There's really not much worth mentioning about Belgrade, MT. Houses are few and far in between, sprinkled randomly across a grid of streets that one would have no trouble counting on their toes and fingers. A couple of kids dressed in dusty rags and with scab-covered knees and elbows are playing with a red, cheap and dirty plastic ball next to a court overrun with weeds. There's a dog panting in the sun, likely contemplating on his only bone that he chewed out of any anatomical shape (over weeks, I am sure). There's just one main road, but along neither of its stretches - straddling the plains to the horizon - is there a single car to be seen disturbing the desolation.
This could very well have been a modest village in my childhood's Romania. One of the boys playing football in the dirt could have been me, of 18 years ago. The adult me, however, is just a traveller in this time-forgotten place. I walked miles in the sun along a deserted highway to reach this haven and now I'm lavishing in the peace and silence I've come to discover.
I'm happy to be back on the road. Only 10 days ago, I was diligently tending to my life in New York. A very peaceful, happy and rewarding life by any account, but about as far apart from nature as lives can get these days. I assume - I've never been to Beijing.
* * *
Let's wind back to 10 days ago, then. Friday evening in my apartment on the East 36 Street in Manhattan. I'm in a hurry to turn the place upside down. I have a flight to California in the morning and I want to vacate the place before I leave. I'm hastily turning down Andrea and the other guys for our Friday night at the pub and instead, I'm stuffing all of my textile possessions in the washing machine in a desperate effort to get everything cleaned, dried and folded neatly into place. If I'm going to leave my worldly stuff with Marek while I go hiking in the wilderness, it has to be packed and carried down to East Village by 5:00 AM, or else he'll leave to Brooklyn for an appointment and leave me with no other storage option.
I can't pull it off. I pack whatever I can and leave two bags with him. My hiking gear and clothes will fly with me and I resort to leave the rest of my stuff with a third guy. My crap is now distributed all over New York, but this is the least of my concerns as I am rushing down the stairs of Penn Station in a desperate effort to make it to the airport on time.
Note to self: I have to stop catching the bloody planes 10 minutes before they take off. I was lucky the past three times, but it makes sense expecting that to run out at some point. I sit down in the plane and breathe out in relaxation. I made it. Shortly after, the previous sleepless 48 hours overwhelm me in an instance and I doze off. I remember waking up in Dallas to connect flights, suffering from a tooth-gnawing headache that the painkillers don't seem to be able to help. I am sort of lingering with my eyes half-open and my sinuses clogged as if I'd been working in an asbestos plant for 10 years and I'm patiently waiting to get to Fresno.
It eventually happens. Ștefan has been waiting for me at the airport. We hop in the rental car and drive to Visalia to buy supplies for the hike. After raiding the supermarket at the day's final business half-hour, we head back to the car and drive to a parking lot where we can assume our newly-found homeless status and turn the car into means of accommodation.
I swear, of all the cars I've ever slept in, that one ranked worst. I must have been tossing and turning every 10 minutes. It was also freezing (welcome to sunny California, eh?) and my headache wasn't getting any better, if anything. We somehow doze the night off and with the crack of dawn, set for the nearest McDonald's to abuse their sanitation facilities during our morning hygiene routine. I find that brushing my teeth at 7 o'clock in the restroom of some fast food restaurant is as empowering as it is awkward, and after taking and washing my single-use plastic spoon from the breakfast tray, I am finally ready to assume my tramp transformation.
|Visalia, in front of the McDonald's before dropping the car.|
We drop the car, take our 20 kg backpacks and start for the mountains. So long Visalia, so long civilization. I am genuinely smiling with my eyes and soul for the first time in months.
Despite our plans not working out quite as expected, we manage to pick up our hiking permits and start at the High Sierra Nevada trail head by 2:00 PM. It's late, and we have 11 miles to cover till the first night's camp, but I am burning with enthusiasm. I pay my respects to the giant sequoia grove and we dive into the mountains.
