Saturday, December 10, 2016

It was on fire when we got here

July 1

I awoke crisp and bright, the plan for an epic day ready-formed in my mind. Breakfast, breaking camp, and striding out into this new sunshine I'd been given was all that I could ask for. 
And so I rolled out the morning like a piece of pie dough, slowing to stare at the towering spires of rock and then speeding back up again. There are those days, my favorite days, when the miles are like a ball of yarn you've tossed down a slope. Your body ceases to be a cage and and becomes a sleek vehicle; your mind stops chewing the cud and reliving the past and just coolly observes the glory of the world.
Yes, these are glorious days. Days of enlightenment. Days during which you are so overly self-satisfied with how blissed-out you have become that you leave your water filter someplace and suddenly come to the grim realization that you're about to be out of water and there's nary another hiker in sight from whom you could borrow a filter or purification solution.
Well, I reasoned, better to drink some "live" water than no water at all. That's what I like to call untreated water when I drink it: "Live water." It's not a term I invented, but I do think it's a pretty clever rebranding of "non-potable water." Makes it seem like perhaps the bacteria and protozoa in there are new, beneficial probiotics.
Who knows, I thought to myself as I filled my Platypus with water from a little mountain stream. It's probably fine. It's not like there are that many things living up here on these alpine meadows that could shit in this water.
And on cue, a marmot stuck his insolent little head up and chirped at me. Screw you, buddy.
Thusly dispirited and brought back to the reality of my existence -- nasty, brutish, and potentially about to center around diarrhea -- I hiked down to Carson Pass.
I had great hopes for a yogi here. No, not a guided stretching instructor with vague spiritual aspirations, but an opportunity to "yogi," that is, charmingly panhandle for food and/or beer in the fashion of Yogi Bear scheming on a picnic basket. But there were few vehicles stopping as the dusk grew dim, and they were primarily big pickups and shiny BMWs -- not very good prospects. I shuffled on.
So I punched up over a notch in the ridge separating the highway from the wilderness beyond. There was a pleasant drop down into the canyon on other side. I couldn't see any sign of other campers, but I smelled smoke. There were people somewhere down there, and I intended to ask for the use of their filter.
I found camp at a stream crossing underneath a broad, sheltering pine. Just on the other side of the creek was the source of the smoke: Two boys, or perhaps they'd just crossed over into the territory of young men, were huddled next to the sad black remains of their fire. I recognized immediately that they had committed the cardinal sin of no-trace camping: They a had made a new fire ring.
Or rather, they had failed to make a new fire ring; they had just made a fire scar on the flat, grassy ground. But you know, it's bad form to scold people when you plan on begging them for the use of their water filter, so I simply said hello and prevailed upon their kindness. They regarded me with a little fear and shame, clearly cognizant of their crime.
But we both let it pass. I didn't want to chew them out, and they wouldn't have had mich to say in their own defense -- after all, it hadn't been on fire when they got there.

