June 27th, 2014, Friday
1071 to 1090.8
I woke up early that morning, and when I stepped outside, I found the world shrouded in mist. A small herd of deer was grazing about ten yards away, and they eyed me cautiously as they moved off into the fog. I ducked back in the tent and found Zach awake, so we grabbed our bowls and bag of oatmeal and made breakfast. After we finished, we both sat on the sleeping pads, listless. We were right on track to meet Grandma Kathy and Grandpa Ray tomorrow morning, although we still had no way of getting ahold of them to tell them that. However, we’d be getting close to Lake Tahoe today, so we were hoping for cell phone reception.
A strange exhaustion crept over us, and we both snuggled back under the covers. My head hit the pillow, and I was out.
We woke up almost an hour later, feeling much more rested, and got ready for the day. I was still really hungry, but we had few snacks left and wanted to ration them. I kept holding out for a rest in Sacramento, still anxious that it wouldn’t work out.
We started hiking through the pine forest, but after a few miles, we both felt bogged down with exhaustion, and Zach’s fungal infection on his feet was killing him. We paused at a log so he could attend to them. The spidery red mark on his feet had grown ruddier and the skin spongier, especially on one of his feet. But there wasn’t much to do except wash them, put a disinfectant on them, and hold out for Sacramento.
After a few miles more, the trail left the forest, headed into an alpine region. The gray slopes of the mountains in front of us were softened by green, and soon we found ourselves zigzagging switchbacks in a field of yellow daisy-like flowers.
It was here that I recall having our last big fight on trail (at least for a while): Zach said that he thought I was too dramatic, and I dramatically insisted that I was not— I was just really upset! As with most of our arguments, I railed against his point for a while, but when he wouldn’t budge (since, in retrospect, I was proving his point very well), I grew too exhausted to fight any longer, and we decided to just drop it.
We reached the ridge of the mountains, sat down, and ate a snack. With the introduction of a few calories, I felt saner again, and apologized— an apology which, for the thousandth time, Zach graciously accepted.
Now that I had the “fight” out of my system, I could enjoy the scenery as we continued hiking: the wildflowers, the lush trees, the mountains speckled with snow. We also knew that we were crossing a highway soon, where there was a visitor center. We had high hopes for a bathroom, a trash can (trash gets heavy when you have to carry it for days on end), and, hope beyond hope, a vending machine. With thoughts of soda and Oreos dancing in our heads, we pressed onward, enjoying the landscape as we went.
We knew we were getting close when we began to see day hikers. A woman, determinedly plodding up the trail, asked us if the wildflowers were nice on this trail.
“Oh yeah!” I replied. “There are whole fields of them!”
“Actually,” Zach cut in, “the best wildflowers are about four miles back. The views are great, though.”
I began to appreciate the idea of hiking point to point instead of round-trip— four miles isn’t a big hike, but eight miles (there and back) is. It was just hard to scale down my sense of how far is “far.” We chatted with the woman for a while, and she talked about wanting to hike the Camino de Santiago in Spain next year. Zach and I said that that kind of backpacking (hike ten miles, stay in a hostel and drink wine, repeat) sounded like the best trip ever.
We saw more hikers the further we went; there were a lot of them. At last, when we saw a family without backpacks walking with a toddler, we knew we were almost to the highway.
A few minutes later we popped out into a clearing, and there was a visitor center, a big parking lot, and a highway. The sight of cars moving at highway speed almost made my head spin— so fast! We looked around, taking in the amenities. There was an outhouse, good. There was a trash can, good. Now if we could just find a vending machine…
We looked at the visitor center, which was an old wooden building with a large front patio. A couple of visitor center volunteers, wearing badges, sat at a table on the patio, eating lunch. “Are you PCT hikers?” an older man asked.
“Come on over!”
We did, setting our backpacks on the porch. It took us a few seconds to realize that he meant more than “Walk over here”— on the porch were a couple coolers labeled “PCT FOOD.” We gawked, suddenly realizing that we were in the presence of trail magic.
“Would you like some trail mix?” the man asked while another volunteer ducked inside and called, “Judy! Hikers!”
A woman popped out of the center, greeting us warmly. “Okay, here’s how it goes,” she said, pulling the lids off the coolers. “Here are dinner roll sandwiches— roast beef, turkey, and vegetarian. And this is my specialty pasta salad. Here are my chocolate chip cookies. That cooler has soda. Or would you rather have juice? I have some cran-raspberry juice if you want it.”
“It’s my Carson Pass specialty!” she said, beaming.
The older man explained, “We can’t always provide trail magic, so we never advertise it. But sometimes different docents volunteer to make food for the day. Last week two of our docents got together and grilled burgers.”
We took the food almost reverently, and sat at the table with the volunteers. I hadn’t had a sandwich like this since who knows when, and the pasta salad tasted better than pasta salad is supposed to taste. And the cookies! They were thin, crispy, and buttery, and it was all I could do to keep myself from jamming a dozen into my mouth like Cookie Monster. When I asked Judy the secret, she said, “Butter,” and then encouraged me to eat more.
