Day 22: On the Way to Thousand Island Lakes, Lunch at Garnet Lake
It’s a good thing I’m not Bill Murray and it’s not February 2 because if I had to do today over again I’d fling myself into the sharp crevices of the gorge between Olaine and Shadow Lakes. What a ridiculously tough day. It’s not that the trail was particularly demanding or the hiking was even that tough. I just felt DONE. I’m sick of climbing. Sick of slogging downhill. Sick of boring flat trails. Sick of walking. Sick of carrying 40lbs on my back and sick answering, “NO, I am NOT like Cheryl Fucking Strayed!
I’m feeling drained today; both physically and emotionally. I’m blaming physical on all the crappy processed food I ate at Red’s yesterday and maybe a bit of general fatigue, closing in on 200 miles. I’m tired. All the iconic peaks, passes, meadows, canyons and lakes are behind me and all that’s left is the in gentle path in front of me, leading me closer and closer to the end of this adventure that began 7 months ago as a dream.
The adventure has become my reality for the past 22 days and like any dream realized, there are ups and downs to it. The daily grind of hiking miles upon miles, up mountains, down gorges, through canyons and valleys, over scree and Sasquatch boulders has worn down my naive enthusiasm. The dream is all adventure and awe inspiring moments. The doing it is The Reality; the fun AND the pain.
As I get closer to Yosemite, the end of the trail, the end of a dream, I’m filled with relief, sadness and pride (not necessarily in that order). As I walk these past several days, I realize that is what I’m walking toward: the End. And the fear that I’ve missed something. The dream wants you to believe that every second of every day should be filled with awe, excitement, adventure. The reality is it’s uncomfortable, painful, achy, mind-numbing, cold, hungry, weak AND amazing and awe inspiring and beautiful and overwhelmingly life-altering beyond words.
I hike 8-10 hours a day with 42 pounds on my back, breathing air polluted with wildfire smoke. It’s hard work. I think I’m feeling disappointed in myself for not loving every single moment I’m out here. Because I know it will be over way too soon.
If it was easy, everyone would do it.
I guess what I’m saying is it has become routine. I wake up, pack up, hike, set up, eat, and sleep. Repeat
And not every day is filled with inspiration and green meadows with frolicking bunnies and deer. It’s fucking hard!
But now, as I sit on the grassy shore of Garnet Lake, watching the sun dance off the wavelets as the wind gusts across the frigid Alpen pool, the granite peaks with two small patches of snow framing the set as perfectly as only Mother Nature can do, I enjoy the painfully perfect moment and breathe deeply, inhaling all the gifts of the trail. I am one with Nature. I am one with the Trail.
.. and then the wind gets TOO gusty and now I’m cold and annoyed. LOL
Ok, time to hit the trail. On to Thousand Island lakes for the night!! The last of the iconic trail stops!
After my My Final Resupply: Dusk at camp on Olaine Lake (not on the JMT!)
With renewed energy and a feeling of “I got this-ness” I hiked away from Mammoth Lakes’ Red’s Meadow Resort and my final JMT resupply point. I navigated the confusing and ill-marked JMT/PCT trails amid the maze of Devil’s Post Pile National Monument trails, weaving in and out of the flocks of Labor Day tourists oozing manufactured human-ness: pseudo-white smiles; squeaky-clean skin reeking of overly-perfumed soap; fresh clothes cloaked in counterfeit ‘summer breeze” or ‘spring fresh” scents.
Before I even reached the Devil’s PostPile monument, less than a mile away, I realized, that despite my phone having been plugged in for hours, the battery was only at about 23% full- and that quickly drained to 13% after trying to pull up my JMT Guthook app to scout my camp for the night. Crap! I plugged it into my 12-watt solar charger, which hadn’t been working the last few days- hoping by some miracle it would suddenly come back to life. Please don’t be broken. I hoped it just wasn’t strong enough to charge a battery zapped of life by the sub-freezing nights. But no go. The tiny panels failed to turn the blazing sun into power.
I tried not to panic, despite being nervous about how I’d contact my friend Steve when I got to Yosemite Valley so he’d know it was time to come and get me (at least I’d written down his phone number on my emergency contact list in my backpack so I could always borrow a phone). But even worse, now I’ll have to rely on my maps to scout water sources and camping spots for the rest of my hike – and my topo reading skills haven’t proven to be very accurate!
I’d loaded the Guthook app before I left, hearing from friends and other backpackers on the JMT hikers Facebook group what a great tool it was for finding water sources and the best places to camp along the trail. I was hesitant – for this reason exactly. I didn’t want to be reliant on something that could be yanked away on a whim of bad luck. It’s been helpful in finding the best places to camp and water sources on the trail for the week I’ve been using it. Oh, how quickly we get used to the conveniences of modern technology! Oh well, I only have a few more days, I can live without it.
I reached into the side pocket of my hiking pants and pulled out the Ziploc bag holding the last section of the JMT map I’d just picked up from my resupply bucket. I unfolded the crisp, clean pages of the Tom Harrison maps (good ole Tom Harrison!) representing the last days of my hike. I absent-mindedly glanced over it as I forged my path through the buzzing crowds of Devils’ Post Pile National Monument.
When I got to the base of the mountain, I stopped amid bustling tourists snapping selfies and carrying plastic water bottles, to scan the area for signs back to the JMT. I couldn’t help but notice the stares. I could feel eyes on me. Despite having just showered and washed my clothes, I was conscious of my trail-worn state: my formerly light green hiking shirt now dingy with dust and dirt; the tips of five fingers bandaged with fresh medical tape; and my fatigued, weather-worn face. I felt like an exhibit; a native creature on display as part of their holiday sightseeing adventure. I tried to block out the clamor of humanity, realizing I stood out like a black sheep among the bright SHP (Shiny Happy People).
“Are you alone?”. I kept my eyes on my map, trying to ignore the voice that I knew, without looking was aimed at me. I wasn’t in the mood for another “have you seen Wild?” conversation.
“Excuse me, are you a backpacker?” Hmmm. I wonder if the 40lb backpack strapped to my back gave me away? At this point, politeness won over my annoyance at being lost in the maze of people and feeling obligated to talk to an intrusive tourist.
I looked up to see the inquisitive face of a 60-something year old man squeezed into the last few inches of a crowded bench, just a few feet in front of me. He was wearing faded-denim shorts that ended just above his swollen knees, a blue Mammoth Lakes T-shirt stretched over his round belly, white socks pulled up to his knees and pair of Keens that looked brand new. His obligatory tourist camera bag was strapped diagonally across his chest and he was grasping a Crystal Geyser water bottle with both hands on his lap. Despite the temperatures only being in the mid-80s and within a short uphill walk from the parking lot, he looked exhausted. His wife sat next to him, in white capris, a matching Mammoth Lakes T-shirt, and white Keds with little white ankle socks. She was holding her own water bottle and looked at me expectantly. I noticed she looked to be about ten years younger than him. As I looked at them, I wondered, is she younger or did she just age better?
“Yes, I’m a backpacker” I injected a good dose of feigned enthusiasm to mask my impatience. I just want to be back on the trail, away from this madness! Where is my damn trail?
The prying tourist repeated his first question, “Are you alone?” And added another, now that he had my attention, “how far have you hiked?”
As the inquisitive man and his younger-looking wife stared at me with expectant looks on their faces and interest and enthusiasm that was hard to stay annoyed at, I let my guard down and told them I was hiking the John Muir Trail and that I’d traveled nearly 200 miles. They were nice enough to say how impressed they were and couldn’t fathom doing it themselves, must less alone. And the woman added, “especially being a woman doing it alone! Wow, you’re more brave than I am!”
I learned they were from Humboldt, CA, which is just a few hours north of where I live, and had traveled to Mammoth to see their son and grandchildren who had walked the short path to the top of the monument. They wearily confided that they’d opted to skip the steep short climb and rest on the bench with the other older folks.
I was just starting to warm up to them when it all came to an abrupt halt (interject the needle screeching across the playing record sound effect here) Screeeeeeech…. the dreaded, predictable, and most annoying question nearly every solo female hiker can hear, came: “have you seen Wild? Are you like that girl in Wild?”
Gawwwd. Really? Fucking Cheryl Strayed taking away my thunder!Yes, I saw the movie. No, I’m not trying to be Cheryl Fucking Strayed. Anything else…? I flatly replied, “Yes, I saw the movie,” I tried to dilute what I was afraid was obvious annoyance, with some forced politeness and enthusiasm, “it was a great movie. But Cheryl hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I’m hiking the JMT.” With a glance at my map, “Ok. I should hit the trail if I’m going to get to camp tonight. You both have a great vacation!” And I turned around and headed back toward the peace and solitude of the forest that never once, in 20 days asked me if I was Cheryl Strayed!
It took less than a half mile to shed the hordes of tourists, who, in my experience rarely venture to wilder parts of any national park. The trails were confusing and poorly marked: some said PCT, some said JMT and some weren’t marked at all. I finally came to a junction that was marked with a sign: “PCT- Agnew Meadows, 3.2”. Agnew Meadows! That sounds familiar! Yes, that’s where I should be heading! The JMT and PCT had been one trail for over a hundred miles; I was sure it was the right way and it sounded like the perfect place to stop for the night. Three more miles would give me just over nine miles for the day. With my long stay at Red’s, I would be happy with that!
