Cactus to Clouds: A Trail Diary

I awake to fuzzy hipster garage rock reverberating off the tin can that is my unfinished Ford Transit in the wee hours of dawn, downing a Clif Bar and a caffeine gel while praying for an extra 8 minutes to snooze in the comfort of my luxurious sleeping bag. I think I was having a sex dream about Alex Honnold. Ugh… Such strong hands.

Feeling strung out and a little homeless after having spent the night under the watchful eye of a streetlamp, Brehon and I slam the van’s doors shut and stumble towards the corner of the parking lot of the Palm Springs Art Museum. This is it. The humble beginning of a 21-mile sufferfest called the Skyline Trail that will take us from the desert floor to the top of Mt. San Jacinto and back down to the tramway, gaining a total of 10,400 vertical feet. I’m nervous about the snowline. I pee behind a cactus that does little to shield my ass and start climbing. It’s dark, and the luminescent glow of our headlamps creates tiny pockets of light that make up our entire world for the time being.

We stop for a snack and another pee break at a lone picnic table that inexplicably sits about 1,000 vertical feet above the trailhead. By this point, we are gaining on two other sets of hikers, their LED beams like dizzy moons bouncing across the desert rocks. From here, we are able to peer out at the entirety of Palm Springs, wrapped in blackness with small flecks of light like impossible deep-sea creatures creeping their heads up for prey. The air is still, and I remove my jacket.

The sun melts her way across delicate clouds that hang high overhead, teasing us with bits of warmth and color. What sass. Suddenly, a violent shock of pink races along neighboring peaks, and the valley is alive. I am alive. For the first time in what feels like a long time, I smile. Brehon and I stop to take gratuitous selfies and force-feed another 200 calories into our mouths. We leap frog one of the other groups of hikers, and, for no reason at all other than unabashed id, I am thrilled to be winning this non-race.

My body is slowing down. I am tripping over small boulders every few meters, and I’m beginning to feel dizzy. I call to Brehon so we can nip this in the bud. Fuck. Even in the crisp morning air, I’ve been sweating a lot more than I bargained for, and I haven’t eaten nearly enough calories. Brehon pops out a spoon and a full jar of almond butter and starts chowing down. I grab a fistful of amino acids and electrolyte pills, a veritable Hunter S. Thompson’s worth of jock-fuel, before rifling through my snack stash. Dried apricots, check. Roasted almonds, check. Dehydrated beef sticks, check. Oatmeal raisin Clif Bar, check. I shove as much of it into my face as I can, wait 15 minutes to settle, and then it’s go time all over again.

I wonder if it’s inappropriate to talk loudly about vibrators, pegging, and oral sex on the trail as we meander in and out of Manzanita bushes doing just that. This isn’t the first time I’ve asked for obscure sex advice from a friend while hiking, and I would happily argue that the wild, empowering environment and lack of rushed conversation on a long journey make it the perfect place for a detailed kink chat.

We pass the first woman we’ve seen on the trail all day. Or, rather, she passes us. Her graceful, sinewy legs cut through the landscape like a hand through blades of grass. “When I’m 50,” I whisper, “I wanna be her.” I find myself curious why there are so many female hikers, but far fewer female backpackers and burly endurance masochists. We climb six dozen more sets of stairs as pine trees and patches of true alpine foliage come into view.

You’ve never had a sandwich until you’ve eaten one after nearly 6 hours of constant uphill movement. Brehon and I stop for lunch on a makeshift bench of log roots. I start to believe that god is an Italian baker. My hamstrings and quads are pretty damn cranky at this point, and we’ve only got another mile and a half to go before Long Valley, so I do a little trail yoga to freshen up. The most treacherous bit of the route is next, which means we’ll need to ascend 1000 vertical feet in under half a mile. Bring it on.

We fill up water bottles at the ranger station and grab our permits to head to the summit. I can’t stop smiling at how good our timing is so far. We’ve completed the steepest part of the trail, climbing 8,000 vertical feet in only 8 miles. Somehow, I lose an hour eating, changing my socks, splashing water onto my face, and putting on my thermal underwear in the bathroom. The new socks are pure magic. I feel like a different girl.

After stubbornly rock-hopping from boulder to boulder, Brehon and I have eaten shit in the snow enough times to put on our microspikes and start ascending the icy path in earnest. My heart stops as we amble up to Wellman’s Divide. This was the farthest point I made it to in 2017, having to turn back an hour from the summit while buffeted by 70mph winds, avalanche warnings, and the impending blackness of night.

Brehon’s hip is doing a weird thing, so he treks out way ahead of me, saying that long strides seem to help the pain. I keep a steady pace and maneuver my five foot, two inch frame up the mountainside, passing scores of day hikers who took the tram up to catch this insane view. A woman stops and gives me a high five and a sticker that says “Goat the Distance” that features a psychedelic backpacking goat she claims her son drew. I am beaming as I make my way to the summit block.

I scramble up the massive boulders that lead to the summit in earnest, cheeks flushed and head dizzy with altitude. I can’t really feel my fingers as I dig through my bag for my camera and a handful of much-needed calories. With the wind chill, it’s about 22 degrees outside, and Brehon didn’t bring gloves or a proper hat. We take in the view, all 10,400 vertical feet that we cranked out using only our humble limbs. It’s time to get the hell out of this frozen wonderland and buy ourselves a proper coffee.

Brehon’s hip is not doing well. He has begun to waddle like a duck with a limp and a drinking problem, pelvis shuffling back and forth like some bizarre disco hustle. This is not good. We are losing light quickly.

The sky is darkening like mad as we make our way through the thick pine forest. Brehon stops to make odd wailing noises and stretch his hip flexor every 6 minutes or so, and I wait patiently, wishing there was something I could do to help. My microspikes take a turn for the worse and rip apart at the seam of the chains, leaving me cat-like and carefully tip-toeing across a trail coated in 1 ½ inches of ice. I pray for more rocks so I can kangaroo-hop my way down the slope with a small amount of traction.

The last fingerprints of light are fading from the skyline as we climb the few remaining steps of paved sidewalk to the tram station. We are both brain-fried zombies by this point, eyes glazed over and hungry for screen time and texts from friends. We pay the $17 for a ticket down and file into a crowded room with benches to wait. The linear nature of ordinary city life always baffles me when I come out of the wilderness. So raucous and angular.

We are crammed like sheep into “the world’s largest rotating tram car” and begin our long descent into reality. The view of Mt. San Jacinto’s northeast face is jagged and breathtaking. I can’t believe our feet took us all that way. I spin around and literally bump right into a costume designer I knew when I was in my early 20s. She and her friends are drunk and high and celebrating a birthday, decked out in blue fur coats and feather necklaces like a circus of gypsies had come into town. I watch her eyes carefully as she speaks with a slight slur, suddenly feeling very far away.

We are on the desert floor again, and I am torn halfway between crying and smiling, but mostly, I’m just numb and really want a bath. I feel androgynous in my half-feral state, and I have to steady myself to drive the 2.5 hours to Los Angeles. We take a cab back to the art museum and drive my van straight to the nearest coffee shop, the buzzing sounds of grungy, hipster garage rock guiding me home.


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2 thoughts on “Cactus to Clouds: A Trail Diary

  1. Todd says:

    Awesome Story. I grew up in So. Cal and backpacked those mountains all the time. But never did the cactus to cloud hike. Way to go girl.

    • Emily Pennington (BrazenBackpacker) says:

      Thank you! It’s a beast. Glad I had the chance to come back and finish it in the snow. The temperature difference is extreme!

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