Day 37: Bird Spring Pass to Walker Pass Campground. 20 miles.
May 1st, 2017.
A trail magic overload day.
I groggily opened my eyes and realized the sun was up. Way up.
Badfish's beer generosity had put me to sleep hard. The night had been windy and the tent was still violently pulsing with every gust. I had planned on getting up early to tackle the first uphill in the cool of the morning.
But why do that when you could trudge up a hot hill in the sun while being mildly hungover instead?
I rolled out of my tent. Walkabout was already gone. It seems he'd done a better job resisting friendly beers... I sloppily wrapped up my tent while it was being tossed around by the wind and got back on the trail.
I only made it 100 feet to the Bird Spring cache where I had to unload a few beers and stop to poke around. Next to the many water jugs, there was a cooler filled with hiker staples like Pop-tarts, tortillas, peanut butter etc. I had more than enough food and really, I didn't want any more weight to carry along with me. So naturally, I grabbed a pack of muffins and some water, then continued along the trail with some bonus weight I'd get to carry until Kennedy Meadows.
Four miles of steep, sandy desert trail reminded me of my poor beer-related decisions for the first couple hours. The sun was already on the steepest hillside and I was sweating more than the conditions warranted. Once I gained the ridge, I could see more snowy peaks to the north. Every time I'd gain a view north, those peaks kept getting closer... the lump in my throat grew with every closer vantage point. The realization was sinking in.
'You're almost there.'
Back at the southern monument, you know the Sierra are coming, but they're really far away. Along the trail in Southern California, hikers would stop to talk about the snow, but it was really far away. Now, I could see the Sierra. I could see the snow... it wasn't far away.
I tried to push my anxieties aside. 'You've got to make it to Walker Pass before you need to worry about the snow,' I told myself.
I hiked many miles through the same dry, generic desert mountains that I'd been hiking through for the last several days. Although I knew the upcoming snow would be hard to move through, I was looking forward to the shift in scenery. I passed Walkabout as he was taking a break. I had a good pace and feared that if I stood still, I'd start feeling the hangover/foot pain my brain was trying to tell me about...
At the end of the day, I came up on Walker Pass campground. I came up on a red cooler before the campground with cold beers and soda! As I walked into the campground there was even more trail magic. A massive amount of trail magic. Several large bins had been left under a campsite gazebo. I opened them up like a kid on Christmas morning.
They were filled with an incredible assortment of creative food for hikers. Cans of fruit with a can opener. Boxes of cereal with powdered milk. Loaves of bread with PB&J. Cookies, bagels... Even some fresh veggies! Another bin was filled with ice water, beer, and soda!
'Maybe I should just quit the trail and live here...' I thought to myself briefly, before considering the odds of Melanie wanting to become a permanent resident of the Walker Pass campground.
This had been the third trail magic today! I made myself a sandwich with peanut butter and frosted flakes cereal (am I doing this right?), once again filling myself full of food NOT from my food bag. It turns out not eating from your own food supply is a good way to ensure your pack weight stays exactly the same... who needs a lighter pack anyways?
Eventually, Walkabout appeared at the campground. He was heading into Ridgecrest for the night, so I figured I'd be camping alone. I set up my tent right next to the giant bins of food, just in case I needed a midnight PB&FF sandwich...
As the sun set, a French couple I'd met briefly at Hiker Heaven were dropped off at the campground. Their trail names were Steady Flow and Stellar Jay. I hadn't gotten a particularly outgoing or friendly vibe from them the first time I'd met them, and not much had changed. I said a friendly 'Hello' as they exited the car they'd hitched a ride in, but both of them just looked at me without acknowledging my greeting.
The couple walked to a different campsite and sat down to eat. I wandered over to let them know that those huge bins of food were for hikers. Like, other hikers aside from just me. Both of them expressionlessly accepted the information and returned to the Taco Bell burritos they'd arrived with, both with noses turned up at the food in front of them. I attempted to make lighthearted conversation, but the only thing that I could pull out of them was that they had skipped the Mojave section, and they were disgusted with America's use of GMO's.
I figured hanging out solely in the presence of my horrific dehydrated-food farts would be more pleasant, so I said a quick goodbye and returned to my camp.
Later, the French couple wandered in the dark, looking for a tent site. There was a large flat area I had seen earlier that was covered in horse poop. Unaware in the dark, they decided that was the best place to pitch their tent. I just chuckled and laid down for a comfortable night with a full belly.
