June 15, 2017
Kennedy Meadows South (702) to 722
Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike: Day 41
Ray Jardine Day
We walked out of Kennedy Meadows South between 8 and 9 am. the morning consisted of taking everything out of our tent, packing it up, deciding we needed more space to organize, moving to the porch of the general store, spreading everything out, and spending nearly two hours trying to fit it all into our enormous packs. My pack is heavy, but I don’t want to reveal the concern I feel. I am strong, and am not concerned as to whether I can carry my load, I’m concerned as to whether I can carry my load and still make the same miles as the rest of the family. We meet the rest of the crew at the picnic table just in front of the general store and, once everyone is ready, we head out as a group. We don’t normally practice group assembling and leaving, but for the aqueduct and especially for today, it is symbolic. The Sierra means sticking together. For survival, for support, for confidence, and walking down the road back to trail as a team felt important.
That’s not to say it was all fun and games. My pack looked ridiculous: a full resupply and loads of additional gear. Add that it’s unfortunately close in color to Cheryl Strayed’s pack. Add to that I have enough of a resemblance to the Hollywood depiction of Cheryl in the movie Wild (blonde hair, approximately the same age), and the conclusion is inevitably drawn. Over, and over, and over again as we cover the first half mile. Suggestions that Cheryl should be my trail name, simply calling me Cheryl instead of Cedar, and on. And on. Until, as happened yesterday, Colten puts a stop to it with two simple words.
Yes, it was all in good fun. These were my friends. But the jokes didn’t make me feel like a strong hiker who had just covered 700 miles of trail in under 40 days. They made me feel unprepared, uncertain, like I packed too much, like I didn’t know what I was doing. The gratitude I felt at having the most unexpected person stand up to our friends on my behalf was enough to shatter what I had felt about Colten. I was so wrong, and I’m humbled for having been shown it in this way.
It doesn’t take long for me to fall behind the pack, as usual. I can feel the weight of my load bearing on my joints with every step. My legs, my back, my shoulders are strong, but it gives me a noticeable level of instability and repeated, pounding shock to my knees and hips. I make it almost two miles when I have to take a break, and here we go again. I can’t keep up. I’m behind, and everyone will be waiting for me. Getting my heavy pack early (Tehachapi) didn’t help at all.
Except, just as I’m starting to look for a place to stop in earnest, I hear voices. I come around a bend and there they are. Everyone is exasperated but in good spirits, laughing over the impossibility of how heavy packs and overloaded and uncomfortable our packs are. Smiles all around when Alex and I walk up. I wonder how many times this cycle will repeat itself before I stop running the narrative that I’m alone in my suffering.
I don’t let the break last long (I’m sure there will be many, many more today…about every two miles if I’m lucky). The trail leads across a beautiful bridge on the Kern River and then up into exposed mountain desert. There’s what looks like a school group getting a lesson in backpacking under the shade of a tree, and I want them to take me seriously despite my ridiculous pack, so I hike hard past them. The trail is heading up, and up is hard. I am passed by each person in my trail family, one by one, and just as I wonder how far ahead they’ll make it, I catch them at a stream. I don’t stop for water (I have enough since I can barely drink it out of my bladder with this borrowed pack), and push past them. Then I’m passed by each person again. It’s hot and we’re getting to altitude. The sun is strong, so when Alex catches me we take a quick break to wet our bandanas, heads, and shirts. The water is fresh and freezing. He is struggling, too. Our packs are too big, too heavy, and we know it. Ankles are rolling, barely slanted hills are cause for loss of balance, but we’re out here now and there’s nothing that can be done about it, so we strengthen our resolve and push on. Up, up, up, up. We are climbing into the mountains, the real mountains. Up, up, up.
There is a plateau at the top, and it is very quiet. Just a quiet, completely flat plateau on the top of the climb, sheltered on a few sides, with trees and wildflowers all around. It has the feeling of a secret garden, and I’m thrilled for a bit of respite fromt the climbing. A mile or so ahead I hear voices, and eveyrone is sitting under a big tree in the meadow. Shouts and hellos! Family! But I’m slow and steady, and can’t afford to take a break until I absolutely need to. So I push on.
