Descent From The Cold Into The Desert Heat
It was a hell of a jaw workout, but I wolfed down like five of those protein bars for lunch. Summiting Whitney was thoroughly draining, but we still had about 30 miles to hike before a most-anticipated resupply.
Back on the PCT, Whitney slowly shrank behind us as we pushed to get in as many more miles as we could. It was already midafternoon. The first few miles crossed a barren plateau before depositing us in an open forest of massive pines. Per Bear and I sat by a creek enjoying the last evening rays of sunshine to wait for Kirby to catch up. As the pinks and purples of another dazzling sunset faded to night, we found ourselves once again out in the open.
The wind whipped us around as we set up camp slowly in our exhaustion. I don’t remember the exact miles for the day, but it was in the high 20s. Throw in the highest summit in the lower 48, and even the persistent snapping of sil-nylon tent walls in the wind was unable to disturb my sleep.
The wind was still there to greet us in the morning. Around Forester Pass some other hikers had warned of a storm coming in a few days, and I was starting to believe it. But today was resupply day. No fucking around. I had enough protein bars to get me out, but I didn’t exactly consume them with enthusiasm. All I had to do was get to the trailhead at Horseshoe Meadow, and then I could breathe deeply and let the last week and a half wash over me.
And it turned out to be a great hike. The mountains were still huge and tree-covered, but a completely different landscape rose at their feet. A few creeks supported thick vegetation as we reached lower altitude. I paused momentarily at Cottonwood Pass to contemplate the meaning of life and other mundane things in the morning sun.
Leaving the PCT at Trail Pass, Kirby and I took off running. It was now difficult to ignore our hunger and the prospect of full bellies. We hopped across a small stream in a meadow, discussing which parking lot would be better to hitch out of and what we could use to bribe people to get us into town as fast as possible. We chose the hiker day-use lot over the supposedly busier equestrian lot.
You know that saying, “The Trail provides?”
A Trail Magic Reunion
I’m pretty sure I screamed this in a cartoonish voice as I hobbled and ran toward my friend coming up the trail. I hadn’t seen Leafy since we left Burney Mountain Guest Ranch. It was so great to see him back on the trail again! And to think we could have taken the other spur, or arrived a little sooner, or something else could have happened, and we would have never crossed paths. This, too, is trail magic.
Leafy was rejoining the trail after resupplying in Bishop, but he immediately agreed to stay in Lone Pine with us that night. The parking lot was dead, so instead we walked down the road to the first junction and waited for a car. We shared stories of our time in the Sierra, the struggles and the beauty, until we eventually heard a car approaching. I was so hungry and desperate to get to town by this point that I practically threw myself in front of the SUV.
Bingeing In Lone Pine
It was a bit tight with four of us cramped in the back seat, but it was a great ride. Carla and her partner, Jonathan, told us all about their Dual Sport adventures while their adorable cat Scrunch climbed all over us in the back. As we descended the massive switchbacks to the floor of the Owens Valley, a strange sensation washed over me. For the last ten days, I hadn’t been below about 8,500 feet, slowly adapting my body to perform with less oxygen. Now, in a matter of minutes, we descended over a mile into oxygen-rich air. I think I was breathing only about three to four times a minute!
It was with this heady, intoxicated feeling that I entered Lone Pine’s Pizza Factory. That buffet didn’t stand a chance from the second I walked in the door. It was an impressive display even by my high standards: three plates of pizza, two plates of salad, about six breadsticks, and probably three Cokes. When we walked by the restaurant the next day, they had removed the huge “All You Can Eat Lunch” banner from the sidewalk. I’m not kidding.
We splurged and split a motel room. None of us had showered since Tahoe (400 miles, nbd), and despite frequent stream and lake sponge baths, that room got real stinky real quick. Leafy kept the magic flowing and took all of our shit to the laundromat while the rest of us showered and relaxed. The rest of the day was resupply, McDonald’s, beer, Mexican food, more beer, then pass out.
It was a late start out of town the next day with lots of errands and another trip to McDonald’s. We hitched for a while before Wild Bill, the caretaker at the Whitney Portal campground, gave us a ride in his sweet old truck. The stop in town had been thoroughly refreshing and replenishing, and I was really excited to get hiking again.
