Friday, September 13, 2019

Take me to the river, part one

The river is a muscle. We float along it in our rafts for nine days, the flow almost faster than I can walk. Faster than I can swim, too: One night I put on my fins and wade out, trying to swim against it. I wind up swimming in place, unable to advance. Once I jump in with my PFD and simply ride the current, swept down through towering cliffs.

The river changed as we floated from Bluff to Clay Hills. Here at the beginning it was wide open. To river left is the Navajo Nation, and you need a permit to go over there.
The sun is unrelenting. Temperatures along the river rise to above one hundred degrees. Some nights, it is too hot to sleep, too hot even for a sheet. We slide into the blissfully cool water as much as we can, spending most of our days soaked. The river canyon bakes, the only relief the water and the occasional hackberry tree.

The ruins at River House, our second nights' camp. True to river time, we only make it six miles in two days.
The silence is a sound itself. We see few other river parties and create river names for them: the Party Barge, the Kids, the Old Guys. We see bighorn sheep, deer, a ringtail cat, and a bird of prey swooping down to capture a smaller bird right in our camp. We slow down to river time.

When I was first invited on this San Juan river trip, I didn't want to go. River trips weren't really what I wanted to do. The rigging of the boats, the unloading and loading of gear--so much gear--seemed interminable. There was a lot of sitting around in camp. I fretted about exercise, not just exercise but an elevated heart rate, which my body seems to need on the daily. I had only done overnight river trips, and most of my paddling has been on the ocean. What did I know about rivers?

As it turned out, river time is magic. Slowly you begin to unwind. I was able to sleep, the sound of the current running through my dreams, in a way that escapes me in real life. I was able to let go of the thread of anxiety related to work that pursues me in real life. Every day we packed our gear and floated around the next corner, every day we picked a different camp based on its attributes. A riffle for playing in with the stand up paddle board, a sandy beach for sitting, a trail to hike.
The view from the Honaker Trail, that climbs 1200 feet to the canyon rim.
Will I become a river runner? I don't think so. At my heart I am more terrestrial. But I succumbed to river time. "You all look so relaxed," Robert says when we return from the Clay Hills takeout. And we are, eighty-three miles later.
A pool up in Slickhorn Canyon

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

River Time

Hey friends, I've been on a river adventure,  and will write about it in a couple of days. Until then, here's a photo of where I was:

Sunday, September 1, 2019


On September 13, I will have 30 years of working for the government. Thirty! I started pretty young but that still makes me feel exceptionally old. In that time I have;

  • Cleared a lot of trails, using so-called primitive tools. Crosscut saws, axes, shovels, and the dreaded loppers..
  • Told a lot of tourists where the bathroom is and attempted to answer the unanswerable "is it worth it?" (Pro tip: it's always worth it.)
  • Lived in remote places where our entertainment came from sunsets and hot springs.
  • Put out a lot of wildfires.
  • Flew in floatplanes and kayaked in the most magical places ever.
  • Sat at a computer writing soul destroying documents.
  • Filled out reams of forms.
  • Taken the same online security training every year for decades.
  • Cleaned toilets. A lot of toilets.
Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Digital Settler (not #vanlife)

I have lately heard the term "digital nomad". Apparently this is someone who can work remotely and takes it to another level, working around the country as they travel. I had a moment of fleeting envy as I thought: I could totally do this! And then, reality: I have pets, and a husband. (Some people take both along with them. Trust me, this would not work well.)

And I kind of like not having to find gas station bathrooms, wondering where I will sleep, and having all of my stuff. I lived the nomad life all through my twenties, though I had a job, I just changed it every 6 months. It gets old, at least it did for me.

So, we paid off the Love Shack, or the Chalet, or the A Frame, or the Country Home, whatever you want to call it, last week. Don't get too jealous. This is a very rustic dwelling that inhabits the occasional mouse. We don't have a water bill, but we have to flip a switch when we want running water. I shudder to think what is under the questionable carpet. This place was built by hippies in 1965 and looks it. 

