The girls packed up in record time this morning. Out of food and obsessing about their next in-town meal, hunger propelled them toward an uncharacteristic early start. I gave them my last breakfast bar and invited them to join me at Kennedy Meadows that night for dinner.
I even offered to pay for their campsite if they decided not to stay overnight in Bridgeport. They said thanks and that they’d let me know what they’re doing via text, trotting off down the hill.
So there I was, all alone.
I didn’t know if they’d want to rejoin me tonight, tomorrow or if they’d want to hike on ahead without me to make better time to Canada. And now I had to hitchhike for the first time in my life. I sighed and packed up.
I was a kid in the era of Patty Hearst. Girls who hitchhiked got raped and murdered. Or at least, that’s what everybody around me said, so I feared the whole thing: offering rides to strangers who could pull a gun on me and make me do nefarious things, and taking rides from strangers who would surely whisk me away to some backwoods shack to do even more unspeakable things.
But the girls and all the PCT blogs I read said it wasn’t like that along the trail. Apparently, most people were nice. And if someone gave you the creeps, the strategy was to suddenly remember that you forgot something back at camp, say thanks anyway and run like hell.
Well, guess I’d better just do this.
I shouldered my pack and walked down the hill to the road. Figuring it was more efficient to give potential rides as much info as possible so as not to waste time, last night in my tent I’d made a sign on the back of one of my maps that said Kennedy Meadows. I put a big smiley-face on it, too, you know, to look less psycho.
I picked a spot by the entrance to the trailhead parking lot, where there’d be plenty of room to safely pull over. Nervous, I debated my look, wondering if I should take off my pack or keep it on, like any passing motorist truly cared. I heard a car.
Drawing a deep breath, I put on a goofy smile, stuck out my thumb and did a little side step to look like a happy person. Because maybe if I looked fun, that would help. People drove by and waved, but they didn’t stop. Okay, maybe that was too much. I decided to just stick with a smile and hold the sign.
Wait, there was somebody, smiling and waving, too.
I headed toward them as they pulled over. Oh, but they were turning into the trailhead to park. Doh, total fakeout.
Not many cars were going my direction at 8:30 in the morning. More seemed to be going the other way. There’d be a car, then nothing, then a couple more, then nothing. Time dragged on. Would anybody stop for me?
Old married couples, no. Chick in convertible with earbuds on, no. Tourists, no. Two guys in a car full of camping gear, no. Local guy in truck, yes!
A big, silver, half-ton Ford pulled over. The driver, a guy in in his mid-fifties, said, “You going to Kennedy Meadows?”
I walked over to the open window with a hopeful smile.
“Yes,” I said, wondering if he was some kind of nut job while trying not to betray that thought on my face.
“That’s where I’m going. You might as well join me,” he said, waving his arm to invite me in. “Toss your pack in the back.”
“Thanks,” I said, relieved, yet also still on alert.
Hoisting my pack into the truck bed, I couldn’t help noticing the chainsaws, axes and woodworking tools piled high in the back. If this guy wanted to murder, slice and dice me, he certainly had all the right equipment.
But I climbed in anyway. After 45 minutes of waiting, I was glad for the ride, and he didn’t seem like a sociopath at first glance. But who really knew?
My ride turned out to be a super funny, log furniture artist with tons of stories.
He said everybody calls him Woody. A carpenter by trade, he’d built custom homes in Atherton, Tahoe and all along the Sonora highway, done high-end kitchen cabinetry, restored actual Woodies, but he liked making furniture the best. I’m pretty sure he was Twaine Hart’s local bad boy, with three ex-wives and two grown kids whom he dearly loved, despite a difficult situation with their mom.
Pretty much his whole life story spilled out in the first 15 minutes we were on the road. I forget my exact words, but I think I said something along the lines of: wow, that’s a lot to tell someone you just picked up off the highway.
Woody said he’s had no filter since January 1. He told me he got so tired of tip-toeing around everybody’s neuroses that he just couldn’t take it anymore and decided to be 100% honest about everything no matter what people thought. He said it felt great.
