PCT Day 77: Miles of Mule’s Ears

July 4, 2022

Campsite at Five Lakes Creek, mile 1136 to campsite at mile 1153.8

17.8 miles

I’m not as tired as I thought I would be after a 28 mile day, but I’m still so sluggish waking up. Tribute and Jumbo leave before me again, around 6:30, and I’m packed up and walking by 7. Today we’re going to the Donner Ski Ranch for the legendary free 40 oz beer, but first there’s 17.5 miles of ups and downs. I start heading down towards a creek, then cross it and go up again. I’m audio-less for the first bit, but then I put on my new audiobook, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, and start getting lost in yet another world.

The climb isn’t particularly steep, but it does seem to go on forever. I stop to filter water at a creek and make myself some cold instant coffee in the little bottle I picked up in South Lake. It’s not as good as it is hot, but it’s nice to be able to sip on it as I go along. The trees thin out and the amazing views start again, and then I’m at the top of the hill and there are ski lifts. I don’t know why, but there’s something cool about being at a ski area when there’s no snow and no people around. It’s like a weird seasonal ghost town.

I follow the meandering trail down and around some boulders. I spot a marmot poking its head out of a hole between two rocks. “Hi, buddy!” I say. It’s nice to still see them even though we’re not in the High Sierra anymore. It’s sunny now, and I feel lovely and warm as I make my way downhill.

I check to see if I have service. I do! I stand on a rock for a minute updating my Goodreads and checking Instagram. Then out of nowhere I get a call from Beetle. “Are you staring at me right now?” he asks.

I’m confused. I don’t see anyone around me who looks like Beetle. “Um, no? I’m looking at my phone. Where are you?”

But then I spot him and Rachel far to my left around the corner. “Ah! I do see you!” I cry, then motor down the trail to meet them. We walk together for a bit. That is, we walk together until I lose them when we go uphill towards Tinker Knob. Rachel says she’s slow, but I see no evidence of this fact. It’s okay though. I feel like hiking alone right now. I put on some music, King Gizzard again, and start flying. There are mules ears flowers everywhere all around me, sometimes interspersed with purple lupine. They’re swaying in the wind and they brush their soft leaves against my leg when I walk past. I raise my arms and try to imagine taking flight just above this field of flowers.

I’m so happy in this moment. Mentally and emotionally I’ve not been great the past few days, but in this moment, I am deeply, inexplicably happy. This is why I’m out here. I’m here for the sensation of flowers and the feeling of seeing such mountains in the distance. I’m here for embodiment and all its ups and downs and wants and feelings and magical floatingness through fields of yellow mules ears.

The euphoria starts to wane as the trail gets steeper, though. I see Beetle coming back down. He says that there’s no water up on the ridge, so he’s going back to the creek to get some for him and Rachel. I make the saddest “please give me water” face I can muster, and he takes my CNOC grudgingly. Then I continue, now at a trudge, up the hill.

I meet Rachel at the top, then we continue together for a bit. It’s nice to walk with her… and to be with a woman! I love my boys, don’t get me wrong, but I do miss female company. We chat about our lives and our travels. Turns out, we both have vague connections to the Netherlands, so we talk about what we love about it, the trains and bikes and work-life balance. Then, because I’m feeling pretty good, I go ahead on the rocky downhill. The views are amazing today. It just keeps getting better.

Rachel with her sunflower butter

I wait for Beetle and Rachel right before a snowy patch. Beetle delivers my water, and I thank him profusely. It would have taken me ages to go back down there. We wrangle the snow and then continue along the ridge. Sometimes there are trees, and other times it’s just sweeping, exposed field. Right as we start the climb of one of the hills on the ridge, Jumbo calls me, asking where we are and making a plan for the ski ranch lunch. They’re about two miles from the road, and we’re around three. Not bad! It’s still pretty early.

