Tracks in the snow

7605F389-67EB-4D67-B734-99621B6C4469_1_105_c.jpegIt was pouring the morning we were supposed to leave Mammoth Lakes and hike into the section with the highest passes on the Pacific Crest Trail.

We looked out the window — dark clouds hung in the sky. Rain cascaded off the eaves of the hotel.

I felt a mix of anticipation and anxiety. The forecast called for snow and freezing temperatures.

Why hike? I wondered. We could just stay in town and wait out the storm in a warm hotel room.

I put the thought out of my head. We got a ride out of Mammoth Lakes from an employee of the ski resort. He had worked at the resort for years and graciously agreed to drive us up to the trailhead. We stocked up in Mammoth Lakes on gear to help us get through.

We were leaving town with wind blowing in our faces. Clouds passed overhead. Rain or snow — something was coming our way. I felt as if we were racing it.

We hiked through a burn area that we remembered going on “forever” while hiking the John Muir Trail in 2015.

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We hiked past a place I remember camping in 2015. On that trip we often made camp before nightfall. On the PCT, we’re lucky to make camp before dusk.

Just as night fell, we set up the tent near a creek. We looked for a sheltered spot, protected from the storm brewing overhead.

As we climbed into our sleeping bags, the first wispy snowflakes were just beginning to fall. Another couple of hikers had made a campfire. The flames cast an amber glow against the boulders. It looked warm, but my quilt seemed even more inviting.

In Mammoth Lakes, we bought Nalgene bottles for just such an occasion. We boiled water and poured it into the hard plastic bottles. Then we put the bottles in our sleeping quilt. They warmed up the quilts and the quilts kept the heat in.

Initially the snow was light. It wasn’t even sticking, but around 10 pm it began to collect. I woke up with a start to the sound of Jake hitting the sides of the tent with his hand. Snow was weighing the tent down. I helped, smacking the walls until sleepiness overtook me again.

We’ve been through so many storms, I thought to myself. No reason to worry yet.

With that, I cinched up my sleeping quilt and fell asleep.

In the morning, I was aware of the cold first: the wet, but not saturated, feeling of a snowy morning. My Nalgene was only lukewarm. I looked at the sides of the tent. There was only a little more snow than the night before. Outside only an inch or two had accumulated.

We heated the water from the Nalgenes for coffee and oatmeal. The lukewarm water warmed up faster than frozen water would have. But it still took time. We were in no rush. Fresh snow covered the trail, making it harder to find. It would be easier if other hikers went first. Then we could follow their footprints.

We had other chores to do anyway. I bundled up in my down jacket to walk down to the creek to collect water. Little snow drifts had collected around boulders at the tentsite. My shoes left distinctive prints in the fluff outside.

Thick ice lined the creek. I plunged the water bladders into the water and carried them back to the tent. Then I climbed into my sleeping quilt to filter. After squeezing the nearly freezing water bladder in order to filter the water into a bottle, I buried my hands in my quilt to warm them up again.

We shook the moisture from the outside of the tent as we packed up. As we folded and rolled, a brown square of dirt and pine needles was revealed where the tent had been — the only visible dirt in all directions.

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Finally we loaded up our packs and got moving. As our footsteps met the trail, we saw the footprints of other hikers who had hit the trail earlier that morning.

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Among them we saw another set of tracks. At first it seemed like someone was hiking barefoot. Then it dawned on us. They were bear prints. They looked fairly fresh. We looked around.

The snow made everything seem very quiet. There was no rustling in the bushes. There was no furry snout through the trees. There wasn’t even the cracking sound of a twig. There were only bear prints going the same direction we were. So we followed the trail. Every time I thought the bear prints had disappeared, they would reappear again. We never saw that bear. I know we are supposed to be afraid of them — those stronger beings with sharper teeth. But I took comfort in the thought that we were sharing the trail for at least a mile or two.

 

The 1200 mile carry

“I’m going to buy my girlfriend an engagement ring”, I told the Lyft driver as we headed into Portland. She was psyched about my plans and was asking if Jen would be suspicious and if I was nervous.

I’d told Jen that I was going to get a surprise for her as she hung out with her sister’s family. I tried to cover my tracks with small gifts and a series of cards for our second anniversary.