The older volunteer told us about the area, telling us that this was one of the most popular day hiking destinations, which meant that it was getting overcrowded. He was knowledgeable about all things Sierra— and he was the one who informed me that, since “Sierra” is a plural term in Spanish, saying “Sierras” is incorrect.
He also told us the history of Carson Pass. “All trails through these mountains began as animal trails,” he said. “Then the Native Americans followed those trails and made them into bigger trails. When fur trappers and other white men came out, they followed the Native Americans. And when the wagons started coming west, they followed the trails the fur trappers had made. Eventually, those trails became roads, and the roads became highways…” He pointed to Highway 88. “It’s come a long way from being an animal run.” Apparently Carson Pass was a major thoroughfare in the westward expansion, with huge wagon trains passing through.
After about an hour, we had eaten ourselves nearly sick (although I was still nibbling on trail mix and still wanted another cookie). We still didn’t want to go, but at last we scraped our things together and thanked them profusely. I ducked my head in the visitor center. “Thanks, Judy!” I called.
She walked out from behind the desk. “Would you like a cookie to go?”
“You’re the best,” I said.
We crossed the highway (which was a pretty terrifying sprint), then looked at our maps and all the confusing PCT blazes amid a maze of day-hiking trails, trying to figure out which one was the PCT. It was easy to see why this was such a popular day-hiking location: the wildflowers spread out in beautiful fields all the way up the side of this next mountain. The volunteer had told us that some people were able to get cell reception at the top of the ridge— “and in any case,” he told us, “the view is incredible. You’ll get your first glimpse of Lake Tahoe.”
It took us a while to reach the top of the ridge, and we felt weighed down and almost sick with food (but had no regrets). At last the trail emptied out into a large meadow, speckled with yellow wildflowers, that capped the whole pass, with the mountain peaks rising up on either side. In the distance, we saw the promised view: Lake Tahoe, a solid metallic blue with a backdrop of mountains.
In most reckonings, Lake Tahoe is the end of the Sierra, and the beginning of the “Northern California” section. We had less than a day of hiking left, and we could officially say that we were done with the Sierra.
We strolled along the meadow, not worrying about making good time. Zach pulled out his cell phone and began hunting for reception. We hadn’t had cell reception in over two weeks, and it seemed much longer than that. Lo and behold, we got a signal! It was pretty weak, but good enough to make some calls.
We dropped everything and stood in the spot where the signal was strongest. We had a brief run-down of who was calling whom first. We’d gotten no news of home in two weeks, and anything could’ve happened.
First, Zach called Grandma Kathy, and I waited, holding my breath. He asked if we could come to Sacramento for a week, and I heard her exclamation of joy, and knew that it was a done deal. I promptly did a happy dance. There were a few logistics to work out, since we were getting in a bit earlier than expected. “See, we’d already planned to pick up Mary on Saturday,” Grandma Kathy said.
Zach and I were confused, and we didn’t comprehend at first that she meant Mary, as in my sister. Mary usually lives in San Diego (and had hiked the first day with us), but she was spending a few weeks of her summer volunteering at a ranch near Santa Rosa. My spirits soared even higher than before. However, this also meant that they couldn’t pick us up until Sunday. This was disappointing, because we’d have to find a way to hang around and do nothing for a day and a half, but at least we were near a big city (a big city that reportedly had a pizza buffet, too!).
After her, we took turns calling family and friends. I learned that no one in my family had died or been to the hospital (which, if you know my traveling history, is pretty impressive), although my best friend had been in a pretty serious car accident (but walked out of it without injury, thank God). It was dizzying trying to take in all the information, and I didn’t want to talk about the trail. I just wanted to make sure everyone was okay.
As we talked on the phone, several day-hikers passed us, and we felt the need to clarify to every one, “This is the first cell reception we’ve had in weeks!” and apologize for ruining their wilderness experience. But this was our thread to the outside world. After we got back on trail after our rest, I had no idea what cell service would be like. I’d had some idea of the desert, the Sierra, Oregon, and Washington, but I honestly knew nothing about northern California.
We talked for a couple hours, taking turns. But at last, knowing that we’d have plenty of time for phone conversations next week, we started walking again. The trail dipped down, leaving the sight of Lake Tahoe for another time.
I’m pretty sure all our conversation revolved around what we were going to do in Sacramento. Showers, laundry, washing our sleeping bag, getting Zach a new trekking pole tip (his had snapped off a week ago), trying to cure his foot infection, celebrating our birthdays, celebrating the Fourth of July, trying to gain weight— and eating food. All the food.
The trail in this section was beautiful (when was it not?), meandering through pine forests and along open meadows and past little lakes. We stopped on a large flat rock with a view to eat cold pasta and summer sausage, then continued on.
