I had four miles of hiking until I reached Kennedy Meadows. The Promised Land. Gateway to the Sierras. The End of the Desert. The river reflected the bright blue of the morning sky and I realized I would no longer have to worry about the next water source - streams and creeks would now be plentiful. At the same time, I was surprised at how dry my surroundings were. I had always envisioned Kennedy Meadows to be situated in a dense mountain forest, but this was high desert - wide open and covered in sagebrush. The trail led me over sandy ground. It was hot, exposed, arid and surrounded by foothills not considerably different from what I had seen for the past seven hundred miles.
I came to a road and departed from the trail. "Kennedy Meadows, Population 200," a sign declared. It was a small community with a few scattered homes. I came upon land owned by a local trail angel - a piece of property with a cluster of trailers, RVs and campers. It seemed to be deserted. I wandered around the property but soon realized I was not alone. A figure lurked inside one of the dark structures. There was something familiar about him and then I saw his face. It was Doublecross. I had left him behind hundreds of miles ago and yet once again there he was, suspiciously reaching a destination before me. I tried to strike up a conversation. "Is this place open?"
"Oh. I had heard it was closed down this year," I said, looking around at the empty property.
In Travels With Charley, Steinbeck had nearly as painful an interaction with a man in South Dakota:
"Lived here long?"
I waited for him to ask something or to say something so we could go on, but he didn't. And as the silence continued, it became more and more impossible to think of something to say. "Does it get very cold here winters?"
"You talk too much."
He grinned. "That's what my Mrs. says."
Perhaps I should have teased Doublecross a bit as Steinbeck had teased the old man outside of the Badlands. Possibly I would have received a faint smile in response, though I have my doubts. Instead I left him in the shadows and continued on down the road.
The Kennedy Meadows General Store, though not surrounded by towering trees, was essentially as I had imagined it. Perhaps its most iconic feature is the large deck full of hikers all engaged in mainly the same pursuit - consuming as much food or beer as possible and sorting through the supplies they would soon be carrying on their backs for a week or more into the High Sierra. They sat wondering how they could possibly fit seven days' worth of food into a bear canister that only held about four and a half. There was a counter where burgers and fries could be ordered from a grill. Hikers typically started a tab at the store and settled up before heading out into the South Sierra Wilderness, perhaps a little dazed and bewildered by just how much money one can spend in a twenty-four hour period in the middle of nowhere. The surrounding property was a kind of free-for-all camping area for thru-hikers. And on the outskirts beyond that was a dumping ground full of broken ice machines, old gasoline pumps, a satellite dish, and wood and metal scraps of all shapes and sizes.
I was happy to see Hockey there and he gave me a quick intro to the amenities at hand. We spoke excitedly about the upcoming terrain and decided to partner up during our journey north along the spine of the Sierra Nevada. Between my breakfast and lunch I purchased a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, sat out on the deck and looked at it skeptically. "Can I really finish this off in one sitting?" I wondered to myself. Ten minutes later it sat empty on the table in front of me - a situation that would repeat itself many more times along the trail.
Much to everyone's disappointment the store had completely run out of water. Someone had hit a breaker switch by accident, shutting off the water pump and the tank had stopped filling. I made a pathetic attempt at showering below what amounted to little more than a leaky faucet. The washing machine of course sat useless, so Hockey and I set out along the road back to the Kern River and soaked our hiking clothes in the water, feeling like members of some nineteenth-century wagon train making our way across the Southern Sierras to the fertile valleys beyond.
