26: Backpacking into the Sierra Nevada

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PCT thru-hiker RamboJuice taking a much needed break at a water cache on the PCT before Lake Isabella

Backpacking into the Sierra Nevada

The sun is beating down on us as we climb into the mountains outside of Tehachapi, CA.  We have been in northern California for the past month and have grown used to the humid forests.  This is a different kind of heat.  The desert heat is dry and chafing.  The hot wind blows your lips chapped.  We are carrying loads of water and food.  The packs are heavy, and it feels like a slog.  Despite these difficulties, there is nothing else I would rather be doing with my life.  There is a deep anticipation in my gut now because soon we will be backpacking into the Sierra Nevada.

We have been trying to put our safety first, delaying our trek into the mountains, but the time has come to attempt this famously scenic hike: the JMT.  Camping at Gold Spring for the evening, we are surprised to find two other PCT hikers.  We were sure we would see no one this late in the season so far south.  Gold Fish and Extra Mile are getting off trail soon but want to hike some of the Sierras first.  Indeed going forward, it would become a lonely hike for us almost completely devoid of other thru-hikers.

Out of Water

It is only 20 miles to the next water resource.  In the past, we could do 20 miles with 4 liters of water easily, but the wet spring is gone now. It has turned into summer and conditions are different now from when we were here in mid-June.  We decide not to carry to our full six-liter capacity.  Our rationale is we will be lighter and will be able to hike more quickly.  This turns out to be a poor decision.

The way is hard and uphill.  Sweat is pouring down our backs.  Morale is low.  This is the part of the hike I have been waiting for, the part that tests you.  How tough are you?  Will you give up when it is not fun anymore?  To me this is fun though, it is a weird type of fun I know.  But when things get tough mentally, that is when I feel most alive.  The physical part of endurance exercise is hard, but the true challenge is mental.  Despite rationing, we run out of water five miles from Robin Bird Spring.

If you have taken water for granted all your life, you will learn a whole new appreciation for it on the PCT.  Being parched but not being able to drink is a horrible feeling.  Our pace slows to a crawl, and we can only hike for twenty-minute intervals before being forced to rest again.  The way is up.

When we make it to the spring, we are completely wasted.  Collapsing against a dead log, we drink and drink and drink until the panic subsides.  Gunshots ring out in the distance, and we can hear off-road vehicles nearby.  There is something crashing around in the woods as the day fades into night.  I dream of bears and cold water.

Night Hiking

After yesterday, we decided to try out night hiking again.  The heat is intense, and our hope is we will travel faster and more comfortably at night.  The plan is to hike 7 miles from Robin Bird Spring to Meadow Spring and nap until evening when it is cooler.  As we hike along, a loud booming starts up in the distance.  At first, I think it is thunder, but the sky is clear and cloudless.  We decided there must be a military facility nearby.

The trail is pretty this morning.  There are granite boulders and pine trees.  I notice mountain lion tracks in the soft dirt, and we stop to admire them.  When we get to the camp, we set up the tent and try to sleep.  Despite the shade, the heat is oppressive.  Sleep is impossible for me.  I toss and turn for hours before I give up.  This is not going to work.  We must hike on.  Potentially we will not have water again until Walker Pass more than 40 miles away.  We pack 7 liters and the weight makes our joints ache.

The water report says not to rely on the water caches.  We are worried that they will not be maintained this late in the season, so we have no choice but to tightly ration our water.  It sucks.  It is brutally hot.  There is no one around.  It is just us for miles and miles.  After an ugly burn section, the trail becomes breathtaking.  The mountains are rugged and desert vistas open up before us.  We start a steep descent into the Mojave.

Water Cache

Joshua trees and teddy bear cholla appear.  The trail levels off at Kelso Road.  My tongue is thick in my mouth, and it is hard to swallow.  There are blue jugs up ahead, but I cannot tell if there is water in them.  As we get closer, I can see water gallons and gallons of it.  Woohoo!!  We binge drink for an hour.  Thank you, Kelso Road cache gods!  We camp at mile 618, after hiking just 16 miles.

Our campsite is awesome.  The sun sets as the coyotes start their socializing.  I am reminded of Big Bend National Park back home in Texas, where we have done so much backpacking in the past.

In the morning, we start as the sun is rising.  The hike is scenic, and we put on some Pink Floyd.  It seems like the perfect album in this moment.  "Hello! Is there anybody out there?"  In the distance, that deep booming starts up again.  The map says there is a naval testing ground nearby.  We see a few jets and a helicopter soar overhead.

We hike hard.  The trail becomes a deep sand as we climb.  Going uphill in the loose dirt is like hiking in lead boots.  My lips are so chapped I think they may fall off.  I keep fantasizing about iced tea.  I think about pouring the tea over perfect ice cubes.  The sound of the ice cracking and popping rings in my ears.  What would I not give for some iced tea right now?

Joshua Tree

We nap under a Joshua tree.  Rambo puts his head right into one of the plant's spiky leaves.  Blood drips down his face.  We rally and hike on.  The way is up.  At mile 630, I am surprised again by a water cache fully stocked.  We binge drink and nap under a tree.  The ants are all around us.  A storm suddenly blows in, and the rain starts to come down.  It stops as soon as it starts, and I fall asleep.

A sound awakens me.  I swim around on the edge of sleep.  My eyes part and land on the small sound that disturbed me.  A rattlesnake is slithering in a bush nearby.  He is eye level and ten-feet away.  I do not feel scared but rather fascinated.  He is looking for birds I muse, and start to wake Rambo so that he can see too.

