5:30 AM the alarm goes off and we hop out of the tent. Sun seems to come up a bit faster in the desert. We head out to the back entry of the sand dunes and watch as the sun shades the west side of the dunes, lighting up the sky in luscious shades of yellow and orange. As the sun peaks over the mountains, it’s bright with no clouds reigning all its power. As we climb, we stop to watch (and to photograph). It’s quiet and brings serenity to the climb. Easily my favorite moment of the trip. As we reach the peak of the dune, the sun is in full force, rising and waking life. We should have stayed all week.
The trail threw everything it had at me from the start. Freezing rain fell viciously from the sky for the first few days. At night, my tent did little to insulate me when the temperature dropped below freezing. When the weather wasn’t something to contend with itself, the climbs made my back and knees scream with agony. I passed through the Green Tunnel in Virginia, 500 miles of the same deep wilderness whose monotony made me feel like I was living in groundhog day. Pennsylvania was covered in rock, and the pounding my feet took made it hard to remove my sneakers at the end of the day due to the swelling. The summer season brought simmering heat, blood sucking mosquitos, and wildlife that looked cute in children’s books but that you wanted to avoid in the wilderness--especially black bears.
It’s hard to refer to Alkali Flat as a “trail”. The only way to know you are navigating in the right direction is by keeping your eyes open for red-tipped stakes sticking out of the sand every four hundred feet or so. When the winds are blowing, footprints left by fellow hikers disappear as quickly as they are made. In every direction you look you feel you are being engulfed in a crashing sea storm of sand. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt or seen in the thousands of miles I’ve hiked throughout America.
We started off at the visitors center with no particular destination in mind and charted off into the woods. While not the wilderness, per say, being in the depths of skyrocketing trees bursting with warmly shaded colored leaves was just as good. As we were turning corners with glimpses of sun streams coming through the Sequoia trees we were stopped in our tracks by a baby black bear walking on the trail coming our way. A few heart racing moments with eyes locking with the bear, the two parties assumed best to turn the other way and we both retreated.