Agua Dulce (Mile 454) to Tehachapi (Mile 566)
Appalachian Trail hikers have invented some pejorative nicknames for the states that trail passes through. Vermont, for example, is known among hikers as Vermud. Pennsylvania is Rocksylvania. New Jersey is New Bearsy. In this spirit, I’d like to propose that California be known forever more as “Windyfornia”. Allow me to explain.
The winds in this past section have been intense. There are long stretches of the trail on the Mojave desert where it’s simply impossible to camp on a windy day, which is every day. That’s why this part of California is home to the biggest wind farm in the US.
Tidbit and I had no clue what was ahead of us when we left Agua Dulce last Tuesday. It was hot, and the trail was exposed, so we waited until late afternoon to leave Hiker Heaven. We hiked by the side of a road for a few miles on our way out of town, before the trail began to climb into a range of green hills.
Note: You can check out Tidbit’s YouTube channel here.
We reached the top of the ridge just before sunset, and made camp in a sheltered spot on the lee of a hill. We’d only made it nine miles, but that was all we needed to put us within a short day’s walk of Casa de Luna – another hiker hangout in the tiny town of Green Valley.
It was 15 mostly downhill miles to the highway to Green Valley, which we reached by mid-afternoon. We got a hitch in the tray of a pickup truck along with three other hikers. The driver dropped us off at a nearby gas station just as it started to rain. We bought beer, wine and snacks for the evening, and walked with our umbrellas up to the Casa.
Casa de Luna is run by the Andersons, a couple of trail angels who own a house that backs onto a huge Manzanita forest. The Andersons have carved out tent sites and a maze-like path among the trees. Painted rocks, decorated by hikers, are nestled in every groove. It’s magically bizarre.
The Casa is much less organised than Hiker Heaven (there is no laundry service or post office), but the atmosphere is a lot more social. This isn’t a place to fret over resupplying or organise trips to REI – it’s a place to hang out with your fellow hiker trash, look ridiculous in a (mandatory) Hawaiian shirt, paint some rocks and drink too much.
We ate dinner in the Andersons’ front yard with the 30-odd other hikers who were staying with us, then drank and hung out until hiker midnight (9PM). The rain returned in the middle of the night, and continued through the morning. Tidbit and I woke to a damp, muddy campsite, and we decided we were zeroing.
The Andersons and their volunteers were cooking pancakes for everyone in the front yard, beneath big canopies. We spent most of the day there, restless to get going. In the afternoon, I resupplied at the gas station and hung out while I used their wifi. The second night at the Casa was much like the first, except rainier.
We finally got back on trail the next morning, which was cool and breezy. After so many short days on trail in the past week I wanted to go big, so I aimed to make it 24 miles to the 500-mile marker. The trail hugged more green hills for most of the day, before ascending to a ridge that overlooked the Mojave desert. I could see the huge solar and wind farms on the desert floor as I hiked the last few miles to camp.
The first of the strong winds hit us that night, buffeting the bushes around my tent and keeping Tidbit and I awake. We only got short snatches of sleep thanks to the noise. The next morning we were groggy and bleary-eyed, but we continued on our way to our next destination: Hikertown.
Hikertown is a property owned by a trail angel on Highway 138, near the community of Neenach. It’s essentially a collection of tiny buildings that resembles a Hollywood movie set. There’s a city hall, a schoolhouse, a sheriff’s headquarters and a general store.
Further down the highway is the Wee Vill market, a gas station that purportedly had great burgers and allows hikers to camp out in their yard. We made it to the highway in the middle of the afternoon and hitched a ride to Wee Vill with an Indian guy in a rental car who was driving to Vegas.
The burger at Wee Vill lived up to expectations, but the yard was already crammed with tents. We decided to get a ride with the owner back to Hikertown. The guy who runs it told us it was also full, but offered us a room on the floor of his gas station up the road. I’d planned to keep hiking, but the wind was growing steadily stronger. I was decidedly not in the mood for any of this, but had no other options. We got a ride to the gas station and I crankily set up camp in an empty room with a handful of other hikers.
