I wake up to wispy pink clouds at sunrise, and a sedan pulling into the dirt lot. "Are those... people?", I hear whispered, from just over the small bushes. We've cowboy camped directly in front of one of Death Valley's biggest tourist attractions, the charcoal kilns below Mahogany Flat. In the cold and dark the previous night, I'd yard-saled my gear all over: my backpack, water bottles, ditty bag, food bag, shoes, hat, frisbee, and various smaller items are spread around me in an arms-reach circle. It is carnage. In the eye of the storm, I lay in my sleeping bag, on my pad, in the dirt. No tent, no shelter, looking day-trippers in the eyes. Probably. My contacts aren't in. I look intimidatingly in the direction of what I assume is the parking lot.
I feel around for my glasses, find them (in the frisbee), and glance over to Lobster-- she's awake, stifling laughter, as am I. The tourists are trying to figure out what to do, debating in hushed tones. Eventually, they get back in their car, and keep driving up the road. Guess they'll try again later. "What do you think they think we're doing?", asks Lobster. "I have no idea. Like, where do they think we came from?" Nobody would guess we'd crossed Badwater Basin, ascended the Panamints up the steep flanks of Telescope Peak, and descended the road in the darkness. Nobody sane, at least.
Our new friends.
The other question, Where do they think we're going? was implicit. Crossing several more mountain ranges and several more desert flats was too big a challenge for me to think of moments after waking. I admired the sunrise for a little bit before packing up my gear.
I thought of the drama from yesterday, re-running ways to have fixed it, made it better, options for what I could do today to help. Before long, our group was all assembled, and I finished shoving the last of my belongings in my pack.
Importantly, for the first time ever on a thru, where travel is predominantly in one direction, I used the same pit toilet three times. Once the previous night, when we'd passed the kilns the first time. After we hitched back up to Mahogany and re-arrived at the kilns, a second. It seemed fitting to say goodbye to this special place in the custom of the land.
Taken from my sleeping bag: our beautiful camping spot, directly in front of the kilns.
The night's rest, the kinder weather, and the easy terrain had somewhat eased the emotions from yesterday. We set out at a good clip, talking through what had happened now that we weren't in gale winds, sitting on a frigid metal bench in Mahogany. We settled on that everyone had done their best in the face of a hard decision, and the thing to do now was to focus on the future. We talked through what was important: how did we feel about various upcoming challenges? What sections would people least mind skipping? What was most important to complete?
L-R: Shitless, Mads, Lobster, Hand Me Down
Shitless started feeling a bit off, and brought it up to the group. She'd had a flu vaccine a few days before, and thought she might be getting effects from the shot. Not feeling in great shape, and hesitant about the last two days, she told us that she'd made up her mind to bail. She's arguably the strongest hiker in the group, but L2H isn't a route to mess around on if you're feeling bad.
We talked through bail options. Her car was in Badwater, so if she could make it back there, she could get home. The rest of us could continue on with the trip as planned, to the second car at Whitney Portal. She stoically offered to wait around and hitch, but we wanted assurance that she got a ride-- with many of the major roads closed, there was no guarantee. We realized that with the main highway blocked with storm damage, the primary detour being used to cross the Panamints, back to Badwater, would be via Wildrose Road, a few miles down our route.
Beginning the long walk down to the valley floor.
And as luck would have it, we found a water spigot within eyeshot of the junction. As we were filling up, Shitless flagged down a passing car that, by chance alone, was heading to Badwater. It was a sudden, sad goodbye, She'd text us, maybe hang out in Lone Pine and crew or rejoin depending on how things went. She hopped in, and sped off.
And so there were four.
Lower reaches of Wildrose, nearing first cache
It was sad losing Shitless-- she'd been super stoked on the idea of the trip, but sometimes things just don't line up. We kept on down Wildrose, toward the first water cache. Spirits were high, and we were all looking forward to finding water. We found the cache without much trouble, and filled up for the long haul across the valley floor. I'd stashed baked beans, by request, and we passed them around. An excellent reward. The wind picked up, and we carried on down into Panamint Valley.
