KCHBR Day 12: More or less an on-trail zero

9/5/17
3 miles
118 miles hiked

The night is perfectly still with a bright silver dollar moon, almost full, whose glory I witness when I wake in the dark to string up my mosquito net. I lie awake for a while, watching the moonshadows move on the tarp and experiencing deep wonderment at the magic that is, like, planet earth, man.

Chill granite slabs with just the right amount of grip for our shoes and tufts of grass here and there take us up like an escalator to Thunder Ridge Pass, where we find a cliff that ends in some very steep and unstable talus. We need to make it down this talus. This is what we expected, though, this is what we came here for. I want to feel like an insect tiptoeing on the back of a dragon, trying not to wake it. Light as a feather, light as a feather, I think, as I make my way from large precarious boulder balanced just-so to large precarious boulder balanced just-so. Beneath each boulder is a black void, a dim nothingness waiting to swallow my ankle. Time disappears, as do my thoughts. Occasionally the deep rumble of a boulder as it shifts, but does not quite fall. These boulders have felt the weight of winter snowpack, I am nothing to these boulders. Right? Light as a feather, light as a feather.

.

.

At the bottom we reach a string of lakes set in a bowl built from talus and we stay up near the rim of this bowl, contouring around it until we reach a beautiful high forest of foxtail pines. Kodak woke up this morning feeling as though he’s coming down with something, maybe from being around a thousand people in Lodgepole and then our sleepless night in the storm and the taxing next day in the wind. We discuss our options as we drop out of the foxtail pines to Cunningham creek, which is an absolute paradise of clear water wending through a long, grassy meadow in the warm gentle sunshine. We stop to take a break and Kodak immediately begins to fall asleep in the grass. He proposes that we stay here for the rest of the day, basically take an on-trail zero. If we do that, he thinks, the thing he’s fighting might not make itself all the way present and tomorrow he’ll feel 100%. Rest. He just needs to rest.

I have never taken an on-trail zero before, although I have always thought about how nice it would be. Normally, zeros are actually pretty stressful- laundry, emails, resupply, stuffing oneself, the overstimulation of town, etc. Here, though, there is none of that. The rest of our day would consist of lounging on the grass in the warm sunshine, napping and eating snacks. That’s pretty much it.


The amount of food I have is starting to worry me a little- I already felt that I barely had enough to cut it for this section, what if we take a day off? But I decide not to worry about it. Which is pretty easy to do, because this particular moment in this particular meadow is one of the most beautiful natural landscapes I have ever had the privilege to experience. I mean, yolo, right?

KCHBR Day 11: Katherine Motherf*ckin Cook

9/4/17
11 miles
115 miles hiked total

We’re a ship. We’re a ship that’s lost on the black, stormy sea, and we’re being tossed around by the waves. I’m sitting up in my sleeping bag in the pitch black gripping one side of the tarp with all my might and Kodak is gripping the other while the most insane winds pound us and buckets of water run down the sides. The noise of the storm overwhelms my senses in the heavy darkness and then zip! Three of the tent stakes are ripped from the ground and the tarp flies out of my hands and the sky cracks in half with lightning and we are plunged directly into the cold black sea. Kodak leaps up and races into the storm while I gather the loose tarp edge and wrestle it back to the ground, leaving our sleeping bags only partly soaked. It’s so good that it’s not colder, I think, as I hear the tap tap tap of Kodak pounding tiny titaniums stakes back into the ground. Kodak crawls back inside, his rainjacket drenched, and I dig my tarp from my pack and tie it haphazardly over the opening at the end of our tarp to stop the sideways rain that’s pouring inside. We scooch back down into our sleeping bags and lay on our sides, each of us gripping one side of the tarp, as the wind continues to beat us in staccato gusts.

I don’t think I sleep at all. Time collapses into the repetitive percussion of the wind and the irregular startles of rain. The night shakes our tarp as though to shake us out of it. The storm wants to swallow us. The rain stops before dawn but the angry wind continues, and I pass the sleepless hours by reading Katherine Cook’s blog posts (http://katherinerosecook.com), which I have downloaded to my phone. Katherine Cook is currently solo-hiking the Sierra High Route, the South Sierra High Route, and the Kings Canyon High Basin High Route, all in one season, one after the other. In case you’re not familiar with those routes, Katherine Cook is a fucking badass. She’s also an incredible writer- introspective and clever and great at finding unique ways to talk about nature. As far as I can tell from her most recent batch of blog uploads, she’s finished with the SHR and the SSHR, and should be starting the KCHBR from Lodgepole soon. I wonder if our paths will cross?

