Have I mentioned that Savannah and I basically live at the Travelodge now? Because we do. The Suite Life of Stripes and Jetfighter coming soon to a Disney Channel near you. We end up here for two nights because of predicted thunderstorms and high fire risk, spending one of the evenings up with Spice Rack and At Home talking about everyone’s various hiking adventures and what we do when we’re not on a trail (and yeah, they are the coolest people ever). Savannah and I jokingly (but not jokingly because it’s mostly true) congratulate ourselves on finally making some friends out here.
The next day when we head towards the highway to hitch to Mammoth, where we’ll get Savannah’s car before setting out on our next section, I’m reminded that it is, in fact, a very small world. Of all the people in all the places, I run into my friend Jonny, who was the boat driver at Beyond Malibu when I was a guide there. Seeing as he lives in Alaska, it’s quite the surprise to run into him in Bishop, California. Then again, I’m learning that when you put yourself out there on these types of adventures, you’re bound to end up with at least a small handful of surprises.
Sadly, him and his friend are not heading to Mammoth at the moment so Savannah and I still have to hitch. It takes just thirty minutes to get a ride, though, which feels sort of impressive considering we’re hitching from a Shell gas station on a highway. Once Savannah and I put a little bit of effort into actually looking friendlier and happier, our cardboard sign raised and thumbs up, it isn’t long before a charcoal gray Subaru swerves over. A man who seemed to be in his 60’s hopped out and introduced himself as Ken, telling us he was on his way to Mammoth already and would be happy to take us. We shove our packs in the back of the car and hop in; he seems normal enough from our initial interactions, and there’s two of us, so I feel pretty good about this ride.
As it turns out, Ken is a rad dude. He tells us about his time working in “the industry” in LA – apparently, he had quite a bit of success in the music industry, including a long stint at Disney and time as a sound producer (“When the Grateful Dead call to get you to work on their studio, you just don’t say no.”) Savannah and I both get curious as to why he left the city for Bishop, and Ken goes on to share some version of how LA was soul sucking and generally depressing (Ken, you’re preaching to the choir)…so he left for a simpler life in a place that allowed him to get into the mountains more, because at the end of the day what does success even mean? Why was it defined as money and a fancy career when that wasn’t even making him happy? Say it again for the people in the back, Ken!
Before you know it, Ken is dropping us off in Mammoth and Savannah and I need to find one more hitch to get to her car. We are in town for maybe five minutes before Savannah sticks out her thumb as we’re crossing a street and this car pulls over for us. It’s a car with a set of grandparents and their granddaughter, plus a quiet dog sitting in the back. “You can call me Jimmy,” the little girl tells us from her carseat as Savannah and I squeeze in. Cool cool cool. The rest of our day is spent bumming around Mammoth, drinking good coffee and eating fresh food, before we head towards the trailhead where we’ll be camping. Only 62 miles left of this adventure!
Day 14 (69 Total)
Bishop to Palisade Creek via Bishop Pass, 4.7 PCT Miles + 13.5 Non-PCT Miles
1,021 Total PCT Miles
Car camping at a trailhead is incredibly convenient. There’s no tent to take down, no condensation to shake off, nothing really at all to do but roll out of the car and start walking. The weather this morning is actually perfect hiking weather. It’s cool and comfortable, the few rain drops not enough to bother grabbing out my rain jacket or pack cover. The wildflowers are just as insane as they were when we came down this way – perhaps even more so, now that they’ve had a sprinkle of rain and color seems to be more vibrant.
I’ll be heading through this section on my own, so once we hit the last lake before the pass, Savannah and I take a break in the shade before I continue up. Above me, the sky is partially blue but I’m not a sucker and I know with absolute certainty that it is going to storm this afternoon, so my hike over the pass is less of a walk and more of a hustle. It’s six miles back to the PCT (and treeline) from the top of Bishop Pass, and I’m trying to cruise so that I don’t end up exposed and at elevation in a thunderstorm.
With a mile to go, the clouds having been building and darkening into an inky blue/black color for the past hour or so, the sky opens up into a downpour. The rain coat is thrown on, hair shoved beneath the hood, and I pull out my pack cover in record time. Surprisingly, I’m not too bothered by the rain itself. It’s the thunderstorm I find concerning, and I start to jog the parts of trail that aren’t massive rocky steps, knowing the faster I get to the trees the better I’ll feel. The storm is by now directly above me, the thunder no longer just distant rumblings, and after taking a quick video of the storm (content, baby!) I stop trying to look for lightning and just power walk down the switchbacks.
