I was cold.
At North Kennedy Meadows I had picked up a sleeping bag liner that boosted the temperature rating of my sleeping quilt by 5 degrees, but we were experiencing 10-15 degree nights and some days no matter what I did my hands were cold if I wasn’t moving or in my sleeping bag. O’Well was having trouble sleeping, his sleeping bag wasn’t warm enough. Though he claims being cold doesn’t bother him, he was spending a lot of time awake some nights.
The views made it worth it. Every day was incredibly challenging: huge climbs, rocky terrain, the oppressive cold. But at the top of every grueling climb was another jaw-dropping panorama, another sweeping landscape, another victory. I felt strong, and I felt confident. We were going to make it through the Sierra’s.
Our first day out of Kennedy Meadows we got out of camp around 8 am. Just as we started hiking we looked back and saw Moneymaker and Pineapples coming up the trail. They had indeed made it out of town the night before and camped at the trailhead that night. We were excited to see them again, it seemed our trail family would be sticking together for a little while longer. We did 23 miles that day. There was one section where we had a minor snow crossing, and we all did a team cheer together afterwards. We were energized and we were excited. It was sunny, and it was gorgeous. Up at 10,000 feet I felt like we were on top of the world.
It was about then that our daily mileage averages fell. It would take us all day to hike 20 miles, hiking sun up to sun down and sometimes longer. Not only was the terrain challenging, the days were getting shorter and the cold mornings made it difficult to get out of your sleeping bag, let alone out of camp in the morning. It warmed up nicely most days though, one day we even swam in a creek it was so warm by lunch. We ran into our friend Footprint that day, a French girl we met back at Burney Falls, and her boyfriend who had come out to hike the Sierra with her. We later found out on Facebook that they ended up skipping a lot of the section, a strategy we believed many people ultimately employed to get through in time. They took a few days off to hike in Yosemite and, because they were both in the US on visa’s, they only had a certain amount of time to get to Mexico before they would have to leave the country. We never saw her again.
We hiked up and over several ridge-lines that day, and we only made 20.5 miles. Moneymaker, trying to distract from our burning legs on one descent, did a very loud, very scream-y rendition of Hotel California, we all joined in by the end. A little later we ran across a lady going North. She had started at the Mexican border and said she was hiking all the way to Canada, and the Piňata swinging from her pack was going with her. At this point it was mid-September, also known as the time when Northbounders should be reaching the Canadian border.
She wasn’t the only person we were encountering with unrealistic expectations however. It seemed that a lot of the NOBO’s who had skipped the Sierra’s had now returned, having already made it to Canada, many of them hiking North. Some of them planned to hike all the way to Ashland, and the further we got in the Sierra’s, the more outlandish this idea became. We were feeling the pressure to get through before the snow fell, but we weren’t sure that they did. We were still on track, we just had to keep chugging along, as brutal as progress was.
We hiked 20.5 miles, then 21.7, entering Yosemite National Park that day. It was my 100th day on trail. We got lost first thing that morning, taking a wrong turn and then bushwhacking back to the PCT rather than going back the way we came. We felt like real professionals after that. Later we ran across a park ranger, only the second one we had encountered on the entire trail. He checked our permits, gave us a spiel about packing out our toilet paper, and then ranted for 45 minutes about the flippers. I was glad to have an excuse for a break, the hills were kicking my ass. His opinion was that if someone wanted to come out and do a thru hike, they should be prepared for the conditions as they were that year. If the conditions were too intense for their experience, then they ought to get off trail and try again next year.
