Day 6: April 25, 2018
Lee Flat Joshua Tree Forest
What woke me up this morning was the sound of a camera shutter snapping. I was all tucked into my sleeping bag with my hoodie on so it was nice and dark in there, but I knew what was going on outside. I sat up, and I too grabbed my camera, ready to photograph the impending sunrise. The sky was already light enough to see the world around me coming to life and the silhouettes of Joshua trees gave the landscape depth in front of me. There were great patterns of clouds already spreading out across the sky and a slight cool breeze caressed my face. It literally hurt my eyes and my brain to wake up, but I knew I had to do it. This is what I do now. I wake up to sunrises in the desert.
My sleep was not the greatest last night. With the cooler temperatures and a breeze, I could feel drafts coming through my 20 F bag that is not really a 20 F degree bag, another story entirely. All night long my butt kept cramping up every time I lay on my side, and this too, woke me up in pain. Oh well, these nights come with the territory. That’s what coffee is for.
I walked around in the Joshua tree forest to go find a place to poop and discovered there were cows out there….I liked walking through the trees though and thought it would be really fun to come back and just wander around aimlessly. These Joshua trees here are fully grown, super healthy, old and wise, they are stunning. I have never seen so many of them, so big and so healthy in one place.
Joshua Trees are called the “Lily of the Desert” because their health is an indicator of the overall health of the ecosystem. These desert lilies provide habitat for numerous birds, insects and lizards. Although once thought to be a member of the Lily Family, Joshua Trees are actually members of the Agave Family, and their botanical name is Yucca Brevifolia. They are a flowering plant that is related to grasses and orchids. The flower buds and raw or roasted seeds were an integral part of the diets of of the local Cahuilla Indians. These seeds are rarely germinated, yet they are the spawn for new life. Young sprouts grow quickly in the first five years and as the “tree” matures, the growth continues at about a half inch per year. Some of the oldest trees in DVNP are in this particular forest, at 40+ feet tall, DVNP reports that many of these trees may well be 150 years old.
We got on trail by 6:50 am and started more dirt road walking. We were approximately at mile 72 of the 135 total miles from Badwater to the the top of Whitney. With several more miles of road walking to do that morning, we sped along flat and easy terrain. There came a gentle incline before we started to make the steep climb up to Cerro Gordo, where we would get out next cache of several gallons of water. It was such a beautiful morning, the hiking conditions were perfect with thin patterned clouds strewn across the sky in every direction, the air was still cool on account of the elevation of 5,500 feet. I didn’t mind the continued road walk, but I was certainly glad it was in such a beautiful place, otherwise, it might have gotten a little bit monotonous. I walked as if in a trance, thinking I feel like I could stare at these trees for days. Then, I had the awareness that this segment would soon be over, and then, that this hike even would soon be over. This all forced me to remain in the present moment and that offset any potential boredom from the long straight road. I walk in Gratitude. I walk in the present moment of now.
By 9:00 am we were at the junction to the Cerro Gordo alternate and I passed a really cool old torn sign for DVNP. We chose the alternate based on a few things. One, it was more scenic, although more climbing. Two, Cerro Gordo is cool and we were able to drive our vehicle up there and cache water ahead of time. Three, the views of the Sierra Nevada from up at Cerro Gordo at 8,000+ ft are stunning and we couldn’t wait to harness that reward. Before tackling that climb, we took a 40 minute 2nd breakfast break in what I would call a ‘suggestion of shade’. By then the sun was already getting intense. My body felt like lead that morning and I was lethargic, moving slowly. I was sure to blame it on poor sleep. I made a 2nd coffee to go with my 2nd breakfast and that tasted great but I’m not certain it did much to pep me up.
We had 8 miles to get up to Cerro Gordo, climbing somewhere in the vicinity of 3,000 feet or so. Fortunately this section of the L2H Route also follows a dirt road so you are not spending vital mental energy trying to navigate. There are lots of rocks and ruts on this 4WD Jeep Road, and it is steep and super exposed in most sections. I found myself wondering often how in the world a vehicle would drive up it. Good thing we’d driven up the other side!
