Day 18: 25 miles
The morning brings the usual dark cold wait for the sun to rise. A gentle climb becomes a steeper one and we reach the first of the evolution lakes before Muir pass. It's almost time for my coffee break but the sun has not yet touched the ground, so it's too cold to stop. This becomes the game I play every morning, surrounded by towering peaks that delay my warmth. I walk with Groucho for a bit until we find the perfect spot, immaculately warm and bright, on a group of boulders next to the lake outlet. Harpo and Twinless join us and we spend quite a while kickin' it, unable to believe our spectacular surroundings.
Finally, we leave and climb away, seeing the bright blue lakes grow smaller, rocks settled in the middle like grey orbs. No more than two miles later we find Huck napping next to another of these high Sierra lakes. From here we have but two miles to Muir pass - we can see the hut on top as a tiny spec in a land of silver granite. As I climb towards it I am entranced by the rhythm of my footsteps which seem to have a life of their own now - crashing on the rocks and carrying me relentlessly up. All that exists is my steps and my breath. Everything else is rock.
The stone hut smells like pica pee when I walk in, but it is a sturdy and impressive monument honoring Mr. John Muir himself. I have a snack of peanut butter and crackers before heading down to the new kingdom of rocks and lakes just past the crest.
After a while I start to miss the trees and am happy when I see some in the distance. The path gradually becomes more dirt than rock, and then a rock-dirt combination as the descent grows steep. Huck waves at me from a switchback far below, but I don't see him again until camp this evening.
In the depth of the valley I walk on pine needles approaching a bridge. A figure moves towards me across the bridge and I prepare to pass a human on the trail. Soon I realize it is a large bear. He stops and looks at me, ears rounded and pointing upwards, curious eyes. I take a few steps backwards, then a few more. He ambles off the trail into the woods.
The day ends with a gentle climb. The smoky evening paints the peaks in front of me pink and behind me a misty silver against a backdrop of yellow aspen. Coyotes howl just across the river.
Day 19: 24 miles
We gather in the dark coldness, as we do every morning, packs packed and headlamps illuminated, waiting for the last person to be ready. It feels as though we're off to an expedition, something really important. My friends are dark figures in the dawn and we proceed to the trail to silently start our day. Just another day in the thru-hiker life.
When the lights come on we are snaking up a rocky cliff out of the valley on a stone stairwell supported only by rocky retaining walls. Huck, Harpo and I walk together, talking of all the animals who call this valley their home. How they have no need to leave, really, it's such a wonderful place. After a while, the Luna bar I ate hours ago wears off and my stomach growls angrily. I talk with Harpo and Groucho about taking a break, but there's no sunny spot. So we keep walking, walking and walking. We pass some sunny spots but the boys ahead breeze right past. Finally I'm too hungry and sit myself right down, regardless of the fact that the sun isn't shinning on my spot. Harpo stops too and we make coffee, eat oatmeal really fast. It's a cold break, but afterwards I feel awesome.
I look to my right and see a stretching rock field reflecting white in the sun, gradually sloping upward out of the basin. I imagine the rock as snow for a second and am reminded of Washington last year. Then I look left and see the high alpine meadow and green patches of life and am reminded of Switzerland. Then I think of what's to come on the next Sierra passes and am reminded of last year. For the rest of the way up time doesn't exist. I live in the past, future and present all at once and fall into a high elevation trance. Feeling the love and the pain of everything. When I reach the top of Mather pass I take a few minutes to remember where and when I am. My friends sit to the side eating snacks. It's lovely up here - quiet and expansive with peaks pointy and strong.
We switchback down to the lakes and creeks below and seamlessly enter the forest. I spend most of the way down telling stories to Harpo and before I know it we are at the base of Pinchot pass. I eat some cold-hydrated ramen for lunch, just to see what it's like. It's okay, I guess. Harpo and Groucho eat it all the time and somehow I'm always jealous. Probably, I'm just always hungry.
The second climb today is hot and once we leave the trees, rays of sun find my skin like magnets that don't let go. I'm jealous of the others under their silver umbrellas, five degrees cooler. We stop at a lake to take selfies with the selfie-stick that Twinless found on the trail before Muir Trail Ranch. This ends in ridiculous laughter. We proceed away from the lakes into the land of rock, crest the top of Pinchot and sit to admire the vastness.
