The terrain opens up and I can tell the view is about to get very pretty. It’s also getting windy. We round the corner and BAM. We’re smacked in the face with the most intense wind I’ve ever experienced – and the most beautiful view on trail thus far. It is a jaw dropping vista of the valley floor below and mountains reaching for the sky. We’re nearly knocked off of our feet. We all yell with excitement… about the wind, the view, the fun, all of it.

“IT’S LIKE RIDING A ROLLERCOASTER!!” someone shrieks!

We’re doubled over in laughter, but also struggling to stay upright because if we’re not careful, we’re going to go down. We take lots of pictures and videos, then continue on. The energy of the group is ecstatic. I’ve known these people for a few days but already love them.

We stop for a photo op at a beautiful, less windy, overlook shortly after. I turn to Matt and notice that he’s covered head to toe in green. His pack, his shorts, his shirt, his shoes. Everything. I say, “I think I’ve got a trail name for you… Verde! Everything you’re wearing is green!”

He looks down and says, “Woah, I didn’t even realize that. Actually, even my boxers are green. I accept!”

The group laughs and continues on. I’m a little too excited that I just bestowed a trail name on another hiker. As we’re walking, I notice a tinge in my knee. A sensation that falls somewhere between tightness and pain. I stop and quickly stretch my leg a bit and keep going. The pain still nags me. Shit, I think. Shit.

We make it to a road, which we’ll take to another campground. We run into an older gentleman, who asks if we’re PCT hikers. He had pulled over to take in the beautiful view. We tell him yes and he’s excited. He offers us a joint, which a few partake. We chat with him a bit and then mosey down the road to the Mount Laguna Campground. We see a sign left by Morgan and Henry (nicest hiker couple ever) that says “PCT Hikers, we’ve paid for a campsite!” so we continue walking until we see 8 tents sprinkled into one site. Dutchie is here, along with Steve and Sean and a bunch of other hikers.

I had initially been ecstatic about the idea of a shower here, but as I set up my tent I realize it’s getting extremely cold. Aren’t we in the desert? There’s no way in hell that I’m going to shower and have my head wet as I go to bed. Instead, I make dinner with the group. It’s so cold that we all crawl into our tents early. I slowly drift off into sleep to the melodic hooting of an owl somewhere in the campground.

Could this be any more perfect? I doubt it.

Morning comes. It’s very cold but sunny. It’s going to be a gorgeous day. I walk out with a big group. Sean, who has hiked the section before, tells me that the day is going to be insanely pretty. I’m pumped. I’m walking a little gingerly, feeling out my knee. It’s tight. There’s definitely something going on. I stretch out my legs and try to ignore it.

I end up hiking with Flipper (Brett), Froggy (Kevin) and Laura. The trail is absolutely beautiful with views that extend out for miles. The trail takes a turn and I realize there’s now a super steep drop off. If I trip, I’ll most certainly fall to a tragic death. I have a severe fear of heights, so I take a pause and take a deep breath. The other three keep striding on and I slow up my pace, keeping my eyes cast down on the trail directly in front of me.

I hum “Happy Trails” by Rapidgrass to myself over and over again, as I try to manage my nerves. And it works… for a few minutes. Then, I start feeling dizzy, my breathing quickens and my vision starts to blur. I stop and touch the rock wall on my left. I take several deep breaths, calming myself down. I continue on slowly. “You’ve got this.” I repeat over and over to myself. And I walk. Sloooowly but surely.

I catch up to the others once the trail widens and the slope relaxes.

“You guys don’t know this… but I have a huge fear of heights. And I just DID THAT!!”

The group cheers and everyone says encouraging things. We keep going. I’m flying high and taking in the views. I love this trail. I love these people. I still can’t believe I’m out here. We cross a dirt road and see something written in the dirt – it’s Flipper and Froggy’s names. But we can’t figure out who wrote them? We’re all bewildered… what could it mean? Trail magic? No way… not this early.

We start climbing a hill. It’s sun exposed and hot. There’s no shade in sight. And then we see it. A sign. “Trail Magic: Food & Drink.” This isn’t a drill. We follow the sign to the Sunshine Trailhead and see a massive RV parked with a few tables and some people hanging out.

