Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Kennedy Meadows, gateway to the High Sierra

Six days ago I was in Tehachapi. Now I'm in Kennedy Meadows, which is in the Sierra but not the High Sierra. In those days I hiked all of Section F (which I believe deserves an F) and the first part of Section G.

June 5 I slept at Golden Oak Spring, a little less than 20 miles from Highway 58 out of Tehachapi. I'll admit that I "yellow blazed" an 8 mile section of windmills between Willow Springs road and the start of Section F. I think many people do this, but not all. I'm not a purist I guess.

The trail began in Joshua tree country and went uphill quickly into pinyon pine forest. Golden Oak Spring was a cement cattle trough just below a plot of windmills in oak and pinyon pine forest. It was a nice spot with the trees buffering the wind, but the windmills were pretty noisy. The spring had lots of water and many others camped there as well. One thing about the first 700 miles is that you pretty much plan your life around water sources.

It was a tough slog to get in because I had put about 8 days worth of food and maybe a little more in my pack, plus the usual ton of water. I started worrying that it was too much food so I planned to eat it up as quickly as possible. It turned out I ate very well for the entire stretch and had no food cravings when I got in to Kennedy Meadows, except for a craving for lemonade.

June 6 I set out early as usual, before everybody else, and I saw a bear on the trail. He was walking toward me. We both stopped and then we both turned and went the other way. Just after I turned I looked back to see him galloping away and figured I would keep going forward, but carefully. I did not see him again.

The trail was really pretty all day. Lots of forest, lots of shade. The trail meandered in forest and had flat spaces all around the trail. The trail is usually, for all these hundreds of miles, just a tiny strip on the side of a steep hill, so this was a welcome change.

I ended up hiking 25 miles and camping at a place called Waterhole Mine Camp. The book said there was a picnic table, piped water and a toilet. There were none of those things. Gary was also there and he found a green plastic chair and there was a fire pit made of rocks so he made a nice little fire. There was a tiny little creek next to the campsite so it didn't really need the piped-in water.

The wind was still blowing in the evening, but after a while it settled down and the stillness of the night was so wonderful. It was so quiet and I slept well.

I got started the next day, June 7, at 6:30am. The forest was so nice and I felt like I had finally arrived at the long-awaited Sierras, that I could relax and enjoy the hike and not worry so much about sun exposure, lack of water and heat.

Then to my horror the trail suddenly dropped out of the forest and into a desert more severe than any we have done so far. Joshua trees were the only shade and the trail was hot, exposed, steep and sandy. There was a 35.5 mile stretch ahead with no water sources on the trail.

I checked my map and I could see that I could skip the trail by taking Kelso Road over to a dirt road that heads uphill to a spring and then further uphill to the PCT again. That was going to be my plan if the water cache at Kelso Road was weak. That would be my clue that the other water cache further up ahead may also be empty and to rely on the spring instead.

The cache was huge. There were a million full bottles of water. Maybe not that many, but there was enough for everyone to take as much as they might need. So I did. And I kept to the trail instead of doing my road walk.

The trail was hot, steep and sandy. This was Jawbone Canyon and there were lots of motorcycles. I could see them riding around on their trails. I could see evidence that they also ride around on the PCT, but I never actually saw anybody do that. The motorcycles turn the PCT into a deep sand and gravel series of whoopdeedoos that are horrible to walk on. I believe that they should put GPS tracking devices on the motorcycles and if they are detected riding on the PCT they should be immediately sentenced to hike on the PCT with a full pack, with 6 days of food and 5 liters of water.

Walking these whoopdeedoos is like lurching down two steps into a hole, then struggling four steps up and out, only to do it immediately again. It's tiring and painful.

At about 12:30 I sought shade under a Joshua tree and decided to wait out the heat of the day. The shade grew weaker as time passed. I felt that I was in too much sun to be doing any good to myself, so I packed my stuff back up and decided to seek shade down the trail. I walked very slowly so as not to trigger any sweating. I found better shade within 1/4 mile next to some rocks. I sat there until about 3:30 and then decided it would be best to just get the heck out of the desert as soon as I could. My destination was the next water cache at Bird Spring Road.

When I take a long mid-day break I often feel good as new. I was able to walk very fast at first. Then the trail got really steep and I was back to walking very slowly in the sandy whoopdeedoos again, but when they were over I still felt good enough to walk at top speed toward the cache. Fortunately the sun was relenting and a nice breeze was keeping me cool.

