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.