June 22nd, Sunday
964ish to 982
It had been nearly two months since we’d set out on this crazy adventure of ours, and we thought that the worst was behind us. However, the trail today began to show that it had a much more subtle form of difficulty: mental torture. True, we were done with the frightening cliffs (for now) and snowy passes. What replaced them was much more deadly: a trail that appeared to have been blazed by drunken boy scouts.
Zach and I managed to hop the creek without getting too wet, then followed the trail as it followed a pretty steady incline. The mountains here were steep and close, boxing us in. After so many weeks of high desert and high mountains, it felt claustrophobic.
I also started getting nosebleeds that day. It didn’t make sense that it was caused by elevation, since we were no longer that high up, but my nose bled on and off for a long time after that. I had to walk with a bandana staunched against my nose. Finally the blood seemed to stop, so I put my bandana away. A few minutes later, we saw a weekend hiker walking toward us.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” I said, and at that moment, blood practically exploded out of my nose. That got him to move on quickly.
We paused for a snack at Benson Pass, a notch in the mountains which led down to Smedburg Lake (we thought the name was unreasonably funny). We blazed through the bag of jerky and then, still feeling hungry, ate half our trail mix and pineapples. We had a sneaking suspicion that, once again, we hadn’t packed enough food. It was supposed to be eight days to our next resupply at Echo Lake (near Lake Tahoe), but it’s hard to judge how much food you’ll need for that many days! Still, at least we’d be crossing some roads in the meantime, so we had a source of emergency food if we needed it.
We skirted the edge of Smedburg Lake and followed the trail through a twisting, seemingly random route. It was impossible to tell where the trail went from here— you just had to follow it as it zigzagged down, then switchbacked up, then doubled back, then left you in what appeared to be the same place as before. Oftentimes the climbs were marked with huge rocky steps, and the trail was a constant up and down. After a while, it began to feel like we were going in circles. It seemed like we were getting nowhere, and that was really frustrating. I felt exhausted and a bit sick. We just couldn’t make mileage! All the while, mosquitoes swarmed around our heads.
We had to ford a stream, so we took off our socks (and I put on my new flip-flops). As I did so, Zach let out the most gleeful laugh I’d heard from him in weeks. I turned in surprise to see him spraying 100% Deet onto a mosquito on his arm. “It’s dying,” he whispered maniacally, staring at it. It was somehow comforting to know that the trip was making him insane, too.
We forded the river, then joined Smuggles and Heat Wave on a rock on the opposite side. We sat in the full sun because mosquitoes tend to congregate in the shade. Smuggles, cleaning his orange-framed glasses, told us about his native Canada and the hiking around there. I washed our socks and my nosebleed bandana in the stream, watching minnows darting around in the shallows. I knew that some hikers had sent themselves fly-fishing gear so they could fish while they were in the Sierra.
I was talking to Zach, noting that several people in the area had called the PCT the “P. C. Trail,” which to me conjured an image of computers littering a backcountry trail. “Isn’t that funny— P. C. Trail?”
Zach shook his head, looking over our map. “Today it’s more like the P.C. Fail.”
That made me giggle, every time I thought about it, for weeks afterward.
On the last part of the day, the trail began a huge, steep descent that jarred our knees and made our joints ache. Zach began walking faster and faster as the sun set, trying to get down this mountainside so that we could find somewhere to camp. Here it was the day after the solstice, and the sun still seemed to be setting too early! As he barreled across a smooth stretch of stone, the fine, loose gravel on top slid sideways and he crashed onto his side. Without a word he stood up and kept walking. I was very quiet, and minded my step.
At last we reached the bottom of the hill, although we were now walking in the dark as we entered a forest of pines. We heard a stream nearby, but as far as I could see with my headlamp, it was delved into a little canyon with steep banks all around.
Zach and I swept the area with our meager lights, trying to find a flat spot to sleep, and located one on a bed of pine needles. Zach went to try to find a way down to the water, and I set up camp. It was a bit unnerving being by myself in the dark woods, but I also saw the stars coming out overhead. It was a pretty warm night, so I decided to leave the rain fly off. For some reason, the stars were comforting. This was odd, since they had seemed so untamable and scary when we first set out.
Zach soon returned with some water, and we snacked and laid in bed, looking up through the mesh at the tree silhouettes and bright stars. These stars were our roof now, as solid and commonplace as a blank ceiling. It was good to know that something that had once been frightening now seemed comfortingly familiar.