Mileage: 11.7 (207.6)
I wake at 5 in the morning and cant get back to sleep. Day is breaking and I watch my tent grow lighter by degrees. My phone has a good charge so I listen to music, and consciousness comes over me gently. I’m not really ready to be done with the trail, even though I’m only a few days from Mt. Whitney.
I’m the first one hiking this morning, which is a rare thing. Hunger comes at me like a bullet from a gun and I can feel it pulsing in my gut. I eat a few almonds and cashews, which is akin to swinging at a charging elephant with a fly swatter. But the morning is clear and the mountains are the mountains, which is to say, they are perfect.
“I’m OK,” I say. “I’m feeling OK.”
As I walk I think about the PCT and what it would be like to hike from Mexico to Canada, to hike almost 2,700 miles. What kind of mindset does a person have to adapt to do something like that? For me, as a JMT hiker, the reality of life never left me; it was simply pushed to the periphery. There were St. Louis things to think about, like bills and rent, the end of my undergrad education, my dog’s behavior issues, how the Cardinals are doing. What do PCTers think about? Can anyone ever dodge life’s responsibilities for very long? I kick some rocks as I walk and see an arrow drawn into the dirt. The trail is clear on this section, well-marked. Why would someone draw an arrow? I take a few steps downhill and turn around. Then, like one of those Magic-Eye illusions, the trail disappears. All I can see is rocky ground sloping uphill and four or five worn paths, any of which could be the real trail. I smile and walk on.
Monique and Aaron soon catch me and we talk about water. Aaron tells me he saw these bizarre little floating organisms in the source we all pulled from this morning. I take a swig and suddenly taste something slightly off. I detect a strong algae flavor. As they walk ahead of me I drink some more, and then dump it on the ground. I can collect more soon.
Morning hiking is great and I stay cool in the shadows of the mountains. The river nearby has cut a gorge in the valley and crashes downhill, churning and spitting as it goes. I come to the famous hanging bridge, which marks the end of my downhill climb, and the beginning of a 2,000 foot ascent to the Rae Lakes.
Only one person is allowed on the bridge at a time, and as you walk it begins bouncing and swaying, like a boat in waves. Some of the planks have rotted through or fallen away and I look down at the river below me, bouncing as I go. It’s almost like being on a carnival ride: fun, but perhaps not completely up to code. When I step off a wave of nausea hits me. I feel motion sick from standing on solid ground. I tell myself not to throw up, and take small easy steps. After a spell, it goes away.
The afternoon is long and surprisingly difficult. This uphill section is lengthy and it saps a hiker’s energy over the course of hours. But, as with all climbs, it comes with great views.
By mid afternoon I reach Dollar Lake, the first of 5 lakes leading up to Glen Pass, the final three of which are the famous Lower, Middle, and Upper Rae Lakes. Many people speak of the beauty of the Rae Lakes. Jeremy, Monique and Aaron are eating snacks and talking near the water. I join them, and soon Karley arrives as well. We sit and talk for maybe 20 minutes before I head out. We agree to camp near the Upper Rae Lake, 3 miles away and only a few hundred feet up.
This is a special section, with water everywhere I look. Streams and rivers, large bodies of water, tall flowing grasses, trees and scrub plants: it has it all. The Painted Lady, which is a mountain that actually looks like a woman’s made-up face, appears. Soon too does Fin Dome, which is a mountain that actually looks like a fin of a shark. Those who named these mountains had a true sense of the literal.
We arrive, en masse, at the trail leading to the campground. There are maybe 20 tents spread out at this, the most crowded campsite I’ve been to yet. After some investigation, we find a spot that can house the six tents of our group. Carol and Phil arrive, and soon there are food-smells. Many people are returning to their tents, carrying fishing poles. I eat a generous portion of curry and rice and then walk back to my bear canister and consider what would happen if I just ate everything. I portion out the following day’s trail mix, snacking on the forbidden fruit as I do. I can hear thunder, so it must be storming somewhere, but it looks like we’ll stay dry.
The first true alpenglow I’ve seen all trip. All around me the tops of mountains are ablaze in red and purple, lit up from the setting sun. Its a beautiful phenomenon, and when it happens its like watching some incredible double sunset, one in the sky and one on the landscape. Everyone scatters to try and find the best vantage point to take it in. I find a large rock and soon Karley joins me and we watch the sky grow dark over Fin Dome.
Night arrives and people retreat to the warmth and safety of their tents. Here and there, small lights from head-lamps bob in the dark. It’s quiet and peaceful. Before I go to bed I look out and see our group scattered against the twilight. “I’ll be at the base of Mt. Whitney in three days,” I think as I fall asleep.