I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took an excuse. – Florence Nightingale
When ‘Flawless’ passed last night, she assured me the wind would die down. As if any of us really know. In fact, it got stronger and gustier in my little narrow spot on the ridge. But the alicoop stood up to it as she got pummeled from all sides. I was so dead tired, I fell asleep through all the racket, but woke at one point and started reading my brother Eric’s suggestion of ‘Nobody’s Fool’ by Richard Russo. It’s so good and kept me calm as the rattling, flapping and shaking never let up. I guess if you learn anything on a thru-hike, it’s to enjoy the experience while it’s happening and hope for the best. I can tell you this – dynamee makes a very special sound.
I am up before dawn having a coffee and packing up so I wouldn’t be late getting to the pass to meet Sandy. The sunrise is deep orange-red over the Owens Valley, lights going out in the towns below as the sun creeps higher on the horizon. The wind refreshes as I sidle the mountain, seeing that the next camp spots, also on saddles, are just as exposed as mine. No one is here now, so I walk alone watching a huge row of triangular mountain shadows slowly rise far below.
I see long zigzags down and then a road headed up to the pass. Rocks in a chain climb up beyond me as I descend, a few Joshua Trees pop up here and there. The road is popular and several cars and trucks are coming in. I cross above them, then head straight down to a parking lot. I find Flawless catching a ride with a visitor from South Boston, her thick accent adding color to the morning. Flawless is heading to Ridgecrest and tells me Michelle and Fluffy walked here to catch a 6:00 am bus. I guess they really needed to get to town. We exchange phone numbers and I head to the campground.
It’s a mile, but I’ll sing praises to the person who built a separate trail from the road, keeping us safe. At the junction, a trail angel left two gallons of water. More praises sung as I fill my bottles for the upcoming dry section. I walk through the primitive camp that looks well used just now and just as I get to the road, Sandy pulls in with two hikers.
We drive up to the trailhead to drop Number Seven! You remember, the guy who takes himself so seriously? He’s really nice and mentions that when he passed me yesterday I urged him to have a good life, like I’d never see him again – and here he is. He heads off, but the other hiker, Jesse, or ‘Pinky, is healing up a strained ankle. She’s the same gal I met on the trolley in Mammoth Lakes, cute with such a refreshing attitude. She definitely hikes her own hike, calling herself a ‘9-5 hiker,’ cuddling in the sleeping bag with coffee and a book until the sun comes up, and giving her dinner prep plenty of extra time to complete the task and enjoy the results.
Sandy brings a much needed goodie bag of oranges, chocolate, breakfast sausage and noodles plus four slices of pizza and a salad, which I gobble down immediately. We talk at the picnic table about hiking philosophy and trying to get serious hikers to lighten up, plus cool trail magic at the campground I passed near Chimney Peak and the Apple Festival coming up in Tehachapi. I know I was gone only two days, but I really needed sustenance, both for my stomach and my soul – and I’m so pleased Sandy was coming anyway to drop Seven and bring Jesse along too.
I finally say goodbye and head up a big hill covered in tiny pinkish-purple flowers that grow on these oddly shaped stalks that almost look like old TV antennae bobbing in the wind. It’s still very blustery, but at least it keeps away the gnats.
Pizza really helps and I fly up the hill even with more food and full water bottles. The views out to the desert are extraordinary, but when I push higher, I can see back to the high sierra with a pointy Whitney in site far, far away now. I stop and put one of Ghost’s electrolyte packs in a water and drink it down. It’s dry here with water off-trail after eight miles, but I will drink as much as I can, when I can, to stay hydrated.
The mountains here are dotted with oak and pine sweeping deep down into gullies and canyons. The trail comes up one canyon, then circles around to a saddle, so from here, I see the Walker Pass road, a single white car heading east. Soon, I pop up and over to more interesting rock formations atop a kind of mesa, flat and stretching far into the distance. Clumps of oak, their tiny, waxy leaves sporting sharp spikes at the edges, are healthy and abundant, yet tall, twisted limbs reach up as if antlers, gray, smooth, and very dead. Against the richness of this cobalt sky, one group appears to be Matisse’s dancers holding hands in a ring. These living and dead partners are everywhere here, continuing to the edge before the steep descent to the desert I can see in a V.
