(In the first week of October, 2014, I set out to hike the Lowest to Highest Route with NotaChance and Orbit. Here, in installments, is my trip report. For technical information on this route, go here.)
Through some miracle of fate, late September finds me living in a trailer in Southern Oregon with two of my favorite hikers, NotaChance and Orbit (aka Jess). This much hiking obsession in one small space (Chance has hiked the PCT four times, Jess has hiked the AT, the PCT twice, plus a bunch of really cool stuff in Nepal) means that we’re bound to start scheming, and when we have a chunk of time free we jump ship, catch a ride into Ashland, buy a bunch of shit from the Shop n’ Kart (Chance likes those bars that are made of meat, Jess purchases a great quantity of instant coffee) and fall asleep on our friend Mitra’s floor, after eating too much coconut bliss. Maps printed off the internet are scattered across the table, water bottles, fished from the trash, are stuffed into our packs. The plan is to walk from Badwater Basin, at 238 feet below sea level, to the top of Mt. Whitney, at 14,503 feet. The Lowest to Highest Route- The lowest point in the country to the highest point in the Lower 48. 135 miles. There is no trail.
I wake at 6:30 with the dawn, eyes weepy from the cat, and rise from the couch to boil water in the electric kettle for coffee. There are dishes everywhere, limp bunches of greens from the farmer’s market, a half-eaten spoon cake. I stare at the bits of paper taped to the fridge while I wait for the water to boil. The fridge is covered in fingerprints and the inside is stuffed full of microbrews and leftovers in plastic yogurt tubs. Mitra appears in a long robe, rubbing her eyes. She works early at the market.
“Don’t you want to come with us?” I say. “Walk from Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney?”
“No,” says Mitra.
The water starts to whine and the others are up, stretching on the carpet, tired in this leftover morning. Jess braids her hair into a thick side-braid, stuffs her things into her pack. Jess is quiet, thinks about the stars a lot, and by “the stars” I mean astronomy. We’ll name her “Quiet Jess”, but not until we’re on the crest of the Inyo Mountains, weary and dehydrated, pretending we’re in a Steinbeck novel. Chance is “The Butch One”, even though she’s straight. Brassy and loud, her hair always tangled. She owns one outfit- wranglers with red suspenders and a torn t-shirt with a snake on it. Sometimes she drinks too much. I’m good with logistics, making sure people are fed and we have a place to stay, so I’m “Momma Carrot,” which makes me imagine myself in a long prairie dress, lots of petticoats. Watering the flowers in the box on my windowsill. Making everyone salads. It wouldn’t be a bad life, really.
There is no trail from Badwater Basin to the top of Mt. Whitney but there is a route. This route exists in the imaginations of a small handful of people, and there are maps online. The maps have a red line through them- this is the route. We’ll hitch to the salt flats in Badwater Basin, which boasts the highest recorded temperature in the U.S., and from there we’ll start walking west, towards Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48. We’ll navigate over three mountain ranges and three baking valleys. The journey will take about six days. We have only to stay on the red line.
I’ve never navigated with a map before.
One of Mitra’s housemates joins us in the living room, where we’re packing our things. He’s young, with tousled blond hair, carrying a messenger bag. He tells us he goes to Southern Oregon University for their Outdoor Education program.
“Outdoor education!” I say. “That’s perfect. Do you want to come on this hike with us? You can be our intern.” The man looks frightened.
“I have to get to school,” he says.
