24 hours. Just 24. That was the difference between making it to Kennedy Meadows, and being totally screwed.
Our arrival to Kennedy Meadows was a triumphant one, complete with applause (see: Failure to Launch / Sayonara Desert). We ate delicious burgers and drank beer and enjoyed king-sized ice cream sandwiches. We scratched our heads over our newly acquired bear canisters and hoisted our packs on to carry further down the trail.
Three miles later, we stopped at the Kennedy Meadows Campground and congratulated each other on being good hikers who didn’t get stuck in town. We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting with other thru-hikers when we found out about the fire.
The fire: about 20 miles back at the Chimney Creek Campground, a car camper failed to fully extinguish their campfire. The result: an 1,800-acre burn that closed the trail before Kennedy Meadows and turned several unlucky hikers back to Walker Pass. Had we been 24 hours behind, we’d be joining them.
We watched in awe as the mushroom cloud of smoke expanded into the sky, wondering what it meant for us. Would an emergency vehicle roll through the campground and tell us to leave? Where would we go? We’re not getting anywhere fast. My dreams that night were lit on fire: the campground, the trees, the sage brush, the pine cones. I expected to wake in a thick, smoky haze but the sky was clear. At last, we could make our way into the Sierra’s.
The trail got steep fast. We gained 4,000 feet of elevation and by our 20-mile mark, we were above 10,000 feet. Sidebar: the climbs are not my favorite. We set up camp among the mosquitos and the sunset.
Another 20+ miles the next day wove us through golden pines, white sand, giant tan boulders and spectacular views. Along the way, we met a trail celebrity named OG, or Original Gangster. Real name: Steve Queen, one of the first folks to complete the Triple Crown (the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail). He is walking the PCT on his 35th anniversary of his first thru-hike, back in 1981.
“It’s easier to say what hasn’t changed since then,” he said when I asked him how the trail is different today. “It’s so different. For one thing, it’s actually complete now. And the people. There are so many more people.”
When he finished his first thru-hike as an 18-year-old, only around 30 other people finished that year. Last year, 626 people completed the PCT.
We talked to him for a long time. We learned about how he founded the Oregon chapter of the PCTA. He told us about the first time he heard of the trail, when as a nine-year-old, someone told him he could walk it all the way from Mexico to Canada. Our conversation with him lifted us onward and took us to the junction of the PCT and Trail Pass, our access point to Lone Pine.
Getting to Horseshoe Meadow Campground was a quick two or three miles down the side trail and we reached the campground by 6pm Friday night. We felt good. We were excited for hot food and a shower. We didn’t see anyone leaving the campground, though, so we decided to walk down the road a bit and hitch for a ride.
So we’re walking, we’re walking, waiting for the little paved Forest Service road to dump onto a major highway.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
Storytime started to get a bad feeling. What if this road is 20 miles straight to Lone Pine? What if there is no more traffic? My stomach sank.
Within minutes, a truck came around the corner and I forced my thumb out in the most desperate hitchhiking motion I could muster. Oh god please stop please stop please stop.
The guy pulled over and pointed to the bed of the truck. We jumped in with pure elation and we were off, traveling away from the trail at 50 miles per hour. I looked over at Storytime. He had his eyes closed and his head tilted back and a small smile on his lips. We felt gratitude.
The feeling faded a bit as the road took several hairpin turns down the Sierra’s to the valley floor sans guardrails. Our pickup truck cruised at what felt like 90 mph along the edge of the drop-off and I thought, “Yeah, I could die happy.”
We cruised through the Alabama Hills, used as the backdrop in several old Western movies, Star Wars and Django Unchained. We hopped out on the street corner in Lone Pine and scoured the town for a hotel room. We heard rumors that the town was booked up, but we snagged a little room at the Trails Motel and an excellent dinner at the Chinese Restaurant. We clinked frosty beer mugs and congratulated each other on our good fortune.
When we resume the trail on Monday morning, it will take us up to the top of Mount Whitney (the highest point in the Lower 48), over Forester’s Pass (elev. 13,000 ft), into the snowy high Sierra’s and to Vermillion Valley Ranch. It will take eight days of food (a seemingly impossible amount of weight to carry on such harsh terrain), all crammed into one tiny bear canister.
Until then, I’m going to sit in the (functional) hot tub here at the Dow Villa historical hotel and be happy.