Meadow Ed, in conversation with several other hikers, recommended an early start from the campground, as the trail heading up the mountain on the other side of the highway, ran in an easterly direction, meaning one will be walking with the sun in their eyes for many miles if one were to leave the campground any time after six in the morning. I knew I was going to be on the trail early, so that wasn’t going to be a problem for me.
As usual, I was up at four in the morning and ready to start hiking by 4:30 a.m. I consumed one of my three sandwiches for breakfast, plus a soda pop, and snagged another soda pop from the cooler as I departed the campground. No one else was even beginning to stir, and again I felt proud of myself for being the first one out of camp, but it won’t make any difference; half of the group will pass me before the day is over with.
I had five liters of water with me, enough to hike up to twenty miles if need be; thus, I’m not focused on getting to any one particular water source, but will take water when I find it. I’ve hiked 650 miles so far, and have only fifty-two miles to go to reach Kennedy Meadows, my next resupply point, the end of the Southern California desert, and the beginning of the High Sierra Mountains.
Walker Pass and Highway 178 is a route across the southern Sierras originally used by Native Americans for centuries. It connects the Mojave Desert on the east to the San Joaquin Valley to the west. Native Americans befriended Joseph Walker in 1834 and showed him this route through the mountains. Explorer and mapmaker, John C Fremont, proposed that the pass be named in Walker’s honor.
After I crossed the highway named in tribute to Walker, the trail began a gradual ascent of a sandy slope that in the springtime was covered in blue chia, the seeds of which can be roasted and eaten. Six switchbacks later, I was walking through groves of Pinyon pine trees mingled with golden oaks. The trail, true to its name, climbed to the crest of the mountains and maintained this position as long as geographically possible.
The mountains were high and the peaks were higher; before the day was over, I would pass Morris Peak, Jenkins Peak, and Owens Peak. As I walked along the crest of the mountains, I saw off to my right, Indian Wells Canyon and a road by the same name that led down to Highway 395 and the town of Ridgecrest, while off to my left, the bumpy dirt Canebrake Road came into view, a road that I will cross farther up the trail. The men of the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) built much of the trail in this section and they gained access to these high mountaintops via these dirt roads, some of which have been taken out of service.
I passed Joshua Tree Spring, but bypassed it as it was a quarter mile off the road. However, I did go for water at Spanish Needle Creek. This water source was off in a meadow, but it was not obvious exactly where to find it. I followed the trail leading into the meadow, but quickly lost it as footprints scatter in all directions. I made my way through the calf-high grass to a marshy bog that abutted against a tree line, but found only small trickles flowing through the weeds and grass. As I backtracked through the bog, off to my right I spied a small ravine and concluded that if there were water anywhere in this meadow, it would have to be in the ravine – and it was.
It was a small stream with crystal-clear cold water flowing through it, and to my amazement, I found small fish darting in and out of the shadows formed by the overhanging sod banks. I could not imagine how these fish ever found their way to this remote location. I was sure the Forest Service would never plant them in such small streams, which could only mean that their predecessors had been here for eons. I filled my bottles and pushed on.
The trail stayed on the crest of the mountains as it continued north. Occasionally, it would dip into a valley to gain access to flowing streams, but would immediately climb again to maintain its position along the ridgelines. There were a few patches of pine and fir trees on the northern side of the slopes, where moisture lingered longer, but in this dry climate, the vegetation was mainly scrub oak, rabbit brush, sagebrush, and Mormon Tea.
Of great interest to me was the small, white, three-petal flower called the Sego Lily, whose white petals were tinged with lilac (occasionally magenta) and had a purplish band radiating from the yellow base. At the bottom of the stem was a small bulb that was said to be eatable. Native Americans utilized the bulb as a food source, and it helped to sustain the Mormon pioneers in the Great Salt Lake Basin in 1847-48 when food stuffs were scarce. In 1911, the state of Utah adopted it as its state flower. (Sego) I decided to try them and gathered a handful of the bulbs, brushed the dirt off of the bottom ends and popped them into my mouth. They weren’t bad; in a pinch, they would do just fine as a food source.