The next point of interest on our maps was Belmont Mine, which we made it to by 12:00 pm. Hurlgoat found a prime spot in some shade, albeit on a slope, but with fantastic views for us to stop and rest. We rested under the graceful shade of some pinon pines whose neighbors were giant lichen covered granite boulders. There are beginning to be more trees now. We are witnessing the landscape change as we climb. Now we are among the pinon pines and there are hardly any Joshua trees anymore. I knew it when I walked through that sacred landscape this morning, it would be over too soon.
Belmont Mine was a little bit underwhelming for me. I mean, it was cool, but I expected more, of what, I don’t know exactly. We snapped a few photos, commented on all the strewn about old metal garbage that lay along the hillside down from the mine shaft, and moved on. The climb started to afford better and better views of the valley below, allowing us to really see where we’d come from in the big picture. On a micro perspective, we were now seeing much more interesting rocks as we climbed.
These road walks have offered some sense of a break to the challenges of this trail, suddenly climbing 3,000 ft on a dirt rocky road seems easy. My legs were feeling stronger after lunch and we continued the climb until the views got better and better, and finally we crested the ridge and the entire Sierra Nevada opens up to us.
I said out loud “I Love this Hike“!
We took lots of photos at the top there and then descended quickly to Cerro Gordo. There were two gentlemen there, Larry and Robert who greeted us and were super chatty and friendly. They were funny and I liked them. Sitting up there watching over a ghost town in the middle of nowhere, you really can’t have an agenda. They offered to take our empty bottles and we sat on the porch filling our 8 L of water and chatting it up with them while they drank beer. I know if we didn’t have a schedule to stick to we could have easily stayed the night and they did offer us a beer, but we declined on account of needing to get several more miles in that afternoon.
Alas we set off around 4:15 pm with many miles planned for the afternoon and evening. The trail from there follows another dirt road called Salt Tram Road for about 3/4 mile and then links up with another dirt track that quickly becomes a narrow, faint ridge walk that continues along, heading North for about three miles. I liked the trail there, it was narrow and the hillside to the left dropped off steeply, making me feel like a legit mountain goat. Along the way there were several types of tread, from tiny pieces of shale to larger pieces of talus, to piles of pine cones to loose chalky gravel to large chunks of slate that clinked like glass when you stepped on them. So much variety!
As we came around a bend, suddenly there was a tunnel that went deep into the Earth. Mines are all around this area and this one was so inviting that we dropped our packs and went in. It went really far, and the cool musty air surrounded our skin as we delved deeper into the Earth. I felt enveloped and soothed by the completely still atmosphere.
It is mind blowing how much work and persistence it took these miners to carve through the dense Earth in this way. I would have loved to stay in there longer, absorbing the cool air, but alas, we needed to hike on.
We emerged from the mine and investigated the dilapidated shack that was once used by miners, positioned precariously on a precipitous slope. It must have been amazing in it’s day. From there, we continued further along the ridge, with views of the Sierra Nevada range and Whitney boasting off to the West. Mount Whitney, our ultimate destination, looming the way that it does, so massive and utterly present. These were absolutely incredible views and I felt so happy walking along, able to glance over and let these mountains with their grand stature fill me up with their magnificence.
Then we began to climb. The altitude of more than 8,000 ft with the addition of 5 liters of water, plus a good dose of downright fatigue were all factors in making this particular climb a big effort. But I tucked into myself and kept my mind strong, pushing the Earth under my feet and pressing in with my now quite strong legs. I am doing this, I kept thinking, this is the thing you want to do the most.