I didn’t know how I felt about this. I had met some incredibly tough and enduring hikers who had flipped, and I understood that for some of them the decision to flip was just as tough as actually hiking in the Sierra’s in early summer would have been. But from the Ranger’s perspective, it was about volume. A certain number of permits are issued per start date on the PCT, and when you apply for your permit you state your intended schedule. However, many more people want to hike than there are available permits in a normal starting window going northbound. I knew people who had applied for permits in February, an outlandish day to start for most hikers, but started in May when the number of permits was already maxed out. This creates a problem. More people on the trail equals higher impact to already fragile areas. The same issue applies for people who don’t hike a continuous through hike. Flippers were hiking in the Sierra’s at the same time the Southbound bubble was coming through, how does that impact places like Yosemite? At the very least, I thought he made a valid argument. That Ranger had lived in the mountains for 13 years, and I thought it was safe to say he was passionate about protecting them, as should everyone who enjoys them, whether it’s for months or just a day.
The next day we hiked about 15 miles in total, 8 to get into Tuolomne Meadows and then 7 out to camp that night. We were out of food again, and we were tired and delirious when we arrived at the small store and cafe there. O’Well and I each ordered two meals from the cafe before resupplying. The store was closing for the season and clearing out their inventory, we had to buy whatever was available which turned out to be peanut butter sandwiches, MinuteRice, pop tarts, and a whole lot of fruit snacks. I packed out a box of wine that night that we shared with Pineapples and Moneymaker around a rare campfire, the last campfire I would have on trail. Our friend Wheels showed up as well. We met him several days back; I had lost one of my gloves (a real tragedy with the cold conditions) and he arrived at our camp after dark with it, so I pretty much owe him my life, or at least my fingers. He brought with him news that a snowstorm was expected to roll through in a few days. Ominous though that sounded, we had a great night relaxing and we didn’t feel like it was worth worrying about just then.
We cleared Donahue Pass early the next day, glorious. There were a lot of weekend backpackers out, it was always fun to see other people out on the trail who weren’t through hikers. When you were in town around people, it was always like you were the one out of your element, out there in the real world. But the trail was our home, our terf, and we were the crazy people living in the woods for months on end. We had a wild look to us by that point, we were hiker trash, and we stood out. I was proud of it.
We saw a couple pack mule trains which was very exciting, and swam in the coldest alpine lake I’ve ever experienced at lunchtime. We were relishing the warm days. People warned us continually of the bad weather about to hit.
“It’s kinda late for hikers to be coming through the Sierra’s isn’t it? You should be through by now.” People who had a little knowledge about the trail would say. “Nope, we’re right on time!” We told them.
We hoped we were right. We kept hiking, hoping for the best, prepared for the worst.
We managed 22 miles the next day, even though we stopped at Reds Meadows for a meal and a much needed shower. (I hadn’t showered in 10 days.) We had to night hike a little that night. The cold weather front was supposed to roll in the next afternoon. Our plan was to make it to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) to where we were resupplying the next morning, and if the weather got bad we could hunker down there until it rolled through. We didn’t want to admit it, but we were nervous. We hiked late into the night to try to cover some ground, then got up at 5 am the next morning, long before the sun was up.
Pineapples and Moneymaker weren’t going into VVR. We were just a few days from Bishop pass where Pineapples had gotten off trail when she was hiking northbound and flipped up to Oregon. That was where she was getting off trail, and she wasn’t slowing down for anything at that point. Moneymaker seemed to want to go into VVR, but he was also determined to stay with her. We left them that morning, still unsure what they were going to do, but we had to keep going.
VVR is an interesting place. It’s a resort, but in the most remote sense, a couple weekenders told us it was “primitive.” To get there from the PCT going Southbound, you either have to hike a 14 mile alternate route over Goodale Pass (up over 11,000 feet) or else hike a couple miles further on the PCT over Silver Pass and catch a ferry across Lake Thomas A Edison, saving yourself quite a few non-PCT miles. The problem was the ferry only ran twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. We missed the morning ferry and we didn’t have time to wait around for the evening ferry, what with the impending storm. We had to leg it to get up and over Goodale Pass and to the resort in time to pick up our package waiting there and get back out on the ferry that afternoon. Otherwise, we would have to wait for the ferry the next morning or else hike out on another long alternate heading South.
It was a rough morning. The climb was intense and we didn’t have time to take breaks. We made it to VVR just in time, walking in at 4, and we were heading back to the trail on the ferry at 4:45. I frantically repacked our resupply into our packs while O’Well got a quick shower and bought some extra things from the store. We were both losing weight, there was no way we could pack out enough food anymore. I brought a beer on the ferry ride and we cruised across the lake in style, chatting with the friendly driver and feeling proud of ourselves. We had gotten the news that the storm wasn’t going to roll through until the next afternoon, so we felt that we couldn’t waste time at the resort. We would just have to endure whatever came the next day.
Waiting on the other side of the lake were Wheels and Moneymaker, Pineapples was not present. We didn’t have time to chat, Moneymaker just yelled at us from across the pier that he was going in to get some food. We were confused, but we couldn’t worry about what he was doing. We hiked the mile long side trail back to the PCT and set up camp for the night, we had hiked 20 miles before 4 o’clock and I was spent. A little later I saw someone coming down the trail with a funny looking pack and stooped shoulders. It turned out to be Gretzky. He had started his hike from Hart’s Pass the same day I did, June 21st, and he was one of the first people I met on trail, although I didn’t know him well. He looked like he had been through hell to get there. (His pack, from a distance, looked oddly misshapen, he carried his sleeping bag on the outside like an old school pack might require, overall the aesthetic was nice, retro.)
“I’m trying to catch up with Pineapples and Moneymaker.” He told me, I met him as I came up from the creek with our full bottles. I was confused. We had been hiking with those two for a couple weeks at that point, Gretzky must have been a good distance behind, or else encountered some trouble trying to catch up to them. I told him that Moneymaker had just gone into VVR and Pineapples hiked on. He said nothing, but his face fell. I tried to lift his spirits, pointing out the numerous campsites around in hopes he would stop for the night, he seemed spent. He set up his tent near us and crawled in without saying anything. The next morning he was gone before we broke camp. (Much later I would ask him about that day. I found out that he had spent the night in a pit toilet a few nights back to wait out a rain storm, the same storm that flooded our tent. He had gone through some other misfortunes in the days leading up to our encounter, including night hiking all night to try to catch up to his friends. The poor guy was beyond done.)
The next day we managed another 20 miles. We got up and over Selden Pass (10,800 feet), which is the first “big” pass in the Sierra for SOBOs (I didn’t realize that what we had been doing up to that point weren’t “big” passes, but after that climb I realized what we were truly in for.) There were 5 more passes like this we would have to do, all at or above 11,000 feet, and that first one just about killed me. It was a long, slow ascent then a sharp descent that was almost as hard as going up. We got to Muir Trail Ranch that evening before dark, where we were supposed to meet back up with Pineapples and Moneymaker. Not only were neither of them there, but the Ranch was actually a ranch, with horses and cowboys, and not much else. We set up camp there that night, disappointed we couldn’t get a hot meal.
The “storm” never really hit. We got some cold rain, a little snow, and some high winds, but it was nothing we couldn’t handle. My relief was overwhelming. We were still going, the weather hadn’t forced us off trail yet. Every day was a new challenge, the pressure was mounting and the exhaustion was building. But we were going to do it, we were going to make it. I told myself over and over: We were going to make it out of the Sierra’s.
Another 20 the next day. We were climbing all day, from the moment we broke camp till we made the summit of John Muir Pass that evening. We wanted to push on to try to catch up to our friends (Pineapples was very close to finishing and we wanted to see her again), but the sun set on us while we approached the summit and the temperature plummeted, the wind biting. We were fully spent anyhow.
I remember the moment very clearly as we trudged past some of the most beautiful alpine lakes I had ever seen, just below Muir Pass. I stopped walking, turning to survey the austere landscape. There was not much wildlife up at this elevation, barely any vegetation. It was stark, it was harsh, and it was stunning.
