Paiute Trail Project, Day 15: Making The Familiar Strange

Kearsarge Lakes to Onion Valley, 6.5 miles, +1000 feet, -2700 feet

Lesson: Making the Familiar Strange

The biggest payoff of the hike comes when you get off the trail and you find your relationship to the default world palpably recalibrated. That world’s shorthands and ways of operating reveal themselves to you as strange and unnecessary. Beds, cars, and personal hygiene feel uncomfortable, pointlessly juiced up. Squealing at friends you see unexpectedly and pulling across lanes of traffic to talk to them seems completely natural, even necessary. In the aftermath of our Paiute Trail trek, the hard-earned unfamiliarity passed quickly, but the experience was so strong I can still recall what its kinesthetic dimensions. But first came the hike out.

We woke at six and set to breaking camp. The sky inside the Kearsarge Pass, visible to our right, brimmed with heartbreaking blue and morning sun. I groaned my way through the poorly-graded ascent out of the lake basin, relieved to reach the complicated trail junction sign, which pointed the way to the Pass, Kearsarge Lakes, Bullfrog Lake, and Charlotte Lake. The trail improved when we began the actual ascent to the pass: a long traverse followed by a series of switchbacks, then another long traverse and another series of switchbacks.

Close to the top, I found an answer to Day 3’s question about the nature of my spirit quest in the form of a bunch of tiny purple flowers sprouting out of the trail’s rock wall. The sun was cresting over the pass’s ridge; the flowers faced southeast, into the Paiute Trail’s spectacular granite panorama. IMG_3358Be like the flowers, the mountains said. Fragile, diminutive but in stubborn bloom, steeped in the gorgeous thin air of extreme elevation. As in the Bach motet: Tobe Welt, und springe; Ich steh’ hier und singe, in gar sich’rer ruh. Poorly translated: “rage, world, and attack; I stand here and sing in completely certain peace.” As a person who suffers from anxiety, this sentiment feels noble and only occasionally attainable. Maybe I’d pounded it into my body in the last fifteen days.

At the pass, we doled out the last eight Jelly-Bellies and used the tips of our pinky fingers to search out the last sunflower seeds from the corners of crumpled Ziploc bags.

Looking east towards the Owens Valley

We were officially out of food. Next stop: Whitney Diner.

The hike down was fast and easy, one we’d done several times before. We passed an increasing amount of day and weekend traffic, people who gleamed with cleanliness and reeked of shampoo and lotions, people with bright clean clothes. We passed a Southern woman leading a mule pack to Charlotte Lake to resupply a large party. She said “yestiday” and tried to make Son the Elder engage in polite conversation, despite his evident reluctance to do so. The air thickened with smoke, heightening the sense that we were descending from a paradise lost. We told the people we passed that there was no smoke at the top; another fluke of wind must have pushed Ferguson smoke into the Owens Valley.

Final descent

We passed through the boulder field and began the final set of switchbacks alongside the roaring cascade. We could see the Prius, a dusty green mushroom.

And before we knew it, we were changing our clothes and stuffing our packs into the hatchback. We drove through the smoke into Independence and pulled up at the diner. We ordered cheeseburgers, fries, onion rings, coffee, a malted milk, and two root beer floats. And then: oh, the eating.

Stunned by sugar and the booth’s cushioned seats, we staggered out of the diner and prepared for the drive back. I wanted to mail the postcards I’d written on the trail. The post office was five blocks away.

Smoke from the Ferguson Fire

I couldn’t imagine dealing with the inconvenience of getting in the car, driving it, and reparking it, so I walked. When we finally did get in the car and drive, the amped-up pace of it all hit us: everything was so fast, jerky, and aggressive. As we drove out of town, we saw the potty-mouthed millennial and her Gandalf-staffed friend. I screamed. We pulled over and talked about the last five days on the trail.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I was lit with calories, my clean skin and the soft sheets felt strange, and despite the soft bed I still felt like a bag of bones. We’d pared down our very bodies: we were gaunt and iron-kneed, our eyes stretched by hunger and primed to dazzle with everyday life’s hallucinatory wonder. We were jabbering visionaries, preaching the gospel of the backcountry. The savor restored by the hike worked against us, of course: pizza parties, baking parties, and dinner parties quickly returned us to our default bodies, and before long chocolate cakes, hot showers, and clean clothes seemed pretty damn blase.

