[to Onion Valley trailhead, ~5.5 miles hiked]
Ah yes, the paradox of lakes, wherein their peaceful visual appearance is matched by their ability to dramatically amplify sound. Although I’d expected to sleep well at Kearsarge Lakes, I lay awake listening to teens/tweens yelling at each other in distant campsites long past hiker midnight (9pm). In the early morning, I rolled over and whispered in Cyn’s ear, “Good morning. It’s Subway sandwich day!” This proved an effective way to diffuse her usual morning crankiness [Possibly the best way to wake up ever. –Cyn], and we were both so enthusiastic about resupply day — real food! showers! laundry! — that we were out of camp by 6.50am, headed for Kearsarge Pass and the Onion Valley trailhead.
This excited energy lasted until just past the lakes, where it quickly dwindled as we began a very steep, very cold climb. Tough going first thing in the morning, though we had some beautiful views of the lakes below us, as the sun slowly crept over the mountains. At the junction with Kearsarge Pass Trail, we ran into another hiker also heading up, and discovered we were both going to the same motel. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll call him The Nurse, since we later learned he is a nursing student. He sped on up ahead of us. The trail turned to more reasonable switchbacks, and we kept a fairly steady pace after that. The scree and loose talus near the top of passes were starting to feel familiar to me.
Atop Kearsarge, we found only one other hiker. “Did you come up from Onion Valley?” I asked. No, he’d come up from the JMT the night before, and slept on top of the pass! This sounded miserable to me: cold and exposed, with just enough room for one person in a bivy. But he was in good spirits and trotted down toward the trailhead, leaving us happily alone on the pass. It felt like a make-up present for the rambunctious crowd on Forester — here was the quiet contemplative space I’d wanted at the top. I pulled on a warm layer and got out my pass treat, but that Snickers bar was practically frozen solid! I gnawed away at it anyway. A pair of hikers came up from the trailhead, and chatted with us enthusiastically before heading on to the JMT. They were pleased to hear we were northbound, telling us that they’d done some of the northern section and found it even more beautiful than this. Frankly, this was hard for me to believe. My head was already exploding daily from the gorgeousness around us.
We began our 4+ mile trek down the other side of Kearsarge, and I kept a close eye on the grade of the descent, knowing we’d have to hike back up it tomorrow morning. It didn’t seem so bad. At first. Actually, it never was terribly steep, but it went on forever, and now that the sun was up, the trail was very hot. I couldn’t believe this was only four miles. Our pace was also slowed by having to repeatedly step aside and let other hikers pass — first faster people coming down behind us (all the weekenders from the lakes, heading home), and then later a staggering number of day hikers coming up from Onion Valley. I hadn’t seen this many people since we left the Reno airport. I also became keenly aware of how stinky Cyn and I were, now that every other person passing by smelled of detergent, deodorant, and sunscreen.
After a few hours, I was relieved to glimpse a parking lot in the distance below. I’d been starting to feel preoccupied with the thought of climbing right back up this tomorrow, making mental notes about each short stretch of shade and each section of tall steps, and calculating how incredibly hot it would be, since we wouldn’t return to the trailhead until 8.30am. “This motel better be worth it,” we told each other. Around this time, an older man with an impressive white beard [who looked Exactly like Willie Nelson. Like, I am still half convinced it was actually Willie Nelson. –Cyn] passed us on his way up, eyed our packs, and said wistfully, “It’s always a bit sad to be returning to the trailhead, isn’t it?” I agreed, but told him we were just resupplying overnight, and he perked up again. This exchange was a nice reset for my brain — a reminder of how grateful I was to be out here, even when it felt incredibly difficult.
We hit the parking lot well before our ride was scheduled and immediately located The Nurse. He’d started in Yosemite and was really speeding through the trail, even doing two mountain passes in one day! “We’re on a strict one-pass-per-day diet,” I told him. We sat in a sliver of shade with him and had a snack while waiting for our ride. Even just being in the parking lot felt a bit strange — after all, we’d been out for a week without crossing a single road until now. Here I could toss my candybar wrapper in an actual (bear-proof) garbage can, and discard real toilet paper in an actual (pit) toilet! With a door! Weird.
After an hour or so, our ride arrived. We’d booked a resupply package at the Mt. Williamson Motel, which caters to backpackers. The owner, Strider, has hiked the JMT for over 20 consecutive years, and so knows exactly what to provide her guests, including a ride to and from the trailhead. We piled into her vehicle and headed to the tiny town of Independence. On the way in, Strider gave us a quick tour: “There’s the post office, that’s the restaurant, there’s the convenience store, and there’s the food co-op that makes pizza and salads. And here’s the motel. That’s about it.” That was all we needed. Our little cabin wasn’t ready yet, so Cyn and I dropped off our packs and headed directly to the co-op.