I made it to Bird Spring cache at about 6:30, still making my 20+ quota for the day despite my long 3 hour break in the shade. I camped at the cache and a couple others camped there, too. It was windy so I decided not to set up my tent. I don't know why I have always set up my tent, but I learned that if I sleep outside under the stars in a breeze the wind whips up my sleeping quilt into a huge froth of down that is super toasty warm. I slept that way next to a juniper bush and a Joshua tree. I cut the tips off the Joshua tree spines so I wouldn't keep poking myself. Sorry Mr. Tree. The desert was really pretty at dusk and again at dawn and in the middle of the night there were a million stars. The Milky Way was amazing.

In the morning, June 8, I set out at 6am for a big climb out of the desert again. The trail looked like it would be really steep but it wasn't too terrible. I got back into the pinyon pine forest again and felt happy to have shade again.

I met a group of 5 hikers going southbound. One of them, Squatch, makes documentaries about the PCT which you can buy from his Web site I have seen his number 3 and I enjoyed it. He didn't film me as he walked by, however.

As I was enjoying the pinyon pines I suddenly found myself out in full sun exposure again, walking on a road through forest that was burned to a crisp. It stayed burned to a crisp for several hours in the hottest part of the day. I started to get mad. Section F is almost all desert because as far as I'm concerned, if the trees are gone it feels just the same.

When I reached the end of the burn zone, at the very first tree, I collapsed on my sleeping pad and took a nap. After a while I heard footsteps and saw a couple hiking the PCT with their dog Hank. Hank went immediately to the second tree and built a little nest and collapsed. The couple also stopped in the shade to rest. We are all amazed at how often we hike in burned forest and how little regrowth we see other than chaparral-type scrub. It's very sad.

As we all rested and chatted, Steve showed up and he rested in the shade, too. All that was left of the hike this day was a 4 mile downhill stretch to Walker Pass where there is a campground and a highway where you can get a ride to Onyx or Lake Isabella if you want. So we had time to rest.

At 3:30 I felt ready to get going so I put on my pack and headed down the trail. I began to get really thirsty, but the water I had wasn't making me feel quenched. I started getting a headache. I was getting hyponatremia from drinking a lot of plain water and not getting enough salt to replenish what I lose from sweating. All I could think about was getting to the campsite and getting some fresh water and making some lemonade.

When I arrived at the campsite I was quite disappointed that the water spigots were turned off and I had to walk down the highway quite a long distance in the sweltering afternoon sun to a cement cattle trough filled with tulles and mosquito larvae. But it was water and I needed a lot of it. I made two trips, too.

I made my lemonade and probably by the end of the day had consumed 2 or 3 liters either as lemonade, electrolyte drink, soup or just water. I honestly don't know how other PCT hikers have made it through the previous desert parts of the trail. I have been so lucky that it's been cool and breezy. Now in this heat I'm barely able to stay hydrated and safe from the sun. I'm lucky conditions have allowed me to get this far. I don't think I could have made it otherwise. All the other PCT hikers are so much stronger than I am.

I camped at Walker Pass with a lot of the other hikers. Some hikers, like Steve and the couple with the dog were on the trail with me. Others had already been into Onyx or Lake Isabella or even Bakersfield and were camping there in order to get a fresh start in the morning. There was good conversation at the picnic table.

One funny thing that happened is we were sitting at the picnic table when a family pulls up in a car about 30 feet away. They start unpacking things from their car and they are shouting out to each other. You couldn't really hear what they were saying, but we all heard clear as day the word "sandwich". One of the guys says, did you hear that? They're asking us if we'd like a sandwich! And he starting running toward them. Halfway there he realizes what we already know that they aren't talking to us at all and dejectedly he walks back to the table where we all are laughing so hard and this hiker lust for food and trail angels.

The next morning, June 9, I woke up before everyone else, except Hank the dog who had slept with me an hour or so in the night, and headed out. I felt really bad about my troubles with hydration and was feeling like I'm not cut out for this. I was thinking how easy it would be to just hitch a ride to Onyx, take the bus to Bakersfield, catch the Greyhound to Santa Barbara and not be lonely and thirsty anymore. But I forced myself to keep going. Just make it to Lone Pine and see if you can handle the Sierras, I kept thinking.

Up on Mount Jenkins at a plaque I finally had phone service and I called and talked to Tony. It was nice to hear his voice. He got my message from the other day. Because I have been putting in 20+ mile days my schedule of when to mail things is no longer accurate and I realized much too late that if he were to send my bear cannister to Kennedy Meadows by the schedule I'd have to sit there possibly for weeks waiting for it. So I will have to have it sent to Lone Pine instead and hope my Ursack works ok for the bears.

