SHR Day 23 – July 25
Upper Soldier Lake to Horseshoe Meadow
Foxy Foxtail Camp to All Done Camp
Passes: Army Pass(trail)
Our final day on the SoSHR was a gentle goodbye to a tough-ass hike. We followed sandy trails south as the mighty Southern Sierra, at their peak just yesterday, mellowed and faded like the wake of a passing boat. With hours of easy cruising between us and burritos in Lone Pine, I had plenty of time to think about the past three weeks and what it meant to be at the end. However, either I was still processing my emotions or I was just relieved that SpiceRack and I made it to the end safely. It might have been hunger too. Sometimes I have trouble hearing my thoughts over my rumbling belly.
The sky was already bright and hanging some clouds when I peaked from the bottom of the tent (Yep, it rained on us a little bit on our last night. No cowboying for us.) I had no idea what time it was, but lay there thinking while Spice snoozed. Eventually, I felt too cramped in the warming tent and stepped out, typically anxious to get moving.
Spice treated me softly as we packed up for the final time. I appreciated her compassion even though I didn’t feel out of sorts. Like last night, I expected that those end-of-trail feelings might come later. We finished packing and walked out of camp a little before 8am.
The air was cool and breezy after we left those fantastic foxtail behind. A sandy plain gradually steepened into a sandy slope, and we fell into a rhythm after stumbling upon a good trail. The conversation drifted towards the future and Spice’s new job that awaited her back at home. After an apartment building-like rock full of marmots, the long switchbacks gradually straightened as the sandy slope leveled out again. We were on top a big blob of granite sand looking ahead at other blobs of granite sand. Beyond them to the south, the horizon flattened to a hazy squiggle, not a prominent peak in sight.
After reaching the popular trail to the summit of Mount Langley, California’s southernmost 14er, Spice and I cruised down to a wide saddle. I crushed a Clif Bar, determined to have as little food left over as possible. Directly ahead was a climb up to New Army Pass. To the left was (Old) Army Pass. At this point in the hike its ‘unmaintained’ status didn’t scare us. We turned left, no more climbing for the rest of the trip. “It’s all downhill from here,” jokes made their rounds.
The trail was gnarly for a trail with a few scrambles over big boulders, but quickly we were down at lake level in Cottonwood Lakes Basin. We gave the generic movie game another shot as we wound around the sparsely-treed shores of numerous lakes. The trail widened and the frequency of passing backpackers skyrocketed. Despite the bouncy gait of a shirtless bro, I recognized a massive meadow as the last viewpoint before the trail plunged below treeline for good. Turning around, sweeping my gaze from Cirque Peak to Mount Langley, soaking in the gray cliffs and crumbles in between, I wondered out loud when I might return to this place. When will I see these mountains again?
I was careful now to appreciate this question in this moment because I hadn’t done that the last time I turned my back on the Sierra high country. That was in 2017, when I couldn’t have imagined that life would tempt me into moving to the UK. Even further from my mind was that I might fall in love with a California girl in the Alps. All of a sudden, the CDT, previously a pipe dream, was next on the list, and 2019 was spent far from the Sierra as Spice and I traversed from Canada to Mexico on the continental divide. Fires nixed a 2020 return to these mountains as once again life proved that nothing is certain. With this perspective, I traced one more time the swooping granite summits, talus-filled gullies, and awful scree chutes. I didn’t expect to be away for long this time, but I hadn’t in 2017 either.
The final miles through the trees were warm and sandy. Progress was difficult to measure except by the vanishing peaks behind us. Hot on the dusty heels of a packhorse, Spice led up the final meandering swoop of the trail. One more right turned us to the cars glinting through the trees. I touched the trailhead sign, dropped my pack, and filled up my water at the spigot. It was done.
Sitting on the hot paving stones, I didn’t feel much except for gratitude that SpiceRack and I both made it to the end safely. It felt like a darn near miracle that neither of us got tripped up in the miles of talus between here and our starting point at Twin Lakes. What an awesome privilege to be able to live out an ambitious dream, and to do it in good style with a wonderful partner. There were hard days for sure, but I can’t imagine this hike going more smoothly than it did. Asking for more would be foolish.
The two of us snapped a couple of photos, then made our way to Horseshoe Meadow Road. I had just managed to take off my shoes when Spice worked some magic on a passing Tacoma, convincing them to let us ride to town in the bed. Perfect, no talking required. With each mile-long switchback, the air grew hotter as we descended from 10,000ft to the floor of the Owens Valley at just over 4,000ft. I ogled the view, swiveling my head with every turn, and gave a more concerted effort at untangling my feelings.
Relative to the PCT or CDT, I felt little joy for having completed the SHR/SoSHR. It was a great achievement, sure, but I was never in it for the trophy. For some reason, those longer hikes seemed deserving of a completion certificate on the wall, whereas the High Route had always been purely about spending time on the Sierra Crest. I had never looked forward to finishing. I’d always dreamed of being out there doing it. Perhaps that’s why I now felt so ambivalent. I was happy to be alive, SpiceRack too, but I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the High Route just yet.
We unloaded on Main Street, in the heart of Lone Pine, close to the Mexican Restaurant. In hindsight, our lavish trail fantasies were doomed to shrivel under the harsh indifference of reality. The meal was a disappointment, but I won’t cry about it because it was essential in setting up a date with serendipity. Through the window, Spice recognized an old friend, Jake, who was in town picking up his car after a successful thru-hike of the JMT. We’d hoped to see him on the trail, but that seemed like a long shot. Catching him in Lone Pine was an even longer shot.
Not only did Jake offer us a ride three hours north to our car where we left it at Twin Lakes, but we also figured out that he was the Bear Guy in Stripe’s bear story that we heard about on Day 15. The world suddenly seemed very small. We supplemented our meager Mexican meal with a juice from the hippy place next door, then loaded into Jakes SUV and hit the gas.
In less than three hours we traversed the same latitudes that had taken us three weeks to walk, even with a sushi and fruit stop at the Bishop Safeway. As incredible as it seemed, our car was still intact, just the way we left it. Time warped as I fished for the key in my backpack. Did we really hike all that in just over three weeks? It didn’t seem possible. The car fired right up and we caravaned with Jake to the nearby hot springs where we had spent the night before Day 1.
All day, the forces of the universe were on our side and our luck held one more time. We snagged a great campsite and a primo pool of perfectly warm water. At the end, right where we began, all I could think about was gratitude. Gratitude for my health, for SpiceRack, for the mountains, for Jake, for life, and for my frozen burrito. This trip was like nothing else. Even though I expected that, it still blew me away. I’ll be back, that’s for sure. Who knows, if I had more food, I might start it all over again tomorrow. There’s no way Sky Pilot Col will be as scary the second time around, right?