The wind finally gentles a little at first light, and we’re hiking by 7:15.

lonely lake

We circle Lonely lake beneath the tower of “The Horn” and climb easy slabs to Horn Col, a narrow ridge of stone where the wind reappears out of nowhere in 40 mph gusts; Kodak stands too close to the edge with his arms out, wind tearing at his jacket, and I shout at him but my shouts are swallowed by the wind.

.

In my imagination he is blown right off the mountain- I blink but he is still there. I scoot on my butt to the edge of the precipice, fighting with the wind. We drop down ramps on the other side of the col like super mario brothers to a seemingly random line in the talus where we hang a right- boulder, boulder, boulder, here is where I will contour. We choose different lines and then although I can see Kodak above me I am lost in my own world, consumed by the problem that each differently-shaped hunk of tilted rock or patch of wet snow presents. The next time I look up Kodak is so far above me on the slope that he’s just a dark spot on the white snow, and he’s talking to… another spot. Katherine?! My heart begins to race. I struggle over the talus, trying to get up to them as fast as I can.

.

Katherine?!

 

“Katherine!” I shout, but the wind carries my words away. Katherine, the only other person who we know of on this route! Katherine, who shares this world with us! Katherine, our only friend!

Katherine is wearing brightly patterned pants and all of her layers. She hiked from Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead to Lodgepole on trails, and at Lodgepole she discovered her food box hadn’t arrived at the post office, so she had to resupply at the tiny expensive store. Her maps were in her box that didn’t arrive, so she doesn’t have any, and has been navigating via the section descriptions and a large overview map (which is insane). We have two sets of paper maps between us, so I give her mine, since we also have the route on gaia. While we talk we are standing on a steeply angled snow slope being beaten by the wind, but Katherine seems relaxed and unhurried. She has also been hiking much faster than us.

I know from her blog that Katherine relishes hiking solo so, I don’t want to crowd her but, I am very excited at the prospect of leapfrogging with her for a time.

The views on the slopes of Copper Peak are insane- great upliftings crumbling with bright granite, gunmetal stormclouds on one side and on the other side a bright rainbow, arcing over everything.

We choose different lines up the talus to the summit of Copper Peak and mine ends up being a terrible route- hand over hand on too-steep scree that slides out from under me and it feels like I could die but who knows what would happen if I actually fell and the uncertainty of it has me sweating and saying oh fuck oh fuck and then Kodak (who has very generously following me on my line after just one half-hearted “I don’t think this is a very good idea”) and I are at the narrow ridge on top, panting in the sun and the wind, and Katherine is disappearing around the corner like the rabbit in Alice and Wonderland.

.

.

.

Descending off Copper Peak into the next drainage over is some steep-ass shit, shoes sliding on dirt-coated rock and here and there an embedded bit of talus to grip but not all the way or it’ll come loose from the mountain and tumble down onto your hiking partner.

Slow and steady gets me onto gentler grassier slabs, knees creaking like rusty door hinges from the sheer volume of talus and also from lack of sleep. The adrenaline of the morning starts to cool and exhaustion takes its place. Kodak and I stop at a stream to get water and eat second breakfast behind a boulder where we’re hidden from the wind and Katherine disappears around another divot in the mountain.

Some old mining switchbacks lead us downward in an organic, indirect way to cloud canyon where the walking is easy on wet grassy tufts and bushes alongside the stream. We catch up to Katherine and I try not to fangirl too hard as we leap over braids in the creek and crash through the brush like blackbears.

“Where did you camp last night?” I ask her. “Which do you like better, this trail or the Sierra High Route? What’s your favorite trail?”

“The Hayduke is my favorite trail,” says Katherine, as she leaps effortlessly from boulder to boulder in a short stretch of talus.

“Oh my god,” I almost screech, attempting, and failing, to leap effortlessly as well- “That’s my favorite trail too!”

Eventually we break out of the brush and talus into legit forest, where the understory is open and clear and a Real Trail appears, the Colby Creek Trail. Kodak and I stop to rest again and Katherine waves goodbye. Kodak gives me gummy worms- he has a huge sack of them from our Winco trip and he has begun doling them out at random intervals, which greatly increases my morale.

