Lowest to Highest Route Day One: Errands, Road Walks, The Desert is Magic

Somehow I manage to find 4,875,342 things to do after I wake up and don’t leave San Francisco until noon (if you’ve ever wondered how I got my trail name, this is a fine example.) No sweat, though, the girls have decided to wait until Tuesday morning to hike out, so there’s no rush. I head East with the windows down, Neutral Milk Hotel pouring out of the speakers. My nerves are still a mess, a turbulent sea of sheer excitement and terror. Jeff Magnum’s eerie voice is a soothing hand. I pull off the highway outside of Bakersfield to buy four days of food at a grocery store. Two days worth to start with, two days to cache at Panamint Springs. My face turns red as the handsome young checker scans my purchases. Pop tarts, peanut M & M’s, ramen, instant mashed potatoes. Little Fucking Debbie Cosmic Brownies for crying out loud.

“I’m going backpacking through the desert for a week! Usually I eat lots of vegetables,” I want to blurt out. Instead, I smile awkwardly and hand him my debit card.

I get to Lone Pine at eleven. Climb onto an open top bunk at the Whitney Portal Hostel. Try not to wake up Carrot and Notachance, or the other two women asleep in the dorm. In the middle of the night, I awake to the sounds of the stranger below me moaning, whimpering. A backcountry bad dream. I lie on my my back and stare at the ceiling. I feel you, girl.

In the morning, Chance and Carrot and I get breakfast at the Alabama Hills Cafe. We look like a gang, the three of us in our beat-up trail runners and matching black Western Mountaineering down jackets. An ultralight early-thirties broke female hiking gang. The toughest kind there is. While we eat, we listen to the tables of outdoorsy types talk about last night’s storm in the Eastern Sierras–four feet of fresh snow on Whitney! Dozens of day hikers stranded on the mountain, unprepared for the elements in shorts and sans shelters! Scores of search and rescue teams sent out, missions aborted because of the treacherous conditions! Sad and scary. But also, what does this mean for us? We can’t help but wonder aloud over heaping plates of eggs and home fries. Will the snow melt by the time we make it to the summit?

We finish our breakfasts and then there are errands to run: drive twenty minutes to Independence to pick up the boxes of food Chance and Carrot sent themselves, buy a dozen plastic gallon jugs of water to cache for ourselves along the way, stop at the ranger station on the outskirts of Lone Pine to see if the dirt road up to Cerro Gordo (one of our caching points) is passable.

“Not unless you have a 4-wheel drive,” the brusque ranger tells us. “And even then, after yesterday’s flash floods, lots of the roads got washed out. Not sure about that one.”

“What about the road to Badwater?” Carrot asks.

“Not sure about that one, either.”

We pile back into the car and head towards Saline Valley Road (not washed out!), where we cache two gallons of water a piece to turn the 45-mile waterless stretch into a mere 40-mile one. The longest carry I’ve ever had to do before this was 32 miles on the PCT. Around 26 miles in, crouched beneath the scant shade of a burnt shrub with 1/4 of a liter of hot water remaining, I felt my insides begin to scorch, and I came to the realization that this was how it was all going to end. So there’s that.

Back in the car with the windows up and the air conditioning pumping, we continue on down the open desert highway. Notachance puts Danzig on, turns the volume way up.

“She riiiiiiides,” we growl, bang our heads in unison.

“This is our L2H theme song!” Carrot says from the passenger seat. And so it’s decided.

Panamint Springs is our next stop. We pull up in front of the general store, ask the girl behind the counter if they can hold our boxes for us until we hike through in a couple days.

“Sure!” She says, stacking them in her arms and taking them into a back room. Carrot and Chance are shocked at the ease of the transaction. Last year the owner wouldn’t let them leave their resupply boxes here, so they stashed the food in a bush behind the store.

Our final stop is the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, where European tourists with expensive cameras slung over their shoulders mill about the gift shop, buying bandanas printed with the constellations and key chains shaped like cacti and postcards of desert scenes boasting DEATH VALLEY: THE HOTTEST PLACE IN THE WORLD. We spot a park ranger at the information desk. Ask about the conditions of the road to Badwater Basin.

“You can keep going for another mile, after that it’s closed. Washed out. Might not reopen for months.”

We look at each other and frown. Grumble. Probably say shit half a dozen times. Make the decision to park here, then walk the road eighteen extra miles to Badwater Basin. Because what else is there to do. The ranger wishes us good luck and we head off to the spigot on the side of the building to fill our bottles with enough water to make it 33 miles to Hanuapah Canyon. Carrot and I bring six liters. Chance brings five.

It’s 6:30 by the time we finally leave Furnace Creek. The digital thermometer in front of the visitor center reads 91 degrees. We walk single file along the shoulder of the two-lane road, stopping every now and then to take pictures of the pastel sunset smeared across the desert sky. Later, when we walk by the light of a sliver of moon, when the temperature drops into the eighties and we spread out three-wide across the road, I lose count of the shooting stars.

We hike for a few more hours then stop when we’re tired and spread our sleeping bags out on the rocky sand beside the road. Eat snacks out of our food bags and talk about sex and hiking. Our families. The universe. Fall asleep beneath the cosmos and the big black sky.

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