Day 39 – So Far So Good

June 16
Olancha Pass to Trail Pass
Mile 724.5 – Mile 745.3

Peeking peak

I was pleasantly surprised this morning that I didn’t freeze overnight and my ankle felt better. One thing about camping high is that almost always the walk in the morning descends and this morning was no different. In general, the PCT stands out as a very well graded trail. There’s nothing too steep either way though sometimes uneven footing becomes a literal pain. Not so this morning and I enjoyed a smooth walk through the woods.

Idyllic meadow crossing

Ever closer loom the snow draped Sierras. There have been isolated patches of snow above 10,000 feet but nothing of consequence. I’m not sure what the snow level is but it seems to be rising nicely for my hike so far.

Perfect trail
You see what you see

Happily around lunchtime at a place that called Owens Valley Viewpoint, a gap in the mountains revealed the floor of the eastern desert where Highway 395 runs north south. I say happily because for the first time in days I had cell service. My phone beeped and chirped as if I had just won a jackpot.

Lunch time cell service

Being out here alone doesn’t bother me but lack of connection to my love, family, and friends erodes my resolve. I have always professed to be a self assured independent but I’m learning that methinks I doth profess too much.

View from 10,500 feet to eastern desert

Tomorrow things will get more interesting with higher passes and entry into Sequoia National Park. I am mulling whether or not to tackle Mt Whitney. It adds a day to an already aggressive plan and I’m leaning towards keeping my powder (food, time, energy) dry for what I came to do- hike the PCT!

Water stop at Diaz Creek
Southern Sierra Wilderness

By the way, 50 points to my brother Dave for figuring out that the ridge line in this blog’s logo is the south to north track of the PCT laid on its side. I’m now ahead of where the little dude is plodding. Woot! Surely but slowly I’m walking my way home.

Rocks, trees, and mountains

Day 38 – Into the Sierras

June 15
Kennedy Meadows to Olancha Pass
Mile 702.2 – Mile 724.5

The real Kennedy Meadows

I woke today around 4:30am and wandered down to the store’s front porch to use the wifi and post. Then it was time to take down my tent and attempt to fit everything into my pack. North of Kennedy Meadows hikers are required to carry bear cans and they are bulky and heavy. With the bear can, micro spikes for snow traction, a self arrest trekking pole, and 10+ days of food, my pack was at its limit. The one saving grace is that water is no longer scarce and I won’t need to carry extra. I didn’t weigh my pack but it felt monstrously heavy.

Hallelujah

The trail out of Kennedy Meadows follows the Kern River until it crosses over a handy foot bridge and begins to climb up a burned out creek wash. About halfway up I stumbled my face into a dead branch earning a bloody nose and nice scratch to go with my beard. Fortunately I was able to wash up in the creek before two large groups of what appeared to be summer camp hikers passed going the other way. Rather than horrified shrieks I got “Hey, nice hat.”

Bridge over Kern River

Over the saddle from the creek wash, the scenery changed abruptly with a first taste of Sierra splendor. Beck Meadow helped convince me that the desert was truly in the rear view mirror and mountains beckon.

Changing scenery
Beck Meadow

Eventually the meadow trail revisited the Kern River and passed over again on another fine bridge. I stopped there to dip my feet and have a bite while scores of starlings (could been sparrows) played in the breeze swooping in and out of their nests on the bridge’s underside.

Kern River
Kern River Bridge the second

Then it was just more climbing up and over Olancha Pass. At over 10,500 feet I thought sure I would get some cell signal but depressingly, I did not. I covered good mileage today and climbed almost 6000 feet with an unreasonably heavy pack.

Olancha Pass 10,500 ft

What should have felt like a satisfying day ended on a sour note with no way to communicate and a sore, swollen ankle. I have been nursing a minor sprain for awhile now and I don’t think today did it any favors. I hope to feel better tomorrow. For now, I’ll camp high and hope the wind remains absent.

What my ankle feels like

Day 37 – Kennedy Meadows Downtime

June 14
Kennedy Meadows
Mile 702.2

Gas pump logo

I can’t think of any good reason not to pack as much food as possible and strike out into the Sierras to see how far I can get. My next planned resupply is an ambitious 187 miles away at Vermillion Valley Resort and crosses the highest passes on the PCT. There is also an optional opportunity to summit Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, by taking a 17 mile side trip. It means an extra day of food and fuel but I will likely go for it.

Kennedy Meadows General Store

I think I will be able to gauge early on whether my daily progress matches my food supply. If so, it promises to be an epic 11 day trip. If not, there are several points where bailing out east to towns along Highway 395 (Lone Pine, Bishop, or Independence) is possible.
I have no idea whether cell coverage will improve but I hope the high elevations will help. I have been pretty frustrated without it here in Kennedy Meadows but discovered if you roll out of bed at 5am, the wifi works. It seems only SilverFox and I were wise enough to figure that one out this morning and so enjoyed some quiet predawn productivity.

