June 10th, Tuesday
782ish to Onion Valley Trailhead
Today was resupply day (involving a seven-mile side trail and a 13-mile hitch to the tiny town of Independence), and Zach and I had no trouble waking up early to get a jump on that. We took stock of our snacks: two Payday bars, some dehydrated refried beans, and a single pasta meal. We split one of the Paydays for breakfast, then packed up in the cold shadow of morning.
In retrospect, I’m astonished that we were able to hike so much mileage, and so much elevation, on such little food. For instance, the day we tackled Forester, we each had two cups of oatmeal, two cups of pasta with sauce (no meat), and two and a half Snickers bars, which adds up to a little bit shy of 1,200 calories per person. Today, running on half a Payday until our midmorning break, I felt delirious with hunger.
We walked at a furious pace, trying to make up for all the mileage we’d missed the day before. We ran into a few people who had gone over Forester Pass before us— they were all relieved that we were safe and sound! “I was worried about you guys!” Chop Chop said as we walked by.
I laughed, feeling my innards quiver at the memory of the day before. “I was worried about us, too.”
We were descending sharply into a canyon— King’s Canyon, as it turned out, with high towers of light-colored cliffs sweeping up to either side of the coniferous forest. Although we were technically in Sequoia National Forest now, we couldn’t pick out which of the trees were sequoias because they were all about the same size, and not exceptionally large. This lush, wooded landscape, threaded through with little rushing brooks, was a welcome change from the barren trek yesterday. In a high snow year, though, this all would have been buried in snow.
We met a group of three JMT hikers going southbound, who stopped to ask us about Forester Pass. As we stood and swatted away mosquitoes, we told them, in no uncertain terms, to tackle it before late afternoon, and to walk up the snow rather than the boulders. They wanted to stop and chat and learn all about our hike so far, but we told them we were in a hurry.
“We have to get to Independence today,” I said, “and we’re almost out of food.”
“Oh, okay, we won’t keep you then,” they said, and continued. One of them, though, hesitated. He turned and called after us, “Do you guys need any snacks?”
My head whipped around. Neither of us had any strength to even make a show of politely protesting. “Yes, please.”
The guy took off his backpack and began unloading what appeared to be a never-ending buffet: a Clif protein bar, a Nature Valley oat bar, and a tiny bag of Fritos. Then he reached for his bag of beef jerky, and I had just enough will to say, “No, not your jerky! That stuff’s expensive.”
“It’s fine!” he said. “Here, I’ll give you half of it.” He took some out for himself and then handed the rest of the giant bag to us.
At this point I was so happy I was in tears. The JMT hikers observed us with a grave kind of compassion, and I realized that with Zach and his bedraggled beard and hair and me with my tears and pale, stressed face, we must have looked thoroughly pathetic. Wishing us well, they continued on.
We sat down on a nearby boulder, spreading the precious gifts out on our laps. We ate the Fritos, the Clif bar, and all the jerky, as well as the other Payday we had been hoarding. We saved the oat bar for later. My stomach now felt even hungrier, but I was happier than before, grateful for the unexpected trail magic. We continued down into the valley for a while, and then the trail took a turn to the right and began climbing a mountain again. Soon we would take a spur trail. It was a bit annoying to have to take a 14-mile round-trip detour, but we had heard that the side trail was beautiful.
Here we ran into Kit and Rimshot again, and had a nice time hiking with them for a while. At the junction, a detour they weren’t taking, we exchanged phone numbers. However, we never caught up to them. As with so many people on trail, though we felt affection every time we saw their names in the trail register, we never saw them again.
Now we set our sights on the Bullfrog Lake Trail, which, predictably, ran alongside Bullfrog Lake. As we came to a clearing where the large lake stood glittering under the sky, I reflected that, once again, the people who named the lakes in the Sierra had no sense of majesty.
This wide expanse of water, deep and blue, was bordered by huge, picturesquely-sharp peaks of mountains, striped with snow, stark and black against the blue sky. These mountains rose on every side, with glimpses of higher mountains in the distance. It felt very closed in, with mountains towering around. It was so beautiful that I later described it (and the Sierra in general) as “kick-you-in-the-face gorgeous.” Seriously, I felt physically assaulted by how scenic everything was. Like being trapped in an REI calendar for weeks at a time. My poor Midwestern brain, used to rolling hills and river woodlands and cornfields, felt exhausted. Or maybe I just felt exhausted because I was climbing several thousand feet a day and beginning to starve.
