Day 42 – 48: Tehachapi to Walker Pass
Miles 558.5 – 651.3
I’d spend 2 days and nights in Tehachapi before heading back out to trail. I binged on food as I usually do in town, but I’d also spend a few hours slackpacking an 8 mile section of trail. Slackpacking is done by leaving your backpack behind allowing you to hike at a much faster pace. The trail near Tehachapi is a great place for it because there are 2 roads leading into town, 8 miles apart. I was able to catch a ride to the start of the section with Pika and Laundromat, 2 hikers that had rented a car and were planning to take a week off trail. They’d hike with me that day while lending their car to some other hikers that needed to run errands and would pick us up at the end of the stretch. It was a fast pleasant way to hike through the rolling hills scattered with windmills.
I hiked out of Tehachapi the next evening and the remainder of the section was mostly uneventful. However, the end of the section provides one last major obstacle before leaving the desert. There’s a 42 mile waterless stretch starting at Landers Meadow Spring (mile 609) with little shade and is typically brutally hot. Thankfully there’s a few possibilities for water. Two are water caches provided by trail angels at miles 616 and 631, but you learn early in the desert that you can never count on a cache. The third option is to hike 2 miles off trail at mile 621 and 2 miles back, but it still leaves a 30 mile water carry.
I spent days working and reworking scenarios on how to get through. Water weighs approximately 2 pounds/liter and I typically use 6 – 7/day meaning I’d have to carry at least 10 liters of water. The prospect wasn’t appealing. The biggest challenge was not knowing if there was water at the caches. If not, I could accept carrying 20 lbs. of water. If there was, I definitely didn’t want to carry unnecessary weight.
I decided I’d carry 3.5 liters to the first cache and evaluate how much water was stocked. A trail register said 150 gallons were being stocked and promised there would be water. It didn’t mention if that was 150 gallons at each cache or combined and with the possibility of approximately 50 hikers arriving per day (that’s the number of permits issued/day) the supply could diminish quickly.
Arriving at the first cache, I saw a dozen or so 5-gallon water jugs and twice as many 3-liter jugs. This increased my faith that the second cache would have water but I was still reluctant to count on it completely. I’d carry 7 liters of water knowing that could carry me the remaining 35 miles if there was no water, provided I didn’t use any water for cooking dinner or breakfast. This strategy would allow me to bypass hiking 4 miles (roundtrip) off trail.
The day was fairly cool due to the incessant strong winds. The wind added to the challenge of climbing up to steep sandy ridges. I arrived at the second cache to see a plethora of water, snacks, and a solar charger. Have I told you I love trail angels? Thank you.
The wind had strengthened throughout the day and strong gusts continually blew as I prepared to make camp. I found a beautiful Joshua tree that would provide shelter from the wind on 3 sides and setup my tent. That night I had my worst night of sleep to-date. The wind had shifted towards the only unprotected side of my tent and was gusting at over 50 mph. Listening to the roaring sound and seeing my tent bend in the wind made me worry my poles would snap. I’d long ago shipped out my rope to reduce weight. Frantically thinking how I could secure my tent, I remembered I had dental floss which I was able to fashion into makeshift guylines. Convinced I’d done everything I could, I crossed my fingers put on my headphones and forced my exhausted body back to sleep.
By 5 AM, I decided there was no hope for more sleep so I forced myself to break camp. That morning I’d make an exhilarating sleep deprived climb gaining more than 1,600 ft. in elevation. At times I’d bend to a 45 degree angle fighting the wind and using all my strength for each step. It took everything I had to keep from blowing off the mountain. It was truly one of the most enjoyable days I had that week.
Reaching the ridge, I was greeted with cold cloud cover misting through groves of trees. For whatever reason, walking through fog or clouds has always fascinated me and this day was no different. I walked the remainder of the 20 miles joyfully down to Walker Pass before hitching a ride 35 miles into the town of Lake Isabella.
I’d be dropped off near a convenient store and proceeded to buy my customary Gatorade and Mountain Dew. As I sat outside the store quenching my thirst, a church van from L.A. pulled in. I believe they thought I was homeless, which technically I am, because they asked if I was hungry. I responded yes and to my delight they brought me a plate of chicken and rice. The trail gods were favoring me.
I learned Hungry and D-hiker were still in town (they’d left Tehachapi at least a day before me) and were camping at the local trailer park a mile down the road. D-hiker let me know there was showers and laundry so I decided to camp there as well. The trailer park was pleasant providing all the accommodations a hiker could want and I was thrilled to spend the night with old friends I hadn’t seen since Hiker Heaven (nearly 300 miles back).
I also saw SLOWBO at the campsite. SLOWBO is a group of hikers I first met in Tehachapi. The group consists of 3 guys (Aladdin, Apocalypse, and Dr. Pain) and a woman (Potatoe Volcano). Their group name is a play on words (NOBO which refers to northbound hikers and SOBO referring to southbound) combined with their laissez faire attitude and propensity to play hard and hike slow.
The next morning I said goodbye to Hungry and D-hiker. They planned to hike to the town of Lone Pine before taking a bus past the Sierras to bypass the upcoming snow and river challenges. I thought it unlikely I’d see them again anytime soon. That day I was also invited to join SLOWBO through the Sierras. I’d been looking to join another group to avoid soloing the Sierras and the prospect of hiking with fun people that were as determined as me to attempt the Sierras was intriguing. I still had lots of questions about chemistry and how they planned to approach different scenarios so I decided I’d hike with them into Kennedy Meadows so we could get to know each other better.
