The Hike Out

Bear Creek to Mammoth Lakes: 56 miles in five days

August 20th: 7 miles along Bear Creek

August 21st: 11 miles Bear Creek to Vermilion Valley via Mono Hot Springs Detour

August 22nd: 6 miles from Vermilion Valley to Cold Creek

August 23rd: 15 miles over Goodale Pass down into Cascade Valley to Fish Creek

August 24th:18 miles from Fish Creek through Iva Bell Hot Springs to Mammoth Lakes

Billy here. After getting soaked in relentless rain for days, we woke up along Bear Creek after a long, restless night. Spence had a fever and was sweating and chilled all night long. He even got up in the middle of the night to make hot chocolate, he was so cold and sleepless. It was clear that we would not make it over the next mountain pass this way, so we began a slow trek out, with the idea that perhaps we would get a ride back to Mammoth Lakes some way or another.

We hiked out Bear Creek and thought we’d try Mono Hot Springs south of Vermilion, since it was closer to the road out, thinking maybe we could find a ride or get a bus or shuttle. It was a beautiful but hot hike out, some of it down a rocky and steep OHV road. At the end of the OHV road was a little trailer where someone lived rather rustically. Here we continued down a steep, winding main road with no shoulder for a couple of miles. Mono Hot Springs was a cute little operation, dotted with cabins and a quaint little general store. We were running low on energy and water, so we bought some juice and maps and sat out front in some rocking chairs to discuss our plan. A couple of local grizzled cowboys were sitting net to us smoking cigarettes, one with a gentle demeanor, and struck up a conversation on the area and where to catch a bus. From the gist of it we would have to try and find a ride to Fresno and then take a bus all the way around. This prospect would cost us some money. Even though Mammoth was about thirty miles on foot (as we erroneously thought) across the mountains, by car you had to go all the way around, south and north again through Yosemite, a trip that would take us all day with good luck. We didn’t really like the prospect of having to negotiate a ride into a city then sitting on the bus with Spence feeling so sick. We decided to rest and walk back. This was a feat of courage and endurance on Spence’s part that still impresses me to this day. He was feverish and woozy with no appetite and the trek we had in front of us was more like fifty more miles, not thirty. Our first step was to hike back up the steep road to Vermilion Valley Resort to get back on the trail. One of the grizzled yokels was talking about the numerous hot springs in the woods, some public, some secret, but it was hot out and we wanted to get on our way. The other cowboy with the soft voice said he saw us walking down the main road as he was driving in from his trailer where he lived at the end of the OHV road, which we passed earlier, and offered to give us a ride in his van, at least as far as his trailer. As long as we didn’t mind a little mud and animal hair. Not in the least! On the ride up he talked about how he used to ride the horse train for the camp up near Vermilion and how he loved the Southwest. There was something so gentle and kind about him, like a cowboy Buddha. Sam Elliot would be cast for his character in the Hollywood movie of our summer. When we said goodbye I realized we didn’t get his name, only the name of his dog, which seemed appropriate somehow. We were so scattered and out of sorts that we had forgotten to get water in Mono Hot Springs and I had even left my half finished juice at the general store. The climb up the road to Vermilion was hot and ruthlessly sunny and we soon ran out of water. It was at least five more miles to the resort and I felt ridiculously irresponsible for letting us run out of water when Spence was so sick and on the road of all places. As if being answered swiftly by a miracle, I heard the sound of running water off the side of the road just up ahead. There was a small spring! We rested in the shade, filled up on water and trekked back up to Vermilion for the night.

That night it stormed through the entire night, soaking our tent further and effectively draining us of more sleep. So we had a slow, wet start to the day and Spence was still feeling very sick, but we didn’t want to spend another day at the resort so we might have a better chance of getting some good rest, so we decided to hike a little into the trail and take a rest day. Looking at the map and remembering the torturous climb down the granite staircase and Tully Hole, we agreed that we didn’t want to climb back up that way. Also, we wanted to stay at a lowest possible altitude, in case Spence’s flu was an altitude sickness combination, so we set out to take a different route back: down into Cascade Valley along Fish Creek instead of up over it on the PCT. We knew we didn’t technically have a permit to go this way, but figured through the extenuating circumstance, we had to take the chance. So we set out up Cold Creek past Graveyard Meadow, where we rested and dried out for the rest of the day. I was beginning to feel under the weather too, but I drank Emergen-C and powered through it with sheer will. I had to be motivated and strong to get us safely out.

