KCHBR day 4: Skurka’s little game

8 miles
43 miles hiked total

All night the wind gusts and flutters the tarp but I sleep amazingly in this otherwordly peaceful land and in the morning we eat smushed bars and Kodak lets me drink some of his pourover coffee and we fold everything away, as one does, me with all my stuffsacks (Kodak makes fun of my stuffsacks) and Kodak just shoving everything loose into the bottomless cavern of his pack.




We contour above the waterfall on the cliffs that always somehow go and then drop down into the gorge, a little blackbear darting along the game trails below us (the game trails here are, it seems, mostly bear trails) and traverse more slow very steeply angled talus fields where the boulders are sleeping just-so- “Light as a feather, light as a feather,” I say as I ease my way down them, imagining how stable they are from bearing the weight of snow overwinter, in spite of how precariously balanced they look. And the occasional deep roar as one shifts beneath you but does not quite fall, like a dragon that sleeps in talus fields which you are trying not to wake. Or that arcade game with all the quarters spread on a metal shelf, and a bunch of them are piled on the edge, and you put your own quarter in, hoping to make the quarters on the edge fall. Only I do not want these quarters to fall. I am a tiny ant amongst the quarters, and I do not want these quarters to fall.

The brush begins- Skurka’s notes warn us about this- the brush is a mix of stiff, woody manzanita and another hearty shrub with one-inch thorns called ceanothus cordulatus. We are able to avoid this sadistic brush via more talus fields until the confluence of Goddard and Disappearing creeks, where we have lunch. After the confluence we know, from the notes, that the brush becomes unavoidable for about four miles, and so will begin one of the most trying sections of the route. To get to our lunch spot we must cross both Goddard and Disappearing creeks, and the spots we pick are less than ideal- Kodak can cross the strong water alright and he helps me by jamming his arm between my pack and my back while I steady myself with my poles. The adrenaline of this crossing gives me pause- in a few more miles we’ll cross Goddard creek again, further down the drainage. How will the creek be there?

We have lunch under the sequoias and then begin the worst bushwhack I have ever done. Although I realize, as I push as hard as I can at the tangles of plants in order that they might let me through, the thorns on the ceanothus digging into my shins and drawing blood, that up to this point I have done very little in my life that would qualify as “bushwhacking”- where one must literally push the bushes aside with a good amount of force, and where one wishes one had a machete with which to “whack” them. People often refer to cross-country, or not being on a trail, as bushwhacking, but really it hardly ever is. Referring to all cross-country as bushwhacking is a mistake, as it creates a sort of inflation, and the world bushwhacking loses its true meaning. And then one day you will find yourself forcing your way through the thornbushes and manzanita, exhausted an exasperated, blood running down your legs, and you will have no words left to use.

I aint mad at this plant

We have around four hours of this. Occasionally there are bits of bear trail, but they are comical in their unpredictability, they way they lead us safely through one clump of bushes for ten feet but then dead-end in a nice sleeping spot, say, or at the river. Then it’s back into the bushes that tear at us and our packs and pull off our hats and attempt to drive us insane. All of this is a lesson in non-attachment, of letting go of desires. “All suffering is temporary, all suffering is temporary,” I repeat to myself. And, actually, we’re having fun- we’re laughing and shouting at each other as we make our way through the bushes, delirious with endorphins. This is such exquisite primo type-2 fun, these sadistic fucking bushes and the unhelpful animal trails, if you could put this experience in a bottle I imagine there are people who would buy it. At one point we scramble down to the creek in order to cross it before it drops into a gorge (we’ve been descending all day, remember, on these talus fields and through the bushes- six thousand feet!) but the water is too strong for me to safely cross, even with Kodak’s help- he makes his way across but I am stuck in the middle, unable to go any further, so he puts his pack on the other side and comes back for me, but even then I feel my feet lift off the rocks and for a moment I am suspended in time, and the only thing keeping me upright in the raging creek is his hands on my shoulders- “Take a step! Take a step!” he shouts, and I do, and I am able to work my way backwards, towards the other, more mellow bank- and Kodak must cross the too-fast part of the creek AGAIN, to get his pack, and then once more, to return to the original bank- we scramble back up the slope into the bushes and spend an hour looking for a safer place to cross- only in this hour there are no animal trails, there is only solid, unbroken thornbushes, and I don’t even try to protect myself anymore, I don’t even care- “I’ve transcended pain!” I shout, laughing, as I walk directly into them, no longer trying to weave or evade- “Pain is pleasure!” we’re laughing so hard. The blood that’s been running down my legs is attempting to clot, but the bushes keep ripping off the scabs. In the notes for this section Skurka literally says “There is no good way to do this” and we begin to refer to the Goddard drainage as “Skurka’s little game.” Like, you know Skurka came through here, you know he could put a line on the map showing the game trails he found, or where he crossed the creek, or whatever, but he didn’t. Instead, according to the notes, “the animals will show you the way.” This, we decide, is all part of Skurka’s little game.