“Motherfucking gummy worms!” I say, as I eat them. Why are gummies so fucking good while hiking, and other questions that have no answers.

The Colby Creek trail takes us up in the warm still sun to cross-country on gentle slabs along Pleasant creek. I listen to music and hop over the water as the route wends back and forth. The sun is doing wild things with the light and I am really starting to feel the delirium. We arrive at aptly named talus lake and stay above it on talus lest the lower talus dragons consume us and descend some more talus, talus talus talus, towards a patch of forest below talus pass.

.

 

Walking on Shapes. That, I decide, is what I would call a book about this route. Imagine a huge pile of shapes. Now, imagine yourself walking on that pile of shapes. Congratulations- you’re on the Kings Canyon High Basin Route.

We reach the trees but we’re too tired to settle on a campsite and instead we just walk in circles, eyeballing various clear spots in the grass and rejecting each one in turn. I find a helium balloon crumpled in the stream. I squeeze the water out of it. It’s in the shape of a large silver “S”. I ball it up and put it in my pack. I found another helium balloon a few days ago, and am carrying that one as well. They’ll come in handy in a few days, when it’s my birthday.

None of the spots seem good enough and finally we just throw the tarp up wherever and of course the spot is perfect. Katherine is camped nearby and I walk over to tell her goodnight. Tomorrow we might end up in the same spot to camp as well, or maybe we won’t. It’s been fun having a friend for a bit.

Down here in the trees the wind is heard, but not felt. Woo woo woo it rushes over Talus pass above us but we are safe, it can’t touch us. I make my hot noodle refried bean dinner from my winco resupply, and it is incredible. We’ve set up the tarp in storm mode, just in case.

KCHBR Day 10: Kings Kaweah tablelands

9/3/17
10 miles
104 miles hiked total

I sleep late- I guess I needed it? And we don’t start hiking until 8:15. I am deeply superstitious about starting hiking after 8, as in my experience this means that one is totally fucked, as far as miles goes. Oh well, I guess I’ll see how today pans out. I did need the sleep.

There are some cliff bands between us and our pass, an unnamed pass near Silliman peak, and we take on the puzzle with great enthusiasm, happy to be problem solving again. A little class four, a little handing up of packs, some huffing and puffing up slabs and and ramps and chunks of earth and then we are at the top.

going up silliman pass- photo by kodak

.

photo by Kodak

.

.

The cold rain comes again, clearing the smoke from the air. We’re on the tablelands of the Kings Kaweah Divide, which Skurka describes as “shockingly easy”. I would describe them more as “regular hard”- tilted chunks of stone, slippery from the rain, that one must make one’s way across/over/around, spreading in all directions on a broad plateau. The tablelands may not be easy, but they are beautiful in a soothing, otherworldly way.

.

lol

.

.

 

.

Thunder claps as it likes to do each afternoon, and we are on the most high and exposed place we can possibly be but oh well, there’s nothing to be done, and eventually the thunder moves on. We both get lazy with navigation and suddenly we’re way off route in that way that happens more quickly than it seems like it should, and getting back on route somehow takes a lot of time/frustration/getting genuinely cliffed out and having to backtrack. I start to feel like a fuckup, why can’t I go more miles each day on this route? Why did I start hiking after 8 this morning? Ah, PMS.

At last we’re back on the route and I feel kind of irritable and burnt from the effort but there’s plenty of opportunity to zone out in my head alone until I’m calm again as we choose our own lines and I’m up high traversing grassy cracks in granite slabs while Kodak is below, in a squishy basin. I like how we do this, sort of weave in and out, always (mostly) keeping within sight or shouting distance. It works for my introvert nature, as well as Kodak’s- it gives us time to rest and be alone with our thoughts as well as do whatever introspection we need to do. Our lines converge again at Lonely lake, which sits in a bowl beneath Horn col, and I’m feeling much better at this point.

Lonely lake is ringed in talus but there’s a good campsite up the bank a bit, next to a wee tarn that reflects the pink clouds of sunset. Kodak pitches the tarp in chill flat mode but as we’re cooking dinner some of the most brutal stormclouds I have ever seen begin to roll in, darkening the entire sky. Kodak re-pitches the tarp in storm mode and we crawl inside just as the last of the light is sucked from the earth and a heavy blackness envelops us. Then the wind rises up like a ghost, and rain begins to fall. I curl in my sleeping bag, listening to the storm arrive. Maybe it will wear itself out quickly, and we’ll be able to sleep?

