With all of our errands done the next morning we prepared to head back to trail. Rowan and Cuban had managed to find someone willing to drive us back to the trailhead for just the cost of gas.
We waited in a sparse patch of shade, just off the main strip where we were dropped off the day before. Our driver pulled up in a Suzuki Sidekick convertible which looked equal parts fun and dangerous to ride in. Cuban hopped in the front seat, and Rowan and I in the back. We barely had enough space for us and our packs on our laps, but it was a discomfort we were used to by this point.
We stopped at the pharmacy first, where our driver picked up a prescription. “It’s for my lungs,” he said, tossing the paper bag into the center console and lighting up a cigarette.
We took off up the desert highway through the Alabama Hills. Rowan and I tried to watch for all the famous rock formations along the way, but our focus shifted as our driver launched into a passionate rant about politics, sociology and Noam Chomsky. Cigarette in one hand, and gesturing wildly with the other, he spent most of the time looking and talking at Cuban to his right, or to Rowan and I in the back. The car swerved repeatedly over the centerline thanks to poor alignment and worse driving, where Noam Chomsky would grab the wheel at the last second and jerk us violently back into the right lane.
The flat highway approached the wall of mountain ahead at an alarming rate, and I thought about the treacherous switchbacks we had descended the day before. I turned to Rowan on my right, tears in my eyes (fear tears or wind tears, I couldn’t be sure) and said “We’re going to die.” He only nodded, and I began laughing hysterically as the wind whipped my hair around my face and into my mouth, muffling my voice. Rowan started laughing as well, and Cuban glanced back with an unreadable expression, probably a mixture of fear and hatred for being forced into the front seat where he’d so far been doing a great job nodding and saying “uh huh” when politely appropriate, in response to Chomsky’s insane ideas.
The little car took the first switchback on two wheels. Every switchback sent us higher up the mountain, with every approach to the hairpin turns seeming more and more like certain death. I envisioned us at every turn crashing through the concrete barriers, plummeting in slow motion toward the desert floor. Arms flailing, packs disintegrating, regrets compounding in our final moments. I should have ordered that milkshake with breakfast.
“Let me know if I’m going too fast for you,” our driver called back to us. I managed to croak out a vague “Ahhh- yuh huh,” which was lost in the wind.
We made it to the campground at the top, shaken, but otherwise all right.
“You can drop us off near the Mulkey Pass trailhead,” I said.
“Not Cottonwood Pass?” Chomsky asked, “All the other hikers get back on the PCT there.” I wondered about the fates of all those other hikers who’d hitched a ride in the Suzuki Death Machine.
Cuban responded that we were trying not to skip any trail – continuous footsteps, he explained. Chomsky’s eyes widened and he looked us over like he was seeing us for the first time.
“You’re the real deal,” he said. “What are your names? Everyone I pick up – I’m going to tell them about you.” We gave him our names as we hastily grabbed our packs and jumped out of the vehicle.
We followed the trail out of the campground and back through the marmot meadow. The ascent back to the PCT was steep, but we stuck close together and I focused on Cuban’s feet ahead of me, mindlessly matching the rhythm of his steps. At the top we took a short break and continued our trek north.
The evening and altitude had made a huge difference in temperature. Where it had been over 100 degrees in Lone Pine, it was now much cooler, and I hiked fast to keep warm in the shade of the trees.
I saw a small group of hikers congregated at a rocky viewpoint overlooking the desert valley far below. One was talking on the phone, and I recognized the group by her voice alone.
“Treeman and Hedgehog!” I jogged up to greet them. Squatchie ended her call and I ran over to give her a hug.
“How did we catch up to you guys?” Squatchie asked. I told her that we’d resupplied in Lone Pine.
Rowan and Cuban caught up and we mingled for a bit before hiking for another mile or so to Chicken Spring Lake where we’d stop for dinner. I trudged through some marshy grass in the approach to the lake, past a few tents where a hiker reclined against a tree.
“Have you seen a hiker called Daytripper?” he asked. I shook my head. “He was supposed to be here,” he mumbled.
I wound my way through the wide, boulder-ridden lakeshore. The California drought had left its mark even here. I set my pack down and started filtering some water. Cuban and Rowan soon joined me and broke out our cookware. I heard voices from near the campsite to see the hiker I’d talked to greeting someone – a lean, scruffy man in what looked like sandals and a woven poncho stood on a boulder, arms outstretched and overlooking the lake. He was illuminated in a patch of sunlight. Daytripper, I assumed, but in my mind I’d already dubbed him Hippie Jesus.
“I’m going in,” I heard Rowan say. “We should all jump in.” I looked to him, and then at the lake, which was probably many degrees colder than anything I’d ever swam in.
“Uhhh…” I unconsciously hugged my down jacket around my torso. Rowan didn’t hesitate any longer. He stripped down and hopped over to the rock from which I’d filled up my reservoir, surveyed the water depth for a moment and dove in. He swam back out, shook off the cold like it was nothing and pulled his clothes back on after drying off briefly with his bandanna. Cuban followed suit with nothing to betray his discomfort aside from a sharp “whoo!” when he resurfaced.
“Come on PT,” they insisted. “It’s your turn.”
I tried not to think about it at all as I stood on that rock. I stripped down and felt the chill of the evening air on my body.
“Jump!” someone yelled. I tried to will myself off the rock and into the water, but my subconscious yanked me back every time until I realized the longer I stood there, the longer Rowan and Cuban, and Hippie Jesus and god knows who else would get a prolonged eyeful of my naked body and all of its weird tan lines.
I jumped with all the grace of a cat being thrown into a bathtub.
The initial plunge sent a shock through my body, but I resurfaced quickly, gasping from the cold and flipping my hair back out of my face. I could see Cuban and Rowan’s faces grinning, could only hear the water and my own breathing until I climbed back out of the water. I quickly pulled my clothes back on, not even bothering to dry off. The sun came out from behind the clouds and suddenly I felt warm and awake and incredible.
We finished eating as Treehog and Squatchie arrived. “You guys are crazy!” she said upon seeing my wet stringy hair.
We hiked westward into the orange sunset. The sun cut through the twisted pines, illuminating the trail perfectly in sections. I passed more tents of hikers who had decided to call it a night. My last glimpses of the setting sun were over wide meadows and rocky cliffs in the valley below, and then I was in tree cover again, in the greyish blue tones of late twilight. I kept on without stopping to take out my headlamp, and although I could still easily see where I was going, details of my surroundings started to become lost in the darkness. Stumps and rocks and tree roots started to look like bears and mountain lions and hooded figures watching me from a distance. At one point I stopped, sure that a bear blocked the trail 100 feet ahead. I yelled and waved my arms, and then threw a rock at it before I was assured that my eyes were just playing tricks on me.
When it grew too dark to hike without a headlamp I stopped at a large flat clearing with no one else around. I set up my tent before Rowan and Cuban arrived. We stowed away our full bear cans and settled in for the night. The moon was almost full and shone through my rain fly like a beacon, casting shadows of trees and branched that moved in the breeze. Everything was an illusion, and I could feel my reptile brain on overdrive. My world was the trail, and the trail had become the meter by which I measured my fears and needs. Tomorrow we would climb the tallest mountain in the continental US. And all I could think about was breakfast.