So, without consulting my Tom Morrison map, I veered toward Agnew Meadows along the narrow, wooded path, happy to have it mostly to myself again. I passed a few tourists who dared venture off the paved well-marked trails for the national monument (the signs for Devils’ Postpile were well-marked, but NOT the trail to get me back to the JMT). As the afternoon ceded and the sun cast burnt-orange shadows on the towering conifers, my trail weariness soon replaced the temporary boost I’d gotten from Red’s. Devoured by the lush forest again with nothing but Ponderosa Pines, Aspens and Cottonwoods to keep me company, my legs felt leaden beneath my replenished pack- and I was anxious to reach Agnew Meadows and make camp for the night.
After what felt like two hours I reached a junction with a small sign pointing the way to Agnew Meadows: 1.8 miles. What? There is no way I’ve only hiked a mile and a half! How can that be?
Annoyed and too anxious to sit down, take a proper rest and study my map, I trudged on; up the trail toward Agnew Meadow. As I hiked, I thought about all the hiking books and stories I’d read, and Agnew Meadow was one of those iconic stops on the trail! This is where I’m supposed to be going, right??? It seems to be taking too long. I should be done by now. I must have hiked 9 miles by now.
I thought back to the junction with a faint path heading into the darkness of the forest and the sign I’d passed a while back; was I supposed to take that trail? But no, the sign clearly said “Agnew Meadow” in this direction. But why do I feel like I’m veering off the JMT? I begrudgingly slogged up the hill another quarter mile… I stopped. Looked around. Hiked a few more yards. Stopped, looked around again, trying to decide if I should push on or go back.
This can’t be right. Something’s wrong. I turned around and slogged back to the junction and the sign, flopped off my pack, sat in the grass, pulled out my fresh bag of home-made trail mix, took a long swig of orange flavored Nuun water and pulled out my map, carefully tracing the maze of trails through Devil’s Postpile and up toward Agnew Meadow. SHIT! No, No, No! There it was, right in front of me. How did I miss that? Way back at the first PCT/Agnew Meadow sign, the JMT and the PCT split. For weeks, the JMT and PCT had been one trail and I could follow signs for either. I knew it would split eventually, but I thought it was further along. Then the reality struck me: I AM further along. Further than I wanted to admit. I am almost to Yosemite. Almost at the End.
That sinking feeling in my gut returned, not just at being near the end, but now the added burden of being off my trail. I had hiked about 3 miles off the JMT. The good news was, the spur trail I was sitting at went back to the JMT, via Olaine Lake.
It would put me back on the trail at Shadow Lake. No real harm done, I’m just a few miles off… Not a big deal, just a slight change of plans.
I studied my map to recalibrate and plan my new camp for the night at Olaine Lake two miles away. It was already getting late in the day and my energy was depleting rapidly. I’m a morning person and by late afternoon all I want is to be done. Over the miles and days of my hike, I’d trained myself to hike past this state and eventually, I’d get a second wind. Time to pack up and walk toward that second wind!
As I hiked the narrow, faint path heading deeper into the forest, a sense of gloom enveloped me. I felt lost and abandoned on the strange trail. I missed the comfort and safety of the JMT: my home for the past 20 days. I began second-guessing myself again. Is this right? Even though I was sure I knew where I was this time, I questioned myself: are you sure you’re not lost? The trail felt abandoned and eerie. How do I know it’s not some random path to nowhere? Or worse, to the cabin of some deep-woods reclusive Unabomber psycho? I hiked on, trying to feel confident in my map reading skills.
Eventually, I heard laughing and shouting above me; the tell-tale signs of day hikers. Despite their ear drum-piercing yelps, I was immediately comforted. I’m on the right track. I’m not heading to impending doom!
They were coming down the mountain trail above me; the trail I’d have taken to Agnew Meadow, I presumed. It dawned on me that Agnew Meadows is a popular PCT stop. I’ve read too many PCT thru-hike stories, that’s why Agnew Meadows had sounded so familiar!
The hike to Olaine Lake was relatively flat and the hiking was easy and fast. I passed a couple along the way and asked if they’d seen any good camping there. Yes, they said, but the man added, “it’s not a very pretty place though, you should go a couple miles further to Shadow Lake, it’s much prettier.”
“Yes, but I’ve already done 9 miles and it’s been a long day. How’s the hike to Shadow Lake? According to the map, it looks like a steep climb along a gorge, which means no camping. Did you see camping along the way, in case I need to stop before Shadow Lake?”
“The trail isn’t bad at all. You can do it. And yeah, I think there’s some camping along the way.”
His female companion gently disagreed, “Um, I think, the climb is pretty rough—“.
The man interrupted her, “No it’s not bad. She can do it”
I thanked them and moved on, debating whether I should trust the man’s advice and keep going to Shadow Lake or stay at Olaine Lake. I liked the idea of being back home, on my trail. But that would mean two more miles: uphill miles. And if it was along a steep gorge, as it looked on the map, there’d be no camping along the way. I’d be stuck with a rough two-mile climb at the end of a long day.
About twenty minutes later, I spotted the small tree lined mountain lake. I was still contemplating whether I should move on. I couldn’t’ shake the feeling of being lost and alone, off my trail. But I didn’t exactly trust the couple’s opposing views of the climb and decided to make camp at a large clearing on the south end of the lake. As I set up, I heard voices approach the lake from the east. A group of young rowdy people stopped at the shore a couple hundred yards away. I set up my tent and then walked around the west side of the lake to explore the area, like I do at every new camp to familiarize myself with my surroundings. It helps me acclimate and sleep better.
Back at camp, I boiled water for chamomile tea and nibbled on a Bobo’s lemon poppy seed oat bar and a handful of Jelly Bellies (the “surprise “treat, I’d added to my resupply bucket!), while I boiled another pot of water to rehydrate my vegan white beans with tomatoes. I sat in the dirt with my back against a log enjoying the beauty of the lake, drinking in the warmth of my soothing tea and relishing in the jolt of energy from the sugary goodness of Jelly Bellies (I’d made a special trip to the Jelly Belly factory near my house for them! And yes, I know they aren’t vegan) and the grainy goodness of the lemon oat bar. The noisy people eventually left and I had it all to myself; just the way I like it. The sights and sounds of nature soothed me; whimsical songs of birds, playful squirrels chasing each other up and down trees and a gentle breeze blowing through the Lodgepole Pines… The day melted away and I began to relax.
Without my phone, I had nothing to read, so rather than retreat to my tent, I walked around the lake exploring the trail back to the JMT that I’ll be hiking tomorrow
As dusk settled and the shadows melted into the lake, I climbed into my tent and slid on the fuzzy pink socks (clean socks!) I’d put in my resupply bucket. I’d had the forethought to consider what a luxury they’d be toward the end of the trail! Boy was I right! I climbed inside my sleeping bag with my cozy socks and drifted off to sleep thinking about being back home on my trail tomorrow, and my last iconic stop: Thousand Island Lakes.
Today is Red’s Meadow Resupply day!! I am so excited that I’m tempted to pack up now, in the cold and the dark, and start hiking! Tempted, but not driven, because that would require venturing out of the warmth of my tent. I already scrambled out to get my bear can and stove and it’s freezing out there! My Nalgene water bottle, which I left next to my tent, has a thin layer of ice floating on top; evidence it was another bitter cold night. But I was prepared, and slept better, in my double socks, rain pants over wool layers and extra trash compactor bag beneath my Thermarest. I wasn’t warm, but I wasn’t freezing my ass off either.. that’s progress.
After finishing my coffee and making my usual morning scouting expedition two hundred feet away from the creek I camped near, I discovered a hidden pocket of inspiration in this “most boring section of the JMT”. As I bumbled through the dense forest of giant conifers and graceful aspens, stepping over felled, rotting victims of the Mountain Pine Beetle, I stumbled onto the edge the most idyllic scene I’d witnessed in days: a tiny meadow cloaked in fog and slumbering peacefully beneath the weight of the frigid night.
Framed by pines on three sides and the Red Cones on the fourth, northwest edge, the meadow gently pooled at the base of the rolling hills. Her plush golden-green grasses mingled with the glistening morning frost, creating a mystical and other-worldly setting. I followed a game trail for a couple hundred feet to further admire her muted brilliance as she lay docile in the crystalline morning, patiently waiting for her chance to shine again. I stood in my tracks, facing her, inhaled deeply and soaked in the silent and mystical scene. This is what I came out here for. Scenes like these and precious moments when nature beckons and envelops me in her majesty; claiming me as one of her own.
Later at Red’s Meadow Resort: My Last Resupply
Red’s was awesome! It was everything I’d hoped Muir Trail Ranch to be and wasn’t, making it that much more awesome! I could have stayed there all day, eating, showering and relaxing, but I had miles to go before I slept! (Love me some Frost!).
After leaving my magical meadow and hiking a relatively easy five miles through a forest of dead trees, (more victims of the drought, fire and the Mountain Pine Beetle), I arrived at the rustic Red’s compound around ten. It was Labor Day weekend and bustling with tourists spilling out of the log cabins.
