When the Wrong Way Gang reaches Idyllwild we are all struggling with tiresome emotions that the end of a long hike or journey brings to light. I arrive in town a day before the gang with my usual plan of finding a coffee shop to get some work done. But when I get there I immediately want to leave. This surprises me, as Idyllwild is usually such a charming mountain haven. On this Saturday, however, the compact community is bustling with tourists crossing streets in unexpected directions, crowding up the coffee shops and accidentally taking the smoothie I ordered before I get the chance to swipe it from the deli counter. People. Everywhere! The prospect of sitting anywhere and studying is repulsive.
I retreat up a windy dirt road that I eventually cannot/will not continue to drive due to ruts and bumps. I park three miles from the trail, pack my pack for an overnight and start the hike towards friends. Just as Sprout and I start walking it begins to rain, hail, even. I try to keep us both safe under my umbrella as we pass rock climbers scrambling to the safety of their SUVs.
Sprout and I are both asleep in my tent when the hikers come into camp, exhausted from the relentless climb out of the desert flatlands. We sleep beneath dewy tent walls and wake up in a sea of moisture. I climb more with them the next morning, refusing to go back into town a second before I have to. The miles pass quickly in conversation with Harpo and Huck, and when it’s time to turn around to return to the car, I feel an unexplained sense of sadness. My life these days is full of goodbyes and hellos. Even knowing we’ll be saying hello again in a few short hours, I can’t help but feel this may be the end of something that was too good to be true.
I walk back over the jagged rocks, through clouds and wind, the occasional raindrops splashing on my shoulders until I reach the protection of the forest. Worries follow me all the way down the trail. What am I even doing here?? When we finally reach the car, Sprout has successfully completed his longest day of hiking – 14 miles (plus 6 yesterday)! He's still chipper enough to chase squirrels up until the very end, but will soon collapse for a 3-day nap.
In town we secure a cute apartment-type suite that fits 5 of us for only $30 each. Harpo and I get to work drying out our gear and taking showers, Huck spends the entire day at the laundro-mat washing his sleeping bag, and Groucho and Future Dad arrive late after summiting San Jacinto. I go to visit Huck where he is perched, diligently fluffing his bag and putting it back in the dryer every three-and-a-half minutes.
“I’m staying behind here, at least for a day or two. I don’t want to hike with the group anymore.” He tells me. With an end-date looming near, all the planning and commotion around finishing has become too much stress for him. I soak in this information quietly, understanding his perspective, but secretly hoping it isn’t true. At the grocery store I find myself reaching for comfort food, too sad to even agree to participate in cooking dinner in our cozy kitchen.
Harpo and Groucho graciously share their decadent home-made pasta/veggie dish with me anyway as we sit on couches and watch movies late into the night. In the morning there’s a funny feeling in the air. I’m lying on the futon watching the fall wind kiss the leaves outside our window, Harpo sits in the kitchen drinking coffee out of a real mug, and suddenly I remember what it’s like to be home. To be still. To have a real mug in my hands. I long for the comforts I once knew.
Huck breaks his sad news to the rest of the group, they nod along, and then there’s a conversation about where I will meet them on the trail next. And I don’t know what to say. If everyone isn’t going to be together, I just want to go home…
And so begins the nomadic/homeless bum/hiker trash life.
Sprout and I sleep in my car while the others nestle up on their sleeping pads by the side of the road. The next day is my first real study day. I spend it at the Anderson's Casa de Luna hiker home, taking notes on flash cards, sitting under a tarp as the desert rain patters above my head. I even submit a job application here. I look as professional as a pika on paper, but in reality I haven't showered in a while, have been wearing the same shirt for 32 days and have gaping holes in my shoes. I'm becoming a pro at blending dietetic life with hiking life. Last year I submitted my internship application from a coffee shop in South Lake Tahoe. And that turned out well. Mostly.
And now every day is an adventure. But it usually involves the same three things: drive, study, hike. I find a new coffee shop in a different town daily and spend at least three hours making flash cards for the RD exam. This involves fascinating topics such as the most appropriate cooking method for a tender cut of beef. Oh, and by the way, what is a tender cut of beef? Briscuit or Loin? And how many inches long should the main aisle be in an industrial kitchen? And would the floors be made of ceramic or clay tiles? How many teaspoons in a #12 size ice cream scoop? Oh right, and about nutrition... how many carbohydrate exchanges are in one bagel, two teaspoons of cream cheese, an ounce of strawberry jelly and a cup of tea? Important things for a dietitian to know.
