Day 6: Ash, Civilization, Australians

July 24, 2017
Hidden campsite to Porcupine Flats Trailhead
Mileage: 3.75
Elevation Gain/Loss: +1,189' / -412'

A high pitched buzzing. Directly above me. Moving around my head. There is a mosquito in the tent. This wakes me. I don’t want any more damn mosquito bites after getting attacked at the creek last night. I almost made it out of this trip with no mosquito hell. So close, alas. 

Open my eyes. Look around. Search for the buzzing. Ahh. A bee. But not inside the tent. Relief. Instead, it’s between the tent fly and inner mesh. Cherub somehow senses what is happening and comes over from where she’s been perched on my ground tarp. I left it out last night after moving my things and myself inside the tent in the rain. She’s been up for hours. She lifts the fly to let out the bee. 

As soon as I fall asleep, the buzzing is back. What the hell? Another bee, also trapped. What are they doing? I try hitting the inner mesh, hoping to move the mesh or fly just so and let the bee escape. It kind of works, but soon the bee works itself back into a weird air pocket. Seriously, what are they doing? It goes on like this for an hour or two as I doze. I’m exhausted from my middle-of-the-night rendezvous and do not feel rested at all

I don’t want to be the slacker adult who is sleeping in, and I'm self-conscious since Cherub is already up being a productive human, but I don’t see BadAss so I decide to doze until it’s clear she’s up and moving. 

Too soon, I see her walk up to Cherub and start chatting. How are all of these people functional morning beings? Coffee. Need Coffee. And a cathole. And teeth brushed. Life is so simple out here. 

 Morning meditation. 

Morning meditation. 

 We're so zen.

We're so zen.

It’s funny to observe the different daily habits people have: 

Cherub is a fellow morning-mind-worshipper, taking time to write and draw and “be in her own mind” as she calls it. I haven't written or taken my usual morning "me time" at all this trip. Comparing myself to her, I start to beat up on my sleepy self and feel bad, like she’s the real deal and I’m not. Do I get up in the morning just because I feel like I should? Why do I have such a hard time waking up? Or being productive? Why aren’t I as good as she is? Shhhh, mind. Shhhh. 

A couple folks don’t brush their teeth until after coffee and talking and breakfast, sometimes lingering with unbrushed teeth for hours, which I just DON’T understand. How do they not want to gag at the feel and thought of being in the company of their own unbrushed teeth for so long?! Bleh! 

Some need to eat right when they wake up, whereas BadAss and I nurse coffee for a while, wake up slowly over time, and then eat a real breakfast a few hours later. My ideal day is the Hobbit life: breakfast, followed by second breakfast. Breakfast is the best. And backpacking makes all food taste so damn GOOD. Mmm. 

 Lingering around camp + Cherub's zen creation. 

Lingering around camp + Cherub's zen creation. 

We’d talked of getting an early start today, being packed up and on the trail by 8am, but none of us want to leave. We dawdle in camp, knowing this is our last day away from it all. We’ll hike out today and then it will be a steady progression back to civilization. First, cars and more people, then flush toilets and running water, then electric lights and cell service, and finally real life will all come rushing back in. 

Finally, around 10am, BadAss looks at her watch and makes the call. Time to get going. 

Bye, campsite. Bye, creek, you watery mosquito hell. Bye, old growth trees and hidden fire ring. Thank you all for appearing just when we needed you. Thank you, trail, for providing yet again. 

As soon as we hit the dirt track through the woods, it’s hill, BAM, in our face. Three hundred feet straight up, right away. 

I was worried my hiker strength from the day before would be a fluke, my hiking boner gone, but I’m strong again today. I love being strong. Uphills, I can take you. I got cho! Up, up, up. I love hills, I love hills, I love hills. An old high school cross country trick. Say it enough times and it will be true. 

MJ, surprisingly, is also flying today. Once we’re past the steep uphill, she is charging up the trail. At times, I have to call out “Simmer!”, asking her to slow her pace so we can keep her in view around the bends of the trail. Is she racing for the comforts of home, or is she also feeling her hiker legs? 

