The Alpha and the Omega
After days 1, 2 and 3 and with the exception of the last day…the rest is a blur numerically. I'm not sure where we were on day 6. Couldn’t tell you what feature we camped near on day 10. I can for days 1,2,3, and the last day.
3 days in and we're just getting started. When you take a step back and do the math, by the end of this day, day 4, we'll have been 40 miles or so. That's a long way to travel.
There's a weird, really hard to describe fulfillment that comes with knowing you traveled on foot some weird distance that you only have ever previously associated with motorized travel. And there's something oddly elegant about being free. No roads, no lanes, no white lines, traffic signals, air traffic control. No canyon too deep or wide, no obstacle too tall. On foot, you can do anything. It just takes time. We had time.
Time is always running out, though.
We slept in Shadow Creek canyon next to the aforementioned body of water. In Texas, this creek would pass for a river.
I was worried that it would be loud and keep me awake. My fears were never realized. I passed out. And I passed out hard. I had a feeling when I awoke in the morning that my feet would resent ever being attached to me. They'd be angry they had to carry the load of my ass plus a backpack of stuff. They'd protest. And they would hurt all day as much as they did at the end of yesterday.
I was wrong. My feet felt amazing. A short 8-10 hours before and I would take a break every few minutes because my feet physically hurt too much to move. I was jumping and jogging down the trail now.
The first major geographical challenge (read:climb) of the day was the east wall of Shadow Lake. A 600 foot ascent up the trail to Rosalie and Gladys lake. The switchbacks were long and at a reasonable grade. It was slow drudgery, but I felt good about the pace and the level of exertion it took out of me.
By this point a couple of things are becoming apparent-
Nutrition is starting to matter. You can physically feel what you eat, and when you eat it.
Stopping and taking care of feet has paid off. 0 blisters so far. I did start wearing two pairs of socks for extra cushion. I'm thinking this helped mitigate blisters as well though.
Day 4 was the day my body said "Okay, asshole..guess we're doing this. Let's go."
Days like this were exciting because they were map-changing days. We'd go off one map and onto another. In this way, I was able to see visual progress. I knew we were moving even though it didn’t feel like it.
I also knew we were moving because off in the distance we could see Mammoth mountain with its ski lanes carved into its face.
Day 4 was nothing special or revolutionary on the trail. The forests were nice, the lakes were lakes.
On day 3, I was pissed off at the cold realization that we couldn’t spend a lot of time at places, period. We had to move. We had a start and an end date. We needed to get done. And if we didn’t move 8-12 miles a day, we wouldn't finish. I would have stayed at Thousand Island Lake 3 days. But it wasn’t possible. I was feeling pretty down about this. It's not something I had thought about before the trip.
This changed my perspective from a leisurely adventure hike to a personal-limits pushing test. Move hard, fast, far. Enjoy the trail but push yourself. No longer was it hiking. It was something more than that, but something less than trying to set a pace record. I was now trying to see how much I could do and how far I could go.
The forests, lakes, valleys, and dark soils give way to an ashy, tuffacious layer from volcanism. The trail becomes a dust cloud but the surface is a soft 3-4 inches of loose, fine volcanic sand. The light tan sand material fills boots, socks, the air, and covers legs, clothes, packs. This geological change is good because it means we're nearing the Devil's Postpile. We were nearing the place where it had started. Keith drove us right by the Devil's Postpile. A short way from the postpile- Red's Meadow. Complete with showers, kitchen, grocery store, and our first resupply. We took the hike slow and easily made it to the postpile by 2 or 3. As we crossed a substantial bridge over to the NPS parking lot and visitor center, I noticed a wedding going on in the field.
"Hmm. Cool they're doing this outside, I guess." I thought to myself. But I also thought they should be gone. I thought they were ruining my land. I thought if they wanted to get married outdoors, go more than 1/4 of a mile from the lot that you parked. Whatever. Good for them. Don't know them. Won't see them again. I'll forever hold my peace.