That didn’t justify a mystery trip into town though, so I just played dumb and figured she’d eventually forget.Time went by and the ring’s box sat in bubble wrap, wrapped in duct tape, in the bottom of my important things dry sack. As this bag has my ID and cards etc, it sat on every restaurant table and next to my sleeping bag every night. Jen thankfully never asked about that cuboid shape in the bag right it front of her.

A full 1200 miles and about seven weeks later, the Sierra mountains were at our feet. Now I had to decide where to pop the question.I had quickly given up on the idea of having a spot planned much prior as something could easily get in the way. Then logistical issues came to mind: what time of day would we be there? What about other hikers?! I didn’t want this to be a public show. What about the weather? What to do to celebrate, or otherwise?!

I decided then go for a place I had spent a day at four years before on my John Muir Trail hike. It was only another 6 miles further.

Thousand Island Lake should’ve been number one all along. The pristine lake sits below Banner Peak and is dotted with dozens of small islands. We approached the lake at sunset and found the perfect spot on the lake’s edge.We set up tent quickly by the water just in time to see the last whisps of orange clouds fade and as Jen heated up the Punjabi Potatoes by the tent, it turned out I was really nervous and Jen not at all suspicious.I just about managed to get the box in my hand the right way round and I plopped my knee down into the wet ground and popped the question.

A trail of cards

One of Jake’s cards

From time to time on trail, I have found a little green envelope on my backpack.

Inside there is a card with a message from Jake.

“Let’s go hiking!” says one.

Jake has been giving me these cards since we celebrated our two-year anniversary on trail.

As our mileage has increased, the cards’ messages reflect that intensity.

“Let’s do 34.2!” says another card.

They always make me smile. I have saved them in a ziplock bag.

As we hiked into Tuolumne Meadows in late September, that bag was buried deep in my backpack, safe from the rain and freezing temperatures of the high Sierra Nevada mountains.

Walking into Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne was a significant milestone for us. We both hiked the John Muir Trail in the summer of 2015. That was before we met. We bonded over tales from that hike. It has always felt like an important part of our story.

As we hiked out of Tuolumne Meadows, Jake teased me that another card was coming by showing me the corner of a green envelope in his pocket. Throughout the morning and midday, we hiked the miles up to Donohue Pass.

After the pass, the trail turned from switchbacks through vertical, almost hanging gardens to a winding path through a lush convergence of creeks and streams. I remember that meadow from the JMT. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. But like all the best places it’s not easy to get to.

The last of flowers of the season

We still had another pass to climb before camp.

As we came over its rise, we saw an expansive lake dotted with islands. The still water reflected the pink light of sunset behind Banner Peak, which was still dotted with snow from the winter. I had stopped at Thousand Island Lake on the JMT in 2015. Jake had camped there that year. He was looking forward to camping there this time.

Thousand Island Lake

We hiked a few hundred feet off the PCT to find a tentsite. Jake found an amazing spot on a spit of land by the water. The sun was just setting as he staked out the tent. I fired up our stove and started boiling water to heat up a packet of Punjabi potatoes — one of a few dinner items left at Tuolumne Meadows Store.

The sunset

The water hadn’t yet boiled when Jake walked a couple of steps toward the lake and said, “Come over here. Look at the sunset.”

“It’s OK,” I said, focused on dinner. “I can see it from here.”

“No really,” he said. “It’s better over here.”

I figured I should probably check out whatever was over there.

I got to my aching feet and walked the few steps over to him. He had the green envelope in hand.

“The card!” I said.

I opened it.

And then he got down on one knee.

I was stunned: The sunset, the lake, the ring.

I looked at Jake and our whole relationship flashed before my eyes — meeting in Mexico City, our first hike, that time my apartment flooded and Jake came over to help, and so many other memories.

The feeling overwhelmed me and I started crying and hugged Jake.

“You have a drip on the end of your nose,” he said, laughing.

And there we were laughing and crying, snot-covered and engaged.

Between bubbles

The time that you get back on trail from town positions you just ahead of some hikers and just behind others. Some folks have taken a day off, some just a few hours, and some don’t stop; town gives us hikers a good shuffle.

This is amplified around large towns and when there’s bad weather. Town is like a bottleneck or a vortex in these circumstances and then little newly formed bubbles of hikers are spit out into the wilderness the next day. All with newly stuffed food bags, some are even clean.

The shuffle reveals some old faces and some new and occasionally, somone cool you haven’t seen in a long time. We stop to chat and share stories and plans at spots on trail or simply walk and talk. We leapfrog with hikers for a couple of hours or maybe even days, until the next resupply point.