I met Mr. Cup, a Japanese hiker whose entries I had been seeing in trail registers. I said hello and he was quick to claim that he spoke no English, a humble assertion I assumed was entirely false. I told him that I spoke a little Japanese and he responded in his native language, "Please, go ahead!" We conversed for awhile and he told me how happy he was to be able to speak in Japanese. Earlier I had noticed him in the store attempting to pay for his dinner. He gave his name (which of course meant nothing to the woman behind the counter) and told her what he had ordered: a single hamburger. With his thick accent, however, he pronounced it as shingaru (single) baa-gaa (burger). I was familiar with the Japanese practice of systematically converting American sounds that do not exist in the Japanese language into ones that do, so I understood what he was attempting to say. For example, the false stereotype of Japanese people transposing their "r's" and "l's" is a misinterpretation of the fact that the Japanese language simply has no distinct "r" or "l" sound as we know them in English. There is a single sound that lies somewhere in between the two, somewhat akin to the rolling "r" sound in Spanish. In addition, Japanese is composed of syllables almost always ending in a vowel, thus an English word such as burger, composed of syllables ending in consonants, becomes baa-gaa.
All this to say, the woman behind the counter had no idea what Mr. Cup wished to communicate. She gave him a long, blank stare punctuated finally with an emotionless, "What?" I thought about stepping in and helping but remembered how annoyed I would get in Japan when Japanese people would treat me as if I couldn't navigate day-to-day life on my own, so quick to jump in and assist the "helpless" foreigner. So I left Mr. Cup to fend for himself. There would be many more small towns to come along the trail and many more interactions like that ahead of him. Each time, I imagined, he would get a little more adept at navigating his way through them. I respected him not only for the courage to take on a challenge such as the PCT, but to pile on top of that the struggles of communication in a foreign language. It was difficult enough at times, when you felt physically and mentally exhausted, to have patience in fulfilling your basic desires for food or a shower. Or to try to figure out why the hell your resupply package was missing at the post office. Taking away the ability to clearly communicate seemed like the potential final push towards a mental breakdown.
Next to me on the deck, another cross-cultural exchange transpired as some locals asked a British hiker where he was from.
"I'm from the UK," the man replied.
"Northern UK?" a young woman inquired after taking in his accent.
"That's right!" the hiker answered, somewhat surprised.
"Liverpool, by chance?"
"Yes! How did you know?"
"Yeah, I watch a lot of BBC ..."
I witnessed a language barrier even among Canadians and Americans, as Hockey spoke with a woman well-known in the trail community.
"You're really doing a lot to help out the PCT, eh?" he had said in classic Canadian parlance.
"The PCTA [Pacific Crest Trail Association]?" she asked, misinterpreting him. "No, I don't care much for that organization at all ..."
Day gave way to evening and evening gave way to night as I participated in the unyielding gluttony of time spent in civilization. A small group of us still remained out on the deck after most hikers had retired to their tents. I was enjoying the company and in a talkative mood, at least by my standards. The owner of the store appeared on the deck balancing a tray full of tequila shots and offered one to each of us. He claimed he'd never done that before, that we were simply a really good group and he was feeling generous. I suspected in part that he felt bad about the lack of water and offered the tequila shots in consolation. The liquor warmed my throat as it went down and the evening eventually drew to a close as we all scattered across the surrounding property. I situated myself within my shelter as Truckin, a thru-hiker camping nearby, sang loudly to himself a sort of personal theme song, "Gotta keep on truckin' ... gotta keep on truckin', yeah ..." Clearly we were all a bit excited for where the trail would take us in the days and weeks to come.
Early in the morning Hockey and I left Kennedy Meadows behind and made our way back towards the river. Before the junction with the PCT we found Doublecross standing alone in the middle of the road. He was talkative and downright chipper compared to his usual demeanor and he escorted us out of town "to see where the trail picked back up." We wished him well and headed out along the PCT. He stopped us, looked warily from side to side, then leaned in and confided in a hushed tone, "Dirty little secret ... I may have skipped the last one hundred fifty miles."
North of that road everything changed. It was an arbitrary boundary but it seemed to truly demarcate drastically different domains - it marked an end to the desert. The trail led us across a broad, flat expanse of sagebrush and into the foothills of the South Sierra Wilderness. Southern California was behind us. We had entered Central California en route to the High Sierra.
"We went on our way into the wonderland of nature gone nuts ..."
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley