JMT Day 20: Cheeseburger Day

[to Red’s Meadow Resort, ~14 miles hiked]

It’s getting harder to write these posts because I can feel us approaching the end of our trip and it’s making me sad all over again. On the trail, too, starting this day felt like starting the end of our trip. It was going to be over much too soon and I wanted to make it last as long as possible.

I didn’t, however, want to wait much longer for a cheeseburger. I wanted to keep hiking, but I also wanted some real food at this point. My stomach had been bothering me pretty consistently ever since that lunch by Silver Pass Creek. I couldn’t shake the nausea in the afternoons and couldn’t eat very much in one sitting. I had taken to spreading out my meals, taking little snack breaks many times a day. And I was getting tired of almost everything in my bear can. The ProBars especially made me sick to even look at. I had abandoned our food plan at this point and was just going into my bear can when it was time to eat and taking out whatever looked good. An actual meal sounded so incredible that I wanted to cry thinking about it.

So our plan for Day 20 was to get as close as possible to Red’s Meadow Resort (“resort” being an extremely loose term here), our next resupply point. We were going to camp at Red Cones, the last campsite before the resort, and get up super early the next day and hang out at Red’s for breakfast and lunch, and then hike four miles or so out that afternoon. We packed up at Purple Lake, dodging mosquitos as best we could (Toby’s journal mentions on this day that he had become an expert at waving mosquitos away from his butt while going to the bathroom — a useful backpacker skill indeed) while enjoying the gorgeous site that we hadn’t had much of a chance to appreciate the night before.

I wish we had a clearer picture of our site, but the lake and the mountains surrounding us were spectacular.
I wish we had a clearer picture of our site, but the lake and the mountains surrounding us were spectacular.

As usual, we suck at reading topo maps and were expecting a little uphill and then only a very gradual climb, followed by some steeper downhill to Duck Creek. But the trail had a different plan and we found ourselves on a pretty steady climb for at least a mile. We made great time, though, and marveled at what finely-tuned hiking machines we’d become. We no longer needed to take a few seconds at the switchbacks to catch our breath. Instead we hiked along without any breaks, breathing hard but feeling just fine, like our legs were made to do this. And the views were gorgeous as always and we had burgers less than 24 hours away. We were doing great.

Toby enjoying the epic view.
Toby enjoying the epic view.
More incredible views. Now that we were seeing clouds pretty regularly, I was enjoying the sense of scale they gave to our pictures. Look at that sky.
More incredible views. Now that we were seeing clouds pretty regularly, I was enjoying the sense of scale they gave to our pictures. Look at that sky.
Morning break with cold coffee and trail mix, two things that I was not yet sick of.
Morning break with cold coffee and trail mix, two things that I was not yet sick of.
This field was packed with wildflowers - all purple and white and yellow. It didn't show up in the picture but it's still a nice memory of this spot.
This field was packed with wildflowers — all purple and white and yellow. It didn’t show up in the picture but it’s still a nice memory of this spot.

After the climb was lots of down to Duck Creek, and there we stopped for a pretty long break. It was the last water source for about five miles so we spent time filtering plenty of water, since it was already warm and we knew we’d be thirsty. We also washed up a bit. Usually camping near a lake would mean some swimming and laundry to get clean, but the rain had kept us in our tent and the dirt was now caked on my legs. In no rush at all, we soaked bandanas in the creek and ran them over our heads. I had developed a strategy for “washing” my hair that just involved vigorously rubbing my head with a wet bandana and it worked pretty well. We chatted a bit with a family we had been leapfrogging for a few days. And a little later Bishop Pass Guy showed up. We shared complaints about all the trash we found on the trail and talked a little about where we were from and how it felt to be ending the trip. He was planning to get to Red’s that day and would be exiting from there. So we said goodbye as he hiked on ahead of us, feeling a little sad that we probably wouldn’t see him again.