Previously we used to leapfrog around hikers for a couple of hours and then not see them again as we were the tortoises (who liked days off). We would see their names disappear into the future in the trail registers where hikers sign and date along the trail.

“Oh look, it’s Carjack, she’s 11 days ahead now!”

We had met Carjack by the Canadian border almost 3 months ago and as she had done 800 miles in the desert previously, she promptly disappeared over the horizon and her name got further and further ahead in the registers.

The pattern of seeing names we knew ahead of us became a little too common and we found ourselves needing to up the pace to be in the Sierra by mid-September. This the advised arrival date to avoid bad weather.

A typical trail register found along the trail

The last time I posted, we were a few days into our big 15 day push to gain back some miles we dropped in the lazy days of northern Oregon. Since then we’ve done several 30+ mile days.

During the push we found ourselves scanning registers we came across for names we knew to check our progress against others’.

“Scarecrow, this morning. Jukebox and HanSobo, two days ahead. Dozer he’s three days now, he was four. Carjack, just seven days ahead now.”

This new pattern now continued. We were somehow gaining ground on oher hikers! We walked from dawn to dusk, literally, every day with short breaks to beat the weather. As we got closer, it felt achievable but we were also getting burnt out. The day we left Sierra City was particularly hard on me, then we saw the snow forecast and we needed to do 75 miles in 48 hours to avoid being exposed on a ridgeline in a huge storm.

We hiked long into the night twice and got caught out, just, by the snow storm. We promptly got a ride into town and were very relieved we had been on the southern side of Dick’s Pass.

As I returned to our motel room in South Lake Tahoe later that day, my phone buzzed as we took a well deserved rest day after having hiked 625 miles in 25 days.

“Did I just see you walk across a parking lot in a towel?!!”, the text said. It was Carjack and she was in town. We had caught her up!

I had indeed been in a towel outside (laundry chores) and we agreed to meet for pizza. We toasted our success and shared stories of the trail and then promptly passed out long before normal peoples’ bedtimes.

Riders on the storm

Jake captured this moment in the winter wonderland heading down from the trailhead to South Lake Tahoe

“There’s a red flag warning,” Jake was checking the weather and speaking in the measured tone of a person who is definitely not freaking out.

We were already 23 miles into the day. And 68 miles from the trailhead closest to South Lake Tahoe.

“What?” I said. I had checked the weather earlier in the week and saw that it might rain, but a red flag means a storm.

“Wind gusts of 75 miles per hour… damaging winds,” Jake went on reading. “Snow showers… accumulation of three to five inches.”

It seemed impossible. The late summer sun had warmed us all day. The sky was a delicious blueberry.

Sun before the storm

We checked other sources. We checked other locations. They looked worse.

We exchanged glances. We expected storms. Jake and I hiked through the Sierra Nevada on the John Muir Trail in 2015 before we knew each other. We expected storms but not for another week or two. Plus we had been booking it for three weeks just to get to that spot. We had been keeping up with hikers far faster and far stronger. We were tired and ready for a day off.

We quickly agreed we would hike as far as we could that day and the next day.

A few hours later, we sat at picnic tables at Donner Pass, named for another set of ill fated travelers. We made dinner there and discussed our options. We searched online for what high wind feels like. Somewhere around 45 mph walking becomes difficult; around 60-70 mph trees can be uprooted. We found a bailout point “if things get really bad” about 28 miles ahead. Then we hiked on, hoping for the best. It was midnight when we laid out our sleeping quilts to cowboy camp under a nearly full moon and howling wind. We had hiked our longest day at nearly 37 miles.

Jake woke me at 6 in the morning as pink crept into the horizon. It was time to get up. The wind was already picking up over Tinker Knob. Another ridge beyond found us bracing against our trekking poles.

Windy but sunny

By the time we reached the “bailout point” that afternoon, the wind had died down a bit. Some friends caught up to us. They were discussing the possibility of hiking all night to avoid the storm. At this time we were in blazing sunshine. A sign declared 32 miles to the trailhead. We could do that mileage in a day easily but not after already hiking 20 miles.

Jake and I decided to press on for a few more hours. We would hike until 9 pm, set up our tent, sleep until 4 am, and hope that the storm hit an hour or two later than forecast.

