Day 47: It Sucks to Hike In Sand

We woke up early this morning, safely ensconced behind our natural windblock, ready for a long day of hiking. When we got in last night, we eyed the steep, huge mountain directly across from our campground: our maps told us we were basically going to go straight up the damn thing this morning, and we wanted to get an early start. The difference between hiking in the desert at 6:00 AM and at 10:00 AM can be enormous, particularly if you’re generating a ton of heat by climbing. We also knew that if we made it far enough today, we could make it all the way to town, and that was a pretty big motivating factor, too.

And you know what? It paid off, too. I’m not remotely going to claim that the climb was fun, exactly, but, all things considered, it really wasn’t so bad. The view from the top, in particular, was beautiful…and yet also intimidating, because guess what we saw? Our first real view of the Sierra — and they were absolutely covered with snow. We’d heard that there were supposed to be some late-season snowstorms hitting the Sierra (much to our chagrin), and this was our first direct evidence of exactly that. We knew we were going right there, and right there can be intimidating and very difficult to pass if there’s a lot of snow on it. There’s nothing to be done about it today, of course, but it does mean we’ll have to reevaluate carefully tomorrow and figure out exactly what we want to do — but that’s for tomorrow, and this is today.

Much of the day we spent hiking on high mountain trail, almost at 7,000 feet, through pine forest and around edges of summits. This trail goes back and forth between feeling like the desert and starting to seriously feel like the Sierra — which is really exciting, because we’ve been in the Sierra a lot (most notably during our 2012 hike of the John Muir Trail, 220 miles in the high Sierra) and absolutely love it. In many ways, it’s actually kind of surprising that the trail hasn’t felt more like the Sierra at this point: we have only fifty miles left until the start of the Sierra (which may sound like a lot, but that’s only two and a half days of hiking for us at this point — it feels like almost nothing at all), and the transition seems like it might be a lot more abrupt than you’d expect. We have zero complaints about that, actually, just because it’ll make it even more exciting to get there.

After lunch, though, civilization (or should I say “civilization”?) collided with us. Out on the trail, things like exactly what day it is are largely irrelevant, but today was the middle day of Memorial Day Weekend. Why did that matter? Well, the PCT met up with an ATV trail for about two and a half miles in the middle of the day…and what should’ve taken us about an hour to cover easily took half again that long, as we were passed (and re-passed, and passed again) by forty or fifty all-terrain vehicles of every possible type in both directions. Caravans of off-road vehicles — some sophisticated, some little more than roll bars with wheels and an engine attached — went flying by, with plenty of dirt bikes sandwiched in between. We even saw a regular old Jeep SUV and, by far the coolest, a Volkswagen Beetle (no, not the new kind, why would you even think that?) that was raised far up and had an incredibly loud engine protruding from the backside.

It was honestly kind of a cool collision of worlds for us: as much as it was annoying having to step off the trail every hundred feet and listen carefully for approaching caravans, the kind of people who go ATVing (mostly with a light beer in hand, as far as we can tell) on Memorial Day Weekend don’t overlap a whole lot with our social groups back home. They were all incredibly friendly; some had given water to a hiker in need, and a couple stopped to chat with us — which is how we learned that many of them were actually entire families out there, often with kids bombing ahead on dirt bikes in front and Mom and Dad in a more staid (which isn’t saying much) ATV in the rear. It made me think about how it’s easy for big-city people to brand such people as rednecks, and yet: (a) they were all incredibly nice people, and (b) honestly, it looks like a ton of fun.

On that segment of trail (and since then), we also found resolution to one of the questions that had been nagging at us. On this 31-mile stretch with no water sources, we’d all been carrying immense amounts of water that weighed us down intensely — we knew we needed it, but having a pack that’s fifteen pounds heavier than it otherwise could be is pretty miserable, especially when climbing. (I took eight and a half liters, which is my entire capacity, and weighs nearly twenty pounds.) Yet we kept running into folks that took far less water — sometimes four liters per person, and in one case only two, or a quarter of what I took. It was kind of unbelievable, because, although different people do need somewhat different amounts of water, that was a pretty dramatic difference. I don’t think anybody in their right mind would recommend hiking 31 miles on anything less than four liters of water, and likely much more.

The upshot is that, as we started getting into the last ten miles of that stretch, we came upon thirsty hiker after thirsty hiker. One ATV driver we talked to said he’d given some water to a hiker ahead who’d asked. One hiker we gave a liter of water and a bunch of food to ourselves, since we were (typically) cautious and somewhat oversupplied, and she was grateful enough to make me think she needed them pretty badly. Others just looked downright miserable, and we saw hikers at the campground we came to at the end of the day diving right for the water and downing liter after liter. While it might not be related (and yet might), a friend of ours we know got a significant kidney infection recently — and while I’m not a doctor, that certainly seems pretty closely related to the water-regulation parts of the body. We haven’t heard of anybody calling 911 or using a satellite beacon for a rescue, but I’m sure that’s happened at times, too.

