Day 16 on the JMT: Nowhere to Hide

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.

Aspens on Piute Creek Camp
Aspens on Piute Creek Camp

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.

Camp on Piute Creek
Camp on Piute Creek

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!

Me on Day 15- somewhere in John Muir Wilderness
Me on Day 15- somewhere in John Muir Wilderness

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.

But hot showers!?!

But two hundred twenty-five dollars.

But salad.

But 225 dollars

Bacon?

225 DOLLARS.

But a nice comfy bed and sheets and warmth…?

Two. Hundred. Twenty-Five. Fucking. Dollars. Trail Robbery!

Damn. Damn. Damn. Did I mention Bacon???

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…

Shiny Happy People and the Gifts They Leave Behind

Day 15 Sapphire Lake in Evolution Basin to Aspen Meadow on Piute Creek.

7:30 am.

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!

Sapphire Lake Evolution basin
Morning view from Sapphire Lake looking North toward Evolution Valley

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.

Morning view of Evolution Basin from my tent at Sapphire Lake
Morning view of Evolution Basin from my tent at Sapphire Lake

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!

A smoky view from tent at Sapphire Lake
A smoky view from tent at Sapphire Lake

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: “HI!!!!”

Me: ‘hi.”

SHP: “Where ya headed?”

Me: “Yosemite.”

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?”

Me: “Nope.”

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: “HI!!!!”

Me: ‘hi.”

SHP: “Where ya headed?”

Me: “Yosemite.”

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!

Piute Creek camp near Muir Trail Ranch
Piute Creek Camp in the Aspens

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!

New Comment Notifier that Works!

Dear faithful readers!

I finally found a comment notifier that works. So from now on when you post a comment on one of my blogs you can sign up to get an email notification when I or someone else replies.

I’m sorry this took so long. I didn’t know it wasn’t working until someone emailed me to let me know.

Thank you for being a loyal reader and I’ll have a new post out soon. I promise!

Happy Trails!

-Carolyn

 

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How Can I Ever Go Back?

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.

Muir Pass, john muir hut
The John Muir Hut

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.wanda below muir pass 1 (2)

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.

Muir Pass on the JMT looking north
View descending Muir Pass, looking North, contrast is high to see through the smoke

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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People are Strange, Passes seem Wicked (When You’re Alone)…

Day 13:  Unnamed Creek below Mather Pass to LeConte Canyon

August 30, 2015 at 5 am: Waking up below Mather Pass

I had a rough night. It was freezing and the rocky ground causes every muscle and bone to ache, even through my Therm-a-rest. It’s definitely not as cushy as the dirt floor below the tree line. Even with Advil PM, I tossed and turned all night, feeling every scrape, rash and sore muscle.  (I scraped my fingertip on a rock while soaking yesterday and it’s throbbing!).

On the bright side, every time I got up to go to the bathroom (which was a lot) I was thrust from the comfort of my tent into the desolate and barren landscape of Upper Basin, in the shadow of Mather Pass.  The near-full moon cast an eerie glow onto the other-worldly bouldered moonscape.  I paused: acutely aware of my alone-ness and a tranquility so smooth and silent.  Have I woken up to a dream? Is this real? I pondered how a place so devoid of sound and movement can exist on the same planet as my every-day world  full of hustle-and-bustle and noise and light.  I took a long slow breath, inhaling the cool night, and slowly turned.  All around and above me, millions of stars carried out their nightly duty:  twinkling innocently and ignorantly in a far-away universe.

I ached to absorb every atom of the extraordinary  world  enveloping me.  It pulled me in, seducing me  with it’s  silent tranquility. As I stood motionless, my Earthly Being  merged into the landscape.  Once again, I became Nature and Nature became me. I  reveled in the power it had over me and in the knowledge that I was a mere speck on the ancient historical timeline of this place that now held me.

day 13 somewhere

Chilled – and maybe a little spooked – I’d hesitantly crawl back into my tent and try in vain to get a few hours of sleep….

