Week 10: Lengthy Breaks! Long Ascents! Luscious Blooms! (Miles 1090 – 1209.9)

South Lake Tahoe: A Trail Town?

Though I’d stayed in a hotel the weekend of my friend’s wedding back in the desert, I’d only slept in a bed one night on trail thus far: The Beautiful Ranch Motel in Tehachapi. The Beautiful Ranch Motel is dingy and decrepit and I paid my $82 to a grumpy lady through a bulletproof window. The shower wall was condemned. It was not a restful night. 

Somewhere before SLT, I remembered that I am 36 and not 22. Therefore, while not completely flush with cash, I had the funds to avoid the free (and presumably hot mess express) site at the Tahoe Valley Campground with all the other hikers. I could stay in a motel. I was initially going to stay in town for one night. Then I ended up booking two for a classic zero. I spent most of my zero waiting for and taking the free bus through the city, going to the post office and gear store, and thus decided to take another zero to enjoy myself. 

Three fabulous nights in the South Lake Tahoe EconoLodge! A dream indeed. There was free breakfast. I bought face soap from Whole Foods and scrubbed many times! My poor pores were not doing well after 702 miles of desert and another 400 miles of direct sunlight. I ate a Subway Veggie Delight in bed because I’m a classy bitch. I did an epic resupply at Raley’s and sent myself a box in Belden. I replaced my stove, which no longer adhered to fuel canisters. I spent a bit too much money riding Lime scooters up and down the main drag. I went to the beach! We went to the casino!

South Lake Tahoe dares to not roll out a red carpet for hikers and thus it’s not usually mentioned as one of the great trail towns of the PCT. HOWEVER! If you can manage to transcend the lack of hiker boxes in Whole Foods, it’s pretty fucking dope. 

Wherein I Lose the Continuous Footpath

Despite my grand proclamations about forming a little hiking group the previous week, I found myself headed to the trail alone. Crisis would remain in town with his girlfriend for one more night; QLP had, I believed, headed back on trail the day prior.

I found it very hard to leave South Lake Tahoe! I mean this both emotionally – town is always fabulous – but also literally – I couldn’t figure out how to get back. Hitching in a group is hilarious; hitching alone, at least for me personally at this point on trail, is not. I debated taking a Lime scooter back to the trailhead but thought it would be expensive, and maybe a little dangerous. Also, do they have a range at which they stop? I took the bus as far as it would go, which was not that far. After trying (very halfheartedly) to hitch from the end of the bus line, I millennially summoned a Lyft. 

The driver was chatty, as they are wont to be, a jolly older local man with a daughter my age and a glove compartment full of stories. He asked all about my hike; we were having a pleasant ride. 

There was construction on the road, though, and the ride got longer. 25 minutes…30…40…My driver became aggravated. I watched the little car in the Lyft app; we were still 10 minutes from the trailhead I’d gotten off at a couple days before. I watched the actual car I was in; we were no longer following the route on the driver’s GPS. Imagine if you avoid hitching because you don’t want to get stolen by a stranger and you end up getting stolen by a Lyft?

It turned out the guy had decided to drop me off at the Echo Lake Trailhead of his own accord. As we pulled into the parking lot and I realized where we were, I had the uncomfortable task of telling him he was actually a couple of miles from where I’d dropped the pin.

“But this is the trailhead,” he said.

“This is a trailhead,” I said, “but this isn’t where I set the dropoff.” 

He looked at his screen, which was telling him he had 9 minutes to his destination.

“But you’ll be closer,” he said.

“Right, but then I’ll miss those miles.”

“But it’s only a couple of miles.” He was looking at me in the rearview mirror like I was a nut.

“I know, but I don’t want to miss those miles,” I said. Especially because some random ass dude decided I should miss those miles, I thought.

As he whipped out of the parking lot he was no longer jolly. He was no longer telling me silly stories about Tahoe tourists or his dear daughter. He was pissed.

“This is a new one,” he said. “Going back for two miles. This is gonna make a great story.”

He followed the GPS; I sat silently in the back, willing time to speed forward. After about five minutes, he pulled the car over on the side of the highway.

“I’ll leave you here,” he said. “There’s too much traffic and I’m not going further.”

“Thanks!” I said. 

