Beer-butt Chicken and Tri-Tip
We are stuck in Kennedy Meadows waiting for Rambo's new shoes to arrive. There is nothing to do but wait. The general store has a big porch. We loiter and eat burgers from the stand nearby. I long for the Kindle I mailed back home in Big Bear. Watching the customers come and go, there are no other backpackers here. We are the last lonely pair entering the Sierras at long last. What we need is a trail angel, but we do not know that yet.
The day moves at a snail's pace, and we are racking up quite the bill at the general store. I feel like a prisoner, but then Danny shows up. His buddy, Armondo, has a place just a few miles away. "Would we like to come for dinner?" Why, yes. Yes, we would. Armondo has the coolest hunting hideout. He and Danny are making a mouth-watering spread, including beer-butt chicken, Tri-Tip, potatoes, refried beans, and green beans.
Dinner is awesome! Armondo and Danny are awesome! I feel amazed that our luck could change so quickly. These guys are gems. After talking for hours, Danny takes us back to the general store. Our luck is about to change again, but this time for the worst.
Drunks in the Night
I am on the edge of sleep when I hear a voice crying out in the darkness. "Imma gonna kill you!! I'm a navy seal, and I'm the king of this mountain!!!" This is a bit concerning but whatever. That is until I hear shuffling near our tent and get really concerned. I grab my flashlight, unzip the tent door and shine out. There is a man passed out on the ground nearby. His drink cup still in hand. Huh. There is plenty of room around here. Why right next to us?
The yelling starts up again out by the store. We decide to investigate the weirdness. Arming ourselves with ice axes, we head down. My headlamp shines down on a man completely unconscious with his head at a weird angle against a boulder. A nearly empty bottle of rum sits beside him. We rouse the store's owner, Scott, who lives in a trailer next door. He investigates but decides to let the guy just sleep it off. The sheriff is far away, he offers.
We do not sleep, and in the morning the vagrants have cleared off. Although as we are cooking breakfast, the pair returns and starts rummaging through the hiker boxes taking food and clothes. They are already drinking again. When one of the two introduces himself to us, Rambo loses his patience. He tells them what for, and then demands that they shove off.
Rambo has a new trail name. It is Pale Rider. He is here to run the riff-raff out of town. In all seriousness though, I feel bad seeing those guys walk away. Who are they? What is their story?
Tree and Strawberry
We have had some time to reflect on the upcoming hike ahead of us. My mind has been filled with thoughts of the dangerous river crossings and treacherous snowy passes. I have read and re-read the snow report, trying to anticipate and prepare for all the difficulties. We have lost two PCT hikers recently in the Sierras, and there have been other close calls.
I flip through the register in the general store, and I come across Strawberry's name. She was here a month ago, sitting in this same spot, signing this same book. Strawberry was a 32-year-old from Osaka. Her body was found a week ago in the south fork of the Kings River in Kings Canyon National Park. I think of her family far away in Japan.
I search for another name, Tree. A thru-hiker from China, she was 27 when she died. Her body was discovered in Rancheria Creek in Yosemite National Park. These deaths fill me with a deep sadness. We all want to hike this hike, and this could happen to any one of us. I hope that Strawberry and Tree were feeling happy on their hike. I hope they died doing what they loved to do.
Trail Angel King
By evening, the vagrants have returned, and we feel uncomfortable. Rambo's shoes are still not here, and he cannot hike in the shoes he has. There are some locals at the store tonight, and I stop to say hello. I tell them about our adventures last night with the drunks. One of the local gentlemen is wearing a cowboy hat and drinking a beer. He kindly says to me, "you guys can come stay at my place." Meet Joe. The most wonderful man on the PCT.
We pack up our things and ride with Joe to his ranch. He has a guest trailer with a comfortable bed and bathroom. It is a palace. The Whiskey Wells Wildlife Refuge is a haven. Joe makes sure that we feel comfortable. It is hard not too in this beautiful place that he calls home.
Late into the evening, we enjoy Joe's company as we sit around on his porch. We never tire of watching the dozens of hummingbirds sip on the numerous feeders that hang under the eaves. Our trail angel cooks us a delicious dinner of salmon and vegetables, and after he insists on sharing his dark chocolate with us. We watch the stars and share stories, and I know we have found a good friend.