It was bizarre to be in a store, but the first thing I saw when I walked in was a display of Mountain House (major brand of freeze-dried backpacking food), so we were definitely in a trail town. This made me feel marginally better about my appearance and smell. In the co-op bathroom, I washed my hands with lots of soap (!), blew my nose with tissue (!!), and flushed the toilet (!!!). Next task: food. For days I’d been dreaming of milkshakes and sodas. I’d even stopped taking my altitude medication a day and a half ago, because it makes carbonated drinks taste weird, and I wanted to fully enjoy my resupply soda. But when I saw the refrigerator cases, my soda desires were immediately replaced. I was standing in front of a literal wall of fruit juice. I think I drooled a little puddle on the floor in front of it. I selected a quart of cold apple juice and met Cyn in the cafe, where we ordered a large pizza and two big salads. We clinked our juice cups — “To finishing our first week!” — and then I drank the nectar of the gods. Nothing has ever tasted as good as that apple juice. Pure bliss. [Toby became so obsessed with apple juice on this trip that a few days later I had to ban him from talking about it while we were hiking, because he would describe it in such loving detail and it made me ridiculously thirsty. –Cyn] Our salads arrived. I put my phone away, put my napkin in my lap, and reached for my plate — in that time, Cyn had already inhaled her entire salad. I am not exaggerating. That salad was gone in five seconds. [It’s true. –Cyn] The pizza was equally divine. When we finished the juice, I grabbed another quart (mango-apricot this time), and we managed to save half of it and two slices of pizza for later.
We tottered back to the motel in a daze. At the check-in desk, Strider presented each of us with a free beer, and had a special surprise gift for Cyn (I’ll let Cyn tell that story). [Strider has necklaces that she gives out to all of the women who come through who are hiking the JMT. She explained that it’s based on the evenstar necklace that Arwen gives to Aragorn/Strider before he goes into battle. Of course my women’s-college-alum heart almost burst at this gesture, especially because so far I felt like I hadn’t seen many women on the trail, though that would change as we went on. I almost started crying when she told me the tradition was for her to put it on me. I held back, but blurted out something about how emotional I’d been on this trip, and Strider reassured me by telling me that even after over twenty years on the JMT, she always has at least one emotional moment on the trail. That necklace meant so much to me on the trail. It reminded me that I was linked to a broader community of women who had taken this on, and it gave me strength to go on, even when I wanted to give up. –Cyn]
She told us to bring our laundry over any time, and when we expressed concern about her having to deal with our filthy clothes, she held up her hand: “Believe me, I’ve seen it all.” Then it was time for the main event: showering. I immediately noted that the towels and washcloths were dark brown. “Strider really knows what she’s doing,” I told Cyn, thinking of all the white hotel towels we’d inadvertently destroyed after past hikes. We took the best showers ever, thrilled about the tea tree oil soap. When Strider delivered our clean laundry, I was astonished by how fresh everything smelled. Magic!
We lay around for a few hours, eating the last of the pizza and marveling at the clean sheets and air-conditioning, and then dragged ourselves back out to mail postcards and stop in the convenience store. This store…I’m not sure how it’s still operational, since at least half the shelves were empty. It looked almost abandoned. [Among the ten things the store did carry was a copy of Rupert Everett’s autobiography, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins. When on earth did Rupert Everett write an autobiography? And how on earth did it make its way to this store?! –Cyn] [I cannot believe I forgot about this. –Toby] We needed a new tube of Neosporin because we were going through ours so fast — Cyn had some chafing from her backpack [“Some” is a massive understatement. Man, did that hurt. –Cyn], I was trying to heal sunburn blisters on my nose (thanks, Mt. Whitney!), and our fingers and noses were painfully dry and cracking from the arid climate. Overnight applications of Neosporin had been helping with all of these ailments, but those tubes are tiny! We finally found an off-brand version behind the counter. (We later discovered it had no safety seal and appeared to be only partially full, but we totally used it anyway. Backpacker life.) The tiny Subway that Cyn had been dreaming of was attached to this convenience store, and it took forever to get our sandwiches, even though we were the only customers. The person behind the counter was easily distracted and also couldn’t hear our orders over the loud creepy music piped in from the convenience store. All in all, a fittingly strange shopping trip for two people who were already overwhelmed by the idea of “shopping” right now.
Back in our cabin, I made short work of my footlong sub [Me too!! I got the weirdest collection of items on mine, because my cravings were out of control, and it was still one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. –Cyn], and leafed through Strider’s binder of information about the endangered Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep population. Then I reluctantly opened my resupply bucket to pack up the bear canister. This was our largest resupply — about eight days of food — and it took me a few tries to wedge everything in there, with a wee bit of room left for toiletries and the first day’s garbage. And that was after we’d donated some of our food to the motel’s hiker buckets! I packed my fresh, lavender-scented clothes into my smelly dirty backpack, then groaned as I lifted the bear canister. It felt absurdly heavy. Tomorrow would be our heaviest carry of the whole trip, and packing this behemoth reminded me to dread the long hot climb that awaited us. But as I drifted off to sleep, clean in a comfy bed, I knew this was worth it.