Reflections on Southern California
Location: Kennedy Meadows, CA
PCT Mile: 703
I have arrived at one of the most famous locations and milestones along the trail: Kennedy Meadows General Store. It is an unassuming little gas stop and store in the tiny ranch community of Kennedy Meadows, but for PCT hikers, it marks the end of the desert portion of the PCT and stands as the "Gateway to the Sierra”.
It is difficult to overstate what this place means mentally for many thru-hikers, including myself. It is common to think about the trail as a series of back-to-back, week-long backpacking trips. So in any given moment, if you need a goal to look to in the horizon, it is often the next resupply town. Kennedy Meadows is the first mid-range goal we achieve as thru-hikers. Walking into this place is a stand-alone achievement, and it feels awesome. At the same time, I find myself thinking, "It's only been 700 miles. That's nothing...we're just getting started." And that's both in an exciting way and in a negative frame-set; and undoubtedly, it is a thru-hiker-type of thought. Only a thru-hiker could (would) downplay 700 miles!
Many hikers here mark feelings of relief at leaving behind the relentless, dry desert, and nervousness for entering the Sierra. Truly, Kennedy Meadows is "base camp" prior to the Sierra-- I will spend several days here resting, collecting information from locals and various park agencies, poring over maps, checking and double-checking gear, snow, and weather reports, and assembling a group of hiking partners.
But before I leave this place, I'd like to recap Southern California. It was absolutely not what I expected. The hype seems to be built around the Mojave Desert, when in actuality, that represents a relatively small (<150 miles) stretch of the PCT. More often, you find yourself in and out of chaparral, high desert, and lower alpine environments. Southern California is mountainous! Again, there is a certain expectation of flatness that seems to rise to the surface for many thru-hikers pre-hike, and I definitely did not just walk 700 miles of flat!
I've been asked what my favorite part of Southern California is. Truthfully, it blends together. There isn't one section or day I remember most, but I do remember the days-long feeling of surprise the first week, upon realizing how much topography and how widely varied the environments of this region are, and reveling in experiencing those subtle shifts in environment multiple times a day while on foot. I remember being thrilled by the newness of the style of the PCT-- oddly enough, it spends a lot of time on ridges and crests of mountains! I remember not being able to eat dinner on the first day and wondering where the "hiker hunger" was. The thrill and ache of hitting my first 20-mile day. Camping in a boulder field, feeling absolutely tiny. The clenching panic of not being able to find water when I was banking on it for the evening (spoiler alert: I eventually found some). Propping up my tent poles in a hail and wind storm during a sleepless night. Seeing a bear. Several days where the wind was so strong, it took my breath away (literally). The awed faces of day hikers when you answer, "Where are you coming from?" with "Mexico." Sitting anonymous and physically spent, surrounded by car campers at Walker Pass and contemplating whether to get off-trail altogether. The warm feeling stemming from unexpectedly striking up a conversation and being the first to introduce a person to the PCT and the concept of thru-hiking. Happy times in towns getting to know new hiking friends, having movie nights with fresh food, and selfless "trail angels" who gave us rides and meals, or just cheered us on.
The story of a thru-hike is simultaneously one of wilderness and humanity. 700 miles down, just under 2,000 to go. It has touched my heart, is transforming my body, and will re-structure my mind.
Kennedy Meadows. Mile 703 marks the turn-off point for Kennedy Meadows, but I could feel the moment I entered the Sierra. Around mile 692, the PCT flattened out of a slight downward grade and entered into a valley. By physical accounts, I was still in the desert. In fact, I was in a burn area, it was hot, and I was all alone...it doesn't get much more "desert" than that. I worried I was about to experience another bout of trail claustrophobia. But the tone had changed.
Across the valley, a wide blue ribbon. A river. A big one. Across the valley, mountains. Not just any mountains. Loud, exposed, domed, granite mountains. Sierran mountains.
I looked back at what I knew, suddenly wondering if I wanted to leave the desert after all, and then forward and down the valley. It was covered by pesky pine trees-- nevermind their shade, I couldn't see ahead!
Whew. Okay. New segment, new rules:
#1. Tread on.
Southern California (Sections A-F) Fast Stats
Miles Walked: 703
Days Hiking: 40
Days Off (“zero days”): 4
Number of resupply points: 7
Average daily start time: 7:10 am
Average daily finish time: 5:50 pm
Average miles per day: 17.6
Highest mileage day: 29.3 miles (April 28, solo)
Highest elevation: 8,742' (bypassed Fuller Ridge, Mt. Baden-Powell)
Largest single water carry: 7 liters (~15.5 lbs)
Longest food carry: 7 days
Pairs of shoes destroyed: 1
Number of socks trashed: 2