Awake in the dark, I threw off the nanoblanket after a rush of heat. My body felt achy almost everywhere. I could not get comfy. My tent had been sandwiched into an awkward, sloping spot with lumps underneath. Much as I love the Zrest, it did not provide enough padding.
I debated the middle-of-night-pee, finally relenting. At least the stars rewarded me with a glimpse through the trees into the arms of the Milky Way. Burrowing back into my semi-functional cocoon, I thought it amazing that I seemed to get enough sleep no matter how much tossing and turning went on during the night. So much tent time, what else was there to do, I guess?
Waking up late the next morning, I volunteered to get water for everybody.
It took a while to pick my way down the steep descent to Rancheria Creek. At the bottom, I whacked my way through some bushes, hopscotched a few boulders and found my way to a decent spot to filter water.
A mid-sized waterfall pounded over the rocks upstream, its sound a deafening roar. I wouldn’t have heard a bear if it were two feet behind me. Or a mountain lion. I whipped my head around. No lady-munching predators. Still, good to be alert.
Filtering three bags of water, I admired the serene little Barbie beach across the turbulent creek, tucked to the side in a quiet crook. If I were a kid out camping with my parents, I would have totally played there.
Back at camp, the girls were packing up. I sat down to inventory the food in my bear can because Fish Nugget was running low. In stellar mom style, I trimmed my excess and rustled up a whole day of rations for her. The girls then took off at 10:30, which I had mixed feelings about. Like, thanks for the food, see you later. I tried to shake it off.
On the trail by 11:12, it took me up, down then level through a relatively narrow canyon, reminiscent of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, but on a smaller scale. The first three miles rolled by. Then I reached the dreaded Rancheria Creek crossing.
I thought I’d see the girls, but they were nowhere to be found.
This was a little surprising, as I had asked them to wait for me at sketchy creek crossings. Some of these waterways were truly terrifying. I did not have the experience or confidence they did and feared slipping and drowning alone in the wilderness.
How could anybody even call this thing a creek? In front of me raged a river of whitewater crashing over huge rocks with deep eddies—only a horse could walk through this, or maybe Bigfoot, but not some 125-pound lightweight like me. I walked downstream a bit to make sure the trail really crossed here. Yep, it sure did.
Recalling the impromptu river report that guy gave me back near Snow White’s Forest, I walked upstream to look for an easier route across, beating back a tinge of panic.
Ever since when I was a kid and almost drowned in a backyard swimming pool, I’ve had a quasi-fear of water.
My mom once took me on river raft trip down the Mokelumne River, just below Comanche Dam. This was maybe, at worst, a Class II affair. I screamed in terror almost the whole way. It wasn’t the rapids that scared me so much, since they were shallow, fast-moving and fun. No, it was the deep, dark, quiet parts that sent me over the edge. Like any moment, the raft would spontaneously sink, and I’d be sucked under into the abyss. All this with a life jacket on. I don’t know how she did it, but Mom stayed calm the entire afternoon despite my hysteria.
Another near drowning in a Class IV rapid the day before college graduation, flipping a canoe in Donner Lake with the kids on board, barely making it across a raging, crotch-high Cherry Creek early one summer in the Emigrant Wilderness, I was pretty much terrified to be facing Rancheria Creek alone.
I can’t believe Fish Nugget just left me here. I suppose for her, this kind of thing isn’t sketchy at all?
One thing’s for sure, getting pissy wouldn’t help.
I took a deep breath and focused on the task at hand, working my way upstream, eyes roving for a safer entry point.
The creek crossings along this section of the PCT are notorious for their treachery. I’d done okay so far, despite my share of fearful moments, and we certainly had it easier than hikers passing through earlier this season. As most of the snow had melted, we weren’t getting the worst of it. I was especially relieved to see that the Kerrick Canyon Deathwalk had melted away, allowing us to pass on a nice dirt trail.
There had been another PCT blogger this season who fell into a river and was swept downstream. Luckily, another hiker was there to fish her out. She and her partner were so shaken that they decided to skip the rest of the snowy Sierra and return to finish it at the end of their trip. I don’t blame them at all.