We were trying to do the math in our heads-- we were probably about a half day behind where we'd expected. We decided that, if someone came along, we'd hitch a couple miles down to the next junction. The road-walk was starting to wear on us. A vanlifer came along, nice woman with a vicious dog and a hairless cat, and she brought us a few miles ahead. We felt like things were stabilizing. And then we stepped out of the van.
There was sand on the horizon. Then it was much closer. And within a few minutes, the sandstorm was on top of us. We took shelter behind some rocks, shouting over the roar of the wind and the hissing sand. "ARE WE GOING TO WALK IN THIS?" Sand was in my eyes, my ears. I open my mouth to yell back-- bad idea. "THIS IS INSANE". Morale tanked. "GUYS, I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO." We fastened bandanas over our faces, pulled up buffs, covered our ears with our hands. "NO WAY ANYONE'S DRIVING IN THIS, RIGHT?"
Some time passes. Hand Me Down spots car headlights through the sand. "IF IT TURNS OUR WAY, I'M TRYING". Thumbs out. No way in hell the car stops. The car slows. Car pulls over-- space for 2. Lobster and I offer to walk it. The good samaritan re-organizes his entire camping setup on the fly so that we can all fit. It takes a few minutes, the doors and trunk are open. I cannot overstate the amount of sand in this car. The cupholders are full. The floormats are invisible under tiny windswept dunes. The GPS screen has sand adhered to residual finger oil. The sand is rough, and coarse, and gets everywhere.
The second hitch of the day, an escape from the sandstorm.
He welcomes four disgusting hikers, muddy, sweaty, sandy, into his car. I owe this man a true debt. He asks where we're going-- we say "Out of the sand. Maybe to Panamint Springs?". He's heading there anyway., maybe 15 miles up the road. We talk about how lucky we are. We offer to buy him stuff from the store-- he declines. Just out doing some car camping before the season is over. Absolute legend. And just like that- we're through.
We spend a little while at the store, looking at the storm we just got out of. It's intimidating, powerful, sort of beautiful. In some ways, it would've been fun to walk in. If we knew it would end up ok. We buy ice cream, and stickers. Retail therapy.
We're faced with another issue, though. We're a little dejected, tired, licking wounds (some physical) from the Telescope climb & failed descent of Tuber yesterday, from losing Shitless, and from the sandstorm. We've just skipped 15 of the easiest miles on the route. And by far the hardest part of the entire trip is immediately ahead of us: the climb out of Darwin Falls is Class-III or IV, bordering on rock climbing, with fully loaded packs after a water fill. It's getting late in the day-- we may not begin the climb until the sun starts to go down. Little dangerous.
We deliberate-- and settle on trying to get a final ride up to Saline Valley Road. Cars are few and far between. Car coming? Thumbs out. Nothing. Rinse and repeat. We dance, we sing, we cheer. We look for cardboard and a sharpie. Nothing. We change spots a few times, still nothing. We're wasting time, hours tick by, and we worry. But we've spent too much time trying to hitch, now, to be able to do Darwin Falls today.
Eventually, a trunk pulls around. "Lowest to Highest? I'll take you guys wherever you need to go". Devin (so we learned) is a champion among mortals. He'd hiked L2H twice, the first time solo, and just finished up the JMT a few days earlier. He was killing time before a Whitney trip with his dad and uncle about a week away. We chatted during the brief ride, winding up Darwin Plateau along Rainbow Canyon, and he dropped us off at our junction. His Whitney summit permit was the day after ours. We hoped to see him again.
Saline Valley Rd., home of the Saline Valley Donkey, prey of the Saline Valley Mountain Lion
Finally, flat terrain and good conditions. We could get some miles in. Because of our hitches, we were also just about at the second water cache. Spirits were recovering-- maybe things were finally back on track. In fact, we were now a little ahead of schedule. We found the second cache and began topping off for the 25 mile water carry to Cerro Gordo, a re-un-abandoned mining town on the crest of the Inyo Mountains. Long story. We'll get there.
