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South Central California - Agua Dulce to Mammoth Lakes, CA

The Saufley's - Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce, CA

When I hiked to their home a mile from town, I noticed the small community is dotted with large estates and horses, lots of horses actually. I approached their property and saw it busy with hikers. So this the infamous Hiker Heaven!

Wonderful, shady accommodations
There's a good forty or so of us hikers here, having our dirty laundry done, taking showers, napping in one of the cots under several tents, checking emails on their two computers and Wi-Fi, watching movies in the air conditioned RV, or simply kicking back with other hikers. Some have been here for a couple days, others for a quick overnight, eager to move on and finish the desert section before summer officially sets in and fries our brains. The Saufley's receive phone calls from neighbors running errands in nearby cities offering rides to outfitters, grocery stores, even L.A. Yesterday, hikers were invited to a neighbor's swimming pool during the hot afternoon. Visa, who is Chopper's father, swung by with a cooler full of beer, brats, and burgers today and threw them on the grill for all of us. The group around the fire pit swelled to a couple dozen, and dissipated around 2am on that noisy night full of laughter and singing.

The next day was spent lazily finishing up chores and resting. It was in the 80s by 9am, and getting out on the trail in the late morning is about is smart as jumping into an almost frozen lake on January 1st with one of the many Polar Bear Clubs around the country. After spending almost a hundred dollars on five days of food at the local grocery, four of us took up an offer to head to a community a half hour away for some shopping at the large grocery stores. I need eleven days of food for the Sierras in less than a week, and thanks to one of the Saufley's neighbors, Susie, who was headed into town for some shopping, invited four of us along. We piled into her SUV to stock up on food to mail ahead two hundred and fifty miles to Kennedy Meadows—the infamous start of the High Sierras. I gasped when I weighed my two boxes.

Uh, is this really a good idea? Going, going, gone! What did you do to my hair Elise and Blackfoot?
As we were waiting for Susie to return from her errands, I jotted down all the calories from the boxes as I compacted my food into zipper lock bags. I entered the numbers into my mobile device/PDA I'm typing on right now, and copied it into Pocket Excel. Ok, the program crashed. Let me try something else... 57,260 calories, and almost thirty five pounds of food for eleven days! Typically, two pounds a day is the norm. The weight I'll have on my back will disable me as I head over the eleven and twelve thousand foot passes with a forty five pound pack. Oh well, I guess I'll need to Zero (zero miles in a day is a day off) a couple days and work on those three pound bags of M&Ms. That evening, there was something else I needed to do. On the AT, I had my head shaved, which just happened to be at Bald Mountain Shelter. On the CDT, it happened in Steamboat Springs. Tradition says it will happen again, and why not here? The next 240 miles will be some of the hottest days on the entire trail. A group just ahead of me is trying something a bit different—they're hiking twenty four miles to another popular trail angel's residence. Each hiker has twenty four beers, and nothing else in their pack. They're starting this evening, and finishing in the morning. Photos were taken, and handshakes were exchanged as they left the Saufley's for the Anderson's home, dubbed Casa de Luna twenty four miles away.

Casa de Luna - The Anderson's
I caught up to the pub crawlers a little after I left; they were taking a break, lightening their pack weight with every drink. I joined the fifteen hikers, and we passed a large field on our left, complete with airplane fuselage, and several semitrailers used for Hollywood movie sets. The trail continued up to the top of a ridge as the sun set behind the mountains covered in a thick smog, and the moon lazily poked its way into the sky. The fifteen of us stopped every few miles as the brave six downed a beer for every mile of hiking. We crossed a highway around midnight, and there was Visa, visiting his son Chopper, who was part of the group, with several boxes of pizza in the back of the pickup truck. A third of us continued on, and the rest of the group camped on the side of the highway for the night. We traveled at a good clip, with headlamps burning brightly. We reached a ridge early in the morning, and I continued on as the other four slackpackers slammed beers and became ever louder with every mile. At 3am, I reached the Oasis water cache, and called it a night at the only flat area I passed in the last couple hours.

I continued on the next seven miles to the road, and soon was at Casa de Luna. There were probably thirty people spread out around their property when I arrived. I met the, should we say, 24 Club, happily resting on chairs sprawled out on the driveway. Despite drinking a case of beer and no sleep over the last 24 miles, they're still feeling strong.

Fix-it making a plaque—24 in 24.
I was given the "official" tour, shown the large treed backyard with a kaleidoscope of tents and sleeping bags sprawled around the area. I took a quick nap in one of the hammocks, and was awaken to the noise of everyone congregating around the table full of hot dogs and chili. Clouds started to crowd the skies above, keeping the temperatures cool as we hung around sharing stories. There was a cooler full of almost one hundred dollars of beer, courtesy of several hikers that headed into a nearby town for food resupply. Several hours later, as the sun disappeared, the table in the driveway suddenly became a buffet table. Gallons upon gallons of cheese, beans, olives, salsa, ground beef, and sour cream, along with huge bags of chips followed. We quickly scrambled to fill plates with heaping plates of food. Later on, we gazed in amazement as we saw a slideshow of last Sunday's X-rated oil wrestling competition. The Anderson's followed with their story of why they've decided to host hikers like this. They moved to the area over a decade ago, and saw the influx of hikers head through that first year. After following some through their online journals, they wanted to have a select few over for dinner. That few that were by side of the road waiting for the Anderson's to show up suddenly ballooned to fifteen. Those fifteen have swelled to almost three hundred this year. Back at the Saufley's, they've wisely imposed a maximum two night stay this year. Here, its a two day minimum.

FRIENDS: Never ask for food.
BACKPACKER FRIENDS: Always bring the food.

FRIENDS: Will say 'hello'.
BACKPACKER FRIENDS: Will give you a big hug & a kiss.

