Most of what you'll read below are selected memories and musings. After losing my phone, some of the more detailed documentation was lost. At times, I switch between past and present tense–depending on what I'd recorded in retrospect as opposed to to same-day.
The 2017 Sierra snowpack was the highest it had been since 2011. This meant our path through snow was already "cut" by previous hikers who'd done their best to follow the trail, relying on their phones and maps. This meant that we had our own sort of trail this year, the real one often being obscured by snow, and the new one being chosen as the path of (hopefully) least resistance. Here's a video for an idea of the conditions. The filmer had gone through ahead of us, so he must have experienced even more snow than we had. Video Link
Our first day in the Sierra was about as magical as we could expect. Since we were still further South, there was only one patch of snow. Our first patch of snow, the premonition of many miles of snow to come. I remember that we unsteadily, painstakingly walked over it near the top of our climb out of the lake. We didn't have our "snow legs" yet. There, on the ridge, we decided to camp. The horizon showed white-capped peaks stretching on forever. It was the golden hour and the light warmed us. We could see it all– almost. We could look the Sierra in the face.
The next day, we got as close as we could to start Mt. Whitney. This involved intensive hours of bushwhacking and a series of streams crossings in order to cross the whole of the river at a safe spot–where it diffused into a field. We two of only a few who made it across that day to Crabtree Meadows. We didn't realize that we hadn't needed to cross the river at all, because the trial would cross back over the next day. Regardless, it was okay. It was an exhilarating day and I felt strong because of it.
Mt. Whitney is off to the side of the PCT, and the tallest peak in the lower 48. Many thru-hikers opt to climb it, because we're in the best shape of our lives. We started out at 10 am and didn't get back until 8 pm. With hardly any breaks, it was 10 hours of travel — ~15 miles round trip consisting of snow first, then miles of switchbacks.
At the top looking down into the bowl of snow, I felt strong for the first time on trail. It was a combination of hiking along day-hikers (out of breath and slower) and the intense elevation of where I stood. I realized that the solitary reason I hadn't been out of breath or needed many breaks like any one else out there was because I'd stuck to doing it–hiking. It made me inspired and relieved about other skills I'd like to hone in life.
The approach to Forester Pass was long and snowy. As we neared the peaks, we found we were at the bottom of a bowl of snow again. I couldn't figure out where the pass would be for the life of me. As we got to the base of what the map showed as the pass, we could see a rock outcropping rising above the flat, surrounding white. Justin and I joined up with the four others who had gathered there. They were Swiss-Germans.
We all hopped around to warm up. I quickly changed into every layer I had before grabbing my ice axe and helping Justin smooth a tent spot. "Anyone need water?" "Not-Yet" offered to go get some, volunteering an incredibly long walk across the snow. There was no path to the water, just frozen-hard sun cups endlessly stretching over to a frozen lake. I couldn't imagine it was quite safe, either. I lent him my collapsible bucket so he could carry water bottles more easily. When he returned, his girlfriend tried to warm his frozen hands.
I couldn't sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time the entire night. I was so cold. Thankfully, it was one of the only nights on trail that I've been so cold. Looking back, this was one of my most favorite evenings. It was so extreme that it felt like a real expedition. Though I would have enjoyed it more with warmer clothing, there was something about the group we found, and the building excitement of plunging into something we'd never done before. The pass was ahead of us. We hadn't really used our ice axes yet. We'd never climbed a snowy pass. If anyone had showed us this pass at the start of the trail, most of us would have wisely turned back. But standing here, we knew the pass was just for us. We knew that somehow, we'd get it done.
The next morning, most people left early. Charlie, Not-Yet, Justin, and I stayed in our tents until the sun fully cleared the peaks–and could give us some amount of warmth. We then made hot coffee and tea before beginning our ascent. Charlie called over as I made tea and politely suggested the four of us ascend together. "Of course!!" I said, overjoyed at the prospect. I really liked both of them. We slowly worked our way up, ascending vertically at one point. Charlie was ahead of Justin and I, Not-Yet in the lead. While he was a natural on the snow, she was unsure and clearly not comfortable. Her boots didn't have much traction, and she didn't have micro spikes. Justin went in front of her and helped level the footsteps that people had already cut before us. I told her at the next stable rocks that she should take my micro spikes. I felt confident enough on the snow in general, and with the security of my ice axe I didn't mind giving my spikes up.
At the top, we felt so accomplished. I spotted a chipmunk who must have waited up there with the knowledge that nearly every hiker takes a snack break (and spills crumbs) there.