There’s another insane snow patch that barely has any footprints in it. Beetle goes first, forging a path, and then Rachel and I follow. The end involves some very ungraceful butt scooting, but I manage it. A while later, Beetle and Rachel stop for another break because Rachel isn’t feeling great, and then I motor down the hill ahead of them. I want to see if I can catch Jumbo and Tribute so that we can eat and drink our beers together. I don’t see them on the hill, but I have the time of my life listening to music and absolutely flying down. It gets rocky towards the bottom, but it doesn’t last long, and soon I’m on the road walking towards Donner Ski Ranch.

Tribute and Jumbo are there. J says they just arrived. We sit down, get our 40 oz of PBR, and then eat our lunch: Tribute orders a pizza, and Jumbo and I opt for the chicken sandwich. It’s fine. The fries are pretty good. It didn’t come out of a food bag, which is amazing.

Beetle and Rachel join us soon. Apparently, right after I left them, Rachel fell and hurt her foot pretty badly. Jumbo, Tribute, and I are planning to go back on trail after we resupply in Truckee, but Rachel and Beetle decide to stay at the ski ranch. We finish our lunch, then we move to a table in the back where we can finish our beer and charge our electronics. I am now very sloshed and have to resupply tipsy, which is always interesting.

Tribute, Jumbo, Beetle, and I go out to the road and stick our thumbs out. I’m giggly, waving at cars as they blow by us. But it doesn’t take long before someone pulls over: a woman named Naomi in an SUV that also contains two very, very large black dogs. The four of us pile in, and one of the dogs sits half on my lap and half on the center console all the way down to Truckee. Naomi drops us off at the Safeway, and then we do our thing.

I’m only getting a few things because I have a box in Sierra City in 42 miles. Tribute and Jumbo are going to blow past this town because they don’t have boxes, so I get a little solo side quest. I could have bounced it ahead, but honestly, I wanted a day or two to myself for various reasons. So on this Safeway trip all I really need to buy is a handful of snacks, two dinners, and some candy. I also get a sandwich and small box of wine (aka adult juice box, AJB), as well as a yogurt to snack on. I go back outside, and when I return to my pack, I see a can of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale sitting next to my hip belt. There’s one next to Jumbo’s as well. Trail magic!

After I finish my yogurt, and after we’ve all repackaged our resupplies, we run to catch a shuttle that drops us off near Donner Lake. We’re trying to decide where to hitch or Uber next when a guy in a Mercedes SUV stops at the sign and calls to us, “Do you need a ride?” We race over, shove ourselves into this very nice car, and then he’s off. Our driver’s name is Will (which makes Beetle happy because his real name is also Will), and he is very nice. He takes us back to the parking lot. We did it! We heroed in and out of town! “Hero” means when you dip into and back out of town in one day, and we are typically very bad at it, so it’s impressive that we managed this feat for once.

Beetle goes back to the ski ranch while Tribute, Jumbo, and I walk half a mile to a campsite on the PCT. We set up in a sardine row for cowboy camping, then we climb some rocks to a viewpoint that will enable us to see the fireworks over Donner Lake. I eat my sandwich and drink my trail magic beer while the world gets dark. Then, at precisely 9:30, the show begins. It’s actually a pretty impressive fireworks display, all pops and showers and rings of light. I feel old when it’s 9:45 and it’s still going on and I just want to go to bed, but I still enjoy it. After a rolling cascade of explosions, the show ends and we clamber down the rocks and back into our sleeping bags.

Right before I go to sleep, I scroll on Instagram and see an amazing post that Veto wrote. In it, he talks about how he’s been walking across beautiful landscapes for the past two and a half months, landscapes that early white settlers thought were untouched but were in reality very well managed by indigenous people, particularly the Ahwahnechee of what is now Yosemite. It’s an especially poignant reminder on this, the day we celebrate our country’s birth, that people existed for centuries in these forests and meadows and mountains long before white people like John Muir ever laid eyes on them. We hikers might think we know this place, but we can never know it like its original stewards. And we can only walk here because those stewards were killed or forced away. It’s good to remember that history on a day like this.

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