Homecoming at Kennedy Meadows South
June 13, 2017
Fox Mill Spring to Kennedy Meadows South
Pacific Crest Trail Thru Hike: Day 39
Wake up, get packing. Today is a big day, and we get an early start. There’s one more climb before Kennedy Meadows, and it comes first thing in the morning. The climb is exposed, but the sun is only just coming over the horizon and the heat is tolerable so far. It’s a sizeable foothill, and as I head up the switchbacks I don’t actually know it’s the last climb before Kennedy Meadows—until I get to the top. There is an expanse of foothills and then, in the distance, the Sierra Nevada in all its snowy glory. The range spans the skyline and it is breathtaking in the purple-blue morning sun. They are so tall, so different from what we’ve seen so far. I imagine mountaineers crossing crevasses and planting flags at mountain summits, though I expect this is an exaggeration. Two women at the top point out a couple of the different mountains we'll be traversing in the coming month and tell me I’ve just finished the last climb before Kennedy Meadows. I want to keep hustling, but I can’t pass up being here when Alex sees this view. He pops around the last switchback soon after me, and we rest just enough to have a quick snack. Sonya and Ben show up and offer to make us hot coffee (we still don’t have a stove) in celebration of our certain arrival at Kennedy Meadows today. I hesitate, but I know that all three of them are faster than me, and if I want to make eight more miles before the heat of the day I need to push on. So I do.
The descent winds around and around foothills. At the bottom there is a creek, clear and flowing, with a big, shady sandbar housing a couple of campers just waking up. It’s still early in the morning, but the heat of the day is starting to come on strong and I need to fill up water. I hope it’s the last stop I’ll need to make before I’m done for the day. I take my pack off and lay out my sit pad so everything doesn’t get covered in sand, fill up my water and, as I’m starting to put it in my pack, a hiker begins loudly telling his story of the previous night.
He’s sitting along the creek with wrappers scattered around him, and what I now see is a torn up food bag. Bear. Last night, as he tells it, a bear walked right up to his tent and started rustling through his food. Banging, screaming, arm-waving, to no avail. Or, to some avail: the bear took the food bag and walked a few paces into the bushes to enjoy his spoils of the raid. Apparently the bear was very precise with his excision of food from wrappers. Heath bars were unwrapped, eaten, and the wrapper set aside. Surprisingly, the bear was not interested in packaged salmon. Given the choice between Heath bars and salmon, I’d go for candy over fish, too. Smart bear.
Even smarter bear for hanging out just eight miles before hikers pick up their bear canisters.
Sonya and Ben show up at the creek to fill water and I know it’s time for me to move on. The clock is ticking and signs indicate that it is going to be a hellishly hot day. Eight miles means just under four hours of hiking with no breaks. That puts me at about 1pm for getting into Kennedy Meadows. Time to go. I pack up and head out, knowing I’ll soon be passed by Sonya, Ben, and Alex.
The heat gets hotter, the wind is nonexistent, and I am pushing through discomfort. We all are. It’s hot enough that resting in the shade is barely a relief, and this is the twisted encouragement the desert offers. As I wind through the sandy terrain, feeling the endlessness of trail that comes with a getting-into-town day, I check my phone for the next water source. It’s dangerously hot and I am drinking a lot more than expected. The next stop is the Kern River, a few miles up trail.
I see the river 20 minutes before I can access it, and as soon as I find an access point my pack is off and my head is under water, submerged in the ice cold water that takes my breath away. Sweet, freezing cold water rushing over my overheated head, dripping down my face and down my back. It’s uncomfortably cold and blissfully cold at the same time. It must be 95 degrees in the sun. I soak both my bandannas, soak my shirt as much as possible by dunking my head repeatedly and letting it drip down. Once I’m completely soaked I tie the bandana over my head, put my pack on, and continue the sweaty slog towards KM South.
The general store can be spotted two miles out from arriving at its front door. I saw the green roof in line with Sonya, Ben, and Alex. We passed through a handful of cattle gates and finally hit the road into Kennedy Meadows, with not a soul around. We hadn’t seen or heard from anyone in our trail family for two days, hadn’t seen anyone we knew today, and had no idea what to expect ahead. There’s a National Forest sign. Then a sign for entering the Kennedy Meadows ‘town’. Ben and I are in the lead, with Sonya and Alex less than a tenth of a mile behind. I see the general store, the porch full of hikers and, all at once, a roar of applause. People stand up and come to the railing of the deck. Rise and Shine, Dana. Gary and Land Mammal. Flame, Justin, Sam, Colten, Chris, Phil, Yeti and Sara. Cake and Beaver. Everyone is here, and they’re all cheering. Sam tells me he didn’t expect us for at least another day (they all arrived yesterday or early this morning). I am smiling so wide, so proud. Madison and Tyler show up soon after, and we cheer for them. Silver Fox is a couple of hours later, and the whole family is together.
Inside the general store there is a woman running the register with with an 11-month-old on her hip. We put our name on the package retrieval list and after a few minutes we have everything we ordered. There’s a surprisingly good selection of craft beer, and to my delight it’s all in cold storage. Local craft beers, a handful of Firestone Walker, Stone, and Sierra Nevada. It’s $3 for a tall boy, but I’m in the middle of nowhere and have just walked 700 miles to get here. I don’t care how much the beer costs.
Just outside the general store is a haphazard area for tents (I hesitate to call it a campground), we find a spot that will be mostly shaded for the rest of the day and put our tent up to claim the spot. We’re nearly on top of Yeti's tent, but shade is precious and Yeti is gracious enough to share. In the tent, we open our packages with a cold beer in hand. I get my Topo Designs fleece and can’t wait until it’s cool enough to wear it this evening. New clothes! I’ve been wearing the same thing every single day for nearly forty days. It’s everything I can do to keep myself from putting it on right now, despite the heat of the day. Our stove, bear cans, ice axes and hiking boots are here, but we don't move into packing mode just yet. That can wait until tomorrow. For now, trail family! Friends! Everyone! I can’t wait to hear stories and hug and drink beer and eat and just spend time with these people. I’ve missed them! I’m so happy they are here, and that they’re happy I’m here. My trail family. So many smiles to make up for the scowls and grumbles and harumphs and frustrations and left-behind feelings and not-good-enough feelings of the last week. We’re all here together, and I am joyous.
The family wants to take a full zero day tomorrow and head out the next day. That only gives me one zero day where I had originally wanted two, but taking a single zero also means walking out of Kennedy Meadows on June 15th. Ray Jardin Day. It has come to pass, and it is a good omen.
We spend the rest of the evening relaxing on the deck, with our table growing larger by the hour. Too much money is spent on food and beer. A few people poke at the hiker box but it is in a serious state of disarray. Broken food bags, trash, discarded loose medicine, unusable maps. Lots of unlabeled, questionable items.
The sun crosses the roof of the general store and the deck becomes shaded and cold. I grab my fleece from the tent and a handful of the trail family rallies to gather firewood. There’s a teepee structure (just poles, no canvas) with a fire ring in the center. We build a fire, migrate from the deck to form a circle around flames, and spend the rest of the evening with about 30 hikers playing the question game. I am the facilitator, and though there are many new faces playing the game, it catches on and ends up being a wonderful way to make new friends, even at this scale. I look forward to spending time with these people tomorrow as we prepare to head out into the wild, snowy wilderness of the Sierra Nevada.