July 24, 2018
The sound pierces my sleep’s deepest, velvety levels and my eyes snap open with a start, body flooded with an adrenaline shot.
I lay frozen in my little tent as additional voices join the chorus of coyote howls, the individual yips clamoring and layering over each other like the echoing of church bells before pulling together in a unified collective howl. A perfectly synchronized choir.
They’re close, at first estimate around 100 feet away but as I continue listening I realize they’re even closer, down on the PCT below my camp’s rise perhaps 20 feet away. An instinctive pang of fear takes over for a moment before clearer thinking reminds me that the coyotes aren’t interested in me at all.
Down the canyon, a series of yips and howls faintly calls back. The pack below responds with an even more enthusiastic round of yipping and howling before running off. They are so close I can hear their nails scratching on the slab of granite below as they go.
The moon is a few days shy of full and bright enough to cast shadows on the wall of my tent. I watch the abstract patterns shift gently as the tree boughs stir while listening to the two coyote groups calling back and forth to each other as they seek the other out, their voices growing fainter as they go. One final jubilant howl rises as they are joined and I am filled with the sense witnessing something at once wild and profoundly civilized and am captivated by the unhinged joy and celebration their combined voices evoke.
My heart pounding and goosebumps fading, I close my eyes and the world goes dark again.
In the morning, Cold Canyon proves to be an apt name. Frost coats the meadow and a thick fog has settled over the canyon like a shawl.
I pack up and am on the trail before sunrise, watching as the sun crests the eastern ridge and slides its warmth across the canyon floor, transmuting the frost into a heavy dew.
The grass is covered with little micro-dewdrops giving the effect of being crusted in diamonds. When the sun and breeze rustle the grass at the same time, the effect is an animated, glimmering sea of prisms.
The first miles of the day come easy as I cruise across the rest of the meadow. Bus-sized chunks of granite peek out from the forests skirting the edges, having tumbled down from the ridges above so long ago the trees have grown up around them.
The meadow ends and I re-enter the forest. I pass the McCabe Lakes trail junction and the PCT angles sharply downhill with Return Creek waiting at the bottom of the valley. Just after the junction, I approach a large patch of granite occupied with a family of juvenile marmots. At first I see just one, either fearless or wholly apathetic casting me some side-eye from its perch on the rock, but movement behind him reveals brothers and sisters peeking out from their hiding places.
I wish them a good morning, as you do, and continue onward.
I hear McCabe Creek long before I see it, but its bark ends up being louder than its bite when I approach it. McCabe and Return Creek join together here and can be an intense experience to cross earlier in the season — or in heavier snow year than 2018 has been — but today it is an easy rock hop across.
I come upon a man with his back to me adjusting his clothing. I feel like I’m interrupting a personal moment so I clack my hiking poles on a rock to alert him of my presence. He jumps and turns to face me.
“You almost caught me at my morning bath!” he exclaims.
Unsure of how to respond to this, I scramble to respond in the least awkward way:
“Nice spot for a bath! So sorry if I startled you.”
The man is in his 60s and a fellow section hiker. We exchange easy conversation for a few minutes, then he shoulders his pack to keep going while I set up my stove for breakfast.
“Well, onward,” he says. “What’s your name?”
“Shanks.” I hear myself say the word, surprised at how easily it rolls of my tongue. It is the hiking name I have only recently been graced with.
“Shanks,” I say, a little louder.
“Shanks. Like the improvised prison weapon, either the thing or the act.”
He laughs and nods. “Oh! Shanks! Yeah, I have a lot of experience with those.” He looks off into the distance, a world of history spoken in that one glance away. I want to ask him to elaborate, but think better of asking a strange man miles from anyone about his weapon savvy.
“How’d you get that name?” he asks, looking at my gold sequined tights.
“Well, sometimes I get a little fired up over things. But I like to think it’s that I just have a highly evolved sense of justice. What’s your name?”
I squint and slow nod, my brain summoning scenes from the horror slasher Candyman instead of finding the name perfectly reasonable for a person probably packing their weight in Snickers. Again I have questions that I decline to ask, so instead tell him that it was a pleasure meeting him and wish him a happy hike.
Candyman disappears up the trail and I return attention to my breakfast, an instant steel cut oatmeal that manages to be both slimy and grainy and gives off such a strong chemical smell my throat clenches. I wash each bite down with a glug of water before giving up, boiling more water, and making the oatmeal a beverage I can drink quickly to get it over with.
My meal may be terrible, but the views are stunning with McCabe creek behind me and Return Creek in front, converging at the end of my little peninsula to tumble down a sheer granite face where they will continue to meet Spiller Creek.
The oatmeal sits heavy as I climb. It is the unfortunate rule of hiking that when trail goes down it must eventually go back up, and that is the story of Northern Yosemite. The elevation profile for this section is described as a washboard, which is seems appropriate. Though it’s still early, the day warms rapidly and I soon leave the trees (and their shade) behind to climb alongside Spiller Creek.
