Mojave

I stopped by the front desk of the motel to purchase a box of laundry detergent and something about my interaction with the man at the counter left a lasting impression. It was for the most part a superficial interaction, but as I matched his earnest, friendly demeanor with kindness and appreciation I felt a strong sense of positivity that I had not felt in quite some time. I knew nothing about him or what he was truly like, but there was a sincerity to him that one rarely feels from complete strangers. Perhaps it was simply the rush of dopamine that came with the novelty of being in civilization that had ushered in feelings of positivity, but it seemed as if there was more to it. Maybe I had entered Mojave with a sense of vulnerability after being so exposed to a harsh, unforgiving landscape and as a result I appreciated his kind demeanor all the more.

The next day I passed a church and a wooden sign reading "God Opposses [sic] the Proud and Gives Grace to the Humble." I realized that what I had sensed in the motel employee was humility and it was a humility I too possessed after the road walks, harsh winds and pain of the last section of trail. Humility, rather than pride, I imagined, must be the prevailing disposition of anyone living in that windswept town and unforgiving landscape. Pride was for those who drove through Mojave on Highway 14 en route to a more luxurious and hospitable locale, sneering from behind a windshield at such an unassuming little spot in the desert. I may have easily been one of those people under different circumstances, but instead I had walked there across the land and I felt grateful for the comforts Mojave provided, no matter how modest they may have been. It is the land, after all, that is the origin of humility - at least in the sense that humility is derived from the Latin word humus, which refers to the ground, the earth and the soil. I had arrived in Mojave with a humility bestowed upon me by the very desert ground I had walked upon. It is the earth and dust that humans are born of and will eventually return to and the desert, whether we like it or not, quite effectively reminds us of that fact.

...

Each time I opened the door of my motel room to the outside world I was greeted by an abrasive environment of blinding sunlight, blasting wind and blaring train horns. It reminded me of that scene in the movie Beetlejuice where Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis open the door to exit their home, only to enter the harsh desert landscape of an alien world, populated by giant worms that burrow through the sand. In the evening I braved the gusting winds to go purchase food at the grocery store, not only for the section ahead but to mail on to Kennedy Meadows, the gateway to the Sierras I would reach in a week's time. My shopping finished, I exited the store with four paper bags full of groceries, all devoid of handles. I held three stacked on top of each other and cradled in my left arm with a fourth grasped tightly in my right hand. Halfway between the store and the motel the top bag toppled over, dumping its contents across the pavement. As soon as the bag emptied it was picked up by a gust of wind and disappeared into the night before it had even touched the ground.

...

A resupply package I had sent to the motel had not arrived on time and I decided to spend another day and night in town to wait for it. Nevertheless, I had devised a plan - I would not sit by idly. It was a mere eight miles from the point where I exited the trail to the next road crossing - Highway 58 at Tehachapi Pass - and both points were easily accessible from Mojave. I had decided that if I was going to spend another day in town I might as well knock off that tiny section. The only problem was getting to and from the trail. It had been a pain getting a ride into town and were I to hike that eight mile section it would mean two additional attempts at hitching back and forth from trail to town. The combined stress of hitching, resupplies and logistics all added up to very little relaxation on my second day in Mojave.

So far on the trail I seemed to devote a great deal of mental energy to worrying about things that may or may not happen and to planning ahead to prevent possible, yet unlikely, mishaps further down the trail. In addition the blisters, aches, pains and resulting fears of an overuse injury had become exhausting. It was all a colossal waste of mental energy and was becoming an all too common part of my town stops. Life on the trail was so simple and carefree, life reduced to the most basic of concerns, but town stops could at times produce a glimpse back into the ridiculous, self-created stress of "normal life." At times the outside world crept into my thru-hike - a failed arrangement for an apartment I hoped to have lined up for my return to Seattle or an argument over money with a former client that hadn't paid me in full. In Travels With Charley, Steinbeck describes his weekly telephone calls home and how they interrupted his newfound nomadic life. "For three or four minutes I had a name, and the duties and joys and frustrations a man carries with him like a comet's tail. It was like dodging back and forth from one dimension to another, a silent explosion of breaking through a sound barrier, a curious experience, like a quick dip into a known but alien water."

