Day 8: Onion Valley Campground to Kearsarge Lakes via Independence 5.8 miles
8 am – I’ve been sitting on a bear box in the parking lot at the Onion Valley trailhead waiting for a ride since 7:30. There’s no one around and there aren’t many people in the campground. I didn’t meet anyone last night (just the annoying nosey guy), so all I can do is sit here and wait… It’s very quiet. I may be here a while.
8:45 am– I’m in Independence!!!
I was sitting on my bear box writing when suddenly, out of nowhere, a car appeared from the campground. I crammed my journal into my pack, slung it over my shoulder and ran to the road with my thumb flying in the air. A slight, middle aged woman who seemed habitually nervous, rolled down her window and looked at me doubtfully. My heart sank. Her little Honda CRV was already packed with gear and two dirty hikers with accents who were incoherently blathering away at her. I was sure she wouldn’t try to cram me in. But then the hiker in the back craned his head toward me over the gear-stuffed backseat and yelled, “C’mon mate, we can fit yew.” And the nervous lady yielded, saying to no one in particular, “ok, we can try”. Apparently all the chatter I couldn’t make out was the hikers pleading with her to pick me up, as I will learn later.
Jerri from Clovis, California was our gracious driver. She’d dropped off her husband for a 5-day trip and was on her way out when the other two flagged her down in the campground. When I asked her why she wasn’t joining her husband on the trail she just laughed, “oh no, not me. I prefer 5 star hotels thank you!”. I looked at my dirt-streaked sunburned face in her rear view mirror and couldn’t help feeling a little smug in all my dirtiness.
James, who was sharing the backseat with me and his very large backpack, was about my age, very thin and weather-worn. He helped me wedge my pack between my legs as I climbed into the cramped backseat. There was gear everywhere; piled on the seat, rolling around the floor and crammed into the small luggage area in the back.
Fred was the other passenger, sitting in the front seat. A frail looking 78-year-old man with the same weather-worn look as his mate, gray wispy-thin hair and a beard. They told us they came from Australia to hike the John Muir Trail and had been wandering around for 73 days – not really sticking to the trail much. I knew I didn’t smell great despite my attempts at hiker baths, but wow, the Aussies were ripe! All I could think was, poor Jerri she’ll have to fumigate her cute little truck before her long ride back to Clovis.
James confessed to me, almost in a whisper as Fred and Jerri chatted away in the front seat, that they had come down the pass earlier and spotted me sitting on the bear box, waiting. They knew they had to get behind me if they were to get a ride, so they went into the campground and waited, finding Jerri as she exited. In essence, he, a little too-nonchalantly admitted to hijacking my ride. They thought it would be easier for them to convince someone to pick up a woman than for me to convince someone to pick up two dirty men, “But what if you couldn’t?” I asked.
“Well then, I guess yew’d still be sittin’ there…” He said laughing. I wasn’t. But I’m not one to hold grudges (even when I should!) and I quickly got over it. After all, I was in the car and I couldn’t hate them for their ingenuity. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.
So after a slow and windy, cramped and smelly trip into town I’m enjoying my veggie Subway sandwich and icy-cold black tea that took me 20 minutes to get while the guy behind the counter finished whatever he was doing in the back. Things move a little slower in Independence. I already did my shopping at the small hiker friendly convenience store/gas station connected to Subway (I got the hiker discount!). I got my Nyquil tabs (since you can’t by Xanax over the counter), a bar of soap from which I cut a small chunk and threw the rest away (my Dr. Bronners leaked out of the cheapo screw-cap dollar containers from Walmart and I didn’t pack any more in my resupply) and my blue bandanna! They didn’t have much vegan food and I didn’t feel like getting an upset stomach on the trail, so I avoided the ice cream and snickers bars that tempted me and opted for a banana and a big bag of Fritos.
With footlong subs and giant bottles of water in hand, James and Fred asked to join me at my outdoor table with a view of the Independence post office and the Eastern Sierra Peaks we’d descended from in the background. The post office didn’t open until 9:30 so we had some time to kill.