Meanwhile, I am constantly interrupted by awestruck dog lovers who just want to say hello to Sprout as he sunbathes. Also, they want to know how old he is. And what breed is he? Actually, they just want to tell me what breed they think he is. And then tell me all about their pups at home. And one lady even sneeks up behind me to take his picture while he sleeps. It's really hard, having such a handsome dog. When this all becomes too much I retreat to the mountains.
Sprout and I walk north on the PCT for about an hour every evening until we see our friends. I watch for their footprints to make sure they're not ahead and Sprout peers hopefully around every new switchback. At last we start to hear footsteps or talking. He greets them with abundant love and a wrinkled up smile, sometimes doing a celebratory sprint around the perimeter of the group.
"I think Sprout's getting the wrong idea about the trail... that friends just show up out of nowhere all the time." Says Huck.
Is that really the wrong idea?
Then we turn around to hike south with the group. Sometimes I bring them pizza or guacamole and we all have a picnic in the dirt next to the car. And sometimes Huck offers to drive so that I can hike all day. These are the best of days, as I can both play the flash card game with my friends (being productive) and relax into nature (being happy).
At the day's end and I'm curled up cozy in my sleeping bag, watching shooting stars crest the desert sky.
Part One: The Aqueduct
Short shrubs gradually encroach on the dirt road I'm driving until there are just two strips of sandy brown in a sea of prickly green plants. This is fine, I still have the dirt strips. My car can do this. Until the strips become washed out into a large ditch. There's no way I can get through that in my low-clearance hatchback. My heart is pounding and I feel the extra boost of cortisol circulating fast through my blood. I am literally in the middle of the desert and the road has disappeared. How did I get into this mess?! I trusted google maps, against my better judgment. That's how. These 'roads' are not actually roads, even though they have real names and a real line on the map. Plus, I know there's an easier way to get to the LA aqueduct to meet my friends. I remember from last year.
I get out of the car and so does Sprout. I can see from where I walk that if I cross this ditch successfully there is a smooth dirt road that I can intersect just a few yards after. I just have to get through. But how? My only solace is knowing that my friends are just a few miles away with cell phone reception and if I really screw this up, maybe Huck can get my car unstuck. He's good at that.
I make a plan. Go around the ditch, plow over all the bushes where they are the shortest, and intersect the next road. Sprout hops back in the car with his tail between his legs, sensing my worry. And then I go for it. There's scratching and scraping and bumping as I progress a few more yards. Then the bushes are too much and the car spins out in the soft dirt. This won't work. So I back up a little, point the car diagonally toward the ditch and have to go straight through. Ready, set, go! I release the clutch and gun the gas. Bump crash scrape. And we did it! Sprout looks terrified in the back seat, but now we're on the smooth dirt. Oh, my Toyota Matrix. It has gotten me through so much.
I find the aqueduct and park, ready to walk off the stress. My hands are still shaking. A text from Harpo tells me they are three miles up the trail, so I shove some snacks in my pockets and start jogging towards them.
After an hour they see my silhouette in the distance just as the sun has finished its descent.
"There's a hiker up ahead, who is that?" I hear one of them say.
"That'd be crazy if it were Bug" says another.
Sprout stares at them cautiously with perked ears and a tilted head. Soon I can't contain myself anymore and sprint toward them with open arms. Sprout follows. Harpo, the only one who knew I was coming, is ready to receive my hug.
"BUG!" The others are shocked at my return. I get so many hugs and smiles and Sprout runs in circles, greeting each person with a sniff and tail/butt wag.
What the heck! They say. I can't believe you're here! They tell me. It's not long before they want to know why, exactly, am I here?
Well, it's complicated. You see, I was all packed up to start the long drive back to Seattle from the Bay Area. It's the responsible thing to do, I told myself. I have to study for the RD exam and I can only do that in Seattle, right? Yet the question remained - what would happen if I stayed with the Wrong Way Gang for a little while longer? Is it really time to leave this adventure? It was a classic case of head versus heart. My head making excuse after excuse as to why I needed to go North. The argument continued as I pulled out of my brother's driveway at 5 am. I found myself in Starbucks buying coffee, still unsure about which direction to drive. North, north, north! Said the head. South! Said the heart. Finally I broke into tears and had to hide in the bathroom.
I could go south? I say. And the tears stop. Yes. I should go south! And so it was decided.
After telling my story I am regaled with Wrong Way Gang stories of naked hiking, accidental SOS messages and of course, the one point poo, as they continue their double marathon of a day. It's great to be back.
