High mountain forests
I kept waiting to see a bear trailing across these meadows, but no dice.
The desert isn’t as far away as you’d think
From South Fork to a spring at mile 736
June 19, 2014
I’m up this morning, but I sure ain’t at ’em. My lady business is cramping my style in the worst way, and we’ve got to start the day with a 2500 foot climb, to above 10,000 feet, and the small of my back hurts just looking at my bear canister. It’s a long six miles to the next water, and J and I are thirsty. We didn’t fill up at the south fork – you can only drink so much manure-flavored water. J takes the lead and I follow in pain, doubled with cramps, trying to hike doubled over AND with a bear canister in my back. Good time, all things considered, to a tiny stream with a clear spout running off a lily leaf. We finally look around and enjoy the sweet little meadow where we’ve found ourselves, until I turn around and there’s twelve of us there. Twelve! I actually like almost every thru-hiker I’ve met, but the packs of them just turn me the wrong way. I’m tired of meeting new people for a little while, tired of talking. I just want to sit in the meadow with J and Teal and Bluesman, not with this cheery, fast-moving, fast-talking crowd. “They’re ruining my wilderness experience!” I think resentfully.
I feel better though, and the climbing is done for a while. We cross over a ridge to thick-bodied alpine pine forest and white talus slopes with views to Mt. Whitney, still a long way off. For the first time, I feel like I’m really in the Sierras. Down to the meadows and up again, another 1500 foot climb. I’m so glad I have my trekking poles. This burly climb needs a full-body Gizmo attack – with my poles flying and calves pumping I cruise it on up.
About halfway up the slope we spy a full-looking grocery sack hanging from a branch. “Trash?!!” I exclaim in disgust. “Did someone really leave an entire bag of trash?”. But it’s not trash, it’s a bag full of food – days worth!
“Did someone just leave it here while they went exploring?” wonders J. We think for a minute and conclude that the likeliest scenario is that someone got exhausted by the uphill climb, decided to bail a few days early and go to Lone Pine for resupply instead of Independence, and then ditched all their extra food. Jerks. Did they think someone was just going to pack it out for them? It may not be just trash, but it might as well be out here. It doesn’t belong. J and I have packed out a lot of other people’s trash, but this is too much. I can’t carry another five days worth of food! We move on.
We make it to water, twenty miles down. The fast-moving crowd of hikers goes on for another three miles, but twenty seems like enough to me. Over 4000 feet of climbing and all of it over 9000 feet: that’s perfectly respectable. Teal and Katsumi each show up and we all set up camp. Teal pulls a grocery sack of food out of his pack. “Can you believe somebody left this here?” he says.
“Holy smokes, you picked it up!” I say.
“Teal, you’re a bigger man than me,” adds J. “I looked at it and left it there.” We can’t leave him with all of it now though, so we split it three ways to carry. It’s too much for us, still, but a few extra tortillas and pasta sides might be nice in a few days.
Time for bed – I’m happy to be here. Walking felt good today – I’ve still got heel pain but it’s worse on the downhill, and there wasn’t much of that today. It’s good to be in the pines, to set up our tarp with a two-tree pitch (instead of with our poles, like usual), good to be with friends and with J. The views have been magnificent, sweeping first from the west side of the Sierras, forested, meadowed, and then to the east side, where the mountain drops off thousands of feet to a low and desolate plain. I made it to the mountains, and now I’m climbing them, feeling strong, feeling undefeated. I can tell it’s only going to get better from here.
From Kennedy Meadows General Store back to the last crossing with the South Fork of the Kern
I’m irritable and out of sorts. J is too. I want to get an early start, but the elusive pancake breakfast at the Grumpy Bear finally materializes, and we can’t pass up eggs, bacon, hash browns, and all-you-can-eat pancakes. It’s already warm outside when we get back to our camp and start figuring out how to pack our bear canisters. I load mine up and slide it into my pack, where it lands with a thunk. It takes up almost the entire bottom half. My pack is too narrow to fit the canister sideways, and too narrow to fit much around the canister in the bottom either. I take my spare clothes out of my clothes bag and shove them in around it, and manage to fit everything on top. I’m full up. J tried to get me to order the ULA circuit to replace the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, but I’d been infatuated with the ULA Ohm 2.0 – a smaller pack. I regret it now. J is upset because the packet of maps for the next 200 miles is missing. We manage to piece together about 150 miles from maps in the hiker box.