We cooked dinner with the last of our fuel that night and set up in the most protected section of forest we could find. At one point, in the middle of the night I opened my eyes and saw that outside the tent, the trees were swaying in all directions. I closed up the tent and awoke before my alarm at 3:50. I began stretching my legs for the trail ahead.

We were up and out quickly. Hiking in the dark, we made our way toward Dicks Pass at 9,376 feet. The wind picked up. It threatened to knock us over at points.

Storm clouds gather

Off in the distance, I saw a bank of clouds galloping toward us. For the rest of the day, “Riders on the Storm” cycled through my head like a dirge. At the top of the pass, we ran into the first couple of hikers we saw that day and there was enough cell signal to check our fantasy premier league teams and text family.

On the way down, we stopped for peanut butter and jelly tortillas. I don’t even like PB&J. At this point on the trail, I eat anything. The break spot was sheltered from the wind and even sunny. We ran into a couple of hikers we hadn’t seen since Oregon. It was a strange reunion in the midst of impending doom. The sun gave us a false sense of security.

Hiking on, we ran into more people on long weekend excursions. We hiked past glorious lakes lined by fireweed and paintbrush. The wind whipped our cheeks and clouds gathered. Just after Lake Aloha, hail began to fall. Then it became rain, then sleet, then snow. We were still two hours from the trailhead… two hours ahead in wet snow. Faster than I’ve ever experienced, the snow began to stick. The temperature was dropping. It coated granite and turned dirt trail into a river. I began to panic. I couldn’t get warm. My beanie and down jacket were in my pack. I wasn’t thinking straight.

Jake stopped me to put on more layers and we resumed the climb. We slipped over rocks and hoped we could make it to the trailhead before our resolve dissolved. We skidded past other hikers. We slid in ever accumulating snow, seeking out the trail as it disappeared before our eyes.

Finally we made it to the trailhead. Looking for a hitch, we saw a section hiker getting into a Jeep. Jake dashed over to ask for a ride. The driver warned us that his Jeep was a convertible but we were just happy to be on the move. Less than an hour later we were washing the dirt off our feet and planning our town meals.

In the end we hiked 90 miles in two and a half days. We got to town tired, soaked and hungry but glad to be dry.

Marble Mountain

We made it into our campsite in Mable Mountain Wilderness as dark arrived. The deep oranges still stained the sky behind us on the (now Caifornian) horizon, the blood red sun had been swallowed by mountains stacked in flat layers of ever lighter blues.

Sunset – last night

Getting into camp just at sunset is a fairly regular occurrence on the PCT, especially as days have become shorter because daylight means walking.

We allow ourselves enough time to go to the bathroom, sleep seven or so hours, brush our teeth, filter water, eat and rub our painful feet a bit but that’s about it. Every waking moment is walking.

In Washington we used to be quite slow risers and tended to get hiking around 8am after eating fancy oatmeal and dried fruit, and a coffee maybe.

Now we’re early risers, typically we get out in twilight and now we hike till dark. No more oatmeal, no more coffee. Now bars and caffeinated drinks mixes. So cliché.

A typical day on trail now begins half an hour before setting out with grunts and air mattresses squeaking. You scan the aches and pains. All there? Check. A new one? Sit up and stretch a bit as you eat a bar and drink something.

Once we’ve eaten first breakfast in our quilts, we break down the tent and roll up our pads, stuff everything in our packs. A quick stretch and maybe a cat hole digging later and we’re ready to go.

We head off and cover as many miles before the sun starts beating down, usually eating second breakfast on the move. Typically chatting and discussing the pros and cons of large mayonaise squeezey bottles in our foodbags or other similarly deep questions.

This particular morning, we had a large goal in mind, 31 miles coming out of Seiad Valley, California. The first 17 miles from our campsite is uphill and continuous but elevation profiles make it look more like a landscape of Mordor. It wasn’t so bad to be honest but it was basically like climbing Snowdon twice in a morning.

We walk and talk, we walk and joke we walk separately, we walk and listen to podcasts, we walk in silence, we walk and dance while listening to music then we break. Every five or so miles. I’m usually lagging behind.

When we break, we filter water and eat, hopefully in a spot that offers both comfort and vista. Usually it’s next to a stream or on a log next to a tree though. We put our feet up and stretch. Once the gummies are eaten, time to move on.