My first order of business was a shower. So much for my quest to go thirty days without a shower! Twenty was my limit. I couldn’t stand my dingy, pungent self any longer and couldn’t wait to strip off my filthy clothes and scrub away twenty days of sweat and dirt with hot water and soap! I even splurged and went for the deluxe fourteen dollar, ten-minute shower (showers are $7 for 5 minutes). It was worth every single token! Plus, I multi-tasked and showered with my trail clothes on the floor. So, while I got clean, my clothes got clean too.
Oh. My. God. You don’t know heaven until you have your first hot shower in twenty days. Holy moly! Feeling human for the first time in weeks, I put on the cleanest clothes I had – my hiking shorts and a tank top – stuffed my sopping wet, shower-washed, hiking clothes in the dryer and moseyed to the café in search of a real meal and an outlet to plug in my phone.
The café was bustling with Labor Day resort stayers so I claimed a stool at the counter, against the far wall, near the only visible outlet that wasn’t surrounded by diners. I debated between the veggie burger and eggs for several minutes and then opted for scrambled eggs, rye toast, home fries and an iced tea, topped off with a not-homemade giant slice of blueberry pie. The pie looked homemade and the crust might have been, but I worked at Dunkin Donuts long enough in my teens, to spot blueberry filling from a bucket, a mile away! It wasn’t very good, but I ate it anyway, adding four packets of sugar on top of it. I don’t usually like super-sweet desserts, but the pie needed it and it made me feel like a real thru-hiker!
After breakfast, feeling fresh and clean and human, I went back into the store to claim my resupply bucket and shop for something yummy. Carrying my bucket in one hand and a newly acquired bag of Fritos in the other, I plopped down at a picnic table outside the diner to unpack and organize my resupply. I had way too much food! I threw a bunch of leftover food away and added some of my fresh stock to the hiker bucket – which was pathetic compared to the MTR buckets. Rumor has it, that the Red’s staff take stuff out of the buckets and sell it in the store. I hope that’s not true, but that’s the rumor. Judging by the piddly selection, it seems it could be more than a rumor.
The people of Red’s were so friendly and helpful – another contrast to the “get down to business”, no frills, attitude at Muir Trail Ranch (MTR). Actually, it was more than that: MTR wasn’t hiker friendly at all. Period. They charged an arm and a leg for a resupply bucket and didn’t even provide restrooms or water. The feeling I got, as soon as I walked through the wooden gate was: “unless you’re spending $200+ to stay in one of our tents, get your shit and move on…”
Red’s was the exact opposite; friendly, outgoing, inviting. The inherent attitude was, “come, pull up a picnic table and stay a while. Feel free to use our electricity, water and restrooms!” Yes, I liked Red’s. A lot!
I texted my emergency contact and my friend Steve to update them on my progress. My emergency contact and I had devised a communication plan: I’d update her with my SPOT tracking system at least every few days and then text her at my resupply points to let her know I’d arrived safely and on schedule (I was two days ahead of schedule). Steve was picking me up in Yosemite to shuttle me back to Lone Pine to get my car. “I’m at Red’s. Should be in Yosemite Valley in 4 days” , I typed out on my phone. A sadness enveloped me. I don’t’ want to be done! I can’t believe I’m just four days away from completing what I’d dreamed of and planned for nearly a year. WOW.
With much hesitation, I heaved my newly replenished forty-pound pack over my shoulder, buckled in and headed toward Devil’s Post Pile amid happy bouncy tourists. I felt heavy – and it wasn’t just my pack. I sensed that I was marching toward the end of a dream. Toward a new unknown. Toward a life that held nothing that felt worth hiking back to… Why can’t I stay in the woods…?
Day 19 or 20 on the JMT 14.5 miles (180 miles total)Tully Hole to Red Cones
It’s about seven I think. I’m shoveling oatmeal in my mouth and writing frantically before I pack up and get on the trail. I didn’t write last night because I had company. Yes, I had company, and he wasn’t from Arkansas! My Tully Hole camp-mate, Etai, had is ultra-light tarp-tent all packed up and was finishing up his Power Bar breakfast when I emerged from my tent for breakfast this morning. We said a quick goodbye and he was off!
Yesterday, I left the company of the eerie mysterious voices at the cutoff at Vermillion Resort (VVR) junction to begin my three-thousand-foot ascent over Silver Pass. I was fueled with excitement about getting one day closer to Red’s Meadow, a veggie burger and a shower!!! A Shower! Ohmygod I can’t wait for a shower!
The last three days of hiking have been mind-numbing. This section of the JMT is B-O-RING! I hope this isn’t what the rest of the hike will be like. For three days, I’ve been ambling up and over forested hill after rolling forested hill. Seemingly for no apparent reason – isn’t there a way AROUND them?Is it really necessary to go up, just so I can go down again? And then hike up another hill and then down, once again? Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. Alllll dayyyyy loooong fooor threeee straigggght dayyyyyys.
I actually miss the giant peaks and long passes of the southern end of the JMT. In the south, I was (mostly) either climbing up a pass, or down a pass, and the barren above-tree-line granite landscape couldn’t hide many secrets. In the north, under a canopy of thick pines, many secrets are kept: in the form of false summits.
Half a dozen times a day as another mountaintop preens masterly ahead, my relief and anticipation of summiting builds. Yay, I’m almost there, just a little further. I’ve got this! But with each painful and heavy step another rounded mountaintop peeks up behind it, like a rising moon cresting the horizon.
And just like that, the revolting secret of the hills is revealed: another false summit. Mother Nature’s playful snickers kiss my ears as a breeze floats through the stoic trunks of lodgepole and foxtail pines. Once again, she yanks my finish line away and teasingly places it higher and further up the trail, along with my positive attitude. “NOOOOO! NO! NO! NO!!!” I try to fight the disappointment and frustration, but my cranky inner 6-year-old takes over and throws an internal temper tantrum. “I don’t wanna climb anymore! I wanna be done. I wanna go downhill now! wahhhhh.” The tantrum passes, I pull on my big-girl-panties and hike on. What else can I do?
Now I know why hikers half-jokingly say there are no flat parts of the JMT! When I think back over the past twenty days and 170 miles I have a hard time remembering any!
The last three days have felt like Ground Hog Day; same views, different day. No matter how high or low I am, all I can see are trees, the sandy-dirt path, more trees, more dirt path. Gone are the sweeping granite vistas of the Sequoia Kings Canyon Range. Gone are the 14,000 foot passes (not sure I miss those so much – although at this stage of my hike, a 3000’ climb is a 3000’ foot climb whether I’m at 14,000’ or 11,000’) where I can lounge atop the world and soak in hundreds of miles of Mother Nature’s rugged brilliance. Gone are the other-worldly moonscapes. Gone are the serene tarns, tucked away in majestic mountains, reflecting the dull gray smoke-diluted skies. It’s just forest. And more forest.
I can see how hiking the JMT SOBO would be more rewarding; the best scenery is saved for the second part. As my NOBO hike winds down, it’s feeling anti-climactic. Maybe it’s because I’m hiking into familiar terrain? As I get closer to Yosemite, where I’ve backpacked for decades, I feel like I’m getting closer to home. It feels like I’m closing in on my final finish line.
So, for the last forty miles I’ve hiked in the forest. Thick, view blocking, forest. Today I had the exact same view for ten miles; trees and more trees. There wasn’t even a drop of water for a seven mile stretch; not a creek , lake, tarn, river, or even a trickling spring. Just Forest. Dense, eerie, forest, full of stoic giants going about their silent big-tree lives like they have for hundreds, and even thousands of years. Hello tree! How are you today?
Luckily, I’d studied my map and listened to the SOBO hikers who told me about the seven-mile dry spell. I was prepared. Thirst wasn’t’ the problem. The lack of visual interest was the problem: not even a creek to break up the monotony.
Even the people I met today were boring. Nothing but bouncy Shiny Happy People (SHP) out for the Labor Day Weekend in their brand new, crisp-clean name-brand hiking clothes and freshly washed hair, clean fingernails, giant backpacks and fishing rods. They’d cheerily bounce past me leaving in their wake clouds of perfumed soap, shampoo and cologne (yes, cologne!). Even their sunscreen and Deet annoyed the hell out of me, because I know they’ll all be jumping in the lakes and creeks without washing it all off first.
Oh, they weren’t that bad… just slightly annoying and an insult to my hypersensitive senses. I’ve been out here mostly-alone too long and maybe more than a little self-conscious about my 20-day unshoweredness (like that new word I just made up?) state. Yes, I felt a bit like Jodie Foster’s Nell as I tried to put coherent sentences together to answer their annoying questions: “Where’s the next water?”; “How’s the fishing?”; “can I see your map?”; “Do you have any extra cologne?” (ok, I made the last one up).
I met one person today who neither shined nor bounced, nor reeked of cologne. As I trudged up the trail toward Tully Hole at the end of a long day, looking for a spot to camp, I met Etai. He’s a 22-year-old guy from Israel. He was headed south and I north and we stopped each other to ask if there were any good camping spots back in the direction we’d each come. “No” I said. “Nope, he replied. just a long climb ahead of you with nothing but steep hills and canyons; no good camping.”
We’d crossed paths at the bright green meadow in, what I’m assuming was Tully Hole. “There’s a tiny spot in the woods about a quarter mile behind me,” I said, “but I don’t really want to camp there, it’s tiny, wooded and kind of eerie.”
We both walked back in the direction I’d come to check it out. We stood on the trail, just feet from the tiny clearing in the dark woods next to the creek. It was barely big enough for one person, much less two and there was nothing but rocks and steep hills all around us.
