Sunday, November 26, 2017

Loneliness Before Me: From the Little Whitney Meadow to the Rocky Basin Lake

Rocky Basin Lake
Date: August 3, 2017
Place: Golden Trout Wilderness, Lone Pine, California
Coordinates (of my campsite at the Little Whitney Meadow): 36.373550, -118.343666
Length: about 7 miles
Level: Strenuous

It must have been the effect of the rain because the night I passed at the Little Whitney Meadow after fulfilling my long time desire to see the Kern Canyon, I actually got some real sleep. It was still hot and stuffy inside my narrow tent but the constant tapping of the rain had a soothing effect on my tired nerves. On the morning of my forth day of my solo backpacking trip to the Golden Trout Wilderness I woke up quite refreshed. The rain had ceased sometime before dawn and when I left my tent I could see a line of clear sky in west beyond the gray clouds that still hung overhead. There was little to tell how difficult this day would be for me.
Not knowing how long it would be before the rain resumed I started taking my tent down right away. the rain fly was all wet so I hanged it on a nearby tree alongside the tent's footprint. In good timing, the sun broke through the clouds for the nice, sweet morning hour it took me to take my breakfast and to get everything organized and packed.

The rain fly was still somewhat wet when I packed it, but I didn't want to wait anymore. I had planned to get all the way up to the Rocky Basin Lakes that evening, which meant an almost constant ascent to about 11,500 ft in elevation. I wanted to take my time and go at a slow pace, but that meant I had to get going already.
My 4th day hike from Little Whitney Meadow to the Rocky Basin Lake as captured by my GPS
The most challenging part of that day was to find the Salt Lick trailhead. My map placed it somewhere near my campsite but there was no sign there, nor any obvious trail leading to the expected direction. The National Forest volunteers I had met on my second day had informed me that that trail was not yet cleared and that I might need to do some pathfinding, but they had talked about a higher part of the trail where they had placed cairns to mark the path. My problem was that the trail's beginning, where it was supposed to cross Little Whitney Meadow, was completely overgrown with wetland vegetation and there was no telling where it was.
There was a sign posted far away in the middle of the meadow, not quite in the direction where I thought the trail was supposed to be. But the sign was too far to tell what it said. It could have said 'Private Property' just like the last sign I saw down by the Kern.
Little Whitney Meadow
But after failing to find the Salt Lick trailhead along the Golden Trout Trail I had to go into the meadow without one. To be on track I needed to get to the canyon mouth north of the meadow and I was hoping to catch up with the trail there.
Lupine flowers in Little Whitney Meadow 
Walking in a meadow with no trail meant trampling. And as light as I tried to tread I'm sure I left some damage in my wake. On the other hand, this gave me the opportunity to look at some pretty wetland flora from very close.

Half way to the lone sign I came upon the Golden Trout Creek, right at where it collected another creek. Neither water line was visible from the meadow's edge, but came into view only from a few yards away.

To get to the sign I had to cross the creek. The water was high and the current fast. Having foreseen the need to ford the creek I had been wearing my sandals since I set out so it wasn't extra hustle to cross. Just to make sure though, I photographed the sign with my strongest zoom and enlarged on the tiny screen of my camera I could barely detect the words 'Salt Lick' marked on it.
I sighed with relief and stepped into the cold water.
Golden Trout Creek
The sign was posted in a field of greenery and wildflowers. A faint train was barely detectable, and soon after I started on it it disappeared in the vegetation.
I kept going in the general direction of the gap in the hills where the Salt Lick trail was supposed to go into. The soil was heavy and muddy, and got into my sandals. I didn't want to change back to shoes yet because I didn't know if I'd have any other creeks to cross before getting to the other side of the meadow. Besides, there was no dry spot there to sit on.

As I suspected, I had to cross two other little rivulets before getting out of the meadow. I also found some equine tracks and remembered that the National Forest Volanteers had told me that a mule pack had passed that way a few days before. So I followed the tracks the best I could. Some times I would lose them, but then I'd come upon a pile of some equine droppings and continue on.
When I finally exited the wetland I had come upon the huts that I saw from the far side of the meadow. It looked like an old and abandoned horse camp.

