Day 7: Ups and Downs

The Hike Over Kearsarge Pass from Vidette Meadow

August 23, 2015 Day 7 on the trail and 68.4 miles completed.

This is now officially the longest backpacking trip I’ve ever been on (previously was a 6 day trip) and the most miles I’ve ever done on a single trip (previously was 50 miles in 5 days).

Welcome to civilization – or at least my current version of it.  Sure, most of society would consider Onion Valley Campground the exact opposite of civilization; 13 miles from the nearest town with no running water or showers and smelly pits for toilets.  But to me, today, it may as well be Times Square.  “Civilization” like so many other human inventions is relative. Regardless of what you call it, being here sucks.  I’m back to the land of car campers “getting away from it all’ in their forty foot, hundred-thousand-dollar Holiday Rambler buses fully equipped with DISH satellite TV so they don’t miss a single episode of Dancing With the Stars, clumped together, relaxing in their fancy LaFumas, and sipping Budweisers and Cokes. onion valley campground

Pardon my crankiness, it’s been a rough day…

Actually, “rough” doesn’t even begin to describe my day. “Brutal”, “painful”, “soul crushing” might come close. The hike up – and down – Kearsarge pass was so much more challenging than I expected. Yeah, I was warned; everyone I talked to and everything I read said it was tough. But for some reason, looking at the map I thought – “it won’t be that bad.” I figured I’d climbed to over 14,000’ a few days ago and 13,000’ yesterday, how bad could 11,845′ be, right? ….Right?

The first 500′ out of camp at Vidette Meadows wasn’t too bad.  I’d taken my time over coffee and breakfast with the guys, and got a later start than usual. Despite my sore legs and feet, I was feeling refreshed after finally getting a good night’s sleep (thanks to the Xanax). The trail led up a steep wooded path and the greenery of the valley walls enveloped me as I climbed. It was a cool morning, the trail was soft, sandy dirt and my pack was lighter than it’s been in 7 days: life was as good as can be expected after 7 days, 60 miles and something like 20,000 feet in elevation gain and loss.

Hiking out of Vidette Meadow looking toward Kearsarge Pinnacles
Hiking out of Vidette Meadow looking toward Kearsarge Pinnacles

Despite leaving camp before the Arkansas Four, it didn’t take long for them to catch up to me.  We hiked together out of the valley and up steep screed slopes before our trails split. They were planning a short day to set up basecamp at Kearsarge Lake and then slackpack over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley tomorrow where their pre-dropped resupplies awaited them in the bear boxes by the trailhead. They’d then turn around and head back over the pass with just their food: going up and over the pass in a single day but with minimal weight.

I, on the other hand was going over Kearsarge pass and into Onion Valley tonight –fully loaded with all my gear.  Since I’ll be hitchhiking 13 miles to pick up my resupply at the Independence post office tomorrow and I have no idea how remote this campground is, I thought it would be best to sleep at the campground and get an early start – or better yet –  meet someone tonight who is heading into town tomorrow who will give me a ride.

Robert and Tim on the Trail Heading up toward Kearsarge Pass
Half of the Arkansan Four on the Trail Heading up toward Kearsarge Pass

We said our goodbyes-for-now at Bullfrog Lake, with Lee vowing to leave me a note at the trailhead if they decide to move on to Rae Lakes tomorrow night. I appreciated the gesture and looked forward to catching up to them again. They’re great company.

Bullfrog Lake was the highlight of my day. The most picturesque and idyllic alpine lake you can imagine: a bowl of glittering mountain water framed by grayish-white granite boulders, late-season grass turned yellow from summer heat and the lack of rain and patches of lush conifers bringing it all to life. The small lake rested peacefully in the shadow of a set of jagged sierra peaks, whose majesty refused to be dulled behind the layer of smoky haze. And like a faithful lover, Bullfrog Lake honored the peaks, triumphantly reflecting them from the surface of its still waters.

Bullfrog Lake
Bullfrog Lake

I couldn’t resist. Once the guys were out of site, I found a perfect spot on the nearly-white boulders, stripped off my filthy hiking clothes and dove into the inviting water. It was cold, but not knock-the-breath-out-of-you cold.  I swam without inhibition (well almost), basking in my freedom and the luxury of having this utopic spot completely to myself: an entire lake – all mine! I felt like the luckiest woman alive.