At one point, we turn the We Are the Titans song into We are the Amazons...

"We are the Amazons, the mighty might Amazons. Everywhere we go, people wanna know, where we come from, so we tell them…"

It seems to help. Anything on the hills seems to help. Anything other than just trudging in silence.

We pass a huge group of teenage boys heading deeper into the woods. They're from a camp and have only one adult leader. Concerning? When we ask where they're from, the leader says "Camp Towanga" with authority and smugness, as if we'll know it and be impressed. Um no? 

We're cleaner than them (they leave at least 3 pieces of litter on the trail, which we then pick up) and faster than them and more prepared and it gives the girls a huge confidence boost. I can almost see their shoulders grow taller, their backs grow stronger, the weight of their packs diminish as they realize they're good at this hiking stuff. BadAss tells us stories of how tough girls are on the trail, compared to boys. She's worked with youth of both genders and sometimes mixed groups, and boys consistently complain more and get grossed out more and just generally can't hang with trail life. Women thrive out here. For about the eleventy billionth time this trip, I am so proud of our girls and of us and of this awesome female power we've built up. #pussypower 

Last night, as we were sitting around the campfire, BadAss asked us what we'd like to leave in the backcountry (figuratively, of course, we're LNT pros) and what we'd like to take home with us. 

I hope I can take with me this awesome girl-centric attitude: building each other up instead of tearing each other down, casting aside vanity to get a little dirty, defying gender expectations in the process, openly talking about poop or burping or weird "taboo" stuff boys typically own. I hope I can leave behind this idea that being a woman is a burden, a cross to bear, a setback and an obstacle, especially in today's political climate. I realize that I've had a dark (and perhaps pragmatic) outlook on how it is to be a woman in this world. Laughs and MJ have shown me an alternative. Reminded me that there is a no-limits, anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better approach. A return to my youth, when Mia Hamm ruled the airwaves and I loved playing soccer with the boys just to shock and school them and I did things purely because people told me I couldn't. 

I mostly walk with BadAss today, leading the cat pack up the trail, and I hear stories on stories. Stories of gang members dropped into the woods for 290 days. Stories of drug-addled kids showing off or pooping in their sleeping bags for revenge or getting terribly messed up by manipulative, ignorant parents. Stories of huge successes and soul-shaking losses. Stories of corruption at the highest levels and regular everyday people just trying to do good. 

I am fascinated. 

This is what I live for. Stories. A glimpse into other people's lives. A window into how they think. I was raised on this, and it's one of my deepest curiosities. The trail flies under our feet. All too soon, we're at our final stream crossing. There's no good way to cross, no stepping stones or downed logs or skinny section I can jump across, so I finally get my boots wet. I immediately hate it. Squelch squelch squelch. Up the trail. Except the trail has turned to road. An old, old road, crumbling a bit more as the forest slowly takes over. 

Ugh. We all hate road walking. Every seasoned hiker does. It's so hard under your feet compared to a soft and loamy trail. It radiates up your shoes into your bones. 

But I am also intrigued. My brain is humming. Why is this road here? What was it used for? Did the Army Corps of Engineers build this? There was also a weird skinny cable buried under the trail for at least a half mile earlier in the day, popping up here and there where the ground eroded. What was that for? Electricity? Telegraphs? Weird experiments? There’s so much unspoken history all around us, especially in places like Yosemite where people have been visiting and living off the land for hundreds of years. Before a bunch of white men showed up on horseback, American Indians lived off this land, setting fires in the Valley to keep trees away and creating wide grassy meadows for easy hunting. What has this trail seen? Was it an old footpath to get water? A game trail? How old is it? Questions we will never have answers to. 

We’re getting closer and closer to the parking lot, the end of the trail. I’m ready to get off this hard crumbly road, but I’m not ready for the trail to end. I don’t want to go home. I’m just getting my hiker legs, coming into my own. This feels like my home. Can’t I just live out here, in the woods? 

