Awake at the usual time, I got to work, organizing my things for the day: clothes, food, toothbrush, shoes. I did as much as I could, sitting on my tush in the tent to save my feet like the girls did. For once, I actually beat them getting ready.
Today we’d be doing 11 miles to Sonora Pass, the home stretch of the loneliest section of trail I’d ever hiked. It felt great to be passing the 100-mile milestone and possibly hitting civilization later that day.
Fish Nugget and Squarepants would be hitching to Bridgeport where they had packages waiting. I needed to get a ride to Kennedy Meadows where I’d sent my box. The idea of hitching made me nervous, as I’d never done it before, but I so longed for a nero in Kennedy Meadows, I vowed to get through it somehow.
I hit the trail ahead of the girls, knowing they’d soon catch up. I faced a 1000-foot climb through a barren landscape that frankly didn’t look too inviting. But the trail wasn’t going to hike itself, so I pressed on.
Climbing up the talus, I stopped often to catch my breath. An extra five liters of water weighed me down, critical for getting through the next 10.4-mile waterless stretch. I stopped to take pictures and marvel at the views.
A drink of water, a deep breath, one foot in front of the other. Sharp stones shifted beneath every step. I placed each one with care so as not to slip and fall, which I almost did more than once. Rhythmic breathing, count to eight, staring at my feet.
What the hell am I doing out here? I wondered in a moment of sheer exhaustion.
The intensity of the thought caught me by surprise. It came with a heavy sense of despair, like what’s the point, why can’t I be done with this, why am I wasting time on this trail? This was the first time I’d felt this way the entire trip.
I stopped walking. My feet hurt already.
Sun creeping higher in the sky, at least it still felt cool out. Going up this mountain in the heat of day would have been miserable. I drank some water, then I looked at the view. With every miserable step upward, every lung-wrenching pant, every arch-stabbing pain, the view became ever more astounding.
I could see hundreds of miles of mountaintops, the highest and most beautiful in all of California, perhaps even the world. Below I saw glistening lakes, deep canyons, verdant meadows, craggy rocks and carpets of forest blanketing the earth.
Am I some crazy masochist, being out here, suffering like this?
The hubby certainly thought so and maybe Honeybunny, too. But I just loved these views. I don’t know why. They spoke to me. They filled my soul. They fed my heart with wonder. Maybe this was my God. Nature, the universe, I don’t know.
Taking a break, I talked to this nice guy named Ben doing the California section. He said he averaged 15-20 miles a day. How did all these people go so fast?
Numerous hikers passed me today, the tail end of the PCT hiker herd. I chatted with a couple of them, including another European girl, who also needed to stop and breathe for a few moments as we approached 10,000 feet.
I marveled at how many overseas hikers I kept meeting on the trail. When I asked her why she was out here, she said to see America, much like Tator Tots back in Mammoth.
If only more Americans could see America like this. It was a privilege to be out here.
Finally cresting the top, I found the girls sitting on the rocks, taking in the forever views. I sat down next to them and stayed a while.
We talked about our plan for the day, not sure if we’d try to hitch to our final destinations or sleep at the trailhead this evening. We decided to play it by ear.
I reminded them that they were welcome to hike ahead from Sonora Pass without me if they wanted to bust out for Canada.
I told them that doing this remote section together had been important for me and thanked them for hanging in, but going forward I felt could handle hiking alone if necessary as the upcoming sections weren’t nearly as remote.
They took it all in but didn’t say anything either way, so I figured they’d think about it and let me know. That’s how things were. You put something out there, let it marinate, and when it came time to decide, we all just decided, and that was that.
The moonscape morphed into a stunning ridge walk. Hiking at the top of the world, I saw Kennedy Lake below, where I backpacked many years ago one weekend with my friend Irene and her buddy Trish.
We’d hiked 7.5 miles from the trailhead, all uphill on a hot summer day, exhausting ourselves and battering our feet. Bay Area residents at the time, were out of shape, not used to the altitude, the heat or the weight on our backs.
As we approached the lake, some mildly creepy, possibly drunk cowboys yelled what sounded like lewd invitations to join them from across the meadow.
