At Onion Valley Campground, Night 7
….And I hiked, winding back and forth, back and forth, down the endless switchbacks bargaining with the universe to show me signs of civilization below. Please, please, please, be around the next corner… if it’s there this time, I’ll stop for a rest. Really, I promise… With the smoke hanging heavy in the air, blotting out the sun’s lively rays, it felt much later than it was. I’d been fooled by this smoke induced false-dusk before; dropping my pack to set up camp thinking it’s at least 7, only to discover it’s just 3:00. In a normal year, I’d probably be cussing the heat and looking for a lake to jump into by then, but this year, the year of the wildfires, I spend my afternoons hiking in perpetual gloaming: fooling my body into thinking it’s more tired than it is.
Is that red? Do I see red? Far below I thought I spotted something out of place in the earth-toned terrain of the eastern slope of Kearsarge Pass. I slogged along, trying to ignore the throbbing pains in the bottoms of my feet, desperately searching… YES! Oh my god a car! I never thought I’d be so happy to see a car in all my life. A few more steps revealed (still hundreds of feet below) a whole parking lot filled with metallic bulbs of color – like a colorful garden nestled at the foot of this hellish mountain. With renewed vigor and a quickened pace I hobbled down the mountainside wondering how long it had been since I’d seen a car: Wow, it’s been 7 days! Have I ever, in my whole life, gone 7 days without seeing a car? I had to think about it. And no, in my 47 years, I had never gone 7 days without seeing a car. That made me a little sad as the reality of approaching civilization settled in.
From the time I spotted the parking lot to the moment I set foot in the campground, 90 excruciatingly looooonng and torturous minutes passed. But at last I made it…It was close to 5:00 when I finally retreated from the back country. 7 hours. 8.6 miles. More than 5500 feet. I was happy to be done, but not so thrilled about where “done” got me.
Despite my exhaustion, before dropping my pack I circled the campground to look for a site to call home for the night. You’d think I was taking a mortgage out with the amount of scrutiny I put into choosing my 12-hour home. But after spending the last 7 nights mostly alone, I wanted a private spot away from the smelly pit toilets and the curious eyes of car campers. I felt more exposed and vulnerable than I do in the backcountry and the curious stares were unnerving.
On my second pass of the small loop, the odd homeless-looking man who had been pretending to fidget around his creepy 1980-something gray van parked at a site in the center of the loop, directly adjacent to the campground host, walked toward me trying to disguise his nosiness behind nonchalance. He failed miserably: it was obvious by his anxious gait and expression that he needed to say something to me. He puffed out his scrawny chest that had long ago caved in from age and lack of any real exercise and stammered awkwardly, “Ummmm…? Hullo? Can I help you…. with sumthin?”
I copped an attitude before he even opened his mouth. I knew he was going to be trouble by the way he’d slow his fidgeting, and strain his long neck, to covertly scrutinize me out of the corner of his eye every time I passed. I surmised by the absence of a car outside the camp hosts 5th Wheel that they were probably in town running errands. Apparently, Van Guy decided it was his civic duty to hold down the fort and prevent dirty hiker chicks from causing mayhem on the Homefront while they were away. Great, a bored homeless guy with a cop complex, I am so not in the mood for this…. I gave him my finest “fuck you” glare and coolly replied, “just looking for a spot to camp for the night” I was curt and short, making no effort whatsoever to hide my annoyance.
“Errrr… a’right,” he stammered awkwardly looking from my pack to my hiking boots and back up again, but never in the eye. “Well the camp host’ll be back soon…” I could see his wheels spinning as he sized me up and sensed he had a whole lot more to say. I imagined he was mentally practicing his Ranger Rick speech: “Don’ be thinkin yer gonna get ‘way wit nuthin lil lady. Comin in here all dirty and grimy, casin the joint and thinking you ain’t got to pay fer nuttin. I got my eye on you, so just in case yer thinkin’ a causin’ trouble, you ain’t.”
I looked toward the giant self-register billboard 5 feet away and replied curtly, “that’s good to know,” and continued my 3rd trip around the loop to get a closer look at my final contenders. I felt his beady little gray eyes burning into my back as I walked away.
Coming around the loop toward wanna-be Ranger Rick’s camp once more, a real Ranger in an official green pickup truck pulled into the campground from the road and headed straight toward me. Now what? Geesh, can’t a dirty hiker look for a campsite in peace around here? He pulled up next to me, stopped and rolled down his window. A blast of cold air hit my face from the A/C blowing inside the cab. It felt refreshing on my sunburnt, salty face. He was young – maybe thirty, with a brown beard like all the hip young outdoorsy guys are wearing now, wavy hair, full lips and big brown eyes. I was caught off guard by his rugged good looks. When he flashed me his smile my attitude dropped faster than you can say “cougar bait” and I suddenly had a burning desire for a shower, shampoo, a little mascara and a miracle that would make me 15 years younger.
“How’s it going out there?” Unlike wanna-be Ranger Rick, this real Ranger knew that despite my current appearance, I wasn’t a thieving homeless lady, but a backpacker. This was going to be a friendly conversation, not another attempt to infringe upon my freedom to walk around the campground as many times as I wanted.
Painfully aware of my current state of hygiene I replied as confidently as I could muster, “good. It’s smoky,” I decided to play the “I’m a super-cool-hiker-chick who isn’t bothered by a little dirt and B.O.” card: I casually flicked back my unkempt braid and wiped my sweaty forehead with my dirt-caked hand, trying like hell to act like I’d just come from a day at the spa and not 7 days in the wilderness without a proper shower. I smiled awkwardly, trying not to think about how I probably looked like a giant dirty tomato with my big round dirt-streaked sunburned face, “what do you know about the fires?”