Sand begins to blow in over the mountains just in front of us. "You've got to be kidding me". The sandstorm is back for blood. We'd spotted a sizable wash on the other side of the road, and decided to move the cache there, to take shelter, and try to make some dinner.
Somehow, the plan works. The ditch is deep enough that, sitting down, the sand passes harmlessly overhead. We barely feel a thing. But the sun is blotted out, the sky darkens, the brush waves wildly in the wind. We sit comfortably in our cozy den, making mac and cheese, cous cous, and drinking the Four Lokos and yerba that I had stashed there. The plan was always to night hike the Saline Valley road-- it might be too hot in the heat of the day, and it works well with the cadence of the trip. So we recover, chat, and wait it out. As the sun begins the set, the storm passes us for good. And the roadwalk begins.
Chaos reigns. The drama of the last few days, the absurdity of the trip, and four lokos combine. We did not finish the second family-sized can of beans. Our resilient morale once again recovers. Peals of laughter ring out over the vast expanse. Unseen night-time giggles in the middle of the desert was surely not concerning to any other denizens. Despite the day we'd had-- or the few days-- all it takes is a few hours of good walking & good company to feel like things are normalizing.
A bright light appears in the sky, then fades. "Aliens." A few minutes later, we see it again, closer. Finally, headlights crest the hill a few miles away. Three, maybe four vehicles. As they get closer, big Jeeps, offroading, we pull just off the road, and make the international symbol for "honk". They (after a moment of terrified silence) oblige. We cackle. And again, "what the hell do they think we're doing out here?". We laugh at the thought. Maybe it's humor, maybe it's delirium. We're miles from anything of interest or import.
It starts to get cold. Really cold. The wind picks up, and I wrap my sleeping bag around myself while I walk, trying to keep my upper body warm. I only have short shorts, 3" inseam-- my wind pants and leggings are at Whitney Portal, still some 60 miles away. We make do, complaining of the cold, marveling at the darkness, enjoying each other's company, panicking a little at the calls of a rogue Saline Valley donkey, shrouded somewhere in the inky void, but largely making good time.
We crest a ridge, maybe around 10 pm, and, suddenly, the wind hits us like a ton of bricks. The felt temperature drops from maybe the high 40s to the 30s. We start shivering-- "We have to set up camp. Now. No way can we keep going". We bail off the road, looking for anywhere flat. The wind is pushing me sideways. I find a flat spot, sort of-- I pile gear and my own body on top of my tent to keep it from blowing away as I set it up. Cursing, hands numb, my stakes are pulling out of the loose dirt, the tent flapping like a kite. Still perched on top of it, I look for rocks to build an anchor for the stakes, but find none. If I get off this tent, it will fly away and never be found. It's freezing cold-- my whole body is shaking from the exposure. It feels like an eternity, but after a few minutes, I get a half-decent pitch, throw myself into my tent and my bag, and close my eyes as the wind whips sand through the mesh, blowing all over my face and up my nose. The silnylon walls flap noisily, buffeted. Excellent. Good. Cool.
I roll over, face-down in my sleeping bag, and drift off into one of the best nights of sleep I've had in a while. I feel the rear portion of my tent collapse in the night, dismiss it, and return to sleep. And I wake when the sun comes up.
Saline Valley Road
Saline Valley looks like Joshua Tree, unbeknowst to us, since we entered it in the dark. I exit my tent last, cold, but I'm told that Mads' tent collapsed completely: "they were sleeping in it like a trash bag". Lobster cowboy camped like the monster she is, and Hand Me Down's tent stayed up, a little. My front pole staying up gave my tent the appearance of success. But it was mostly a noise-maker, loose silnylon in the breeze, that was now full of sand.
