What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make. ― Jane Goodall
A huge wind rattles the alicoop most of the night, I hear it traveling through the tree tops towards me, pleased I chose a site in the forest. It’s not cold yet, I even wake up as the moon rises feeling hot. The truth is, it’s coldest at dawn.
It’s not so cold yet, as I pop up as the sky lightens, doing the thru-hiker morning routine and setting off alone, not entirely certain if I’ll run into Nathan again. He’s so easy to be with and moves fast, but I need to try to get to Mammoth Lakes to pick up my warmer bag and clothes. Richard sent them after receiving my anxious gps message the morning I woke with ice covering the alicoop. A cold front is coming even if it feels warm now. The only thing is I’m not sure if the package will be there and it’s an ordeal to get out now since the bus has stopped running for the season. I do some quick calculations with eighteen miles to walk to Devils Postpile parking lot where I might get a hitch and the post office closing at 4:00. That means I’ll need to arrive by 2:00 to be on the safe side which calls for some, shall we say, focussed walking today.
As I leave this sweet spot on a pine needles floor by the gurgling creek, I hear coyotes yipping. The air is perfect with just a slight chill as I head up to Island Pass. It was here that I said goodbye to my new friends seven years ago then changed my mind and joined them for the remainder of the hike. Friends for life, those two Yorkshire lads, Dave reciting poetry completely from memory each night as the stars came out and our eyelids got heavy.
Now, I check to see if I have phone signal, which I don’t, so instead send Richard a gps message to ask if my package arrived. I laugh remembering seven years ago when a woman squealed on top of Donahue Pass that she had cell service. I asked that she not make her call next to us in this beautiful place and she replied, “I’m a mother!” as though her children couldn’t bear a few days free of their mom. I was so annoyed, I carried a black cloud with me that day all the way to where I stand now. Of course times have changed and we’ve all become obnoxious with our phones in the intervening years. But what I see in me is something changing fundamentally. This place is heavenly, how could I possibly allow one person to color my experience? I feel so blessed to have a do-over and return to the scene. (Jayne, the negative is not coming with me into our Sierra!)
It truly is heaven here. A magnificent triangular crag stands like a sentry over a lake filled with islands. Glacier-ridden and filled with deep lines, he appears to be an old soul blessing the water, arms outstretched. My breath is taken away by its almost clichéd beauty. I walk slowly past, taking pictures from all angles, marveling at his reflected image as though I am inside a work of art.
Eventually I reach Thousand Island Lake outlet where the PCT splits off from the JMT. Comments in my app map suggest staying with John Muir, but it only makes sense to try the alternative and see something new, like a different verse of the song. I expect to be disappointed after so much criticism as I walk straight into forest, then sidle a steep meadow up and up, my tachycardia sets off, so struggling to breath at 10,000 feet. It all feels familiar as much of my hike is through less interesting terrain just trying to get me from point A to point B, when all of a sudden I break out on top of a ridge with some of the most astounding scenery I have ever seen. I am looking across an enormous valley straight at snow crested crags and rows of towers all on top of polished domes. I try to keep my eyes forward so I don’t trip, but they keep turning towards this magnificent vista running the full length of the valley. Other hikers and a trail runner with dog come up equally overjoyed with this view dramatized by puffy clouds. A wrangler arrives with several horses tethered together. With his waxed mustache, hat, chaps and manner I tell him he looks the part, straight out of central casting. He smiles, looks a bit confused, and thanks me for giving them plenty of room.
My reverie-on-a-ridge ends when I see falls in three parts coming down the rock, it’s whooshing sound heard all the way over here. I say goodbye to the beauty and head steeply downhill, meeting a group of backpackers heading up, one telling me I’m far too happy. Another asking if we’ve met. It’s Patricia! She gives me a big hug which feels so good. She is Hansel and Gretel’s mother, the one who rescued five cold hikers and took us to Kennedy Meadows North. She’s hiking backwards to meet the kids and is ecstatic to be out in this beauty. It’s funny how these connections can really brighten my day.
I head on doing more calculations to ensure I leave enough time to get into Mammoth. The trail is confusing as it passes through a packed parking lot, many people eager to see what I just saw. I wander through a meadow then eventually meet the trail, taking a pause for water and lunch before following the middle fork of the San Joaquin river, crystal clear and Sienna brown from the stones. I leave it to meet tiny Minaret creek falling over rock high above. This part is forested with views to huge walls rising above the gorge. I leave the trail to find the parking lot, crossing a bridge with a bit of playdo-like basalt uplift reaching towards me.
At the lot, I begin to feel a big discouraged after many cars decline taking me. I jauntily stick out my thumb for an RV fully expecting them to move on, but they stop and tell me to come on in. Lloyd and Sheryl are absolutely delightful, simply having me sit on their couch as we crawl up and over the mountain on very narrow road. Lloyd has one of those giant plastic tubs of red vines licorice – a man after my own heart! – and let’s me dig in as we share stories and bump down the winding road, items tumbling out on the floor, Sheryl gasping as Lloyd pulls towards the guardrail-less edge allowing someone to pass.
We get a bit lost, so I call Richard and he navigates us to the post office. I had such fun getting here with absolutely no idea how I’ll get back. They offer me a coke and Sheryl gives me a big hug which also feels good. My package is here and I switch out items to send home, finding my warmer bag actually feels lighter and packs better. When I leave, I head right to the bus stop – a free trolley service – and there just happens to be a hiker there who knows his way around. ‘Trail Magic’ has a bit of attitude, but he suggests I take the trolley all the way to Mammoth Pass and hike a spur to the PCT. I’ll miss a few miles of trail, but I’ve done it before so am eager to try a new trail.
He also tells me a storm is coming with snow for three days. Ugh. I do some more calculations and realize I can hike to a pass and escape if need be. I get Richard on board to track the weather, but the bus driver just scoffs saying it will get cold, but no storm is coming. Whatever the case, I have backup plans and head onto the trail, passing an area where trees are knocked flat by an earthquake, as if an omen.
This trail passes a lovely lake and heads down steeply on ancient ash, a huge red cone of a mountain looming above a meadow with stream popping and gurgling through long green grass. I cross on logs when a voice yells my name. It’s Nathan! and my third hug of the day. I set up in this stunning little spot and he shares freeze dried lasagna he found in the Reds Meadow hiker box. My feet are finally dust free and I’m cuddled in my warmer sleeping bag, the orange glow turning to diamond lights in a black night and the wind picking up mightily in the treetops. Life is indeed very good.