PCT Part 8: Hard Choices

Tehachapi (Mile 566) to Kennedy Meadows (Mile 702)

It took me exactly two months to make it through the desert. Reaching Kennedy Meadows – the gateway to the Sierra – is my biggest milestone of the trail so far, but the achievement is a little bittersweet.

Like almost every hiker out here I’ve had my heart set on a continuous thru-hike from Mexico to Canada, but conditions may make that unwise. The trail ahead of me is still buried in feet of snow, with more storms a possibility. Two hikers were rescued from the mountains by helicopter just yesterday, and at least one hiker I know has had her hike ended by frostbite.

This problem has been looming all trail, thanks to record-setting snowfalls this winter that left the Sierra with more than double their average snowpack. More late storms forced us to hole up in Tehachapi for three days, along with almost every hiker in the area.

Tidbit and I left Tehachapi on a Friday morning, hoping to make the most of a run of clear weather. Local trail angels Jen and Larry gave us a ride out to the trailhead on Friday morning, and said a prayer for us as we headed off.

The day started with a 2000-foot climb out of Tehachapi Pass, up a long series of switchbacks. The sun beat down on us the whole way up, but I was just glad to be warm again. The crazy winds that had blasted us for days had finally died down, making for a much more tolerable hike.

We made it 17 miles to our first water source, Golden Oaks Spring, by mid-afternoon, but opted to push on another four miles to a sheltered campsite. More huge wind turbines dotted the mountains around the trail.

We got out of camp early the next morning, and caught up with True Grit and Miela, who I hadn’t seen since Casa de Luna. The day was essentially a series of short climbs through dense forest. We passed the 600-mile marker, then stopped for lunch at a spring below the trail.

More bad weather was forecast for the next day, so I wanted to make hay while the sun shone. We pushed on to Landers Meadow campground, making it a 22-mile day. The last four miles to the campground followed a series of streams through a beautiful pine forest, and felt more like northern California than the desert. We made camp beneath darkening skies.

I’d considered zeroing at the campground if it poured down the next day, but when we woke the clouds were still only threatening. We packed up and continued on, leaving the pines and descending for seven miles to the Joshua trees and the sandy desert. A flurry of snow hit us on the way down, but it didn’t last. Another trouble-making hiker had conned us into believing there would be trail magic – possibly hot dogs – at a remote road crossing for Memorial Day, but when we arrived there was only a water cache. I ate two candy bars with lunch to lift my spirits as the sky darkened further.

We traversed a valley between arid, scrubby peaks after lunch, then climbed to a ridge with spectacular views of the Mojave desert floor. Rain was forecast to start by mid-afternoon, so we made camp early after a 15-mile day. It was a good decision, as a flurry of sleet soon hit us. The wind picked up as the sun went down, and proceeded to batter my tent all night long. I got maybe an hour of sleep. The gale finally ripped a peg loose around dawn, causing the tent to collapse. I took that as my cue to get up.

The weather improved as the morning wore on. We descended to another road crossing with a water cache, then began a long climb to the top of another ridge. We were aiming for a cabin eight miles out from the highway at Walker Pass, hoping for a night out of the wind. The cabin turned out to be so mouldy and full of rat droppings that not a single hiker of the 20 camped around it opted to use it. Mercifully, it was a calm night.

Tidbit and I left late the next morning, with only an eight-mile descent ahead of us. We made it to Walker Pass by mid-morning, when we came across a couple of other hikers (Pierre and Big Cheese) supplying some trail magic at the highway. They’d taken some time off trail and rented a car, and were furnishing passing hikers with beers, sodas and bananas. Kindness like that can make a hiker’s day.

We hung out with them for about an hour while we tried to hitch a ride. Eventually, a local in an old pickup truck pulled over and picked us up. He was returning from a job interview at the post office in Ridgecrest, which he thought went badly. He took us to the brewery in the nearby town of Kernville for lunch. I bought him a beer as thanks for the ride, and to help him drown his sorrows.

He dropped Tidbit and I back at Lake Isabella, where I’d arranged for us to stay with a couple of couchsurfing hosts, Fred and Fish. They picked us up from Burger King and took us to their place, a converted trailer on the outskirts of town. The couple were warm and welcoming hosts, and cooked us delicious Mexican meals on both nights of our stay.

In the morning, Fred drove us out to the Miracle hot springs a little further out of town. We soaked our aching muscles and lazed on the rocks as a steady stream of tourists and locals filed through. We befriended one of the springs’ caretakers, a carpenter named Brian, who gave us a ride back into town for lunch. We got a pizza, resupplied at Vons, then shot some pool at the only bar in town.

I left the next morning in a new pair of shoes, which I’d ordered from REI and picked up at the post office. I’d pushed my first pair of Altras for 650 miles, and the grip had almost totally work down. The fresh pair was way more comfortable.

We got breakfast at a cafe in Lake Isabella, then took a two-leg hitch out to Walker Pass. It was a long, tough climb out of the pass and we started very late, but we made it nearly 17 miles before we made camp near a spring.

The next day involved two long climbs, totalling nearly 5000 feet of elevation gain over about 11 miles. We were in the foothills of the Sierra, and it was starting to feel like it. It was tough, but we made it 20 miles to a campsite part-way down the second mountain.

We hiked the last 13 miles into Kennedy Meadows on Saturday, following the raging Kern River. We made it to the famous general store by lunch, and later hitched a ride out to Grumpy Bear’s – a pub that allows camping.

I felt a little sad to be leaving the desert. It’s been my home for the past 61 days, and I’ve loved its arid beauty and wide-open skies. Conversely, I don’t feel like I’ve really experienced it in its truest form. My time in it has often been cold, windy and rainy. This year’s weather has been strange to say the least.

So now what?

I’m reminded of the last thing Frodo said to us as we left San Diego: “Make good choices”.

I’ve decided I’m not going into the Sierra straight away. Tidbit and I are renting a car, and we’re going to take two weeks off the trail to go see San Francisco and the northern California redwoods. When that’s over, we’ll reassess and decide what to do. In all likelihood, I’ll hike some lower elevation stretches up north to give the Sierra more time to thaw. Stay tuned!

7 Comments on “PCT Part 8: Hard Choices

  1. Good choice, Ben. I hope you enjoy your trip to San Francisco and I’m so envious of you getting to see the California Redwoods. That is on my bucket list. There is absolutely no point in trekking through snow storms in the Sierras, it’s much too risky. I’m wishing you continued success on your amazing life altering journey.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ronnie! It was a difficult decision. As a hiker my instinct is to keep going, but I don’t think that’s the smart move given my lack of serious snow experience.

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  2. Are you going to take in Big Sur? Monterey Aquarium? In San Francisco check out City Lights bookstore, owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (he turned 100 this year), beatnik poet, contemporary of Allen Ginsburg, Jack Keroac, William Burroughs.

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  3. Hello Ben, what lense do you use to take your pictures? (sorry if you already answered that!). Thanks a lot for your blog and beautiful pictures, cheers and have a nice trip to SFO and Red Woods, check out FERN VALLEY! Cheers 🙂

    Like

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