“I sat watching this world slowly exist around me while every trouble I had trudged up here began to fall away.”
By Jack Hereford
For nine days the Friends of the Inyo Stewardship crew packed into Chicken Spring Lake above Horseshoe Meadows. This was my inaugural season of trail work and the crew’s first big trip for the summer. I had already blundered through learning how to run a chainsaw, had no idea how to set a stone step and was quite unsure how many more 10 hour days of manual labor I could muster. For me this was the longest backpacking trip I had yet been on as well as the most time I had spent at altitude. So I went in expecting to be exhausted, starved and languid from the elevation.
The early morning drive to Lone Pine seemed normal and relaxed for everyone else, but I was quiet with trepidation. I had tossed and turned most of the night, running through the mental list of gear in my pack and wondering what I had inevitably forgotten. Yet, once we started my pack felt encouragingly light (the mules had all the heavy gear) and my shovel had a comforting heft to it as I chucked rocks out of the trail. We jaunted up the steepest part of our hike in and upon reaching the saddle we stopped for a snack and water break. Meager but dark clouds began to roll in above us and we all reached for a rain layer. Right then the mule train came around a bend and we hustled to keep up with them.
At our campsite, the cheerful packers helped us unload the mules and pile our gear under the nearest Foxtail pine before they hightailed it out in the inclement weather. In the rush of hiking in and setting up camp in the rain I had nearly missed the topography around our site. We were in a semicircle basin a half mile wide at most. To the north rose granite cliffs and at their feet was Chicken Spring lake, which we spryly started calling Spring Chicken lake, for there were no springs or chickens we could see but rather an exuberance about the place, at least to us. South of the lake was a plateau covered with bizarrely beautiful snags of foxtail pines. These trees have dense wood and when they die their corpses stay standing for years, becoming scoured by wind into smooth white figures that up close are lined with sharp and distinct grooves.
I walked off from camp, ambling my way around the lake in the light rain. To the South the clouds had already broken up and I saw mountains after mountains stretching away before me. The light was becoming soft and as it passed through the pine trees a million needles exploded with color; across the surface of the lake rippling diamonds shown in the facets of each scoop of water. The smell of rich earth mixed with the falling scent of pine sap and the wafting of mule shit was a nasal medley gifted to my nostrils. Craggy and cracked, proud faces of granite stood above the husks of dead foxtails while dark cumulous clouds dispersed under the late afternoon sun. I found a flat rock jutting out into the lake and sat watching this world slowly exist around me, while every trouble I had trudged up here with me began to fall away. What had I been afraid of? There was no exhaustion that could keep me uninfected from the quiet energy of that basin, no hunger that could overshadow the appetite for life embedded in those mountains, no elevation sickness that would debilitate me from gulping the thin, crisp air. Once I had arrived there was no place I’d rather be. And I already dreaded having to leave at the end of our hitch.
Of course after nine days of breaking and setting stones, trudging on sore feet with heavy tools, smelly clothes and dwindling food, a beer sounded pretty damn good, so leave we did. We had accomplished every job that we had been expected to and found our own sections of trail that needed TLC. Some 20 miles of backcountry routes had been trimmed and cleaned, four switchbacks were rebuilt to open up the turns for mule trains and to minimize erosion, and more water bars and steps than I can remember were repaired. We all walked away with a little pride at having contributed a small part to the legacy of the PCT.
*Photos courtesy of Tristan Kadish.