Sunday, May 24, 2015

Struggling into Kennedy Meadows

After a nero day in Lake Isabella, it was time to hit the trail for the last two days up to Kennedy Meadows.  Sue dropped me off at Walker Pass shortly after 6 and the big climb began.

 The terrain here is mostly rolling hills, but there are several ridges, requiring big climbs that must be dealt with.  This first day started with a 2300 foot climb, followed by a 2000+ descent, a 1000 ft ascent, a 1000 ft descent, a 2000 ft ascent and finally a 1000 ft descent.  And that was just the first day.  Fortunately the climbs were generally not steep, but they were long and steady.  By days end I was whooped.

From near the top of the first climb I could look out and see highway 395 below, along with some of the businesses along the way.  This jagged peak, and a similar ridge were also prominent.

It took me a moment when I ran across this in the trail, just before the day's second climb.   But apparently it marks the quarter way point for thru hikers.  The first quarter has been mostly dry.  The next quarter will be up high and much wetter.  The folks I have been generally traveling with will be in the snow in a couple of days.

We have been in the Sierra range since leaving Tehachapi, although it is generally hard for me to tell the difference from the other ranges we have been in.  There does seem to be more of these unusual rock formations though.  Erosion has left many unusual stacks and piles of rocks that give the appearance of being sculpted and placed.

Toward the end of the first day out I discovered this dinosaur skull fossil setting alongside the trail.  Based on the teeth it was obviously a giant herbivore, indicating the climate was not always as dry as it is not.

I saw formations like this several times, with the row of little blocks sandwiched between larger layers of stone.  Not being a geologist, it appears to be different layers of sediment laid down, then uplifted and finally exposed and eroded.

The last day started with a climb up over 8000 ft and then began a long descent through a burn.  There seemed to be little beyond sage that was growing, for miles and miles as the trail slowly wound down through an endless valley. This descent lasted for several hours and I finally plugged in some music to pass the time.

Sometimes it is easy to take for granted the effort that goes into building a trail. For the most part it seems like it is built just by the tromp of countless feet.  And then you come on a place where the trail is clinging to a cliff and you can begin to appreciate the effort that goes into making a trail like this possible.

Once the valley traversal is at an end, the trail comes out onto a mostly barren plain.  There was still about 8 miles left to Kennedy Meadows, and I found that I was shot.  No energy and no motivation.  I was ready to just sit down and quit.  Problem was that if I sat down I would still be there; no bus was coming by.  I finally realized that part of my problem was that I was not eating enough (a common trail problem for me), so I ate a bag of granola and pushed ahead, eventually gaining a certain measure of strength and determination.

The last three or so miles follows the south fork of the Kern River.  As rivers go, it is not very impressive.  But apart from Silverwood Lake and the California Aqueduct, it was the biggest body of water I remember following.

Kennedy Meadows is at 702 miles, so this pile of rocks at the side of the trail was a welcome sight.  700 miles from the Mexican border, nearly 500 of them on this trip.

 For some reason I had envisioned Kennedy Meadows as a backcountry resort/outfitter.  I was surprised to see that it was actually a small town.  Apart from a few houses and a store I did not see anything there to build a town around, but there it was.

The store in Kennedy Meadows is where its at as far as thru hikers are concerned.  When I arrived there were 4 guys in the parking lot playing with a Frisbee, and cheering everyone in came in.  I never went into the store, but the porch was crowded with 2-3 dozen hikers who were going through packages, repacking, eating and just visiting.

From here the trail quickly ascends high into the Sierra.  Within a day of leaving here you are over 10,000 feet high, and, when I finished, likely up into the recent snow.

Puff Puff, upper left; Growler, upper right; and Cool Breeze, left; were a group of hikers that had come together early in the hike.  I encountered them periodically along the way, including here at Kennedy Meadows.  They are likely in the snow now.
Michael and Marcus, the 'Swiss Army' were two young Swiss men who were hiking the PCT.  I ran into them several times as well.

Marvin was one of the few I encountered older than I was.  We hiked together part of one day and ran into each other frequently over the last week.

After 30 days and just shy of 500 miles, I have finished the southern California section of the PCT that I started last year.  It has been a challenging month, both physically and mentally.  But it has been a good trip and I consider myself fortunate to have been able to experience it.  And especially fortunate that my wife, Sue, has been willing to devote the past month providing support for me along the way.