Looking back, I'm thankful for the qualities of Forrester Pass, as it helped prepare me for the other more technical ones to come.
Later that day, we caught up with a big group we were familiar with. They had stopped and most were swimming.
7/9 "Made it 11 miles and crossed a series of streams. The last part of the day was spent walking/ climbing upstream in order to avoid crossing the main river and meet the trail back where it would have crossed again. We came to a snowfield and decided to camp below it. Thunder started, then rain and a bit of hail. Thankfully no lightning in sight."
This day, Rika perished in the river (South Fork King's). She likely made it there before us. We didn't know she was missing until many days later when we arrived in town. She was a fast hiker. We got there at noon. She may have not understood that she could've stayed on one side of the river instead of crossing. I only wish that we would have come across her and shared this information with her, or that she would have waited for someone, anyone, to cross with. Her absence is felt sorely in the community.
We only met her once, the day prior. We had camped at Glen pass and had seen her coming down the pass in the morning. She stopped and asked us to cross the deep stream with us. Justin and I watched her cross with Mousetrap and Mixed Bag, then we took a different route around the lake.
Rika represents everyone we've met or have never met within the hiking community. May her memory live strong within us.
7/10 This is the day Mixed Bag and Mousetrap woke up early to begin the pass. By the time Justin and I were eating breakfast, Mousetrap had returned. He announced that he wanted to take a side trail/pass out of the mountains. He said his head wasn't in the right place, he'd been having trouble sleeping, and that he needed time to think about his goals and needs. I was obviously sad to hear this, but also so proud of him for making that decision. I could read in his face that the decision had required a lot of thought and emotion.
"Justin and I approached Mather Pass from the left and cut our own path, one step at a time, in the snow. Midway, we sat down. We couldn't see the pass from where we were. I worried there was a cliff on the other side (extra miles to redo our approach if that was the case), but a look at the topographic map helped ease my worry. Nearer to the pass the slope was very steep, but there was already a path cut in the snow.
The was the first time on the trail that I felt fear that I couldn't talk myself out of– because it was rational, real fear. One slip would be traumatizing at the very least. I felt confident in being able to self-arrest with my ice axe, but I sure didn't want it to come to that. I led the way, with Justin and another party behind. Ice axe in the uphill hand, trekking pole (unlooped) on the downhill, only moving one of my four points of contact at a time. The last stretch was a rock scramble–where we found some of the real trail–switchbacks that would have been fairly simple in a normal year. The last stretch was a short but nearly vertical slab of snow. Justin went ahead there. There were rock wells everywhere and the snow was slushy now from the sun.
We made it up, then down a long descent through the most beautiful valley. I tried to keep my feet dry during stream crossings by rock-hopping and hanging onto plants on embankments, but ended up dunking myself in a deep, slow stream. The way it happened was hilarious and when I came up I was laughing. We didn't run into Mixed Bag– it turns out we camped a half mile past him but never saw his tent. Total: only 13 miles"
7/11 – "I was feeling so energetic, and was ahead of Justin the whole day, even though we climbed 4,000 feet (over ~11 miles). Justin was very tired. We came to snowfields about 3 miles from the shelter at Muir Pass. The tracks went straight up. I went quickly, out of breath, but loving it.
We came to a section where I thought it might be easier to climb on rocks for a bit. I went to check it out. No cigar. I did find one of my favorite flowers in a color I hadn't seen on trail yet (yellow-white, I'd only seen it in red, and red ever since) the Columbine. I picked one and attached it to my pack before climbing down. Flowers make me feel safe as though they bring some kind of luck on trail. Back on Muir Pass when we were cutting our own path and I was a bit scared, I found a flower in the snow, and had pocketed it for good luck
The higher we climbed, the more snow completely covered everything. Frozen lakes were only recognizeable by their flatness. All was silent. The snow muffled everything, and there was a lack of background noise from wildlife.
Muir Hut appeared out of nowhere after .5 miles of nearly continuous uphill. We arrived out of breath. I had "run" at the sight of it, forgetting the lack of oxygen. The stone cabin was already packed with 7 others. (2 women, 7 men). Mixed Bag had already arrived. We found a spot on the floor.
With only one window, (and a window in the door) it was about as dark as a garden shed. Because of this, everyone got ready for bed early. I sewed a guy's shirt and returned his sunglasses which I'd happened to find in the snow earlier that day. Snowblindness is no joke.
