Tuolumne to Tahoe, Day 3: Burn Off Every Trace

July 25

1.

Unlike my first night, the weather stayed warm overnight and when I wake up roasting in my quilt at 6:00, I can already feel the potential for the day’s heat in the air. I pack up while my breakfast water boils, eye my oatmeal with disdain before forcing it down, and am back on the trail by 7:00.

The trail continues following Wilson Creek gently upward while behind me smoke from the Ferguson Fire piles up in the sky at the base of the canyon.

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The PCT crosses Wilson Creek and a final verdant meadow before resuming steep switchbacks leading to the final approach to Benson Pass. The trail evens out into a small basin whose creek is already dry for the season but is still filled with wildflowers, including carpets of pale lavender dwarf lupine, a supersized variety of lupine whose tallest spires are nearly eye level, delicate Queen Anne’s lace, and some Dr. Seuss-looking plant with fuzzy pom-poms splayed out in a sputnik arrangement.

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Dozens of bumble bees crawl over the pom-poms and hover away annoyed as I move in for a close-up. As I walk away, they are already redistributing themselves for what must be a heady feast.

With the final swell up to Benson Pass in sight, the smoke catches up behind me and fills the basin, casting a sickly orange light on the granite and washing out the sky in an ashen murk. I had hoped that the pass would hold the smoke in the valley I was leaving for a clear descent down the other side, but seeing the sky above and beyond the pass extinguishes the feeling.

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Reaching the top and looking over the other side of the pass, it’s tough not to feel a little disappointment. Blue ceases to be an available color in the spectrum.

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Visibility is beyond poor, and while I know the passes through this section shouldn’t offer the sweeping vistas and jagged rows of mountains in the distance like teeth, I should still see more than the immediate jumble of foothills below. (To see what I should have seen, check out Longstride’s photo from his Nobo PCT hike taken just a few weeks earlier.)

I stop for a few minutes at the top for a Snickers, take a quick goodbye look behind me only to see the landscape consumed by smoke, then begin down the other side.

Immediately this side of the pass is different in character. Taller, thicker trees, willow brush, and a proliferation of hip-high lupine and both yellow and purple asters encroach on the trail, a far cry from the arid, sandy landscape on the other side.

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The trees thin out and give way to rolling sheets of granite accented with tufts of thick grass and willow shrubs tracing the grooves where the feeder streams flow down into Smedberg Lake below.

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Noting the dwindling shade coupled with the rising heat, I find a shady shelf of granite and take a cool-down break, soaking my feet in the icy water braiding into multiple channels on its way down. I lay down and press my back into the stone, palms down against the cool rock as I roll my shoulderblades to stretch them out. I don’t quite fall asleep but hit that transitional place where sounds amplify — in this case, the sound of cascading water — while my mind drifts.

 


2. 

The PCT meets Smedberg Lake’s shore and wraps around west. I see more people here than I have in three days combined, and understandably so. It is a stunning lake and a popular stopping place both for section hikers and people doing the Benson Circuit through northern Yosemite. In addition to several parties I don’t recognize, I see the friendly family I chatted with earlier cooling off with a swim and laughing.

In stark contrast, a different father/daughter group I’d leapfrogged a few times is out on one of the granite fingers that reaches out into the lake. I’d heard the father berating his daughter earlier for her slow pace going up Benson Pass, shaming her by telling her that her speed was showing her weakness and messing up other hikers pace. She had been slumped under the weight of her pack trudging up the pass, and now she slumps against herself on the peninsula, staring not at the turquoise water or the silvery white granite mounds rising above, but at her feet, her back turned to her father.

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3.

Leaving Smedberg Lake behind, the PCT drunkenly whips up and down before settling on a sharp down as it angles northwest after passing the junctions to Rodgers Lake and Murdock Lake. Despite taking great pains to stay hydrated in the heat, my cheeks are alarmingly hot, my hiking shirt is soaked through, and my pace slows to an amble on the 2,000 foot drop to Benson Lake, despite downhill generally being the time when I can motor and make up miles.

The day’s temperature rises as I lose elevation and finally, nauseated and dizzy, I stop by a creek crossing, peel off my sweaty shoes and socks, and wade in up to my waist while pounding a liter of water. I look down to see a half a dozen baby trout staring up at me, inches away.