"Bug, you haven't stopped smiling this whole time." Future Dad informs me after we've been walking well into the night.
Day 21: 0 miles
The hostel in Bishop is full of interesting characters. Most of them smoke pot. A curmudgeony old skinny dude does the hostel's laundry in exchange for his stay and spends the rest of the day being stoned, spouting opinions to whoever will listen. Napping in the afternoons. Drinking beer in the evenings.
We go about our zero-day-town-chores all morning. Laundry. Coffee. Smoothies. Gear shop. Phone calls. I'm walking around the neighborhood streets, talking on the phone when I decide to sit down under a tree. It's not long before I notice red ants crawling all over me, biting at every opportunity. I get up to leave immediately but it seems that they've already infiltrated my clothing. I wave my one free hand around, batting at them as they chomp into my skin. Just when I think I've flicked/smooshed/smacked them all away, I feel another tinge of pain. Finally when I get off the phone I run into the hostel bathroom and take off all my clothes. There are still five of them clinging relentlessly to the inside of my shirt. Two attached to my shorts. I brush them off but spend the rest of the day imagining they may still be there. Town life is so dangerous.
We spend hours at the grocery store and ride our borrowed bikes all the way back to the hostel, loaded down with too many snacks. Future Dad, a hiker who has been a few days behind us (and by us I mean my friends, The Wrong Way Gang, not me...) for months, finally shows up at the hostel in the evening, thrilled to have finally caught up. He wants to be a member of The Wrong Way Gang, too.
Vegan Nachos for dinner, whiskey for desert and a restless night of sleep in the dimly lit bunk room. We make plans to wake up early and start the hitch back to the trail.
Day 22: 12 miles
We try to hitch from the coffee shop but quickly give up and decide to take the bus back to Independence, where we also try to hitch - unsuccessfully. After a series of phone calls to local hotels, we get ahold of a trail angel who agrees to drive us all back to the trailhead. I tell her my name is Bug, and she tells me she doesn't like bugs. I should probably just stick with my regular name, she says.
Finally by around noon we're back to the trail, winding gently towards Kearsage Pass with sharp pointed columns towering all around us in the distance. There are some day hikers at the top from San Diego. My friends have polite conversation with them, telling them they're hiking all the way to Mexico. The day hikers offer to drive us there instead. Nah, we'd rather walk...
On the way down I keep wondering why my pack is still so heavy. I should only have three days of food. Maybe it's the fact that I still have my bear canister. Or maybe it's the extra treats we packed out to give as trail magic to JMT hikers at the top of Mount Whitney. I eat bars all afternoon, trying to widdle down my food collection.
Down in the valley the trail is a beauty beyond imagining. Just like it always is. The evening light hits the surrounding peaks, the river tumbles down a giant stone staircase as we walk up it, baby pine trees line the path. I listen to music and Huck walks ahead, starting conversations with the squirrels and deer as we pass. At Bubb's Creek, where we camp, I open my bear canister to find that I've been carrying an entire pound of dried apricots all day. That's why my pack is so heavy! Groucho found them in the bear boxes while we were waiting for a ride days ago and I still have them. I make my friends eat apricots with me all evening. Tomorrow my pack will be lighter.
Day 23: 20 miles
We're all spread out on the trail, climbing Forester Pass, as the sun comes up in the morning. At one point I think I'm too hot and take off a few layers, only to put them back on again as we climb higher into the cold wind. There's an empty spot in the mountain ahead of us where the rock disappears and a splotch of darkness takes its place. The splotch of darkness looks like a big bear, with two ears and a boulder for a nose. Its head is tilted and its watching us climb, curiously. Eventually we're high enough that I can't see the bear anymore. I only see rocks and feel the wind pushing me about. I grow tired of this and stop to make coffee in a small protected spot on the trail less than a mile from the top. I soak in the silence, give in to the emptiness.
I feel much better for the final switchbacks up to 13,000 feet where Future Dad sits, writing in a journal. In the distance are some tiny dots, progressing steeply into the new valley that lies ahead. The trail eventually flattens out and the earth warms up. I've resigned myself to listening to a podcast, thinking I won't see anyone else for much of the day, when I see Harpo around the corner. We take another coffee break and end up spending the rest of the afternoon in conversation.
Soon we're walking on a vast plateau, reminiscent of the desert which we are fast approaching. The forest spreads out, the rocks are short. We walk on a sandy trail past trees with trunks all twisted up, some dead and burnt, leaning on the others for support. The junction to Mt. Whitney appears after several hours and we all meet up and walk east, away from the PCT. In the evening we find ourselves at Guitar Lake, surprised to see Whitney towering gently above us. The setting sun paints it in pale pink while the almost-full moon rises above. We set up one tarp against the wind and sleep next to each other to keep warm. All lined up like sausages or....pencils, says Huck.