We climb 1,000 feet.  The storm clouds are threatening in the distance.  The view is incredible from up here.  We cannot linger though and must climb down before the bad weather hits.  The black flies have arrived.  They hover relentlessly around our faces as we walk.  We are forced to wear our bug nets or risk being annoyed to death.  When we set up camp, the mosquitoes join in too.  It is quite a party.

Lake Isabella

The hike to Walker Pass is not scenic, and we labor through a barren burn area in the heat.  When we arrive at the campground, it is in horrible condition.  Trash is strewn around everywhere.  We step onto the highway to try hitching and are immediately picked up by an elderly man in a two-door sedan.  The next 20 minutes are some of the longest in my life.  He drives 90 miles an hour down the twisting road.  Rambojuice reaches over my shoulder from the back seat and hands me my seat belt as if to say "put this on now, and we might live."

Our gracious driver is quite shaky in manner and speech.  He is difficult to understand.  I try to read his lips as we speed onward weaving through traffic.  When he finally drops us off, I am utterly relieved.  And this completes my only bad hitchhiking story.  We check into the Lake Isabella Motel.  It has something called a swamp cooler, which I have never heard of before.  "You have to open the window for the swamp cooler to work", explains the lady at the desk.

The walls of the motel are thin as moth wings, but strangely the swamp cooler works well in the soaring temperatures.  We run around town doing errands.  Lake Isabella seems to have a large homeless population.  The town is spread out, and by the time we are done, we have walked probably 5 miles.  But I have bigger problems now, diarrhea has struck.  We make a stop at the Rite-Aid for probiotics.  After I get it all out, I sleep well in the small, hard bed.

Bad Shoes

Rambo has received a new pair of shoes in our mail drop.  His Altra running shoes are completely worn out, and he wants to try out some Sportivas this time.  After we have all our gear packed up, we call April Turner.  She gives rides to Walker Pass for a fee and lets hikers crash at her place.  She has been helping PCT backpackers since she was 16 years old.

April tells us stories about backpackers.  She has picked up delirious hikers out of water at Walker Pass.  She has even seen a couple hiking with a newborn.  One day April will backpack the PCT, and I hope she receives the same kindnesses she has given to hikers over the years.

When we arrive at the pass, I have one last bout of insta-rhea.  Good times!  I know this is T.M.I., but full disclosure.  I want you to know about all the joys of backpacking.  It is already late in the day, so we hike uphill for 5 miles and then make camp.  Rambo's new shoes are not cutting it.  They are too tight on top, and the bottoms of his feet are burning and numb.  I ask him if he wants to turn back, but he decides to press on to Kennedy Meadows.

Rugged Beauty

We are determined to make miles today.  Rising early, we hike along the ridgeline admiring the rugged mountain beauty while listening to Heart.  The town of Ridgecrest sits far below in the desert.  Soon we are dripping with sweat.  Water is more abundant on the path to Kennedy Meadows.  We are wary of the springs along the trail, which apparently have bear problems.  One hiker writes in the water report that a bear ate her food and is not scared of humans.  Another backpacker told us a bear was actually stalking hikers and jumping on their packs.

Napping at Needle Creek, we camel up on water.  Then we climb 2,000 feet up and down another 1,500 feet to Chimney Creek Campground.  We have backpacked 24 miles today and are out of water.  The spigot at site 36 is proving difficult to find.  It is dark now and eerily noiseless.  I feel isolated.  We finally find the spigot 1-mile off-trail.  We cook dinner and set up camp in the dark.  There are loud crashing noises in the woods.

We get a late start.  Neither of us is in the mood to hike today, and the terrain is no help.  Rambo's feet are hurting badly.  We travel through ugly burn areas, and it is hot as hell.  Immediately we climb up to 7,800 feet.  We listen to music again to motivate ourselves.  Today it is Kenny Rogers.  I giggle when Lady comes on.  "Lady, I'm your knight in shining armor, and I love you".

I hit a wall.  I do not know what is wrong but everything hurts, and I feel horrible.  Every joint from my hips down is throbbing and aching.  I take Aleve and ask to sit down.  I fall asleep almost instantly.  After 15 minutes, I wake with a start and am completely fine.  It was the weirdest thing.

The Gateway

We arrive in Kennedy Meadows at dusk.  The general store is still open, and the owner is amicable.  He brings us three packages.  The first is filled with food for our hike up to Horseshoe Meadow Camp.  The second and third contain our micro-spikes, bear canister, down pants, and ice axes.  We are ready for the "real" mountains.  There is one problem though, Travis needs new shoes.

There are zero backpackers here.  We camp behind the store.  It looks like an abandoned music festival up here.  I feel like we have totally missed the party.  Oh well, I hate parties.  Chairs and mats are strewn about.  Make-shift showers and bathrooms sit near the storefront.  We yogi (straight up ask) for a ride down to the only restaurant in town, Grumpy's, for a pizza.  Some of the locals are getting rowdy at the bar, and they give us a drunk ride back to the store.

First thing in the morning, we call REI from the general store.  They can overnight some shoes, but it is the weekend, so "overnight" means we are stuck here for a few days.  Great.  I am filled with disappointment.  But if there is one thing the trail has taught me, it is that when things are bad there is some great just around the corner.

Thru-Hiker Tips:

  • If you have a pair of shoes that work for you, stick with them.  If you try a new brand, don't throw the others out until you are sure they will work for you.
  • Are you hiking nobo?  I would skip Chimney Creek Campground as a water resource.  Hike to the next spring.  It is closer to the trail.  The Chimney Rock site 36 is far off the trail.

In the spring of 2017, we set out to hike the PCT.  Hear our full story.

Continue to our next adventure on the PCT.

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