Thursday, June 30, 2016

VVR to Mammoth Lakes: Getting Off Trail (Sorta)

     In my tent, I am finally by myself. I walk through the woods, down the trail, but there are always potentially others. Nice people who say good morning, wish you a good hike. I am in my tent, finally alone with many other people surrounding me. I showered today. Looked at my body in the mirror and wasn't sure what I was looking at. The days from Kennedy Meadows caused my ribs and hips to poke out from underneath my skin. The days in Bishop hid them again, but since Bishop, my body has grown muscle and trimmed the fat from my sides. I pull my waistbelt tight and it no longer pushes anything extra out from underneath it.
My body is sunburnt, more so than in the desert. Schweppes said it's because we're closer to the sun. Underneath my nose and chin, the skin is peeling from the light reflecting off the snow after hours of walking through it. My shoulders blister. I walk towards the passes in anticipation. The approaches drain your energy, pulling your body towards the ground. On the steep, rocky switchbacks, I tell myself I only have to make it to the next shady spot and then I can stop and breathe. When I make it to that spot, I tell myself there must be a better spot to stop and rest and so I walk on. By the time I finally recognize the spot I would like to sit, the rocky incline usually flattens and I continue on my way.
     It's the mile before the pass that my excitement comes to me. I am able to look up, see other hikers slogging up the switchbacks, kicking footholds into the snow. I can see the top, where most often, there is a mound of snow that you must climb up almost vertically. My body is in constant pain, a dull ache that feels natural. I no longer grunt when I hoist my backpack onto my back. I know now that it belongs there, the straps hugging my shoulders, my filled camelback resting in the dip on my lower back. It took five days to make it to VVR, a campground they call a resort that gives you a ferry ride across the lake and a free beer when you walk in the store. When I made it to the spot where the ferry would eventually pick me up, there were four others scattered around the rock outcropping, a couple hunched under their sun umbrellas, a couple others shifting along with the shadows. We all waited four hours, all the while watching as hiker after hiker appeared from the woods. Everyone began to shift as 3pm came around and then a girl said, "There!" She pointed to a speck on the water, all of us squinting, laughing how that could not possibly be the ferry we had been waiting for. Sure enough, a rocking, fourteen foot outboard fishing boat comes skudding up, an older lithe man hopping around the two hikers inside it to keep it from slamming into the rocky shore. Somehow, he managed to fit six of us in there with our bags strapped to the bow. All through the ride, all I could think of was how if we were to tip, thanks to my swimming skills, I would be able to make it to shore and at one point in the ride, I looked to the side of me and noticed a sticker with the recommended weight. I looked around, counted the bags, and came up with a number a few hundred pounds over the weight limit. As long as we hit no waves on the seven mile ride, we would totally be fine. 
     I stayed there for a night, sitting around a fire with others-- PCTers, JMTers and a photographer. I got back to the trail midday and climbed Silver Pass, knowing this would be the one of the last of the passes in Sierras. When I reached the top, I didn't stop, I could see someone up ahead and I would try to catch them, but with the snow there were many different paths and this person somehow just disappeared. A JMT hiker warned me after the pass, when you dropped down into Tully Hole, the mosquitos would be horrendous so try and make it up the switchbacks. I smiled and nodded, yes, sure I would make it up the switchbacks. I lasted another five miles and set up my tent next to a narrow, fast running creek. I moved as fast as I could. I would snap a pole into place and then swipe along all of the exposed parts of my skin. Finally when my tent was standing, I unzipped the door and threw all of my belongings in as fast as I could. After ducking in, zipping the door back up, I swatted at all of the small flying blood bags, my palms showing remnants of wings and innards. All through the evening I watched them buzz around me, bouncing off the mesh walls, wanting in. I made a quick sweep of the walls to make sure there were no new tiny tears in the fabric and went to sleep. 
In the morning, I came to the switchbacks I was supposed to make it up the night before. I walked a quarter of a mile and would stop, take a breath, grab my water bottle and gulp down what I could. I would look up, sure that I would be able to see the trunks of the trees in their home at the top of the hill, but it would just be the tips of the branches, reaching out above the trail that I would see. When I reached the top, I zipped along, lightfooted and eager that I only had another 600ft to climb before Red's Meadow. After a mile, my body became tired and I couldn't make it happy again. I sat beside the trail and dug out a Twix bar, chewed at that for a few minutes and watched as six separate people passed me. I nodded to myself, thinking surely it was because we were only 15 miles from a town that I was seeing so many hikers, how yes, I had to be expecting this in the Sierras. But as I got closer to Red's, I couldn't shake that feeling of the trail no longer snaking through the wilderness, but instead it sat just on the outskirts of town, tricking all of us into believing we are experiencing everything nature can throw at us, but really it's like the Truman Show and it's not real after all. We are all just playing at backpacking in the woods. 