“I don’t think this is worth doing if we aren’t enjoying it,” I told O’Well, reaching for his hand, weary yet acquiescent. Some things are worth suffering for. We were both wearing all our layers, faces covered with our Buffs against the wind, gloved fingers like ice cubes. I had opened a couple hand warmers and they helped, but the wind was biting and my nose ran like a faucet.
“Yeah. I don’t know if it’s worth it,” he replied. I was caught off guard. I had meant that we ought to stop, to look around, to appreciate the incredible thing we were doing, despite how much pain we were in. He wanted to get off trail. It was the first moment that I realized that, even if I was going to make it through the Sierra’s, it might not be with him.
There was a rock shelter built at the top of Muir Pass (12,000 feet). We ascended the last mile with a truly spectacular sunset at our backs, and made it inside the shelter to find that it was actually very sheltered, it was well built and out of the wind. There was another couple heading North inside, they had pitched their tent right there in the shelter so we had to work around them, but we were just glad to have a place out of the cold. We ate dinner and tried to sleep. O’Well was not doing well. He was shaking violently, but when I asked him he said he wasn’t cold. I was scared. He went outside and threw up his dinner, some mysterious, freeze dried meat he had found in the hiker box and Muir Trail Ranch. His demeanor was all off. I was scared. Eventually, I fell asleep, curled around my hand warmers and listening to the wind howling outside.
The next morning we got up before the sun rose and were on the trail again. It was a glorious morning, and I hiked alone for some time, singing to myself on the long descent from the top of the pass and watching the sun break over the icy creeks and glittering rocks. We were certain it had gotten below 5 degrees that night, though we had been well insulated in the shelter. O’Well wasn’t himself. He hiked ahead of me, as though he were on a mission to get to Kearsarge Pass as fast as possible. That was our next intended resupply, and we planned to take a zero in Bishop to recover. It was an emotional morning. We talked about options for how he could get off the trail to Bishop and take a couple zero days before we got to Kearsarge, but nothing seemed practical. Mid-morning I passed the trail junction for Bishop Pass, an exit point from the trail. A quarter mile past that was a creek, I found O’Well there, waiting for me. His water filter had failed and he needed to wait for me to filter anything.
“That junction just back there, that’s where Pineapples got off.” I told him. We hadn’t seen Pineapples, Moneymaker, or Gretzky, but someone going the opposite way told us that they had all been together at the Muir Pass shelter the afternoon before. We weren’t too far behind. “If you got off you could get into Bishop. Get some rest. I could meet you there in a few days from now when I make it over Kearsarge.”
There wasn’t much to discuss. He filtered as much water as he could carry to get him the 13 miles over the pass to where he could get a hitch into the town of Bishop. He gave me the stove, fuel, and his extra food. My pack a little heavier and my heart hurting we said a quick goodbye.
“I have to keep going,” I told him, it was all I could say. If I went into town with him now, I didn’t know if I would be missing my weather window to get through the Sierra’s, just a couple days could make all the difference at this point. He didn’t say anything, but I knew he understood. For him, he had already completed one through hike and suffered quite a bit for the PCT. He didn’t need to push himself the way I did. He turned back towards the trail junction and I headed South, alone for the first time in months, hoping that all he needed was a couple days to eat and rest at a lower elevation.
A couple miles down the trail I stopped to cook something for lunch (most of the food I had needed to be cooked or cold soaked due to poor planning on my resupply.) I pulled out the stove and instantly realized a crucial error. O’Well had the lighter. The stove would be useless unless I could find someone else with a way to light it. Most of my food could be cold soaked, but the prospect of eating cold food and drinking cold coffee when the nights were so frigid had me feeling miserably unprepared. I felt only crushing loneliness as I ate some cold grits and hiked on.
I didn’t reflect too much. It was different hiking alone. I could stop whenever I wanted, or hike without a break as long as I wanted, and I could do as many miles as I wanted. That afternoon I took no breaks after lunch. I had a mission now, get over Kearsarge Pass and get back to my boyfriend. It felt like if I just hiked hard enough I could make him okay, like if I pushed myself the energy output would somehow reach O’Well and fix whatever was wrong with him.
