Episode 7: Waiting on the Sierras
Mojave/Tehachapi to Kennedy Meadows (Mile 702)
After over 700 miles, we’ve had our fill of the desert. Which is a good thing, because now we’re looking ahead of us to the Sierras:
We hiked out of Mohave reluctantly but under a necessary pressure; Kern County transit has an accommodating bus schedule which drops hikers off at the trail for a dollar, but it leaves once a day so our timing was predetermined. We climbed back up onto the trail with town-fresh legs, still resilient in the face of elevation and heat.
Our stay in Mojave was a couple days, since we’re now realizing that we need to slow down. Mojave is only a little over a week by trail from Kennedy meadows, and the snow is still coming down in the Sierra. At least that’s what we’ve heard, but we haven’t met a trail rumor yet that wasn’t larger than reality. Still, we’re in no rush to post-hole through the most scenic part of the trail.
What does this late snow mean? Well, it means that our microspikes and ice axes will get to hitch a ride with us after all. It means that nighttime temperatures might be a little uncomfortable, depending on how sensitive we are to cold (Toe Touch and I are vying for the position of #1 cold baby, but I think I’m winning.) It means that, if the passes are snowy, we’re less likely to have an easy time hitchhiking to town for our Resupply boxes. And, most importantly, it means that the limited services that exist in that 500-plus miles of trail may still be closed when we get there (i.e. Hot food at Kennedy Meadows, post office at Tuolmne Meadows, Bus service to Mammoth Lake). Could we enter the Sierra Mountains without these conveniences? Sure! Hundreds of hikers have already, and it sounds like the snow pack isn’t as bad as our midnight imagining might lead us to believe – but then again, what’s the rush?
To that end, this is how we found Toe Touch waiting for us 8 miles into the trail today:
We camped early and enjoyed the calm night without any rush to complete our camp chores, and without the customary grime of a long day’s hike on us.
The evening turned cold while the sun was still up, and we all escaped to our tents. I laid there thinking about the story I heard a couple weeks ago from a hiker named Stitches. He woke up on a cold morning, packed up and started hiking. Pretty quickly he realized he hadn’t knocked out his shoes and there was a big pebble in them, but he hiked through the discomfort for a while. After two miles he decided to stop and take it out so he wouldn’t get a blister, but when he got his shoe off a three-inch-long scorpion climbed out (I saw photographic evidence that will forever be burned into my mind). While I don’t doubt the experience was probably worse for the scorpion, I’ve been putting my shoes inside the tent on cold nights.
Little Spoon and I got a late start the next morning, making coffee from our precious water and Lingering in our sleeping bag cocoons. Fortunately, the cold weather struck right before a long waterless stretch of trail, so we can’t complain too much. We hiked separately for most of the day, meeting up at the sole water source to wait our turn by the trickling spring.
20 is the new 15
We had a little under 80 miles to Walker Pass and Lake Isabella where we sent ourselves packages, so we decided to hike four 20 mile days. Now that we have our hiker legs, 20 feels pretty easy on the PCT’s forgiving terrain. It’s hard to hike slower than 2 1/2 miles per hour even on the climbs or in the elements, so a 20 mile day with a few breaks is usually around 8 hours – our new work day. Over twenty and we feel a little tired; under twenty and we get to camp way too early.
Still, on our second day out from town we all had lots of energy, and, as the slowest hiker in my group of giant humans (did I mention everyone else is really tall?), I didn’t want to hold anyone back. When Toe Touch left, I told her, “Just hike as far as you want and I’ll find you!” Of course, I ate those words.
Spoon, Centerfold, and I got to the campsite at roughly 19 miles into our day a little after 5:30. We knew it was early for camping, but the campsite was so perfect. A valley of big, leafy oaks sheltered the many flat spots from wind, and some subterranean richness of water kept the rolling field supplied with soft grass all around. It was so calm and peaceful, it took a moment to realize that Toe Touch wasn’t there.
We looked around but couldn’t find her. I admitted to Centerfold and Spoon that I’d encouraged her to go as far as her legs wanted. Still, I had expected her to wait for us here. Toe Touch has traditionally been the most patient person in the group when it comes to waiting for people.