“I was thinking about staying here, but I’d rather sleep out in the open,” I said pointing toward the meadow where we’d met. “I don’t really like camping in the woods. I’m kinda scared of the woods. “I laughed self-consciously as I confessed my irrational fear to the young stranger.
“Me too! I hate the woods, they’re creepy!” he admitted and we both laughed at the irony of two solo-hikers in the woods, admitting to be afraid of the woods. “Let’s go check out the meadow.”
With packs still on, we headed back to the meadow and then parted ways to scout for camping spots. I slopped around in the soggy mess trying to find a spot dry enough to camp. I felt guilty for traipsing through the delicate eco-system of the marshy meadow. Not exactly the best Leave No Trace (LNT) move, but it was necessary if I didn’t want to get eaten by forest-monsters in the middle of the night, I told myself. After stepping ankle deep in mud and mush a couple of times I looked over at Etai who was busy sloshing around and scouting for a spot himself, wondering if he was having any better luck.
I slogged back to the trail where he joined me. No luck. So, we headed back down toward the eerie wooded site. He pointed to a steep bank across the creek that appeared to be flat on the top. “I’m gonna ago check that out.” By then, we’d pretty much decided we were camping together for the night. I don’t know if we even talked about it or it was just assumed.
He was half my age, in great shape and was on day four of his South Bound John Muir Hike, compared to my day twenty, so I felt no guilt in sloughing off my pack and resting against a tree as he rock-hopped across the creek and easily scaled the steep bank on the opposite side. As he disappeared into the woods above I had a few fleeting concerns about camping with a strange man; is he up there preparing a torture apparatus? Finding a tree to tie me to to leave me for dead? Plotting how he’ll chop me up and bury me far off the trail where no one will find me? I entertained the thoughts for a few minutes and then weighed the more real threat of being alone in a spooky forest full of unknowns. I decided to take my chances with the mortal stranger.
A few minutes later he was careening down the bank toward me with a huge smile on his face. “It’s great! There’s a ton of space and plenty of flat spots to camp! What do you think?”
Great, so you found a perfect tree to hang me from, huh? “Awesome! Let’s go!” I said out loud as I pulled my pack on and followed him up the bank. Once I crested it, a whole new flat world of forest splayed before me! Yay!!! My new non ax-murderer friend found us a perfect home for the night!
We ate dinner together, shared hiking stories and I enjoyed hearing about his life in Israel and his summers spent in the U.S. taking youth on backpacking trips into the wilderness. See, serial killers don’t take youth on backpacking trips, you have nothing to worry about!
Later, as I laid in bed with my ears perked for signs that he was sharpening his hatchet, something else about him struck me: he’d started his JMT hike out of Yosemite four days ago. And a reality that I’d been ignoring hit me; I’m almost done. I’m fewer than 60 miles from Yosemite Valley. I can probably be in Tuolumne Meadows in three days. A sadness and panicky feeling spread over my tired and aching body as I snuggled into my bag to keep out the cold night.
I’m almost to Yosemite. I’ve hiked from Horseshoe Meadows all this way. I’ve hiked one hundred eighty miles. I’ve been out here twenty days. I felt a surge of pride at my accomplishment.. an unfamiliar feeling -and it brought tears to my eyes. I must be exhausted…
As I slid into sleep I thought about checking on Capone when I got to Tuolomne Meadows. I miss y buddy and can’t wait to see him, but what will it be like going home? What will home feel like after this?
It’ll be interesting to see what comes of this experience.
I left Sallie Keys Lakes yesterday; rested, relaxed and ready to tackle Selden Pass. The soft pine-needled trail meandered along the lakeshore I’d called home for two nights, leading me north toward the pass. At just 10,880 feet, it was a relatively easy climb, through the now-familiar rocky terrain, sparsely populated with high sierra pines and cool, serene tarns. By ten am I was at the top of the wide pass enjoying a spectacular view of Marie Lake just a few miles to the North. It reminded me of Rae Lakes, with its islands and peninsulas floating serenely atop sapphire blue waters.
Once on the north side of Selden Pass, I had a long decent into Quail Meadows. I hadn’t seen a single soul for hours when I stumbled into my camp on the south side of the wooden bridge crossing Mono Creek, near the Vermillion Resort Junction (Mono Creek Trail).
Sometimes as I hike, my mind plays tricks on me and I’ll hear voices whispering in the breezy trees or in the echo of waterfalls rushing through narrow gorges. Even bold conversations can be heard swirling from creeks and rivers as their waters splash and gurgle their way around boulders. Like the day of the coyote-kill encounter, the ghostly conversations jolt me to a to a stop. With a skipping heart, I freeze in place, holding my breath. My ears strain to hear what I cannot see: signs of people on the trail ahead or relaxing in the forest nibbling on trail mix. Seeing nothing, I move on, attributing it to another of the forest’s great mysteries.
As I surveyed the flat, sandy sites between smooth slabs of rock, looking for the perfect place to call home for the night, waves of discourse wafted toward me as the invisible creek-ghosts carried on their lively conversation, as if I wasn’t even there. I’d stop. Look around. Scan the trail and the boulders for signs of humanity. Nothing.
Feeling secure that Mother Nature was in one of her playful moods, toying with my mortal senses, I continued pitching my tent. Once it was set up and my bed made, I pulled on my Merino wool base layers, my clean bedtime wool socks and camp shoes and settled in to boil water for dinner. As I rehydrated one of my favorite homemade meals of cabbage, tomatoes and white beans, I listened to the rushing Mono Creek for signs of more ghost talk. I heard nothing but rushing water. I got up and stretched my legs and then wandered around the perimeter of my camp investigating the fallen trees and smooth exposed rocks. It relaxes me to explore the area I’m camped in, and once I was satisfied I knew what was around me, I settled in to eat my dinner.
I was comfortable. It was obvious the area got a lot of use in the height of the season. But now, just a few days before Labor Day, I had it all to myself. After dinner, I retreated to the warmth of my tent, feeling comfortable in my alone-ness. I hadn’t seen another hiker since early afternoon and I felt confident I’d have the place to myself for the night
Exhausted, within seconds of laying down, my eyelids drooped and sleep courted my tired bones. Just as I was about to slip into that blissful comfortable place I heard a man’s voice, just a few feet away from my tent. “Hmmm” I thought, “late-comers. They must be looking for a place to camp.” I couldn’t hear what he was saying over the roar of the creek, but I definitely heard a man’s voice.
I laid there on high alert.Waiting for the beam of their headlamp to hit the walls of my tent; it was too dark to pitch camp without light. But the light didn’t come. I heard talking again – this time it sounded like two men. Then it was silent. I laid still in my tent, not breathing. Listening. Nothing. Ok, I must have been hearing things. I relaxed again, determined to not be scared by imaginary voices in the night.
It sounded exactly like a bear canister hitting the ground just a few feet from my head outside my tent; Surely, they see me. They can’t be camping right next to me… Can they? I was at least thirty feet off the trail. They’d have had to walk over some nice campsites to get to mine. They must know I’m here. Why would they be right outside my tent? Without lights?
I was more curious than scared and started wracking my tired brain: was that my bear can I heard? Is there a bear out there swatting my can around? Then I realized mine was tucked away in the rocks about 10 yards on the opposite end of camp.
Silence fell like a hammer on the night and only the roaring creek occupied my camp. No voices, no headlamp. Nothing. I figured my mysterious neighbors had quickly set up and called it a night. Although I couldn’t quite let go of the odd fact that they’d set up without light. “I’ll see in the morning” , I thought.
A few hours later, when I went out to go the bathroom, I scanned the dark night for signs of my late-arriver neighbors. My eyes adjusted enough in the dark to see within a few yards of my camp. Nothing. A little puzzled, I went back inside and fell asleep.
When I woke up in the morning and exited my tent, the first thing I did was look for my new neighbors. I looked around me, further into the woods, on the other side of the creek; there was no one. I was completely alone. The voices, I chalked up to the sounds of the rushing water or the wind. But the bear can? The sound of heavy plastic hitting rock and dirt? Who knows. Another of nature’s mysteries.(Side note: I now realize it could have been night-hikers passing through. But it still seems odd they didn’t use headlamps, but it’s possible).
Well, it looks like Autumn is here to stay in the mountains. I was awake at six am, curled inside my sleeping bag, trying to protect myself from the frigid pre-dawn air and condensation oozing from my tent walls. I’ve discovered that I stay warmer inside my sleeping bag wearing just my base layer, instead of donning every stitch of clothing I own. Last night, I skipped sleeping in my down jacket and instead draped it over my bag (and now it’s damp with condensation). I must be acclimating and learning how to survive out here; a thirty-two-degree night (there’s frost on my tent) and I slept like a baby!
I forced myself out of my cozy trail-bed and into the biting-cold morning as soon as the sun broke the horizon; I wanted to lay my sleeping bag, jacket and tent in the sun to dry, before stuffing them into my backpack. I had to dodge sparkly, bitter-cold frost resting in the shadows of the giant boulders framing my camp as I worked.
The past few days I’ve been feeling more at home here; missing the conveniences of “normal” life a little less and settling into a routine. Not the hiking so much, that’s always going to be difficult, even John Muir himself probably would have scoffed at hiking fifteen miles a day, covering four thousand feet in elevation with forty pounds on his back. He was smart: a hunk of bread and a blanket. How pampered we are these days!