I start to walk down before everyone else, but Huck is close behind. He's dancing down the trail, hopping from rock to rock like a leprechaun. I let him pass me, he gives a cordial smile and a head nod, and continues to jam down the trail with his headphones in. I do the same, spending hours lost in meditation and music, thinking about fear and love. Harpo says everything is rooted in either fear or love. I think of all the ways this may be true. I'm so focused on this that I hardly even notice the steep downhill stone steps that should be hurting my knees.
When the sun is about to set, I catch up to a JMT hiker - a firefighter we just met yesterday. I ask him if he's seen Huck, which he says he hasn't. This baffles me, as I've been counting on the fact that Huck is ahead, seeing his footsteps in the dirt all afternoon. Then I remember that there's someone else with his same shoes in front of us, and deduce that he must have made a pit stop in the woods a while ago. In realizing I am the first in line, I become a little unsure of things. I'm responsible for finding a camp spot. I never like being first, worrying about those behind me. If something went wrong I would never know! I walk with the JMT firefighter for a mile before finding a spot to set up camp, 1/2 mile before the very bottom of the climb. It'll be warmer here.
I'm relieved to see three headlamps bobbing in the distance, start to make dinner as my friends progress towards me. I feel unprecedentedly awesome today. Twenty-four miles, two 12,000 foot passes, and the only thing that hurts are my feet. I could walk forever.
We all cowboy camp under the stars.
Day 20: 18 miles
The morning is a blur of dirt and stones as we start the ascent up Glen pass. Stone steps. Stone switchbacks. Walking next to a creek, crossing a creek. I remember a series of lakes here and am eager to get to them. I look to the mountains beside me, graced by sunlight, feeling the jealousy of a younger sibling. If they get to be shined on by the sun, why can't I? I'm hungry again, first in line, and desperate to find a place to sit and eat. But it's too cold! Every. Morning! I walk and walk and walk, frustrated and irritable, which just makes me walk faster. My food collection is running low, so I'm trying not to eat to much for fear of running out. I nibble on part of a sesame cracker every few minutes, thinking mean things when I see backpackers camped right behind a sign that states "restoration site - no camping". The audacity!
And then I see it! The sun is hitting the earth in splotches all around me. I immediately find the best splotch and park myself on a flat rock beside the trail. Groucho and Huck show up just minutes later. Turbo Charged to the Sun, they say. Bug, the Sunshine Seeker. Harpo comes soon after, Twinless is already up ahead climbing the pass. I eat some granola and we all calculate how much food we have left to get us through the day. I've got one bar, some peanut butter and crackers for lunch. After that I'm just working with dried seaweed.
We pass a few more lakes on the way up Glen pass. These ones are different, though. The lakes we've seen before were all crystal blue and rocky. These lakes are a deep green, surrounded by trees and supporting life. We see fish swimming about and a coalition of ducks floating on top. The climbing gets more intense as we leave the land of lakes and enter the land of rocks. Stone steps, sliding rocks. I feel sluggish today.
At the top I sit to eat crackers and peanut butter, but all my friends want to keep going. It's a town day, we've got to get there! Huck picks up my pack and poles and walks down the steep, uneven path wearing two packs. I have no choice but to follow right behind, scooping peanut butter onto my crackers while I descend. It's not far to the bottom where we meet the junction that will take us to Onion Valley over Kearsage Pass. During our break I sit in the sun. Apparently I look a little sad and hungry, so my friends offer me ramen. I accept this gift, thinking I probably don't need it on account of the peanut butter and crackers I just ate. But later it turns out that I really did need it to get through the rest of the day without being painfully hungry. I do a quick headstand before we're on our way.
I climb the pass feeling extra oxygenated and super grateful for my friends. The trail sweeps the side of a slope for a while, mountains tower and echo across the valley. Pointed and standing independently from each other. Whispering to the sky beyond the horizon. When we get to the parking lot we sit and wait for a ride, asking everyone at the campground and being refused repeatedly. Groucho scrounges the trash cans and bear boxes for extra food and comes back smiling with his hands full several times, handing out snacks like Santa Clause. Finally Twinless works her magic, calls the hostel and talks the guy into driving all the way up here to pick us up. He arrives a while later, well into the evening, with cold beers in the back of his luxury SUV.