After debating for a few minutes, we kept going, up over the next set of hills and then the next one. We climbed higher and icy wind froze us as we hiked in the evening shadow of the mountain. After 23 1/2 miles, we gave up and camped by the light of the setting sun in a little valley, wondering where Toe Touch was.
The Mojave Brown Bear
The next day we got a late start. Or at least, Little Spoon and I did. My concern for Toe Touch was trumped by my greatest Achilles heel: a wet, cold, sunless morning. I would rather be greeted by hungry raptors outside my tent than cold rain. Spoon made me coffee and let me linger as long as possible before finally kicking me out into, as it turns out, a completely tolerable day (like I said, I’m aiming to be the #1 baby when it comes to cold weather.)
About two miles later, before we’d even warmed up completely, we ran into Toe Touch! I wasn’t expecting to see her until the end of the day, but she had left her tent late also (see: cold baby competition). Of course, Toe Touch did planks and push-ups instead of drinking coffee, but it’s almost the same thing…
We found out why she had gone missing. Toe Touch had just reached the perfect camping spot (some time way before us) when she heard what she thought was a deer crashing through the woods. Twenty feet in front of her, a big brown bear popped out onto the trail and stopped in its tracks. The two of them stared at each other for a while (we weren’t there to time the incident, but we’ve all concluded that soul transference happened), and then the bear ran away. Toe Touch figured the best way to deal with this run-in was to hike 6 more miles uphill while yelling loudly. It seems to have worked because she didn’t see anymore bears.
After TT’s bear story, we got to hiking. The day was cold but beautiful. We were back in the high desert, which every day grows more like the Northern climate I’m used to.
I’ve started to think of the region between 6,000 and 8,000 feet as the painter’s zone, because it almost looks fake. The undergrowth that is normally patchy with broken branches and questing weeds appears uninterrupted; covering those blemishes is an undulating blanket of tall, reddish green grass. The grass ripples with the continuous desert wind, soft like blended brush strokes on a canvas, and out of this impressionist base rises massive trees. The coniferous trees here are so defined, they’re almost cartoonish. The bark breaks apart as they grow and creates striated layers ween grooves three or four inches deep.
The final juxtaposition is staggering: whispering grass blushes against hard, dramatic lines that look like they’ve been inked into a comic book. As if to drive home the campiness, the trees send a cascade of novelty-sized pine cones into every depression, where they collect like the water that never settles because this world of oil and ink has a thirst that, hovering above the barren desert, seems almost lewd.
When we weren’t appreciating the landscape, we mostly talked about the upcoming Sierras and laughed at the upcoming ’40 mile water carry’. We stopped at the last water source, ostensibly, for 42 miles and filled up. We each carried around 8 liters but felt pretty unworried about the next couple days. We knew there was an extended loop detour we could take to get extra water and we’d been told by a good source about several water caches. Also, it was getting to be colder by the day and now rain clouds were threatening, so we figured we’d survive this section of desert that our maps describe as “hot, hot HOT!” (Thanks, Yogi.)
We woke up the next day to near-freezing temperatures and ominous clouds, but figured we’d better get hiking. After about 7 miles, they finally opened up and drenched us in a sudden storm. My experience with West Coast storms has been that they usually don’t pour; they mist. We’ve hiked through what I would describe as ‘soggy air’ on this trip – and we’ve had our fair share of hail – but until now, we haven’t had real rain.
Today changed that, and the sudden downpour of rain, sleet, and hail soaked us so thoroughly and so immediately, despite our rain gear, that I could have sworn I was back in New Hampshire. Fortunately, we were still in the desert so we dried out quickly. Just in time, in fact, for the second round of rain and hail. Following that, we faced a climb up sand so soft, we almost couldn’t make any ground. Slipping and sliding up the loose mounds, it took us an hour to gain a mile. By the time we reached the next water cache at mile 631 and found Toe Touch, we were exhausted. Even more disconcerting, so was she.
We started up a longer climb with Toe Touch, who stopped stepping over the gates Kern County erected to keep out dirt bikers and instead let herself fall headfirst over them to make us laugh. The next climb was much kinder to us but we were still glad to see Centerfold with his tent set up at the top. With the cold closing in, we all had dinner in the Cabana (Which is what we’ve been calling our Six Moon Designs Lunar Duo tent), and talked and ate until we felt warm again.