The area was fenced with a broken fence and the gate, still marked 'close behind you', was thrown aside on the ground.

I crossed the area and finally caught up with the Salt Lick Trail on the other side of the ghost horse camp. There was no sign but I was sure of the trail. So I promptly sat down to rest, change my shoes, and to eat a snack. I also enjoyed the lovely patch of sunlight until the ants found me and I had to get up again.

Shortly after I resumed my hike the sun vanished behind a blanket of clouds and I didn't dee much of it again that day.
It was also the first and last level part of my hike that day. From there the trail started ascending and kept steadily up. All that day I just climbed.
After the first lag, however, I had a nice goodbye view of the Little Whitney Meadow.
A view of Little Whitney Meadow from the Salt Lick Trail
The forest was quiet and gloomy.  I walked slowly and steadily uphill, not seeing any animals other than a few insects here and there. Strangely, I also didn't hear any. The silence seemed almost unnatural.

The tail was blocked in many places by fallen trees, no doubt the effect of the latest winter. The people who walked this path before me had circumvented the trees and I followed suit.

At the first creek crossing I sat down to take my shoes off again. I also forced myself to eat something. I really didn't feel like eating but I couldn't allow myself another crisis like I had on the second day of my trek. Especially as I was gaining altitude and was planning to get quite higher before nightfall.

The trail did level off in a few places, and the trail became less distinct. I was grateful for the cairn placed there by the forest volunteers. It looked as if very few people had hiked this particular trail since the beginning of the season.

While the trail was more or less detectible through the forest, following it became a real challenge when it crossed a meadow, and I ran into a few of those during my hike. In these places the cairns were a real help.
Salt Lick Meadow
My progress was slow but steady. The world about me was silent, sounding only the wind and the water running in the little creeks I came across. The forest looked unhealthy, with many dead or dying trees. My mood slowly darkened as I moved higher up the mountain. 

Nut that there was shortage of interesting things to see. This there were unity of, like the thick mats of pinecones skirting around their parent foxtail pines.
Cones of Foxtail Pine, Pinus balfouriana
And there were the wildflowers. Not many, and certainly not in carpets as I've seen in the earlier days of my trip, but it did good to my soul to see them.

The stillness and the gloominess were gnawing at my mind. I found myself talking to myself, then talking to the trees. Maybe they heard me. Perhaps they even answered.
Mountain Monardella, Monardella odoratissima 
Now aware of how malnutrition can affect me I made frequent stops and snacked a little each time. My appetite had never really kicked in so every time it felt like force feeding. At least water was not a problem: little creeks were running in every gully and I kept myself well hydrated.
Clasping Arnica, Arnica lanceolata 
I thought about what the last human I've seen- the sole backpacker I came across two days ago on my way to the Natural Bridge, had told me. She had said that this was an unusually wet year and that normally an August backpacker could walk for miles and miles without seeing surface water. In that sense I was very fortunate, for I didn't have to carry too much water on me, which made my load considerably lighter.