When planning my trip, I imagined having moments like that every day, but the smoke dulls the sun into gloomy orange orb every afternoon, chilling the air too much to think about jumping into icy water.  This morning, I took advantage of the relative warmth and not-horrible smokiness and enjoyed my first real swim since Chicken Spring Lake. It was a moment to remember, for sure.

R&R at Bullfrog Lake
R&R at Bullfrog Lake

The euphoria of the 30 minutes spent luxuriating at Bullfrog Lake slipped away almost as soon I started hiking again. Within a few minutes I was hit with waves of dizziness and vertigo. My brain felt sludgy and slow, like it was swimming in an ocean of thick oil.  Then the trail before me twisted and contorted and fractured into some weird kaleidoscope dream.  My legs were weak and I struggled to put one foot in front of the other.

Being my normal stubborn self, I kept hiking, trying to ignore the strange feeling away…  whoaaaa…. a flash of white blinded me, causing me to stop dead in my tracks. For a split-second the world went blank and my head got even woozier. What the hell is this?  Worried that I couldn’t just push on and will this away, I bent over, resting my hands on my knees and took a couple of deep breaths. I don’t have time for this. I just want to go…  I resumed hiking at a snail’s pace, hoping the strange sensation would pass… But the kaleidoscope vision and dizziness persisted.

Finally, I gave in, dropping my pack on flat shady spot under a clump of trees next to the trail,  and plopped down next to it. Is this a side effect of the Xanax?  Am I getting sick? Is this exhaustion? Oh my god, am I dying? I’m dying, aren’t I? Alone out here on the trail, I’ll be left for dead like some plague-stricken squirrelreduced to coyote and vulture food.  I got a hold of myself and realized I probably wasn’t dying, just exhausted. day 7 smokey kearsarge pinnacles

I laid in the cool grass and watched the clouds lazily waft the day away.  I got lost in their gentle movements and felt my body melt into the earth.  I inhaled slow, deep breaths, trying to heal myself through mediation, focusing on two willowy masses perform an exquisite pas de deux; their edges drifting together and floating apart until they finally melded into one giant bulbous cloud.  I laid still, breathing slowly, mesmerized by the exquisite slow-motion cloud ballet playing out thousands of feet above: oblivious to me and my ailments. It was strangely comforting thinking that even if I were laying there dying, the clouds would go on dancing above me.

When my head stopped swimming and the world transformed back into its normal non-kaleidoscope self, I slowly stood up to test the ground.  My head swooned a little, but not too bad, so I strapped on my pack and cautiously resumed my climb. And I climbed. And I climbed. Up the rocky western slope of Kearsarge pass, not feeling 100% but determined to reach my destination.  It was hot, it was smoky, it was brutal. Not baby-stepping Mt. Whitney brutal, not even endless switchback, Forester Pass brutal, but,  “I just want to be off this fucking mountain,” brutal.

When I finally reached the summit of Kearsarge Pass, it was completely socked in under heavy sooty gray smoke, adding to the misery of my day. I could barely make out Kearsarge Lakes 1000’ below and longingly searched the shores for signs of my friends’ camp.  I couldn’t see them but I imagined they were relaxing in their luxurious camp chairs lakeside and enjoying the afternoon without a care in the world… I was so jealous. I just wanted to be done.

One of my many breaks up or down the pass
One of my many breaks up or down the pass

Going down Kearsarge Pass was no easier than going up Kearsarge Pass:  4.7 miles over 2660’ down. It went on FOR-E-VER. Down. And down. And down. The trail meandered back and forth and back and forth as if it had nowhere to be.  This trail… let me tell you about this trail: think about normal switchbacks, compactly carved into a mountain to get you up – or down – efficiently. These switchbacks were neither efficient nor compact.  Some of them stretched clear across the entire side of the mountain, we’re talking at least ¼ mile – at least.  I’d look down and see the trail wrap clear around the damn mountain, back toward the wilderness from which I’d come, before switching back, thinking, that can’t be MY trail. It’s another trail heading into SEKI, right?  And I’d trudge on and soon realize, no, it was indeed my trail. Seriously? What the fuck?  Who designed this stupid mess?  I fantasized that it was some spiteful engineer whose father made him hike when he was a kid, when all he wanted to do was stay home and build Lego bridges and skyscrapers. So now he works out his daddy issues by building sadistic, never-ending, meandering switchbacked trails. I could just picture him sitting over his blueprints splayed about his gigantic drafting table, with a sinister sneer on is face, “ You want switchbacks father? I’ll give you switchbacks! I’m going to teach all the hiking-daddies of the world a lesson! Muah ha ha ha ha…”

It just. Would not. End.

