When I started hiking the Pacific Crest Trail through desert at the Mexican border six weeks ago, I imagined I would be hiking flat terrain through sun scorching weather. Yet, reality has been filled with daily climbs up peaks with challenging elevation gains. The driest section of the Pacific Crest Trail, from Tehachapi to Walker Pass, was no different. My plan was to hike the 93 miles as quickly as I could with the lightest pack weight without compromising safety, to ensure I had space and body strength to carry the extra water needed through a 42-mile stretch without confirmed water sources.

A blustery Day 1

Five of my hiking buddies (Burgundy, the Engineer, Plug, Blueberries, Nailz) and I got a late start of 11 a.m. the first morning of the long, dry stretch. Logistics of getting to the trail from a resupply town are often not as efficient as one would like, but you take what you can get. The heat wasn’t too bad, but the weather report boasted a windy day. No big deal, I thought, I will take scorching heat over wind any day.

Once we hit the trail, I quickly paced ahead, wanting some time alone to get back into the groove of hiking. A few days off trail can leave a hiker’s body and mind lacking in the motivation to walk, once again, for hours on end. My delicious hot town breakfast and my hiking buddies were soon behind me and I was greeted by the freedom the trail brings to my spirit.

The trail quickly turned to a steep climb. I was winded from the elevation gain and I was feeling the weight of two days of indulgent town food in my stomach. A few hours into the hike, I hit constant wind blasting.

I had never experienced wind gusts so strong! I was nervous on the skinny parts up the trail on the ridges, as the wind was blowing me up to three feet off of the trail, even with trekking poles. The ridges and the cliff portions of the trail left me less than a foot of comfort.

I slowed down my pace and exhaustedly fought the wind little step by little step. By 7:30 p.m. I was half a mile from my 20-mile goal for the day, but I was too tired to fight through the wind any longer. I pulled out my sleeping bag and camped next to the trail cowboy style (no tent), and fell asleep after a quick hot meal.

Day 2

The next three days would be challenging, as the heat was expected to kick up and I still had 73 miles to complete. My race was not only against the heat, but against time, as I brought exactly four days of food, in efforts to minimize my pack weight, accounting for carrying extra water through the dry section. I was happy to meet up with Banjo, Burgundy, and Nailz the next day, as my water bladder leaked 12 miles into the day, and I had 16 ounces of water to get me 12 more miles.

Now I was hiking through elevation gain in the desert with minimal food and a very small water supply. Even though everyone was carrying minimal amounts of both, I felt safer hiking in a pack, knowing if an emergency happened, I would not be alone. Thankfully, we made it to the water spring late that night and everyone was safely rehydrated.

Day 3

I woke up very early the next morning and hit the trail. I had 50 miles to cover in two days and I did not want to mess around with walking in the heat of the day. Also, we were embarking on the 43 mile stretch of unconfirmed water sources. There may have been caches set up, but they could not be counted on. I left that morning carrying more than 10 pounds in water weight. I just kept moving, trying not to think, and took water breaks often to rest as needed.

The early morning start gave me an advantage to the heat and allowed me to handle the elevation gains with more strength than those who attempted it midday. I was quickly meeting new people on the trail, pacing through miles in the coolest parts of the day. I found the conversations with fresh faces an unexpected delightful boost that exceeded even the refreshment food and water could offer me in the dry, hot desert. My last night required dry camping (not using water for cooking), but every calorie I ate was greatly appreciated by my body.

Rationing my water, I still made sure I drank plenty to stay hydrated so I could get an earlier start the next morning and finish the last 27 miles.

Mind games on Day 4

The fourth and last day of the section was pure mind games. It no longer was about my body’s ability to complete the 27 miles in the desert; it was about my mind’s ability to focus on the goal and wisely navigate to the end. The elevation changes were the greatest on the last day, but after 14 hours on the trail, I literally ran into the campground at 7 p.m. — no food and less than a liter of water left.

A cardboard sign boasted of trail angels camped out with fresh French bread, peanut butter, fruit and beers. I had arrived! I could not feel pain in my feet or the ache of my muscles.

In that moment, I could only feel the overwhelming joy and pure pleasure of eating tasty calories in the presence of other happy, smiling hikers who had just accomplished the 93-mile feat of the driest desert section.

Elizabeth Ketterer of Cle Elum is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from the California-Mexico border to Canada.


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