Walking down from my succesfull summit-attempt of the highest mountain in mainland US, Mt Whitney 4420m, I felt a comfortable sense of achievement. From here, the trail will drop in altitude and I will be, mostly, safe from snow on the remaining 1100km until the Mexican border. Even if snow hits, the mountain passes are much lower and I will quickly drop back into even lower valleys with altitudes below 2000m. I’m snow-safe, -ish.
Leaving the inexplicably beauty of the Sierras was an ambiguous feeling. I’d made it safe through the snow, but I know from years of cross-continent cycling, that I miss the mountains and the strenous exhaustion they carry with them, the day I leave them behind. Luckily, the trail doesn’t disappoint. The high-alpine Ocean of Grey Granite is replaced by lower meadows and white-sandy high desert plateaus with curve old trees lonely defending their right to survive in this arid, desolate landscape. Many trees have slowly succumbed to the rough environment and are left as relic of a past time: sun-tanned and bruised from centuries of raw weather. Descending further, the high-desert is replaced by lower scrubby landscapes where only small sage-bushes and chaparral are surviving the dry ordeal. No shade and little water as I continue my southbound hike towards the Mexican border, closer and closer to the terminus of this trail. The change in scenery when leaving the Sierras is likely the fastest and most dramatic on this entire trail, that runs 4200km through all available bio-spheres in mainland US, except for savanna. Now, the desert is showing, and I’ve been anticipating it, looking forward to it. I’ve learned to appreciate the silent isolation of deserts throughout my years of adventuring and are longing for it by now.
I reach a little community with 200 inhabitants after 6 days through the wilderness. A friday-evening shared community dinner is being shared by 20 locals outside of the general store and, together with my hiker friend, we are welcomed to join it and attack the leftovers with the appetite of a bear fresh out of hibernation. Chips, dip, homemade sausage, traditional american cornbread, american chili. Ate 2 large plates of food before my stomach finally refused to accept more nutrition. Yummy.
A local man is inviting us to join them at the local bar and we quickly accept. The Grumpy Bear is a classical american roadside-bar, could’ve been taken straight out of a movie-set. Rubbing shoulders with the locals I learn a bit about the community. “We’re one of the last communities in the US to NOT have a telephone landline connection. Better keep it that way”, “This bar got closed down until recently, a fist-fight resulted in some guns being fired and the police shut it down”. Wild Wild west out here. Our local friend, Armando, invites us for a couple of beer at his humble little part-time home, a nicely outfitted trailer in the woods. He is set for an early morning wake-up as him and his friend Mike are heading out hunting tomorrow. After 3-4 beers, I muster the courage to pop the quetion :”Can I come?”. Armando looks at me for a second or two before his granite-face breaks into a smile, “I’ll take you huntin’ “. Perfect.
Next morning we wake up at 5am and Armando cooks up some breakfast burritos to go with the freshly brewed coffee. Mike drops by, it’s dark outside and communication is whispered around the kitchen. The “huntin atmosphere” has already started. Pack water and food, “Henrik, wear this camo-shirt”, load the guns into the pick-up truck, ready to go. The pickup winds its way across the mountains as all three of us are anxiously quiet. Conversation is formed by one-liners and grunts and Mike parks his pickup at what seems to be a random location in the deep woods on the mountain. I go with Armando and we silently walk off-trail towards a little canyon. “Can’t shoot before sunrise, its the law” he whispers as he is following deer-tracks and scouting the mountains-slopes for animals. I tag along, stay quiet, follow the tracks and scout for deer, doing what Armando does. Monkey see, monkey do.
Excitement starts when he spots a “deer bed” and concludes that a deer has spent the night there until very recently. Within long we spot the first group of deer, 100m downslope from us. “All does, I can only shoot buck” he says, referring to the regulations of only hunting the males. Within long, we spot another group of doe above us. Both groups are monitoring us, listening with their dinner-plate sized ears. “Two groups of doe, there must be a buck around” Armando says. “You monitor that group, don’t loose them. They sometimes fix their gaze in a certain direction for 5-10 seconds; possibly monitoring any nearby buck and his reaction to our presence. Don’t loose’em, keep track”. I am proud that he takes my assistance serious and not just tag me along like the ignorant tourist I am, I feel part of our little hunting team.
We never spotted a buck and hence never got to shoot at one. I still can’t decide whether that was disappointing or relieving. But the experience was unforgettable: huntin’ with the locals.