We pretended not to hear and motored on, faster, bodies screaming for rest, minds pushing forward, hoping they wouldn’t follow and harass us.
They didn’t, and we finally found a beautiful spot to camp halfway down the length of the lake. Uphill, concealed in a grouping of windswept trees, we enjoyed a lovely evening of shared food and stories around the campfire. Though I did keep my eye out.
This might have been Trish’s first trip. She soldiered through with new boots and never a negative word, but I later heard through Irene that it had been a bit much, and she wouldn’t be doing a big hike like that again.
I understood. Still, it had been an enjoyable trek through beautiful terrain. I loved my chick backpack trips and could never get enough of them.
Looking down below on where I’d been so many years before for some reason felt great. Somehow it added perspective to the terrain.
Down there I’d looked up and wondered what was up here. Now I knew.
Past Kennedy Lake I could see the edge of the canyon that led to Relief Reservoir. Several years ago I’d taken Fish Nugget out there on a six-day loop through the Emigrant Wilderness. A leisurely trip averaging six miles per day through pristine high-country terrain, the scariest thing we encountered was a herd of cattle by Relief Creek wandering around our tent at night. Fortunately they didn’t trample us.
I remembered talking to her about the PCT as we ascended Brown Bear Pass. Perhaps that’s where the seed was planted. And now, here she was, doing it, with me tagging along. The teacher becomes the student.
So few trees survive up here, stilted, whipped and beaten by wind. Down below in the forests, the trees seem so plentiful. But up here, you see how few there really are compared to the sea of rocky peaks extending from here to Sacramento.
I imagine how much has been cleared for farmland, homes and cities since the settlers arrived, trees that took hundreds of years to mature. How ecosystems changed, how species were lost, how the Indians were killed off and relegated to reservations—I wonder if perhaps we should be more concerned about the denuding of our human habitat. How many humans can one earth reasonably support?
The trail crossed a bunch of snowfields, many icy and slick. They definitely slow you down, and I could see why the early season PCT hikers get so sick of snow. No post-holing for us, thank goodness, but still, some were rather treacherous.
I glissaded down one of them, which was totally fun. Thank goodness for pants that protected my legs, as I could just sit down and go. Otherwise it’d be an ice burn fest.
On the way down, I messed up one of my hiking poles and thought it was ruined, but later figured out how to correct it. I just love these old Lekis with their comfortable, two-way handgrips. I don’t care if they’re a bit heavier. They’re tough.
Catching up to Fish Nugget, I walked with her for a while.
She gave me hitching advice. She said not to worry, people are nice. Just stick out your thumb and look friendly. She said it’s easier when you’re a girl and that she’s never had a problem getting a ride.
Mom-alert kicked into high gear. I said be careful, some people are creeps.
She said she knew and that the one time she got the bad vibe, she got out of the situation just fine. We talked about how to escape iffy scenarios.
Toward the end of the day we reached the end of our magnificent ridge walk and began the long descent to Sonora Pass. This was the first pass we had to hike down to rather than up. Stark, yet beautiful, the terrain seemed other-worldly.
We traversed a lot of steep, rocky slopes, and a couple of super sketchy snowfields. The kind where you don’t want to look down, or you might fall to your death, yikes. Down, down, down, it never seemed to end.
A long, tough day on my feet, they were dying at the end, my arches aching.
I tried not to dwell on it, but pain dogged me every day on the trail. It hurt to get back on my feet each morning and took a few minutes to work out. Then, it’d be okay for the initial few miles before the pain party got going for the day—feet, shoulders, hips, legs, whichever hurt most at the moment. They all took turns.
But I loved on my body parts, anyway, thankful they could take me here.
We decided to camp at the trailhead that night and hitch to resupply in the morning. I followed the girls like a zombie, moaning and groaning about walking in circles, before they found the perfect little campsite. I threw down my pack and got my tent up as fast as I could so that I could get on to the business of collapsing within.
Elated to be off my feet, I finally broke down and took some Vitamin I, so that I could actually sleep pain-free tonight. Thank you, feet, for taking me this far!
Tomorrow I have to hitch a ride for the first time in my life, all alone.
Hopefully I won’t be raped and murdered.