Crossing The Mojave
Written by Sarah Fowler | Photography by Alasdair Fowler
I began to stir, wriggling my toes, stretching my neck and taking a deep intake of air. My senses began to awaken. I could feel the warm breeze on my exposed face, my hair dancing around. I could hear the crinkling of our Tyvek groundsheet as intermittent gusts of wind gently pummelled us, as if trying to rouse us and tell us it was time to move on. With each gust came a sprinkling of sand on my skin and the pitter patter as it landed all around us.
Slowly I opened my eyes expecting to see the familiar green blur of the cuben fiber tent that had become ‘home’ over the last 5 weeks. Instead I could see clear blue sky. I rubbed my eyes, pulled the hair from my face and rolled over to reach for my glasses. The events of the previous night flooded back to me. I rolled back over to face my husband Ali, wry smiles spreading across our faces. We’d crossed a corner of the Mojave desert, reaching another significant milestone. We were just over 500 miles into our thru-hike of the 2660 mile Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.
It was around 6:30am and we’d had just a couple of hours of sleep. We packed up our belongings, excitedly reliving the previous evening and eager to make sense of our surroundings. We’d reached our current location in darkness, utterly exhausted, with only our head torches to guide us to our ‘bed’ for the night. I’d been absolutely spent and we’d struggled to find any shelter from the intense wind. Desperate to close our eyes and rest our weary limbs we’d settled for this small rocky hollow. We’d inadvertently set up camp in a drainage ditch amongst the 4,000 strong army of wind turbines which makes up the Alta Energy Wind Center, the largest wind farm in the world . Thankfully, it had been a dry night. A freak storm could have cause flash flooding and a very different awakening.
The previous day we’d strolled into ‘Hiker Town’ in the blistering heat of the midday sun, desperate for some respite from the inhospitable environment. As we approached this fenced compound we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. Its name was very apt. We entered a small ‘town’ built from old film sets, wild west style, complete with various tractors, trailers and slightly worse for wear chickens. It was all rather surreal. Even thinking about it now it just seems bizarre, but that’s part of the beauty of an adventure – it opens up a whole new world of experiences.
We’d been pushing ourselves hard, clocking up 26 miles the previous day and then 14 miles that morning to reach ‘Hiker Town’. The desert was incredible and so much more diverse than we’d anticipated, but it was also brutal on the body and the mind. Between the extreme heat, blistering sun, water shortages and many varieties of prickly plant we were feeling the strain. One evening whilst camped with trail friends, and delirious after a tough day, we’d formed the “I hate the desert, it’s a bastard” club. It’s amusing looking back on it now, but I can assure you we meant it. We just needed to get through another week and we’d reach Kennedy Meadows, the end of the desert and the gateway to the Sierra Nevada.
The desert was incredible and so much more diverse than we’d anticipated, but it was also brutal on the body and the mind. Between the extreme heat, blistering sun, water shortages and many varieties of prickly plant we were feeling the strain. One evening whilst camped with trail friends, and delirious after a tough day, we’d formed the “I hate the desert, it’s a bastard” club.
We’d heard tales of all sorts being recovered from this silvery channel – from cars to guns to dismembered bodies. It became quite spooky as the darkness descended, the moonlight shimmering on the water surface, giving it the appearance of liquid metal.
The Mojave had become part of the ‘vortex of fear’. Every year a stream of scary stories filters its way through the PCT hiking community spreading fear Chinese whispers style. The Mojave is an extremely hot, waterless section and we’d be at the mercy of the infamous Mojave Green rattlesnake. Trail legend had it that these venomous fiends would hunt us down and inject us with venom so toxic we’d be dead in minutes. We’d be hiking at night to beat the heat, at the same time these fearsome creatures would be stalking their prey. It was difficult not to be drawn into the ‘vortex of fear’.
After resting and ‘cameling up’ with water we headed out of ‘Hiker Town’ with fellow thru-hiker Pounce at around 8pm that evening, still quite bemused by this strange and novel setup. We were feeling quite apprehensive about how the night would pan out; it was our first experience of night hiking. I felt reassured hiking with Pounce who had a thru-hike of the Appalachian trail under her belt and the trail wisdom that brought. By now we’d usually have completed our nightly ritual of setting up camp, everything in its place in our cuben fiber ‘palace’. I enjoyed setting up our ‘home’ each night and the familiarity of that routine brought great comfort. By 8pm I’d usually be scribbling frantically in my journal excited at the prospect of completing the final task of the day before I could lie down and feel my body flop, revelling in the prospect of sleep.
