Day 10 on the John Muir Trail. August, 27, 2015
Just before sunrise…
Ahhh. There’s nothing like waking up to the smell of fresh cooked forest! Just as the trail chatter had said, the air at Rae Lakes is murky with smoke. Since the first light faintly glowed against the black sky in the eastern horizon, I’d wake up, peek out of my tent, get a whiff of burnt air and retreat back inside, burrowing deep inside my down bag in a futile attempt to filter the noxiousness. It’s like living in a wood-fire pizza oven – only without the pizza. (mmmm…pizza!)
But it’s ok… I’m at Rae Lakes. The Rae Lakes. And even with a smoky film muddying the scenery and polluting the air, it’s remarkable; a bowl of cool gray water framed by rocky shores surging with lush conifers. I’m a mere speck in a picturesque cirque at the foot of characteristically dramatic Kings Canyon peaks: Painted Lady, Mount Rixford, and Dragon Peak. I imagine that behind the gray film, Painted Lady stands proud, living up to her moniker; radiating brilliant shades of color and adorning the range of peaks that surround her.
I awoke to a feeling of relief: I don’t have to hike today! I can rest my depleted muscles and tomorrow hike into the next section of the JMT feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. Once the sun comes up I’ll do laundry, take a bath and even wash my hair! I can’t believe I haven’t washed my hair or bathed in hot water in 10 days. I’ve have never felt so grimy in my entire life: I am constantly covered in dirt and sweat, my hair is heavy with grime, my hands and fingernails are black with earth and no matter how many times I wash with baby wipes and splash fresh stream water over me, I feel like I’ll never be completely clean again.
Laundry is done! After anxiously waiting out the cold morning, cuddled inside my sleeping bag eating breakfast and writing, the sun finally breached the peaks framing Rae Lakes, flooding my little sandy section of earth with its warmth. It was barely warm enough to bear putting my hands into the frigid waters of Rae Lake, but I was anxious to get my chores done so I could relax and enjoy my zero day. After four trips to the lake shore and back, lugging both my BV500-turned-washing-machine and my backpack full of food so the bears wouldn’t sneak into camp and steal it while I was away, I have clean-ish clothes.
It’s cloudy and still pretty cool. The brief moments the sun sneaks between the heavy gray clouds are barely enough to warm me. If it rains now I’d be in serious trouble. Everything but the shorts, tank top and down jacket I’m wearing is wet. I’m just waiting for it to warm up enough to jump in Rae Lake to wet my hair so I can wash it in the bear can with some Dr. Bronners away from the lake.
Being in one place all day is a little strange. I’ve had to fight the urge to pack up and hike. My laundry is done, I’m bathed, my hair is washed the best I could be in cold lake water, I’ve walked, read, eaten, organized, sat and stared, thought, contemplated and written. Sitting still when I still have so many miles to hike is unnerving. It’s hard to relax.
I keep thinking about Capone. Up until today I’d forced myself to push thoughts of him out of my head. But sitting here all day with nothing but silence and time I can’t ignore the heaviness of worry in my heart when I imagine him all alone at Camp Four Paws. Sure, it’s the doggy version of club med, with walks and hugs and treats and plenty of attention, resting on a farm in the country where he and his fellow canine guests have many acres to roam, play and explore. I’m sure he’s lapping in doggy bliss, poolside with a giant marrow bone right now! But I still worry. He’s 10. He had skin cancer last year. What if something happens and he’s not there when I get home? I left instructions that if something does happen, they should contact his next of kin (my ex-husband) – not me. There’s no use getting that kind of news in the back-country. Alone. Nothing good could come of that. So now, I constantly worry that the worst has already happened and I’ll arrive home to nothing…
The worry makes me want to go. I’ve been fighting the urge to get back to him as soon as possible. I gave myself 30 days to complete the trail and I don’t want to feel rushed or consumed with worry; but I miss my buddy. I push the panicky thoughts out of my mind and try to trust that he’s doing fine. I imagine him frolicking with the other dogs and getting belly rubs from the excellent staff. And I smile. He’s going to be OK. I’m going to be OK, but I sure do miss my friend…
Then my restlessness takes a new turn and I think it would be nice to hike out of the smoke. To see what’s around the next bend. But I force myself to stay put… Yesterday’s miserable climb over Glen Pass was more than enough proof that I need to stay put and rest.
I’ve taken a couple of walks around both sides of the lake to explore my surroundings. Off to the north I can barely make out the faint masses of far away peaks through the smoke. Once again, I try not to think of all the dramatic vistas and bigger-than-life mountain ranges I’m missing and instead appreciate what’s right in front of me. Today it’s Rae Lake. Some days it’s a babbling creek, lush green meadow, topaz-blue tarn, a grove of ancient gnarled foxtail pines or a rocky slope set before me yearning to be appreciated in its modest grandeur. Sure, I may not be able to see what’s miles away but maybe that makes what’s right in front of me all that more beautiful. In the year of the wildfire, these more subtle and humble players take center stage, no longer competing with the dramatic granite peaks, passes and vistas that normally hog the limelight and steal the show
Oh how I needed this day of rest! As the day lazily unfurled I could literally feel my tense and strained body relax, letting go of the fatigue and stress from the last 9 days, 65 miles, 6 passes, one giant mountain and nearly 20,000 feet in elevation. As my muscles relaxed I could feel the healing and rejuvenating. Ahhh…. Tomorrow I will be stronger!
When the sun shone bright overhead I took a nap in the warmth of my tent only to be awakened a short time later by a tiny trickle of rain. It only lasted about 5 minutes and then it got warm again. Feeling a little restless, I meandered along the sandy edge of Rae Lake taking plenty of opportunities to sit and rest and soak in my view and today’s reality. I don’t get many truly relaxing days like this. At home I’m either too plugged in, working, walking Capone, working out, running errands, or watching TV thinking about everything l I should be doing and feeling guilty about it. There is no guilt on a zero day! Not only do I feel like I earned it: I need it. My body recovers and my nature-TV comes guilt free: watching as the landscape of each peak changes with the journey of the sun. From early morning black against starry skies to Alpen-lit grays at sunrise to brightly glowing shades of granite as the sun rises high in the mid-day sky. I sat and watched the light dance off the water as the tiny waves rippled in the wind with the birds squawking, chirping, pew-pew-pewing, and whistling away in the background going about their important bird-business.
As my zero day winds down I can’t say I’m excited about getting back on the trail tomorrow, despite my restlessness. My left leg and foot have been hurting all day, I’m about to lose my left big-toe toenail (again) and walking – even without my pack – is painful. Where are these hiker legs I’m supposed to get? Why am I not stronger? Why is this still so hard? OK, time for a little reality check: I’ve hiked 65 miles, climbed and descended over 20,000 feet and climbed the tallest mountain in the lower 48. Yeah, that might have something to do with it…
Tomorrow will be a new day!
The next few days the smoke will be horrible. I need a plan to get over Muir Pass as quickly as possible…but I’ll think about that later.