You are currently viewing Chapter 6 Entering the High Sierra
Kakuzõ Okakura, The Book of Tea, 1906

With a few more beers under our belt, the thought of dinner sounds appealing. There are two dining options available in Kennedy Meadows South. One is the General Store and the other, three miles away, is Grumpy Bear’s Resort. We can barely hobble to the fridge cabinet to quench our thirst at present. And we still need to pitch our tents in a massive dust bowl out back surrounded by shadeless trees. For the moment we prefer to socialise, drink, and eat. We save the Grumpy’s experience for tomorrow and learn more about how these two establishments share the clientele. Tonight, we enjoy a burger with a bag of crisps.  

As we lounge on the balcony the chatter gravitates to how everyone plans to enter the High Sierra. According to The Pacific Crest Trail Data Book, put out by Wilderness Press, an equation is used to estimate when you should reach Kennedy Meadows South, acknowledged as the start of the High Sierra. The equation is Kennedy Meadows Day = June 1 + (inches of snow at Bighorn Plateau on April 1/3.5) days. If you leave for the High Sierra on this calculated day “you will still meet plenty of snow, but it should not be overwhelming.”

On March 25, 2019, Bighorn Plateau received 45 inches. If we use this near enough date for calculation, we can leave on June 14. It is now June 24. The stars are aligning well for us. Still, it’s been a bumper snowfall year and the snowpack may take longer to melt. For thru-hikers, this means we must exercise extreme caution with the likelihood of hazardous high-water level river crossings.   

Although Shepherd and I are a well-oiled machine, it may be useful to build a ‘tramily,’ your trail family. It’s advisable to team up with a larger group for safe fording of fast-flowing rivers. I have my eye on Moose. He is 6ft 5in tall and can part the waters if he puts his bulk and mind to it. Or more to my liking, just carry me across and cut out the danger. A fantasy, but nice to contemplate.

We end up talking with Wizard, a senior hiker who has worked on supercomputers at the University of Alaska. Our conversation gravitates to the height of these mountains. Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States and the Sierra Nevada, with an elevation of 14,505ft (4,421m). Why, contiguous? Well, if you count the highest mountain peak in North America, we are talking of Denali in Alaska, also known as Mount McKinley, with a summit elevation of 20,310ft (6,190m).

“That’s good to know Wizard but Mount Whitney is still a decent mountain to me.”

We’re planning to take a side trip, not part of the official PCT route, to summit this mountain.

“It sure is. At that elevation, you could be vulnerable to altitude sickness.”

I thought this might be the case. A quick Google search of Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko, in the Snowy Mountains region of New South Wales, has it reaching an unimpressive 7,310ft (2,228m), half Mount Whitney’s height. I brought Diamox to treat altitude mountain sickness (AMS). I don’t fancy getting sick trying to reach the top. Should I summit or not summit Mt Whitney? You can’t tell if you’ll get altitude sickness until you are at altitude. I want to give this mountain a go, but I’m torn.

We rest up for two full days in Kennedy Meadows. Many stay a week or never leave. “Don’t get caught in the vortex” is a popular expression when you become too comfortable with a town and lose motivation to leave it. We have housekeeping to do as per usual. We hitch a ride to the other side of town.

Grumpy Bear Resort is also the USPS Post Office and next door is TCO (Triple Crown Outfitters), run by Yogi, a famous Triple Crown thru-hiker. The story goes she got her trail name scavenging for food, just like Yogi Bear. From TCO we buy new clothes–elasticised shorts and pants because we have lost weight, warmer base layer leggings, the bulk of our resupply food, and rental of the dreaded bear canister.

The dreaded bear canister and all the rest I need to pack

The purpose of a bear canister is to stow your food and any other scented products such as toothpaste and sunscreen in a secure container away from your tent so black bears don’t associate humans as a food source. It’s a plastic bucket with a tamper-proof lid I find difficult to open. They vary in size and price, but most hikers go for the Bear Vault brand, model BV500. They weigh an inconvenient 2lb 9oz (1.16kg), hold seven days’ worth of food, and refuse to fit in anyone’s backpack. The absolute bane of my existence and I’m renting it. The fact is a bear canister is mandatory in the High Sierra and you risk a hefty fine if you don’t carry one.

We head to Grumpy’s for mail which includes our bounce boxes, more socks and insulin from Rebecca, and hopefully some UL booties made of goose down and waterproof gloves to protect my polar fleece ones. With cool nights in the Sierra, my extremities might suffer. This gear is expensive. If it works, it’ll be worth it.

Not sure I want you to be comfortable the PCT is thinking. They don’t arrive. Gee, thanks PCT. I ended up getting the Post Mistress to bounce this order along for me until warmer weather makes these purchases redundant.