They shared stories of their 73 days in the backcountry; how they’d been wandering around, not really following the JMT, with minimal food, catching fish with their bare hands to sustain them. They’d caught 58 fish they said – yes all with their bare hands! I had my doubts, thinking the Aussies were telling me tall tales. But then they demonstrated how to reach your hands into the water, deep under rocks until you feel slimy slithery bodies and then you trap them in. The cupped their cutup hands to show me their technique. Seeing all the cuts and scrapes on their hands and forearms my suspicions of tall-tales vanished. I truly believed I was in the presence of two legitimate Bare-Handed-Aussie-Fish-Catchers.
As James talked I became distracted by a black bug crawling on his cheek. I kept waiting for him to swat it away but he kept on talking like it wasn’t even there. I watched it get to his beard line and then head toward his mouth. I tried to focus on his fish-catching instruction in case I’m ever in a survival situation but all I could think was: what if it goes in his mouth? Will he let it go in his mouth? Do these bare-handed-fish-catchers eat bugs too? I could almost feel the bug crawling on my own face and found myself swiping at my cheek as I devoured my sandwich. I tried to focus on his story. On my sandwich. On my iced-tea, anything but the little critter having a field day on his cheek. I waited for him to feel it and brush it off… And I waited. And waited… Ohmygod is he ever going to brush it off? He HAS to feel it. HOW CAN HE NOT FEEL IT?!? I couldn’t take it any longer. I abruptly interrupted him, “there’s a bug on your face…”
“Oh, okay….” He kept right on talking barely missing a beat. He didn’t even try to brush it off. Wow, these guys from Down Under are the real freaking deal! I didn’t hear another word he said, I was mesmerized by the little black bug as it trekked across the Aussie’s face as if it was on its own tiny little JMT journey. I fought the urge to swat it away and watched with horror and fascination as it crawled in and out of his beard, across his cheek, toward his ear and then into his hairline where it disappeared and then remerged from behind his ear again. Would it be rude to swat it away? He seemed to have some affinity with the tiny bug, so I felt swatting it away would be invasive. But it was making me crazy. How can he not feel it? All I could do is watch as it trekked across his face, exploring every pore and speck of dirt it encountered as I scarfed my Fritos.
After eating, we walked across the busy two lane Route 395, dodging campervans and big rigs, to the post office. A sense of relief swept over me when the postman came back from the stacks of boxes holding mine! Yay, it worked! I’d had a nagging fear that my box wouldn’t be there. The postman was very friendly, asking if I was hiking the JMT. He handed me my box and asked politely, “Please take it outside to unpack, not in the lobby.” “No problem”, I responded and took my slightly crushed box outside where I plopped down on the sidewalk, leaned against the post office wall and tore it open.
Resupply is like Christmas morning for thru-hikers: I was filled with excitement as I ripped through the box to find what goodies I’d snuck inside. Red Vines! Yay! I need the sugar, I hadn’t packed enough instant energy in the first leg and I needed this for the long climbs. More trail mix! Yay! (really, I love trail mix and could eat it every day). New dinners! Yay! Toilet Paper and wet wipes! Yay! Wow, it really doesn’t take much to make me happy on the trail. I like that…
The feeling of being dirty and smelly, sitting on the sidewalk with pounds of hiker food sprawled on the ground around me as curious passers-by gawked at us was the most awesome feeling ever. While the rest of the world was going about their perfectly orchestrated, purposely full lives; going to work, dropping off the kids, running errands, I sprawled out on the hot sidewalk (yes it was already hot) with one concern: how to fit 9 days of food in my bear can as quickly as possible so I can get back on the trail. This is what freedom looks like, folks!
5pm at Kearsarge lakes
I am utterly and completely exhausted. And I had the absolute best day! I’m alone at Kearsarge Lakes setting up camp. It feels weird to be alone. There has been a flutter of activity and people the last couple of days, being so close to trailhead with the hordes of day and section hikers, a lot of time with the Arkansas guys, spending last night in the campground and today, being in town and hanging out with the smelly Bare-Handed-Fish-Catching-Aussies.
