Day 3: 17.7 miles
When the post office at Echo Lake opens, its like a violent storm of flat rate boxes, extra gear to be sent home, and resupply food sweeps through its tiny walls. When we leave the postal worker isn't quite sure what just happened, but she's glad we're gone.
Packs full of food, we climb up the rock staircases and through gentle high elevation pine forests to a long meadow. The trail flattens and winds us down through a valley that looks like Washington - rolling hills, trickling streams and a path slightly overgrown with brush.
I remember this section last year as the most windy and cold - a harsh welcome to the Sierra Nevada. It lives up to my memory again this year. We are bantered intermittently by the frozen breeze all afternoon. In the evening we collect some water before our last few miles and I put on all my layers while the setting sun makes the cool earth colder.
I climb to the top of the ridge where the earth stretches out before me all grey, brown and fading red. Rectangular peaks silhouetted in the distance with lakes glittering down below. Ekho the dog bolts off the trail after a small creature that none of us sees. Three of us wait on the trail, calling her name until she decides to turn around. The path is etched into the side of a slope and it winds us down, eventually out of the wind. We set up camp in the safety of a small pine grove.
Day 4: 25 miles
The wind is calm in the protection of trees where we've camped, but it picks up in the night. I am vaguely aware of the flapping of my tent walls and a strong gust that seems to knock something over. But I want to keep sleeping. Even though I'm too cold. Eventually I coerce myself into peaking my head out of my sleeping bag. I see the tent draped lazily over my legs hanging by the trekking pole, my water bottle knocked over by the force of the fabric. In the darkness I can't find the stake that blew away, so I secure the tent with a rock... Put on more layers, go back to sleep.
Everyone starts rustling at 5 am. So I do too. When I'm all packed and ready to go I do one more sweep of the area and see my lost tent stake reflecting the light of my headlamp under a bush. I pick it up and start the day's walk.
The morning is epic. The light changes as the earth rolls into the sun, we wait for the first rays to hit the ground before taking our break. In the late morning there's a ridge walk where the wind blasts violently through the rocks. Why is the wind so angry? Eventually the trail allows me to descend into the forest and rocks below and I spend the morning in a state of blissful perpetual forward motion, basking in the silence.
Now it's warm enough to wear shorts as we pass a rowdy group of weekend hikers. The trail hugs the side of a mountain, winding along and stretching out to where I can see it across the canyon. My friends are tiny and distant, progressing along this thin line. At the top of the climb we pass through some trees that spit us out on the other side of the pass, opening views to an entire new kingdom.
Streams trickle across the trail and we reach a water source where Mud and I stopped for dinner last year. It was so, so cold. Now we walk effortlessly past in the afternoon sun without a second thought. Everything in the present is brand new and wonderful.
In the evening we reach a parking area where a kind soul has set up a spread of food on a picnic table. He grills vegetables and boca burgers for us in the back of his truck and treats us like celebrities. We eat all the snacks, drink all the beers, and talk the hiker talk with this trail angel until at last it is too cold to be anywhere but in our sleeping bags. I make some chamomile tea and curl up for bed, dazed by the generosity and beauty inherent in this world.
Day 5: 23.5 miles
I wind down the canyon, feeling my knee protest in pain at the harshness of the rocks and gravity. Soon we cross the valley and switchback up the other side of the canyon, through a meadow of sorts with small purple flowers occasionally making an appearance beside the trail. Mercifully, we reach the protection of a forest and sit for a break at the top of our climb. It's cold, but not as cold as last year.
A-train and his dog Ekho have stayed behind to have slower days, so there's just five of us now. Harpo and Groucho, the vegan-yoga-instructor-artist-nomads from Seattle. Twinless, the chatty cheerful first-time-thru-hiker who left behind a career in finance to travel the world. And Huck, the Danish sled-dog-instructor who knows everything about everything.. I came out here expecting to be alone, thinking maybe I'd meet a few people every now and then. But I never expected to find such great friends, just waiting for me at the trailhead.
I make my vegan mocha with powdered coconut milk that Groucho found at the co-op in South Lake Tahoe. It's a new level of delicious. We hike down all in a line, talking about GMOs and how they're illegal in Denmark. In the distance is the sound of bells, and soon there's a cow staring at us adjacent to the trail, it's big ears flickering and black eyes locked. I'm beyond thrilled to see the cow, it's just so adorable.
I walk with Groucho and Harpo for the afternoon and we talk about the system. The broken system, and the bees and the horses and elephants at the mercy of our human egos. And graffiti. We take a long break at the top of a lime stone pass where Mud and I were greeted with a violent wall of wind last year. This year it is blissfully calm. I feel so lucky.
We wait for Twinless to arrive, passing the time by listing reasons she has not showed up. She was trampled by a stampede of cows. She used her poop trowel to dig a hole to China. She was kidnapped by a family of five. It turns out she was just hungry and stopped for lunch.
The evening brings smoke and an empty heat. We stop for water by a rushing creek, laugh a lot about inappropriate hiker topics, then descend deep into a valley. Our campsite awaits us and we all settle down to rest before the sun sets.
Day 6: 7.6 miles
After a while we find ourselves above tree line. My circulating blood reaches the very tips of my fingers and they start to thaw. I step into the first spot of sunlight just as we crest the mountain.
Through a small gathering of bushes and then onto terrain that resembles the surface of the moon - small rocks towering upward on all sides of the trail - we walk to the very end of the ridge. There, rocks shimmer and mountains echo off into the distance in every direction. The morning air is crisp yet starting to feel warm. I light my stove for a mocha while Harpo and Groucho distribute tarot cards.
My tarot card tells me I am about to start a revolution. I think it's right.
We walk down to the road past streams bubbling over the trail. Birds are chirping and the sky is crystal clear. Sonora Pass is amazing!
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