I’ve finally given up. I unzipped my door and rainfly to enjoy the view from the warmth of my sleeping bag:  the bright sparkling star of The Hand Constellation is just above the eastern peaks of Cardinal and Split Mountains.  The world is silent and still.  I’m sipping my coffee, anxious for the sun to rise. I’m ready to get on the trail, but for now I’m enjoying the silent serenity of a world that I have all to myself… just the stars and the sky and the fading moon to keep me company.

12:30 – Lunch – Descending into Leconte Canyon from Mather Pass

No wonder most of the South Bounders I’ve run into today have been grumpy. Mather Pass is a bitch; my irritating descent is their horrific 4100’ never-ending ascent.  How I missed this on my maps, I’ll never know – oh wait, that’s right I fucking SUCK at reading topo map! Plus, I keep making the same mistake over and over again; thinking it’s going to be an easy day.  I was so full of excitement and optimism as I half-assedly studied my map this morning, broke camp and merrily skipped along the trail toward Mather Pass. I was like the Mary Poppins of JMT hikers, all that was missing was the umbrella and the “Sound of Music” piping through the mountains as I frolicked.day 13 waterfall and bp

You’d think that after my Glen Pass melt-down I’d have learned my lesson. Repeat after me: THERE ARE NO EASY DAYS ON THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL! When will that sink into my head? Damn my optimism and willful ignorance! It bites me in the ass every single day out here. On top of a grueling 4100-foot descent down rocky slippery, torturous trail, my quads and hips are achy (despite handfuls of ibuprofen), I think I’m getting blisters, a couple of my fingertips are cut and bleeding and throbbing and the rash on the back of my legs is burning. Yeah, this shit is real. Being out in the elements and hiking 100 miles over 13 days takes a toll on my fragile ill-equipped human body!

On top of all that, my pants have become annoyingly baggy (I would have never thought in a million years that I would complain that my pants had become too baggy.  Sear this moment into your brain and forever cherish it.) They’re falling from my hips and drooping all down my ass, chaffing my already rashed butt and legs.  Seriously, I’m getting the weirdest ailments. I planned for sore muscles, minor cuts, scrapes, infections; but fingertips that split open and throb constantly, a rash on the entire back of my lower body; who would have thought to prepare for such nonsense?

After what felt like decades of trudging downhill, I finally stopped to eat lunch on a huge flat rock overlooking a gorge with a cascading waterfall. As I devoured my favorite Cashew Caramel Go Macro Bar and handfuls of trail mix, a tall lanky dude about my age stopped next to me. He just stood there for what seemed like a ridiculously long time without saying anything to me. He stared at the river flooding through the narrow gorge. Does he not see me, I wondered.  How can he not see me? I’m RIGHT next to him.

“HI!” I yelled to him over the roaring noise of the water, trying to snap him out of his clueless trance.

Not taking his eyes off the gorge, he mumbled something I couldn’t hear.

“Excuse me?”

He mumbled again.

Ok, now this mumbling intruder was just annoying me, “I can’t hear you over the waterfall.”

He raised his voice about a half a decibel, I think he asked, “is this the Golden Staircase?”

“I don’t think so. Isn’t the Golden Staircase further north near Donahue Pass?” I answered.

“No. I think this is it,” he replied, still studying the gorge and not looking at me.

Okay, if you’re so damn sure,  then why did you ask??? “Hmm. I’m not sure then…”

Then he suddenly jerked his head around as if noticing me for the first time and just stood in place on the trail a foot away from me,  watching me pick cashews out of my trail mix.  He was starting to creep me out.  I was sitting on the edge of a gorge after all and there was no one around for miles. Will this be the day my flippant, “No one hikes into the wilderness to kill people” reply to “aren’t you scared hiking alone?”  bites me on the ass?

Why was this odd tall man watching me eat? Finally he mumbled,  “where are you from?”

I’d been meeting people from all over the world and  I never assume anyone knows where little Concord, California is, so I replied, “The Bay Area – San Francisco, Bay Area.”

The odd man snarled at me, turning up his lip in disgust. Showing obvious contempt, he  snapped, “you could have been more specific!”

I gave him a questioning look. His annoyance caught me off guard and I wanted to reply, “Ok, is “none of your fucking business”, specific enough for you?”  but since I was sitting on the edge of cliff overlooking a gorge  I thought it best to not provoke the odd man.  “Ok, I’m from Concord, Concord CA. Why, do you know the Bay Area?”

