I turned onto the flat spur trail that would take me towards Mammoth Lakes and practically broke into a sprint, passing day hikers and fishermen and feeling grateful for the lack of any drastic elevation change. There would be no large climb the following day as I returned from my town visit, my pack weighed down with food. I emerged from the forest into a world covered in asphalt and concrete, just as the trolley was coming to a stop. Hockey was already at the curb and cried out to me.
"Hurry up! Let's go!" he commanded.
I jogged up to the bus stop and stood there waiting as he scrambled to shove his belongings back into his pack.
Out of a thousand centuries they drew the ancient admiration of the footman for the horseman. They knew instinctively that a man on a horse is spiritually as well as physically bigger than a man on foot.
Steinbeck, The Red Pony
We were on our way towards town, the only passengers on the trolley. Ed, the driver, shouted back at us from his position behind the wheel. It was not a conversation by any means, we were simply two new faces playing our roles as an audience held captive to his storytelling whims. Even Hockey could barely get a word in edgewise. Ed wasted little time, launching into a monologue about his early days running pack mules into the backcountry.
"Backpackers all hate sharing the trail with livestock," he claimed. As far as I'm concerned, God made horses and mules and if they don't like it they can go to hell!"
His boss at the time, he said, was six-feet-eight-inches tall and weighed two hundred and eighty pounds. On one sojourn into the wilderness, sitting atop his horse, the boss and a hiker found themselves at an impasse. The hiker had refused to yield the right of way to this behemoth of a man on horseback. The hiker was warned, "Well, if you don't move you might just get kicked."
The hiker assumed he could stay clear of the horse's hind legs and answered defiantly, "I'll take my chances."
The man warned him a second time, "You might get kicked."
Again, the hiker refused to budge.
"Alright," the equestrian said as he began to maneuver his horse around the hiker. Just as they were side by side, the man took his "big, old size twelve cowboy boot" and kicked the hiker square in the chest.
From there we progressed to a discussion of Ed's run-ins with drunken passengers on his trolley.
"I'm an old man, but if I have trouble with anyone on my bus, I ain't gonna call 911. I'm gonna jump in there and take care of business myself. I might get my ass kicked but I'll get in the mix! Hell, I'm a former Marine combat veteran. I fought in Vietnam, ran with the Hell's Angels, cowboyed for a living and I'm one tough son of a bitch!" he humbly explained. "There was this one drunk asshole who had just gone to Pita Pit and brought his pita on the trolley. He was wasted, so I proceeded to kick him off and would you believe it? He took his damn pita and threw it right at me! He missed and I picked the pita up off the ground, chased him down the street and threw it right back at him. Hit him right in the chest! I said to him, 'Fuck your fuckin pita pit, you fuckin fuck!' "
And then Ed transitioned gracefully back into the topic of pack mules, recalling the time he packed out a seasonal park ranger - "the most beautiful woman" he had ever seen. From there he segued into a discussion about a local woman he was enamored with.
"You can just tell she's a rock climber - her body is so damn beautiful. She works at my favorite breakfast place in town."
Our ears perked up. "Did you say breakfast place?" I called out to Ed.
He provided us with directions as we pulled into the next stop. We thanked him and got off to transfer to the next trolley. I walked up to its open door and said hello to the driver.
"We're headed to the Motel 6 and we were told its stop number eleven. Is that right?"
"Yeah, that's right. Get in ... I'm in a hurry," he muttered.
We jumped on board as he slammed on the gas and tore through streets lined with condominiums and hotels. Looking out the window everything in Mammoth Lakes seemed brand new and unusually clean. Fit, attractive locals jogged and biked along recreation paths. A man talked loudly on his cell phone as he got on the trolley.
"Yeah, I'm looking at this awesome three-bedroom house with a huge garage for all the mountain bikes and gear. Enough room for all the toys, bro!"
With the drought in California the restaurants did not serve water unless one asked for it, but sprinklers blasted away on the lawns of local businesses. Our driver eventually came to a stop and we all sat there in silence. He had not said a word the entire time.
"Is this our stop?" we asked. "Yup," he replied.
The remainder of the day was a continual shuffle between different eating establishments in a quest to consume more and more calories. For dinner Hockey and I ended up at a Mexican place where I ordered a burrito so massive I simply couldn't finish it. For the first time in nine hundred miles I walked out of a restaurant with food left on my plate.