“Don’t put that on the animals,” I say, laughing, as we continue to fight our way through the brush. “It’s your route, you’re supposed to show us the way!” Then we see a large black bear ahead of us, standing on a boulder like an island in the sea of brush. She’s swaying back and forth, trying to catch our scent. A bear! It’s a sign! We’re going to make it through! She has a little cub with her, and the cub scrambles up and down the sides of the boulder. We stand for a long time, watching. Kodak takes a bunch of pictures with his fancy camera. Kodak carries six pounds of camera gear, in a case on his chest. He is always taking out his camera and changing lenses- on snowfields, during stream crossings, while bushwhacking, in the rain. I’m impressed with his dedication to his photos. It’s inspiring. And it’s awesome to see what kinds of shots he can get in situations like this, with his real camera and the bear.

We find a slightly better spot to cross Goddard creek and I finally make it across, by gosh, with lots of help from Kodak. It’s so wild that because of the difference in our body weights he is able to cross alone, while I am lifted off my feet by the water in the very same spot. If I was out here solo I suppose it would just take me longer to find a spot to cross safely, but still, I am glad he is here. With Kodak, this day is type two fun. We can’t stop laughing. If I were by myself, it would likely be edging into type 3.

We’re on the other side of the gorge now and by and by we’ve descended far enough through the brush that the vegetation begins to change- oak trees appear, and dry yellow grass full of seed pods that stick in our socks, and we know our bushwhack is coming to an end. Then a use trail appears through the grass and we’re racing down the last slope in the dust at full speed, down down to the middle fork of the Kings river. There is the euphoria that comes in the absence of pain. I splash out into the water- it feels cool and soothing on my beat up legs. The river comes up to my waist, but it is wide and slow and if I fell I’d only go for a swim and anyway, Kodak helps steady me across. Then real trail appears- we’d meant to camp right at the river but the Real Trail seduces us and we walk it into dusk, to a large campsite where some older men sit around a fire that flickers in the dark. We sit on stumps and cook our dinners and talk with the men- they’re from England and come to the sierras once a year, and are out, this time, for fourteen days.

“Where did you come from?” They ask us. “Up the Middle Fork?”
“No,” we say. “The Goddard drainage.”
“Oh!” says one of them, his eyes coming alive. He inspects us more closely. “That’s quite the route. How did you get across the Middle Fork, then?”
“We forded it,” we say. “Just now.”
“Oh!” says the man, again. “There’s a trail crew camped nearby. They’ve been fording it with a rope.”

And then it’s time for bed. As I drift off I think of our crossing of the Goddard just above the gorge, and that moment when I was lifted off my feet, and how if I would’ve fallen I would’ve gone over the gorge, and how I probably would’ve died. I shudder a little in my sleeping bag. What does it mean, that I am not dead? What does it mean that, each day, I continue to not be dead?