* * *
Day one was only moderately adventurous in nature. But the first time we turned on the Eastern slope of the mountains to face the soaring, jagged gray granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada, my heart skipped a beat. All I could think of was how happy I was. Truly, genuinely happy. We came across a deer on the trail the same day and as the night was closing in on us, also the first bear (albeit from more of a distance). As our trail was sloping down into its first canyon, we began to wonder whether we'd make it to Bearpaw Meadow by nightfall. I certainly started to doubt it and as we were pushing ourselves into our 11th mile, it first dawned on us that being stranded by dark in thick, bear-infested woods is undesirable enough to scare the crap out of anyone (the jury is still out on Bear Grylls).
Short of stumbling in the dark like troglodytes, we find a post which points us to the camp. Perhaps a quarter of an hour later and we would have walked right past it in pitch black darkness. We manage to catch a glimpse of a flash light among the trees and hear people. We're relieved to have made it, do our best to set up the tent, take off our hiking boots and fall asleep on what was really solid ground but felt like a fluffy mattress of top-notch quality.
Despite the 11 miles of our glorious first day, there had not been much uphill terrain to cover. That was the first change we noticed on the second day, which started off with the trail diving into a steep precipice only to painfully work its way back up from the bottom, 3,000ft along the course of a stream. The heat (remember, this is still a desert of sorts) was radiating from the rocks violently enough to layer the atmosphere into mirage-spawning turbulences and there was a pungent herbal tea smell in the air from all the blooming shrubbery that was slowly cooking, caught in between the granite cliffs and the merciless noon sun. We slowly made our way along the canyon wall up until Hamilton Lake, at which point we were ready to throw in the towel and claim the worst to have been over. Only it didn't quite work out that way.
Hamilton Lake we reached by 3:00 PM all right, but as I was soaking by blistering feet and dusty knees in the lukewarm waters of the lake, a quick glance at the cliffs rising 2,000ft on all sides of the water surface tipped me off that the day's steepest ascent had yet to begin.
To call it anything but brutal would mean being disrespectful to the beauty of that pass. With the trail barely spanning in between a vertical cliff to the left and a vertical precipice to the right, I suddenly became aware of my foothold and my balance, trying to sneak in peeks at the emptiness below me that were short enough to not throw my breathing rhythm off course but long enough to make my knees soften a bit and my muscles burn with the sting of adrenaline.
Streams are scarce on cliff offshoots, but the cold glacial water quenches even the thirstiest of hikers, and manipulating the green algae to direct the trickles into your flask is guaranteed to make you appreciate the sanctity of fresh drinking water. By the time we had made it into the alpine meadows at 10,000ft, we had passed the still and ice-cold Precipice Lake and were now heading to Kaweah Gap, the day's highest elevation point.
Kaweah Gap was cold and windy as the sun was setting opposite to the valley, and we picked up the pace downhill towards what we were hoping would be Big Arroyo camp. We never made it to the camp this time, though, so we stopped close to a creek and set up camp on some mossy grass patch just as the sun had gone under. It felt good to be this high up under the clean, starry, desert sky and with all the fatigue from the climb throbbing though my leg muscles, no sooner had my head touched the ground than I flipped out into dreamland.
We had a slow start on our third day, not because we were tired (we were) or because we were lazy (we weren't), but because the beauty of our camp site stunned us into amazement as soon as we had peeked our heads out of the tent. Our friends we had met two days before at Bearpaw Meadow and with whom we had raced up the canyon wall towards Kaweah Gap passed us on the trail soon after and we then got ourselves together, packed up and started South-East, towards the Big Arroyo, and then further beyond, to Morraine Lake. The day went by uneventfully, save for, perhaps, our blisters which had begun developing due to the couple dosen miles of continuous trekking. We started crossing a high alpine plateau of serene beauty: basically littered with deer, dried lake beds, pristine glens and ancient woodland. We made it to Morraine Lake by 4:00 PM and seeing that the lake was not as clean and lifeless as we had hoped for, it probably wouldn't have served our bathing target well (Ștefan got in and won himself a leech on the foot, while I resorted to the more conservative approach of just washing my hair, lest birds should nest in it).
