Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Day 46 : Forester, Kearsarge, and Tacos

22 miles today
1882 miles to go

The moon makes shadow puppets on my tent. I look at my phone. It's midnight. The roar of rushing water from Tyndall Creek is ever present. I lay warm and comfortable in my down sleeping bag. I reflect on all the trials, cold, heat, exposure, and want I have experienced so far. Only seven hundred seventy five miles so far? What else is in store for me? But this, this laying here in relative comfort and warmth in spite of the trials of the day. Laying here in the middle of nowhere with only things that I have carried here on my back. This is so cool, this is one of the things that I love about hiking the PCT. I drift off back to sleep as the moon’s slow motion shadow puppets slowly dance across my tent.

Always awake and up before the sun. It's so cold to eat outside. My hands and feet are cold every morning, today is no exception. I put on my ‘clean’ dry socks and stuff them into my frozen shoes. The laces are like sticks. Stiff and crunchy. Today is Forester Pass day. Forester Pass is the highest point on the PCT. I am looking forward to seeing the snow conditions. In my mind the conditions will help me gauge the conditions of the other passes ahead.

I climb across wet snowy trail towards the pass. The thin layer of ice over the running water beneath is only there since the freeze overnight. It will melt quickly when the sun hits it. The approach to the pass is long. There is a lot of climbing but it's not as steep as Mount Whitney. The air is cool and a breeze seems intent on keeping it that way. The sky is brilliant and clear. The sun blazes and burns. I stop and slather sunscreen on my hands and face. Looking back I can see down, way down into a valley, with a valley beyond it, and another. Ridges descend from the mountains on the right and left. Did I really walk through all of that? The scale and distance are hard for me to gauge. It seems endless. As does the hiking up towards the pass. The trail is covered over with snow. A dirty path of footsteps leads across the snow field. Sometimes the first person across knows where he is going and the trail appears from under the snow right where the footsteps end. This time it doesn't. I don't know that when I started following the steps. Neither did the other hikers, so a trail is worn through the snow even though it's not going to the right spot. I spend time trying to figure out where to go next, take a guess and set off cross country. Another snow field, another path of dirty footsteps. Over and over, always the tiny notch in the wall that is Forester Pass grows slightly closer. 

Eventually I arrive at the foot of the wall of the giant amphitheater I've been hiking up into. Walls enclose three sides. Massive walls of rock and snow. So high that I am back in the shade again. The breeze is so cold my hands are hurting again. I don my microspikes and begin following the switchbacks, the bottom of which appear briefly out from the snow drifts. I quickly lose the trail under the snow and begin making my own switchbacks. I find other steps seemingly knowing where they are going and follow. I find myself drawn to following other footsteps in the snow rather than being more skeptical and assuming they don't have any more of a clue than I do as to where to go. I'm fortunate this time, they lead me to the trail. The slope I'm on is steep enough that if I were to slip it would be an uncomfortable ride down to the jagged rocks below. I focus on not slipping and my microspikes help. The climb goes back and forth higher and higher. I am huffing and puffing. Up and up until the dramatic crossing of the show field in the notch beneath the hanging cornice, the crux. There is still a few more short switchbacks but they are anticlimactic. The sun, the wind, the bright clear air above thirteen thousand feet overwhelm the senses. I am as high as the clouds, except there are no clouds. The wind pours through the pass like a wind tunnel trying to snatch my hat from my head. Walking over the pass opens up a brand-new vista. More mountains with snow. Mountains and passes as far as the eye can see stretch out into the future. North, always north, to Canada.

The north side of the pass has significantly more snow. A trail of footsteps leads down and to the left. Only one set. There is no other safe way down for a hiker without gloves much less mountaineering gear. I follow the steps. The snow is softer, having spent a good part of the morning in the gaze of the eastern sun. ‘It's slippy’, as Bear Grylls likes to say. I carefully descend, every now and again my right knee twinges with anxiety. Actually I don't know what it is that is causing it, but it will suddenly feel like it's about to hurt. I've heard people have what they call a ‘trick knee,’ maybe that's what it is. I'm not a doctor and that's not a scientific description. It is an accurate description of how it feels.

Down and down until I arrive on a knife edged ridge of bare jagged rocks above snow and ice covered blue lakes to each side. The ridge has the trail winding down and around the rocks,  down as far as the eye can see. I remove my microspikes and follow it. Some steps down are further than my right leg likes to drop, I twinge and step. Is this leg thing all on my head? It feels fine if I stop and let it ‘rest’ for a second or so. The trail ends at a snowfield. This time there are no steps forward. Where'd everybody go? Is this where the aliens pick you up? I look straight down, there are chutes in the snow. Giant long slides. Really? I climb over the rocks to the edge. There are footsteps at the tops of the chutes. I carefully climb down and stand at the top of the snow field it's steep. Some of the chutes end closer to rocks below than I feel comfortable with. I move a little more to the left, I'll make my own chute, and so I do. I sit in the snow at the top and lift my feet off the snow. Zippity-do-dah, I am off bounding down the hill at a speed that moves my heart to my mouth. I try to keep my mouth closed to keep the flying snow particle out. I bounce over the steps of JMT hikers who apparently climbed up this slope. Bam, bam, bam, I bounce across them on my quick descent. Wow, that was really quite fun. Do I still have all my limbs? My gear? Check, check, success. That is a lot faster than walking down, and I didn't have time to think about if my knee was going to hurt. I stand and laugh. A joyous love of being alive and having adrenaline coursing through my veins without an outlet other than laughter. Other than I wet seat of my pants I am the same person I was at the top, but somehow I am different too. I just did something new, that I hadn't even considered or imagined doing, and I survived.