We unintentionally walked longer days than planned so that, when we woke up on the fourth day of our 20 mile days, we only had 13 miles left to Walker Pass. Centerfold got up and left before the birds even woke up and was down in time for breakfast. Spoon and I got going next at the crack of 8AM and Toe Touch rolled out of her tent about an hour later. In sight finally of the first toothy slabs of the Sierra range, we all moved quickly that day. I was in sight of the highway around noon.
I realized suddenly that I was going to make it down before Toe Touch. All hike I’d been expecting her to pass me as usual, but this time I was in the lead. Just then, I heard a bellowing behind me and saw Toe Touch running full speed down the trail, poles in the air, yelling “coffee!” I made it down to the road before Little Spoon, at least.
After Toe Touch single-handedly secured us a hitch in about five seconds flat and Centerfold somehow booked us a campsite at the KOA on Memorial Day weekend, we all escaped the now-pleasant weather to get showers, real food, and a clear plan for the Sierras.
We spent enough time in Lake Isabella that we almost claimed squatting rights, but unfortunately we moved around too much. We’re intentionally trying to slow down to make sure we aren’t waiting four days in Kennedy Meadows for our packages – also, we still have some last minute Resupply preparation for the Sierra, that notoriously isolated stretch of trail.
We also stayed at the motel, the RV park, and we pretty much lived at Nelda’s Diner. We ate breakfast at the local VFW with the warrior hikers, picnicked with the Brit Family Robinson, and hit up the esteemed local bar, ‘Shady’s.’ After 3 1/2 days we were climbing out of our own skin with the need to move on and we finally made a break for Kennedy Meadows.
The Camel Leaves
Camel had a friend visiting L.A. and an earful of talk about snow in the Sierra, so he decided to take an extra couple days and visit the city of Angels. As one of the fastest hikers in the group (maybe the fastest?), we weren’t worried about him catching us in a week or so and I told him the trail wasn’t going anywhere. Once again, of course, I was wrong.
Kennedy Meadows and Good Timing?
It took us a little while to hitch out of Lake Isabella. Despite the fact that it was Memorial Day (or maybe because of it) not many people wanted to forestall their picnics to drive smelly hikers 45 minutes into the mountains. Several people did stop to offer us rides but they were headed the opposite way. Eventually trail angel Jim showed up and loaded us into the cab of his truck. A goat farmer in the winter, he digs up and sells antique beer cans he finds at old logging camps during the summer. As he was telling us about the can business, we saw the Brit Family Robinson trying to hitch on the side of the road and Jim screeched to a stop. “We can fit em’!” He yelled, and hopped out of the truck.
Five minutes later we had all four Brits and all six backpacks crammed into the back of the truck with Jim’s goats’ alfalfa and we were back on our way to Walker Pass. When we got there, we were surprised to see Bivvy heading into town! We ran into him several times earlier on the trail, but knew he had gotten off trail for nearly a week. He’d been booking it to catch back up to our bubble and we were excited that we’d be seeing more of him soon.
We climbed back up to the trail with the Brits, knowing that this would be the last section of desert before we were in the high Sierra with its snow and beauty and isolation. We spent the day bouncing back and forth with other hikers and found that, after our four days off in Lake Isabella, there was quite a bubble of people around us.
Another new addition is the heat! The cold snap broke and we found ourselves sweating under the hot sun again, this time at 6,000 plus feet. Every new sweat stain on our shirts reminded us that the snow in the Sierra was melting.
The first day we squeezed in 16 miles after 11 AM and the second day we somehow managed 24 miles after about 11AM (we had an exceptionally lazy morning that made our normal lazy mornings look industrious). We caught Toe Touch at sunset, just when she was about to give up on us. Centerfold, as it turned out, camped only about a mile after that, and we caught him in the morning as he was packing up.
The four of us only had about 10 miles to Kennedy Meadows, so we enjoyed our near-o. We stopped to swim in the Kern, the first real river we’ve witnessed on trail, cutting through the partial desert like a boundary line before the Sierra.