FRIENDS: Call your parents Mr. & Mrs.
BACKPACKER FRIENDS: Call your parents Mom & Dad.

FRIENDS: Have never seen you cry.

FRIENDS: Will eat at your dinner table & leave.
BACKPACKER FRIENDS: Will spend hours there, talking, laughing, & just being together.

FRIENDS: Know a few things about you.
BACKPACKER FRIENDS: Could write a book with direct quotes from you.

FRIENDS: Will leave you behind if that's what the crowd is doing.
BACKPACKER FRIENDS: Will kick the whole crowds' back-ends that left you.

FRIENDS: Would knock on your door....
BACKPACKER FRIENDS: Walk right in & say, 'I'm home!'

FRIENDS: Will visit you in jail
BACKPACKER FRIENDS: Will spend the night in jail with you, since they were probably arrested at the saloon fight with you.

FRIENDS: Will visit you in the hospital when you're sick
BACKPACKER FRIENDS: Will cut your grass & clean your house then come spend the night with you in the hospital & cook for you when you come home.

FRIENDS: Have you on speed dial.
BACKPACKER FRIENDS: Have your number memorized.

FRIENDS: Are for a while.

—The Switchback

Today, I've had more beer than the rest of the trail combined. I'm not worried about the heat as much, since the trail is now often above a mile in elevation. I hang around for the hot dog lunch, with other hikers slowly dribbling in and out from the trail, or off on a shuttle ride to a nearby town. I've gotten a bit fatter over the last twenty four hours, and it feels great. A little after 4pm, several other hikers were ready to hit the trail, and Joe and Terrie took us in their cars the two miles up to the trail, with the skies shrouded in a thin veil of clouds. The climb out of the valley was pleasantly uneventful, and I was able to easily do miles as the sun disappeared behind the horizon, and the half moon taking its time across the starry sky. City lights cast an eerie glow at the bottom of the valley floor several miles away as I followed the trail along the top of the ridge. I eventually dropped into the trees, and donned my headlamp as the moon hid behind the hillside. Around 10:30pm, I found a flat area above the trail on the ridge I've been paralleling for the last few miles. There was still a bit of a breeze, blowing the plants around like rag dolls as I found a sheltered spot for my camp.

The valley floor to my left was shrouded in thick clouds, and to my right, the landscape is covered in a thick smog coming from L.A. I cross below another of the dozens of gigantic powerlines that are strewn above many of the ridgetops to feed the large cities to the west. As I crossed a road this morning, I walked past a collection of pinecones spelling out "500". Five hundred miles already! It's hard to believe, but I'm slowly working my northward through the 1723 mile long state. Continuing along through the shaded trail, I passed Hawkeye, who I met at the Anderson's yesterday, and on the CDT two years ago. He was breaking camp this morning as I passed by on my way to today's first water source. A few miles later, I reached a concrete water tank in the middle of nowhere. I filled up at the rainwater catch tank for the next fifteen dry miles until I reach Hiker Town. As I descend into the Mojave Desert, I approach a good sized dark colored rattlesnake. It looks at me in anger, suddenly coils up and starts rattling. Its head rises, and carefully peers at me with its slender eyes. I stop in my tracks, back up, and watch it noisily escape into the surrounding brush. I head on several miles, crossing the San Andreas Fault somewhere around here, trekking up, down, and around reach the highway and cross the street to the Hiker Town hostel. Thirty or so hikers have left several hours ago, and there's three left. I fill up my water bottles, take a break, and continue on into the Mojave Desert as the sun slowly slides below the horizon. I soon reach the Los Angeles Aqueduct with the half moon shining brightly above. My first images of the trail in Southern California were of the Aqueduct, and the seemingly endless roadwalk through here burned into my mind. The large structure makes a right turn and disappears underground encased in concrete. I peer into a noisy manhole with my headlamp and see the churning waters race into another iron pipe headed for the big city. As I follow the lonely, dark concrete covered aqueduct, I glance upward towards the constellation Vega to see a satellite lazily dancing across the bright sky. After over thirty miles today, I call it quits a little after 10pm in a area surrounded by tight Joshua Trees protecting me from the strong gusts blowing through the area.

The temperatures were in the 70s as I went to sleep around midnight, and now they're not much cooler. I was on the trail a bit after 5am, and at 6:30, I'm already starting to get warm. There are hikers everywhere breaking camp and coming out of the brush onto the road. I soon meet a good half dozen others, and we make our way to Cottonwood Creek Bridge. There is a water spigot here, courtesy of the LA Water Authority, and we fill our bottles and hang out under the bridge for the next seven or so hours, waiting for the temperature to dip below 120° in the sun.

Resting under the Aqueduct's Cottonwood Creek Bridge
A few others build a rope swing off the bridge, one tries a kite made from his Tyvek ground sheet, some watch a YouTube video they downloaded from atop the road where there's cell service, and the time slowly slips by as we enjoy getting off our feet, out of the sun, and seeing if someone kills themselves with their crazy creations and inventive minds. Around 6pm, we slowly gathered our belongings and stumbled north, soon leaving the Aqueduct.

Trekking through the Mojave alongside the LA Aqueduct
The half moon has reached high in the sky several hours later, and given the terrain a monotone glow as we wind our way up and down through the burned out hills. The hillsides are literally melting away from lack of any vegetation on its steep slopes. We walk through bottomless sand as we traverse what feels like sand dunes. A bit after 11pm, we reach our high point on a ridge after almost three thousand feet of climbing and end our day.

Ladybug, Grasshopper, Elise, Warren, Dawson, and I reach the highway near Tehachapi Pass dehydrated, and find a freshly stocked cache with water and sodas.

Another badly needed roadside water cache!
As we rehydrate ourselves, and come up with a town plan, a car pulls up, and Stumbling Norwegian asks us if we need a ride into town. He got off the trail for shin splints and a knee issue several days ago and decided to rent a car, stock the cache a few times, and give hikers rides to or around the area. He gives us a ride into town, and we check into a local motel.