What I mean is, I am feeling more at home, living out here. I have been living in the wilderness for nineteen days! Nearly three weeks! It feels comfortable. It feels like home.
The first week was about the adventure of it; the excitement and awe. Week two was Reality: this is hard work, it’s uncomfortable, inconvenient, and tough. Week two was when I started missing home and my every-day life. This past week, I’ve been feeling like I’m settling in. Like I’m acclimating to a new reality: a new world, free from the hustle-and-bustle and stimulus of my every-day life.
I feel like I am really learning how to survive – and thrive – in the elements. I’ve learned that I can’t swim every day in the windy chilly conditions and not dry off before putting my hiking pants back on and hitting the trail because it chaps my skin. I realized that hiking longer, and getting into camp later, feels better than stopping early, sitting around for three hours and being in bed out of boredom by seven (that also helps me sleep better). I’ve learned not to be in a hurry to get from point A to point B, but to take my time and enjoy the journey. I’ve learned that I need sugar for instant energy, and when I’m hiking eight to ten hours a day I can eat anything I want! I’ve also recognized that just being out here nineteen days is giving me the experience I came here for: I am really living in nature!
The whole reason I decided to take a full thirty days to do this is because I knew it would take a while to shed modern life. Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten that and started focusing on being done. I think the discomfort got so omnipresent that I just wanted to rush through and finish the trail. But as I see myself settling in and becoming more comfortable being out here, in the wild, alone, I wonder what the end will feel like? And what Home will feel like? Will it feel more like home than it did before I left? Or will I still have the same delusions and fantasies of escaping into the wilderness to live off the land? Will this hike cure that thinking or make it more pronounced? Will “home” still feel fake, forced and unnatural? Or will this shatter my philosophies about the ills of modern society and the benefits of returning to the natural world? Will this experience make me more grateful for the comforts of modern living or despise them even more? Will being in nature still feel more real to me or will this experience cure me of my “roughing it” fantasies? As I move into my final week to ten days of my hike, I wonder: what will I experience next?
These are the thoughts and questions that rumble through my mind, relaxing and unsettling me at the same time as I pack up my gear to begin my nineteenth day of hiking. Today I climb 10,900′ Silver Pass – my ninth pass! (That means only two to go… that makes me happy and sad at the same time…) I’m getting used to them by now- and they’re lower than the southern passes. So I just trudge on and climb and climb and climb… my goal today is to make it to Tully Hole – and Red’s Meadow in two days!!!
Day 18 Sallie Keys Lakes to Vermillion Resort Junction at Mono Creek
5:30 am. After my zero day yesterday and an amazing night’s sleep, I’m wide awake and anxious to hit the trail! I’m tempted to get going, but flubbing around in the dark, trying to break camp and pack up and then exposing myself to predators on the prowl for breakfast, isn’t high on my list of things I want to do today.
Besides, I’m comfy-cozy inside my wilderness retreat. My tiny one person REI Quarter Dome tent has become my home; my safe place. My retreat from the wind and cold. My cocoon, protecting me from creepy crawly things that want to curl up next to me for warmth during these frigid sierra nights. My shield, keeping me out of sight of prowling nocturnal hunters. Yes, intellectually, I know the tent provides no real safety from bears or cats – or anything else that’s hell-bent on attacking me. In fact, as I get all tucked in and comfy at night, I often nervously ponder how screwed I’d be if anything ever did attack. Stressing about how I’d be trapped inside, unable to fight back.
The frightful scene plays out in my mind like a mini-horror flick:
Set: a densely wooded spot, deep in the wilderness. A lone tent nestled beneath a Lodgepole pine.
Time: half-past dead of night.
ACTION: I’m jolted from a peaceful and deep sleep by a thunderous, earth-vibrating roar and a huge weight caving in the roof of my tent. My survival instinct kicks in; I scream and kick and punch like a caged beast. I feel the swipes of giant paws, hear the vicious growls and snorts of the hungry predator. I blindly thrash about, hindered by my prison of nylon and mesh; a tangled mess trapped in my wilderness home – my cocoon, my shelter. A giant frantic amoeba flailing about and screaming bloody murder at attackers I can’t see. My “nothing out here wants to hurt me… nothing out here wants to eat me” mantra vanishes into the dark cold night, like a puff of smoke… I’m doomed. Trapped like a guppy in a human sized Ziploc bag.
In my personal horror flick, I don’t end up a midnight bear-snack, there’s a twist. Maybe it’s a survival tool so I don’t scare all the shit out of myself, before going to sleep. In the wilderness. Alone. The surprise ending goes like this: outside the maniacal, bulging, pseudo-pod-amoeba-tent, sits a family of black bears, eating berries (aka: bear popcorn), snorting, growling and swiping at the tent and laughing their fuzzy bear asses off. The best bear TV ever! Yeah the safety of a tent is all in my mind.
I peek outside (is it daytime yet?). The dark morning sky is bright from a half-moon, earnestly hanging on in the western sky. While in the east, the sun is greedily pulling off the midnight blue blanket; forcing the day to rise and shine. I’m getting restless… I’m ready to rise and shine — as soon as it’s warm enough!
Autumn has settled into the high sierras: it was another freezing-cold night. The sun hadn’t even set, and I had to put on all my base layers, down jacket, gloves and beanie. I was happy I’d gotten my laundry and bathing done early in the day. Desperate to escape the cold, I slid inside my tent – which has become my home away from home. With my down sleeping bag, Thermarest, Sea to Summit inflatable pillow and my kindle books, I’m feeling right at home! All that’s missing is Capone.
Although it’s been a couple of days since my meltdown on Piute Creek, the loneliness that overwhelmed and gushed out of me, like water from a levy broken under the weight of a tempestuous storm, left puddles of emptiness and sorrow that I’ve been wading through ever since. Even at Muir Trail Ranch, surrounded by people, I felt isolated and alone. My attempts to stir up conversations were met with two word sentences and blank stares. There were a couple of groups at the resupply shed; a group of four young men frantically scouring the ample resupply buckets and organizing their gear (I assumed, rather snarkily, that they were in a hurry to get their 30 miles in). And another group of men and women in their early thirties, who’d obviously sprung for the overpriced cabins, and were lazily sprawled out on the grass, laughing and having a grand old time. I felt a pang of envy as I watched them relax in each other’s company. Luxuriating in their shampoo-scented hair, hands scrubbed clean with soap and hot water and rounded bellies, full with fresh salad and real food that was cooked on an actual stove and not mush rehydrated over a Pocket Rocket.
Yep, after 16 days alone on the trail, the loneliness had hit me. And with it, a pile of memories and Truth. There is no escaping the Truth – or yourself – when you hike solo; especially a thru-hike like the John Muir Trail. Each day you’re challenged physically, mentally and emotionally. Alone, you celebrate and rejoice. Alone, you suffer aches and pains and long drawn out, never-ending mountain passes that disappear into the sky and seem to have no end. Alone, you amble through dense, dark forests with nothing but silence or the sound or a deer running through the brush, a marmot scurrying behind you as you eat your lunch atop a glacial ridge – or a pack of coyotes singing their kill-song, to keep you company. Through all this, the loneliness slowly and insidiously seeps into you. Inch by inch you become flooded with it.
And in that loneliness, Truth is unburied. And you try, in vain, to push it away. Avoid it. Deny it. Being alone on the trail, your psyche visits those dark places without your permission. Places, that at home, you dodge with a million-and-one distractions; work, chores, errands, binge-watching the latest season of Orange is the New Black, Facebook, shopping, cocktails, Adderall, Valium, Prozac…. NO, don’t think about it! Just keep moving!! Have a drink, pop another pill. No, you can’t cry now, you have a meeting! Put on your big girl panties and GO! Just go. RUN!!!
And then there’s society, family and ‘friends” who tell you you just need to “get over it”. “It’s the past – move on”, they say. Or my favorite “Your past is a gift. Everything you’ve been through has made you who you are today! Hooray!!!” I’m sorry, but abuse and neglect are not fucking gifts. Gifts come wrapped in festive paper and tied with big bright bows. Gifts are carefully chosen by the giver to bring joy and happiness to the recipient’s life- and a smile to their face. Abuse and neglect are the exact opposite of gifts.
I have fought so long and hard to not let my past dictate my life. I am strong. I am independent. I am NOT a victim!!! Yet, my tearful, emotion-drenched morning on Piute Creek is proof that you can’t run from your past forever. Well, ok, maybe in our distraction-filled lives we can. But out here on the trail – alone – it catches up to you. And you can either give in to the feelings and allow yourself to blubber away in your tent, or you can stuff them way down in the bottom of your psychological backpack and continue to lumber under its heavy burden. I am living proof that crying doesn’t kill you. Feeling intense and deep pain isn’t an endless black hole that you fall into and never come out of. Being alone on the trail and having these feelings is not something to be frightened of – it’s something to be thankful for, and to rejoice in.
I spent my zero day recovering, both physically and emotionally, from that day of loneliness and sorrow. And today I’m happy. Free of the burden I’d been carrying inside my emotional backpack, weighing me down for 16 days. Free from the worry that I might break. I will not break – and in fact, I will emerge from the woods stronger, more clear and more empathetic. I will emerge with a new friend and protector: me.