Grumpy outside Grumpy’s hitching back to General Store

I’m giving the PCT acronym a new definition. To me, it has become the Problem-solving Constantly Trail. Sometimes the trail is harder when you are off it. Its determination to derail you at every turn keeps us committed to continuing this epic journey. You just watch us PCT. We respect you, love you, and hate you in equal measure. We admire you for your beauty and diversity. And we will never underestimate you. For these reasons, we relish the challenges you deliver us. Onwards we go to a successful conclusion.

Do you remember the meal we had at the General Store? To differentiate, Grumpy’s gives you French fries with your burger instead of crisps. They’re an ingenious bunch. At breakfast time they give you burritos, a few massive pancakes, and hash browns. The hash browns are French fries, from last night, diced. Still, wholesome hiker food and we gobble most of it except the humungous pancake. We nibble the edges instead, to show we’ve tried.

Grumpy’s has a cheap meal offer one night and The General Store responds with a free open-air movie screening the other night. Be in the wrong place and you may miss being fed. As a last resort, you always have your stovetop and a Ramen noodle offering from the hiker box if you can’t summon the energy to move to the other venue.

On the third day we rise, bear canister loaded with eight days worth of food, five litres of water, and the other stuff we’ve accumulated. These include warmer gear, waterproof socks, new Columbia PFG (Professional Fishing Gear without the fishing) hiking shirts, and the return of our microspikes and ice axe. I believe I’m at capacity–50.7lbs (23kgs). Like nervous Nellies, we set off for the High Sierra at 10.30 am. Cooler weather awaits us but today is a scorcher.

Arrrowleaf balsam root, large canary yellow daisies; yellow salsify, a daisy with lime green spikes framing it; and a low-lying yellow desert flower, known as birdcage evening primrose cover Beck Meadow. The wildflowers always captivate me, but we could do with shade.

We nestle under scrubby trees with other hikers. A bubble of us is forming. This could be our tramily, who may help us with stream crossings in a few days. We have lunch at a water source around 1 pm, dinner at another water source at 6 pm, and then another hour’s hike before we retire for the night. We usually dine at our campsite, but other hikers recommend you prepare and eat your food a distance away to discourage black bears from snooping at night. On this occasion, we follow their advice but later, when the threat fades, I disregard these comments and fain being brave. I’d love to see black bears in the wild, but I guess I want to stay alive too.  

The reality is you can’t load all your food and scented goods in the bear canister. The leftovers I put in a well-sealed, odour-proof, military-strength, Loksak Opsak ziplock bag inside my food bag. Inside my tent I put the food bag in my pack, my smelly clothes on top of the pack and myself on top of the smelly clothes using the pack as a footrest. Why, the subterfuge? Other hikers tell us black bears dislike the smell of humans and covering your foodstuff with your smelly clothes is an effective deterrent. Fingers crossed.

Before retiring we close our bear canisters and Shepherd places them a fair distance away. She covers them in wood and rocks. If the debris dislodges from the canisters overnight black bears may be the likely culprit. And if nature calls you at 5 am, it can spell disaster for Kit Kat. Shepherd has done a fine job of hiding them. Too good a job.

I need my toileting bag, stowed inside my bear canister. At this early hour, I don’t want to wake Shepherd. I play seek, getting seconds closer to dropping my load. At last, I find the canister. But my troubles are not over yet. I must open that blasted tamper-proof lid with my uncooperative hands. Got it. The toileting bag is retrieved. Hole dug. Relief.

Disaster averted before the day begins. I look forward to returning to my tent for a warm oatmeal breakfast and my mocha creation–a mixture of a Starbucks coffee sachet and one Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa Milk Chocolate mix. And waking Shepherd.

With a 6.30 am start we climb to over 10,000ft. Lunch is among the snow patches with excellent views of snow-capped peaks. This is John Muir territory. John Muir (1838-1914) was America’s most influential naturalist and conservationist. Americans have honoured him with such titles as ‘The Father of our National Parks’, ’Wilderness Prophet’, and ‘Citizen of the Universe’. We will walk the John Muir trail in his beloved Yosemite National Park as it parallels the PCT for 200 miles. I finish reminiscing on this impressive man with another of his quotes.

John Muir

The landscape becomes subalpine with fewer spectacular wildflowers at higher elevations. We walk through shaded conifer forests then emerge on sandy white plains dotted with enormous granite boulders and petrified sequoia gigantea which can live up to 3,500 years.

Bereft of pine needles, the southern foxtail pines, abundant in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, display the most divine trunks. They remind me of a stiff twisted rope pulled skyward to a small vertical point. The colours vary from white bark, cappuccino greige, and creamy tan to a dirty yellow and rich burgundy-brown. Their rich hues are even more enhanced when surrounded by snow, cliff faces, deep green valleys, and meadows dotted with purple and yellow daisies.