I walk through as the landscape changes seemingly before my eyes to scrubby bushes and extremely tall Ponderosa pine. The wind here is ferocious, nearly blowing me off my feet. I may not look like a bandit to keep gnats away, but the bandit-look works well keeping sand from blowing up my nostrils or in my mouth. I come to a dirt road and the turn off to McIver’s cabin and spring. I first sit, study and plan a water strategy, plus drink my final liter and have a snack before heading over.
The spring is just 1/4 mile, so I head over on extremely rutted and rocky road, fit only for ATV use as even walking is awkward. The cabin is a dumpy little shack, but could be quite nice if the weather turned nasty. I set my pack on the table and look for the pipe. People complain about a bad smell, but it seems less the water than the plants growing abundantly in the marshy ground giving off a pungent odor. I quickly fill my two bottles – gotta love a piped spring – and even take a minute to backflush my Sawyer filter since its been working overtime on muddy water and I don’t want it to clog.
No one joins me and it’s far too early to camp, so I head back to the trail, discovering I’ll walk on this road for about an hour. It’s wide open here and the wind picks up sand, throwing it in my buff-protected face. I feel like I’ve stepped into that Dorothea Lange photograph of father and son, both in cowboy hats leaning into the wind, their hands holding onto identical hat brims and shielding eyes. It’s an experience here, for sure, loud, intense, dirty. I’m grateful when I turn off and rejoin the trail, too narrow and tree-lined for the wind to penetrate.
I still see no one. Hikers can be spaced apart by just a few miles and never meet for days. It adds a kind of energy to the day being alone, especially making decisions about water and when to leave the trail to get more. I feel good now, so will carry these liters until dinner if I can. The trail takes me into oak forest with soft, wheat colored grass. I meander up and down, passing camp spots set in the trees, one with bleached cow bones on display.
The mountains are thick now with trees, in curvy folds like a carpet bunched up on itself. Every so often I can look back and see where I’ve been, but the trees hide the trail completely. I would not want to be lost here. I come to the turn off for Yellow Jacket spring, numerous campsites nearby all empty now. I have the water I need and collecting here requires bushwhacking, so I head on up to a dirt road that might have a cache.
It’s up now through forest, dipping into ravines to cross dry stream beds. I come to a road, but it’s completely empty. I still have two liters and feel good, so plan to go another few miles to a camp spot, when I spy a truck. I head over calling, “Hello!” but no one’s about. In fact, the wind has blown one of the tents onto its side. Everyone must be gone.
But what do we have here? Two giant coolers. I call out again. No answer. I just want to take a tiny peek inside, no harm. I open one and see dinner in ziplocs waiting for the barbecue, a salad, sodas. The other is filled with ice and gallon-sized spring water. No cache, no one around.
I call out again. No answer.
Yes, my friends, I help myself to two sodas. I know, I know. I stole two sodas.
I stuff them in my roomy front pockets and head up the trail which comes out of the woods to sidle the mountain, looking to the desert and back toward the Sierra as I gently switch back and forth. A site is up here in trees sheltered from the wind. The views in the waning sun are superb as I crawl into funky rock, sage and gnarled pines.
I think about stealing and feel bad. This is a bit of an emergency – or at least a serious situation in that this late in the year, no one is refilling the caches and I may have two liters for tonight and most of tomorrow. It might anger these people if they knew a PCT hiker stole them. I should mention I never entered their site. The coolers were next to their truck on the road. But they may just be puzzled about what happened and pick two more sodas out of a box inside the truck and drop then in the ice.
The fact is, I feel bad enough about stealing, I won’t ever make it a habit. But hopefully they would welcome my strategy. I drink the sodas with a cold dinner, saving both liters for tomorrow just in case. I’ll come across more opportunities – and hopefully a full cache – but this delays the need.
I climb and climb as the setting sun turns this magical place to orange. Several places look possible, but I hold out for the actual spot which is protected in the trees as the wind dances about. I set the alicoop behind an enormous sage bush and she flaps minimally. After dinner, the sun sets a deep orange and everything glows silver under a waxing moon. I’m cuddled in before 7:00, ready to sleep after such a wondrous day.
I promise, too, that I’ll pay forward my stolen sodas, the evidence crushed flat by a nice, big piece of granite.