Tony drove me up to Sonora Pass. The drive up was stark and beautiful with wide open meadows and sage brush expanses. As we climbed Highway 108 in the SUV I kept remarking how beautiful and different the scenery was.
We parked in the trailhead parking lot. There were many people out enjoying the July 4th time off. Lots of photographers were taking pictures of the wildflowers. Oh, the wildflowers!
I threw my stuff together super quickly. Since the 4th of July closed the Post Office, I was not able to get my bounce bucket so I ended up buying a whole new guide book. Since I couldn't mail home unneeded sections I had to carry the whole thing with me. The weight's not so bad, but I anticipated a lot of remarks about lugging the whole book from other hikers, if I should meet them. And I did get lots of remarks about it.
I also bought some new shoes. The La Sportiva ones gave me blisters on top of my toes and they just made my whole foot ache. I think I can fix that when I get home. My new shoes are Montrail. Same kind of shoe: mesh and kind of like a running shoe. They made my feet ache, too. But I've now bought some gel insoles. I might even buy another layer so I can walk on gel clouds.
I cried when I had to say good-bye to Tony. I really didn't want to be alone again. Maybe I'd never see another living soul again. Maybe I'd hate every minute of my hike like I did by the time I gave up near Bishop Pass. Tony didn't cry. I think he was anxious to make the long drive home and worried about the big fire in Goleta.
I set off to climb my last 10,000+ft mountain. The climb was easy. The trail was smooth. I felt like the trail was going to be kind to me. A trail crew had even chopped steps and fresh trail through the snow patches. I thanked them when they went by.
The scenery was amazing. All around me were volcanic mountains of reddish black layers with patches of snow, and wildflowers bloomed in garden-like patches all around me. I was constantly amazed how different and beautiful it was from the High Sierras and their granite domes and within an hour I felt no more sadness for being alone. Instead I felt so lucky to be out here and so glad I decided to continue. If I could recommend any section to do, Section J would be it. It was the most beautiful so far.
I crested the mountain and dropped to the other side. Along the way I met Nimble Will Nomad, accidentally mistaking him for Billy Goat. I first met him on Fuller Ridge near Idyllwild. He's an older man all white and bearded who carries almost nothing on his back. He was hiking Southbound to spare his knees. Looking back I'm not sure what he was sparing them from. The trail in Section J constantly goes up and down, crunching your knees all the time.
I made camp after about 10 miles in a spot I hoped had few mosquitos and would be warm. I was right about both. It was on a flat spot mid-way on a slope. There was a swampy creek way below so there were some mosquitos, but that's what my tent is for. As I wrote in my journal I thought how I kind of feel like a bird in a cage with the door open. I may have peered out the door, maybe even stepped out a little, but I haven't left the cage.
In the morning of July 5 I set off at 6AM with no particular goal in mind. The trail went up and down, up and down. In the High Sierras and even in Southern California it seemed more like the trail would go up for half the day and then go down. Not so now. It undulated all the time. It felt quite tiring but as I watched the miles roll by I was amazed at how far I was going.
I started walking through hillsides just covered in wildflowers like you wouldn't believe. Every shape and color and just when you thought you'd seen every kind you'd round a bend and there would be new wildflowers. The nice thing about flowers is that you can look at them while you walk. When I try to look at the scenery I often trip over rocks and things.
The scenery continued to be amazing, too, with the layered lava mountains and their interesting spires and cliffs. For some reason these mountains really reminded me of my friend Cerena. She should be here. These mountains felt full of spirits and magic.
There were a lot of dayhikers and backpackers along the way because I was never very far from a trailhead. I even met some Mennonite women out dayhiking in their dresses. I also met another thru named Nitro Joe. He was suffering from hamstring problems and had to rest a lot. Maybe he burned out his Nitro.
At about 4pm I looked in the guide book and it mentioned a rock formation coming up called the "dome". I decided to aim for that. I made it to the dome at 6 and camped below it. The book said it would be humbling and beautiful, especially in the evening light. It was beautiful, but there was another formation on the mountain that reminded me of the Taj Mahal that I thought was even more impressive. The cliff I made camp under was full of spires and domes, needles and blocks. It was very interesting. It all looked even prettier in the morning. By the time I'd made camp I had hiked 27 miles.
