If you’d arrived by car today at the Kennedy Meadows General Store, perhaps the first thing you’d notice on the way in is, well, that there isn’t much to notice. Kennedy Meadows itself is a burgeoning metropolis of two hundred people, stuck on a back road in the southeastern Sierra Nevada. It doesn’t even have its own post office — addresses here are for Inyokern, a very different town in the middle of the desert some miles east — and really only has one intersection, a big T. And on one side of that T is about the only business in town — the General Store.
The General Store itself is a modestly-sized wooden building with a giant deck on one side; it’s not touristy nor purports to be an “Old West” building, but rather simply looks like it’s been used for the purposes of selling hunting licenses, beer, and various outdoor sundries for many years — which it has. The proprietors enjoy hanging signs saying things like “Eat Here, Get Gas” or “I Don’t Always Drink Beer…But When I Do, I Prefer To Drink a Lot of It”. In other words, it has a quaint charm to it of a kind that’s neither pretentious nor forced; it seems like a shop that serves a real function. There’s even a single gas pump out front, selling gas at 30% over the usual rate to those poor souls who have miscalculated on their way through town.
If you drove up to it today, you might not even notice anything odd at first — there might be one or two cars parked there, tops, and you’d imagine there might be three people around. But as you got out of your car, you’d probably notice that there were a dozen people on the front porch, and a dozen more milling around in the side yard. Then, as you came up to the front porch, you’d notice that there were probably thirty people sitting around on the side porch…and that these were no ordinary people. All the men were particularly scruffy and scraggly, everybody was wearing serious technical clothing of one kind or another, there was a lot of food and beer around, that they all basically seemed to know each other…and that everybody was dirty to one degree or another. Even if they were freshly showered and washed, their clothes showed signs of serious use, and nobody was anything like pristine.
If you went inside, you’d find yet more of these souls looking around, going in for yet more beer, a cupcake, sending a package back home, or asking about a shower. Depending on the exact hour you’d come to Kennedy Meadows, you might find a line nine deep for the register and an incredibly harried cashier — or a cashier appreciating two minutes of calm before the next storm.
And, while you were inside, depending on how long you took, you might suddenly hear someone start to clap outside…followed by many more people starting to clap, and some cheers going up…and then see a very bedraggled-looking hiker or two, likely dripping with sweat, slowly making their way out of the heat up to the front porch, joining the crowd. You might occasionally see one or two set off, too, clean and fresh and heading out into the heat again — but probably not unless you were there very early or very late, since nobody wanted to head into the midday heat.
If you happened to listen in on the conversations people were having, you might hear anything from tales of the past fifty miles of trail to crazy drinking games to debates about the very best shoes or other gear to anticipation of the beautiful mountains to come. And if you happened to strike up a conversation yourself, you’d probably come away thinking these people were all quite insane in a common way, if friendly enough, and more than happy to talk to you about what they were doing. (Assuming you came in a car, you might also get asked for a ride the short 0.8 miles back to the trail — ironically, we hikers will take rides anywhere we can, as long as it doesn’t skip any of the trail.)
This is Kennedy Meadows. The crowd of hikers we found here was really interesting, too — it felt pretty different from the group of friends we’ve kept. Decidedly younger, more macho, more intense. It’s not clear to me if this is an artifact of the kind of hiker who finds Kennedy Meadows a great place to spend quite a few days, or the fact that we’re on the leading edge of The Herd, the group of hikers who all started at the same time at the “official” PCT kick-off in late April, and so we’re getting the fastest, most aggressive set of those hikers coming through right now. Either way, the set of people we found seemed different — not worse, not bad, just more intense…a little different from the kind of people (like Rally, Dilly, Dally, Sarge, Stump, Treeman, and Hedgehog) who we’d been hanging around. We all remarked that the most obvious difference was the lack of older hikers: we’d been used to seeing a whole age range, from early twenties up to the seventies (one awesome duo, MC Hobo and Peach Pie, call themselves “Team AARP”), with us in the middle, but this was much more concentrated on a twentysomething contingent.
One of the characters we met today stuck out like a sore thumb, because he has what is, at once, unquestionably the most awesome and the stupidest sleeping situation of any hiker we’ve met. He has a treehouse with him — and I don’t mean a large hammock, either. The thing is a gigantic, three-person tent-like structure that sits about six feet off the ground, suspended from each of its three corners by giant belts that ratchet and tighten around trees. Honestly, it’s completely badass, and everybody’s impressed by it (which, I suspect, is really the reason he’s carrying it). You climb up inside the center from underneath, and sleep up there, six feet above the ground.
