PCT Desert Day 43: I Left My Heart (and My Toenails) on the PCT

Mile 680.91 to 702.23 — Today’s miles: 21.32

In the night, I hear a small steady rasping noise on my tent fabric. My sleepy brain is sure that it’s a mouse trying to chew through, but I sit up several times and shine my headlamp around, and never see anything. It sounds like it’s right next to my ear, though. Finally I realize that in the head area of my tent, a tiny beetle is trapped between the tent floor and Tyvek. I guide it back into the grass and promptly pass out again until 4.30am. It’s cold when we wake up, and I tape a couple of new blisters (!!!) with my numb fingers before filtering icy water. EarlyBird can’t help herself and leaves ahead of our planned time; Sprout and I are out around 6am, saying hello to the Aussies (still in their sleeping bags) on our way back to the trail.

We have a big climb right away — the last major climb in the desert section. I feel very slow, but it’s a lovely trek through forest, and I try to just settle into the ascent, savor this last tough stretch. Several sweet little camping spots are nestled in the trees here. After two miles or so, I’m able to pick up the pace, and soon I catch up to EarlyBird, who looks at her maps and announces that we have fewer than 1000 feet left to climb. I eat my last bar. We hike up out of the forest, and wind along open hillside filled with gorgeous lupine and many other flowering plants. Near the top, Sprout passes me, and then I turn a corner and can see the snow-covered Sierra Nevada all laid out in the distance ahead of me. It’s pretty special.

The three of us reach the top around 8:30am and are rewarded with incredible views all around. I eat the last bites of jerky in my food bag and all but a few handfuls of my M&Ms, and then make a few cups of electrolytes. The temperature is perfect, and we’re not in a rush. It’s all downhill from here, and we only plan to hike another nine miles or so today, camping a few miles out from Kennedy Meadows so we can arrive early tomorrow morning. A hiker named Yoda joins us for a bit — EarlyBird knows him from her first few days. He heads out, and we follow shortly after.

Now that I’ve finished the last major climb, I’m acutely aware that my hike is almost over. On these six miles of downhill, I try to make sense memories: the feel of the long desert grasses brushing against my calves, the smell of the sagebrush, the clack of grasshoppers jump-flying away from me, the clink of talus under my feet, the feel of my shirt billowing out in the wind. Part of me wants to slow down, to linger on these miles, but my legs are on autopilot these days, and without even trying I zip down the trail, passing Yoda shortly before the next water source, a small stream where someone has left half of a small plastic jug as a water scooper. Sprout and I locate some shade, though ants and biting yellow flies are also enjoying it. EarlyBird joins us, and soon I am delighted to see Redback and DropBear arrive, along with a few dudes I’ve never met. I make my last packet of ramen, and listen to Redback tell hiking stories as we all eat. A yellow fly lands on me and I smash it, and Sprout cheers.

With some sadness, I finally eat the last of my M&Ms. Now my food bag contains: one pouch of tuna, one packet of nutella, a handful of trail mix, one Snickers bar, and a few Jolly Ranchers. I’d planned to save the trail mix for tomorrow’s breakfast, and eat everything else for dinner tonight. But now Sprout and I exchange some looks as the group discusses Kennedy Meadows. It’s not even ten miles away. Showers, laundry, a store with cold drinks and ice cream…we’re thinking about going all the way today. Some of the dudes tell us that the store closes at 4pm. It’s 1pm now. Hmm. EarlyBird isn’t sure about this change of plans, so we bargain: we’ll all meet at our initially proposed campsite, see what time it is, and decide then whether to stay or go on.

Sprout and I take off first, and as we walk, she declares me the least stinky man on the PCT. I am touched. We hike fast on exposed, flat trail, chatting all the way. Suddenly Sprout stops, looking at her GPS app. We passed our proposed campsite 0.3 miles ago! We check our watches: just burned through 3.4 miles in about 45 minutes. We get out Sprout’s trail notes and see that the Kennedy Meadows store is open until 5pm at least. Just as we’re wondering whether to wait here or backtrack to meet EarlyBird, she comes barreling down the trail, motioning with her hands and yelling “Go! Go! We can make it!” I guess we’re gonna do this, then!

I hike like the wind, down down until the South Fork Kern River appears below me, and the sight of it stops me dead in my tracks. “Wow,” I say out loud, to no one. It is huge. The most water I’ve seen in six weeks. Maybe more water than all the water I’ve seen combined. The trail parallels it for a while. I pass a small trail maintenance crew at work and say thank you to each of them. I climb up above the river, still marveling at the water, and then leave it behind for a bit as the trail turns into deep beach sand again. It’s hot and exposed, and I struggle to maintain my pace. But the mountains are all around me now. It’s beginning to look like the Sierra Nevada, and an intense feeling of nostalgia and longing washes over me. I hit the 700 mile marker and experience a complex set of emotions as I realize that only two miles remain of my hike.