After 6 years on the trail, I have completed about 2000 miles of the trail with only the southern piece of Washington and the high Sierra left to complete.  Next year should see it finished.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tehachapi to Walker Pass

 After spending a day and a half in Mojave it was time to get back onto the trail.  Sue dropped me off early at Tehachapi pass and after a short jaunt along the highway it was time to start climbing.  While the conditions were good for all of the wind turbines, they were less than ideal for climbing a mountain. The wind was blowing so hard that at times I had to just brace myself until the gust was finished.  I eventually had to tie my sleeping pad down because it was acting like a sail and I was afraid I would lose it.

The climb was agonizing and almost broke me.  My right quad was killing me, even after taping it and wearing compression shorts and tights.  And this section had little water that I felt like I could depend on so I was carrying a lot.  It was 50 miles to the next access to the car.  Could I make it?  I came close to turning around.  But when I got to the top the wind died down and I found a place alongside the trail to collapse for a few minutes.  And wonder of wonders, when I got up the quad was happy, so on I went.

 Most of the wind turbines north of the pass seemed to be of the erector set variety.  I assume they were older, and were definitely smaller, than the turbines closer to the pass.  I hiked 24 miles that day and was never far from a small cluster of these turbines. The next day I was up and walking before dawn, and discovered that these guys all had a blinking red light on them. Quite interesting the synchronized red flashing in the dark.

I think I took a picture of every horny toad that I saw; I love them, I guess because of childhood memories.  Unlike the lizards that are all over the place, the occasional horny toad always poised for me.   Never did I see one move more than a couple of feet at a time.

 On the second day I had to get up to water a bush shortly after 4.  It didn't seem worth going back to bed so I went ahead and quietly broke camp and was on the trail before 5.  Walking by headlamp is not something I do often, but it does give a different appearance to the trail.  And the best part is watching the sun come up.  I had to stop, gawk, and take a picture every few minutes.

Most of the PCT runs over either National Parks, National Forests, BLM land or state parks.  But there is a couple hundred miles of the trail that is running over private land and the PCTA has obtained an easement from the land owner to allow us to travel across their property.  I am grateful for their willingness to allow us to trample a trail through their fields or forests.

 Meet Hamburger, Sirloin and Chuck Roast.  They, along with another dozen or so of their friends watched us go by for a while before they must have decided we might eat them early.  I have little experience with live cows other than on the PCT, and I have never learned to decipher what looks to me like a blank expression on their face.  Seems like they always stare at me for a minute or two and turn and either amble or run away.  These just ambled further on up the hill and out of sight.

600 trail miles from the Mexican border.  That means I only have a shade over 100 left on this trip.  The first few times I saw these I was surprised, but now I have come to expect them.  I only remember seeing one or two north of the Sierra in years past, but that may have changed with the larger numbers of hikers.

 Another of the tiny little flowers that adds color to the landscape.  I continue to be amazed at the variety of little flowers along the trail.  As I close in on the end of the trail, I find my body both getting stronger and starting to break down.  I have to be very careful how I walk to keep my right quad from seizing up, I am wearing a brace on my left knee to protect it, I am starting to get some blisters, plus the constant chaffing of my pack.  And then a patch of little flowers appears and brings a smile to my face and lifts my spirits a bit.

Occasionally you can find an old relic abandoned out in the wild.  This one appears to be a gold miners sluice, left alongside a dried up stream bed.  Did it ever actually find any gold?  Why is it left here all along?  Whatever happened to the man who lugged it out here and likely spent days, weeks or months running sand and gravel from the stream through it?

One thing the trail will do for you is to get you to think.  I wondered about so many things, from sluices, to rock formations, to the tenacity of life, to God's purpose for me and for his creation.  Sometimes I feel satisfied with the conclusions I reach, while other times the result is only more questions.  But it is good, and in some ways the most rewarding part of the trail to me.  I enjoy the occasional encounters with others, especially when the going is hard.  But I enjoy more the loneliness of hiking alone and being able to reflect.

More flowers!  I seem unable to help myself.  I have probably taken more pictures of little flowers than I have of anything else along the trail. Sometimes the ground is carpeted with little yellow, while, blue, purple or red flowers.  No picture I have been able to take captures the beauty that they add to an otherwise drab, and sometimes burned, landscape.

Joshua Trees are pretty cool.  They come in such a variety of shapes and sizes.  This one appears to be bowing down to all of the hikers who come by.  I know, I know; sometimes my imagination runs away with me.

 This bush, just before the Kelso Valley Road, reminded me of a burning bush, like the one Moses encountered.  It was all aglow with pink flowers.

Joshua Trees sometimes have big clusters of fruit just hanging to be picked, although you would have to be careful because the leaves are sharp and pointy.  I never did pick one, although I wondered just what they would be like.  The outer covering is thick and leathery, and would be tough to penetrate with the meager tools I had at my disposal.

