hours, hiked 41 miles, and climbed over 6,200 ft with a full pack, easily surpassing my previous 35 mile personal record with just a day pack. I am thrilled with my accomplishment.
I woke up at the wee hour of 2:30am at Hikertown, gulped down a cup of cold coffee and a breakfast bar, strapped on my headlamp, and stepped outside into the darkness. By 2:50am, I was back on the PCT, filled with a mix of dread with excitement as I faced one of the most notorious sections: the Aqueduct walk.
To give some background, while the first 700 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail are often referred to as “the desert,” the PCT typically stays at higher elevations, away from the arid desert floor. With higher elevation come bigger views, lower temperatures, and a more athletic challenge. There are notable exceptions, though, such as a few miles south of Scissors Crossing and a grueling stretch south and north of I-10.
The Aqueduct walk is perhaps the most famous of them all. The PCT follows the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which carries water from the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains to the city of Los Angeles, for about 20 miles. Imagine walking for hours, practically in a straight line, in the middle of the Mojave desert, with no shade and millions of gallons of water flowing under your feet—except you can’t have any. That’s the Aqueduct walk, a modern version of the torment of Tantalus.
The Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service are evaluating options to move the trail off the desert flats, but I understand there are few suitable alternatives. A re-route may add as many as 49 miles.
The California Aqueduct system has several components. Shortly after leaving Hikertown, I encountered the most primitive system: an open-air trench. Apparently, it’s not a good swimming hole. In any case, it was pitch black, and I stayed cautiously away.
The trail then followed the historic LA aqueduct, which is a large metal pipe that withstands the stomping of thousands of PCT hikers every year. Walking on top of the pipe was uncomfortable—the surface isn’t flat and metal was often slippery.
Eventually the pipe emerged off the ground and I spotted a narrow service dirt path nearby, which in hindsight, was probably the official trail.
As the sun rose over the horizon, the trail veered towards the modern aqueduct: a buried, mostly straight concrete channel along a service dirt road. I was soon able to turn off my headlamp: despite my poor night vision, I could not possibly get lost.
By 6am, I already had to take layers off, and I felt that I needed to hustle if I wanted to avoid the blistering midday heat. I took advantage of one of the concrete boxes that dot the aqueduct to sit down and take a short break.
The LA aqueduct hike is a mind-numbing walk, with only a few Joshua trees and the occasional junkyard to break the monotony of the flat and arid landscape.
Walking on the dirt road can be demanding—the sand is sometimes soft—while walking on concrete is hard on the knees. I pushed through, and focused on maintaining a steady rhythm as if I was meditating. I could hear the sound of my joints in the deafening silence.
As I marched on, the number of wind turbines multiplied until they dominated the landscape.
Around 8am, I arrived at the (dry) Cottonwood Creek at mile 534.9, where a bridge offered a rare patch of shade. The LA water district used to have a water faucet there, but it was turned off two years ago for some obscure reason. Trail angels maintain a water cache, although I didn’t need much water—such are the benefits of an early mornings walk and flat terrain.
A few lethargic hikers were resting under the bridge and on the shores of the creek. I sat down for a quick “lunch.” It was still technically breakfast time, but I had already hiked 16 miles.
Back when it flowed during hiking season, Cottonwood Creek used to be a logical stopping point for a siesta. However, the parched landscape was depressing, temperatures were quickly rising, and I wasn’t feeling social, nor was anyone around me. I pondered my options and decided that there was no point in lingering. I felt good and opted to keep going and gain some elevation before the temperatures peaked later in the day. In my haste, I neglected to take pictures of the area.
North of Cottonwood Creek, the trail meandered through the wind farms that I could see on the horizon early in the morning.
The violence of the wind was staggering. My skinny frame was jostled and rocked back and forth, and, for once, I appreciated the weight of my backpack which kept me grounded. In a classic example of Murphy’s Law, the wind blew against me without fail, even when the trail turned and changed direction.
There wasn’t anywhere to stop, and certainly nowhere to camp. I marched on with determination, eyeing the steep hills ahead: with elevation come lower temperatures.