Goodbye, sublime bullshit

June 30

It was cold and damp in the trees I'd chosen for my tentsite, but I heard my new friend Owl clanking around in his impromptu cafe at the picnic area just yards away. I had no way of knowing that this meant coffee, but my keen addict's intuition told me to go invetsigate. It was enough to impel my sore body up and out of the tent a la Nospheratu rising out of his coffin; my legs jolted me over to the table, wide-eyed and vacant of mind.
My guess was correct.
And not just coffee, but dripper cones and a stove to boil water; I could make a pour-over here. This is a pretty big deal to a professional coffee nerd like myself. I have come to expect much less and be happy with it. Percolators, Mr. Coffees, ancient Bunn-o-Matics from the civil rights era, I will drink it all when I want a cup of coffee. In college, there was a commonly told joke that pizza was like sex, because in both cases, even when it was bad, it was still pretty good. This joke is, I have to say, the worst compound lie I was told in all my years of schooling. However, when you really want a cup of coffee, there is almost no such thing as a bad cup.
Anyway, I know, too much coffee nerdery. He left me to make myself a cup of coffee, which I eagerly did, using a heroic dose of ground coffee to do so. The result was ink-black, bitter, dark-roasted Peet's coffee. A related result was me going through the same process of rejuventation that happens to Popeye when he eats a can of spinach. I stuck a piece of chocolate cake in my mouth, leapt to my pack, wished everyone a great day, excellent day, toodles, and scurried off to the trail with the grace of a frightened cat.
Cake and strong coffee had an effect on my metabolism similar to pouring gasoline on a fire and then deciding to go ahead and also put in that stick of dynamite you'd found at the swap meet. I was sugar high. I mean like really high, like illicit-drug high. The trail seemed to be obliging me by flattening, widening, and generally becoming easier to hike. My one remaining trekking pole was tucked into my pack, leaving me to concentrate on my legs and feet. Flying over dirt, careening off boulders, executing antics while hopping across streams. I was making killer time and I knew it. 
The funny thing was that as the sugar and caffeine ebbed, the trail continued to improve. There were no mosquitoes to speak of, either. I looked back across the pass below to the mountains behind. Clothed in brilliant white ice and funereal grey, they seemed to hold some sublime truth. Only that truth seemed to be one which I couldn't quite absorb it. It kept getting stuck in my throat. I saw not just bold, raggedly cut beauty, but also felt the wet seep of mud into my shoes, the annoying throb of bodily danger when crossing ice, and the way the mosquitoes hit my face like confetti.
I love adventure, but in a very important sense, adventure is not what my PCT is about. It's about the miles and the open country. I come here to do big days, see lots of light, feel my mind bleach out in the constant sun and physical labor. That back there? Yeah, it was sublime, glad to have done it. 
Looking back at the Southern Sierra... screw that (glorious) noise
But goodbye, sublime BS. I'll take this PCT that winds it's way in and out. This trail of wildflowers and dust sloping ridges in the distance. No, the angles of the peaks are not so sharp, but the curves of the valleys invite the eye to rest in a way that the High Sierra cannot.
Mostly, I was happy for good trail.
Accordingly, I pounded out the miles. Ten miles, fifteen, twenty.
Sometimes the trail serves flashbacks. I suddenly remembered taking a break with the Croat, perched on our packs in these meadows of green grassy flowers and red dirt. Another turn and I was thinking about what a funny man he was, what a good trail companion. My mind was running reels of footage believed long-lost, all the way back to my childhood with Dan Mikesell, and my first encounters with a natural world kind enough to let my brain do its own thing. I didn't have to think about where my next step was going to land; it was all good trail. And that day good trail meant it was all good.
It was well after sunset when I finally slowed down and started scouting for a campsite. I found one hidden in a stand of junipers on a small lip of land above a lake. There was a majestic stone fireplace and enough wood for a week, so I made my first fire of the trip while dining on instant noodles. The fire burnt down to coals with minutes of the last bite being shoveled into my mouth. I doused the coals and let my mind extinguish itself, wrapped in my bag and covered by my tent. 

Snap June 29

June 29

I awoke to once again find my entourage awaiting me at the door. Before allowing my adoring public access, I packed up as much of my pack as I could, then slipped out. I was dressed in my "mosquito spacesuit" -- headnet, rainjacket, long pants -- and my shoes were soaked. Get me the hell out of here.
Munching pop tarts and hurriedly slurping tea, I regarded the surroundings as I was trotting by: Swampy buff-colored rock outcroppings. Swampy dark green forest. Verdant, very swampy meadows. The ridges on either side of the canyon I inhabited did not look swampy, but one could not be sure without crossing more swamplands to check.
There was only one solution: Forward progress. I needed out of this alpine bog in the worst way. Out of here and into... what? A place of better drainage?
It's a low standard, I thought, but there you go.
Basically, I needed out of Yosemite.
Goodbye Yosemite, you crumbum!

