128.5 miles hiked
The full moon is like daylight and it wakes me again and again, in this magical meadow far removed from anything, and at 5:50 we pull down the tarp and watch the perfect silver moon sink into the pink and turquoise dawn, awed.
Today is my birthday. I have a complicated relationship with my birthday. Birthdays make me think of my completely fucked relationship with my family, and I usually end up feeling really sad. Although I’ve also had awesome birthdays- it just depends on where I am and who I’m around. There are so many people in my life who love me and care about me, and if I’m around those people or able to reach out to those people on my birthday, I can usually keep the awful feelings at bay. For the last few years, though, I’ve been in the wilderness on my birthday- and today I’m in the middle of a nine-day stretch without reception. I just met Kodak a few months ago, I’m not about to ask him to hold space for all my Heavy Birthday Feelings. That being said, if I asked him he’d probably be really nice about it. But I don’t say anything. I let my self sink into a deep, exquisite melancholy, until my heart feels like a thunderstorm that’s about to break.
What a beautiful world to be walking around in, though, melancholy or not. The climb up Longley pass is kind gradual scree and at the top we are greeted with one of the best views of the entire hike- spiny mountains on every horizon, with the clean morning light stretching its way across them.
Kodak is feeling better today, after our day of rest, and that’s awesome. On Longley pass I take out the two helium balloons I found in the wilderness and have been carrying, crumpled, in my pack, and unfurl them. One is in the shape of an “S”, and the other says HAPPY GRAD. My birthday balloons! This cheers me a bit.
There’s a cornice on Longley pass, blocking our descent. We knew this might be a thing, as sometimes there is a cornice here, and since this is a high snow year in the Sierras there was almost certainly going to be a cornice here. The cornice is essentially a slightly overhanging cliff made of snow. On either side of the impassable snow-cliff are impassable rock-cliffs, and seeing this sends a flood of adrenaline through my body. I know it’s just another KCHBR puzzle, and that there is most definitely a way to get down without dying, one only has to find it, but just seeing how sketchy it LOOKS sends my heart racing, and I have a hard time calming my thoughts.
We walk to one side of the cornice and then the other. We look over the cliffs at the yawning abyss beyond. Sheer rock followed by acres of scree, glittering lakes far below. We weigh our options. Is that a way down over there, possibly? Or what about over this rise? No, the slope becomes even steeper over there. Beyond the rise are still more cliffs.
Then we see a set of footprints in the dirt on one side of the pass. Katherine? We follow the footprints- they go to the top of the rise, return, and head straight for some boulders. On closer inspection, there is an opening between the boulders where one can lower oneself down- to more boulders. A tiny landing made of dirt, worn and trampled by many feet- animals, most likely, and Katherine. And then another drop through another couple of boulders, to another tiny dirt landing. And so on.
I crabwalk and downclimb my way from landing to landing, handing my pack to Kodak as I go. We found the way down! I can’t believe it. Everything is always fine in the end, isn’t it? Thanks invisible Katherine!
We attain the steeply angled screeslope of infinity and scree our way down, hooting and hollering, our shoes filling with pebbles as the ground falls out from under us and the glittering lakes rise up to meet us. I stop to take in the view, the dramatic spires of the granite mountains against the clean blue sky, and soon Kodak is just a tiny dot way below.
By and by the scree gives way to steeply angled slabs and I feel like I’m in a video game again, sidling along the mountain testing the exact angle at which the tread on my brooks cascadias lose their grip on lichen-spotted granite. There are openings between the slabs and each slab is at a slightly different angle, so as I make my way along their faces I hop from slab to slab, attempting to find the exact combination of slabs that will take me where I want to go without cliffing me out. It turns out that my confidence is higher going up that it is coming down, because suddenly I’ve dead ended at a too-steep slab but when I turn around to go back the way I’ve come the path has been erased, and there’s only a cliff.