See more pictures on Instagram.
Day 15: 18 miles
Andy from the hostel drives us back to the trail at Red's Meadow. The rain has stopped and the land is foggy and moist. We follow the trail through a forest of burnt and fallen trees, mysterious hues of grey all around. The fog eventually starts to burn off around noon, I can see that parts of the sky are blue. Steam rises from the earth as the sun warms the ground. The moisture spins off in spirals and chutes and evaporates into the forest. We climb gently at first and then steeply up to Purple Lake, past a tumbling field of boulders and all the way to a second lake.
The weight of my pack feels oppressive today. I'm carrying six days of food plus a bear canister. My shoulders ache, radiating pain all the way down to my elbow. My knees creek on the downhill with all the extra force. My feet protest. No one said this was going to be easy, I guess.
The valley past Lake Virginia spreads wide and I can see a small creek winding through at the bottom. We switchback all the way down to this creek. It's early evening and already I need to wear my gloves. Our camp spot is beside the creek and has a nicely built fire ring with a large metal bucket sitting right beside it. Due to the fact that it just rained, we have a bucket to douse flames, and that it's freezing cold only at 5 pm, we decide it's appropriate to build a fire tonight. The boys get started immediately at collecting wood. I put on all my warm layers and join them.
The focus of the evening is eating all my food. I'll eat my way out from under this heavy pack. Plus, the more I eat, the warmer I will sleep.
Day 16: 25 miles
Despite my best efforts, I wake every few hours feeling too cold. I rearrange myself into the warmest possible position and fall back asleep. I'm packed up and doing sun salutations to keep warm at 5:26 am. Then my friends are ready to go and we start down the trail.
My mind is still focused on the surrounding coldness when we round a switchback at a steady downhill pace. Caught up in the momentum, Huck's bear canister goes flying out from on top of his pack where it was loosely secured. I watch it bounce off a rock and sail downhill in the morning darkness. Huck swiftly bounds into the brush after it. The rest of us walk the trail down to the river and across to wait. We see his light on the slope, searching desperately. Finally I see him grab for something.
"It was stopped by a rock. One foot lower and it would have been carried away by the river" he tells us.
The frozen soil crunches like snow beneath my feet as the sun shines its first rays on the highest peaks. We don't stop walking until we reach the top of Silver Pass, at which point I am too hungry to be cheerful anymore. This is easily solved by spoonfuls of granola, a warm mocha and the sun cresting the horizon.
The way down is bright and flat. I hide behind a rock to take off my layers and walk alone for much of the morning. It becomes steep and rocky on the descent, so I use my trekking poles to jump gracefully down each of the stone steps. After a while it is too much. Too steep. I wonder when we will reach the campsite Mud and I slept at last year. Seems like it should be just around the corner.
I'm still looking for this campsite when I catch up to Harpo and Huck. I'm happy to see them. It seems I am always able to catch up to people when I want to, but also able to hike alone when I want. It's a good group I've found. Huck tells us about the Iditarod race as we make our way down the canyon. At last we pass the campsite I've been picturing and stop soon after for lunch.
We eat on large boulders on the shores of the river. I'm baking in the afternoon heat, forgetting that cold even exists. Fifteen more miles and one more pass, we decide. This feels ambitious. I'll be tired, but I can do it. My pack weight is not yet manageable.
After lunch we walk a path through aspens. Their leaves carpet the ground, a sad mixture of yellow with black speckles. Branches chime in the breeze. Their light green trunks bare the tattoos of those who came before me. Humans who think they deserve to leave their mark on nature. Hearts and initials and dates all carved into the trunks of these majestic trees to remain forever. I'm saddened by this. We dominate enough of this earth. Can't we just leave these trees to be beautiful and untouched?
I climb away from the aspens through a cool and shady forest. When the switchbacks become too much I listen to a podcast. Rich Roll talks with the makers of Cowspiracy (now on Netflix! Watch it. Really - watch it!) about government sponsored destruction of wild animals in the name of animal agriculture. There are more wild horses in burrows than running free. The number one cause of species extinction and deforestation = animal agriculture. This makes me climb harder.