I got my wish, as the trail shot straight north up the canyon, then past the inviting shores of a swamp named Dorothee Lake. At the head of the valley, I crossed into another watershed and saw, buried in the snow, the sign of my release and relief: I was out of the national park and into Hoover Wilderness.
Before me rose a very different kind of range. Slopes of porous volcanic rock and scree surrounded pinnacles of uneroded stone. I knew from experience that this softer, more porous stone held less water and wasn't as likely to form glacial lakes. From a nature photographer's point of view, I suppose that's bad, but for me, it meant good drainage.
Just a mile or two past the border, I walked past the 1,000 mile mark. Good stuff, I thought. Then, quite quickly, I was walking up Kennedy Canyon and onto the volcanic ridge that leads to Sonora Pass (where Highway 108 crosses the trail). The sloped were open, the views astounding. I could see storms building up thirty miles to my east, and the green grasses and rust-red stone were accented by bright yellow flowers.
Still quite a bit of snow, though. Couple challenging fields on the way up to the ridge -- but I've done worse, I thought. The snow's consistency was really challenging -- melted soft as a Slurpee on the surface by the day's heat, but too dense and firm underneath to kick steps easily.  It was two steps forward, another sideways, some slapstick-banana-peel moments, another step. And then: >snap<
I looked down. My beloved Gossamer Gear trekking pole had sunk deep into the snow and snapped as I tried to pull it back out.
My heart sank and my anger rose. These poles are the epitome of grace and joy as tools; I would not choose to hike with any others. Knife enthusiasts talk about specific blades as being balanced, or seeming to belong in your hand. That describes my relationship to these poles. They were also, coincidentally, very out of stock. It took a huge effort on both Lily and my part to replace the tips at Vermillion Valley Resort. And I had broken it going through one of my last snowfields.
I raged. Raged against the PCT for the routing, which seems to take a tour of every patch of snow remaining on the slopes. I raged at myself for breaking the pole, although i am unsure what I could have done differently. For good measure, I went ahead and got pissed at the useless, enormous bear can I was still lugging around.
Cursing and flailing with one pole, I slipped and stumbled down the loose dirt and slushy snow to the road. But upon reaching the pass, my spirits got the much needed boost: Somebody had set up an impromptu cafe at the picnic area at the pass. Two somebodies, it turned out: Owl, who gave me cookies and a beer, and iPod, who gave me two hot dogs to add to my noodle dinner. I'm not trying to brag, but the Knorr Teriyaki Pasta Side pairs quite well with hot dogs and lukewarm beer. My fuel cartridge ran out, but Owl let me use his. They took my trash, including my tragically broken pole.
I felt almost whole again. It isn't all bad luck, I thought. I can hike without a pole. Well past dark, I and a few other stragglers left the cafe and set up camp in some trees near the highway.

True love in the corduroy canyons June 28

June 28

I had chosen a campsite in some rocks up to the left of the trail. This had some distinct advantages: Slightly fewer mosquitoes than in the crowded trailside campspot, below. I had privacy, not that I had anything to engage in that required it -- it's not like I was washing or anything. But the little nook I'd found between huge boulders was comforting and snug in the fashion of an outlaw's last redoubt.
But nothing's free in this life, and my hideout had the disadvantage that I had serious trouble finding my way back out. Hiking in exhausted after dark appeared to have had the same effect on me as a blindfold during pin the tail on the donkey. I walked down off the rock outcropping in one direction and found a stream and a eager fan club of thousands of mosquitoes: Nope. Returning to the campsite, I used the sun as a compass, which made me feel proud of being a Boy Scout but also told me nothing, because I had no idea what direction I needed to go in.
I eventually lucked onto the trail and started the engine. Legs up, legs down, breath in, breath out. The trail started climbing up and down in an erratic fashion, diving in and out of canyons. These were not like the epic, 3,500-foot ascents and descents of the Sierras. They were quick jabs of elevation, episodic, sporadic, but always there. Our quest for mountain enlightenment had been replaced with high intensity interval training. No longer did John Muir perch on my shoulder muttering about the range of light; this was Richard Simmons country.
People fetishize Yosemite. Lots and lots of tourists from other countries come to see America, and when they want to see the beauty of the west, they take a bus to Yosemite. But honestly, when it comes to this part of the park, it's not easy to see what the hubbub is about. True, it is green trees and grass, black soil and grey rock, white snow and blue sky. But all of those elements have been diced up into small portions and scrambled together into a swamp. The trail bolts up and down like an ant over wide-wale corduroy. It's a wilderness of half measures.
Yes, sad but true, I suspect the northwest backcountry of Yosemite has inspired very little poetry. My ant metaphor may be the grandest homage to date. 
More probably, it inspired the formulation of DEET. Because those mosquitoes? They are real, man. Very real. "Fierce," "implacable" and "siege mentality" are the words that most readily comes to mind in this context. It's hard to convey the phenomenon without having you, dear reader, out to experience it yourself; it's kind of one of those things you must experience to comprehend, and yet simultaneously have no desire to experience. 
I wore long sleeves and long pants all day, although it is really too hot for such attire. I'd place your headnet on, same reasoning. Before eating, which requires removing the headnet, I'd apply DEET to my face. Ah, but when I lifted the veil, a mosquito -- probably like the Olympic gymnastics gold medal winner of her swamp -- manages to dart in and land on your eyelid, a place you cannot use DEET. I now had to drop my food to swipe at her, compounding my anguish.
All day it's like this up here.
There's no real use in getting upset about it, though. I try not to expend mental energy becoming incensed at the LITTLE DAMN THINGS AHHHH. Instead, I try to reframe them. For years, I tried to think about them as weather. Sleet is awful to hike in, yet I do not rage at sleet. No point. Aren't mosquitoes just like sleet?
No, because sleet isn't possessed of an evil intelligence. 
So I have taken this exercise in reframing one step further. I have decided that what mosquitoes are is love. And not just any love; mosquito love is the truest love. Some people will love you for your looks, others for your wit. But the love of a mosquito for a hairless mammal is an eternal love, a love for the ages. 
Some will die for it. Other will kill for it. Still others will be forced to wait outside my tent all night just for a chance at it. These little ladies I call my "entourage." They follow me wherever I go, just steps behind me. Do I take a swim in a lake? They will wait at the shore. They're dying to talk to me, whisper in my ear, fly into my mouth and die in that rank, peanut-butter-scented cave. I did not ask for this fame, my friends.
My escape that night involved a hasty, eyelid-swatting dinner and a campsite once again up in some rocks next to a long, damp, green swale and a thin ribbon of creek. True happiness for me was shutting the screen door on my tent. The star shuts the limo door, peace reigns, and the blood meals are over for the night.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Walking with John

