Day two dawned overcast and crisp and we were out of camp like the crack of a whip. But when we got to where the trail split – one fork headed the way we had come and the other heading off into the unknown – we hesitated. As always I was worrying. The ranger had mentioned that the river crossing we would face later in the day might be dangerous. And it was cold. If we got too wet or had to swim… well, it was going to be a miserable day. Kyle nodded along to all my reasoning and then turned and set off down the unknown trail. Decision made.
The day started out with a little decline before some steep switchbacks took us straight up into a wide-open sloping meadow. We were acutely aware that bears could be around every curve and so it was no surprise that Kyle shouted, “Bear!” the moment we set foot into the high alpine field. The bear was already hightailing it into the bushes. It was a surprise when Kyle shouted it again just a couple of seconds later and I whipped my head around to see a young black bear shooting down the hill. We stopped walking and gazed around. There weren’t any more in sight so we continued on but right as we passed a clump of trees I saw one up to my left and shouted. They were as thick as cows in a pasture! Then Kyle saw one off to the right. At this point we were screaming at the top of our lungs as we walked on fleet feet through the blue berry bushes. Finally the trail led out of the field and back into the trees and we scuttled up onto a ridge.
From there it was downhill for what felt like one million switchbacks. It was the kind of descent that we had experienced on the PCT in Northern California – thousands of feet of gradual back and forth for hours. Finally we got to the river which was not swollen at the very least – I let out a sigh and kicked myself for almost making us turn back. We crossed a deeper part of the river on a huge downed tree, worn smooth from hundred of footfalls. The water underneath was perfectly clear and bright green, allowing a crystalline view of trout flitting back and forth. After the log crossing we found ourselves on the other bank for a while and thus began the long, gradual uphill section of the hike. We kicked it up into thruhiker mode.
Next thing we knew we were cruising along at a pace that felt utterly innate. Over roots and rocks and across bridges. We kept checking our watch and quickly realized that at this pace we would make it into our camp for the night around 2pm. And our camp for the night was only a couple of miles from the cars. Yes, if we went all the way out it would be a 28 mile day but hey, we had done much longer days on the PCT. We chatted about it but decided to hold off on a decision until we reached camp. But something about the promise of a 28 mile day-long challenge piqued our legs’ interest and they zoomed on, quickening their footfalls.
Until we got to the cable car which stopped us in our tracks. It is an actual, human powered cable car. The river below was low enough we could have easily forded it but why ford something when you have a cable car! I mean seriously, the Sierras could use a couple of these. Kyle hopped in first with our packs while I pulled on the cables, helping him across. Then he sent the car back and I gingerly stepped in, squeaking with every shudder. With both of us pulling I soon made it to the other side and we descended the rickety structure. What a rush to ride a cable car in the middle of the wilderness!
We puttered on through the trees, the dark dense forest hiding the grey sky above. A cold light filtered through and our sweat soaked backs goose pimpled every time a breeze made its way between backpack and t-shirt. Finally the trail started to climb in earnest, crossing over a chute-like creek that was plummeting to the valley floor far below. The steep section let up after a little while and we found ourselves back in the flat little hanging valley below Hannigan Pass. Our camp popped around the corner shortly after that. It wasn’t even 2pm yet. We met a man who had left the parking lot when we did the day before and he seemed utterly bewildered that we were on our way back out. We set our sights on Hannigan Pass and continued climbing.
Once a thruhiker, always a thruhiker. It does something to your brain. Even when Kyle and I thought we could go out for a leisurely two-night backpacking trip we turned it into an all out sprint. But as we unraveled our legs and let them cruise down the the trail my body rejoiced. The beat of my feet on the pine needles was like music to my ears. We all go to the woods for different reasons, some people like my brother Nelson and his girlfriend Michelle go to notice small things, to stop at every mushroom and attend to every fern. Other people like my friend Dennis hope to see wildlife and will stop in his tracks to identify that bird song or move quietly so he can get a glimpse of that deer. But more and more I go to the woods to feel the wind as it whips through my hair, enjoy that trickle of sweat as it slithers down my spine, and marvel as I carry myself across the beauty of the land – taking it all in with my head on a swivel. In the end I can’t help it, I go to the mountains to move.