Two huge passes back-to-back have taken their toll on my body. Yesterday,  Forester Pass: 2300’ up and 3665’ down and today Kearsarge Pass: 2300’ up and 2660’ down for a grand total of 10,900 feet in elevation in just about 32 hours. And every achy muscle, tendon and ligament below my waist feels every single inch of it. I’m grimy, sunburnt, exhausted,  emotionally spent and over the whole, “Ohhh hiking is so grand. Ohhh I love nature..Ohh it’s so great to be out here”, 7 trail

Today hiking the JMT became REAL – not just some fantasy hike that would be so awe-inspiring that the challenges would seem mild in comparison. No. The thrill, excitement and raw enthusiasm of being out here is   G-O-N-E and has been replaced with…. With what?   Apathy?  Reality? I’m not sure, but the romanticism of the thru-hike has been slowly slipping away day by day, little by little, with every ache,  pain, challenging climb, and smoke-obstructed view.

The reality of the thru-hike is so much more demanding than anything I had imagined. I hike. And I hike. And I hike some more. It’s not always awe-inspiring and exciting and adventurous. Sometimes it’s just grueling, sweaty, dirty, mind numbing, aching hiking.  Then you get to set up camp, eat rehydrated mush, sleep on the ground, wake up sore and achy and do it all over again…

I’m not saying I want to quit. Voluntarily leaving the trail has never crossed my mind. Even for a second. I’m just saying that as beautiful as it is out here and as awesome as this adventure is, it’s hard work. Really fucking hard work.

I think I need a zero day. And something cold to drink.  And maybe a giant Snickers bar…Tomorrow I resupply, but first I have to get to Onion Valley…


Forester Pass: A story of Life and Death

Day 6 Tyndall Creek to Vidette Meadow via Forester Pass

After leaving the granite cirque and my peaceful creekside oasis, the trail led me across a maze of streams that seemed to flow in every direction, past tarns of all shapes and sizes and through more rock fields and high sierra meadows. It was almost hard to believe California is in it’s 4th year of drought, with the amount of water there.

When I reached the foot of the Kings-Kern Divide I craned my head back and searched for the notch I’d be crossing. I couldn’t tell where Forester Pass was exactly. To my right was a wide saddle but the trail didn’t seem to go in that direction. The only other notch was far to my left at about nine o’clock and that seemed disconcertingly  far away: the map showed 4.7 miles from camp to the pass and I’d already come at least 3.  Oh well, sometimes you just have to move forward and trust that the trail will get you where you want to go.forester views 2 reduced

I turned around scanning the basin toward Tyndall Creek, now below me, searching for my Arkansas friends.  All morning I’d been thinking: they have to be behind me, they like to take their time over morning coffee, so they can’t be ahead of me already.  But they’re faster, so they would have caught up by now.  And then I’d get worried, maybe they decided to move on over Forester Pass last night.   That thought depressed me a little. I like having trail friends that I can run into now and then. If they crossed Forester yesterday I may not see them again, they’d be nearly a whole day ahead of me… With hope I’d see my friends again, I hiked on.

Ok, here I go!  I excitedly began my ascent up the rocky trail neatly carved into the mountain, anxious to get my first real JMT pass under my belt!  Forester Pass is 13,145 feet. Looking up at the top of the ridge, I guessed I was at about 12,000 and it didn’t take long to feel the now-familiar heaviness of high altitude climbing.   Adding to the fatigue, this time I had my 35-ish pound pack strapped to my back. Ok, easy does it. Slow… baby steps.forrester pass trail not my photo

The climb was slow, but Whitney taught me to honor the challenge and take my time; that it’s ok to reach the top one baby step at a time. With heavy legs and pack, I trudged higher; zig-zagging up the mountain, one switchback at a time.  It was getting warmer and I was constantly wiping sweat from my forehead, catching it before dribbling into my eyes and burning. I need a bandanna. I’m going to buy a bandana when I get to Independence.  This one little thought started an internal battle that kept me amused for several agonizing switchbacks:

Critical Self: But you have a bandanna, you don’t need another one.