June 27

The walk into Tuolomne Meadows the next morning was fast and easy. Any trail is easy when you're hungry and there's some fresh food ahead. Well, fresh-ish; the restaurant at Tuolumne is kind of a hamburger stand, and all the ingredients come out of a Aramark truck. Heavy and I ate a lotof National Park food when we were on the CDT, and we took to calling it an "Aramark burger" -- always the same odd brown disk of meat, same condiments.
Still, it beat anything in my pack, or that has been in my pack, or that will be in my pack in the foreseeable future. The breakfast menu was still in play when I got there, so I ordered a couple sausage and egg sandwiches. They handed me my receipt with the order number on it, which I immediately crumpled and threw in the trash. I am so, so bad at town sometimes. My reflex to throw the receipt away is grounded in solid hiking instincts -- fieldstrip everything, and never pass a garbage can without emptying your pockets.
But now I had to get back in line, and once up at the front, explain to the counter staff that, no, I wasn't placing another order, it's just that I threw away my receipt, so could they keep an eye out for my order of two sandos?
"You ordered two sandos?" asked the woman behind the counter.
"Yeah, like ten minutes ago. Not trying to rush you! I just feel stupid that I tossed the receipt. I don;t know what my number is."
"Let me check that order for you," she said. She poked her head into the back, had a chat with the chef, and came back out.
"Really sorry, seems like we lost your ticket lost in the shuffle. What was your number?"
"I lost my receipt."
"Oh, right. Well, I ordered you another one." I stepped back to salivate by the condiments.
The next hiker up ordered a soft-serve ice cream, and only remembered upon seeing the cone that he wanted a chocolate and vanilla twist. The counter staff (and I mean they were saints in there, dealing with idiots like us) gave me the mistake vanilla cone, much to my delight.
Then right away my order came up, with a ticket. The chef had it the whole time.
Then my rush-job replacement order came up, the extra one the counter staff had made him make.
So I walked out with four sandwiches and a rapidly melting cone of soft serve, making me the richest person on the plant, thank you very much. I ate the sandwiches and half of the ice cream before pawning off the rest of the cone on a JMT hiker. He looked like he was eating it to win a bet with his friends or something.
There's a post office at Tuolomne, so I sent my ice axe and fishing rod home. This lightened up my pack considerably -- I took a quick stroll across the parking lot with my stripped-down kit and was quite please with myself. There is also a pretty great store there, so I decided to buy irresponsible amounts of food. Thus ended my pack's ten-minute Lightweight Period, and ushered in yet another Age of the Lumpy and Ungainly. But it also meant I could hike on past the next road crossing -- Sonora Pass -- and push on to South Lake Tahoe. And I was into that.
Here's the thing: Town was not as tempting as it used to be. On the CDT, and for that matter on the PCT in 2008, I was a total bar-bagger. ("Bar-bagger" being one who wants to enter and experience, or "bag" as many bars as possible.) But now I just want to hike. More often than not, I want to be out with the wind and the moss, certainly more than I want to be with young macho dudes swilling Coors. So I stuffed my bearcan to the brim and figured, what the hell, it'd be light within days. I was just beginning to consider the process of psyching yself up for an eventual depature when I spied a very skinny dude with a Hawaain shirt and an infectuous smile. It was John Z!
aloha, john!
 Remember John? Last seen sprinting up Muir Pass for a little night-time snow hiking? He told me he'd been unable to do all of the Sierra High Route in snow without any snow gear (what a wuss) so was back down on the old, garden-variety PCT for a bit.
It was far more awesome to see him than I would have guessed. We discovered some mutual friends (Carrot and Amanda, your ears must have been burning) and agreed we'd see each other down the trail. I bugged out from that land of dudes drinking morning IPAs and trucked down the trail.
