I woke up very early, set upon doing Bishop Pass. I packed up, ate some cereal knowing I didn't have to ration it anymore, and selected a tuna packet and a ramen to leave for Casey. I left it with a note thanking him for his kindness and set off before anybody was awake.
I soon crossed a creek over a steel bridge and wondered why they put bridges in over some creeks but not other potentially fatal ones. I passed Walt's campsite as he was packing but didn't speak with him. I found the turnoff to Bishop Pass, sighed and took it. I began to cry again.
The hike was going to be 6 miles up and 6 miles back down again to civilization, plus a 19 mile hitchhike into town. Along the way up I hiked switchbacks carved into a cliff with an enormous creek frothing in a big sheet over the smooth cliff face. It was amazing to look at.
After I crested the cliff where the creek roiled over the top I climbed through a valley full of fallen logs and eventually reached a beautiful place called Dusy Basin. There was a lovely meadow and flowers and up higher, a lake.
I passed a large group of people camping. I could smell their campfire. This made me angry because campfires are illegal above 10,000 feet and specifically illegal in Dusy Basin and these inconsiderate people had one anyway, risking the access to this place for everyone.
Despite these feelings, I tried to say hello, but despite 2 hellos they did not respond except to stare at me. That's when I realized I'd begun the transition away from the community of The Trail back to the coldness of regular life.
I plodded along at a pretty good pace despite the altitude. I could see a pass up ahead covered in snow and it filled me with dread because I was sure I could see switchbacks in the snow. I summoned up my fierce determination, knowing it would be my last pass and that I would make it somehow. Then miraculously the trail turned toward a nearly snow-free pass that was much closer. I felt relief.
There was only one large snowfield that I mostly could avoid and then I was at the summit. There were two signs up there indicating that campfires were illegal and I thought again about those inconsiderate campers below.
I crested and began the long climb down. I could see a pretty lake with trees far below and it appeared the way down would be nearly snow-free. It turned out there were only a few scary spots where I had to negotiate either slippery snow or loose rocks.
The descent went on forever. I felt so weak and sore and exhausted. My knees hurt. My right shoe broke. It has those stupid thin laces with the draw string thingie. The thin laces not only broke in 3 places but also severed the things they lace through so I couldn't replace them with more sensible laces. I walked very slowly with all these impediments.
I passed lake after beautiful lake thinking I must be getting close but never actually arriving. Some Boyscouts said I only had 3 more miles at one point but it felt a lot more like 15 miles in the end.
I met two backpackers by the side of the trail doing a loop involving South and North Lakes. They asked how far I'd come and I said I'd come up and over the pass. They were amazed I'd come from all the way down in that deep canyon on the other side. They asked how far total. When I said 800 miles they at first thought I'd said 18 miles. When they realized 800 they were amazed. How could anybody walk so far?
I started to realize that my failure was not really a failure at all. I, a woman alone, had walked 800 miles through desert and high mountain passes including the highest one on the PCT, 3 of those passes completely alone, which is stupid but still an accomplishment. I may not have hiked the whole trail but I had accomplished a great deal. Nobody in America likes a story of failure and I realized how American I am inside, feeling so dejected for failing, being so typically American by pushing myself relentlessly beyond my comfort zone, beyond my abilities, beyond my own needs for rest and recovery. I'm so typically American, too, for trying to keep up with young men almost 1/2 my age, trying to prove I'm as tough and strong as anybody.
I thought about all that and how it's really more of a weakness than a strength. The nurturing I lacked was partly my own toward myself. I felt better about my decision to go to Bishop because I was taking care of myself.
As I dropped altitude I felt stronger and less emotionally volatile inside even though I felt physically exhausted with my legs and knees nearly buckling beneath me.
It occurred to me as my mind became clearer that what had happened to me up there was that I had combined a severe food shortage with altitude, setting the stage for mental and physical exhaustion. Those two things allowed a crack to form within me for my "weaknesses" to magnify and take over. The loneliness was amplified in this crack. My desire to be independent of others, to never ask for or accept help if I can manage -- my biggest weakness of all -- was able to get in there and sabotage me.
