Day 47. Miles: 18.0 Total: 784.3
I’m the first out of camp, but I take the first side trail back to the PCT. Feathers takes the JMT, and we arrive at the junction at the same time. The PCT and JMT will overlap from now until we reach Yosemite, where the JMT turns east toward the valley and the PCT continues north toward Canada.
Feathers and I hike together for the morning. We’re close to the same age, and we were both horse girls through our early 20s, so we have a lot in common, although Feathers competed at a much higher level than I ever did. She’s from the Czech Republic but worked at stables in Germany. We take turns sharing stories of how we became interested in hiking and, eventually, the PCT.
It’s mid-morning when we reach Bighorn Plateau, where the group agreed to convene for Second Breakfast. It’s strange– Feathers is about the same speed as me, and we’ve been chatting on the way uphill, so we’re not moving fast. However, no one has passed us yet, not even Jackrabbit or Wild Card.
I think of Rookie and Leaky, who were both coughing overnight. Maybe they decided they weren’t up to tackling Forester Pass, the highest point on the PCT, and they went backward to exit at a lower elevation. Jackrabbit or Captain Something might have gone with them. I feel suddenly like maybe I should have checked on them before hiking out of camp this morning.
My worries prove unfounded. Shortly after Feathers and I settle by the pond, the others begin to arrive, one by one. Rookie and Leaky are last, both dragging. Last night, I said jokingly to Rookie that maybe it’s COVID, but today they’re both sniffling in addition to the cough, and it doesn’t seem like a joke anymore. The shortness of breath and fatigue could be explained away by the elevation, but some of their newer symptoms are more suspicious. I suggest that the rest of us each take some of their belongings to lighten their packs for the push up the pass. Both insist they can manage.
At the base of the switchbacks, there’s a mostly frozen lake. Wild Card, Jackrabbit, Poseidon, Captain, and Billie Goat all swim in it, like crazy people, while Feathers and I look on in disbelief.
The ascent to Forester Pass is snow free, and it’s honestly not as difficult as I expected. The north-facing descent still has a few patches of snow, but the tracks are so well-worn that I don’t even need my microspikes.
As the trail winds down into the valley, I feel like I’ve been transported to Middle Earth. The views are phenomenal and wild. Clear streams thread between blue lakes, and as sunset approaches, the entire valley is painted in warm, golden light. Poseidon whistles the Lord of the Rings theme. Then we debate the relative merits of Eowyn as a character, but eventually we fall silent and drift apart, just taking in the incredible scenery.
Our campsite for the night is impossibly beautiful. Jackrabbit insists that after he resupplies tomorrow, he’s just going to come back here to this spot for another week. It’s hard to disagree.
Day 48. Miles: 4.8 (PCT) + 8.3 (Kearsarge) Total: 789.2
In the morning, we hike fast to the junction to Kearsarge Pass. Our packs, still weighed down by bear cannisters, nonetheless feel light– our food is almost gone. Kearsarge Pass is steep but not technical or snowy, and we make good time. We jump in a lake on our way down. Like Chicken Spring, it’s shockingly cold, but it feels good to rinse off before heading to town.
There’s a line of hikers hoping to hitch from the trailhead, but few people are leaving. It’s a long walk down the mountain, so we contact a shuttle driver named Kurt. It still feels like an abundance of caution, but Leaky and Rookie wear masks in the van, just in case.
The Eastside Guesthouse in Bishop is cozy and beautiful. It’s right next to a bakery called Schatt’s. When I enter, my jaw literally drops. It’s heaven, I think. I’ve found heaven.
I buy pastries and an iced mocha and walk back to the Guesthouse. I pause when I see grim faces.
“Well,” explains Rookie with a sigh, “I have COVID.” He’d gone straight to the pharmacy to test before sharing a room with us. He books himself a new room at the nearby Motel 6 while the rest of us parade down to the supermarket for more tests. Unsurprisingly, Leaky is also positive. This is heartbreaking — it’s her birthday, and we were hoping to celebrate in town, not quarantine. Everyone else tests negative.
