Monday, April 6, 2015

PCT 2014, Day 41: Into the Sierra

(Sorry for the delay in posting— it’s been a crazy week. Also, hope you all had a good Easter!)

DAY 41
June 4th, Wednesday
702.2 to ??

The next morning, we knew that we were ready to leave Kennedy Meadows. Unlike some of the other places we’d been to, there was no good way to celebrate here unless you wanted to spend a bunch of money. We got up and packed up, surprised at how chilly it was. We ate some hiker-box oatmeal for breakfast, worked on getting our food together, and headed out.

Our new bear canisters were difficult to get used to. First of all, we couldn’t hope to fit all of our food into them. We had one large and one small one, made of blue plastic with black lids, covered in bright orange tape and little Dutch-themed stickers by previous owners. They didn’t fit very efficiently into our packs. In fact, our entire packing systems had to be revamped to accommodate them. We tried to pack the smelliest foods inside the canisters, and left the unopened jars of peanut butter, the bags of pasta and potato flakes outside in our food sacks. 

Zach and I waved goodbye to the very few hikers on the porch that morning. Most people were still asleep (and would wake up with terrible headaches, I was sure). 

We walked on the asphalt back to the trail. And with a deep breath, we took our first steps into… the Sierra.

It looked exactly like the desert. Zach and I jokingly grumbled about this as we walked over sand between short, scrubby brush. A mile later, we crossed a road, passed a campground, and found ourselves in a grove of charred and blackened trees.

“No!” I cried, throwing a (for once) fake hissy fit. “We’re in the Sierra now! No more burned trees! No more sand! Lots of water everywhere!” Zach agreed with me.

Eventually, we left the burn area and continued in trees— tough conifers growing out of tumbled boulders.

I honestly can’t remember how exactly the landscape changed. I feel like we were heading up a hill, out of trees, and the branches parted like a dramatic scene in a movie. 

Stretching out before us was the one of the most beautiful vistas I had ever seen in my life.

I look back on my photos and it looks like nothing special. It was a stretch of wasteland, like so many wastelands before us, of scrubby grayish-green brush on flat ground. But in person, it was truly awe-inspiring. It grabbed my sense of scale and wrenched it from my grasp, stretching out into a massive, miles-long field, sloping up into fir-covered hills, which multiplied into gray peaks in the distance, and there, on the edge of sight, jagged teeth of snow-covered mountains. A tiny cabin on the edge of this dream emphasized its hugeness. We felt like we were tiny specks on the edge of a massive green bowl. And— really— for the first time— I felt like we had reached the High Sierra.

The euphoria I felt at that moment was painful. I felt swallowed by this landscape.  I felt excited beyond all reason that we had made it through the 700 miles of desert that had been such an unknown factor in my head.

And I thought, Oh my gosh. We’re actually going to make it.

I cannot possibly convey how much more incredible this looked in real life.
Zach and I lingered under a tree in the field and ate a snack, taking in the scenery. Then we continued on the trail, which soon left the open field and wound along the edge of the pine trees before climbing up one of the hills and diving over the other side, leaving the initial field behind. Still, wide flatlands spread out to our left, and we saw the river we’d seen the previous day, the Kern, spread out into a lazy delta that squiggled through the land. After the desert, it seemed ridiculous to see that much water spread out over that much land. We were excited to see that we’d be crossing it in a couple miles, and we hurried on.

After winding through a grove of trees, we found ourselves all at once at a steel bridge, arching gracefully over the wide, shallow stream. The banks spread out on either side of us, speckled with hikers, lying in the shade or the sun with their bare feet spread on the grass.


It was one of those moments when I didn’t realize how much I’d missed something. I stared at the swatch of lush green grass, growing like a well-tended lawn along the banks of this beautiful stream, and I felt tears stinging my eyes. We had been in the desert so long, and we were finally out of it. I dropped my backpack and fell prostrate on the grass, tussling with my shoes to pull them off so I could bury my toes in its soft blades. The other hikers made no comment; I had a feeling each one of them had been through something similar.

After I got over the amazement of the grass, I noticed something that I had ignored at first: the swallows. There were hundreds of them, darting under the bridge, wheeling and zipping through the sky, fluttering over the water, making a constant squeaking chatter. They were a delight to watch.

Zach began working on cutting up summer sausage and boiling pasta for dinner. I grabbed the mass of dirty socks and waded into the stream to wash them. It was the first time I was able to wash our laundry in a flowing stream, where I didn’t feel like I was polluting someone’s water supply. The water, warmed by the sun, glided like silk around my feet. The bottom of the stream was coarse sand, which massaged and exfoliated my callused, dirt-encrusted feet. As I dug my feet deeper into the sand, I felt a growing sense of euphoria, like I was a bubble of light hovering between the warm water and the flitting swallows over my head. 

That was when I learned that the Sierra (while mostly being difficult and back-breaking) was one giant natural drug.

Feeling a bit dizzy from euphoria, I clambered back onto the bank and sat with my feet in the sun. My feet looked unnaturally white to me: it was the first time since I left San Diego they had been clean, since even a thorough scrubbing with soap in the shower couldn’t get to the nitty-gritty dirt. Zach and I ate summer sausage and pasta and enjoyed the beautiful, sun-soaked evening.

We considered staying there for the night, despite it not being very far out, but we decided to nix this idea when a horde of very clean-looking hikers showed up. They had left the southern terminus almost a month before we had, and had traveled only four miles in the past four days. They were splashing in the river, gathering materials to make a bonfire, and pooling their supply of marijuana for the night. Zach and I decided to go on.

We put our shoes back on our clean feet, hung the wet socks from the outside of our backpacks to dry, and hiked over the Swallow Bridge and onto a sagebrush-filled landscape. After a mile or so, we were back in the woods, walking through a wide pine forest that stretched as far as we could see on all sides. We still made camp pretty early, on a slope in a pine forest near a stream.

We set up next to a fallen log, and left the rain fly off because it wasn’t too cold. I dutifully placed our bear canisters twenty paces from our tent, and we stuffed the rest of the food into our tent. 

That night, the stars shone through the pine branches like diamonds.



  1. Beautiful description regarding the first time you saw and felt you were in the Sierra...I would have probably expected the desert geography to have lasted even longer. :) I just don't think God intended for us to ever truly capture his magnificent creations on film (or digitally)'s just too grand! It has always struck me as rather amazing that when I'm on my way to Florida to visit family, that I truly feel I'm in Florida when I see the sandy ground (right at the state line, I might add) and palm trees. But Florida is all that and more, just as the CA desert is and the Sierra as well. Happy trails...

    1. I definitely agree! Also, Florida is really awesome... I've always loved it down there. I'm happy to live in such an incredibly diverse country.