Over the last four years I have taken an annual solo trip to Pinecrest, California where my family has a small rustic cabin. I choose to go every October because 1) that’s a convenient time for my work calendar to take a vacation 2) it’s out of tourist season so I get the whole mountain to myself 3) It’s the perfect weather in October at Pinecrest; a cool crisp fall air with sunny skies. It’s the best temperature for hiking. I just got back from my annual Pinecrest trip and things were—different this year.
Thursday October 13: Hike to Cleo’s Bath
The hike to Cleo’s Bath is 4-mile hike from the cabin, one way. Part of the trail is basically bouldering up the mountain. It’s one of my favorite hikes—the views are breathtaking. Pinecrest is a very popular destination in summer, which means from May-August there are lots of really annoying people at the lake and on the trails. But in October, some days there is nobody else for miles and it’s perfect. As I hiked around the lake to the trailhead, I passed a few people, but then I was alone, blissfully alone—at one with nature.
There is nothing more unsettling than thinking you’re alone on a trail—enjoying peaceful solitude—to suddenly get the sense you are not alone after all. And by sense I mean I rounded a curve and to my horror saw two people in front of me with a selfie stick, taking a photo of them with the basically dry creek behind them. I rolled my eyes and sighed loudly. I slowed my pace to give a bit of distance between us, to keep up the illusion that I was alone. As I approached the part of the trail that becomes the bouldering climb, I saw them again, struggling to complete the climb.
The guy yelled down to me, “Have you done this before? How much of the trail is like this?”
I paused for a moment, considered lying to him that there was 3 miles of total vertical hiking ahead of them. But then I heard my mother’s voice scolding me. “Yeah, a couple times. It’s just this one section and one more steep hike. Then you’re basically there.”
“Cool! Thanks!” He yelled down to me. “See babe, it’s not so bad. You can do it.” He said to his girlfriend/fiancé/wife/person.
I waited impatiently for them to complete their climb before starting mine. As I began the climb, I regretted packing two beers in my pack—did I really need TWO at the top, wouldn’t one have been sufficient? I tried to lie to myself that both beers would be totally necessary and worth it as I reached the top. I hiked up more rocks and rounded the corner to where Cleo’s Baths was. Cleo’s Baths is a pool of water that ranges in size from a large pool with a rushing waterfall to a completely dry rockbed, depending on the season. It was a medium pool with no waterfall this trip. As I scanned the view I saw the couple with their selfie stick out taking kissing photos of them and the mountain backdrop. Ew. I had just become a third wheel on my own adventure.
I passed them and climbed a bit higher to some calm pools. I found a rock to sit on and opened one of my beers. A fish splashed and scared the bejesus (and almost the beer) out of me. I suddenly wished I had brought my fishing pole with me. Instead I drank my beer and took in the scenery. I find a peace like no other when it’s just me and nature.
As I took out my notebook to jot down notes, I saw the happy couple appear on the rock above me.
“Heya! We wondered where you went off to. Thought maybe you didn’t make it up that gnarly climb!” The guy bro-yelled at me.
They thought I didn’t make it up the climb?! Who the hell were these people? “Oh. No, I made it. I just—you looked to be having a moment down there so I gave you some space.” And I wish you’d take a hint, buddy, and give me some.
The woman laughed and nudged the man. He put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head. “Well we’re headed back down. Have a good one, bro!”
Did he seriously just bro me? “Cool, take it easy!” I yelled chipperly.
I pulled out the second beer. Note to self: The beer is always worth the extra weight up the mountain.