Finally, I make it off the Bishop Pass trail and into the protective woods. Man, I love the feeling of getting back into the trees after being in the alpine with nothing but rocks and maybe some shrubs. It’s still pouring, still storming, and I wonder briefly if I should just set up my tent for a while until the thunder stops, or keep going. As I look up at the sky and listen, it sounds like the storm is beginning to roll over and up towards the pass I just came down. Further south where I’m heading, it looks marginally lighter, so I decide to keep hiking. And I’m glad I did. There’s still some scattered rain as I walk, still the occasional loud rumble, but also patches of sun. I walk for another 4.7 miles and although it’s still early, decide to stop. The sky that had first been marginally lighter is now filling with clouds once more, and when it comes down to it, I don’t feel like walking into another thunderstorm. So I don’t.
Instead, I sit on a rock in the intermittent, super light rain as I cook and eat, then make my way to the creek where I sit some more, watching the water and the slowly lowering sun. Around 6:30pm, it starts to sprinkle again, which prompts me to crawl into my tent. Soon after, I hear the quiet snapping of sticks off to the left. Because I can occasionally be dramatic, I immediately assume it’s a bear and that this is how it will end for me. I debate whether or not I should peek out my tent to see it, or just stay inside and let the cards fall as they may. Curiosity wins out though, so I poke my head out only to find that it’s not a bear after all; just a pair of hikers who didn’t notice my tent (stealth camping win, thank you very much). They set up their tents on the far side of the tentsite, but a bit later it begins to rain again and all goes quiet except for the sound of the rain on my tent. The forecast is for things to clear up by tomorrow, so I’m hoping that’s the case – mostly for the sake of getting up and over passes the next couple of days without having to race any storms. I guess we’ll see.
Day 15 (70 Total)
Palisade Creek to Mile 1851 (SOBO), 23.6 miles
1,044.6 Total PCT Miles
In what may be a first for me, I actually fell asleep easily last night instead of staying up anxiously listening to the rain. Maybe I’m finally over the trauma of The Great Spanish Needle Vestibule River of 2019?? (That one’s worth a read, if you’re new here). Upon waking up, I hear…nothing. Which is good. A quick check out my tent confirms the weather forecast: sweet, sweet clear sky. Yessss. I start hiking by 6am, partially because I went to bed at 6:30 last night and partially because I have it in the back of my mind that I want to double pass today. Doing so would mean going up and over both Mather Pass and Pinchot Pass, and although that would put me somewhere around 24 miles, it seems doable. It’s probably fine, right?
The morning is absolutely gorgeous and I hike along in the quiet by myself, giving an occasional wave to hikers I see still packing up at their tentsites. Other than that, I am happily uninterrupted in my walking towards Mather Pass. The air is cool, and I’m hiking in the shade, so the miles pass comfortably even once I begin to climb. Plus, I find myself stopping frequently, turning slowly in a full circle in my attempt to not miss or gloss over a single thing. I mean, come on. Look at this place.
With maybe a couple miles to go before the pass, I finally leave the shade behind and begin my hiking in the sun. Red Indian Paintbrush dots the sides of the trail, and I wind alongside ~just another insanely beautiful lake~ before continuing to climb. The last mile before the pass is steep and hot, temporarily evaporating most of the previous joy I felt in climbing, but that feeling doesn’t linger for long. How can it, when the sky is clear and the rocks are so insanely COOL? Like, look at the sheer number of rocks out here! How are there so many?!
I sit on top of the pass for a little bit, snacking and taking it all in before continuing on. It’s a steep descent down, one of those where I look back towards the pass and have a hard time even seeing the trail because it just looks like a loose rock wall. To accompany my afternoon miles, I listen to all two and a half hours of the Hamilton soundtrack. Did I just find the best hiking music of all time??
^ Looking back at Mather Pass. Where’s the trail?
As I’m doing a little bit of descending, I cross paths with a ranger who is heading the opposite direction. He asks if I’ve seen a middle aged woman who appears to be struggling, or maybe sitting in the shade. I don’t know how to tell him this, but it’s the middle of the afternoon and there’s a lot of hikers sitting in the shade. On top of that, anyone going north right now is in the middle of a continuous climb which means that pretty much everyone looks tired to some extent. “Umm…you know, I passed a few people in a shady spot less than a mile ago but they might have just been taking a break,” I finally tell the ranger. “Thank you, that is so incredibly helpful!” He responds. I stop myself from looking skeptical because…there’s no way that information was of any help, but whatever, not my problem. I hike on, eventually crossing a creek where a dad-vibe kind of hiker tells me “Stay safe!” before I start my eventual climb to Pinchot Pass.
