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Long Trails

Fighting Desert Fatigue on the Pacific Crest Trail

After 650 miles of desert, our correspondent is ready for the hills.

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The last few days on the PCT have been super interesting, topographically. Leaving Tehachapi, we’ve entered this strange in-between space—we’re in the foothills of the Sierra, but the desert hasn’t quite released its hold on the land. It’s an intriguing combination of desert plants and pine forest, trail tread made alternately of pine duff and loose sand.

I and most of the people who I’m hiking with are, mentally speaking, pretty done with the desert. I’m tired of carrying five or more liters of water in an attempt not to rely on caches, what with the up to 42-mile waterless stretches. I’m tired of the strange, dawn-and-dusk schedule I’ve had to adopt to try and avoid the worst of the heat. I’m tired of leapfrogging from shady spot to shady spot to avoid the brutality of the sun.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s beautiful, and I love being able to look back at any point during the day to see how far I’ve come. But when the Sierra are so close you can actually catch glimpses of them, it’s hard not to be focused on the future.

That’s particularly true when the future is full of potentially snowy passes, carrying a bunch of extra gear like bear cans and ice axes and more warm clothing, and super long stretches between resupplies where it’s crucial to mail yourself food. There’s a lot of uncertainty going into the Sierra that the Internet cannot entirely mitigate. There’s a lot on the mind of the average thruhiker in this stretch, even though there are about 60 miles to go before we can relieve any of that anxiety.

A lot of folks have taken the edge off by grouping up. Forming a trail family, made up of people who travel at relatively the same speed, is useful for the Sierra anyway: It’s safer to travel in groups, and gives everyone a little more peace of mind when you can pool knowledge. It’s a bit more risky in ways, too—not wanting to slow the group down or admit to exhaustion can lead to poor decisions. Still, for me at least, being in a supportive community has done wonders for lifting my spirits, gently pushing my boundaries, and giving me more than just another day of walking to look forward to (as rewarding as walking is).

As of tonight, we have 10 miles to go to Walker Pass, where I’ll be replacing my shoes after 650 miles with the same pair of Altras. Then, it’s adios, desert. The mountains are calling, and I must go.

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