Last fall when Fish Nugget announced she wanted to hike PCT, one of the blogs I binge-read to reacquaint myself with the trail was Walking With Wired. A solo female hiker who did the PCT in 2011, I thought hers would be good to learn from. Petite like us, river crossings were a huge challenge for her, even more so given that she hiked through the early season in a record snowpack year with colossal runoff.
She made it through, but reading her account convinced me that maybe I didn’t ever need to hike the whole PCT all at once.
Why torment myself pushing through an icy, perilous Bear Creek? Why struggle through snowbound High Sierra passes, postholing for miles, when it’s so much more delightful and gorgeous in the summer?
Of course, the romance of walking from Mexico to Canada all in one season is high. But for me, I think it’s more fun to do whatever sections I want in their optimal season. And if I never hike the Mojave? I doubt I’d cry over it on my deathbed.
Still, there I was in the middle of nowhere with no one to help me. I had to somehow get myself and my stuff across this torrential creek intact.
I bushwhacked further upstream, looking for alternate pathways where other people might have gone, but I didn’t see any signs. I scrambled quite a ways upstream before finding a line that looked like it might work.
I studied my route, unclipped my waist belt and gripped my poles tight.
Cautiously I stepped onto the first rock. The initial stones were above water. The next few were just under a gushing surface. I tread slowly, deliberating each step, testing each foothold before committing weight, using the poles for added stability.
Stepping onto a super slick rock, I almost fell but recovered. Water flowed fast all around me. I looked across to the other side, almost there. Deep breath.
I lunged for the last rock and made it. Thank God.
Picking my way through the brush on the other side, I searched for the trail. It took a while to find it, but I did. Relieved, I continued on my way.
I tried not to obsess about the girls leaving me on my own at such a harrowing ford, but I couldn’t help it. Maybe the truth was, they just wanted to split and hike faster.
As the trail headed up out of the canyon, I hatched a plan to set them free.
The girls were expecting packages in Bridgeport and had to hitch there. I’d sent my resupply to Kennedy Meadows North and planned to spend at least one night there no matter what. Beer, coffee, food, laundry and a shower were calling my name. If the girls wanted to do their own thing from Bridgeport onward, I’d be cool with that.
Hiking this remote section alone would have been completely unnerving. I was glad they’d stuck with me. But the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness and beyond was a different story, not so remote, something I felt okay doing by myself.
The girls had taught me to walk alone.
The trail snaked onward into granite spires adorned by wildflowers, aspen groves and old growth sequoias. I sat down next to one of these remarkable giants for a while, resting, wishing for magic tree powers to get me up the mountain. Before leaving, I peed at its base, a little nitrogen offering of thanks for providing a shady place to sit on a hot, steep ascent.
Maybe the longer you’re out in the wilderness, the nuttier you get. Or maybe talking to trees in your head keeps you going up what would otherwise be an insurmountable mountain. And who gives a crap if it sounds crazy because there’s nobody out here to judge you, anyway. Trees are a critical part of our human habitat. They deserve more worship, along with heartfelt, beneficial, nutrient-rich offerings.
I continued up the mountain, wondering when my hiker super legs would finally kick in, so that I’d be able to walk fast and do 20-mile days, like almost everyone else out here. Would it ever happen?
Patterned breathing, count to eight. Again and again and again and again.
Gorgeous canyon views welcomed me at the top before the descent began into Stubblefield Canyon. Halfway down, I passed a troop of teenage Boy Scouts trudging up the mountain, one so tired he could barely speak. When I asked where they were headed, he tried to answer, but his words came out so jumbled, he gave up on forming coherent sentences.
“I don’t know what I’m saying,” he huffed, waving his hands in the air as he passed.
“Don’t worry,” I said, trying to put him at ease. “I know the feeling.”
One of the troop leaders stopped to chat (and breathe) for a minute. He told me they were headed from Wilma Lake to Benson Lake, a 16-mile day (or death march, judging by the looks on some of their faces). Since Wilma was our destination, I inquired about the trail ahead. I was slightly horrified to learn that I’d have to go up and down another massive mountain just like this one.
