We may be sheltered on our little switchback, but the wind tosses the trees and howls through the canyon all night. I barely sleep: oh well. What’s a single bad night of sleep on such a long trail?
We drop down through the canyon, to the flat desert floor. My thighs ache and burn. I guess running downhill last night proved how out of shape I am. There’s a creek twisting beside the trail, but it’s low. In some spots, it burbles and flows, before disappearing entirely beneath the earth. In other places, algae blooms over standing pools. Oaks rise above us, shading the path. It’s still early, too early for the stifling heat that comes at noon, but I’m grateful for the shade.
We leave the creek and the gentle, shady trees. Now, we cross open grassland, dotted with scrubby trees. I pull out my sun umbrella, pop it open, and rest the edge of it on top of my pack. Minutes later, the wind gusts, turning it inside out. I fight with it for a minute, then wrestle it closed and stow it back in my pack.
We take lunch by another creek, this one ankle deep and dotted with shade trees. Shake’nBake goes off to find a discrete bush. He’s gone a long time, and is quiet when he returns. It’s unusual behavior from such an enthusiastic man.
“How was your poop?” I ask. He’s quiet for a long time. “The poop was fine.” A pause so long I’m sure the conversation is over. “The six foot long danger noodle was less fine.” I can’t help it. I laugh. “You saw a snake? Oh, that’s awesome! Also, Danger Noodle Poop would be a fantastic trail name.” Shake’nBake just makes a face at me, and returns to his lunch.
We climb after lunch, during the hottest part of the day. We fall back down, to a cow pond the color and thickness of chocolate milk. Shake’nBake pushes the water through our filter. It removes most of the color, and surprisingly all of the taste. We sit for a while, resting our aching feet and protesting muscles, then climb up towards a ridge to find a camp spot for the night.
Once again, the wind blasts across the ridge, tossing my hair in my face and buffeting my pack. There’s scrubby trees up here, but nothing big enough to block the wind. We race darkness again, as sunset colors bloom on the horizon. Then: “I need to stop,” says Shake’nBake. There’s a somewhat flat spot just off the side of the ridge. We relocate a few rocks, and try and tuck out of the wind as best we can.
Every time I fall asleep, the wind reaches out and shakes me awake. I give up trying to sleep around three, and instead watch the stars wheel overhead. All I’ve done is sleep all winter, hibernating like a bear. I’ll be ok for a few days, right?
The wind doesn’t stop in the morning. We hike on, puffy jackets pulled up against the chill, until we find a sunbeam to drink coffee in. The trail is mellow today, winding across ridges and dropping down to contour through valleys. We stop for a break, and Shake’nBake rubs the side of his knee.
We have one final climb and then a long descent into Patagonia. I pull out my headphones, choose upbeat music, and dance my way down the trail. When we reach the downhill, I’m practically running, fuelled by a fast beat and thoughts of cheeseburgers. Shake’nBake lags behind. When we reach the road, he balances on a single leg like a flamingo, and rotates his leg, bending and flexing.
“My knee is bugging me,” he says. “Do you want the trekking pole?” I ask, waving our sole one at him. “No, I’m fine.” He’s not convincing. “Maybe I’ll just ice it at the hotel.”
Patagonia is a sleepy town, with old western style buildings. We get a room at the Stage Coach Inn, and eat burgers and fries in the attached restaurant. We’ve only done fifty miles, and it feels early for a town stop, but the next place I plan to resupply is a hundred and fifty miles away.
We stop for breakfast burritos on the way out of town, but we still manage to leave before eight. It’s a long, exposed walk on a dirt road, until we climb up out of the grassland and into the oaks. Shake’nBake leaves me behind on the climb, then waits on the crest of the ridge. I lead down the hill, and Shake’nBake quickly falls behind. I wait on a switchback, but he waves me on with a displeased look on his face. I hike for a few minutes, then I hear Shake’nBake call my name.
“Can I borrow the trekking pole?” he asks. I hand it over. He’s limping, just a little, favoring his left leg over his right. He refuses to pass me, but I hike slower, keeping him just behind. We stop for water down a side trail, and I make him give me his bottles and rest while I go to collect it. It’s our first questionable water source: a spring drips into a rotten wooden barrel where bubbles of algae hide the water. It looks like a witch’s cauldron. Shake’nBake pops half an ibuprofen, then tells me he can make it to our planned camp site. We make it to the creek as the moon rises, floodlight bright and full.
The next day is Shake’nBake’s birthday. The morning is chilly, but we huddle close in our sleeping bags, passing a mug of coffee back and forth. We follow the creek down a narrow canyon, past car campers and interpretive signs describing the area’s mining history. Then, we walk through an old mining camp, where preserved buildings draw tourists. We wander through the cool rooms, enjoying the shade. The caretaker comes over, and offers us oranges and hot coffee. Our first trail magic!
It’s a hot day, and the trail is rocky as we follow old roads and ATV tracks. My feet ache and throb, like all my bones are breaking at once. I’ve gotten soft over the winter, and now I’m paying the price. I endure as long as I can, then swallow an ibuprofen to take the edge off. We hike until dusk again, then camp in an Ocotillo grove. These spiky tentacle plants are the greenest I’ve ever seen them, tiny leaves bursting from stems between the thorns.
I don’t sleep well again, despite our pretty camp site. In the morning, I find we’ve run out of coffee. It’s hard not to be grumpy: lack of sleep and caffeine withdrawal stacking up to ruin my mood.
The day gets worse. Shake’nBake calls for a break early, rubbing his knee. Then, on a flat section devoid of shade, he tells me he has to stop. I pop my umbrella up, setting it over both of us. Medicine averse Shake’nBake takes another ibuprofen. It’s a full half hour before his knee has stopped hurting enough to continue.
“If it’s not better by the end of the day, maybe you need to get off trail,” I tell him. Shake’nBake doesn’t say anything for a long time. He’s only joining me for the first two hundred miles anyway, and we have big summer plans that require healthy knees. Neither of us have quit a trail for injury before.
By dusk, there’s no improvement. I think about my knee on the AT. The pain started mild, then increased sharply to intolerable. Stubborn, I hiked through it. It took two years after the trail was over for me to be able to bend my knee without pain. Learn from my mistake, I tell Shake’nBake. Smarter than me, he agrees. It’s eight miles to the highway in the morning, and he’ll leave me there.
The eight miles pass all too quickly. Shake’nBake kisses me goodbye at the trailhead, then gets a ride with some runners, already finished for the day by nine am. I turn my back and walk away before he gets in the car. And then I’m all alone.