At the top I find Harpo and we walk together for much of the afternoon. The terrain is gentle and easy until the very end of the day when we climb Selden pass. The cold comes soon after.
We sleep just above a lake on the other side of the pass. To stay warm we all lie under the half shelter of Huck's tarp for the night, watching shooting stars. It feels good to lie down. I'm asleep before I get to see a shooting star. But I'm told they were there.
Day 17: 15 miles
I'm so warm all night that I preemptively take off layers before we even start walking. I regret this immediately in the morning shade of the forest. My hands are frozen numb until finally I get to wear Huck's special fleece lined mittens from Denmark. This makes everything better.
Harpo and I walk the path down to Muir Ranch with a young JMT hiker behind us who blatantly cuts switchbacks, trodding through undesignated territory. We find this curious. Moments later we see Groucho stopped and talking to him about human impact on nature - hike your own hike, but respect the trail, he says. The kid is new, still learning.
"He'll probably keep talking to him until the kid feels awesome." Says Harpo. Impressive.
At Muir Trail Ranch we scour the immaculately organized hiker boxes for new snacks. I end up giving away more than I take. Twinless joins us after camping five miles earlier last night. We all head to the hot springs above the ranch, take off our shoes to cross the river and set up an afternoon pause next to the pool of warm water. We sit lazily in the mineral-speckled water with dragonflies flying about erratically.
When we leave, the trail takes us into Kings Canyon National Park, sometimes in the shady shelter of trees, sometimes not. Rocks are strewn unnecessarily across the trail and I struggle with my footing at times. Regardless, my pack weight is starting to feel reasonable today and things are looking up. After a walk along a steep rock wall with deep grey and blue waters rolling down the riverbed beside, we cross the San Joaquin river.
On the way up to evolution meadow we pass several waterfalls - all tumbling and elegant. We all walk together and it feels like a celebration. Of what, I don't know. Nature, life, beauty? We have another campfire in the evening and I sleep warm all night. I feel so spoiled.
Day 13: 0 miles
We spend a warm night in the hostel at Mammoth Lakes. Four of us are squished into one room - we have to keep the window open to release the hiker stench. The morning is full of activities that center around food and the use of cell phones/electricity/Internet. When we are all packed and ready to go we walk to the pizza parlor. At that point the grey skies begin to pour and a steady stream of rain continues for much of the afternoon. We sit in the pizza place for hours, talking of things such as hot tubs and sleeping inside. When at last the decision is made not to go back to the trail, we proceed to the brewery and waste the day away under roofs and on couches. Tomorrow we'll get up early and leave.
I've eaten breakfast and am ready to go at 9 am, when I find everyone sitting on the couch in the hostel. I join them to discuss plans of departure. But at noon we are all still sitting, watching the rain fall out the window, the wind blowing pine needles all about. It may clear up later, but it may not. Tomorrow the sun will definitely come out. Eventually Huck makes the decision for all of us and books us another night in the hostel. His treat, he says. This is what we truly want in our hearts, he says.
I am anxious and a little sad about this decision. I feel I need to walk, to be outside. Yet I also feel I need to stay with these people, stay dry, and see where that leads. Plus, this time off in the hostel allows us to indulge in three nights of stellar home cooked foods - lentil soup, vegan mac n cheese, pasta with veggies. All decadently flavored with smoked paprika - the most abundant spice on the hostel shelves. Groucho has a talent for making hearty, flavorful vegan meals that feed six people for under $12. I'm stuffed every night.
The rain even stops in the late afternoon. But by nightfall, when we're all curled up on the couch watching murder mysteries on Netflix, it returns in full force. It pounds on the roof, wind rattling the trees, and even becomes frozen rain at one point. It's good to be sleeping inside.
Day 7: 21 miles
Twinless and I spent the night in Bridgeport so we could get my resupply package from the post office in the morning. The other three all hitched down the other direction to Kennedy Meadows North. We've got plans to reunite 20 miles down the trail at Dorothy Lake.
In the morning, we start the process of hitching back up to the pass. A man named Ray stops for us after 10 minutes and takes us directly to the trailhead, even though he wasn't planning on going there. We're hiking before 10 am! On a town day, none the less.
