Living at Frenchies: Getting There
Between August 23 and September 6 I lived deep in the Inyo Mountains in an old mining cabin near the ghost town of Beveridge. This was an experiment in backpacking vs. thru-hiking. I’d realized that thru-hiking was a bit of a rat race, and decided to try an extreme version of backpacking. The difference? Backpackers tend to walk much shorter distances and often spend more time at camps. Backpackers had time to draw and read and sit around; thru-hikers do not. I wanted what they had. My plan was to hike in 12 miles to an extremely remote ghost town, and spend at least two weeks holed up at that cabin. I actually started my backpacking trip on the 22st, and that’s when the tale went a bit sideways!
First a little background so you can understand how I got myself into so much trouble. The Inyo Mountain range is the East side of the deepest valley in the USA lower 48; the other side is bound by the southern high Sierra Nevada, including Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48. The photo above shows the Owens Valley, hub of so many beautiful (but dangerous) adventures, and the Sierra crest across the way, taken from low in the Inyo Range.
Notice the yellow colors of that sunset. Even though we’re on the same time zone as Los Angeles and San Francisco, they will enjoy the sun quite a bit longer because these mountains are just so. damn. tall. It’s said that in the Owens Valley one watches the sunsets facing East, and the sun rises facing West, because the real delight is in watching the shadows they cast on the opposite mountains of the Valley. This is true.
On the evening of August 21, my friend Ron (a former BLM ranger for this area) drove me to the foot of the Inyo Range, where I planned to maybe get a couple thousand feet covered up Long John Canyon before dark. Here I made a huge mistake while chit-chatting with him. I dumped out a gallon of water I was planning on carrying to help get me to where I thought the next water might be. I even dumped out the water while reassuring him it’d be fine.
That evening I only gained about 1500 feet of elevation, and was disappointed in myself. But I guess I was shocked and exhausted by the weight of my pack. I was carrying about 70 pounds of gear, as I planned to stay up to 3 weeks in Beveridge Canyon, “away from it all.” In order to make it to the first certain water, I’d have to hike nearly 6800 feet up, then 2200 feet down over 11 miles of rugged trail. What was I thinking?! In the morning, temperatures would start to climb and reach the high 80s at elevation. At the base of the Owens Valley, it’d be over 100º. I had made a very, very big mistake, and I already knew it by the morning of the 22nd. Overnight, I’d had water, and woke with a questionable amount. Were I smart I would have just gone back down to French Spring, which runs well. BUT NO I AM NOT SMART.
And here is how not smart I am. I took the long route in. Had I gone up Frenchie’s* trail, I could have cut 9 miles of trail. Why I chose Long John I don’t know. It’s a pretty hard trail to go up. In the late morning I got a panicked text from a client saying that the Eastern Sierra Cancer Alliance website was having trouble. As the site administrator, and being it had to do with cancer sufferers, I stopped to work on the website when I should have kept walking. This set me back about an hour.
By the time I summited and was cresting the Burgess I was pretty thirsty and worried. I sorta hoped some 4WD people would be out there with water, but it was quiet. I detoured to the cabin, but was immediately regretful that I had detoured since I found no water. My thoughts started to change. I was no longer enjoying myself. Everything became about strategizing the quickest route to both water and my destination. The stupidity was that there was no one without the other.
Now I needed to navigate the crest of the Inyo range past New York Butte and into the Goat Springs area, which of course, I really hoped would have water. I don’t have any photos to show of this incredibly beautiful day (where I found trail most the way despite it being long abandoned) because I was focused on getting to the water. I have the one below. Just past the Butte I stashed some of my things in the bushes — nothing to attract animals, just heavy stuff I was carrying “for fun.” I’d have to return for them later. My pack was lighter but the damage was done.
Climbing 6800 feet with 4 liters of water on a warm day was… suicide. Was it suicide, though? Would they think I wanted to die? Would I die? Who would want to die this way? How long can a person feel thirsty like this before they lose their mind? Let me tell you, running out of water after extreme activity and in warm weather is high on my top five list of things never to ever do again. Top five list of miseries. Bottom of list of ways to commit suicide. And this day is the reason I have ever since carried too much water on every single hike, no matter where.
It is absolutely the most maddening feeling when your tongue goes as dry as a leather glove and you can hardly swallow any longer because your throat sticks to itself. There was no spit. I’m not exaggerating. I kept hope for Goat Springs but when I arrived it was dark and too late for me to be spending energy looking for water I might not find. I did know one place I could find water, though, and because of my throat situation I was ready for it.
If you’ve ever wondered if a Sawyer Squeeze can filter out the taste of urine from urine and make it drinkable, I’m hear to tell you no. It cannot. And not only that, but you will NEVER get the taste of urine out of your filter. It is one of the quicker ways to render your filter useless. Unless you enjoy the taste of urine, which I most decidedly do not. So anyway, you get a sense of what happened. Just a few sips to wet the whistle, a moistened throat, and off to sleep. OK I admit I woke up in the middle of the night, and had another sip. It was a tough night. Especially since I sorta knew, and still believe, the Goat Spring further to the east was flowing. In my half-awake reverie I could hear it, and the little animals and birds who were drinking happily from it. It was practically a jungle over there in the middle of the desert, just a couple hundred feet away. But I couldn’t risk hurting myself only to find a mirage.
In the morning it’d be a mad dash down a half-mile long long-lost (as in, not used for a very long time and lost to erosion) “trail” to meet Frenchies Trail to the cabin. I got up early enough to start walking at first light, took another little sip pretending it was coffee (NOT), and then just focused on putting one foot carefully in front of the other, letting gravity carry me down. I let gravity do the work, not my muscles. That’s what I told myself, anyway. I knew the cabin had reliable water, so each step down was a step closer to that water. I was delirious and just using the last energy I had to carefully walk myself through the literal steps of getting to water. This was no matter of turning on the tap, or calling for help. Given the difficulty of the terrain, I did amazingly well and was at the cabin within an hour. I swear I could hear the spring flowing from several hundred feet away. And when I saw it I dropped my pack and guzzled a liter, unfiltered, immediately. Surprisingly, I drank a lot less than my fantasy had me drinking; I’d assumed I’d drink gallons when I finally got to the spring! I’ve never been so happy to see water in my life, and lucky for me that spring is freakin’ delicious.
And then I lay down in the cabin on of of the nasty beds, and slept for a day and a half. I felt horrible and weak and am pretty sure I was suffering from kidney damage. It took several days before I felt alright again, at which point the reality struck that I was now living deep in the wilderness, alone, without contact from the outside world, and possibly for weeks. You can read about my time in the journals I left behind in the cabin’s log, or maybe I’ll write more here soon!
Being 48% French I’m going to go out on a limb and say Frenchie, a longtime resident of these woods and Lone Pine until the 1980s, wouldn’t mind my spelling. You’ll also see it called Frenchy’s which for some reason reminds me of mustard. While I love mustard and consider it its own food group, I don’t think people should have food names. And generally they don’t, if you haven’t noticed. ?