Once I’m there, another hiker on Pinchot Pass offers to take my picture, and I say yes even though I am really not feeling it. I haven’t had enough to eat this afternoon so I feel like I’m starting to crash, and honestly I’m a little underwhelmed by Pinchot, which is probably why I look less than enthused in the photo. At least it’s all downhill from here. The descent is quiet, almost eerily so, just the occasional bird chirping as it pecks along for food in the green meadow to my right. I pass one or two other hikers going north, but besides that everything just seems still. Maybe that’s why it feels so hot, too – there’s no breeze to speak of.
Earlier in the day, I walked by yet another sign about a bear getting into hiker food that was improperly stored. I want to rage scream and punch a tree because STOP STORING YOUR FOOD IMPROPERLY, ok?! Once bears associate hikers with food, they never forget. All that to say, I’m hoping there will be other people at the tentsite I plan on stopping at. I’m purposely not hiking further down into the valley in hopes of avoiding the active bears down there, but still – in this section, it’s nice to not camp alone.
HOWEVER. The negative to not camping alone is that there is slightly less square footage in the area to go dig a hole in. You want a real backpacking pro tip? Poop before you get to camp. Or after you leave camp. Seriously. Your life will be exponentially easier this way. You will thank me for this advice, I promise.
Once I get my tent up and start cooking, mercifully sans mosquitoes even though a Guthook comment had said this place had “hella skeets”, a man in his 60’s hikes up and says “Is there room for another tent here?” I mean, there’s room for like 17 more tents, but I don’t point that out. He introduces himself as Bryce, and offers me his camp chair to sit on while he sets up. I’m really fine sitting cross-legged and barefoot on my foamie as I cook Mac and Cheese, but he is so earnest about sharing the chair that I finally accept it. A couple minutes later, his hiking partner walks up and goes “Ok where’s the gun? Just shoot me now. I’ve never been more tired in my life.”
“Have we run into you on trail before?” Bryce later asks me. He looks vaguely familiar but I cannot place where or when we would have crossed paths. Finally, it dawns on us. They were in the seat in front of me on the bus I took from Carson City to Bishop before meeting up with Savannah. Like I said, small world, yeah?
As I’m cooking, I happen to glance over my shoulder back at the trail and see someone with a bright pinwheel attached to their backpack cruising by in the glowy light of golden hour. At Home and Spice Rack! I yell out “Spice Rack!!”, absolutely destroying the peace and quiet of the evening, but they stop and I set down my Mac and Cheese before running (loosely using that term) over. I wasn’t expecting to see them after they headed out of Bishop, so it’s a fun surprise. They’d been on my mind with the thunderstorm we had yesterday, and I’m glad to see they’re ok despite being in the thick of it. We chat for a little bit before they continue on, and I quickly down the rest of my dinner. My tent awaits, because the “hella skeets” have arrived and they are the size of airplanes. Also, I don’t know what the ants in the Sierra are eating but they, too, are monstrous.
Anyways. I’m tired, but proud of myself for the day I had: started at 8,428ft. Climbed to 12,094ft. Descended to 10,051ft. Climbed to 12,122ft. Descended again to 9,795ft. So yeah, was a massive 23.6 miles. At the end of the day, my phone shows that I climbed 393 floors which is more than I climbed on the day I did Mt. Whitney. Because my phone is also incredibly smart, it tells me that I am walking more steps this month than last. Wow, breaking news! Weird that I don’t get 56,485 steps in on an average day at home??
It’s strange to think that tomorrow will be my last day on this hike. Kind of new to be stopping at a point where my body is not completely crushed and broken??
Day 16 (71 Total)
Mile 1851 SOBO to Onion Valley via Kearsarge Pass, 21 miles (13.5 PCT Miles + 7.5 Non-PCT Miles)
1,058.1 Total PCT Miles
I don’t sleep well at all last night. In fact, it’s probably the worst I’ve slept since the start of July. I’m not totally sure why, perhaps my body knows it has just one more big day of hiking left and so it’s rebelling. But otherwise, I feel good all things considered. My feet are a little sore but that’s expected given the big day yesterday.
