Mile 883 to mile 906
I dream that I’m choking, that I can’t breathe. I wake in the night coughing. In the morning I sit in my sleeping bag, eat breakfast, and immediately feel nauseous. Don’t throw up, I think. Don’t throw up don’t throw up. Oh, altitude. Oh, camping at eleven thousand feet.
It’s 23 miles to Red’s Meadow. I don’t know what Red’s Meadow is but there’s a store there, and a campground, and that’s where the road starts, way up in the mountains. The road that takes you to Mammoth Lakes, where I’ll resupply, in every sense of the word. If I can only get to that road today, I think, then anything is possible.
Even though today’s pass is not as high as the ones that came before it, my alititude sickness has seemed to reach a sort of fever pitch. The earth is tilting around me, and the fatigue is overwhelming. I just want to sit down on the ground. My body, today, is made of lead.
And I’m almost out of food- just a few handfuls of almonds and some fritos left. The fritos are stale and I don’t want to eat them but I do, sitting at a glittering lake on the other side of the pass. I feel numb to the beauty of the lake. I poke at the chafe that’s developed on the inside of my thighs, where the inseam of my running shorts rubs my skin. The skin there is ripply and textured, like an elephant’s skin. It’s been getting more raw the last couple of days and today it’s even, I realize with a frown, beginning to crack. I know what I should do- I should take off my shorts, wash them in the lake, and let them dry in the sun. It’s the salt crystals, they say, that do it. The salt crystals build up on your clothes from sweat, and they’re sharp, and they cut into your skin. But I don’t have time to wash my shorts. It’s afternoon and I’ve only gone twelve miles. And according to Yogi’s guide, if I make it to Red’s Meadow by seven, I might catch the last shuttle to Mammoth Lakes. I might get to Mammoth Lakes tonight. I am exhausted, and my chafe stings like fire when I walk, but something happens as I stare at the lake, eating my crumbled fritos. I can do it, I think. I can get there by seven.
After the lake the path is flat and smooth and loamy- the first flat trail in what seems like days. So far it’s been climbing over rocks, or picking your way around water, or down steep slopes- in the Sierras, the path is never just flat. You can never just walk. Forward movement is complicated, technical, exhausting. But now the trail is smooth and tidy and it cuts cleanly through the forest, all the way to Red’s Meadow. I clip my pack on and I pick up my trekking poles and I walk. I am hungry and vomity and my chafe is raw and painful but I walk.
After a number of miles the forest opens up into a burn and I can see the mountains in the distance, going on and on and on. The understory of the burn is lush and bright green and clear little brooks run through it and the sun is warm and yellow. We’re dropping down in elevation and the air is getting thicker and the path is soft and dusty. My stomach is growling at me, so I stop and eat the last of my food. Ouch, says my stomach, when the food hits it. I’m tired and anxious and sick from the altitude and my stomach can’t handle anything, it seems, at all. Ouch ouch ouch, says my stomach, when I stand up to walk again. I unclip the hip-belt of my pack, and that helps a little. Red’s Meadow, I think. Red’s Meadow Red’s Meadow.
At 6:30 I reach a bunch of little wooden sheds and a dusty pen with horses inside. The trail junctions at a narrow dirt road and I follow all the cascadia footprints there. MeHap, NoDay, Instigate. All of them ahead of me. And every now and then a Salomon footprint, a cluster of little triangles, which is Spark. Since I’m usually at the back, I know everyone’s footprints. Except for Track Meat- his shoes are so beaten and worn that I’m not sure he has a footprint at all.
I reach the Red’s Meadow store at 6:45. It’s in a little wooden building and I push the door open, making the bell jingle. Inside the clerk is shuffling around, getting ready to close.
“Is there a shuttle to Mammoth Lakes?” I ask.
“Shuttle doesn’t start til Saturday,” says the clerk.
“What day of the week is it?” I ask.
“Can I charge my phone in here?”
“Sure,” says the clerk. “I’ll be here til eight. There’s an outlet over there next to the couch, behind the icecream cooler.”
I buy two cans of chili, two apples and an icecream bar and plug in my phone and sit on the couch, eating icecream and texting people.
“How do you get out of here?” I text to Vegi, who is in Mammoth Lakes.
“Hitching seems pretty easy,” he says.
“There’s a campground just down the trail,” says the clerk, who is sweeping in front of the beer cooler. “There’s a site for backpackers there. You’ll see all the little tents.”
“Thank you,” I say. I throw away the stick to my icecream bar and set out into the warm evening light. The trail to the campground crosses a few little streams and there are cute plank bridges over the water. The campground itself is dim and forested and there are bear boxes and a couple of RV’s there, entire livingrooms of outdoor furniture set up in the dirt. The bathroom has a sink with soap and running water (!!) and I change into my long underwear, taking off my shorts and washing them in the sink. Then I wander over to a site where a handful of backpacking tents are set up.
“Is this the hiker site?” I ask the men there, who are cooking dinner on the picnic table.
“Sure,” they say. “You can camp here too if you want.”
They are three guys doing the John Muir Trail with massive, heavy packs. They are nearly limping and one of them has developed sciatica and I feel for them, but I also envy their luxuries. Camp shoes! I think. A double wall tent! They are friendly and we sit around, chatting about nothing as I heat up my chili and eat my apples. Then it’s time for bed and I set up my spaceship tent at the edge of the campsite and it completely blows their minds.
“Twelve ounces?” Says one of them. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I say. “With the pole and everything.”
It’s nice to have my ego stroked in this way. For the last 200 miles I’ve been able to count on southbound JMT-ers to validate my identity as a PCT thru-hiker and make me feel smug. Soon the trails will split again and it’ll just be me, the occasional day hiker, and other PCT thru-hikers- and all of their packs will be at least as small as mine. So I’ve got to get it while I can.
It’s warmer in the campground than it was last night, when I was camped way up by the pass. It’s so warm I don’t even need to sleep in my down jacket, which means that tonight I have a super awesome pillow. I snuggle down into my hard, wonderful bed. I feel happy, and my stomach has calmed down. And tomorrow I’ll be in Mammoth Lakes!