I got better sleep than I’d been expecting, but the forecast the next morning made it clear I wasn’t going anywhere. Heavy rain, strong winds and near-freezing temperatures were due in the afternoon – a recipe for hypothermia. I settled in with all the other hikers for an unplanned zero day.
We drank, played poker and ordered pizza from the gas station grill, which was surprisingly good. When 6PM rolled around, nearly every hiker in the joint huddled around the TV in the dining room to watch the final episode of Game of Thrones while it hailed outside. The delay sucked, but at least I didn’t have to spend another few days avoiding spoilers.
The weather eased up the next morning, so we got a ride back to Hikertown and resumed hiking. This section of the trail follows the LA aqueduct for 20 miles, and is usually scorching hot in hiking season – so much so that most hikers do it at night. When we did it, it was cold and windy with intermittent spots of sunshine.
We followed the aqueduct as it turned from an open channel to a huge steel pipe, then a covered channel beneath a concrete road. We pounded out 15 miles in seemingly no time at all before the trail veered off the aqueduct and through an enormous wind farm. True to form, the place was howling. One moment we were strolling along in a light breeze, the next we were getting blasted with 50-mile-an-hour gusts. It was difficult to walk straight, and we regularly had to stop and brace ourselves against the wind.
We found a semi-protected campsite underneath a tree at the edge of the hills and set up shop. I cooked some pasta, and scoffed it as the temperature plummeted. By sunset, I was huddled in my tent and hoping that the wind wouldn’t keep me awake. I got lucky.
The wind buffeted the tree, but my tent was relatively undisturbed. I enjoyed a solid eight hours of dreamless sleep – but the peace wouldn’t last. By sunrise, the wind was already picking up again. By the time I’d packed up camp, the wind was again gusting above 50mph. When we climbed out of the canyon we’d camped in, we were immediately hit by the full force of the gale.
It was relentless. All day, for 18 miles of trail, we were buffeted by violent gusts of wind that seemed to defy the laws of physics. There was no shelter. The wind was somehow just as strong on both sides of every ridge, even in valleys and canyons. It was deafeningly loud and unbelievably forceful, often pushing us off the trail and into bushes and rocks.
I never felt unsafe, but negotiating the insane gale was physically and mentally exhausting. When Tidbit and I finally reached Willow Springs Road by 4PM we were completely spent. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before a pickup truck pulled over to give us a ride into Tehachapi.
We staggered into town just as the rain returned, and ducked into a burger joint that Tidbit had visited last year. I demolished a double cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake. We had time to kill before our couchsurfing host Christine finished work, so we wandered down the street to a Mexican place with cheap drinks.
Christine picked us up around sunset and drove us back to her place, five miles out of town. She’s a teacher at one of the local elementary schools, and was an incredibly warm and welcoming host. She was excited to host hikers and eager to make sure we enjoyed our time in Tehachapi. We encountered this kind of friendliness all around town. People here are proud to be on the PCT, and welcome hikers with open arms.
I’d planned to get a haircut on my zero day, but the barber was closed. I headed to a nearby salon, where the hairdresser apologetically told me she was all booked up. Overhearing this, a customer who was getting her nails done interrupted. “I can cut your hair for you,” she said. “I’m a trail angel.”
The trail angel, named Jenifer, drove us out to her place and cut my hair on a stool in her kitchen while Tidbit and I chatted to her and her boyfriend, Larry. Afterwards, Jenifer and Larry insisted on taking us out to lunch at Primo Burger. Tidbit and I both ordered salads, which were enormous.
Larry gave us a ride the next morning to Willow Springs Road. We slack packed (hiked without packs) an eight-mile section of trail to Highway 58, where another trail angel, named Rick, picked us up and brought us back into town. We walked to Family Dollar and Albertson’s, where we resupplied and bought ingredients for dinner. I cooked chicken paprikash for Christine, Tidbit and Gourmet – another thru-hiker who was staying at Christine’s.
This morning, Larry and Jenifer gave us a ride back to the trail at Highway 58. We’ve been warned of snow on the hills north of Tehachapi, but at least the weather has warmed up. Next stop: Lake Isabella, then the Sierra.