Here I am to bring you PCT miles 566 through 789, the transition from desert to mountain.
In the patchy and barely adequate shade of a Joshua tree, I sat mulling in the dry air. These trees were rarely big enough to provide any decent coolness, especially at noon. A hundred feet in every direction, the air shimmered on the horizon, blurring the sharp cacti, rocky sand and scrubby hills into mirage.
I reclined on my foam sleeping pad, under it a bed of sharp, invisible thorns and intrusive gravel. It was just past midday, not yet the hottest part of the day, though it seemed unimaginably warm already. Every part of me was sweaty, my body forgetting how to be cool, dry or hydrated, my core itself on fire. One has to stop and cool down occasionally, but I just wanted to keep walking, slowly, through the punishing sand. Eat a little jerky, a small handful of almonds and dried apricots, it’s too hot to be hungry, and it’s an hour until lunch.
We’d been on a downhill through scrubby mountain most of the morning, to be turned out into a dragging slow climb through shifting sand. With every step in the fine yellow powder, one slides back a little and curses the shadeless desert flats. This is the Mojave.
I take slow sips of water, letting it rest in my squeaky dry mouth. We camped at a spring last night; faced with a 22 mile waterless stretch ahead, we each packed about 6 liters of water out. Of course, there was a possibility that there would be no water at the 22 mile point – a cache, not a natural water source.
A cache is a supply of water (or if you’re really lucky, soda or beer too) placed by a very kind strangers where the PCT crosses a road or campground during particularly brutal waterless stretches. Like this one. We checked the water report – a crowd-sourced water availability/quality report updated by hikers ahead and available for download. It indicated 150 gallons placed about a week ago at this important spot.
Whether a typo, mistake, or cruel joke, it mattered not. Only about a half mile from the cache, in the early evening, we ran into our friend Michael and two other hikers. They were heading back to a water source – behind us on the PCT – that lay on a loop off trail. A 12 mile round trip, in the wrong direction. “There’s no water at the cache,” they said, with dull and pained voices. “The next source 8 miles up sounds sketchy so we’re going back.”
My breath caught in my chest. I had less than a liter left, we all did (Arrogant Dan edit: I had 2.5 litres, don’t trust a cache!), we were thirsty and it was around 7pm. The next water source in 8 miles looked probable, but not definite. If it was dry, it would be 20 miles total until the next positive water.
Other highlights of the section included Walker Pass, a hiker haven along the trail. Several trail angels, including the famous Yogi (she literally wrote the guidebook to the PCT) were there, with a big shade awning, chairs, water, foot baths, and three meals a day. We destroyed our pancakes, burritos and salad, left a hearty donation, and stayed far longer than we should have, gabbing with other hikers congregated in the shade.
Dan’s birthday was celebrated! Grace and Henley created a masterpiece mural on the trail consisting of sticks, flowers and stones to spell out a happy birthday message, complete with candy bars on the side. Unfortunately, in a combination of pre-breakfast fog and conversation with our friend Animal, Dan completely missed the creation other than the candy bars, which he happily picked up, assuming that they were dropped by a stranger.
Later in the morning we found a cache of soda and beer by a campground, which was an unbelievable treat. You literally cannot imagine how awesome a beer is at 11am after hiking 8 miles in the growing heat. A birthday miracle, for sure.
The next day saw us into Kennedy Meadows, where a crowd of about 30 hikers welcomed Dan with an embarrassingly loud round of “Happy Birthday [to Special Sauce].” Kennedy Meadows was overwhelmingly social, with a huge amount of hikers hanging out on the infamous porch of the store/restaurant at all times. It seemed everyone we’d gotten to know on trail was there, stuck in “the vortex”.
It was comfortable, with burgers and pancakes, pints of ice cream, people drinking beers and smoking cigarettes and music blaring from the speakers. Here are our people, I thought. The dirty and the hungry and the blissful.
We used the ecstatically refreshing outdoor showers and camped with everyone else behind the store, getting out before breakfast the next day. If we’re going to get to Canada we have to escape the vortexes. We left with our new, dreaded bear canisters in our packs. These things are required for the next 300 miles, and are, to most, an enormous pain in the ass. They are not only impossible for bears to open, but also for humans with numb fingers in the morning. They weigh 2 lbs each and do not even fit all the food we need to carry. They do, however, keep food uncrushed (pop tarts and Cheeze-Its are much better in non-powder form) and colder than before, which is awesome.
The environment changed dramatically around Kennedy Meadows. Suddenly we were in the mountains, the High Sierra, land of Muir, land of bears, land of plenty. Plenty of water, trees, wildlife (so. many. deer.), snow, mountains, and people. It is lush out here. Our feet are constantly wet from stepping in rivers and snowmelt.
We see many, many more hikers in the Sierra. Both weekenders and JMT (300-odd mile John Muir Trail) hikers use the PCT in both directions, offering many chances to exchange a few words and perhaps try to yogi some food off them. We recently got some grapes and a nectarine off some section hikers! Wahoo! Anyways, it is both unsettling to be in a crowd and very nice to meet some fresh (literally, as in not dirty) faces.
Our Mt. Whitney experience is detailed in a separate post, but I will tell you about Forester Pass. As one approaches, it looks as if a thousand foot impenetrable wall of granite looms ahead. How on earth does one get over it, wonders every hiker. Crossing the snow fields that lay below, ringed by frozen aquamarine glacial lakes, we slowly made our way to the base of the climb.
Up we went, up a seemingly vertical rock wall, until we reached a notch at the top. The pass is marked with a sign, the border between two national parks and the highest elevation on the whole PCT.
The descent was more difficult, no doubt, than the steep climb before. We descended through steep snowfields, steps cut out by those before us. Unfortunately we timed the pass incorrectly, descending late in the afternoon. This meant… Postholing. A lot of it. Putting one’s foot down and dropping immediately a foot or more below the surface, as happens when the snow below begins to melt in the afternoon sun. Some postholes left us waist-deep in snow, halfway between laughing and crying. It took ages, but we tracked down the mountain successfully into a valley of rivers, snowbanks and picturesque campspots.
Other important events:
Grace managed to snap Henley’s titanium spork in Kennedy Meadows, while digging out a scoop from a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
One of Elie’s toenails fell off (not unheard of for hikers).
Dan got an intimate ant bite, no more details are appropriate.
A 5 pound sausage was hidden in (vegetarian) Henley’s pack, unfortunately was discovered before leaving town.
We’ve begun having campfires nearly every night! Good for the spirit, and unhappy for the mosquitoes.