Finally, I bid the last wind turbine farewell and started the ascent towards Tylerhorse Canyon. The arid scenery was otherworldly. As I gained elevation, I could see the windfarms shrink behind me, and I gained appreciation for the dimensions of the desert expanse that I had crossed for the last eight hours. Hikertown was a dot on the horizon. It was an elating feeling.
The trail was often rough, having been damaged by illegal motorbike use. Rolling hills and Martian landscapes kept unfolding, offering a welcome reprieve from this morning’s monotonous walk. I felt a sense of awe and wonder at the power and beauty of the rugged desert scenery.
Around noon, I reached the Tylerhorse Canyon and Tentsite at mile 541.5, the only natural water source since I left Hikertown. I filled up my bottles at the timidly trickling stream, and gobbled more snacks.
A few hikers had pitched their tents, and once again, I evaluated my options. It was too hot and too windy to sleep, and I felt strong despite having hiked for nine hours. Camping further ahead was a possibility, but it required carrying extra water for the night.
I figured that I could probably keep going and hike another 17 miles into town. The promise of a bed and a shower, and the prospect of beating my personal record were quite exciting.
I resumed walking and passed a few hikers that I knew, some of whom I had spent the afternoon at Hikertown yesterday. Every time I passed someone, I felt a bit of an ego boost.
The rest of the afternoon was a matter of focus, determination, and discipline. The trail kept climbing, twisting, and turning. I listened to podcasts about the DPRK, intermodal freight infrastructure in Europe, and the travel and casino loyalty industries in an effort to stay entertained (which, I acknowledge, is a very odd form of entertainment.)
Shortly before mile 549, I spotted bright red umbrellas in the distance. I half-expected this surreal and auspicious sight to be a mirage, but it quickly materialized. The trail goes by a dirt road, and a pair of trail angels have been generously maintaining a hiker oasis and water cache for 17 years.
I gorged myself on oranges and cookies. The unexpected intake of calories, combined with the realization that I was about to exceed my personal record, uplifted my spirits. I took a long break and chatted with fellow hikers.
Despite the patchy cell phone service, I was able to book a hotel in Tehachapi, CA so I’d be fully committed to the last 9 miles.
The last segment was mostly downhill and easy, except for the brutal, relentless wind. The trail, once again, crossed windfarms. With every step, I had to brace myself against the force of the wind, struggling to maintain my footing and keep moving forward. I walked for a while with a very strong hiker, and enjoyed this last mental and physical challenge for the day.
The sun was about to set as I arrived at the deserted Tehachapi Willow Springs Road trailhead.
I tried to request an Uber, and was thrilled when a driver accepted the ride against all odds. Twenty minutes later, they canceled and Uber could not find any alternatives. I attempted to call a taxi, but the wind was so strong that the other party could not hear me.
The sun was low, and it was urgent to hitchhike before it got dark. Unfortunately, drivers were blinded by the sun and could not see me. Eventually, a car stopped and I hopped in.
Moments later, we ran out of gas. I had no other option than to take the situation in stride. It was dark and cold, but I enjoyed the adventure in a twisted way.
My drivers were two Mexican men who make a living by scrapping cars and recycling metal, taking advantage of the COVID-induced demand for raw materials. They have purchased a small plot of land in the desert and currently live in an RV while trying to build a house. We live in different worlds, and I love these interactions. I travel to the most desolate places around the world, but sometimes adventure awaits right at home.
A “brother” (they seemed to have a lot of brothers) eventually turned up, and drove one of my hosts to a gas station. There was a gas can in the truck—these fellows are used to running out of gas like clockwork. Ninety minutes later, we were on our way again, and we made up time: they threw the car into neutral and drove down the hill at a reckless speed.
By the time I arrived to the my hotel, restaurants were about to close. I just had enough time to order a gargantuan meal from Denny’s. I got in touch with Christie, Joe, and Michael who were shocked to hear that I was in Tehachapi already—they were camping on the edge of town, at the airport.
I spent the evening eating, soaking in the bathtub, basking in the glory of this extraordinary day, and enjoying a rare moment of privacy since early April.
Considering that I am a day early and that I had a hotel reservation tomorrow evening, I have earned a double zero in Tehachapi, CA, where there is absolutely nothing to do!