As we carry on past DPPNM (Devil's post pile natl monument) the terrain becomes this scarred, ravaged landscape. Winds and drought and whatever else has taken down a huge number of the trees in this section 2 miles before DPPNM and all the way to Red's Meadow. The trees in this 4 mile stretch were decimated. . They'd been broken or blown over at the base, their shallow roots turned on their side still grasping to the soil and cobble that they clung to when they used to be vertical. So much destruction. I circled the main region on the map and named part of this trail Dead Tree Forest.
As we get nearer to Red's, we formally go off the JMT and hike on the network of trails that have been made around this area. Apparently, they main method of travel here is horse. Because there's shit everywhere.
The JMT is a horse trail in fact. But this area was the epicenter of horse shit. Fresh, old, moist, dry, intact, disintegrated. It was everywhere. And so was the smell. It was an unpleasant hike. I kept my head up, tried to breathe through my mouth, and hiked as quickly as I could on the super soft sand like surface, which, by this time, was a pain in the ass and no longer welcomed.
We were hiking up a soft, sandy grade when I thought to myself "Hmm self, it's pretty awesome your Achilles hasn’t given you any problems. I think we're in the clear on that front." My ankles don't dorsiflex much (foot won't flex up towards leg.) Short story is that this makes my Achilles tendon super tight and I've had random tendonitis issues with it. I was unsure how this hike would play in to the tendon and its operation. But there were no problems. Until I thought to myself "I think we're in the clear…"
At about that exact moment, I felt a sharp pain emanate from the lower part of my Achilles tendon where it anchors to my foot. A sharp, stabbing, searing pain that felt like a knife was touching it every time my foot would flex with the natural motion of walking. I took Aleve.
And I envisioned the hamburger I would eat. A huge, greasy, delicious mess of meat and bread and lettuce and a poor excuse for ketchup, because it wouldn't be Whataburger Ketchup, but it would suffice. I'd drink a beer. And I'd eat hot, somewhat crispy food service fries. Then maybe I'd get a shake. Or ice cream. I could do whatever the hell I wanted. I was burning 5,6,7 thousand calories a day.
That meal and that meal alone kept me going in those moments of severe pain in the foot, the tinge of ammonia molesting my nostrils from the smatterings of horse shit, and the stupid sand sucking all my energy out of each foot step.
Over a ridge we go, and there it is. The place Keith took us 3 or 4 days before. The place we dropped off our food. Red's Meadow. Showers. Food. Salvation that couldn’t come at a more perfect time. It was 4:45, the sun was bright but not blinding. It was casting the perfect shade of light. Not harsh, but glowing. Illuminating everything and making the world look warmer.
We walk up to a picnic table. Unload our backs. And then Lindsey goes to scope out the kitchen/restaurant/burger repository. There's a little sign at the door with what I assume are specials, or deals, or daily offerings.
The sign reads: "Kitchen will close at 5 for a private event."
And this is where the world falls apart.
"Can we order something before you close?" Lindsey asks at 4:49pm.
"Kitchen is closed."
Who. The. F. reserved the whole damn place?
We sit on the brown picnic table just outside the kitchen soaked in failure, dejection, and hunger. People in suits and dresses show up. A professional photographer parks near us. Friends and family all pour in to the little foodery. Looks like a reception.
Son of a bitch.
It's those sanctimonious no good newlyweds that we passed at 2:00. They did their stupid ceremony in their stupid field and got in their stupid cars and drove to the stupid resort and SHUT DOWN THE GOD DAMN KITCHEN.
If by happenstance I ever find out who these people are in passing, or in some serendipitous way I'm walking the streets in San Francisco and I overhear you next to me reminisce about the time you got married at Red's Meadow in early September of 2013- I will punch you. And I will steal your wallet. And I will buy all of the hamburgers I possibly can with whatever funds you have. And I will throw the burgers at you. And then I'll probably eat them. And I'll kick you firmly but not abusively while you're face down on the ground under a heap of hamburgers.