But, it's mine (and his). I've never actually owned a house before; several banks have owned mine in the past. And I still give half a month's salary to the City Home, a slightly more civilized log cabin that serves as my office and other place to store stuff. (Did I mention that the Country Home is supposed to be 640 square feet but I think it is more like 400?)

So I am not a digital nomad. I am a digital settler. I'm not going to be fixing up a Sprinter Van anytime soon. This is not what I imagined my life to be as a twenty year old traveling the interstates of America, determined never to settle down.  

But... I have raspberries. I have a secret creek swimming hole. I have a dog. And someone who likes it when I stay home. The wind in my hair is still a powerful tug, but I'm here. In my paid off shack!
Try not to be too jealous of this fine piece of architecture.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Adventure Fails

Sometimes when I scroll through social media, I wonder if all adventures are as good as they look. I'm here to keep it real, though. For example: this week. I have been in a slump, as I may have mentioned, since finishing the PCT. It's not that I want to jump back on a long trail; it is the end of something that has allowed me to look forward to, plan, and see progress on a goal. I didn't realize how much I needed that.

On Tuesday, I felt like running in the morning, so I went. And a woman passed me. That rarely happens, not because I am fast, but because there aren't many runners here. Being passed felt truly demoralizing, especially because I was struggling along at a sub-par pace anyway. "I hate being passed!" I said, not meaning to say it aloud. The poor woman jogged away, probably wondering how she ended up in crazytown. Sorry, fellow runner.

The rest of the week went all right, but by Saturday I was ready to get back into the woods. The lake I picked to backpack to is busy, but I thought most of the crowds were gone by now. Optimistically I headed up the steep trail, fantasizing about swimming. Arriving, I started to notice something. Tents! Tents everywhere! Tents too close to the water, tents in every spot, even some hammocks strung over a cliff. Surely, I thought, if I walked around the lake I would find a tucked-away place to camp. The lake is big, and I had to struggle over boulders and swamps, but then I saw it. A peninsula, the perfect place to camp. The dog trailing behind me, I climbed up to find...a tent.

Curses! The entire lake was packed. It was time to go to Plan B. There is a bench on the far side of the trail where nobody has ever camped in my knowledge. It wouldn't be close to the lake, but it would be away from the crowds. Optimistically I climbed the bench to guessed it..a tent!

It looks peaceful but....I soon discovered it was not.
I looked at my watch. 5:30. It was eight miles down to the trailhead, and it is getting darker early now. The trail isn't a cruiser either; you have to pick your way through rocky switchbacks. There was only one thing to do: hike out.

I felt like a failure as we jogged down the trail, the dusk falling quickly. It was almost dark when we got to the car. I was aware that summer is closing up shop, and weekends to camp are probably almost done. Grumpily I sulked home.

The dog, who had easily covered 30 miles, didn't care. I realized I shouldn't either. I could see it as an adventure fail or just a long day hike carrying a lot of stuff. And the next day we could hang out at the lake in town and swim.

Too tired to eat, but happy.
I can't recall ever "backpacking" on a day hike before, but I have had other adventure fails. Forgetting a sleeping bag. Hobbling with major blisters. Overdoing it and having to leave the trail. It happens. I'll go back to that lake in the fall, when everyone is gone.
The big lake is quiet now though! Swimming is great.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The good old days

"It breaks my heart," C says. He surveys the sea of tourists in the restaurant. "And I'm really angry," he added. "I miss the old days."

The old days he is talking about weren't that long ago. I've lived here long enough to know some of them, but not the way he does. "I grew up here," he reminds me. He remembers how it used to be.

This is something we are all struggling with, those of us with a little bit of stake in this place. It is changing rapidly. Last weekend as three of us hiked across the mountain range, something we had wanted to do for a long time, we encountered three women doing the "Backpacker Magazine loop."  Really? Later,as we descended from Horton Pass to the other side, we descended into crazytown. Tents perched five feet from the lake. Many occupied campsites. People with horses. People with dogs. Still less people than in most backcountry places, but still. Too many people for us.