Sprout catches up with me, and we hike the last stretch together, reaching the trail register near the road at 3:50pm. I wish I could think of something beautiful or meaningful to write in it, but can’t process all the things the desert has taught me, all the experiences I’ve had here. We decide to wait for EarlyBird before turning off for the final short roadwalk to Kennedy Meadows. I go behind a tree to pee, and realize too late that the road curves around behind the tree as well. Sorry, whoever was in that pickup truck.

EarlyBird is not far behind us, and once she’s signed the trail register we all turn right onto the paved road. And then there is the general store, just ahead on the left, with its porch full of hikers. As we walk down the dirt driveway, all those hikers begin to cheer and applaud. It’s a Kennedy Meadows tradition — after making it through 700 miles of desert, you deserve a hearty celebration. I knew it was coming, but didn’t expect it to feel quite like this. The cheers go on and on, getting louder and more enthusiastic as we get closer to the store, and tears rush to my eyes, a big lump forms in my throat. I did it. I hiked the desert section of the PCT. I did it.

Whiz Kid and Cowboy are here, and Dos Tacos, and I get fist bumps from them all as I walk up to the porch and into the general store. It’s just one big, dimly lit room, but I’m overwhelmed by all of the cold drinks, snacks, and chest freezers full of ice cream. I buy many things, including a shower and a load of laundry, adding my name to the wait list for the sole washing machine.

Outside, I immediately consume a bottle of apple juice and an entire pint of ice cream in about five minutes. Whiz Kid and Cowboy catch me up on their last few days — they had to pick up the pace because Whiz Kid completely ran out of food. They are both so clean. I want to be clean. I wait in line for one of the two outdoor showers, getting my turn just a few minutes before they turn the water off at 5pm. I put on my sleep shirt and wind pants; laundry will have to wait until tomorrow. Whiz Kid shows us around: the very stinky row of portable toilets, the many tents all spread out, and the little space under some trees where she and Cowboy have set up and saved spots for us.

We catch the free “shuttle” to Grumpy Bear’s diner a few miles down the road, the only restaurant anywhere nearby. The shuttle is just a pickup truck that a diner employee drives back and forth for breakfast and dinner runs. We pile into the bed, and I enjoy the wind in my clean hair. We stop briefly to meet Yogi, a legend who has thru-hiked the PCT 3.5 times (and also the AT, CDT, and Colorado Trail). She has a new gear store next to the diner, just getting up and running, and my pals buy a few items for their next section in the Sierra Nevada. I just marvel at getting to meet Yogi, and try to ignore my stomach, which is protesting the massive influx of ice cream it just experienced.

At Grumpy Bear’s I split a giant pizza with EarlyBird and chase it with a basket of cheese fries and endless ice water. There’s technically wifi here, but it takes me almost 20 minutes to send Cyn an “I made it!!!!” text. Stomach finally full, I am now very sleepy. Two of the diner employees are dancing — they’re good — and some hikers join in. Everyone sings a round of happy birthday for a local guy. We don’t know his name, so Dos Tacos just ad-libs “Happy birthday dear…Joooooooooooe,” which makes me laugh more than it should. Whiz Kid suggests we have a slightly early birthday dinner for me here tomorrow night; upon learning that I’ll be turning 40 in a couple of days, Dos Tacos nearly falls off her chair.

We grab a hitch back to the general store from Thomas, who provided my very first trail magic experience back at Sunrise trailhead on my fourth day out. He lives just down the road here. There are eight hikers crammed in the truck bed and two more in the cab with Thomas. Three of the people in back with me are section hikers who are only out for a few days. Their packs are huge — one guy tells us his weighs 43 pounds, not even counting water!

It’s dusk when we clamber out of the truck. Some people are going over to the nightly movie screening in Thomas’s yard, but I’m too exhausted. I unpack and set up my bed things for the last time, and feel a twinge of sadness. But I’m still sleeping in my tent, still hanging out here for a few days with everyone before making the long trip back to an airport. So it almost doesn’t feel like it’s over, not yet.

Morning climbing in the forest.

Sprout ahead of me, and the Sierra Nevada in the far distance.

Sprout and me at the top of the last desert climb, ready for snack break! (Photo by EarlyBird)

EarlyBird took this one of me starting the long downhill.

EarlyBird, marveling at the South Fork Kern River. I regret that this picture doesn’t convey how wide and swift it was. It was overflowing the banks at several points.

South Fork Kern, from above. Water!!

Glamorous selfie at the 700 mile marker. I almost didn’t post this shot because I look so gross, but man, this really is desert hiking in a photograph.

One of the last trail markers I passed.

Sprout on the roadwalk into Kennedy Meadows.

Approaching the general store. The cheering began three seconds after I took this.

Whiz Kid and Dos Tacos had fun with my phone.

My celebratory apple juice! (They had Martinelli’s! So fancy!)

Whiz Kid with the Grumpy Bear’s diner dog. I cannot remember this dog’s name — something like Pixie, maybe?

[I’ll have one more post about my remaining time at Kennedy Meadows with some bonus pictures, and then the usual post-trip wrap-up. Sorry for the long delay in posting this! The world has been too terrible lately.]

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