On July 6 I woke up in my solitary campsite to see that I was surrounded by people. Somebody was sleeping in a green bag and I could see a couple putting their things away about 50 feet up the way. Eventually I met the couple. Their names were Pickles and Gator. They hike very fast but stop often so I kept meeting them all day long.
Pickles and Gator told me about a planned Trail Magic event happening on Carson Pass. They were trying to get there in time before it closed up, hoping for food and some chairs to sit on. It became my new goal, too, even though I told myself I was going to take it easy and not push myself too hard. I should forget about these silly goals to take it easy. I never will. Carson Pass was 25 miles away.
All day I went as fast as I could, never taking a rest except when I caught up to Pickles and Gator. The only time I sat down was when Gator was selling his bear can on the trail to some backpacker heading south. Otherwise I ate my lunches "on the hoof."
I reached a mountain called the "Nipple" and found Pickles and Gator eating lunch. They invited me to rest with them. I foolishly declined saying I would rest at the next water so I could make some lemonade and take some ibuprofen. Silly me. So used to water being everywhere I didn't realize I would go many hours before seeing water again. When I finally found water I was so close to climbing Carson Pass that I made my lemonade, drank it in one hurried gulp, bent over immediately to put my stuff away and back up it came out my nose. I got to climb Carson Pass with the smell of stomach acid in my nose.
Carson Pass was not as hard as previous passes but it still was arduous with many false summits. The ibuprofen I had taken did nothing to help my achey feet. When I reached the top it was only a few more miles to the trailhead parking lot where the hoped-for food might be, but they were long and painful miles. There were tons of dayhikers out on this side of the pass. I passed them all, walking faster than them even after hiking more than 20 miles with a pack on my back.
There was no Trail Magic at the parking lot, but Pickles and Gator were still there. We were too late for the food, but the nice folks inside the information shop brought out a bag of fruit so we had a feast of apples, bananas and oranges with peanut butter. That was actually better than whatever greasy fare might have been there. After a long rest and fruit I felt revived.
We couldn't camp in the lot so there were still miles to be made. We climbed up a mountain through a profusion of flowers that rivaled the best Montecito garden you could imagine. We made camp in a meadow full of wild irises and small, froggy ponds on top. It was a warm and windy night with swarming mosquitos, but the tent protected me.
July 7 left only about 15 miles to get to Echo Lake and the end of Section J. I decided I would try to go to South Lake Tahoe when I got there. The hike to Echo Lake was long and arduous, descending through meadows and flowers into pine forest and bone-crunching descents. Pickles and Gator flew away and I hiked alone all day.
When I got to Echo Lake there were other thrus hanging out. One of them gave me a piece of cardboard so I could make a sign for my hitchhike. I wrote South Lake Tahoe and The "Y" on it and camped out near the parking lot, playing my pennywhistle so people would be sure to see me. Nobody stopped so I decided to walk back to the store where the thrus were hanging out, but with my sign still showing. A lady stopped and picked me up on the way!
She was a 49 year-old nurse who lived in South Lake Tahoe. She seemed to be at a crossroads in life, unsure which way to go, suffering on and off with depression, unsatisfied with life. I think that's why she picked up 43 year-old me. Perhaps she thought I had an answer, being a similar age and doing something most women might harbor secret desires to do, but fear that maybe they can't. All I can say is if you dream it, do it. Life's too short to live it making money from big corporations and giving it back to big corporations. That's not safety or security. It's the cage this old bird Piper is trying to step out of.
I was really glad I decided to continue my hike. Even if my hike is like swiss cheese with lots of holes, I realize for me it's not so much about covering every single mile. It's about enjoying these places of incredible beauty and about enjoying a way of life you have to experience to understand. There's a magical freedom in having everything you need on your back. You don't need much to be happy, safe and warm. Everywhere you are you are already home. Even if you are dirty and smelly you're still alive and enjoying life. If you need a box to mail something, you're not so proud anymore that you won't open a dumpster and look for one. You meet other thru-hikers and you're instant friends, just sitting somewhere together sharing stories of your shared adventures. You are able to talk quietly with few words because the din of civilization isn't buzzing in your ears anymore. (It's amazing how loudly people shout at each other when you get near civilization.)
The hike isn't a goal to walk every single mile to Canada (maybe it is for some, but not for me) so much as a way of life you try to savor as long as possible. I wish I could live this way.