As my trail family sits under the tree and I keep walking, the trail heads down. Just a bit. The forest floor is gray and gravelly, but there are lots of trees providing shade. I’m pretty fast going downhill, and I feel great! Then, like a curtain pulling back to start the show, the trees part, and I walk into the Sierra Nevada mountains. A green, lush valley that stretches out onto the horizon, except the horizon shoots upward into the sky with 14,000-foot snow-capped peaks. Winding through the meadow is a cold, clear burbling stream, critters hopping and flitting and flying, colorful wildflowers and silence, save for the birds chirping. Colten and Phil are sitting beside the stream, and I join them. Not a cloud in the sky, sun shining, mountains. Rest. Peace.
A few miles down trail I rest again at a big bridge that crosses a river. The banks are grassy, then muddy, but the river is clear and full of fish. I take my shoes off and let my feet sink into the mud. The family trickles in and it is meal time. My first cooked meal is ramen. I add Thai curry spices, coconut cream powder, ghee, freeze-dried vegetables, sriracha, and finally noodles. I am glad I spent the last year working a second job as a cook in commercial kitchens. I’ve honed my cooking skills and it pays off. The first hot meal of the PCT is incredible. The scenery helps, and the company. It’s cool in the shade, we rest. We move on.
It’s at a small stream just before a several-thousand-foot climb that Sam foreshadows the rest of our day.
"We should get mosquito repellent the next time we’re in town. We’re lucky they haven’t been bad yet, but when they are, they’ll come on all at once."
Good idea. I make a mental note of it.
And spend the next six hours cursing Sam for ever bringing it up. The instant we start the climb it’s as if we crossed an invisible barrier that kept the mosquitos at bay. We are swarmed, and not a single person has any type of repellent or protection. Pick up the pace. Walk faster than the skeeters. I can feel them landing on my legs, on my shoulders, on my face, on my arms. Biting. Landing, biting. They come in fast and are efficient in their consumption. I hike faster. I take off my bandana and whip it over my shoulders and around my legs with a constancy that makes me look like a rodeo participant or ribbon dancer. Hike faster. Pick up the pace. We are climbing at what feels like a near vertical grade, like a Stairmaster in a mosquito hive. When the sun breaks through the tree canopy, it illuminates clouds of mosquitos. I hold my breath when we cross streams: they are thicker here. I don’t want them to smell me but I’m soaked in sweat and know that my exhalation makes no difference in their awareness of the blood pulsing hard and fast through my veins. I strain. I hike harder. Climb. Up. My heart is pounding in my chest. The physical exertion combined with stress is sending off so many scent cues that between 10 and 15 mosquitos are landing on me every second. I whip most of them off but my resolve is breaking. Wearing. Thinning. I’m hiking so hard and fast, up and up, and I can’t stop to rest without getting eaten alive.
Finally, I crack. I start hyperventilating, and I have to stop walking. I’m whipping my bandana around me, heaving gasps of breath from overexertion.
Alex is close behind me, and he pauses. He gives me that look that says he’s going through the exact same bullshit but there is nothing to be done about it, and I can do this. Sweat is pouring out of me, I'm breathing in what feels like sobs. This is hard.
I take out my long-sleeved shirt and put it on. It’s lightweight but will at least serve as a (very) thin barrier between the mosquitos and my back and shoulders. We hike on. The trail continues up. Exhaustion overtakes exasperation, and finally, we get to what is the last water stop for the day. Madison and Tyler are here, plus a new face I haven’t seen before. Fire Ranger. I quickly put on my fleece and my rain pants to keep off the bugs, because we have to stop here to make dinner. I make one small comment regarding the mosquito dilemma. Madison, always positive, and Tyler, ever unruffled, are fine. Fire Ranger casually offers up 100% DEET, if anyone wants to use some.
Oh, my god. Relief sweeps over me as I douse myself in DEET. Go ahead, tell me it’s poisonous. The toxicity of my mental state is going to do a lot more harm to me than bug spray. I cover every inch of skin and clothing. Head and face and ankles and hands and neck and could practically drink the stuff. I breathe out just to attract mosquitos so I can smash them between my palms. Yes, come here fuckers. You can’t find me, you smell my breath but you can’t find me, so I’m going to smash you and all your little friends.
We make dinner, fill up water, make it to camp just as the sun is setting. The tent goes up, we find places to hide our bear cans. Places where, if found by a bear and batted around, they won’t roll down the mountain we just climbed. It is really beautiful at the top of the climb, but I am way too tired to care. At all. I’ll look around tomorrow. For now, sleep.