"Yeah, I was starting to see blue outlines of my hands in my peripheral."
Another guy had a huge gash (covered) in his arm. He said he got it from falling (unclear as to where) and had taped it up with toilet paper and KT tape. Upon seeing me sewing a shirt, he asked if I could give stitches. Upon my refusal, he asked the room: "Is anyone here a medical doctor?" then proceeded to ignore Justin's military medical training advice ("don't cover that with toilet paper, I have some sterile gauze") and Mixed Bag's wilderness first aid trailing. He then muttered about how he'd find a ranger to give him stitches.
I slept poorly. Everyone fidgeted and snored all night, and it echoed. Thankfully though, it was warm with everyone's body heat.
7/12 "Very tired, not having a very strong day emotionally. I take a swim and bathe in the river, and good-naturedly chat with some JMT (John Muir Trail) hikers when they pass me as I'm bathing. A storm comes and it hails, lightnings, and thunders. I have a bit of a breakdown at the lightning. All ends well with 17 miles down. We find Mixed Bag's tent and camp near him, though he's asleep. Justin painstakingly makes a fire with wet wood (Mixed Bag later told us that he'd dumped his water bottle in that fire pit, on a whim, without thinking)"
7/13 "The day started out rocky emotionally. I'd cut my foot somehow while walking around barefoot at breakfast. Right on the ball of my foot. It hurt a lot to walk on, even though I only had to get done with 3 miles in order to get to Muir Trail Ranch. I make it there, around noon. There is so much good food because JMT hikers send themselves too much in their resupply packages, and buy the fanciest food. The result is a beautifully full and diverse hiker boxe. Anything mailed there is packed in on mules. It's a family ranch that rents out cabins in the mountains.
We found a bunch of Korean backpacking food and other valuable items like Mountain House dinners and various drink mixes. Some of the food packaging smells bad. Apparently someone had sent themselves eggs in the mail. I wished I could meet whoever it was, and ask them about their reasoning. After that, we had to go up a large uphill. My foot hurt too much and I was limping ridiculously up the many switchbacks. I was so frustrated, I could barely think straight. Justin and Mixed Bag waited for me at the top and suggested we camp early. We made a fire, had dinner, and talked for hours. Miles: 8
7/14 We walked almost w/o stopping for 7.5 hours. I couldn't feel the cut on my foot anymore. Thank goodness. Most of the day was spent running uphill away from mosquitoes and away from "talkers". Justin and I are equally annoyed by people who talk continuously while walking, especially while at a fast pace, while going uphill, and taking about things untopical to hiking. This will be the longest amount of time I've gone without showering. 2 days to go…
7/15 "12.7 miles. Can't wait to get into town tomorrow night.
Today Justin was really tired so we went slow. We met up with Mixed Bag and sat for a while to talk about pizza and every other food we could dream about. Then we decided we'd do less miles than originally planned. We'd already crossed Silver Pass, and had one more large hill to get up to the lake to camp. I powered up the hill and felt a great amount of adrenaline. As I was heading up, I focused on breathing as efficiently as I could.
This was our longest stretch in the backcountry — 11 days.
We stay in Mammoth Lakes before heading back over a little pass into Red's Meadow."
Mixed Bag, Justin, Mouse Trap and I hike out of Mammoth Lakes up to Red's Meadow. It's a really nice place, a little resort with cabins, a little store and a little restaurant all on one property. It's only open to hikers right now though, as the road to it is closed. The only other people there are staff. When we eat in the restaurant I also see a few people who rode in on horses. We camp in an area down a trail, which must be managed by the forest service. They've been kicking people out all day. We go at dusk, then make a fire and chat. A couple of women are there also. One comes over as we are making dinner.
"Can I interview you guys for my school project?"
We agree, and she turns on her recorder. One of her questions is: "How often do you think about quitting while on trail?"
I'm the last in the circle, and say I don't really think about it as an option, although sometimes I feel hopeless.
"When, like when you're hiking uphill? On the passes? At night?"
"At night," I reply. It turns out that only two out of the four of us don't think of quitting much.
The next day, we get a late start. Mixed Bag hikes the PCT route, while the other two and I take the Devils Postpile route, a "national monument" of hexagonal basalt formations that form a wall. There, Mousetrap informs us that he'll be returning to Red's Meadow. He hasn't been feeling well lately, and doesn't know if his head is in this journey anymore. He wants to go back to think about it. We hike on, and talk about the possibility of losing Mousetrap from our group. "I'll be honest, I've been thinking seriously about leaving too," Justin says. I inquire more, and from there learn that he's antsy to return to work– even if it's while travelling.