Harpo, Groucho and Huck are ahead of us by an hour and a half, we are told by a pair of northbound hikers. Twinless and I climb up to the ridge where we walk in shale, gravel and sand on the side of a slope for most of the morning. With each forward step, we regress about an inch on the loose earth. The trail stretches before us for miles, passing what looks like it used to be a lake but now is just an empty bowl. The landscape is monochrome grey for as far as we can see.
We leave the land of grey and finally descend into the comforts of a pine-needle-path, stopping for water at a creek. Here, I make myself some iced coffee and chug it down real quick. Twinless has plans to stop and celebrate at mile marker 1,000. She hikes ahead while I float down the trail, high on caffeine and nature.
I see the spot where we camped last year and say hello to my past self - all cold and struggling. With my headphones in I find immense hiking inspiration. The dirt, the trees, the rocks. Nature! It's so great.
I cross a bridge, turn right at the junction and realize that I don't see Twinless's footprints anymore. I check, and double check, my map. She must have taken a wrong turn. At mile 1000 she's not there and I wonder what to do. I wait 10 minutes and decide to hike on. She'll figure it out.
The terrain is really starting to feel like Yosemite now with the yellow meadows, poised rocks and fallen logs. I imagine a fox sitting upright in the distance, but when I get closer I see it's just the silhouette of the branch on a fallen tree. Too bad. But soon the landscape loses all sense of order. Rocks are all different sizes, the terrain is inconsistent. The trail winds through this maze, finally reaching the top of Dorothy Pass.
I study the ground intently, growing impatient. Where is Twinless, anyway? I follow Huck's prints, annoyed when they get covered up by the boot prints of a weekend hiker. The prints continue past the lake where we agreed to camp. I wonder if I'll even be able to find my friends, it's getting dark. At the sign for a stock camp, I notice the prints on the trail have ceased. I turn to follow the path to the stock camp, where Huck's prints continue. Moments later I find them all sitting next to a fire ring.
"Happy 1000!" Harpo says, and Groucho hands over a flask of whiskey.
Twinless shows up 20 minutes later. She took a wrong turn, just as I suspected. She's been flying down the trail trying to catch up.
We eat, talk and sleep.
Day 8: 26 miles
Today is so steep! It doesn't start that way - we walk in a meadow along a stream, in and out of the forest as the earth's light changes around us. Once we get to Wilmer lake we take a long break. We're separated into girls and boys today. Huck ahead, then Groucho. Twinless, Harpo and I stick together up the rugged steep ascent after the lake. Our steps are slow and we pant in the heat. The way down is exposed and rocky, the trail carved into the side of the mountain. I have a memory of stopping by a creek in a forest last year and this is all I can think about in the pounding sun.
Finally we are there - at the place of my memory. I take off my shoes to cross the calm water. A few section hikers have navigated their way across on some logs upstream and they tell me about the logs. I'm happy crossing here, I tell them. They tell Harpo and Twinless the same thing. No really guys, we wanna walk through the water. It feels amazing.
For lunch I try to rehydrate some cashew cheese which doesn't work with cold water. I have to spear it violently with my spork and add dried hummus and kale chips to make it spread on my tortilla. We climb another steep, slow ascent in the heat as I tell Harpo about the crazy dreams I had on the PCT last year. Up and then down.
There's a junction where I sat with Mud last year deciding whether or not to take an alternate into Yosemite Valley. In the end, we walked into the unknown away from the PCT. This year I get to follow the PCT and see where that takes me. It's like a choose-your-own-adventure where I get to go back and choose a different adventure. And guess what - this adventure is uphill! Again!
And after the up comes the down where my knee starts to hurt more than it ever did before. Maybe I should take some days off. I don't think I can keep walking like this, I tell myself. I shouldn't have been hiking so many miles, pretending to be a thru hiker.
"You just need to stretch" says Harpo.
"You probably just need to stretch" adds Groucho.
I just need to stretch! I know they're right. I do some hip flexor stretches and feel better immediately. At least for the next few miles.
In the evening we are climbing, yet again, one mile per hour stepping over rocks while the sun sets beside us, painting the granite in yellows and reds.