While we walk to the I-5 onramp I call Panamint Springs resort. Panamint Springs Resort, described as a “remote campground and restaurant in Death Valley”, is on our route, 50 miles into the hike, and our plan is to cache food there that we can pick up on our way through. This way we only have to leave Badwater Basin with two days of food. This is my third time calling Panamint Springs, and the results are always the same- a man answers the phone, I say who I am and what we’d like to do, he sighs, and then he hangs up on me. This brings to mind the opening scene to the movie for Stephen King’s The Stand, which is set to Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper– all the people in a research facility have died, fallen dead into their bowls of soup in the cafeteria or piled up against the back doors, clutching the handle that says exit. We decide that there’s only one person left living at Panamint Springs Resort and that he’s holed up in the office with the doors barricaded, shotgun on his lap, fending off zombies. We start singing on the onramp, waving our cardboard sign that says Death Valley–
All our times have come
Here but now they’re gone
Seasons don’t fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
we can be like they are
Come on baby, don’t fear the reaper
Baby take my hand
Don’t fear the reaper
We’ll be able to fly
Don’t fear the reaper
Baby I’m your man…
I also call the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, to get information on the three water sources on our 135 mile route. The ranger who answers the phone tells me that she, ah, can’t recommend that we do this hike.
“It’s still hot here,” she says. “You want to wait a few more months.”
“This is the perfect time of year to do this hike,” I say. “The desert is cooler (100 degrees instead of 115) but there isn’t any snow on top of Mt. Whitney, yet.”
“Yeah, no,” she says. “I can’t recommend it. You’d need, like, a map.”
“We have maps,” I say. “We have very detailed topographical maps. We all have lots of hiking experience.” (Do we? I think.)
“Ah, no.” she says again. “I can’t recommend it.”
“I don’t actually care if you recommend it,” I literally say into the phone. “I just need to find out if these water sources are running.”
The woman gives me the number of a man named Charlie.
“Yah, Hanaupah Canyon, the spring is running,” says Charlie in a gruff, not unfriendly voice. “After the spring you want to climb up the ridge, though. Don’t keep going up the wash. And if you see any marijuana grows, don’t touch ’em.”
“Thank you,” I say. Climb up the ridge, I repeat to myself. Don’t go up the wash. These are the sorts of things, I am realizing, that you have to remember when there is no trail.
A woman named Chris stops for us and we pile into her tidy SUV. Chris lives alone atop the Marble Mountains, in a house she built herself. In the sixties she hitch-hiked across Africa, but now she makes a living teaching Opera. Chris has silver hair and her sweater is draped elegantly. She speaks quietly, as though slightly annoyed at having to speak at all, and I have to strain to hear her. Chris drops us in Yreka, where a huge tattooed man gathers us up into the spacious, comfortable cab of his truck. He’s headed to his grandmother’s funeral and he nurses a single Corona while he drives. Dude In a Pickup Truck, the patron saint of hitchhikers. Generous and polite, he’ll take you anywhere you need to go. Stranded somewhere? If you wait long enough, he’ll always come along. Always. The man takes us out for icecream and then drops us in Mt. Shasta, where we stand blinking on the main boulevard, across from all the crystal shops. It’s already afternoon, and we’ve only made it a hundred miles. I feel frazzled and my friends need coffee. In the little health food store I buy cold deli meat and mustard. Jess finds a smart white button-down in the thrift store- her desert shirt. A desert shirt is a light-colored, long-sleeved thing, usually with buttons, that creates a microclimate next to your skin and keeps you from roasting like a chicken in the sun. I hate my desert shirt- it fits me like a tent, although the permanent sweat stains on it from my PCT hike are sort of beautiful.
We stand outside Mt. Shasta for a long time, at a junction for a small highway that will eventually take us south, then east of the Sierras, then to Death Valley. No-one driving by has any idea who we are or what our sign means. We have to be back in southern Oregon in eight days, for work, and I’d budgeted one day for the hitch south. At this rate, though, we’ll be lucky if we make it at all.
“I just want to hike,” says Chance.
“Hiking is so much easier than hitch-hiking,” I say. I feel dehydrated already, and we’re not even at the trailhead.
“I want a hot dog,” says Jess. “More coffee.”
A woman named Dre is headed to a hotsprings near Lake Tahoe and has room in her subaru for all of us. Dre is listening to the Clan of the Cave Bear audiobook and I fall asleep to the description of Ayla’s life among the people of her tribe, gathering berries and making fires against the winter cold. When I wake the shadows are long and Dre is dropping us at a lonely junction somewhere north of Reno, next to some cowfields.