On the trail I was typically successful at keeping thoughts of the future from invading my mind, but not as I lay restlessly in my motel bed. I was trapped in my head, worrying about what I would do with my life once I got off the trail. My attention eventually drifted to the newly-formed blisters on my left foot. "How can I still be getting blisters at this point?" I thought to myself. I read plenty of trail journals before I started my hike and remembered that people often seemed so excited to return to the trail after being in town for a day or more. I had always worried that I would be the opposite. With a taste of civilization, I feared I would be reluctant to return to the backcountry at all. Yet, there I was, tired of my time in Mammoth Lakes and elated to return to the PCT. I had had enough of grocery shopping and trying to figure out how much food to bring for the next stretch of trail. Enough of trying to figure out resupplies for the towns further along the trail. Enough of going back and forth between my motel and the post office trying to figure out what the hell happened to a resupply package that I never really needed in the first place. Enough of feeling guilty about spending money and checking a bank account that dwindled but never replenished itself. I had had enough of town, but somehow I still was not tired of walking twelve hours a day - day after day, week after week.
Hockey and I transferred to the Lakes Basin trolley which would shuttle us back to the trailhead. The driver announced that he was done with his shift and that someone else would soon arrive to replace him. We sat patiently for a few minutes and then, as I think we both somehow expected, Ed climbed aboard and took the driver's seat. This time the trolley was packed with families and thus I assumed he would exercise some discretion in his storytelling. He was quiet at first and a passenger in front of us filled the silence with question after question about the PCT, all of which seemed to center around the dangers of hiking in bear country. "Washington is swarming with grizzly bears!" he warned us. In reality, fewer than twenty grizzlies are estimated to inhabit Washington's North Cascades - hardly enough to constitute a smattering, much less an entire swarm.
Soon enough Ed began to warm up to his audience and eased into a familiar topic. During his days running pack trips he was guiding a family and he happened to notice a man sunbathing nude on a nearby rock. Ed said nothing and rode right past the man, leaving the two parties to discover the existence of the other only at the very last minute, much to their mutual dismay.
He transitioned into another story about a pack trip involving a "black lady." He commenced speaking in a loud, stereotypical imitation of a black woman's voice. "I wanna see some bears out here! When I'm gonna see some bears, Ed?" she had supposedly asked. "Look over there," he said, pointing off towards a meadow. "There's a bear right over there!" Apparently, the same nude sunbather was back at it again. He imitated the woman's response. "Ed, that ain't the kinda bear I wanna see!" Ed, it would seem, happened upon nude sunbathers in the wilderness with a rather alarming frequency.
Exiting the trolley and returning to the trail, we made our way through a forest of dead trees poisoned by pockets of carbon dioxide seeping from beneath the ground. We reached a volcanic rock formation of columnar basalt named Devils Postpile that hovered above us, its hexagonal columns towering up towards the sky. For the most part, the vertical stonework seemed to be planted firmly in the ground, but in contrast, on the far left side of the structure the columns were curved and warped and looked to have been ripped from their foundation, like a clump of weeds torn from the earth. At the foot of the structure sat a massive pile of the six-sided stone pillars, like cut timber or clumps of hair piled up below a barber shop chair. The columnar basalt of Devils Postpile, a bee's honeycomb, a snowflake and a layer of bubbles on the surface of water. All of these natural formations share one thing in common - they are hexagonal. In the case of the honeycomb, a tessellation of hexagons is the most efficient way for bees to fill a space using the least amount of raw material possible. In the example of Devil's Postpile, the delicate interplay between cooling and contracting lava and the resulting tension necessitated the stabilizing force of the hexagon. A one hundred twenty degree angle is apparently the most efficient way to release tension, which it turns out is exactly the measurement of each of those six angles.
With the nearby road and parking lot the trail had become crowded with tourists. I crossed a bridge over the San Joaquin river and looked out on two teenagers hunched over their smart phones. Two squirrels darted across the trail, playing a game of chase, then disappeared up a tree. Hockey and I hiked on in conversation and he told me he didn't believe in an afterlife. He wasn't afraid of death, he said, but he was afraid of a premature death. His father had died at a young age and the idea that he was destined to the same fate weighed heavily upon him. He had been working nonstop his entire life and now that he was about to retire and possess the time to fully enjoy himself, he feared the irony of having life stolen away from him.