Human Claustrophobia, the Vast and Silent Mojave, and Ass-Hauling for Omens

June 11, 2017
Mile 634 (Sequoia National Forest) to Joshua Spring
Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike: Day 37

Waking up on the ridge to a beautiful sunset and a five-star bathroom break. It was a hike-while-you-try-to-converse kind of morning, with a long descent and a chatty hiker behind me and Alex.

The chatty hiker yammers on, his name is Goat-something-or-other, and while I try to feign attentiveness I am hit with a fleeting feeling that I don’t want to hike with Alex anymore. Yet, that’s not quite right. I don’t want to hike with anyone. Or I don’t like conversing while I’m hiking? I don’t like hiking with other people? I certainly like being with other people. But I think I don’t like hiking with other people. The act of hiking. I like doing it alone. If someone is behind me, I feel anxious. If someone is ahead of me, I feel anxious. If someone wants to talk to me, I’m irritated. If I’m on break and someone is welcoming to me, I’m elated. I can’t pinpoint where it’s coming from or what it means but it’s an incredibly poignant feeling. Almost like claustrophobia. I am someone who has constantly surrounded myself with other people my whole life, so this is a very foreign idea. And I don’t really know what to do about it, with it, or for it.

The day is absolutely gorgeous and we can see glimpses of the Sierra. Wildflowers among us, the Sierra in the distance. It feels encouraging, and important to see them in the setting of such a picturesque day given all the fearmongering and posturing that is taking place in the PCT community. They are very snowy, and very beautiful. Incredibly majestic, and I am in awe at the thought of moving through them. Being in the midst of their power and wisdom. Respect wells inside of me. Reverence. I have driven through mountains before and admired their beauty, but to be just days away from living with them, communing with them, and requesting safe passage and preservation of life—it is a completely different sensation. It’s not in my eyes, it’s in my chest when I breathe and move, and it fills me. 

I take a late morning break at McIver Spring Cabin, accessed by a jeep road walk and some poking around to find the right turn off. It’s a funky little place that looks like it has been appropriated by hikers for a decade. Beautiful cold spring water and shady/sunny spots to relax in. Perfect for today where it is just a bit too hot in the sun and just a bit too cold in the shade, I find a spot that puts my face in the sun and everything else under a tree. I take a moment to close my eyes but am eager to keep moving. The desire to leave Kennedy Meadows on June 15 looms. It would be a good omen if it came to pass, and an omen is the closest I expect to come to getting permission from the Sierra to traverse their ridges, peaks, and valleys. I take lunch with Alex; Sonya and Ben show up later and we sit with them for a bit, then continue on our way while they take their midday nap.

As the day progresses, Alex and I continue to hike together. We take many breaks, swapping spots in the conga line with other hikers in the same 10-mile bubble of trail. Sonya and Ben make their way past us. I'd love nothing more than to lay down in the sun and soak it up for the rest of the day, but right now we’re pushing our way into Walker Pass for a visit with Coppertone. 

Coppertone’s truck is spotted over the crest of a hill and we hurry down to say hello and find what goodies he’s stocked up with. It’s another excuse to take a break, and breaks are always welcome.

Oh joy! Sonya and Ben are seated in Coppertone’s camp chair circle, and the table is covered with donuts, bread, snacks, candy, plus a cooler of beer. The four of us shoot the shit with Coppertone for a while, delaying the start of the next major climb (just across the road). Ben and I rack our brains trying to decode his GPS, which becomes much more productive once he changes the language to English from French. Then, in a moment of cruel provision, the universe gets me walking again by guiding the Monster (from under the oak tree) to Coppertone’s roadside oasis. She sits for a few minutes and that’s enough time to get my pack on and bid my friends Adieu. I’m off. 

The climb out of Walker Pass marks a distinct difference between the windward and leeward side of the mountain. The windward side is green and lush. The leeward side is quiet. Dry. Shady at this time of day, at least on the actual face of the mountain. The valleys below are drenched in sun. I can see the shapes of Sonya, Alex, and Ben making their way up the switchbacks. It feels steep, and I know once I hit the top the hurricane will return.

The climb leads to a ridge walk, which is the best way to get someone who is afraid of heights to hike really, really fast. The wind is back, but it’s not so much a hurricane as an impressive force of air blowing in a single unified direction. The ridge planes out and there’s a massive windbreak so I sit down to gather my bearings. I need to decide how much further I’ll go today. I want to be leaving Kennedy Meadows the 15th of June (Ray Jardine Day), and I’d like to have a full zero-day, which means I need to make it there on the 13th. The day after tomorrow. I’ll need to hike on. I’m tired. And the wind is not getting any better. Alex catches me at the windbreak, we have a snack and push forward.

The trail leads around the back of the mountain and we are met by the eerie silence of the leeward side. There is no wind here and it is cold in the shade, but I look out on the landscape and I understand why it is so dry. I am looking into the heart of the Mojave. An expanse of sun-drenched sand far, far below. I am thrilled to be leaving the desert.

Winding around and around curves on the backside of the mountain, the sun gets to a point in the sky that induces the we-need-to-find-a-place-to-camp variety of anxiety. My unrest is aided by a section hiker who tells us the trail wraps back around to the front of the mountain soon and it’s at least a mile of switchbacks after that to get anywhere flat enough to tent. Don’t worry, he tells me, he’s cowboy camped on a switchback before. Oh, I won’t worry, I think to myself. Because there’s no way in hell I’m sleeping on this tiny switchback with a 300-foot fall into the Mojave just waiting to consume any restless sleeper stupid enough to think they can sleep on a 1-foot-wide divet made of loose rocks. Though, if it comes down to sleeping on trail tonight, at least my plummet into the Mojave will be cushioned by a bed of boulders. No thanks.

The descent is indeed long and windy, and preceded by a mauling from on-trail poodle dog bush. At the end of the descent is yet more descent that makes me really nervous we’re not going to find anywhere to camp. But, as trail would have it, when we finally get to the bottom there's a just-right spot waiting for us. It's under a tree and next to a spring. Shelter and water. There’s even a comb leaned against the tree. If only I needed to brush my hair, right?

I collapse into bed, ready to wake up at 5 am tomorrow and get my ass within half a day’s walking distance from Kennedy Meadows South.

 When I first arrived at this vista, I saw clouds and foothills. Then, I realized some of the clouds were not clouds at all. 

When I first arrived at this vista, I saw clouds and foothills. Then, I realized some of the clouds were not clouds at all. 

 First glimpse of the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains.

First glimpse of the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains.