From Agnew/Mammoth Lakes to Donner Pass/Truckee/ (mile 914.5 – 1155)
Written by both of us in fits and starts… posted famously late, but better than never!
Our departure from Mammoth Lakes, finally, began with a section of trail I know well. We hiked to Thousand Island Lake, beneath the shadow of the Banner and Ritter peaks, scene of my very near demise eight years ago. This time around, I thanked those mountains from afar and focused instead on the evening’s meal. Throughout the Sierra’s we have been using a telescopic fishing rod, some 2lb test and a couple of black or yellow 1/4 oz panther martin lures. These, and the Scandinavian spoons we picked up in northern Sweden years ago, have provided us with 26 Golden, Rainbow, and Brook trout from 10 different lakes, including Thousand Island. All trout, including the Golden’s in most locations, are human introductions to the high mountain lakes of the Sierra. The different national parks, forest, and wilderness areas encourage people to fish these non-native trout that negatively impact other indigenous species, such as the yellow-legged frog. Besides catching trout, on at least one occasion I did a real decent job of snagging a stonefish (aka: a rock). Thankfully my companion, the polar bear, decided to jump in the ice-cold water and try to retrieve it. The lake of course got deeper and cooler as she moved away from the side banks, but with remarkable persistence she finally procured the silvery shining lure. The shivering mosquito fest that ensued was well worth it (she said) as fresh trout for dinner always feels so nutritional and connecting.
Overall the climbs in this section were less dramatic, (8,000-9,000 feet), but more frequent. In many ways, northern Yosemite seemed to be the most challenging section of the high mountains as well as one of the most remote. At Tuolomne Meadows in Yosemite NP, the John Muir Trail and the PCT separate and the number of people on the trail decreases significantly. We both reveled in the unthinkably large glacially scoured hunks of granite, and the pace of that sandy steep trail winding its way north and west into and back out of canyon after canyon. The days of hiking seemed to become internally quieter for both of us. We both knew that our end date was rapidly approaching. We often hiked right into sundown. Dusk is an important time of the day, a time of transition. There is a phenomenal amount of life shifiting into or out of action all around, if you pay attention. Mosquito blooms are perhaps the least subtle in this regard. They won’t take no for an answer, and so much the better then, to keep on walking while their numbers seemingly pulse into existence inversely with the temperature drop…until…they’re gone again. With the shift of just that crucial degree or two more in temperature drop they vanish back into the night.
On one unforgettable evening, while I was crouched over an unidentified Saxifrage, face buried in a plant key, Li An was marching on ahead. She suddenly saw a young catlike creature, with a dark brown color and a long thick tail. He was youthfully jumping and running in front of her for 30 full seconds or so. It was truly remarkable that she was able to gaze at that wild animal in awe and wonder for so long, before it too disappeared into the underbrush, as if nothing more than an apparition. That flash of wild mountain lion became one of the highlights of the whole journey for her. She wrote:
“After that encounter, it was as if Yosemite’s wildlife and its wildly flowing bloodlines suddenly entered and rushed through my body. With this adrenaline, I wondered: How much does a mountain lion walk on a day? How much does (s)he walk for food and how much to find a place to sleep or to find a mating partner? And how much do we, human beings, still walk for food? I realized that in this wild context the connectivity of life must be strong in order to create such healthy species and resilient systems, yet at the same time this is very intricate and fragile as it has evolved on the basis of this web of relationships all co-depending on one another for many generations. So one change in those relationships may influence and alter this balance. With that in mind, how much does my presence, as a human being, affect those changes or cause imbalance? “
With regards to the snow pack and potential for botanizing it turned out to be a wise choice to flip flop north and returned south five weeks later. By doing southern CA first, Nor Cal in early summer, and the high country in late summer we managed to experience essentially 4 months of Spring. While this was a tough, TOUGH year for the thru hikers (many of whom still made it to Canada) it was really ideal for the plant geeks. At times we were walking through lush meadows with wildflowers as high as our chest. We climbed over alpine passes and witnessed a similar diversity of shapes of flowers and an intensity of colors and fragrances as at lower elevation but all captured in miniature; the whipping winds and early winters are so clearly expressed in the form of the cushion plants and mat forming perennials of the alpine peaks. Several times we found ourselves reminding other day hikers of the need to tread extra lightly through those landscapes. One wrong step up there can be the ecological equivalent of taking a chainsaw to a full grown tree down in the low lands. As humans used to relatively homogeneous man made landscapes we often forget how heterogeneous our world really is, and how responsive to that heterogeneity we need to be.