 The Joshua Trees in the Kelso Valley were unusually full and bushy.  Many of them had sandy places underneath where one could cowboy camp if needed.  And I had an owl, or maybe a hawk, flit between several of them as I walked by.  I must have been disturbing him.

Yet another little flower growing up out of the sand.  And this one had no foliage that I could see.  It's almost as if someone traveling ahead of me was sticking little plastic flowers into the ground.  But if so they had a boat load of them.

 Imagination time again.  I saw this rock while on the long climb up Skinner Peak.  Do you see the pirate?

There was a water cache at the bottom of this climb, along with a small bag of delicious oranges. I grabbed a little water and threw an orange into my pack for dessert that night: very good.

 Before climbing Skinner Peak you first descend down into a valley, starting at the top left of the picture, working your way down and to the right and then roughly along and below the road.  You can see the trail start up the valley in the center bottom before it begins a long traverse to the left, for what seems like a good mile.  Then it switchbacks up for a while before crossing a ridge and then traversing back across the same side valley it had started in.  I had no idea where the trail was going when looking ahead, but from this spot I could look back at where I had been several hours before.  Sometimes it takes a long time to go where a crow could fly in pretty short order.

Toward Walker Pass I started to see what I assume is some variety of tulip.  They were mostly white although some of them had a tint of purple to them.  I only remember seeing them a few miles either side of this pass.

This message in the trail is from someone who obviously knows that the rigors of the trail are starting to take a toll on us, and seeks to cheer us up.  And I must admit that I needed it.  I really want to do this trail, and in general enjoy it.  But there are times when it almost seems to be too much.

Right after this, a short side trail descended down to the Walker Pass campground where I flopped down and waited for Sue to pick me up.  It had been a most unusual couple of days: In the past day and a half I had seen a grand total of 1 thru hiker, and that for just a few minutes.  I believe it was the only time so far that I have been so alone.  And I enjoyed that.  Now on to Lake Isabella and half a day to do nothing but eat, resupply and rest.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Aqueducts and Windmills

After completing the section around Agua Dulce, I took a day off and started fresh at the Green Valley Fire Station.

There is a trail closure that starts here because of a fire a couple of years ago.  While there are several defined detours, all of them involve walking down a road for at least a few miles.  And regardless which detour you take, this road is involved.  The road generally has a wide shoulder, but there are a few places where it disappears around blind corners with heavy traffic.

The detour most people choose involves an 11 mile road walk followed by a couple of miles along an abandoned road and trail to get back to the PCT.  Up until the night before I left this is what I had planned on.  But that trail is mostly dry and moderately hilly.  One of the other choices involved walking along the California Aqueduct, and the more I looked at it the more appealing it became.  It involved a bit less than 5 miles on a road, followed by what was reported to be 22 miles of canal, although it actually turned out only to be 16.  That was half as long as the more popular route, plus it had easy access to lots of water, and was flat.  Walking the aqueduct was actually the best part of the section, at least to me.

They seem pretty serious about keeping cows away from the aqueduct, at least fat cows.  These little gates are at most of the road crossings, along with signs that restrict activity along the canal to walking and fishing.  They warn periodically against getting into the canal because of the chances of drowning, and have ladders every so often to aid in getting out should you fall in.

In contrast to the California Aqueduct is the LA Aqueduct.  These two intersect where the detour ends and the trail resumes.  This section of the LA Aqueduct flows through a large steel pipe, probably about 8 ft in diameter.  It is mostly buried, although the top is exposed and I walked on it for several miles.  In the picture to the left you can see part of the exposed pipe disappearing in the distance.  Seemed like about 4 miles before it changed direction and composition.

After the pipe comes to an end it is replaced by a covered concrete conduit that appears to the hiker as a paved lane running next to a dirt road.  Wikipedia says there is about 200 miles of this, although we only had to travel about 8-10 of it.  There is quite a contrast between the two aqueducts, most significantly that the one had water and the other is rumored to be dry.
While walking down the road along side the LA Aqueduct I found what appears to be a gopher snake working on its tan.  It just laid there while I took a couple of pictures and then went on.

I live in Washington and hike the Olympics quite a bit.  And ants are not uncommon.  But I do not recall ever seeing as many ants as I have in the past few days.  The mound at right seems to be fairly typical, 6-8 inches across with a hole over an inch in diameter.  And the roads/trails have these every 20 feet or so; at least it seemed like it.  And sometimes there were solid streams of ants running across the trail.  They are not large ants, and there are both black and red versions, nor did they seem particularly aggressive.  But they are everywhere: bazillions of them.