Wanting a bandana self: Yeah, but it’s the Scottish one that we brought to signal other Facebook people we’re part of their group and it’s bright yellow and red.  I’m not wearing THAT thing on my head. I want a blue one, to match my eyes…

Critical Self: But we have a million blue bandannas at home and we purposely left them behind. Remember, we’re counting weight here!

Wanting a bandana self: Seriously? How much does a bandana weigh? Like a tenth of gram? Stop being a gram weanie!  Besides I’ll be wearing it on my head, not carrying it.

Critical self: Ok fine, you can get a blue bandanna in Independence. 

Wanting a bandana self: Thank you. Geesh, was that so hard? 

After my argument was settled, I kept my mind occupied by making a mental list of all the things I wanted to buy in Independence: Kettle Salt and Pepper potato chips, Tylenol PM, a few gallon Zip-Locs for garbage and stuff (somehow I seemed to have a shortage) – I wonder if they sell them individually? I don’t need a whole box. And fruit. Hopefully I can find fresh fruit.

Inching higher and higher and still searching for the elusive Forester Pass, I encountered a metal sign attached to a giant boulder off the side of the trail.  Not wanting to interrupt the momentum I had going, I pushed forward. But several feet past it, the curiosity overwhelmed me and I had to turn back.

It was a memorial to the men who built the trail, and specifically, 18-year-old Donald Downs who died when a boulder came loose and crushed his arm in 1930.  I took a minute to let that sink in; realizing that I take these trails I love for granted. I never think about how much work and sacrifice went into building them. This mountain is no joke, and almost 100 years ago they were blasting it out with sticks of dynamite and moving these car-sized boulders with brute force (and maybe mules?).  To realize that someone died so generations of hikers can follow in John Muir’s footsteps (sort of) was pretty sobering. I was glad I stopped. It felt like a small way to pay homage to the people who made – and those who maintain – the trail that I feel so honored to be on. Thank you Donald Downs. And thank you California Conservation Corps (CCC) and all the volunteers who keep the trail safe for us. forrester pass trail not my photo2

Many, many, many, many, many, many (yes, that many!) switchbacks later, I finally spotted the pass- or what I assumed to be the pass… Are you kidding me? How am I supposed to get up THAT? It rested just above a narrow slit that ran perpendicular to the ridge and looked like a deep ditch slicing it in two. Am I going to have to climb all the way down and then back up that? Ok, this is going to be interesting…forester reduced I was relieved when the trail curved toward the head of the slit, not down into it.  I spotted a narrow shelf cut in the nearly vertical mountain as I entered a dark cool alcove just a few hundred feet below the pass.  It felt like being behind a waterfall, without the water.  I crossed the head of the steep, jagged ditch that cut a thousand feet down the mountain.  As I exited, voices from above were cheering me on, “You’re almost here. You’re doing great. See you up here!”   I couldn’t see them, but I heard them loud and clear.  I was elated to be so close to the top and excited for the camaraderie that awaited me. I climbed a small set of switchbacks that took me up the final stretch and spilled me onto the pass. Forester Pass! I’m here!

It was buzzing with activity. There were five, or maybe six guys sitting around enjoying the victory. After doing a couple three-sixties to absorb the views that lay behind – and ahead of me –  I searched for a suitable place to squeeze my butt and pack in on the very narrow landing.  I finally settled on a pile of lumpy rocks.  The group cheerfully welcomed me and introduced themselves. One group was from Nevada City, just a couple hours from me and the others from the east coast, I think. We had a good time sharing trail stories, talking gear and eating trail mix.  I love summit parties!

I stretched my stiff achy hamstrings and quads and then sat back and relaxed as much as I could with a bunch of rocks up my butt.   I’d been there maybe 20 minutes when the steep southerly trail delivered another hiker.  Robert!  It’s Arkansas Robert!   Where the heck did he come from? I didn’t see them coming up the trail…

forester view from top reduced

“Robert!!! Hi!” I beamed at him, excited to see my friend.