Kennedy Meadows is essentially a giant porch in the middle of nowhere, run by tired but patient locals. There is alcohol and limited camp supplies, but not much else. The shower is a sometimes cold trickle that shuts off randomly, the porta potties are distressingly full (‘domed’ is the word that describes them best), the pay phone is broken and the wifi at the nearby cafe was turned off shortly after we got there. But still, hiker charisma has a way of lending even the most limited amenities a certain appeal. Maybe it was the sense of community that made us want to stay there. As each new hiker appears, the whole porch erupts in clapping.
We arrived at 1 PM to a chorus of cheers from friends and strangers alike. We immediately took care of priorities: 1. Cheeseburgers and then 2. Packages. Somehow, there were eight packages for us. We had sent ourselves our winter gear and food for the Sierra, but we were surprised by how much support we got all at once from friends back home. Jean and Jared sent us delicious hiker food, as did HoneyBuns and Knock on Wood. Anna, our biggest supporter, sent yet another care package for the group of us.
Then there was the unexpected: A mysterious Saved by the Bell T-shirt for Little Spoon that features Screech:
…and Limey’s package – a massive handle of terrible whiskey, two incredibly useless ponchos, and a note that said “Make good decisions.”
It felt like Christmas. Christmas in a place where we have to drink all our whiskey or mail it home. Fortunately, there were a few other hikers to help us.
As we set up our tents and got comfortable, though, a weird pall fell over the festive environment. A wildfire had broken out the night before at the Chimney Creek campground, and the only thing that spreads faster than a fire in the desert is the word of one. Rumors, for once, turned out to be true and soon the hikers were gathered on the porch, watching a massive plume of smoke unlike any cloud rise out of the trees. Soon the hikers that were arriving began to bring word of the fire, wild-eyed and exhausted they had hiked through the day in a panic. The clapping for new arrivals reached a fever pitch by nightfall, when people staggered in with smudges of ash on their faces. We were relieved to see the Brit Family safe, and one of the people who came in late was Bivvy, who had hiked 28 miles that day to escape the smell of smoke.
We spent our night at KM playing music, talking, and reflecting on how lucky we really were. We had missed the fire by less than 24 hours – what easily could have been an extra zero day in Isabella, a slower hiking pace through the desert, or a slightly later start date. Instead, the first cinders of a badly extinguished campfire were re-lighting while we slept safely out of range. The crackle of life worked its way up dry twigs while we watched our last sunrise in the desert, and our heads were submerged in the Kern when smoke began to billow out above the tree tops. Timing is everything.
We steeped for a while in the chaos of Kennedy Meadows; Everywhere there was beer and whiskey, guitar strumming, dogs running free and the smell of bacon. But back in the desert smoke was rising, and ahead of us sat the Sierra, so it was hard to stay for long. We were worried about Camel, who would soon be arriving to a closed section of trail, but we knew he would find a way. In the meantime, we convinced an exhausted Bivvy to come with us and packed our things. A group of five again, we headed out after a lazy morning to camp at the edge of the Sierra Wilderness, loaded down with bear canisters and ice axes, knowing we wouldn’t sleep much that night. With the promise of the most beautiful section of the PCT in front of us, it’s hard to think of anything else.
Sponsors of Chuckles and Little Spoon that you should check out:
Mary Jane’s Farm organic dehydrated meals https://www.maryjanesfarm.org/
Honey Stinger bars, waffles, and energy chews https://www.honeystinger.com/
Big Sur Bars https://bigsurbar.com/
Katabatic Gear https://katabaticgear.com/
Mom’s Stuff salve https://www.momsstuffsalve.com
Little Spoon’s Instagram (Mark Santoski) https://www.instagram.com/marksantoski/
The Camel of Corvallis’ Instagram (Shaughn Dugan) https://www.instagram.com/sndugan/
Centerfold’s Instagram (Jon Graca) https://www.instagram.com/jograca/
Toe Touch’s Instagram (Julie McCloskey) https://www.instagram.com/jtmcc272/
Toe Touch’s Blog https://seeyajules.com/
*A little note on formatting: I have no idea how to get the wordpress app on my phone to rotate pictures. The ‘edit original’ part doesn’t seem to do that on the app. If you know what to do, I’d love to know. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the opportunity to bend your head to the side and stretch out that neck. I hear it’s great for circulation.
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