KCHBR Day 9: Out of the valley, back to the cool mtns

9/2/17
4 miles
94 miles hiked total

I wake at six and make gf df mac n’ cheese on the tile floor of the motel shower, because it’s the only place in the room where I can use my alcohol stove without setting anything on fire. I eat the entire pot and, thus stuffed with 900 calories of goodness, I walk down the street to the Hampton Inn with Kodak because not only is there a seven dollar shuttle from Vasalia back up into Sequoia Kings Canyon Park (!!!) but it stops just down the street from our motel. The shuttle, which also has free wifi, scoops us up at ten a.m. and is supposed to reach Lodgepole at 12:30. There’s construction on the winding narrow highway up into the mountains, however, as well as a few spots where emergency vehicles are blocking the road, so we keep stopping and idling in the bright sunshine. The high today in the valley is 107 degrees, and the shuttle driver turns off the AC in an attempt to keep the bus from overheating, and we open the tiny rectangular windows above the seats and suck in air and sweat runs down our faces. The shuttle overheats anyway, and we pull off the road for a long time and I sit hugging my pack in my lap and watching the construction-slowed traffic creep past. When we finally reach Lodgepole at 3pm I’m so carsick I feel like I could vomit.

Today is Saturday, the first day of labor day weekend, and there are thousands, thousands of people at Lodgepole. The feeling is of being at a very, very crowded amusement park that is also sometimes a mall. I buy a bowl of chili and a can of diet pepsi and we sit at one of the dirty snackbar tables for a bit, spacing out and charging our phones in the outlet next to the trashcan. Then, it’s time to hike.

Kodak’s pack, with eight days of food and six pounds of camera gear, is very heavy. My pack, suspiciously, is only a little bit heavy. We switchback up out of the hot smoky crowded paved lodgepole and within a mile we’re in the cool cool forest and there is nobody, absolutely no-one. We see a bear, clawing up grubs on a slope below the trail and watch it for a bit, but it ignores us. Shortly after, we leave the good trail to hike on use trail up Silliman creek- we’re back on the route!! Wooo!! The use trail is steep, crumbled and rocky but straightforward to follow and it feels good to be climbing again, climbing until the trees start to thin and there are good granite slabs to scramble up and above us are some austere, jagged ridgelines. As we climb the hot busride fades away, the sprawl of Vasalia. It feels like home up here. Like the land that we know.

when yr waiting for yr hikin partner to put down his camera so you can use him as the subject in the photo, but he’s waitin for the same thing

A few hours later thunder claps and rain begins to fall, but it’s not too cold. It’s still gentle summmertime in the Sierras; the weather hasn’t turned yet. We find a sheltered campsite in the trees below Silliman peak and Kodak pitches the tarp in storm mode. We drift off to the patter of rain on cuben fiber, the dark night holding us.

KCHBR day 8: zero in Visalia

9/1/17
zero miles

I wake too early (again) in our nice stealth spot in the forest below the gas station and we pack up and sit outside in the cold as the morning warms looking at our phones until the doors open and we buy two hot cups of coffee and eat the bananas and look at our phones some more. By and by we figure maybe we should hitchhike to Visalia, where neither of us has ever been and which is two hours away on the winding mountain highway, because it’s a real town with a grocery store and we should be able to reasonably buy eight days of food there. Our first ride is an SUV being driven by a couple from Mexico and in the backseat with us is the nicest, most velvety pitbull with the most somber eyes full of bottomless longing (dogs have the yearning on lock), and our second ride is Alicia. Alicia drives an old Toyota tacoma with a campershell and she’s lived in the truck for six years (warm Anza Borrega in the winters) and she works in Sequoia Kings Canyon on a trail crew running chainsaws and she’s got her bike on the back of the truck and it’s her weekend and she’s wearing a cute skirt and she’s headed down to Pismo beach to skateboard. It turns out that Alicia and I know a lot of people in common, folks I haven’t seen in years but which place both of us in the early-2000s west coast anarchist punk scene. Alicia fills me in- people I remember as having small babies now have teenagers, etc. How time flies/how malleable is time. Looking backwards and forwards, walking in meditative circles, standing still. Alicia and I do summersaults through time as the truck rattles us downhill (no AC, windows open ruffling all our hair) out of the giant sequoias and into the hot San Joaquin valley where it’s 102 degrees today. Remember when people rode freight trains and bike toured everywhere? Remember when people lived in shacks that they built out of scrapped lumber? Remember when people taught themselves to sail?