Reset at Echo Lake

I. Was. Furious. A quick glance at Guthook showed I was only a quarter of a mile from the trail and 0.8 miles north of where I’d stopped hiking. It wasn’t so much the missing mile – I’m not a purist. I’d flirted with the idea of getting dropped off at the Echo Lake Trailhead and cutting out those two contentious miles. But I decided that, while I didn’t mind taking alternates and shortcuts on the trail, I didn’t want to just chop off a chunk for no reason. More than anything, though, I resented the fact that I hadn’t spoken up when this random man decided to make a decision on my behalf. 

To be fair, I could have gone out and back south to close the gap. I sat at the trailhead for an excessive amount of time, debating doing just this. Ultimately I decided not to. I shoulder the blame. Though I tried to forget the stupid incident, as I climbed out of Echo Lake to the viewpoint I found myself increasingly livid. I hated this fucking guy. I hated all the random men on the trail who felt the need to share their opinions with me. The man at Sonora Pass who told me not to stand on the outside of the trail when someone was passing because I could lose my balance. The man in the Sierra who asked if I was “really hiking in those little sneakers (Brooks Cascadias).” The man at Mount Laguna who told me I didn’t look skinny enough to hike as much as I claimed I did; was I eating enough beef? The man day-hiking near Big Bear who asked me if I knew how to use my water filter. None of these fools are long-distance hikers, mind you, but rather generally older, always white section hikers and day hikers who seem to view a little lady on trail as an invitation to share their erroneous opinions and judgments. 

It was after three pm; my planned twenty miles were out of the question. I sat at the overlook eating mini marshmallows (on sale at Raley’s) and writing in my journal until I calmed down enough to hike on. 

Desolation Wilderness

My luck turned quickly as I entered the Desolation Wilderness. Though rocky, the trail had continuous views of lakes and trees. It was not but not overwhelmingly so, the sky was blue and clouds floated aimlessly. I had a Fast Break at Aloha Lake and debated camping but decided to push on to Dick’s Pass. I crested the high point at sunset; an explosive orange sky melted over the mountains and I set up my tarp on a tent site nestled in a grove of tall trees.

I ate dinner as the sunset faded into the star-dusted sky. I’d passed no one after Aloha Lake; I didn’t know where anyone I knew on trail might be. Who cares what these random dudes think? I thought. I get to be up here. Despite being in the Desolation Wilderness, I didn’t feel alone at all. I was another collection of steps among the millions of steps that had gotten people to this viewpoint. 

NorCal: The Only Blues Are In the Sky

You hear about the NorCal Blues a lot. You still have more than half the trail left, there are still more than 500 miles of freaking California. you still have the slog of Oregon and the challenge of Washington looming ahead. As I sat in Tahoe looking at the map (LOL JK I mean app), I didn’t have a very positive view of the upcoming section. It seemed endless. It seemed like a third of it was a burn area (this was true). People kept fear-mongering notorious climbs: The climb out of Sierra City, the climb out of Belden. I’d never even heard of any of the towns. NorCal seemed like this thing I had to get through to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. 

I left Dick’s Pass and headed into NorCal. It’s challenging. There are long windy climbs to long windy ridges; pronounce both words either way and it’ll be accurate. Unless you start early in the season, it’s going to be summer and thus hot. And since the time crunch is real, there’s not enough time for desert-style siestas where you wait out the heat; you will be hiking through the day. 

All of this is secondary, though, because by the time you hit NorCal you’ll be fucking flying, flying through scenery that’s stunning. I didn’t take notes during these first few days so much as I scrawled exclamations of beauty: “FLOWERS OMG OMG FLOWERS!” “Flowers literally everywhere!” “THESE FUCKING FLOWERS!” and, my personal favorite, “Holy Shit this has been the most floral day of my LIFE!” 

Indeed, I found myself traipsing about during the height of an endless wildflower season, dancing through fields of yellow and purple and green for miles and miles. It was unreal. The heat became a hiking partner that I dealt with, made tolerable by frigid spring water at frequent intervals. On the note of hiking partners, Quincy La Porte and I ran into each other about thirty miles out of Tahoe. We spent the next couple of days losing and finding each other, with extreme exuberance each time, before linking up at ass o’clock in the morning five miles south of Sierra City and heading into town.

Sierra City

We got there on a rural Monday, meaning everything except the General Store was closed. Sierra City, population 84 according to Wikipedia, should be a blip on the map. Based on the name alone, I thought Sierra City was going to look like a smaller Lone Pine: A dusty one-horse town with a store and a motel and not much else. It was this, to an extent, but the road walk into town was shaded and beautiful. There were towering pines and a freshly paved road, lovely houses, and complete calm. After visiting both towns, I think Lone Pine should be called Sierra City and vice versa. 