Night number one, though, was at a lake only occupied by one other group, slightly smoky from a lightning fire. My friends slept in, as they do, but we left camp before ten, always a win. We climbed up over the pass to the lake I mentioned before. On the pass, it was peaceful, but at this lake, not so much.

We had meant to stay here but we looked at each other with the same thought in mind. "I can't deal with Mirror," A said, and we headed to a less popular lake, which we had to ourselves. There are still pockets of solitude here, which makes me hopeful.

The next day we headed down the most popular day hiking trail there is here. When I say most popular, I am not talking 100 people or even 50 (I know, I am spoiled) but maybe 25 people, which to me is way too many. We braced ourselves, but the trail was strangely empty. And I know I can't move to a place and bar the door against others. By coming here from somewhere else, I am part of the problem. Not to mention, we all live on stolen Nez Perce land.

But still. The wilderness endures. We completed a traverse of the mountains, south to north, that we had wanted to do for years--thirty miles, three people, two dogs. These are the good old days.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Hiking the PCT--THE FINAL STRETCH! Trail Pass to Crabtree Meadow

I slogged upward, all enthusiasm gone. Why was this so hard? It was just hiking. Then I realized: yes, I was hiking, but at 11,500 feet. It was supposed to feel hard. The various John Muir Trail hikers seemed to agree. Because it's so hard to get a southbound JMT permit, many of them were starting from Horseshoe Meadows like I was. Swathed in head nets, enormous packs with stuff hanging off everywhere, sun hats with flaps, a family approached. "The bugs are TERRIBLE!"  they exclaimed.

"I'll just walk fast," I said. "Well, good luck," the dad said, not believing me for a second. When I passed by the spot they had said was so bad, the mosquitoes were almost non-existent. It's all a matter of perspective.

I had just 22 miles left of the PCT, but it would end up being 45, because I had to do an out and back, plus climb up and down a couple of bonus passes from the parking lot. Due to plane snafus (our plane went for a test flight and never came back), I had arrived at Horseshoe Meadows a full 24 hours later than I had planned, which meant the leisurely stroll of my dreams had vanished. But it was somehow fitting. The PCT has never made it easy, and why start now?

Some nice ponds at mile 755. A JMTer insisted these were called Soldier Lakes. Um, no.
The Sierra will always be one of my favorites, and I hiked through soaring towers of rocks and fresh green meadows. "The scenery on this section isn't that great," a JMT hiker complained, and I could hardly believe it, because to me it was spectacular. As I descended into Rock Creek and back up again, all I could think was I was so glad I had bailed out of this section in June. It would have been incredibly dangerous.

Ha ha ha, this gate is not protecting the wilderness.
Not today, though. I selected a camp high above Crabtree Meadow, with a solid 22 miles in for the day. Defeated-looking JMTers trickled past, intent on camping near water. I had forgotten how most backpackers always choose water camps, when in truth you get less bugs, less condensation, and less people at dry camps. It really is simple to carry enough water, and it gives you so much more options.

Crabtreee Meadow. So gorgeous, so full of people.
In the morning, I only had one and a half miles to tag my terminus--the junction of the JMT and PCT. I had been here in 2011 with my surly hiking companions, and never dreamed that this many years later I would return, having hiked 2,650 miles. There was nobody around, it being early, and I tried to take a few selfies, but the sign was short. Luckily two thru-hikers came by. My people! They took my photo, but at the time I didn't even think to pose artistically. What you get is a boring photo.

Ugh. Oh well.
As I was hiking back the way I had come, a sudden wave of emotion caught me by surprise and I found myself fighting back tears. I had done a really, really hard thing. I had stuck to it even when there were troubles with logistics, hiking partners who hadn't clicked, long stretches of monotonous desert, all of it. I had done something big.

I rolled into Chicken Spring Lake, having hiked 18 miles, most of it uphill. The lake was packed with weekenders, noisily clanking their bear cans. One man arrived and pitched his tent right next to the lake, ignoring the regulation of 100 feet distance. He climbed out in nasty red boxers and proceeded to pee right there in full view. People. How I hate them sometimes. I try not to, and then one of them pulls something like this. Come on, folks.