It was still fairly light as we skirted our way along the trail, through grassy fields and along gravel roads, the Mojave beckoning us closer. I described this as a waterless section. There was in fact a whole lot of water; we just couldn’t get to it. Here we were in one of the hottest, driest places on earth walking alongside a concrete-lined channel several metres wide brimming with water on its way from the Sierra Nevada mountains to Southern California. We were hiking alongside the California aqueduct. We’d heard tales of all sorts being recovered from this silvery channel – from cars to guns to dismembered bodies. It became quite spooky as the darkness descended, the moonlight shimmering on the water surface, giving it the appearance of liquid metal.
We’d been walking for a couple of hours and the realisation had dawned that we were in for a monotonous night. In the darkness there was nothing to focus on but the road ahead, putting one foot in front of the other, the gravel crunching under our feet. After all that ‘cameling up’ our bladders were full and we had a collective pee stop. We were conscious of those fiendish Mojave Greens as we skulked to the edge of the road to find a safe place to squat. I think as women we felt a tad more vulnerable than our male counterparts who didn’t have to get quite so close to the danger zone! I never managed to master the standing pee like some of my female comrades on the trail. Kudos to them. We were focusing on the task at hand when we heard a familiar voice, “Hell is this a pee party? I’ll join in”. We all erupted in giggles mid-flow. Ben had caught us up and we knew we were in for some light relief and perhaps the night wouldn’t be quite so tedious after all.
Ben had such great spirit. We’d first met him on day three and hadn’t expected our paths to cross again as he covered the miles quickly. Luckily for us Ben also liked sitting down and for that reason he became a familiar face along our route to Canada. We’d look forward to hearing his stories; he had plenty and tonight was no exception. Ben had posted his ‘bounce bucket’ to ‘Hiker Town’, not realising he would be unable to post it on. This 5 gallon bucket contained medical supplies, the biggest salami I’ve ever seen, whisky and a whole host of other kit. Of course Ben being Ben, this posed no obstacle; he’d just carry it with him to Tehachapi. Yes, as well as his pack, he carried a 20kg bucket over 40 miles to Tehachapi. For the remainder of the night he became Benjamin Bucket.
We crossed a bridge, leaving behind the open channelled California aqueduct and joining the LA aqueduct. At least this one was enclosed in a solid black pipe and we couldn’t see all that lovely watery goodness within its walls. The thought of cold, refreshing water was tantalising. Although it was night the air remained warm, our skin clammy in the heat. Even the wind was warm. We wondered what was out there in the darkness surrounding us. It seemed strange – we’d seen glimpses of the Mojave regularly, a foreboding vast expanse of desert. And now we were actually in it, we couldn’t see beyond the gravel. Without even realising we’d hiked past an area littered with spectacular, statuesque Joshua trees. Occasionally we’d spot a silhouette of one of these ancient wonders and pause momentarily to appreciate it before that urge to press on returned.
Of course Benjamin Bucket kept us going with his tall tales and we’d break every once in a while for a Snickers break or a collective pee stop. We even mustered the energy for a brief head torch rave. Imagine the scene, music blasting out of a mobile phone, four hikers dancing around their trekking poles with flashing head torches in the wee small hours, giggling away. Then we’d plod on once more in contemplative silence, reflecting on how far we’d come and what lay before us. Once in a while we’d see something resembling a large boulder or log at the side of the road, seconds later realising it was a fellow hiker who’d had enough for one night and given in to the overwhelming desire to sleep and rest their beaten feet. I wondered what else was hidden away in the darkness.
As the hours rolled by we grew more and more weary. The boys’ stamina and stubbornness could have seen them through many a mile more but I was completely spent. I was on the verge of tears. Every step was painful, my feet felt as though they’d curled up in protest, involuntary whimpering noises seeped out. I was done. We’d been hiking for about 8 hours, covering around 17 miles. It was about 4:00am and the wind was racing all around us, beating us into submission. We battled to weigh down our Tyvek groundsheet with some rocks before collapsing in a heap on top of it. The relief was palpable. Soon we were enveloped in our down sleeping bags and that familiar feeling of contentment washed over us. I’m not even sure we managed to say goodnight before drifting off to sleep hand in hand.
In 2012 Sarah and Alasdair Fowler hiked the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail in the USA. This 2660 mile trail winds its way from the Mexican border in the south, through California, Oregon and Washington, finishing just across the Canadian border in the north. It follows the Western mountain ranges including the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades, taking in 24 national forests and 47 wilderness areas. They completed the entire journey unsupported, on foot, in 162 days.
Sarah and Alasdair Fowler can regularly be found exploring the outdoors in the North East of England and beyond, though this was by far their greatest adventure to date. Sarah works in Public Health and Alasdair in Digital Arts and Media. Since returning from the PCT Alasdair is in the process of launching an outdoor equipment company. Both dream of achieving a simple lifestyle with many shared adventures together. Read more about their PCT adventure at www.afowler.co.uk/adventures. You can also follow @The_Fowlers on Twitter.