To Mount Whitney!

Each day the clouds seem to gather earlier. Yesterday, seven raindrops tapped my face as I skirted Sandy Meadow: change is coming. And after clearing the high curtain of the Kings-Kern Divide via Forester Pass, I’d seen a first glimpse of… could it be? That far, hunchbacked peak in the clouds, framed by nearer heights?

Obviously so. It's got bright red markers above it.
Obviously. It’s the only one with bright red lines around it.

A few miles later, the PCT splits off and continues south to Mexico. The John Muir Trail is on its own for the last few miles. Goodbye, imaginary thru-hiking J. See you for real in five days!

/

It seems I accidentally mailed my soap home, so from here on it’ll be either dust baths or plain-water scrubbing. Then I lose my water treatment, leaving the little bottle of bleach by a distractingly pretty brook. Evidently I’ll now also be carefully sourcing water from springs, or tiny streams that no dirty human shoes cross, and carrying extra in case of a dry spell. Absent-mindedness increases as the last mountain eclipses all else. From camp at Crabtree Meadows, I can see Orion scaling Mount Whitney as the night sky spins.

When day breaks, I’ll follow.

/

Pre-dawn motions are surreal: fold the tent, press air out of the pillow, stuff the sleeping bag, for the twentieth time. Summit Day. What is there to say, really? A goal, a peak, dreamed of for a year, only eight miles away. What’s the use of narration? You know how this goes: up, up, up. So let the photo essay begin.

pika
The animals are afoot this morning: pika, deer, marmot, duck…

deer

Guitar Lake
Two miles closer, I pass Guitar Lake, the traditional base camp for summiting Whitney, and begin the climb in earnest.
Looking back into the valley
It’s steep and exposed. I’m hauling extra water, and my pack pulls at my shoulders. But the view behind…
Ditching gear at Trail Crest Pass
At Trail Crest Pass, I reach the spur to Whitney. Everyone leaves extra gear at the junction, carrying only what they’ll need for the summit.
whitney sign
I ditch my bear can and an extra liter of water. Lighter, and excited by the sign, I fairly fly up the hill.
view
…except when I cling to large rocks, peering off sheer drops along the ridge. Choose those footsteps carefully.

Aside: There are a ton of people up here.  Daily, 150 people get permits to hike in the Mount Whitney Zone. Some of them look like the walking dead, slowed by elevation sickness and exhaustion. This is why: last night they camped at the Whitney Portal, and got up at two in the morning to start hiking. Wearing headlamps in the dark, they climbed 6,200 feet of elevation up 97 switchbacks to the summit, and now they’re going all the way back down in one day, a 22-mile round trip. Sounds harder than a thru-hike to me!

So we negotiate not only the terrain, but each other. We slowly pick past one another at wide spots. Those coming down nod knowingly at the energy of those going up. “Boy, you’re grinning from ear to ear,” says a descending day hiker. I didn’t realize I was smiling, but it’s no surprise.

The Nebraska Boys, four good-natured Midwesterners also finishing a thru-hike
The Nebraska Boys, four good-natured Midwestern thru-hikers, are grinnin’ too.
almost
Whitney’s ridge, now in view…
shelter
…and there it is! The little shelter on top, people swarming around the famous view. I am doing this… right now…
IMG_20150911_110256785
Did it! Done!
log
And official: signatures in the trail register.

I savor a Snickers bar, basking against the sun-warmed bricks of the shelter. People throng past in vibrant insulating layers, but my eyes are fixed on a deep blue space beyond, a space of grateful, jubilant disbelief. It’s all downhill from here. And that’s not bad at all.

/

So here we are, together on the peak. Thank you for reading this story. Knowing folks wanted to hear it has been an excellent push for writing, a reason to live the journey again, even more reflectively: to invite others onto the trail. It’s been a treat. Your comments have been so thoughtful and kind.

Mount Whitney is not the end. There will be more writing, for instance, a post about the 97-switchback hike down to Whitney Portal. (The John Muir Trail ends at the summit, but it’s still two vertical miles above civilization, and there’s no zip line.) Ever-popular hike statistics are on the way, as well as the tale of the kick-ass women I meet on the journey home, a quest to find just one beautiful thing in Reno, Nevada, a sitcom wrap-up of lessons learned… and then I’ll keep writing, albeit less often, about other jaunts, and non-hiking adventures too: there’s a Day of the Dead piece in the works, I happen to know.

Dannebrog

This is the little Danish-American town of three hundred where my grandfather, Stanley Pedersen, was born.  J. never got to meet my grandparents, so we stopped there on our journey, to feel for any echoes that might remain. It was a fiercely cold, sunny morning, with gusting winds that drove a body deep into its coat, hat, and whatever else it had had the good sense to bundle on.