We’re greeted by Tina and Tom Jones. They’re the neighbors of Scarf, another hiker (who was the person that wrote their names in the dirt). I find a hamburger, homemade potato salad, a giant pickle, chips in front of me. There’s water, gatorade, soda and beer in huge coolers. I can’t even believe it.

“Does anyone want some wine?” Tina asks.

“WHAAAAT?!” I say, “Are you kidding me?! I would LOVE some!”

“Red or white?” she responds.

“I get a CHOICE?! I’d love some white!” I respond.

She disappears into the RV for a few minutes and comes back out with a glass of wine in a REAL wine glass (it was made of ACTUAL glass). Tears well up in my eyes. Who are these people and why are they being so nice to us??

Tina returns to where we’re sitting and asks, “Does anyone want popsicles or an ice cream sandwich?”

The group erupts. This is the best trail magic ever. An hour passes and we’re still there joking around with our hosts and the other hikers. We’re still in disbelief of their kindness. But we need to hike on. I profusely thank Tina and Tom and try to give them money and they won’t accept it. They say they have fun doing it and are happy to see their friend Scarf.

We continue on down the trail and it’s hot. The trail is rocky and uneven – and my knee is not doing well. Every few steps I take sends a shooting pain through my knee. Shit. I hike/limp behind the group. This isn’t good.

We descend down a hill and pass another hiker that is really struggling. He’s wearing Crocs and carrying a large wooden staff, with his hiking boots dangling from his pack. He tells us his name is Moses. He says he’s had no appetite and is feeling very weak. His feet are in bad shape. We check to make sure he’s ok and he says he is. We keep going, but the group voices concern for him.

We reach our campsite at the bottom of the hill and set up camp. A little while later, Moses hobbles up. He asks if he can camp with us. ‘Of course!’ says the group. As he sets up his tent, he talks with us. He’s a character. Despite having a pretty awful day and being in pain, he is the happiest person I’ve ever met.

A few other hikers walk up: Andy and Kayla from Wisconsin. We’ve got a great little group at camp tonight.

Froggy asks us if we want to do a little yoga. He leads us through a short, gentle flow. It feels amazing to stretch out my muscles – especially my legs. I’m getting very concerned about my knee. It’s starting to swell.

After yoga, we eat dinner together and head to bed early. We’ve got a climb in the morning and it’s sun exposed. We want to get an early start.

Well, the early start didn’t happen. We slept in. The trail that morning was beautiful. It was gently rolling high desert terrain with views for miles. Water was pretty scarce and we were coming up to a spot where we had to do a 2 mile round trip side trail to get some water. As we approached the junction, we started to turn down the road towards water. Just then, we hear someone yelling and notice a small figure at the top of a hill.

“I’ve got water up here! And snacks!” says the figure.

What?! We were a bit confused. But we walked up the hill towards him. At the top, we find a canopy with tables covered with food. Several water jugs sit underneath the table in the shade. A guy sitting there introduces himself as Nico. He’s from San Diego and comes out there regularly to camp and do trail magic. MORE trail magic? I can’t believe it. He’s a really laid back, cool guy. I’d be friends with him in “off trail” life. We spend a half hour or so hanging out and eating the most delicious oranges I’ve ever had.

I begin talking about my knee issues. Another hiker walks over to me a few minutes later and hands me a compression brace. I was confused at first. Didn’t he need it? He explains that he had worn it on and off, but felt that I needed it more than him. I tried to decline, but he insisted. It’s such a selfless, generous gesture. The last two days of generosity from angels and hikers alike has almost been too much. It’s overwhelming.

We say goodbye to Nico and head back down the hill. It was a very, very hot rest of the day. The terrain was rolling hills, but ABSOLUTELY no shade. The heat was becoming too much to bear, so we all crammed ourselves into the tiniest nook of shade. My knee was very swollen. I decided to lay with my legs straight up a rock to help with circulation and maybe alleviate some of the swelling.

A half hour or so later, we decide we should keep pushing, so we pack up our things. I stand up and realize that the swelling is nearly gone and I have almost full mobility of my knee! WOW! Maybe I cracked the code and I’m going to be fine after all.