How had I’d missed that one on the map?
I also learned from some of the boys further down the line that they’d built a log bridge across the next big creek as a community service project. Seriously, on top of a 16-mile day? I told them I loved them. Troop 310, you rock!
The trail continued onward, a long, shady, downhill stretch. At one point a lovely creek splashed over the entire trail, like walking through a series of garden waterfalls. At the bottom, a small valley of big, old trees loomed large.
I found the girls near the creek crossing, resting in the dirt. I stopped to visit for a few minutes, razzing them some for leaving me alone with Rancheria Creek. We ended up laughing about it, as they truly didn’t think I’d have any problem crossing it. Yeah, well, little did they know.
Then I told them I wanted to get across this next creek to string up my hammock and rest on the other side. My feet were so tired and sore, I just had to get off them for a bit, but I did want to get the creek crossing out of the way first.
I was also feeling a bit third-wheelish again and wanted to give them their space.
Compared to the last ford, this one was a piece of cake. The only real challenge was to keep my feet dry. Happy to give the Boy Scout bridge a try, thin logs arranged in a criss-cross pattern had been placed across the water, the current pushing against them. The logs shifted and rolled as I stepped from one to the other, the whole thing quite precarious. But I made it across with toasty dry feet.
On the other side, I hung my hammock, ate lunch, put on my bug gear and chilled for a while. My feet grateful for rest, I enjoyed watching the water roll by.
The Boy Scout bridge seemed to get sketchier with each crossing. Squarepants walked across fine, despite a dramatic log wobble. A former gymnast, I expected no less. Fish Nugget tried it next, but lost her balance and ended up walking through the creek. The girls passed by, gave me a little pep talk and confirmed our plan to meet at the lake.
Later, as I filtered water, two more guys showed up at the creek. One crossed the bridge with parts floating away underneath him, while the other opted to remove his shoes and simply wade through. The bridge was pretty much shot after that.
Time to move on to mountain number two, double jeopardy.
I’d gone only five miles so far, with another five to go. It was already mid-afternoon.
My feet felt better after the break, though still strained. I managed to stay ahead of two other girls hiking behind me all the way uphill, which was kind of motivating. I went fast downhill on my tiptoes to ease foot pain, worried about the time as it was getting late. The last two miles were mercifully level before moving downward through a rocky forest toward Wilma Lake.
Wondering how I’d ever find the girls in the dimming light, Squarepants heard my poles and called my name. Fish Nugget joined in. I followed their voices through the trees to the campsite they’d chosen, miraculously, for once, nowhere near the trail or water.
Arriving at 7:30 pm, it felt way too late. But at least this time Fish Nugget hadn’t freaked herself out worrying about me, so we were making progress.
Mosquitoes buzzed everywhere, so I threw on my rain jacket, my head net and reinforced with a little Deet. Bug proof hiking pants and sun gloves still on—voila, life was good despite the mozzie mayhem. Five key items made all the difference in a bloodsucking world, yes, I worship my bug gear.
Sun setting, exhausted, I walked around for a bit before deciding where to set up. I finally settled on a cozy spot between some trees, pitching with the fly this time to ward off condensation. I talked myself through the whole thing.
Fish Nugget laughed about my habit of walking around camp, muttering to myself.
I tried sitting down and eat dinner, but the mosquitos kept buzzing around my mouth, so I paced and ate and conversed with the girls all at once, even as my feet screamed for rest. I devoured a yummy pasta salad with organic veggies and extra virgin olive oil out of a Ziploc bag, still loving this whole no-cook, no-clean thing.
After dinner, I stashed the bear can, threw my stuff in the tent, and finally dove in, at last giving my poor feet the relief they so craved. I treated them to a Handi-Wipes bath and rubbed Burt’s Bees lip balm all over my heels and fingertips, which had become oddly cracked and dried after massaging them into the sands of Benson Lake yesterday.
I cozied up in my sleeping bag, recorded notes from the day and stared up at the tent ceiling. Maybe the girls had been right about Rancheria Creek after all. No big deal.
It’d been a day of many crossings, alone on my own.