Tehachapi, CA

Ladybug, Grasshopper, and I check into a local motel room, and after the usual shower and laundry, we hung around trying to take a nap, watch TV, rest the feet, and not much else. We thru-hikers are the most free, healthiest, and fittest individuals in the world. In town, we're some of the laziest, dumbest, and uncoordinated people on earth. The plan of watching a movie at the theater down the block, having a few too many beers, and terrorizing the town never materialized. The heat, excessive amounts of dust and sand blowing in our sun-leathered faces, and long miles has us in a semi comatose mental state, and physically handicapped. Late in the morning, a local offered me a ride the one and a half miles to the grocery stores and fast food joints. I downed a footlong sub, headed next door for a large chocolate shake, and stumbled through the grocery store for a week's worth of groceries. I got another footlong sub for the fridge, and a patron offered me a ride back to the motel room. That afternoon, Luna's (formerly known as Elise) mom met us to pick up her daughter for a family reunion for a few days. She took the six of us to the local Taco Bell for dinner, where everyone else wanted to go, where I scarfed down a Mexican pizza, and combination of ten tacos and bean burritos. My original plan was to cruise out of town this evening, but why? Sure, I'm itching to take advantage of the moonlight for night hiking before it disappears for two weeks, but the daytime temperatures aren't scalding any more—so I'm staying put.

The next morning is more of the same; do nothing. I downed the sub in the fridge, took advantage of some OJ and cereal at the continental breakfast, and gave up my bed for Warren and Dawson, who were in the small town of Mojave last night to pick up their maildrop at the post office. I packed up my gear, while the four others wisely take a Zero Day. I stuck my thumb out, an looked behind me to see dark clouds and rain covering the Tehachapi Pass area. I started to have second thoughts, but I'll gladly take this over 90+° temps. Within ten minutes of my thumb out, I found a ride. We headed up the four lane highway to avoid a stop at the occupied railroad tracks, and headed along the narrow, winding Cameron Road back to where I left the trail. He tells me about the fire that swept through the area years ago, and shows me the shells of old buildings are still visible on the ranches that dot the small valley. There are dark clouds above spitting out rain onto the windshield, and he happily offers to take me back to town if I desire. I refuse with an authoritative voice, excited to see clouds in the sky.

The Tehachapi Wind Farm
The guidebooks use phrases like very hot, hot, hot, miserably, and excessive to describe the climb ahead (and most other big climbs I've done). I get out of the truck, and am pelted by light rain and wind as I pass through the gigantic sea of wind turbines dotting the surrounding ridges. My watch reads the mid 50s at what should be the hottest part of the day at 2pm. I tell myself the weather couldn't be any better for traversing through the treeless terrain. The whoosh of the blades, and the quiet hum and roar of the generators surround me as I gaze up at the huge 1.5 megawatt windmills towering above me. The rain intensifies at times into a moderate shower, but as long as I keep moving, the cold rain hitting my warm body feels great. I briefly thought about putting on my rainjacket, which has been sitting unused at the bottom of my pack, along with my tent, for the last month. The noise of the turbines is soon replaced by the white noise of the four lane highway below. From there, I start my climb into the Sierra Nevadas. The rain has stopped, but the sky is still overcast, and the bottom ends of a rainbow are visible over the Mojave Desert.

High above the Mojave Desert
The winds are tossing me around as begin the long climb to the ridge. I pass a good dozen hikers as I travel into the night with the moon guiding my way. I see the flash of lightning every now and then as I peek towards the dark Mojave Desert over two thousand feet below me.

I'm on the trail early the next morning, reaching my first water source for twenty five miles. There are several others here, sharing stories about a bear and mountain lion sighting last night, or excitedly talking about the High Sierras that lie over a hundred miles up the trail. I continue on, spotting a pile of bear scat on the trail at one point, and pass below many more wind turbines that are spread above the trail on the ridge like scattered lawn darts. The terrain is still open and relatively treeless as the sun beats down on me. The High Sierras, with its snowy summits, peeks above the horizon every now and then. As the afternoon progresses, large trees start to become the norm, maybe pinion pine, soon giving way to a more diverse assortment of dense forest. I pass my last spring for fifteen or twenty miles and fill my bottles with a couple other hikers. Hike On reports seeing two bears today. One alive, and the other decomposing off the side of the trail, with its sharp, white canines pointing towards the sky. I hike until dusk, finishing my day in a strangely quiet place with no wind, crickets, or other animals making even the slightest twitter or squeak.

I'm greeted this morning with a few errant raindrops landing on my face, and dense fog covering everything around me. I'm on my way a bit after 6am, and patiently wait for the fog to burn off on this second cold 38° morning. The sky starts to clear, and suddenly darkens again. The surrounding peaks are covered in clouds, and I walk quickly to stay warm, soon beginning a long descent into the desert again. There are illegal motorbike trails everywhere, crisscrossing the landscape like a checkerboard. I cross a road this morning, and suddenly a military chopper buzzes me as it flies over the nearby pass close to the ground. That storm that came through yesterday was probably a cold front, with its strong, gusty northwest winds blowing me around like a windsock. At 11am it's still in the 50s, and as the day progresses, never even reaches past the 60s. This area is known to be ferociously hot, and today I'm lucky—really lucky.