“I need a minute,” he answered with a shaky voice and headed up away from the rest of us.  He was clearly having a moment; this wasn’t the happy jolly Robert I’m used to seeing. I figured he was having a flood of emotion like I had summiting Mt. Whitney. This stuff can be pretty powerful.

Later I learned that he’d climbed Forester Pass before.  It was the summer following the last big wet winter California had.  That year, Mother Nature dumped so much snow on the Sierras that hikers encountered snow well into late summer. The Sierra/JMT hikers who were out tell stories as if it’s ancient folklore: “Back in the Big Snow of ’10 parts of the trail were covered with snow until August and we had to crampon up the passes and glissade down them. Yep, there was even snow at Guitar lake in July! AND we had to cross 2 bridges in 12 feet of snow, barefoot to get there!” (Ok, I made the last part up.)

After the rest of the Arkansas Four arrived, Robert rejoined the group and told us his story of the Big Snow of ’10: “I was coming up this pass,” he started, nodding toward the trail from which he’d come, “and it was still buried under a bunch of snow. It was icy and slick. A lot of people had gotten off the trail because it was too scary. But for some reason, I forged ahead. I was near the top, right down there,” he said pointing to a spot near the big scary slit with his trekking pole, “and lost my footing. I slid so far down… I don’t know how, but I caught myself.  In those few moments, I really thought I was going to go all the way down. I thought I was a goner.” He paused for a few minutes and I could see the emotion in his face, “and coming up here today, I wasn’t expecting it, but it all came flooding back…” His voice was shaky and his eyes were a little misty. “Whew. I’ll tell ya, I’m sure glad to be here now!” We were silent as we listened to Robert’s story. A single word crossed my mind listening to his story and reflecting on the memorial I’d passed on the way up: Respect. These mountains demand our respect. Snow or no snow, it can be a dangerous place.forester views 3

The summit party got even better with my trail friends there. It was good to be reunited with familiar faces. The others left and we had the pass to ourselves: lounging around for a long time sharing trail mix and snapping photos.  I found out they’d stayed at Lake South America last night where they found a remote and picturesque lakeside spot that sounded perfect.

forester group pic
Arkansas Four and me (with Zinc Oxide all over my face.. geesh)

We spent the afternoon hiking together toward Vidette Meadow. Descending Forester pass we were immersed in soupy-thick smoke. The expansive views were diluted and cut off by a wall of yellow smoke: but displayed before us were vast glacial bowls and cirques dotted with patches of subalpine greenery and gloomy charcoal gray tarns sweeping toward the north. The air quality was the worst it had been since it rained ash at Crabtree Meadow.  Feather light shreds of burnt forest – some as big as a quarter –  wafted down upon us.  I felt a slight burning in my eyes that wasn’t sweat and my breathing was a little more labored than it should have been (we were descending!). It was so bad that some of the SOBO hikers we passed had bandannas over their noses and mouths trying to filter the polluted air. I guess this will go down in trail lore as the “Smoky Wildfire Year of ’15”.

By 3:30 we’d descended into Vidette Meadow Valley and the smoke wasn’t as bad.  Around mile ten, we found a big clearing with a bunch of sites next to a small creek and there was some discussion amongst the group about camping there. After exploring the area and finding lots of options for camp I dropped my pack and decided to call it home for the night.  I was hoping the guys were done too and was a little disappointed when they decided to move on.  I was enjoying their company and didn’t want it to end.

Yesterday at Wallace Creek, in their characteristic respectful way they’d invited me to camp with them. Tim was the first to offer, “we don’t want to infringe upon your independence in any way and we want to honor your solo adventure, but we want you to know you are more than welcome to camp with us…”  I was so appreciative of the offer  – and the way he presented it. This is why I love backpackers – we just ‘get’ each other.

But today, I was being characteristically stubborn and maybe a little pig-headed.   I thought that by staying with them, I’d be giving up something; latching on to men for comfort.  And I didn’t want to do that. That’s not who I am or why I came out here. I’m doing this alone dammit! I must do it alone!  So I dropped my pack and boldly proclaimed. “I’m home for the night.  I hope to run into you guys again.”