Last light at Chicken Spring.

As I headed down Cottonwood Pass I felt...empty. I didn't feel done. I felt like nothing had really happened. Probably it will sink in later. I think? Probably because I wasn't at a terminus, it didn't feel real. On the way home, plane snafus meant I was stranded in LA for a night. I looked around at all the people partying it up in the hotel. I had never felt so alien, so different. I wanted to be back with my people. That feeling has subsided, a little. But I long to get back on a trail.
Cookie, my friends' cat, celebrated with me.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

My last night on the PCT

Friends, I did it.

Even up to the very last step I wasn't sure if I would complete the PCT. But I did.

I am working on a post that describes that last 22 miles (45, because I had to go out and back). But for now, I feel....sad! Not what I expected at all. It'll take some time to process the end of a nine year quest.

The stats: 2,560 miles
21 different sections
August 4, 2011 to August 4, 2019 (I really didn't plan it that way)
One snowstorm forcing me off trail
Two hypothermic death marches
Times I thought about quitting: 1 (near Fish Lake in a rainstorm)
Injuries:1, ankle tendonitis
Rained on: 3/4 of the sections
Solo: 1/4 of the time
Hiking partners: Freak of Nature, Rachel, Suzanne, Lisa, Lisa, Flash, Beekeeper, Triscuit
People I camped with more than once: Short Cut, Cherry Pie, Man in Black
Hiked in a skirt: all but 160 miles
Alternates (not skips): 3, 2 due to weather (dangerous snow conditions), one due to a water shortage (Skyline trail near Shelter Cove)
Luxury item: Kindle
Pounds lost: 4-5 each time, regained each time
Favorite dinners: Food for the Sole
Stoveless: 3/4; did bum some hot water on occasion
Favorite section: Snoqualmie Pass to Manning Park (WA) even though it rained and we were cold
Least favorite section: Um....
Least favorite stretch: Descending into Belden
Times I felt worried about other people: only once; we hid in the woods with our insect repellent at the ready
Critters: Just deer, mountain goats, and a fox. Bears at Reds Meadow Campground
# of tents used: 4
# of packs used: 4
Pack weight at the beginning: at least 40 lbs
Ending pack weight: Typically 22-25 depending on food
Longest stretch without resupply: 10 days
Longest day: 28 miles

The last night was at Chicken Spring Lake. There were a lot of people there. JMT hikers, bless their hearts, with caps with flaps, leather boots, packs with stuff hanging off them. Watch out, I wanted to tell them. The trail has a way of grabbing you and not letting go.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Waiting for friends to wake up

I don't drink coffee. I don't even drink caffeinated drinks. Just don't like them, and I'm generally wide awake before the sun comes up.

Ruby wakes up even earlier than I do.
 Which can lead to a lot of waiting around if I am camping with friends. "Breakfast at 9," my friend said as we parted for our respective tents. Nine! Half the day is over! But her promise of huckleberry pancakes sounded a lot better than what I had packed (granola).

It's really easy for me to go solo, in all endeavors. I can run the pace I want, hike as far or as short as I want to, take breaks when I want to, not have to talk if I don't feel like it. It's freedom: I spend five days a week wrangling clients and hustling. It's nice to be alone sometimes.

I met my friends at the lake below. Snow prevented us from going to our intended destination, over an untrailed pass.
However. I have learned a lot from camping with friends. For instance, compromise. An example: nobody packs up faster than I do. This is the result of being on crews where, if we weren't ready within a few minutes, we were threatened with being left behind. This habit has never left me, causing me to either freeze while waiting or hike on ahead. Neither of these are particularly good options. I've learned (very slowly) to not hover while others are packing up. I go down to the lake, or I read a book, or I try to pack up slower (old habits though).

Also, people like to sleep in, even if they go  into the tent ten hours earlier. They don't appreciate a sunrise chatterbox. I've learned to get up quietly and go for a morning hike.

