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.
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