My headlamp swings like a pendulum, hanging from a carabiner clipped to the top of my tent, casting a cone of light on the void of space next to my sleeping bag—the naked nylon of the tent floor reminding me of one thing—this time, I am alone.
I had been crafting the ten day Sierra backpacking trip that had long occupied my East Coast daydreams for months, meticulously applying for all the necessary and highly coveted permits to approach Mount Whitney via the two million acre Inyo National Forest. But I was never supposed to go it alone. I had planned the trip with a childhood friend living Northern California— hardly a rustic outdoorsman, but he had been enthusiastic—until backing out a month before we were due to meet in Lone Pine, the sleepy town serving as a portal to the Sierras.
I had spent the month before the trip agonizing about doing it alone. After Washington, D.C. winter spent awkwardly sweating in a guest-room converted to workout room and a spring full of training hikes, I had also been methodically adding to rapidly expanding stash of gear, buoyed by an unconcealed excitement. The Mount Whitney High Country Trail map became my dining room tablecloth. I spent an unnerving amount of time vacillating over the gastronomic merits of various free-dried backpacking meals—would beef stroganoff be more filling than turkey Tetrazzini?
I unzip my tent and step into the twilight. Above me Mount Whitney’s towering granite spires are illuminated in the rosy hue of alpenglow in the vanishing sunlight. My lighter flickers and in a flash of blue light my stoves hisses to life. I systematically unpack my bear bin, only too happy to tuck into freeze-dried lasagna for two. I can hear the steady rush of the icy water of trout laden Lone Pine Creek above the sizzle of my stove. Below, in the disappearing light I can just see the rounded contours of the clay-red Alabama Hills, spreading like a collection of boulders mid-tumble over the landscape.
As the sun sinks behind the Sierras, I shovel steaming lasagna into my mouth with a blunt, reputedly flameproof spork and reread my National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Wilderness Guide, ‘Traveling solo in the backcountry is at once liberating, free, and lonely. The solitude may be just what your soul needs… But those new to solo travel need to be prepared for the sense of isolation in a vast space.’ I close the book and look up the boundless night sky, stars shimmering like tiny specs of glowing dust sprinkling the galaxy.
I had spent the night before staying with friends living in Death Valley—a park ranger and a nurse, expecting their first baby. I sat in Tommy and Sarah’s living room, cradling a sweat-beaded Sierra Nevada, in the humid fog of their panting black Lab. ‘I still think you should do it,’ Sarah says immediately when I recount my month of equivocation on finding out I had to do the trip solo. She and Tommy had met a few years earlier while each solo hiking the Appalachian Trail. Another solo thru-hiker they met on the Appalachian Trail even officiated their wedding.
As I slide into my sleeping bag, wind whips around my tent, jostling its corners. I reach up to click of my headlamp andmy finger lingers of the switch—one last comfort—then, dark. I lay stiffly on my mattress, ears prickling for any sounds other than the frictionless whoosh of my sleeping bag against the polyester backpacking mat.
At sunrise, I hear distinct vocalizations—long, jubilant howls. I sit up in my sleeping bag, realizing only as the fog the sleep fades the calls are coyotes, wolves disappeared from the ecosystems of the Sierras by the early 1920s. I take stock of the gear in my tent—and cough as the damp morning dew seeps into my throat. It startles me—I realize I haven’t spoken out since I left Death Valley, my entire, constant monologue has been completely internal.
I drive to the parking area at Horseshoe Meadow, the Cottonwood Pass trailhead. I peruse the Forest Service billboard plastered with maps and safety advisories. A flier illustrated is tacked to the top of the board—‘Mountain Lion Recently Sighted in the Area,’—I glance down to the section on safety in lion country, ‘Do not hike, bike, or jog alone.’ I reflexively pat my shorts—feeling for bulky can of bear spray—grizzly strength—in my shorts pocket. Reassurance.
I look back over my shoulder at my rental car. The parking lot bustles with people, a flurry of packs, trekking poles, and exuberantly straining leashed dogs. I shoulder my pack, cinch the straps, and start walking toward Cottonwood Pass.
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