The vortex is strong in Mammoth. I could stay at Stellar Brew indefinitely, chatting with fellow hikers and eating more baked goods (the most amazing almond blackberry breakfast cake this morning). I catch up with Wine Doc, who is off to the tailor; he’s lost enough weight that his pack no longer fits. I have already eaten the two leftover pieces of pizza, more fruit and a chai tea. But I get an apple and a vegan burrito to go, which barely make it back to the hotel before disappearing too. It’s just after 10am.
Reluctantly, I pack my bag and attempt to clean up the worst of the dirt. It is truly amazing how much grit and gear and garbage can explode out of my little pack. Several hours and three buses later, I am back at the Red’s Meadows Store. I take one last look around the store, see nothing I want and conclude that town has at least temporarily satisfied the hiker hunger. I am just about to leave when Soccer Mom appears. And then Slumberkat and Maestro, all of whom will only be a few hours behind me.
I tear myself from the friend vortex and back to the trail. I start at the PCT sign, but the paths are so confusing here. Last year I walked circles trying to get to the store, this year I end up on the Devil’s Postpile alternate despite my best efforts to stay on the PCT.
Such a strange web of side trails and confusing signs. I weave my way across the river and then North. Here the JMT and PCT diverge for 14 miles. Most people are taking the JMT alternate, it stays close to a string of incredible lakes, and today is more than hot enough for swimming. I am taking the official route, as it will be new to me.
The novelty, however, is no match for exhaustion. The hazy afternoon heat of the valley, the belly full of town food. I can’t focus and am dizzy to the point of almost falling off a double-wide log bridge. I take a break four miles in, and again four later, beginning to worry I will need more days and more food than planned. Finally, electrolyte mix and an avocado balance out the post-town trail-shock and I begin to feel better just in time for the climb up the ridge.
On the uphill, I finally find my stride. The ridge is awash with wildflowers in every shade of yellow and purple. Lupine lines the wetter parts of the trail, with Shadow lake and the still-snowy Minarets on full display in the background.
At 7:30 I come across PCT hikers camped with full view of the late day colors and the promise of sunset. But I press on. Even though I may have to camp alone. Even though the light won’t last. Even though this is big animal prime time and I just saw the biggest freshest bear poop of the trip so far.
I walk faster as trail dips into the dark forest, relieved when it pops back into more open territory. I reach the Thousand Island lake outlet just as sky lights up pink. But there’s no camping here. I must either walk a half mile each way off trail to camp by the lake where I know there will be others, or keep walking alone into the last of the twilight totally alone.
I keep walking. Alone in the near dark I am extra conscious of odd noises, but conscious too of how much braver I have become since last passing through here. At the same time, I am reluctant to turn my headlamp on, for fear reflecting eyes will end the magic of my newfound confidence. But the trail is rough and I keep tripping and cannot see possible campsites in the dark. Almost as soon as I give in and turn on my headlamp, a massive jackrabbit bounds across the trail, eyes glowing red. It’s just a bunny, I think, keep walking.
I make it to the pond I remember right before Island Pass without further incident. I set up my tent in the darkness, eat a bar for dinner, tired and full enough to avoid cooking. Still, I am not scared though I take care to place my bear can farther away from my tent than usual. I fall asleep feeling accomplished, contemplating whether or not to wake up super early and try to make the Post Office’s official noon closure. The alarm is set, but I will have to see how I feel when it goes off.