The old folks were in Tom the Baker’s, drinking Folgers, and when we pushed open the door every head turned, just as they always have. Harriett’s Spisehus was under new ownership, Harriett herself still in good health but, in her upper eighties, ready to retire. Still, the old diner smelled the same: of old wood, plain coffee, and cooking grease. We were the only ones in there, but Colette made us each a plate of Danish pancakes anyway. The pancakes came out just as Harriett’s were: eggy, thin as crepes, the same pot of maple syrup and tin shaker for powdered sugar, OJ and bacon (for J.) on the side. So now J. has had the quintessential Dannebrog meal. He has taken its communion.Harriett's

We visited the cemetery. Wandered, covering our frostbitten ears, looking for the stone. Lost among a cluster of very old stones all ending in -sen, I turned back and saw the arms of J.’s blue coat waving like a ship’s signal flags. The stone was mossy and the bundle of dried sage I had brought from Montana looked invisible at its base, as if it had already disintegrated into the earth there. Are you sad? J. asked. They are at peace, I said.

The farm, three miles out of town, had changed hands several times since its original sale out of the family, Colette informed us. When we pulled in, the young family was not there, maybe in Cairo (karo, like the syrup) or Grand Island. So we felt at ease to look around. The arching tree that had grown strong and tall under my grandpa’s care was a stump. The barn, the smokehouse, the showerhouse, the farmhouse, were all there. A little less taken care of, but intact. The silo, upon which I had climbed to look as far as possible across the endless Nebraska cornfields. The cornstalks were dry and chopped short for the winter, and it wasn’t possible to know whether Grandma’s dazzling flower garden or Grandpa’s potatoes and vegetables would return in some iteration the following summer. I saw no elusive barn cats. But on the fenceposts lining the row where we had all learned, on Grandpa’s lap, to drive the John Deere, there they were. I shouted.

Boots

A pair of old leather boots that Grandpa had stuck on the ends of two posts were still there. I don’t know whether they were his, but it was his humor, not undone by ten years of unrelenting winds and seasons. We left and drove off down the gravel road back toward the interstate. I don’t know if I will ever go back. It has been done.

The day was cold, but it was sunny.

 

Farm

The farm was beautiful. It drew us each June down eleven hours of highway, seven minutes of rural route, and a long gravel drive between cornrows, where the farmhouse stood under the giant oak. Its beauty lived in the woodwork around each doorknob. In the stairs to the second floor, narrow as if built for smaller, shorter people from old centuries. In the jar of marbles, and the jar of little pastel soaps shaped like flowers and shells, which never changed position from summer to summer, which collected no dust.

Afternoons, I’d stretch belly-down on the brown and gold shag in the parlor and sort the marbles by size, then color, then beauty. There were few toys, so I drew the oak, or folded napkins for dinner, or tried to lure wild kittens to a metal dish of kibble in the barn. My brother would examine the tractors, would struggle to get a kite aloft. We dug our first potatoes in the kitchen garden, guided by my grandfather. We were ignorant of the earth and its fruits; we held hoes and shovels awkwardly.

At dinner the locusts hushed and crickets took their place. During the blessing, I would thank my lucky stars that I was not asked to say it. Grandpa ate sandwiches of sliced liverwurst and Miracle Whip, or peanut butter and lettuce and butter. Grandma cut watermelon for dessert. A small metal napkin holder spelled out SHALOM. It was from the Holy Land, Grandma and Grandpa’s great pilgrimage away from Nebraska, taken several decades before.

The farmhouse was sold years ago. The SHALOM now rests in my brother’s apartment in Urbana. The farm may still be beautiful, but I feel certain that it smells different now, that some of its beauty has lifted, blown from the plains into other corners of the world. Sometimes I walk through a patch of air that seems to know it, to possess a part of it. I shut my eyes and am drawn across the fields under the oak tree again.

Middle Nebraska

It was an oven in summer and a frozen wind tunnel in winter. The amenities along the highway were mostly outhouses, and gas stations with depressed Happy Chef diners tacked on one end. Yet the farmstead we pulled into each June after eleven hours of driving yielded sweet corn and fireflies, feral kittens and a crick—a tiny oasis one mile square. My grandfather had planted a row of windbreak pines, and uprooted from the acres musk thistle by the thousands, as well as the occasional lonely marijuana plant. Cows stared as I passed their field on the way to the ravine, their attitudes dull and xenophobic. The soil was dried mud, cracked into hexagons, broken and thirsty. But I loved to walk upon that dried mud. It was the skin of a proudly suffering brown giant, the very skin of the earth, exfoliated of foliage and showing bare only, I supposed then, in middle Nebraska.