Grumpy Bear’s den

For breakfast today it was a return to Grumpy Bear’s for all you can eat pancake. No, that’s no a typo. Have a look at the picture and see if you would order more. Two of our crew this accomplished the feat (Yeti and ActuallyBoykin) but alas I could not.

All you can eat pancake

I spent some time talking to Grumpy Bear who said about 80% of his year at the restaurant is made during hiker season. As such, he took a dim view of trail angel Legend who had shown up at the store with free breakfast. Interesting tension among those who serve and thrive because of the trail. Only 53 or so intrepid souls live in Kennedy Meadows year round and so Grumpy Bear drives his kids ~40 miles each way for school. Now that’s dedication to a place.

Deck hangout with lots of hikers

I spent most of the day off my feet getting laundry done, food situated and batteries recharged. There were more celebrated arrivals and as many excited departures. The hiker community here cuts an interesting swath across geography, background, and life situation.

Dinner!

SilverFox and I were guessing that for every one of us, there are 20-30 twenty somethings out here living their dream. We speculated about the number of permits issued (~3300) to the number of starts from the Mexican border (~2300) to the number that will make it to Kennedy Meadows (~700). There’s no way to know these numbers for sure but there’s probably ~100 folks staying here in Kennedy Meadows with about 40 arrivals and an equal number of departures today.

Tent city in the ‘meadow’

Traditionally the best day to enter the Sierras has been June 15 which is what I intend to do.

 

Day 36 – Hallowed Ground

June 13
Fox Mill Springs to Kennedy Meadows
Mile 683.2 – Mile 702.2

IMG_1007.jpg
Foothills panorama with distant Sierras

As I strode onto the hallowed grounds of Kennedy Meadows General Store, a sense of accomplishment coursed through me. I had made it through the desert and earned the right to try myself in the Sierras. My ticket was punched, admission price paid!

Trees are getting bigger

There’s a large shaded porch attached to the store populated by many excited hikers. Gear and resupply boxes were strewn everywhere and much of the chatter was of what’s ahead. Whenever a hiker wanders in from the trail, applause erupts from those gathered and trail names are shouted in congratulations.

Slowly closer

Other than the store, there’s not much to Kennedy Meadows including cell coverage and wifi internet access. The narrow bandwidth that does exist suffers from scores of hikers saturating the signal such that even getting a text message marks a major success.

Granite emerges

The lack of access to outside news creates a bit of an echo chamber when it comes to trail conditions ahead. People are either trying to talk themselves into or out of attempting the Sierras. I plan to pack as much food as possible and go see for myself. Genchi genbutsu!

Surprising and swift flowing Kern River

I had a trickle of an outdoor shower and got my name in the queue to use what is surely the hardest working washing machine in the county this time of year. That will have to wait until tomorrow along with sorting my food and new gear for the mountains.

Desert complete but I’ll keep the hat

In the meantime, I hopped a shuttle to Grumpy Bear’s for dinner. I was surprised and delighted to reunite with Sidewinder and Actually Boykin, (Sarah & Boykin) a couple from North Carolina whom I’d first met way back at Scout and Frodo’s. We leapfrogged each other most of the first week and then lost touch. We had a fun time comparing trail notes and trying to figure out how we have missed each other until now. They plan to take a two week break soon and travel to Portland and maybe Seattle. I told them of some spectacular accommodations that might be available should they make it to Seattle.

I will take the day off tomorrow to get squared away on the details ahead. Tough to do with sketchy access to information but I’m pretty sure the likes of John Muir et al just packed up and went sans cell phone, trail reports, and lightweight food. I’m going to go out and find out what I got. But not yet, tomorrow I rest.

Day 35 – Low Morning High

June 12
Morris Peak to Fox Mill Spring
Mile 656.9 – Mile 683.2

“Out here the days are long and the nights are lonely, I think of you and I’m working on a dream” – Bruce Springsteen

Morning silhouette
Cold morning

I was not feeling it this morning and I’m not just talking about my hands and fingers. It was another cold, windy night but I was better off for having pitched my tent in a more sheltered spot. I was questioning whether I wanted to keep doing this, getting up with the sun and walking the windy, cold trail.

Clouds pouring over the mountains

Guess what? The trail didn’t care one way or the other so I did the only two things I could think might help. Keep walking was the first and the second was another reach for Brother Bruce. His songs have a way of seeming like they were written specifically for you and a particular situation. I experienced a rock and roll exorcism and dropping down below the frigid clouds boiling over the ridges also helped.

Rocky descent
Random boots left on trail

The cold front that had been blowing for past several days seemed to be tapering off and I was glad to get lower to warm up when the sun broke through.

Distant trail view

I did a longer day today to position myself within striking distance of Kennedy Meadows, marking the end of the desert and the beginning of the Sierras.

