Hwy 58 / Tehachapi Pass to Hwy 138 / Hikertown (47.5 PCT miles)
After our arrival in Tehachapi, we made plans to have brekkie the next morning with Happy Feet and Carbon, who had arrived a half-day ahead of us. Kohnen's Country Bakery had good reviews from fellow hikers, was right across the street from our motel, and it looked both casual and tasty. Sure enough we found the pastry display cases brimming with turnovers, Danishes, Bear Claws, macaroons, muffins, bagels, cookies, and soft pretzels. Behind the counter were baskets holding 6-8 different kinds of breads. They had tea, coffee, self-service ice water and decent free Wi-Fi not to mention salads and sandwiches. Also, they didn't seem to care how long you hung out at a table. Basically, we were in thru-hiker heaven. Over the next few hours we caught up with each other over several rounds of food. We'd not seen Happy Feet since Mazama Village and somehow missed him when he passed us between Tyndall Creek and the Mt. Whitney trail. We only recently met Carbon on-trail. Happy Feet is the de facto social coordinator for the SOBOs this year. He is keeping a list of all the hikers he's met or heard of who are headed south on the trail, and added a few CA section hikers we met in the bakery. We were surprised he has that many names as we haven't met nearly that many SOBOs, but at the same time its amazing that he has only 125 in comparison to how many NOBOs there are (were), especially considering his generous inclusion criteria. We remember passing 70-80 NOBOs daily for weeks back in OR and recall how many told us they'd seen SO many SOBOs this year.
Happy Feet and Carbon were heading back to the trail sooner than us, so they passed along the name and number of a trail angel who had stopped them on the street and offered them a ride to the trail. It turned out that Dalton was happy to make a second trip later in the day for us. We returned to the motel to pack up our bags and then headed back to the bakery, to avail ourselves of their free Wi-Fi and have a few more snacks while we caught up on life before heading out to the trail ourselves. While we were at the bakery, a woman stopped by our table, asked if we were hikers, and offered us a ride if we needed one. We were touched by her generosity but she was not heading out of town until 6pm, and we wanted to leave earlier so we thanked her for her kind offer and declined. Around 2:30 we walked over to Dalton's home where we met him, his husband David, their two dogs Maddie and Rupert, and their cat Garfield. After a round of hellos, we put our packs into the trunk of a silver Jaguar and were whisked back to the trail in high style. Dalton's trail angel name is Dog Bite, because Maddie bit the first hiker he ever picked up, "You know he smelled kinda bad, and Maddie was confused. My penance is to be called Dog Bite and give you guys rides." This last part was said tongue in cheek. Dog Bite has only been living in Tehachapi for 4 years but immediately took to the trail angel calling and now takes off a weeks from work every spring just to ferry thru-hikers to & from the trail during the early NOBO rush. He estimates he puts 1000 miles on his car each year taking this 9-mile (one-way) drive.
He tells us he has excellent innate "hi-dar", hiker radar, and jokes that David (a lifelong resident) remains hopeless at spotting thru-hikers. Dalton had seen Happy Feet walking past his house the day before and said he could just tell he was a hiker. He hadn't given any SOBOs a ride yet this year, so he called out over the fence to offer. He summarized his findings this way, prefacing it with an aside that he doesn't mean to offend: "You guys have a look. It's like homeless, but never fat, and always with expensive shoes. Also, a lot of times you are wearing a puffy jacket." Huckleberry and I had a good laugh and had to agree with his description. Dog Bite also told us that he has noticed that there are four waves of NOBOs that come through town, always in the same order. 1) the serious ones, who seem to be in a race; 2) the fast enjoyers, who are serious and make good progress but want to enjoy the journey; 3) the party crowd, who are having a great time but constantly stoned and don't much care if they hike the entire trail; and 4) the strugglers and stragglers, whether it be injury or just not being prepared or in shape, these ones arrive latest, spend the longest in town, and he thinks that many probably won't make it to Canada. Once again, we thought he hit the nail on the head from what we saw of the NOBO crowd much further north. We told him that among SOBOs there are really only the first two categories. Only serious speedsters and fast enjoyers have a chance of making it. The SOBO time window is so short that you realistically cannot fall into categories 3 or 4 and make a full thru-hike, so those folks might start out as SOBOs but are bound to end up as LASHers.