Alicia!

Our new best friend Alicia drops us at the motel 6 in Visalia but as soon as the front desk clerk sees our busted asses he says he’s sorry, contrary to what he told me on the phone his current cheapest room is $120. We wander out into the blistering smoky heat, confused, but then spot a motel next door that looks just as nice as the motel 6 and is called either the Majestic Inn or Marco Polo Motel, depending on if you go by google maps or the sign. They are very kindly and have a tidy room for us for $60. Next door is a chinese restaurant that, luck would have it, has some of the best ratings of any restaurant in a five mile radius, and we feast on glorious meat and glorious vegetables. Shortly after we are wilted indoors with the air conditioning on blast and the curtains drawn shut against the light. We fall asleep in this manner against our best intentions and it’s dark when I schedule a Lyft to take us the two miles to Winco because, fuck walking in this heat.

I have neither resupplied nor shopped in a Winco, although I have heard tell of it. Turns out the massive store is everything I ever imagined, and more. Winco reminds me of Shop N Kart in Ashland, aka the best grocery store on earth, only with fewer niche brands and zero deep-discount expiration date edgeplay. The bulk section is out of this world, having, for example, bins of gummy bears sorted by color, as well as instant refried beans. Kodak and I have fun filling our carts with what may or may not be eight days of food. Kodak buys a great quantity of granola, peanut butter, gummy worms, bulk fruit snacks, cheese, tortillas, coffee, hot cocoa powder, ramen, mac n’ cheese, a giant bag of peanuts, two kinds of discount sandwich cookies, two boxes of pop tarts, fruit leathers, one box of cheez-its, instant refried beans and a giant summer sausage log. I buy a party-size bag of wavy lays, figs and goji berries, twenty-five bars, dinners consisting of rice noodles, instant refried beans, olive oil and curry powder, two pounds of salami, jerky, dark chocolate, and two boxes of the daiya gf df mac n’ cheese (one for the motel, one for my birthday). If you’re noticing a discrepancy in the amount of food I bought for eight days versus the amount that Kodak bought, you’re not mistaken, and that will play out later in this story, as well as the fact that the next section actually will actually take us nine days…

Since today is a zero day and we’re not doing any hiking, here are some things I’ve learned about Kodak so far. From age twelve to seventeen, he was a nationally ranked competitive archer, in the olympic recurve style. He’s also a bow hunter, by extension, and enjoys eating the deer. He’s super dedicated to his photography, and on our hike so far I’ve watched him stop, whip out his camera and change lenses during sketchy stream crossings, on steep snowfields, in bushwhacks, while crossing talus… In the regular world he works as an arborist, climbing up trees for pay, and he’s very good with knots, always rigging up his tarp in wild technical ways.

We fall asleep (again) in the dark motel room with the AC blasting surrounded by our plastic shopping bags of food and empty chinese takeout containers (we had chinese food again for dinner) after doing every phone errand that needed done and outside the cars roll past on the highway like whales sounding in the ocean, serene.

KCHBR day 7: all trails to Lodgepole

8/31/17
20 miles
90 miles hiked total

I dream about my father (he disappeared when I was four, I hitch-hiked to Alaska and found him when I was twenty, he was neither interesting nor kind/wanted nothing to do with me, it was awkward, are we supposed to be similar to/feel some connection to our blood relations? Or is that just a myth). I wake while it’s still dark, to the stars, and can’t fall back asleep. Dangit. I’m definitely PMSing. The full moon is on its way, I’ll bleed on the full moon. Sleeping outside makes me sync up with the moon. Isn’t it beautiful and freeing how many millions of things there are that we don’t understand/won’t ever be able to control…

Today feels like a zero day, even though we hike twenty miles. This is because the day is entirely on trail, with a bit of dirt road thrown in. There is climbing, I don’t pay attention to how much though. Walking without thought is a restful dream, riding my legs uphill like a vespa. Life in the regular world is full of illusions, mirrors, distractions, smoke screens, pavement- here on trail my world is stripped down to its shining steel frame, glinting in the sun. Efficient. One thing at a time. Just three things in total. Maybe four. Walking, eating, sleeping. The fourth thing is longing. Longing is such an underrated human need. Longing gets me out of my sleeping bag when it’s cold, longing gets me over the talus fields, longing drags me up the mountain. Longing sharpens my hours, brightens my afternoons. Longing keeps my blood moving.