Friday October 14: Gianelli Trailhead to Powell Lake
The forecast called for rain. My original plan was to stay at the cabin and read and write all day, with the goal of staying dry in mind. But by 11am I was feeling restless and it hadn’t started raining, yet. I thought to myself “A little rain never hurt anyone!” And with that I packed my daypack and drove 30 minutes up the mountain to Gianelli Trailhead. The hike to Powell lake is a moderate 2.5-mile hike one way. The trail takes you up this mountain with gorgeous overlooks of the valley below and more mountains in the background. About halfway to Powell Lake at the highest point of the trail there is a sign that tells a story about Burst Rock. The sign asks you to imagine being pioneer Martin Fisher who found himself in a snow storm in this very spot and made a bark shelter to weather the storm. (Spoiler Alert: I didn’t know it at the time that I was reading this sign, but this is what you would call foreshadowing.) I thought “Whoa, sucked to be Martin.” And carried on my merry way to Powell Lake.
Powell Lake was an incredible view, even with the threatening-looking skies. I hiked around the lake and found a spot perfect for fishing. Learning from yesterday’s mistakes, I brought my fishing pole. Just as I got my line prepared a mean breeze blew something fierce. I swore at it “Woah! Calm the f#@$ down wind!” It responded with an even bigger gust. And thirty seconds later—it invited its friend, hail to the party. That’s when I decided to get the HAIL out of there.
It turns out that “rain” in the mountains can become hail and snow—suddenly. While I might have been correct in my earlier assessment that a little rain would be harmless, hail with its best friend wind, hurts—a lot. I ran (correction: jogged/speed walked) back to my car. As I rounded Burst Rocks I paused to look at what used to be a view of valleys and mountains. It was now a white haze. I then remembered good ol’ Martin Fisher and thought “Damn Martin, you’re a boss. A bark shelter? I’m not about that life! Deuces!”
I made it back to my car and blasted the heat. Side note: I would definitely not have made it as a pioneer.
Saturday October 15: Backpacking to Bear Lake
When I planned this trip to Pinecrest, I envisioned sunny skies and mid-60 temps. It. Never. Rains. At. Pinecrest. Or in California, for that matter, because one word; drought. (Super sorry about that, Cali—but it’s nice as a vacationer to be able to guarantee amazing weather for your trip.) So when I saw that the forecast for the weekend called for rain I tried to not be too deflated. But I also, still wanted to do all the things I planned! One of the things I planned was a backpacking trip to Bear Lake.
Saturday morning, I looked at the forecast. There was a chance of rain at 2pm, 3pm, 7pm, and then between 12am-7am. I again thought to myself, “A little rain won’t hurt!” If I left early enough and set up camp before the first rain, I could take shelter during the on and off again periods of rain. It would still be a fun trip, and bonus—this weather would probably keep other backpackers away, increasing the chance that I’d get the whole lake to myself. Score!
With that pep talk, I was off. The sky was blue and the sun was shining as I began my 4ish mile hike to Bear Lake. At 11am I reached Camp Lake, a smaller lake about 1 mile from Bear Lake. I sat down to take a break. I looked up at the sky. It was no longer blue. It was a dark ominous grey. I considered my options. I could have lunch and hike the 3 miles back to my car and call it a day. Or I could pick up my pace and get to Bear Lake, set up the tent, and take shelter until this storm passed. I’m stubborn and I had planned to backpack and camp at Bear Lake—a little rain and dark grey clouds were not going to derail my plans.
I found a campsite with an amazing view of the lake and set up my tent. The clouds were still grey but it didn’t feel like rain yet, so I decided I’d go exploring. I had just read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and didn’t want to give bears (or other wildlife) reason to mess with my shit. I decided to put my food and smellies in a bear bag and hang it in a tree before setting off. As I threw food in the bag I got to my liter of wine (hell yeah I lugged a liter of wine in my pack all the way to camp—if it was going to rain on my parade/hike I was going to have wine!) I decided to risk the chance that bears liked Trader Joe’s boxed wine and left it out of the bear bag, opting to take it with me on my explorations.
1:25pm Update: There is a pissed off blue jay at this lake. I’m not sure what he’s mad about but he has been squawking like somebody cut him off in LA traffic when he’s already late, for a solid 10 minutes.