     The last six miles, I walked and walked, not stopping for any water breaks, passing hikers going south. When I got into Red's, a city bus pulled in front of the cafe and I got in the line behind all of the people in clean clothes with plastic water bottles, all of them sweating and yelling in the direction of their young wandering children. I flopped my bag on the shelf and sat down, people staring at me, wondering where in the woods this dirty, frowning girl had com from. The bus zipped into Mammoth, and I was let off near the city center, where I walked slowly to the brewery. I shed my bag outside and went to the counter and ordered their burger on a brioche bun with gouda and kale and tomatoes. I asked whether it came with sides and the girl informed me most people didn't even usually finish the burger so they don't give a side with it. When I ordered a salad as well, she looked at me with a smirk and when they came out, the burger took up most of the plate, and I sat there, the burger in one hand and a fork in the other, alternating bites. I sat there, my body aching and when Schweppes texted me, asking if I was staying in town for the night, I left and walked up towards the hostel. Afterwards, we went grocery shopping, buying real food and beer and when we got back to the hostel, I made him my favorite childhood meal of broccoli rolls and he made a massive tray of lasagna and we ate our double dinners and sat on the couches and we watched Orange Is the New Black with all the other hikers. We really were unaware of what was happening on the screen, but were so very content sitting next to sunburnt strangers in a generic resort town miles from that trail that was eating us all up. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Kennedy Meadows to Bishop: It's a Beautiful Place to Feel Like Shit

    I woke up the night we left Kennedy Meadows, off in the woods getting sick, far enough away so that I wouldn't wake anyone. The next morning, we had two miles until the next water and as I walked, I would sweat and would double over, put my head on the ends of my trekking poles. Schweppes came up behind me, handed me his Gatorade, made me drink half. "You look bad," he said after I handed him back his bottle. I turned away, trying not to be sick again. At the water, we sat for an hour, my stomach turning as he ate his two packets of ramen. We decided to go another three miles to a campsite next to the Kern River, let whatever was in my system work its way out. We made it to the river around 1pm and I put my pack down in the dirt and leaned up against it. I woke up an hour later, curled in between the waistbelt of my bag. I dragged my sleeping bag down to the side of the water and slept while other hikers came and went, in and out of the river.
     I woke the next morning and chewed at a granola bar, my stomach seizing up. I thought about the 2200ft climb over the next eight miles and nodded to myself. I could do it no problem. At three miles, I found myself sitting on the side of the trail, my chest heaving and my clothes and hair drenched in sweat. The Aussies passed me, chatting away, the incline not phasing them in the least. After another mile, I came upon Schweppes sitting beside the trail. "Yeah, I've been here for like twenty minutes." I unclipped my bag, letting it fall to the ground and I sat on the log beside me. I shook my head and I heard Schweppes say, "You look bad," for the second time in twenty-four hours. After that, I would make it only half a mile and bend over, resting my head on my trekking poles, trying to catch my breath. I stood on the trail, telling myself I would make it to the top. I would walk a few more paces, stop and try to quit heaving. When we would take a break, I would ask Schweppes to just go ahead, I didn't want to slow him down. "I have a feeling if I walk ahead of you, I won't see you again. You're not going to be able to catch up." I shrugged. "It'll be okay. I'll catch you." As he walked away, I stood there, knowing I could catch him on the downhill, but unable to make myself move. After a quarter mile, I saw him up ahead, his red hair still visible underneath the camo hat. He made it a game. He told me I wouldn't be able to catch him, not on the uphill anyway, but I did. I had to. My eyes scanned the trail a few feet ahead of me, and every few minutes I would look up, making sure I could still see his head bobbing in the distance. When we hit the summit and the trail leveled, it wrapped around to the left and he looked up and saw me. "How did you catch me? I was for sure thinking I wasn't gonna see you again." "You told me I wouldn't be able to, so I did."
     On the way down, I chewed dryly on another granola bar, glad that we were finally done with the climbing. We decided I would have to get off trail in Lone Pine, sixteen miles from base of the hill so that I could get to a doctor before I could summit Forester. That night, we camped just before another climb and I told myself I would feel better in the morning. I wouldn't even need a doctor after all. For dinner, I nibbled at a ramen and told myself I would feel better for sure. Everything would be fine.
     Hours later, I sat with my arms wrapped across my stomach, feeling it bubble and tighten. I would wander out into the night, listening to the coyotes' yipping move closer to our camp and I would scan the boulders with my headlamp for shining eyes. At 3am, I fell asleep and woke back up at 5. I whimpered and rolled over, "I'm definitely going to have to go into Lone Pine." Schweppes nodded. "I knew you would."   
     We packed up and started the climb. After a couple miles, I followed a switchback up and saw Schweppes standing at an open spot in the trees, looking towards Forester. We sat down under a tree, watching the Aussies pass one by one, all of them quiet. After another hour and a half, we reached the summit, Fighter jets roaring overhead, barrel rolling over the lookout to the valley below.
