17.1 miles (738.8 to 755.9), plus 0.2 to Diaz Creek and 0.2 to Chicken Spring Lake
We go downhill for the first three miles and then go off trail a short distance to collect water from Diaz Creek. Just Mike is already there and waves us over to a spot with easier access. After filling up and eating a snack, Cucumber and I make our way back to the trail and begin a long, tough climb that takes us by three trail junctions where the trails lead down to Horseshoe Meadow and, eventually, Lone Pine.
Between last night and this morning, my pack weight went below the unbearable threshold and is now mostly tolerable. The long climb to 11,000 feet and beyond is a challenge, however. I settle into a somewhat slow pace and grind up the mountain, immediately feeling dizzy and out of breath if I speed up even a fraction of a step. Luckily I’m hiking with Cucumber. When I’m blindly pushing ahead, badly in need of rest, he calls for rest stops. We break a few times, taking off our packs each time. We walk by Trail Pass. Below, a view of a huge meadow opens.
“It’s beautiful,” I whisper, then turn around. “Sometimes,” I tell Cucumber, “in beautiful places, I whisper.”
We walk over little creeklets fed by snowmelt. There are a few small snowbanks to step over. Finally, 12 miles into the day, we arrive at Chicken Spring Lake starving for lunch. There are lots of weekenders around wearing clean clothes and hiking boots. This is Fourth of July weekend. No wonder the trail is swarmed. We find some shade and eat. Then it’s nap time. I curl into a shady spot and fall asleep. When I wake, the sky is no longer blue. Smoke is quickly moving in. We hike on.
Above the lake, we top out around 11,500 feet. From here, the trail stays above 11,000 feet and breathing is a challenge made even worse by the obscene amount of smoke in the air. The nearest mountains are nearly invisible in the brown haze. This is horrible. I can’t breathe, can’t see. We pass into Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks. We see more and more weekenders. The smoke puts me in a depressed mood.
Half a mile from our intended campsite, I catch sight of jagged peaks through the haze. Wow. Gorgeous. Can we camp here? We poke around and find a few reasonable places to pitch a tent. We’re going to stay. We have to. The view is too spectacular not to. As we eat dinner, the smoke begins to move out. The sky turns blue again. I can see the moon. The view of the jagged peaks becomes even more spectacular. I pitch my tent and take lots of pretty campsite photos.
Smooches shows up and camps with us again tonight. Cucumber and I sit on a giant boulder as the sun sinks lower and lower. To the south, there’s a massive brown bank of smoke. Here, however, the air is clear. This is our lucky spot. The three of us watch the sun set with a chorus of frogs and the chatter of chickadees, and the roar of Rock Creek in the canyon far below.