All the time I kept going up and higher, gaining altitude with every step. At one instant I heard some chirping and I saw a little flock of birds frolicking on a dead fallen log a bit ahead of my. I got very excited - there was life in the forest other than mosquitoes!
They were juvenile dark-eyed junco, a very common woods bird. Nothing to write home about, and certainly not the usual bird encounter I would post about hear, but I was so happy to see them, so I do post the only good image I got, and from very far, before they all flew away ant left me in solitude once again.
Dark-eyed Junco, juvenile
At some point my ascend became steeper and the trail begun switchbacking back and forth. When I reconnected with the Johnson Creek I was walking along it was at its very end - or its very beginning - I found the exact spot where the water was seeping from underground.
Springwater
It was at that place that my SteriPen UV water sterilizer broke. I switched to using the new filter I got 'just in case'. Always good to have a backup system for water purification, even if it means carrying a few ounces more weight.
I filled my water container and continued up the slope.
Lodepole and Foxtail Pines 
As I was climbing up I could feel the fatigue permeating my limbs again. Although I was good in taking my snacks I started wondering if I was perhaps missing something else. I did forget the little pack of vitamins on my kitchen counter and now I wondered if my body reserves had depleted. And what could I do about it?
I was surrounded by pine trees. Asking pardon of them (yes, yes, I actually did), I started plucking fresh pine needles and chewing their tender ends, knowing they were rich in vitamin C. They taste a bit citrusy in a pleasant way. I don't know how much vitamin C I actually got this way but the practice did make me feel a bit better. Perhaps it was just the thought that I was actively doing something to improve my condition.
I do think that what I needed most though, vas Vitamin D, i.e. sunshine. And that I had missed all day.
View southwest from the highest point of Salt Lick Trail
But as lonely and as fatigued I was, I never got to the stage of hallucinations.
An Earth Whale chewing salad
From the high point of the Salt Lick Trail there was a mild descent into a meadow that appeared nameless on my map. I kept on walking slowly, grateful for the brief ease of the hike. As I descended the trail side got greener and there were some more flowers along it, telling of nearby water.
Fleabane, Erigeron sp. 
I ran into the creek just before I came upon the meadow. I wanted to stop there to rest and have a snack but while I was contemplating it the mosquitoes attacked me in clouds and took away any desire to stop there.
Barigan Stringer Creek
I crossed the creek and walked into the anonymous meadow. While I was hiking there I kept debating with myself whether I should push it all the way to the Rocky Basin Lake or stay down at the meadow for the night. As I descended toward the meadow I leaned more toward staying there rather than challenge my weary self with another mile and a half of climbing. This meadow, however, was the least inviting of all the meadows I have seen so far on my trip. It was muddy and gloomy and clouds of mosquitos and gnats hovered over it.

And so I resolved to go on and continue ascending to the Rocky Basin Lake. The one problem was, I didn't find the trail junction for the lake. I kept going back and forth for a while to no avail. Eventually I decided to walk along the Barigan Stringer Creek hoping to catch up with the trail at some point. This was somewhat of a risk because there was no sign that anyone had walked that way in a while and there was no guarantee that the trail would even be visible. But I had figured that one way or the other, I would make it to the lake eventually if I kept going up along the creek.
After about a quarter mile of pathfinding between the trees I detected some footprints. I followed the footprints and found the trail. I sighed with relief and continued up the slope with renewed energy. My spirit also improved because the sun finally broke out of the clouds - for the first time since I left the Little Whitney Meadow.
The Trail to Rocky Basin Lakes
And on my way up - one more meadow. The last one for that day, and also nameless. This one looked nicer than the muddy meadow below and had a nice carpet of white flowers in its midst. It also harbored fewer mosquitoes. Having found the trail and my energies though, I was no longer inclined to stop before reaching my destination for the day and so I pressed onward.

Away from the meadow there were much fewer flowers, but still enough to cheer my mind. It also helped that the hole in the cloud persisted for the rest of my hike.
One-seeded Pussypaws, Calyptridium monospermum 
My trail took me close to the creek again and I enjoyed the sound of the water. Then I stopped and gaped: at the foot of a pine tree by the creek I saw a few mushrooms - some of the biggest I had ever seen. They were fresh and firm and gave off a wonderful earthy smell. Of course I had to come closer and investigate.
Later I was told that this was a Neolentinus ponderosus mushroom, which is edible. At the time, however, i had no idea. And even if I did I probably would not have risked it anyway.
Neolentinus ponderosus
After raising my eyes from the mushrooms I looked about me and found myself in the cutest little forest nook, possibly the prettiest place I have seen that entire day. So I sat there for some time, filling up on water and eating my snack. 

Perhaps I should have stayed for the night in that cute place, but I was already resolved to get to the lake. Had I known how much more I still had to go to get there I probably would have stayed. As it was, the marked trail on my map indicated only a short distance further to the lake and so I hoisted my pack again and continued onward, stopping only for flowers.
Ranger's Button, Sphenosciadium capitellatum 
Shortly after I moved on I came upon a trail intersection diverting pack animals to the left and foot hikers to the right. There was also a sing prohibiting campfires beyond that point. I continued on the right trail and sure enough, at some distance up the trail there was a ring of stones with the remains of a campfire. I could have stayed there too as it looked like a site already used but I wanted to get to the lake and so I moved on.
Then the forest thinned and the mountain I was climbing turned into a pile of rocks. The trail also vanished and all I had to follow was an irregular line of cairns. All of a sudden the hike became all the more slow and difficult.

