Into the Wild - Page 5
Photo by Rachid Dahnoun
Tonight, my last night out, I want to camp at Big Meadow, the real meadow about a mile away from a trailhead of the same name. Someone told me that a night there will blow my mind.
It’s a helluva pull to get there, something like 34 miles on my fifth day of travel. Fortunately, Echo Chalet, a tiny store and café on the east end of Echo Lake that serves as a refueling point for lake recreaters and hikers, is perched on the TRT at today’s halfway point. At this point, I have tired legs and am constantly hungry, so the prospect of lunch at Echo Chalet motivates me.
I am also motivated by the fact that yesterday evening I crossed into the Desolation Wilderness, the land southwest of Lake Tahoe that protects dozens of high-altitude lakes, white granite mountains and a whole lot of desolation. I jog off into the pre-dawn dimness from my campsite at Middle Velma Lake wearing all my clothes.
From here, it’s four miles mostly uphill to Dicks Pass, and I don’t need to shed any layers, even though I run almost the entire climb. Ice clings to the edges of the creeks I hop over. Patches of snow hide under trees and my breath condenses into white poofs. But Dicks Pass, looking south into the wilderness and its layers upon layers of lakes and rock, makes up for whatever discomfort the cold creates.
It takes what feels like an eternity to get to Echo Chalet, thanks to a long, talus-slope descent strewn with loose, basketball-sized rocks. As much as I love the shoes I’m wearing on normal long trail runs, I should not have brought them on this trip. They have no rock plate and, after lugging myself and my pack more than three-quarters of the way around Lake Tahoe, my toes are on fire.
Finally, finally, I reach Echo Chalet. Famished, I buy two turkey sandwiches, two cans of Coca Cola and two Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream sandwiches. On the porch, I down it all while a little girl watches in bewilderment.
I take to the trail, jet-powered by my caloric indulgence. Miraculously, my toes don’t hurt anymore. What happens next can only be described as an out-of-body experience. I run up a multi-mile climb, feeling neither the 140 previous miles in my legs nor the now 12-ish-pound pack on my back. I leap creeks. I spook hikers by coming up on them too fast. These few hours are like race-car driving, or sky diving or some other sport where you’re propelled by a force other than your own.
And then the magic is over, like, instantly. I bonk. It’s the last climb, the map tells me, before an easy, 1.5-mile drop into Big Meadow. I want to run it but can’t even really hike. My mind remains committed but my body is checking out.
Just then, a man in FiveFingers whisks up on his evening trail run. In a bonk haze I yell in surprise at his sudden approach. He feels bad, I think, so he passes then settles in front of me for a minute or two’s small talk. Our conversation is inconsequential, save for the fact that he distracts me up this small but overpowering climb. When he heads on, I can’t latch onto his pace but I do tap into his energy. On the fumes of his Vibram rubber, four hours and 17 miles after leaving Echo Chalet, I roll into Big Meadow.
Big Meadow is more than a half-mile across, filled with knee-high, soft grass and encircled by conifers. The meadow is enormous but somehow still feels intimate, welcoming, although a pig sty would be welcoming at this point. I collapse into the grass next to a big rock on the edge of the meadow and yank off my shoes. I’ve arrived just in time for the evening show of alpenglow on the surrounding trees and mountains, which evolves like a symphony’s movements over the next two hours. The interplay of light and environment waxes and wanes, beginning with a yellow light bathing everything and ending with a Halloween-y orange kissing the mountains’ tip tops. I change into warm clothes, set up my tarp and sleeping bag and eat my rehydrated dinner.
The Earth spins some more on its axis and soon there’s no sun, just black sky and stars. Lying on the soft grass in my sleeping bag, I poke my head out from my tarp to watch the sky. It would be easy to feel very alone, but alone-ness is a myth, I decide. I get it now—who we are and what we accomplish are really just the sum totals of those we encounter along the way. My mind is blown in Big Meadow.