July 29, 2018
It’s amazing what a few fitful hours of sleep can do.
I lay in my tent appraising the situation. My body, which just hours before was on full strike, feels strong again. I mentally run through my morning to fully engage eyes-on-the-prize levels of focus. 6.5 miles to Highway 108 at Sonora Pass, where my resupply is waiting. 3/4 of a liter of water until Sardine Creek in 6 miles, but it’s all flat and downhill so I should be able to make it in just a couple hours. I can do that.
I emerge from my tent to assess the smoke and am relieved to see it much improved over the apocalyptic situation last night. The smoke, while still visible, has washed away somewhere else this morning and I can see what was obstructed yesterday. Kennedy Peak, Molo Mountain, and Relief Peak are visible in a dusty blue pre-dawn haze, with the first traces of pink lighting up in the distance. The moon, again white instead of a sickly red, hangs high.
Last night’s bonk fading from my immediate memory, I pack up camp with record speed, ration 1/4 of a liter of water, and rejoin the trail with fresh legs, a strawberry Poptart, and a sense of purpose.
Six miles to water. Easy. I’ve got this.
The next miles are the stuff of ridge-walking dreams. Far above treeline, the trail sidehills along the top of the ridge before crossing over to the other side. The smoke in the air lends an opalescent quality to the landscape as the milky, pink light of the rising sun gains strength.
Circling around the top of the basin that Latopie Lake sits in 300′ below–my original destination for the night before, beautiful and still–the path winds towards what looks like the most unlikely notch in a stand of red rock that resembles a decaying cathedral.
The landscape on the other side of the notch reveals itself as sweeping, red, pseudo-Martian terrain. If I squint, I can see the PCT snaking into the distance, up and over the next gentle saddle over. I’m intoxicated with the stark views, the dusty wind, the sun on my shoulders, and the compulsive need to see what’s just on the other side of the ridge.
I may be fueled on just a balled up breakfast pastry and 1/4 of a liter of water, but I feel omnipotent. Last night I may have crawled into camp too tired to even cry effectively, but this morning I soar down the trail drunk on beauty, freedom, and legs that work again.
Robin told me that hiking alone the highs would be high and the lows lower, and I’ve gone from one end of that spectrum to the other in less than 8 hours. It feels a little emotionally dizzying, but I’m too busy powering up to the saddle to see what’s on the other side to dwell on it.
Highway 108 comes into view and my heart gets a pang. Here I am, standing up at the spot Robin and I stared at when we were in the Sierra last summer, pointing to the pass where we thought the PCT descended. The ribbon of pavement is the first familiar thing I’ve seen in a week.
I watch individual sparks moving below–the sunshine reflecting off the cars gliding along Sonora Pass’s hairpin turns–then set off with purpose to my resupply waiting below.
I smell the water in Sardine Creek before I see it. The red rock gives way to heavier vegetation, then wildflowers, then scrubby pines. I come around a corner and hear the water rushing downhill and it is the sound of relief.
I drink a liter in one go, then a second. And then half of a third. Fully rehydrated and riding high on the morning’s scenery, last night’s bonk seems far behind me.
I scuttle across the highway–hard and strange under my feet–and walk into the Sonora Pass picnic area. I easily find the white box truck belonging to Sonora Pass Resupply, and inquire about my box. Casey, the proprietor, is decked out in a yellow Hawaiian shirt and sports an impressive mustache. He instructs me to pull up a lawn chair while he prepares some instant coffee and I enjoy the first real conversation I’ve had in a week.
I slide my empty coffee cup over to Casey, grab my box, and claim a picnic table. Muscle memory takes over and I get focused, laying out the new items and arranging them in a Tetris-like configuration in the bear can. I must look in the zone because another PCT hiker walks by, knocks on the table, smiles, and goes “Business time, eh?” in a French accent.
“Very important business,” I affirm, massaging a large package of Gummy Bears into the nooks and crannies of the bear canister.
The hiker joins another at an adjacent table where a Trail Angel is chattering their ears off about the time she encountered her real guardian angel during a car wreck. In my peripheral vision, I notice a lot of polite nodding on behalf of the hikers as they try to edge towards the PCT again.
After about 15 minutes, they succeed in breaking loose and disappear around the corner and up the hill away from the picnic area. A few minutes later, I grumble at the weigh of my resupplied food on my back, trade the paved parking lot for the red dusty trail, and head vaguely north again.
The climb up and away from Highway 108 is covered in a tangle of willow brush and yellow wildflowers. The ever-present mules ears plants are peaking here, leave still silvery green and golden faces freshly turning to the sun.
At the top of the climb, a snaggletoothed line of red volcanic rock lines the horizon. The afternoon sun beats down and it’s a hot shuffle upward punctuated by rests in the rare spots of shade.
The ribbon of highway below narrows and narrows as the distance grows between us. The dayhikers begin to thin out as I reach the top, following the trail along the ledge leading to the unnamed pass.
The “pass” is a small bald 15′ circle of crushed rock. Three hikers are hanging out there — the French guy, the other hiker he had been with, and a third guy that had leapfrogged me while I was dying in a shade patch about half a mile back.
We start chatting with the kind of ease that I only associate with long distance hikers. Two, Nemo and Sidetrack, are PCT thru-hikers, and the French one, Ratatouille, is section hiking. The instant banter and conversation is striking after the week of sparse, anti-social lone wolves I’d encountered in northern Yosemite, and for someone like myself who typically leans pretty heavily into an introvert lifestyle, this quick companionship and warmth is surprising. It feels incredible to laugh.
They ask my name, and I reply “Shanks.” Nemo stares. “I’m totally harmless,” I promise. “How threatening can a woman in a pair of gold sparkle pants be?”
“Maybe you just want to keep people guessing,” Nemo says. It’s a good theory.
We all talk for a bit longer, watching waves of small orange butterflies flying overhead on their migratory route, then the guys take off to find a lake we see on the map called Wolf Creek Lake, dead set on taking a swim.
I wish them well and wave as they head down the trail, then settle in for a snack and a rest, tipping back against my pack and counting butterflies.
Wolf Creek Lake appears in the distance a short time later and chuckle at the shallow, opaque, green puddle that doesn’t quite live up to the grandeur implied by its name.
I come upon the guys again and Nemo yells “We decided not to swim!” as I close the gap between us. Ratatouille is laid out under a tree on his sleeping pad with a bottle of wine while Nemo and I discuss the virtues of powdered butter and my affection for Leslie Hall, whose image adorns my hat. A half hour flies by, then I leave them to wait for a friend as I continue down the East Fork Carson River drainage, which is lush with willows, pines, and wildflowers.
In time, the light turns golden and the shadows lengthen. I find a clear spot under some pines at the edge of a granite sheet with the East Fork Carson River sliding across it below, which at this point is little more than a robust stream.
I snuggle into my quilt early, content and miles from the low moment I had just 24 hours ago, which the elastic quality of time on the trail has already pushed back to what feels like a month ago. I watch the silhouettes of treetops dissolve into the blackening sky, eyelids sinking heavier and heavier until the darkness behind my eyes and the darkness the sky merge into one, and I sleep.