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!
Atop the highest point in the continental U.S., one thing is clear: I am not ready to leave the woods. Fortunately, having arrived two days early, I have the luxury of sauntering. The moment I reached the top, Whitney’s irresistible, powerful magnet loosed me from its lure. No more the singular, pinpoint goal. Free to amble, adrenaline dissipates, and a lazy expansiveness oozes in to replace it. The horizon spreads in every direction. This afternoon, I’ll drink in views, sidle along in a trance, and ponder impending transitions. The new moon slices the sky. The world awaits.
Going down the 97 switchbacks from Mount Whitney, all the little corners smell like pee. About 150 people per day get passes to hike here, in addition to thru-hikers. It’s like the interstate, but without McDonald’s bathrooms.
I take it slow, nursing a bum knee that I’ve denied for the past week. No reason not to baby it now. My plan for transitioning back to town reality includes a none-too-subtle metaphor: as I gradually descend in elevation, I will wean myself off the thin, wild air of living in the mountains, back to breathing in the valley of regular life.
The trick will be to see how much of the wildness I can carry down with me, make part of the good regular life I am glad to have. It is two vertical miles from the Whitney summit to the town of Lone Pine. That’s a long way to coax a wild animal. If it is to survive, there will have to be an expansive refuge for it to roam, a preserve within my heart.
More immediately, there’s the challenge of finding camp amid so many people. In the Mount Whitney Zone, you can’t pitch just anywhere. To reduce the environmental impacts of such traffic, there are but a few designated places to sleep. The highest, Trail Camp, is plastered with tents along every conceivable surface, boasts no shade, and raises the question: where would one go to take a dump? (Not that you’d bury it: everyone gets a wag bag on their way out of Whitney Portal, with strict instructions to “pack it out.” The last toilets were removed from the area in 2007.) Outpost Camp is prettier, with a rushing brook and some shade, but with the same crowding and private-time puzzle.
Troy and Moira, whose nap I accidentally interrupt by clamoring under their shaded boulder for a lunch break, graciously tip me off to Lone Pine Lake, less than a mile past Outpost, which delivers on their promises that it is stunning and secluded. (Why secluded? Because it is a tenth of a mile off-trail. That’s right, friends: a tenth of a mile is all it takes to weed out the crowds.) It is the prettiest tarn I have ever seen. Its far edge spills into the horizon. Best of all, it’s open to camping, but only three other people take advantage. I watch the stars from the open tent flap, and eight hours later, the sunrise. The tent faces away from Whitney, toward the world of people. Reassuringly, even from the world of people, one can usually see the sky.
Whitney Portal is a bustling hub with large campgrounds for tents, families, and RVs, summer homes, a stocked fish pond, and a general store. (Oh yes, and bathrooms… as well as redolent disposal vaults for hundreds of packed-out wag bags.) Waltzing in mid-morning, I’m amazed they fit all this into a gap between mountains. The diner serves pancakes the size of hub caps, but I cling to my camp food. As long as I don’t eat town grub, I’m still in the wilderness, right? But it’s back to a numbered campsite today, with water from a pump and a bear-proof locker for food.
My neighbors and I chat about hikes ahead and behind. Some are going to attempt the One-Day Whitney Challenge. As for me, in the interest of dipping my toes into that other reality, the Lowlands, and because I just can’t not hike yet, I decide to walk the Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail this afternoon. It’s an out-and-back, eight miles total, a path crudely cut in 1881 to get mule trains, expeditions, and other early travelers from the valley to the portal. It hasn’t seen much traffic since the CCC paved a road in 1933, but it used to be the only way up.
I leave my tent pitched at the campground, and the heavy bear can in the vault. With a superlight pack and only one pole (the other is busy holding up my tent), I’m surprised to feel nerves as I descend, gradually leaving behind the familiar ecosystem of lodgepole pines and Stellar’s jays in favor of sparse scrub, then downright desert.
