July 13, 2015
Trail Angel Tom is an energetic yet gentle soul, keen to share local knowledge. As a PCT hiker I feel like I am always blasting through, sometimes barely looking up, little lone pausing for historic sites. Last night at Donner Pass, I was too busy worrying about where I would spend the night to consider why the area was significant. This morning, having woken up clean, dry, well rested and in the company of very sweet border collie, I can do more than look up.
Instead of going directly back to the trail, we go “trolling for hikertrash” as Tom calls it, making a practiced round of trail sites that betrays an extensive commitment to helping hikers. Tom quickly dubs an older bearded man in front of the grocery store a non-hiker based on a cotton shirt. Learning I do not eat diary, he then asks if I would like to stop at a local coffee shop that has vegan baked goods. “How is that even a question,” I reply, welcoming the very rare treat, a surprise raspberry muffin.
As we near Donner Pass, the first road crossing from last night, where I was out of water and feeling very much alone, Tom points to a strange structure on the mountainside long, narrow, level and sometimes graffiti-covered. “You seem pretty smart,” he says, “so what do you think that is?” Without pause I answer, “a snowshed for a railroad but there aren’t tracks there anymore,” passing a test that apparently everyone fails. I credit drives though the Rocky Mountains.
There’s a hiker walking across the elegant curve of the Rainbow bridge (where a bear once climbed into its arching supports and forgot how to get down). It’s Steady Eddie, who joins us as the local history tour goes national. The snowshed is part of not just any railway, but the transcontinental, the first linking the two coasts in a communication revolutionizing reduction of travel time to eight days. Accomplishing this required something like forty miles of covered snowshed and many long tunnels. As with Canadian railway history, much of the dangerous work was done by Chinese laborers who chipped their way though rock so tough they were only making a foot of tunnel a day.
Back on trail, I pass two middle-aged women headed back to the road. They ask if I am stopping at the cabin, the Peter Grubb hut I failed to reach last night. “Be careful,” they caution, “There’s a man there.” I ask if he was dirty and bearded. “Yes!” they say, eyes-wide, as if on the trail of some dangerous fugitive. “Then he’s probably a PCT hiker, just like me,” I explain. They pair look slightly disappointed and move on.
I am trying to be more mindful of water today. In the late afternoon, I carefully scoop three liters from the shallow puddles of Lacey Creek. “Always water .3 miles downstream,” a sign nailed to a nearby tree promises. I think of the drought and dried up desert springs and the precariousness of life and wonder about the reliability of such a bold claim.
I dry camp for the first time since I can’t even remember when, up on a forested ridge. The Sierras are unraveling, as if someone tugged the jagged line of steep peaks, rounding and stretching the sharp corners into rolling hills.