The Desolation

July 24th

Mileage: 18 (92.5)

I made the mistake of pitching my tent on a slight slope with my head oriented downhill, which made it difficult to sleep.  All night long I felt like I was being crushed by the weight of my own body pushing me down, down toward Garnet Lake.  The nearby trees and bushes brushed against my rain-fly at all hours, scratching against the tent.  I was glad when day broke and I could start moving.  Across the lake dots of people moved here and there, breaking their respective camps.  When I start hiking I am alone, and I wonder if I was by myself all night long on the south shore.

I love early morning climbs, especially when they only last 30 or so minutes, and that’s exactly what I get today.  My legs are fresh and walking uphill feels good to my lungs in the cool air.  I also don’t have to worry about sweat soaking my back.  Since I’ve not bathed in over a week now I appreciate not being covered in sweat.  I walk over the loose scree that is the trail and start the descent toward Shadow Lake, which a man described to me yesterday as, “a hole in the ground.”  An elderly couple of ladies I meet suggest I make a side-trip to Ediza Lake because I can, “touch the Minarets, they’re that close.”  This sounds appealing, but I have a long day today and want to get into Red’s Meadow Resort early and acquire my re-supply.  Soon I pass a group of three, and the woman is wearing a Cardinals cap.  St. Louisans!  We talk about Yosemite, the trail, and Chesterfield, which is my home-town and their adopted home.  Small world…

Before I come to Shadow Creek I can hear it.  Some kind of raging creek it must be, and sitting just above it is my new favorite tree of all time.

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My favorite tree

I’m not an arborist, and normally I don’t find myself captivated by trees, but this one just looked special.  It reminded me of a miniature version of the tree from FernGully.  I wondered how long its been there, and how it grew out of a pile of rocks.  I walked off the trail to go touch its bark, and somehow couldn’t find my way back so I had to pick my way straight downhill until I found the little ribbon of smooth dirt and continued on.

Shadow Lake came on gradually, and I wondered why the man I met yesterday said it was a hole in the ground; it didn’t seem that way at all to me.  He was hiking with two young kids and maybe they were complaining a lot, making the whole trip seem more dramatic than it actually was.  I reach the lake and enjoy its clear blue surface.  I stop to get some water, but moving my hand back and forth stirs up the sandy bottom, and I don’t want grit clogging my filter.  I decide to push on and try my luck at the next lake.

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Shadow Lake

As I’m leaving the lake I begin to switchback.  The area is heavily forested, so I can’t tell how high I have to go, but it appears the switchbacks continue for some time.  I hike hard and feel fresh.  The day off yesterday fixed me in so many different ways.  I go faster and faster and pass a few people who have stopped to catch their breath.  I push deeper and begin charging up the side of the mountain when I realize that coming from this direction Shadow Lake really must appear to be stuck in a hole.  I’m thirsty now and being hiking not to get to the top, but to reach the next lake quickly so I can drink.  My stomach has also been making noises.  Then the switchbacks are over and I think, “that wasn’t so bad.”  The next lake is in sight and I stop to eat.

The rest of the afternoon should be easy.  I descend nearly 2,000 feet into Red’s Meadow, so I plan on just cruising down the hill and reaching the resort in no time.  I start the walk and soon all the trees around me are lying on the ground.  Tree after tree after tree.  Big trees and small trees.  Whatever came through here was indiscriminate, tearing down everything.  I feel myself beginning to become depressed, because its not scenic at all.  Its the opposite of scenic.  The sun beat down on me harder as I lose elevation and the canopy becomes thinner.  I sweat great quantities and hike faster, trying to outrun this desolation.  I quit carrying water days ago and now I’m very thirsty.  I tell myself not to stop, just keep going, water will come eventually.  For nearly 7 miles I hike through this.  Trees strewn in every direction as far as the eye can see.  The sinister forest eventually took on fairy tale proportions and I wondered what evil had sprouted in all these dead things.  My thirst grew stronger.  After what seemed like hours I came to a stream, Minaret Creek.  People had congregated there and everyone was drinking.  I talked to a family of three: father, son, daughter.  The daughter in particular seemed happy.

I arrived at Red’s Meadow Resort in the late afternoon and people were milling about everywhere.  I picked up my resupply and ditched what I didn’t want, along with my extra food.  My hiker hunger was still absent.  My mood began to fall.  My mental edge was wearing away as I watched all these groups of people meeting up, hopping on buses and going to the town of Mammoth for a hot meal, shower and bed.  No one was alone, except for me.  No one was hiking out into the evening and the wilderness, except me.  The family of three I met earlier were being joined by the rest of their family and they were all drinking beer.  I told myself it was time to hike out.  Just leave.

So I left as the light was beginning to fade: 5 p.m.  I began walking through an old burn, the remnants of the Rainbow Fire from 20 years ago.

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What’s left of the area after the fire

I felt very lonely and very much like giving up.  For the first time on the hike I had lost my mental fortitude.  It had kept me going strong for all these miles, but here, it deserted me.  I looked around:  so much destruction.  I stopped completely.  It was growing dark and the next campground was still over three miles and 1,000 feet up.  What should I do?  I could go back to Red’s, catch a bus, go to a hotel and stop right now.  So easy.  I’d seen some amazing things and hiked almost 100 miles and that was pretty good, right?  In that moment, I had had enough and didn’t want to hike another step.  What is the word that means: my mind has quit and I have lost my motivation and no part of me wants to be doing what I’m doing but I think I’m going to force myself to keep going anyway.  Is there a word for that?  Well, that’s what happened.  All the dead trees seeped into my blood like some crazy disease and infected me.  But I was going to keep walking.  Just get through the day.

I find a campsite as dusk is falling and see a couple of guys I talked to while hiking up Donahue Pass.  I ask them if I can share their campsite; the first time I haven’t camped alone.  We talk for a while.  Huge black ants crawl over me and bite me with their pincers.  I feel sick and desperate, but there’s nothing I can do but sleep.  I get into my tent and ease into the darkness.

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