You don't just badmouth Taco Bell and expect Karma to sit there and do nothing... and it would get a hell of a lot worse.
Total mileage along the PCT: 651
Total mileage with detours: 669
Day 38: Walker Pass Campground to Tree Fall Ridge. 22 miles.
May 2nd, 2017.
An irritating critter day.
Taco Bell was back for revenge.
All through the night, I'd wake to a quick 'zip' from the French couple's tent, followed by the sound of shoes being frantically laced, then footsteps sprinting through the horse poop to get to the pit toilet down the hill.
At first I just smiled at the classically cruel reaction to a first-time visit to Taco Bell, but became slightly worried as I woke more and more to the sounds of a miserable night of food poisoning. Poor bastards... but Americans have spent years making poor late-night food choices to build up the Taco Bell tolerance. You don't simply show up in America and start eating Taco Bell! That's akin to me flying to Mexico and drinking a big glass of brown tap water.
You're gonna poop. But not on your terms.
Eventually, the panicked sprints through the horse poop subsided enough for me to get some sleep, but I awoke to my alarm feeling very tired. As I emerged from my tent, there wasn't any hint of movement from the horse poop camp. They had told me they were planning on hiking out before dawn. The sun had been up for a while...
Part of me was grateful I wouldn't have to go through any further awkward interactions. I took off out of camp, glad I was able to get moving so quick. But a half-mile later, a sudden thought stopped me in my tracks.
'Your socks, dude.'
I had done some semi-laundry the day before and left my socks out to dry overnight. They were still hanging there, back at camp, in the direction opposite to where I wanted to hike. After standing still for a solid minute, trying to convince myself I didn't need socks for hiking, I said a quick swear and sprinted back to the campground. A half hour later, I had made zero progress, but I had my socks back and had still been able to avoid any awkward morning interactions.
Thank you, Taco Bell.
At this point, the sun had hit the hillside I would be climbing for the next 10 miles. Awesome wildflowers covered the hillside, distracting me from the sweat in my eyes. I stumbled upon a rattlesnake sunning on a steep section of trail. It took me a second to poke and prod it enough to get the snake to move. Once it started moving, it got real angry. As luck would have it, this pissed off snake slithered up to a head-height bush with no way to get above or below it on the loose, crazy steep hillside. It sat in the death bush and rattled away while I tried to figure out how to get passed this grouch.
Using a tried and true snake handling method from my childhood, I decided to just start poking it. I extended my trekking pole out as far as it would go and began poking the snake, figuring I would either irritate it until it moved, or piss it off even further. Just as long as he didn't poke me back...
I expected the snake to strike the poles a bit, but through dozens of pokes, the snake did nothing. Just more rattling.
After confirming this snake was going to do nothing about me being highly irritating, I decided to go for it. With nowhere to go to avoid it, I slowly slid by the snake on the hillside. I was well within striking distance, but figured if it wouldn't strike my poles, it wouldn't strike my face, right? Whatever, I had miles to make. I couldn't just stand there all day coming up with inventive places to poke this snake.
I managed to get on the other side of the rattler and breathed a sigh of relief. As I continued along high ridges and hillsides, I could see down into the Owen's Valley and the town of Ridgecrest. More snowy peaks appeared. More nerves kicked in inside of me.
The rocky, uneven trail was taking a toll on my feet. The plantar fasciitis in my left foot was really bad. I could feel it flaring up in my right foot as well. My foot issues just amplified concerns about the Sierra. Was I really going to push deep into the frozen backcountry with foot problems?
'First things first, let's get to Kennedy Meadows,' I told myself. 'You'll have a week to rest up.'
Between foot pain and the warm afternoon, I was stopping very often. If there was shade, I was sitting. On one stretch, I was trudging uphill and something caught my eye on the side of the trail. It was a "1/4" in small rocks. After taking a second to think about it, this was the unexpected marker for being a quarter of the way through the whole PCT! Pretty cool.
I eventually reached the cold water paradise of Spanish Needle Creek. Really, it was a pretty shallow, scummy creek, but it had been a while since I'd come across running water, so the shaded creek was a treat.