We finally, finally! get out the KMGS vortex and on the trail. It’s almost eleven and I’m grumpier than ever. We don’t even make it half a mile until I throw down my pack in exasperation and pain. The bear canister! It’s implacable, hard, black sides are bright seas of pain in the small of my back and across my hip bones. Try number two with the packing situation. I have a bright idea and remove the clothes packed around the front of the bear canister and move them around to the back, to the side where the bear canister actually hits me. Duh. It still sucks but it’s bearable.
We cross the South Fork of the Kern again – I just can’t shake my rotten mood. “I want to be here,” I tell myself. “I’m having a good time,” I try again. Nope. We stop to water up – J swims, does his laundry – really?? Can we just go already? (What is my deal today?) We grump back on our way, through sagebrush that I detest, and burn areas that I resent. We’re huddled in the shade of a juniper when J discovers he’s lost the maps again. We sit there in the shade, in twin foul moods, sweating. “Our only hope,” says J, “is that Bluesman will find the maps on the trail, pick them up, and bring them to us.”
“Not too likely,” I think to myself, “considering how the day is going…”
“Did you two fools lose a set of maps?” booms a familiar voice.
“Bluesman!” we cheer. He hands the maps to J, who hugs him. Bluesman to save the day. He had been walking over a fallen snag when something caught the corner of his eye – he bent down and spotted something – some maps. Here they are. “I almost didn’t notice them,” explains Bluesman. “I don’t really know how they caught my eye – they weren’t obvious.”
“Maybe the trail is looking out for us after all.”
We continue on with Bluesman, our blues lightened a little. The burn area we’re walking through turns a brilliant green with lush grass and wildflowers, and then finally trees. We cross over into Monache Meadows, the biggest meadow in the Sierra Nevadas, and it’s a spectacular sweep of sage between the forested peaks. We can see Mt. Whitney, way, way off. We cross up and over a ridge to meet back with the South Fork of the Kern one last time, a shining meander through the meadow with sandy banks.
It’s dusk, and we stop to cook. Bluesman wants to walk till dark, so he continues on. He wants to climb Mt Whitney on the Summer Solstice and sleep on top – catch the sunset and the sunrise on the tallest peak in the lower 48. That sounds like a great idea to me, but J doesn’t seem that interested in the push. I’m not interested in pushing anymore today either, although I’m a little upset we didn’t make more miles today. There’s a whole pack of hikers coming out of Kennedy Meadows today, and we’re going to get stuck in a bubble, where every time we stop for water or to hang out or to camp there are going to be ten more people there. If you can get just a few miles ahead, you’d think you were the only person in the world…
The South Fork is beautiful, but this is open grazing land, and we’re more worried about cows than about bears tonight. The water tastes like cows even after getting pushed through our Sawyer Squeeze.
We’ve also lost Bluesman. But Teal catches up to us, and we camp on the hillside next to him and Katsumi (aka Too Young), a Japanese man in his fifties on a solo-hike. I imagine it’s tough to do a solo hike, and probably much tougher when you barely speak the language of everyone else you meet, but he’s self-contained and cheery. Tomorrow is a new day. Probably no chance of catching Bluesman, but we’ve got Teal again. Onward and forward.
Kennedy Meadows General Store
June 17, 2014
The general store was closed when we arrived last night. The only bar/restaurant in town is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Details, details… should’ve brought a little more food… We find some pasta sides in the hiker box and cook up that. Definitely not a burger. It’s not much better this morning – store isn’t open yet, and the pancake breakfast the Grumpy Bear doesn’t ever materialize.