We stop at a stream for lunch in Jenny Lakes wilderness. Warm sunshine and trickling water, no other people around. Where is everyone? Then a long descent on switchbacks to Lodgepole, whatever that is. Lodgepole ends up being a cluster of hot, smoky campgrounds at 6,500 feet, packed with people, their RV generators rumbling, and a one mile paved roadwalk to a general store/cafe. I have many desires. We’ve been on trail for seven days and I would like to shower, do my laundry, access wifi, resupply for the next 8 days and eat a great quantity of food. The anticipation of fulfilling these desires thumps inside my chest as we walk the hot, smoky road.

It tuns out that Lodgepole can fulfill some of my dreams, but not them all. A small crowded cafe provides me with a bowl of chili and a paper boat of french fries, which I eat with a good deal of mayonnaise. Flies circle as we eat, landing on the table and away, landing and then away. Our table is the only table with flies. People stare. One could do one’s laundry and shower here, in the building next door. However, there is no wifi or reception, and the grocery store is shit- if we resupplied for 8 days here it would cost an obscene amount of money, and it would all be food we didn’t actually want to eat. What to do? A young man named Addison, who gives tours of the caves nearby, appears, and says he recognizes me from instagram. He’s got a sweet tricked-out cargo van/camper and he can give us a ride to Stony Creek, a gas station/motel a few miles away where there is, at least, wifi. As we navigate the winding road in his van, huge sequoias towering above us, Addison tells us about his life in the woods here- he lives in a forest service cabin from the 1930s, and paints on his days off. He has no electricity, just gas lights. (Follow Addison on instagram here- https://www.instagram.com/raddisoneaton, he is v cool.) At Stony Creek we are at last connected, via the small supercomputers we carry in our pockets and the electromagnetic waves from a box inside the gas station, to the outside world, and we also buy showers and have just enough time before the laundry building closes to give our disgusting clothes a spin. After showering my gamey animal smell is gone, and we buy a gallon of water, a bag of tortilla chips, a jar of salsa and a couple bananas and wander around in the woods until we find the perfect stealth spot, a patch of flat sand beneath the warm stars, water flowing somewhere nearby. I eat the entire jar of salsa and almost all the chips and fall into a fitful sleep, with no idea what tomorrow will bring.

would ya lookit that sequoia

KCHBR day 6: Roads End

8/30/17
12 miles
70 miles hiked total

At four a.m. sheet lightning breaks the dark in half and rain rattles the tarp and I drift in and out until dawn, when the storm has mellowed to a light drizzle. Everything is packed away wet and we drop cross-country down more nice granite ramps to a switchbacking wonder of a real trail which will carry us five thousand feet to Roads End. I turn my music up and my brain off and cruise and with each switchback the forest grows warmer and then the “face flies” appear- tiny gnats that hover just in front of your eyes and if you try and smack them you will likely hit yourself in the nose. “What do you want from me?!” I yell at them, while I wave my trekking pole in front of my face like windshield wiper. I think they want to lay eggs in my eyelids and/or drink the juice of my eyeballs, but I’m not entirely sure. I keep the trekking pole waving and I don’t drink any water or eat so when we reach the concrete parkinglots of Roads End I’m in a terrible, anxious mood. We stick out our thumbs and after thirty minutes we’ve got a ride the six miles to Cedar Grove, where the snack bar is. Roads End is the official endpoint of the KCHBR, but we’re connecting it with trails to Lodgepole, its official start just south of here, and that is how we’re making it a loop. Lodgepole supposedly (according to the website) has a large grocery store, so we’re planning on buying eight days of food there, for the second half of the hike. We’ll reach Lodgepole tomorrow, and in the meantime, we can get some food and wifi at Roads End.

And that we do. We occupy a table in the snack bar for most of the day, flies circling us and landing, circling us and landing. In the bathroom there’s a sign that says “please do not bathe in the sink,” but I still wet some paper towels and scrub the many layers of zinc sunscreen mixed with dirt off my face. I am absolutely filthy- I don’t think my longsleeve desert shirt has ever looked this good/bad. Kodak gets a burger and I eat a chef salad with potato salad, a bag of bugles and then an icecream bar. We get the wifi password and bliss out on instagram. At one point the manager in the snack bar takes Kodak aside, and offers us free showers and laundry. Apparently we’re offending the other patrons with the way we smell.