For precisely this reason, and despite having to traverse approximately twelve dodgy snowfields, one of our favorite parts of the trail was Sonora Pass. This region is predominantly formed by volcanic rock, and as such it is full of alpine life and diversity that we had otherwise not yet encountered. The ten miles leading up to Sonora Pass were a decidedly wind whipped several hours, but the area immediately went into the notes as a ‘must return again.’
From Sonora Pass, we headed in to Bridgeport (mile 1018.3) for food resupply. After being skunked on hitching, we lucked out and were gifted a lift all the way by local Sonorians, Craig, Ree and Amy, who made a detour of 60 miles on our behalf. Our luck continued in town as we met some more locals while eating dinner in our raingear and waiting for our clothes to de-grime at the laundromat. John & Kim from Walker, CA very kindly gave us a ride out to the Travertine hot springs. Under a sky with the Leo full moon and shooting meteorites, we took several dips and camped out there. The next morning, Dave, a wetland ecologist and climate change researcher, gave us a short lift from the hot springs to the post office. Coincidentally, we had met one of his colleagues at the Bluesapalooza festival in Mammoth Lakes the week prior. At the post office, we fetched our resupply food box, and in completing a now classic thru hiker scene, we spread and sorted all our food on the pavement in front of the post office. Sherry, a recently retired USFS forester happened by on her bicycle and after a brief conversation, she offered to bring us back to the trailhead at Sonora pass. Amazing. Disregard any “guide book” that might lead you to believe that Bridgeport has no ‘trail angels.’ Indeed, it is full of them, and near as we can tell, so is the world. What special encounters we have had with so many beautiful and friendly people. Although we are strangers to one another, there is an openness and curiosity that creates these beautiful relations.
Days later, having arrived in Echo Lake (1094.5 mile) we met a couple named Ann & David who spontaneously invited us that evening to their lake-house. They shared their dinner meal with fresh salad and wine with us. Along with Ann’s sister Regna, her husband Tom, Ann’s son Lucas, and his girlfriend Scarlet, we had very interesting conversations by gas light. We also had the luxury of taking a hot solar shower (the last one we had was at Mammoth Lakes twelve days prior). After dinner, Lucas encouraged us to grab a canoe and glide into the middle of the lake. Looking up at the bright starry night we couldn’t help but wonder at the unpredictability of the evening, of the trail, and of life.
Two nights later, our last day out, we arrived at Donner Pass (mile 1155) that leads to Truckee and Tahoe City. The reliable thumb went up and the first car that went by picked us up, Zarko from Serbia made a detour and dropped us at Truckee. From there we got another short ride and lastly we were picked up by our special trail angel Ron from Granlibakken who brought us back to his resort & conference center. For the third time he booked us a room where we enjoyed a shower, hot tub and next morning’s grand breakfast buffet with lots of fresh fruit, omelet with avocado, quiche with gruyere cheese and green tea. Mmmm
For the year, the gallivanting has ended. We covered 1455 miles, little more than half of the total PCT. This will seem like a lot to some, and not much to others, but for all the miles, and the worn out shoes, shirts, bags, for all the Snickers, peanut butter, dried venison and fruit leather, for all the spaghetti, and rice, and beans… and yeah for all the bean-o, we seemed to find strength in each other, in the people we met, in our love for the land, and our love for movement and transformation. For the many ‘thru hikers’ who got caught up in the rhetoric over what truly is a ‘thru hike’ and what is purity, I can only shrug my shoulders and remember that everyone’s walk is theirs alone. Some need speed, others need solitude, and still others need broken records. Whatever it is, don’t come back without it. We went seeking experience, adventure, and little more than a chance to meet our world…species by species, ecosystem by ecosystem, and bit by bit. Eventually the pieces all start to reflect something larger, something more meaningful, something whole.
We now have a lot of processing to do, both personally and technically, not least of which is the twelve and half thousand pictures that somehow are going to get organized this winter… For now I am back in Berkeley elbow deep in classes, and Li An is back in Europe reconnecting with many friends and family, designing a course curriculum, and is active in several conferences in the UK.