I started the day with a bout of unexpected anxiety. Now that we were heading into the mountains, I was slowing down. We would soon encounter huge ascents on a daily basis, and I would no longer fly down the trail like I could on the roads and flat desert floors of southern California.
After tea and oatmeal, I carefully packed my backpack, struggling to fit everything around the new bulk of the bear canister in my relatively tiny 50 litre pack. I had to wrap my tent and rain fly around my tent poles and strap it to the outside of my pack, along with my groundsheet, foam roller and water filter.
There was no reprieve of flat trail that morning. Immediately, I was climbing, switchbacking through thick forest filled with granite and towering pines that blocked out the sky. I found my first excuse for a break, one of the Doobie Brothers – I couldn’t tell which one – sitting on huge boulder overlooking an embankment into the trees. I climbed up and joined him. We exchanged some brief conversation, but were mostly silent as he took a few hits from a plastic bong, staring serenely into the woods.
I took several more short breaks on the climb, until I reached a trickling stream in an open rocky meadow where a couple of other hikers had stopped for their second or third breakfast. I saw Papa Smurf and the other Doobie Brother on their way out, and another face I recognized. While I waited for my water to filter I spaced out, staring blankly at a pile of rocks across the meadow while eating a handful of fruit snacks. Lately I had been finding it so easy to keep a clear head – to the point where thinking beyond my basic needs and feelings seemed difficult. It was nice.
Rowan caught up and set his pack down next to mine.
“Did you see the marmot?” He asked. He pointed across the meadow near where I had been staring. Something huge and furry moved against the granite background.
“It’s huge!” I said. I felt excitement well up. Marmots! A few days ago Rowan had said that we were headed into marmot country. I had misheard him, thinking he said ‘mormon country’, which I thought was bizarre and hilarious.
After Cuban arrived, we continued the climb together, up through more trees until we reached a huge granite pile at the top. We all scrambled up the rocks with our food and stoves and cooked lunch while overlooking the sunbleached hills and mountains ahead of us. I made ramen and Spam. Rowan cooked freeze-dried beef stew. We joked about how Mountain House fuelled farts could help propel hikers over the Sierra mountain passes.
We spread out again, hiking along the open ridgeline. Below me I could see lush green meadows scattered throughout the forested mountain valleys like secret habitats for deer and bears, and maybe people who just wanted to be alone. I passed huge upturned trees with root systems the looked like they could be entire universes for tiny woodland microbes. On a rock I found someone’s abandoned cooking set. I didn’t want to carry extra weight, but couldn’t bear to leave it behind in the otherwise pristine wilderness, so I tied it to my hip belt and kept moving.
I reached Death Canyon, which was a lot more inviting and peaceful than its name might suggest. One of the Doobie brothers sat by a stream, playing a guitar. He told me that the good water was a quarter mile off trail. I decided to just filter from the scummy stream. I ducked into the foliage, hopping along squishy moss-covered bank until I found a relatively clear patch of stream that wasn’t covered in algae.
I was challenged immediately with another climb. Another four miles uphill in the hottest part of the day. I chose a song on my playlist and put it on repeat, vowing not to allow myself to change it until I reached the top. I took it slow, surprised that neither Rowan or Cuban had passed me. At the top were a group of hikers sitting around on the ground, staring at their phones.
“There’s service!” Shepherd told me, “if you’ve got AT&T.” I did, and I felt guilty about being excited to check my phone, but I pressed on a little farther before finding the perfect spot to stop. There was a break in the mountains along a short saddle. After a quick scramble up some boulders I had a clear and incredible view of the Owens River Valley – the desert floor, thousands of feet below. I switched my phone off of airplane mode and the notifications began to ring in.
It had been a while. My mum asked me where I was. My gran was worried about me. Other people were just checking up. Some were upset with me for one reason or another. A couple had sent invitations to events back home. I hadn’t told many people where I had gone, or that I was even leaving at all. I checked in with my mum and sent her a photo of my view. I asked her to let Gran know that I was all right.
Rowan and Cuban caught up and checked their messages briefly before moving on. I set my phone down beside me and stared for a long time at the view until the light grew dim and orange and I started to get a chill.
The trail took me back into the woods. I passed the Doobie Brothers and Papa Smurf at their campsite, and made it only half a mile farther when I realized I just wouldn’t catch up to the boys for dinner. I was suddenly ravenously hungry, to the point where I couldn’t even consider taking another step.
I set everything down and boiled some water to cook the last of my ramen and spam. The light grew dimmer and felt a presence all around me. Mountain lion. Mountain lion. My brain was setting off alarm bells, but I too hungry to feel afraid. When I finished, I didn’t bother cleaning out my pot and instead set off as quickly as I could. The trail continued flat along the forested ridge. The trees were sparse, and I felt certain that if anything was following me that I would be able to spot it. But it was still at least another ten minutes before the feeling went away.
I knew that I had reached camp when I saw a trekking pole stuck into the ground next to the trail with Rowan’s hat hanging off the top of it. I grabbed it and carried it into the campsite – a flat clearing on a bluff, obscured from the trail and protected from the wind by a couple of huge boulders. Cuban had set up his tent and was showing Rowan how to hang his food properly. I set down my groundsheet and sleeping bag, stashing my bear can out of the way. It went without saying that we were going to head out of the mountains and into Lone Pine the next day. We were all out of food, and desperately in need of showers – or at least Rowan and Cuban were. I had showered in Kennedy Meadows while they had forgone the opportunity in what I suspected was some sort of rugged death match in who could be the filthiest. They hadn’t showered since Vegas.
I already felt sorry for the poor soul that would drive us in to town the following day.