But I was also already planning the next hike, which as I write is mere weeks away. While writing these entries, I’ve moved to a new house, where we are battling a large bamboo that serves as a privacy hedge but that also sends runners to every corner of the back garden. I’ve taken to snipping the gathered shoots every morning after biking with the kids to school. Bamboo shoots grow with incredible rapidity. You’ll find a stalk where you cut only yesterday, and a whole raft of them in a corner you didn’t even notice. Bamboo, it occurred to me while using our stubby, rusty clippers to take out some sassy purple stalks by a failing Trader Joe’s basil I’d planted, is like our default minds: a living network moving under the soil, ready to send up terrible, inevitable shoots when you’re sleeping. Meditation, in this little scenario, is digging a trench, severing a whole lot of roots, and inserting a barrier between the mother plant and your garden. But even with barrier in place, you have to check the garden. You have to snip down those shoots, which keep springing up. The hike gives you a chance to snip a lot of shoots and to reinforce that barrier, too, the one that keeps the hungry monster of our default minds from growing back and overrunning the garden.

In his new novel, The Overstory, Richard Powers refers to the madness of late capitalism as “endless suicidal appetite.” It’s good as often as possible to recalibrate appetite — to come back to the barest of what you need so that appetite loosens its grip on you a bit, so that it instead of driving you, it can connect you in gratitude to the world in which you find yourself so inexplicably embedded.

The Paiute Trail Project, Day 14: Taking a Zero

Thursday, August 2nd

Rae Lakes to Kearsarge Lakes, 6.6 miles, +1437, -1418, +336

On the trail, “taking a zero” is a day when you don’t hike, or at least, you don’t make any progress towards your final destination. PCT hikers take them; I think most JMT hikers take them. In trail narratives, “zero days” abound with social interaction, alcohol, sex, and hedonistic enjoyment of topographical features like hot springs. We had not taken any zeroes so far, and it was something I wanted to do. We actually ended up “taking a 6.6-er.” We stopped after lunch. Maybe we could call it a half-zero. I always thought taking a zero would be delightful (if celibate thanks to our stopless togetherness), but it ended up being slightly contentious and melancholy.

During the morning, we hiked on our monster legs up the familiar path to Glen Pass, covering 1.9 miles and fifteen hundred feet of elevation gain in ninety minutes. Everything that had been streaming and snow-choked when we’d taken our trek to Rae Lakes in 2016 was this time dry: we ascended out of the gorgeous Rae Lakes basin in the hazy slanted morning light and reached the gladed shelf laced with streams where two summers ago we’d discovered that Son the Younger had no dry clothes in his pack after we butt-sledded down several tenth-of-a-mile-long snow chutes. We clambered up the formerly snow-choked boulder wall, across a long boulder-floored canyon, and set ourselves on the switchbacks with the pass in view. No snow slowed us, and our ascent was rapid. Even the final approach to the pass, which in 2016 had involved a fairly terrifying traverse across a snow-covered scree slope, was bone-dry. IMG_3344We lept like gazelles onto the pass, where the Frenchies were waiting for us. They applauded. We ate one Jolly Rancher apiece and let the stiff breeze dry our sweaty shirts.

The Husband had gotten a whiff of the outside world somehow, and he was lobbying to push out that day. I was felt less alacrity about making the day a gargantuan 12-miler with two passes and was leaning towards a commemorative overnight at Kearsarge Lakes, to repeat the stops we’d made on the 2016 trek. We decided to decide when we reached the turnoff to Bullfrog Lake.

The descent from Glen mirrored the ascent: down an occasionally-treacherous rocky slope, through a boulder canyon (again dry where before they’d been running with water), around a bend, and into the Charlotte Creek watershed. We barreled down. The Whitney Diner was calling. Before we knew it, we were at the turnoff. The high road would take us straight to Kearsarge Pass. The low road would take us past Bullfrog and on to Kearsarge Lakes. Ultimately, I prevailed: we’d stay another night. Why rush out, I reasoned. We had one more camp dinner to eat, one more night in magic land scheduled. Our house-sitter wasn’t expecting us till the next day. I could tell The Husband was not convinced. I felt ambivalent. He just wanted to get back so he could work. Nonetheless, I felt guilty and apologetic, like anything bad that happened that day would be my fault.

And some less-than-great things happened: the hike to Kearsarge, once we had passed the picturesque Bullfrog Lake, was a scrubby, backwoods hellscape with a poorly-graded 300-foot ascent to boot. As we were lunching on the last of the Dove-soap-tasting rice crackers and gouda cheese in our campsite at the third Kearsarge Lake, The Husband cut his finger fairly badly. And rain kept threatening, though it ultimately held off.

But good things happened too: we lounged on the peaty shore of Kearsarge Lake, shivering when clouds blew over the sun and splashing maniacally in the water for the short periods when the thin warm rays actually beat down. We explored the western shore of the lake, which looked like a drop off over the end of the world from our campsite but was in fact an isthmus that hid more lakes. We explored the rocky eastern shore of the lake. We watched the world turn to copper and soot as the sun set. IMG_3355Son the Younger said he felt like he missed something but he didn’t know what. (Welcome to adolescence, son). I felt sad, too, the sadness welling up unexpectedly all afternoon. I wondered whether I’d know before we left the wilderness tomorrow what the mountains had to say to me.