Around mid afternoon I crossed paths with a John Muir Trail hiker, the first person I saw since O’Well departed. I instantly asked him if he had a spare lighter, or maybe some matches. I watched, astonished as he pulled out a huge box of matches, digging out a handful. “Will this be enough for you?” I almost cried, thanking the universe for over prepared hikers.
I had a choice to make. There was a certain point of no return getting over Mather Pass (12,100 feet). Either I needed to stay on the North side of the pass and stop early for the day, around 20 miles total, or I needed to make it up and over and start descending to the first campsite on the other side, another 5 miles. I had the time as long as I didn’t stop, so I went for it. In my head I was doing the math, what would get me to Kearsarge the fastest? The only solution was to hike, so I pushed hard and got to the top of Mather Pass just as the sun was brushing the next ridge-line. The trail on the other side of the pass was smooth switchbacks and I cruised, making good time. I could sense another bitterly cold night coming on and I needed to get to camp and into my sleeping bag.
A couple miles before my intended campsite I spotted a couple of hikers, moving slowly across the barren landscape, you could see for miles ahead up there. I couldn’t tell from that distance but I knew they had to be through hikers, section hikers always set up camp by that late in the day, but I was gaining on them. I tried to tell from a distance if one of them was tripping all over the place, hoping it was Moneymaker and Gretzky. I caught up to them at a creek crossing and found it was them. It was another moment of sheer gratitude; I didn’t have to hike the section entirely alone.
Nobody slept well that night. We decided it had to be around 5 degrees that night, and it was miserable. I left camp before the boys, and I didn’t see them all day. I tried to wait for them to catch up several times, but they never did. I was too motivated, focused on my mission to sit around for long. That day I scaled Pinchot Pass (going from 8,500 feet to 12,107 feet). The descent was tough, steep and rocky, it would be easy to twist an ankle. I was growing weary of the views. It was spectacular, but everything was grey and spartan, I missed the greenery of Washington. I missed my boyfriend. I accidentally crossed a creek I wasn’t meant to at one point and had to retrace my steps across some wobbly, insecure rocks, sure I was going to fall into the icy water. When I was back on the PCT I sat down on a rock and cried. My hands were freezing, the mountains were beautiful and desolate, my legs were screaming in pain, I was lonely. I pulled myself together and kept going. I got to camp that night, only an 18 mile day. I knew I was going to make it to Kearsarge the next day no matter what and I didn’t want to push to get over Glen Pass that evening, I would be scaling it in the dark which would have been dangerous, but I covered half the elevation gain, setting myself up well for the next morning. I was still hopeful that the boys would catch up to me. I went to bed at 7:30 and around 8:30 I heard them pass by my tent, but they didn’t see me or hear me call out to them. I knew there was another tentsite .1 down the trail and I assumed they must be headed there. I was reassured, knowing I would see them in the morning and they were nearby. My half baked visions of bears moving in the shadows outside my tent disappeared.
The next day I hiked 14 miles, over Glenn Pass, then Kearsarge Pass to a trailhead where you could hitch into either Independence, or Bishop where O’Well was. I planned to just cruise all day like I had been and make it there around lunchtime. I felt confident and strong, I was getting back to my boyfriend that day and nothing was getting in my way. Up until that day the Sierra’s had been kicking my ass. That day I owned those mountains.
Moneymaker threw a wrench in my plans. That morning I passed by their campsite, they were still making it out of the tent, and I told them I was heading for the Kearsarge alternate, that I may not see them again. They were planning to skip Kearsarge and make it to the next exit to Lone Pine for their resupply. Both of them were exhausted and low on food, but Moneymaker was really struggling. He was getting close to finishing his hike, but he still had far enough to go, and the loss of Pineapples was hard on him. He had broken his phone charger and both his and Gretzky’s phones were close to dying. I let him borrow my charger, telling him he could pack it for a while and, when he caught up to me, give it back so I could continue on into Bishop. Without their phones they would have no navigation and I wasn’t made of stone. I made it part way up Glenn Pass then stopped to wait. By the time they arrived I had drank another cup of coffee, eaten a snack, filtered water, repaired a hole in my leggings, clipped my fingernails, and taken a nap. I suggested they come into Bishop with me and take a zero. It wasn’t a hard sell. We would hike over Kearsarge and then find a ride together into town.