Also the sun, that had cheered me up for the last hour was now dipping in the western sky. I didn't have much more daylight left.
Woolly Groundsel, Packera cana 
Moreover, the clouds were gathering again into a mass that promised rain later on. I wanted to get to the lake and finish setting up my camp before the downpour started and so I pressed on without stopping.

Except for photographing flowers, of course. Here there were many of them, in between the large granite rocks.
Pine Wavyleaf Paintbrush, Castilleja applegatei ssp. pinetorum 
As I made my way between and sometimes on the rocks, moving cautiously from cairn to cairn the sun disappeared behind the clouds. The lake refused to show up and once again I lost heart. According to my map I should have been there already but the rocky ascend seemed endless. I couldn't stop there, however, for the creek was now far below me. If I was to give up on the lake I would have had to go back down to where I had water accessible. I gritted my teeth and continued on.

And suddenly I was there, at the Rocky Basin. I knew the lake was there but it took me a moment to see it. Its water was so still that it mirrored perfectly the rocks and trees at its shores.
Rocky Basin Lake 
The sun peeked out for a few more painfully short moments during which I pitched my tent and walked around to explore a bit. The lake was the lowest of a group of lakes, the rest of which were not visible from where I was and there was no chance in the world of me going further up to look for them. 

The water level was low and the exposed soil revealed a number of animal tracks including deer, birds, and a wild cat. The flat area east of the lake was covered with even-height shrubs between which bloomed little wildflowers.
Sierra Beardstongue, Penstemon heterodoxus 
Behind the shrubs was a flat gravel area on which I had pitched my tent, and behind that grew sierra junipers and foxtail pines.

I cooked myself a small dinner and forced myself to eat it. I felt it was still to early to get inside the tent and the imminent rain was delaying so I took my camera and wondered around some more.

When I had walked up on the trail I had imagined the Rocky Basin Lake to be similar to the heavenly Spring Lake where I had had the most wonderful camping experience with my friend last year. I wasn't much surprised that the Rocky basin Lake was nowhere like Spring Lake, but I couldn't help feeling somewhat disappointed. Not that the Rocky Basin Lake wasn't nice. It was very beautiful. But it was very serene, and very, very still. There were no fish in the lake, and I couldn't see any other life in it. There were only tracks in the mud and mosquitoes in the air.
That bright dot in the water is the reflection of the cloud-dimmed sun
Instead of a glorious sunny weather there was the gloom of the overhanging clouds. And of course, the main difference was that unlike last year now I was there all and utterly alone. And now it was two days in which I had seen no other human soul.
The moon was on the other side
For many years I had dreamed of solitude. At the busiest times of my life when I couldn't hear my own inner voice over the daily clutter I would fantasize I was a hermit in a cave somewhere in the wilderness. I would curl under my blanket at nights and pretend there was no one around but trees. I craved the expanse of the great outdoors and yearned for the vastness in which my soul could expand to infinity. And now I had exactly that. I was alone in the wilderness. 
And I was lonely. Now that the daily clutter was far away and I could hear my own inner voice I found that I didn't care much for what it was saying. The thoughts that bubbled up into my consciousness now seemed loud and shrill. I get troubled, not tranquil. 
Prickly Cryptantha, Cryptantha echinella 
I sat by the lake and watched the thick blanket of clouds reaching over and filling the entire sky. I wasn't sure if the sun had set already but the world around me was already dark. I felt the first drops of rain fall on my face. I got up and went to my little camp, tucked everything away and crept into my tent. A few moments later the rain came down. I lied there in the darkness and listened to the rain and the tears welled behind my eyelids.



Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants and the mushroom!

A Link to the next day blog post.

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