PCT 16 | Hazed by the Sierra

Day 80: Goofbucket Falls in the Lake

Zero in South Lake Tahoe

It was Susan’s birthday, so we went out for breakfast to celebrate. Susan was Slippy’s aunt. She was turning seventy, which was hard to believe because she wore t-shirts, drove a Jeep, and rained affable f-bombs down on every conversation.

She didn’t like Oily Boy’s trail name. “You’re Goofbucket,” she declared. Six was Little Miss Muffet. Slippy was Goofbucket too, and she constantly reminded us that we were only here because of how much she loved him.

Susan told us stories of traveling with Slippy’s parents in the 70s: France, Belgium, India, Kenya. In Ethiopia, she said, they had gone in search of the Source of the Blue Nile. Then Slippy’s dad (a Japanese American) had threatened to karate chop a cowering pickpocket in Axum, leaning into the Bruce Lee archetype that was so popular at the time.

I went to the post office to pick up my bear can. Technically it was MeHap’s; he lent it to me as well as being my point person for gear and resupply. The packaging said 7lbs, and I panicked. The bear can was three, but how could I have four pounds of winter clothes? Desperately, I tugged at the bear can lid. “I can’t open it!” I cried.

Poppins swooped in to help, and we managed to pry it off. Revealed were two cans of beer.

We couldn’t leave Lake Tahoe without a visit to the beach. Susan had a blow-up paddleboard, but the pump to inflate it was missing. Slippy and Oily Boy took turns by mouth, which got it most of the way. It did bend in the middle, making the challenge of the activity to stand up rather than move through the water. I didn’t manage it.

We returned to Susan’s house to shake off warm sand and sunscreen. “Who wants the good news?” I asked, dancing into the kitchen. “It’s going to snow in the Sierra on Monday.”

Day 81: The Gateway

South Lake Tahoe to camp, mile 1580

Packing our bear cans was a struggle. The idea was that they eliminated the user error of bear hangs, although Six mentioned that bears in the Adirondacks had learned to unscrew this particular model.

Hour one carrying the bear cans.

As we climbed, the wind blew leaves onto the trail. But the wildflowers bounced as buoyantly as ever, reminding me that it was only September 15.

It didn’t take long for my strange trepidation to transform into excitement, as it does once imagination becomes meat and bones. The Sierras, at last!

We passed a few hikers and I greeted them with the usual hi how’s it going.

“Enjoy your snowstorm,” one man said rather aggressively, as though he were accusing us of something.

What did that mean? “Thanks, you too!” I chirped.

We hiked uphill in the howling wind. A rugged crest crept over the horizon and I gasped at its suddenness: a gateway. It sat like a fortress wall, like we’d have to whisper a password and creep in. But as we drew closer I remembered that this was the Range of Light, with welcoming curves like open arms.

We crossed Carson Pass, named for Kit Carson. He was an 1800s U.S. Army officer who murdered and displaced indigenous people across Colorado and elsewhere in a depraved “scorched earth” campaign. He was also an early explorer (i.e. colonizer) of wild places, which is why many passes and peaks in the American West bear his name. I made sure to tell Slippy and Oily Boy the true history, and they nodded politely. U.S. depravity was nothing new.

There was a new face at camp that night: Shrink, who complained bitterly that there were too many people on the PCT. I agreed before I could help myself. Of course everyone who wants to be on trail should be, but my heart still yearned for big empty spaces.

I kept myself awake with constant fits of coughing. Every thirty seconds, great gusts of wind galloped through the trees and pounded our tents, slipping in under the cracks to rattle the loose items on the floor. My tent shook with each hit, but stood until morning.

Day 82: Enjoy Your Snowstorm

Camp to camp, mile 1599

The wind seemed to gain confidence overnight. It blew in a constant torrent rather than gusts, rattling the grass and making feathers across the lakes. The trail took me up a high ridge where I had to lean heavily into the air just to keep my balance. I worried for my glasses — a previous pair had met a wind-borne fate on the CDT.

On the top of the ridge, I stopped to cower behind a rock. Now the lake water was blowing in the air like the stream of a dolphin or whale.

Below tree line it was worse. Another time, the trees would have been a bounty. Tall aspen grew alongside massive juniper, twisting dramatically toward the sky. But today, creaking tree trunks chased me down the trail. With escalating horror, I saw a rotten branch fall and then an entire tree. Fuck! I was torn between observing and running away… but where could I run? I noted a few suspicious snags, took a deep breath, and sprinted past.

Nobody was feeling great at lunch. The clouds were creeping in, and my dire warnings about falling trees didn’t help.

Then Mary Poppins showed up. “Today I found first a gummy bear,” he announced, “which I ate immediately.” He also had a vape pen, a jar of homemade balm, and one sock.

The storm began promptly after lunch. We had a climb up to 9,000 feet, where the rain turned rapidly to snow. It was impossible to tell where we were or what kind of landscape might be surrounding us. Snail (snow/hail) was back; it stung my face and drenched my mittens so that I had to ball my fists while I walked.

Mary Poppins sang the first line of Jingle Bells and I joined in. I laughed and joked about a bear can-microspike orchestra with more jubilance than I felt.