No man's land
After a long day of getting my body pulverized by the strong winds, I meet Annie and Kickstep at a water cache. We continue on past Bird Spring Pass, and fight our way up the switchbacks to Skinner Peak in the wind. We reach a ridge a while later, mostly protected from the wind. Annie—who has worked in Glacier National Park the last few summers—remembers seeing me at the end of a long day at Red Eagle Lake on my CDT thruhike two years ago. Wow, what a small world. She was replanting the burned out area with White Bark Pine seedlings that week as I neared the Canadian Border. Amazing. As I type away this evening, I believe today is the fifth of June, making it the one month anniversary of the start of my hike; and what a month it's been. An appendectomy that made the first few days quite an exciting experience, desert heat that took all of us to our mental and physical limits, and people that are anything but normal, routine, or ordinary. Everyone out here are simply amazing. If there's any group of individuals I can trust, it's a PCT hiker. We place an exceptional amount of trust in each other, don't hesitate to go out of our way to help one another, and share common ideas and thoughts that few others understand.

Annie, Kickstep, and I wake up this morning to strong winds again, and a dense cloud cap over the high ridge we're camped on—better known as fog. We all wake up a bit later than normal, and rush to get moving down to a lower elevation. As early afternoon arrives, I reach the campground near Walker Pass, and something looks different. "Meadow Ed, is that you?" I haven't seen him since the Kickoff, and he's here with a picnic table covered with everything a hiker could want: salad, chips, cold beverages, you name it. He came in yesterday, and served up grilled chicken. Later today there will be brats, and all the fixin's. Halfmile's here (I use his maps), giving hikers rides into town, and I also see Colorblind, Luigi, and Lint—all familiar faces. There's about a dozen others here, kicking back and resting the feet. Splash, who I met at Nitro's a while back recovering from a foot injury, is here with a removable cast while a hairline fracture in her foot heals. The miles I've been doing, and five to six thousand plus calories I'm burning each day has left a severe shortage of snacks in my food bag. I wanted to "starve" myself the last two or so days into Kennedy Meadows so I could start eating those 57,260 calories I have for the next eleven days or so. Forget about it. I took up an offer from some locals dropping off another hiker, and headed into Onyx with Rockstar. Onyx is a sleepy town consisting of a gas station convenience store on the main strip, and not much else. Kickstep, Annie, Splash, Buck-30, Rockstar, and I enjoyed some time on the front porch eating, and staying warm. Up on the Pass, it's considerably cooler, and quite windy. Down here in the shade, it's still cold! Usually it's in the 90s around here this time of year. I struggle to down a half gallon of ice cream, which I haven't done since the Colorado Trail in 1998.

My first half gallon of ice cream (double chocolate fudge) in quite some time
A local gazes at us, and knows what we need; a ride to Walker Pass. He gladly offers us one, and I stumble over. He gives us a little talk about the area, shows us the hot, dry slopes people backcountry ski in the winter, and some history. We arrive back at the campground, and there are brats on the grill, pasta and sauce on the table, and a whole bunch of hungry hikers. The wind is still quite strong, blowing plates and condiments off the table, lids off coolers, and hats off hikers. I start to suffer from freezerburn as the wind saps every ounce of heat from my body. That great sucking sound of food and fun tries to draw me in to spending the night here, but I somehow escape the vortex. I'm outta here! I say my goodbyes, knowing I'll see most at Kennedy Meadows in a few days. My body gradually defrosts from the wind, clouds, and cold, and I catch up to Kickstep, Annie, and Buck-30. We travel another several miles until dusk to a nice camp sheltered from the stiff breeze blasting the surrounding mountainsides. It's after 11pm as I write this, and the wind is still howling in the treetops above me. The moon is halfway into the bright sky staring me right in the face as I gaze into the endless heavens.

There are mountains surrounding us in every direction, where before we traveled from desert floor, over a mountain ridge, and across another desert floor, to skirt private property.

We spotted some strange aircraft in the sky, slowly doing circles above us, gaining altitude with another craft in tow. The China Lake Air Station is nearby, along with the Edwards Air Force Base, likely testing new secret aircraft. As we continued following the narrow footpath, the four of us spotted a rattlesnake as we wound our way around several valleys today. There were a lot more rocks on the trail, more hard dirt than soft sand, and today's twenty seven mile day seemed like a lot more; the four of us are pretty beat up. I'm not stretching my legs any more in the morning. I seemed to be doing nothing more than going through the motions. Walking is the most basic form of human movement, it's neutral, not stressing joints in ways they weren't designed for, like many other sports do. As the strong northwest winds subside, the L.A. smog has slowly crept its way back into the rest of Southern California.

We left Chimney Rock Campground this morning, consisting of us and a high school group headed north on the PCT, and traveled through a large human-started burn area as we neared our first river on the trail—the Kern River. Not very big, but more volume than anything else we've seen on the trail.

Along the Kern River
In the early afternoon, we arrive at the infamous Kennedy Meadows General Store. To the PCT hiker, it's the start of the High Sierras, a last chance to pick up a maildrop with warm gear, food, and bug repellent; rest, use a pay phone, and gorge on food. There are a good three dozen or more hikers here, with about the same number heading out this morning after the several days of snow and storms kept people grounded, waiting for a weather window to open. Sometimes I never thought it would happen, but the month long endless desert is done. There will be the Hat Creek Rim, a couple days of desert here and there, but not weeks on end. I have been wondering when this day would finally come.

Kennedy Meadows / The High Sierras

Will today be my first Zero Day, or will I leave early this evening? It's late morning, and the fair weather cumulus clouds have swollen into large, dark, angry masses of gray and black. A few chilly hours later, there is the rumble of thunder, a spattering of rain, and an errant gust of wind.

We are talking about the High Sierra with the gray granite..."The sky-scraping Sierra Nevada, John Muir's "Range of Light" which has no equals". You know, the one with "eight national forests and three national parks". You know, the one where "eleven peaks top 14,000 feet and some five hundred top 12,000 feet". You know, the one who is "home to sixty glaciers". You know, the one who is four hundred thirty miles long and is the "largest continuous block of granite on the planet".