After a peek at my map, I surmise that I’m climbing to the top of something that isn’t even a named pass, just a miscellaneous high point before I will drop all the way down the other side to Matterhorn Creek before climbing up a major real pass. I pause in the feeble, patchy shade of a pine tree not much taller than myself.
My cheeks are scorching to the touch and my stomach makes an uncertain noise.
It is a relief to re-enter real shade as I tackle a series of switchbacks working with great efficiency to offer me passage to the top of this ridge. I stop at every other switchback turn, panting and a little cranky, to catch my breath and lightly curse the experience of being a sea-level dweller trying to acclimate to elevation. Coloradoans have it so good.
Though my music is still broken, my podcasts work so I play the WTF with Marc Maron episode with Paul Rudd. There, most of the way up this purgatorial climb with my morale hitting a low point somewhere between the gutter and Antarctica, Marc and Paul break into an ambient drone duet (1:07:35). They wail, they moan, they pause like they’re done before taking a breath to continue louder, they stop to crack up with Marc’s husky belly laugh turning away from the mic before going for another full minute. It is the most ridiculous thing and out of nowhere I hear a peal of my own laughter burst forth.
I stand there, alone on the hillside, laughing hysterically. I can’t stop. It’s uncontrollable. My eyes water and I take a breath before cracking up again.
“Ohmygod, ohmygod,” I wheeze, trying to regain composure, wiping a tear from my eye with my dirty pink sun glove.
The laughter floods endorphins throughout my body and I continue upward, lightened and lifted.
The light mood doesn’t stay. Smoke creeps toward Miller Lake, the serene lake at the top of the climb right before the PCT hairpin turns into its descent towards Matterhorn Canyon. I’m overheating, struggling with elevation lethargy, and grappling with the first negative shade of isolation. Due to the heat sickness, my appetite is suppressed and I struggle to get lunch down.
Perched on a rock overlooking the lake, I succumb to all the doubts I’ve continuously been swatting away at the periphery, too tired to keep the defenses up. Frustrated at the speed so much slower than what I’m capable of at home, I glower at the lake. I struggle with the point of this trip and my ability to finish it, how to relate to it and find my own rhythm not based on a hiking partner, and feel myself pushing against the trip, this thing I dreamed of every day.
Just as I hit the bottom, I hear the guitar and symphony intro to “Dandelion Wine” by Gregory Alan Isakov, quiet and tinny from the speaker of my phone sitting on a nearby rock. I clutch the phone in confusion — why is it just now deciding to play music? why this song? why now? – and hold it to my head, soaking in the song with gratitude for music after all the quiet.
I realize it’s only been two days but time works in funny ways here, especially alone; I recall things that happened yesterday with the gauzy details of something a week or more ago. The minutes and hours that evaporate in a blink at home instead stretch out and luxuriate like warm taffy.
The song pulls me out of my pity party and I carry on across a small saddle before the trail cuts down a steep slope into Matterhorn Canyon.
Matterhorn Canyon smells wonderful, like warm grass and pine. I cross Matterhorn Creek almost gracefully until my right foot slips off the last rock and plunks into the calf deep water. I slosh out the other side and glance around to see if anyone saw, despite the fact that I haven’t encountered anyone since breakfast.
I lay in the shade under a pine tree and take a short break, raising my feet above my head and sighing as the blood drains from my feet that took a bit of a beating on that descent. I extend my wet feet out of the shade to dry and warm in the sun as I listen to “Dandelion Wine” again–still the only song that iTunes lets me access–and think about the book by Ray Bradbury with the same name. In particular, this passage:
“Dandelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered, sealed away for opening on a January day with snow falling fast and the sun unseen for weeks.”
Recharged, I continue for one last push for the day to get as far up the approach to Benson Pass as I can.
The climb out of Matterhorn Canyon is magical. The trail is composed of impeccable rockwork with neatly assembled granite cobbles and steps that feel like they should be transporting me to a mythical sorcerer’s tower or dragon’s keep. Each completed switchback offers better and better views, an inspiring incentive to keep getting higher and I reach the “top” in no time.
The “top” marks the end of the thigh-burning switchbacks as the trail eases into a gentle climb alongside Wilson Creek, but it is by no means the end of the up.
With the shadows lengthening and the sun slipping behind the steep canyon walls, I find a campsite hidden behind a gigantic boulder in the soft duff of a pine tree.
I wash my legs, feet, and face and cook my dinner while the tips of the canyon walls burn bright orange for a moment before giving way to a muted, cool palette. The deep canyon darkens quickly and I enjoy a peppermint hot chocolate while watching the moon rise. I begin to finish the last camp chores by headlamp but the moonlight turns out to be bright enough to see with; I notice it beaming directly into the tent and anticipate it being somewhat of a nuisance.
Laying in my tent, I am not wrong. The moon shines like a searchlight pointed right at my face, but with some shifting and creative draping of my quilt I block the offending light. I wonder if the moon is being a bother to Robin, too, before slipping into a quick, deep sleep.