We’re thrilled to have made it this far – 700 miles and out of Southern CA – but overwhelmed by the mass of hiker trash on the porch of the general store. There are probably thirty people here. Where the heck did they come from?? We hadn’t seen anyone for days! A chat with some of them reveals the KMGS to be a true hiker vortex. There are hikers here who’ve been hanging out for a week – drinking all day on the porch, sleeping at night in the lot behind the store, waking up and doing it again. I’m always amazed to run into thru-hikers who are smokers as well, but never more so than now, when it seems that every hiker here is blowing through packs. (Uphills must be the worst.) It’s really kind of a filthy scene, with the drinking beginning at 9am, hikers getting sloppy by lunchtime, and shenanigans continuing well after hiker bedtime (dusk). Strangebird has appeared again – I don’t know how he keeps doing that – and puts and end to a drunken hiker attempting to climb a pinyon next to the general store porch. Strangebird told me, about 300 miles back, that when he has to be the voice of reason, things have gone too far. Well, here we are.
I guess I knew that the bulk of thru-hikers were people straight out of college, enjoying one last summer break, but the hikers I’ve been crossing paths with have not really fit that profile so far. It’s bizarre to suddenly be with the college party crowd, instead of the young-professionals-searching-for-meaning crowd, or the retired-professor crowd, or the professional-traveler-and-adventurer crowd. I’ve been there, been I’m not anymore. J and I sit at the back of the porch with Teal and Tess (who met us here) and Bluesman. We sort through the last of the resupply boxes that we mailed out before starting the PCT and wonder why we packed so much oatmeal and so few candy bars, and look at our new bear canisters and wonder how we are going to fit these things in our packs.
(A quick aside on the bear canisters – the Kennedy Meadows General Store sells the clear, blue bearvault BV500 canister. I’ve got an old black garcia bear canister that’s about the same size that I had mailed. Both weigh over two pounds. A few well-heeled travelers have the fancy carbon fiber canisters. And then there’s the crowd that likes to live on the edge, with the kevlar Ursacks. The ursacks have been approved (according to Ursack) for use everywhere in the Sierras except for Yosemite and Sequoia and King’s Canyon. According to the park websites they still aren’t approved this year. It’s a fine of up $5000, so it’s a bit of a gamble for the ursack folks.)
I’m ready to get out of here tomorrow. My feet appreciated the time off, but I have a hard time resting with this many people around.
From Fox Mill Spring to Kennedy Meadows General Store
June 16, 2014
Twenty miles waiting for us – twenty miles to Kennedy Meadows. Kennedy Meadows is the official entry to the Sierras for the PCT, at least pyschologically. It’s our last chance to resupply before the real big hills, to pick up extra gear (ice axes, microspikes, bug-nets, whatever you think you need for high country), the last chance to rest. It means the end of the desert, the end of twenty/thirty/forty mile water carries, the end of the punishing heat, the end of the goshdurned hillsides of thornbushes. First, I have to get there.
J and I are moseying through our morning chores, when another hiker comes rustling through the willows by the spring. “Teal!” We haven’t seen Teal since Agua Dulce and the Saufleys’. “Where’s Tess?” I ask. Tess, his partner, was supposed to joining him on the trail after getting her knee rehabbed.
“She’s out,” says Teal. “No knee problems, turns out she just doesn’t like thru-hiking. She didn’t want to give up for body issues, she wanted to give it a fair shot. Still hates it.”
“Well, the point isn’t to be miserable,” I reply. (I mean, at least for me it isn’t. A little pain, sure, but not misery. Ok, maybe a lot of pain. But not misery.)
Teal is going to be continuing on solo. He’s hiked the PCT before, and he’s doing it again. He also tells us that Bluesman is right behind him. We’ve been wondering where Bluesman has been – we’ve been crossing paths with him since Warner Springs (mile 110). He’s faster than us, so it was strange that he hadn’t caught us yet. Well, he finally will. I write him a note telling him to catch up, but he catches up before he gets to the note. We can tell it’s Bluesman coming through the trees by the loud, off-tune rendition of a pearl jam song we can hear filtering in on the morning breeze. He pops out his headphones, “Gizmo and Dirtnap! I’ve been behind you guys for days! I’ve seen your name in the trail registers right before me every time! You need to write down the time you guys sign the register, dammit!”