It also occurred to me as I continued downward that I did not want to leave the trail. I just wanted to leave the scary parts of the trail. I would think about this in Bishop and try to design an alternate route that avoided these high passes and scary creeks and the long stretch of emptiness after Tuolumne Meadows.
As I neared the end of the trail I passed more and more people who looked more and more fresh and perky and were less and less friendly. I was returning to civilization where people are more closed off from each other.
At long last I reached the parking lot. I celebrated with some lemonade and ibuprofen. Now around cars, people seemed to look upon me not as a fellow hiker on the trail but as some kind of alien being, dirty, smelly, almost a threat. I was afraid to beg for a ride and decided to just begin walking the road and see if anyone would take pity on me and give me a ride.
I stuck out my thumb as people went by and got a couple of rides part way down the road. The second one dropped me off at the intersection where the road to North and South Lakes converged. The nice couple were certain I'd have better luck getting a ride all the way to Bishop right there. I tried, but had no luck.
There was a sign there saying Bishop was 14 miles down the highway. Fourteen + 12 is only 26, certainly not the longest day I've done so far so I started walking down the road. Whenever there was a place to pull over I'd stick out my thumb. People driving their cars at high speed now were very unfriendly, either giving me a huge berth to indicate their aversion toward me or else trying to show their aggressive hatred of me by buzzing me closely.
Eventually a car went by with peace symbols on it. As it blew by me I thought so much for your peace and love, buddy. Then miraculously the car stopped and turned around toward me. The man inside rolled down the window and hollered out, Hey Piper! (Piper is my trail name.) It's Rick, he said. Oh my god! Real trail magic was happening to me! Rick is the same man who gave me a ride last week into Lone Pine and here he was again. It seemed like a sign from the Universe that maybe I was doing something right.
He gave me a ride into town and I patiently and hungrily sat through haircuts and a shopping trip to the outfitters where his wife bought new sandals and I got some new shoes (some La Sportiva shoes that are mesh upper with really good hiking soles on the bottom.) Then they dropped me off at the hotel and said good-bye.
I showered and washed all my clothes except my pants and went out to dinner with dirty pants and a just a tyvek jacket on. I ate at Jack's where I devoured a hot meatloaf sandwich with real mashed potatoes all smothered in a huge layer of gravy.
I went back to the hotel and called Tony. I told him about all my struggles, how much I missed him, how it felt so wrong somehow that I was doing this alone without him. We decided on a plan that I would try to come home for a few days and next week when he's got time off from work, we'd return to Mammoth, skipping Muir Pass and deadly Evolution and Mono Creeks, and do our own hike together. We'd still have to do Donahue Pass, but I wouldn't have to do it alone. After enjoying the beauty of the High Sierra together he will drive me to wherever on the trail I'd like to continue.
My hike will not be pure, but at least it will not have to end.
After I hung up the phone, feeling so happy that I'd made such a good decision to come to Bishop, I realized my stomach was not full so I went in search of sorbet. As I searched this town depressingly devoid of any Sunday evening sources of quart-sized ice cream, I bumped into Daily Special and one of the 3 Amigos hanging out. I stopped to talk to them for a while. I was so happy to find a little hiker culture here in Bishop.
Then along came a huge entourage of people surrounding Tigger and Chuck Norris. They, too, were in search of ice cream so I joined them. Along with them were Simon and Alex, two women who I had last seen way back in Warner Springs. I had wondered how they were doing. They were the two hikers Tony and I saw preparing to begin at Lake Morena on the second day of my hike. They were doing fine. Everyone had come over Kearsarge Pass and since Independence doesn't have much, had driven up with Tigger to Bishop for some rest and relaxation in the "big" city.
As we all talked of our experiences and struggles, injuries and illnesses it became clear that a pure thru-hike experience wasn't all that common and there was nothing to be ashamed of that I couldn't "make it" and that I needed to take a little time away from the trail. Many of them were planning a "vacation" from the trail down in Los Angeles and some were planning to skip portions of the trail they didn't like, too.
After finding ice cream at Denny's and enjoying their company, I walked back to my hotel feeling pretty good that I had gotten as far as I did, which was actually further than a lot of people, and that I had done it by myself. I am not a failure. I am a strong woman. I had made a good decision by turning off the trail and coming to Bishop. It was what I needed. And my hike isn't over yet.