July 2, 2022
US 50 crossing at mile 1090.8 to campsite at mile ~1107.9
I wake up before everyone else and creep into the common area, where we’ve stored Tribute’s massive balloon. Finding it, I return to our room and clip it to Tribute’s bunk. “Happy birthday!” I whisper, trying not to wake up our roommate. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when Tribute has to carry this balloon on the trail today.
I pack up in the kitchen area, then work on writing for a while until Tribute, Platypus, and Jumbo come to join me. We drink coffee and put on our ridiculous DIY paper party hats, then load up in Platypus’s car and head to the trail. First, though, we make a pit stop at McDonald’s. I haven’t had a McGriddle since the AT and oh, my god. It’s ecstasy. Little pancakes for buns? Sausage, egg, and cheese? Hee hee! America! I have enough points for a free large iced coffee, too, which I obviously order and devour. I love the raw consumption of so many calories on this trail.
Platypus drops us off at the US 50 crossing where we hitched two days ago, then they drive to Echo Lake to find a parking spot and wait for us. We have about a mile and a half until that point, and we cruise it. Tribute’s balloon bobs along manically behind him.
At Echo Lake we get birthday beers, then sit on a bench (or lounge luxuriously in the grass, in Jumbo’s case) drinking them until 11. Then we figure it’s time to start moving properly.
The trail follows the edge of Echo Lake for a couple of miles. It’s not that steep, but I’m feeling really blah today, mentally and physically, and I fall behind. There are tons of day hikers and overnight backpackers with massive packs, and I have to pull over either to let them pass or to pass them every five minutes. In the words, more or less, of my friend Patches, “I’m glad they’re out enjoying nature. But do they have to be enjoying nature at the same time that I am?” Nah, I’m glad everyone’s out this weekend. It just makes it a little busier.
I catch up to Platypus, who is very interested in plant identification and who tells me about different types of conifers. I get a lesson on the difference between lodgepole and Jeffery pines, then they point out hemlocks when we get a little higher up the climb. All I remember is that the spikes on Jeffery pine cones point downwards so that they don’t poke you. “Gentle Jeffery,” Platypus says cheerfully. Lodgepole pine cones, on the other hand, are very tiny and possibly spiky. Maybe. I might have made that bit up.
After a little bit of climbing, we reach Aloha Lake, which is breathtaking beneath the Crystal Range. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t really expecting dramatic scenery like this after the Sierras. This is like Thousand Island Lake, except it’s sunny today. We have lunch on a rock by the lake and I take it all in, the sunshine, the water, the unexpected beauty.
We’re loafing about a bit today, which is fine with me, but we’ve only done a handful of miles by lunchtime as a result. After the break, we get a little more serious. I hike with Platypus for a while, talking about the AT, life since the AT, their transition and working in West Virginia compared to California, relationships, and various other topics.
It’s really cool to hike with Platts again after three years since the AT. We met towards the end of our thru-hike, so what we saw together was a really special part of the trail. Something happens to you when you hike with someone. Years can go by and such differences can lie between you, but because you hiked together, you have a bond unlike anything else. I’m reminded of that as we walk. I feel so comfortable with Platypus even after these years and even though we don’t talk much in everyday life. It’s really magical, and I’m keenly aware of how lucky I am to have them hiking with me today.
The ridiculously great views continue as we walk. There are more lakes with paths walking right on the edge, so many creeks, beautiful ridges and pines and blue sky with puffy clouds behind it all. Many people stop and talk to us, noticing the balloon and the party hats (though by now it’s just Jumbo wearing his because mine won’t stay on and Platypus and Tribute both misplaced theirs somewhere between the hostel and here). We cross a creek and talk to a ranger who gives us some heads-up about wind and mosquitoes at the lakes on the other side of Dick’s Pass, then we start heading up said pass.