Given my knee and some other ailments that the group is experiencing (Flipper twisted his ankle that day), we decide to take a short day. We end the day early and camp in open desert a few miles from the underpass near Scissors Crossing, where tomorrow’s climb begins. The only problem with ending the day early is that it’s HOT. We manage to find a huge rock that is casting some shade, so we brought our snacks and sit pads and set up a mini camp to wait out the rest of the afternoon sun. We listen to music, joke and talk. And then the boredom sets in. When is the sun going to go down?! So we make up a game: throw a rock to try and hit a further away rock. It’s comical how fun this is. We’re easily amused.

We finally make our way to our tents once the sun wasn’t as intense. We are hanging out when Rebecca, a solo hiker from Australia walks up. She asks if she can camp with us. We say of course!

It’s a relaxing night at camp. The sun begins to set and it’s breathtaking. I seriously love the desert. I have fun wandering around the area and take pictures of the plant life and sunset. We head to bed early because we plan to get up extremely early to hike the three miles to the underpass to get water and begin the climb out of Scissors Crossing. A notoriously hot climb.

Morning comes way too quickly. We quietly pack up our tents. Flipper’s ankle isn’t doing well at all. I give him my ankle brace to use and we started off. Four little headlamps bobbing down the trail. Flipper quickly falls behind and it’s clear how much pain he’s in. Oy. Our group is falling apart.

We make it to the underpass and are thrilled to see gallons and gallons of water at a water cache managed by trail angels. Trail angels are such incredible people. We happily fill up our water bottles, stretch a bit and start up the climb.

The trail is somewhat steep, but manageable. My knee is feeling surprisingly good. Maybe the rest did me more good than I realize? Maybe. I keep a slow, steady pace as I climb. I take a step and notice an odd sensation in my right foot. I take another step, and it intensifies. Finally, I take a third step and my foot buckles. Intense pain shoots through the side of my foot. I stop for a minute and massage it. I try to take another step and can’t put all of my weight on it.

What the hell?

The group has gotten a bit further up trail from me. I have to keep going, so I keep walking – hobbling – down the trail in extreme pain. Why is my body going haywire?

I walk and walk. Each mile seems to take an eternity. I walk through gritted teeth and curse words. I take ibuprofen, realizing that I only have about 8 pills on me. Not good. I keep walking and eventually find the group taking a lunch. They take one look at me and could tell it’s not good.

The plan is to hike to the 3rd Gate Water Cache. I tell the group to hike ahead and that I would need to get there at my own pace. I’m probably hiking 1mph: a snail’s pace. But at least I’m moving, albeit slowly.

I finally make it to camp, long after the others do. I can’t find them at first, so I pitch my tent at the top, near the trail. I limp down the side trail to the water cache, where I find my friends, as well as Verde, Sean and Steve. Verde has made a makeshift shade structure with some hiking poles and tarp, so we all sit underneath talking. It’s really good to see everyone, but in the back of my mind, I’m extremely worried about my injuries. I still have about 30 miles to get to Warner Springs and I can barely walk without a pack on.

The rest of my group has set up their ground sheets in a little clearing on the side trail down towards the water, so we move there to hang out in the shade. Dutchie sits with us as well. She has us all pick a rock and makes us macrame bracelets using the rock for a centerpiece. It was the coolest little gift.

We’re telling stories about our lives and talk about why we we’re hiking the trail. All of the sudden, a large bird flies by. Someone shouts ‘Look at that!’ and everyone becomes silent, watching the majestic bird. ‘Woaahhhhh’ says someone else. More silence. If you want to get hikers to shut up, put some cool, nature-y thing in front of them.

We head back up to the camp spots by the trail for dinner. The area is now jam packed with tents. There is already a circle of hikers sitting in the dirt making dinner. We squeeze in and begin making dinner as well. There are familiar faces, as well as many new faces. It’s a super fun time. Someone passed around some sweet tarts for dessert.

I went to bed feeling happy, but extremely concerned about my foot. I’m 18 miles from Warner Springs with almost no ibuprofen left.

I wake up with a pit in my stomach. I stretch inside my tent. I point my toes. I can tell it’s extremely swollen as pain shoots, white hot, down my foot. I can feel my knee is swollen. Not good. I also realize I need to pee NOW. Moving in slow motion, I scramble out of my tent, nearly falling out. I start walking (waddling?) down the trail to find a spot away from camp and can’t put any weight on my foot.

Not good.