To the west the earth rises up in sagebrush hills, the beginnings of the Sierra Nevada. We crawl under some barbed wire and unfurl our bedrolls in the clumpy grass and cow patties. The temperature plummets- it’s cold in the desert at night. I eat a bag of salt & vinegar potato chips for dinner. The stars come out and I lay in my bag with all my layers on, nose poking out, watching the milky way. It feels good to be in this nowhere place, surrounded by no-name hills. It feels good to be a witness.
I have wild violent dreams and wake up thirsty and cold in the still-dark, unable to get warm. My bag is wet with condensation and frost and I curl into a little ball, awkwardly, on my child-size neo-air. The sun spills liquid fire over the mountains and we all sit up, although we’ve been awake for hours.
Jess braids her hair and boils water for coffee and then we walk down the deserted highway to a gas station, set back in the hills, where I buy instant cappuccino from the machine that spurts powder. I fill half the foam cup with hot chocolate and sit on the cold sidewalk out front, drinking it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Chance washes her face and Jess finally gets that hot dog.
A series of small, exhausting hitches leaves us standing in the sun at the edge of a town just big enough to have a general store. I have a small tub of pot brownies a friend gave us for our journey; he told us that they were very “mild” and so we eat them to pass the time, until they’re all gone.
An hour later none of us are high and so I feel confident in the fact that the brownies were, in fact, very weak, just regular brownies really. Another hour later I’m driving our ride’s huge pickup through the mountains near Mammoth while he naps and suddenly I am very, very high; the road is impossibly narrow and I’m either going too fast or two slow. Our ride wakes and asks me a question but I’m unable to discern what he means by it, exactly, so I don’t say anything in response. Chance laughs in the backseat and says something that is also unintelligible. Our ride drops us off just north of Bishop and I pace the tarmac, try to soothe myself with a pocketful of gingins, little chewy ginger candies. The gingins stick to my molars in a terrifying way and I start to panic. A car pulls off and I end up shotgun, again- I refuse to answer any of the driver’s questions and I just stare at my phone. I think he has an Australian accent, but I can’t be sure.
Our ride dumps us at the edge of Bishop, where we try to hitch for an hour and a half, to no effect. Finally we walk to the grocery store, where I buy some roast chicken and gluten-free pretzel sticks. We sit in the little seating area next to the indoor starbucks. I remember when I was here on the PCT in 2013, and I ate the entire inside of a stale cherry pie.
At 6:30 we mount the local bus for the long ride to Lone Pine. I lean against the window and watch the dark come on, the first stars above the desert. It’s so dry here, the land so quiet and open. I’m tired and hungry and everything seems unreasonable, like I should’ve just stayed at home. But what is Home? I don’t know. The three of us have a friend, a hiker named LoveNote, who bought an old house to fix up in Lone Pine. The house stands empty on the edge of the desert and we can stay there, she says, while we’re in town. We walk to the house from where the bus driver drops us off, through a small, shuttered neighborhood, houses sun-faded and shrunken against the broad desert sky. We find the hidden key and let ourselves in to an oasis of old wallpaper and wood paneling, quiet rooms and a couple of made-up mattresses on the floor like pure heaven, windows open letting in the air and the sounds of the crickets. Tomorrow we’ll hitch the last 150 miles to Badwater Basin- and then the real work begins.
I wake up late after the sun’s up air coming in the open windows making some windchimes move, somewhere, and I lay in the faded flowered sheets feeling hungover from something, I’m not sure what. When I get up I realize I’ve started to bleed and there’s the relief that comes with that, tension releasing like when it’s overcast and finally starts to rain. I can feel my insides deflating like a bike tire with the air coming out.
We walk into Lone Pine, which looks like the set of an old western, blinking in the clear strong bright sunshine. We crowd a dim booth at the Alabama Hills Cafe, where we’re presented with massive portions of ham steak, runny eggs and fried potatoes. I eat all this and most of a day old cinnamon roll, too. I drink a cup of coffee with a generous number of those little shelf-stable cups of hazelnut flavoring liquid. I’m so ready to hike.