What have I done? This trail goes all the way to the valley floor! Walking through the hot, exposed landscape, my water’s warm and nearly gone. I’ve bet the farm that a potable pump will be available in the lower campground where the trail ends. I’m in luck. Squinting under my bandana, I turn to hike back to the Portal, and the view of Whitney, framed by foothills, floors me. That is one looker of a mountain. Could I really have been on top just a day ago?
It’s so far away, here in the flatland among these alien cacti. As I reclaim each of the 2,700 feet I lost on the way down, tides of hormonal emotion flood in, such as I haven’t felt since high school. (They’d bowl me over just sitting in class. These days it takes a major elevation change, apparently.) It was a shock to come all the way down today, but it proves the cliché that distance maketh the heart grow fond.
While my last humble dinner of beans and freeze-dried veggies stews, I chat with a six-year-old girl and her dad. (“At last, a girl!” she shouted upon spotting my magenta jacket. “There are so many boys around here.”) They’re going rock-climbing in the Arizona Hills tomorrow. She darts around the campground like an elf, investigating everything, while her father cooks.
As I meet new people, I wonder about folks I expected to see again but haven’t. For instance: Jennifer and Oliver, where are you? The friendly Mississippians camped in high style, their packs stuffed with small luxuries: they’d catch and roast perch and cook spiced couscous… and that was just lunch. They hiked early and late so as to meet more fox, and in the afternoons lazed on riverbanks to watch children splash like otters. It was Oliver’s first time in the woods, and Jennifer’s 50th birthday present to herself. Will I ever know if they finished?
Last camp dinner, last sunset in the pines, last this, last that. I’m verklempt. It’s time to get outta here before I melt into a puddle of syrup capable of soaking through a plateful of giant diner pancakes.
Next morning, I borrow a Sharpie and write the words “Lone Pine” on the back of a Moose Drool box. Not five minutes of shilling with my makeshift sign, and a fellow gives me a lift. He and his buddy aimed for Whitney today, but his knees gave out, so he’s killing time while his friend summits. We coast down the coiling CCC road in his silver convertible, looking forward, looking back. Goodbye, Whitney Portal.
I sprawl like a gutter punk on the pavement by the gas station trash can, my dinner and some crumpled bills in a plastic bag beside me, licking a melting ice cream cone in the heat.
A guy comes out of the store with a soda and sees me on his way back to the pump. “Hey, gorgeous,” he says.
“Hi,” I reply with a smile.
I am puzzled, for two reasons:
a) Crusty with sweat, I haven’t showered for days, and above my bizarre tan lines, a green bandana hangs knotted from my neck, as if I’m a dog. This is gorgeous?
b) I loathe honks, catcalls, and other unsolicited, appearance-centered comments that are the supposed prerogative of men looking at women. Why don’t I mind this one? Am I more susceptible to flattery in my grungy state? I think not. Somehow he seems more genuine than most. It does not feel like a power trip. I’ll have to think about this… well, after I finish my ice cream.
Months ago, I reserved a night at the Independence Inn in Lone Pine, California. Out of three weeks, one night should feel like a Vacation, right? So I hike eight miles off the trail, over Kearsarge Pass, down to the Onion Valley trailhead. Standing in the stony notch of Kearsarge, looking back into the wilderness, I see for the first time the smoke plume rising from the Rough Fire. Its white mushroom billows smoke from under its rim, which spreads and falls into the valley. Satisfying with a touch of schadenfreude, I observe it from a distance, rather than trudging inside it, blind to wider perspective. This is already a great vacation from my vacation.
I don’t have a plan for how to get from the Onion Valley trailhead to town, but I eke out a bar of cell service and call the innkeeper, who collects me in an old Subaru for an extra $10. The road descends 5,000 feet in thirteen twisty miles to the pancake-flat Owens Valley. My eyes are not used to flatland, especially one that stretches as far north and south as visibility permits but ends suddenly in sharp mountain ranges to the west (the Sierras) and east (the Whites). The trailhead was pleasant in the afternoon shade, but it’s 100 degrees on the plain below. It’s easy to believe that Death Valley is just forty or so miles to the east.