At any rate, Zach and I sat to eat the last of our food on the banks of this lake, dwarfed by the majesty mountains around us. We met a man and his son who were hiking a 30-mile loop. We asked him about the pass we had to cross on the side trail, Kearsarge Pass. He assured us that it had almost no snow on it, which was a relief.
From Bullfrog Lake, the trail climbed up into barren countryside again, starting a long set up switchbacks up a steep scree field. On the way up, we met a man in his 60s with a massive external-frame backpack that was hung with several Walmart plastic bags full of food. He had a leathered, sunken face and a sweet smile, and stopped us to talk. Despite our gnawing desire to get to town, we chatted with him for a few minutes. He was hiking in for a few days to commune with nature. He said we should see if we could rent pack mules to carry our backpacks. (We made noncommittal positive sounds at this suggestion.) He offered us food, too, but we assured him that we’d be getting to town in a couple hours.
After a few more murderous switchbacks, Zach and I emerged at the top of Kearsarge Pass, where several hikers were taking a break. The valley in front was as gorgeous as the valley behind, but this one went deeper, plunging all the way from the High Sierra down to a desert-like valley floor where, in the distance, we could see a tiny speckle of civilization that was the town of Independence.
We met a few happy and well-fed hikers who had just zeroed at one of the towns that you could hitch to from Independence, Bishop. They raved about the hostel there. Zach and I didn’t even agonize about the possibility of a hostel stop— it wasn’t in our budget, either of time or money.
A guy and a girl, who were getting off trail here due to injury, offered us some Fritos. I dug into the gallon-bag with vengeance, thanking them profusely. Especially now, the sheer amount of fat and salt made my body happy on a very basic level.
After a brief rest, Zach and I loaded up to hike the remaining three miles down to the Onion Valley Campground, in hopes of getting a hitch. Reviews of the hitchhiking opportunities were mixed, but we were hopeful. As we started down the other side, the hikers said, “Enjoy your zero! Just watch out— Bishop is a vortex.”
Zach and I smiled politely and continued on. Vortexes were for people with money.
|Of course I got no pictures of the actual town... I was too busy eating.|
As we shuffled along the trail, cutting through scree, admiring the ridiculously picturesque lake and waterfall far off to the right, I prayed that we’d find a hitch to Independence.
The trail was designed by someone who wanted to break the incline into the tiniest increments possible, which meant that we traveled down about eight million perfectly-flat switchbacks that would run along the side of the mountain, turn around and go down a couple feet, run along in a flat line for a while, go down a couple feet, and so on. It’s illegal to cut switchbacks in the Sierra (and it was a bit far to jump), so we were just racing down this never-ending series of loops. It was nearly 3:00 by the time we stumbled down to the trailhead, looking at a motionless parking lot. There were several cars, but no people that we could see.
We waited. We chatted with a guy who was staying at the campground (a historian, and one of the only people I met on trail who had a positive opinion of St. Louis), but he said that he wasn’t going down the mountain today. With a 26-mile round-trip through winding mountain roads, I could see why. This might be a hard hitch.
At last, we saw a black pick-up headed toward the exit. With a beaming and somewhat sheepish smile, I stuck out my thumb. The car pulled up, and a guy with a shaved head, accompanied by a large terrier, rolled down the window. “I’m actually the campground host,” he said, “and I wasn’t planning on going down to town today— I’m just going a mile down the road for cell reception.”
We thanked him for taking the time to explain, but he said, “If you’ll pitch in ten bucks, though, I’ll take you to town. Just enough to cover the gas money.”
Again, there was nothing to agonize about: we had about a dollar-fifty in cash. “Sorry, we don’t have any cash,” Zach said.
“But it’s all right,” I said, “I’m sure someone else will be going down tonight.”
The guy looked around at the deserted area, and snorted a little bit, and looked at us thoughtfully for a second. “Okay, fine,” he said. “Hop in!”
We took the offer with only minimal protesting. Soon I was sitting next to his scruffy and friendly white dog as the man, who introduced himself as James, wound down the tightly-turning mountain roads toward the desert. As he drove, he told us about the history of the area: Independence had once been an Indian village in a fertile green valley. Now we looked at it— mostly brown, with any green struggling for life. “LA bought up a bunch of land secretly,” he said. “And by the time people figured it out, it was too late. They diverted the river to make the aqueduct and this became a desert. You guys aren’t from LA, are you? Good. Everyone in Independence hates LA.”