All in all, we had lunch and decided to try and push towards descending 2,000ft into the Kern River canyon down below, where the map had generously indicated the presence of thermal hot springs. We got up, picked our backpacks and off we went, lured by the promise of a hot bath in open air in the middle of nowhere.
Little did we know that life had just intended to stop being the careless walk in the park it had been up until then. The initial descent went well. We met four rangers who had just opened up a new trail section they had been working on for months. We had the privilege of being the first hikers to set foot on that piece of trail ever in the history of the park. Further down, along the stretch of trail cut out of a steep precipice, we passed a horse caravan carrying supplies up the mountain. Needless to say, I barely fit with my backpack and laden gait on the narrow trail, how the horses did it exceeds my understanding. Furthermore, how both I and the horses might pass each other brought up a sharp reminder of NP-completeness.
The rangers stopped the caravan at a distance and told us to pull off into the precipice. The one leading said that horses might spook of people resting uphill and jump off the cliff, but should the threat come from below, then they wouldn't have any other option than to carry on. With some acceptable difficulty on our part, we passed the caravan and made it further down the face of the cliff into the Kern River basin.
When we stepped on the river shores, instead of the much longed for camp site, our eyes had no choice than to rest on an arrow pole indicating we'd still have to cover 2 more miles to the hot springs. With the sun almost down and perhaps no more than an hour and a half of light left, we started frantically in the direction of the arrow, worried that at the low altitude we had descended to and with the thick forest and the cave-ridden canyon walls surrounding us, bear encounters would lean towards becoming a certainty rather than a possibility.
We had already done 13.5 hard miles that day when we crossed the Kern River on a wooden bridge. The map indicated that the hot springs would be on the Eastern (current) river bank so we kept advancing until half an hour before dark, we suddenly realized we had lost the trail. Worse even, we were trapped between the canyon wall and what we thought was the river in an area with thick undergrowth. We desperately tried to find boot tracks, but in doing so I only managed to (a) contaminate the area with my own boot tracks and (b) discover bear paw tracks which I decided to not mention anything out loud about. I suddenly realized I had met no one on the trail since the junction and with all the hard facts piling up on top of our sense of being lost, we decided to set up camp and stay where we were over night. We didn't eat anything because we didn't want the bears sensing food, so we just took our backpacks far away from the tent, got in our sleeping bags and tried to hope for the best.
That was the longest night I have ever spent in the wilderness, and to be honest, the only time in my life that I felt uneasy sleeping in the wilderness. It's not hard to imagine sounds while the forest in the canyon is ploughed by winds, but we eventually fell asleep towards the morning. On our fourth day, we got up early, packed everything without eating and started backtracking in order to find the trail. It turned out that what we had considered to be the river was in fact just a tributary and after crossing it, we went around a cliff spur and found the hot streams and the camp. We had spent the night no further away than 300ft from the camp. Neat.
Alas, we sat on the river banks, ate and waited for the sun to reach the bottom of the valley. The hos spring was emptying into a natural bath tub formed by a few huge rocks enclosing a pool of steaming warm water. It didn't take me long to take off all of my clothes and dive into the warm water pool; after three days of continuous walking and sweating, the sensation of being soaked in warm water on the bottom of a valley surrounded by steep white granite cliffs and on the shores of a white water river felt nothing short of the best and most exclusive jacuzzi experience on Earth. The rest of our fourth day went on uneventfully, as we made our way North to Junction Meadow along the Kern River Canyon in what was perhaps the most boring stretch of the entire trail (and for the full extent of the 9.3 miles, we met not one single human that day). Nonetheless, the night was restful and after doing some self-surgery on my blisters with my flame-sterilized pocked knife, on the fifth day we started our final ascent on the Eastern side of the Great Basin continental divide: the ascent towards Mt. Whitney.