"I don't like quitting things. Never have. But I don't like doing things I hate either, and wasting time. I'm worried I'm going to hate hiking after this. I was thinking about voting Nepal again and realized I was simultaneously dreading the thought of hiking there."
We sit, and have gone 4.5 miles. He looks at the map and sighs.
"That's a big uphill. Uphill all day. I have no motivation. I'm sorry, but I have no motivation."
I tell him that if he wants to go back, he should, and that he doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to.
"If you decide to go back, don't worry about me, okay?"
After some thought, and watching a bluejay hop around near us, I say I'll go back with him. I want to be with him and Mousetrap while they decide, and if they decide to hike on, I want to be with them too.
I did an extra nine miles by hiking back with them, and that's the very least I would do for my "trail family". These are the people I've crossed raging rivers with, shared nightly meals with, tented beside, cheersed, bickered with, one-upped, secretly raced, zoned out with in front of town TVs, planned routes with, named trail foods with, cooked in town with, taken detours with. Hiked with.
This is what I told my two friends that left the trail: Neither of them are quitters, and it takes courage for someone who's not a quitter to examine what they are doing, and to introspect enough to realize that they don't love it anymore. They hiked 900 miles of gnarly terrain, and none of it was easy. They've done badass gnarly things in the Sierra Nevada in a high snow year. I'm so proud of them and proud to know them. RIP trail family, long live friendship.
I set out early the next morning, after tearful goodbyes. My plan is to hike 20 miles and get near the top of Donohughe Pass.
(I end up not quite reaching the top)
7/22 After hitching into Yosemite from Tuolumne Meadows with a guy name "W", I find internet within the park and try to contact Mixed Bag, to no avail. I'm working off a phone that Mousetrap has lent me, and it only works with wifi. I figure Mixed Bag has already hiked out and has no cell service, so I go to the store to buy food.
The price of groceries in the valley is outrageous. Most of my basket is filled with $1 cookies, brownies and pies. I decide to splurge on salami. At the register, I inquire about the price of some brownies.
"Are you hiking the PCT?" the cashier asks. I confirm, knowing my unique combination of dirty clothes and shoes aren't hiding well enough under my clean down jacket (my only item of clothing kept clean). "That's so cool. The brownies are $3.49. It's like a hiker discount just for you! Just kidding, we don't technically offer one. We should. I think it's terrible after you guys work so hard and have to pay these prices." She says this all nervously and fast, and then proceeds to ring up only a few items. The total only comes to $18 before she says
"You can swipe your card now."
I look her in the eyes and thank her, not sure what to do, but not wanting to draw attention from her coworkers about the fact that she was basically giving away her store's food. The total should have come to over $60. I feel an incredible sense of gratitude. Before this, my day had only been worsening the lonelier I felt among crowds of tourists, expensive food, and being away from anyone I knew.
I meet back up with W and another hiker we meet on the bus named Christie. We go to the backpacker's camp, where we can camp for $6 with a PCT permit.
7/23 I charge my electronics in a nice cafe in the valley. I meet a guy named Kawai, born in Brazil, raised on the East Coast, who borrows my charger and talks with me all day. He's preparing to hike the Sierra section of the PCT Southbound for a school project. Christie comes in, and we all talk. They are both so uplifting that words won't suffice. Christie offers to buy me a lunch, and won't give up when I refuse. Finally resorting to "If you found a sandwich, what would kind would you hope it was?" We eat, and then she catches her ride out of the valley. Kawai and I take 3 hitches to get back to Tuolumne Meadows. Our last hitch was from a very nice man who'd hiked the JMT, and drove us completely out of his way. When we are in the parking lot preparing to part ways, Kawai asks me what altitude sickness feels like. "Dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath?" "Yeah I think I have that." I ask him if he wants to wait it out or hitch back, and he says he'll wait it out. Then he uses my PLB (personal locator beacon) to contact his mother. She replies in Portuguese after I've left Kawai. As I'm walking the road toward the trail, I look at the map and realize it'll take me a few miles to get there.