I have to say, I admired him for that. I hate conflict and tend not to tell everyone what I think all the time because it’s too exhausting to deal with the aftermath.
Watching him swerve over the middle line, I asked him about his art. He said he loved going into the woods to find the perfect log. When he found one that spoke to him, he envisioned the piece that it would become and got really excited about crafting something beautiful and unique that would last for generations.
He said he had to go into the forest on a log hunt that afternoon and invited me to join him. I hesitated, thinking about all those chain saws in back, like, oh yeah, that’s a great idea, going off into the woods with some strange guy I met just a minute ago.
Still, you’re supposed to experience travel, right? To step out of your comfort zone and get to know the locals? So I said maybe, but only after I got my laundry done.
He picked up on my hesitation and joked about all the saws in back, assuring me he wasn’t an axe murderer. We laughed, but I was still a little nervous about it.
I asked him where he’d been driving to and why he bothered picking me up.
He said he was up at Kennedy Meadows for the weekend and had dropped off another hiker at the summit. Seeing me on the way back, he thought, why not?
I said this made him a trail angel. He’d never heard the term, so I told him about the PCT and how trail angels help hikers along the way. He liked the idea of helping people and said he’d probably do more of it whenever he was up here.
Arriving at Kennedy Meadows Resort, my first priority was to secure a dorm room. Fortunately they had space for the night, though the rooms wouldn’t be ready until after lunch. No matter, I bought one on the spot, thrilled that I’d be able to take a hot shower and do my laundry anytime that day, now that I was a guest.
Woody generously bought me breakfast.
Eggs over easy, hash browns, toast and coffee–mmmm, coffee, I missed you so! We sat at the best table in the corner on the porch, sharing stories and watching the comings and goings of campers, cowboys and other summer visitors enjoying this heavenly little oasis in the Sierra Nevada.
It felt great to be back in civilization. And because many of the people around me were from the Central Valley of California where I grew up, it felt oddly like home.
Woody had some extra clothes in his truck for camping that weekend, so he let me borrow a shirt to wear while I did laundry, which meant I could wash everything, thank God. He also had a few things that needed cleaning, so I added them to my load and said I’d meet him later.
Yeah, so there I was, doing some strange guy’s laundry, but why not?
I went to the back porch and dug around the hiker boxes. I found a pair of men’s plaid shorts to wear with Woody’s shirt, along with a fuel canister and some sunglasses for Squarepants. I also found a couple of rice dinners I could use on the next leg of the journey and a baggie of red quinoa.
There were a bunch of other hikers hanging around out back. I put my pack in a corner, snagged a chair for the laundry, and went to the shower house to wash away two weeks of stink and grime.
It took a while for the water to warm up, I think because the housekeeping staff was busy washing linens next door, no doubt in hot water. But when it finally came in, that hot, hot water tumbling from the showerhead felt amazing.
Washing my hair, I heard Spanish in the background, reminding me of home. I’m guessing the staff was Mexican because their pronunciation was much clearer than what I hear in Puerto Rico, where they drop a lot of consonants.
I lingered under the hot water, enjoying every second.
Coming out clean in Woody’s shirt and the hiker box shorts, I felt like a fresh, new person. I sauntered back to the hiker porch, plopped down in a chair and just sat there. Not hiking. People-watching. Reveling in my cleanness.
Sharing laundry facilities with housekeeping, it took time and constant vigilance to finally nab a free washer and most of the afternoon to get a dryer. I even inflicted my lame Spanish on the staff, who chuckled at my efforts but gave me points for trying. I learned the word for busy drier was occupado, which made sense.
One of the staffers ultimately pointed me to a free dryer ahead of the rest of the hiker herd, so it paid to be friendly. But I didn’t care how long it took. I was having one of the best days of my life hanging out on that back porch, soaking it all in.
I talked to Patrick, a PCT hiker with no trail name and saw the Wolf Pack, a group of hikers I’d followed on Yoda’s blog. Apparently Yoda had gone on ahead.