The next day we slowly hauled over Goodale Pass, which was relatively not as difficult as Silver Pass. We rose slowly into the dusty, moonscape of the mountain pass and saw Squaw Lake again from a different side. My thoughts were filled with old grievances as we clamored slowly down switchbacks on the other side of the divide past alpine lakes, until we reached the very bottom of the valley and forded Fish Creek with our shoes in our hands at dusk. We continued down the creek for a ways trying to find a flat spot to camp for the night and, even though we didn’t intend to hike for so long, by the time we finally found a spot right next to the creek, it was dark and we had gone almost 15 miles.

The next morning we hiked over the ridge to Iva Bell Hot Springs, where we rested our weary legs in a warm, healing pool and determined that we might as well hike all the way out today since we were quickly running out of food options. We forded the creek again and hiked up a dry, hot switchback out of Cascade Valley, affording wondrous views of the valley floor, and continued north to Devil’s Postpile where we would take a shuttle back to the car. This little back trail from Fish Creek to Reds Meadow was quite beautiful and I am glad we got to see the sheer granite cliffs and waterfalls tumbling straight down them. Much of the trail was flat solid rock, part of a vast cliff dropping off to the west of us. By the time we hiked up out of our last switchback bowl, I was finally getting the hang of understanding altitude change on the topographic map. “Oh, the rest of this trail is no problem!…Gentle slopes all ahead!…No more uphill after this!” I would say before ascending yet another gravelly switchback over a rocky ridge.

We were so thankful to finally see the Rainbow burn stumps of our home stretch: only a couple miles to the shuttle pick up. Just before leaving the meadow, I saw the flapping of what I thought was a hummingbird, but it turned out to be a sphinx moth, a creature I had been wanting to see since I was a kid! Our very last uphill to the shuttle stop from the trail was so ridiculously steep that I joked we would soon start walking up backwards, trying to humor Spence, who was not in a mood for any more hills. I was so tired, hungry and grumpy that I stopped in my tracks and laughed with my hands on my knees. We finally made it to the bus stop after nearly 18 miles up from the Valley floor. We sat on the shuttle in a daze as the sun set. We were dreaming of hot fresh food and a bed and a shower. I could only imagine how tired Spence must feel battling sickness and going 50 more miles over another mountain pass and into and back out of an enormous valley.

In the dark, we anxiously walked away from the shuttle through the parking lot back to where our van was last parked. We were delirious and could hardly walk even on the pavement. We were exuberant to find our van intact once again!

We went to a local bar with a Texas theme called Z Ranch and joyously drank Shiner. I ate a mouthwatering double jalapeno cheeseburger with zeal. We checked into the Motel 6, took heavenly hot showers and crawled into soft, flat, clean and dry beds. We were going to sleep in and have some real coffee. At a coffee shop.

Because we had backtracked and done parts twice, like the River Trail, we had just walked over 192 miles through the Sierras, which is nearly the length of the entire John Muir Trail. I knew in my heart I would go and do this trail again to the finish. Ultimately, it isn’t about the miles or even completion, for there is nothing to complete except the continual shattering of limitations in the mind, forms, symbols and ideas – learning to see and hear the world as it is without the stained glass vision of the story through which we see the world. As Arthur Koestler says:

Every creative act involves…a new innocence of perception liberated from the cataract of accepted belief.

spence here:  waking up to another very cold and wet morning, we decided to go about a mile to a drier camp to rest up and dry out. my head was spinning and breakfast did not appeal to me–not even coffee. we landed not too far from upper bear creek meadows and sadly never went any further south. even after laying in the sun to dry out for several hours i had severe chills, accompanied by sweating since i had put on every layer of clothing i could fit. that night’s sleep was possibly my worst ever, as i struggled in average temperatures to stay warm and stop shivering.  in the middle of the night i finally got up and made hot chocolate,  thinking dramatically, that if i had hypothermia, the beverage would save me. in the morning, we had nice sunny skies and warmer temperatures, however, i was in no shape to hike. i turned to billy and i saw that he knew what i was about to say. in a disappointed and sick-induced haze i buried my head in my sleeping bag. when i woke again, i weepily drank half a mug of tea and dragged myself out of the tent to pack up.  i’ve never been so dizzy, fatigued and/or nauseous in any time i can recall. it took me an hour to sort and fill my pack–a chore that normally took 5 minutes.

