Miles: 21
Camping: Behind the Kennedy Meadows General Store PCT mile 702.2
Hikers seen on trail: 4

Another morning alarm at 4 am, and I’m feeling the drudge of routine. This feels more like work than anything today, but it’s a big day. Both swimming in the Kern River and getting to Kennedy Meadows have been something I’ve looked forward to for a long time, and today is the day! I tried to pep myself up, but to little avail. The feet are demanding attention again, and I’m wondering how long I can handle the pain. I just have to make it to Kennedy Meadows, then I can figure something out.

The first 3 miles to the spring were easy, but my mood was way south. I was really struggling with my feet, and for the first time I felt really alone. For how much I enjoyed my solitude early on, the people I have met have become an important part of this journey. I knew once I caught them in Kennedy Meadows, they’d be ready to hike out before me. I could tell already that I would need more than a day, and somehow I have to find a way to get new shoes. It suddenly felt so hopeless, so I cried. I cried hard, and had to stop several times because my tears were blurring my vision and I couldn’t see the trail. I felt like I was failing at this hike, and I couldn’t bear the thought.

I reached the spring as I was just out of water, and it was going to be 15 miles for the next chance to fill up. Remembering yesterday’s heat, I filtered 5 liters and planned to take a long breakfast break after the 6 mile climb to lift my spirits. As I was walking, I felt water was dripping on the backs of my legs. I stopped to check my bladder, and it had a brand new leak. This prompted more tears, as I simply couldn’t hike without water, and my pack was getting soaked. This was beyond frustrating, but I had an extra trash bag, so I stuffed my bladder in it and walked on. Adding insult to injury, this trail seems determined to break me down any way it can.

The climb was easy for my body, but painful for my feet. I drank lots of water and marveled at how close I was getting to the Sierra between moments of frustration. They were just over the hills I was walking, so close, so attainable. At the top of the climb, when I had hoped to have a nice break to lift my spirits, I suddenly found myself in a burn area that extended for miles. This made the prospect of shade pretty grim. I knew I needed a break and a good meal. If nothing else, a cup of coffee would make me feel better. I walked and walked, looking for a spot to pull out and pick up the day. Nothing for miles, no shade, nothing flat, just more burned trees that probably hosted all kinds of shade in the past.

Roughly 4 miles later, I came across a decent spot to pull over and make breakfast. This was 10 miles since I’d started hiking, and my feet were beyond angry. I was angry that my feet were angry, but happy to sit, have coffee, and make breakfast. I made some ramen noodles without the seasoning packet, added peanut butter, broccoli, onions, hot sauce and nutritional yeast. This was delicious, as was coffee. My mood was better, so I decided to make it to my next destination, the river.

In order to keep my spirits up, I put in my headphones and listened to music. The pain in my feet was unrelenting at this point, but I had no choice but to walk. I started thinking I might have to quit the hike, that I’d done the worst part, and I’d have to stop just before the best part. I don’t remember ever feeling so down on myself in my life. I cried and limped for miles, feeling pathetically out of control and alone. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever felt worse in my life. I tried everything I could think of to feel better, but my spirit was broken. I felt like I was going through boot camp, where they break you down to rebuild you. Telling myself that wasn’t enough, but I felt slightly lifted when I considered rebuilding myself in the Sierra. It seemed a good opportunity. I am not done with this hike. It’s not done with me.

At the end of the long descent, I was suddenly in a field surrounded by the granite mountains that make up the Sierra, and there were trees. It was stunningly different from the landscapes I’ve grown accustomed to. It finally felt as if I’d made it somewhere on this trail, like I was accomplishing this. This barely comforted me, as the soles of my feet were on fire. I’d been crying and limping for miles, pathetic and broken. No matter what, my options were limited. Walk or don’t. I walked…or limped, so frustrated with this whole thing. Inside, I wanted nothing more than to feel the joy of the moment, to feel good, to walk into Kennedy Meadows on a cloud, to be happy when I saw my friends.

Just a mile away from the river, something caught my eye, rushing towards the trail. I stopped mid-cry and watched a coyote run in front of me, headed East into the hills. It hesitated when it saw me, and we looked at each other. It seemed to smile, and I just stood there, amazed. It was a fleeting moment as it continued running off, and somehow I felt better for a brief period. This got me to the river, and I smiled, feeling as if a swim would wash away all of the sorrow. Grandpa and McButter were there eating lunch, and I barely stopped to say hello as I got into the river.

The water was cool, but not cold. It wrapped me in it’s gentle embrace as I sunk below the surface. I held my breath and felt myself suspended in time, washing away the desert, the pain briefly forgotten. I laid back and floated with the sun shining above, the water lapping gently on my body. That moment was bliss, relaxation, contentment, relief, and so much more. When the wind blew, I felt cold, and eventually got out to have a snack. My fingers were raisins, my feet pruny. I felt clean and refreshed as I sat down and opened a pack of cookies. I shared with the guys, and we all sat for a bit, enjoying the scene.

I assembled myself and my pack thinking that the next 4 miles would be better. They started out that way. My feet felt improved for the first half, but quickly reverted to their angry state for the final push. I struggled to take the steps, experiencing the most intense pain to date. The ball of my right foot has formed a blister under the callous, and the pressure is agonizing. It is shocking that I was walking at all…but, I had no choice. Walk or don’t.

The last half mile or so was on pavement, and I walked next to Grandpa concealing tears behind my sunglasses. It took every ounce of strength to keep moving, to refrain from sitting in a ditch and refusing to move on. It was disgustingly hot, I was dehydrated and in pain above my threshold (which is pretty darn high), and I was so close to one of the trail’s biggest milestones. The conflicting emotions were hard to take.

Approaching the store, people began to clap (something everyone does when new hikers arrive at a destination, it’s kind of a slow clap that accelerates in pace). It felt so good to hear the welcome, to know I had made it 702.2 miles to Kennedy Meadows. I wanted to collapse, when someone yelled, “Is that Dust Bunny?” I barely managed a, “yeah!” And the whole place erupted! People were yelling my name, cheering and clapping so loud and happy and warm. My tears became joyous as people rushed around hugging me, handing me Gatorade, warm faces and smiles everywhere I looked. It felt amazing, I was surrounded by so much love! Everyone was there; Ninja, Tink, Landfill, Stampede, Blisster, Johnny, Pockets, Hugs…and so many other friendly and familiar faces. I wasn’t alone anymore.

We all sat on the porch of the store drinking beers and water, eating burgers and hot dogs, sharing our experiences since we’d last seen each other. It has been the most beautiful night, and I can’t stop looking at these faces and smiling, my insides feeling warm and whole. I’m no longer struggling across the desert, alone and thirsty. I’m where I should be. The feet will get addressed tomorrow. Tonight, I’m going to bottle up every moment on the porch, being a part of something so wonderful, never wanting it to end. It’s all worth it. This is worth it all.