Our momentum carries us forward though. I can feel the girls’ excitement. The collective energy of the group lifts and buoys us. The pace picks up. Soon we can hear cars, a road. All too soon, we’re spat out into a dusty parking lot. It’s a weird mix of sadness and nostalgia and accomplishment. I already miss our homes amongst the wild things. 

 Celebratory sorority squat. Lolz. 

Celebratory sorority squat. Lolz. 

We celebrate for a moment, whooping and hollering, making sure MJ and Laughs know how proud we are of them. We take pictures in all our sweat and grime, climbing on things and striking victory poses and jumping a lot. Somehow my pack falls over in the dirt and it’s the dustiest it’s been all trip. I take off my soggy hiking boots and pour out puddles of nasty water. I wring my socks out, watching brown water mix into the dust, forming weird Rorschach patterns. Five days and somehow I don’t become a mess until the very end. 

 Made it!

Made it!

I squeeze back into my wet boots, grateful that it’s hot out so I'm not standing around with wet feet in the cold. I grab my food bag, throw a bottle of water in, make sure I have the car keys, and set out. It’s time to hitch. 

Since our expedition group ended up much smaller than anticipated, we opted to squeeze into one big rental car, rather than wasting the time, gas, and money to drive two cars out here and set up a shuttle between trailheads. We’ve been intending to hitch since the beginning and now the moment is here. I’ve picked up the most hitchhikers, so I’m deemed to have the most hitching karma floating around in the universe. I’ve never hitched before, but I’m kind of excited. It makes me feel like real hiker trash!

This morning, as we were packing up camp, we took a moment to draw an “Angel Card” from a non-denominational deck of cards that each have a word written on them with a representational drawing of a little angel. It’s become our habit to draw a card each morning, going around the circle saying what that word means to us. It’s a nice way to get insight into what’s going on inside someone else’s head, and it brings us all a little closer by being vulnerable and sharing our true thoughts. 

This morning, it was my turn. I drew “Discernment”. The card had a drawing of an angel in a car driven by a friendly-looking ghost. Cherub and BadAss got the spooks that I drew this card of all cards, on this day, the day that I’ll be hitching. They were spooked that a ghost is driving the car, and that the word doesn’t have automatic positive connotations, like “adventure” or "explore". I didn't think much of it. On the trail, their concern floats through my mind a few times, but I don’t really feel worried, down in my gut where it counts. I know hitching could go wrong, but I don’t feel like it will today. Trust. Good thoughts. There are so many good people in the world, and being away from the city reminds me of this. Just trust, sweet pea. 

BadAss and I go scope out the parking lot and the road, trying to find a good spot for me to hitch from. She plans to stay here with me until I find a ride. She wants to see the car I get into, which both reassures and scares me. As we’re looking around, we see a tall blonde young guy walk up to a car. BadAss, with her amazing ability to talk to anyone, strikes up a conversation with him. I immediately detect an Australian accent, and therefore like him immediately. I’ve never met an Aussie I didn’t like! He mentions his mum a few times. He’s with his family! Brandon straight up asks him if they’ll drive me to our car, which is parked a few miles down the road. Of course they’ll drive me! Thank you, Aussie friends! 

In the car, we all talk too fast, trying to hear each others stories in the few minutes we have until the next trailhead where the BCM car is. He’s traveling with his mum and his sister, touring the US while they’re on their uni holidays, coming to the US to escape winter in Australia. They’re from Sydney, which was unexpectedly my favorite city in Australia when we went a few years ago, and they’re flattered when I tell them this. So far, they've visited Texas, which makes me like them even more, and Santa Fe, and are headed to San Francisco next. They heard our shouts when we were celebrating. They’re impressed that we’ve been living in the woods for five days without access to a “lodge”, as they call it. They’re even more impressed to learn two thirteen year old girls did this as their first backpacking trip, and ask me to pass their congratulations along to MJ and Laughs. Later, when I tell the girls this, they’ll grin, shy and embarrassed but secretly proud to have attracted the attention and praise of complete strangers. Australian strangers, no less. In the car, I catch glimpses of myself in the rearview mirror. This is weird, after entire days of not seeing your own face. Sitting in the back seat next to the blonde well-dressed sister, I’m aware of how dirty I am, and sweaty, and probably smelly. It’s weird how fast the transition happens…one moment we’re in the woods with no electricity or running water and now I’m in a car driven by showered, clean, friendly people, with air conditioning and gas and we're traveling faster than a few miles an hour! 

