Another note from our correspondent walter

posted Oct 29, 2019, 2:48 PM by Paul Wagner
Over the years we've heard from Walter a few times--always thoughtful comments, and well written.  We thought we'd share this one with you:

I’m a fan of point-to-point hikes, and my wife and I have done a few.  It’s simple.  You take two cars, park one at your destination, and drive the other to your starting point.  A shuttle.  But what do you do when your wife “retires” from backpacking?  I decided to try something different this year, which I call the “naked” or “hopeful” point-to-point hike.  You park at the trailhead, you take off, and you just hope you can get back to your car somehow.

This year I decided to hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail northbound from Sonora Pass to Echo Summit (Tahoe).  It’s about 70 miles, which I thought I could do in about five days.  I wasn’t crazy about the idea of being on the PCT because I expected to encounter a lot of southbound through-hikers — it being mid-September — and I would rather be alone; but at least the trail would be easy to follow (or so I thought), which would be nice for me because I tend to get lost on less-travelled routes.  My plan was to spend one night acclimating in Bridgeport, eat a bacon cheeseburger at Rhino’s, and drive up to Sonora Pass in the morning.  At the end of the hike I would try to hitch back to my car.  I had no Plan B.  Also, I had never hitched before in my entire life. 

The hike went well enough, for the first two days through the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.  The hike up to the Sonora Gap (10,500 feet) is spectacular as is the hike down into the East Carson River canyon.  By the second night I had reached Noble Lake, a few miles short of Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4.  My troubles started the following morning as I hiked down the rocky switchbacks into Noble Canyon.  At some point I apparently blew right past a junction and headed off on the wrong trail.  I have to say that it was a remarkably easy trail, the kind you can hammer down at full speed, so it had that going for it; but I eventually realized that it was going on far longer than it should have — about four miles.  I came out on Highway 4, but several miles down from Ebbetts Pass where the PCT crosses; so I was going to have to hitchhike much sooner than I had reckoned.

I am 72 years old and only marginally presentable in the best of circumstances.  I didn’t know what sort of effect that might have on a potential ride.  I was hoping for pathos but thinking that fear and loathing were equally likely.  I hoisted my thumb and hoped for the best.  No luck.  After half an hour of rejection I decided I would just have to hike up to the pass; but I hadn’t gone more than a few hundred yards when I encountered Amy, who had apparently pulled over to enjoy the view.  She basically asked me what the hell I was doing walking up this lonely road, so I told her my sad story.  Without hesitating, she turned her car around and drove me up to the pass.  This may be the first time in history that a hitchhiker has caught a ride from someone going in the opposite direction,  Kindness knows no reason.  Amy was on her way to visit her sister in Yerington, but she was also in the mood for adventure, apparently, which is why she was taking Highway 4 in the first place.  I guess I was just part of her adventure.  Anyway, thanks, Amy!  I was back on the PCT and on my way again although having lost a couple of hours.

The rest of the hike went fine.  I enjoyed the Mokelumne Wilderness and it’s strange volcanic landscapes, especially the trail down from Raymond Pass.  On my fourth night I made camp at a wonderful spot called Lost Lakes, which I had all to myself, and the next day I made it down through Carson Pass and onward through the El Dorado Forest to within three miles of Echo Summit.  I lay awake that night wondering how in the hell I was ever going to get back to Sonora Pass.  The weather had been cold, windy and clear to this point, but the forecast for the next day was for high, gusty winds and rain, with snow above 8,000 feet. 

In the morning I hiked the remaining three miles to Highway 50 — steep and rocky — and at ten o’clock I hoisted my thumb once again.  Now there is no simple way to get from Echo Summit to Sonora Pass.  You need to take Highway 50 to the 89 junction, 89 to the 88 junction (the Carson Pass highway), 88 to 395, which goes down the eastern side of the Sierras, 395 south to 108, and finally 108 up to Sonora Pass.  But a journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step.  To my great surprise a car pulled over after about 20 minutes, and a nice couple gave me a ride of about three miles down to the junction with 89.  Turns out they had seen me on the trail earlier that morning as they were taking a short run.  It also turns out that the woman graduated from the same college as me and recognized the school logo on my knit cap.  Alumni benefits. 

Then there I was at the 50/89 junction, so what next?  Another 20 minutes passed as did dozens of vehicles.  It occurred to me that it might help if I made eye contact with each passing driver.  This made hitching a little more personal, but not in a good way.  I felt myself getting angry.  I mean, this guy has room in his car, he’s going my way, and I need a ride; but he zooms right by.  WHAT KIND OF PERSON DOES THAT?  Eventually I heard someone shouting from down the road.  A guy in a carpet cleaning van had pulled over and was waving to me.  Incredible.  He told me he drives a lot for his business and likes to pick up backpackers.  He was on his way to Kirkwood.  We talked about his cleaning business, rich people who live in Kirkwood, and so forth.  Nice guy!  He dropped me at the junction of 89 and 88, which is basically in the middle of nowhere.

Another fifteen or twenty minutes passed.  Dozens of heartless, selfish people drove past.  Finally a guy pulled over in a nondescript little car.  He said he was a wedding photographer on his way to a job at Mammoth, which meant that he would be turning south on 395, which meant that he could drop me off at the 108 junction.  Perfect!  I couldn’t believe my luck. It turned out that he was himself a serious backpacker and that his upcoming gig would require an overnight backpacking trip to a remote lake.  We had a grand time talking about his hiking experiences, his photography business, his family, etc.  I began to think that this hitchhiking stuff was a lot of fun.  Meanwhile, the wind was picking up big time.  Tumbleweeds were flying across the road.  He dropped me at the desolate junction of 395 and 108. 

Highway 108 did not seem promising.  There was no traffic whatsoever for quite some time.  I decided that I would just have to hike up to the pass.  It was still only one o’clock, and I thought I was only about 12 miles away.  (In fact it was almost 15.)  I could hike that in four hours, I thought, and be there well before dark.  It’s just a road.  If the weather turned, which it hadn’t yet, I could hunker down for the night at the Leavitt Meadows campground, which was about halfway.  I’ve camped in dreadful weather before.  But I didn’t get more than half a mile down the road before a woman in a big shiny SUV pulled over and offered to drive me up to the pass.  She was a very large woman but said she had been a backpacker herself in her younger days.  She had been raised nearby but had been out of the country for the past six years.  She was absolutely delighted to be back in the mountains that she loved.  As we drove the sky grew dark.  By the time we reached Sonora Pass the wind was howling, and it was snowing furiously.  She dropped me in the trailhead parking lot and went off to take some photographs.  I stashed my gear in my little car as quickly as I could and rearranged things so that I could offer a ride to the three forlorn-looking through-hikers I had seen by the side of the road as we drove in; but by the time I got back to the road they were already gone.  I assume that my benefactor had taken them down to Kennedy Meadows Lodge and safe shelter.  By three o’clock I was in Sonora enjoying a cheeseburger. 

So, I had hitched four rides in one day.  According to Googlemaps I had gone 95 miles, a two-hour trip, in just three and a half hours, and I had beaten the storm.  It was pretty exciting, to be honest.  At my age some guys don’t get out much, you know.  I am very grateful for the kindness of so many strangers and the fellowship of people who love the outdoors and help backpackers when they can.  I had heard about “trail angels” who provide random support and assistance to through-hikers, but this was something even more spontaneous and random.  Kind of a miracle. 

Good to know the old thumb still works!