From falls creek to Emigrant wilderness
No fish, lost flies, popped squeeze bladder, spilled dinner, burned windshirt, not enough miles,fogs of mosquitoes, tired feet, raw hipbones… and a leaky air mattress to top off the night. I wake up on the ground, cold and achey. Bad night’s sleep. I hope this isn’t a trajectory. I might not make it 1000 miles.
No point getting up early with this kind of luck. My exhaustion is sitting on me like a 200lb man. Or perhaps like several: one for each of the passes. I’m so tired. I feel stretched – thin. My pants are sagging badly at the waist, but it’s not just my butt that’s disappearing. My motivation is thin, my energy is thin, the thread of this journey, the thing that’s pulling me forwards – it’s thin too, pulling out like taffy. I do not know if I can do this trail. I will give it everything, but I do not know if I will have enough to give. I’ve given my pound(s) of flesh, will this take bone?
We finally get going. J is sick of being hustled and having my neuroticism passed onto him – we hike off in two separate sulks.
Around eleven we come up on Dorothy Lake, like a vision of miles past. The lake lies shimmering under ice carved ridges and spires. The water reflects the black shadows of the thunderheads building to the north – hovering at the meeting of blue skies behind us and black skies ahead. I repack my entire pack using a trash bag as a liner.
The thunder rolling ahead of us makes us nervous as we scurry across Dorothy Pass, but the weather holds. Suddenly we’ve passed the sign that marks the end boundary of Yosemite National Park. That’s it. The High Sierra is behind us. Of all the parts of the trail, that section is the one I worried about the most, prepared for the most, thought about the most… just like that it’s over. It’s strange to have things behind us, instead of feeling the length of the entire trail still reaching out before us. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at that, with a thousand miles under our belts. Just like that, we’re standing at the 1000 mile mark.
1000 miles! Not even halfway.
We’re hardly out of Yosemite and the rocks change. Goodbye granite… there’s a huge bear claw mark across a tree, so I point it out to J. J? Where’d he go? I wait. I wait. I start freaking out, and do the unthinkable: walk south. I finally find J five minutes later. He’d gotten distracted at the contact between the granite and the calcareous meta-seds.
Half an hour later, I’ve lost him again. At least, I think I have. I just stopped to look at this little waterfall next to the trail, then came back out to wait for J. I thought he was only a few minutes behind me, so he should be here by now. I walk back on the trail a bit – no sign of him. I walk forward – no sign. Did he pass me in the minute I was off trail? Does he think he’s behind me still? I walk back again, this time looking for his tracks, but it’s all gravel. I walk forward, doing my best Sherlock Holmes impression, nose to the ground, until I convince myself that I’ve found his footprints. So he is ahead of me!
I feel panic rising. If he thinks he’s ahead of me, I’ll never catch him, we’ll both be running down the trail after each other. If I’m wrong, and he’s still behind me, I could be running away from him. I start booking it down the trail, eyes for nothing but footprints, J’s footprints. It rained up here earlier today, so the trail is really fresh, and I know I’m following a pair of Merrell Moabs, but Merrells are really popular shoes. “Dammit J,” I shout out loud, “wait for me! You haven’t seen my footprints in two miles, I know it!” I’m wearing a pair of Salomon crossmax shoes, and my tread is far more distinctive. I run, then walk slowly, torn between catching up with him, or letting him catch up with me. I cry and rage, worried and frustrated. I’ve been hustling J all day, bugging him to go faster – he probably thinks I’ve ditched him.
At what point do I stop and wait? If we both decide to stop and wait, we won’t find each that way either. J doesn’t even have maps for this area. The next water coming up, a little creek, it’s the last water for ten miles. I told that to J before we were separated, now I’m hoping he’s remembered. “Wait for me at the water, please!” I shout to the silent, dripping trees. If he’s not there, I’ll wait for him, long as it takes.
I come around the corner, to where the creek crosses the trail, and I see him. “J! J!” He opens his arms and catches me up, where I cry again, this time in relief. “You got ahead of me but I was behind you I was following your footprints why didn’t you wait for me I’ve been so worried I’m so glad I found you!” I blurt out all at once.
He explains his end – like I thought, he thought I was ahead of him, that I had ditched him. He’d been practically running down the trail trying to catch up with me. After while he realized he hadn’t seen any of my footprints in a long time and started freaking out himself. He’d made it to the last water and I wasn’t there. He’d left a note and gone ahead – no sign of me. He was on his way to look back down the trail when I got there.
“Let’s not get separated ever again ever,” I tell him, still holding onto him.
“Yeah, let’s stay cheek-to-cheek for a while.” We’ve been driving each other a little bit crazy, but separation is worse.
The entire episode took an hour. “Worst hour of this trip yet,” J says.
I’m all frazzled still, but at least we made good time, right? We grab some water and start the switchbacks out of the valley. The sheer granite of Yosemite has been replaced with big basaltic cones with huge, smooth, brown sides. We climb the trail, a flat groove notched into the slope of talus, up, up.
It’s getting dark as we reach the top. There’s a man there, nothing but a tank top and running shorts and a small camelbak. What is he doing out here?
He turns out to be the support crew for Joe McConaughey (String Bean), the guy trying to break the PCT speed record this year. “He’s doing 44 miles a day right now,” he tells us. “He’d really like to do 45, but that last mile is just really tough, you know?”
“Yeah,” we agree. “That last mile is tough for us too.” Of course, for us the difference is between 19 and 20 miles, but kind of the same.
It’s super steep up here, but I’d really like to camp. We discover a flat spot on a little saddle below the peaks, right at the timberline, where the trees grow bent over, windblown into shrubberies. We’re on the rim of a huge valley, lakes down below, the peaks of Yosemite, King’s Canyon, Sequoia, all stretching back in row after row of jagged spires and snow. The rainclouds of earlier have lifted and broke, and the setting sun drops beneath them to light up the entire place in incendiary hues. This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. This is the most beautiful place we’ve seen, here on the PCT.
“The universe was testing us, and we passed! Now it’s rewarding us!”
“Gizmo, the universe is not personally interested in you,” J shoots me down.
“Yes it is!” I laugh, buoyant, undeterred. “Look at this!” I sweep my arms around. I don’t really care the universe cares or not – this moment is perfect. Everything is perfect, is worth it. 1000 miles to end up here.
Dorothy Lake. Guess which way we’re headed…
The waterfall I stopped to look at.
Bears in these woods.