A forest service truck stops, and a ranger asks me if I want a ride. I didn't even know ranger could give rides, and accept. When I'm in the truck he radios his location and end point, just like a police car would. This makes allays the feeling in the back of my mind about getting a ride alone. Legally one has to hike 4 miles out of Tuolumne Meadows to camp. I begin my journey although it's already sunset. I come across Soda Springs, which I've been looking forward to for a while. Carbonated water gushes out of the earth into a sandy area the size of a small house. There's a small structure partially standing, so I enter and fill up one of my water bottles. A sign says drink at your own risk, but also goes into the history of animals and humans drinking from the spring for years. The water tastes like iron, and is carbonated as promised. Iron soda. I end up not being able to finish more than 1/3 of the bottle because of its bitterness.
I arrive about 4 miles out of the meadow after 10 pm, it's dark and I've already come across 2 glowing eyes. After bellowing "hey bear!" I come closer and realize it's a deer because of its wide-set eyes. Earlier that evening, on a huge granite slab, I'd turned off my headlamp and gazed at the unobstructed view of the Milky Way. One of the clearest nights I'd experienced.
The act of setting up my tent is
rushed and paranoid. I half-worry a bear will arrive at any moment.
7/24 – One of my most difficult days so far. I wake up, and find I'd camped somewhere quite gorgeous.
I pack up and head out a little before 6 with my puffy jacket on, and camera around my neck in case I get some good morning light shots.
I'm so tired that soon enough I feel like I could sleep while walking. I'm trying to hit at least 20 miles a day this week, and calculate that I'll need to start reaching 28-mile days and around 200 miles a week afterward. I'm up for the challenge. Today though, has a lot of climbing and descending involved, and I feel lonely and unmotivated. I miss being able to mooch off of someone else's motivation. I also miss small talk.
I stop to take a break and eat two Cliff bars and a mini apple pie. Over 900 calories. Hiker hunger?
As I come around the corner, I see Mixed Bag walking toward me "Hey, you're going the wrong way, what's up?"
His foot has been killing him, and he has a high pain tolerance. One time, he tells me, he ran on a leg fracture for a week before he went to the doctor. He has decided to head back to town. Now I'm really alone. I'm confident Mixed Bag will be back on trail, and happy he isn't hiking more on his hurt foot.
Halfway through the day, I take another snack break and eat a brownie and a decent amount of candy, and some Fritos. Then I decide to listen to my last downloaded podcast. Then I listen to music. I'm a little concerned about the battery power I have but figure the reason I charge my battery pack is for days like these.
My ankle and calf still hurt from when I caught myself as I slipped on snow over a week ago. Back then, it was an aching pain that somehow kept me company. Not worrisome, just there. Now, I wonder how to cure it. I walk slow in order not to aggravate if further. I put my calf compression sleeve on, which I'd originally purchased in anticipation of shin splints. I also take two Ibuprofen and try to stretch. Plantar fasciitis is also flaring up, but I've been able to manage it pretty well.
At the end of the day, I'm counting down the miles and starting to slow significantly. I'm having a strong mental vs. physical battle involving the use of a calculator to divide miles into days, and the use of the river nearly to stare into and think. Then, I start to pass the few hikers I'd seen prior that day. Three people. They've already set up camp. This gives me a second wind, and every time I consider stopping, I power on. I listen to music and find that I care very little about what's playing. I find a spot about a half-mile short of 20 miles. I'm nearing the top of a very easy pass and see snow. 20 miles would put me at the top of the pass, but I'm not sure if it's flat or what the snowfields are like on the other side. The area is mostly sandy with granite and sparsely forested with pine trees. There's no underbrush, only a few streams and some patchy snow. I'm among hundreds of tiny, fast mosquitoes.
I make dinner and read as I eat. After packing up my bear canister, I put my extra food in a bag and use it as a pillow. I read some more. Soon, I read something that makes me sad. I put down the book and begin to cry, about everything, my life's grievances and all that's wrong in the world, but not for long. I try and get my head together and think about the relative-easiness of the terrain ahead. Lately I've been listening to You've Got a Friend by James Taylor. At first, is listen to it ironically. Then, it began to give me comfort. Especially the line: "If the sky above you should turn dark and full of grey, and that old North wind should begin to blow, keep your head together"
It grows dark and I worry for a bit about bears coming for the food in my pillow before typing this and falling alseep.
7/14 At around 2:30 I wake to flashes of lightning. I can't hear any thunder, and after a few minutes of panic and accepting that this will be how I die, I notice the flashes seem to be moving South. I'm camped in a relatively flat area, it's pretty open except for the sparse amount of medium-sized pines. I think about how welcome a bear would be now compared to this.