And at last, I think it’s time to get ‘me’ on the trail. I have a pass to climb today, wish me luck!
6:30 pm at Mono Creek near the Vermillion Resort Cut-Off
Holy fuck! That decent from Bear Ridge Trail to the VVR Junction is ridiculous. 4. 6 miles of switchbacks, dropping twenty feet shy of two thousand feet. I swear I’ve never – in all my years of backpacking the Sierras – hiked switchbacks like that. They went on FOR-E-VER!!!
So, I didn’t make my goal of 17.4 miles but I did 15.5 (with a full-ish pack!) and I felt every single one of those miles on my sore and tired hips, knees and ankles. I feel like I’m getting blisters again and the moleskin isn’t worth a shit… it just slides off my sweaty feet. My feet hurt, my legs hurt, the stupid slivery cuts in 5 of my fingertips still throb and ache every time I accidentally bang them against a trekking pole or try to unlatch my pack. I’ve gone through all my medical tape and now have them wrapped in Duct Tape. And my back and neck have started hurting the last couple of days. The 154 miles is not only taking its toll on me emotionally, but my body feels like it’s breaking down piece by piece.
I stopped early for a rest at the picturesque Heart Lake. It’s small crystal-clear lake, framed by granite and pine, just a few miles south of Selden Pass. I found a grassy spot just off the trail and plopped down to soak in the warmth of the sun and quiet serenity. Just one group of guys passed me, heading southbound to camp and fish for a few days.
Selden Pass was the highlight. (Oh my god, did you hear that? A PASS was a highlight and not a horrible awful thing I had to endure! -). It’s the lowest pass on the John Muir Trail, at just (“just” lol) 10,800’. The trail toward the smooth and rocky pass meandered past glacial tarns and rocky hills spotted with junipers and stunted pines. The climb was long, but gradual, and at the top were sweeping views of smooth boulder-strewn mountains, patches of stunted pine and Marie Lake. Gorgeous, idyllic and picture perfect: it was my 3rd to the last pass. A sadness swept over me when I realize, I am now closer to the end than the beginning. It’s been challenging in every way, and I miss Capone terribly, but I don’t want to be done.
The scenery is changing; from the dramatic and sharp glacially carved granite of the southern sierras to the gentler, softer, greener northern sierras. Yosemite is taking shape in the distance. The loose granite boulder-slabs are getting bigger, the peaks not quite as high and the water flowing fast and healthy in the mountain creeks. The smoke is also getting better, giving me more blue sky and more warmth! I’m not freezing my ass off in the dull and smoked out afternoons anymore.
I’m camped by the wooden bridge near VVR cutoff. I have a feeling I’ll be alone tonight (after a crowded camp at Sallie Keys last night- day hikers from MTR). No one is going up that damn mountain I just descended this late! I doubt anyone is coming down either. I haven’t seen any north bounders in days!
I have the perfect little sandy spot tucked in the junipers and lodgepole pines above Mono Creek. The cutoff to VVR resort is just over the bridge and around the bend. I’ve finished my dinner of veggie chili and trail mix and getting ready to retire. Another day down on the John Muir Trail and another day closer to the end.
Day 16: Piute Creek to Sallie Keys Lakes via MTR Resupply
(September 1, 2015)
I’m having some strange mountain-olfactory version of the desert mirage. Yesterday coming down Evolution Basin I could have sworn I smelled bbq; like hamburgers cooking on a Weber charcoal grill. It made my stomach grumble and my mouth water- and I don’t even like hamburgers! And this morning, I awoke to the crisp forest air and the not-so-faint smell of fried bacon wafting into camp. I’m either having strong food cravings or I’ve developed a bear-like sense of smell and can detect food from miles away. I’m at least five miles from MTR, there’s no way I’m smelling their bacon.
I woke up missing Capone terribly. I haven’t let myself think about him much because I just get worried and flooded with guilt for leaving him at Doggy Camp (which is more like doggy Club Med, for what I paid to make sure he gets the best care!). Every time thoughts of him swell to the surface, tears prick my eyes and the guilt tugs at my heart. So I’ve been shoving it back down, refusing to think about him. But this morning, as I lay in my tent waiting for the sun to rise (so I can get up and rush to MTR and get a cabin!), missing my comfy bed, my soft sheets and down comforter and my huge pile of pillows, I miss waking up to my Capone sprawled across the bottom of the bed , snoring away at my feet. That guy has been with me through so much over the last ten years; he is my comfort and my rock. Today I can’t push the feelings away, I miss him terribly.
As someone who is more than a little relationship challenged (and not just romantic – but friendships too), he really is my best friend. He’s been with me through drunken nights of passing out and leaving him out in the rain all night, through sobering up and leaving our house and his dad, wagging deliriously from apartment to apartment after the divorce. He never judged, never complained, never left me. He just happily followed me wherever I’d go, with his trademark Capone ‘smile’ and wagging tail, into each new chapter of my life.
I snuggled deeper into my bag and the tears spilled over. I miss my best friend. I hear a breeze ruffle through the Aspens outside and my rain-fly flutters. Here I am alone in the forest, curled up inside my tent crying like a little baby. I feel so alone.
The sadness turns to shame as I mentally taunt myself for being so pathetic that my dog is all I have waiting for me when I get home. (Oh – and my therapist, lol!.) The familiar feeling of being a total fraud burns deep in my gut. Yeah, I’m some inspiration, huh?
I tell myself: people don’t see the real me- they see what’s on the outside, the strong and determined, “fuck the world, I’ll do what I want” me. But they don’t see the pathetic, sad, broken me; the me who no one wants to believe only has a dog and a therapist to go home to.
A therapist who would ask me why I’m being so hard on myself right now. Why am I? Why do feel pathetic? Why do I let this shame take over and not allow me to feel what I have every right to feel? I mean who wouldn’t struggle with relationships when their own parents abandoned them and made it crystal clear you weren’t wanted?
I reflect on this for a while.. My father enlisted in the Army and got sent to Korea when I was nine. He was supposed to get settled and send for us. But instead, he got a new family and never tried to see me, ever again. He never called or wrote. He just disappeared from my life. In retrospect, this is probably the best thing that could have happened – he was an evil sociopath whose idea of fun was chasing my brother and me around the house shooting us with a BB gun. Yea, that was fun family time at our house. You don’t want to know what he did when he was angry…
Within a year of him leaving, my mother got herself a boyfriend who hates kids. She started a new life with him that didn’t include my brother and me. By the time I was thirteen she’d practically moved in with him- without us. She’d pop in our rented dilapidated farmhouse every few days to pick up fresh clothes. It usually ended in her screaming and crying like a lunatic because her laundry wasn’t done, the house was a mess or because the cupboards were bare and she ‘forgot’ to go to the grocery store on the way home (and we had the audacity to ask when we might expect milk and cereal and bread).
“You kids don’t appreciate nothin’. I’ve done everything for you and all I ask is to come home to a clean house and clean clothes and you can’t even do that!?! And you wonder why I’m never home! I could have left like your father did you know. But I didn’t! I sacrificed everything for you – I have no life! And this is how you thank me??? “
She’d fall on the stairs screaming and crying, “You’re going to cause me to have a nervous breakdown. You don’t appreciate nothin! After all I’ve done for you… and this is how you behave? You’re driving me to the madhouse!” Her performance would have put Joan Crawford to shame.
She’d grab her clothes and storm out of the house, not to be seen again for days. Feeling guilty and vowing to myself that I’d be more grateful, I’d retreat to my bedroom where I’d plan how to make my mother happier: I’ll not fight with Jackie (my brother). I’ll make sure her laundry is done and the house is clean. I know, I’ll surprise her and clean her room too! But I knew it wouldn’t matter. She always found something to scream about. Always. So I’d shut myself in my room, put my Blizzard of Oz album on the turntable, turn the volume nob as far as it would go, blast “Crazy Train”, grab my bong and smoke the guilt and shame away.
I don’t want to think about this now. And I certainly don’t want to be holed up in my tent, all alone on the woods, crying and feeling all this. But it just keeps coming. A floodgate has opened and I can’t hold it back. The grief pulses through me as a movie of my my life plays out in my exhausted brain.
I try to will the thoughts and feelings away. Try to turn off the movie, but it won’t stop. It feels like an out of body experience as my mind’s eye sees a girl and a young woman struggle through life, grasping for happiness and love using all the broken tools she has. I feel so tremendously sad for her. My heart is heavy and the tears flow freely. And then something shifts. The familiar feeling of shame is slowly melting away and a new, unfamiliar feeling is emerging: empathy.
I’ve charged through life, hell-bent on not letting my past mold me or hold me back. Determined to be strong, independent and successful in life, I wouldn’t allow my childhood to dictate who I chose to be. But the fact is: it has. It has always been there, festering and peeking it’s ugly head out in the most cunning and deceitful ways.
The old saying is true: you can’t run from yourself – especially after 15 days alone in the wilderness. Whatever is working you in your busy hustle-and-bustle life will rise to the surface and demand to be heard in the silent solitude of Mother Earth. She beckons, “Come. Sit with me and tell me your troubles. Trust in me and I will heal you.” But somehow I know: it isn’t Nature, but myself that I’m learning to trust. The trail is teaching me to be loving, kind and nurturing to myself. And in the process, maybe I’m beginning to heal.