Platypus is a strong hiker, and they go uphill ahead of me. I’m pretty far ahead of Tribute and Jumbo, the latter of whom is still dealing with shin splints pretty badly, so I have some time alone. I put in some music and start rocketing up the hill. After a couple of miles I start to slow down and take in the views. No one told me it would be this wildly beautiful after Tahoe. I can’t take it in! It’s golden light and so magnificent.
I have cell service as I get to the top of Dick’s Pass, and I use it to call my best friend Monica, but she’s at an event so we just talk for a few minutes. Then I call Wiggs, my ex-but-also-good-friend who’s working in Oregon this summer. I’ve tried to call him a couple of times on trail, but our schedules never seem to line up, and he told me he was free this evening. It’s really great to hear his voice and talk about our respective adventures this summer. He’s working for the Forest Service in Umpqua National Forest, and I’ll probably meet up with him at some point in August when we’re in Oregon. He’s hiking the PCT next year, so he peppers me with questions about the trail so far, which I’m obviously thrilled to talk about.
I walk up the rest of the climb while talking, meet up with Jumbo, Platypus, and Tribute at the top, and then they continue down while I keep chatting on the phone. I’m afraid I’m going to lose service, so I stand in place for probably half an hour. By the time I hang up, it’s nearly 8 and I have no idea where my friends are camping. Ah, well. It’s the best time of day to hike, anyway, and it’s downhill. I start zooming, navigating around snowbanks and rocky switchbacks, getting pummeled by the wind. If they’re camping at the lakes like Platypus said they might, I still have two and a half miles. That’ll put me there after dark. I try to go faster, faster, and I actually feel pretty good. It doesn’t matter what time I get to camp. It doesn’t even matter if I find them. I have this weird feeling of confidence, like everything is going to work out one way or another.
I come around a corner and my eyes lock on a pair of trekking poles covered in stickers lying by the side of the trail. Those are Jumbo’s poles, and Jumbo does not leave his poles places accidentally. He meant for me to find them. I get closer and see that they’re arranged in an arrowhead shape, with “Passport” and a left-facing arrow written in the dirt between them, directing me to camp. I smile, melting slightly. Things have been a little weird between Jumbo and me recently, but seeing his message in the dirt reminds me how great it is to have a friend who’s always looking out for me. I pick up his poles, smudge the marks away with my foot, and trundle over the rocks in the direction of the arrow. There are three more arrows marked in the dirt, just in case I somehow got turned around. Bless.
I come over a ridge and see the three of them sitting around, eating dinner and chatting.
“What happened to you?” Jumbo asks.
“I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose cell service.”
“Hah!” Platypus says. “I knew it. I hiked with her for weeks on the AT, I know her.” They’re not wrong.
Platts has a tent up, but Jumbo and Tribute are cowboy camping. Uh, no thanks. I’m freezing. I set up my tent next to Platypus, get myself sorted, then cook dinner and follow it up with a bougie Land O Lakes hot chocolate. The warmth trickles through me. It’s a Sierra-ish night, frigid, but in a way that you can stand because you’re surrounded by clear little ponds and lakes and rocks between pine trees and the world smells like a candle and the sky is impossibly, heartbreakingly soft.
Tribute says he had a great birthday and thanks us for the celebration. Then he announces that he’s going to pop the balloon, but Platypus points out that we could suck the helium and do silly little balloon voices. We do so, and it is the best decision because Jumbo sounds like a drunk elf when he recites his now-classic phone opening line: “Hello, my name is James Tyler and I’m hiking with my friends!” And Tribute’s turn makes me nearly pee myself, and my over-enthusiastic gulp results in a squeak of “I love this trail” at least an octave higher than my usual voice. We laugh stupidly until the balloon is nearly out. “Save that for tomorrow,” Platypus says, now in a normal register.
I finish dinner, brush my teeth, and shiver my way into bed, cinching down the straps of my quilt as tight as they’ll go. The Desolation Wilderness is cold, Sierra cold, but I’m warm here in my down surrounded by silly friends. I’m just happy to be a creature in a tent among the trees.