The Independence Inn is a modest, whitewashed motel with a big American flag sign and NO VACANCY in pink neon, despite current occupancy of only three rooms. Tourist season is winding down, and Jim, the innkeeper, is ready for a break. I dump my gear in Room #1, gasp in relief at the air conditioner, then head back into the swelter to find some grub.
Independence is a one-street, one-stoplight kind of town, not much to see. Agricultural people and eccentric retirees form the population of 669 citizens. Somebody built a clapboard museum of the Old West in their front yard. Planters of geraniums wither in the sun. Paint peels. The post office is hardly larger than one of its stamps, and dining options consist of two gas stations, a wee French restaurant, a Subway, and a taco truck parked in an empty lot.
The taco truck is reportedly incredible, but unfortunately, I cannot face another tortilla. Nor do I wish to wait more than two minutes for a meal, ruling out the restaurant, so Subway it is. As a side dish, I crave fruit– indeed, this afternoon a day hiker caught me mumbling “apple… yogurt…” like the cartoon crawling through the desert thirsting for agua. Produce options in Independence are either bagged green apple slices from Subway, or an elderly orange from the convenience store. I gamble on the orange, and supersize it with an overpriced, pre-pack ice cream cone.
Now it’s melting on my face, and the guy says, “I like your eyes.”
“Can I at least know your name?”
“Sure,” I say, and tell him. He shakes my hand, introduces himself as Felipe, then gets in the car with his buddy, waves, and drives away.
Truth is, I do feel gorgeous. It’s obviously not grooming, or clothes, which are always the same, liberating a good ten minutes of time from my daily routine. No, it’s feeling the energy of life move through me so vibrantly, strong, free. And plain living: time away from mirrors, magazines and billboards.
Wilderness measures a body not by appearance but by usefulness as a tool that enables one to roam, maneuver, recover, dissolve. Countless living beings are both deformed and beautiful: the giant juniper tree symmetrical on one side, charred and split on the other. The bird missing half its tail feathers, swooping through blue regardless. The dying bush that becomes a bonelike sculpture of itself. These things are what they are. They do not try to be otherwise.
Back at the inn, I forget my deep and superior thoughts about nature vs media, and in true American style eat dinner in front of the TV. The dimpled orange tastes like wine, and the TV’s inanity is deliciously weird. As the cherry on top of my media binge, I snap a selfie.
In the morning after breakfast, I veg out in my room. I’m not really sure what to do on Vacation. I’ve taken a shower, washed clothes, phoned J., his parents, and mine. I mess around with my gear, repack it and mail home extras. I watch more junky TV. I want to hang out all day, but why? Now what?
I couldn’t resist coming to town earlier than expected, nor can I resist going back up early today. I’m antsy for the trail. And it doesn’t hurt that I lose my room at noon. A retiree who also spent last night at the Inn gives me a ride back to the trailhead. It’s generous of him, but my opinion sours when he tells me, in the middle of otherwise normal chitchat, that he likes to do the grocery shopping because “I like to girl watch, from the waist down.” Felipe he ain’t. Why would you say that to anybody? I hand him some gas money in the parking lot and disappear into the woods. If I meet his wife, who is hiking above while he plays golf below, I swear I’m gonna say, in the most cheerful tone possible, “Oh yes! I met your husband, he told me that he likes to girl watch… from the waist down!” But fortunately I don’t see her. No need to pay caddishness forward.
Thus ends my Vacation. I’m back in high gear, striding over Kearsarge Pass, clamoring on the now-familiar and dear spine of the Sierras. Fewer than forty miles left. This is really happening. One more full day of hiking, then Summit Day. My pulse speeds from excitement.