For the last hour we sing to keep our spirits up, between gasps for breath. The land grows dark and we fall silent, finally arriving at our camp after sunset. Huck has been here since 4:35 reading his book.
700 calories of vegan Mac n Cheese for dinner before collapsing into my tent. And today was supposed to be easy.
Day 9: 20 miles
There's just a smidge of the steep climb left for us in the morning. After this is over we're in a wonderland of lakes and rolling rocks. At one of these lakes we sit for a break, even though it's only been 2 miles. Today is going to be an easy day, for real this time. So we waste time on the sprawling lakeside granite for a while before moving on.
There's another small climb and we find it's appropriate to take yet another break at the top. I make myself eat granola even though I'm not hungry again yet. Even though it tastes like carrots because I used orange-carrot juice to sweeten it. Harpo and Groucho talk about their hopes to trail run in the dessert, wondering how they will find a trail angel to support them, meeting them at roads along the way. Post a request to Facebook? Ask a hiker-hostel owner?
I think about this for a moment. Who do I know in California who has nothing going on and would want to hang out by the trail for a while.... Me! The answer is me! I've always wanted to go back to the desert. I can go pick up Sprout after I finish in the Sierras and drive to meet them in the desert. I'll spend my days walking, writing, (studying?), meeting up with my trail friends and sleeping in my car. Perfect.
I get so excited about all the possibilities in the world and before I know it I've walked right into another meadow - a deep round lake spreading glamorously ahead of me. I quickly drop my pack on the sandy beach and dunk myself in the icy water. My muscles tense up, my breathing is fast and shallow... I can only stay in for a few seconds before clambering out through the mud and tadpoles back to shore. I'm in the midst of drying off and making corn chowder when my friends show up. Another lazy break.
The last nine miles of the day take us along a winding Yosemite river with smooth, eroded rocks making all kinds of zen patterns with the flowing water. I stop to take it all in and Huck notices a bird dancing across the creek. It's standing on a rock looking down, bouncing up and down and occasionally diving into the water. Looking for dinner. Every now and then, it swims over to the adjacent rock to continue this routine. We spend a while entranced by the dancing, swimming bird.
In the evening the sky turns grey and five raindrops fall on me. We arrive at camp with plenty of time to set up tarps, make some food and read books on our small devices.
Day 10: 16 miles
We're well into Yosemite now and it sure is looking like it. Glacier-carved rocks tower in the distance right next to pointy, un-carved formations which rise above where the glacier must have sat. At our morning break by a river, we realize that three of us all had similar dreams last night about getting married for reasons we don't know to people we don't understand. Trail dreams are crazy.
The path wanders and meanders through tourist-territory with photo-ops around every bend. We reach soda springs where carbonated water is bubbling out from the earth. We drink some of this water after running it through steri-pen radiation. It is indeed carbonated, metallic tasting too. Twinless has a single-serving of whiskey she's been saving for this occasion. Three of us share this, mixing it with the metallic carbonated earth water. My stomach is so empty. We all get tipsy on 1/3 of a whiskey shot.
We walk into Tuolumne Meadows, claim a picnic table and go about our town activities. The most important of which is eating a big black bean burger with steak fries. After a while all the tourists become too much, I get anxious to walk again and leave ahead of everyone else.
It's a lazy walk through more meadows, past lots of section hikers in the smoky heat. I claim the camp spot that Mud and I had last year before anyone else can take it, eat some curry and listen to the squirrels alarming for most of the evening.
Day 11: 20ish miles
More meadow walking. More transforming morning light and crispy air. Walking and waiting for those first rays of sun. We climb up through the woods and break through to a brilliant alpine flatland. There's a creek to be crossed before a climb full of switchbacks between crumbling talus fields.
On the way up, a crazy-eyed marmot comes sprinting towards us from beyond the rocks. Stopping for a moment to stare at Harpo, he scampers across the trail and disappears. We speculate as to what he was running from. The cops? A rabid chipmunk?
We can see down to Tuolumne Meadows now, the river snaking through the yellow path, speckled with green pines. A tantalizing, crystal blue pool appears in front of us and we can't help but stop to take it all in, do some head stands and chat with a few JMT hikers. Then we leave behind the world of color and enter the grey, granite planet of Donahue Pass.
