I wake up late, like 6am, and for the first time on this trip I just stay in my quilt and read. I have no place to go today. It’s a strange feeling. After a while, other hikers begin to stir, and we stumble out toward the general store to wait for the Grumpy Bear’s shuttle. EarlyBird says she heard me talking in my sleep this morning — a few unintelligible sentences, and then an amiable “Okay!”
In front of the store, I see the Aussies, Drop Bear and Redback. They are heading out today, flipping up north to skip the scary Sierra Nevada snow and rivers. I’m glad I got to see them one last time. The pick-up truck shuttle arrives, and by the time we all cram in, there are four hikers plus the driver in the cab, and thirteen of us in the bed. At dinnertime, Grumpy Bear’s has a menu, but in the morning you simply order “breakfast.” It’s bacon, eggs, and potatoes, plus all-you-can-eat pancakes, which we soon discover means one giant pancake per person. The biggest pancake I have ever seen. I buy breakfast for my trail fam, because this is one of the last meals we’ll all eat together, and I want to treat them to a little something before I have to say goodbye.
The food is amazing, and none of us can quite finish our pancakes. Suddenly the diner staff is setting up for an eating contest, and I make my way outside to avoid it. We are at the mercy of the shuttle driver to get back to the general store and our tents, so a bunch of us just hang out at the picnic tables and take advantage of the real flushing toilets here. Once we’re finally “home,” I quickly gather up my laundry and rush to the store, but the washing machine is already in use. The sign-up sheet is kind of on the honor system, but it’s not working very well — it seems like people just start a new load if they happen to see the washer is empty. So I spend a few hours of the day sitting on the floor near the laundry room, waiting for an opening. Sprout and EarlyBird are sharing a load with me, and they also take turns on this stakeout, but I’m definitely the most stressed about it. I guess Sprout can tell, because she buys me an apple juice. Around 2pm I finally get to put our clothes in, and on the way out Whiz Kid shows me a sign saying there’s a special dinner available tonight, limited to the first 14 people who sign up. I guess this will be my birthday dinner! We sign up our little crew.
With no miles to do today, I’m not sure how to spend my time. I read on the general store porch, hang our laundry on the clothesline, chat with EarlyBird, applaud as new hikers arrive for the first time. I notice that the applause we got yesterday was more raucous and sustained than the cheers happening today — I think it’s because a bunch of our friends were already here, but also because when we arrived in the late afternoon, many hikers were already a little tipsy! Some other friends arrive: Ten Gallon, Speck, Space Jam, and Mowgli. They used to be ahead of me, but at Walker Pass they hitched into Lake Isabella and took a few zeros.
For almost everyone here, planning has begun in earnest for the Sierra Nevada section. The snow has been incredibly heavy in the mountains this year, and though it’s now starting to melt, that only means the rivers are super swollen and treacherous. All around me on the porch, hikers are forming groups, testing their ice axes and crampons, hashing out their strategies and safety plans. It makes me feel many things: envy that I’m not continuing on with them, nostalgia for the Sierra Nevada, relief that I don’t have to worry about these dangerous conditions. (Other plans are also in the works for those who’ve decided to flip-flop: EarlyBird is heading up to Ashland, coming back for the Sierra section in a few months.)
I begin to feel very, very sad about getting off the trail. Everyone else is looking ahead to the hiking to come, and I’m going home tomorrow. I feel strangely separate from everything. I buy an ice cream bar and another Gatorade and retreat to my tent to escape my emotions. I fall asleep until dinnertime, when we learn that Grumpy Bear’s is closed tonight — apparently they ran out of food. Hikers can really eat, man. So I’m extra glad we lucked into this special dinner here at the general store — tri-tip, corn on the cob, green salad, baked potato, roll, and dessert that I pretend is my birthday cake. I drink my second beer of the whole trip tonight, a delicious stout, clinking glasses all around the table, cheers and happy birthday.
At dusk we walk down the road to Thomas’s house. There’s a makeshift amphitheater in his yard, already full of hikers who are voting on the movie for tonight. I hear that last night they watched Ace Ventura, and I’m glad I skipped that dose of transphobia. To my delight, we settle on School of Rock for tonight. I eat my last Snickers bar, watch bats fly into the dim night sky, and totter back to my tent afterwards for a much-too-late bedtime.
The morning finds us standing at the road again, hoping that Grumpy Bear’s has reopened. Cheers of relief go up when the pickup truck emerges around the corner, and we squish in, even more people in the bed this time. Fifteen? Sixteen? I am crammed into a corner, squatting down and balancing on one leg — there’s no room for my butt to actually sit. When we finally arrive my squatting leg is numb, but it’s worth it to be one of the first in line. After breakfast (where Ten Gallon eats his entire pancake!) my friends go back to Yogi’s to pick up new snow gear. Somehow I miss the shuttle, and after sitting around in front of the diner for a while, I decide to just walk the few miles back to my tent. It’s the last real walking I’ll do out here this year. I gaze at the mountains around me and let myself feel sad for a while. Halfway there, the shuttle catches up to me and I jump in the back.
EarlyBird’s friend T is picking her up today and helping her make the flip up to Oregon, and they’ve kindly offered me a ride into Lake Isabella, where I can take a bus to the airport in Bakersfield. T arrives with massive quantities of fruit for the hikers, and is therefore an instant celebrity. I hang out on the porch with them, share lunch with EarlyBird and Sprout, chat with Sprout as I pack up my tent for the last time. And then, just like that, it’s time to leave. We all take photos and give hugs, and then EarlyBird and T and I get in the car and drive down out of the mountains. As the two of them excitedly catch up, I’m in the backseat navigating a stream of emotions. We drive through Walker Pass and stop to show T; there’s a hiker there enjoying some great trail magic when we arrive.
By the time we check into a sweet little inn in Lake Isabella, EarlyBird and T have decided to go on to Bakersfield tomorrow, which means I don’t have to worry about the bus. In the morning we have another diner breakfast before heading on to my final hotel room near the airport. It feels intense to say goodbye to EarlyBird, my last real connection to the PCT. After they leave, sadness washes over me again, but I begin to look forward to home, too. I miss Cyn, and my cats, and the comforts of home. When my flight takes off the next morning, I peer out at the California mountains below and whisper a promise that I’ll be back to them soon.
. . .
Although technically this was a solo trip, I was never really alone, and could not have done it — or enjoyed it as thoroughly — without the help of many people. Huge thanks to Cyn, for tons of emotional support, for taking care of the house and pets while I just walked, and for sending my resupplies. Thanks to my friends P and A in San Diego for helping me start. Thanks to all the trail angels who gave me food, water, shelter, and rides, most of whom refused even the idea of monetary compensation. Thanks to the PCTA and the trail maintenance volunteers for taking care of this path. Thanks to all the friends I made along the way, especially those I came to think of as trail family — I hope to hike with you again. Most of all, big thanks to everyone who donated to the fundraiser for Border Angels — together we raised $1,549 to help sustain this organization’s crucial support for migrants and immigrant communities in the San Diego border region. ❤
Quite a crowd waiting for the movie to start at Thomas’s house.