I sat in the shade, had some lunch, and washed some layers of dirt off of my legs. It had heated up quite a bit and I didn't want to head back out onto the exposed hillside in the sun. So I lounged around the creek for a couple hours to allow the heat of the day to pass.
I only had a few more miles to go, so I set off to find my camp for the night as the sun was getting low in the sky. I trudged uphill until I reached the campsite I had been aiming for. The trail tucked into a strangely dark creek drainage. As I walked up on the site, I saw a gigantic squirrel the size of a small dog sitting in the middle of the single tent site just off trail.
"Lord, that thing is healthy," I muttered out loud as I walked up to the site, expecting the squirrel to get spooked and run off. I made it within four feet of this monster and stopped in my tracks. It wasn't moving.
I stood there and had possibly the longest staring contest I've ever had with a puffy rodent. After the creepy factor pegged at 10, I lost the staring contest and continued down the trail.
'Not trying to get squirrel-murdered tonight,' I half-joked to myself, throwing a couple nervous glances over my shoulder.
The sun was going down and the next marked campsite was a couple miles away. I was switchbacking up a steep hillside, so finding an impromptu campsite probably wasn't going to happen. I was happy to put distance in between me and the mega-squirrel though.
Hiking speed slowed to a crawl as I ran into blowdowns. Not like one or two, but dozens of large trees were downed across the trail. The steep hillside made it tough to get over or under the trees. Many times, the only way to get through the tree was to go straight through the sap and spider filled branches.
Picking spiders out of my beard was getting old quick. It took two hours to reach the campsite only two miles away. The hard work moving through the blowdowns made my water supply run lower than I'd planned. Luckily, it was an amazing campsite. I arrived just in time for a beautiful sunset to reward me for the long day.
Coyote prints zigzagged across the soft dirt and would parade their way alongside my tent all night. But let's be clear: I would rather suffer a respectful death at the hands of a pack of coyotes than an embarrassing assassination by an overfed squirrel.
NOTE: I would hear later on down the trail that the French couple were still at Walker Pass campground days later. They'd been hit by food poisoning that was bad by even Taco Bell standards....
Total mileage along the PCT: 673
Total mileage with detours: 692
Day 39: Tree Fall Ridge to Kennedy Meadows. 32 miles.
May 3rd, 2017.
A hard day.
The clenching pain in the tendons running along the underside of my feet took me sharply out of the deep sleep I was in. It was a relatively good night, disturbed only by the occasional coyote call or coyote procession right by my tent.
The wind had picked up and made packing up camp a swear-filled endeavor as I hobbled from stake to stake, trying to keep my tent from becoming airborne. After a long stretching session and a near-overdose on Ibuprofen, I set off into the morning with a heavy limp, attempting to somehow place no weight on both feet while I walked.
More downed trees were there to greet me soon after I started. My feet hadn't warmed up and the scrambling around on the steep, loose hillsides and tree branches were killing me. After almost six more slow miles of downed trees, the trail relented and I was able to just walk. My feet finally warmed up enough to move normally.
The hiking was filled with long, gradual uphills and downhills. Every time I'd crest a long uphill, I'd catch a closer peek at the solid wall of jagged, white mountains waiting for me to the north.
A long downhill brought me to Rockhouse Basin. The monotonous desert scenery had finally broken and I was looking at familiar Sierra granite outcroppings alongside the South Fork of the Kern River. I stopped to fill my water bottles for the last time at the last good water source before Kennedy Meadows.
As I bent over to fill my water bottle from the creek, I felt something unexpected and heavy plop into the water right next to my water bottle.
It was my phone.
I would usually keep my phone in my chest pocket to access it quickly, then put it somewhere safe when I was near water. It was a waiting game for the first time I needed to put my phone away when I was around water and didn't. This was that time.
I'd also wisely opted out of getting a waterproof case for my phone and there was weeks of trail notes and pictures stored on the phone that weren't backed up anywhere.
I quickly snatched the phone out of the water and turned it off. I prayed it would be okay and kicked myself for not taking the time to put it somewhere safe. I figured I would just leave it off for a couple hours to give any moisture the chance to evaporate before attempting to turn it back on.
In my mind, I had seven more miles to get to Kennedy Meadows. I'd already hiked 22 miles and I had originally planned on stopping there for the night, but warm food, Melanie, and a week of rest were only seven miles away... Seven miles was still quite a bit at the end of the day on aching feet, but I could probably pull that off.