“Bad. Real bad.” THAT was not the answer I was hoping for. “The Rough Fire in Kings canyon is burning outta control and it’s in the wilderness now, so they stopped fighting it.” So, the rumors were true… I’d heard this from SOBO hikers who had talked to Rangers up north so it wasn’t a surprise However, what he said next was, “the fire’s about 10 miles off the JMT,” he paused and studied me, seeming almost reluctant to continue, “they pulled all the Rangers from LeConte Canyon and Rae Lakes…” What was he saying??? They pulled the Rangers but left the hikers? What the hell does that mean? I panicked a little. My gut knotted up and disappointment dropped into my core like a boulder. I don’t want to quit. I don’t want Onion Valley Campground to be my finish. Happy Isles, it’s supposed to be Happy Isles!
“Wha–? They pulled the Rangers?” My concern about finishing the trail overwhelmed my little cradle-robbing Ranger crush and any self-consciousness over my giant tomato head. Now I was all business – now I was the hiker chick unconcerned with B.O. and dirt. “Is it that dangerous? Do you think the fires will make it to the trail…?”
“I don’t know if the fires are gonna reach the trail. But the smoke… They can’t live in that… “
That made sense and I felt slightly relieved. The Rangers live out there all summer and I’m sure there are OSHA laws about employees living in hazardous conditions. Conversely, I’m just passing through (and still holding onto hope that I’ll eventually walk out of the smoke). But still, 10 miles away, that’s a day’s hike. And they stopped fighting the fires… What does that mean exactly? I had to ask, but was afraid of his answer, “is it ok for us to be out there still?”
There was a too-long pause. I could see him trying to find the right words, “I can’t say ma’am.” He looked like a man who didn’t want to say the truth and besides the sting of this young handsome Ranger calling me ma’am I was rocked by the reality of my situation with the wildfires: I may end up having to evacuate.
I was trying to digest and make sense of this tragic news. I wanted him to give me the answers, reassure me, tell me it would be ok to continue, “B…but what if the fire does get closer? How will we know? Will they evacuate us? Will they get us out?”
He looked me square in the eye with his big brown eyes and shrugged his broad shoulders. He didn’t have to say it; the answer was ‘no’. “Just be careful out there….”
A million thoughts were flying through my mind. OMG they won’t try to evacuate us!?! If a big wind hits and the fire comes we’re on our own? No Rangers… We’re really and truly on our own. I’m no stranger to throwing caution to the wind, taking risks and charging forward without thinking things to death, and for days I’ve rationalized being out here in these conditions: I came out here to experience nature. Forest fires are part of nature. They are part of my experience. It’s neither good nor bad. It just IS. And I will keep going until it’s too dangerous to move on. So with this new information from a professional – a Ranger – a dude who knows stuff – what the hell am I supposed to do?
I tried to be optimistic and cheerful and not read too much into his evasiveness, “Ok. I will be. Thank you for the info…”
“Sure thing. Be careful out there and good luck,” he gave me a little half smile this time- was that concern I saw flash across his handsome face? “– Oh and by the way, #1 is a great site. It’s a car camping site, but it’s ok if you take it, we won’t fill up tonight.”
“Yeah, I was looking at that, thank you. And thanks for the info.” He pulled away toward the back of the campground and I walked down the driveway to site #1 one more time to try to make up my mind. But I was in a fog. What should. I do? Should I call it here? Am I walking into a wildfire? Am I taking an unnecessary risk by being out there?
I finally settled on a quiet site in the backpacker’s section away from the car-camping looky-loos and wanna-be Ranger Rick. I’ve had dinner and now I’m sitting here at the picnic table in camp, looking up toward my nemesis, Kearsarge Pass, with the first of the stars barely twinkling against the darkening sky. My brutally tough day and the troubling conversation I had with the handsome Ranger is all I’ve been able to think about. I pondered how the wildfires would be the perfect excuse to bail. I’ve heard so many stories already of hikers leaving the trail because of the smoke and I’ve wondered how many used it as an excuse. How many had days like I had today and just said, “screw it- it’s hard, it’s smoky, it’s dingy and gray and the views suck. I’m done!”?
It would be a convenient excuse, for sure. But I really and truly do NOT WANT TO LEAVE. As hard as today was, the LAST thing I want to do is quit. And even if I wanted too, I couldn’t, in good consciousness leave because the smoke is inconvenient. If it becomes dangerous, yes, but inconvenient, no!
I contemplated this: How often have I opted out of a hike because of rain or snow or wind? And isn’t my purpose for hiking to experience nature? And isn’t rain and wind and snow – and FIRE – part of nature? So by its very composition, it’s not supposed to be convenient. It’s rugged. It’s challenging. It’s unpredictable. I wanted to spend 30 days on the trail to immerse myself and really experience it – ALL of it; not just the gorgeous blue sky days with moderate temps and no precipitation. THIS is part of my experience of nature and my JMT journey: fire and smoke. Sure it’s different than other years, but so was the summer of 2010 when Arkansas Robert was here and it was all covered in snow. It’s nature. And to me, quitting now would be denying nature – and putting conditions on Her: I’ll only hike under blue skies and reasonable temperatures, no rain, no snow, no wind, no bugs and no smoke! No, I will do this on Her terms. Smoke and all.
The Ranger didn’t tell me to get off the trail. He didn’t say it was too dangerous to be out. He didn’t say we’re getting evacuated. And if you think about it, wouldn’t they err on the side of caution? Have you ever known any government agency to take unnecessary risks with the public’s safety (well, I guess it depends on how much big money is involved, right…?)? Therefore, I deemed it safe to continue. I’m going to hike until… well, I’m not sure, exactly. I’m just going to keep hiking and see what happens. End of discussion.