Lightning is unimaginable amounts of electricity shooting toward the earth in random spots. Bears have some form of reason, and are spooked easily. Bears are relatable. Having a bear visit would be comforting. I console myself by imagining a bear who is also afraid of the storm coming to visit as I fall back asleep. I wake again almost exactly two hours later to thunder to the Southeast. I panic again, then think, "hey, if this is how I die, that's okay. Everyone dies at some point. It would probably be quick. If I survive a lightning strike, then it's a cool story. It's a win-win." Then I count seconds after flashes. It's over 8 miles away each time. I wonder, half-asleep, if the rising sun will create warm air and wind that will blow the storm back to me. That's how it works, right? I eventually drift off again.
I'm making oatmeal and staring at the sky to the Northeast. Storm clouds and distant thunder. They say never to go over a pass if you see stormclouds. This pass is barely a pass, though, and I'm considering making a run to the other side. My other option is waiting for the hikers behind me to catch up and consulting with them. To waste time I make coffee, brush my teeth, then floss, and then the sky is blue. I only end up going 13 miles. My right calf and ankle have been putting up a fight about the downhills today. I stop at a lake on top of the pass, where Nosebleed and Ramsey are. They were there the night I'd stayed in Muir Hut. I'd brought Ramsey his missing sunglasses that I'd happened to have picked up earlier that day, and had sewed a hole in his shirt.
They swim at the lake, and I head out. On the way down, I realise how lonely I am and how much I wish I could camp next to anyone. I'm too afraid to ask or seem weird. Even though I'd consider myself an introvert, I realise how much of a comfort company is. I stop before the river in a sandy area, and begin to unpack before noticing all the ants. I've set out my socks to dry on a rock and some of my clothes on the ground. They are already covered with investigating ants. I head back to a spot less populated by them, and set up. I wash my socks, cook some ramen, and read until dusk. Ramsey and Nosebleed pass, bidding me goodnight. The novel is really good, and by an author I can relate to deeply, but kind of a downer. I'll need to get something more positive and uplifting in the next town. A few times I pause to check the sky. It's clear but I don't trust it. Last night it was clear before the storm rolled in in the early hours. I'm terrified that another storm will come. Terrified. I wish I could shake the fear, but for some reason I can't. I don't know what I'll do if there is one. I lay down and try to relax. I try to distract myself, but my heart beats fast. I feel helpless, desperate. I'd picked my camping spot very carefully, not too far away from trees, not too close. For now, I'll take a Benadryl in the hopes that it'll help me sleep.
7/25 – No storm last night. Perhaps the evenings aren't only difficult because of a fear of storms, but because with a group it would be the time for cooking dinner. The time of day where we'd all catch up to each other at our agreed-upon meeting place and chat. Sometimes, we'd build a fire. If the fire pit wasn't up to par, Justin would take apart the fire pit and construct a very stable one. I'd gather extra rocks in certain shapes if he needed them.
I've been watching some impressively sized clouds all evening–ever since I crossed over the pass and could see a panoramic view of the sky. Humongous billowy clouds spanned the horizon in the direction I was heading. I walked on, faster and faster. Counting on the coming storm. Looking for a spot where the trees seemed safe (not too tall, no dead ones, not too open of an area, not in a valley). I kept hoping to find another hiker and ask to camp with them.
When I get to my perfect spot, I worry about which direction to set up my tent. I feel ridiculous and obsessive. I haven't felt like this in a very long time, and I haven't felt it very often in life. It's fear that manifests itself in every action I take. Tonight, I find myself worrying about drinking tea before dinner. Like somehow a wrong order of events will create chaos. Chaos might cause the wind to change direction and send those clouds straight to me.
I'm making dinner, and then I'm going to read, then I'll wake up early and make it up Sonora Pass tomorrow. I hiked 23 miles today and made it past mile 1,000. I'm being obsessive but it's okay. it's going to be okay, I tell myself.
I sit crosslegged and make dinner. My knees ache badly, and I take Ibuprofen. I hadn't taken any this morning, and am trying to be careful about the intake. New pains arrive, but I am almost sure that my ankle and calf injury are fading. Earlier, I had slipped off of a log while crossing a river and had cut my leg moderately.
I had been crossing one fork in order to make it to two men who were fishing. They were likely section hikers. I'd been sure they would have heard my loud splash when I fell, but they hadn't even turned around. I'd climbed out of the river and walked toward them through the reeds.
"Hey, hey guys. I don't mean to startle you." They had turned around.