—PCT-L listserve

The National Parks I will travel through soon have the famous Sierra Bears, capable of bending door frames, breaking car windows, and destroying vehicle interiors to access easy food. Bear canisters are required in many areas for the next few hundred miles, and I've just picked mine up, along with the 35 pounds of food I mailed here from Agua Dulce, including the three pound bags of M&Ms packing six thousand or so calories each. At 2pm, I decided to try and take a nap as the rain turns steady. As usual, the nap didn't work very well, so I carefully packed the bear canister with five days of food. The remaining five or six days are in a stuff sack that will soon be somehow crammed into my pack. My pack weight has gone over ten pounds today, with two more fleece tops, rain pants, and bug repellent. With the 11 days and 35 pounds of food, I'm looking at 45 pounds in a frameless pack that itself weighs a little over a pound. The thought of carrying this thing twenty miles a day scares me. Will it bang into my back, displace my spine, dig into my butt, or turn my shoulders into ground meat? I'll find out soon. I head back over to the General Store, and meet some hikers just finishing an almost week long southbound hike through the Sierras. They reported temperatures in the mid 20s at night, and 40s during the day. Snow on the trail is not bad, and morning rain was common. There has also been several hikers turning around and returning to the General Store after being caught unprepared on their way out from here. The evening chill is in the air, and everyone adds layers as we begin to congregate on the large deck out front. It looks like today will be my first Zero day—my first day off. This is great. Up until now, my shortest days have been a couple eight milers, and a few fifteen milers. Some of us soon head to Tom's place across the street, with his satellite Internet and old laptops he lets hikers use. We gather around the fire pit in his front yard and share adventures and stories among the dozen or so of us here.

The air is crisp this morning as I get up a little before 8am. Tuna Helper's uncle is here, and serves us some eggs from his camper in the parking lot. The southbound hikers I met yesterday are driving out this morning, and offer me a ride almost a mile back to the trail. I pass through dusty meadows full of sage for the first several miles, then the trail starts to work its way into forest as it ambles along the Kern River. The weather is mostly cloudy, with comfortable temps in the 70s, and creeks spilling across the trail every few miles. As noon comes and goes, I reach a bridge over the South Fork of the Kern River, and spot Blackfoot on a sandbar sunning himself. I take a break on some grassy ground nearby, drying off my groundcloth, and eating down a small fraction of my almost 35 pounds of food. A while later, we're joined by Root Canal, Lint, Colorblind, Luigi, Princess Leia, and Tuna Helper. Annie, Kickstep, and Buck-30 soon follow, and we split up into a few different groups. We head on to Cow Creek, which we follow for several miles before reaching its headwaters and building camp. One starts a campfire, and we all eventually congregate around the warmth emanating from the glowing pile of branches.

We continue to climb consistently, eventually reaching 10,000 feet in elevation with low clouds closing in from all around us. There is fog tightly wrapped around the windward side of the lofty peak above like a blanket, as we trek our way towards some of the highest peaks in the state. Kickstep, Annie, Buck-30, and I run into the group we camped with last night several times, as the sun slowly slides into the cloudy western sky. The weather is a bit chilly, with peeks of the sun here and there. The high peaks to the north slowly work their way closer as we build our camp after a little over twenty miles today.

We leave the Inyo National Forest, and enter Sequoia National Park as the morning progresses. Temperatures never climb above the mid 60s, and the cirrus clouds continue to dominate the sky. The nearby peaks are shrouded in clouds as we pass Chicken Spring Lake; our first tarn, or high alpine lake, on the trail. We tire more easily now, with our small, lightweight packs that were never designed to carry forty five pounds rubbing our shoulders raw. The eleven days of food we packed in at Kennedy Meadows has now been reduced to a little over a week's worth, making our hike more tolerable each day as we eat away our food weight. We arrive at Crabtree Meadows, where several other thrus are anxious for tomorrow's adventure—a side trip to climb the Lower 48's highest peak, Mt. Whitney.

It's 5:30 in the morning, and there's not even the slightest whisper of wind in the air. At 6am, we are on our way up the 8.5 mile trail to the summit. As we climb our 4,000+ feet of vertical, we witness sheer granite cliffs everywhere, often hiding behind a bank of clouds hovering all around us. The bitter cold morning we were expecting never happened, and we warm up quickly on the long trail up to timberline. We pass lakes as smooth as glass, reflecting the surrounding high peaks drenched in alpenglow, and pink clouds blowing up all around us like a smoke machine.

Atop the highest peak in the Lower 48.
After passing Guitar Lake, surrounded by an endless sea of granite, alpine tundra, and trail that dives under the snow, we begin a long ascent through the endless switchbacks that climb up the steep mountainside towards the high summit ridge. A little under four hours later, we find ourselves at 14,495 feet, the highest point in the Continental U.S. Most of the landscape below us is shrouded in a thick blanket of clouds, but every now and then the sun will cast a wide beam of light on the endless sea of granite peaks below us. After a couple hours celebrating with mostly other thru-hikers, the wind picks up, the clouds smother us in fog, and snow starts blowing around like the inside of a vacuum cleaner. On the long track below the ridge, another hiker jokingly blurts out an idea that Joel, some thru-hiking ultra-marathon runner, biker, and hiker mentioned to him. Who wants to climb up this slope to a pinnacle that tops just above 14.000 feet? Several pause for a moment, shake their heads, and move on. Twelve-Percent was told it's a class three climb above the snow slope, and after giving the dumb idea a quick thought, I agree, and lead the way up through the snow with only one other set of footprints.