I think of all that I was deprived of. All the caring and nurturing and love that most people automatically get just by being born to parents who love them: I never got it. My parents gifted me instead, with punches and kicks, screaming, name calling, neglect, abandonment– and worse. Much worse.
So here I sit, in the middle of a beautiful Aspen grove, next to a creek on the John Muir Trail crying my eyeballs out because I miss my dog – and maybe because I feel sad for the girl who has had to claw her way through life to find peace and happiness. My whole life has been a futile search for the love and acceptance I never had. Crippled by neglect and abuse, I went about it in the unhealthy and fucked up ways I knew… And maybe that’s why I sit alone, crying in the woods and missing my dog…(and at this point, REALLY needing a session with my therapist.. what the hell???)
6pm at Sallie Keys Lakes
Well today didn’t go quite like I’d hoped. No clean clothes. No hot shower. No cold lemonade or fresh salad. No trail love. I made the five miles to MTR in less than 2 hours, arriving before 10 am – yes I was on a mission to get there before their rooms were gone!
I rounded the sprawling ranch-like compound and let myself in through the wooden swinging gate, bellowing out “good morning” to hikers as they happily bounced off with newly replenished packs.
I pleaded with the universe: Please have a room. Please please, please. Oh, and plenty of ibuprofen too (I’d I only packed a few in my resupply and I’m eating them like pez).
I wandered around searching for the office, which didn’t immediately stand out. I don’t know if I was expecting a big neon Vacancy sign or what, but I finally found it in a tiny and dark cabin tucked between the work sheds.
TWO HUNDRED TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS! Are you kidding me? I stood opposite the chipper young store-keeper, hovering over a dusty glass display-case housing $5 ibuprofen tablets and other outrageously priced notions desperate through-hikers would need, stunned and shocked as the amount whirled in my brain doing a “should I or shouldn’t I?” dance.
Over the last twelve hours as I’d excitedly hiked toward MTR I debated how much I was willing to spend for a night of comfort. I hadn’t known what to expect so I thought maybe I’d pay $125? Maybe even $150. Would I go so high as $175? Maybe. But I couldn’t justify dishing out $225 for a log-cabin in the middle of nowhere, to a company that charged me $75 for a resupply bucket, wanted to charge $5 for a single Ibuprofen and then wouldn’t even let me use their toilets and treated me like a homeless vagrant. I just couldn’t. As hungry, tired and sore as I was, I still had a modicum of self-respect! Besides, I came out here to live in my tent, in nature… I could do without comfort and good food for another day. Sigh…
Deflated, I moseyed back to the resupply shed to retrieve my bucket, full of disappointment and self-righteousness. I scoured the hiker buckets brimming with mostly junk (who in their right mind brings full size bottles of olive oil and cans of soup on a backpacking trip???), contributed what I couldn’t fit in my bear can (a bag of trail mix, cardboard-flavored flax seed crackers and half a dozen packets of Justin’s peanut butter), organized, repacked and moved on. Bidding a mental middle finger to MTR on my way out.
The climb out of MTR was all I’d expected: long, hot, steep, ugly and boring. I climbed the same tiresome, tedious switchback 30 times. But I made good time and even ended up going further than I expected, getting 10.5 miles in (not bad considering I spent a couple hours at MTR).
But now as I rest in my camp nestled in the conifers on the bank of Sallie Keys Lake, absorbing the views of the gorgeous mountain lake, I’m thinking I might take a zero tomorrow. I need to rest my muscles, try to let my cracked fingertips heal so I can at least button my shirt and strap on my pack without excruciating pain, and do laundry. But I also just want to keep going… home to my dog. I’ll decide in the morning. It’s been a very long day…
Day 15 Sapphire Lake in Evolution Basin to Aspen Meadow on Piute Creek.
It’s still too cold to venture out into the stone cold morning. I’m snuggled in my bag, eating breakfast and choking down my Starbucks Via French Roast. (Instant coffee is good for about a week, then it’s very very bad – what I wouldn’t do for a cup of Peet’s French Roast right now!).
I got to Sapphire Lake late yesterday afternoon and decided to make it home for the night. (I get to camp in Evolution Basin!!!- I’m actually here!). I hiked the half mile or so along the lake searching for my perfect site. Everything to the right (east) was too close to the trail and/or the water so I had to climb up the rocky hills on the west. I found the perfect spot at the base of The Hermit, high enough to give me a muted smoky view of the lake, and the dramatic peaks of Mts. Huxley and Warlow directly to the southeast of me. Another perfectly picturesque camp on the John Muir Trail!
There’s just one other solo backpacker on the far south end of Sapphire Lake. His camp rests between two pools of water- it looks gorgeous, but too close to the water for me. I like my perch –above the lake resting in the now-familiar rocky terrain of SEKI Wilderness. I feel at home in the rocks with unobstructed views and dramatic ruggedness that speaks ‘earth’ and ‘wilderness’ to me.
The chill set in early last night. As soon as I got to camp I put on my Merino Smart Wool base layer (lightweight: I wish I’d gotten medium-weight, at least) my tank top, down jacket and beanie – and I was still chilled to the bone. I headed down the hill from camp to the edge of the frigid Sapphire Lake, which wasn’t able to live up to its name under the heavy burden of smoke-gray skies. I plunged my hands into the icy-cold outlet creek and splashed water on my face in a vain attempt to wash the day’s dirt and grime away. Next I filled my Nalgene, challenging myself not to fall in and soak the only clothes I have to keep me warm. I rinsed my hiking pants and shirt, which I instantly regretted as my hands turned numb trying to wring them out. Despite the dull smoke corrupting the views, it was amazing. I was surrounded by stark jagged mountains piercing the sky, a peaceful lake and the outlet creek gently running north into the valley. It was all I’d imagined it to be
Back at camp I made tea and soaked my dinner of curried chickpeas and sweet potatoes, found a rock to lean against and watched the sun lazily seep away, painting the mountains in hues of amber and red.
As soon I finished dinner before darkness even had a chance to steal the sky, I retreated to the warmth of my sleeping bag and tent. I knew it was going to be a miserable, cold night. I remembered reading somewhere that fat gets your metabolism working and warms you up, so I choked down a packet of (not very good) olive oil. I’m not sure how much it helped, because I still froze my ass off.
I’m wishing I’d brought heavier base layers. It’s September now, the weather very well could have turned, and every night might be below thirty. That would be miserable. My 24 degree down bag and lightweight wool aren’t enough – I’m not sure I can handle two more weeks of this level of cold.
I also wish I’d brought a cone filter and Peet’s coffee. OMG, I can barely choke this instant crap down…. what happened? I used to think it was pretty good for instant!
Ok, I need to think about getting a move on, the sun is almost cresting the eastern peak and camp should be flooded with warmth any minute (please, please, please). The plan is to get as close to Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) as possible for my resupply tomorrow (Yay, resupply!!! – Booo, heavy pack…). It’s about 15 miles and they close at 5, so there’s no way I’ll make it today. It’ll be best to get there in the morning. Besides I heard the hike out over Sallie Keys is long, hot and miserable and best done early before it gets too hot.
The Guthook app says the last camping spot is about 3 miles before MTR, but trail rumor has it that there is camping closer, where the San Joaquin river meets up with the cutoff trail about ½ mile away. I may try my luck depending on the terrain.
Lunchbreak: McClure Meadow @ Evolution Creek
I must be near an easy entry point, there are casual hikers and their disgusting toilet paper piles everywhere. It infuriates me. What makes them think they can come into MY wilderness and leave their garbage all over MY trail? That’s how I feel. When you spend more than a few days hiking, you begin to feel like the wilderness is your backyard and it infuriates me that people come in here and disrespect it. In what universe is it OK to leave used toilet paper everywhere for the world to see? Grrrr… I want to find out where they live and go poop and pee all over their yard, leaving my TP behind. See how they like it!
I’m sitting on the edge of the Evolution River absorbing the warmth of the sun, soaking my feet and nibbling on trail mix, dried mango and a GoMacro Cashew bar. The cool water feels good on my swollen achy feet. I passed a cowboy resting his mules in a large camp and groups of day-hikers relaxing and sunbathing on the warm rocks that, in the spring are covered with snow melt. I know they aren’t backpackers because they have real towels – giant, fluffy, clean towels – ohhh a real towel. Soft and warm right out of the dryer… Sigh, the luxuries of life that I miss… If I had a towel, maybe the whole back of my lower body wouldn’t be chapped from not drying off enough.
I’ve decided that the collective trail name for day hikers is “Shiny Happy People” (or SHP, for short). They happily bounce along the trail with their dainty little day-packs and ultra-bright clothes looking well rested, well fed and well quaffed. With skin so clean and moisturized that it glows. I mean, it utterly glows!
I ran into a three generation family of SHP (let’s call them the Shiny Happy Jones Family, just for fun!) in their brand-spanking-new fluorescent pink (for the girls!) and green (for the boys!) breathable hiking shirts and crisp hiking pants, that probably hadn’t even been washed yet. The brightness of their clothes was dulled only by their artificially white teeth (that shade of white just doesn’t exist in nature). After spending fifteen days in dirty, grungy, earthy nature, they looked ridiculously out of place- I’m serious, their teeth were blinding me. I had to put my sunglasses on to talk to them – and I never wear sunglasses!