With these stories told, Dog Bite let us out at the trailhead and we headed back up into the desert. Under giant wind turbines, we climbed the ridge above Tehachapi Pass and came across a local BSA Troop who had been doing trail work but had just finished for the day. They had graded the trail and put a fresh coat of stain/sealer on a bench, and were excited to see hikers making use of their product. We thanked them for their hard work and continued up the trail. As we parted ways, the troop leader called out to remind us that the bench at the overlook would be wet so not to sit on it. There was a constant and strong wind so as we climbed we could hear the steady whooshing of the turbine blades. We crested the ridge, making sure to not sit on that inviting bench, and as far as the eye could see into the desert were wind turbines of various sizes. It was amazing to see so many of them stretching out in every direction. More astounding is that for the rest of day 103 and all of day 104 we were either hiking next to or could see wind turbines!
The wind farms that cover the area around Tehachapi Pass owe their existance to the same phenomenon that makes our home near San Francisco cool with coastal fog. The desert heat creates a thermal low pressure source and the cooler higher pressure ocean air rushes towards in the low pressure area. In the San Francisco Bay Area this means coastal summer fog with cool/cold/temperate weather. In the mountain passes the air is accelerated making it a prime location for wind and thusly wind farms in Tehachapi (and Altamont Pass near our home). That night we camped just below 6 of the giant 211' tall wind turbines and when we woke up during the night we could hear the whooshing of blades and the groaning of the metal in strong gusty winds. The next day, we stopped in at the Iberdrola Wind Farm as the PCT goes right through the middle of their facility. The water report mentioned that they were extremely hiker-friendly and had water available 24/7, with more to offer during office hours. Huckleberry and I are both interested in renewable energy, so we figured this was a worthy detour (AKA bonus miles). We followed the signs down a dirt road towards the main office and a local rancher gave us a ride after about a mile (we'd apparently taken the longest route there). Once inside, we were asked if we needed anything besides water. Before she knew it, Huckleberry was holding a cup of hot coffee and we were ushered into a big room they had set aside for hikers. Their log book showed that we were only the 4th and 5th SOBOs to come inside the building and their hiker box was full of food! High quality hiker food like Clif Bars, Snickers, fig bars, dried fruit, pretzels, tuna, and other goodies. It was the best stocked hiker box that we had seen since Washington.
While we ate our dinner in their lobby, Dave the site manager told us stories about their experiences with hikers. He told us that during the NOBO season, they would make their conference room and other space available for NOBOs to sleep during the day, and then all of the hikers would head out at 6pm to hike in the cooler temps just as the workers were leaving for the night. They're so happy to help them out. He asked about the SOBOs and how many of us there were and we told him of Happy Feet's log. He was shocked at how few of us there were, especially since he's seen the hordes of NOBOs every spring. We asked about the farm and he told us that at maximum capacity they could generate enough power for 60-70,000 homes! As we were getting ready to head out, he told us to just walk cross-country across their property to the trail, it would be much faster than the road. We thanked him for his time and for the generosity of spirit and he in turn asked us to let other SOBOs know that they should stop by. As the crow flies it's 1.3 miles to the main office from the PCT and for many hikers that's too far to go for water, even in the desert. However, being treated like an honored guest made it completely worth it.
In the desert our major concern has been water and we can see from the water report that natural water sources are scarce. The desert is also the only section where water caches are noted on the water report. These can be somewhat controversial, especially if they are not properly maintained. Well-managed caches have large supplies of water with an angel committed to looking after it. We found our first big cache like this along the Hat Creek Rim at Cache 22. Our first SoCal cache was at Bird Spring Pass where there were 125 gallons of water, and instructions for hikers to keep the gallon jugs full (using funnels and the 5-gallon jugs) to prevent blow-aways. There was another good cache south of Tehacahpi at the 549 Bar and Grille. It is maintained by Daniel, Larry, Robert, Patti and Jan, and had chairs, some shade umbrellas and 25 gallons of water along with some snacks for hikers. While the volume of water is smaller, the cache is located on their private land and they access it frequently to keep it well-stocked. Incidentally, Larry and Daniel are brothers of the kind gentleman Michael, who was the trail angel who gave us a ride from the Onion Valley Trailhead to Bishop a few weeks ago. There is another reliable cache near the Cottonwood Creek Bridge, a 55-gallon drum that is maintained by Bob of Hikertown. So in the stretch from Tehachapi to Hikertown we have not had to treat water once. On the other hand, of natural water sources in this stretch there are only 2 and one is dry and the other is a tiny trickle that fellow hikers had to dig a hole into then wait overnight for it to fill so they could collect one gallon. The kindness of so many who live here in the desert shown to us interlopers, the thru-hiking community, is simply astounding and much appreciated. Thank you! There are also smaller, informal caches all along the trail. These consist of a gallon or two, or even just a liter bottle of water left along the trail. While this seems nice on the surface, these sources are not something a hiker can expect or depend upon so in practice they only benefit the unprepared. Also, most hikers would not carry out the empty gallon jug after filling their own container, the person who left it is unlikely to return for it, and there is no way to secure it so the plastic bottle will probably become trash blowing about in the desert winds. I'm certain that the people ho leave these bottles have the best of intentions, but these unintended consequences are part of what make desert water caches somewhat controversial.