Day 24: 14 miles
I'm warm all night lying next to my friends like a pencil, but sleep sporadically. The wind blows the tarp around all night making flappy noises, the moon shines brightly over the lake. Huck gets up twice to fix the tarp when it comes blown away from one of the corners. Finally the whole tarp blows away with one big gust at around 1:40 am and Huck chases after it, shoves it in his pack and prepares to climb the mountain. We'd all agreed to get up at 2 am, anyway, to make it up in time for sunrise. The rest of us reluctantly pack up and start the climb under the light of the moon.
I'm immediately too hot and struggle to maintain a stable body temperature. I take off layers and am too cold. But only when the wind blows. Which is often... depending on the shape of the trail and the rocks. The moon sets in a red hue across the valley, it goes down as we go up. Five of our headlamps bob all in a row, walking slowly so we don't break a sweat. Huck's headlamp glows from higher on the mountain. We reach the junction to the spur trail to the top and I put my layers back on, leave my bear canister on a rock and collapse my trekking poles into my pack. Finally, I feel free.
The last miles to the summit are gentle but menacing, as a wrong step in either direction could lead to a fatal tumble. I see the lights of Lone Pine all lined up on the highway far below. We reach the top when it is still dark and walk into the hut, disturbing the peace of a german hiker who is camped inside. He welcomes us cheerfully and we enjoy the shelter from the cold.
And thus begins the magic that is Mount Whitney. Groucho promptly pulls out the treats we've been carrying, Harpo starts to blow up balloons. Without a word, Groucho pulls from his pack an entire bottle of whiskey with my name written on it in his signature white-out-pen, as well as a whole bag of caramel popcorn. For me! The fact that he carried this all on his back up to 14,505 feet makes me want to cry and hug everyone all at the same time. Then I get my very own balloon. "BUG" it says on one side, and "Wrong Way Gang" on the other. I want to keep it forever.
We leave the protection of the shelter to sit on the rocks on top of the world just as the sky begins its transition from black to blue. A line of pomegranate colored clouds emerges, fading into orange and a firery red. The wind blows fiercely and I sit huddled up in my sleeping bag, watching the earth turn in to light. Groucho hands out airplane bottles of liquor to all the JMT hikers, along with mini snickers bars and starbursts. Hikers are so happy to receive these gifts, along with the gift of sunrise. Future Dad, Harpo and Groucho sing patriotic songs just as the sun crests the horizon, sweeping the mountains below it in brilliant shades of pink. It is the finest of celebrations.
We take pictures in all directions, mountains echoing into the distance. People smiling, laughing, shivering, hugging.
On the way down I get to see the landscape that was dark on the way up. Rocks. Rocks on rocks on rocks, everywhere I look. It's too short of a walk before we get back to the junction. My friends are all walking west back to the PCT. But I have to go east out the Whitney Portal. They give me my balloon, some extra candy to hand out to people I pass, and lots of hugs. And then I have to leave.
I'm terribly sad as I make my way down the 99 switchbacks. My balloon blows in the wind, tied to my pack, constantly bopping me on my head. I maintain some sort of cheerfulness by handing out the candy to everyone who passes. Most people are struggling up the switchbacks. Some are happy to accept candy. Others not so much. Either way, I feel it is my duty to extend the spirit of generosity and celebration that was so abundant atop Mount Whitney. But when I give out the last piece of starburst I am relieved. Now I can just walk.
In the last few miles I meet a chatty day hiker from Arkansas. He agrees to give me a ride all the way down to Lone Pine where he then, generously, buys me lunch. After lunch I stand in front of McDonalds at the edge of town and start the hitch to Mojave. I've been waiting an entire four minutes when a woman stops to ask where I'm going.
"I'll take you there," she says. "But I have to go home and wash the dishes first."
Incredulously, I hop into her Chevy. I wait in her driveway while she does some dishes and then I'm flying through the desert en route to Mojave. From there, I'll take a bus and a train and a bus all the way back to my brother's house. But for tonight, I treat myself to a cheap motel room and imagine my friends all curled up under the moonlight in the mountains.
I fall asleep convinced that when I wake up, this will all have been a dream. One beautiful, unimaginable, amazing dream.
See more pictures on instagram.
Enter your email address below to receive a notification every time a new blog is posted