The friendly family leapfrogs me, stopping to soak bandanas to wrap around their necks. We wave as they continue on, then I double over as my stomach seizes in a sharp cramp. Four letter words spew out of my mouth in a long chain as I tear though my things to grab my trowel and toilet paper kit, then splash across the creek clambering as fast as I can to get an LNT-sanctioned distance from the creek in time…and there is not much time.

Red emergency alerts shoot through my body as I find a spot before disaster strikes, barely. It becomes evident that I am working through some severe food poisoning, and the day’s unusual fatigue and low energy make more sense in hindsight.

4.

I spend the rest of the descent fantasizing about Benson Lake, otherwise known as the “Sierra Riviera,” an enormous lake waiting at the bottom of the canyon with unusual sandy beaches. I dream about slipping into the cool water to swim before cowboy camping on the beach, clean and a temperature other than boiling from the inside out.

As the PCT flattens out, I enter a stand of tall pine trees and look for the junction to Benson Lake, mentally willing my body onward with the mantra of “Swim, swim, swim, swim.” The characteristic oxidized metal sign appears. I take off my pack for a moment to stretch my back and retrieve a snack, and then the unthinkable happens.

First it is one mosquito. I slap it from my arm and it drops to the ground dead.

“HA. Fucker,” I gloat.

Then a second. And a third. In seconds, the feeding frenzy has started and I can’t swat them off of me fast enough, these huge, pterodactyl sized monstrosities. I have never seen mosquitoes this large and hoist my pack on again as my visions of a leisurely evening swim morph to me submerging to hide from the mosquitoes, and my fantasy of cowboy camping on the sand becomes a horror show imagining sleeping exposed to the little vampires all night without a net.

I have to keep going.

In the kind of frantic mental state only a cloud of ravenous mosquitoes and their high-pitched whine can elicit, I turn away from the Benson Lake spur trail and swing back onto the PCT, power-walking to try to outpace the winged blight, but they stay with me.

Body protesting, I know I have to get higher. If I can just get above them again, it will be ok. A mile and a half further and 1,000 feet higher I stop, panting and sweating, and blessedly can only hear the sound of my own rasping. No mosquito whine. I can stop.

I scramble up onto a ridge plateau I’ve been eyeing during the climb and find a choice campsite on the far side of it. Choice, except for the fact it was an inch of granite sand on top of a solid shelf, making staking out my non-freestanding tent an extended exercise in patience.

After some gentle coaxing involving threatening to throw the stakes off the cliff if they don’t stay put, I win the battle. I stand up, note the sweat dripping down my body, and am seized with the need to be clean(er). I may not have a lake to swim in, but by god I will find a way.

5.

I scramble back down the ridge to the trail and backtrack five minutes to the last stream I crossed. I fill every water vessel I have and lug them back to camp, all 6.5 liters. I sit down on a slab of granite and take in the view now that I have shelter and water taken care of, finally able to appreciate the sweeping views of the Piute Creek and Benson Lake basin and the ragged, rocky slope I descended earlier.

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Taking a SmartWater bottle, I pour water over my arms and legs, washing the sweat and dirt off. There aren’t words for how incredible it feels, freezing cold though the water may be. I lift my shirt up and pour water over my stomach, then chastely try to wash my back and chest around my sports bra, making no real progress with sweat-soaked fabric in the way. Fed up and seized with an uncharacteristic lack of self-consciousness, I strip naked and pour the water over my head and down my body, scrubbing and cleaning more than just dirt and sweat.

I stand there dripping and un-selfconscious, warming in the last moments of sun and the feeling of being free and maybe a little feral.

My reverie is broken by the feeling of my stomach starting to sunburn — skin that hasn’t seen the sun since childhood — and I head back to my pack to find dry clothes.

6.

I stay outside long past dinner, content and drinking toasted rice tea while watching the full moon rise across the canyon. The valley is painted in shades of pink and violet left over from the sunset as the moonlight makes the granite glow.

It was a challenging day despite the low number of miles and my body is begging for sleep, but I’m not ready to say goodbye to the views just yet.

I put another kettle of tea water on and nestle back against the granite.

And watch.

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