what i remember from that day of hiking, as we turned around to go back, was not the fact that we barely made any miles, or the fact that i had napped more than hiked, but that of billy’s courage, patience and resolve to take care of me and get us out safely.  we had both been reading our guide book and re-reading the book to try to figure a short way out and the answer was simple–there was no way out that didn’t include at least one mountain pass and elevations of 11,000 feet. i focused that day on staying upright, with the hope that going down in elevation to vermilion valley resort would help me feel a little better.

we sacked out for the night at a lovely spot near bear creek, with a shadowy butte overlooking our camp. it was warm and dry and i slept a little better at 8500 feet, but still had the chills.  it took me 3 days to get rid of them, but by that time, i had a new problem–chafing.  i had never had this problem before while hiking, although i had heard numerous horror stories of people unable to continue hiking for the chafing on their butt cheeks and thighs was so bad.  many companies make anti-chafe cream and lube for this purpose, as well as special spandex, chamois shorts and a whole host of other preventive measures. fortunately and/or unfortunately, i had read of a quick and painful remedy that proved to work well the whole trip–alcohol.  i always traveled with alcohol pads because they are good for everything–from first aid to getting sap off your hands to cleansing before cooking.  curiously, another use for them was drying up chafing.  yes, it is as awfully painful as it sounds, but its a 5 second way to stay chafe-free and get a little cleaner at the end of a long hiking day.  in my sickness stupor, i had neglected to notice and take care of this increasingly aggravating problem, so by the time we arrived back at vermilion, my chafing was so bad, it was uncomfortable to sit down.  i did what i could by showering at the ranch, using alcohol and eventually using talc powder, but since we had to hike further, nothing really helped. at least it took my mind of my continuing nausea and fever!

with all said, i really did appreciate seeing mono hot springs and i felt sad to miss out on soaking.  i was glad for more kindness from strangers, in the form of buddha cowboy camper-dweller and for the continual hospitality from the folks at vermilion valley ranch in the face of our predicament. i was dead-tired and worried about hiking out, but going down in elevation to 7500 feet helped to clear my head and see that our path was clear over goodale pass. it was a brilliant trail and seeing the pass (basically west of silver pass in the same set of teeth) in the sunlight, really highlighted the silvery rocks and cliff faces, gleaming.

billy must have been on edge and disappointed about our turn of events to hike out, but he never showed it. on our way down we stopped for lunch at another secret waterfall spot which had a shimmering sandy beach of crushed granite. we talked about coming back and finishing the trail another time and i know in my heart we will.  i wish i could have enjoyed the last day of hiking more, as our 18-mile epic walk was so picture perfect in many ways.  the trail weaved through massive granite walls, soft pumice paths, across clear fast streams where i dunked my weary head and captured the pictures of twisted old junipers in my mind.  billy would hike ahead and then wait for me to catch up, a slow, shuffling bundle. i felt all sorts of emotions, from disappointment in myself, to relief, to sadness and then back to disappointment.

our shuttle back to the van was uneventful.  i was grateful for the ride, resting my bones, but somehow i thought there should be some sort of monumental ending. not exactly ticker-tape or a medal, but something. i felt proud of what we had accomplished, however, it felt hard to praise it in my mind in light of our hike being over. it felt difficult to swallow–it being “over.” but besides the chafing and exhaustion, at the lower altitude i started feeling better. i knew we had made the right decision in turning around, as hard as it was. i had heard the stories of hikers trying several times to finish the jmt and being sent back to civilization stronger and wiser–successfully finishing in subsequent years. this was my resolve.

i thoroughly enjoyed my garden burger and beer at the z ranch bar, as well as my epic hot shower at the motel.  we had a lot to look forward to with an upcoming new adventure in the desert. i looked towards those future paths and the wisdom and courage that flows to us with time.

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