The path continues down, there are more slides, more rocks, bigger rocks, losing the trail, finding it again, water. Walking in the stream on the trail. Mud, slush, wet feet. Down as the snow disappears and the trees rise up to greet me back into the land of normal; the land of horizontal not vertical. The trail smoothes out and unwinds, down through the trees, down I careen, moving in cruise mode, through water across streams, it takes my full concentration to focus on where to step next. Avoid stepping on, step over. Look for smooth solid dirt, no rocks or tree roots, no pebbles or gravel. Crunch, crunch, crunch, are my steps. A consistent rhythm, it isn't long till a song pops in my head. Olaf’s summer song. ...“The hot and the cold are both so intense, Put 'em together, it just makes sense.”...

I smell smoke, uh, that's probably not good. I look around, the mountains are disappearing into a blue haze. Definitely not good, I think. I continue my downward glide through the forest looking ahead of any sign of a plume of smoke. This is way too much to be a campfire. Down, the stream beside the trail rushes and roars. There is water entering it across the trail. Everything seems too wet to burn. I wonder if this much smoke is bad to be breathing. My eyes water and sting. Down, then suddenly, a junction. Check the map, look at the sign. The sign is on a post that leans, it's perpendicular to the slope it's on. The sign says ‘JMT’ with an arrow that points up the steep slope. The other path continues down the canyon, the wrong way, toward the west, the smoke. I follow the sign, up, and up, and up. The hill is steep, the trail is steep too. Most of the switchbacks in the PCT meander across at a friendly gentle grade, you may walk further, but it's a gentle easy climb to the top. These switchbacks test your resolve, do I really want to go this way. Each step is an and of will, breath is short, especially in the smoke. Every fiber of my legs quiver and beg me to stop. I refuse, “we’ll stop at the top!” My lungs only move so much oxygen from the air to my bloodstream, I can only go so fast, or slow, but go I do, I don't stop. I'll never get to the top by stopping. Breathe, breathe, my steps seem to say in slow cadence. No longer Olaf's summer song, this is more of a dirge, a Gregorian chant perhaps, no tune, just words mouthed to the beat, no air to provide the sound, it's being used for the climb, none to spare on frivolous singing.

There are three trails to Kearsarge Pass. Each leave the PCT at a different point. The first two leave sooner and provide nice paths through trees and alongside lakes. The third path is the no-frills PCT thru-hiker path. It leaves the PCT higher up, your travel further to get to it from the south, but when you come back to the PCT you don't have any climbing to do with your newly laden pack of resupply food. I climb to the third path and leave the PCT. I need more food, eight days worth. Enough to get me to Mammoth Lakes. Seven and a half miles one way, the trail to The Onion Valley trailhead is the path to more food. To a box Kelli shipped to me, hopefully waiting for me at a Chevron gas station in the tiny town of Independence, California. The trail crosses over Kearsarge Pass. The trail climbs up some more, a lot more. I climb again out of the trees. An icy wind greets me, buffets me, and seems intent on pushing me off the trail and tumbling down to the rocks below. The trail is exposed and open to the southern sun, no snow, no trees, no shelter from the wind. Up again, two passes in a single day. I don't really feel it. I stopped earlier for lunch and I ate a lot. I don't want to carry it and I need the calories. Fuel makes a huge difference when hiking. Being aware of how I'm feeling and how long it's been since I last ate seem to really help me in sustaining continuous output from my legs. 

The wind only increases the higher I climb. When I reach the top the wind is strong enough to blow me off my feet. I am leaning into the wind when it suddenly stops and reverses direction. I stumble and weave like a drunken sailor. Doing my best to stay on the trail. I mistakenly thought the wind would cease on the other side of the path, nope. It only goes stronger and more erratic. Down, down, my right leg doesn't like down. It protests. I ignore it as best I can, to stay here is to freeze. It's too windy to stop. Any additional clothing items that I were to attempt to pull out of my pack would probably be ripped from my hand and be blown to some deserted ravine in the way elands of Nevada. Hike on. The wind roars and hurls insults at my temerity and challenging its authority on these exposed and desolate slopes. I venture down as quickly as I can, not wanting to challenge anyone's authority. I just want more food. Hunger is a powerful motivator. I push on ever down. Switchbacks finally meet me and turn me in another direction. I weave through and around trees. Trees screaming and howling in the effect of such wind. Snow! Patches of it shaded from the sun. Slushy and wet, slippery and treacherous. Ready to send an unsuspecting misstep into a dangerous and possibly injurious position. I slowly work my way across the snow. More switchbacks, more snow. The wind is relentless, and cold. I am beyond caring about cold. My hands ache, but I'm used to ache, ache is what my hands do. Suck it up. I meet people coming up. Some are Thru-hikers heading back to the PCT. I understand their motivation. There are others. Clean others, with day packs, and dogs on leashes. “What are you thinking people?” I want to shout, but I don't. They are smiling and seemingly having fun. “It's windy up there,” is all I say as I pass. It's windy here too. The wind is the dominant attribute of this place, at least right now. Perhaps at other times it's peaceful and you can enjoy the lakes and streams and wildlife. Right now though the wildlife is the wind. Down through trees and over ridges, down. Ever so slowly the winds tenor lessens. It still bellows and seethes with malice, but it's power is checked by too many obstacles, too many trees, too many rock outcroppings.