I return to my tent, silently freaking out. I start to break down my camp and have trouble with every task that involves walking. How am I going to hike 18 miles? I could break it into two days, but my gut tells me I need to get into town because I’m legitimately injured. I somehow manage to get packed up. Just then, Flipper comes up to me to talk about what to do.

I tell him that they should hike on. I’m going to have to go slow. 18 miles is a lot, but I know I can do it. He then gives me a ton of ibuprofen from his own stash. He’s a saint. He gives me enough to get to Warner Springs.

He heads down the trail and I take four pills. As I start walking, I’m wincing and gritting my teeth through the pain. I want nothing more than to throw my pack down, sit on the side of the trail and cry. I’m hiking at about 1mph again, waiting for the ibuprofen to kick in. I pass Dutchie, who is also nursing a foot injury. She’s badly limping too. We chat for a minute as I pass her, offering pathetic words of solidarity and encouragement. I literally feel her pain.

I continue on and realize that I’m feeling pretty good. Maybe I just needed to walk it off! I quickly realize that I’m an idiot… I’m feeling good because the ibuprofen kicking in. Whatever. I’ll take what I can get. I stay focused and push forward as quickly as my body will allow. A few hours later, the immense pain comes back all at once.

A stress fracture? I shake my head no. I don’t allow myself to think that. These injuries will not take me off the trail. Not. Happening.

The day is a blur. I push hard, popping pills as I need to in order to manage the pain. I’ve decided I will make it to Warner Springs no matter what. I can’t bear another morning like the one I just had. Thankfully, it’s beautiful. I reach an open valley that is other-worldly. Grassy, flat ground for miles with random boulders seemingly strategically dispersed. I begin approaching a huge rock formation. I realize exactly what it is… Vasquez Rocks aka ‘Eagle Rock’. I had been really looking forward to seeing this!

I hike the short side trail to the formation and see two other hikers. I realize they’re day hikers. They’re having lunch on the rocks, about halfway up the formation. I smile and say hi to them. I take off my pack and fumble around with a few snacks and my phone. Why aren’t they getting off? They continue to sit there. I really want to take a few pictures and be on my way… don’t they know I’m trying outrun my pain? I walk up to them and ask how they’re doing and if they’re day hikers. We small talk. They’re so excited to hear that I’m hiking the PCT. I finally – politely – ask them if they mind taking a few pictures of me so that I can be on my way. They turned out to be the nicest guys ever. One took several pictures of me on the formation. I climbed down, we chatted for a few more minutes. I said goodbye, they wished me luck and I limped down the trail. 3 more miles. Only 3 more miles.

I didn’t make it too far past Vasquez Rocks when I look up and stopped dead in my tracks. Above me, off trail, is a HUGE animal that resembles a dog. I look around and there’s no one else. No hiker. Nothing. Could it be a coyote? If it is, it’s the biggest coyote I’ve ever seen. Are there wolves here? Did I just see a wolf!?

I had just hiked past Andy (who has earned the trail name ‘Hey Gorgeous’) & Kayla, so I spin around and backtrack to them. I explain what I had just seen. I can tell it sort of freaks them out a bit too. So the three of us hike together. We don’t see the beast again. (I was told later that it was likely a coyote and that they are very large in that area.)

We continue down the trail together, swapping stories. These two are super nice. I love midwesterners (I’m originally from Illinois). We begin telling snake stories. Hey Gorgeous then says “There’s a rattlesnake right there!” I thought he was kidding. I look to my right and there’s a huge rattlesnake a few feet off trail in the grass. Kayla is a few minutes behind us, so we wait to warn her before she passes it. She’s totally unconcerned and starts sweetly talking to the snake… and it begins to retreat away from us. I don’t believe my eyes.

“You’re a snake charmer!” I laugh.

“She wants to be a veterinarian.” responds Hey Gorgeous.

It makes total sense. That was magician level shit that I wouldn’t have believed unless seen with my own eyes. I eventually pull away from them and push the last mile into town. Slightly jumpy that rattlesnakes are hiding in the grass everywhere around me.

I reach the road and breathe a sigh of relief. I can see the community center off to my right. I’ve done it. I hiked 18 miles on a completely busted, totally swollen knee and foot. I hobble up to the community center to check in.

Now, I rest.

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