The initial plan would have been to camp on the shores of Guitar Lake at 11,500ft up, but as luck would have it we got caught in the rain three miles before that and were forced to camp at Crabtree Meadow, at a mere 10,000ft up and under tremendous gloom from the menace of a rainy morning we were in no way prepared to face (we had brought desert gear, remember?).
The rain scare didn't last long, though, and after a moderate, but stern drizzle, the clouds dispersed and the sun came back out. We decided to leave the sleeping bags, where we had hidden in order to warm up a little, and carry out what had to be done. Ștefan went on a ridge to take some pictures while I started warming my dinner and mingling with other people on the camp in order to figure out about water availability upwards from Guitar Lake and towards the summit. I managed to run into an old lady who was a veteran of those mountains and who gave me information about the locations of creeks as well as about how we might make it back to civilization after reaching the summit.
She wasn't giving me good news, I'll leave it at that. There would be no water for 6 miles after Guitar Lake, and when I hastily misinterpreted the old lady's reference to the "every other day" bus schedule service in Lone Pine to be "every other hour", only to realize my mistake and gaze in awe, she put me down with what must have been the day's punchline:
"Well, this is the United States. We have very bad bus service."
No kidding! As we'd later learn, not only did they have bad bus service in the desert valley East of Sierra Nevada, but they also had NO bus service on weekends. Not good news when you serendipitously plan your descent for a Friday evening.
The following morning - the morning of our sixth day of wilderness - we were happy we had spent the night at 10,000ft and not 11,500ft as we found frost on the grass not far from our tent. We got up very early and reached first Timberline and then Guitar Lake by 10:00 AM. We decided to stop at Guitar Lake to have lunch and replenish our water supplies, knowing we would be forced to cover another 6 miles and a 3,000ft in altitude difference before we would reach another stream or creek.
And then came the final ascent to Muir Peak, the junction between the main trail over the ridge of the mountain range and its offshoot leading to the summit of Mt. Whitney. The air had gotten considerably thinner with altitude and even though I religiously tried to keep to my constant climbing pace, I would start losing my breath with increasing frequency. More over, I decided to ration my water resources carefully, and in doing so I may have brought some mild dehydration upon myself. After reaching the junction, we dropped our backpacks there and started to walk towards the summit - somewhat lighter and faster, now that we were free from burden. We contemplated the desert valley stretching to the East of us, and I took a moment to remember that the year before I had forced AJ to hike with me in Bad Water Basin, the lowest, hottest and driest point in both Death Valley, the Mojave Desert and the entire North America and a mere 84 miles SE of Mt. Whitney, the highest elevation point in the lower contiguous 48 states (nature is cynical, I won't hear otherwise).
I wish I could describe my feelings as I was standing on the summit in a way that would do them justice. There I was, me, standing on the roof of Sierra Nevada, the roof of the contiguous USA, looking down on the clouds forming below me and to the right and trying to contain my emotion.
We met Will on the summit. Will had just completed the John Muir Trail (210 miles) in eight days, by himself, with a sprained ankle and a rotated knee. It didn't take much for Will to be the day's hero, but as I was beginning to feel the grasp of altitude sickness and dehydration, we signed the guest book in the metal chest and started back down. The sickness got the best of me on my way down, but somehow I managed to push myself for another 7 miles (and about 8,000ft down) despite the vertigo, the low blood pressure, the lack of oxygen and the bloodshot eyes. Will said he had his parents waiting for him at the base of the trail, in Whitney Portal village, and generously offered to give us a ride to Lone Pine, the nearest settlement.
We bought the first available motel room in Lone Pine we could have and I took the first hot bath after a week. I couldn't wash my feet properly because they hurt too much to the touch and there was some blood oozing from some of the blisters, so I just sort of let them soak. Then I drank about three quarters of a gallon (3 litres) of iced tea and went to sleep.