I made it over Glenn Pass (12,000 feet) and arrived at the trail junction for the Kearsarge alternate a couple miles later. I sat down and waited. And waited. All I wanted to do was get over this last pass. I broke up a some tiny sticks and spelled out, “Fuck,” in the dirt beside me, just to let out some of my feelings. Then I got up and wrote a bigger sign in the dirt for Gretzky and Moneymaker to be sure they wouldn’t miss the junction and took off.
Kearsarge felt like a huge victory. I looked back down the trail behind me but there was no sign of the boys so I kept hiking. Halfway down the other side I got some cell service so I decided to sit there and wait. I talked to O’Well first, then called my mom. Maybe a half hour later Gretzky showed up and we sat together and waited. Two hours later Moneymaker arrived. Apparently he stopped several times to eat the rest of the food he had been rationing to make it to Lone Pine, and he had broken Gretzky’s trekking poles (which he borrowed after he broke his own). I felt nothing but relief, I had been starting to worry about him, and I did my best to encourage him to get his ass off the mountain as quickly as possible.
When we finally arrived at the parking lot we ended up waiting a couple more hours. It was getting late by that point and there were no cars leaving the parking lot to hitch a ride with. I called O’Well and he was able to track down one of the people running the hostel in Bishop who offered to come give us a ride. It took an hour for him to get there then an hour to get back to Bishop. I was exhausted and fell asleep in the car, listening to our trail angel talking about his various through hikes; he and his wife hiked the PCT several times, the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and several shorter long-distance trails. I dreamed about grizzlies, elk, and bighorn sheep in the Rockies.
We got to the hostel at 7:30. There was some confusion, a big group of foreign highschool students on some kind of school trip had just arrived and there were people everywhere in a very small space. The three of us stood huddled in the corner, we were dirty, smelly, and I felt more like a refugee than a hiker with all the shifty looks we were getting. After a couple minutes of shell shock I wandered across the hall into what seemed to be the living room and there he was, sitting on the couch and watching a movie like it was the most normal thing in the world.
I didn’t really register the room full of people when O’Well scrambled up to grab me and kiss me, but I was brutally aware of them watching when he tried to dip me and dropped me on the carpet. Hey, we can’t all have a Hollywood movie romance. He had made me sweet potato fries though, and that was the best thing I could have asked for. I had a desperately needed shower beer and passed out.
I started the PCT alone and, at the time, that was how I intended to finish it. Those few days alone in the mountains were some of the most mentally rewarding I had on trail. It was odd, because somehow the hiking became easier even as my brain struggled to cope. I pulled big pass after big pass like it was nothing, I took very few breaks and I couldn’t even feel my legs, even though the days leading up to O’Wells departure I struggled immensely.
I clearly remember coming up Mather pass and realizing that I wasn’t the same person I had been three and a half months prior. All those months ago, alone in the woods, I had been scared of an unknown path and an unfamiliar landscape. But something in me had fundamentally changed and I didn’t know if it was the trail that changed me or O’Well. I’m sure that it was both. I wasn’t scared to scale those mountains, I wasn’t scared to exist as one with the flow of nature. I simply was.
