Tuolumne to Tahoe, Day 5: Like A Fine Skylark

July 27, 20181

I wake up at 5:15, poke my head out of my tent, and survey the ocean of granite below me. I drink all of my water but a half a liter, pack up, and clear the last few hundred feet of the unnamed “pass” below McComb ridge on fresh, strong legs.

My near bonk experience from last night has passed, but my left toe is still a disaster. The skin has somehow found yet more stretch in it and perpetually stings. I wonder if skin can swell so far it splits like a tomato after the rain, and hope I don’t find out firsthand. 

The trail descends quickly to to the valley where I fill a liter of water in Tilden Canyon Creek. It’s a hasty procedure and I move on soon due to the mosquitoes, who are awake and apparently ready for breakfast.

The terrain is flat and my pace flirts with a jog. Whenever I slow down, the tinny whine of an orbiting mosquito in my ear cracks the whip to resume powerwalking. The pace becomes harder to maintain when the trail dips into a sudden pocket of humid, hot air in the approach Wilma Lake. By 6:30am, my back is soaked and beads of sweat roll down my cleavage. If there’s anything worse that the mosquito whine, it’s the sudden silence that follows as it lands on an unknown patch of skin.

The closer I get to Wilma Lake, the larger the mosquitos grow. I intend to stop here for breakfast but keep motoring past it to avoid the bugs. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled with better lakes, but it feels damp, swampy, and less visually inspiring here so I angle north to start the long, gradual climb out Tilden Canyon and ultimately out of Yosemite.

The views improve almost immediately as the PCT picks its way up along a vein of sheet granite mostly hidden by pines, paralleling Falls Creek. 

“Creek” gives the impression of a single ribbon of water washing downward, but Falls Creek is dozens, if not hundreds, of channels finding their way downhill. Here the water braids in, around, and under the granite  in smooth sheets interrupted by occasional drops, some channels arterial in size a few yards wide, others small veins a couple feet wide, all knit together with the tiniest water capillaries a few inches wide at the most.

Despite the fact that I’ve only gone four miles or so, I can’t help myself and swing off the trail, hopping across the dry patches until I find a flat, shaded spot with water flowing all around. I’m overdue for both the breakfast I skipped earlier and “icing” my still black and swollen toe in a pool of Falls Creek.

I consume a strawberry Pop Tart and survey my toe. The mottled black and purple bruising is taking on shades of yellowy green. I’m getting a little faster at my shambling flatfooted gait that usually avoids making it angrier, but I still sometimes forget myself and bend it stepping through rocky terrain. When it does happen, it’s a lightning bolt of pain and nausea that causes my vision to wobble. Cooling it in the creek will buy me a half hour or so of less such moments.

I stick my foot back in the pool, lay down, and close my eyes. I stretch my arm out of the shade patch, palm down in the sun, and run my fingers over the gritty sandpapery texture as I soak up the warmth radiating off the stone. Falls Creek makes quiet trickling noises laid over the deeper resonating bass notes of water running underneath the surface rock. I have this place all to myself, and it’s heaven.

I stay much longer than intended. There are no mosquitoes here.

The miles do eventually call–as they always do–so I return my dirty sock to my damp foot, lace up my shoe, and return to the PCT. The trail climbs ever so gradually up Jack Main Canyon, a gentle, near flat amble up the seemingly endless Grace Meadow in a seven mile wind-up to Dorothy Lake, last stop before the national park boundary. 

Grace Meadow is decked out in carpets of purple lupine, Queen Anne’s lace, and yellow asters. Falls Creek is my constant companion, which now is a placid sheet of water winding to my right. Looking behind me, large tufts of forest fire smoke rise out of the drainage I just left.

The way forward looks clear, and I tentatively allow a moment of optimism that perhaps I’m leaving the smoke behind.

I climb the last rise before Dorothy Lake and survey the water before me, still and blue. I haven’t seen anyone since my break just after Wilma Lake and that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. The wildflowers around the lake are thick and overgrown and I pack my hiking pole to be better able to push the blooming stalks of corn lilies taller than me out of the way.

I try, and fail, to not get “All In the Golden Afternoon” from Alice in Wonderland stuck in my head. But given the lack of people, expanses of time, and a phone that is still on the fritz barring access to music, I think I can be forgiven in starting to see faces in the flowers.

On the far side of the lake, I climb a small rise that is labeled as “Dorothy Lake Pass,” but pass feels like an overly generous term for this little swell. The saddle marks the formal exit of Yosemite National Park, a moment which catches me off guard with more significance then anticipated. I turn to look at the sign welcoming people into the park and imagine all of the things I’ve seen in this park, all of the footsteps not just from this week but from subsequent trips that have led me from from one end of Yosemite to another, and beyond that through all of the southern Sierra.

The call of the continuous line is intoxicating, of perpetually finding out what is around the next corner without ever having to loop back. Any expectations I had of being satisfied with small bites of trails a couple weeks at a time are doused by crossing this arbitrary, imaginary line. It’s a sense of completion and beginning, with the promise of perpetually moving forward. 

I turn around forward again and laugh. It is clear that I am entering a different place, judging from the dismantled, sun bleached sign announcing my arrival at the Hoover Wilderness and Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest.

Drunk on finding out what’s next, I hurry across the saddle to see what’s on the other side. The stark difference of the landscape is breathtaking, all at once more arid and broken with jumbles of rock punctuated with scraggly pines.

I pass Stella Lake on my right and spy Bonnie Lake to the north. The terrain is a marmot paradise with all the piles of rock and I perpetually see things moving in my peripheral vision, only to freeze when I stop to look. I turn around every so often to see marmots moving back into position on their sunny rocks after I’ve passed, and must see dozens by the time I reach Harriet Lake.  

It feels to early to stop by my toe is clearly communicating being ready for a rest, and besides, I made it further than needed to stay on schedule with my itinerary so I decide to stop for the day.

The site marked on my app is right on the trail and carries the unpleasant odor of poorly buried human excrement. I count three toilet paper roses along the perimeter of the site, and, as appetizing as this situation is, decide to see if I can find something better. I scramble clockwise around the lake’s thin rim to reach the far side where I find an established site in better shape than my first option. 

I take advantage of the earlier hour by dumping my pack, stripping off my salty, dusty clothes and jumping in the lake for a swim. The water is a perfect temperature and I lazily backstroke around for awhile, enjoying the dual sensation of the cool water and the warm sun on my skin. I hold still and bob like a cork for a few moments, listening to marmots whistle in the distance, then drift back to the shore to lay in the sun and dry off.

I eat dinner down on the shore and watch the sunset blaze golden and then pink before cooling into a dusty cornflower blue. Cozy in my dry clothes, I give myself a mountain manicure (scrape the dirt out from under my nails with a nail clipper file), comb my still damp hair and weave it into fresh twin pigtail braids.

Reasonably clean with a full stomach and cup of steaming peppermint hot cocoa in my hands, it is hard to imagine being more content than I am in this moment. But then the stars come out and frogs start their twilight choir, and I am happily proven wrong once again. 

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