We all woke up with a little pep in our step on this day, because today we would be arriving in Kennedy Meadows (KM) . . a very special place for a thru-hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail. KM signifies that you have officially hiked the entire desert section, all 702 miles of it and you are about to embark upon the most challenging yet exciting portion of the trail, the Sierra Mountains. Seventeen miles to go and we’ll be hanging out on the KM General Store’s porch around dozens of hikers drinking icy beers and eating burgers.
The day was pretty mellow, a short climb to the top of Chimney Peak followed by a long downhill that leads you to Manter Creek. On our way down we ran across a man who looked to be in his 70’s, he warned us of a bear that had been stalking hikers around where the trail crosses the creek. We didn’t think much of it and continued on. Once we got to the crossing, Lt. Dan and I saw that we were about a mile ahead of the rest of our group, so we dropped our packs and decided to relax and wait. Lt. Dan walked around a tree and out of sight for reasons unbeknownst to me, and I needed to take a leak so I went around a different tree. As I was relieving myself I heard a rustle in the bushes near the trail – I figured it was our group and casually glanced over my left shoulder, real quick . . it was a bear. I looked forward not having registered what I had just seen and instantly did a double take back to the bear and yelled at the top of my lungs, “Bear!” “BEAR!!!” This average sized black bear could not be less intimidated by the sight of humans as it walked from one end of the campsite to the other, peering at us through the trees and waiting for the perfect time to get at our packs and into our food supply. This definitely wasn’t his first rodeo. After a few hundred pictures and some laughs we continued on.
I decided that I wanted to hike the remaining nine miles into KM by myself. I had been dreaming of the moment I’d be walking into this iconic spot, and in all of these fantasies I was alone. I pushed on at a pretty quick pace, losing my group within a few minutes. Just about two miles before arriving I decided to stop and eat a quick snack sitting in the shade on some medium-sized boulders right alongside the South Fork Kern River at mile 698.2. As I was eating and staring off into this roaring river a rattlesnake casually came out from the rocks I was sitting on, just about three feet to my left. I had counted that this rattler was the 20th one I had come across on the trail to date. To say I was sick of them would be a vast understatement.
If you are unaware of the Kennedy Meadows tradition it goes like this: Every hiker sitting up on the porch must applaud and cheer on incoming hikers. It’s a right of passage having gone the seven hundred miles through the hot desert landscape, you’ve now earned not only the cooler climate and extreme beauty that the Sierra has to offer but mainly you’ve gained the respect of your peers. It felt really good to know that all of these people, most of whom I had never met, were cheering me on as I walked up that day. A feeling I can’t remember having felt in my previous thirty years of life.
That night we drank plentiful, we ate til we could not eat any longer, and I think each of us realized that we weren’t just existing. We were living. We were breathing in that divine air no longer asking existential questions about our roles in life.
We headed out around 6am after eating breakfast consisting of a protein bar and a few handfuls of granola, continuing up a stretch of trail that seemed to be steeper than most grades we’d encountered thus far. At the top of the first climb, mile 674.1, we took a short mid-morning break and met two younger girls who had recently started the trail just north of Tehachapi, Indigo and Juniper. Even though our conversation that day was brief, I immediately knew these girls were super laid back, and I hoped to run into them again at some point.
Around 5pm we stopped at Chimney Creek and ran into some people we met on the trolley the day prior, Potato Volcano and Aladdin. We didn’t know it then, but we’d be seeing a lot of each other throughout the hike, which was perfectly fine by me. These two were the founding mother and father of their group, the “SloBo’s” (play on the term NoBo [NorthBounders] because of their slow pace). Extremely fun people, they always had a smile on their face and their high spirits were contagious. I also had just met “Thirsty Detour”, a great guy who had just been adopted into the SloBo family.
From Chimney Creek we hiked a few miles uphill to Seasonal Fox Mill Spring, a better than average trough down a small hill and just to the east of the trail. That night we stopped on a random clearing that we could fit five tents on and after a few minutes an older Swiss gentleman came and asked if he could camp next to us. He had started the trail on May 18th, almost a month to the day I started which kind of made me feel like I was going too slow. It is easy to get caught up in feeling like you aren’t where you should be, but the best advice I could give is to do your own thing; to hike your own hike. Easier said than done as this would become a common theme throughout the trail. There would be constant concern for making it to Canada before heavy snowfall in the Northern Cascades.
I decided against the hitch on the second day going into Lake Isabella, and opted for the Kern Transit trolley. For two dollars you can safely take a peaceful ride into town, and to my surprise it was actually a really enjoyable ride. I just had to take care of ordering a new debit card from B of A and grab a few missed essentials from a nearby store. Once I was back at the KOA and the whole group was ready to get the hell outta Dodge, it was already 12:45pm. Not ideal, but usually it works that way . . especially when you are with a larger group – things tend to get delayed.
Our plan was to take that same trolley, this time head east and be dropped off back at Walker Pass, but when the small bus came and stopped for us we quickly realized that our ride was full to the brim with other hikers. The driver said to us in a twangy country voice “You can try to hop on, but I’ll doubt y’all fit.” There was no chance that we weren’t getting onto this damn bus I thought as we pushed our way on. This ride falls way up there as one of the worst on the entire Pacific Crest Trail. As if to say “I told you so,” the bus driver drove fast and stopped even faster, tossing us ‘standing members’ every which way. I think he was fed up with the hiker trash that fills up his trashy little town in those summer months.