It was nice talking to Tony. I miss him and my birds. He said he was building more stuff for the deck and doing Sierra Club hikes. Oh how easy those used to be!

The trail on this day kicked my butt. It was the hardest day I had yet. I was alone the whole day, bumping into only a couple of section hikers. The trail went way up above 7000' and then, unlike in the rest of Southern California where the trail abandons you to lengthy waterless stretches (which is why there are so many water caches), the trail plunged way down into the 5000s to allow you to visit Joshua Tree Spring.

When I got to the Spring there was a fat, hairy guy in a tent with a little white dog. The man never spoke to me and it looked like he had bad blisters. That's why I think he was probably a section hiker. Too fat, too many bad blisters. His little dog would come around the corner to where I was sitting every now and then and growl at me.

I filled up my bottles and made some lemonade and tried to rest but the bugs were really bad down there. So I loaded up for yet another mid-day slog through the shadeless desert.

The trail went up steeply way back up into nice trees again only to plunge way back down so you could visit some little tiny creeks, little tributaries of Spanish Needle creek. One of them had stream orchids and other flowers blooming all over. I stopped there and filled up more water and washed my feet and dipped my clothes and hat in the water. I felt much better after doing that.

At the second Spanish Needle creek crossing I met a section hiker resting in the shade. He was in awe of us thru-hikers who put in such long days. Or maybe he thought we were nuts. By the end of the day I spent 13 hours hiking only 22 miles and I barely took any breaks. The trail was that arduous. I probably should have rested more but it's all about water sources and trying to get to Kennedy Meadows by this time.

At the end of the day I slept on a saddle between Spanish Needle group and Lamont Peak. I camped alone, my third time this whole trip so far. It was breezy and I slept out under the stars so I could rush out in the morning. I made a feast for dinner, finally cooking something. I've avoided cooking most of the time. I made Top Ramen with fresh onion (a stroke of genius to carry an onion I'm telling you!), tuna and fried onions. I hoped its salty goodness would give me better strength for the next day and hoped the bears wouldn't smell my leftover tuna packet. Oh, but it tasted so good!

In the morning, June 10, I put my stuff away very quickly and very early and headed out at 5:30am. I didn't sleep well because my feet would have these spasms of pain and I just wasn't all that sleepy. You'd think if you walked 20+ miles you'd be tired but I just felt wired all night.

The morning's hike was really nice in pretty forest on the shady side of the mountain downhill all the way. I was so grateful for so much shade that lasted so many hours.

Along the way a group of day-hikers going southbound walked past me. They sure smelled good. I hoped they couldn't smell me.

I met a man named Treebeard who said he saw me camped the previous night so he kept going rather than disturb me. I never heard or saw him. I met him again when we reached the first water source and then he was gone. I rested there briefly with a nice cool lemonade and some poptarts with peanut butter on them.

It was so nice by the little creek but I knew I must be on my way so onward I went, uphill now. The hills in this section, Section G now, are really steep. (Section F ended at Walker Pass.) According to the guide book the trail was going to enter a burn zone and make me walk in it for 14 miles. Ugh.

At about 11am I reached the burn zone. Fortunately there was a breeze most of the time so it wasn't too horrible. The wildflowers blooming were stunning. I took a lot of pictures. The fragrance was almost overpowering. It was nice to smell something other than myself for a change.

As the day wore on I began to get very tired and really wanted to rest. There wasn't a single tree alive and not a single tree regenerating. Desertification is what this is. I could find no place to rest in the shade.

I came around a bend into a ravine and met a couple of hikers who have done the PCT before and they were eating lunch. I stopped with them for a while and rested and ate, too. I spilled jelly all over my pants and tried to lick it up again. Cleanliness is pretty relative by now.

The shadelessness was doing me no good so after they left I kept going, too. They were quick hikers and disappeared from sight quite quickly.

I kept going through this burn zone, all down hill now, over clinking little rocks that were hard to walk on. I felt so tired and so sleepy I was almost falling asleep while walking. I tried to sing the song I had been composing over the last couple of days to stay busy.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, I reached the next water source where there was a huge burned tree that actually provided a little shade as well as a cavity for a beehive. I rested there for a while with the couple I had just met and another couple, the man wearing a kilt. I think men look cool in kilts.