We’re a long way up. I consult my Suunto Core watch’s altimeter to get a reading.

“We’re above the clouds, Shepherd. My watch says we are at 10,000ft.”

“You’re wrong. My Garmin Fenix says we are nearly at 11,000ft. You need to calibrate your watch.”

“My watch is right.” I don’t have a clue how to calibrate the altimeter. And I won’t admit it. Having a general idea of high, higher, and highest elevation points is accurate enough for me.

“What’s 1,000ft amongst friends?” No comment from the expert.

At 10,730ft we are getting more than impressive views. We are starving. I can’t stop eating. Despite the massive increase in our food consumption my sugar levels continue to drop. I must lower my insulin dosage further or eat more. If I eat more, I may put myself in danger of running out of food on this lengthy eight-day carry. Shepherd is experiencing the same difficulties. On top of this, I’m getting dizzy, nauseous, and experiencing dull headaches. Mild altitude sickness, I suspect.

The best I save for last–excessive farting. I can trumpet my way through the High Sierra without apology at the rear of the pack. Infinite Raspberry may be the name of my lipstick shade, but Raspberry has relevance to my story too. Did you know ‘Raspberry’, alluding to ‘Raspberry tart’, is Cockney rhyming slang for ‘fart’? The expression ‘blowing a raspberry’ involves using your tongue and lips to make a farting sound. High elevation, as confirmed to me by an experienced pilot, is the perfect environment for farting.

The Pacific Crest Trail, as its name suggests, has plenty of elevation, none more obvious than the High Sierra region in the Sierra Nevada Mountain ranges. I love walking at the rear to admire the glorious scenery and take photographs. And I enjoy farting, in peace, when the urge arises. I admit, my per-minute firing rate is most impressive.

I forget myself. There is a point to this. Out in the wilderness–pooping, peeing, belching, and farting–are unavoidable primal urges. I must include bodily functions for a factual and informative account of my PCT. Observing expected social mores has long departed from Shepherd and my daily routines.   

Last night we camped at Death Canyon Creek. Tonight, Poison Meadow. Are they trying to tell us something? The nights are getting colder and creek campsites can often cause condensation problems with single-wall tents. This means my feather-down quilt can get wet if it rests against the tent wall. You don’t want this to happen. Down loses its insulation qualities when wet.

Some hikers choose synthetic sleeping bags to avoid this problem, but it comes at a cost–they’re bulky and heavier. Most thru-hikers prefer feather down, goose over duck, for its lighter weight and superior warmth. If you can avoid getting it wet or can dry it later in the day, you’ll be fine.

Another way to cut weight is to use a quilt. You might need to add a beanie to keep your head warm, but it reduces weight when you remove the sleeping bag’s padded head covering. I love my quilt and never get tangled in it, even when I toss and turn throughout the night. 

Snowcups

We take a while to get to the Poison Meadow campsite. Patchy snow covers the terrain. As the day warms the snow becomes slushier. We need to avoid post-holing. That’s when you fall into a deep hole, knee or waist-deep, often formed by earlier hikers. Snowshoes, effective floatation aids, could ease this problem but for summer thru-hikers they’re total overkill and impractical to carry. We must be careful to avoid serious leg injuries by taking it nice and slowly, a tiring and annoying exercise.

As sectionhiker.com describes well “It’s a lot like playing the game Twister while walking across a minefield.” I’m learning as Shepherd alerts me to the dangers.

“Don’t walk near rocks. They might look safer but the rock, warmed by the sun, will melt the surrounding snow faster,” as my right foot disappears into the muck. No pain. I survive this time, but I heed her warning.

Postholing

Often, we lose our way in this snow-covered terrain. The official PCT pathway is there but we can’t see it. Our FarOut navigational app guides us back to the unseen trail. It takes time to find a suitably sized bare patch of soil in which to squeeze our tents. My vestibule opening looks up toward a steep slope with an ice chute stopping just outside my door. If it melts, I’ll get damp, but I estimate a cool night won’t speed up the melt. Tonight, I can sleep in peace.

This immersive experience is magical and invigorating. Just Shepherd and I, the smallest of dots, are embedded in a majestic landscape. Magnificent sequoia forests and grand vistas in every direction. We forget our earlier fatigue and marvel at its splendour. The following day; more stunning scenery, more snow, more navigational challenges, and more post-holing.

Chicken Spring Lake

That is until we meet Squirrel, a bearded redhead from Melbourne, Australia who is hiking with his girlfriend, Marnie. Shirt off, he reclines on a driftwood-coloured stump. He looks relaxed in an agitated sort of way.

“Hi, Squirrel. Waas up?” we chant as we get nearer.

“Oh, I’m just waiting for Marnie. We’re heading back to Bishop.”