The invisible magnet pulled us to the charging station out back behind the store, where a few hikers had already gathered. I ordered breakfast and resupplied for the 90-mile stretch to Belden. We weren’t trying to linger in town so decided to shower while waiting for the post office to open, as QLP had a package, and then hightail it back to the trail. 

It’d been 105 miles and nearly that many degrees Fahrenheit (ok, mid-nineties) since I’d left Sierra City and I was dying for a shower. Luckily, there was a free one in town, up a little hill. On the plus side, it was a large rain shower, the kind you’d see in a hotel slightly nicer than the EconoLodge. On the negative side, it was fucking freezing. Per Quincy La Porte: “there is life before the shower in Sierra City and there is life after. We are now living life after.” I screamed a high-pitch scream as I submerged myself, again and again, scrubbing off dirt and degeneracy. I won’t say I was reborn but, like, I might have been?

People, People, People

In case it wasn’t clear, I am not one of those people who finds their faith in humanity restored after a long-distance hike. If anything, I feel vindicated in my New York-born and bred cynicism, and rue the days that I let it slip! If anything, I value an impromptu conversation with a stranger in a deli, where it’s not supposed to happen, more than I do the forced attempts at Making Meaningful Conversation that happen out here daily. I’m hiking because I like hiking! Please! Leave! Me! Alone! 

As a corollary, if I’ve learned anything on this journey it’s to ignore the vast majority of things people say. Everyone’s analysis of something – the difficulty of a section, the price of a resupply, the attitude of a shopkeeper – is shaped by their own particular experience on a particular day. Additionally, people want their own experiences to seem dramatic and their achievements to seem hard-earned. They can’t seem to abandon the need to be competitive about anything and everything, even when we’re operating in the realm of walking in nature. 

But it’s hard to remember this when you’re about to hit the trail at the hottest part of the day and people who have hiked the trail before are telling you that the climb out of Sierra City is grueling and exposed and actually dangerous, given the rising mercury. It’s hard to remember this when you’re trying to live your best trail life and people seem to be trying to out-fun you.

An Example of Out-Funning Each Other

We wandered around the porch of the General Store, saying hi and bye to people.

“You’re leaving already? What time did you get here?” A hiker I’ll call Plop asked us.

“Eight in the morning,” we said.

“Well, we would have gotten here earlier but we stopped to go swimming,” Plop said. “It was sooooooo fun.”

“Great!” We said.

“Did you hitch in?” Asked a hiker I’ll call Clarinet.  

“No, we walked.” I smiled, thinking of our pleasant stroll.

“Well, we got a hitch in, like, four seconds,” Clarinet said.

Wherein We Succumb to the Peer Pressure to Have Fun

Quincy and I heard there was a swimming hole somewhere in town but failed to find it. We’d walked about halfway back to the trail but it was hot in the shade and our packs were heavy. Should we go back to town and wait out the heat with everyone else? Had those people really gotten a hitch in four seconds? It seemed impossible for a car going, say, forty-five MPH to stop that quickly, just on a mechanical level. 

We decided to backtrack slightly and go swimming under the bridge we’d crossed that morning, staying cool until conditions improved and saving the climb for the less brutal heat of the afternoon. I felt like I was stealing a sliver of a summer I wasn’t supposed to have, a juicy, lavish afternoon of relaxation and lighthearted splashing. There was no rush, honestly; we’d make it up and over the mountain as we’d done with every other one thus far.  

Another serendipitous reunion that wouldn’t have occurred had we not succumbed to laziness: Crisis, about half a day behind, crossed over the bridge in the middle of the afternoon. He was heading into Sierra City for the night, so we’d remain ahead of him, but we were able to catch up once again. Score one for fun!

When we finally broke free from the swimming hole and accompanying shade, we found the ascent more than tolerable. The first half wasn’t exposed at all and there were long switchbacks that helped me ascend without much effort. By the time I was out of the trees and into the rocky climb, the angle of the sun was more an embrace than a headlock. I quickly found myself alone, Quincy La Porte somewhere ahead or behind. I camped on a ridge that was windy as all hell, trying to referee a fight between my trekking poles, my tarp, and the belligerent gusts before I just gave up and camped without a shelter. It certainly wasn’t going to rain.