Nearing mid-October and no end in sight to this drought. The etymological root of the word drought takes us back to the old, Old English term “drug.” Readers can make their own jokes or serious connections to local conditions.
The corresponding sunny weather and the arrival of the latest edition of the Pacific Crest Trail Association magazine may send me out into the wild once more this year. Perhaps a section or two of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) northeast of Ashland and a play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as a reward for the mini-trekking.
My last visit to the PCT was in late July and early August. Three friends and I set out from the edge of June Lake, several miles northeast of the town of Mammoth Lakes. By evening we'd made camp on the northwestern corner of Waugh Lake, less than a quarter mile off the PCT and John Muir Trail (JMT). Waugh Lake is the westernmost of three dammed lakes. Gem and Agnew are the other two. My understanding is that the dams help provide power to the surrounding communities. Most hikers who head west from the June Lake trailhead are surprised to find a still running tramway alongside the path as they make their way upward in extremely steep and rocky terrain.
As dinners were heated over “pocket rocket” and “Jet boil” mini-stoves beside Waugh Lake, smoke crept toward us from fires to the east and from the south. There was quite a bit of concern for our rookie backpacker, who is a two decade survivor of a rare medical disorder which restricts blood flow to the organs. Use your imagination on the effects of forest fire smoke on such a condition.
Fortunately, wind directions swirled and turned during the night. By morning skies above our band of hikers were bright and clear. However, the southern smoke returned to trail us as we trudged toward Donahue Pass. Just before commencing our ascent, all four of us paused for a snack and rest on boulders alongside the trail. Almost any break of more than a few minutes alongside the JMT/PCT will bring a conversation with fellow “thru” or section hikers, especially on the cusp of entering Yosemite National Park. We met two young women from Canada who had originally intended to hike the 225 mile John Muir Trail, but the permit system now in place shut them out of starting at Yosemite Valley or Tuolumne Meadows. They had to enter at Sonora Pass, some seventy-seven miles north of Tuolumne Meadows. Like most long distance hikers, they had no regrets about walking the trail less planned for, regaling us with snippets of detail about the northern portion of Yosemite National Park and beyond.
I should interject here that my usual trail pal Steven Steelrod (yes, Virginia, he has a steel rod in one leg) was along. He is an inveterate chatter-upper of fellow backpackers, always garnering valuable, or occasionally faulty, information for future adventures.
We beat the smoke to the top of Donahue Pass. It seemed to give up at that point, retreating southward once more. The only bothersome smoke from that point on was the thick layer seemingly permeating the campgrounds at Tuolumne Meadows from early evening on into the dark hours. Why campfires were allowed there at all, in the midst of drought and a record wildfire summer, is beyond me. Perhaps the park service believes campers would give up on Tuolumne Meadows if not allowed to have campfires. Who knows? The campground was jam-packed by one p.m. on a Monday, so our four tired backpackers were glad that we had an automobile waiting for us to take us to the relief of an overnight motel in smoke free Lee Vining.
An aside to those with empty stomachs on the eastern side of the Sierra. It may sound preposterous, but the best lunch or dinner available waits for you at the Mobil gas station, just south of Lee Vining. After turning off U.S. 395 for the Tioga Pass Road, and the eastern entrance to Yosemite, don't blink or you might miss the left turn into the Mobil. I am not making this up. The restaurant inside the Mobil Station is called The Whoa Nellie Deli, but it's more like a diner with mini-mart décor. You don't have to have hiked 25 or 225 miles to appreciate the food.