(In the first week of October, 2014, I set out to hike the Lowest to Highest Route with NotaChance and Orbit. This is the fifth installment of my trip report. For technical information on this route, go here.)
One day you’ll fall asleep at an indeterminate hour of the night beneath the cold stars and when you wake the sun will be coming up among the joshua trees, banishing the dark, bringing with it the heat and the boiling daytime. It will be six a.m. and, unlike the night before when you were walking with your friends along the cool road watching for UFOs and singing along to soul music piping from Chance’s phone, you will be more tired than you can ever remember being.
I sit up and drink from my dirty gatorade bottle. I am a taught wire, a humming weariness, a delay in the telephone line. My legs ache and my mouth tastes like dust. The sun is burning and Jess is pouring steaming cups of coffee. I blink- there’s sand behind my eyelids. I feel as though I’m underwater. When was the last time I felt this tired?
I’ve got 4.5 liters of water left and it’s 35 miles to Lone Pine, our next water source. 35 miles up and over the bright hot Inyo Mountains- that oughta be enough, right?
No. There is something wrong with today. My bones are liquid and my feet are bricks and the heat, the heat… We’re following a jeep road so the walking is easy enough but still, for some reason, I feel as though I’m dying. Then the climbing begins, the jeep road tilting right up the slope of the mountain, and at the same time the sun turns itself up to Ten. I’m stopping in every patch of shade, drinking too much of my water. My brain feels strange inside my skull. I tell the others to go ahead, I’ll be cruising 1mph. I wonder if this has to do with the heat exhaustion I had the other day- if I’m still recovering from that. Makes sense. The puddles of shade beneath the dusty oak trees are my friends and I sit there, watch spiders move in the dirt. There are “no trespassing” signs tacked to the trees. We’re entering old mining country. After a time I get up and resume my slow underwater trudge up the mountainside.
Five thousand feet later I find my friends hunkered in the shade of a pile of sandbags, outside the ghost town of Cerra Gordo. I’m irritable and I’m almost out of water. A bright white pickup is parked outside one of the ancient buildings and I drop my pack and head for it.
“But what if you get shot!” shouts Chance.
“Nah,” I say. “People are nice.”
A man appears as I approach the old hotel. He’s wearing suspenders and walking slow. He sees the dirt caked onto my shirt, the dust smeared across my face.
“You’ve got a long hike ahead of you,” he says. His look is patient and kind. I suddenly feel as though I’m in a Steinbeck novel.
The man leads me inside the hotel, which looks as though it hasn’t been touched since 1880. A little chihuahua follows the man, gives me the whale-eye, hops just out of reach when I stretch out my hand. The man tells me tales of gold, murder, and prostitutes, and then gives me three liters of water- I feel like a glutton but for some godforsaken reason I need it.
“Are there ghosts here?” I say.
“Four of ’em,” says the man.
The fact that I haven’t been shot gives Chance the courage to make her own pilgrimage to the old hotel and while she’s gone I hunker in the shade with Jess and make some cold-soaked oatmeal to celebrate my newfound water wealth. It’s beautiful up here, on the crest of the Inyo Mountains- to the west we can see the baking Owens Valley and, rising up beyond that, the High Sierras- a massive granite wall which holds, unbeknownst to most mortals, lakes that sparkle like jewels, brooks lined in bright flowers, fat marmots- the saccharine paradise of Muir.
After leaving Cerro Gordo the route follows another jeep road up, up, up along the crest of the Inyo Mountains- we’re climbing again in the heat and my weariness won’t leave me, and I overcompensate with caffeinated cliff shot blocks until I can feel my heart jumping in my chest like a rabbit. We reach another summit of sorts and sprawl, looking down at the saline valley. All of this belongs to us. Our desert kingdom!
After that the walking is gentle and Chance and I tool along in low gear, making up stories to distract us from our fatigue. We’re characters in a Steinbeck novel, headed north looking for seasonal work. One foot in front of the other. Used to be you could draw up salt from the Saline Valley with the old wooden tram, trade it for salt pork and cornmeal. Had a bunch of children, uncles, cousins- they all died. Left one daughter behind when we were traveling by wagon- she was raised up by an old desert rat, he taught her to find her way home by the way the oak leaves fell on the ground. Now I’m walking to Lone Pine to buy a bolt of calico to make her a dress for her fourteenth birthday. Chanstity (Chance) has an old friend who lives in the cabin by the abandoned salt tram. We stop in but he’s not at home- he’s out with his burros, or making a shady deal with the traveling show.
Had a father who was a mean drunk, he died. Third husband stole my shoes, haven’t seen him in months. Quiet Jessalynn has been following us for days. She never speaks, but they stay she killed a man to get her jetboil.
The sun begins to melt like an egg yolk into the jagged peaks of the Sierras. Right behind Mt. Whitney, to be exact. This seems like a harbinger of something and we stand on the ridge, watching the light move like a shutter across the surface of the earth and then the cold comes on and we’re shivering.
The summit of Mt. Whitney, way over there at 14,505 feet- that’s where our journey will end. We’ve been talking about those 99 switchbacks for days, imagining how glorious it will be to pound uphill on a real actual trail. For now we put on all our layers against the sudden, brutal cold and walk another couple of miles to “Burgess Well”, a broken hole in the ground that rests on a grassy shelf just big enough for our bedrolls lined up end to end. Above us a cold draft wends its way across the hilltops and below us the icy air gathers in a meadow. Here, though, we are safe from all of it, and we eat a little dinner and watch the stars come out. This day has really been three days, has lasted far longer than any day has a right to but here we are, now, in camp at a reasonable hour, all ready for sleep and whatever tomorrow’s bright morning will bring.