I worry I’ll miss the trailhead, or not be able to find it, or not recognize the rental car, but so soon we’re pulling into the right parking lot and our car is there waiting! After pulling our food from the bear box (which was sitting unattended for a week, yet no one stole it - oh good people of the parks!), slipping into Birkenstocks warmed by the sun (Oh life! Heavenly small comforts!), and reacquainting myself to technology and driving, I’m off. I revel in the few moments of driving by myself, windows down, winding along tree-lined roads. It reminds me of my solo trips, and reminds me how fun they can be, why I take them. I laugh, imagining myself pulling up to the group with rap music blaring, bass bumping. But I don’t, not here in this wild place. 

 Obsessed with these rock wastelands.

Obsessed with these rock wastelands.

 Tiny people. 

Tiny people. 

In the parking lot, it’s back to business, loading up the car and playing tetris to make the gear fit just-so. BadAss offers to drive so I can play gawking tourist. I’ve never seen this part of Yosemite before and I’m so grateful. She and Cherub take over as adults and I loll in the backseat with the girls. I’m in a sun-warmed, golden daze. We stop at an overlook to gawk at Half Dome one last time, although it seems underwhelming and small compared to the views on our hike a few days ago. At the gas station, I blatantly ignore the “No Bathing” sign posted above the bathroom sink, dousing my face, rinsing my bandana, and beginning to rub the grime from my body. The girls fill up on Flaming Hot Cheetos (I can’t believe I used to eat that stuff) and I opt for coffee ice cream and bubbly water. YUM. I meticulously pick the chocolate coating off my ice cream bar. The whole car good-naturedly makes fun of me, but I am in heaven when I have pure coffee ice cream to enjoy. I sink into a sugar-haze and rest my face against the car, letting the wind blow in my face as we drive. 

 Look what we found!

Look what we found!

 Miniature Half Dome + real Half Dome, both so tiny compared to the view yesterday.

Miniature Half Dome + real Half Dome, both so tiny compared to the view yesterday.

We’ve planned to camp outside the park, cutting a little drive time off our trek tomorrow, and the park campsites we drive by are full anyways. Outside the park the sky immediately turns hazy, and we’re reminded that while we’ve been frolicking in the woods, a fire has been raging. A sign at the gas station said it’d grown to 80,000 acres, doubling in size while we were in the backcountry. The area we’re driving through was too smoke-choked to see anything on our way in, and I’m amazed at how dry it is down here at lower elevations. This was a wet year in the Sierras, the most snow we’ve had in 45 years, yet it’s still so dry here. The earth is parched. No wonder the world is burning. 

We start seeing Forest Service campgrounds, but they’re hot and flat and dry, exposed to the sun and the highway. We keep driving. BadAss assures us there’s a better one up ahead. 

As we pull in, it looks a little deserted, but at least has a few trees and is set back a ways from the highway. Ash starts to float down from the sky, landing in our hair, making our gear even more dirty as we unload. Then the air traffic starts. Helicopters flying so low we can look in their windows, see the numbers painted on their bellies. A tanker flies over with its deep drone. It’s LOUD here, especially after the quiet of the woods, and a bit unsettling. How close is the fire? Where are we? What is all this traffic for? 

BadAss gathers intel from a few folks hunkered down in what I assumed were deserted camp sites, and we wander around half-heartedly doing camp chores. The other campers here have talked to some of the firefighters, who assured them we’re safe. If the fire were too close, this campground would be closed. Hot Shots are staying at the Forest Service headquarters just down the road, hence all the air traffic. Okay. That makes sense. It’ll be a hot, possibly loud night, but we’re safe. 