So, why is it stupid? Because it weighs seventeen pounds. Probably about half the hikers we’ve met have their entire pack, including everything, weigh less than that. Nearly everybody has a tent that weighs less than three pounds. And the trail name of the treehouse’s owner? “Seventy-five” — after the weight of his pack. That’s also beyond “incredibly heavy” and into “ludicrous” territory; his pack weighs as much as five average hikers’ packs, put together. It’s just kind of amazing what you find out here, and I suppose it takes all types. Far be it from me to say he shouldn’t carry that thing…but I think he’s kind of crazy for doing so.
So, Kennedy Meadows was, to us, a very useful and welcome stopover and chance to clean up and prepare, if not necessarily the kind of place we wanted to hang out for days and days. It wasn’t a place we felt the need to escape immediately or anything — but also not a place we wanted to stay for five days straight, as some other hikers had done. Apparently our vortexes were Tehachapi and Lake Isabella, not here.
We picked up two major packages here: one contained our bear cans and food, and the other our ice axes. We’ve been using Ursacks to store our food so far. An Ursack is basically a big Kevlar-impregnated flexible bag that is, believe it or not, impervious to even grizzly bears — they’ve filled one with raw meat, put it in a cage of grizzly bears, and, even after five hours, they couldn’t get to the food. We love them because they’re really lightweight — about a third or a quarter the weight of a traditional bear can. Unfortunately, the National Park Service has, for reasons known only to the government bureaucracy, not yet approved them for use in national parks, so we have to revert to using traditional bear cans made out of hard plastic for the stretch through the Sierras. These are easy enough to use, but also heavy, adding to our pack weight once again.
Our ice axes, too, make our packs heavier still. We took a Snow Skills course back in February in which we went camping for three days on top of feet and feet of snow, and learned how to belay ourselves and, most critically, practice self-arrest. (Self-arrest is basically the art of using an ice axe to stop yourself when you start sliding down a snow-covered or ice-covered slope, keeping yourself from plummeting to your death.) I actually suspect we’ll need to use the ice axes little or none at all, as I expect the snow to have diminished substantially by the time we get there, but we’re being cautious and taking them anyway — putting us in, at most, a 20% minority of hikers who are bringing them this year.
However, some of that weight is going to be offset…by not having to carry as much water! The PCT Water Report, which is a giant spreadsheet showing you exactly where there’s water as of the present moment, has been our bible for the first 700 miles of this hike — we’d look at it multiple times each day, plotting how much water to take on each segment. But it actually stops about fifty miles from here…because there’s so much consistent water in the Sierra that you don’t need to plan like that any more. So much rejoicing results from this, I can’t even tell you. No more need to carry eight and a half liters (almost twenty pounds) of water any more — now we can carry more like two liters (four pounds), which makes a huge difference. Yes! Particularly once this heat wave passes, this is going to make our lives a great deal better.
We spent today as you’d expect: eating (five blueberry pancakes, eggs, sausage, fruit, OJ, coffee for breakfast, then a double cheeseburger with bacon and mushrooms for lunch), taking showers, arranging our resupply food (and figuring out how to maneuver these huge bear cans into our packs), busy with pack chores, drinking a little beer, and relaxing and talking with our friends. There isn’t actually all that much to do at the Kennedy Meadows store beyond talking to people, which is one reason we’re content to leave. (It’s also relatively primitive accommodations — you camp, there’s no bathroom save several really smelly port-a-potties, and the only water comes from a single spigot in the front yard.)
And leave we did, in the very late afternoon/early evening, around 6 PM, heading only a little over two miles up the trail to the Kennedy Meadows Campground. This may seem like we’ve barely escaped, but where we are tonight isn’t a vortex that will pull you in — there’s nothing to do here but camp, and we’re eager to head out at first light. We think we really only have another day or two of this massive heat wave to suffer through, and then things will cool down. My honest guess is that within a couple of days we’ll be far too cold, in fact, since the trail gets up above 10,000 feet very fast.
From where we’re camped tonight, though, it’s still a bit hard to believe that we’re only a few days away from climbing Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental U.S. We’ve been up there before, and it feels absolutely nothing like where we’re camped tonight, beside a green, lush river where it’s still 70° at 9 PM. I look forward to the change, even as I can’t quite believe it. Onwards!