In the afternoon it starts to seem as though it may rain. But maybe it's just smoke, we can't tell. I stuff my sleeping bag and clothes into my bear canister to protect them from getting wet, feeling like I'm outsmarting nature... Because of course, now it won't rain. The rearrangement of my pack makes it feel heavier and I plod along past Thousand Island Lake.
Here, Twinless turns left to follow the PCT while the rest of us take the JMT alternate. This immediately becomes rocky and steep. Up and down and up and down. One lake here, another lake there. But the trail is very clear with methodical switchbacks. We progress like marbles rolling down a track - each of us walking in the opposite direction of the one ahead of us. Soon we're back in the woods with these impeccably organized switchbacks. Groucho and Huck walk ahead. Harpo and I hang back and hash out the struggles of effective communication in relationships.
Camp is next to Gladys Lake where I settle down with a pot of beans that I accidentally burn. We fall asleep as the sun settles behind the horizon. The world is still, silent.
Day 12: 7 miles
The walk out to Reds Meadow is gentle and welcoming. The path is wide and covered in soft dirt and pine needles. When the sun comes up I can see that there are more trees lying sad on the ground than standing tall. Some with their roots exposed, still holding on to the rocks that they wrapped around while rooted in the earth. Eventually we leave the land of fallen trees to cross the bridge towards Devil's Postpile. This is a rock formation made entirely of hexagonal columns. It has something to do with glaciers and gravel and hexagons being the strongest shape. I don't know - ask Huck.
We find a road and consider calling a taxi due to the lack of traffic. Luckily, a friendly woman drives by just before we resign ourselves to making the call. We pile into the backseat with her dog named Cody and are whisked away to the comforts of town.
Day 3: 17.7 miles
When the post office at Echo Lake opens, its like a violent storm of flat rate boxes, extra gear to be sent home, and resupply food sweeps through its tiny walls. When we leave the postal worker isn't quite sure what just happened, but she's glad we're gone.
Packs full of food, we climb up the rock staircases and through gentle high elevation pine forests to a long meadow. The trail flattens and winds us down through a valley that looks like Washington - rolling hills, trickling streams and a path slightly overgrown with brush.
I remember this section last year as the most windy and cold - a harsh welcome to the Sierra Nevada. It lives up to my memory again this year. We are bantered intermittently by the frozen breeze all afternoon. In the evening we collect some water before our last few miles and I put on all my layers while the setting sun makes the cool earth colder.
I climb to the top of the ridge where the earth stretches out before me all grey, brown and fading red. Rectangular peaks silhouetted in the distance with lakes glittering down below. Ekho the dog bolts off the trail after a small creature that none of us sees. Three of us wait on the trail, calling her name until she decides to turn around. The path is etched into the side of a slope and it winds us down, eventually out of the wind. We set up camp in the safety of a small pine grove.
Day 4: 25 miles
The wind is calm in the protection of trees where we've camped, but it picks up in the night. I am vaguely aware of the flapping of my tent walls and a strong gust that seems to knock something over. But I want to keep sleeping. Even though I'm too cold. Eventually I coerce myself into peaking my head out of my sleeping bag. I see the tent draped lazily over my legs hanging by the trekking pole, my water bottle knocked over by the force of the fabric. In the darkness I can't find the stake that blew away, so I secure the tent with a rock... Put on more layers, go back to sleep.
Everyone starts rustling at 5 am. So I do too. When I'm all packed and ready to go I do one more sweep of the area and see my lost tent stake reflecting the light of my headlamp under a bush. I pick it up and start the day's walk.
The morning is epic. The light changes as the earth rolls into the sun, we wait for the first rays to hit the ground before taking our break. In the late morning there's a ridge walk where the wind blasts violently through the rocks. Why is the wind so angry? Eventually the trail allows me to descend into the forest and rocks below and I spend the morning in a state of blissful perpetual forward motion, basking in the silence.
Now it's warm enough to wear shorts as we pass a rowdy group of weekend hikers. The trail hugs the side of a mountain, winding along and stretching out to where I can see it across the canyon. My friends are tiny and distant, progressing along this thin line. At the top of the climb we pass through some trees that spit us out on the other side of the pass, opening views to an entire new kingdom.
