Going Solo

Laughtrax and Rebel (minus Rebel) Hiking a thousand miles with another person is not necessarily a sociable adventure nor does having a loved one always within twenty feet of you mean a person can’t feel lonely. Lisa and I eat, sleep, and hike all day long together. We also go hours without speaking while we try to lose ourselves in our own thoughts and fend off boredom as we walk twenty-plus miles per day. It’s nice to pass other hikers and exchange greetings, occasionally sharing gossip or informing one another on the trail ahead. Better yet to fall in a groove with others traveling the same direction, chatting for a few miles or sharing a meal at a vista or under some shade. Most long-distance hikers are exceptionally friendly and congenial toward their peers. PCT hikers in particular know how to spot one another without ever having seen that person before. We seem to have an aura… a palpable, smelly aura. It makes for easy interaction without the typical icebreakers and small talk. There is a wonderful community strung along hundreds of miles of trail in little migrating bits and single-file-herds. Lisa needs that community more than I do, although I discovered that it is one of my needs as well. For much of July we made a mistake by focusing on one particular segment of that community. We pushed ourselves to a breaking point by ruthlessly trying to catch up with folks who had gotten ahead while we should have been mixing with the rest of the herd. Even with me beside her, Lisa felt isolated. She was exhausted, fighting illness, and sick of hiking. So we agreed she should take a break while I kept hiking. And hike I did.

From Mammoth Lakes to South Lake Tahoe

While Lisa was hitching a ride toward a friend in Salt Lake City, I ditched Mammoth Lakes on a shuttle loaded with mountain bikers and tourists and made my way up to Reds Meadow, mile marker 904. Determined to catch up with Reid, Gummy Bear, or one of the familiar hikers I knew was just a day or two ahead, I floored it, so to speak. Not reaching the PCT until almost noon, I decided to hike into the night. I made dinner that evening on the shores of 1,000 Island Lake, a large alpine lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks, then hiked another five miles before dark before making camp in a mosquito-plagued creek bed. Coyotes bickered nearby as I squashed the half-dozen blood suckers that had infiltrated my tent when I dove inside to escape the main swarm. I hiked over sixteen miles. I have to admit that my two-person accommodations felt remarkably (perhaps liberatingly) spacious without my partner. In the morning I packed my things and hit the trail by 6am, ready to put in a proper day. I was eager to hike thirty plus miles if I could manage it. My energy levels were high and for a change my feet seemed to be cooperating. Thirty miles was a plausible goal. I hadn’t hiked a quarter mile when I reached a trail junction guarded by two section hikers. I would soon find out that English was not their first language as one of them, a man, stopped me and asked if I had a satellite phone. He was leading a party of eleven section-hikers, one of whom was injured with a twisted ankle and could not walk. I disappointed them with the fact that I did not have a satellite phone but that I would certainly call from my cell as soon as I had reception. There was a pass in five or six miles and reception might be possible from the higher elevation up there. I wrote down the name of the injured party and took note of the group’s location before hiking away briskly. I asked every hiker I saw, camped or on the trail, if they had a satellite phone. One group did but we were unable to get a call out. Ultimately, I was able to call 911 from the pass but I don’t know what happened to the group after that. The dispatcher said she would contact the park rangers but she seemed doubtful they would move quickly for a non-life-threatening ankle injury. When I crossed the pass, I left Ansel Adams Wilderness and entered Yosemite National Park. I soon ran into a pair of rangers and asked if they had heard anything about the injured hiker but as it was out of their jurisdiction, they had not. When I described the situation, they were also not particularly concerned. Oh well.