Love and commitment and forever has not a single damn thing to do with a restaurant that was going to give me a hamburger in exchange for my money. You didn’t need the place. I needed that place. I needed a hot, mediocre-ly made sandwich of processed beef product smashed between enriched flour. Just because you got married and your life is over doesn’t mean you had to ruin it for me.
You will never have my blessing. And If ever I'm a ghost- You're #1 on the list of who I'm haunting. I'm going to rip pictures off your wall and throw milk and make weird sounds in the attic. Faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of all is hamburgers. Your judgment day will come.
I'm a disheveled heap on the table. Completely broken. We go in to the convenience store to pick up our resupply. I buy a hefeweizen out of the beer fridge there. I take my beer and resupply box of food back out to the table. We drink the beer. I eat a salami that we'd packed in the box to try and fill the cavernous hole created by the explosion of the super nova of bright hope and joy that was Hamburger.
It doesn’t work.
We sit at the table for an hour or so maybe. Mostly sulking. Partly thinking of what to do next.
There's not much to do. We can camp and keep going, but I'm so broken in spirit that I'm not sure there's even a point to living right now.
We can try to hitchhike to Mammoth Lakes, but all the cars in the parking lot are people who are spending the night in the cabins or something.
Essentially, we can keep going or we can stop.
If we'd been to Red's Meadow 2 days sooner, there would have been a shuttle bus running that would have taken us back to town that was 15 miles away on a winding, switch backing road.
If we'd been to Red's Meadow 2 hours sooner, there would have been a glorious hamburger residing in the bottom of my stomach. It would jump in fits of glee and happiness at being in its new home. So hot, cheesy, delicious.
The shuttle situation, recall, was this- Shuttle from Mammoth to Yosemite runs on weekends ONLY this time of year.
We can get to Mammoth Lake, catch a shuttle to the car, and be on the fast track to burger city.
Any other time of the week and this isn't possible.
The long days of hiking had added up. The weight of the packs and the terrain was not forgiving. We were both tired and hungry. We were both in amounts of pain. At the table we sat and seriously discussed calling it. Calling the whole thing.
On the car ride out there, Lindsey asked me "Is this a good idea? We've never backpacked more than two nights…"
We had made it 3. An improvement. Based on the shuttle schedule and having the known opportunity to get back to our car, I suggested that we stop hiking the trail.
I didn’t want to. I wanted a fucking hamburger.
But I didn’t know when/if we'd be able to catch a shuttle again. There were many unknowns and honestly, when you focus on the unknowns…nothing is ever a good idea.
Here was a dream we'd had, miles of it underfoot by this point. And in silent tears at a brown picnic table we sat and thought about what was happening. 10 feet away, the lights in the kitchen were on and the reception was in full swing. People walked around us in a blur. Toasts were made. Rented suits and dress shoes danced over the lush green grass all while we sat there at the table. Occasionally we'd look in at them. Occasionally they would look out at us.
The sun stopped reaching our location in the valley but it wasn’t dark. Things were just gray. Everything was gray.
The official verdict was this: We'll get to Mammoth and sleep on it.
Keith had made the road look easy on his shuttle bus. We could pay a worker from the resort 80 bucks for a ride to town…but screw that. It can't be far.
And so we hoisted our freshly resupplied backpacks up and started hiking on the pavement that would lead to Mammoth. We had maybe an hour of light left. We walked side by side in the right hand lane of the road. No cars in front of us. No cars behind us.
I didn’t know it then, but this road was 15 miles and 2000 feet of separation between where we left and where we wanted to be.
We walked on…
Notes from the trail
AM DAY 4-
HAD WEIRD DREAM ABOUT DAD SETTING A FOREST ON FIRE.
FEET FEEL BETTER.
MISS COLLEGE A LOT. WEIRD. NEVER DID BEFORE.
JULIET-SCA@ DEVILS POSTPILE
GOT TO RED'S @ 4:52.
RESTERAUNT CLOSED @ 5:00 FOR A WEDDING.
STARTED WALKING DOWN ROAD….
Photos from Day 4