I haven’t looked in a mirror since Mojave. That was roughly eight days and 150 miles ago. In the time since then, I’ve sweated while going up, down, and around beautiful mountains, walked through sandy desert, gotten some sunburn, and been rained on twice. I’m sure that, by general United States standards, I look a mess.
But, when I arrived at the Kennedy Meadows General Store with Pine Nut, it simply didn’t matter. Hikers crowding the store’s deck and overflowing onto its lawn cheered and hollered and clapped as we made our way to the deck. I threw my hands in the air in gratitude, and they cheered louder. We had done it: We two tired, hungry, filthy hikers had made it to the Sierras.
Kennedy Meadows has been an anticipated milestone for a long while now, since before I’d set out on the hike. It marks the end of Southern California and the start of the Sierras, home of giant trees, water crossings, and Mount Whitney. It means sun shirts get replaced with T-shirts and food bags get traded for bear canisters. It means that we’ve gotten our trail legs and that the rush to Canada before the snow moves in is on.
Before the dash begins, it’s customary for hikers to spend at least a “nero,” a near-zero-mile day, at Kennedy Meadows, and that’s just what Pine Nut and I are doing. Ant, who’s been really struggling with plantar fasciitis, will be arriving by bus in a few hours, at which point logistics will need to be worked out, as there’s virtually no cell service for a few hundred more miles.
Until Ant arrives, it’s all about catching up on blogging and letters and food. Catching up on the last involves a fair bit of people watching, as the General Store’s deck, where the food lives, seems to be the favorite destination of hikers.
Watching lots of tanned and muscled hikers interact, I thought about how the last 700 miles have done much more than give us our trail legs. Over these miles, backpackers new to the long trails have gotten their trail identities. Most everyone has a trail name by now, lots of hikers are sporting unruly hair grown over the last weeks and months, and the group’s adaptation to this lifestyle seems to have occurred. No longer are showers and laundry the priority after getting to town; they’re important, for sure, but hikers don’t become what Ant calls “fluffy” until they’ve filled their bellies with at least one burger or hot dog, chips, and a cold Gatorade.
Talking with other hikers, I didn’t think about the dirt smudges or streaks of zinc sunscreen on my face that a Wet One later demonstrated I’d had. I didn’t care that my clothes smelled as though I’d walked from Mexico in them or that my hair was a wild mess under my ball cap. I just smiled and laughed and shared stories with new friends and old.