Now deep into September, the nights were consistently chilly. This night was no exception, and I woke up early as wind started ripping through our camp. I packed quickly and got hiking before the others, hoping to work up some body heat. After about ten minutes, it started snowing. No fucking way.
The trail maintained a steady descent, making it difficult to warm up. And the snow didn’t stop. We regrouped at a campsite by Death Canyon Creek and had a small fire to try to warm up. It was still snowing when we doused the flames, and now it was starting to stick.
OK, so it wasn’t that bad. We were more worried for all of the PCT and JMT hikers we knew who were still crossing the high passes, where conditions were far more serious. For us, the weather finally broke (or, more accurately, we hiked out of it) around noon and we reveled in the sunshine. Looking back at where we had been, the trees sparkled with coats of frost.
More descending down to the Kern River, through what was now a noticeably dry landscape. I saw my first cactus. Per Bear had slowed down a bit with a sore knee, but we kept on and spent the night at the Kennedy Meadow campground.
Arriving at Kennedy Meadow is such a monumental occasion for NOBOs, and it was hard not to share in some of that excitement as I set out the next morning. The beginning of the desert. The final section. New terrain, plants, and animals to look forward to (and later, to fear). It was a stroll of only about 3 miles to the store, and I planned to drink my morning Carnation/coffee mix (cold) on the trail. I never got my hands out of my armpits for long enough to do so. It was frozen when we arrived at the store around 8 a.m.
Luckily for us, the super kind owner had opened early, and a fire was roaring in the wood stove. It’s such a cozy store, and I knew straight away that I would stay for a while. It was fun reading trail register entries from NOBOs earlier in the season. Per Bear arrived while we got food for the next stretch to Tehachapi, along with plenty of snacks for the morning.
Between the four of us, we polished off a box of Oreos, a sleeve of Fig Newtons, a bag of chips and salsa, and a beer each. Then around noon, the grill opened! Obviously we couldn’t leave before eating lunch. Desert heat, long water carries? Yeah yeah, we’ll be fine, we’re leaving soon…
We finally left a little before 2 p.m. Despite the morning frost, it was hot. And very dry. But the new surroundings more than made up for the discomfort. The Sierras shone against the skyline behind us as we gazed across a grassy valley with a few scattered trees. Scraggly vegetation grew in clumps along the canyons rising into the mountains as we began climbing again.
Spirits were high that night. The Sierra were really behind us now, and the border began to feel as if it were just over the next ridge. We even started talking about the end. From our campsite at Fox Mill Spring that night, we still had nearly 700 miles left to hike, but it felt like all of the major obstacles were behind us. Aside from waking up a few times to stoke the fire, I slept deeply that night.
Everything was frozen in the morning. Two Sawyer Squeezes were rendered useless weight for their owners. Not that they would have done anything against the uranium that supposedly contaminated Joshua Tree Spring, our water source for the day. After climbing out of a frigid wash, we enjoyed some nice sunshine walking across bare mountainsides overlooking the Owens Valley.
Luckily, we learned that just a few minutes past the irradiated Joshua Tree Spring there were collectible amounts of water flowing across the trail. No word on if it, too, was contaminated, but it smelled pretty bad and we only took enough to get to Walker Pass. Would there be water when we arrived? Survey says: Unknown.
The sun was already setting as we rounded Owens Peak on the way down to the pass. I waited on the north side of the road while a father screamed at his children to get back in the car, which continued for several minutes. When they finally did come back, he peeled out of the turnout on the way to some unknown, presumably unhappy destination. I hoped the kids would be back someday, exploring on their own with nobody to tell them where to go and when to get there.
The desert sky had just shifted toward its characteristically beautiful purple dusk as I signed the register at the entrance to the campground. An empty one-gallon jug was the only evidence of water, and I was basically out. As Leafy and I walked around, he suggested we go over and talk to the hunters hanging out at a nearby site.
Here’s a good lesson I can pass on to prospective hikers:
Talk To The Hunters
It was opening weekend for white-tail deer, and these hunters had gone all out. They happily shared their extra water so we could fill our bottles and make dinner. We talked with them for a while and bonded over our shared love of wild places and the need for a healthy environment. Before the deepening cold pushed us toward our sleeping bags, the hunters sent us off with a Gatorade, SoBe, and a couple of beers each.