The always gorgeous Hobo Lake. I had to climb snowfields to get here. In late July!
Waiting for friends to wake up has taught me patience, which I am not blessed with in abundance. So, at beautiful Chimney Lake, I went for a hike and waited until nine. Though it wasn't the trip I would have done on my own, it was priceless to sit around camp and talk and swim. The huckleberry pancakes? Delicious.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Hiking without a plan

After what seemed like hours bumping along a terrible road, we arrived at its end. There it was, an unknown trail heading up into the high country. It wasn't on any maps, except perhaps ancient ones. We didn't know where it went, or if we could even navigate it. It was time for the kind of hiking I mentioned a couple posts back. No known destination, uncertain outcome, no clue.

I have to admit I am not really on board with this. I've never really been just a wanderer. I like to have a destination. Also, I have learned over the years that while I can hike pretty fast on a trail, cross country is harder for me. I feel ungraceful, clumsy and slow. But what is life if you stick to your comfort zone? I headed upward, hoping for the best.

We lost the trail immediately in some open meadows, and poked around until we saw remnants. It was obvious that someone--probably hunters--were keeping it minimally open, though we did have to climb over dead trees. The trail curved steeply to a ridge, and then there was a final push. Though it took us almost an hour, we had only covered 1.7 miles. And we were at the site of the Mount Nebo Lookout.

It was a magical place, a long, sweeping ridge with views of the Seven Devils and Mount Nebo, still wreathed in snow. Elk scattered in the tall grass. The lookout had been demolished, but the supports were still there and the date written in the concrete--it had been built in the 1930s.

I stood in a chilly breeze and imagined the lives of the fire lookouts--back then, the roads would not have been here. They would have hiked up from far below, from the Lick Creek Guard Station. There was no water up here, so they would have had to haul it for miles, probably brought in by pack string. It would have been gloriously lonely up here. I felt a pang of envy, torn as always between wanting to live really remotely but also wanting companionship.

My companion decided we should make a large loop, going off trail completely by dropping off the ridge to the north and finding our way to another trail, then roadwalking back to the car. This loop ended up being four miles, but took us hours. As I inched down the steep ridge, I thought about how enjoyable this was, not clicking off the miles on an established trail. It was the Fourth of July and we wouldn't see a soul for twenty-four hours. This was exactly what I needed.

Friday, July 12, 2019

I could live here, edition one

I never, ever expected to live in one place for TEN YEARS. My younger self would have been horrified to even contemplate it. Life is so short, and there is so much to see. But it looks as though I am in one place to stay.

When I start to get mildly panicked by this notion, I remind myself that the bargain I've made in return for staying put is that I get to travel. My personal travel has involved putting one foot in front of another on a trail, but the work travel has been a little more wide-ranging. Through it, I have gotten to go to some pretty nice spots, which I evaluate in terms of, could I live here?

Okay, I can hear you now saying, of course you can physically live anywhere! And I know that's true. I mean, I lived in South Florida. IN THE SUMMER. But what I hope you realize I mean is, live happily.  I haven't found too many places that measure up to where I live now. There are places I'd love to live happily for a month (I'm looking at you, Puerto Rico) or even longer (Central Oregon) but in the end I've always thought I live in the best place possible.

But I still evaluate. Because I will always be a wanderer at heart. This week, I found a place where I think I could happily live! I traveled to Northern Idaho to work on a forest project. Most of the time was spent bumping along on incredibly rough roads, but I managed to spend some time swimming and running along a short but sweet trail by the bay. There's so much I didn't get to see, but I saw enough to know that it is a special place.

We got to go out on the boat to take in the Green Monarchs...Just the name sounded cool. There's a trail along top of the ridge.

And high up in the deserted forest to look at tree stands...
And walk along a motorized trail that needs some restoration. My feet wouldn't fit in the ruts!

And I saw some nice sunsets.

And sailboats.

The mountains aren't as dramatic as where I live but the water! There's so much water! I miss big water. I miss my fiberglass kayak. The lake is twenty miles in length! Twenty miles!