Another 14er today—Mt. Muir
The climb is steep, and although something other than running shoes would be nice, they'll do the job. After a couple hundred feet up, the snow gives way to near vertical rock, and I take my glove liners off to grab the decent hand holds that cover the large blocks of rock. This is nothing less than a class four rock climb, meaning there are severe consequences for a slip or fall. We both agreed to use three point contact at all times during the ascent, and begin the harrowing, hair raising climb up the bus sized, vertical rocks. I go first, following most of the sole footprints zigzagging their way up the eighty degree pinnacle. It is an intensive maneuver, finding a solid place to wrap my fingers around, pulling myself up, and finding a small shelf for my foot. After close to an hour, we again gaze skyward, looking for the next move, and see nothing. We're at the top—Mt. Muir! There's a small watertight ammunition can with a register in it, and we sign it below the few other entries. The views are endless, even with the dense, low cloud cover. The Owens Valley is still invisible, buried in clouds ten thousand feet below us. My heart races as I think about trying to downclimb this thing. The light snow has started up again, and we begin to carefully place our hands and feet in just the right places. Our progress is slow and tedious, but thorough and cautious. It isn't nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be, and before we know it, we're back at the top of the snow covered scree slope. We spot many hikers on their way up or down the trail a hundred feet below us, and save our high fives until we're safely back on the trail. I'm not sure whether this is an official 14er, being it's only four hundred or so feet above the ridge, but regardless, it was a fantastic climb on another Zero Day. Yes, although it was a very productive day, we only hiked 0.1 miles of the PCT—technically a Zero. The sky suddenly erupted with more brief wind and snow as we worked our way down the switchbacks to the basin below. We saved some distance by glissading several hundred feet down a moderate snow slope, and tromped our way back to treeline. I soon saw Annie, Kickstep, and Buck-30 enjoying a long break next to the trail, and Twelve-Percent and I congratulated each other again on our accomplishment. We reached our camp a while later, with the sun still shining brightly. Last night was the first time I've used my tent on the trail, other than out behind the Kennedy Meadows General Store, and with it wet from last night's condensation, I guess I'll set it up again. As I type my journal for the last two days, I sit in front of a sun drenched meadow with deer lazily grazing at the other end, and the distant trickle of the creek running through. I can see part of the Mt. Whitney monolith in the distance, along with a few other high peaks poking their way into the sky bathed in an alpenglow sunset. The keyboard on this XV6700 PDA has just started acting up, spitting out extra characters as I type, or doing nothing at all. After daily heavy use for over three years now, it's reaching the end of its useful life. I don't know what I'm going to do about it right now, but I hope to be able to continue sharing my amazing experience with the world.

After another night in the mid 20s, we take our time getting up. The deer are back in Crabtree Meadow, and the sun quickly raises the chilly temperatures above freezing. We pass several other thru-hikers taking a zero day, or breaking camp as we cross the creek and join the infamous John Muir Trail (JMT) for the next two hundred or so miles. The trail passes in and out of several drainages as it climbs its way to Forester Pass. I trek over Bighorn Plateau, with its endless views in every direction of high alpine lakes and craggy peaks, and through the first ford, or river crossing, I can't skip across over the logs or rocks—Tyndall Creek. We rise above treeline again for the long slog up to Forester Pass.

On approach to Forester Pass
There is snow blanketing much of the valley we need to hike through as we cross the high alpine meadows, occasionally postholing up to our knees. The trail is buried in snow, and we all took different routes to the exposed, snow free switchback above. After traversing a few more, with its steep dropoffs to the valley below, we crossed a steep couloir choked with snow, and headed over the well built switchbacks blasted into the mountainside to 13,200ft Forester Pass—the high point on the PCT. We peered over the backside of the pass to see nothing but snow; lots of snow. It was late afternoon already, and the snow was soft, but from an avalanche perspective, solid. We now enter Kings Canyon National Park, and as most glissaded down on their butts, I tried a standing glissade, but as the snow softened as we got lower, it turned into a long, several mile slog to the forested slopes two thousand feet below. Our knees were sore, legs felt like jello, and our feet have been wet all day. We arrived at camp early evening along Bubbs Creek, put our bear canisters away from our sleeping areas, put the rest of the food in the bear boxes supplied by the National Park and donations, and enjoyed the start of lower mileage days as we spend our time climbing over eleven and twelve thousand foot passes each day for the next week or so.

Slogging through the snow on the north side of Forester Pass

Today's plan is to travel about sixteen or eighteen miles, depending on the weather, terrain, and amount of snow we walk through. The sky is crystal clear as I look at the frosty ground on this bright morning. With the chill in the air, we don't get going until 9am. Not being a morning person, it feels great. We descend Bubbs Creek, a wide valley teeming with granite cliffs and cascading waterfalls. The trail takes us on another long climb up to 11,978ft Glen Pass. The descent is through steep snow, and if it was early in the day, the hard snow would leave little room for error. It's mid afternoon, and the snow is just firm enough for me to standing glissade the several hundred feet down to the rocky ground below. A moderate drizzle develops as we descend our way down to Woods Creek. I'm dumbfounded by the sudden change in tree variety over the last mile as I approach camp. I saw my first aspen tree a couple miles ago, and from what another hiker showed me from his PCT Guidebook, I've also seen, or will by tomorrow, mountain hemlock, western white pine, red fir, jeffrey pine, and white fir. There are several other hikers here, some weekenders following the Rae Lakes Loop, and thrus just returning to the trail after a resupply in town or seeking refuge from the threatening dark skies that have been spitting out occasional light rain and snow for most of the afternoon.

More hikers continued to spill into the area, and a couple warm campfires were billowing out smoke at each end of the camp on this chilly evening.

Late last night, I heard the pitter patter of raindrops splashing onto my tent. As the morning light penetrated our camp, there was still a light rain falling from the dull, gray sky. There was debate this morning whether to head on, or wait it out. As we tried to come up with a decision, the dark sky suddenly cleared into a magnificent blue canopy, with the high peaks bathed in fresh snow. We quickly broke camp at the crack of 9am as the sun bumped its way into the sky and warmed our tents. Our day started with by crossing a large suspension bridge over Woods Creek. There was a long ascent up to the 12,130ft Pinchot Pass, with the thunderous roar of the creek at our side. I'd gaze over towards the churning waters to watch its violent drop over the many waterfalls and rock ledges diving into the abyss below. We approached ten thousand feet in elevation during the late morning, and the snow that was once two thousand feet above us was now crunching under our footsteps. The trail became difficult to follow as the one inch of snow on the ground quickly became several as we gained elevation. It was a long climb up to Pinchot pass, with the new snow now turned into wet cement, slowing our progress to a crawl.