It was near the end of the day, and we were looking around the woods for a place to set up camp, when Zach got a buzz in his pocket and realized that, somewhere, we’d had enough cell reception once more to download a voicemail. He checked it. It was Grandpa Ray, who had just gotten home from work— he said there might be a change of plans.
Talk about an adrenaline jolt! Zach desperately held up his phone, searching for bars. We looked at the maps and saw that we were headed down a mountain on the side that faced Lake Tahoe, so there might be reception there. With renewed energy, we barreled down the trail.
At last, Zach pulled up short, snagging two bars. He called Grandpa Ray back, and got through. Listening as Zach talked to him, I heard Grandpa Ray say, “How would you like to get picked up tonight?”
My heart leaped into my throat, and I did another happy dance. We worked out a plan: he would drive to meet us at the next highway crossing, Highway 50. We were about five miles away, so it would take about as long for us to walk there as it would for him to drive from Sacramento— two hours. We would meet at 9:30.
We hung up (I did another happy dance) and began soaring down the next section of trail. We speed-walked, nearly running down the switchbacks, stopping only briefly to filter water. We were going to take a week off! At this point I didn’t worry about going back to the trail or not. For once, I was going to be able to eat as much as I wanted.
|See Lake Tahoe in the distance?|
After the initial adrenaline wore off, we both started to feel exhausted. Our bodies were prematurely letting down. Zach began limping because of the fungus on his feet, and I felt my body aching. Still, we kept plugging along, trying to calm our racing hearts.
The sun set as we walked, and soon we were walking in twilight through tall pine forests, skirting the edge of a ski resort. The trail, now marked with white diamonds, was blazed twice: once at eye level, and once about fifteen feet up, for the skiers in winter. Soon we saw Highway 50 to our right, and we skirted it for a mile or two before we came to the junction. By this time it was completely dark, with a starry sky above. The highway crossing was in the middle of the woods, and the only landmark was a nondescript house with most of the lights out. There also wasn’t much of a shoulder. We began to worry that Grandpa Ray wouldn’t be able to find us, although fortunately we had cell reception here. We crossed the highway and looked anxiously at the time, waiting for our ride to civilization.
After a few confused phone calls, we finally saw a car pull up on the opposite shoulder, then make a U-turn and pull up next to us. There was Grandpa Ray, his kindly face smiling at us through the windshield.
He got out and, after hugs, we loaded our backpacks and trekking poles into the trunk. He gave us each a bottle of water, handed us a bunch of grapes to snack on, and informed us that we’d be stopping for food on our way back to Sacramento.
I sat in the back seat, feeling exhausted and relieved. As the car took off and zipped along the highway, climate-controlled and insulated from the outdoors, I felt like I had fallen into a different world.
Grandpa Ray confirmed that yes, he was driving to the other side of California tomorrow morning to pick up Mary so she could stay for the weekend! I was ecstatic, and said I’d take the drive with him.
On the way back we stopped at McDonald’s. As we walked in the doors, I was suddenly and acutely aware of what a complete wreck we were. Not only was our hair wild and uncombed, but our bodies and clothes hadn’t been washed in a solid month. People edged away as we stood near, glancing at Grandpa Ray as if wondering if this benevolent fellow was giving charity to a couple of dirty homeless people.
We ordered burgers, and I ate Zach’s by accident while he wondered where the bacon on his burger had gone. Then we piled back into the car.
|My legs: evidence that you should shower more than once monthly.|
By the time we got back to their house, it was nearly one in the morning. The tall stucco house had never looked so welcoming. I had first visited them, solo, when Zach and I had just started dating— they had embraced me as one of the family from the very beginning.
Now, we stepped inside the familiar door, and Grandma Kathy was there to greet us. Zach walked in first, limping from the pain in his foot. When Grandma Kathy saw his emaciated form, his gnarled hair and beard, and the month’s worth of dirt caked on his face, she began to cry. “My babies!” she cried, hugging us each in turn. “My poor babies!”
There was nothing we could say to console her, but she showed us to our room, with soft beds and blankets. Zach and I discussed who would shower first. I took a photo of my legs, and saw in vivid detail what it looks like to not bathe for a month. Then I stepped into the shower for round one.
The water turned black as it ran off my body, and after the shower, I was still dirty. I knew it was going to take a few rounds before my body was actually clean. Grandma Kathy had given me a t-shirt, which I put on along with my shorts.
Zach came out of the shower next, dressed a clean borrowed t-shirt, and still a bit dirty as well. I had forgotten that his skin was that particular shade of brown— much lighter than I’d grown accustomed to the past few weeks. His beard looked downright civilized, and his dark hair hung in corkscrews down to his shoulders.
At last, around 2:00am, Zach and I crawled into our beds, lying caddy-corner in the spare room, surrounded by familiar photos and posters and works of art. We were warm and lying in soft beds and I was going to see my sister tomorrow. I reached over and touched Zach’s hand as profound relief flooded over me. And then, in a moment, I was lost in sleep.
We were done with the Sierra.