Day 51: Kennedy Meadows (at last!) and some time off-trail

Day 51: June 8

Start: mile ~699, near South Fork Kern River

Stop: Irvine via Kennedy Meadows

Miles hiked: 3.8



We got off to another late start this morning; we didn’t hit the trail until 9:30 am. It didn’t really matter though, as we had less than 4 miles to hike before arriving at our destination for the day.

Soon after leaving our campsite, we crossed the 700-mile mark, as indicated by a hiker-made rock arrangement on the side of the trail. We had warm weather and more of the dramatic mountains-and-valley scenery that characterizes the lower Sierras. The hike into Kennedy Meadows would have been unmemorable if not for a close encounter with a certain native reptile…

It happened when we took a short side trail down to a slow-moving section of the South Fork Kern River to top off our water supply (which was almost gone) for the last couple miles into Kennedy Meadows. We sat at the water source for about 15 minutes before heading back up to the PCT via the same side trail we’d used just minutes before.

As Erica, in the lead, started to walk past a scraggly brown shrub on the righthand side of the trail, something whipped into action, rattling–a rattlesnake!–and coiled itself in the center of the path, ready to strike. Erica, who had already jumped several feet back at the first sound of the rattle, stood facing the snake and screamed–a long, shrill scream that, unfortunately, did not make an impression on the snake. The rattlesnake remained in striking position for a moment or two before Rick stepped in to take a picture and then used Erica’s trekking poles to scare it off the path. As we watched the snake move back off the trail, we saw just how big it was–at least three feet–and we walked a little more quickly and cautiously for the rest of the day.


By lunch time, we arrived at Kennedy Meadows, a small community of 200 people with a hiker-friendly general store that offers camping, showers, laundry, maildrop holding, and, of course, food for hikers. Kennedy Meadows is considered a major milestone on the Pacific Crest Trail. At mile 702, it signals the end of the desert section of the trail and the start of the High Sierras. The hikers who arrive here are invariably excited about what they’ve accomplished so far and what lies ahead. In fact, they’re so excited that it’s customary for hikers gathered on the store’s large porch to applaud and cheer for newly arriving hikers once they’re spotted coming up the road. And so, as we hobbled up to the store, we had at least 50 hikers cheering for us. Crazy.


Once settled on the porch, we recognized and chatted with a few familiar faces while eating ice cream, drinking beer and indulging in the first shade we’d had all day. Under different circumstances, we would have been just as jovial about our arrival as the other hikers, but Erica’s injury put a damper on things. Her ankle was still obviously swollen, even though she could walk on it moderately well, and we had to make a choice about what to do next.

We could take a risk and continue on up into the High Sierras, where we would have a week-long stretch before our next town stop, or we could take a few days off and wait for the injury to heal. The latter option was clearly the right choice, but where could we pass several days without being bored out of our minds? Although the general store allows camping and such, they have no WiFi and the atmosphere there is more fitting for a party than for rest and recovery. The nearest “big” town that hikers had been traveling to was Ridgecrest, a desert town over an hour away. Our options did not seem great.


Luckily, a woman named Carmen, whose husband and brother were hiking the trail, overheard Starbuck talking about her ankle situation and offered to give us a ride into Ridgecrest if we wanted to go. We were nervous about going that far off trail without knowing how we’d get back up to it, but when two other hikers decided to go into town as well, we settled on taking the risk.

And so four hikers crammed into the Mustang that Carmen had rented from the Burbank airport. It turned out that she had flown down to Burbank from Washington with her husband, who was getting back on the trail after taking two weeks off to recover from an injury. She hadn’t planned on doing any trail magic during her visit, but was glad to repay some of the kindness that her husband and brother had received on their hike.


The ride down to Ridgecrest was long, taking us over a twisting, turning road that barely seemed wide enough for two cars in some places. By the time we got down to town, the temperature had reached triple digits. Neither us nor the other two hikers knew where exactly we wanted to go in Ridgecrest, so we pulled into a McDonald’s to use their WiFi and get out of the heat for a bit.


While considering where to stay in Ridgecrest, we realized that if our trail angel was willing to take us the rest of the way into Burbank with her, we would be able to catch an Amtrak or MetroLink train down to Irvine, allowing Erica to recover her ankle at home instead of in a (more costly) motel room. Carmen generously agreed to the plan and after dropping the other two hikers off at their destinations, the three of us piled back into the Mustang and headed to the LA area.


We arrived at the Burbank train station just in time to buy tickets for the 6:39 pm Amtrak Surfliner, which would get us down to Irvine in under two hours. Once aboard, we shared a beer, toasting the day’s successes: We’d narrowly avoided a rattlesnake bite, gotten into Kennedy Meadows, and found a way to let Erica’s ankle recover without having to spend multiple nights at a motel. Although not thrilled about getting off the trail, we were glad to have some good luck sprinkled in with the bad.


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