Double Zero, 20 miles.
Light begins to break and I wake up feeling cranky and bug bitten. Bites all around my ankles itch so badly I make them bleed. I rifle through my food bag and eat a few smashed nut bars and oily jerky sticks. My tent already insufferably hot inside, I eject myself into the soft grass. A fire helicopter flies by.
Twisted walks by my tent.
“Things keep biting me,” I say while frowning and scratching.
“I wouldn't know about that,” Twisted says, smirking. I make a face at him. His bed hangs between two trees, a hammock.
“Yeah. Coffee.” I slip my shoes on and one leg at a time, stand. Wobbling a bit. I grab my umbrella and we head out of the RV park and into the road. As we walk, I confide to Twisted that I don't think I trust my trail family to do the Sierra with. Most hikers are teaming up and forming groups and this past week has seen me sometimes a day and a half ahead of my friends and me mostly hiking alone. He and I are both conflicted, as we want a group to enter with for safety sake but we also don't want to be delayed by their slower speed and different priorities. I feel bad. Their hiking style differs from mine and Twisted. We like to take minimal breaks and cruise through the day with minimal town time, where as the rest of everyone prefers not this style. We both shrug at each other, we're both alone. We agree to wait and make a plan with them.
The pavement beneath my feet has no give to my joints and I feel achy as we walk in the hot growing sun. The fire in the canyon west to us, still rages. A thin hazy line fills the sky.
We arrive at the cafe, where I order a breakfast burrito that comes with avocado and I get an iced coffee. The burrito is so good, so perfect. The outside of the tortilla crisp and slightly buttery and the filling of crisp potatos, sausage, bacon, egg, peppers and onions... It puts me into a dream state.
I sit alone, watching folks. A Forest Service woman walks in talking about the fire. Twisted reads on his phone. My trail family arrives and there's lots of hugging and yelling and excitment. I'm happy to see them. Glowing with fresh dirt and sun and wind. Being in town has already so quickly taken that away from me. We talk of the Moose Lodge that opens to up hikers, with very cheap drinks. The idea sounds fun, to drink with everyone.
Eventually Twisted and I agree that it's time for milkshakes. So we walk in the scorching heat to the diner. The inside of the diner isn't much better than outside. I order a cherry and pistachio milkshake, Twisted sits across from me while we both lick our spoons and stare at the people around us. Families arguing, old folks staring at us, wildland fire fighters eating the way we do: ravenous.
“Do you want to do the Sierra together?” Twisted asks.
I feel freedom arriving.
“You mean just us, both of us?”
“Yes.” He says with his German efficiency.
“If everyone else isn't ready to leave in the morning and I doubt they will be, let's do it. I'm tired of waiting on them.” I say. “If we do this though, I am very serious about having a buddy system. We must commit to not leave each other behind, since it's dangerous in there. I'm not very experienced in this.”
He nods at me. “I know the snow, but not like this. I'm nervous too.”
We seal the deal with a handshake. This feels good and now I feel like I don't have to wait.
Twisted and I leave the diner, full of milk and sugar. We walk in the blinding sun and heat towards the grocery store, where we'll do our resupply that will carry us into Kennedy Meadows, the infamous northbound Sierra gateway.
The artificiality of food gathering in an obscenely florescent lit store, with food in manufactured boxes and plastics leering at me to buy them. It jars my senses. I am growing to hate grocery shopping. A thing that never really bothered me before, but now my dormant feral ancestral memories wake a little. I fuss over which tuna, which instant potato, which chips, which candy. It all hurts my brain and I stand in an aisle feeling dread and panic creep up my spine.
I find Twisted. “Shopping is the hardest part of this hike. I hate it.”
“Me too.” We're both very anxious and tense but he holds up a large container of chocolate croissants in front of my face.
My jaw drops. “You're a fucking genius.”
We both wander to the next store with our groceries and find my trail family outside of it, mingling. We stand around and chat a bit. From nowhere a man appears, smoking a cigarette. His hair is wild and so are his eyes. His skin is red and he has the look of many years of hard black out drinking. His clothes are coated in animal fur and I sense violence. He's missing a finger. He mumbles at us.
AJ says something in agreement with him, “fuck yeah, man.”
“If I hear you curse like that again around these fine ladies, I will split your tongue in two and tie them around your balls.” He says.
We all blink and make calm, but noticeably alarmed eye contact.
The man walks nearer to me and looks me up and down. “And what's your name young lady?”
“Pitch,” I say and smile. Defusing the situation is key here.
He grabs my hand and kisses it, “You don't taste like pine pitch, you taste like the sweetest nectar. Do you wanna fly away to the moon with me?”
I pretend this is normal. “Well, you know I have to hike...”
“I'M CUT FROM DIAMONDS.”
He puts his cigarette out in the middle of his palm.
“Know what a crazy person does? They buy a hot cappuccino on a HOT day.” He wanders off into the store.
I stare at the ground. Second Wind mouths “what the fuck” at me.