“Why? That’s the wrong direction.”

“We’re retreating.”

“Is everything ok?” we enquire further.

“No, not really. We saw a near-fatal accident while trying to ascend Mount Whitney. We’re too shaken to continue. A hiker named Speedy Gonzales slipped on an ice shute ascending Mount Whitney and fell 10 yards onto a ledge which broke his fall.” Sounds like imminent death if his fall had continued to the mountain’s base. “Others in the group used their ice axes to help arrest his fall. Everybody involved is in shock and Speedy suffered serious panic attacks.”

Whoa! This news is a massive story to digest. Speedy activated his GPS’s SOS feature to alert authorities of his accident. After eight hours on the mountainside, other hikers coaxed Speedy off the ledge to safety. They notified his wife and Speedy’s PCT trek ends. From Squirrel’s account, we suspect others are retreating too. We thank Squirrel for this information, wish him well, and continue on our way. But this news has knocked the wind from our sails.

We continue towards our next campsite, Rock Creek, in silence. Both of us spend the time trying to digest this frightening news. Maybe Speedy, from the trail name he has earned, was being too speedy and with caution could have avoided this fall. Or the snow deserves more respect than we are giving it. With micro spikes are we becoming too complacent in our abilities to traverse these decent mountain ranges? Is it a stretch to believe our hiking skills can master what is fast approaching mountaineering skills? It was always our intention to summit Mount Whitney, but this incident prompts a major rethink.

We have three options. Still do Mount Whitney, miss it, and continue to Forester Pass, the highest point on the official PCT trail at 13,153ft (4,010m), or retreat from the High Sierra. We decide to miss Mount Whitney and continue to Forester Pass. Decision made; Shepherd retires for the night.

A wise-looking scout leader with several boys under his wing walks by our campsite.

“I’m about to cook trout we caught. You’re welcome to join us by the campfire.”

Did he just say campfire? 60 days on the trail and I have not yet sat by a campfire.

I forgot to mention one of the other bits of paperwork you need for the PCT trail is a California Fire Permit. They are free, arranged online, and are valid for one calendar year. Shepherd secured hers in November 2018 which meant she had to reapply in January 2019. Ten points for trying though. I like her enthusiasm.

We need them to light our stoves. Many areas prohibit campfires because of the threat of forest fires with inexperienced hikers not knowing the correct way to extinguish their fires. Many are unaware of how a fire can ignite when it latches onto pervasive underground root systems near a designated campfire site.

“I’ll be right over.”

I’m freezing and the thought of sitting by a proper campfire is too tempting. It’s lovely to hear the scouts talk about their adventures. As a recognised senior hiker with my going-grey-gracefully hair fast emerging, I’m offered a bear canister to use as a stool.

“Thank you, young man.”

The discussion turns to the incident on Mount Whitney. The scout leader confirms the dangers. His boys had to abort their ascent of the mountain. A few more thru-hikers arrive. More discussion. I squirm with this news. The scout leader gives me some trout to sample. Scrumptious, but my mind is elsewhere. Is this just fearmongering, blowing the dangers out of proportion? Shepherd and I have agreed to miss Mount Whitney but now they’re saying Forester Pass is as dangerous. I must speak to Shepherd. I head back to her tent.

“Hey Shep? Are you still awake? I want you to meet this camp leader.”

“I can’t. I’m naked.” Naked? Why? It’s freezing. Each to their own. I look at her camo-coloured tent and talk to it.

“Houston, we have a problem. I know we can cross the High Sierra. We’re taking the right precautions but what if the snow slows us and we meet difficulties resulting in a decision to retreat? Let’s say, in two days, we retreat from Forester Pass. With limited exit points, our retreat will take us longer than our available food supply. As diabetics, it’s too dangerous to continue walking without adequate food.”

“I see your point, Kit Kat.”   

Silence for a while as we mull over the alternatives. Shepherd and I know we’re susceptible to low sugar levels at elevation. We need glucose sugar to treat lows. If we run out of food, diabetic coma, and death may result.

Or we could stupidly stop taking our insulin completely, reduce our food consumption and run sugar levels high and develop hyperglycaemia instead. This is the exact opposite of suffering a ‘low’, a ‘hypo’, a hypoglycaemic episode. But complications exist with this approach too. Over time, we increase our risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, vision issues, and nerve problems. This is not a workable option. Either outcome is grim.

The record winter snowfall means there’s snow to negotiate still and summer’s arrival brings treacherous river crossings from the rapid snow melt. The PCT is important to us. Shepherd has lived and breathed the dream for two whole years, me six months. We’ve reached the 760-mile (1,223km) mark but is advancing further worth our lives?

“I guess retreating is our only choice, Kit Kat.”

“Are you sure? This needs to be a joint decision. I’m not trying to sway you. I’m just trying to present the facts.”