When you hike north-bound you talk to a lot of people in passing, but you don’t get the community SOBO hikers have. They see the same people as they leapfrog one another, eventually forming groups and hiking together. But going NOBO – and being solo – except for the people I pass on the trail, I’m alone most of the time. Leapfrogging the Arkansas Four and knowing they’re nearby has been comforting. It’s tempting to want to stay with them, but I feel like I miss part of the experience when I hike with other people. I’m not as aware. I don’t see or experience as much. The trail becomes a prop and the wilderness a backdrop to the conversations; like the set of a play. It’s there, but you don’t really experience it, you’re more focused on the actors. I’m glad to be alone again.
Today couldn’t have gone more perfectly: getting the ride out of Onion Valley so quickly, shopping, enjoying some “real” food (not sure I’d call Subway “real food”, but it will do for now), successfully retrieving my resupply box and then getting a ride back to the trailhead within 10 minutes of sticking my thumb out. I was back on the trail by 10:45 am!
Within two miles of being on the trail I ran into my Arkansas friends as they descended Kearsarge Pass toward their resupply. They decided to camp at Charlotte Lake tonight rather than stay at Kearsarge again, and stashed their gear near the top of the pass. They had empty packs and were hustling down the mountain. They were so fast, that we met up again at Flower Lake, where I was taking a break to re-organize my pack, get water and soak my achy feet.
I must have looked pretty miserable because Robert offered to carry my newly-replenished BV500 to the top of the pass. Since he was just carrying his food, he thought the extra weight would be much less of a burden on him than on me with a full pack. I flat out refused. There was no way I was going to let him carry my weight up the pass. Wouldn’t it be cheating?
They all gave me such a hard time for refusing him that I felt like an idiot and gave in… Holy shit, what a relief it was! Thanks to him I climbed that pass – 4.7 miles and 2700’ – in 3 hours! I met up with them at the top and Robert handed me my bear can, “what the heck do you have in there? Rocks?” I laughed, it was 9 days’ worth of food. “How much does that thing weigh?”. I looked at him with what must have been a dumb look on my face and shrugged as I attempted do the math in my head. “We’re guessing at least 20 pounds!” Robert teased, smiling cheerfully as always. I felt bad – it was heavier than he thought it would be.
“Nah, it can’t be that heavy”, and the numbers finally came to my foggy brain, “my food is about 1.5 lbs. a day at 9 days… that’s 14 lbs. max. “
“It feels like a lot more than that young lady!” He good naturedly chided me.
I wondered, can it weigh 20 pounds? There IS a lot of trail mix in there and it’s stuffed. When I stuffed it back inside my pack and heaved it over my shoulder, I had to admit, it felt like a hell of a lot more than 14 lbs. Omg it’s so heavy. My little reprieve was over. Back to the reality of a full pack.
I’d talked about trying to hike Charlotte Lake to get closer to Rae Lakes where I was planning my zero but Tim adamantly urged me to stay at Kearsarge Lakes, touting its incredible beauty. He convinced me it was a special place not to be missed, so we parted ways once again and I headed down the thick soupy smoke to the barely visible Kearsarge Lakes.
The climb down the western side of Kearsarge Pass was slow and painful and as smoky and dreary as yesterday. When I finally got to the set of small lakes nestled beneath the pointy pinnacles, I hiked toward the second lake as Tim suggested and scouted for a spot. Being just 6 miles from the trailhead, it’s a well-used area and there are plenty of sites to choose from. I settled on a flat sandy spot next to giant boulder that towers a few feet above my head, far enough from the grassy shore and surrounded by the smoke-subdued Kearsarge pinnacles that dramatically cut the the sky and then gradually melt into the landscape, ending abruptly in a sharp cliff at the opposite edge of the calm gray waters. I can’t wait for morning to take some pictures. I’ve stopped trying to take pictures in the smoke, they just look like walls of hazy smoke with a shadow of a mountain behind it. I’ve learned to wait until morning when the smoke has cleared to take most of my pictures.
I love this time day on the trail; the hiking is over and I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Now I get to reap the reward; the privilege of being where few go. Of seeing what most people never see and experiencing nature in a way that so many only dream of – or don’t dare dream of.