We have seen more than our fair share of lizards and ravens in the desert. No more tarantulas (yet), but in the early sunnier part of day 104 Huckleberry and I each came across juvenile horny toads (Phrynosoma coronatum)! They both blended in with the surrounding sand and both were adorable. I'm not sure, but it seems like they can adapt the pigment of their scales to mimic their surroundings based on this very small sample. We also learned at the wind farm that the larger hawks that we have been seeing are Swainson's Hawks. Otherwise, no new fauna to report.
And now for the weather. As we were getting closer to Tehachapi, we received a lot of messages on social media from friends near and far to let us know about the storms that were supposed to bring heaps of rain to the PNW/SF Bay Area and snow to the Sierra Nevada. We were touched by this thoughtfulness, and these friends were happy to hear that we were far enough south to escape the brunt of the storm. Turns out that while we were pretty far south, we did not escape the weather event completely. The storms did bring a lot of clouds, fog and cooler temperatures to the desert. And that wind! The morning of Day 104, we woke up to strong wind and we were getting misted with "aggressive fog", the term we use at home to describe when it is super foggy and everything gets wet but the droplets aren't quite big enough to be called raindrops. But it happens in the desert?!? Apparently so. We also had spectacular clouds and it was cold and windy enough that we actually looked forward to warming up in the office at the wind farm. We joked that their signs offered air conditioning, which at any other time in the desert would be a bonus. We asked Dave about the storm-like clouds, cool temps, and strong wind and he let us know that all were highly abnormal and that we should be lucky that it was not the usual temperatures out there. While the wind has been challenging, the clouds have made this portion of the desert so much more beautiful and really made us appreciate the stark landscape all the more.
The wind really has made only part of a single day unbearable. The morning of Day 105 as we walked along the Los Angeles aqueduct the wind started to pick up. In the predawn hours it had been a persistent and medium-strength but still manageable wind. We were walking along the concrete-covered aqueduct surrounded by Joshua Trees, sagebrush and desert mountains. We could see fog rolling in over the low mountains, which made us a little homesick as it looked very much like a foggy morning over the Marin Headlands. Ahead of us there was a large tongue of fog turning into cloud that then raced across the desert to next mountain range. As we continued our journey the aqueduct became a giant exposed pipeline. We walked along on top of it briefly as it was cooler than the surrounding sand and then got off as the pipe surface was too uneven. There were, of course, signs telling you to stay 100' back, but in a font small enough that you had to be <10' away to read it. Regardless, after seeing 3 dirt bikes and 1 car drive over it, we weren't all that concerned about danger to us or the pipe itself from our walking on or near it. The wind picked up, beating sand into our faces and ears, and spinning tumbleweeds wildly across the dirt road that is the PCT there. Just a few miles from Hikertown, we reached the open portion of the aqueduct and turned a corner into a crazy strong headwind kicking up a huge cloud of dust across the desert and making it difficult to even walk forward. Huckleberry ducked in behind to draft off of me, so that we didn't both have to work so hard. There was small comic relief in that the the LA County Dept of Public Works signage let us know that we could fish from the aqueduct but not swim. If we were to try swimming (or fell in, presumably while fishing), there are safety ladders for exiting every 1000'. With sandy grit in our teeth from the wind and pretty exhausted from being nearly blown over more than once, we arrived at Hikertown and happily took shelter in the bunkhouse.