We said our farewells and as I watched them disappear around a bend into the thick forest, I felt my stomach sink and then a flood of loneliness swelled inside like a noxious gas.  I just stood for a few minutes in the big barren clearing, all by myself, in complete silence for the first time since ascending Forester Pass. I shrugged it off, picked up my pack and headed into the woods toward Vidette Meadow which by now was glowing vividly through the trees beneath the afternoon sun.

With boots off and feet soaking in the cool water, I looked back at the contents of my pack scattered about, ready to set up camp.  I got an uneasy eerie feeling being so deep in the trees and realized I didn’t really like the spot I’d chosen.  I didn’t want to be there… “Fuck this,” I said out loud, pulling on my socks and boots and leaping up to pack up and go find my friends. I’m not sure if I just needed an excuse or if I really just didn’t like the spot, but once I got back on the trail, I was excited and I comforted myself about my decision as I hiked along:  It’s ok to not want to be alone. This doesn’t lessen my experience or make me any less independent. Some company tonight will be nice…  

The two miles of trail between my almost- campsite and my friends’ camp was easy and quick.  And about half a mile in I stepped over a giant pile of fresh bear poop. I knew I didn’t like that site or a reason. There are bears here!

Within an hour, I again emerged from the woods and appeared on the edge of the camp of four friends from Arkansas.  They were clearly surprised and seemed genuinely happy to see me. “Yes, of course, we told you – you are more than welcome to camp with us! Find a spot to pitch your tent and come join us for dinner,” Tim said as I approached them asking, “hey is there room for one more?”

dear near vidette for blogh
nice buck near Vidette Meadow

After pitching camp, taking a hiker bath down the creek away from camp and filling my water, I joined them for dinner. We had a good time telling stories and watching the dear in the meadow over dinner.

Excerpt from my journal that night:

It’s been dark a while. I stayed up late enjoying the company of fellow backpackers and hearing their many stories of adventure.

I’m inside my tent now getting ready for bed and feeling veeeeery relaxed.  Someone I may or may not have met on the trail may or may not have given me a Xanax to help me sleep (in case the DEA is reading this, I don’t remember what they looked like and I didn’t get a name) :-).  I think it’s already kicking in… I hope to sleep tonight.

It was a good day!

Tyndall Creek to the Foot of Forester Pass

Day 6:  Tyndall Creek (via Forester Pass, ending at Vidette Meadow)

August 22, 2015: It’s 5:15 am. I finally gave up trying to sleep about a half hour ago and ventured outside the relative warmth of my tent into the frigid predawn darkness to grab my bear can so I could make coffee. It’s cold and windy out there, but I took a minute to stand in it and admire the rocky landscape resting serenely beneath the twinkling stars and black sky.  I’m back inside now, huddled in my down jacket with my bag wrapped around me.  My Pocket Rocket stove is set up inside my vestibule and Tyndall Creek water is heating up over the flame. I try to warm myself by embracing the air above, drawing in its heat while I nibble on tiny chunks of Bobo’s Maple Pecan Oat Bar, savoring each crumb, as I earnestly attempt to save some to enjoy with my coffee. camp at tyndall creek branded

Why can’t I sleep? I’ve been out here 5 nights and I’d be surprised if I’ve slept 20 hours. It’s getting a little frustrating. If it isn’t plain ole restlessness, it’s one of my arms throbbing painfully as it’s crushed between my body and the hard earth as I try in vain to sleep on my side. Being a stomach sleeper doesn’t work in a sleeping bag so I’ve tried to train myself to sleep on my side over the years. I’m still not very good it and toss and turns most nights. If it isn’t my arms, it’s the aches and pains in my thighs and hips pressing against the ground or jolting, shooting pains up the bottom of my feet. Yeahwhat the hell is that about?

Despite the insomnia I can’t believe how comfortable I’ve been out here at night. I haven’t been scared at all. I lay in the darkness of my tent feeling totally at peace. But then, I haven’t seen a single sign of bears yet either. No bear scat and the nights are still and silent. I like being on the rocks, you don’t hear the footsteps of nocturnal critters going out about their business: no rustling in the bushes or branches crunching and breaking beneath giant paws. Just silence – and last night a little wind flapping against my rain fly.  As I approach Yosemite – which is notorious for bear activity – that may change. We’ll see.