3:05pm Update: The rain has begun, I’ve sought refuge in my tent after hiking around the lake. The wind sounds crazy on the lake. The tent blows like it wants to become a kite. So far I’ve kept it in place with the weight of my disappointment that I’m stuck in this tent instead of fishing on the lake.
3:10pm Update: I’m hungry. Maybe from boredom. Yes, I’ve been in the tent for 5 minutes and I am already restless. The food is all in that bag hanging high in that tree. I’ll have to wait until the rain stops and for it to be closer to dinner to make…dinner.
3:30pm Update: The rain stopped. But the joy of having the lake all to myself is short lived. A duo has arrived at my lake. I don’t know them but I can only assume they are the worst. Didn’t they get the memo? This is my night here. The one up to backpacking in a storm is that usually there are no other idiots doing the same!
3:54pm Update: The wind has picked up even more. I might take flight at any month. I can’t imagine trying to set up my tent in this. I hope those two strangers are managing. Actually, I could care less. They’re crashing my party of one.
5:05pm Update: RUN! The rain is back. I barely made it back to the tent before it started pouring. I’m still hungry. All my food is still high in a tree. Safe from bears but also out of reach for me. Thank god I risked the bears for this wine. Do bears like wine? Anyway, dinner is served.
6:17pm Update: It’s been raining (sometimes hailing) for over an hour now. Hunger—real hunger has set in. I thoroughly searched my bag and pockets in hopes I had forgotten a cliff bar or a candy or anything. No such luck. I guess I’ll eat when this storm breaks. I mean how long can it rain for?
7:30pm Update: It is still raining. There has been no break. None. Constant wind and rain. Oh and hail. Yeah, sometimes the rain breaks for the hail. The wind is so loud I can’t hear my own thoughts at times. Suddenly, I’m not so mad at the two strangers who crashed my night. There’s something comforting about not being the only idiot out here in this crazy storm.
10pm Update: You’ll never guess this. It is still raining. In fact, it is raining harder and the wind has picked up even more. I didn’t think this was possible. I finished dinner/the liter of wine. So, safe to say I’m drunk. Which I can’t tell if it has made things better or worse.
4:25am Update: I have woken up every hour because the wind has scared me awake. At 2am I sleepily had to Mcgyver my rain jacket across one side of the tent to keep me dry. And now I have to pee more than I’ve ever had to pee in my life. (Thanks wine!) It’s still raining but it seems to have let up a bit. So I’m venturing out, because I’ve evaluated that peeing inside the tent is less than ideal. If I don’t return, please don’t tell anyone I died peeing in a storm.
4:27am Update: BEAR! Holy bananas there is a literal bear 20 feet from my tent. He/she is just sitting there, chillin’ like he/she knows she/he is a motherfrickin bear and doesn’t have to give two flying effs about anything. The good news is that I don’t have to pee anymore. The bad news is—there is a bear outside my tent! Were you not listening to me!? I take back the wine being worth the risk. In hindsight not worth the risk. Okay. What did Bill Bryson say?
All bears are agile, cunning, and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can and pretty much whenever they want That doesn’t happen often, but—and here’s the absolute salient point—once would be enough.
Oh yeah. That’s totally NOT comforting at all. Play dead. I’m supposed to play dead. I’ll play dead. God I wish I had more wine.
7am Update: I somehow managed to fall asleep after and survive the bear incident. And I had to pee again. Obviously the bear was gone by now. And the rain had stopped (for now). I exited my tent and what the actual frick, the bear was still sitting there! Obviously this bear was totally deranged, how could he/she still be sitting there. I rubbed my eyes and reached for my glasses. The bear was actually a tree stump. In my defense, it was a very bear-looking tree stump.
I peed and packed up and hiked back to the car. Parts of the trail were totally flooded, forcing me to find alternative routes. At two separate points there were giant fallen trees across the trail. I climbed over them in awe. The rain and wind from last night had enough power to knock over trees that were hundreds of years old. Wowza.
I got back to my car and turned on the heat. It started to rain, hard, again. I laughed. You got me Sierra Mountains, you got me good.
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