The next seven miles or so is a bit of a blur. The trail was pretty flat and non-distinct. And on top of that, there were few clear markers with which to track our progress. We crossed a beautiful creek after a bit and stopped for a snack break under some pretty trees. But we were starting to worry that we’d missed a turn. We had been looking for a trail junction that had not appeared even though we were pretty sure we should have seen it by now. [So frustrating when things are marked on the map but not on the trail, or vice versa. -Toby] But when we started hiking again we passed several people who smelled so clean. The detergent was wafting off of them and smacking us in the face; it’s so weird how sensitive your nose gets to these things when you’ve been smelling like sweat and dirt for two weeks straight. That let us know that we were almost definitely on the path to Red’s, where they had laundry machines available. So on we hiked and eventually got to a trail junction that was much farther along that we thought we were. According to the map, we were pretty near the red cones, but suddenly I turned to Toby and said “what are red cones anyway? Is that like a tree? A rock? How will we know when we get there — that’s the only landmark we have to find the right campsite.” It turns out that I did not need to worry about this. At all.

So, yeah. I turns out that the Red Cones are pretty freaking obvious.
So, yeah. It turns out that the Red Cones are pretty freaking obvious.

Once we spotted these, our planned campsite was just to the right of the trail, and we sat down for another snack while we discussed our options. It was only 1 p.m. Absurdly early to be setting up camp, even for us. And Red’s was just three miles away. Even with our less-than-stellar topo map reading skills, we were certain that it was almost all downhill between here and there. We started toying with the idea of hiking to Red’s that day. We knew there was backpackers’ camping there but I was worried that it would be full when we got there. [This worry was compounded by the fact that it was Friday, so we wondered if weekenders would be coming in and taking up more sites. I note this mainly because it was a bizarre feeling to realize that I had no idea what day of the week it was, and had to pull out my phone to check. -Toby] I decided to check my cell service for the first time in days, and by some miracle I had several bars. I called Red’s and they said that it was first come, first served on camping, but that it was hardly ever a problem to get spots. That was it. We were going to eat cheeseburgers for dinner and it was going to be glorious.

We took off just before two and I felt like I could have flown down the trail. Driven both by the promise of burgers and by the fear of not getting a camping spot, we practically ran these three miles. We tried to continue to take in the sights — just before Red’s there was a burn area that was eerily beautiful — but mostly we hiked our asses off, blowing by the day hikers that were starting to appear with our stinky, dirty selves. And after just an hour, we saw the signs pointing us to the café and store and picked up the pace even more with the promise of cold drinks and fresh food. And we celebrated the fact that we had just done three miles in an hour with packs, not unheard of for thru-hikers but absurdly fast for us.

The burn area. I loved it here, with all of the young green things growing among the burnt out trees. I would be happy spend a day wandering around. But we were on a mission.
The burn area. I loved it here, with all of the young green things growing among the burnt out trees. I would be happy spend a day wandering around. But we were on a mission. [I would love to hike this area every year and track the regrowth process. -Toby]
The sign at Red’s pointing us to various landmarks. It says “mandatory” next to “Showers.”

Arriving at Red’s was weird to say the least. There was a horde of day hikers waiting for the shuttle back to Mammoth, and most of them were eating popsicles and drinking cold beverages and it suddenly seemed so odd and amazing to me that frozen foods even exist. Like there is a thing in the store that keeps things cold and you just reach in and grab something when you decide you want it, but otherwise it sits waiting for you all frozen and stuff. My backpacker brain could not quite grasp that. I made Toby go into the store to get directions to the backpackers’ campsite while I waited outside, because I couldn’t handle the crowds. But he came out saying the line was too long to wait for information. So we started to wander around a little bit looking for a sign to the campground when there at a picnic table were Bishop Pass Guy, whom we were super excited to be able to see again before he left the trail, and The Venetians. They pointed us in the right direction but warned us that there were few spots left so we should go get a place quick. The campground was a car camping place with some sites reserved for backpackers. We wandered around the labyrinth of roads forever looking for the elusive backpacker sites and finally just knocked on the door of a RV labeled “campground host” and he pointed the way. When we arrived there were a few tents set up already, but we decided there was plenty of space for us too and with no one around to ask, we just pitched our tent and hoped it wouldn’t be a problem.