I watched the wranglers, the mini-wranglers and assorted employees come and go. I went into the store for my resupply box and bought additional food for the next leg of the journey, organized it at my leisure, and milked a dreamy dark beer.
Another hiker had set himself up with some Coronas and lime and tortilla chips. He offered me some, but I politely declined as I had my heart set on a second dark beer.
I checked in at the front desk a little early to see if the rooms were ready.
They were, so I got first pick in a five-bed room. I went for standalone bed in its own nook, the most secluded of all, thanking my lucky stars. Here in the corner I could spread out with a bit of separation from my roommates, whomever they might be.
Going back outside, I called The Hubby on a pay phone to catch up and ask if he’d heard from the girls. He said not yet. I told him my plan to hike out tomorrow morning, with or without them, but preferably with them.
He said he’d text Fish Nugget on the Delorme to find out what their plans were. Once again without cell coverage or internet, I’d have to call him back later to find out what he’d learned.
I moseyed over to the saloon to find Woody and update him on the laundry situation. I told him I didn’t think we’d have time to go log hunting as the dryer was taking forever. He seemed fine with that as he’d been hanging out with friends who had a cabin and working on the owner of the resort to let him do something better with a plywood door.
Perfect, because all I really wanted was a lazy day off.
Later I finished the laundry, folded everything, put it in my room, changed back into my real clothes and went back outside to sit on the porch with beer number two, watching the world go by.
Woody came around to check in and share something special, the secret employee wifi password. Score! He’d charmed it off an eight year-old mini-wrangler, aka, the future miss Tuolumne County.
I Skyped The Hubby to see what the kids were planning and learned that they wanted to meet at the trailhead tomorrow at noon, perfect.
I gave Woody his laundry and told him I’d made a dinner reservation outside for three, thinking the girls might show up. Since that wouldn’t be happening, and he didn’t have any plans, I invited him to join me.
So glad I had a reservation because the tiny restaurant was overwhelmed.
After we were seated, I heard the hostess telling a couple of PCT hikers that it’d be an hour wait, so we invited them to join us since we had space, which they appreciated.
Grizz and Penny had started hiking the PCT at the border and met along the way, though I’m not sure they were a couple. Grizz was a former penny stock seller turned carpenter looking for work in October, so insta-bond with Woody. Penny was a quiet, pierced, artsy-type who’d spent a couple of years traveling the world wwoofing on farms, a Fish Nugget-Squarepants kindred spirit.
We enjoyed a delicious prime rib meal, including salad, mashed potatoes, chili beans and corn on the cob. Woody and I shared the excess to help our new friends to help abate their hiker hunger. With a bread pudding dessert and small glass of red wine, it was a delightful meal on a summer evening with new friends.
Woody joked with, or rather, tormented the waitress, her first day on the job on a super busy night. We told her she was doing a great job and tipped her well.
After dinner I checked email for anything urgent, dealt with a couple of things, then went over to the saloon to buy Woody a drink to thank him for being my personal trail angel. We hung out for a bit with margaritas, chatting and soaking up the scene in this cool little cowboy bar. Woody seemed to know everybody, like a good party host.
Returning to my room after ten, way past hiker midnight, I thought sure I’d be the last one in, but a girl came in after me. Every bed had someone sleeping in it. I’d heard horror stories about loud snoring and other noises, but all was surprisingly quiet.
Having to pee in middle of night after the generator went off was a bit awkward. Pitch black out, I groped my way out the door and down the hall through the darkness, hoping nobody else was up doing the same thing.
But it was so nice to use a toilet, to be clean for a day, to have a comfy bed with a pillow and blankets and to make new friends.
It had truly been a perfect day in this authentic slice of the American West.
I even made a point of telling the front desk staff how wonderful it had been, just before dinner. These people were hardworking, helpful and friendly. They said thanks; it made their day.
But the pain to get here, I think, was a big part of what made this day so special.
Suffering sweetens the reward, right?