TWO STICKS’ JOURNAL
7/9 – The John Muir Trail – Red’s Meadow
The storm continued through the early morning. The wind broke and the sky cleared and the stars came out. I peeked out of my tent and spotted one bright one hanging low above the Minarets. Mars, Jupiter, Venus, I don’t know which. I wish I brought an astronomy book with me. I slept what few hours I could. At dawn I stretched and ate and packed my gear and was off by 8. The campers across the way were gone. The rest of the lake remained unoccupied.
I met a sour looking girl a couple miles east of the lake. She was tall and had an external framed hand-me-down backpack that looked like something Colin Fletcher might have used. It hung over her head like some tall spindly Dr. Seuss plant.
“Where’d you get those walking sticks?”
“Got them my first day on the trail.”
“From a store?”
“From the ground.”
“How much they weigh?”
“I don’t know.” I handed them to her.
“You could get some ultra light ones. Made of titanium. Half an ounce.”
She was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail north. I asked if she had run into Thalia who should have reached Red’s Meadow by yesterday afternoon.
“I bypassed Red’s. Didn’t have a resupply. Was hearing funny stories from people coming out of Mammoth and always heard anyway that it’s a trap for people doing the PCT.”
“You go into town and get a good meal and get plastered and laid and maybe stay at a hotel or pick up work and a two day stint turns into six weeks and soon you live there and aren’t doing the trail anymore.”
“But that’s not what I heard lately.”
“What have you heard lately?”
“You’ll think I’m crazy. I might be. I’ll keep it locked in. PCTers are funky. They smell funky, they act funky, they do funky things. You ever been to Burning Man? That’s not real life. So I don’t know what I believe.”
“Should I not go to Red’s?”
“You got a resupply there?”
“Next one is VVR.”
“Go into Red’s. Keep your guard up. Stay out of Mammoth. What route you taking?”
“18 miles today. Thousand Island straight to Red’s via the JMT.”
“Only folks I met were clustered along the JMT south of Shadow before the switchbacks.”
“Camped. Right on the trail. I haven’t seen a ranger in three days.”
“What were they doing?”
“Looked drunk or drugged. Half of them naked. Set a fire ring right on the trail. There were maybe 10 of them. Asked me riddles.”
“Like a toll. To get by.”
“What were the riddles?”
“The first: What I build, I build stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter. What am I?
“The second: Many have heard me, but nobody has seen me, and I will not speak back until spoken to. What am I?
“The third: I’m at the beginning of the end and the start of eternity, at the end of time and space, in the middle of yesterday, but nowhere in tomorrow. What am I?
“I answered them and they let me by. I was shaking. They wouldn’t stop smiling. That kind of smile that just feels forced, or the way a bully smiles when he’s pushing you. You know? I didn’t want to find out what might happen if I crossed them or answered wrong.”
“What’s the answers?”
“Avoid that route. Take the High Trail. It follows the PCT and stays above treeline. I don’t know. I feel safer above treeline. Trees are alive and even the good trees like to crowd you in and block what you can see. High up you can see everything.”
“And everything can see you.”
I told her about my experience with Thalia on Donahue Pass and she said that it sounded similar to the stories she heard about Mammoth. We shook hands and I gave her two Clif Bars in exchange for one Snickers and we wished each other safe travels. I never did get her name.
The High Trail was set against a sloping ridge east of the Minarets. Despite the high elevation it did feel safer. I took a break at a lookout ten thousand feet up and drank the glacial melt from the stream above the trail. I could see across the gorge below to Shadow Lake. A whole craggy valley. Looked like the end of the world. I’d stopped here with my ex years ago. I didn’t think about her until just now.
Ate my lunch amidst flies and the probable remains of some hiker’s five day old defecation. I didn’t see anyone else. A pair of of wild dogs tracked the ridge above me. They had the thick neck of a hyena, with alert ears and patchy multicolored fur. Never thought to see animals like that out here. They darted away before I could get a photo.
Still no cell service.
The high trail left me at the road about six miles from Red’s Meadow at a place called Agnew Meadow. It was a mosquito den. A series of missing hiker ads were pasted on a tree beside the restroom, all of them dated by at least two years except one, which listed a shaggy haired boy in his early 20’s. “Missing: Owen Ashburn. Left January for a winter summit of Clyde Minaret. Never returned or heard from. Please contact…”
The photo included looked similar to the shaggy odd chap I first encountered last week. I took a photo of the ad with my phone and moved on.
When we’d come here before, my family had taken a shuttle from Red’s Meadow to Agney Meadow. Back then they ran every 30 minutes to an hour. I waited at the stop for 40 minutes but didn’t see a shuttle or a motorist or a cyclist, nothing at all that signaled anyone was using this road. If I turned left I could follow the road several miles to Mammoth and try to call someone or at least find out what was going on. If I turned right I could head for Red’s Meadow and at least grab my resupply box and talk to whomever was stationed there.
“Stay out of Mammoth.”
That’s what the girl had told me. I turned right. When another half hour passed without seeing a car I banked off the road and followed from behind the Lodgepole Pines. The trees might be alive. Friendly or no, I’d rather not be spotted approaching.
A couple miles in I found a gas trunk crashed in the middle of the road. The fires had long since gone out and the tanker was black and wilted but still stinking of smoke. The driver’s seat was caked with several day old blood. The blood led a trail across the asphalt and into the woods where it vanished.
I left for the trail with a windbreaker, a poncho, and three black 40 gallon garbage bags I could use to wrap my pack or my gear in case we got rain. The Sierra is a dry range. It doesn’t get much water. I knew this going in and so at the trailhead I ditched my snow pants, my waterproof jacket, and my gators, all under the banner of lightening my load. The first two days were clear but everyday since I’ve gotten at least some sort of downpour.
The rain began a mile outside Red’s Meadow. The clouds blotted out the dusk and I hiked beside the road beneath an early night. The road into the campsite outside Red’s was dark. There were two pickup trucks, a half a dozen tents, and two RV’s. I watched the site from behind a lodgepole. Nothing was moving save for the door to an RV that clattered open and shut to the wind. Lightning flashed and I saw the camp in earnest. It had been abandoned.
The sites were tagged and paid for but the receipts on the stumps had expired or were about to. The door to the RV had been clawed open. The door to another RV had been torn off. The insides were dusted in fur, as though a dog were living there. Broken glass, vinegar, the stench of rotted meat and urine. The tents were torn, the sleeping bags dragged and shredded, leaving piles of goose feathers to soak on the ground. The entire place smelled like an animal den: warmer than it should be, humid despite the rain, and urine scented.
The bear boxes remained shut. I found boots, some toiletries, but no food or bear canisters. Nobody has been here for at least a day, but something was still living here. That much was obvious.
I made camp a quarter mile into the woods. I feel unsure about staying in my tent so close. Red’s Meadow was deserted. No power. No horses or mules. The small restaurant was boarded up but I could see pockets of light creeping through the cracks and heard whispers from within.
Someone is there.
The front door had been clawed. I was going to return in the morning (my resupply bucket is here and I only have enough food to last another two days), but the bear-sacked campsite and the murmurs I heard inside the restaurant have made me eager for company.
My pack is coming with me. I’ve charged my phone with my portable battery. I’ve turned on the audio recorder of my phone to document anything important I might hear. I’ve got two walking sticks, my swiss army knife, and a heavy pair of boots – all of which will do just about nothing if I run into any bears. Let’s hope nobody asks me a riddle.
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