The next morning we accompany Joe into the town of Ridgecrest down in the valley. We visit the butcher and pick up steaks for a feast tonight. Back at Whiskey Wells, we grill and enjoy another wonderful dinner under the stars. Jake the dog is always close, and I reach out to pet him frequently. He is our quiet guardian.
Rambojuice's shoes have arrived. We have one last gathering at the general store to celebrate Joe's good friend, Jim's, birthday. The gents have their salt guns at hand, and we spend an enjoyable evening on the porch shooting flies with them.
Early the next morning, Joe cooks us a hiker breakfast and then drives us to the trailhead. It is time to meet the "real" mountains. The anticipation is killing me. We hug our friend, and then just like that, we are hiking again.
The Gateway to the Sierras
Things are changing. A forest becomes a mountain meadow filled with flowers and in the distance are giants. Mountains taller and more wonderous than anything I have seen before. They are mysterious, deadly, and horribly beautiful. What will this be like I wonder? The anticipation is balled up in my throat like a tight knot. I have never felt this excited before.
It seems that we will have to hike forever before we reach those mountains in the distance. We lunch at the slow-moving south fork of the Kern River. I look at this peaceful river and think of the raging waters of the Kings River high up in the Sierras. It does feel as if we are passing through a gateway and that our hike will never be the same after this. We hike for another 5 miles and are forced to stop when lightning and rain starts up.
The next morning dark clouds loom, but the rain never comes. We are at 10,000 feet now, and we stare at the snow-covered peaks in the distance. I still see quite a bit of snow, and I start to worry. We walk on the ridge surrounded by wildflowers and hills. The hike throughout is amazingly beautiful, especially when we reach Inyo National Forest. Granite boulders and huge, twisted pines dot the hills as we labor upward.
Our bear canister is proving to be a nuisance. We can only carry so much food inside. Moreover, it is heavy, taking up a lot of space in one of our packs. As a joke, my mom packed a pink teddy bear in the canister. We take turns putting the bear in various scenic places along the trail, taking pictures to send home.
The views keep getting better and better. We camp near a spring and eat two dinners. They said your appetite would increase in the mountains. Is that possible? I already eat like a hummingbird.
It is an easy 8 miles to trail pass where we drop down to the Horseshoe Meadow Camp. The hitch is a cinch. A sobo JMT (John Muir Trail) hiker named 'Merica picks us up. He wears tiny U.S. flag running shorts and nothing else. He tells us that the snow is completely manageable now, so we should not worry too much. Driving down, down, we admire the brown Alabama Hills, which are quite unique, We have arrived in Lone Pine. This area is a popular place for filming, especially westerns.
'Merica drops us at the Pizza Factory, and we gorge ourselves. Across the street, we check into the Dow Hotel. In the lobby, there is a shrine to John Wayne. After running around doing errands, I call my parents. Sitting on the porch of the Dow historic hotel, I cannot take my eyes off of the Sierras. They are astounding, towering above us.
Sherpa Max shuttles us back up the mountain. He is professional and friendly, and his ride is clean. He has hiked the JMT many times, and he has never seen a bear. However, he has had trouble with marmots and lovingly calls the bear canister a marmot canister. As we drive, I think of the PCT hikers who would have been here earlier in the season when the road up to Horseshoe was closed. It would have been tough to climb down this winding road in the snow to Owens Valley.
Sequoia National Park
We climb back up to the PCT, stopping to visit with some horseback riders along the way. At Chicken Spring Lake, we are baffled by the number of hikers. There are at least a dozen, but these are not PCT hikers. They are JMT hikers, and their packs are huge! We marvel at the amount of stuff they have with them.
Hiking on into the afternoon, dark clouds billow overhead and the wind picks up. As we cross the border into Sequoia National Park, cold rain starts to slap down and the rain gear comes out. Soon we start to sweat. That is the problem with rain gear. It does not breathe. We have a lot to learn about mountain weather. It is unpredictable, and there is almost always a storm looming. One moment it is sunny, the next could bring hail. We camp in the rain among the JMT hikers. It is crowded up here.
- You will need more calories in the Sierras. Pack calorically-dense food and more of it.
- The gear you take into the Sierras is dependent on your comfort levels. I recommend microspikes and an ice axe. Even though we hiked the Sierra Nevada in August, we still used these items, but we hiked in a record snow year.
In the spring of 2017, we set out to hike the PCT. Hear our full story.