I spent the remainder of the day doing laundry, showering, patching clothes, and watching videos on crossing passes in the Sierras. The next morning I visited the post office to pickup my new trekking poles before catching a bus overloaded with hikers back to the trail at Walker Pass.
Day 49 – 51: Walker Pass to Kennedy Meadows
Miles 651.3 – 702
Hiking with SLOWBO was great. In addition to our desire to attempt a Sierra crossing, our personalities meshed well and we share a similar sense of humor. However we’d need more than that to be successful as a team. Pertinent questions needed to be answered like “how are group decisions made,” and “what happens if we get into a situation someone doesn’t feel comfortable with, i.e. fording a river at a dangerous place.”
I spoke to each of the team members for the next few days feeling them out and them doing the same. We discussed the upcoming passes, resupply strategy and countless other topics just to get to know each other.
On the third day we passed a SOBO hiker that warned there was a bear at the upcoming spring and was causing hikers trouble looking for food. He said one hiker had his food stolen while he turned his back to fill his water. It was a good reminder that we were in bear country and needed to cleanup our camp habits.
We arrived at that spring and found it empty of bears. Despite our earlier plan to move through the area quickly, we decided to take a break from the midday sun. During our conversation I let them know I’d like to join SLOWBO if they’d have me. They happily accepted me and we began wrapping up our break. I wandered off a few paces to water the lawn and looking up, I saw it. Calmly I stated “there’s a bear over here.” I received responses of disbelief to which I confirmed I wasn’t kidding. 20 ft. from where Dr. Pain had been napping was an adolescent black bear not much bigger than a large husky. Several hikers rushed over to get a glimpse causing the bear to rise from it’s slumber. It took a look at the crowd of gawkers, turned around and sauntered off.
The last stretch into Kennedy Meadows was flat and beautiful running along the South Fork Kern River. Two points of interest should be mentioned here. First, the river was raging. It was clear the river was crossable, but was freezing and would be a challenge. We didn’t need to cross the river, but it served as a reminder that very shortly we’d be crossing much more difficult rivers. Second, was a conversation with another group of hikers I’d befriended over the last 2 months. The conversation confirmed that many people had caught the noro virus between Tehachapi and Walker Pass and the bug was being passed around the bubble which would be arriving in Kennedy Meadows shortly. Serious illness was something none of us wanted to deal with as we headed into the Sierras.
I also learned another lesson during this stretch. For the most part there’s no toilets in the wilderness. For a man, urinating is done easily enough preferably behind some bushes off trail. However, defecating requires digging a cat hole (a small hole 6-8″ deep), squatting to do your business, burying your feces with your trowel and washing up. Easy enough after 700 miles. However, one particular day was somewhat challenging due to the positioning of the trail, river, and camp all of which you want to be away from. As I was doing my business I realized I’d dug my hole next to an ant hill and my foot, covered only with a flip flop, was crawling with ants. Pro-tip: look before you poop.
We arrived at Kennedy Meadows early in the morning to the cheers of a multitude of hikers enjoying the morning sun on the general store patio. A feat recognized as admirable by the hiking community. After 7 weeks, 702 miles, 70K+ ft. in elevation gain, dealing with hunger, pain, heat, lack of water, wind, bugs, poisonous snakes and plants, and bears we’d arrived at the Sierras.
While in Kennedy Meadows, we also made a stop at Grumpy Bears. Besides the grill at the general store, Grumpy Bears is the only other restaurant in a town consisting of 3 business establishments. They provide an enormous amount of food for a fair price. They also offer a pancake challenge which costs $20 if you’re unable to eat the 5 lb. pancake but is free if you’re up to the challenge. No-one has ever completed the challenge and that wouldn’t change this day.
I also visited the 3rd store in town, Triple Crown Outfitters which is run out of the house of hiking legend Jackie McDonnell also known as “Yogi.” Yogi is a triple crowner meaning she’s completed all 3 of America’s most famous through hikes, The Pacific Crest Trail, The Appalachian Trail, and The Continental Divide Trail. She’s also amassed over 19K hiking miles. She charges comparable prices to an REI or backcountry.com which is remarkable considering we’re in the middle of nowhere. More importantly she’s extremely nice and was a pleasure to meet.
Despite being in the mountains, the temperature is still roasting so we’ll head out for Lone Pine bright and early. It’ll take a few days to hike the 42 miles gaining another 7,500 ft. in total elevation before turning our attention to Mt. Whitney, Forester Pass, and Kearsarge Pass. Winter is coming…
- Splinter, had attempted the 24/24/24 (24 beers and 24 miles in 24 hrs) challenge heading into the Mojave. She’d fall short of her goal drinking 16 beers and hiking 17 miles before falling asleep. When she awoke 9 hrs. later she realized she didn’t have enough time to complete. She made it safely to Tehachapi.
- I’d meet Hungry at Kennedy Meadows. She was dealing with an injury, possibly tendonitis and would be leaving the trail for a couple weeks to recover.
- A personal challenge I’d set prior to starting the trail was to eat a gallon of ice cream in 1 sitting. I started my training at Kennedy Meadows by eating 2 pints of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in 20 minutes followed by a polish sausage. Within 30 minutes I was running to the port-o-potty which unfortunately was near overflowing. My next attempt will need to have better bathroom amenities and I’ll need a lighter ice cream.
- I’ll be in very remote areas for the next month, so expect slow responses and intermittent posts.