About 20 miles before Kennedy Meadows, I hike through fields of sage growing in a burn. I pick small bits from the plants as I descended and imagine a little ritual for me and my fellow hikers, marking our exit from the desert and our entrance into the Sierras.
Kennedy Meadows is a total hiker scene: dozens of hikers hanging out on a porch attached to the general store, eating and drinking and figuring out how to get 7 days of food into a tiny bear vault. When a PCTer first arrives, everyone on the porch claps and cheers.
The Kennedy Meadows General Store, the focal point of the scene, lets hikers run a tab. This is both convenient and dangerous. As we’re hanging out on the porch, growing more hungry, it’s simple enough to just wander into the store and pick out whatever one’s heart desires (pints of ice cream, beer, and chips for instance) and head back out to continue laughing with friends. When this grows old, the owner of Grumpy Bears Tavern picks up hikers and drives them, in the back of his pick-up, to his place for dollar tacos and a change of scenery.
After taking care of the really important things – filling up on burgers, mango juice, ice cream and taking a shower – I spend some time looking for a spot for the “we’ve made it out of the desert” ceremony. I choose a location behind the general store where we are all camping. I mention the ritual to a few hikers and we spontaneously begin to build with and rearrange the flotsam that is scattered around camp. Soon there is a stone shrine to the desert complete with Gatorade bottles filled with the dregs of the uranium-aresnic-cow water, a seating area made from ramshackle theater castoffs, and an architectural backdrop built with burnt pieces of wood.
At sunset, I invite anyone who wants to come to participate.
The transition between geographies creates an apt moment to consider lessons the desert taught us and an opportunity to leave behind anything we don’t want to haul into the Sierras, and beyond.
Just as hikers “shake down” their packs, letting go of items that are too heavy or not really necessary, I think of this little ritual as a mental and emotional shakedown.
Once everyone has gathered, I lead us in a meditation, breathing into our muscles and all the aches from our blistered feet to our shoulders. Then I ask that we consider the act of becoming thru-hikers, walking 702 miles through the desert, blistering in the sun, going vampire, and consuming uranium-arsenic-cow water. Finally, I request that we reflect on what we’ve found useful, what we want to take with us, and what no longer works for us that we want to leave behind in the desert.
We seal the meditation with burning sage, grown in the interstice between the desert and the Sierras, and drink the last of the desert water.
I know that I’ve changed since I began hiking the PCT. I can’t say how exactly, but I definitely feel like different version of myself.