July 21-22, 2018
“What is that?” I ask as our little Honda Fit sails south on Highway 395 on the final approach to Reno. An enormous indigo mass hovers above the basin, its darkness punctuated by frequent strobes of forked lightning. As we start zipping through the city, the clouds open up and a visibility-eliminating wall of water pours forth. We wait it out in a parking lot outside a Port of Subs, feeling the heavy winds push the car to and fro as frozen-pea sized hail bounces off the windows and pavement. Within 10 minutes it calms down but doesn’t feel done yet, more like a toddler taking a breath between tantrums.
For two people scheduled to leave on long alpine hikes within 48 hours, these are not ideal conditions. Robin is dropping me off in Lee Vining to start a section hike from Tuolumne Meadows along the PCT north to Sierra City, while he heads further south to do a loop in the High Sierra. We knew we were catching the tail end of a “monsoonal” system that was blowing through, but it remains to be seen how much our respective trips experience.
Five minutes after pulling back onto 395, my phone buzzes with a weather alert: FLASH FLOOD WARNING. It is the first of four flash flood alerts I receive on the stretch between Reno and Lee Vining.
“YOLO…?” we say, a statement turning more into a question.
We arrive in Lee Vining and check into Murphy’s Motel, relieved to be done driving in the eccentric weather for the day. Our relaxation is short-lived as I load Yosemite National Park’s website to check on permit office hours and see a column of red park closure notifications.
“Oh shit,” I say. “They closed Tioga Pass due to a rock slide.” In other words, the only eastern entrance into the park, closed with no estimate for reopening. Robin finds that the road leading to his trailhead in Bishop is closed for the same reason. The next several hours are a nauseated flurry of manic stalking of CalTrans’ social media accounts–if I hit refresh every 30 seconds for long enough, surely I can will the results to change!–scrappy formation of Plan Bs, and nervous silence as we try to assess if these trips we’d been dreaming of for a year aren’t going to happen. If we’ve come all this way to get turned around at the last possible moment.
Sometime around midnight, Tioga Pass reopens. My trip is safe.
The next morning, I retrieve my permit from the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center without issue. As I tuck the permit into the glove compartment my hands wobble a little bit when I catch the line:
Number in Party: 1
It’s the longest trip I’ve taken alone. Though I have taken two and three week long trips before and feel the most comfortable with thru-style backpacking, I’ve always done them in tandem with Robin. We have our rhythm worked out hiking together, our split of camp chores determined, evening traditions to enjoy after dinner, and the promise of each other to help balance the low moments should they come.
The coming three weeks of alone time are a bit daunting: forget backpacking, this is the longest span I will have spent alone in my entire life. What will that feel like? Will it be revelatory or hollow? Robin has said of his long trips that “the highs are high and the lows are lower,” and I suppose I shall soon see. But the importance of this trip to define what backpacking is to me as an individual, not just half of a pair, comes back into focus as I close the glove compartment and turn back to Robin.
“So, off to Lembert Dome?”
And off we go for a day of play to brush off the goodbyes looming tomorrow morning.
Lembert Dome is incredible. The trail switchbacks up pine forest until it turns down an unassuming still-forested ridge, then all at once we step out from the trees to see the bald granite dome rising above us.
Our shoes with their new, fresh treads grip the granite like velcro. We crest the saddle and are treated to 360 degree views of Tuolumne Meadows, which satisfies me but Robin wants to run ahead to the top. As he turns into a very small red dot in the distance before disappearing entirely, I turn to look for where I will be leaving from in the morning.
To the west, I can see where the meadow ends and my trail begins, but the rest of my way is obscured by smoke blowing in from the Ferguson Fire, which has been burning for a week and is 5% contained. The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne is socked in with smoke and my heart sinks a smidge; we were graced with a crystal clear trip to the Sierra last summer after hiking through during the Rough Fire the previous year. The Rough Fire taught me how to strategically hike through smoke, but its unpredictability combined with Ferguson being a newly exploding fire still gives me a pang of nerves. I don’t want to end up like I was at Glen Pass unable to breathe, but alone this time.
The red dot that is Robin grows larger as he returns. We descend from the dome and amble over to the Soda Springs structure. The water has a rainbow slick of oil coating its surface–sunscreen from the hands of hundreds of others before us today?–so we decline the opportunity to drink from the famed spring. I wave at the trail to Glen Aulin and tell it I’ll be seeing it real soon before turning back towards the car and ice cream sandwiches at the general store.
We spend sunset at the Mono Lake Visitor’s Center beneath the birds swooping and diving to catch bugs above us. As the sun slides behind the mountains west of Mono Lake, the rays cut a clean line in the smoke and for a few moments the basin lights up a muted golden green.
Robin and I watch until the line in the sky dissolves and the mosquitoes arrive in a voracious cloud.
As I lay in bed, I smooth the sheet and press on the pillow, appreciating the soft feel of cotton and a mattress one last time. Alarm set and full backpack propped next to the hotel door, I drift to sleep wondering where I will be camping tomorrow night, air pad instead of mattress and thin nylon shell instead of a room.
And no Robin lightly snoring next to me.