Sand, Snakes, and Sand

I’m writing this post from the vast porch of the Kennedy Meadows general store, where we’re currently wrapping up our third zero day of the trail. Drinking cold beer and surrounded by other hikers, the anticipation is palpable- we’ve made it to mile 700, which marks the end of our hot, dry slog through the desert and the start of our ascent into the High Sierra. It’s been a brutal 250 miles since we last zeroed at the Saufleys’ in Agua Dulce, and we’re all excited to hike in some real mountains (and maybe see running water more than once every hundred miles). Here’s a recap of the trail since Agua Dulce:

After leaving the Saufleys’ Hiker Heaven, we made good time over the hills north of Agua Dulce. The weather was cool and windy, making for very pleasant hiking. Towards midday I was enjoying a surprisingly not-scorching climb out of a valley when I was shocked out of my stupor by a startled rattlesnake. We were both oblivious to the other’s presence until I nearly stepped on the snake’s head as it protruded from the sagebrush lining the trail. I don’t know who reacted first, but in the blink of an eye I found myself leaping backwards several strides and letting out a startled yell, while the snake retreated into a coiled shape and began rattling menacingly. It took a few moments, but eventually my heart rate returned to something resembling normality and I started to appreciate the coolness of the moment. I’d only seen a wild rattler once before, and it had only been in passing as I watched it slither disinterestedly down a hill away from me. This was different. I’d never seen a snake assume that classic ready-to-strike position you see in pictures and horror movies, and the sound of the rattle wasn’t what I had expected- more like high-pitched white noise than the sound you hear from a baby’s rattle. When Gabe and Gordon caught up, we took a few moments to take pictures and then carried on. We knew rattlesnakes were common on the trail, and the only really surprising thing about our first encounter was how long it took us to have it- most people had seen many by that point, so not necessarily in such close quarters.

As it turned out, the rattler wasn’t the only surprise of the day. When we reached camp later that evening, we found a group of hikers discussing how to get around the next 40 miles of trail, which were closed due to a fire the year before. Somehow news of this closure had eluded us, so we were suddenly faced with a dilemma: either walk 20 miles of asphalt roads to circumvent the closed section, or attempt to hitchhike around it. We chose the latter, as walking on pavement after spending so much time on the trail is a special kind of hell- our feet were used to dirt paths, and slapping them on a rock-hard road for 8 hours is a recipe for foot agony. Not to mention that inhaling exhaust and dodging cars on narrow road shoulders is just no fun.

The next morning we managed to hitchhike around the trail closure without much difficulty, thanks to the kindness of a newspaper delivery man and a fellow who ran a Christian summer camp in the area. This hitch brought us right to the beginning of the (rightfully) most dreaded portion of the trail: the Mojave Desert crossing. Even before starting the trail, we had all heard horror stories about this section- 20 miles of completely dry, shadeless walking across the inhospitable Mojave. Until then, the trail had been following hills and mountain ranges (hence the word “crest” in the name) to skirt around the edge of the desert, but at this point the trail made a beeline across the Mojave towards the hills some 20 miles away. This section is so hot and dry that many choose to hike it at night. And here we were, at ten in the morning, contemplating a mad dash across the desert with the weight of two extra days of food on our backs. We watched the weather (cool and windy) and the sky (mostly cloudy) and decided to make a break for it.

Nick definitely not peeing in the Los Angeles aqueduct:

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Fortunately the weather held, and we were able to make the crossing in relative comfort. The trail is literally on top of the Los Angeles aqueduct for the majority of this portion, which didn’t make for particularly stimulating hiking.

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Yippee. All the way to those hills in the distance.

As a matter of fact, the hiking was pretty excruciatingly boring, but considering this was supposed to be one of the hottest sections of the trail, it could have been worse. At the end of the desert, we passed through a wind farm and managed to camp near a creek in the hills. It was a pretty anticlimactic end to something we had dreaded since day one.

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As exciting as it got.

A day later, we stopped for a resupply in Tehachapi, which ended up being quite a pleasant surprise. We were all amazed by the kindness of the townsfolk. As we waited for our resupply packages at the post office, people recognized us as hikers and offered us everything from money to donuts to rides back to the trail. Gabe and I were picked up by a nice guy by the name of Dave who gave us an offer we couldn’t refuse: a shower, hot lunch, and a ride to the trail when we needed it. He took us back to his house, where his wife Brenda cooked us a yummy lunch after we had showered. It was an amazing and unexpected display of kindness, and he even sent us off with some delicious homemade jam. The people we meet along the trail never cease to amaze!

Now that we had finished with the Mojave, we only had about 150 miles left to that beacon of hope on the horizon, Kennedy Meadows. We were all ready for a nice, gradual ascent into the mountains from Tehachapi, but instead we experienced some of the most brutal hiking yet. Our packs were loaded down with 7 days of food, the most we had carried so far. The first 50 miles or so lulled us into a false sense of security with rolling, forested hills and semi-frequent water sources. After spending our third night in a pine forest reminiscent of the Sierras, we descended back into hellish desert.

The transition from forest to desert was near-instantaneous. As we crested a hill from the west, we got a view of a sagebrush-covered moonscape stretching as far as the eye could see. With temperatures easily pushing 100 and 40-mile dry sections, we knew we the desert was going to extract its pound of flesh before we could reach the mountains we saw in the distance.

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Touché, desert.

This was the most difficult stretch of the trail for me so far. I had been looking forward to the Sierra forever, and this wasteland was the only thing standing in between me and the mountains. That knowledge both motivated and tortured me as we toiled under the beating sun along a trail so sandy that it could have been a walk on the beach. Heat and the monotony of the landscape stretched days into years, but some well-placed water caches and trail magic helped us push through the pain, and eventually we found ourselves approaching Kennedy Meadows along the south fork of the Kern River.

Although the sunsets were quite beautiful

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We took a brief but joyful swim in the Kern (water that doesn’t come from a mud puddle?!) and finished off the last few miles to Kennedy Meadows in a daze. The store here is a godsend for the broken-down hikers who make it. Upon arriving it took me about thirty seconds to chug a Powerade, down an orange soda, and scarf an ice cream cone. I finished off the feast with a bag of Fritos. Now, a day later, we just have to survive happy hour before we can press on towards the High Sierra.

Nick and Gordon enjoy washing their feet and cooling off in the Kern River.

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6 thoughts on “Sand, Snakes, and Sand

  1. Andy

    I’m surprised you didn’t just cut the head off while you had it pinned down. After all rattler is supposed to taste like chicken.

  2. Claire

    I am having so much fun reading about all of your adventures. Thanks for sharing! Can’t wait to hear what comes next. You’re incredibly inspiring!

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