Once I fell behind Poppins, the experience veered towards the terrible. Snow fell more and more heavily, coating the trail and nearly obscuring the footprints ahead. I couldn’t figure out how to keep my hands warm. I tried to imitate NoDay in Washington — she used to tuck her hiking poles in her elbow and stick her hands in her armpits while she walked. But my poles just clattered to the ground. How had she done it?! At last I unstrapped my backpack to tuck my poles inside, almost laughing at the inch of snow sitting on my bear can.

As I was putting on my fleece, Shrink appeared behind me. He said he was stopping at the next campsite and I said that I was thinking about it too. My leggings were completely soaked and I knew that I should take them off and get into my sleeping bag.

“To tell you the truth,” he said, “I’m really glad I ran into someone.”

And as soon as we reached a flat spot, I saw a couple familiar tents. Slippy’s voice rang from somewhere inside his. “I’m about to put the ‘hot’ in hotbox.”

“Is everyone okay?” I asked. They were, although Six was extremely shaken.

Mary Poppins stood outside in his shorts, casually smoking a cigarette. “So are we hiking further?” he asked. It was 5.5 miles to a remote highway, but the idea did not have any support.

I had to cheer on my fingers to get them to pitch the tent. “Come on, come on,” I muttered, thrusting my fist uselessly at the pegs and ties. It was possibly the worst pitch ever, but once again, it held.

Six asked me for tips on peeing in her vestibule. “Absolutely the most important thing,” I said, “is to choose the right side. Examine the slope of the ground.”

I thought that I might use the time to work on my blog or edit videos or something. But instead I ate all the chocolate within reach and lay there for a long time, somewhere between sleep and awake.

Day 83: Reward

Camp to Carson River, mile 1627

My tent was dry in the morning, which I didn’t expect. As I packed up in the snow, I asked Poppins for a cigarette. I didn’t smoke anymore, but it seemed fitting in the dim and cold light. Unfortunately, they were menthol.

The mountains looked beautiful with a funnel cake dusting, and no more than three inches of snow had stuck to the trail. My toes were frozen, but that dumb Sierra smile was back on my face.

By afternoon, the snow was gone. Slippy’s camera started working again. The sky was clear and the sun was just warm enough to dry our socks over a long lunch break.

During that time, Slippy learned the truth about windpants. All the ultralight bros have them. They’re lightweight and compact, and they look good — if, as he suggested, you’re going to a nightclub in Berlin. But they’re not waterproof and in fact, rarely worn while hiking. “I’m sorry, but you ultralight guys are just so stupid!” he burst out.

“It’s just a flex,” I said. “Bro, do you even have windpants?

We decided that today was a reward for yesterday. The sky was and the alpenglow was fantastic. But as I stumbled down into the canyon, I felt the unique cold of winter coming on. It’s deeper and sharper, and it lives in the early dark.

Day 84: Feathers in the Wind

Carson River to Kennedy Meadows North (Sonora Pass), mile 1636

Mary Poppins collects the feathers for his hat. They blow across the trail in an array of colors: black, gray, pink, blue. Some are striped and some are solid. He works their shafts into the woven straw, no adhesive necessary.

Sometimes they disappear. There’s no reason to be sad about it. Feathers come and go, he says. Blowing in the wind.

There was another storm in the forecast. The wind blew with only slightly less severity than two days before. At 10,000 feet there was only a smattering of snow, but quite a panorama of ominous clouds. I hadn’t slept, again, and between that and the 2,500-foot climb I felt ready to collapse. But I trudged on, eager to reach town with an intense desire I hadn’t felt since Washington: to be warm and dry, indoors.

I ran to Sonora Pass just in time to see a truck pull up next to Six and Slippy. Our driver told us that he was surprised to see the road open. Usually they closed it after the first snow.

Kennedy Meadows North was a remote little resort with cabins and dorm beds. They had good resupply and a tent around back for hikers to hang out in — plus, they didn’t charge per minute for the showers. The servers in the restaurant were uncomfortably brusque, but I pointed out that they must have had terrible experiences with rowdy hikers. And sometimes Europeans don’t tip.

As we were eating, the woman from the front desk ran in cradling a landline phone. “Is one of you Jenny?” she cried. “Your emergency device is going off.”

My Garmin InReach Explorer, which was sitting (powered off) in my backpack in the yard, had triggered an SOS. I’d heard of this happening. I retrieved the device and frantically tried to cancel the alert, but it didn’t go through under the cloudy sky.

When an InReach SOS is triggered, the company contacts whatever local law enforcement has jurisdiction in the coordinates of the distress call. In this case, it was the local sheriff, and luckily, he took one look at the location and guessed that it was a mistake.

I dialed my mom on the landline, panicking over how hard she must be panicking. But she answered the phone with a laugh and said, “I hear you’re causing quite the stir.” The sheriff had already called her with his hypothesis.

Crisis averted. We sat in a circle in the hiker tent as Slips and Oily sorted their resupply. Beers were cracked with more reverence than usual. Every so often someone attempted a toast, then laughed it off nervously. Every so often, someone mentioned the snow. Slippy had bought a giant army-green poncho at the store.

Oily Boy had a deadline — finish the third week of October in time to go to Hawaii. Slippy was going to Vietnam. So they were hiking out while the rest of us waited out the snow. They weren’t planning to slow down.

We gave them hugs, and they boarded the shuttle and were gone. Six, Poppins, and I gathered on the sofa by the fire.

After a while, Mary Poppins said, “I wore my windpants on the trail today.”

Up next: What’s in store with the weather? Plus, Cloud convinces the others to attempt the Sierra High Route!