Coffee inside my tent on a chilly morning
Coffee inside my tent on a chilly morning

I do hope to see a bear on this trip – but in broad daylight, while it has a tummy chock full of fish and berries and is frolicking peacefully in a meadow at least a quarter mile away, alone, with no cubs and it would be great if it doesn’t spot me. Is that too much to ask? It is, isn’t it? Dear universe, I would like to see a 400-pound wild animal with fangs the size of a VW bus and claws like daggers – but could ya do it in a way that is completely non-threatening so I don’t get too scared?  Much appreciated.  – Love, Carolyn

Ok,  so maybe I am tempting fate a bit by willing the universe to show me a bear on my terms. We humans can be so vain.

On that note, it’s time to make my oatmeal and start packing up the inside of my tent.  I have a pass to climb today…


I left my camp next to Tyndall Creek around 7, rock-hopped back over it toward the forbidden “no camping for restoration” zone and rejoined the trail heading North toward the rugged expanse of the Kings-Kern Divide. Despite the lack of sleep, I felt energized and excited about the adventure those not-too-distant mountains hold for me in the days to come. The trail was easy at first as it meandered away from the creek, through sparse patches of sub-alpine conifers and faded green grasses, inching me closer and closer to the jagged peaks dominantly piercing the clear morning sky.  view toward forester from basin

As I climbed toward Forester Pass I came upon a couple of big crystal-blue tarns resting coolly at the foot of a massive granite ridge. If only I could take a break at every beautiful spot on the trail…

After a couple miles I found myself in the center of an enormous granite basin just below Forester Pass. WOW. I mean WOW. Before me was the most breathtaking and remarkable scenery you can imagine.  The sandy trail snaked through swatches of yellowing grass melded to the bottom of the rocky bowl. The scenic creek flowed gently from its source somewhere in the range just yards away and through the meadow, bubbling and gurgling in a bed of reddish rocks as it cascaded toward the Kern River to the south behind me. I’m pretty sure my jaw literally dropped as I gaped and turned in a circle to soak in every tiny detail.  It was one of those scenic moments backpackers fantasize about; the spot that’s more pristine than any picture you’ve ever seen and profoundly visceral in its majesty.20150822_094119

I inhaled deeply and felt my body melt into the rock and grass and water. Something new was awakening deep inside me: stirring; beckoning; welcoming.  Like some invisible primordial force was drawing me out, fusing me with my surroundings.  And the sense of coming home that I get on every backpacking trip came to life and metamorphosed into a down-to-the-core feeling of belonging like I never experienced before. Deep down inside me, in some ancient and primal place I became connected to the earth – this earth that lay before me – the mountains and the lakes and the sky and the creek –  and I realized I’m not in nature, I am nature.  Yes, this isn’t just home, this is where I belong – where I fit. Where everything makes sense

I suppose some would call it god. I haven’t had much use for a god, but the feeling of peace that swept over me in that moment, realizing that I am one with nature was something I will never forget.

I wasn’t ready move on and let go of the moment just yet. I can’t stop at every spot, but I had to stop there. I decided it was the perfect place to wash my hair for the first time in 6 days.

me after washing hair below forester no smileI scanned the basin searching for the perfect site for my break and bath, finally settling on a flat patch of grass next to a foot-wide section of the creek that babbled over a couple big red rocks creating a chute of water barely big enough for me to dunk my head under. I dropped my pack, plopped down on the ground, peeled off my boots and socks to let my feet air out in the sun and unbuttoned my dingy hiker shirt, stripping down to my black cami.  I laid on my side and dunked my head in letting the pure and frigid waters cascade over my dirty grimy hair (Holy shit, a baptism?!? Ok, that’s interesting…) BRRRR. Holy shit it’s cold. I turned on my other side to dunk the other half of my head, using my fingers to comb out all the trail dirt, sweat and grime of the past 5 days. I finished off my little alpine spa treatment by splashing water over my face, shoulders, neck and arms. Ahhh. I almost feel clean again! 

With cold mountain water dripping from my hair down my back and face, I sat for a while soaking in the desolation and isolation. I don’t know if anyone can understand what alone feels like until you’re in the wilderness miles and miles away from anything that resembles ‘real’ life.

I filled up my Nalgene, dropped an orange Nuun tablet in it without treating it and laid back against my pack in the soft cool grass next the tiny creek to dry out a little before tackling the pass that lay before me….