We walk more and deal with the sweltering heat of the afternoon, plastering on the sunscreen and donning hats. Enduring all too common burn areas and being thankful for tree cover shade. A quick shower by dumping two litres of ice cold water over our heads, snatching our breaths to help with the intense heat and we move on again.

After repeating this a few times, all too quickly, the sky darkens and the horizon lights up in an orange blur and we have almost reached our target. We find a spot to camp, wherever is closest, put up the tent, inflate the pads and start up the stove. A quick “yeah, we did it” and then we drift off to sleep, ready to continue on the same path in the morning.

Sunrise – this morning

Lost dog

It was drizzling as we came up the hill, but we felt buoyant. We were heading into Ashland, Oregon for our first day off in 11 days.

And then we saw him: a dog.

Looking lost

At first glance, we couldn’t tell if he was friendly or grumpy.

His head was lowered and he was standing in the middle of the trail. Either he was lost or blocking the way.

I held out my hand to give him a sniff.

He obliged and then I scratched behind his ear.

He greeted Jake, as well, looking forlorn.

He had the coat of a mutt but a collar told us he must have a home.

We looked around. Although that section of the trail was close to Interstate 5, we couldn’t see any houses nearby.

“Hello? Has anyone lost a dog?”

No one replied.

“Do you think he’s thirsty?” Jake asked.

We had filled up on too much water at a spring 12 miles back.

I grabbed my titanium dinner cup from the back pocket of my backpack, and Jake filled it with water. The dog sniffed the cup. He didn’t need water.

“Too bad we don’t have any food!” I said.

The dog wasn’t skinny but had the look of a someone looking for a snack.

Unfortunately, we had nothing left.

I had eaten my last Snickers bar (not really suitable dog food anyway) a couple of hours before. Jake has shared some of his last Snickers with me at lunch. All that we had in our food bags were empty ziplocks and trash.

It was about 4 pm. We were in the last miles of a 25-mile day. We were heading toward a side trail that would take us to a lodge and restaurant and freeway to Ashland.

So we walked on. The dog took a few steps in our direction. We hiked on and he ran to catch up.

Oh, well, I thought, we have a new friend.

Every so often, he stopped to mark territory, giving the impression he was familiar with the territory. Sometimes he even walked in front of us as if he were showing us the way.

Leading me down the trail

We rounded the corner onto the side trail down the lodge and the freeway that would take us to Ashland. I was sure he would head back then. I looked back. He paused but continued following us.

The side trail sloped down steeply. At one point I felt a weight fall against my leg.

“Oh! He fell down!” I cried.

The dog’s legs had given out on the steep terrain and he had slid into my leg and trekking poles.

I started to worry. What are we going to do if we can’t find his owner? Big sections of the trail have bans on dogs. We knew a hiker who had a service dog, but that took paperwork and lots to training. I ran a few scenarios through my mind — none of them favorable. Then I put it out of my mind. “The trail provides.” The refrain I’ve heard so often since we started this hike flashed through my mind. A solution will present itself, I thought. I just don’t know what it is yet.

Within seconds, the dog was back on his feet again. We crossed a set of railroad tracks and had to redouble our steps as we momentarily followed the wrong trail. Through it all, man’s best bud trotted along behind us. I wondered if he, too, was imagining a new direction — abandoning his home for a life on the road with two homeless travelers. And then I remembered: he was a canine. He probably just thought we were going to feed him.

Crossing the railroad tracks

Finally we reached the road, which was really the off ramp of the I-5. We crossed it in the rain. And only here, the dog hesitated. There weren’t any cars but he seemed afraid of the road.

Eventually he mustered up the courage. And it was at that point I heard a car’s breaks.

I stopped in fear for this dog we had met only 30 minutes before. He had followed us. I felt responsible for him.

I whipped around.

The dog was ok. The car’s driver was leaning out the window.

“Bennie!” shouted the driver. “What are you doing down here?”

The dog turned toward him.

The driver knows him!

I walked back toward the white SUV.

“Are you his owner?” I asked.

“I’m the neighbor of his owner,” the driver told me.

“We found him up on the PCT,” I told the driver. “He followed us down.”

“Their property is near there,” the man said, already helping the dog into the backseat of his car next to his small child in a car seat.

It all happened so fast. The dog was found fortuitously — right as we were heading to the lodge and road that would take us to Ashland.

Finding his way home

Jake and I looked at each other in disbelief.

The trail provides was all I could think.