Tuolomne Meadows 

By mid-afternoon I reached Tuolomne Meadows, the Mos Eisley cantina of the Pacific Crest Trail. Here I found a makeshift general store/post office along a stretch of road choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic as RVs, shuttle buses, and tourists struggling to make their way through Yosemite. More tourists mobbed the parking lot and picnic tables, along with cyclists, park employees, and the largest gaggle of filthy PCT hikers I had yet seen. At least twenty, maybe more, not one of whom I had ever met. Some were waiting for packages (the post office was small enough and the hiker traffic so heavy, that PCT hikers would check in at the service window then wait for supply packages to be doled out on the hour) while others sorted supplies for the next leg of the journey. I put my name in at the post office, plugged my cell phone into an overwhelmed power strip reminiscent of the scene in A Christmas Story when the father plugs in the Christmas tree lights for the first time, bought a Dr. Pepper, then settled into the dirt on the edge of hiker mob. The sudden crowd (there were well over two-hundred people milling about, not including the endless traffic on the road) felt very overwhelming. Surrounded by unfamiliar PCT hikers, it was also the first moment I missed Lisa. I had managed to make it a 36 hours without her.

I was anxious to escape the crowds and once the phone was charged, I pressed on. It did not take long to escape the masses. Most of the foot traffic in Yosemite barely makes it a mile from the nearest road. Peace and solitude returned not long after I left the bustling general store. However, I was not to camp alone. I stopped at Glen Aulin, an established campground with a lodge, running water, privies, and supposedly a host of troublesome bears. There were also a dozen thru-hikers, a few I had seen back at Tuolomne. Determined to not be my usual introverted self, I made an effort to introduce myself and hang at the little campfire surrounded by our little cohort. I met men and women with monikers such as Rambo, Clark Kent, Zef, Karma, and Wolf. Some of their names I had heard of before or read in trail registries but all their faces were new before that day. As the evening wore on, folks came and went from the fire, some of them not thru-hikers, including a family of four from the Netherlands, and a youth group offering us free, uncooked pasta. Sadly, no bears stopped by that night. I was genuinely disappointed.

Glen Aulin to Kennedy Meadows North

I never saw any of those hikers again. The next day I woke up at 5am and hit the trail. I was determined to reconnect with folks I knew, plus I was still feeling energetic and ready to cover big miles. Yosemite’s rugged terrain did not cooperate as much as I would have liked. Although not as dramatic as the Sierra Nevada, the mountains presented more ups and downs. Peaks were more rounded while the lower elevations presented large swaths of granite plains stripped of soil. Bare rock was everywhere. Smoother trail and less elevation gain overall, but still no walk through Central Park.

That evening, following a lead from a south-bounder who had met a thru-hiker with a southern accent (possibly my friend Reid), I made my way a half-mile off the PCT to Benson Lake. There I found a deep, cliff-bound reservoir of snow melt with a long sandy shore dotted with tents. I walked along the beach until I spotted a familiar pair Lisa and I had last seen in the Mojave. Ingrid and Chief didn’t recognize me without my partner and I had to remind them of our last encounter. I asked if they knew Reid (they did not) then pressed on down the beach. What happened next was unexpected and wonderful.

At the far end of the shore I spotted a massive green tarp forming a temporary pavilion. As I drew closer I saw a large gathering of people seated underneath. Their unified attention was drawn towards something out of sight, giving the congregation an eerie, cultist vibe. Still a few hundred yards away and with their own thing clearly going on, I was about to turn back when my attention was pulled to a spectacle emerging from the forest. A large herd of horses and mules charged out of the treeline, the latter as tall and graceful as the former, galloping playfully onto the sand. The herd split in two, half of it making its way down the beach toward this exhausted and stunned hiker, before catching sight of me and digging their hooves in the sand. I wanted to stay and watch, but I felt genuinely guilty that I had upset some of the horses’ play. I turned away not long after and made camp along the shore beside a section hiker with a Kentucky accent.

The next day I hiked a marathon length. The last six miles, when one would expect that energy levels would be dwindling, were the fastest thanks to a lightning storm chasing me along a naked ridge line. Some thoughts that went through my head as I literally ran the last two miles included the imagined conversation of the two sardonic rangers who found the body of the hiker too stupid to stay off a seven-mile-long exposed ridge while a series of storms passed through the area, or the possible abilities I might wake up with after being struck by lightening. If I survive, perhaps I’ll find myself a sudden piano virtuoso or fluent in Mandarin. I tried to focus on the positive side effects and not the more likely ones, like aphasia or burn scars.

I survived Zeus’ game of electric darts and made it to a low pass with a road crossing. There I had my hardest hitch of the trail (I never realized how much easier it is hitchhiking with an attractive woman on hand) and caught a ride to Kennedy Meadows Resort. The guy that picked me up was a “driver” in one of the local parks. Basically, he leads mule teams through the mountains, resupplying rangers and trail crews. After the previous evening’s communing with the beasts along the shore of Lake Benson, I had a host of questions. One of the grimmer was whether horses or mules ever stumbled and fell from the treacherous trails that crossed the mountain passes. I had passed numerous stretches of trail that were perilous for us smaller-footed, more nimble bipeds. How could such massive horses and mules cross places like Forrester and Silver Passes? My guide informed me that accidents were few but did occur. The mules in particular, stubborn as they are, will just go home if they’re not tied to the horse in front of them. While crossing a dangerous pass, the mules’ leads are replaced with easily broken lengths of straw. That way if one luckless beast stumbled off the trail, the placebo lead would snap and the rest of the train would be spared. That said, my guide added, a few years back an entire team of mules did fall to their deaths a few years back. While the thought of their demise was horrifying and sad, I could not help but suppress a giggle when the driver explained rangers had to dynamite the remains. I know its dark, the image of exploding mules seems absurd.

Back to the resort. Another tourist trap nestled in a canyon, teeming with tourists and hikers, I was eager for a shower and some restaurant food. I got the last bunk in the hiker lodge, sharing a room with a family of thru-hikers that included an eleven-year-old girl. Can you imagine hiking 2600 miles as a kid? More hikers camped outside. Once again, none of them were familiar. I was starting to think I had somehow passed my friends.

A New Hiking Buddy

Another hard hitch later and I was back at the trailhead. I should mention that when Lisa hopped off the trail, we agreed to meet up at a hostel in South Lake Tahoe at a predetermined date. Then we would reassess whether we would continue hiking the PCT together, if I would continue on alone, or we would quit together. I had roughly sixty miles between me and the road crossing where I would need to get off the PCT. I was determined to make one last push to catch some familiar faces. If these were to be my last few days on the trail, I wanted to say goodbye to folks in person.

I stumbled across some more thru-hikers at the trailhead, some returning from the resort below and others having just descended the ridge line that had been scoured by storms the night before. As I continued north, I fell in line with a hiker named Handy. Handy was an ultra-light hiker (his pack was a third the size of mine, although to be fair, my pack was bloated with two-person gear) from Connecticut. A talkative, cheerful, and funny young man with similar ambition for putting in big miles, we decided to hike together and make it to South Lake Tahoe in a forty-eight hour period. That meant crunching sixty miles into a short time span.

Ultimately, we failed. A pattern ensued of setting ridiculous goals and talking ourselves into pushing back deadlines. That said, we did manage to cover almost fifty miles. “Why not sixty?” you ask! Because we caught up to a hiker named Snakebite, (a friend of Handy’s) an Aussie with a swollen ankle and a serpentine tongue who convinced us to get off the trail ahead of schedule. Snakebite informed us of a road crossing before our intended destination that was supposedly an easier hitch. She urged us to join her and partake of the decadent riches of South Lake Tahoe cuisine and hotel beds. Really, we did not take much convincing. I had hiked 170 miles in seven days and was utterly shattered. That and an unexpected batch of cell coverage in the wilderness allowed for a phone call with Reid, who said he was already in town, and I knew it was time to get off trail.

I spent my last night on the Pacific Crest Trail, camped on a small rise amidst a boulder field, inside my tent but with the rainfly off so I could see the stars. Handy and Snakebite cowboy-camped nearby, singing Ben Folds songs into the night and threatening to crawl into my tent if the lightning flashes on the horizon came any closer. No storm arrived but neither did much sleep. I lay on my back, watching satellites and meteorites flit across the backdrop of the Milky Way, wrestling with the hard decision that was about to be made once I was reunited with my partner. Having new hiking friends and knowing that old faces were finally in reach made that decision all the more wrenching. But hiking without Lisa is more wrenching still.

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