“Yes, I know. It’s a tough decision.”

“So, we agree? Tomorrow we retreat via Cottonwood Pass to Horseshoe Meadow and hitch a lift to a supply town to consider how we can continue our hike?”

“Yes. Goodnight Kit Kat.”

Within the blink of an eye, we make the monumental decision to retreat. Such a tough call for the Double Ds. I sleep fitfully tonight. There are people out there who love us, and we owe it to them not to make rash decisions. Even if we don’t think it, our lives are worth protecting. We’re not giving up on encouraging others with chronic diseases to follow their dreams. There’s no shame in making prudent decisions.

As Winston Churchill, UK Prime Minister best remembered for leading Britain through World War Two said, ‘Nourish your hopes, but do not overlook reality.’

We are choosing to retreat because of potential diabetic complications, but it doesn’t mean we can’t traverse the High Sierra at a later date, in more ideal conditions.

Winston Churchill

A 13-mile (21km) hike to Horseshoe Meadow is our revised plan. On a momentous and glorious day, we take in the gorgeous scenery a second time. Chicken Spring Lake is a lovely sight as we traverse the persistent snow fields. Predominantly ice-covered, small cracks in the surface reveal the deepest aquamarine-coloured water. We missed it the other day. Too busy negotiating sun cups and post-holing. Our turnoff to civilisation comes at Cottonwood Pass. It’s a steep descent followed by a never-ending traipse through sand meadows devoid of vegetation. A quiet forest walk follows before more lengthy sand stretches. We arrive at Horseshoe Meadow campsite, still 21 miles from the nearest town.

Descending Cottonwood Pass to Horseshoe Meadow

The chance of a lift to town doesn’t look promising. I see someone packing gear into his car and summon the courage to ask for a lift before white-haired trail angel Mike advances toward us.

“Where are you heading guys? Do you need a lift?”

“We want to get to Bishop.”

“Only driving to Lone Pine.”

“Lone Pine is good,” we respond in unison.

“Well come on over girls.”

We load our stuff into his car, and he introduces us to two other hikers catching a lift. There’s one available seat left in the car. A vital seat for a weary hiker. We wait. We see no one coming bar a hiking group of small children and their parents. But Mike is an accomplished thru-hiker spotter. Assisted by the hiker in the front seat they survey the terrain with high-powered binoculars.

“Here’s one. He’s got a purple shirt and red backpack.”

“Don’t think so,” we interject. “I think he’s leading a small family group. We passed them on the way.”

“Oh, yes. There are small ones following him. Now this one looks more promising,” the front seated hiker announces. “Look at the speed he’s moving. Definitely a PCTer.”

And he’s right. In jumps a weary Brazilian who is most grateful for the lift. Shepherd knows two words of Portuguese, enough to engage this hiker for the full 20-minute journey into town.

“Impressive, Shepherd.” I shouldn’t tease. I have no language skills myself. I am impressed.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are holding on for dear life. Mike drives this route several times a day as a trail angel. He knows it well, but we don’t know he knows it well. Mike is driving on the right-hand side near the cliff face edge. I gasp. I’m spellbound by the views as we descend into the valley. But I know I don’t want to watch Mike, veering every which way, showing me photos on his phone of himself as a pubescent boy.

I’ve had enough tense moments for one day. He’s doing this out of the kindness of his heart for free. The least we can do is be grateful. I am on tenterhooks until we arrive at the car park, take the obligatory photo with Mike, and stumble off seeking accommodation, a shower, and a meal.

The meal, advertised as ‘the best burgers in town’, is, indisputably, our worst.

“What variety is your special wine of the day?” I ask the young man.

“Some kind of wine.”

Shepherd asks for another beer. Her Lager becomes a Stout. She informs him they are different varieties.

“No, they’re not.” She gives up and drinks the second one.

We are fed and hydrated. Not every day can be a diamond. We still need to get to Bishop. It is two towns up the line. We catch a bus the next morning which kindly goes off route to drop us at the front door of the much-hyped Hostel California.

We enter the Hostel’s reception. Our host is an experienced ex-hiker. He presents us with a series of graphs charting snowfall the length of Western USA. Looks gibberish to me but our host suggests a full flip (skipping a huge section of trail) and tackling the PCT from the Canadian border via the most northern US town of Hart’s Pass in Washington State. That means completely reversing the direction of our hike and travelling over 1,000 miles by car if that is even possible.

“Snowfall in Washington State is low this year. You can start in early July without needing snow gear. By the time you hit Southern Oregon, the mosquitoes should be gone, and you avoid the August fire season. September is the ideal month to return to the High Sierra to complete the PCT before the thunderstorm season arrives,” he confidently informs us.

