On the morning of July 7th we woke up, finished a few quick tasks, and our friend and pet-sitter-extraodinaire picked us up and took us to our tiny airport. We checked our bags, and at that moment I officially became nervous. There went our carefully packed packs, encased in their cheap duffle bags (to protect the packs from any damage), off to Reno. I guess I was actually going to follow them. What was I thinking!
We arrived in Reno in the mid-afternoon. There is a bus that runs once a day from Reno to Lone Pine, CA, the nearest town to our trailhead, but we couldn’t get to Reno in time to make it the same day as our flight. That was okay, though, since we had a few errands to attend to. First on the list was eating. We were counting down the meals until we would be subsisting mostly on freeze dried meals and junk food. We got sandwiches and fries and cold drinks from the hotel restaurant. None of it was all that good but we already anticipated how much we would miss the most mediocre of fresh foods so we relished the meal. Then I worked on a few last minute gear details. My rain pants were way too long so I sewed velcro to the hem so that I could gather them over my ankle. I also added a set of rainbow butterflies to my pack, for queer and pretty reasons. It was totally unnecessary, and technically added extra weight, but they made me happy.
Later we headed out to REI to buy a fuel canister and a new warm hat for me, since I’d been unable to locate mine while we were packing. We walked the half mile there, because what’s a half mile in the flat desert? Reno is a decidedly non-pedestrian town, though, or at least the part we were staying in was, so it was some of the more harrowing walking we did on our travels. But that’s okay. Walking was what we did now.
The next morning we woke up and walked to the post office. We were sending the clothes we wore on the plane, the duffle bags, the deodorant we’d packed, and a few other odds and ends to friends in Oakland so that we could retrieve them after our trip. Once the box was gone, that was it. It was just us and our packs – nothing but the things we’d be surviving with for the next 3 1/2 weeks. It was an odd feeling to be out in the world so suddenly stripped of the usual possessions (like a change of clothes). But also freeing. I felt scared but also strong and unencumbered. As we walked back to the hotel I mentally reviewed the things in my pack and felt good. We had everything we needed. We’d be fine.
We headed back to the airport after check-out time and still had two hours to kill before the bus. I bought a ridiculously expensive, ridiculously mediocre, fully appreciated chicken caesar salad and a blueberry smoothie. [I’d like to say that at this point Cyn had accidentally spilled food on her hiking clothes three times, and had also spilled a dollop of smoothie on my hiking clothes — “a freak accident,” she insisted. Just come and get us now, bears. –Toby] We read a bit but also entertained ourselves with the constant stream of tourists, probably headed to Tahoe. I turned to Toby and said “Reno is all of the things I hate about California with none of the good things.” So many bros. So much conspicuous wealth. We were so ready for the trail. [Not that the trail doesn’t have its fair share of both these things, especially the bros, but at least it wouldn’t be in such dramatic density as this airport. –Toby] [Ugh that is so true. My fantasy of escaping the bros was more far-fetched than I realized. More on that to come. . . –Cyn]
Finally we were on the bus. So it was a six hour bus ride. Toby promised me that it was a real bus with a bathroom. I had started taking diamox that morning, the medication that would hopefully keep us from getting altitude sickness, and one of the side effects is that it makes you have to pee all the time. But it would be okay because there was a bathroom on the bus. And then the “bus” arrived. Not a bus at all but a small shuttle – NO BATHROOM – and it was packed, with no room for our luggage, and the air conditioning was broken to boot, with an outside temperature well into the 90s. On my behalf, Toby graciously asked the bus driver when the first bathroom break was. Three hours, said the driver. Dear. God. I “settled” in, put in my earbuds with some of my favorite music, and tried to escape from the reality of this ride. [I am so sorry for my uninformed/false promise. This was indeed an unpleasant ride. –Toby]
Somehow I made it to the first rest stop – I nearly trampled people getting to the bathroom, mumbling something about diamox and hoping they knew what that was. A little while later we stopped at a WalMart, and I treated myself to the smallest slushy possible for making it through this experience.