My brain decides that this is a good time for a panic attack. My birthday, the full moon, PMS, and now I’m stuck on a cliff and I can’t find the way back down. Why not a nice panic attack as well? I sit on my little landing and sob and hyperventilate. I don’t have panic attacks often, but when I do, I always have them when I feel like I’m about to fall off a cliff. Way down below me, Kodak is eating snacks at the edge of the lake. Fuck my birthday, I think, as I struggle to gain control of my breathing. Seriously, fuck it.
Eventually I cry it all out, as one does, and can think clearly again. I am able to problem-solve my way down a slab or two. I get cliffed out again, and have to backtrack, but I find another way and eventually reach the lake, and Kodak. We make our way down a drainage towards another lake via the slabs, talus and brush above its edge- there’s supposed to be a “use trail” but there’s not, at least not that we can find.
We chose our own lines, and Kodak weaves in and out of my field of vision. It’s raining- it’s been raining all day- although I haven’t really noticed. We are always either going steeply up or steeply down, and it thunders and rains almost every afternoon, but I have stopped really noticing these things. There is only the problem in front of me, that blessed distraction; that boulder or slab or bush or stream that sharpens my focus to a laserbeam and blocks out the rest of the known universe.
We keep seeing these cairns that aren’t really cairns- just one small stone placed on top of a much larger rock, as though accidentally. Like, look at that small rock that fell just so on top of that larger rock from, like, the wind- how about that. I wouldn’t think they were cairns at all except there are so many of them, placed all along where the use trail is supposed to be. We start to call them “Skurka cairns”- because Skurka hates cairns and maybe this is his way of having cairns without really, like, having cairns. You know?
There is a little green plant that smells incredibly good when we crush it beneath our feet. All day we are smelling it, and I am starting to think of its scent as the official scent of the KCHBR. I pick a handful, and look at it. What are you, little plant? I put it in my hipbelt pocket to find out later.
We reach the other end of the lake, where we are meant to cross its wide outlet on submerged logs. There are dozens of these logs, floating just below the surface of the clear green water. When you step out onto one of these logs it sinks, or rolls, or maybe it does nothing, but either way it’s a surprise and you have no way of knowing what it will do until you step onto it. Kodak begins to make his way delicately across on this logs, hopping too and fro, but I opt to cross in the water. Except, the floor of the waist deep outlet is several feet of muck. So if I attempt to walk across I’ll just sink up to my neck and have to swim. Why is everything so hard today.
I follow the outlet downstream, where it becomes wider and even deeper. At last there is a shallow spot and I wade across to the glorious trail on the other side. Kodak meets me, having successfully navigated the logs. We’ll follow this Real Trail all the way down to Bubbs creek. Now that we’re on a real trail and I’m not worried about becoming irreparably separated from Kodak, I tell him I need a moment by myself, and I’ll catch up to him at the junction. He hikes on and I duck into the woods and sit on the soft duff in the rain and cry and cry as thunder claps overhead and then I take a shit and afterwards I feel a thousand percent better, as one does.
When I catch up to Kodak again I tell him it’s my birthday. He tells me Happy Birthday and gives me a ziploc of gummy worms, which is basically the most incredible birthday present anyone could possibly give me, on this day, and suddenly everything feels light again. Bubbs creek is a chill ford where it branches a stone’s throw upstream from where the trail crosses the water, and then we’re mashing uphill towards Vidette meadows. Dang I feel strong going uphill on trail. I’m hungry though, as I started rationing my food today, and emotionally exhausted, sort of empty inside.
Vidette Meadows has a Real Campsite complete with flat spots for tents, bear lockers and logs around a fire ring. Kodak makes a huge fire against the dusky chill and cooks both our dinners over the coals, his second incredible birthday present to me. Which is awesome, because aside from food, I’m also running low on fuel. And toilet paper. And power in my battery pack…
My dinner is gluten-free dairy-free mac n cheese from the winco in Visalia- the daiya kind with the liquid cheese in a packet. I put these in our cache boxes on the Hayduke, too. They are incredible, and they make me feel full to the point of stupefaction. Thus stupefied, I know that I will sleep well.
And I do.