I had just gotten back to my car Sunday after hiking 11 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) when three backpackers waved at me as they were standing next to the sign proclaiming to drivers on Highway 108 that they had reached Sonora Pass at 9,624 feet.
They had passed me after I cleared a snow covered stretch of the trail perhaps 45 minutes prior. I’m not exactly a speed demon descending given downhill is my Achilles Heel when it comes to hiking.
They wanted to know If I was headed to Bridgeport. I said I was heading back to Manteca. As I started to get into my car it dawned on me their chances of getting a ride at mid-afternoon on a Sunday heading from Sonora Pass east wasn’t all that great. And given when they had passed me they probably had been trying to get a ride for at least a half hour.
Just as I was about to put the key in the ignition I decided I had time to essentially go 80 minutes or so out of my way.
I know what you are thinking. Never pick up hitchhikers.
That is usually my policy with one exception. When I hike the Eastern Sierra and there are backpackers coming off the PCT heading down to places like Bishop, Lone Pine, and Independence for supplies they have mailed ahead to post offices or motels/hostels they have booked rooms at in advance.
Most PCT backpackers do just a few segments while some do the entire 2,653 miles from Mexico to Canada in bits and pieces over the course of a number of years. Then there are the few that do the entire distance through California, Oregon, and Washington on one fell swoop. The record is 53 days for a hike that involves 420,880 feet of climbing. That is the equivalent of going up 79.7 miles. Obviously you can’t take everything with you.
Over the years I have given lifts four times to groups of two to three PCT backpackers who needed to go long distances down Highway 395 after coming off the trail for supplies or a day or so of R&R.
The trio on Sunday were friends in their 30s. There was a couple from Missouri and a culinary art major who moved to California and now manages the hostel in Bishop and also teaches yoga in the biggest town in all of Inyo County.
We pumped each other about information on places we’ve hiked. Obviously the Bishop guy was well versed with Eastern Sierra hikes — my favorite place by far. My knowledge of the PCT is primarily in the form of day hikes from where it crosses Sonora Pass as well as above Tuolumne Meadows where it crosses Highway 120/Tioga Road in Yosemite. When they found out I hike Death Valley regularly they asked for out-of-the way places I’d been up isolated canyons and various peaks.
My biggest take from the conversation we had between Sonora Pass and Bridgeport was how lucky the couple from Missouri thought I was to live in California. They had nothing against Missouri but in their extensive travels across the United States that included a lot of hiking, they argued nothing compared to California when it came to the repertoire of terrain, geology and natural wonders that are within the state’s borders.
They’re right. As Californians we are often oblivious to what is in our own backyard. It’s a cliché of sorts but in 2½ to 3 hours from Manteca you can hike Yosemite — one of the world’s biggest natural draws. You can also hike the Sierra, Lake Tahoe (one of the world’s premiere alpine lakes) the rugged Big Sur coast and adjoining mountains, redwood forests, the Great Basin, and endless “peaks” less than 4,000 feet such as Mt. Diablo that at 3,412 feet would qualify as the highest point of roughly half the states.
Extend what you can reach in an 8 hour drive and you have sun kissed beaches in Southern California, the most rugged coastline as well as the highest point in the continental United States, the lowest spot in North America in Death Valley, glaciers, volcanoes, the Mohave Desert, remnants of prehistoric lakes, and fertile valleys to name a few. The geology is varied with virtually every type of mountain range in terms of how they were formed as well as the rock formations.
Then there is what you will find just 15 minutes from Manteca — the only delta on the Pacific Coast of the Americas.
If that wasn’t enough the Missouri couple reminded me that our weather — everything from humidity to severe storms — is also more mild for most parts of California compared to many other states.
We may complain about 100 degree heat but if you’ve ever experienced an 80-degree day in Missouri or Downstate Illinois with 80 percent plus humidity I guarantee you’d refrain from bellyaching about heat waves in California.
I get that I’m a bit overboard with day hiking with my favorites being anything with a substantial gain, above 9,000 feet or going cross country up canyons in Death Valley.
That said there are literally hundreds of places usually can drive right up to that are relatively flat to enjoy.
Many people enjoy the offerings of the Sierra foothills and the Sierra on the western side of passes. But less than 3 hours away are pristine rivers and lakes fed by snow runoff of the eastern Sierra.
I get that we often can’t see the forest for the trees. We are a diverse state of 40 million people with tech hubs that lure people around the globe and world class cities that materialized in the past 170 years as opposed to those in Europe, Asia and Africa that have been cities of consequence for well over 500 years and even longer.
But we often fail to see what others see — a varied natural paradise that no other state can match.
If you doubt that, get a map and a geometry compass. Place the steady leg with a needle point on Manteca and use the adjustable leg with the pencil to draw a circle that encompasses everything in a 150-mile radius. Take a close look at what is inside that circle whether it is nature’s handiwork or that man has created. You can spend 52 weekends on day trips and not do the same thing twice whether it is walking in Bodie — the biggest ghost town in arrested decay in the United States — or enjoying Golden Gate Park that rates as one off the world’s premiere urban spaces.
Besides where else can you live on the first full day of summer where it was 100 degrees in Manteca on Sunday, leave at 7 a.m., drive 2½ hours to hike through snow on a 11-mile hike in 72 degrees, and then return home in time to squeeze in 90 minutes of yard work before nightfall?