Day 49. Miles: 0 Total: 789.2
We were on the fence about zeroing, but the presence of COVID convinces us to stay the extra night so that we can monitor for symptoms. It’s a relaxing day, despite the anxiety I feel for my sick friends and the possibility that the rest of us have been exposed. Today, Leaky’s husband Wild Card develops a cough and tests positive. We text the other people we were in close proximity with at Grumpy’s, assuming that’s where Leaky and Rookie caught it. We find out later that two more of our friends test positive in Bishop, too, after also staying at Grumpy’s.
Feeling almost superstitious, I eat the healthiest meal I’ve had on trail: a falafel salad bowl from a restaurant called the Loony Bean. I imagine my sleepy immune system perking up at receiving vegetables instead of poptarts.
For now, I continue to feel fine. We still wear masks and get takeout, just in case any of us have caught it from Leaky or Rookie in the last few days and are presymptomatic and contagious. But as the day draws to a close and we still exhibit no symptoms, Jackrabbit, Captain Something, Poseidon, Billie Goat and I make arrangements for a ride back to the trail tomorrow.
Day 50. Miles: 0 (PCT) + 8.7 (Kearsarge and Charlotte Lake) Total: 789.2
After a leisurely morning in town, we say goodbye to Rookie, Leaky, and Wild Card, who are all staying in Bishop for at least one more zero until they get well. A trail angel squeezes us all into her Jeep. We’re seated four across in the back, with an Australian shepherd puppy on our laps.
Back on trail, we jump in a different lake on the way up to Kearsarge Pass. The mosquitos instantly swarm our exposed skin when emerge. We race to get our clothes back on. It’s golden hour when we reach the top of the pass. The views are fantastic, but we hurry down, hoping to reach Charlotte lake before dark. Here, mosquitos are somehow even more relentless.
Back in the Sierra, I think, for better or worse!
The COVID diagnoses were sobering. While thru-hiking, it’s easy to feel removed from current events. Hiker trash forms its own little society in the woods, adjacent to the real world but not quite part of it. We are outdoor creatures, half wild, separate.
Of course, we’re not, though. The world is too connected. Even though we have the privilege of tuning out most of the time, thru-hikers still see the news when we’re in town, and we share space with other humans in grocery stores, in restaurants, in motels. In Tehachapi, I saw headlines about Uvalde, and it made me wish I could avoid the news forever. It made me want to throw my phone in the garbage before I left for the woods again. I wanted to live in the forest, where there are no pandemics, or school shootings, or supreme court leaks, or Russian invasions. Now, I am eager to dive back into the mountains to hide from COVID– both the virus itself and the mental onslaught of pandemic fatigue.
Thru-hiking is a welcome break from the constant barrage of attention-grabbing headlines. It’s an opportunity to refocus on your priorities, to be mindful, to be present in nature and in your body. Especially here in the Sierra, where there is no cell service for weeks, it is a beautiful chance for quiet. Outdoors, in sparsely populated wilderness, it offers permission to forget about Covid for a while.
That said, I hope to use this time to rest and recharge so that when I rejoin society in September, it is with renewed energy and resolve. I spoke with a friend on the phone recently about finding a balance between being an informed, engaged community member and taking care of your own mental health. It’s a difficult line to walk in 2022. It would be so much easier to disengage, to stop caring, to pretend problems don’t exist. In a way, that’s sort of what I’m doing here on the PCT. But I hope it’s only temporary. I am out here to test my body’s limits and rest my tired brain. By the end, I hope to feel physically strong and mentally fresh.
In the last few years, I struggled with challenging personal circumstances amid the broader chaos of COVID. The sphere of what I could care about shrank down and down and down, until it was all I could do just to eat and shower and hold down a job. I became burnt out and calloused to everything that was supposed to matter. I neglected relationships and responsibilities. All I wanted was to escape, to rest, to breathe. And that’s what I’m trying to do out here, so that when I get home from Canada, I can be a better friend, a better family member, and a better part of a community. Seeing my friends catch and suffer from Covid was a reminder that the world– chaotic and complicated and contagious– still exists outside this tiny corridor from Mexico to Canada, and I’m going to have to rejoin it soon. I hope that when I do, I feel rested and ready to participate again, to play whatever tiny part I can to make it a little bit better.