“Man to man,” he says to Kodak, “it’s ok for me and you to be that dirty. But for her…”

This makes me want to refuse the offer on principle, but in the end we refuse it because we’re hiking out, and we have plans to do showers and laundry tomorrow, in Lodgepole. Why would we do showers and laundry two days in a row? That’s just unreasonable.

but does it go (photo by Kodak)

We wander by the ranger station to check that the trails we’ve chosen to reach Lodgepole actually exist, and then we finally hike out in the late afternoon. A three thousand foot climb on beautiful switchbacks gets us to a dirt forest service road and a beautiful view of the sunset, where we set up camp. Kodak has a vape pen he found on the ground in Washington so we smoke a little weed and I don’t get high but Kodak does, and he can’t stop tripping out about the sunset. We cowboy camp in the dust and I have lots of Feelings in my head, which is likely the beginning of PMS. In particular, I’m feeling sick of the sound of my own voice. “Why can’t I just not speak?” I think, as I drift off. What fun.

KCHBR day 5: where cliffs were outlawed long ago

8/29/17
15 miles
58 miles hiked total

It’s warm, pleasant and still down at six thousand feet, where we’re camped and I wake at five and lay there, waiting for Kodak to wake. It’s pretty hard not to just wake up your hiking partner when you’re up before dawn feeling shot full of electricity ready to go but then I also envy how hard he sleeps and I live vicariously through him, laying quiet in my sleeping bag watching him breathe. At last his eyes open up and he lights the flame in his alcohol burner and makes his pourover coffee with a generous amount of hot cocoa in it and shares some with me and then it’s time to walk.

We’ve got a five thousand foot climb this morning but it’s on trail so it feels like nothin. Oh beautiful switchbacks! I listen to pop music and practically fly with endorphins. Soon we reach the top and we’re in lovely cool pine forest and then we’re crushin off trail again, into the land of rounded grippy granite slopes and grass ramps where cliffs were outlawed long ago and everything goes, and gently too. Ramps on ramps on ramps, jewel-colored lakes and tarns, not a sharp edge anywhere. A steep sticky snowfield takes us up to Goat Crest Pass at eleven-somethin thousand feet, from which we can see more soft lands spread out before us, lumpy granite like play-doh balls that’ve been smushed on top of each other, folded and broken a bit but still rounded at the edges and stuck with tufts of flowers.

.

.

.

.

We wend our way down these gorgeous ramps and I wonder, is this the place where you go when you die. In a few miles we’ll reach more real trail that will take us five miles downhill to Roads End, where there is a motherfucking snack bar, and we had talked about making it tonight, but the wonder of Grouse Lake snags us- what is life but a quest to sleep in every beautiful place- and presently the rain stops (it was raining) and a double rainbow arcs above the lake, and Kodak nearly loses his mind attempting to photograph it. Kodak pitches his tarp next to the lake in “storm mode” which is still like a palace inside but very secure and we eat our hot dinners and fall asleep to the patter of the rain, which has returned.

.

KCHBR day 4: Skurka’s little game

8/28
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.

morning

.

.

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?

KCHBR day three: it never really doesn’t go

8/27
7 miles
35 miles hiked total

I wake off and on all night, my dreams mixing with the milky way spinning above me until it’s dawn, and I’m heating water for tea and smacking my frozen shoes against each other in an effort to loosen them.

morning

.

Kodak’s cute trail pourover

Our first project this morning is to traverse around a lake whose edge, most years, would be talus, but this year there’s a very tall snowfield encircling the lake, and this snowfield angles steeply up from the ice-rimmed deep blue water to some cliffs way above. Yesterday, in the afternoon, the snow was soft and sticky and easy to traverse- now, in the morning, it is frozen and very slick. We have one set of microspikes between us, so one microspike each. A fall on this snowfield would mean a fast bumpy slide into an ice-cold, partially frozen lake. Oh boy. Here goes.

Type one fun is fun that is enjoyable in the moment. Type two fun is fun that is enjoyable in retrospect, when one is telling a story. Type three fun is never enjoyable, not even in retrospect. (“So why,” a friend once asked, “is type three fun even on the fun scale?” I don’t know the answer to that question.)

