Up again at first light, I set my sights on a 7am departure time, figuring that with gravity on my side for the descent back to Road's End, I could do the 10.5 miles in an ambitious 5 hours. It wouldn't be easy, though, because my tender ankle felt more sore and stiff than it did the previous morning. Popping a few Advils for the pain, I started to break camp... after taking a few moments to appreciate my beautiful surroundings one last time.
That morning, I realized how wonderful it had been to fall asleep to the sound of a rushing stream... a constant, natural kind of white noise that had made it very easy to drift off, yet not obtrusive enough to wake me in the middle of the night. Quite a contrast to my home in L.A., where I'm close enough to a freeway that I can be easily awakened by inconsiderate motorcyclists gunning their obnoxious engines at night.
I also saw three deer that morning as I was packing my gear, one running at full speed down the trail. I envied its speed and agility, and wished I could make it back to Road's End as quickly as it could.
But while I missed talking to people along the way, I was making pretty good time without the distractions.
For the first time in days, though, I did start thinking about the outside world. How had the Cubs done while I was gone? What would I want my homecoming meal to be that night? How long would it take me to get to that fresh fruit stand I'd passed on Hwy. 180 on my way to Kings Canyon?
But first, I encountered another kind of trail inhabitant. A much scarier kind. I'd gotten used to the only sounds being the creek, my footsteps, and my breathing, so when I heard a strange, sudden rattling sound, I momentarily froze. Where did that come from? In a split second, I whipped my head around to my right... and just behind me, about 3 feet away, there was the rattlesnake. Thank goodness it was behind, and not ahead. Wanting to put as much distance between me and the rattler as quickly as I could, I scurried down the trail as fast as my legs would safely take me.
Sorry, I didn't stop to get a picture. I know it would have been cool, but hey, not at the expense of a snake bite.
I did, however, find a photogenic blue-bellied reptile who was ready for his close-up, so this will have to do.
Shortly thereafter, I reached Sphinx Junction (you saw the sign at the top of the post), and I knew I was into the home stretch.
Why do they call it Sphinx Junction? This picture might explain it...
Had my trip really been that long? Had my trip really been that short? Yes, by now, I was feeling very existential.
My existential self felt envious of them... and sorry for them. No, they wouldn't have to go a day without a shower. No, they wouldn't have to endure the torture of Glen Pass. But they also wouldn't see the incredible beauty of the Rae Lakes. They wouldn't feel the sense of accomplishment that would come with finishing such an amazing journey.
I was about to, though...
Yes, I had. It was 11:26am on Sunday, July 24, and this outdoors newbie had completed his first adventure.
Once I got to the car, I drove right to the store in Cedar Grove Village. I wanted -- no, I needed -- some kind of junk food and a sugary drink. Walking from the parking lot to the store felt weird. My body had gotten so used to trekking with the weight of the backpack that I felt strangely off-balance and naked as I made my way into the building.
Those tortilla chips, yogurt-covered fruit bites, and iced tea sure tasted good. And as I drove westbound on Hwy. 180 to leave the park, I set about answering some of those questions I had earlier. It took an hour and 45 minutes to reach that fresh fruit stand -- and boy, was that fruit tasty. The Cubs had won three out of four while I was gone. And dinner would be a feast from Chilli Thai, one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants.
Funny... just as I felt I'd earned those views on the Rae Lakes Loop, I felt I'd truly earned that meal. And it tasted even better because of that.
Final stats (total): 47.76 miles in 29 hours and 59 minutes of hiking time.