Day 9: The forest on Mono creek to Vermillion Valley ranch: 11 miles
We have hardly earned a break as today is only day three of our trip but Cade’s rough start changed our route and cut out two days, and a 7-mile round trip trek up into the gorgeous high basins of Laurell Lakes. It really is about putting one foot in front of the next, come heck or high water, with a good attitude, a healthy dose of faith, and as good of common sense as possible. It also doesn’t hurt to have tasty power bars!
Between a commode-hugging son to start the day, a leaking water bottle, a wet sleeping bag, and a rancid dinner, we approached the next morning with an unusual cautiousness. Today we’d hike to Edison Lake where we’d catch a ferry across the 5 mile reservoir to the one resort we’d stay at all summer.
A warm, mosquito filled downhill hike along Mono Creek was the perfect healing balm to my nerves from the day before. Still amazed that a walk along a river seems to never fail to inspire as well as reorganize fears into a healthy perspective, I noticed that with each step we all felt our confidence and joy for being out here returning.
On we hiked, getting warmer with each incremental drop in elevation. After a few hours on a hot dusty trail, stream passings become highlights. A simple stream elicits the hoots and hollers equivalent of an announcement of a pizza party. We can splash our faces with refreshing water. We can have air conditioning for miles in the form of soaked hats and bandanas draped on our hot heads. We can refill our water bottles, but not before subjecting them to the ultraviolet purification of the Steripen, which dutifully kills viruses, giardia, and cryptosporidia (however, 50% of the hikers in the CA Sierra range drink straight from the streams, we choose a more conservative route and subject all our water to purification).
After a few miles, we ran into a group of three men who informed us that the ferry across the lake had stopped running for the year due to low water levels, following a record low snow year. Some of the benefits of this record breaking dry year were the pleasing low levels of mosquitoes, easy stream crossings, and no snow packs to cross. But today it meant not enough water in the lake, so our 5-mile easy day turned into a long, hot 11-mile day.
Actually, the hike along the lake was delightful. I always love to hike when I can see water and looking out across a large body of sparkling water was a refreshing change of pace to the miles of dark forest we had just left behind.
At lunch, we sat on boulders and gazed at the reservoired lake, surrounded by tree stumps and acres and acres of exposed beach that normally had water covering it. As we sat there, we started a discussion with this question, “Should the State of California have dammed this river?” Ideas came forth from all four of us, for and against it. Truly, in comparison to the raw beauty of the land further up the creek, out of the destructive reach of the dam, this lake was an eyesore. Stumps lined the shore, acres of sand existed where there once was a lush forest, but the very dried apricots we were eating were the result of this very water that was watering the CA agricultural lands and providing electricity to dehydrate them in a factory. We divided into two teams, each team taking either a pro or con side to the issue.
It was amazing to look at this seemingly simple question from many directions and I found myself floating between pro and con with every good idea that came forth. At minimum, it reminded me of the importance of being open-minded to the many perspectives that exist on so many issues. Narrow mindedness builds walls, not bridges. As we as a society make decisions about environmental, educational, social, and political policies, like the four of us did on that boulder that day, I wish we all could engage in discussions that open our eyes to other points of views.
That day we decided that rivers should not be dammed above 7500 ft, to preserve some areas in their natural state but to also allow ag lands their water and cities their electricity with a renewable resource like hydropower. And that is exactly what California policy has decided as well.
With that solved, we hiked on to our destination, and like an oasis in a desert, the Vermillion Valley Ranch sign appeared. VVR has a small town feel with a small staff that seeks to know each person who passes through the front door. It’s a convergence of those who drive in to sleep in cabins or trailers and those who arrive by foot (which is the majority), seeking a night to refresh. With a cabana type indoor/outdoor restaurant, and a sign over the front door that says, “Hikers! Please loiter!” the stage is set for people from all walks of life to gather and chat over coffee, beer, or the evening fire pit. And that’s exactly what we did. Whether we talked with the seasonal staff, the trailer fisherman, or a fellow hiker, the continual theme was the critical need each person had to get away and deeply relax, and how being in a peaceful and quiet forested Sierra natural landscape, like we all found ourselves at together, was the best way we all knew how to clear the mind and relax. We all found our way to intersect with nature in a different way – some with a fly rod in their hands, others with a pack on their backs, still others on a lawn chair on the porch of their rented cabin – but all were experiencing what the research has determined – that connecting with nature creates a deeply spiritual, physical, and emotional effect, serving to recharge and restore us in profound ways.
We’d spend two nights and one full day in absolute paradise. VVR had rustic and simple accommodations but to hikers, it was perfect paradise. A little bell rang on the creaky wooden door as we stepped into the store to check in. Jim, the friendly owner of the ranch, greeted us and got our tab started. The first thing we put on it was their last available room. Room #4 had 3 beds, a shower, and a kitchenette. For 24 hours we lived a luxurious life again with hot tea in mugs, hot showers, a kitchen table to eat at, and the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept on. Pinning our laundered clothes on a line to dry, I couldn’t stop smiling at the simple sweetness of clean smelling, newly laundered clothes. Backpacking has a miraculous way of making simple comforts feel like an ultimate spoiling. It’s nice to feel grateful for even the simple things again. I’d need to remember to do this even when the rat race of life barely allows me to breathe – between meetings and deadlines: soft beds, a roof over our heads, and warm showers were a gift to be grateful for.
We were also here to pick up our two resupply buckets with the food we’d need for the next six nights. As we loitered around the ranch doing these various tasks, random hikers would arrive bringing stories of the trail of their current and past experiences. All in all, it was a perfect day, and the next day promised to as perfect.