The trailhead is thirteen miles from town. Thirteen crazy windy road miles from Independence. How will I get for the trailhead to town? That thought bounces in my head between wind gusts and snow slopes. How will I get to town? How will I get my box? Oh, I so want a shower, a restaurant meal not served from a plastic bag, a warm bed where I can stretch out unconfined by the strictures of a down sleeping bag. But how? Traveling from the PCT to a trailhead over a pass is an inherent act of faith. There are no guarantees, only a hope. A hope founded in a reasonable expectation in the generous nature of trail angels, who have shown their true natures by their generous actions in the past. I find this a compelling picture that is a metaphor for my own faith in God and His inherent goodness as providence.

I arrive at the trailhead late in the afternoon. I take off my pack as I see a car pull up and unload three fresh clean Thru-hikers. Four other hikers start loading their packs into it. I am attaching my trekking poles to my pack when one of the Thru-hikers calls to me, “do you need to ride to town?” “Yes, for sure! Do you have room?” Mike the trail angel says, “Sure, we can fit one more!” I literally wait zero minutes for a ride. Providence! On the ride to town I reflect on how I feel blessed and watched over, not just now but on this entire journey. It's a roller coaster adventure of ups and downs, unpredictable turns and unforeseen events. Throughout all of it I feel like I am living out a story already written. This blog is simply capturing my perspective as a character in the story. How cool is that? Pretty cool.

In town I visit the Chevron gas station and pick up my box. It's hot here. At least it's hot for someone who has spent his afternoon battling frigid winds in the mountains. I think my face is a little wind-burned. Now what? What I really want is my own space. A motel room where I can spread out my stuff and go through it. Clean out the stuff I don't need. Maybe ship out stuff using a bounce box in case I need it again. I want a shower, good food, privacy, rest. Most Thru-hikers are hitching to Bishop. It's a great town, but it's forty miles from here. Too long, too far. Lone Pine is sixteen miles south. Here is not much. There really aren't any restaurants in Independence. That's not true. There is a Subway, a taco truck setup in an abandoned gas station, and a French restaurant with slow service. I want more variety, Lone Pine has that without the long ride of Bishop. I study the bus schedules trying to understand how I could ride a bus to Lone Pine. Doesn't look convenient and I'm not sure how I'd get back to the trailhead. 

I stand on the side of highway three ninety five in Independence, California with my copy of the Independence section of Yogi’s PCT Handbook in my left hand and my thumb out half-heartedly trying to hitch to Lone Pine. This is so not me, yet it is me, a dirty sweaty straggly faced bum with a backpack and a box. Nobody stops, in fact people driving by either look straight ahead or to the opposite side of the road. I've done that, too. I know how to play that game. Ah well, Yogi gives phone numbers to motels in Independence. I call Courthouse Motel. Leslie is super Thru-hiker friendly. I walk down the street, she gives me the option of the hostel or a room. The downstairs of the hostel is basically empty and half the price of a room. I choose the hostel. Not long after I choose my bunk, others show up. I like Thru-hikers. I like hanging out with them, but sometimes I just need my own space. I am disappointed even though as a hostel, it's great. It's just not my thing. I'm going to try to upgrade to a room tomorrow, they are full tonight. Ah well, that's life.

Clean and hungry I head down to the taco truck, the best, the only, dinner in Independence where you can be eating in less than twenty minutes. A whole passel of Thru-hikers are here. Proton, Mountain Man, Breado, Sweetpea, XT, Gazelle, Pathfinder, Billy, Blazer, even Braveheart, who changed her mind and came into town a day early. We all order tacos and quesadillas from the truck and sit inside the garage of the abandoned gas station where the taco truck people have set up a few tables and a salsa bar. After dinner I am beat, I head over to the Food Mart, Shell gas station and peruse the merchandise. I buy a Gatorade and Cool Ranch Doritos and head back to the hostel. It's crowded and busy. I spend sometime talking with Blazer who is essentially doing what I am doing. Has his own blog, telling his own story for his own legacy. A game of Monopoly is going on in the other room. Jean, from France is in his bunk trying to read his phone with the light in his eyes. I slide my stuff into a big pile in front of my bunk, turn out the light, crawl under my covers, and sleep.

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