Up to Pinchot pass
From the Pass, the low clouds that have been so prevalent in the Sierras for us started spitting out light snow. As the high alpine environment—with its frozen lakes and still plentiful snow—soon disappeared as we dropped below treeline, the snow turned into a steady rain. I used my umbrella I've been carrying with me since the Mexican Border for the first time. The idea of using it to shade myself from the sun in the desert never happened, but with the first heavy rains I've had on the trail, it's time to put it to good use. A few hours later we forded the South Fork of the Kings River again after fourteen difficult miles of slogging through deep snow, rain, and crossing raging rivers. Annie, Kickstep, and I met Buck-30 and Blackfoot already camped at our predetermined location as the steady rain quickly subsided long enough for me to set up my tent. I was slowly put to sleep by the roar of the creek near our camp as the dribble of rain continued through the night.

The morning was overcast again as I slowly hit the trail after 9am. I'm the last one here as I take down my rain soaked tent. My down sleeping bag has become noticeably flatter from the damp air, and last night was uncomfortably cold.

Airing out the sleeping bag
It's been difficult to air it out during the day, with each bringing overcast skies, and snow and rain that could start falling at a moments notice. This morning's climb takes us over 12,100ft Mather Pass. Most of the upper valley is covered in snow, and I see hikers headed up two different valleys; and one of them is wrong. I pull out my map and compass and carefully check my bearings a half dozen times over the next few miles. A switchback comes into view as I walk around a frozen lake encased in snow. I follow a steep snow covered couloir that's buried most of the trail up to Mather Pass, and reach the top, where I'm greeted by several thrus. The snow on the north facing slopes is too soft to glissade, and I slog my way down to the end of the snow. Kickstep, Annie, and Buck-30 are taking a break as the weather alternates between brief sun and snow flurries. After seeing Annie make her mini-sandwich lunches day after day, Buck-30 has given her the trailname Lunchable.

Annie's got a new trailname—Lunchable
We eventually reach the bottom of Palisade Creek and start our way up the Middle Fork Kings River. My umbrella has been put to use about a half dozen times in the last few hours, and others have been stopping to add or remove raingear every hour or so. As I climb up the wet trail, I'm surrounded by vertical walls of granite thousands of feet above me in Le Conte Canyon, mutilated and folded into impossible shapes from volcanism and earthquakes over the eons, by glaciers, wind, and rain. Creeks cascade down its smooth surfaces, with the rock too young to have eroded into valleys. Some of the towering rock miles ahead of me is bathed in a brilliant bright hue from the sun as I'm pelted by rain. We decide to call it early with the unstable sky unwilling to leave us alone. We're joined by Trainwreck, Moneyshot (a bird pooped on his head on two different instances within a couple of hours) , Birdnut and True, under overcast skies and the roar of the creek below.

We're all up early this morning for the long climb up to 11,955ft Muir Pass. The sky is bright blue, and we slowly make our way to timberline. The trees gradually disappear on the way through the krummholz to the land of white. The long climb continues as we pass Helen Lake, and begin the final push to the Pass.

Ugh, that's not good

It's difficult hiking in these conditions, with virtually all of us in running shoes with treads torn up from the rocky trail. The snow has softened as the strong sun beats it into mush. Our pace has slowed as we near Muir Pass, and the stone hut built by the Sierra Club in the 1930s soon comes into view. We take a good break at the 11,955ft pass with a half dozen other thrus as clouds slowly envelop the surrounding high peaks and glaciers. To the north, the snow looks endless. It feels like mid May, not June around here. The snow is too soft and terrain too flat to glissade, so we're forced to slowly hike down through the bottomless snow for the next two hours. The lakes we follow are still encased in ice as timberline nears, and the snow eventually disappears from the wide open, exposed landscape. As the trail drops to 9,210ft, we cross Evolution Creek, which is one of the most difficult river crossings on the PCT due to its swiftness and large volume. Despite the fact it's late in the day, the sun's been out, we've had recent new snow and rain, the river ford was straightforward. We all made it safely across the thigh to waist deep waters without creating any new adventurous experiences. The trail continued its steep dive to the valley below, following Evolution Creek all the way from its source to what has now become a raging torrent.

The violent, tumbling waters of Evolution Creek
The sound is deafening as I pass by the churning waters spilling over the smooth granite creekbed and wildly crashing into the canyon walls. It is quite the sight to see this at peak runoff, and witness the intense power of this creek, as I feel the ground shake below me. As the trail leaves the creek and heads to the San Joaquin River, my ears are still ringing from the noise and power of that creek as it ends its life to join the River. A mile later I reach Buck-30, excitedly telling me about a NPS Trail Crew camped across the river. With excess food on hand this evening, they offer it to us and we gladly accept. Blackfoot's at camp, licking his chops after enjoying the bean chili. My eleven day food supply has dwindled down to a handful of candybars and other junk food, and I've been slowly starving myself the last couple days. Blackfoot returns from their camp with a steak in hand! Too full from the bean chili, and everyone else stuffed from their meals, I'm offered the prize. My eyes fixate on the already cooked steak, and I relight the campfire and heat it to the perfect temperature.