All day I had to deal with SHP who enthusiastically scampered along the trail with huge unfatigued, un-trail-weary, artificially-white smiles painted on their dirt-free faces, stopping for brief moments to exchange pleasantries with me; like spectators at a wild animal exhibit at the zoo. Seriously, it was more brutal than climbing Glen Pass!
The conversations usually went something like this:
SHP: “Where ya headed?”
SHP: “Yosemite!?! Wow, that’s far! Where’d ya come from?”
Me: “Cottonwood Pass, 22 miles south of Mt. Whitney.”
SHP: “Have ya seen any bears?”
SHP: Showing obvious disappointment that I hadn’t had a life-threatening encounter with a wild beast to entertain them with, they’d flatly reply, “Oh. Well, have a great trip!”And with a flash of their blindingly-white smile, they’d bounce off into the woods like a clueless fawn.
About five minutes after my encounter with the Shiny Happy Jones Family (they were either Smiths or Joneses, I guarantee it!), while my pupils were still trying to undilate from their blinding brightness, I nearly stopped dead in my tracks with a thought: Shit!!! Shit, shit, shit. Why didn’t I realize this sooner? I’d passed a mule caravan about a mile back – why didn’t I realize the Shiny Happy Jones family was with that caravan?? Already hating the day hikers for invading my space with their blinding smiles and clothes, perfumey soap and dirty toilet paper, this gave me one more reason to despise them: Fuckers can’t even carry their own gear!
And I mentally kicked myself for not thinking on my feet. Dammit, if only I’d put two and two together sooner! A retrospective sinister plot began to tale hold in my brain…THIS is the conversation I would have had:
SHP: “Where ya headed?”
SHP: “Yosemite!?! Wow, that’s far! Good for you! Where’d ya come from?”
Me: “Cottonwood Pass, 22 miles south of Mt. Whitney.”
SHP: “Have ya seen any bears?”
Me: “Nope, but watch out for that pack of wild coyotes about a mile back.”
SHP: “Coyotes? REALLY?”
Me: “Yep, there was a pack of at least 15 barbarous coyotes back there feasting on a mule! I saw it charge out of the forest and take down a pack mule in a split second and then drag it off the trail and just start feasting on it, not more than ten feet away. It was gruesome! They ripped right through the gear and flesh like it was nothing!”
SHP: “Gear? The mule had supplies on it???”
Me: “Yeah, pretty sure the supplies are history, I wouldn’t go near those coyotes, they were scary! You should have seen them tearing that poor mule limb by limb. I’ve never seen anything like it. I thought they’d come for me next so I practically ran the last mile. You better be careful out there! Happy Trails!”
I amused myself for several miles over my missed opportunity to have some fun with the SHP. OMG it would have been hilarious. I bet that would have taken the pep right out of their step! Hee, hee. This is what two weeks without proper nutrition and sleep will do to you!
5:30 camped on Piute Creek, about 3 miles from Muir Trail Ranch
I’m a few yards off the trail in the woods. I don’t like the woods. They still scare me a little. There are too many shadows and the possibility of things lurking that I can’t see. But it was either this or collapse right on the trail. After twelve tough miles, I’m done!
Oh – and I have officially banned the phrase ‘easy day’ from my vocabulary – forever and ever. Really, I mean it this time! It was twelve miles of a lot of not-so-easy downhill. I have never had so many different parts of my body hurt all at once… seriously I could list what doesn’t hurt much easier than what does! I’ve been pushing hard for the last five days. It’s time for another rest day.
I passed several backpackers today who ranted about how wonderful MTR is if you stay there. Apparently there have been a lot of cancellations because of the fires and rooms are easy to get. The backpackers looked so clean and rested (backpacker clean – NOT SHP clean!). They said it exceeded their expectations: the food is delicious and fresh, there are nice hot showers (oooh, a shower… *sigh*), laundry and private hot springs for guests. They talked me into it. If there are vacancies I’m going to splurge! I could use a little R&R – and a giant fresh salad (they said the salads are amazing)! And shampoo! And a hot shower! I’m sick of smelling myself, clean will be nice.
My fingers are crossed they will have an opening, I can’t think of anything else! Hiking down those endless switchbacks from McClure Meadow to Evolution Valley, I was obsessed with it!
My site is cozy, surrounded by aspens. Only about 8000’ feet so it’s a lot warmer! No rainfly so I can see any wild beast lurking in the thick forest (I know that makes no sense- like I’d be able to stop it from lunging at me and making me dinner!). Anyway, I’m hoping its warmer tonight and the patch of sand my tent is on is soft enough to cushion my aching bones against the ground. I’m hoping for a rare good night’s sleep. I want to get up early and hightail the three miles to MTR before they sell out of cabins! I’ll be dreaming of salad and hot showers!
Day 14 Leconte Canyon to Sapphire Lake over Muir Pass
It was a dull and dreary day. As I climbed north toward Muir Pass the wind whipped against my face and made an already challenging hike, nearly unpleasant. It could have been awe-inspiring, with one jaw-dropping scene after another: a series of jagged peaks and desolate glacial bowls brimming with icy gray water, tucked far away from the rest of the world atop grand mountains. But instead, the smoke cast a heavy gloom over the hard landscape.
Muir was another long and elusive pass. I traversed wobbly and rugged terrain, over massive chunks of broken mountain, past narrow gorges split by pristine mountain water and desolate tarns. It was a long trek, that seemed to have no end. Finally, after hours of trudging uphill, I spotted the famed Muir hut that marks the top of the pass. And on the other side – off to the distant North – through the smoky air, were the faint outlines of the peaks that surround the infamous and much anticipated Evolution Basin.
As I approached the summit, I felt like a sole astronaut landing on a distant planet until I spotted a green Osprey backpack near the entrance. Inside the hut, I found an extremely talkative man in his late twenties who offered that he’d been living in the wilderness for 58 days. He said he was escaping the shallowness of his adopted hometown- Hollywood – where he’d traveled from someplace else to be an actor. “But,” he complained, “I can’t stand the people. They’re so shallow.” So he’d escaped the shallowness and big-city problems of Hollywood for a life of simplicity and solitude in the John Muir Wilderness.
At first I didn’t mind the company and patiently listened to his life stories; a failed attempt at college, failed attempts at a variety of careers and failed attempts to find a nice place to live in Hollywood. But I began to feel heavy and overwhelmed by his endless negative energy: “….and besides living in crappy neighborhoods with a bunch of blacks and Mexicans because I can’t find a job because all the Mexicans are stealing them – now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with Mexicans – I’m not racist or anything. But, they’re taking all the jobs and ruining all the good neigh – “
“Ok, well, I better get a move on, I have a lot of trail left if I want to get to Evolution. Good luck and enjoy your stay.” Any sentence that contains the words “I’m not racist, but…” Is not a conversation I want to be a part of. I abruptly slung my pack over my right shoulder and made a sharp turn toward the trail that headed down the northern side of Muir Pass. I buckled in as I walked, feeling desperate to escape the dreary pass and even drearier young man as soon as possible.
As I hiked down the steep northern slope of Muir Pass, the frustration and weariness of the long climb up the other side slid away and was replaced with excited anticipation of reaching Evolution Valley. Evolution Basin was one of the landmark places on the John Muir trail, like Mt. Whitney, Guitar Lake, and Forester Pass. It stood out in trail lore as one of the most scenic and idyllic places (and I just loved the name, it conjured images of raw beauty and primal connectedness with nature). I couldn’t wait to get there and I hiked with renewed vigor and excitement.
The Muir Pass descent spilled me into another moonscaped world. In every direction were dramatic mountains and sharp hills cluttered with granite of all shapes and sizes. I traversed the narrow trail, barely visible from more than a few feet away as it sliced the rugged landscape, leading me along the edge of Wanda Lake. It was far too cool to swim, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to sit for a while and immerse myself in such a remote and barren scene.
Unbuckling my pack, I edged toward the lake, flat and blanketed with damp yellow grass. Finding a spot big enough to stretch out on, I slipped my pack over my shoulder and let it hit the ground with a thud; my butt not far behind. I ripped at my boot laces, peeled off my damp socks and plunged my swollen feet into the lake. Ahhhh. The frigid water temporarily relieved the aches and pains of the last 12 days. I pulled my dried mango and a Go Macro bar out of the front pocket of my backpack and sat on the edge of the lake, eating my lunch and devouring the scenery; rocky, barren and void of life.
When my feet grew numb in the icy-cold water, I pulled them out and laid back, resting my head on my backpack. The eager sun warmed me as the smoke slowly dissipated into the weary blue sky. I closed my eyes and silence flooded my ears. Stark bold silence. Not a fly buzzing, a bird squawking or breeze lapping gentle waves upon the shore of Wanda Lake. The world had gone mute.
I opened my eyes and with all my senses, greedily consumed the stoic scene. I pondered the dichotomous landscape. How can Mother Nature be so simple, yet complex; wild, yet pure; silent, yet deafening? It’s nature, I thought. Pure, unadulterated and imperfect. Full of contrast and contradiction.
My head swam with the sound of silence, my breathing slowed and my body relaxed, acquiescing to nature’s rhythm. And a nagging, sorrowful thought gently lapped at the outer edges of my psyche: How can I ever go back?
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