As the first rays of sun touched down, we ran to them, seeking warmth. After a couple minutes, we were ready to get on the move. And I think this was the turning point where the trip started to get truly fun.
Entering the Inyos.
We're finally settling in. The ridiculous challenges have been matched by good luck-- good hitches, good timing, good friends. We're used to the temperature oscillation now, as much as anyone can be, and we know now what to expect. The pain is over, done, we missed good sections; we can't go back, and that's ok. We have a clear plan-- folks want to summit Whitney, even if we have to hitch in the middle. The hitch from Lone Pine to the Portal is the least bad section to miss, with the highest chance of getting a ride. Our main remaining concern is the descent from the Inyo Mountains via Long John Canyon, the last significant off-trail section.
Things are coming together, and the climb toward Cerro Gordo is pleasant, beautiful, nice weather for walking. We pause every now and again to add or remove layers (those of us with layers, that is), or just to complain, but we grow used to it. The route devolves slowly from a wide dirt road to more of a gravel wash, and begins to wind upward. The Inyos shade us, and the climb gets cold. We finally crest Cerro Gordo, with the town laid out in front of us, and the Sierra behind, across the Owens River Valley.
Atop Cerro Gordo. Cute.
The town is being restored by a few incredibly dedicated folks, chief amongst them Brent Underwood of the Ghost Town Living youtube channel. He's the owner & proprietor of the town, though we met a few of the full-time and volunteer employees. Everyone there was incredibly lovely. I chatted about dreams of being a forest ranger with Trevor. We got some beers. We toured around the remnants of the original buildings, looked into the restored ones (shoutout to the brothel), were shown the finer points of mineral assay and galena-silver refining-- it was a blast. The kindness and hospitality of the folks at CG cannot be overstated.
Easily the highlight, though, were the animals. We were greeted by the very protective town dog, Wade, who, once we were deemed friends, loyally followed us around, looking for attention. We saw the goats: the matriarch, Tofu, adorable babies Spaghetti, Meatball, and Burrata, and the terrifying eldritch horror that is adult male goat Elon Tusk, in his own sub-enclosure. He looked into my soul and I felt something leave my body. He haunts me from the corners of my psyche and the fringes of my memory. I was not sure whether he wanted to mate with me or eat me. I hope we cross paths again. I felt so alive.
There were also the alpacas. While most everything else in the town had a specific utility, the alpacas did not. When we asked Brent why they were here, he provided the following insight: "They're mostly for youtube content. People loooooove them."
As our tour was ending and the sun setting, the cold front made itself known. We picked up sweatshirts from the gift shop as a feeble defense against the weather. We also asked about any shelter we could seek, something protected from the wind, and Brent was kind enough to point us toward some options.
L-R: Me, Lobster, Mads, Hand Me Down. The Owens River Valley and Sierra behind.
The temperature drops from the 50s into the 40s. We shiver, and pace, checking out the town. The 30s. The complaining starts, and we move toward camp. We hit the 20s. Our fast walk turns into an all-out run. The full-body uncontrollable shivering starts. We finally see the shelter coming over the top of the hill-- at a sprint, we reach it, get set up, and after a while, celebrate. "Thank god for Brent. We probably wouldn't have died, but... yikes". With his advice and hospitality, we slept pretty comfortably. The alternative would've been some kind of body-heat nightmare. The overnight low was 18 degrees, pretty different from the 40s we'd planned for. I was still only wearing short shorts and my thin desert shirt, plus my newly acquired sweater..
We fell asleep at the crest of our second-to last mountain range of the trip. Over these two days, we walked 39.5 mi with +5,700'/-7,500', and hitched about 34 miles over 3 separate rides. It's worth noting that the hitches are actually less distance-efficient than the route-- a scramble straight up a cliff face gets you more elevation, more quickly, than a graded road. And now, all that remained was the descent from the Inyo Mountains, crossing the Owens River Valley, and the climb to Mt. Whitney. Guess there'll be one more part to this blog.