"Any idea where the best place to cross is?" They'd seemed happy to see another person, and both had seemed to be in their late fifties. The fork had been a shallower precursor to the main attraction, then I'd needed to cross a wide area in front of them. It had been swift and deep. They had explained their round-about way of getting there, with incredible detail, before telling me I should cross right where we stood.
"Wait, you're already wet. Did you cross?"
Embarrassed, I had partially admitted (while attempting to keep a tough facade), "yes, I crossed on a log. It was slippery." I'd faced the water and had scouted it out. "Anything I can do to help?" one had asked. "No, I think I'll just go here and see how it goes." I had immediately stepped in after unclipping my pack and facing upstream. Soon the water had been up to my waist, but I'd fought it, moving one trekking pole or foot at time. I'd lost my footing once. "Alrighty," I'd said, then had regained footing and had made it to the other side. I'd waved and told them to have a nice day. Then I'd replayed the whole conversation in my head, wishing I'd been openly friendlier or more grateful. After feeling lonely, I'd been especially touched at their helpfulness and kindness.
The mosquitoes are absolutely awful. I don't mind them too much, I've thought of theIr buzz as a comfort when lonely (yeah), but every meadow I cross they seem to get progressively worse. At one lake, the gnats are so thick that they cloud the air. They coat my shirt and I have to brush them off.
I meet a hiker named Manager, who is also alone and who is clearly having a bad day. We make introductions.
"How's your day going?"
"Not very good" he says, honestly. I don't stop to chat for too long, as he seems agitated. I decide to wait for him about a half mile ahead, feeling a little comforted that someone is having a similar experience as I. He doesn't show, so I hike on.
Now I read while I eat dinner, glancing every ten minutes at the horizon, searching for clouds, as it grows dark. I decide it's time to go to bed. One last time, I press my face to the netting of my tent and squint at the horizon. The netting smells like campfire. I can't see anything besides the outlines of trees now. I wait a moment longer and then I can see flashes in the distance. I watch, my tent flap having been rolled up in anticipation of a storm. My face feels hot. I know that I can't go on like this. I need to either find a group or leave the trail. The fear, irrational though it may be, I creating a sort of hell for me. During the day it's mostly fine, likely due to the distraction of walking, but sleeping alone without anyone likely around for miles is something else. It's not like living alone, where I could pet my cat or turn on the TV. It's isolation, and this much of it doesn't feels unnatural. The fear has gotten out of control. Do stars usually show up on the horizon? Seeing the stars is always a comfort to me now, because I know it means there aren't any clouds above, threatening a storm. I can't see any stars on the horizon and so it worries me. I don't want this journey to feel like a nightmare. I don't know whether to grab this mental bull by its horns and wrestle with it, or to leave the bull ring entirely, put on some normal clothes, and pursue the career of my choice.
I'm hoping tomorrow at Kennedy Meadows I'll find someone to hike with me. Maybe I'll find an accepting group or another lonely person. My other plan is to hitch out to Tahoe, and think about it all over my 21st birthday. I'm leaning toward the latter.
7/26 – I set my alarm for 5 AM and wake up relatively quickly. I make some coffee and eat some Ritz cracker sandwiches, then stash a brownie in my pocket and get moving. I'm about 14 miles from the pass. Soon, I'm in the snow and hiking up a steady incline of shale. There's great visibility as the clouds are high– I can see the trail with someone hiking on it in the distance, a straight cut in the mountain, crossing a few snowfields. I can't help but thinking that it looks like a surrealist painting. Something about the clouds and the shape of the mountain. It reminds me a little of the illustrations from a children's book my mom used to read me called I Promise I'll Find You.
At the top of the largest incline I meet up with Christie from Yosemite, the person I'd been wondering about in the distance all along.
I also see Manager.
"What was so bad about yesterday?" I inquire, sensing the same tiredness and hopelessness I'd been feeling for the past few days.
"The mosquitoes," he says simply, "and today I have no water." I give him some, and Christie shares some of hers later. We'd stocked up before hitting the pass, but he'd expected to come across streams up top. When we make it to the pass, we see the highway in the distance. The slope is incredibly steep, and there are three options: two paths to get to the longest glissade I've ever seen, or a patch of rocks to descend. The first of two snow paths doesn't look cut very well, and it has a nearly vertical section above some rocks. The second crosses below a boulder and I can see a huge hole underneath the rock. I can't see how thin the snow is around the hole and it's still nearly vertical. There are two women already making their way down the rocks, so Christie and I decide to descend here.
