Kennedy Meadows South to Hwy 178 / Walker Pass (PCT 50.2 miles)
Day 98 started dark and early with a very brief rain storm. I woke up enough to get out of our tent, grab our shoes, and put them under the tent vestibules before drifting back to sleep. The light rain only lasted 10 minutes and when I got out of the tent about an hour later, after we actually woke up, everything was already bone dry. The sky was still filled with tropical-looking storm clouds and the sunrise was punctuated with large pink cotton puff clouds that I associate with the Carribean or Hawaii, not the SoCal desert. We all gathered on the deck of the General Store for Cynthia's breakfast feast of Asian pears, yoghurt, MHBB Pain de Mie, avocados, Odwalla smoothies, and leftovers AKA "breakfast lasagne". All 5 of us thru-hikers were given strict instructions that _no_ lasagne was going back home with her. Just Mike, Wrong Turn, and Eastwood happily obliged and together we managed to eat most of the food she brought.
We set out from the trailhead as Cynthia waved good bye and made our way into the desert. Soon we passed the few homes scattered around Kennedy Meadows, and one final building that appeared to be a very old and abandoned dilapidated house/trailer combo. As Huckleberry mentioned, we are walking into a blank canvas. What I soon discovered is that this artist, the high desert, has a gorgeous and different palette that I would have expected. The hues are both more muted and more vibrant then elsewhere on the trail. And the color scheme is all new with the predominant colors being yellows, reddish browns, and silvery greens. The yellows come from various dried grasses and the flowers of the sage. The reddish brown is from the sandy soils, tree trunks, and rock. The silvery greens are the Pinyon pines, sagebrush, prickly pear cacti and the leaves of the greasewood trees. There are other subtle colors too. One shrub that has a delicate lavender-violet bark, and there are some tiny purple flowers still blooming. We are back in buckwheat territory and the blooms range from vibrant red to deep orange-yellow. There are other dabs of bright colors, too, as the sagebrush is dotted with ladybugs, wasps, and bees. Butterflies, including Monarchs headed south, are flitting about too. This desert landscape is a stark and jarring contrast to the Sierra, yet is sublimely beautiful in its own right. There is also the blue of the sky, which may or may not be accented with clouds. On our first day there were high cirrus clouds, then tropical monsoon-like weather rolled in bringing many clouds for spectacular sunset and sunrise colors. Otherwise the open desert sky has been deep blue.
Later in the day we entered Rockhouse Basin, a large open expanse of low grasses and brush bordered by stunning granite domes to the southwest. Appropriately enough, we checked the map and found we were in the Dome Lands Wilderness. These domes remained a prominent geographic feature as skirted the far edge of this huge basin and then started our long climb to the east. We entered a slope that had been covered with a Live oak-like tree, Pinyon pines, and Junipers, but had been victim to a fire long ago. So for the most part, it was a 4-mile climb amongst a ghost forest and sagebrush. The desert sun was hot on this dry, exposed slope but fortunately we had an almost constant breeze. As we neared the top of our climb, we exited the Dome Lands and said goodbye to those granite sentinels. Thankfully we also left the large burn zone and dropped down along the Chimney Creek drainage. What Huckleberry and I have already realized is that we don't know much about the flora of this desert region. This is a change for us, because from Washington to the Sierra, we've been pretty comfortable identifying most of the plants. Here we recognize a few species, but most of the plants and trees are completely foreign. It feels a bit like we are in a foreign land. Late in the afternoon, we came across a familiar tree, the Grey pine. These silvery beauties with enormous pineapple-shaped cones grow along the PCT near the Hat Creek Rim, and we have not seen any since then. It felt comforting to recognize something around us.
Being in the desert has also brought about several adaptations and we have discovered a new normal. The first is the scarcity of water. We crossed the South Fork of the Kern River 5 miles before KMS and it was a lovely river flowing over rocks, but before Rockhouse Basin we walked along its bone-dry river bed. Over this ~51 mile stretch of the PCT there are only 2 on-trail water sources. The first is Fox Mill Spring at 19 miles from Kennedy Meadows, and is where we had dinner on the late afternoon of Day 98. After Diaz Creek, we were prepared for the worst but were happily surprised to find that the spring was piped and flowing plenty of clear water. We hiked into the evening and camped halfway to the second source located about 9 miles later. That spring-fed branch of the Spanish Needle Creek was just a small trickle flowing above the trail but sufficient to collect water. Fortunately it is relatively straightforward to hike 25 miles a day so we only needed to carry water for one day at a time. The second big change is when we hike and when we take breaks. We get up earlier so we can start hiking in the predawn light and continue after dark for a couple of hours. This allows us to maximize daylight and we can also get miles inwhen the temps are cooler. An added bonus is that the waxing helps illuminate the terrain. Break times are now more flexible, adjusted to coincide with patches of shade. Meal times are also being adjusted based on water sources, so dinner (our one cooked meal) will rarely be at the end of the day. No more dining like Argentinians, I suppose. It will be more of an early-bird special situation.
The desert so far has been incredible in that our vista changes with every ridge that we cross over. We went from a burn zone that started in Rockhouse Basin and continued up the entire canyon that was the length of our climb. There were abundant grasses and some regrowth of the oaks and other smaller deciduous trees, but the Pinyon pines and junipers have not grown back at all. The next drainage, Chimney Creek, was untouched by the fire. It had abundant Pinyon pines, Grey pines, and something like Live oaks along one side of a deep gully and the opposite slope was dominated by Black oaks and tall dry grass. It quickly became clear that little variables make a big difference here. The final surprise was on Day 99, when we crossed over a major ridge to enter the Owens Peak Wilderness and found the arid slope covered with Joshua Trees, the first that we have seen on the PCT. It has been incredible to watch such diversity unfold over such a short distance in trail miles.
The surrounding wildlife has changed, too. Our previously ubiquitous ground squirrels and Clark's Nutcrackers are gone. They've been replaced by lizards, Scrub Jays, raptors soaring above and jack rabbits. There have been other birds, though I'm not familiar with most of them. We've seen plenty of deer & coyote tracks, though none of the actual creatures. I'm sure that they have seen us. On the late morning of Day 99, Halloween must have been in the air, as Huckleberry almost stepped on a large tarantula walking along the trail across that oak-studded slope! We haven't yet come across any snakes nor scorpions however, that is probably only a matter of time. Strange land, indeed.
For the most part the desert has been quiet. The main sound is of the wind rustling through the dried grasses and trees. The cry of the Clark's Nutcracker has been replaced by the screeching of Scrub Jays. Most jarring of all has been the "sound of freedom". There are a few military bases nearby and the open desert is apparently where they practice their air maneuvers. We see and hear many fighter jets each afternoon, and saw one refueling in mid-air. While most are gone quickly, there was one instance where a jet was practicing a slow turning maneuver that I would call a "honeybee dance" as I have no better words to describe it.
This first taste of desert has been unbelievable and we can't wait to see what lies ahead. All in all we are getting used to our new reality as it rolls out before us each day.