Steak!! Trail Magic, dozens of miles from nowhere
Several other hikers passed through in the last hour or so, forcing themselves to do more miles for the next couple of days to get into town as they run out of food. The last two days have been quite amazing, with towering granite cliffs hanging above me, raging rivers and their deafening noise only feet away, and weather that has left us wondering what's next. Water is everywhere, crossing the trail, bubbling up from below, and shaking the ground with its tremendous amount of volume. Typing on this keyboard with letters that don't work has made this journaling endeavor quite a painful process. It's after 11pm, and I'm still trying to describe my last few days. I'm using my emergency backup battery now, which only happened a couple of times on the CDT. The power level is down past half, and the next town is still over fifty miles away. Challenges are just a part of this thru-hike, and I'll find a way, just like I do for all the other issues that crop up over the course of a day.

As the morning progressed, I left Kings Canyon National Park and entered the John Muir Wilderness as I crossed the South Fork of the San Joaquin River for the third time this morning. This area also marks the halfway mark on the trail through California! I hiked along as it rose above the river valley, listening to the mating call of a grouse, and the whisper of the wind blowing through the trees. The trail wound it's way up to 10,900ft Selden Pass, and descended through large patches of snow strewn on the ground below. The descent was slow, and my energy level dropped to near zero as I postholed and stumbled my way through the difficult trail conditions. This descent off the pass is easier than the others, but after ten days of eating candybars, poptarts, and Lipton noodles, I'm feeling the effects of my diet. My feet are also starting to feel the effects of being wet for over a week now, with calluses peeling away, and sore skin under my big toe. Kickstep, Lunchable, and I arrive at what's known as the most difficult ford on the trail—Bear Creek. The three of us head across together without problems, with the churning waters nipping at Lunchable's waist, and I use their stove to warm some water for the last of my noodles. I trekked ahead, and finished my day atop Bear Ridge.

There was the dull roar of thunder under clear skies around 2am, and I threw up my tent stakes and poles just in case, ready to throw up the tent at a moment's notice. The roar grew louder with each passing minute, and then suddenly stopped. I could see dark skies behind me, but still crystal clear above, with the Big Dipper clearly visible through the dense tree cover. Today is day eleven since I last resupplied my pack with food, saw a road, a single light, car, or any other unpleasant site, sound and smell of industrial despoilment. We are destroying out precious heritage with the mini-malls, mega malls, and the need to have everything now. I haven't tuned into the news for quite some time now, reporting what people want to hear, and often not the full story. I've been on many backpacking trips, and other than climbing Denali, never traveled this long or far without these annoyances. I took my time getting up this morning, with Kickstep and Lunchable passing me a little before 7am, and reporting a bear sighting a half mile back. I was on the trail a little after eight, and took my time on the less than five mile day to the Vermillion Valley Resort's ferry ride across Edison Lake, which delivers us to their lodge. Their usual pontoon boat is being repaired, so we're on a small aluminum boat being splashed by the waves crashing into the bow of the small craft. Even with Princess Leia's umbrella I hold out in front of us, this is the wettest I've gotten on the trail, and fortunately we'll be on the warm shore after the four mile or so ride. I deboard the small craft, with it rocking precariously back and fourth as I hop off with her, Kickstep and Lunchable.

Vermillion Valley Resort

The talk today is about exhaustion, with everyone excited to be done with the unsettled weather, cold, wet feet, and endless climbing over the high passes. There's even a couple hikers here that have developed a fever and weakness this evening. We gather in the small restaurant as the temperatures outside start to chill. It's a Saturday night, and tonight is BBQ night. We all excitedly fill up the seats inside and decide what we want for dinner. I decide on the Combo Plate, with a huge portion including a couple sides.

The chicken, ribs, and tri-tip combo plate—exactly what I need right now!
I slowly polish the plate clean and head out to the firepit. I'm here with a dozen or so other hikers, including Atlas and Bams, who also hiked the CDT in '07. We never saw each other, with them starting a week after I did, and finishing a few weeks after me. We shared our harrowing stories about the endless routefinding required each day, and the snow in Colorado's San Juan's with the rest of the group.

I was off on the ferry to the other end of the lake at 9am, and began my long day towards the end of my 13 days without a shower, laundry, or resupply (other than the one day of food I picked up at VVR). The long string of subfreezing nights are mostly done, and the thought of some real food, fun, and sharing stories with other hikers in town tomorrow has everyone excited. I meet Too Obtuse and Princess Leia at the top of 10,900ft Silver Pass late this morning, and we slog our way down through the snow to the trees below. Now that I'm out of the wind, I remove a top layer of clothing, and... oh yeah, and it's the first day of summer today, thru hiker Hike Naked Day!

It's that day again—Hike Naked Day
After removing my extra layer, I kept going until there was nothing left. It was in the mid 60s most of the afternoon, a bit chilly, but the long climb up to Lake Virginia kept me warm. I put clothing on next to the sparkling waters of the lake and as the sun began to dip behind the trees that evening, I met up with Too Obtuse and Eric the Red. After hiking until dusk, we finally found a flat spot on the steep hillside.

I was up at 6am for the several mile hike into Red's Meadow. There was a small store and restaurant, horse corral and rustic cabins. There's also a bus that run

Pic from Too Obtuse

s through the Devil's Postpile National Monument into Mammoth Lakes. I met Ice Axe as I waited for the next bus to arrive. The large bus, run by the Town, pulls up and I excitedly board as the only passenger. I heard the voice of the driver talking to a departing hiker, which caught my attention. The face looked kind of familiar, and then I saw the nametag. "Greg? Aerotowing? Hang gliding at Henson's Gap? Is that you?" A wide smile swept across his face as he recognized me. Back in college, I flew hang gliders, aerotow method, with him occasionally, and one year we all headed down to Tennessee for some exceptional flying, including my four and a half hour flight. We shared the last ten or so years of our life experiences during the long ride around Mammoth Mountain and through the Monument. I departed the bus, and we went our separate was, hoping to meet again at some happy hour in town.

Continue to North Central California

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