There are only a couple of water sources on this hike, springs hidden in brush-choked canyons and tepid pools at abandoned mines. Between Panamint Springs Resort and Lone Pine there is sixty miles of baking joshua tree desert without any water at all- and it’s here, in this dry stretch, that we must cache our own water. Leaving six gallons of water in the sand at a lonely highway intersection will shorten the longest water carry to just 45 miles- which is still, to me, inconceivable. There are some long water carries on the Pacific Crest Trail, but nothing like this. How much water do I need for 45 miles, or two days on the trail? Six liters? Ten? How can I possibly carry enough water for two days of walking? And in the heat?
After breakfast we buy our six gallons of water at the small general store and carry them, awkwardly, to the McDonald’s on the edge of town to try and hitch. We take turns standing in the sun with our thumbs out, two at a time, cardboard sign with the word BADWATER and a drawing of a skull. When it’s my turn to rest I sit in the shade in front of the McDonald’s and watch map and compass tutorials on my phone. I usually don’t carry a compass but this morning I bought one at the local gear shop and put it in the chest pocket of my desert shirt. I feel it there. The compass is different than the compass in the tutorials. Will I even need a compass? The desert is so open, you can see the way the land is shaped. Can’t I just look at topo lines? What even is a compass?
A man from LA picks us up in his nice rental car and takes us to the junction where the highway splits towards Death Valley. It’s a desolate intersection, some shuttered concrete buildings and one large, dying walnut tree. We stand in the shade of this tree, gallons of water gathered around our feet, and look at the empty road. Who comes here? No-one. I start to sing again.
Come on baby
Don’t fear the reaper
Baby take my hand
Don’t fear the reaper
We’ll be able to fly
Don’t fear the reaper
Baby I’m your man…
I think about our route some more as we wait for a car to pass. No trail, no signage, no other hikers. Three mountain ranges. Little water. A combination of cross-country navigation, jeep roads, and toppled cairns. If online trip reports are any indicator, only a handful of people have ever walked this route at all. The rangers think that we’re insane.
I’m so excited.
The sun moves in the bright empty sky and at last a dirty sedan pulls over, piloted by a weathered local who has, at one time, ridden his bike across the continent. This local thinks nothing of the fact that we’re about to hike across an area where people are cautioned against walking very far from their cars, lest they be vaporized. This man understands the desert, and he’s not afraid of it. He goes a few miles out of his way to drop us at Saline Valley road, which is where our route crosses Hwy 190. We hide our water here, behind a little berm of sand. We cover it with rocks and pieces of fabric we find in the desert. Now we’ll have water when we come through here in a few days- as long as nobody steals it. Satisfied, we walk back to the road to attempt to hitch the last 80 miles to Badwater Basin. It’s afternoon, the hottest part of the day. Every now and then a car shimmers on the horizon, slows when it nears us, and then blows by. The urge to throw rocks is strong. I sit in the dirt with my hat over my face.
An hour later the sheriff drives past, brakes, and begins to reverse.
“Fuck,” says Chance. We all put down our thumbs.
“Where you girls trying to go,” says the cop.
“Badwater Basin,” we say. “For a backpacking trip.”
“I maybe could take you,” says the cop. “Any of you ever ridden in the back of a cop car?”
Chance and Jess shake their heads No. I keep my mouth shut. I think of getting caught riding trains in Texas, Arizona, Nebraska, Montana and Alaska. Of the protests I went to in my early twenties, facing down the riot police with my friends. For fun! My long laundry list of misdemeanors- trespassing, interfering with a peace officer, disorderly conduct, more trespassing. A night in jail in Sweetwater, Texas, a night in the holding cell in Nebraska, four nights in the jail in Portland that overlooks that fountain downtown.
It’s hot with the three of us crammed behind the gate in the back of the cop car- I don’t think the air conditioning reaches back here. The sheriff drives fast, pulling up behind other cars and then zooming around them.
“Do people slow down when you come up behind them?” says Chance.
