[to 1 mile past the Siberian Pass Trail Jct., ~10 miles hiked]
We slept restlessly at Horseshoe Meadow, due in part to a nearby group of guys up late chatting (one of them had earlier walked around offering whiskey to all the men he saw, skipping the women, including Cyn, who actually drinks whiskey, unlike me!). But I was awake bright and early, eager to get on the trail. We set off into the cold morning around 7.15am, after a quick starting photo at the trailhead. I’d expected to feel more anxious taking those first steps out, but found I wasn’t really thinking “three and a half weeks” or “250 miles.” I was just focused on that first day’s task: hike up and over Cottonwood Pass to our intended campsite of Chicken Spring Lake, a total of about five miles. I’d planned a very low-mileage first day because we had no idea how the altitude would affect us, and after yesterday’s breathless little day hike, we’d gone to bed pretty relieved that we had all day to do those five miles.
After a fairly gentle start, we began the climb up Cottonwood Pass, agreeing again to take it super slow and rest as needed. We really felt the lack of oxygen, but we could both tell right away that our training had paid off: despite needing regular breaks to catch our breath, our bodies recovered speedily, and our legs felt great.
Partway up, we stopped on the side of the trail for Hot Drink (coffee for Cyn, cocoa for me). Just after I finished stirring my cocoa, a very large, very loud thing came hurtling at my face, and I instinctively jerked away. In rapid succession, I had the following emotions: (1) fear/panic as I saw this enormous thing come at me, (2) relief as I realized the thing was merely an overly friendly hummingbird, and (3) disappointment/embarrassment as I realized I’d spilled my cocoa all over my pants. I mean all over. Cyn laughed and laughed, and checked to ensure I hadn’t burned my legs, and laughed some more. “You were scared by the cutest animal in the forest!” Yeah, yeah. I swallowed the tablespoon of cocoa left in my cup and resigned myself to washing out my pants when we got to the lake. I also swallowed some pride, having chided Cyn repeatedly for spilling food on her hiking clothes on the previous days. A few switchbacks later, Cyn determined that I’d finally earned my trail name: CocoaPants, which we later shortened to Cocoa. [We shortened it because the couple of times we told people the first version, they assumed something much grosser than what had happened. And because backpacking can be a disgusting endeavor in which severe intestinal distress is not unheard of, it was not an unreasonable guess. –Cyn]
We took the rest of the climb slow and steady, with a few short breaks to breathe and gaze at Horseshoe Meadow below us. And then suddenly, there we were, at the top of Cottonwood Pass. Ecstatic high-fives — we’d completed our first pass of the trip! The top was marked by the trail sign I’d been waiting for, proclaiming that we were now officially on the Pacific Crest Trail. A paperback copy of Wild was secured to the sign with some twine, a gift someone had left for another set of hikers, and this image — the PCT sign, the book, the view from 11,200 feet up — struck both of us so profoundly that we shared some tears of joy and excitement and pride. After so much dreaming, planning, and training, after so much missing the mountains of California, we were really here, on the PCT, just 15 miles from the John Muir Trail, experiencing this incredible beauty together.
[A side note/rant/feminist killjoy moment about Wild: there is so much self-righteous backpacker talk about how that book made the PCT and JMT overly crowded. To me, it’s a gorgeous book that I’ve read multiple times and I love it – finding it at the top of that pass was so damn meaningful that I burst into tears when I saw it. It’s not the thing that got me interested in backpacking, but it’s on the list of things that motivated me to really go for the bigger trips. And I couldn’t stop thinking about how popular that book is with women, and that this “overcrowding” gripe depends on the idea that the trail belongs to some people and not others. So if the readership of Wild tends toward women (I’m guessing – I couldn’t find stats on this), and Wild is bringing those readers onto the trail, what one is implying when they complain about this book making the trail overcrowded is that women have less of a right to be there. So, you know, stop saying that! –Cyn]
Despite the cold wind, we took our time up there, soaking in the feeling and the view, and then realized we’d finished the tough part of our day and had only 0.7 miles to camp. We were amazed to arrive at the beautiful Chicken Spring Lake just after 10.30am — was this really it for the day? We located a nice campsite and I did some quick “laundry” (using this method) to deal with my cocoa spill. Cyn had been studying the map, and after I laid my pants out to dry, she said, “What if we take a few hours here to rest, and then hike a few more miles?” We both felt far better than we’d expected to and weren’t quite ready to stop hiking, even though this was an idyllic place to camp. So we took our time enjoying the lake — a leisurely lunch, and a quick nap for Cyn (chipmunks scampered just a foot away from her head) while I filtered water — before heading out and up in the hot afternoon sun.
After a surprisingly difficult half-mile of climbing, the trail flattened a bit, but the water sources on our map didn’t seem to correspond to what we saw around us, so we weren’t exactly sure how far we’d hiked. But eventually we hit a sign marking the Sequoia National Park boundary (national park #1 of 3: check!) and got our bearings again. We were starting to tire, but there was no flat ground to camp on, so we walked on. In another mile or so, I spotted a few likely campsites, but Cyn was still feeling ambitious: “Let’s go one more mile and make it an even ten!”
After quite a long last mile, we both crashed, sitting on a rock for what could have been a break and instead realizing we were definitely done for the day. [Toby’s being nice and avoiding mentioning the real reason we stopped for the day, a fun tradition that started while sitting on this rock – Cynthia’s nightly crying-fest. I am not much of a crier in general, but something about this trail made me ridiculously emotional. Toby had read that altitude can do this to people, so I’m going with that theory. I have no idea what I was crying about on this day. It could have been a bug that landed on my face. It could have been that I felt happy and comfortable on the rock. It could have been worrying that I couldn’t do this trail. For a short window of time on most of the early days of this trip, any emotion I had made me cry. –Cyn] I found a lovely, secluded, quiet campsite amongst some boulders. As we had dinner, we recalled our nervousness last summer when we’d camped by ourselves for the first time, without any other hikers nearby. Now, with a little more experience under our belts, we really prefer the privacy and peace of being alone. I awoke a few times in the night and looked through the mesh tent door at the night sky, full of the brightest stars I’d ever seen.