We rise to another blue sky in the backcountry. I turn over to greet Jon, and notice something odd. He is laying on a completely flat mattress pad. “Oh no, your pad!”, I exclaim. “Last night it kept deflating, so I pulled out the valve, and then it broke”. This was, admittedly, a little frustrating. Over the past week, the pad had been showing signs that there was something defective with the valve. Cactus would wake up multiple times at night and reinflate it. While in Mammoth Lakes, we went to a gear store to buy a new one, but Cactus has declined – citing the cost, almost $200.
I leave Cactus in the tent to evaluate the status of the broken gear, and make our breakfast on a stone in the sunshine. A chubby little Marmot joins me, observing carefully my preparations from a distance.
The goal for today is to walk into Tuolumne Meadows, retrieve our resupply box from the post office there, and camp there, if possible. It’s been a little unclear what is open in Yosemite front country, and what is not. We will figure it out when we get there. A mantra repeated often on the trail, it seems.
Our morning climb is to Donahue Pass, after which we will officially enter Yosemite National Park. The climb is more gentle than the last 7 passes we have crossed, and I am grateful for it. It’s a wonderful morning, and I can hear the sound of my breath as my legs pump upwards. Quickly, tress give way to rock and patchy snow, as we enter the alpine once more.
Blue, grey, and green. These are the colors of the Sierra. They are so familiar to my eyes; comforting and warm, like a mother’s smile.
Just before the top of the pass, I look back at the country we’ve walked through. The air is thin, but incredibly fresh, causing me to inhale deeply. The trees are poking out of the valley below, sheltered and save. Birds fly over us, wings barely moving as they surf the wind. Contoured rock forms the horizon, and snow patches glint in the sun. It’s truly a feast for the eyes. I turn to Cactus, and continue our climb.
We pull out snacks at the top, and sit to eat and enjoy our efforts. There are a couple of other hikers up here. Someone has cell service and a woman takes a phone call. A few minutes into her call, I hear her cry out in pain, and begin to sob. She must have received bad news, and I begin to cry in sympathy. I can her the pain in her voice and it is heartbreaking. We start our descent, giving her privacy as she is comforted by her hiking partner.
The descent into Tuolumne Meadows is long and beautiful. I reflect on the woman at the top of Donahue Pass as I go down. I pray that she will be okay. Hiking can make you feel so helpless, because no matter what happens, the only thing you can do is walk.
The sky darkens, and threatens rain, but it does not. We stop by the river to eat lunch and soak our feet. It’s about 7 miles to Tioga Pass Road now. We’ve almost reached the end of the longest roadless stretch on the PCT, 240-ish miles from Kennedy Meadows South to Tioga Pass Road. Such huge swaths of roadless wilderness are a gift, in a time in history so utterly full of roads. I remember when we visited Fairbanks, AK the complete sense of awe in the fact that there are simply not many roads. Getting places required other forms of transport, like dog sled, snowmobile and bushcraft. It’s not that I dislike roads, they are certainly useful. Yet they are such a constant presence in our modern lives, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if I had lived in a time before the dominance of roads. Where travel was long and arduous, and cities were built for walking, not driving. There are approximately 4 million miles of public roads in the United States, a majority constructed in the last 50 years.
Reaching Tuolumne, we dart into the store for some essentials, including a foam pad for Cactus to sleep on until we get to South Lake Tahoe. As we are waiting in line to pay, the power goes out. “Sorry everyone!”, the cashier says, “We don’t have a way to collect payment, so please leave what you were going to buy on the floor, and leave the store, we are closed now”. I stare in despair at my baggie of carrots, beer, and the foam pad. This means Cactus is sleeping on a pile of clothes tonight, and it’s cold. There’s a sharp breeze whipping through the area. Oh well, I think, what else is there to do? Tomorrow we will head down into the valley and go to the gear store, where he can buy an insulated sleeping pad. I check the weather, and another cold front is moving in.
The next day, we hitch into the Yosemite Valley. It’s a zoo. People everywhere and no buses running due to covid. This makes our transport around the valley a bit time consuming, as everything is pretty spread out. Amidst all the humanity, a lone bear scampers along a boulder by the road. He is startled by all the people and starts running away. At the Yosemite gear store, we find a bright orange accordion pad for Cactus. We then walk to the grocery store and buy some extra groceries to fill out our resupply. Chores done and full of coffee, we stick our thumbs out to get back to Tuolumne Meadows. A young couple stops and offers a ride. They are on a road trip to Tahoe. I am struck by how kind, smart and just generally wonderful they are. In the car we talk about the value of time over money. They are in their mid 20’s and have already figured out so many of life’s lessons. I am impressed and a tad envious! They drop us off back where we started and we set up camp one more night in Tuolumne.
We set up camp in the closed campground, but open only to PCTers. Cactus makes a nest of clothes that closely resembles Toby’s little nest of toys and blankets back at home. He curls up tight to generate body heat. Dogs and people aren’t so different, after all.