We quickly came to another milestone the next morning: 2,000 miles hiked! If I remember right, it was also my three-month trail-versary. Pretty exciting stuff.
A nice climb along these seemingly fragile, crumbly-looking mountains turned into a long dirt-road walk with not much to see. Thankfully it was still early enough in the morning that the brilliant sun hadn’t made things too hot yet. A truck with some hunters passed us at one point, and mentioned that their friends were back at camp packing up to leave. It just so happened that their camp was along the road/trail. Remember the bold font above?
This may have been the best trail magic I’ve ever experienced. Completely random and uncontrived. These dudes didn’t even know they were on the PCT. They were, in fact, getting ready to leave after an unsuccessful (but, by the looks of it, very fun) weekend. “Do you want the leftover carne asada we made last night? We can make you some tacos.”
Um, yes. Please. Y’all, they were so good. I can’t even describe. Tony’s Uncle (I think?) George had made the salsa too. Think of the best salsa you’ve ever eaten, then imagine what it would taste like if it tasted even better. That’s how good this salsa was. Tony and company were so generous, and offered us basically everything that they had left over. A few Budweisers joined the Modelo in my pack from last night’s hunters. We even scored a few swigs of Fireball! After over an hour of enjoying how fucking awesome people can be, we said our thanks and moved on.
You honestly can’t write better days than this. The trail was smooth and gently graded. I was with close friends. We found genuine trail magic from two groups of strangers in basically 12 hours. The weather was perfect. I finished a beer on the road. Everything’s coming up Millhouse. I practically flew down the sweeping switchbacks to Bird Spring Pass, where we had second lunch next to the well-stocked water cache.
This is also around the time when I started seeing full-size Joshua trees. They’re quite odd looking.
Thank goodness for that cache, because this is a seriously dry stretch. Shade is not a word frequently used in this area. Our miles for the day were determined by the location of the next cache, which we would certainly be reaching after dark. Now I was looking forward to night hiking (at least a little bit), especially with the added bonus of walking through the spectacular desert sunset.
The trail got a bit treacherous after dark, as we came across a few washed-out sections. Despite hiking in proximity to each other, I had a feeling the whole time that an animal was following me. We made it to the dirt road pullout and I stayed awake barely long enough to eat dinner.
Just like that, the scenery changed again in the morning. The dry, scrubby brush gave way to a heady pine forest. There was shade, and water. I felt myself relax a little, more comfortable in this familiar environment than the dry new world of the desert.
I was in a funk for the rest of the day, though. Nothing rational of course. Just one of those “this stupid trail is out to get me” days. The trail was crumbly and generated many near-falls. It wound endlessly around on a contour, rather than descending to a basin, then climbing the other side a mile away. Gnats started bombarding me in the afternoon. And we began our first wind farm stretch. Clean energy benefits aside, they aren’t much to look at…
Being in a bad mood (AKA having a bad attitude) for 20 miles really makes you tired. My mood wasn’t much improved upon arriving at Golden Oak Spring, which looked like it might be hiding a corpse in its filmy, murky water. Somehow Per Bear didn’t get sick after drinking half a liter without any kind of treatment. I’ll drink lots of water raw, but definitely not that stuff.
Per Bear decided to call it a night there, but Leafy and Kirby and I wanted to get a bit closer to Tehachapi. Leafy and I left first, and just minutes after turning on our headlamps we saw eyes. I’m pretty sure it was just a bobcat, but it was too dark to make out more than a general feline shape and its relative size. Thankfully we made it to camp without further incident.
I woke up under more whooshing turbines, still kind of grumpy and anxious to get to town. It probably didn’t help that I knew about half of the hike would be on roads again. But once I hit the singletrack, things turned around. I enjoyed watching the birds gliding lazily through the air. The mountains descended steeply to a broad, flat valley, and I could see the trail winding its way almost to the bottom.
We didn’t really have a plan for Tehachapi. After trying for a few scary minutes to hitch the highway, Leafy finally got through to a trail angel who could come pick us up. We didn’t really want to get back on trail that night, but we were also cautiously watching our budgets. I needed to go to the post office to pick up my new pack from Gossamer Gear, which is of course on the opposite side of town from the DG where we would resupply.
Our string of trail magic since exiting the Sierra would continue that day. Tehachapi turned into a great stop. More on that next time. Everyone loves a good cliffhanger!
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