Days 122-125 – echo lake to sonora pass
August 20-23 | SOBO Miles 1560.8-1636.2
Ah, southbound again. The flip flop flip flop flip continues.
This time it is with bizarre clarity that I realize I am really walking towards the finish. I am reminded every day what blessings my health and strength are, and what it is to stay in the moment and focus on gratitude and respect for what lies around me, even when it’s a rock I just tripped over.
Climbing a steep 1000 feet out of Echo Lake with a pack full of luxury (read: heavy) foods–after all, it was only a 3 night resupply so I could afford to carry out my $1 pound bag of apricots and two salads–was a strenuous way to end my Tuesday evening. I found a camp spot at last light, at the criminally early hour of 8:30. I can tell the days are getting shorter... it doesn’t even get light in the mornings until 6:30 now, which only enables my sleeping in.
The next day, as soon as I walked into cell service and looked down at my phone, I ate some dirt. I tripped on a silent killer rock and skinned my left knee (which by the way I had already skinned the night before when I tripped on asphalt crossing Highway 50) and I am now starting to suspect that California gravity is much stronger than Washington gravity. I got through that whole state without a single fall. 20-something days accident-free was a good run.
The land was hot, dry, dusty, and rocky as I crossed Carson Pass, where volunteers greeted me with a nice lawn chair, cold water, free snacks, and a dog to pet. As I ventured further I came into the Mokelumne Wilderness. Just after the boundary I found a primo sandy campsite next to a babbling brook. California may have strong gravity, but it also has perfect nighttime temperatures that leave no condensation on your sleeping bag when you don’t put your tent fly up.
Thursday was even more hot and exposed than the day before as I traversed rocky reddish-brown basins with little to no tree cover. It was getting to be just like the desert again, with daytime temps in the 80s and clear, relentlessly sunny skies. On a climb after lunch I stopped at every single tree I passed, huddling for 30 seconds at a time in their little puddles of shade. Near the top I collapsed, pack on, backwards onto a shaded rock, and lounged, comatose, like a beached starfish through the entirety of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Not 10 minutes after I got up and started hiking again did I come across the first people I’d seen all day–and I knew one of them!! Sam and I met all the way back at Scissors Crossing (mile 77, ancient history) and we’d also seen her back in Oregon. She was hiking north up to Belden, then to the Trinity Alps, then back to Washington to finish up her last sections. We had a little reunion and I met her hiking partner Rugrat who we’d also crossed paths with in Oregon. Everybody has crazy plans this year.
After that I was jazzed for an hour or two, but the buzz wore off in the afternoon heat and I had to down a packet of Skittles (thanks, Carson Pass visitor’s center) to rev myself back up. It was slow going as I climbed through green pastures to the sounds of 300 cowbells ringing simultaneously. The trail was a minefield of cows and the gifts they had left behind. I wasn’t about to get water here.
Shortly thereafter I found 5 square feet of trail where I had two bars of LTE and got a message from the dudes that our favorite trail angel was setting up his grill at Ebbet’s Pass the following morning. Dang! I was 12 miles too late. I pressed on, salty that I would be missing the veggie burger with avocado, fresh baked goods, and cold specialty beverages.
My reward for once again waiting until the 11th hour to find a campsite that night was an outrageous pink sunset and a perfect, flat sandy spot on a saddle with 360° views. As the sun disappeared, the stars stole the show. The moon was so bright that it woke me up at 3AM and had me thinking I should get up and night hike since I couldn’t fall back asleep for the life of me.
I was at it the next morning by 7 (which is early for me now) thanks to the burning sunrise, which so entranced me that I didn’t even think to take a picture. Blueberry pop tart. Coffee. Boom. On the road.
The first few hours of the day were nice, gentle, forested descents, which provided all the more contrast to the scorching climb ahead of me. One highlight, before all that, was meeting a sweet section hiking lady named Deborah and her beautiful blonde pitty, Susie Caramel, who snuggled my filthy legs, licked my knee scab, and leaned hard into me for more scratches, which totally made me melt.
But then that task was left to the sun. I reapplied sunscreen not once, not twice, but THREE whole times in two hours–unheard of. The 2500 foot climb up to the 10500 foot peak was more mentally taxing than anything. I had downed 6 liters of water before noon. I had a spontaneous emotional breakdown and started crying into my oatmeal huddling in a sliver of shade and listening to Phil Collins. Things took a turn. But then, after significant struggle, I was looking out from a scree-lined ridge towards Tahoe to the north and the High Sierra to the south.
I took refuge from the sun and wind behind an aggressively pokey rock formation and made a quick call home, stalling as long as possible to avoid the punishingly exposed descent down to Sonora Pass. But I couldn’t avoid it forever.
I counted ten whole trees on the way down. I don’t even think the Mojave was this hot and sunny.
Reaching the bottom, I was met by a day hiker casually peeing on the trail (ugh) and had to turn around awkwardly and wait for him to be done. To all of us: don’t be that guy.
I arrived at the highway at 2:30 as two cars approached. My arm and thumb were only 75% raised when .2 seconds later a nice gal named Anna-Mika pulled over. She was a pre-law student from Mammoth on her way to meet her friends for a weekend backpacking trip. My perfect hitch angel. 6/5 stars. I had her give me the skinny on driving in the mountains (Sonora Pass and Highway 108 are usually closed and snowbound until May and this year it was as late as July–crazy) and the best cheap dining establishments in town. Just preparing for the week ahead.
She dropped me at the turnoff and I walked a blazing final mile to Kennedy Meadows North, the kind of place where there is no cell service but the locals have built a rock pedestal in the middle of the river upon which to mount their satellite dish.
I couldn’t resist their ongoing $45 deal, which included a bed, shower, laundry, and a ride back to the trail in the morning. So I checked in to a bunk room–which as of yet at 8PM I still have completely to myself–and retreated to the shower where I watched an entire layer of National Forest floor swirl down the drain. Signs in the shower area read: “PCT HIKERS. This is a family resort. Please do not walk around naked. At least wear a towel.” I had to wonder what went down before the time of this law.
I picked up the package waiting for me that contained my tragically heavy (2 lbs.) bear canister, and wept in advance for my back and shoulders. Chatting with some other hikers around the joint, I realized all of them were older guys, and soon I’d had enough of all that and got hungry. One salmon dinner and one serving of “grandma style” green jello later (for those wondering: no, it wasn’t as good as Babi’s recipe), and after a few lengthy impromptu discussions about life with the wait staff who definitely cared more about our conversations than their impatient dinner guests, I shuffled up to the room with 4 empty beds and mine, next to the window, with a scenic view of the laundry room.