We found ourselves at Grumpy Bear’s once again for an all-you-can-eat breakfast. The small restaurant was packed with PCT hikers who took the claim as a challenge, stuffing themselves with bacon and pancakes until bloated and groaning, leaning back and staring vacantly at the memorabilia-filled walls of the restaurant while sipping coffee and waiting to digest a bit before returning for another round. Rowan inspired our entire table by rolling his breakfast into a sort-of pancake burrito and downing it in record time. I found my appetite surprisingly lacking despite the last week of rationing – maybe because of overdoing it on the drinks the night before. I wasn’t sure. I flexed my wrist continually as I held my coffee. Sometimes I would feel nerve shocks go up my arm. Sometimes my grip would freeze up and I would have to set the mug down quickly before I dropped it.
The conversations throughout the room were just a muted hum in my ears. Bearly was telling us about how he earned his trail name after running into a black bear the other day near the buggy and uranium-tainted Joshua Tree Spring. I felt foggy, and kept drifting away from the flow of conversation before being jolted back by someone’s laughter or a sudden clatter from the kitchen behind me.
When we returned to the General Store, we packed our things and weighed our packs. Mine weighed in at 36lbs with food and and five litres of water. It was the heaviest it had been since my first day on trail. We said goodbye to our friends, most of whom we’d likely see later since they were also hiking out that day. On our return to the trail, we passed the Doobie brothers, Shaggy and Papa Smurf playing frisbee golf. Half a mile back onto the trail we passed Kat, and then it was just the three of us again. The trail was a flat wasteland of low shrubs, like the desert’s final desperate breath as we entered the Sierra. I had to pee badly, and jogged ahead until I managed to find a boulder just big enough to provide some privacy while the others caught up.
We reached a sign designating the boundary of the Sequoia National Forest. The meaning of the sign may have been arbitrary, but the change felt sudden in that moment. The scrub and grass gave way to trees and rocks and rushing water. After some time we reached a huge meadow where we took a snack break on an overlook. Across the meadow was a cabin, dwarfed by the surrounding hills and partially hidden in the treeline.
“I wonder how rich that guy is,” Cuban wondered. We all talked about what we would do if we owned the property.
“I would have food helicoptered in and just never leave,” I said.
We hiked together, taking our time as we discussed our families and other topics that we hadn’t really broached before. We had been together for some time, but the nature of hiking had made our conversations limited to the present. Our friendship was unconventional. We were like a pack of stray wolves brought together by circumstance, with a relationship that had developed into an unconditional bond. We didn’t really know many details of each other’s lives. It had never seemed all that important.
We reached another meadow, with a shallow river running under a footbridge. A group of hikers had gathered to break on the bank, watching swallows dip and dive around the bridge where their mud-nests surrounded the beams and supports underneath. Rowan and Cuban sat with the group, which included Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Kat, Bearly, and Teflon. Shepherd ran back and forth in the ankle-deep water, chasing the swallows, in the perfect visual definition of ‘frolicking’.
We struggled to collect the water without clogging our filters up with sediment; the water tasted like mould and farm animals, and I chugged down a litre as fast as I could. While the hiker group set up their tents, our party of three hiked out into the fading light. The trail wound easily through the meadow for an hour before ascending into trees. We had aimed for a campsite near an anticipated stream, since none of us carried out much water from the swallow bridge.
The stream turned out to be a stagnant pool in the mud. We would have missed it if it wasn’t for some sticks on the side of the trail spelling out ‘water’ with an arrow. We set up our tents in clearing in the trees, trying to compensate for the slanted ground by piling pine needles under our groundsheets. After we were set up we sat around a fire ring and cooked dinner. We didn’t make a fire, since there was a ban, but we kept warm with tea. The teabags that I had all had trite quotes on the labels, which we exhausted ourselves making fun of. I cooked top ramen with Spam and olive oil, which had become a staple dinner for me, even though it was almost too salty to bear. I chased it with Little Debbie Brownie and a packet of fruit snacks.
Afterward I put all my food in my bear canister and set it behind a rock about a hundred feet from camp. I crawled into my tent and changed into my thermals and snuggled up into my quilt, only then realizing that the hip belt pockets of my backpack contained several granola bars. I was too warm and too tired to get out of my tent and relocate them to my bear can. Instead I took the remaining food out of my bag and clutched it close to me. I fell in and out of sleep that night to the rhythm of dreams of bears clawing their way through the thin barrier of my rain fly.