Crossing this sketchy steep snowfield towards some cliffs with only one microspike is definitely type two fun. I take a step forward with my microspike foot- so solid! Much secure! Magic ice-gripping feet! Feels amazing! Once this foot is planted, I stab my trekking poles a few centimeters into the icy crust. Then, I must take a step with my non-microspike foot. So slippy! Sticks to nothing! Glances right off the surface of the earth! Below me, the snowfield angles away, towards the cold ice-lake. I kick and kick and kick with my spikeless trail runner, until I have a small step, a few inches wide. I shift my weight onto this non-microspike foot. My whole body tenses, as I lift my spike-foot from the steep icy crust and take another step. Relief, as my spike-foot comes down and sticks back into the slope.

Above me, Kodak is having his own slow struggle with his one microspike. We chose our own lines across the snow, and he’s aiming for the cliff a bit above where I’m headed. He reaches his cliff sooner than I reach mine, but between the snow and his cliff is a gapping crevasse- the dark nothing where the edge of the snowbank has melted away from the rock. He must walk to the edge of the snow here, in order to pull himself up onto the cliff. I can see his crevasse, from my position below. If he breaks through, he’ll fall at least thirty feet, onto the rock.

“Holy shit, holy shit,” I hear him say- his foot goes through the snow, but he does not- and then he’s on the rock, and safe. What relief! My line across the snow does not have a crevasse, but it does have its own problem- the snowfield becomes steeper just below the cliff and then I’m stuck, the snow is too steep and I’m unable to move forward with my one microspike without falling. Kodak downclimbs the cliff until he’s just above me. He then removes the guylines from his tarp, ties them together to make one long cord, and tosses me the second microspike on the end of this line. I put the microspike on, and a minute later I’m scrambling onto the rock next to Kodak. Success!

photo by Kodak

.

we crossed this snowfield!

.

safe

Now we’re squatting on a narrow ledge on a cliff, and we must ease our way up its cracks (that’s what she said, ha ha) in order to find our way over, around, in order to see our next obstacle, to size it up, to move forward on this wild slow journey we’re on. We do this, despacito, like the pop song- handing up our packs, finding handholds and footholds, hoisting ourself upwards into space. This is fun. This reminds me of the Hayduke. With each new landing spot on the rock, a new cliff appears, and yet when we poke around it always goes, we are never actually cliffed out, although it seems, again and again, as though we will be. This will become the theme of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route, for me. For the Hayduke, my motto was “There’s Never Really Not Water.” For the KCHBR, it’s fast becoming “It Never Really Doesn’t Go.”

It goes, and soon we reach some “slabs” which is when the ground is made of sticky wonderful granite sloping downwards and broken with tufts of flowers and the tread on one’s shoes attach magically to this granite, even at an impossible-seeming angle, and one becomes a gecko and the world is a jungle gym. This reminds me of the slickrock on the Hayduke, and I am so happy.

.

.

Kodak is happy too. This hike is FUN. No matter how slow our morning has been, with the one microspike each and the cliff. Now we’re dropping from slab to slab like super mario brothers and presently there are waterfalls and knee-high wildflowers and we’re crushing them beneath our feet and their mint-lime smell is all over us, and then we’re side-hilling on a steep scree slope down, down to a lake ringed in pines and gentle grass where I jump in the water to rinse off the fear from the morning and we hang our bug nets to keep off the feasting mosquitos while we eat lunch and I almost fall asleep in the sheltered space under the clouded midday sun with my hat over my eyes after consuming a great quantity of salami.

the kingdom of the tigerlilies

Afternoon finds us weaving our way through the open forest at what feels like lightning speed but is probably just under 2mph. One hour of this gentle walking and then begins our descent down the Goddard Drainage, where we will drop six thousand feet in fourteen miles, one steeply-angled, quartz-infused, slippy talus field at a time. Cliffs, cliffs, everything looks like a cliff until you are right on top of it and then it goes, it always goes. Unlike the Hayduke, there is no line on the map telling us exactly where to drop down these steep rock ledges. We must make our own lines, find the grassy fissures ourselves, the places where the animals get through. Does it go? It always goes. We lose hours in this slow careful work, this making one’s way down the crumbled bits of cliff and rock.

.

.

the Goddard drainage

At 7pm we have gone just seven miles but I feel as though I have traveled through galaxies of talus and there is a perfect campsite on a high shelf that overlooks a waterfall and Kodak pitches his flat tarp over our cowboy camp, again, and we make our dinner noodles and watch the light fade and the wind comes up just as the stars come out, and we sleep.