He caught up to me by the time I'd made five miles. He is just way, way faster than I am. But he graciously slowed down enough for us to talk, and so we did. It was a real, old-fashioned guy talk session. We talked about the explosion in hikers on the PCT, about how reckless people are on snow, about gear, about relationships and fidelity, about the girls we like (or in my case about the woman I am in love with and engaged to). He's also a Triple Crowner, and he agreed that the trail was not what it had once been.
"If this doesn't work out," he said, "I'm going to Colorado." He meant: If the PCT does not turn out to be the hike I should be hiking.
"What will you do in Colorado?" I asked.
"I've been looking at the Colorado Trail," he said, "and I'm pretty sure I could get the FKT." FKT is hiker talk for Fastest Known Time. I loved how casual he was about this.
Now I am not an FKT kind of guy. In fact, it's kind of cool in the long-distance world to look down on FKT culture, because they have to focus on mileage so much that, the theory goes,  they do not properly enjoy the trail. But John really humanized that world for me. I could see in him great joy at being fast. It helps that he looks a bit batty, all smiles and wacky hair. It wasn't masochistic, I realized. He was like a part of me that had been taken to its logical conclusion.
"To try and hike a trail that fast," he said, "you really have to love it. You sort of have to sacrifice yourself to it." I could totally understand that.
We walked into the dark, wet canyons of northern Yosemite. Just talking it all over.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Life inside a beer commercial

We parted ways the next morning, both of us in tacit agreement that our one-night-stand hiking partnership had gone pretty badly. I trundled along, down to Shadow Lake and past huge Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake. Around noon I was finally back within the Friendly Confines, which took me up to minor Island Pass, and then finally to Donohue Pass, the border with Yosemite National Park. Donohue Pass is also the closest you get to Lyell Glacier, the largest glacier in Yosemite. Just in case you're feeling too cheerful today, it's worth noting that the glacier has retreated by somewhere around 70 percent since the 1880s, and is in fact no longer a true glacier but an icefield (as it no lomnger flows).
And in case that was too depressing, let's remember that Donohue Pass is also the head of Lyell Canyon, one of the most beautiful spots on the PCT. The trail took me down from snowfields bordered with rock to a thick, cool forest before opening out onto the greenest meadow I have ever seen. I come here about once a year when I am not thru-hiking to touch base with the wide open valley floor, the smooth granite boulders, the winding course of the glass-clear creek.
I stopped at the creek to do some fishing. It was a hot day, a perfect summer day in California. The sand on the bottom of the creek showed yellow through the light-blue water, and little gangs of trout loitered in the eddies like juvenile delinquents in a '50s alleyway. You can see them coolly observing everything that the current brings their way. The little ones dart out first when there's an object of interest, and only if they like what they see do the big ones race over to steal the prize. They were squibs of mercury made conscious by that sun and the manufacturers of Panther Martin and Rapela lures. It wasn't easy fishing, but it was compelling. Spooked from under a log, I followed one trout to a hole in the middle of the channel, and from there to a deep spot where a bank had been undercut, where I finally got him to bite, only to lose him when reeling in.
Finally tiring of the game, I collapsed my pole. It would be for the last time, as I was mailing my fishing rig home the next day from the Tuolomne Meadows post office. It's been a good run, baby, I thought, sadly putting my Panther Martin away. I'll see you when I'm done with the trail.
Teary goodbyes completed, I trudged down the trail, intending to hit Tuolomne Meadows (and its restaurant and store) by dark. But my angling had eaten too much time, so I posted up at a flat rise on the west side of the creek. I found my friend BFG there, as well as Diesel. BFG had built a campfire -- very decadent -- so I sat down and cooked there, then walked a safe distance away to set uo my shelter.