     At three o'clock, we came to the trail junction. I looked over at Schweppes, "Well, hopefully I'll see you again. If not, good luck." I followed the trail down, unkempt compared to what I was used to walking on and made it to Horseshoe Meadow, an open field  with a small creek running through it at the base of the 11,000ft mountains I had just been up in. It was so green and full of oxygen there. After being so high for that long, I felt my body loosen. I saw day hikers in the distance, their little packs light on their backs. They seemed to be moving so slow and when I caught them, they asked about the trail, but I knew they wouldn't offer me a ride the 22 miles to town, so I waked on.
     When I reached the road, I looked around, not seeing a single person. After a few minutes, a small car came around the corner and I stuck my thumb out, smiling ridiculously, trying to look friendly. The car slowed and the man told me he only had two seats, his young son in a booster seat in the back. I told him it was only me, and he unlocked the door, letting me squeeze my monster bag in the back.
     On the way down, he explained how him and his son hiked 20 miles of the trail in a couple days. I looked back at the small boy in back. "You hiked 20 miles?" He nodded meekly, looking back to the Kindle he was holding. "What are you reading?" "Lord of the Rings," he mumbled. "Wow. Have you read the Hobbit yet?" He nodded. I asked him what grade he was in and he answered that he was in third. "And on your hike, did you carry all your stuff? Your sleeping bag and food and everything?" The dad looked back at him in the rear view smiling, "Yeah, carried all of his own stuff, food and everything." On the trail, it's always so impressive when you see the kids, their own ultralight bags, miniatures of their parent's.
     When I got into Lone Pine, I made a beeline for the McDonald's in town after having a touch of my appetite return. I sat and ate slowly, calling my mom, glad I was in a public place so that I wouldn't be able to break down when I heard her voice.
     The days before, exhausted and nauseated, all I could think of was what would happen when I was finally able to get ahold of her. I could imagine my voice when she answered. I knew she would think something terrible had happened. I thought about texting her beforehand, Nothing serious is the matter. I'm gonna call you and it might sound like something horrible has happened since I'll most likely be sobbing, but everything is just fine. When I did call her, I was calm. I told her of the past three days, not being able to eat for forty-five miles and how it took eight hours to walk thirteen miles, how Schweppes wouldn't leave me because he thought I would end up passed out on the side of the trail. And that night, I checked myself into a cheap motel and stayed in the dark, cool room until midday, glad I no longer had to crawl out of my tent in the darkness when my stomach revolted and only had to unwrap myself from the sheets and make it the few feet to the bathroom.
     When I finally left, I shuffled to the nearby clinic, where they gave me medicine for Giardia and told me it was going to get a lot worse for the next three days. Of course it would.
     Early the next day, I caught a bus to Bishop and found The Hostel California. I sat in the living room area, watching Men In Black. It reminded me sorely of my best friend's home, where you could show up in the middle of the day when no one was home, but still feel welcome.
     I've been staying at the hostel in Bishop. One days, two, three. I can't seem to leave and a few are having the same problem.
     It snowed last night, up on the peaks where we're going. Penny and another blonde kid with dreads walk in from a festival that was out in the middle of the desert. They were left there. The other guys who went were eating pancakes around the table this morning, wondering where the two had gotten to, Philly commenting that he had the blonde kid's wallet. There's a few cars in the parking lot, but no one leaves. I think it might be impossible. Girls wear dresses and hiking boots. They walk down the street unselfconciously. They know all the others will understand and those who don't are the ones who ask how long it will take, what you eat up there, comment how they'd never be able to. We all smile and nod, thinking what utter bullshit that is. We think about all the different kinds of people on the trail. There's no shortage of diversity. I'm waiting for my group of people. People in, no people out. Soon, I have to go tell them I still want my bed, my fifth zero. What am I doing here? I want to wake alongside Schweppes, his quilt just barely touching the side of my bag, wake up early to make it up the pass before the afternoon so you don't posthole until evening. He asks me to scratch his head since I have nails. I tell him afterward he has to rub my feet and he makes me put on my foot massage socks. Clean socks I keep in my clothes bag just so someone can rub those sore nubbins at the end of my legs. I think if I stayed here much longer, the muscles in my legs would atrophy, they would break down and rot and I would no longer be able to walk at all.
     Someone compared hikers to stray dogs the other day. When we get into towns, we all congregate where there's food, we smell and if we see a fellow hiker we know across the street, we'll call to each other, having a stunted conversation, looking as though we're barking at each other. In towns, we have no chill.
     But now, I look up at the snow covered mountains and Schweppes comments how I need to get a hat and gloves. Especially now, especially if I'm not going to be hiking with him anymore.
     We're leaving today though. Climbing up Kearsarge, up Glen. We're making our way farther into the Sierras where it will be cold again, our feet wet from snow and river crossings, where we have to make sure we're not swept away through the rapids, the current strong from the melt.   
     The live-ins here, they tell me I have to mark the Californian flag before I leave. People who stay this long sign the flag, they say, tally the days you've been here. A southbound JMTer tells us after this, after Forester, we'll be singing and just going along like it's nothing. It's all downhill from here, she says. I'm not quite sure I believe her though.