I took two zero days in Bishop (O’Well had four. After those 4 zeroes he was chomping at the bit to get back on the trail, the break had done him a lot of good.) That first morning I woke up at 4 am starving, I had barely eaten the day before. I went down to the communal kitchen to eat then went back to bed. In fact most of those two days were spent either eating, sleeping, or lounging on the incredibly comfortable couch in the living room, watching movies or chatting with friends. The Hostel California was an excellent place for doing these things and I highly recommend staying there if you are ever in Bishop. It was the first hostel I had stayed in on trail that wasn’t solely for hikers and it was fun to talk with the other guests, primarily travellers and rock climbers, and we made good use of the communal kitchen. There were lots of people coming and going, but it felt safe and comfortable, like a home for a few days.
Gretzky left mid morning on our second zero, though I was hopeful it wouldn’t be the last we saw of him. Moneymaker was also sad, but we had been together long enough that he didn’t want to leave O’Well and I, so he stayed for our second zero. I did a work for stay that day, vacuuming and cleaning the bathrooms so my third night at the hostel would be free. I finally did my laundry, I had been living in a pair of loaner sweatpants and it was nice to get back into my hiking clothes.
The next day we left the hostel around 10:30 after a lot of heel dragging. We waited for at least two hours to get a hitch, but they only took us to Big Pine which was still over 40 miles from the trailhead. It took another 2 hours to get a ride into Indepence. The guy told us he would pick us up after he picked up his son an hour later. Instead when he came to get us, he took us with him to wait for his son outside an elementary school where the kid was volunteering. We sat in his truck for 30 minutes while he told us about bears and various poisonous snakes that could kill us in the desert, insisting that we should know how to set traps for survival purposes. On the ride into Independence he drove 90 miles an hour in a truck that rattled like it was going to fall apart around us, blasting Slipknot at top volume.
By that time it was too late to try to get another ride and we were tired from the long day of sitting on the side of the road. We stayed at the campground just outside of Independence, making it my third zero day. In the morning I was finally able to contact a trail angel to come take us the rest of the way up the mountain. He was already taking one hiker, and we picked up two more on the way up, so there were five of us jammed into the back of his small SUV plus six packs. We had finally made it out of town, but we had a late start and were only able to make 14 miles that day. We were beginning our climb of Forester pass, the highest point on the entire PCT, and it was slow going after three days of doing nothing. Hiking was always harder after zero days. When you let your body rest it starts to think that it’s time to heal, so all the little aches and pains you’ve been denying start to show up with a vengeance as you recover. We were also losing daylight and Forester is a monster you don’t want to mess around with in the dark, so we made camp. O’Well wanted to push on but Moneymaker and I outvoted him.
We made up for it the next day, hiking at least 24 miles, we had to night hike to get to camp. After getting over Forester we cruised downhill most of the day, although O’Well and I got slightly off course. We ended up hiking at least 2.5 miles on the Mount Whitney alternate, not realizing we weren’t following the PCT. We had decided not to summit Whitney. This is a popular alternate, Mount Whitney being the highest peak in the lower 48 states that only requires an extra day of hiking off the PCT. O’Well and I felt like the PCT was hard enough on its own, maybe we could come back sometime and do it.
We were really done with the Sierra’s. Moneymaker was counting down the days to Walker Pass where he flipped from and would be finishing his hike, and O’Well and I just wanted to get to the Desert. It was time to relax, to enjoy the last section of the trail and relish our achievements. That night we camped below 10,000 feet for the first time since before Kennedy Meadows North, and it was the first night I could remember feeling warm all night in quite some time.
We managed 19 miles the next day, hitting the 1,900 mile marker, and the next day we did 21. We were losing elevation overall and anticipation was growing. We could practically taste Kennedy Meadows South, the official end of the Sierra’s on the PCT. It would be Moneymakers last resupply and our opportunity to send our bear canisters home, so we were almost as excited as him. Moneymaker was on cloud 9; he was over the moon to be done with his hike. He had gone to the hospital twice since he’d been on trail (being airlifted once) and he hadn’t been sure at some points if he was going to be able to get back on the trail and keep going. Every hiker with any sense will tell you that you haven’t finished your through hike until it’s over. O’Well and I had a joke that if I got injured in the last 500 miles he would have to push me in a wheelbarrow to the end. Even if you’ve already hiked 2,000, something can always happen that will end your hike. For Moneymaker, being under 100 miles to the end, he was beginning to hope that he was really going to make it.
The terrain changed quickly. We began to see a lot of cow pastures and even some cacti. It was getting hot during the day, and the nights weren’t so oppressively cold. We hiked 18 miles into Kennedy Meadows, Moneymaker got out in front of us and we didn’t see him again until town, he was determined to get some food. We took our time as always, enjoying the changing scenery and the new flora to look at. We stopped at the general store on the way into town (the locals hanging out on the front porch applauded us as we walked up) and got a beer and a partial resupply there. Then we got a ride over to Grumpy Bears Bar and Restaurant.
O’Well walked through the door before me and I heard shouts of excitement, I suddenly realized I was about to walk into a party. The first people I saw were Lunar and Solar, I hugged them both, Gretzky was there (I was happy to see him again) as well as several other hikers we had met in the last week. We filled two tables with hikers and had a blast, celebrating the end of the Sierra’s. Everyone was swapping stories and talking about how they were going to slow down and relax in the Desert. Moneymaker was belly up to the bar downing a milkshake. I’m pretty sure he ate non-stop while we were there, I don’t want to know what his tab was. We were able to get a shower and campsite.
There were so many tents set up in the dirt lot it felt like Burning Man or something, except everyone was in bed by 8 o’clock and too tired to be rowdy, we weren’t used to being around so many hikers. We set our tent up right next to the Sunnymooners. (They had given us the tip that if you camped close enough to the little gear store run out of a shipping container, you could mooch off their wifi.) In the morning we lazed about in our tent for a while, the restaurant didn’t open until 9. Next door we could hear Solar and Lunar going over Solar’s plan for the next section. She had a spreadsheet. Many spreadsheets in fact, I would later learn. The Desert may be easier in terms of elevation, but it had the new challenge of water scarcity. Neither O’Well nor I had thought about this problem too much, but hearing how dialed in Solar’s plan was, we felt started to feel a little antsy. The problem had an easy solution though. We quickly decided we would just hike with the Sunnymooners!
They had a similar timeframe for when they wanted to finish, and we already knew we liked hiking around them from back in Northern California. We informed her of this development over breakfast (I had two breakfast burritos and two orders of breakfast potatoes). She didn’t seem too put out, quickly rallying from her surprise and sending me a copy of her spreadsheet listing all our campsites and mileage per day until Tehachapi. I hadn’t planned any of my resupplies for the desert. A few days later I borrowed Solar’s resupply spreadsheet and sent the information to my mom for where to send boxes, wondering where this savant had been for my entire hike.
We left that afternoon with Moneymaker and Gretzky, meeting the Sunnymooners at our pre-determined campsite 9 miles out of town. It felt like we had a legitimate trail family for the first time. We ate dinner around an empty fire pit and went to bed, our first night in the desert.
We hiked 24 the next day, and it took from sun up to sun down. I got to the top of one ridge towards the end of the day and found everyone standing on an outcropping all facing one direction, waving their arms and legs wildly.
“What are y’all doing?” I asked, amused.
“Shadow dancing!” Solar told me brightly, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, and it was probably the best answer I could have received.
I was feeling tired, and O’Well and I had started to realize we didn’t really have enough food. The next day we discovered that Gretzky didn’t either, and Moneymaker was getting off trail at Walker Pass that day anyway, so we decided to accompany them into town. Solar and Lunar decided to tag along, so we all hiked 17 miles and caught a hitch into Ridgecrest with a guy who piloted an emergency helicopter for a living. First we hit the 2,000 mile marker though. I cried again, this time with relief.
We got a ton of food from Walmart and hung out in our hotel room, drinking beer and celebrating Moneymakers last night with us. There was a lot of laughter. I didn’t know it, but we were going to be doing a lot more of that in the desert.