The Paiute Trail Project, Day 13: The End is Nigh

Twin Lakes to Rae Lakes, 11.9 miles, -2290, +2080

By the end of Day 13, we reached an important milestone: the Rae Lakes, well-known territory that we’d hiked two summers before, when the boys were 8 and 10, and to which we’d vowed to come back. Because we knew we’d reach that destination by sunset, the day had an elegiac, end-of-the-hike, victory-lap feel to it.

We spent the morning following a high waning moon into the the grandly-cascading Woods Creek’s deep green canyon. IMG_3324The Husband was hiking bare-backed, his one t-shirt having ripped entirely away. We breakfasted on oatmeal near a roaring pool where I almost lost a bandana on the fast current. When Son the Younger slipped at a stream crossing and scraped his wrist, we expertly washed it in the stream and bandaged it. IMG_3328The Woods Creek crossing featured a spectacular and purgatorial suspension bridge on which only one hiker was allowed at a time.

We felt like we’d arrived at the foot of our past, of our younger selves who’d braved the snow-socked July Glen Pass crossing with an eight-year-old. We were coming at it from the other direction, bending our heads to the hard climb up the South Baxter Creek canyon to the Rae Lakes Basin, with the imposing Acrodeetes and Diamond Peaks to our left. We judiciously nibbled Pro-bars, the day’s allotted snack, used now to the feeling of almost-starving. We could feel the rain gathering in the alluvial forest – its damp ferns, flowers, its lodgepole and foxtail pines, its Douglas firs.

We reached Dollar Lake around 1, with just enough time to eat some deep-orange gouda (the best cheese to mail because hard and minimally oily) along with rice crackers that had taken on the flavor of the Dove soap in the resupply bucket (gross enough to make even the almost-starving think twice about eating them). When it started to rain, we sheltered under the tarp with the help of a fallen log, but before long we pitched the tent in the wide sandy site. We rested in the tent’s grey half-light until four. The campsite had turned into a lake, and most of our gear was pretty wet.

We hiked into the mist, along the shore of Dollar Lake, up some granite staircases, and past Arrowhead Lake. Within an hour were at the northernmost Rae Lake. We stopped at the untended ranger station and enjoyed the Adirondack chairs and the presence of several tame deer. We found a site adjacent to the one we’d occupied two summers ago and set up camp, spreading out as much gear as possible to dry before dark. We waded in the swimming hole, too chilly to get anything but our feet wet.

Rae Lakes is probably the most beautiful spot on the Paiute Trail, featuring three interconnected glass-green lakes filled with golden trout, surrounded by vast amounts of damp good-smelling greenery, and shadowed by the spectacular Fin Dome, Diamond Peak, and Painted Lady. The boys sat on a giant rock and talked as the sun set and turned the black water tangerine, then gold, then tender blue. We were in high spirits, chattering and singing and goofing around: we’d made it! We had done Glen and Kearsarge Passes before and knew we could cross them without any problem. We had one, maybe two nights between us and the root beer floats and fries of the Whitney Diner. But it felt sad to be there that night.

As a rule, uncertainty causes me great anxiety. It feels like my work ethic has been fueled by fierce effort to eliminate uncertainty about whether I’ll get what I want. “What I want” is a protean entity that congeals into temporary forms, most of which when you get right down to it emblematize status and financial security (a degree, a certain kind of job, meaningful work, publications, a place to live, money to live on when I’m done working). I’m driven to work by the need to answer that question: will I get it? Sometimes I wonder whether once I get it, I’ll be sad, because I’ll know the answer, and I’ll know I’m at the end of some corridor – a year, a decade, a life – that I’ve lived toward that thing. Sometimes I wonder if I postpone closure despite hating uncertainty just so that I don’t get a definite answer and therefore don’t have to feel like I’m at the – an – any end.

We were near the end that night. In a way we were also near the end of the intensive work of raising the Sons, and look! We’d done it: we’d turned them into creatures who could survive without us, competent hikers, good-natured kids, and, despite the bickering, each other’s best and most loyal friends. But some part of me longed to have it back again: the first days on the trail carrying that ridiculous willow stick and not knowing whether Son the Elder would get eaten by a mountain lion pooping in the woods at midnight. Some part of me longed to have back those early days of never sleeping and always having to run after two kids to keep them from darting out the front door or into the street. We were hiking out. We knew the way. We were doing it right, but that didn’t stop it from running away from us, fast as Woods Creek roaring its way toward the Pacific Ocean.IMG_3335 (highlight)