Streams trickle across the trail and we reach a water source where Mud and I stopped for dinner last year. It was so, so cold. Now we walk effortlessly past in the afternoon sun without a second thought. Everything in the present is brand new and wonderful.
In the evening we reach a parking area where a kind soul has set up a spread of food on a picnic table. He grills vegetables and boca burgers for us in the back of his truck and treats us like celebrities. We eat all the snacks, drink all the beers, and talk the hiker talk with this trail angel until at last it is too cold to be anywhere but in our sleeping bags. I make some chamomile tea and curl up for bed, dazed by the generosity and beauty inherent in this world.
Day 5: 23.5 miles
I wind down the canyon, feeling my knee protest in pain at the harshness of the rocks and gravity. Soon we cross the valley and switchback up the other side of the canyon, through a meadow of sorts with small purple flowers occasionally making an appearance beside the trail. Mercifully, we reach the protection of a forest and sit for a break at the top of our climb. It's cold, but not as cold as last year.
A-train and his dog Ekho have stayed behind to have slower days, so there's just five of us now. Harpo and Groucho, the vegan-yoga-instructor-artist-nomads from Seattle. Twinless, the chatty cheerful first-time-thru-hiker who left behind a career in finance to travel the world. And Huck, the Danish sled-dog-instructor who knows everything about everything.. I came out here expecting to be alone, thinking maybe I'd meet a few people every now and then. But I never expected to find such great friends, just waiting for me at the trailhead.
I make my vegan mocha with powdered coconut milk that Groucho found at the co-op in South Lake Tahoe. It's a new level of delicious. We hike down all in a line, talking about GMOs and how they're illegal in Denmark. In the distance is the sound of bells, and soon there's a cow staring at us adjacent to the trail, it's big ears flickering and black eyes locked. I'm beyond thrilled to see the cow, it's just so adorable.
I walk with Groucho and Harpo for the afternoon and we talk about the system. The broken system, and the bees and the horses and elephants at the mercy of our human egos. And graffiti. We take a long break at the top of a lime stone pass where Mud and I were greeted with a violent wall of wind last year. This year it is blissfully calm. I feel so lucky.
We wait for Twinless to arrive, passing the time by listing reasons she has not showed up. She was trampled by a stampede of cows. She used her poop trowel to dig a hole to China. She was kidnapped by a family of five. It turns out she was just hungry and stopped for lunch.
The evening brings smoke and an empty heat. We stop for water by a rushing creek, laugh a lot about inappropriate hiker topics, then descend deep into a valley. Our campsite awaits us and we all settle down to rest before the sun sets.
Day 6: 7.6 miles
After a while we find ourselves above tree line. My circulating blood reaches the very tips of my fingers and they start to thaw. I step into the first spot of sunlight just as we crest the mountain.
Through a small gathering of bushes and then onto terrain that resembles the surface of the moon - small rocks towering upward on all sides of the trail - we walk to the very end of the ridge. There, rocks shimmer and mountains echo off into the distance in every direction. The morning air is crisp yet starting to feel warm. I light my stove for a mocha while Harpo and Groucho distribute tarot cards.
My tarot card tells me I am about to start a revolution. I think it's right.
We walk down to the road past streams bubbling over the trail. Birds are chirping and the sky is crystal clear. Sonora Pass is amazing!
Day 0 and 1: Donner Pass to Richardson Lake, 36 (ish) miles
And then! A husky comes ambling down the trail towards me. This is Ekho, she hiked here all the way from Canada with her human, A-train. The three of us start the climb up to Dick's pass.
The top of the pass is bald and flat with a perfect grove of pine trees off to the left. Hiker friends sit lazily in the shade of the trees. There's whiskey and Oreos, picture-taking and cell phone reception. It's a grand celebration up here! Desolation wilderness stretches out before us - mountains all barren and brown, bright blue lakes and green pine trees speckling the landscape. I walk down the other side, feeling slightly skeptical about these group activities I've become a part of. I'm used to just me and Mud and the wilderness. But these people seem nice too.
I arrive at my first town stop an entire day before schedule, eat pizza and crash at the hostel.
Groucho negotiates a second night at the hostel for free for all six of us in exchange for painting a mural on their wall. I decide my new friends are pretty cool...
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