All of which is to say that, as miserable as it was to carry nearly twenty pounds of water over the past day and a half, I’m really glad I did, because the effects of not doing so look really and truly miserable. There are a lot of hikers out here who run a little too close to the ragged edge for my personal comfort, and others who definitely seem to be of the “I’m 22 and therefore invincible” mindset. No criticism intended for any of them — just that moments like these balance out and counter those moments when I hear of someone with a pack ten pounds lighter than mine because they took far less water, and I wonder if I’m being overly cautious.

As for the title of today’s entry: a great deal of the trail today was soft, loose sand…and hiking in this stuff is terrible, particularly uphill. Every time you step forward and make some progress, you slide backwards a little bit since there’s no such thing as firm footing, and it makes every mile seem about half again as long. We’d look at our phones to see how far we’d gone, and be surprised every time by the fact that it wasn’t nearly as far as it’d felt. We’re going to be really, really glad to be out of this stuff and onto harder trail again, even if it’s steeper, because it’s not going to feel quite so pointless hiking in it.

When we got to the end of the trail, finally, after a day that felt extremely long, we found that the rumors of trail magic present were true: a giant blue tent (of the “party” kind, not the “sleep in” kind) beckoned to us from the parking lot at the campground. We went over there, and…Meadow Ed! Meadow Ed is one of the most famous of all trail angels, right up there with the Andersons, and actually had a small part — played by himself — in the Wild movie. He’s been around basically since the beginning of PCT time, and was there with tons of water, lots of places to sit, and a giant spaghetti dinner forthcoming. It looked wonderful! All three of us genuinely felt terrible turning him down, because we’d already made a reservation for the night in Lake Isabella, the trail town accessible via the highway right next to the campground, but we figured other hikers needed the food more.

And…Lake Isabella beckoned! We three went out to the highway, stuck out our thumbs, and…waited. We’ve frankly been spoiled by easy hitchhikes on the way into towns on this trail, sometimes having to wait almost not at all, and this one proved to be considerably harder than all the rest combined. The main problem is that almost no cars were going the direction that we wanted on the highway: an artifact of the holiday weekend, we saw maybe twenty cars go by the other direction for every one that passed us going the right direction, and a maddening number of them were motorcycles, big rigs, Corvettes, or other useless-for-hitching kinds of cars. After about ten minutes, Bucket and Rally told me I really needed to put some kind of layer over my hiking shirt, which is both baggy and filthy enough to apparently produce a “homeless Jesus” kind of look — probably not particularly attractive to drivers.

Eventually, however, a local came to our rescue, a guy returning from an emergency hour-and-a-half drive home to fix his well that’d stopped working. Given the nature of his errand, we were really impressed that he stopped to pick his up, and incredibly grateful for the ride. But the best was yet to come, because…

The Lake Isabella Motel! We’d heard this was the place to stay in Lake Isabella, though we didn’t know a whole lot about it. But we learned fast. We got out of the car at the motel and it wasn’t more than thirty seconds before the owner, Lonnie, came out. “Do you have reservations?” “Yes!” “We can deal with all the paperwork later. Set your packs down and come have dinner!”

Dinner? Oh, yes, dinner. We turned and walked some steps down to a beautiful garden with lots of patio furniture…and half-a-dozen other hikers sitting down to a feast. It turns out the owner’s wife, Shelley, cooks homemade dinner every single night for the hikers at the hotel; tonight was two gigantic handmade pizzas, salad straight from her garden, watermelon, cantaloupe, cookies, and sodas. Amazing. We’ve had gigantic restaurant meals on the road aplenty, but never yet anything homemade like this, and it was delicious. We caught up with other hikers and devoured our dinner, then checked in.

The hotel is amazing. Compared to the Best Western in Tehachapi, it’s far shorter on luxury — the rooms are, frankly, tiny, the beds creak, and everything is in various states of functionality. But it makes up for this many times over by the charm and friendliness of its owners. I’m guessing its heyday was in the early sixties, and the giant neon letters mounted on its roof (glowing this amazing teal at night) give away its age. The owner and his wife are both incredibly friendly, happy to take on massive numbers of resupply packages from hikers, taking care of everyone to a degree no human being could ever rightly expect, and genuinely making this feel like a home, not just a hotel. There’s a pool here, these amazing gardens, and nineteen rooms all nicely arranged in a row, probably three-quarters filled with hikers. It’s kind of the best place ever.

More about the hotel can wait for tomorrow, though. In the mean time…oh, sleep in a real bed, without worrying about wind or rain or heat or hiking up huge mountains in that awful sand. I’m going to go to bed and dream of breakfast.

2 Comments

  1. Kaliasays:

    Ha, adequate hydration is overrated 🙂

    • Andrewsays:

      Nice to “see” you here! And, ha, I’ve seen what happens when there’s inadequate hydration… 😉 Thanks for following along! Been thinking about you a lot as we’ve been following the JMT…

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