As I relish in the silence of my aloneness, organizing my gear and pitching my tent, I reflect on my day, thinking back to the busy-ness and constant drone of activity along Route 395 in Independence. Everyone seemed to be such a hurry (except the dude making my sandwich) to get somewhere. Everything moved so fast and seemed louder than it needed to be. As I listen to nature’s hush and loll in the company of the ancient hardy crags, stoic boulders and sturdy conifers and the small smooth lake gently lapping against the earth in the tiny breeze, I am full with gratitude. And before I know it a familiar thought seeps into my brain: The world doesn’t fit me. The world doesn’t fit me. I feel a pull inside as the almost too-unimaginable thought touches the outer edges of my psyche and then floats away and disappears like smoke. Only to waft back in and settle on my exhausted mind like the wall of smoke above me. The world doesn’t fit me…
All my life I’ve tried to deny this harsh thought, pushing it from my mind, pretending it was never there. How can the world not fit me? That’s insane! The idea that the world is somehow flawed and would deny one of its own like a mama bear abandoning her only cub didn’t make sense to me. So I believed it had to be me: I don’t fit. It’s me. Flawed. Broken. Damaged so badly that the world rejects me. If I could just morph into a still-unknown, but pre-determined cookie-cutter mold, I’d find my place. I just needed to change. This led to a lifetime of chasing false hopes of inclusion down rabbit hole after rabbit hole. I tried on different lifestyles, looks, friends, men and jobs like some people try on new shoes. Something or someone is bound to fit! How many times can a person reinvent herself, anyway?
It was in the backcountry that I began to make sense of that almost-too-unimaginable feeling. I finally found something that felt right and it didn’t demand that I compromise myself, change into someone I wasn’t or sell my soul. In the wilderness – away from all the clutter and noise of life, the feeling of belonging surges inside me, demanding to be recognized: it becomes an ache. A Truth: it’s not the world that doesn’t fit me, it’s THAT world. The one in which Kardashians, unfulfilling 9-5 jobs and 30 year mortgages make sense. A world that makes us so fearful that we would rather watch other people live their lives on so called “Reality TV” than get out and live our own lives. A world in which Subway passes as real food. A world in which we feel so trapped and helpless that we subconsciously numb ourselves: fluttering about like honeybees staying as busy as possible, trying to soothe an unnamed emptiness with More. More responsibility. More work. More food. More drink. More pharmaceuticals. More TV. More stuff that clutters the houses that chain us to our unfulfilling lives.
And I realized, I’ve been shackled to a life I don’t even want. A life that doesn’t fit me. All in the spirit of chasing some elusive American Dream I’m supposed to want. The Dream that tells us we need the bigger house, newer car and expensive vacations. The Dream that insidiously forces us into indentured servitude; trapping us beneath mounds of student loans, car payments, mortgages and credit card bills. Drowning us in responsibility and debt with the promise that if we work hard, save and live long enough we will finally be free –If. The Dream that tells us we should be happy with 2 weeks of vacation while stealing our freedom. Chasing that Dream took me further and further from a world that fits me. Further from truth. Further from myself.
Being in the backcountry, carrying all that I need to survive on my back for days on end has made me realize I was chasing a dream I didn’t want. That world is not me. The closer I got to the Dream the emptier I felt. THIS is the world that fits me: being in the wilderness where nothing matters but survival and everything I need is carried on my back. It is among the trees and the dirt and the streams and the lakes that I finally feel welcomed and accepted, without judgement, for all that I am. I may be bent, but I’m not broken. I may be scarred, but I’m not damaged. Nature gave me my safe place. This is where I belong.
As my sense of belonging envelops me like a warm quilt I crawl inside my tent to set up home: blowing up my Thermarest, pulling my fluffy down bag out of my pack and thinking about the corn chowder I’ll have for dinner. I’m smiling as I pull my wool sleeping clothes on over my dirty legs and wrap my bag around me. It’s only 5:30 but the lake is socked in under a thick layer of smoke, making for a gloomy and cold evening. In a normal year, I’d probably be jumping in the cool still waters to clean myself up, but now I have to settle for relaxing inside my tent, curled up in my sleeping bag, sipping chamomile tea.
I’m still exhausted. The bottoms of my feet still throb. My muscles ache and my pack still doesn’t fit right. And it was a perfect day! I feel completely and utterly and beautifully Content.