I returned to Echo Lake. On a whim, I decided to ask for my package again. They found it. Although they denied it, I knew it was there all along. The date stamp on it was 2 weeks old. I had already bought new supplies, but I had to open the box to get my maps out. Then, as a final insult, they charged me more money to forward the package ahead (forwarding an unopened priority package is free). The ineptitude of the people running Echo Lake Resort had cost me nearly $60… Assholes. I heard from other hikers who had similar experiences there. I should have been smart and sent my package to the South Lake Tahoe P.O. to start with.
I’m not sure why, but after Lake Tahoe, I was more excited than ever to start hiking again. 4 days of rest and relaxation did me good, but I missed being “out there”. All the PCT hikers we knew had passed through by the time we left. There was a whole new group of faces on the trail. We estimated that we were now in the “middle of the pack” so to speak. Most people who hike the PCT start on or about May 1. I had started on April 17th, ahead of most people. By now, the “big group” had caught up… or I had fallen back… Before Lake Tahoe, I had hoped to catch-up with my previous group of hiking friends. They were now 6 days ahead, and I gave up on that idea. There were a lot of cool people right here, why rush?
The trail went around Lower and Upper Echo Lakes. These lakes were surrounded with quaint vacation homes. There were no roads to the homes, they could only be reached by boat or trail. After a few miles, we were past these homes and entering the Desolation Lakes Wilderness. We passed a number of day-hikers early in the day. I remember one in particular, a little boy who hiking with his parents. He was probably about 9 years old. He looked up at my big backpack and asked me where I was going. “Canada”, I said. His eyes opened wide and he screamed out “Wow!”. I talked with him and his parents for a minute or two, they were nice folks.
The snow still hadn’t disappeared. We slogged through it and quickly made our way to Lake Aloha. Lake Aloha was a huge lake. It was actually a dammed reservoir, supplying drinking water to the Sacramento area. There were a number lonely white snags still standing up straight in the water. This area had been flooded some 30 years ago, and the dead trees still hadn’t fallen over. We worked our way around Lake Aloha, then turned away, heading deeper into the Desolation Lakes Wilderness. Desolation Lakes is one of the most popular backpacking areas along the PCT. We passed a few groups of people, camped on the shores of the many lakes in the area. We hiked up a ridge, and camped on a flat area above most of the lakes (and the worst of the mosquitoes).
The next day, we quickly headed over Dick’s Pass, which was near Dick’s peak and Dick’s Lake… Dick was a popular guy. Snow still covered the enitre mountainside north of Dick’s Pass. The trail was completely gone. I got separated from Donna and spent a good 30 minutes going up and down the mountainside, looking for the trail. I finally spotted some hikers coming up the trail – they were 50 yards below me. I scrambled down, hiked a bit ahead, and waited for Donna to catch up. Her footprints weren’t on the trail, so I knew she was still behind me… somewhere. I spent a lot of time on the PCT looking at footprints. I tried to figure out who was in front of me, where people had camped, how old the prints were, etc. After Donna caught up, we headed past more “desolate” lakes.
We took a break at Fontanillis Lake. It was a very pretty lake, a couple hundred yards long and maybe 50 yards wide. The water was a clear blue, bordered by clean round boulders and snow. While we were sitting there, a group of day-hikers passed by. One of them said out loud, “It just doesn’t get any better than this”. Being a smartass, I replied, “Well, actually, a couple hundred miles back there’s this other lake…”. He gave me a funny look and moved on. True, I was being a dick, wrecking this man’s “moment of zen”. But, I’d been so nice for so long that being bad felt good. There were plenty of other day-hikers to be nice to. A few minutes later, I got my chance. A father was out hiking with his son and his son’s friend. We started talking, and they quickly realized that they’d missed their trail junction – quite understandable with all the snow. I asked him where he was headed, and he pulled out a tattered map that must have been 20 years old. The PCT wasn’t even on it. I gave him my maps of the area and pointed out where we were. The topic of “hiking to Canada” came up and he mentioned that his son had just asked him if anyone did that.
The rest of the day basically sucked. We headed up and down soggy forested slopes. The mosquitoes kept getting worse and worse. We finally stopped for dinner at Richardson Lake with a couple other PCT hikers. I put on my mosquito armor, which included nylon pants, a thick fleece and DEET. I wasn’t too excited about using DEET. Anything which melts plastic probably shouldn’t be rubbed into the skin. But, ravenous hoards of mosquitoes will make a person do nutty things. We hiked on until dark that night (Donna banged up her leg while crossing a steam – ouch!). We finally camped near a road which crossed the PCT. It wasn’t an ideal spot, more of a parking lot than anything. But, by this point we weren’t really picky.
I was just beginning to think that we’d seen the last of our pretty sierra vistas when tomorrow came. We climbed up to the mountain ridge west of Lake Tahoe and stayed there most of the day. The trail was routed right on top of the bare ridge and we had views in all directions. To the west, the mountains quickly got lower – the horizon was flat. It was the first flat horizon we’d seen in any direction since crossing the mojave. To the south, we saw snowy north faces of countless mountains, we were glad they were behind us. To our east, Lake Tahoe would occasionally make an appearance – a big expanse of blue flatness surrounded by mountains on all sides. To the north, we could see endless waves of forested hills. We could tell that we were nearing the end of the dramatic sierra peaks. Northern California awaited, and was going to be a whole new experience.
While we enjoying our traverse, we were passed by a hiker headed south on the PCT. He had an immense external-frame backpack with what appeared to be a 5-gallon plastic drum attached to the bottom. He was wearing leather gloves and a thick long-sleeved black shirt. We asked him how the trail looked up ahead. “It’s terrible! there’s snow everywhere! There’s a dangerously steep snow wall right on top of Granite Chief. Be careful”. He sounded genuinely concerned for our safety. We didn’t know what to make of his warnings, we figured we’d see for ourselves. We finally got to Granite Chief. True, there was a steep snow wall there, but it wasn’t anything to worry about. I learned that descriptions of trail conditions are mostly subjective. For the entire trip, I continued to ask southbound hikers about the trail conditions ahead. The information was almost never useful, but it was still fun to ask… it was a conversation icebreaker more than anything.
Just below Granite Chief, on the slopes of Squaw Valley Ski Resort, we stopped for dinner with a few other hikers. We kept hiking until 9:30PM that night. We were treated to a long sunset which was unlike any other on the trip. The entire western horizon was a glowing red band of light. Everything west of us was lower than we were. It felt like we were peeking around the curvature of the earth. The horizon gradually turned to deeper and deeper shades of red before finally fading to black. It was still glowing when the rest of the sky was filled with stars. The sun officially set around 8:30pm, but we could see its afterglow until 10pm.
We awoke in the middle of a giant field of small sunflowers. The area looked completely different in the morning light. We got moving as quickly as we could. I was planning to meet my dad at the next stop, Sierra City. I had to get there by the end of the next day, and it was about 55 miles away. We continued along the ridge of mountains. As we got closer to Donner Pass, we came across more and more day-hikers. It was the weekend, and the trail was a popular hike. We came down the mountainside, and took a break at a ski resort parking lot. I’m not sure why we stopped there. It was littered, ugly, had no water and no comfortable place to sit. But for some reason, I often stopped at road crossings. Almost like I needed to be around human filth for a little while so I’d better be able to understand the relative beauty of nature. Or, maybe I was just hoping to meet some cool people and get some free food.