Tehachapi to Kennedy Meadows (566 -702)

I don’t have as many photos for this section because I was preoccupied with just surviving it.

That night at the airport was pretty uneventful until I woke up at 3:30am to a really intense rainstorm…that I soon realized was only affecting half of my tent. I got out to see what was happening on the dry side until the sprinklers came on there, too, and I dived back in to await the passing of the storm. Eventually it got to the point where only one sprinkler was hitting me at a rate of about once every seven seconds. I would time it so I could grab my possessions in bundles and bolt out of my tent, which is quite waterproof and held out the water well, over a series of trips.

Big Al seemed to think it was pretty weird that when he picked us up at 6:30am we were all drying our tents and sleeping bags after a dry night in the Mojave. 

The hike out of Tehachapi was the last of the desert section, and was incredibly challenging. I did manage to pull a few 30 mile days (48km), even while carrying over four liters of water and six days of food up and down mountains in extreme heat. Most people do the trek to Kennedy Meadows from Tehachapi in seven days, but I managed to do it in about five. It was brutal, though not without entertainment.

At one of the trail registers, which are little books where we sign ourselves in and stalk those who are ahead of us, was a note from “Paiute Mama” letting us know hikers were welcome to stay at her house just a mile (1.6km) down the road. That’s waaaay too far out of the way for me, and seemed kind of sketchy since it was in the middle of the desert forest on a dirt road. Multiple people who went there said she was nice, but a little off.

“As a Texan I know country bumpkins,” Purple Princess told me at Kennedy Meadows. “And she was off the charts.” Within 30 minutes of arriving at her residence she tells people about how she spent 12 years in prison for murdering her boyfriend with a knife after he shot her in the shoulder. She’s also a practitioner of magic. Not black magic, as she assures everyone, but rather only white and blue magic. “I was only interested in her trail magic (when trail angels leave food or cold drinks for hikers),” Pink Lady, a former AT hiker, told me. 

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Most of the hike to Kennedy Meadows, the last of the desert, is a painful blur of repressed memories. The desert heat, which we’d been so lucky in avoiding before then, kicked in my last two days. One day, after summiting a mountain carrying four and a half liters of water, I voluntarily collapsed a couple times into the dirt in the shade and just laid there for up to an hour. It was intense.

I did get to run into some old and new hiking buddies, though! I linked back up with Wallaby and Pine Stick, two older guys who are fun to camp with. We leapfrog each other a lot and, since they go slower but spend less time taking breaks off trail, we’ve been meeting up fairly often. I also met Grapefruit, who convinced me to follow the 6 to 12 morning and evening hiking schedule.

It got so brutally hot, over 90F/32C, during the day that hiking from noon to six was just not realistic. Instead, a group of us slept and relaxed from noon to six and then set out again. Grapefruit stopped after a few hours, reasoning how she’s “not 20 years old anymore.” Three other guys and I made it to midnight before just laying our sleeping bags out on semi level plots of earth (or on top of a boulder, as the Toronto-native Michelangelo did) just a couple hours from Kennedy Meadows. 

We’ve been hearing about Kennedy Meadows , mile 702.2 (1133km), since the Mexican border. It’s considered the last of the desert and the gateway to the High Sierras/Sierra Nevada, and directly follows the hardest 140 miles (226km) of the trail thus far. 

To call KM a “town” is a pretty huge overstatement. It’s a small store in the middle of nowhere, with a massive teepee in back that can fit around 30 or 40 sleeping hikers. They have free camping, and pretty much everyone sends a food drop there since the store is so small. 

Every hiker who walks in gets a round of applause as he or she approaches the store for having completed the desert. It’s a big accomplishment, especially in such an abysmally dry year. Everybody greets each other with “we survived!” Many took multiple days off there, usually willingly but also because of randomness with the postal service. 

Honey Stick, the woman who found a kitten by the California aqueduct and carried it for two days to find an adoptive family in Tehachapi, was pretty distraught to find out her food drop still hadn’t arrived. She used the pay phone, which the retired hikers took no end of amusement in watching the younger ones try to figure out how to operate, and got her parents to track it. The U.S. Postal Service said it had gone from Oregon to the appropriate routing center for KM before inexplicably being sent to Chicago, Ohio, and finally Japan. Eventually her package found its way from Japan to KM, and Honey Stick got her typical assortment of dozens of honey sticks. 

I didn’t take any days off other than about 30 hours of rest, which probably wasn’t enough. That did give me time to run back into a bunch of friends and reconnect before the craziness of the Sierra Nevada. 

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Bear canister in action.

One of the big things hikers do in KM is pick up a bear canister. These are hard plastic containers that protect food from bears, and are so difficult to open might as well be human-proof. It’s much cheaper to buy them at KM than online, and they’re required for use for the next couple of weeks up to Sonora Pass. After that, it seems like most people use an Ursack. Ursacks are bags made of really tough material bears can’t bite through or puncture, and are tied to trees so they can’t be carried away. They weigh less than a fourth of what a bear canister weighs and from what I’ve heard are pretty effective, so I’ll probably be switching to that after the High Sierra. 

The bear canister weighs 2.2 pounds (1kg), so they’re very unpopular. The guy who packs five to six pounds (2.5-3kg) of food a day, compared to the typical 1.5 to 2 pounds (<1kg), was comparing the bear canister requirement to Nazi Germany’s restrictions on Jews. It could be my bias as a descendant of Eastern European Jews, but that seemed a little extreme to me. I heard a lot of ridiculousness about bears at KM, but I have to remind myself most people at this point probably don’t have as much experience backpacking in bear areas (ie Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, etc.) as I do. 

KM had laundry and showers for hikers, which was nice after swearing in our clothes for a week. “I already washed my clothes six days ago and dunked myself in the river yesterday, so I think I’m fine,” Donezo was telling me. His boyfriend overruled him on that. 

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