This approach is loaded with positives. We avoid Washington State’s onset of snow late in the season which may have prevented us from finishing anyway. We can’t disagree with his rationale. Guess we are about to complete our thru-hike in a non-classic way.

Still, a far cry from how we envisaged our PCT journey to be. Our continuous NoBo (North Bound) hike is being upturned. We’ll become SoBos (South Bounders), viewed by many as not real thru-hikers. Either direction is as challenging but tackling it northbound seems the right way. Are we ready for this momentous FLIP? You’re labelled a Flipper if you change the direction you walk. A Dolphin even, because of your flippers. Can we take these fun digs at us?

What are other hikers doing? Everyone agrees last year’s high snowfall is putting this year’s hikers at significant risk if they tackle the High Sierra too soon. Many hikers adopt this flip strategy for completing their hike, but some only travel three hundred miles north of the Sierra Nevada ranges to Belden or Burney Falls.

We’re travelling the furthest distance to pick the trail back up at Hart’s Pass, WA, the US’s northernmost town. We’ll need Trail Angel’s help to get us there. It will cost us time and money to execute. We prefer not to spend exorbitant funds to keep our dream alive, but, for now, Shepherd and I agree to make it work. We retreat to our room to consider our transportation options. We’ll resume the PCT from Hart’s Pass, hike northbound 30 miles to the Canadian border to touch the Northern Terminus Monument before we turn around and continue our PCT traverse in a SoBo direction. We narrow it to three possibilities.

“Let’s take the bus at 7.00 am on Monday to Reno, then catch the train to Sacramento and then…”

“Stop Shepherd! That won’t work. Before we go, we need to mail our food resupply boxes to five towns in Washington State and the Post Office doesn’t open till 9.00 am. This strategy will cost us another night’s accommodation. Not on. My turn. Let’s drive to Reno….”

“Sorry, that won’t work either. I didn’t bring my driver’s licence.”

“You what?”

Admittedly, we are planning to walk the full length of contiguous USA and have no need for a car. But wouldn’t you bring your Driver’s Licence as extra ID? I try to hide my disbelief, but my non-poker face gives away every bit of pent-up emotion. Shepherd, hunched on the lower bunk bed, looks sullen and dejected.

“Okay. I’ll drive us to Reno.”

I take a deep breath. We can get a cheap daily rate, but the additional US$300 dropoff fee and insurance costs immediately remove this plan from consideration. In a nutshell, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Bishop’s only car hire company, doesn’t offer one-way car rental.

I know I’m not being a nice person right now. I admit I can be abrasive, tactless, and susceptible to mood swings. But I have a good reason. Logistics is my thing. If a transportation connection or a closed Post Office adds more zero days, we’ll simply run out of time and money. Our visa is valid for six months and we need to walk most days of those months to give ourselves the best chance of completing the PCT.

I want our walk to continue. I think the Double Ds are doing a wonderful job promoting this challenging journey while living with diabetes. If we’re to continue, I need to harness my strengths and temper my negative traits. Dilute them and put myself in the other person’s shoes.

Shepherd and I are different individuals. We bring unique skills to the table. I need to acknowledge this and stop stewing or bearing grudges. My snooty behaviour won’t solve any problems. This is a calamitous change of events for us. We’re both tired, stressed, and on edge and have every right to feel disagreeable and grumpy. The only positive: we’re still talking to one another. The unprecedented snowfall, our decision to retreat in the interests of our safety and health, and now the real possibility we can’t get out of this godforsaken town would test anyone’s patience. I want to stomp my feet and chuck something. The script’s not going according to plan. I suspect if I had walked with a best friend the situation would be no less tense. I’d probably have told them to piss off a long time ago.

Shepherd and I leave the room for a quick breather. We saunter over to fellow hikers lounging in the courtyard. After listening to our sorry tale, Cous Cous and Lebowski suggest we hire a U-Haul truck as this company allows one-way journeys.

“Just concoct a bullshit story about moving apartments and answer ‘No’ when they ask if you’d like to buy any removal boxes,” advises Cous Cous.

I haven’t driven on the righthand side of the road for 30 years. Nor driven a truck. I’m way out of my comfort zone, but who isn’t on the PCT? This crazy suggestion is our only way out of Bishop. Will we live to regret flipping?

We reach a decision. After an overnight stay in Reno, we’ll catch two planes–the first to Seattle, the second to Bellingham. From there we’ll rush to an Outdoor provider, grab another fuel canister, catch the 5 pm bus to Mount Vernon, and book an Uber to a trail angel’s home in Sedro Woolley. We’ll stay overnight at Santana Bandanna’s place and next morning she’ll drive us two hours north to Mazama. From here PK, another trail angel, will transport us the final 19 miles, up a hazardous cliff face road, to Hart’s Pass, where we resume the trail.