“Bluesman!” I reply. “I left you a note!” Of all the hikers to catch up with us, I couldn’t be happier about running into Teal and Bluesman.
We head out, leaving Bluesman at the spring to get his water, and start an uphill climb right into a big burn area. I thought I was used to burn areas, coming from Arizona. I don’t think there’s a stretch of forest in the entire state that doesn’t have big black burns running through it – that’s just how forests are. Turns out that the burn areas become downright depressing after a while. Sun, when you’re expecting shade, heat, instead of cool pines, black char instead of green. We stop to look at some old mining scars and Bluesman catches us again. He’s having shoulder problems, so he often wears his pack over just one shoulder, with his hand on his hip, a big man trotting down the trail like a little teapot.
Burn, burn, burn, then into the valley with the South Fork of the Kern River. We can see the Domelands out to the west, a taste of the big granite we’re looking forward to, although we won’t make it there. The South Fork is a green ribbon of willows through a big burned valley, grown back with sagebrush. Sagebrush can shove it. I’m ready for some trees!
We meet up with the South Fork where it necks out of a little canyon. I’m walking painful and blister-hot, limping hard. Teal and Bluesman are far ahead as I slow from a power-hiker, to a tired-hiker, to a limping trudger. J and I stop and sit awhile. There are beaver here – the beaver dams on the river have made huge blue pools out of this little tributary, and the cool blue water is a thing of beauty to our desert-scorched eyeballs. Birds swoop and call, I drain the juice out of my heel blisters, and the beaver himself makes an appearance in the pool.
“If I must feel bad,” I think to myself, “couldn’t find a better place than here.” I do feel bad, and as I limp out the rest of my miles, I think that again and again. “If I must feel bad…” I wouldn’t trade brand new feet in a city for my old dogs barking through the PCT. 700 miles crossed today.
We walk into the tiny tiny town of Kennedy Meadows and it’s as silent as the sagebrush. We turn a corner and there’s the general store, with a porch packed with hikers, and they strike up an applause as we walk in. We’ve made it. Bob and the three Canadians are here, and Teal and Bluesman, and scores of hikers we’ve never met. Let the next section begin!
From Joshua tree spring to Fox mill spring
June 15, 2014
On the trail by 8:30 this morning – I woke up at first light but preferred my dreams to waking for a little longer. “Good morning J,” I sing. “Time to get up. Another night that we didn’t get eaten by mountain lions!” I add, satisfied.
I hate getting up, but I sure love mornings on the trail. I think I’m happy every day, around 10 am (ok a few small exceptions).
We climb up 2000 feet, to 7000 ft, then back down to 5000 ft for the next water source. Hallelujah, it’s a little tiny creek, and it’s flowing well. After being left high and dry last night I was worried it would happen again. Even walking quickly, six miles is plenty of time to imagine all kinds of scenarios around dying of thirst. I don’t think we even made it to parched today. Read More
From walker pass to Joshua tree spring
June 14, 2014
I was ostensibly planning on getting up early today, but even last night I knew that wasn’t going to happen. “We have to check out by eleven,” I think. “No rush.”
And we don’t. We make it to the bus stop by 9:45, but we read the bus schedule wrong – the bus goes to Onyx at eleven, not ten… Time for smoothies then.
Just food shopping and world cup games today. We send a box of food ahead to Independence and resupply for the two and a half days to Kennedy Meadows. This town is kind of beat… not near enough teeth to go around…
A fire starts in the evening, on the ridge behind the motel where we’re staying. The smoke plume gets bigger all evening – hope it doesn’t turn into something big.
From ridgeline campsite to walker pass (then to lake isabella)
J mocks me for saying I’m being swarmed by mosquitoes when there are only eight. I say, if all eight of them are within six inches of my face, then it’s a swarm. Semantics aside, eight is enough to drive you crazy when you’re trying to sleep and you don’t have a net tent. I put my bug head net on, put in my ear plugs, and go to sleep.
I sleep badly for a long time, until I finally sleep off the hard edge of the exhaustion.