Water: meadow-side spring; Kern River; Death Canyon Spring
I don’t wake until morning, no bears hungering for baby wipes in the night. It’s cold and shady in the canyon, the few remaining trees doing little to mask the extensive fire damage all around. Down the trail, tiny purple-pink flowers grow in stark contrast to the black and white deadwood surroundings.
I break through the burn area into an incredible meadow. Sage green scrub, and bright grasses for miles. The hills have trees again. I practically bounce down the path. But then I see something out of place: an empty plastic coke bottle. I pick it up, quite the commitment, a five day walk from a trash can. But it just doesn’t belong in my morning meadow. It makes my think of the anthropology-mocking movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” where a glass coke bottle dropped from a plane ruins the tranquillity of remote village life.
There’s a cool, clear spring just off trail and I go investigate, though I still have water. A few hikers are there, including the owner of the lost bottle. I am relieved of my trash-packing commitment. Go karma. I do try to do something to make the trail better everyday, whether picking up a scrap of trash, or just kicking an ankle-breaker sized rock off the path (usually while yelling “trail maintenance” for everyone or no one to hear).
The picturesque meadow is soon made ever more lovely by the winding Kern River. We gather at the bridge, laying in the sand, soaking feet in the cool running water. It is such a lovely scene that I don’t ever want to leave. Also, the trail is about to go uphill for over 7 miles, gaining some serious elevation.
There’s a note in my maps, warning of a confusing junction with an unmarked side trail. Minutes later I find myself struggling up a too steep incline of soft sand. My phone GPS confirms that the footprints have led me astray. But there is no way I am losing such hard-earned elevation so I continue fighting upwards until I find the trail again, guided by my phone app. A few minutes later I come across Rooster and Crunchberry eating lunch “did you get off trail too?” they ask.
My bear can-filled pack weighs heavy on my back. I pull the straps tighter until they are cutting into my shoulders, up and up and up. Today I am aware of each and every step that makes up a mile. Each step taking more effort than the last, the air thinner, the trail steeper. The walk is forever, there is nothing but this climb. At some point I resort to self bribery. “Two gummy bears when you get to that tree,” I bargain.
As I near the ridge, dark clouds gather, adding threat of thunderstorm to the already challenging walk. I suddenly become aware of just how many nearby trees appear to have been struck and burned. I rehearse my thunderstorm drill, get off the ridge, away from the big trees, look for a canyon. But the clouds dissipate before amounting to anything.
Eventually even this climb ends. I sit in the dirt at the top and eat the last gummy bear and a second lunch. I feel strange on the way down, as if my eyes can’t focus. Dizzy with altitude, or lack of electrolytes or both. I rest and go slowly to the next spring in a Death Canyon. My goal was to get to water (there was one last good dry stretch up and over the ‘hill’) and find somewhere pretty to camp. The novelty of trash-camping has worn off. Twisted red trunks of foxtail pines, striking granite outcrops catching the setting sun. It might be called Death Canyon, but it is also the Sierra. And glorious.