July 4 is America’s Independence Day. It’s a public holiday. It will be busy. The ideal outcome for us is if we can get back on the trail by July 3. There’s been little time to familiarise ourselves with Washington State town stops. Research for the northern section of the journey wasn’t a top priority when we started. But we’re learning fast.

After we secure the truck, book our flights, and confirm Trail Angel pickups we head out for a nice five-star lunch. Gourmet Spanish Manchego cheese melts accompanied by a glass of fine Californian wine is the perfect tension reliever. We clink glasses, heave a sigh of relief, and make peace with our momentous decision. From our working lunch, a meticulous Washington State resupply strategy emerges. Not seven days’ supply this time but a whopping 35 days, which we must package into five separate resupply boxes.

Amazing what tie-dyed loaner clothes and an aperitif can do to lighten our mood

I’m eating three to four snack bars a day. I need to buy 140 bars. Holy moly! Grain-based, protein-dense, and sugary ones for hypos. And untried ones too. I’m getting bored with the same brands. With these quantities, we should buy in bulk. Discount chain Grocery Outlet is our first stop, then Vons supermarket for the rest. Can we do this in one trip?

The Hostel has loaner bikes. A little worse for wear, but they have baskets attached and we can use our empty backpacks to transport most of the food. I jump on the push bike and get ready to ride the few miles downtown.

“Hang on a minute,” pipes Shepherd. “There’s something wrong with my bike. It doesn’t have brakes.”

“Yes, it does. Just reverse the direction of the pedals and it’ll stop for you.”

“Never seen one of these bikes in my life. They should be illegal. In Britain, I’m pretty sure fixed-wheel bicycles, with no front brake like this one, are illegal.”

I must look this up on Google. By law, a bike on a public road in the UK must have two brakes. She’s right. Just nine years between us and she doesn’t know what she’s missing. I am in seventh heaven. I grew up with these coaster brake-style bikes and much prefer them to the new handlebar gear variety.

For Shepherd, the missing hand brakes are a game changer. I wait as she secures her desired model. They’re not the easiest bikes to steer. It’s best if you don’t stop. We tinkle our bicycle bells as we approach pedestrians yelling “Out of control riders coming through. Please move out of the way. Thanks heaps.” The masses separate and we become kids again speeding along the sidewalk in our borrowed tie-dyed loaner clothes on our loaner bikes.

That is before we make our food purchases. It’s impossible to transport them back in one trip. Unless we decant it outside the supermarket. The oatmeal single serves come out of the Quaker Oats packaging, Starbucks’ powdered coffee out of its packaging, and so forth. My backpack’s at its heaviest load ever and my bicycle basket is laden. We sigh at one another, take a deep breath, and mount our bikes.

“See you back at the Hostel, hopefully in one piece,” we both sprout.

Transporting our resupply

Fearful of being unable to continue, we cycle non-stop across the side roads and somehow make it back unscathed, with a truckload of food. Tomorrow we’ll assemble our meals into ziplock bags and package the required quantities into resupply boxes bound for Stehekin, Skykomish, Snoqualmie Pass, White Pass, and Trout Lake.

Hours of work await us but time to relax with other hikers. Rastafarian-haired Ruben, who helped me fit my backpack early in the desert, has fallen in love. He retreated from the Sierra because of the dangers and his fear of heights. But a girlfriend awaits him in Spain. Can he motivate himself to keep moving or is it best for him to go home? He’s torn. 

“I’ll make my decision by July, regardless,” he remarks.

“That’s tomorrow, Ruben.”

“So soon,” he responds with a half giggle.

Time is ticking away. I spot blue eyes in the corner, Semi-Pro from Sweden, and head over for a chat. He’s trying to squeeze eight days’ worth of supply into a too-small bear canister. His eyes sparkle regardless. I tell Shepherd of our meeting and get the eye roll again.

“He has a girlfriend who’s joining him in San Fran in a month and I’m married. Nothing is going on.”

“Yes, so you keep telling me.”

“Can’t an old bird flirt? No harm in that, is there?” No comment from Shepherd. “Ok, let’s change the subject. Shall we prepare dinner instead?”

A meal of any description is music to Shepherd’s ears. We make our way to the kitchen, a room Shepherd is well familiar with, unlike me. “I’ll get the beers and wine from Giggles Gas Mart.” When I return Shepherd has whipped up a nourishing vegetarian noodle dish, perfect fuel food for our big day tomorrow. The Flip is about to begin.

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The Bishop getaway car

We’ve spent four days at this wonderful Hostel in Bishop, a welcome distraction from the big decisions we make here. On Monday morning we’re ready to leave after Ruben shows me how to use the gear lever. He takes a few amusing shots of us standing beside this 10ft U-Haul truck advertising a $19.95-day rate; a laughable rate once you add in all the extras. After farewelling Ruben, we head to the USPS to mail our 13 resupply boxes to Washington State.