Of course, I just scratched the surface and it's presumptive to think that all would be perfect there. The poor little town is getting overrun by people who think it would be a pretty great place to live. I'm sure if I talked to the locals they would have plenty to say about this. So I'm not going to move there. I'll just dream about all of the water and realize I have it pretty good, regardless.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

I need Long Hike Rehab

It is probably a good thing I am almost done with the PCT. Lately while hiking, I've felt sort of...burnt out. Instead of sauntering along enjoying the views, I have thought things like: Okay, it should take me two hours from here to get to the lake. Or: I've hiked ten miles, six to go. I think this is only natural when you've spent the past ten years in a quest to finish a long trail, each time bound to a plane ride or a work schedule which dictates you go fast and far. Yes, I could have hiked less miles, but then it would take me twenty years! And sometimes it isn't possible on the PCT to stop after only a few miles--you would drink up all of your water in some of the dry sections.

I headed up to one of my Wallowa Mountains faves, Ice Lake, the other day. I should back up and say that I have a love/hate relationship with this trail. A omnipresent pack station takes tourists partway several times a day, and the hooves (and hiker feet) have worn the trail down to the bedrock, forcing hikers to carefully negotiate jagged rocks. It gets dusty and annoying at times. But it isn't really the trail. This lake has grown in popularity so that it gets swarmed with backpackers. Most of them are fairly new at backpacking, or so I imagine by the enormous packs they carry.

Of course, swarmed is a relative term. On this Sunday I saw twenty people, which to me is a crowd. I passed most of them until I came up behind a woman who was clearly trying to stay ahead of me. Which is fine, whatever, but she was cutting switchbacks to do it. Also, she seemed to have forgotten her pants. She was wearing only thong underwear. Is this a thing?

The lake was still mostly frozen and beautiful as always. I'm always glad I come here even if a guy with a drone plopped beside me and proceeded to fly it over the lake. Not only is this illegal, but you'd think you might ask if it was OK to disturb someone else right next to you. (Yes, I am in fact a Judgy McJudgerson).

I didn't stay long. I was still in long hike mode, clipping away at the miles. On the scale of people who hike to camp or camp to hike, I typically fall in between the two. I like to hike all day, but I also like finding a nice campsite by a lake and swimming, reading, or exploring around there. I want to get back to that for a while. I know just the way to rehab. Go out for a hike of an unknown distance with only a map. Travel cross country so that it takes longer. Climb over trees, scramble up slopes.

So I did. But that's a story for another day.

Are you a hike so you can camp person or a camp so I can hike person?

Monday, July 1, 2019

Tourist hiking in Mammoth Lakes

When I got done with my PCT section hikes in June, I was more tired than I had ever been. I rented an exorbitant room at a hotel that sounded luxurious (but turned out not to be) and collapsed. Maybe I have Valley Fever, I thought with panic. Hiking should not make me so tired. (I don't think I have Valley Fever. I think I caught a death cold and pushed myself to the limit.)

Anyway, I had two days and I couldn't spend them just lying around. But this was a big snow year and the road to the lakes basin was not yet open, meaning that many hikes were not available, or were buried under snow. There were few options. On the first day, I hiked up to Sherwin Lakes. Sorry to say, this short hike was somewhat of a disappointment. A fire had gone through not too long ago, limiting access to the lake, and in the places where you could get to it, campers had plopped their tents. So many campers, for a hike of only three miles. I decided to aim for Valentine Lake, which was a few miles further, but ran into snow. Using discretion instead of valor, I beat a retreat with only about six miles hiked. A steady stream of LA women came up the trail, all looking very similar--thin, blonde, leggings. (I felt very out of place.)
I tromped over a bunch of fallen logs and a couple of campsites to get this photo. Sorry, campers.
That didn't seem like enough, so I drove to Convict Lake, a place of many tourists but stunning scenery. There's a pretty flat three mile hike around the lake, so I embarked on that. You can also climb high into the John Muir Wilderness, which seemed like too much effort for how I felt. This would be a good run, also.
Convict Lake. So busy, except on the trail. People stay close to the pavement.
The next day I decided to drive up to the gate and hike on the road to Lake Mary. Because, Lake Mary. Roadwalking is never really a good time, but the views were spectacular. I packed my Kindle and hung out at the lake for a few hours. A few exhausted-looking thru hikers limped by, looking as though they had been through a war. I was glad I had bailed out of the Sierra.

