Days 34-37 The Pacific Non-Crest Trail: Aqueducts, the Mojave Desert & a Huge Harvest of Wind and Magic
Day 34 (Apr. 27): The Tejon Ranch Blues and other private property musings
Hunt clubs (just an hour from L.A.!) ~~ Aqueducts for the thirsty millions in L.A. ~~Wind turbines that feed the L.A. power grid… Welcome to the Non-Crest portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, where land use politics have consigned the PCT far from the crest of the Tehachapi Mountains, its logical placement, to the margins of the Mojave Desert.
This section of trail was the last to be completed, with protracted negotiations in the early 1990s between the officials responsible for the PCT and private landowners, most notably the enormous (and politically powerful) Tejon Ranch. The resulting trail represents what could be achieved politically at the time, and not what is logical for a national scenic trail designed to follow the crest of the mountains. Some day, 37 or 38 miles of the PCT will be relocated to that more logical place near the crest of the Tehachapis, but since this process involves protracted negotiations between multiple entities, with the Tejon Ranch Company being (in my opinion, of course) a highly adept foot-dragger, I can’t count on that happening in my lifetime – so here I am, hoping for the best, bullet-wise and otherwise.
What could be more wilderness-like than walking by signs letting you know that hunting and shooting will be taking place for 8 hours of your hiking day? Or, I suppose, you could add a hunting adventure to your PCT thru-hike – for only $350 per person, you can get the “Mini Mixer” package including 2 pheasant, 3 chukar, 5 Tennessee red quail, a dog handler, and lunch. Political junkies will find this 1998 news report about the public hearing on the conditional use permit for the hunt club an interesting read.
The day does not seem promising for those seeking nature’s beauty on the PCT, with the trail often closely confined by barbed wire, a flat desert floor ahead marked with large irrigation circles, and thoughts of birdshot floating through one’s brain.
With careful framing, a certain sere beauty can be captured:
After seeing the Southern California hills at their greenest and most bloom-filled for most of my hike, I enjoy seeing hills cloaked in the classic California gold tones that prevail for much of the year:
Descending to the flat land, a jeep track does double duty as the PCT for awhile:
Meanwhile, looking back, I see that big clouds are building up quickly:
A big goal for my day is to get to the next water source, a strange place called Hikertown, refill my water (and leave a donation), and then continue hiking and find a place to camp in the strangeness that is the Aqueduct portion of the trail. Hikers can spend the night at Hikertown, which has various places to sleep, shower, do laundry, etc., but my tent strikes me as a cleaner place to sleep (and Sparks’ comment the next day about mouse droppings where he slept at Hikertown confirms my choice). In the “hiker lounge,” where I hang out for a short while to clean my feet and refill my water, I encounter Zapka (“Lithuanian Guy”), Rainbow, and Sparks, along with other hikers, and catch up on trail news and gossip. As usual, trail “news” is of spotty accuracy, with a hiker announcing, erroneously, that the Lake Fire Closure has been lifted today.
With a few hours of daylight left, I hike the paved road that serves double duty as the PCT until it runs into the Aqueduct, which is an open canal in the first section I encounter:
The Trail is more concept than actual trail here, following the open Aqueduct for awhile, and from some vantage points, it certainly has a type of (unnatural) beauty:
…along with some sections that have an industrial, unabashedly ugly aspect:
The PCT signs here are ad hoc, and to my eye, they are in perfect harmony with the spirit of the trail here (“You have an easement to walk through here – go that-a-way and move along.”).
I soon reach the part of the aqueduct that is no longer a open ditch – instead, there is a large metal pipe with big rivets, with a paved road alongside. It reminds me of a middle school art class exercise in perspective drawing.
There are big valves at intervals along the pipe, so that it looks like a submarine is surfacing through the desert floor.
A few cars pass by on the road, and there are some houses, horse barns, a geodesic dome, and other kinds of compounds that are similar to what we have seen in other remote areas along the trail. I’m starting to wonder whether I’ll be able to find a safe place to set up my tent for the night – away from cars, not too close to houses or other “civilized life” where the presence of hikers in little tents might not be welcome.
It’s windy as all get-out, as illustrated by this Shetland pony’s mane, serving well at the moment as a windvane. I love the fact that the pony walks from its shelter to the fence, as close as possible to me. I greet it with a word of thanks for what I interpret (or anthropomorphize) as a warm welcome.
As I hike along the edge of the paved road, the landscape transforms into a wonderland of Joshua Trees, and I hike on top of the aqueduct for awhile so that I can look for a suitable spot to pitch my tent, and I soon find one of my favorite campsites of my entire hike to date.