Once complete, Shepherd resumes navigation duties and guides us to Reno, Nevada. I increase my speed and the truck fishtails something fierce. I’m struggling to control the steering.

“Don’t do that!” prompts Shepherd.

“I’m not. It has a mind of its own.”

Does the truck need a heavier load than our two backpacks in its massive back cavity? Or is the culprit a strong cross breeze?

I reduce my speed to a crawling pace to help control the violent swaying until the wind eases, and I can resume driving at a normal speed. The road is straight and long. To our left are the High Sierra and to our right the Inyo Mountain Ranges. It’s a magical sight seeing a non-hiking view of these magnificent ranges. Time to enjoy our unplanned road trip.

With no mishaps, I deposit the truck at the allotted U-Haul Depot. Next an Uber ride to our hotel which offers a free airport shuttle. Reno, ‘the Biggest Little City in the World’, is Nevada’s mini–Las Vegas. Supposedly full of glitz and glamour, our first impressions leave us underwhelmed. We’re eager to get back on the trail.

We arrive at the airport hotel, book our shuttle for the next morning, and then sit in our room awaiting an Uber Eats meal. The shower is hot, the beds are nice, and the bed linen is clean. We can charge our devices and breakfast is free. It’s a palace. The next morning the receptionist greets us.

“I would if I could, but we’re short-staffed, and I can’t vacate the desk.”

“Are you saying the free airport shuttle we booked last night is no longer available?”

“Yes.”

Argh! “Can we have a discount? That’s the only reason we chose your hotel.”

“Sorry, no. You booked through a booking agency. You must take it up with them.”

I must get away from these annoyances. I much prefer to be out battling nature. Only one more night’s accommodation before we’re on our way to Canada.

As we go through security to board our Seattle-bound flight a staff member beckons me to her.

“Could you please open this little black wallet for us?”  

What now? “Oh, my knife!” They return my handy little folding Spyderco knife I lost in Warner Springs, eight weeks ago, for a paltry minute.

“You can keep the knife, but you need to fill out paperwork and we’ll mail it to you later.”

Shepherd’s patience is fragile. It’s not worth more angst. I have replaced the knife. I decline the offer and say goodbye to it. I knew I didn’t package it in our resupply boxes or mail it back to Rebecca. Someone else can enjoy what I had for 10 days. Good to solve the mystery of the disappearing knife.

The rest of the tiring journey sees us arriving in Sedro Woolley near 7 pm. There is no trail angel in sight, and we are both famished. Another hiker, Josh, sits on a porch chair also awaiting tomorrow’s ride with Melinda, aka Santana Bandanna. She is returning from shuttling hikers to Mazama, and she texts us to order a pizza delivery.

Shepherd’s hunger is reaching zero tolerance levels. She needs food. I humour her as we wait for our meal. Without success, might I add. We put on another item of warm clothing as the cool night air encroaches. And then we sulk. The cooler Washington State temperatures are not grabbing us. As Shepherd often utters, “Not a fan, Kit Kat.” A fourth hiker, Garratt arrives. Melinda soon afterwards. She dashes inside and then returns to join us on the porch.        

I stare at her bulbous glass of Chardy (chardonnay abbreviated if unfamiliar with Australian slang). Melinda later informs me it was a Riesling or Gewurztraminer as they’re the only variety she drinks. Not the point. Looked like Chardy and I wanted a healthy slug of her white wine. As I drool over it, the last clump of pizza lard thuds to the bottom of my stomach. What I’d give for a sip of her delectable drink. I watch longingly as crystal dewdrops form on the glass’s exterior.

To distract myself, I try to engage in riveting conversation on a variety of topics. Beyond the front porch, it continues to drizzle. Dusk turns to night and the temperature plummets. My eyeballs backflip and side lunge as I battle to keep my eyelids from closing. Fatigue trumps politeness.

“I’m sorry. I must go to bed,” I utter.

I sense a sigh of relief from the other thru-hikers. What remains is for Melinda to decide where we can sleep. I want a room to myself with a proper bed and a warm quilt. She offers us the small porch or a patch of grass I’m sure is too small for me to pitch my tent. My non-poker face looks despondent and defeated.

“Or you can use the garage floor. Tonight’s not the best night for camping.”

“Melinda, thank you so much. That’s ideal.” I pick up my pack and head for the garage.

She offers cardboard removal boxes to cushion us from the cool concrete floor. I get the U-Haul ones, a none-too-subtle reminder of our recent adventurous road trip. Within minutes, I fall into a deep eight hours of undisturbed sleep. I hope Shepherd enjoys the same. We’ll need to be refreshed. A lengthy day awaits us tomorrow before we’re back on the PCT.

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