Seven hundred miles has a nice ring to it. Even spelling it out suggests a lovely sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Gongratulations, you have walked a far way good sir and madam. More at least than a paltry 500 or 600. But at mile 702 festers the stinking ‘zero vortex,’ and wallet sucking monopoly that is the Kennedy Meadows General Store.
Kennedy Meadows is the JFK Airport of the PCT. It’s a hub, and you will see many hikers there. I’m not quite sure if it’s actually a special place or if everyone has just read it’s name a thousand times and thinks it this magical portal out of the desert, but there was certainly a buzz in the air that hadn’t been felt since Campo. We’ve made some noticeable prog ress and us hikers love to give credit where credit is due, so upon arriving, I was greeted with a lovely smattering of applause. Then a very ‘nice’ lady behind the counter helpfully took all my money, most likely to keep it safe while I ate and drank my body weight in overpriced beer and ice cream.
Needless to say, KM is a zoo. No. Actually, it’s more like a bankrupt zoo met an electronic music festival and had a love child- then left that child in a trailer park to be raised by Coyotes. So it’s also needless to say that you will have a good time there, unless you need to use one of the porta-potties, which is akin to walking into a leaky nuclear reactor with only a Tyvek jumpsuit to protect you.
To those future hikers who, like me, believed the fables that Kennedy Meadows was the ‘gateway to the Sierra’, it’s not. You will have to hike another 50 or so miles until you really start seeing why the Sierra is one of the most beautiful and magical places a human being can walk. Until then, you will walk in what I will refer to as the Twilight Zone of the Sierra. Yes, there is water, even a river! But, the feel of the land is still very similar to what you have been hiking through for some time, except with some minor, but noticeable differences. For instance, grass! In another instance, shade!
Another major difference you will notice, is a hard, bulging cylinder of toughened plastic making your backpack feel awkward and heavy, an amazing accomplishment after 700 miles. The cylinder I am referring to is, of course, your new Bear Can. This lovely piece of gear will help you protect your food from the scary and flesh rending monsters we only speak about in whispers. The rangers. Oh and I guess bears, but that is just nonsense in my opinion. The Bear Vault 500 is the perfect size. It is just big enough to not fit horizontally in my pack (ULA Circuit) and just small enough to leave gaps along the back panel so that when fully loaded, your once well-known bag (that you spent 700 miles dialing in), now feels like you’ve just met it on a blind date at Wendy’s.
But I digress.
Hiking out of KM is relatively easy, but I would recommend stopping at Swallow Bridge which crosses the Kern River about 14 miles after KM. This bridge was built to make the dangerous crossing of the Kern safe, though after the record low snow year, the Kern was about as dangerous as a kitten covered in marshmallows, listening to smooth jazz on low volume.
I can’t remember how many blogs I read in which it was written somewhere that ‘your miles will decrease when you get to the Sierra.” This is ultimately true, at least in my opinion. After the Kern (and the beautiful grass) the trail will rise to over 10,000 feet and I certainly felt the heady effects of the higher elevation, while others felt less heady and more headachy.
The terrain has certainly changed now, but it is not the Sierra one imagines when they slog their way through the desert. Tall pines cast long shadows and temperatures drop to comfortable levels, but it’s still dusty and the elevation you gain after the Kern is lost before you know it.
Another thing to change was the company that I kept. All puns aside, I was now hiking with Legs. Legs got her name last year on the Appalachian Trail because, well, she has great legs. Coincidently two of the hikers who we met on the AT last year was at Kennedy Meadows at the same time we were. Legs is a lithe and athletic woman, with dark skin that matches her even darker hair and eyes in a rather beautiful combination. She is the type of person who, when traveling, locals will think she is from there, although with her tan, perhaps Scandinavians might have their doubts. She is also all legs. This is not an exaggeration, her torso basically doesn’t exist. Just kidding. She is a competitor and college athlete, and would out hike many a thru hiker in the days ahead. She would also be responsible for making my days in the High Sierra some of the best in my life.
However, in our first three days, Legs had a fight with her boots, and her boots won. Her toes looked like cooked sausages, with a lovely charring pattern and were as plump as any ballpark Frank. It was because of this battle that we needed to make an unexpected trip into Lone Pine via Cottonwood Pass to Horseshoe Meadows.
Horseshoe Meadows is a sweeping expanse, sun drenched in molten gold and veined with glittering creeks and streams brimming with golden trout. In the distance, snow glints off granite peaks, beckoning you to sit upon their lofty thrones. Those are the peaks that inspired John Muir and Ansel Adams, and within them, a wilderness of incalculable beauty and ferocity stretches out on all horizons. There is the Sierra you have waited for.
Getting a ride from Horseshoe Meadows, or the other trailheads within this next 100 miles, is a tricky business. There is no cross traffic, thus the only people you will find driving up the harrowing road are day hikers. On weekdays, the massive parking lot may only house a couple of cars. Luckily, we managed to get a ride from two fitness lovers who had biked up the road from Lone Pine.
The drive down to Lone Pine was terrifying, though Legs, having grown up on the windy roads of California, was unperturbed.
When the color had gone back into my face and I felt as if I could stop clenching…everything, we had gone from 10k feet to 3700 and temperatures where 30 degrees hotter.
Lone Pine is a kitschy little town with a very clean and hike friendly hostel centrally located near the grocery store and laundromat. The image of Mt. Whitney is plastered onto every business as if everyone in town went to the same marketing seminar. The Alabama Hills roll away from the town acting as the foot hills of the wall of granite that dominates every view. Mt. Whitney stands looming over the town, though it barely surpasses the other peaks around it in height. Oh! There is also a lunch time Chinese buffet. They lost money on me, you can believe that.
If you don’t want to spend any money on lodging, Lone Pine also sports some very comfortable baseball fields and dugouts. Beware of the sprinklers. That is all I will say about that.
Getting back up to horseshoe meadows is even trickier than getting down. Luckily, a former thru hiker named 7-8-9 let us camp at the Lavender farm she works at and drove us up the next morning. We picked lavender for them to earn our stay.