The women’s dorm at the Whitney Portal Hostel in Lone Pine, California could have been a dingy, crowded bunk house à la Little Orphan Annie. Happily, it is instead a cozy room with half a dozen bunks, a mini-fridge, plenty of outlets, an air conditioner, and a clean bathroom stacked with furry white towels. Astonishing. How does a hiker hostel keep towels white?
The six of us are certainly no help. We take turns in the shower, dirt streaming down the drain, and gear hangs from every fixture, clean and drying off. In and out we go, scratching all our town itches: Rebecca, whom I’ve met twice before on the trail and am thrilled to finally spend time with. Two British students tramping their way through a gap year. One astrophysicist from Stanford. A weekend warrior whose car broke down in this little town, stranded until a part arrives in the mail. And me.
Before the hike, I joined several hike-centric Facebook groups, including Ladies of the JMT and Women of the PCT, mainly to research weather and gear. The general JMT and PCT groups have more typical internet snark, criticism, and the occasional sexist comment, but the women’s group is almost wholly positive, patient and supportive. On the regular forum, you might see a woman post something like “I am wondering about hitching a ride from X campground to Y town, I hear it’s pretty safe. Do you think that’ll work?” and some guy replying “Only if your hot lol”. No thank you. But the ladies– the ladies will encourage the hiker whose shin splints are devastating, whose partner dumped her a week before Day 1, who is plus-size or new or nervous or older, as well as the confident, exuberant and experienced.
Thanks to the women’s forums, a gal can also show up at the trailhead already equipped with friends and contacts, the social network as applied to roughing it. I didn’t connect in that way, partly because I didn’t want to feel tied down. Also, let’s hear it for the old-fashioned method of just walking into the woods, trusting that good paths will cross.
I did meet several Ladies of the JMT on the trail, often identifiable by the group’s signature purple paisley gaiters, designed by Dirty Girl. Cherry Bounce hikes in a colorful bonnet. Angelina swears abundantly and sews her own gear. I loved talking with anybody on the trail, but it’s extra cool to meet other solo women. So what a treat to find myself among all these hikers tonight. Crossing good paths.
Laundered and clean, I pony up to the bar of the Alabama Hills Café and order a mushroom and avocado omelette, which turns out to be not only lunch, but most of dinner, even with a hiker appetite.
I text everyone: I’m out! I’m coming home tomorrow! I phone my brother from the shade of the hostel balcony. While we talk about birds, I watch the mountains, my stone friends, high-flung anchors in the sky. An old friend says mountains provide a reference point, a constant reminder of the scale of the world and the smallness of his human problems, not present on the plains. Each time I glance back, it’s a different scene. Clouds tumble and shift, shroud and split over Whitney. Change has come.
A flask of Maker’s Mark, several six-packs of the local brew, and a half-gallon of Rocky Road. The Ladies of the JMT sit cross-legged on the floor, passing everything around, barefoot with funny tan lines, wearing comfy pants. The mini-fridge bulges with leftovers, the outlets are crammed with phone cords, and the air conditioner labors to keep the room merely not-hot. It is a grown-up sleepover party. I’m not much of a drinker, but I splash whiskey on my ice cream and feel right at home, which is rare in a group of strangers– but we are not strangers. Conversation flows from living in a town where everyone is different from you, to racism and sexism on the trail and off, uncertainty about children and the future, and dreams about the Next Big Hike.
The Brits decide to keep hiking south on the PCT, not stopping until Mexico if the weather holds. The weekend warrior realizes that she’s not gonna make it to jury duty on Tuesday. The astrophysicist tells us that she comes to the woods when work leaves her feeling so abstract and small that she doesn’t see the point of doing good. She meets other travelers and remembers why it matters. She sleeps under the stars, without a tent, and becomes part of the cosmos again.
It is the perfect last night. I couldn’t have imagined better. Let’s hear it for sisterhood!