Finally the track led to another dirt road and that one climbed very steeply as well. I was ready to be done once we reached that dirt road but decided to push yet again, and it was really really hard for me. This is where you start to ask yourself, is this physical or mental? A big debate in the hiker community. Most people agree that the most challenging aspects of any endurance endeavor are all mental. What I am learning, is that the mind has to be strong enough to ignore the signals the body is telling it, like “it’s time to stop and rest” signals. Pretty much all of the time, you can go further, and further yet.
Of course, your body needs to be fairly strong, a baseline of fitness definitely helps, and I would even say, is required, to be able to push yourself more and more. I’ve got it, so I push.
I didn’t let my fatigue and pain show though and soon I was crushing it up the hill, sweating like mad again, and breathing the hardest I have so far on this hike. Oddly enough, this particular section felt the most challenging for me, and I know it was because I pushed to keep a good pace, and didn’t give myself a break at all. We finally reached the top of the climb and crested an almost flat area that turned into a more gradual uphill, giving us a well deserved respite.
Eventually we hit the flat and then started a downhill, oh wow did that ever feel amazing!
By close to 7:00 pm we took a break on the dirt road. Hurlgoat was stripping off his clothes from overheating and over sweating. I was sweaty too, but immediately got chilled, so I took off my shirt and sat there in my down puffy. We watched the sun dip down behind the Sierra’s and the light along the hillside grasses and sage turned shades of pink and gold. We stuffed our faces with food, and hydrated, aired out our sweaty clothes on some nearby sage brush, and rested our weary feet. I could have easily called it a day right there, but once again, we knew we must push on.
Once we lost that wonderful sun, our body temps dropped really quickly. I began to think about where we were going to sleep tonight since we were above 9,000 feet now, we didn’t have much warm gear. I had been cold last night at 5500 ft, and while it wasn’t windy last night, I felt the drafts. Up here, there was definitely a solid breeze. I guess it might be another cold night, I resolved. What can I do? We decided to hike on until around 9:00 pm and then try to find a place out of the wind and pitch the tent for warmth and protection. It was a good a plan as any.
We hiked downhill on a dirt road and dropped to 8,500 ft and it was slightly warmer at that elevation. The walk after sunset was memorable, with the moonlight glowing and showing us the way, the Sierras across the valley towering over everything, and their silhouettes cast in gray-purple-orange hues. I want tattoos on my body of this imprint, how beautiful, how sacred! I took more ibuprofen because the little climb right after our dinner break was incredibly painful for my ankles and feet, I think because they got cold too, that made it worse. I was in serious agony for a little while and was afraid that I would have to stop due to the pain. But like magic, once we started downhill, it seemed like just then the ibuprofen kicked in, and the views were so amazing, that suddenly everything was going to be okay again, balance is restored to the Universe, and I am hiking with a huge smile coming right from my heart. We push on.
We made it to the Salt Tram by about 8:25 pm which it is located up on a really windy ridge. We were fascinated and amazed at what the Salt Tram actually is and what it represented. We snooped around in there for about 20 minutes, studying the structure. By then it was nearing 9:00 pm so we decided to call it a day. There were some larger bushes and even a few trees nearby under which we could camp out of the wind. We also wanted to see the Salt Tram in the daylight, so there you have it. Day complete!
Journal Entry: So now we are camped at mile 92 (approximately) and at about 8,500 ft and it is quite windy. I can hear the wind aggressively whipping around the pinon trees and causing the Salt Tram to creak and whistle. But we are cozy here in the tent and I know I will have an amazing night sleep, I need it! Tomorrow we have about 15 -16 mi to get to Lone Pine, and there we will eat, get chores done, get Whitney permits, and then hike on to Alabama hills to camp tomorrow night. I really really hope my foot and ankle pain is better in the morning, we have 5,000 feet of downhill to tackle. The views from up here of what we are about to do seem so imposing and amazing all in one. I mean who does this? This is not your average hike.
I fell asleep thinking how I am doing some of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life these days, at this age, who’d have thought? I am at once surprised and encouraged.