Squeezing the last few drops from the PCT: Walker Pass to Kennedy Meadows

listen to the wind
lie down
listen to the winds
always moving on

As we've all heard,if we read a newspaper, heard radio news, or looked at the alarming pictures from the state, here in California we are living through a drought of historic porportions. It's too soon to attribute it to climate change, but a big study on that exact question will be arriving this month from Stanford, and given that these pictures triggered — according to the Washington Post — the Obama administration's action on climate this year, it's certainly not too soon to talk about it.

But more on that later. For now let me tell you a little about what it's like to walk fifty miles of the desert wilderness in the third year of this drought. Because this section is one of the least visited wildernesses in the nation, and crosses few roads, none paved, there were no helpful water caches left for hikers, as there are in section F of the PCT, which crosses part of the intimidating Mojave desert.

In the first fifty miles of Section G, there were three natural water sources by the trail, none of them flowing freely. But a trail angel left a cache of at least twenty gallons at the start, the Walker Pass campground, which is right off Highway 178, only about ten miles from 14, a freeway, about fifty miles north of the hard town of Mojave. And I had the fun of starting exactly where I left off last year. Here's where Section F turns into Section G: if you look carefully, you can see a trail register up the hill. 


This is pinyon pine country, and never have I appreciated this friend of wildlife and humanity more than this past week, when I camped under the pitchy, fragrant, sheltering limbs of these trees, wonderfully dominant in this landscape. Without the pinyon, one wonders how much biology could survive here. 

A memorable quote about these trees from Ronald Lanner's "The Pinyon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History," published l981.

Despite many other uses, physical and metaphysical, the pinyon pines greatest service to the native Americans was as a supplier of food in a harsh land. When the hand-to-mouth hunters of the north discovered the nut-pine groves, they discovered the Southwest and became the custodians of the vastest orchard on Earth's surface.

Here's a pic of a particular plant friend of this variety who converted me to his ways last year, at mile 637, at an extraordinary campsite overlooking the true Joshua Tree and chollo cactus desert lands.


Here is the single trail distance sign for this section from the BLM, as minimal as possible of course (but actually, they did a nice job clearing the trail, even through burned sections, unlike miles of miles of burned Section D, overseen by the Forest Service). 


"Carry water" for sure: I started with 7 liters, which for many throughhikers is unacceptable. Just too much. Met a bushwacking fellow who said he crossed 500 miles of mountains from Mammouth Mountain without carrying more than a quart or two. Couldn't do that: wouldn't feel safe climbing mountain trails in 100 degrees with that. No matter the weight. Put the 6-liter water bag at the top of my pack and somehow got the top strap across it, making it look (and feel) a little like a camel with two humps.

Don't have a picture of my embarrassingly lumpy pack, but here is two-humped mountain I passed climbing up to Owens Peak. Now this is true desert, unlike the often-shaded section I walked. 


Despite these vistas of barren lands, the trail at first could hardly have been nicer. Here's my first stop, not especially well photographed, but with a bench perfectly suited for a mid-day break. 


And here's a haiku I compsed for the occasion. (I know, corny.) 

a one-person bench
made for lunching on the trail
unknown genius

The seventeen-syllable haiku form was created centuries ago to encourage memorization (according to "The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English," by Kenneth Yasura). You know you have a good one if you can remember it (at least a few times) after you "wrote" it, without seeing it on paper. I have hopes this one will pass that test. 

And here's my first campsite, just short of 674, about thirteen miles up the trail, arriving at 3ish, giving me my one substantial break of the four-day trip. A lovely place to hang out, believer it or don't. Note how the BLM (I presume) trimmed the limbs to allow camping close to the base of this sheltering tree.


Next morning soon passed a spring that is not far from the trail, but as I still had five liters and didn't want to carry more before the spring on the trail at mile 670, I let it go. Apparently the water is officially unsafe because of naturally occuring uranium levels — but not seriously.

Joshua Trees were actually becoming scarce, which I was relieved to see, feeling much more at home in the gentler pinyon country, but they still do look so dramatic at sunrise. 


Soon came across this cheering sign in the trail — only about 2000 miles to go. 


 Still a ways up a steep six-mile trail to Owens Peak.  


The trail turned steep, going back and forth across a parched creek. Going slow as to avoid heat stroke, finally made it to this source, which turned out to be a tiny trickle, barely capable of half-filling my bag in an hour. Still was awfully happy to see that water. So precious! 

Here's another attempt to mark this moment on the trail in the memory:

shoe-lacing across
Spanish Needle creek, up and up
trail looks for the spring

And here's the spring itself, only about ten or fifteen feet off the trail, blessedly. 


Moved on a little reluctantly, moving slowly up the steepness in the glare on the southwestern slope. Took me about three hours to attain about 1500 feet and two miles, but I did meet a charming southbound through-hiker named Rob, who said he was from Alabama, where people know how to avoid getting upset. "It's incredibly hot back there," he said. "But not as hot as this!"


The trail reaches the top of the crest at about 6700 feet, and then takes a long gentle transverse along a north-heading ridge, overlooking two or three different watersheds. Made for a nice silhouette when I arrived near sundown.


That night had a lot of rushing winds that, with exhaustion, helped put me out. 

listen to the wind
lie down 
listen to the winds
always moving on

In the morning woke to discover that some creature — probably a desert rat — had stolen my breakfasts, lunches, and one dinner. About half my food. Found two of the three bags the clever thief (who usually subsists probably on pinyon nuts) took and chewed through. Appeared to have liked the trail mix the best. Unfortunately I was almost exactly halfway through the trip, but fortunately he left me enough. 

And the (previously published picture of the) sunset was worth every bit of it. Next day had an eight-mile downhall to the one remaining spring in the next twenty-five miles. Hot but fast. 


The Fox Mill Spring was dripping fat drops, but had no trickle. Had to compete with bees to tie the mouth of the bag to the faucet. Felt a little guilty monopolizing the water, but only took an hour. 


Onward! At about 2:30, set off up the hill (uphill almost inevitable after a water stop) hoping to make it close to the ridge at 7800, to make it possible to make it to Kennedy Meadows the day after. Hit the sack at 6, hopeful of an early start the next day, to cross Bare Mountain. Worked. 


 Got pretty stark out there.


Happy to make to the Dome Lands. One example reminded me of the Three Brothers of Yosemite. Terrain was so different from the Sierra, but the mountain ridges so reminiscent.


Right at the end of this section, literally at the trail marker, I ran into a southbound couple, charming, with the trail names of Dirt Stew and Doormouse. 


Just two miles later, made it to the "hiker friendly" little outpost of Kennedy Meadows. Appears not to have changed much since Cheryl Strayed passed this way back in l995. Utterly charming in a ramsackle and inexpensive as possible sort of way. Here's the adorable proprietor Scott, a man who knows what long-distance hikers need (and provide it) before they are even able to express it. 


Thanks for coming along with me! 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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