We all leave immediatelyely.
Back at the RV park we spill our goods on a table and begin sorting. We fish plastic ziplocks out of the hikerbox. Some of them still with non-identifiable crumbs in them. We shake them out and stuff our food and squish it. At long last I hold up my food bag. Twisted and I compare our weights, they seem about the same.
It suddenly dawns on me the text I had gotten just as I rolled into town, my ex, the one who dumped me just a little while ago wants to call me tonight. The same time we all wanted to get together at the Moose Lodge for drinking and general revelry.
I feel panicked again. I eat an oatmeal cream pie that was excess in my resupply. I stew on it.
The woman behind the bar looks tired and I ask her if she has any ginger ale, for a whiskey ginger.
“We haven't had ginger ale in here in over 10 years.” She says.
“Oh, OK. I'll do Dr. Pepper with whiskey.”
A large jar full of water sits at the bar. It's full of quarters and a small shot glass at the very bottom. You get a free drink if you drop a quarter in and make it into the shot glass. I feel lucky.
I rub my hands together and blow on my quarter. The bartender watches me. Everyone watches me. I get myself into a power stance. I drop the quarter and...
I make it into the shot glass. It wins me a free drink.
Twisted and I high five.
“I got this fucking call to deal with from my ex. I hate that I have to do this.”
“Why do you have to do anything? Tell him you've got a hot German waiting for you at the bar.” Twisted says to me somewhat sheepishly.
I feel shy and laugh and smile at him. He isn't wrong about it.
Other hikers flood the bar and we all order burgers. With dread, I wait for my phone to light up, with his face and his name and his number. Then it happens.
I tote a cigarette in my hand and I sit outside in the warmth that envelops me like a soothing blanket.
“Hello?” I say blankly.
“Hey!” Rider says with a cheer I find disingenuous.
I light the cigarette. He talks to me. I look out into the parking lot, feeling all the joy in my body sinking into the earth. I feel the nicotine flood my blood system. My friend, Little Engine is also on the phone and it also, looks intense.
Hiking like this, does this. It hurts.
I tell him, that what I will miss the most is sharing my passion for nature in a way not most other people understand. He understood it.
“You can still do that.”
“No I can't.” And I couldn't, I can't.
The conversation begins to come to a close. His tone shifts and his voice deepens.
“You're just going to keep being a feral wild woman after this aren't you?” He says in a seductive tone.
I am thrown off by this. I don't know if he knows what he's doing.
“Well, that wasn't the plan. But probably, yeah.”
We hang and up and I see Lil Engine sitting on the concrete slab of the parking lot, her phone up to her ear. She's crying. I squeeze her shoulder.
“Your burger is ready.” I tell her.
We all get drunk. Twisted leans into me and we flirt a little, evasively. It gets loud and Papa Oats, an AT hiker orders shots. I know I am nearing dangerous territory, but I feel good. I feel ok.
We all head out into the pink dusk. To to east, the mountains rise and I feel the pull, my body fills with that short lived joy that alcohol brings. I'm here. I'm actually, happy and still sad. But it makes the happiness all that much more sweet feeling.
I find my still pitched tent and all my things. I break everything down and stuff everything into my pack, I decide to sleep in the empty rec room. Twisted and I agree to get up early to catch the bus back to Walker Pass, so I set an alarm for myself and curl up onto the floor.
Folks come and go through the night. AJ, my old hiking buddy sprawls out next to me, snoring. Somehow, I manage to slip off into deep alcohol infused sleep.
In the wee hours of morning, a few others shuffle around. I grab my pack and take back my small sit pad that AJ stole in the night. I try hard to slip it out from under him, but he's fixed to it. I jerk it out while Twisted gives me a pained expression from a dark corner of the rec room.
“I need my pad back,” I whisper.
“Hnnng, I need my pad back, nnnnghh” AJ says in a sleepy mocking tone, the tone he always uses to make fun of me.
I stifle a laugh. Second Wind sleeps as she does, looking weirdly dead with a small smile on her face.
My pack heavy and full, Twisted and I turn out into the road. Light is breaking on the horizon. The tread of our shoes making a crunch crunch and we rush to the bus stop. Two other early morning hikers walk in front of us. Not many people are leaving this morning and it means we'll get ahead of the hiker bubble that has been collecting at the RV park.
I need cash for the bus and I don't have any. Twisted watches over my pack as I run as fast as I can to a gas station, passing a methed up woman yelling into the street. I dodge her as best I can.
I get the money and run back just in time to climb on the bus and flop into the seat. I start to shove prepackaged cakes into my mouth for the oncoming 20 miles we need to do today, starting with a climb and high heat.
We speed by so fast down the highway and my body is filled with feelings, suspended in the moment. The bus stops and Caveman and Hotlips get on! We greet them and say hello. They stayed at a nearby KOA.