Periodically along the cover of the LA Aqueduct there were raised concrete platforms, and I had decided that they would make a nice platform for camp, up out of the sand and reach of any potential passing motorist. But just as dusk started to settle in I found a spot where there were a couple of small walls built across the concrete cover; perfect windbreaks.

I had not seen another hiker all day long; and I have been walking for 13.5 hours and close to 30 miles.  Just as I was fixing to crawl into my sleeping bag, along comes 5 hikers.  And then 3 more, and 2 more, and 3 more and 1 more ...  By midnight 18 had walked past me, mostly oblivious to my presence.  I knew walking through Antelope Valley was common at night to avoid the heat.  But it was cool all day.  I don't get it.

I still had a bit more than 30 miles to go before reaching the Tehachapi Willow Springs road, so I was on the trail by 5 A.M., walking by headlamp.  I have not done this very much, but the trail was really a dirt road and fairly flat.  It was a pleasant walk watching the sun come up in front of me.

The Joshua Trees in the early pre-sun morning were like ghostly shadows rising up from the ground.

It was not often during the day when you could not look around and see a big wind turbine somewhere.  I have heard some hikers complain about them, and how they spoil the beauty of the backcountry.  But I thought they were kind of cool, and much preferable to the smog.  This area has around 5000 wind turbines as well as some solar arrays spotted in the distance.

It is kind of eerie walking beside and under these giants.  You can hear the wind humming by the blades, and the shadows they cast are fun to walking through, zipping across the ground around you.

I take a lot of picture of flowers, hoping some will turn out.  In contrast to the massive wind turbines are some of these delicate little flowers that sometimes seem to rise up out of the sand with little to any foliage.  And they stand out in such stark contrast to the sandy hillsides that just a single flower is striking.  Imagine the hillside covered with these.

The Tehachapi Mountains must be a dirt bikers paradise.  There are trails everywhere, sometimes straight up and down.  The PCT intersects these trails quite often.  The horizontal trail to the left is the PCT.  The two running up and down are dirt bike trails.  The hills are covered with them.  I did not see any dirt bikes all day long, but it is obvious they have been out recently.

Here's another example of a pretty little flower growing up in the middle of a pile of sand.  I am guessing it is some kind of poppy.

This cache is setup at the top of a long climb and was a welcome break.  I flopped down into a plastic Adirondack chair for a half hour and ate a very late lunch and guzzled some of the water I had been carrying for the past two days.  There was water here, as well as at a stream a few hours back, but I am so afraid to rely on caches and potentially unreliable water sources that I seem always to carry way too much.  I carried 6 liters for this nearly 40 mile stretch, and ended up with 1 liter un-drunk.

After leaving here it was 8 miles to the finish, almost all downhill.  Plug in the iPod and charge, hoping to make it to the bottom, and the car, before dark.  And I did.

I love the horny toads; this is my third on the trip.  Glad he was only a few inches long rather than 20 feet.  He is pretty fierce looking even at his size.  I would hate to contend with a giant version of him.

I know it's just a partially burned log.  But after 25 or so miles already, with tongue dragging, when rounding the corner it gives quite a different impression.  The two dark upper spots are eyes and the lower spot is the nose.  Looks like a giant dog peeking out of the bush waiting for someone to come by.

Did I mention there were some windmills in the area?  The climb started through a wind farm and kept it in sight even after I was long out of it.  Then part way down another one came into view, with the trail ultimately passing through it as well.  The turbines in the first farm all looked pretty much the same.  But these showed a variety of shape and form.  This is apparently where it all started and the evolution of wind turbines was evident.

After 2, 30 mile days, I spent the night in the town of Tehachapi before completing the 9 mile walk through a wind farm that stretches between the Tehachapi Willow Springs road and Highway 58.  When we got to the trail head we ran into Growler, Puff Puff and Cool Breeze from a few days before.  They were the last group to have walked past my site the night before and it was good to see them again.

This is one of the few pictures I have taken that seems to show the big descents, or ascents, that the trail sometimes makes down to a road.  This one was only a thousand or so feet, so relatively short.

We have moved over to the town of Mojave for a couple of nights and will be taking a day off.  The weather man is forecasting cold, rain and snow for the high country, and I want no part of that.  My right quad is also giving me some grief so we are taking advantage of the day to run into Bakersfield to get some tights and see if KT tape and compression shorts/tights will make it more bearable.  Suddenly the end is in sight, less than 150 miles to go, and I don't want anything to derail it this time.  Kennedy Meadows here I come.