What I had miscalculated was that I was ten miles away, not seven. I had mistakenly looked at the mileage for the store and cafe, which was three miles before the campground I needed to get to so I could connect my steps when I came back to resume my hike.
When I realized I was mistaken it was more heartbreaking than three miles should've been. I had been mentally beat down by the constant pain in my feet for the last 300 miles. I had been aiming for Kennedy Meadows and that week of rest for many days. It had been the reason to push. So when three miles left became six miles left, I sat down on the trail exactly where I stood with my chin on my chest and closed my eyes.
My feet hurt, my phone could be dead, I couldn't handle the thought of hiking six more miles, and I had hundreds of miles of snow ahead of me. Snow that I'd confidently told everyone I was headed into. Snow that I felt physically unprepared to go against. Snow that would beat me before I was even able to start...
I sat alone on the trail for a long time, pack pushed up awkwardly high on my back, legs stretched out to alleviate the pulsing pain in my arches. I was hungry, but didn't want to eat. I just wanted to be done.
'What does that mean, "done"?' I asked myself. 'Done with the SoCal section? Done with the PCT? Are you really giving up because you have to hike three piddly little miles??'
I couldn't answer myself. I was being pulled in so many directions I had no idea what I was doing. I just wanted to sit there. I didn't want to walk anymore. I just wanted to be done.
A couple hours passed in a haze. I hesitantly decided I'd see what the final verdict of my phone was. I held the power button... and it was fine. The light water-resistance of the phone itself had been good enough. The good news lifted my spirits a bit, but then my phone's home screen loaded.
Our good friend Tammy had sent this to me as a joke highlighting my (highly accurate) love of donuts. It was too perfect to not keep around, so I decided to use it as a my phone's wallpaper. In this moment, the message was badly needed.
"Get your ass moving, Danny." I said out loud to myself. "It's just walking, right?"
I slowly struggled and groaned my way to my feet. I could barely weight my heels, the pain was so intense from sitting and allowing the tendons to tighten up. Another handful of ibuprofen later, I was hobbling along the trail. It was slow, but at least in the right direction.
The South Fork of the Kern River was the introduction to the rest of the Sierra. The water was brown and cloudy from all the dirt being eroded by the swollen banks of the swift river. Sections of the trail had been overtaken by the river, requiring small fords to pass.
A few miles from the Kennedy Meadows campground, I put my foot down next a bush and the familiar sound of a rattlesnake fired up inches from my foot. My shear exhaustion impeded any ability to react quickly, so I just stepped past the snake at the same pace I'd been trudging. I silently thanked the snake for not making my day any more difficult.
I passed the 700 mile marker and stopped at the turnoff to the store. I was more tempted to exit there than I'd ever been tempted to skip a section of trail.
'It would only be three miles skipped... three out of 2650 isn't that bad... how many hikers are going to exit here and end up reentering at the campground without a second thought? Why is this such a big deal for you?'
My stubborn side quickly piped up, 'Don't you worry about other hikers. Did you tell yourself you were going to hike all of this trail or just some of the trail??'
I knew stubborn me was right and took one last longing look down the road and hobbled off for the last three painful miles. The trail was relatively flat, but I was struggling to move. Both feet were on fire and there was no way I could walk to abate the pain.
As I approached the last 1.5 miles, I began to parallel the road to the campground. Then I saw Melanie in the truck driving down the road only 50 yards from me! She saw me limping across the open field and slowed down, expecting me to come get in the truck.
"Ughhh," I groaned out loud, "Could this get any more difficult??"
In horror, I watched myself signal for Mel to continue down the road where the campground was. She gave me a confused looked, but continued down the road. The trail crossed the road once more, seemingly just to torture me. The last mile to the campground felt like ten. I emerged into the campground entrance where Mel was waiting for me in the truck.
I said hello and had a smile on my face for the first time that day. I threw my pack in the truck and groaned my way into the front seat. I finally relaxed and felt all the muscles and tendons in my body that were in protest of 32 miles on a broken body.
I was there though. Kennedy Meadows. The SoCal section was done. I'd hiked just over 700 miles. I'd hiked to the entrance of the mighty Sierra. The record snowfall was waiting. A sudden wave of fear washed over me. I was grateful to be driving the other way.
I looked onto the dash of the truck where there was a white bag. I looked inside the bag and serendipitously enough...