The bus comes up to the pass and we all step off. My knees protest, already. I make a few final adjustments. Double check everything, pat down snacks in my hip belt. Get GPS fired up. Shake my body a little so my pack settles and I take a deep breath. Two zero days, makes you weak.
I am ready, I think.
I look for Twisted and he's off peeing somewhere in the bushes. Hotlips and Caveman pass by me and turn towards the trail. Hotlips stops for a moment, so it's just her and I.
“I think you should go with Twisted.” She says to me.
“Well, we are. We decided to go into the Sierra together.”
“No, I mean... personally.” She says with a slight smile.
My cheeks flush and I look down the road as he's walking towards me. She turns away and catches up to Caveman.
“What?” Twisted says to me.
“Nothing.” I smile wide.
He frowns at me and moves ahead.
Back on trail.
I'm suffering already. Sweating. Feeling awkward and cumbersome.
Never stay off trail like this again, you hear me? I think.
We get higher and higher, and pause with a German woman, who lives in the area at the top of the climb. She makes and sells gaiters for shoes and offers to give me hers. I decline and she fills our hands with candies before we take off again.
The trail levels out a little and Twisted and I muse aloud to one another about the Sierra.
“We can't let the fear mongering get to us.” We both say.
All up and down the trail, rumors spread, fear grows like wildfire and we shut our ears off to it. Some of it leaks in. River crossings, being my chiefest of fears. Snow melt is happening fast and I can only know for myself until I get there.
12 miles in and we decide to break, since it leaves us with sub 10 miles left to do on the day we rest easier.
Twisted finds shade and I wander up into a draw to find the water source, a spring. It shoots right out of the ground, like magic in oak leaf litter and dirt. I use a plastic scoop someone left to collect the water.
“Snake!” Yells Twisted.
Sure enough, a brown rattlesnake moves away from me, lightly flicking its rattle in a lazy way. I watch it as I scoop more water. These are the places you'll usually see them, near water.
The ground and leaves are oddly brown and weirdly soggy from the spring. Flies annoy us as we lay in the dirt and eat candy. I look at Twisted with some jealousy. He has peach rings, why didn't I think to get those?
“No,” He says, knowing I am eyeballing his candy.
“I don't want them anyway.” I say with indigence.
Flies and wasps surround us so that we get very little rest. We decide to move on to find better shade. We walk for a mile until we bushwack off trail to find shade under a cluster of pines down a slope, where we find soft spots in the duff, waiting for the peak heat to dissipate.
We talk intermittently, between sips of water, snacks and light napping. We chase the shadows as the sun moves. Pitch sticking to my skin, a strange bug rests on my knee as Twisted tells me of a day where he only did -2 miles. We laugh about it.
Eventually, it's time to move and we drag ourselves up the steep slope and back to the trail. He takes off and I put a little distance between us. I want to hike alone.
It's swelteringly hot, but I persist.
Eventually, the trail turns up into a long and agonizing climb in direct sun with no shade. I feel chills creep over my skin and I feel woozy. My heart rate far too high, I stop myself to cool down and move again until I need to stop again. I can see Twisted, making his way around the crease of the ridge we're hugging. The heat begins to make me panic and my skin burns, chills creep over me again and I know that I am edging toward heat exhaustion, but I know where the line is drawn and I press against it.
Off in the far distance, I can see bright orange dots and a white looking thing on the side of a mountain, just where the trail would be. The orange dots move. Earlier in the day, we saw a search and rescue helicopter and I wonder... did someone get hurt? Did the heat get to them?
I block out all the pain and drag myself along. I'm low on water already and the water I do have is hot. It's disgusting to drink. But soon, I find the cool water oasis and Twisted sitting in the dirt.
“It's ice cold,” He says. His face is red.
I dip in my bottles and drink deeply. So, so cold. So perfectly cold this mountain water. I can feel is cascading through my gut, cooling my internal organs. I sit awkwardly in the dirt and swat at flies.
Once we both have our fill we move along. Dusk begins to settle and we aim for a campsite.
Suddenly, it begins to get cold as we seek out flat spots. It's sparse though and we can't find anything worth bedding down in. We snake our way along the ridge until we come to a small draw in the mountain, where there's a good enough spot. I stand, in the dimming light accessing it and I realize I am being swarmed and eaten alive by mosquitos.
“Where the hell did all of these assholes come from!?” I say, panicking a little.
We decide to make camp here. Twisted hangs his hammock right behind my tent, just a few feet away. It looks comical, both of us pitched so close. I wear my ground sheet like a skirt to keep away the mosquitos. It's dark by the time I crawl into my tent and I hear the soft whine of a thousand little bloodsucking flying shits outside of my tent. I eat a few chips, but I don't feel like cooking. I know I'll regret not having dinner.
“Are you OK out there?” I ask Twisted.
“No. But I'm fine.” He says. I hear him swatting and itching.
“It feels like animals have been here. Animals that aren't human.” I say into the darkness.
Sleep comes swiftly and I sink into the darkness that envelops us both, nestled in the crease of the mountain.
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