Cherub doesn’t quite trust this, she wants some reassurance from the firefighters too, which is okay, so she takes the car and drives off to headquarters. 

 Turkey mom + babies around camp. 

Turkey mom + babies around camp. 

While she’s gone, a few campground workers come by to empty the trash, so we quiz them about the fire. It’s 4 miles away, which sounds close, but would actually take the fire 2-3 days to reach us. Huh! I had no idea fire traveled so slowly. They live nearby and reassure us that this campground would be closed ASAP if we were in fire danger. Okay. My confidence in this spot is growing. I don’t love the heat or the ash or the weird deserted feeling, but it’ll do. That’ll do, pig, that’ll do. 

Suddenly Cherub pulls up, driving fast, flushed with whatever she’s learned, and there's a tumble of words and somehow things escalate and voices are raised and then the magic phrase is uttered: “I don’t feel safe here.” That’s it. That pulls the plug on us camping here, and possibly even camping at all tonight. We’re supposed to cook a celebration dinner for the girls, congratulating them on their accomplishments, but now that’s in jeopardy too. This breaks my heart. 

Egos were bruised and tempers flared and there’s a tension around camp now. We went six days in perfect bliss, getting along swimmingly, but things are unraveling right at the end. No, no, no. I’m grasping at straws. This isn’t the impression we want to leave the girls with. This isn’t how things are supposed to end. 

At first it sounds like we’re leaving immediately, food or rationale be damned, but then a little sense seeps in. We’re supposed to make flags for each other, a personal, commemorative flag for each person. The girls make ours and we make the girls' flags. Cooler heads decide to stay here for a little bit, to use the picnic tables and decorate the pennants now. We spread out across the campground so we can talk and laugh without overhearing each other, grateful now for the empty space. 

I lose track of time, but after thirty minutes or an hour or some unknown stretch, we realize how hungry we are. A quiet has settled over the campground. The wind shifted, so ash no longer rains down. The helicopters and tankers are gone. It must have been a shift change, new firefighters dropping in, a temporary spike in activity. The sun sunk a little and now there’s a pretty, hazy sunset beginning. I’m tempted to stay here after all, but it’s tainted now by the tension that’s seeped under everything. The car has been packed, gear put away, we can’t simply undo what was said. 

Everyone is happier when they’re well-fed, so we drive to a nearby town and attempt to find a restaurant. A cafe on the side of the highway. Everyone is too polite now, double-checking with everyone else that this spot is okay, we can go somewhere else, no no, this place is fine. It’s not the same as a homemade spaghetti dinner with S’mores around a campfire, but it’s food. 

With full bellies, we realize how tired we are. We will not drive back to Oakland, the program director says firmly over the phone. Driving is the most dangerous thing we do, and we’re not well-rested. We'll have one more night of camping after all. 

Finding the private campground, which is supposedly nearby, proves to be the hardest thing we do all week. None of us have cell signal once we leave the highway, and it’s dark and this community seems built to keep campers out, not welcome them in. Finally, there’s a campground entrance. But this isn’t where we pay? And there’s a code to get into the bathrooms, which can only be obtained by paying? There’s a confusing conversation on a pay phone (hello, 1998), with backwards directions to reach the camp office? Life in civilization is hard.

Looking at the map on my phone, I reverse the directions, hoping hard I’m right. None of us have the patience or energy to drive up and down this road yet again. Finally, finally, the camp office! It takes an unusually long time and I’m worried they won’t let us in, but at last we’re on our way back to the entrance and find our way to a campsite. 

Between the running water and bright lights of the bathroom and paved roads and lack of bear boxes, everything we taught the girls in the woods doesn’t apply here and life is backwards and confusing. We set up tents quickly, practically on top of each other, not even bothering to stake them into the rocky, hard site, then fall into our beds on the ground one last time. It’s too hot, so I lie on top of my sleeping bag, not even bothering to unzip it.  

 Sunset driving into Groveland. 

Sunset driving into Groveland.