July 30, 2018
The East Fork Carson River valley is the lowest, shadiest place I’ve walked in this entire section. The tall canyon walls block the sun, giving me an extended respite from the stiflingly hot temperatures it will soon bring. Taking advantage of the cool air while I have it, I cruise northwest down the valley floor passing four or five camps in various stages of packing up for the day. Compared to the no man’s land that was Northern Yosemite, this feels almost crowded.
The easy miles come to an end as the trail abruptly hairpins up and backwards in a steep switchback, depositing me back in the sun, heat, and smokey haze. The thick network of pine trees in the valley floor quickly gives way to pine mat manzanita and exposed rock as the trail continues its path directly up the canyon wall.
I go from comfortable and confident to overheating and wilted in the shade of a lone tree along the trail in the span of two switchbacks. I try not to be embarrassed as all of the campers one by one pass me as I shuffle from one shade patch to another up the climb.
The miles come slow and the landscape unfolds as an indistinct blur of dust, knobby rounded rock, and dried out sparse pines. I leapfrog a woman and her greyhound for most of the extended climb, with them stopping frequently along the dried up Boulder Creek for the dog to rest and cool down. He looks how I feel: hot, tired, and unsure of why he’s there.
I feel like we have an understanding every time we pass one another.
At least the landscape throws something new my way: a strange pyramid of black rock at the top of the climb. It is a geologic island, a pile of oddly colored stone distinct from everything else within view. It lords over a large meadow, uncharacteristically green and lush and exploding with wildflowers.
The PCT edges around the meadow before presenting me with a ramshackle livestock fence. I unhook the wire catch and drag the floppy, unstable mass of decayed, unbleached post and rusty barbed wire out of my way. The greyhound and his owner come charging through behind me without a word as I stand there awkwardly holding the gate in a way that won’t leave me punctured and bleeding.
“It’s cool, I’ve got it, you’re welcome,” I mumble, dragging it back into place and struggling to re-secure it.
At least there’s some downhill on the menu as the sun temporarily languishes behind some clouds.
As the afternoon advances, the landscape softens into gentle hills and sparser trees. A full palette of greens — the silvery sagebrush and willows, the emerald grass, the dark and dusty pines — blend into one another, punctuated by mats of golden flowers and purple lupine as the warm, sweet scent of clover drifts through the air.
I stop to catch my breath on one of the highpoint of a soft swell and listen as the muffled sound of clanging cowbells echo through the valley. Every once in awhile I catch sight of the cows, monolithic dark masses peering out of the willows. They are enormous–I always forget just how large cows really are–and strangely one of the more intimidating animal sightings. There is something wild and slightly feral about the cattle, despite their brands and bells.
Only rarely do I see them, but the cows’ impact is felt all around. The stream water takes on a decidedly bovine scent and the trail is often trampled and chewed up by hooves, all punctuated with cow pies.
I have my eye on a camp near the Murray Canyon junction and can’t get there soon enough. My edema has grown worse each day and my ankles have now been entirely consumed by the swelling. The skin pulls so taught that it shines, and a streaky maroon rash covers them; stings and prickles flare as each footfall jostles the drum-tight skin. I am ready to stop for the night and elevate my feet for some relief.
It is with great dismay that I find that the cows have claimed my anticipated campsite. The flat spot is clearly now part of a cattle freeway, 15′ wide and tramped so thoroughly the solid ground sits below 6″ of loose powdery dust and dried cow shit. Fresh piles are everywhere and the drone of flies is a constant. I have to find something else.
Morale and energy flagging for the day, I sit down for a snack to help me power through until the next campsite option. A very large rabbit with a snowy cottontail hops around grazing on flowers, wholly unconcerned by my presence. We enjoy a snack together in silence, then I’m on my way.
My legs fall into a nearly mechanical rhythm as they carry me forward for the next two miles until the welcome sound of rushing water can be heard in the distance — a sure beacon for nearby flat spots. Coming around the corner, I see a perfect spot by the creek, and within 30 minutes I am settled in, seated in the middle of the creek trying to soak my red, swollen ankles in a bandana soaked in the icy, silty water.
I hobble back up to my tent, cook dinner, then try to summon motivation for the evening’s camp chores.
“Alright, time to be responsible,” I tell myself, unconvinced.
“What was that?” a male voice asks and I spasm, utterly startled.
Ratatouille comes crashing through the brush between the site and the river, explaining that the rest of his group stayed behind to wait for friends while he carried on.
He sets up camp and begins phase one of his multi-stage dinner while I get my things organized for the next morning. Conversation comes easily and I am glad for the company, sentiments that rarely ring true for me in my every day life at home where introverted tendencies commonly barricade me from enjoying such interactions free from anxiety.
The sky darkens as the already cloud-obscured sun sets. I retire to my tent and listen to Ratatouille rummaging around camp stowing his cooking equipment and bear canister. Sleep creeps in as raindrops start to plop on my tent.
Ratatouille swearing lightly in French is the last thing I hear.