the meadow along lyell canyon
I am, I reflected as I fell asleep, living inside a beer commercial. The past three days has brought me roaring streams of snowmelt, limitless trout, an actual bear. This on top of the fact that I was drinking beer. How is it inside our cold, refreshing, American wilderness dream (with a clean, crisp finish)?


The Attack of the Giant Death-Racoon

June 25
The veil of sleep was parted for me by a small terrier. He appeared to be of that tribe of small dogs who have the emotional equilibrium of a mimosa-drunk George Constanza bred right into them. Having taken up a secure position in the rocks some twenty feet away from my camp, he was firing his bark-ray directly at my shelter. I crash-landed into consciousness, got up and started making breakfast and dirty looks at the dog. This seemed to enrage him. Then again, everything seemed to enrage him. This included the next event: His owners, a dark-haired, pale, vaguely yuppyish couple that looked as similar as siblings, came over to make peace.
"He really doesn't like strangers," the woman said, one hand on her irate dog's heaving flank.
"Makes him scared," the man explained.
"Great dog for the woods then," I replied amicably. Well, I was trying for amicable, but my aim may have been a bit off.
The bezerking dog and his support team of owner/apologists retreated to their tent for their own breakfast. Soon enough, though, the dog returned, this time in stealthy double-agent mode. He snuck from rock to rock until he was finally almost close enough to touch. I offered him my hand; he smelled it and recognized me as an ally, then apologized for the unfortunate friendly-fire incident. I know he meant it, because he ate half of my grits before I could get the bowl away from him. Not all dogs belong in the woods, I thought.
I, of course, immediately ate the rest of the grits. That's my food! Didn't even occur to me until later that you're not supposed to eat a dog's leftovers. I guess not all humans belong in the city, I mused.
The trail took over a little notch in the bowl surrounding the lake, and then down past Purple Lake. It traversed a valley wall north of Fish Creek, then wandered northward past a big burn toward Red's Meadow Pack Station.
Red's Meadow, accesible by bus from Mammoth Lakes, is an extremely popular launch point for hikers. The trail was choked with hikers, many or most of them weekenders. Seeing so many non-thru-hikers was a jolt. Most striking was their dress. There were a lot of older men in costumes that approached the paramilitary, including some pretty crazy knives. One dude looked like he was trying to recreate a stillsuit from Dune -- all I could see of him was cloth, sunglasses, and the tube from his hydration pack in his mouth. There was a tribe of women in long flowing cotton dresses, and a tribe of younger men in earth tones and keffiyehs. I shudder to think what might occur if the young men dressed in jihadist drag and the old men dressed as commandos were to meet while night hiking.
None of it was really very practical hiking gear, but I cannot judge them too harshly. When we enter the wilderness, we do not dress based on what the challenges we will face therein; we dress based on our fears of danger and our hopes for our own identity. So the paramilitarists dress to defend themselves against brigands and bears, and they return home having conquered the mountains during their night out at a lake. The young men dress in the hopes that they can use nature to stop participating in a capitalist/imperialist/racist system, and return to their dorms having gained a romantic reverence for nature (which, they hope, might even get them laid). The women in flowing dresses? I... I just don't know.
And what do our clothes say about us, as thru-hikers? We may not dress for an action movie, but we are still showing our fellow humans our worldview: We like a full range of motion and care little about hygiene. But if you go one level deeper, our dress and comportment is also a way of expressing our own aspirational identity. I mean, we do not actually go feral, we just let our shirts get so dirty that it looks like it. We are all about simplifying and paring down, but don't you dare criticize my ice axe. And long-distance hikers are keenly attuned to the fashions of our fellow travellers. Big packs signify one thing (neophyte), tiny packs another (smugness), mylar umbrellas a third (unbearable smugness).