A large, multi-branched Joshua Tree shelters me from the wind and screens me from view of any passing cars. The sky provides a Technicolor show for my evening entertainment, and though I hear rain on my tent at some point during the night, I wake up to a perfectly dry tent, courtesy of the arid Mojave Desert.
Today’s mileage: 19.18 miles, ending at PCT Mile 522.21.
Day 35 (Apr. 28): Again with the Aqueduct and Monster Winds! and the Start of the Endless Wind Turbines
Even if you’re hiking the Non-Crest part of the Pacific Crest Trail, you really cannot complain when your morning looks like this:
Since I hike alone so much, it’s truly a pleasure when I have the opportunity to hike with others, and today, Sparks and Rainbow, who spent the night at Hikertown but started hiking much earlier than I did, soon join me for a fun day of Aqueduct and Wind Turbine hiking together.
We are soon in full-blown Wind Turbine territory, hiking in big winds in the midst of a very large-scale wind farm. Hundreds of sleek, modern wind turbines surround us as far as the eye can see. I feel like I’m hiking through a giant kinetic art installation by Christo, akin to his (non-kinetic) Umbrella project. I know some people think these massive windfarms mar the landscape, but to my eye, they fit in perfectly, and I’m glad to see such a large-scale renewable energy project. (Drive by the oil rigs in Oildale near Bakersfield to see what the fossil fuel version of this “art installation” looks like.)
Rainbow has elected to hike all the way from Hikertown to Kennedy Meadows without resupplying, since he’s meeting a friend there on a date certain, so he’s carry a huge load of food. I know I won’t be seeing him after today, given his schedule.
Sparks has been section-hiking the PCT over a number of years, and once he gets to Walker Pass, he will have completed the entire trail. Thus, I have a relatively short time to share with him on the trail, as well. So I enjoy today’s company greatly, knowing how soon our paths will part.
It’s hard not to take a zillion photos of the wind turbines, with the varied backdrops of clouds, Joshua Trees, and mountains. Yet, we manage to hike at a fast clip because we’re on a flat, smooth road. At one point, we find a cooler where a dirt road intersects the PCT, filled with cold sodas. Magic! This section is often very hot, but it’s cool enough today that I’m often hiking in my jacket. More magic!
At last, the PCT departs from the Aqueduct and starts to look like “real trail” again.
Once we start climbing up into the hills that will eventually take us to Tehachapi, we get a powerful reminder of why all these wind turbines are here – the wind blows so constantly, so forcefully, that it takes a huge effort to stay upright on the trail. Wind is apparently the force of nature that is my totem, the spirit being that is the symbol of my PCT hike. Not to fear: I have my cloak of invincibility, the LLBean jacket that has protected me in every wind-, rain- and snowstorm along the way. So I zip it up tightly, with the hood protecting my ears and face, and I lean forward and make my way through the huge winds. At times, it’s a hilariously slow slog, and by this point, Rainbow and Sparks are out of sight.
I reach Tylerhorse Canyon, which has a creek with a tiny flow, but enough to serve as our big water source for the day. Sparks calls me over to the area where he’s setting up his tent, and I camp near him, while Rainbow fills up on water and hikes out to stay on schedule for his Kennedy Meadows meet-up. Bye, Rainbow -it was a blast spending time with you on trail!
I know that I’ve pronounced last night’s campsite as my favorite so far on the trail, but tonight’s site outdoes even that amazing Joshua Tree site. I find a bare spot just big enough for my tent, surrounded on three sides by tall California flannelbush shrubs (Fremontodendron californicum) in full bloom. I set up my tent so that the door opens to the most riotous blooms, and though the winds howl around me, my little shrub-and-tent home is a perfect, peaceful haven for the night.
Today’s mileage: 19.39 miles, ending at PCT Mile 541.60.
Day 36 (Apr. 29): Tehachapi on My Mind
I’m guessing that if you took a poll of hikers at, say, Mile 600, they would report today’s miles as their least favorite on the trail so far.
Here is what the creek in Tylerhorse Canyon looks like in the early morning – the water in the creek is so minimal it isn’t visible even from this short distance, and it’s hard to believe I found such a flower-filled haven for the night, looking at the photo below (but it’s there, on the right side of the image).
For much of the day, the trail winds in and out, in and out, ad infinitum, through the folds of these hills:
A recent storm has created some washouts that are a little difficult to traverse, but what really has a big impact on many hikers are the dirt bike trails that are prolific throughout this section. It’s a visual blight that piles on top of the already-harsh landscape, and the big areas of fire burn don’t help.
At times, I have big views looking back at the varied landscapes I’ve hiked through in recent days:
A few things are thriving here, most notably Mormon Tea (Ephedra sp.), which is greener and in fuller bloom here than I’ve ever seen it. Most living things, though, have a dispirited look – hikers included.