At the water source I filled up a little bit of water and soaked my shirt and hat again and set off for more shadeless, burned, desertified trail. The couple who had hiked the PCT before said they remember very little of the trail from their hike in 1996 but one thing they have noticed is how much of the trail is burned. It's rare to go a day without walking through a burn zone. It's not so bad in chaparral country since it's supposed to burn and comes back quickly, but the pine forest isn't coming back. None of us saw any pine seedlings and the fire happened eight years ago.

Soon the four of them were off and after I visited the water I was off, too. Everybody was excited to be reaching the Kern River in 5 more miles. I figured that I had 5 more miles left in me. So I set off hoping to reach the river.

When I got to the river I thought that there would be just one encounter with it and that there would be a campsite right there and we'd all camp together and have some hiker chit-chat before bed. But instead the trail when along the river for quite some distance and despite looking for other people I never saw them. The trail went away from the river and I got nervous that I was walking past the river without taking a chance to take a dip. I told myself it's probably just going over the rise and will reach it again, and I was right.

I saw some inviting places to stop, the sun was starting to go behind the mountain, and I kept telling myself as soon as I find the others I'll be able to go swimming.

Soon the trail started veering very much away from the river. I stopped to check my guide book. I didn't have the page with me so I looked through the other pages I keep buried in my pack and could not find it. Of all the pages to lose I'd lose this one that I really wanted! I checked the map. It did look like the trail went away from the river one time, then back, then away permanently. Oh no! I was going to miss the river if I kept going.

So I turned back and went back to a little campsite I could see down by the river. Another night alone but at least I could cool off in the water. I put my stuff down and jumped in the river with all my clothes on. The water wasn't really cold at all. I splashed around and got the stink off, the dirt off and the jelly off.

I took off all my clothes and hung them in a bush and put on my silk long underwear. I cooked a fabulous concoction of mashed potatoes, tuna, fresh onion and Asiago cheese cubes (another stroke of genius is fresh, hard cheese). Oh man it was so good!

I decided to get in my tent and relax a little. I wrote in my journal a little, then put my head down. Next thing I know I'm asleep and the sun is still up. I slept well until morning. Not until dawn like all the other days but until full-on, sun is up, birds are singing morning. I guess 20+ mile days for so many days in a row had taken their toll. I had walked over 25 miles just to get to this river.

Now, June 11, I had only 4 or less miles to walk to Kennedy Meadows, which I did quite easily well before the store opened at 9am.

I'm going to take some days off, watch the progress of the latest wildfire to burn the PCT to a crisp, and just relax and enjoy a little hiker culture.

I have worried these past few days that I'm not cut out for this. The High Sierras will probably kill me. I am going to have to say good-bye to all these super strong, super fit hikers who put in their 20+ mile days and then play frisbee in the afternoon and start doing 15+ mile days instead. I hope my quilt continues to keep me warm and that my wimpy mesh shoes will work out ok. I hope not having a bear can until Lone Pine will work out ok, too. Most of all, I hope I can continue, that I don't give up. It's lonely out here most of the time and hard work.

Here's the song I wrote. It's sung to the tune of Old Dan Tucker. Piper is my trail name and not all of what's in this song is true.

Old Lady Piper is a fine old bird
Washed her face by an old cow turd (I was down stream you dummy!)
Combs her hair about once a week
Drinks from a cattle trough because there ain't no creek

Save a root beer float for Old Bird Piper
She's too late to get trail magic
Float's are gone, trail angels drivin'
Old Bird Piper just stands there cryin'

Old Bird Piper has a heavy pack
3/4 of her body weight in water on her back
Walks 1 mile an hour up steep mountain passes
At night she fills her sleeping bag with noxious gases

Save a bowl of ice cream for Old Bird Piper
She's too late to get trail magic
Ice cream's gone, trail angels drivin'
Old Bird Piper just stands there cryin'

Old Bird Piper dreams of carrot cake
Of burgers and fries and lemonade
She hopes in time these dreams will fade
'Cause ramen and mashed potatoes is all she made

Save some taco salad for Old Bird Piper
She went to bed without her supper
Morning came, no pancakes fryin'
Old Bird Piper hit the trail cryin'

(The "down stream you dummy" is a reference to Wild Bill who claimed to bathe down stream from Barrel Spring, which was a cattle trough, not a creek; the floats and ice cream were trail magic some people got; the taco salad, which I had, and pancakes, which I didn't have, were served at the Casa de Luna.)

1 comment:

  1. Hang in there Piper! Rest for a couple days but keep focused on the goal! You are an inspiration!!