We changed into absurd outfits and packed everything else up for laundry (I think Toby wore his rain gear whereas I put on a t-shirt I’d brought but hadn’t yet worn for sun protection reasons and my sleep bottoms which were not too gross), and headed back toward the store. Bishop Pass Guy was getting on the shuttle soon but insisted on buying us some drinks to celebrate. He suggested beer but Toby and I were all about the juice. We settled down on a picnic table to enjoy our drinks and chat with him, The Venetians, a mother/daughter pair who were going southbound, and a guy who looked like Bradley Cooper (everyone just called him Bradley Cooper, though I thought he looked more like a young Woody Harrelson. There was much debate on this topic. [No, he looked like Bradley Cooper. -Toby]), who swore even more than I do. We compared trail stories. Bradley Cooper had started with a friend who bailed and he had agreed to pack out his friend’s stuff so we all laughed at his 70 pound pack with stuff hanging off of it. [Someone asked him what on earth he possibly had in that enormous pack, and he joked that he had to bring all of his sex toys. Only later, right before I went to bed, did I realize that I should have responded, “Yeah, me too, but I got the cuben fiber ones!” -Toby] [For those of you who don’t speak thruhiker, be assured that that joke would have killed. –Cyn] The daughter, a Berkeley student, described what it was like to be vegan on the trail — there was lots of peanut butter involved. And Bishop Pass Guy told us about all the years he’d hiked around here and confirmed that it was much, much hotter than usual this summer.

Our drinks finished and some sitting accomplished (such a luxury to sit at a picnic table and not on the ground or a log), Toby went in to buy us some tokens for our much-looked-forward-to showers. The Berkeley student’s mom was behind him in line and somehow talked him into buying me $20 worth of tokens for a twenty minute shower. He presented me with that bag of tokens and a tiny bar of soap and I declared it to be the nicest thing he’d ever done for me. Bishop Pass Guy was getting on his shuttle and we hugged him goodbye and he wished us luck on the rest of our trip. [Thanks so, so much for that delicious bottle of apple juice, BPG! -Toby] Then we headed over to take the longest showers of our lives. But given that there were only two showers and a long line behind me, I decided to use only half my tokens today (still a luxury) and would try to take a shower again in the morning before we left. I needed most of that ten minutes to get through the layers of dirt that were clinging to every part of my body at this point. And the last few minutes I just spaced out under the warm water. It was wonderful. [In the shower, I was shocked to realize how skinny I’d gotten, and pretty impressed with the amount of dirt I’d accumulated. -Toby]

Toby's legs pre-shower. This is what two weeks between showers in the backcountry gets you.
Toby’s legs pre-shower. This is what two weeks between showers in the backcountry gets you, even with washing up at creeks and lakes every day. [I had definitely scrubbed down my legs with wet wipes 48 hours before this. But even more incredibly, this is the level of dirtiness I achieved while wearing pants, not shorts! -Toby]
After our showers we piled our laundry in a washing machine with some Tide, plugged our phones into the tangle of wires that was the charging station, and headed to dinner. There was a wait and we were chomping at the bit, but finally we were seated and instantly ordered a ton of food — cheeseburger, salad, pasta salad, and a Sprite for me; cheeseburger, salad, fruit salad and a chocolate malt for Toby. While we waited a guy walked in to the café and another guy saw him and said, “Hey did you lose your phone on Donahue Pass?” and pulled a cell phone out of his pocket. The first guy literally fell to his knees and started crying, unable to believe that someone had found his phone and brought it here. The people who found it were planning on leaving it at the store in case someone came looking, but recognized him from the picture on his screen saver. They hugged and laughed and couldn’t believe the luck of running into each other here and everyone in the restaurant was captivated. Trail magic.

Our food came and it was just as delicious as we’d imagined. I think that was the best burger I have ever eaten. I couldn’t get over how fresh everything was. Even my iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing was a delicacy. Unfortunately, the waitress kept forgetting and then remembering Toby’s shake, and promised it would be out soon a few times, but when it arrived it was strawberry with no malt and no whipped cream — basically the opposite of what he ordered. [It wasn’t even really a shake, it was more like strawberry milk. Boo. -Toby] He had been talking about that milkshake for so long I knew he was devastated, but we also guessed it would take forever to get a new one, so we just tried to enjoy it and I promised him all the chocolate milkshakes he could drink when we were done with the trail.

How cute is Toby, in his rain gear and geeking out over fresh food?
How cute is Toby, in his rain gear and geeking out over fresh food? [I even ate most of the melon in my fruit salad, which should tell you how hard I was craving fresh fruit. -Toby]
We headed back outside to wait for our laundry with more drinks. We chatted more with the Venetians, and met The Newlyweds, a couple we had passed a few times over the last few days but not chatted with, who were doing a NOBO hike for their honeymoon. But the area was beginning to fill with SOBO hikers and we started to feel a bit cranky. The vast majority of them were in their early 20s and had little backpacking experience. They were having an amazing time and I was happy for them, but I also felt both old in years and old in trail experience. They had been out for 2-5 days depending on where they started, and told their stories with a tone that suggested that they had conquered the world, all while proudly comparing their enormous blisters and tales of epic screw-ups. There was also a lot of use of the word “chicks” to talk about women on the trail, which rankled my feminist feathers [and mine. -Toby]. We noticed that the NOBOers were all much more chill, sharing their stories in a real effort to connect rather than in a kind of trail misery oneupmanship that was happening in the SOBO groups. I tried to check myself, remembering what it was like to be new at backpacking and discovering all of its joys and hardships. But I was starting to want to be back on the trail and away from the crowds, just plugging along with Toby hiking just behind me and only encountering other people briefly, if at all. [Same. I was also starting to worry about what it would be like to hike a big PCT section by myself next spring — what kind of trail culture would I encounter? -Toby]

With our drinks of choice. Beer and coconut water. So good.
With our drinks of choice. Beer and coconut water. So good.

Finally our laundry was done and our phones were mostly charged and it was starting to get dark. We grabbed our clothes, now reeking of detergent, and headed back to our tent. It turned out that our worries about camping too close to others were unnecessary. The two campsites reserved for backpackers were now filled with tents. We had tents just a few feet from us at all sides. My crankiness escalated. I had lost all of my coping skills for being around people at this point. We tried to escape by falling asleep, but it was clear that these youngins were not going to bed any time soon. Even at 9 p.m., otherwise known as backpacker midnight, people were still up around the fire, drinking beer, trading blister stories, and flirting awkwardly. [My crankiness kicked in here too. I just couldn’t listen to another debate about the best sleeping bag or preferred techniques to drain blisters. To be fair, though, I’m not sure there’s any topic people could have been discussing outside my tent at 9.30pm that wouldn’t have made me cranky. I was just starting to let it go when some guy started discussing Scott Williamson, who used to hold the unsupported (i.e., no crew helping out) speed record for hiking the PCT. He knew Williamson’s time down to the minute. I waited to see if he would mention the person who broke that record. He did. “Some woman beat his time a few years ago, but she didn’t actually hike that fast, she just got up really early.” I turned to Cyn in the dark, outraged: “Did you hear that? ‘Some woman?!'” For the record, “some woman” is Heather Anderson, who currently holds the fastest known times for unsupported hikes of both the PCT and Appalachian Trail. She is certifiably awesome. It took me a while to settle down again after hearing that conversation. -Toby] [Oh I forgot about that. Uuuuuggggghhhhh. –Cyn] Finally, around 10 p.m. it started to quiet down and I thought I’d still have a good several hours to sleep before the café opened again at 7 a.m. I could get seven hours and still have time to pack up and enjoy the rest of my shower tokens. And we’d be on the trail again so soon, with six more days of quiet ahead of us.


One thought on “JMT Day 20: Cheeseburger Day

  1. Cyn, this is such a great hiking narrative! I love hearing about your and Toby’s adventures and am chuckling as I read your witty commentary. I’m glad you two had such an awesome trip!

    Liked by 1 person

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