Finally we made it back to Walker Pass, but where we were dropped off was about a mile north from where I had gotten off the trail to go into Lake Isabella. So, being that I had previously made a strong decision to be a “Purist,” I had to backtrack a mile and then hike back a mile. Oh well, to me it’s got to be every inch. I do hate that title though, “Purist.” So pompous sounding, let it be known that I am not a self-proclaimed “Purist.” Ok, enough on that.
From the HWY we hiked straight back up into the mountains with heavy packs filled to the brim with food. The next stop was fifty miles away: Kennedy Meadows, and we were all very excited to get to this landmark of a place on the PCT. We pushed on for only thirteen miles to arrive at Joshua Tree Spring at mile 663.8, where the source of water is believed to have traces of uranium. I know what you’re thinking, super powers, and yes . . that’s exactly what I gained by drinking water with silvery-white metal flakes out of this small mossy trough.
What is there to say about Lake Isabella . . well, Lake Isabella is a beautiful area filled with many interesting characters, has a dumpy little town with not much to offer other than a Von’s Grocery and a Rite-Aid, and if you are going to be taking a hitch in or around the area my advice to you is to proceed with caution. Many scandalous hitchhiking stories have come out of this stretch of road, Highway 178.
We resupplied, and by the time we had finished our chores it was already getting late in the afternoon so we collectively decided that it was best to stay another night at the KOA. Have I told you about that bar they have there?
We started the day by signing a trail registry, then immediately climbing up a 1,700-ft mountain. I remember feeling strong on this particular climb, for no particular reason that I can think of. At the top we took a short break to eat a morning snack and enjoy the views, which were unbelievable. Today we would be getting off trail to resupply and enjoy some town services. Today we were going into the small town of Lake Isabella.
Once that initial climb was out-of-the-way we had pretty much knocked out the strenuous portion of the day. Over the next 16.6 miles we had an exact ascent of 1,524-ft and a descent of 3,324.5ft. Whenever your day consists of going downhill more than twice that of going up, it’s looking good. It’s a science really . . up bad, down good.
We all sort of did our own thing for the rest of the day, most of us choosing to hike alone. It’s nice to hike in a group that doesn’t NEED to be next to each other every step along the way, knowing that we will all meet at a designated spot at some point before nightfall. We arrived to Walker Pass Campground at mile 651.3 around 5pm, and the five of us piled into some guy’s F-350 and he drove us straight to the KOA just outside of Lake Isabella. We instantly became quite fond of this KOA for one reason: it had not just any bar, it had a ‘Bring your own beer’ bar. For the next few hours we played games and relaxed on bar stools, munched on snacks and ate ice cream, and drank just enough to feel the pain the next morning.
Waking up in the southern Sequoia National Forest was such a nice change from what we had become accustomed to. Tall Sequoia’s, small creeks, and crisp cool mountain air-filled this section of trail that led us away from the desert for a very short period of time. Before we knew it we were back amongst the cacti and Joshua trees, no more lush coniferous trees in sight.
At mile 617.7 we came across a much-needed water-cache at Butterbredt Canyon Road. Even at an elevation of 4,544 ft we were extremely exposed to both the desert heat and high winds the day had to offer, but nobody seemed to care as we were able to rehydrate our bodies. Water is essential, to say the least. There we met a young man who’s name I’m drawing a blank, he was currently suffering from a bad case of Giardia. He said it took him two days to go fourteen miles, not being able to keep down water and running out of baby wipes and toilet paper over a day ago. We felt bad for the guy, and we gave him what we could.
Later that day at around mile 630, just as the sun was setting in the west a full moon was rising in the east. It was like something I had never seen before, watching it rise over the mountains looking bigger than I had ever remembered. Unreal. Letting my group gain a substantial lead ahead of me just at the end of the day wasn’t my plan, I just had no choice but to stop and watch this moonrise unfold. That night we camped in between a few dozen yuccas down an old dirt road in Bird Spring Pass to gain some shelter from the howling winds.
I had come to find out that my new friends were quite the early risers, which was somewhat new to me. At 5am, we set off for the day. To me it’s the beginning of the day that is the toughest part. Actually, it’s the first 30 minutes. Once my heart rate gets going then I’m good, but those first steps are always my most challenging. We had yet another long distance to the next water, which was at Robin Bird Spring – mile 602.1.
What I remember most about this break in time was that our good friend, Anthony aka Long Carry, had decided that he was done with his thru-hike. He had never truly planned to finish, and I believe that he had wished to be off trail for some time. Everyone was so bummed, I remember every single person in the group trying to wrap their heads around why he would want to call it quits, especially being so early into our hike. We each individually tried to talk him out of it to no avail. His mind was set.
About an hour later we started to pack up from the break, with one last fill up from the icy cold spring. We left Anthony there at that spot, hoping but not knowing if we’d ever see him again. We hiked another seven miles to Landers Meadow Spring at mile 608.9 where there were two outhouses and enough space to hold 200 hikers.