I also attempted a run, probably the worst run I have ever experienced. Wheezing along, I found a network of paved paths that wind around the town. They would be better for a city cruiser bike, because, pavement. But I was still glad to find a place to run, such as it was. Three miles felt like 30, and I gave up.

The most annoying thing about flying in and out of Mammoth are the flight times. Flights don't leave until after 4 pm, guaranteeing a gap between hotel checkout and flight, and if you want to do anything, you would need to hunt down a shower.  But on the way to the airport I found the Inyo Craters, a fascinating spot.
Too hot to soak in
In summary, Mammoth Lakes seems like a place that is more fun to visit than it would be to live in. The tourists would drive you crazy, it seems. The scenery, though.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the rest of Section F, CA, Tehachapi to Hiker Town. Third time is the charm

It was a long time since I had felt this miserable. I had climbed uphill for 17 miles and down for three, most of those miles in an old burn zone with zero shade. A heat rash bloomed on my legs, making it look as though I had some fatal disease. I was also blessed with an uncontrollable cough. I sat forlornly in Gamble Canyon, wondering why this section always seemed so determined to break me.

When you find a random bench, you sit on it.
Of course, I was lucky. In this wet year, streams were running both through Tylerhorse and Gamble Canyons. I didn't have to carry water all that far. Some wonderful souls had put up a cache with umbrellas. I had collapsed there, planning to camp, but two millenials came by and lit up cigarettes, telling me a big group planned to night hike and would hang out there for hours. No thanks. I was soon on my way.

Cache 549. Thanks, angels!
A lot of people night hike this section, but I can't really get into night hiking. The whole point of being out here on the PCT is to see it. And I find it hard to sleep during the day, so I would become a stumbling zombie. It's easier for me to slog on through the heat than try to sleep under a sparse patch of shade. So on I walked.

The flowers were amazing!
Two hikers came to join me in Gamble Canyon, but I left before both of them, seeking the relative coolness of dawn. It was fourteen miles to the fabled bridge and water faucet that marked the beginning of what was said to be one of the most trying sections of the PCT, the 17 mile long LA aqueduct. Flat, hot, and devoid of shade, it was a stretch I had dreaded for years.

Under the bridge, a bunch of trolls, or hikers, were shaded up. They immediately began snoring, planning to hike out at six. I had good intentions of waiting until late in the afternoon to hike out too, but boredom got to me. I might as well walk, I thought, how bad can it be?

Pretty bad, it turned out. The first part southbound was a dirt road, lined by low shrubs. Nobody was around. The sun beat down mercilessly. I made my way from Joshua tree to Joshua tree, seeking out slim shade for half an hour, walk for half an hour. I was aware that this was slightly ridiculous, but I was committed. As I walked, the aqueduct became more apparent, a swath of cement under which I knew a tunnel of water ran, water running to feed LA. It all seemed sort of extravagant and sad, to be taking water from this place and sending it west.

There's water under there.
After 20 miles I was done, unable to hobble the last nine to Hiker Town. I found a patch of Joshua trees and set up my tent. Immediately a rat leapt on it. Oh for Pete's sake, I thought. I packed back up and went out to the aqueduct. I'd sleep on one of the raised concrete squares. I had no idea what they were for, but I could hear water gurgling through them. It was a full moon night next to the creepy abandoned trailers (I found out later they belonged to a hunt club). Hunting what exactly, I had no idea. Rats?

In the night I heard the crunch of hikers night walking, and even though it must have been outstanding by the light of the moon, I didn't envy them. I had my cozy concrete, which had to be the strangest place I had ever camped.