Nonetheless, I did have a ride lined up with a local named Ted. He would take Hockey and I to the trailhead at Tehachapi Pass and from there I would hike southbound back to where we exited the trail the day before. Hockey, who was short on time and only planning on hiking as far as Mt. Whitney, decided to skip that section and hike on towards Kennedy Meadows. Arriving at the pass I thanked Ted and said goodbye to Hockey, crossed Highway 58 on an overpass and began hiking south. I soon saw Baker, who had camped with us in the small valley of dead Joshua Trees. I saw Chunks, who I had met during the road walk between Casa de Luna and Hikertown. I encountered Periwinkle, the eccentric man who had claimed he saw lemurs in the California desert. Each time I had to explain why I was hiking south and joked that I had enjoyed the desert so much I wanted to turn around and hike back through it - all the way back to the border.

It was odd going against the wave of hikers, passing people face to face, rather than from behind. Everyone looked beaten down and exhausted. Periwinkle appeared dazed and bewildered, his face as red and raw as if it had been scoured with sand paper. He was heading straight through to Kennedy Meadows and his pack towered above him, stuffed with enough food to make the long slog. He looked distraught and complained that he had no rain gear as he nervously eyed the darkening skies. It was a bit depressing to be honest - we thru-hikers were a sorry bunch at times. After awhile I saw no more people, just a few cows staring at me vacantly amidst the Joshua Trees, wind turbines spinning on the hills above them. The wind was whipping and I hiked on shivering, only to have the clouds clear and the sun come out, making me uncomfortably hot. It alternated back and forth this way for the entirety of my hike. There was little in the way of scenery along that little chunk of trail sandwiched between two highways. The wind turbines were novel at first but soon lost their charm, taking on negative connotations as they came to symbolize that harsh, ever-present and unyielding aspect of the Southern California PCT, without which they would stand motionless on the hills.

...

In the night I literally dreamt about the Sierras - they loomed ever closer both in my mind and in reality. The next morning I left Mojave behind and once again found myself in Ted's pickup truck as we made our way to Tehachapi Pass. He did most of the talking and I suspected having a captive audience was at least part of the reason he enjoyed shuttling hikers to and from the trail. Ted's father had worked at Edwards Air Force Base outside of Mojave and he remembered as a child hearing stories about pilots crashing their aircraft. His father would have to go around picking up body parts - a jawbone here, a leg there. One pilot was so completely pulverized on impact that his bones more or less disintegrated and with no skeletal system he was reduced to a blob of flesh on the desert ground. They tried to put him on a stretcher and he supposedly slipped right through a hole in the canvas. Obviously I took his stories with a grain of salt and wondered more about the fact that a father was telling such gruesome tales to a child.

The ensuing section of trail through the Tehachapi Mountains was known for being extremely dry, with the existence of water sources and caches fairly uncertain. My pack was heavy with water as I immediately began climbing up and away from the road. I stopped often to rest and gaze out over a far-off mountain range, its lower half hazy and the color of the sky, with only its highest peaks forming a ridge of dark serrations that seemed to hover disconnected over the horizon. Puffy, cumulus clouds floated up above. Between the Tehachapis where I stood and those distant mountains the desert was an open plain dotted with small knolls of earth that resembled black, rotting teeth. The dark shapes of ravens sat atop the Joshua trees and watched me as I passed by. The trail curved across hills coated thick in bright green sagebrush.

Steinbeck, on his cross-country journey, would have passed over the future route of the PCT twice. First, as he headed from Spokane to Seattle, most likely at Snoqualmie Pass on what was then a newly created interstate. Surprisingly, he mentions nothing of his drive over the Cascade Mountains. The second time he crossed the trail would have been Highway 58 at Tehachapi Pass. He mentions driving "through Fresno and Bakersfield, then over the pass and into the Mojave Desert, a burned and burning desert even this late in the year, its hills like piles of black cinders in the distance, and the rutted floor sucked dry by the hungry sun." He mentions the ease with which he traveled through the desert by car, along a highway full of modern conveniences, but remembered an earlier time "when we came to it with prayer." Most thru-hikers, I imagine, could relate to such a sentiment as they make their way north, hoping and praying to survive the harsh initiation of those first weeks on the trail. He continues, "The Mojave is a big desert and a frightening one. It's as though nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California." For the thru-hiker the Mojave was mythic and daunting and indeed the last test of endurance to prove whether he or she was worthy of reaching Kennedy Meadows, the beautiful Sierras and the long stretch of glorious trail pushing north through the rest of the Golden State.


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