It was 1 a.m. when we woke up from a rough and restless nap on the hard ground and stumbled to our feet.
The moon had just come up over the sharp and spired ridges of Mt. Tom to the south and it shone through the elegant, black lodgepole pines like silver water.
But we were in no mood for its beauty, even though we had been waiting for it to rise over the ridge since a 10 p.m. break, when black night had descended into the deep gorge of Pine Creek Canyon.
We were bone tired after a 23-mile scramble up from a far distant lake the day before. Work started for both of us in Mammoth Lakes in just about six hours, we still had nine miles to hike out—and an hour drive from the Pine Creek trailhead to Mammoth, where the showers and clean clothes that were imperative before work awaited.
Grumbling, stumbling, we gathered up packs and a sleepy border collie dog and the one remaining functioning headlamp—the second one had died an early death and this was the reason we had stopped until the bright moon rose instead of powering through the night—and headed down the trail.
I’m a morning person, given to getting up with some enthusiasm at five in the morning, but this was stretching it. We were both in shape, both good, strong hikers, but I was tired and sore with a bad knee.
Chris is decidedly not a morning person and he wasn’t stretching it; he was downright grumpy.
But we stumbled down the trail in the growing moonlight, using the one headlamp in the trees where they blocked the light, one of us leading with the good lamp, the other close behind. The dog, fatigue gone, merry as morning, chased squirrels the whole way, dashing like a maniac in the moonlight.
It’s a long, long way from the top of 12,400-foot Italy Pass, where we were at six o'clock last night, to this place here, slogging down the steep trail beside Pine Creek. The Pine Creek trail is known as one of the toughest trails in the Eastern Sierra—more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss in about 12 miles. In a fit of craziness, given our two-day time frame to do this hike, we’d come at it from an even rougher route: up and over un-trailed Italy Pass from far away un-trailed Gabbot Pass yesterday, then the day before that, up over big Mono Pass from Rock Creek Canyon’s Mosquito Flat trailhead, where our other car awaited a shuttle. It was a 48-mile run through rough country in two days and the three hours of sleep in the last 24 hours didn't help.
The moon rose higher and shone down through the trees, lighting the ground like day and I shook my head, trying to knock fatigue and pain out. We had broken out of the trees, finally, and I turned off the lamp I held in my hand and that was it.
To my left, Pine Creek shot down the canyon in a continuous cascade of molten silver, running like light over the gleaming white rocks, crashing to the valley floor 3,000 feet below.
To my right, Mt. Tom slammed into the clearing moonlit sky, every ridge and ravine and boulder alight. A deer held her ground there, before the moon, then slipped back into the dark.
Beneath my feet, the trail slipped and snaked like a white highway, lit from beneath. Side creeks and springs tumbled down from Tom every mile or so, covering the trail with their silver shimmer, making music through the quiet, still night.
Around me, the night was deep with the scent of pine and juniper released from the previous day’s rain. The air was warm and ineffably sweet as we closed the gap between the balmy Owens Valley below us and the high and icy country where we had come from yesterday.
I kept the lamp off then and we descended the remaining five miles in silver and copper and ebony silence, only the moon lighting the way, only the creek singing.
The creek crashed and tumbled down beside the trail and the gold aspens whispered and murmured and the squirrels and the dog quarreled and ran and Tom held the night back while ancient junipers stood guard over it all, and I didn't, ever, want this night to end.