The morning is again cool and quiet. Cool enough, actually, to hike the first six or so miles in a beanie. Lovely. The trail continues to stay anchored to water, and I’m running out of the perfect adjectives to use here because it’s still beautiful. Still pleasant. Still filling me with awe and wonder. As I descend further into the valley, the number of signs about bears begin to increase again. For some reason, the way the wording on the signs is phrased makes me imagine the bears as these animated, cartoon-like beings just walking around on their tiptoes looking to snatch backpacks and food bags like little punks. It’s funny to picture for about half a second and then I remember my bear situation earlier this month and it’s slightly less funny.
Once I leave the shade behind, the climbing begins (maybe I need to start timing this better). As I continue heading up, a man who is hiking in the opposite direction comments that “You’re hiking awfully fast going uphill.” I laugh awkwardly because that is how I handle most situations in my life. I mean, I don’t feel like I’m going that fast anyways, and even if I was, it’s mostly so that I have more time to chill lakeside, or at the top of the passes. Why would I want to really drag out my time in the shadeless uphill?
In a move that will surprise no one, I eventually hop off the trail at a semi-hidden campsite alongside a lake where I can swim in solitude. What a dream. Well, to be fair, I actually first fall into the water before I start swimming because by the time the water is up to my knees, the ground beneath me is so soft and mushy that I slip and absolutely eat it. After that though, I swim around and it is indeed a dream.
I plan to eat lunch on Glenn Pass because I figure that no bears will be up there (duh) so I can eat in peace without a hint of paranoia and checking over my shoulder. And honestly, I kind of want to stay up there forever. After flinging down my foamie, I find the most comfortable rock cradle to sit in. I’m eating a tortilla wrap that looks like cat food with fishies but is actually really tasty (really tasty being relative, obviously). The sun is out, there’s a comfortable breeze, I’m feeling good, and there’s a pervading sense of happiness. It is good to climb mountains. It is good to be alone. It is good to be here.
The miles to the junction where I will leave the PCT goes by quickly, as I’m lost in thought and in the sweeping views. Finally, I turn left onto the trail for Kearsarge Pass. Now it just a little bit of climbing. Just one more pass and a final descent before this 62 mile section (and my time on the PCT for this month) wraps up. Boo. Even while I am excited at the idea of being back home in Bend and the upcoming things I’m looking forward to, it’s still sad to be this close to the end of this particular adventure.
My climb up to the pass has been beneath a sky filling with darker and darker clouds, but thankfully, I do make it over the pass without them turning into anything resembling a thunderstorm. I say a quick hello to Kearsarge Pass, musing at how fast the time has gone between the first time I came out via this route and now, then point myself downhill for the last four miles. To be honest, they end up being the hardest of my entire day, I think, since my knees and feet are sore.
On the bright side, the dripping rain is pleasant compared to baking in the unrelenting sun on this exposed section like I did the first time I hiked down this at the beginning of the month. I mean, at this point, the sky could open up into a deluge and I just wouldn’t care. Now that I’m over the pass, it’s like whatever happens happens, ya know? Rain? Go ahead. Thunder? Please. Hail? That would be exciting. Lightning? Why not, I’ll be at the car soon. Even as the weather begins to turn from a drizzle to an actual rain, I don’t bother stopping for my rain jacket or pack cover. Bring it on, my dude.
After what feels like a million lifetimes but is really only 3 or so miles, I spot the parking lot. How is it so close and so far away at the same time?? I kind of just want to leap off the trail because it’s right there and yet I know I still have a ways to go before I’m standing on the asphalt. Overhead, the clouds continue to gather.
Savannah meets me on the trail a little ways from the parking lot, then presents me a Kombucha upon arrival at the car before a random trail runner offers me a homemade cookie. We start down the winding road to Independence, needing some service so I can begin to figure out how I’m getting home. Town is hotttttt. Mexican food (predictable, I KNOW) is gooood.
We end up camping at a campground that is less perfect than all of the spots I’ve slept at in the mountains (duh) but still has some pretty sweet desert-like views. I’m woken up around 2am by the yipping of coyotes somewhere in the not so far off distance. Briefly I contemplate what would be the irony of surviving bears and thunderstorms and the general risk of being in the mountains only to get shredded by a pack of bored or hungry coyotes in a moderately depressing car campground. But, it’s too dang hot to be really thinking about a drawn out death right now so I try to go back to sleep.
I still don’t know how I’m getting home. Probably some roundabout combination of a slow moving bus bound for Reno and then a series of flights to get back to Oregon. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my time on the PCT the last couple of years, though, it’s that things usually end up working themselves out one way or another.
Cheers to what has been a very, very happy month of hiking in the mountains.