There is a difference, though. I don't often get on a soapbox about gear, but: Less gear does mean you more closely experience the wilderness. The things we carry into the wilderness help define what we are once we arrive. And the less you carry, the less you are imposing your own vision on the wilderness. If you doubt that, try sleeping under a tarpfor a while -- you really live immersed in the wild when you get rid of your last zippered door.
I pulled up on the lawn outside the store and cafe at Red's and dropped my pack (thus deftly switching from my hiker costume to my homeless-guy costume). The cafe was happy to see me and served me a great $12 reuben and a $7 chocolate malt. The store was likewise grateful for my business, which consisted of a six-pack of beer. Heck, I thought, it's a Saturday night. I'm going to take this beer for a walk.
The trail splits right outside the pack station; you can take the official PCT, which looks pretty flat from the maps, or you can take the John Muir Trail, which is a bit more scenic. (The two trails rejoin 14 miles later.) I opted for the JMT, and half a mile later, I found myself staring up at Devil's Postpile.
It's an impressive stand of volcanic pillars, each of them geometrically regular pentagons or hexagons
in cross-section and fluid along their length. One of those "weird, huh?" kind of interactions with nature; less awe-inspiring and more like something you'd expect to see explained in a copy of an AARP magazine in a dentist's office. The other humans on hand were all Korean tourists, dutifully trooping to the top if the postpile and then back down again. I am not sure what they made of the smelly guy with the backpack and can of beer in his hand. It is apparently legal to drink beer while gazing at a Novelty of Nature, or at least the uniformed ranger who walked past me chose not to comment on my beverage.
The trail continued, past the foot of a beautiful meadow and then a few lakes. I continued as well, slowly sipping my way through my liquid bread. About an hour before dark, I was joined by another hiker, a guy I'd met for an hour the week previous. For the purposes of this post, we'll call him the other Guy, seeing as there are only two humans in the story. He explained that he had become separated from his "crew." He looked kind of anxious to get another one, like maybe he wasn't accustomed to sleeping alone in the woods. (It can take some getting used to.) We weren't really couple material, if you catch my drift-- he was too loud, I am too pickily misanthropic -- but somehow he established that we would be camping together that night.
I was most of the way through the beer by now, and feeling kinda gregarious. I was certainly not in the mood to outhike him or tell him off. So I agreed. We made camp under a tree some thirty off to the northeast of the trail. I made myself dinner, tucked the bearcan away, and fell right asleep.
I woke right back up. The Other Guy was saying something in a quiet, urgent voice:
"Bear. Bear. Bear."
"What?" I asked.
"There's a bear right there."
I snapped right into bear mode, yelling "HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!" with my most authoritative voice.
"He's gone," the other guy said.
We got out of our tents and surveyed the situation. The bear had been snuffling around right where I cooked. I had left a stuff sack out, and it had been ripped to ribbons by Mr. Bear. He'd obviously examined my bearcan, some 50 feet away, but hadn't found anything useful to do with it. The Other Guy had stored his own bearcan right next to his tent, an oversight he immediately remedied. It was a kind of amateur move to cook in camp while in the Southern Sierra front country, but then again, I've done it a zillion times with no consequence.
"Well, let's hope he doesn't come back," I said. This is the nightmare scenario: Black bears tend to return to the scene of potential human nutrition again and again, like raccoons.
"Do you think he will?" the Other Guy asked in terror.
"Maybe! But there's not much we can do about it," I replied as I climbed back into my tent. And then I promptly fell asleep.
It occurs to me now that if the Other Guy had hoped for some safety in numbers or moral support, he was gravely mistaken. After all, what could be more disquieting then having your campmate suggest that the return of the Giant Death-Raccoon was likely imminent -- and then listening to him snore? In my defense, bears are part of life in the mountains, and there really isn't much use to worrying about them. They might make your life miserable, although they usually do not; they certainly do not listen to reason. Put another way: I figured that if the bear was going to come back, I should go ahead and grab forty winks winks before he did.