The fire burn areas, as usual, come with some blowdowns that turn the trail into a temporary obstacle course. All in all, you can’t blame hikers in this area from thinking ahead to Tehachapi, with its three Thai restaurants, two Best Western motels that feature hot and cold water on tap, and similar barely-imaginable luxuries. It’s good to be “in the moment,” but sometimes, it’s also good to skip ahead in your mind to someplace slightly more appealing.
At least it’s not blazing hot, and in time I get to Tehachapi Willow Road, which is the first road hikers cross that goes to Tehachapi or Mojave. As the trail nears the road, I find a PCT register box that has a very long list of Trail Angel names and phone numbers – locals who are willing to help hikers get to town, or perhaps host them in their homes, or help them run resupply errands, since Tehachapi is very spread out and not very walkable. The list says “please randomize your calls,” so I do what I guess many hikers do, and call the person who is in the middle of the list. A trail angel named Jan immediately starts driving my way. She delivers me to the Best Western that accepts dogs (Dwight and Molly will be arriving shortly!), and firmly refuses my offer of gas money. A huge thanks to you, Jan, and all the trail angels on that big list!
When Dwight and Molly arrive, I’ve already showered and cleaned up, ready for my “town clothes” from one of my resupply buckets. Cotton! Jeans! Flip-flops! Dwight, as usual, ends up ferrying hikers around town, and then we head for a great, not-previously-dehydrated meal from King of Siam Thai Restaurant, where we share a table with two hikers from Switzerland (originally from Poland and Germany, respectively). So we have a great, convivial end to what may not have been the best miles the trail has to offer, but to paraphrase the fishing cliché, even a bad day of hiking beats a day at the office, and it wasn’t a bad day by any means.
Today’s mileage: 16.96 miles, ending at PCT Mile 541.60.
Day 37 (Apr. 30): Tehachapi Rocks!
I don’t usually write much about my resupply stops, but my “zero” in Tehachapi provides some colorful experiences I want to remember – and first and foremost, this blog is intended to serve as my “memory.”
Beast and Forget-Me-Not call to say they have arrived in Tehachapi – perfect timing, since my motel room will have space for them once Dwight and Molly leave. I spend time on my laptop uploading photos and then updating my blog, since Dwight brings my computer to our resupply meetups. I mention in my blog post that I am posting about days on the trail that occurred several weeks ago, and that in “real time” I am in Tehachapi. Soon after I update my blog, a woman named Barb who follows my blog posts a comment that she lives close to Tehachapi and wants to take me out for lunch or dinner. Wow! Since Dwight and Molly have to leave after lunch – a delicious Mediterranean meal with Beast and FMN at Petra’s – I arrange with Barb to have dinner with her tonight. Until then, it’s a huge bunch o’ chores – laundry, prepping my meals for the upcoming section, cleaning/repairing gear, getting a haircut (yay!), etc.
After my haircut, the hair stylist asks if I can give her a ride to the bus stop. Beast, FMN and I get a huge laugh out of this, because hikers are always cadging rides from locals, but this may be the first time a local businessperson has asked for (and gotten!) a ride from a thru-hiker. It does sober me up a bit, however, to contemplate that this woman has ridden a bus from Mojave, some 21 miles away, just to give a haircut to me and one other customer. I don’t know about the other customer, but my cut was just $25, so I run the numbers in my head and leave what I hope is a generous tip.
Barb is set to meet me, Beast, and FMN in the motel lobby for dinner. As promised, she is there in the lime green top she described, and she says to me: “I know you’re a vegan, and I thought we’d go to the steakhouse for dinner.” Now THAT is a stellar opening line. And it turns out to be a great choice, with terrific salads consumed all around, along with draft beers (but no steak).
Barb is a trail angel on her own terms – she’s not on the big printed list, and she essentially finds and chooses the hikers she wants to help. She knows me only through my blog, which she probably found through the PCT Class of 2016 Facebook group, and she reads it to her husband. She actually lives a fair distance away – in California City, north of Mojave – and she brings her beautiful and elegant daughter as her “chaperone.” The daughter and I joke that on either the hiker side or the trail angel side, someone could be a serial killer, and it’s too early to know yet whether that is the case.
Barb got interested in the PCT when her daughter’s former boyfriend was interested in hiking it, and since then, she has hosted a number of hikers, and has also traveled to the Idyllwild area to work on a PCT trail maintenance crew. All of this generosity, in terms of time, money and goodwill, is truly amazing, and I love the fact that Barb chooses her own path as a trail angel. When you hike the PCT, you might assume your best memories will be of spectacular mountains, alpine lakes, and other natural wonders, but in fact, some of your best memories will be about the hikers and trail angels you meet along the way.
Today’s mileage: 0.00 miles – a true Zero!