The following day we got confronted with the bus issue I mentioned earlier and felt very stranded for the first time: we had crossed the whole High Sierra Nevada on foot and now we were helplessly facing the lack of public transportation (or, for that matter, any transportation) out of that remote valley and towards San Francisco. So we decided to try our luck at hitchhiking to the next town and renting a car from there. Sure enough, half an hour later a pediatric dentist gave us a ride to Bishop, the promised city of car rental opportunities.
Well, at least in theory. Bishop is just as rural and God-forgotten as Lone Pine - only slightly larger and with a McDonald's that also serves for the main landmark. We enquired at the visitor centre about how we might go on our merry way to San Francisco, and after getting some patronising smiles from the guy behind the counter, we were confronted with a challenge:
"You're stuck here. Some people manage to hitchhike out, though... if you're good looking and..."
That was it. "Good looking", you say? Hell, I'm good looking. Leave it to me.
We walked just out of the town, past the Shell gas station, ranger hat pulled down on the back of my neck, sunglasses on and a one-inch beard hiding the rest of the wreck of a face I had after a week's continuous sunburn, and I started praying that someone would be merciful.
Someone was. A woman named Megan, on her way to organising a wedding and who just happened to have a soft spot for hikers offered to give us a ride to 10 miles out of Mammoth Lakes. We weren't sure how we'd cover the following 10 miles, but it was still better than nothing and we took her offer. Well, she kept her word and half an hour later, we were stranded on a highway across the desert, 10 miles from the next human settlement. It seemed like we were poised to approach civilization asymptotically.
So in lack of any other options, we start walking on the highway. I suppose, on a personal level it was a natural development, considering my last year's accomplishment of riding a bike on the Californian Highway 101. I seemed destined to get intimate with highways, at least until our overt homeless appearance appeased the heart of a Mexican family driving by, who offered to give us a ride the rest of the way to Mammoth Lakes.
Our third hitchhike of the day having ended without the ever-possible axe-murder or rape (or both), we ran out of ideas and crashed the McDonald's at Mammoth Lakes (yes, they do have one there as well). And blessed be he, who built one there, because it was through their free Wi-Fi that I randomly came to realize the presence of a Hertz car rental facility in Mammoth Lakes. It seemed we were almost there.
It turned out, however, that renting a car from Mammoth Lakes and dropping it in San Francisco incurs a 500$ fee on top of the actual cost of just 90$ that is charged for returning it back to Mammoth Lakes. So we took a moment to reflect on our hardcore homeless financial status and I set forth my intention to pull out the car rental scheme of my life: we would rent the car from Mammoth Lakes for 24 hours for 90$, drive it through Yosemite National Park all the way to San Francisco (well, San Jose, as it later turned out to be more convenient), rent another car from San Jose, drive both of them back over the mountains and Yosemite to Mammoth Lakes, drop the first car in Mammoth Lakes and then drive back to the Bay Area in the second car.
Easy, right? Well, it may have taken a while, and it may have tired me to drive past the same 250 miles three times in 48 hours, but let me tell you something: the thought of driving a car through the Sierra Nevada serpentine road, with the radio turned up on my favourite Californian station (B92.9, in case you were wondering) made me giggle the whole 10 yards from the shop door to the car door. I was jumping up and down behind the wheel with happiness and excitement. And after all this was over, I got to crash AJ's place and finally allow myself two days' rest before I would regain control of my leg muscles and the energy to fly out to Yellowstone and Grand Teton and start hiking all over again.
* * *
This all happened last week. I landed in Bozeman (which is the least posh of the two airports serving the Yellowstone National Park area) six hours ago and while waiting for Ștefan to arrive on the 11:00 PM flight, decided to walk the miles separating the airport from the village of Belgrade under the peaceful Montana afternoon sun and tap in on the provincial atmosphere that I both crave and respect at the same time. There is no phone service here, no Internet connection, no plots, no politics, no snobs, no backstabbing, no worries... there's just me, and endless prairie in all directions to cancel out my inner emotional claustrophobia.
Here, close to the border with Wyoming and thousands of miles away from big city life... I am indeed, a free man :-).