Two hikers appear above, part of the group of about 6. They are full of energy, and before Christie and I can discuss route options with them, they're tromping across the high route. I widen my eyes and shrug my shoulders at Christie.
The other four of their group appear and merely glance at us before following their friends. When the first member of the group gets to the vertical portion, I can tell she is feeling a bit scared. Her pace slows to about one step every 15 seconds. The others bottleneck here. Before long one of the guys falls. Not bad, but his tumble seems to happen in slow motion. He catches himself before an ominous stretch of rocks. Soon, another one falls in the same spot. This is the fall that has replayed in my mind ever since.
She tumbles, body rigid, facing out and completely out of control. The way she hits the snow is at odd angles. One of her trekking poles and a water bottle fly down. Miraculously, she stops before hitting the rocks too. As she sits up, I notice that her ice axe is still stowed in her pack.
Our descent is long one because the rocks are loose, and none of us want to knock any on the two women below us. It's nearly a rock slide, with two chutes splitting in the middle. There's a cliff in the middle where the two diverge, but the ground goes up a bit before that, to our peace of mind. The aim is to make sure and veer right, where that chute drops into another less steep one. Christie goes first. I try to sit while I wait for her, but there are two papaya-sized rocks right under my feet that are coming loose. I carefully stand up and watch Christie.
She makes it down the very first part, then sits down for stability.
"I don't think I can do this."
"You got this, is there a way you can make it down to the next rock? You won't slide very fast if you sit back and let your pack catch the rock. No rush. Take your time. We have all day." I try to give her various tips from my viewing point, not sure how helpful they are. She carefully makes it down the first part.
"Come on, Birdie!"
I put my trekking poles away and spend a few minutes trying to make my first move. I'm not feeling scared, but I can't figure out how to drop into the first chute off of a little ledge. I try and test different handholds before finding one that isn't crumbly, and lowering myself. There's a rock wall to my right that overhangs the chute a little, so I sit and work my way under and beside it. Christie had gone left first, but I decide I feel better hugging this wall. I take my time, focusing on each move, testing large rocks in the path down. I accidentally kick an orange-sized one down. It goes to the left and echoes for a while as we listen to it fall.
"Not going down that side!" I yell. As I slide, I remind myself to dig my palms in and lean backward on my pack; instead of forward, which feels more natural.
I make it to the right chute then call out to Christie "I can't figure it how to do this part!"
"Hug the wall. Don't let go of the wall. Your feet will slide but it'll be okay." I do as I'm told, and my adrenaline rises. I don't feel panicked at all, just gravely focused. For the last portion, I slide again like before, making it to the snow before crossing over to the glissade. It's smooth sailing. Everything will always be smooth sailing from now on, I decide. I'm happy to be alive.
We hitch into Kennedy Meadows and meet Dash, Johnny Walker, Yoobee and Dos Tacos. That evening, as we walk to a campsite (only Manager wanted to spend the money to rent a bed), we see what's obviously a family reunion going on in one of the cabin yards. They are all sitting at one long table- two picnic tables put together with a red checkered tablecloth. There's a bit of ruckus and then the door of the cabin opens.
"You guys better get your asses over here and eat some leftovers!" She's talking to us. We end up joining them for the entire evening, and are treated like part of the family. The best part is when one of the dads gives us some advice. He advises we only hike nine miles a day and spend the rest at a lake, if we so choose. A few of us have been struggling with the feeling that the trial is starting to feel like a job. The number of miles ahead is daunting.
"Life isn't a scoreboard. Experiences matter more," he points out, alluding to the fact that getting to Canada shouldn't be the only goal. It shouldn't be the goal at all if it's at the expense of meaningful experiences.
The socialization really helps, and the discussion gives me hope about the trail ahead.
7/27-29 Johnny Walker is going to Tahoe too, so we decide to hitch together. It takes us a few different hitches to make it all the way there, the last being two German girls on a road trip. I'm high on social interaction. Though most of the day has been spent waiting in the hot sun near roads, I feel happy. Justin and I had planned to meet up after he got his car from Texas, but that isn't for another few days, so I end up crashing at Johnny Walker's cousin's place for the next three nights. We have a great time and get to explore the area a bit. Their social scene is that of rock climbers, skiers, and snowboarders. One night we make it to a lakefront live music event that's mostly reggae. Another night, Nirvana makes an appearance when I find that he's in town and invite him over.
One of Johnny's cousin's roommates, Clay, has a Miata and offers to teach me to drive stick shift. I happily accept and we spend some time cruising around an old parking lot.