Mile 934 to mile 942
My mosquito bites wake me in the middle of the night. I react like crazy to the mosquitoes here, for reasons I don’t understand. Each night the bites that riddle my legs wake me and for a while I lay curled in my bag in the dark, scratching like a junkie. Dang, I think, as I scratch at my knees. It’s like I’m ten years old again.
In the morning it’s cool and the rain has stopped. I’ve slept late- 7 a.m. I crawl out of the tent and check my bear canister- it’s in the same place that I left it. Huh, I think. No bears. I eat almonds and rice crackers and then pack up my things and set off down the valley towards Tuolumne meadows. I’m tired this morning, still sort of hungover from crossing the pass in the cold rain. I feel cold and lethargic but the thought of civilization pushes me forward- the little store, the possibility of seeing my friends.
The valley is beautiful- water on water on water. A flat stream winding through squishy green grass under an overcast sky. It all reminds me of Alaska. I stop to dip my gatorade bottles in the stream and imagine stripping off my clothes and jumping in, swimming in the turquoise water under the cool grey clouds. The water would make me new again.
A few miles before the road the trail slopes downward into a dry forest and there are day hikers, in their clean bright clothing, clutching bottles of water and stumbling angrily forward into oblivion. They all look like they’re either too hot or too cold. I stop to eat a snack at a wooden bridge next to the trail junction and Scat Tracker and Unicroc appear, their billowing pack covers still stretched over their packs.
“Last night,” says Unicroc, “we got beared.”
“We hung our food,” says Scat Tracker, “and a bear climbed the tree and got it all. There was a jar of coconut oil, a jar of honey. The bear smashed them into the ground and ate everything.”
“Dang,” I say. “I was camped so close to you. I didn’t even see a bear.”
“The bear moved our canister, too,” says Unicroc.
“Should’ve slept with your food,” I say, laughing.
We hike together towards the road. There are more day hikers, clutching packages of things, squinting against the light.
“It’s like when you’re at sea and you see birds,” I say, “and you know you’re close to land.”
The Tuolumne Meadows store is in a big white canvas tent alongside the highway. There’s a picnic table below some trees next to the parking lot and all the thru-hikers are there, eating snickers bars and drinking beer, their sleeping bags spread in the grass to dry. The clouds are beginning to break but I’m still cold and I wander in and out of the store, buying bits of food to eat. I buy a burger in the cafe, then some french fries. I eat two bananas. It’s nice to be around other hikers again, sitting watching the tourists come and go. There are hikers here I haven’t seen in weeks, people who I thought were ahead of me, people who I thought were way behind. We’re all swirling around in time and space, crossing passes in the wilderness, totally unaware of each other and then Bam, we’re in the same place again, all mixed up and rearranged.
And then Track Meat and Spark show up! And Vegie is there, and Grumpy, and Track Meat gives me a beer and I buy a cup of chamomile tea, and all the possibilities of the universe are proposed, and then it’s decided that we’ll hitch down to Yosemite Valley, where NoDay and MeHap and Instigate are, and Snort, a young hiker wearing neon pink leggings, is going to come with us too.
We split into teams of three and stand on the side of the bright highway next to a meadow of heartbreaking green. None of the tourists stop but eventually a man named Crow who works in the valley and his friend, Lindsey, offer to drive us in their cars. The road is long and winds past clear lakes and convoluted granite cliffs. Crow tells us about his hometown of Salinas, California (where Steinbeck is from!), and shows us pictures of his baby daughter.
“It’s her birthday tomorrow,” he says. “I’m going to throw her a party.”
We round a bend and there are the tall granite walls of the valley, a waterfall falling in slow motion from the place where they meet.
“Wow,” I say. “This is really beautiful.”
We park and stand in the dusky road between rows of dark little wooden houses. Other employees appear. They’ve got beers and they’re wearing their blousy weekend clothes. We walk together beneath the towering trees to a little grocery store, the granite walls of the valley all around us, and buy ginger beer and a bottle of jack daniels. We walk to a sandy beach on the riverbank. The river is shallow and clear and runs over smooth round stones. We sprawl across the sand and drink our whiskey and watch the night fall. The air is smoky where it moves above the water.
Lindsey and I take off our shoes and wade into the water. Someone has a guitar and is singing. Snort has a baggie of sour gummy worms and then the ginger beer is gone, and the whiskey too. There is a little path that winds through the trees to a secret spot where the staff like to camp and we spread our sleeping pads in the dark there. I cook a little dinner and eat it by the light of my headlamp, listening to Spark snore in his bivy. It’s balmy and warm and there is a single mosquito, but I don’t mind. I put my dirty pot in my food bag and put my food bag under my legs, to protect it from the bears. I’ve decided to call this the “over my dead body” method of food storage. It’s suprisingly comfortable and I lay in my bag on the warm sand, staring up at the stars. I can smell the trees all around me, and the river nearby. The dark is soft and comforting, tonight, and I watch the sillouhettes of the trees move against the sky. Of course this is all there is, I think. Of course this is all that matters.