Wanted: The dread outlaw AppleJack

Truth be told, the second half of today felt less like desert and more like foothills with more green and bigger trees.
Sometime this morning I also earned the right to say I’ve walked 25% of the way to Canada. The cleverest of you will have already noticed but there’s a secret embedded in this blog’s logo that pertains to today’s achievement. Anyone get it?

I think I hear a who

Tomorrow I have an early climb over 8000 feet and a total of about 19 miles to complete Section E.

 

 

Day 34 – Hard Won Wisdom

Skinner Peak to Morris Peak
Mile 634.2 – Mile 656.9

Down from Skinner Peak

When choosing a site for your tent, choose wisely. Two nights ago I had an ideal spot. Last night’s spot proved to be a problem. The wind never did die down and though I had some windbreak, gusts would still collapse my tent like a giant thumb pressing from above. I was forced to remove my rain fly so the wind would not have as much purchase and that worked to keep the tent upright. The next problem was the wind now blowing straight through my tent. My down quilt is super warm and comfortable but a windbreaker it is not. I donned all my layers and ended up cocooning myself within the tent’s rain fly inside the tent. That worked though not without some condensation. Another hiker, Campo, told me he read 35 degrees on his thermometer in the morning.  That would account for my cold night and morning. To add insult to injury, my air mattress alhso deflated though I now think it was numb fingers not closing the valve tight enough.

Clouds not snow
Snow! First glimpse of the Sierras

That all provided plenty of incentive to get the blood moving early. After getting a bit lower off the ridge line, I had a nice forest walk through mid morning.
I emerged into another burn area with many ATV tracks but what caught my attention was a first glimpse of the snow capped Sierras. They were still days distant but it was an exciting moment nonetheless.

Campground welcome
Walker Pass trail register

After 17 miles I hit Walker Pass, another potential resupply hitch into Lake Isabella. That was not my plan but I did stop at the campground where a local trail angel had left a bunch of gleaned bread and donuts. Woohoo, free carbs!

Interesting rock sandwich

As I was sitting talking to SilverFox, a Canadian from B.C. with a profile similar to my own, we looked up to see none other than CopperTone pulling in with his mobile support wagon. This is the 3rd or 4th time I’d seen him along the way and it’s his last stop before heading to Minnesota for a family reunion.

Leaving Walker Pass

Another kind soul staying at the campground brought over a bagful of cold beverages including beer, hard lemonade, and Gatorade! Guess which I chose?
The outpouring of generosity and all around high spirits of such moments is something that escaped my expectations. I can see myself doing something for hikers in the future just for the fun and camaraderie of it.

Up the windy and windy way
Good example of switchbacks

Up from Walker Pass the trail enters the Evans Peak wilderness which is where I find myself camped tonight in a much more thoughtful location. The wind is still a blowin’ but I’m a quick study where comfort is involved.

 

Day 33 – Just Desert

Rock Hill Camp to Skinner Peak
Mile 611.1 – Mile 634.2

“I will ford that creek when I get to it” – AppleJack

Morning light

As I get closer to the Sierras I have noticed a marked increase in the trail chatter about snow conditions there. “I am definitely going to order an ice axe even though I don’t know how to use it” “The creeks are running too high for short people to cross” “I heard half the people who try it bail out at Bishop” “There are 400 people bottled up at Kennedy Meadows and sanitation is a problem”

Trail sentiment

It’s not surprising that the  rumor mill works fast among anxious hikers but in my new trail zen mode, I take such hearsay with a grain of salt. It appears to me that some people are winning through and that’s enough for me until I actually get there.

Desert vista

Today was still about crossing the last stretch of desert between me and Kennedy Meadows. My camp last night turned out to be a good call in being shielded on three sides. The wind blew most of the night but had a hard time reaching my tent. I got an early start in the predawn calm but it was not destined to last.

Desert trail

After descending down into the low desert hills, the wind kicked up and became a howling banshee the rest of the day. On the plus side the wind kept the air temperature cool and reduced water consumption (I was packing 6L due to uncertainty about where the next good water would be). On the down side, there were times when I wasn’t able to walk straight and I hadn’t even hit the scotch yet.

One megameter?

That wind tried everything to get my hat off and failing that, proceeded to attempt a full body takedown. A backpack’s additional surface area favors the wind just like large trucks or vans driving across windy bridges. You get thrown around pretty good. Fortunately  it’s usually toward the uphill side of the trail. Kite hiking occurred to me as a sometimes viable but altogether stupid idea for a new sport.

Trail or train tracks?

Again I put my new trail zen to work as I trudged uphill through deep sand into the wind. “This reminds me of the walk to Little Beach on Maui” I mused, one of my most favorite places in all the world.

Joshua tree
There is color in the desert if you look

The day concluded with a hike up Skinner Peak. Back at almost 7000 feet I am right on the edge of Sequoia National Forest. Sounds promising! The wind hasn’t given up yet but I rewarded myself with a little Balvenie Doublewood courtesy of Kevin. Delicious and thank you again!

View from Skinner Peak
Day’s reward