After the slushy the ride got so much better. It was cooling down a bit, there was more room on the shuttle, the new driver was blasting some of my favorite 70s hits (Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon, James Taylor. Perfection.), the views were incredible. And then we were in Lone Pine! Our last town before the trailhead. We dropped our stuff in our hotel room and went out to dinner, ordering two truly enormous salads (chicken caesar for Toby, bbq chicken for me) and a plate of fries. Then we hit the grocery store for some cheese (I know some people pack that in their resupplies, but I cannot get myself to eat cheese, no matter how processed, that has been unrefrigerated for more than a few days. So we only ever eat it in our first leg of a trip) and ice cream treats. And we got back to our room in time to see one last episode of the new season of the Great British Bake Off before saying goodbye to our beloved television for a month.
In the morning, finally: the last day before the trail. Our first mission was to get our permit. The permit office was two miles away, and people hitchhike in this area all the time (really, it’s part of the Pacific Crest Trail culture and very safe), but we decided to walk anyway. As we walked through the dry desert dirt on the side of the road, we talked about how Lone Pine was steeped in nostalgia for the heyday of the western film. It had been used as a location for many famous movies and all of the businesses in town nodded to that history somehow, whether it was the vintage photos in our hotel or the “Clint Eastwood Scramble” I would order at the café later. There was even a film museum in this incredibly small, remote town. But I had also just learned from a podcast with thru hiker Double Sprainbow that there had been a Japanese internment camp just down the road. There was no trace of that piece of history of state-sanctioned racism anywhere in town, even as we were surrounded by memories of films that unabashedly celebrated settler colonialism. Not that that is surprising, but it was a jarring realization nonetheless.
Permits in hand (handed over only after some brief, useful lectures about where we could have campfires (we wouldn’t) and how to use a wag bag if we needed to “drop a deuce” (ranger’s words, to be clear) in the section of trail where they don’t let you dig a hole) we walked back to Lone Pine, bent on breakfast. We ate a huge amount of delicious food at the Alabama Hills Café – our last real meal.
We then hung out in the hotel lobby until our unofficial taxi driver, Kurt (#4 on the list under that link), came to pick us up at 1 p.m. He is a retired pilot, and runs a business shuttling people to and from trailheads in the area. Well, really he’ll drive you anywhere you pay him to. I asked how much money it would cost to drive us back to Illinois. “How much you got?” he responded. Since we hadn’t been in the area before he took us on a special scenic road that he often avoids because there are so many accidents. It is impossibly carved through giant boulders. I don’t even know who thought it was a good idea to put a road there – it was so treacherous – but it was also breathtaking. We were grateful for the insider’s tour. He pointed out key sites [including Mt. Whitney, which gave me a little rush of adrenaline… –Toby] and told us some trail stories. For some reason I waited for him to say something encouraging like, “I really have a feeling that you two are going to make it. You’re going to do great” and he didn’t. I worried about this more than was reasonable.
40 minutes later he dropped us off at Horseshoe Meadow Campground, about 10,000 feet above sea level, giving us some last tips about where to take a gentle hike that day to start to adjust to the altitude. We grabbed our stuff and thanked him, and he drove away, just like that. It was Toby’s turn to be nervous. [I think my nerves actually started when he checked to ensure that we still had his cell number, saying “I do emergency exit pick-ups, too.” Eeek! –Toby]
We set up our tent and settled in a bit, and then tried that two mile hike that Kurt recommended. After approximately 30 seconds of walking up a gentle slope while carrying nothing, we had to stop and catch our breath. Altitude is no joke, folks. We strolled along for about two flat miles through gorgeous scenery. Every once in a while I’d stop. Toby would ask what was wrong and I just managed, “Feeling dizzy. Don’t wanna pass out.” Kurt had promised that just one night sleeping at elevation before we started would help a lot. I was clinging to that hope pretty hard at this point.
Back at camp we chatted with a sweet woman who was leaving at 9 p.m. that night to go climb her last 14er in California. She had done the JMT a few years ago and gave us lots of advice. I was relieved to discover that I already knew most of the tips that she gave us, and I let her keep talking because it was boosting my confidence. I was ready for this, even if I didn’t quite feel it.