My campsite!
The morning came quickly and I shuffled my way into Hiker Town past the open aqueduct. Unlike last time I was there, Hiker Town baked in the heat. I threw myself into a chair and chatted with Silver, who was doing his third PCT thru hike. At that point, I had to ask myself why. I also had to admit that while I love the trail, and especially the people I meet on it, I am ready to go back to regular backpacking. No more dry camps, no more long water carries, no more twenty mile days.

The lovely sight of an aqueduct in the morning.
I took an outdoor shower and prepared to go back to Mammoth for a couple of days of R&R, which in my case meant day hikes. I have 22 miles left. Twenty-two! It's hard to believe.
The weirdness of Hiker Town, again.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, California Section G, Walker Pass to Crabtree Meadow

"Why don't we just get out here?" Big Jim, who was sharing my PCT shuttle, asked. It was a fair question. We were right at Walker Pass, where the trail crossed the highway. There was a monster climb waiting, and the temperature was well on its way to the predicted high of 90 degrees.

"No!" I screamed. "I have to start where I left off!" Bemused, Jim just shook his head. But I knew: if I skipped it, that .7 miles would haunt me forever.

I headed slowly into the climb, which I knew was at least three thousand feet, maybe more; I had been too scared to look. The weight of gear I wouldn't need for miles hung heavy on my shoulders: microspikes, waterproof socks. This was, undeniably, the desert, scorching hot, only meager shade from low bushes. The next three days were punctuated only by the few water sources, small trickles of lifegiving water, most that would have been dry except in this wet year. Flowers still lined the trail, and the sunsets were spectacular, as they usually are in the desert.
Sunset at camp, day one. I came 15 miles from the pass to this really nice spot.

Sunset at camp, day 2. I shared this site on a plateau with about five other hikers, all of whom were equally mesmerized.
I quickly fell back into trail life. I saw the same hikers as we navigated the steep climbs. "Hey, Monkey Bars," they chorused as we met again at a water source. I belonged out there, I thought.
Shading up wherever possible. 

A bridge over the Kern, where swallows fly under and around. This was a place that was hard to leave. Cactus Cooler and Tye-Bye, on the bridge, seemed to agree.

At PCT mile 702 is the unofficial end of the desert and the beginning of the Sierra. Every hiker limps, crawls or bounds into the Kennedy Meadows store, and everyone on the porch claps, recognition of the difficult desert miles behind. Most everyone stays there for a day or two, resting and planning their strategy for the snowy Sierra. This year there was a particular panic around the area. The highest snow year in decades, the high Sierra loomed menacingly in some hikers' minds. The fear mongering was strong, aided by reports of frostbite, helicopter rescues, and avalanches. Reportedly, the Sierra was 99% snow-covered after Trail Pass.

I didn't want to stay at KM, so I ran through the store doing a quick resupply and headed back out, into the Sierra. The store had been slammed, so the pickings were slim. Hauling a block of cheese and a package of Oreos, I headed for the Kern River. Over the next two days, I wandered in a beautiful world of granite, water, and snow.

The end of this PCT section is at Crabtree Meadow, which meant I would have to do an out and back of 44 miles. Reports of the trail ahead were mixed, but the snow I encountered was enough to convince me to save these last 22 miles for another time. If the snow was passable, that was one thing. But I would have to cross two rivers, and with the melt in full swing, these could potentially be life-threatening. It wasn't worth it.

Gomez Meadow. Even enroute to a 24 mile day, I stopped to appreciate it.
At Trail Pass, I turned my back on the Sierra and bailed down to Horseshoe Meadow with two other hikers, floundering in sloppy snow.  All wasn't lost. I had a car and I had time. I could drive down to Hiker Town and fill in the fifty miles I had left there. Quickly reconfiguring from alpine to desert travel, I headed down to the place Flash and I had left a few weeks before. When we had last been at Hiker Town, we had been shivering in rain and wind. Now the heat baked the sparse grass. I would have to hike through a waterless landscape, one with little mercy. I had traded snow for relentless sun.
I didn't know how it would go, but I knew one thing: if I had to crawl, I was going to finish that section.
I came off the snowy pass with two other hikers, who waited for me and watched for me to cross a waist-deep river successfully on a sketchy log.