This was not the last time I heard someone bitterly talk about Southern California’s water hoarding. Water is a big deal in California.
James pointed to the thermometer on the dash of the car— the outside temperature was about 65. “I guarantee you it’ll be 30 degrees warmer in Independence.”
I could barely glimpse the town ahead, but it was quite a trek down. The long, tightly-turning road had to meander its way out of these incredible mountains before it would hit the plain.
By the time we drove onto the plain a mile or so from the town, James rolled down his window and a hot gust of wind blasted into the car. The temperature gauge now read 95. “What did I tell you?” he said.
When he pulled up to the post office and we stepped out into a summer temperature that made me feel like the air had turned to thick, hot soup.
James said that he was going to run some errands in town. “If you like, I can pick you up in about an hour and take you back up the mountain,” he said.
We were really relieved to hear this, since we were wondering how on earth we were going to get a hitch back up into the mountains. We arranged to meet at a local taco stand that he recommended, and he drove off while Zach picked up our box.
The town was small, a single strip of businesses with a few houses, and felt very small and lone in this huge plain. I looked at the community bulletin board and saw advertisements for cheap shuttles that ran to the nearby town of Bishop, as well as an announcement of a lecture being given about traditional native irrigation practices (before LA stole all the water, I presumed).
Zach and I emptied our food onto the sidewalk, consolidated the duplicates, grabbed a few packages we didn’t want (we were so done with dried hummus), then set out to find a place to buy some extra groceries. There was no way we wanted to be down to such little food again— this time we were certain we’d bring plenty!
We walked down the main road, then crossed the street when we spotted The Prospector and Chop Chop, as well as a couple other hikers, across the street at Subway. They were unpacking a huge box of food, and I envied them. When Chop Chop held up a freeze-dried package of banana chips and asked if anyone wanted them, I practically leaped on them. Another hiker tried to put in a word, but I think he saw the ravenous gleam in my eye, and said that we could have them. I gave him my hummus.
We ended up at the Shell station, trying not to flinch at the incredibly pricy groceries. Fortunately, Fritos are the same price no matter where you go, so we bought a bag. We also saw some Santitas chips, a massive bag for only two dollars. We also bought two extra-large Paydays and two extra-large Snickers, and decided that between those and the Fritos and chips and our camp food, we’d have plenty of food to get us through the next 100 miles. (Spoiler alert: we were very wrong.)
With that in place, we crossed the street yet again to the taco truck, which looked a bit run-down, but had fairly cheap prices. I got two carnitas tacos. There was a table with bowls filled with fresh toppings— cabbage, salsa, radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, and cilantro. I loaded up on veggies and ate the taco slowly, almost reverently.
I made a hurried call home with the spotty reception— no time for chatting, just making sure everyone was alive. I learned that my sister Mary was going to be working on a ranch in Northern California over the summer. That was pretty much all the news I had time for before James returned to pick us up.
We stopped at a nice little city park so he could run his dog around. I sat on a picnic table and watched a little stream gurgling nearby. I enjoyed the sight of grass. We hadn’t seen a bit of grass since we left the swallow bridge.
Zach had gotten some cash from the ATM, and offered to pay James gas money now that we had cash, but he refused. He had clearly changed gears, from “campground host” to “trail angel.” As he drove us back up the mountain, he talked about backpacking back in the 80’s, when stoves weighed two pounds and fuel tanks were sold by the gallon, and you brought a steel pot and canned goods to eat. He said that his backpacks averaged 80 pounds, which made me shudder.
Back at the trailhead, Zach and I decided to spend the night at the campground. We chose a nice spot on the edge of the camp with aspens whose leaves quivered in the chilly breeze (what a change-up from the swampy weather down in Independence!). For supper we rehydrated and heated up refried beans. Then we took the massive bag of tortilla chips and proceeded to devour the whole thing, along with banana chips and ice-cold Gatorade.
Now the hiker hunger had kicked in.
We relaxed that night, doing nothing in particular but watch the gray sky roofing the mountains above our heads and the aspen leaves trembling in the breeze. That night, I slept like a rock.