“Yeah,” says the cop. “And they start driving really badly. I just try and get around them.”
We think this is really funny. We’re dropping down in elevation, so fast my ears pop. The sun is so hot- there’s sweat running down the backs of my knees. Out the window we see a vast flatness, and on either side of it snaking, nothing-colored mountains. It’s the most inhospitable desert I’ve ever seen. I realize, suddenly, that this is that ambiguous Nevada-California place that you see from the plane- the place you look down on and think: I never, ever want to go there.
We drop down in elevation again, and our stomachs jump. I feel as though we’re descending into hell. As if to confirm this, the sheriff points to some clumps of something coming out of the ground, next to the road-
“The Devil’s Cornfield,” he says. “A thousand years ago, all of this was underwater. It’s hotter here than anywhere else because the crust of the earth here is only fifteen miles thick. The heat rises up from the center of the earth.”
Is this true?
“This land is shaped by flash floods,” he continues. “The valleys change constantly. Up in the mountains there are forests of pinyon pines.” The sheriff guns it over a rise in the road, and I feel myself momentarily lifted off the seat. “Last year a man parked his car at Badwater Basin and walked out into the desert to die. They found his body a year later, picked clean. He made it 5.5 miles.”
Chance awkwardly unfolds a big overview map of Death Valley that she bought in Lone Pine. We look at it, try and make sense of our position on the surface of the earth. Look out the windows at the desert. We start talking about our childhoods. Chance grew up riding horses.
“If I lost a competition,” says Chance, “my mother would beat me. Sometimes after competitions I’d hide from her in the stables, sleep on the hay.”
Panamint Springs resort hasn’t, it turns out, been taken over by zombies after all. There’s a restaurant with a big wooden deck and a gaggle of Norwegians in motorcycle gear.
“We’re hikers,” we say. “Can we leave food for ourselves here, to pick up in a few days?” I look at the shelves in the little store- a few bags of marshmallows, some candy. It’d be rough to resupply here.
“No,” says the clerk at the store. “We don’t do that kind of thing.”
“What do we do?” says Chance, back at the cop car.
“Stash it in the desert,” says the sheriff. We run behind the store and fling our grocery sacks of chips and bars into a bush. The food might not be there in a few days but hey- we did our best.
We finally unfurl from the back of the cop car at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center- it’s unbelievably hot here. I instinctively search out water, and fill my bottles to capacity at a drinking fountain outside the bathrooms. Signs taped to the walls warn us of the danger of the extreme heat. 4 Heat Related Deaths Since April, 2014 is written on a sandwich board just outside the front doors. Just twenty miles left to Badwater Basin. The last of the light is almost gone on our third day of hitching, and we’ve got twenty miles still to go. We sit on the concrete near the front doors with our signs. I avoid eye contact with the rangers- I don’t want them to know what we’re doing, lest they try and convince us it is impossible. There are lots of people coming in and out, almost all European tourists. They look at us like we’re aliens.
After a half hour we move to the curb in front of the building and stand there, gazing longingly at a clump of bushes next to an abandoned building. We could sleep in the sand, there, behind those bushes. We’ve could just curl up and go to sleep.
Inexplicably, a couple from China in a rental car stop for us just before sunset. They’re going past Badwater Basin en route to Las Vegas and yeah, they’ll take us there. The road drops even lower and the air grows even hotter and drier and I feel even more as though we’re descending deep into “the place you see from the plane and think, I never, ever want to go there.” Then we’re at the small pullout and there’s a bit of a boardwalk and beyond it a great white, flat nothingness into which we plan to disappear.
There’s another sign warning us of the heat, warning us not to walk too far from our car. Apparently it was once 134 degrees here, although now, as the sun sets, it’s a cool eighty-something. We’ve got two days worth of food. We’ve got enough water to make it 14 miles to the first spring, which it will be up to us to locate, in a canyon on the other side of all this nothing. The last of the light is bleeding from the horizon. There’s nothing to do but walk.
The tourists all think we’re going out into the desert to die.