When I woke, my careful headnet/hat system had fallen apart, leaving me barefaced and exposed to the insect world, mouth agape and drooling all over my stuff sack. Fortunately the night-long wind had kept the mosquitoes away and the damage was minimal.
I scrambled up the rock face shielding our campsite, savouring the last of my oatmeal while overlooking the green valley below, bluish in the morning light and scattered with ultra green clearings and shallow creek beds. I examined the clusters of ancient bristlecone pines. The trees were gnarled and stunted, as if growing in this climate and at this altitude was a lifelong struggle for them – yet here they grew, and nowhere else.
The trail lulled through the sparsely wooded mountain ridge, keeping mercifully flat as my energy depleted into almost nonexistence. I ate my last morsel of food: a Little Debbie brownie sprinkled with walnuts. The experience of eating it sent tremors through my body. It tasted like how napping in a sunbeam felt. I continued, pushing through the five miles to the Mulkey Pass spur trail, bypassing every junction to water. My reservoir was bone-dry, but I felt like if I stopped, I wouldn’t have the energy to go again.
I waited for the boys at the junction. It wasn’t very clearly marked, so I wanted to make sure neither of them missed it. I had to pee, and didn’t think twice about squatting right in the open – hoping that no one would come into view, but ultimately not really caring. I took off my underwear and turned it inside-out. I couldn’t wait to do laundry. It had been so long. I hadn’t washed my clothes in probably two weeks.
When they arrived – and after Cuban rightfully gave me shit about skipping on water – we descended together off the ridge, following the steep trail down into the valley. We dodged rocks and roots and sharp drops, knowing that it would be hell to climb back out of when we returned to the trail the next day.
We landed in a large meadow covered in soft gravel and patches of grass. We watched marmots scurry away, alerted to our presence as we tried to follow what we believed to be the trail, eventually crossing a creek and entering an empty campground in the trees on the other side. The desolation was disheartening. It was a Sunday and we had hoped to catch a ride from weekend warriors returning home.
We found the road out and I managed to get a signal on my phone. An outfitter in Lone Pine was offering to pick up hikers from the trailhead if needed. I gave them a call – they weren’t sure if they could send someone, but would get back to me. I lost the signal, and couldn’t get it back, so we started walking. We were in good spirits, despite being faced with a thirty mile roadwalk. A couple of vehicles passed us by, dodging our thumbs, but it gave us hope that there were others in the campground on their way out.
Eventually a van pulled up and we loaded ourselves in, trying to squeeze in along with heaps of fishing and camping gear. The driver gave us his trail name. “I’m known as the California City Kid,” he said. He started to drive off while Cuban was still only half in the vehicle.
The road was like something out of a Looney Tunes episode with Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote. It switchbacked down sheer mountainside down into the Owens river Valley floor, through a series of precarious hairpin corners. When we reached the bottom I realized I had been clenching my entire body as well as the door handle. I relaxed and just focused on our new surroundings, flat and desert-like.
We were dropped off on the main street of Lone Pine, at the hostel. We booked a room and eagerly bolted upstairs to finally set down our things and clean up. I expected to have to fight for the shower, but Cuban and Rowan took their time, distracted with things like charging their phones and unpacking, so I grabbed a towel and told them I was going to take the first shower.
“You’ve showered more recently than either of us!” Rowan protested. He was right, but it was not my problem. I told them so.
“You guys both could have showered at Kennedy Meadows, but chose not to for whatever reason.” Because of some macho stank contest, I suggested. They both won. Or lost. I shrugged and shut the bathroom door behind me.
After we were all showered we hauled our laundry over to the laundromat across the street. I borrowed some sweatpants from the hiker box and wore my synthetic vest on top and nothing else, as it was the only clean article of clothing I had. I volunteered to wait at the laundromat as penance for my heinous crime of being the most hygienic member of our crew. Outside of the building I gazed up at a set of menacing jagged peaks in the direction from where we’d driven: Mount Whitney – the highest mountain in the continental US. In a couple of days, we’d be at the very top.
Afterward we grabbed some lunch and dropped by the outfitter where I bought a new pair of shorts with a useful anti-chafe layer. My old pair, running shorts I’d bought at Winners years before and had used for many long walks, runs, and dodgeball tournaments, found a new home in the hostel hiker box. The new pair somehow managed to exactly match the hideous shade of hot salmon pink that was my vest, so I felt extra fashionable. I also bought a set of trail spikes at Rowan’s insistence (the grip had worn completely off my shoes and he rightfully pointed out that I’d probably slide right off the mountain) and a larger Platypus bottle for my main reservoir.
We dropped by the grocery store to resupply, although the selection was dismal. Back at the hostel we spent some time organizing our purchases, but devolved quickly into watching Netflix on our phones. I felt drowsy and volunteered to grab dinner from a food truck up the street. While I waited for our tacos, another couple sat nearby. The woman looked me up and down.
“Please tell me you’re hiking the PCT in that shirt,” she said. I looked down at my moon kitten shirt, then back to her.
“How could you tell I’m a PCT hiker?” I asked. It seemed dumb as soon as I said it. I could see another hiker across the parking lot enjoying his burrito from the same taco truck. I had never seen him before, but it was clear from his gaiter tan, sinewy legs, unkept mane and beard, and uncomfortably short shorts. I was practically identical, minus the beard.
“We hiked the PCT a couple of years ago,” the woman told me. “We liked Lone Pine so much we moved here afterward.” I couldn’t see the appeal, but I smiled back at her. I imagined which trail town I would definitely return to if I had a choice. Idyllwild, for sure.
I grabbed my bounce box from the post office on the way back and Rowan and I decimated our dinner in an instant. Afterward, the three of us walked down to the saloon to shoot some pool and get reasonably town-drunk. It didn’t take long for my drowsiness to come back in full force. We returned to our room and I let myself dig into the covers, despite the unrelenting heat even after dark. I slept restlessly and comfortably in a strange discord, dreaming in segments of animal attacks and screaming arguments and unclimbable mountains that were stubborn giants with their backs turned to the world.