Again with his annoyed tone, “Yeah, Orinda.”

“Oh.”

Silence. He just stood there. Looking at me. Looking at the gorge. I started packing up, I wasn’t taking any chances that he was trying to figure out  if he could push me over without taking himself down in the fall too…

Finally, he mumbled something and moved on. I watched him hike up the trail (that suddenly seemed an awful lot like a staircase…) and out of sight. Relieved to be alone again, I laid back onto the rock and let the warm sun wash over me, thinking, What is up with today? I have not met one “normal” hiker today, just a bunch of people who seem like they’ve never been on a trail before and absolutely hate being out here. But then,  I suppose the people who passed me climbing Glen Pass could’ve thought the same about me. Trudging up this hellacious mountain must kill every ounce of joy in even the best and most optimistic hiker.

I have no idea where this is, I think it was on Day 13 below Mather Pass, before the Golden Staircase, maybe?
I have no idea where this is, I think it was on Day 13

So today it was the Mather Pass descent, more than the ascent  that killed me. Really, that fucking mountain just went down for days.

With all my odd physical ailments and wavering mental fortitude I’m realizing that my fantasy of dropping out of society, loading up my backpack with as much survival gear as I can carry, grabbing Capone and traipsing deep into the wilderness to live off the land probably isn’t a realistic option.  Besides being completely grossed out by the idea of having to kill things to eat, I’ve only been out here 13 days and already I miss my warm comfy bed, hot showers, soap and shampoo, fresh veggies, real coffee and lotion (my skin is so dry).  Yes, that fantasy has died within me over the last several days. I would surely starve and die a slow and wholly uncomfortable death without  Peet’s coffee and 900 thread count sheets.

8:30 pm at Le Conte Canyon

 I hiked 16.4 miles today!!!  And I finally broke my 100-mile mark! Woo hoo!!

After a long and strange day with lots of cranky people and a brutal 4100’ descent I finally stumbled into LeConte Canyon around 6 pm. I was determined to make it here tonight, so for the first time I hiked past 4:00. Why have I been stopping so early? I got an extra 3 ½ miles in! (That’s right, “I’m not in a race. I’m supposed to be enjoying the journey… blah, blah blah… Yeah, I’m pretty much over that – I’m ready to be home!)day 13 deer

Guess who’s here!?! Arkansas Tim and Tony!!! I was so excited to see my old trail friends!  But I quickly noticed they were one short, “Where’s Robert?” Tim told the story of how his knee got worse after tweaking it coming down Pinchot Pass and he had to exit. They’d gotten to LeConte Canyon yesterday and hiked Robert out to Bishop over Bishop Pass today so he could get medical help. Having hiked their friend out over a brutal pass, sharing the weight of his gear and their day packs, and then back to LeConte Canyon in one day, they were physically exhausted, emotionally drained and worried about their friend. But there’s a hiker code: you do what you can for your injured comrades-in-boots, but in the end you have to hike your hike.

It made me sad to hear the bad news and missed Robert’s big happy smile and his familiar “you just never know who you’re going to meet out here” greeting. Knowing that fit, tough Robert – the happy-go-lucky workhorse of the group –  had to exit the trail was another reminder that this endeavor is no joke.day 13 pinchot and mather sign

They invited me to camp with them so I excitedly pitched my tent and ate dinner with them.  And while we shared stories of trail challenges and triumphs, the concern over our friend’s  health hovered in the air like a heavy fog.

(Oh and-Tony confirmed that mumbling, Specifically-Orinda guy was right, it was the Golden Staircase I was descending. How did I not know that?? *Sigh*)

I’m relaxing in my tent now, getting ready for bed and studying my maps.  Tomorrow will be a tough day: 7.9 miles to Muir Pass. (7.9 TOUGH miles, I KNOW this one won’t be easy… see how I’m reversing the psychology on this one?? I hope it helps!). Then on to Evolution Basin and Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) for my next resupply!!!

I had a low point today coming down the endless 4000’ Mather Pass Golden Staircase (more like “Staircase of Hell”) where I was bored with being out here and ready to be done. I don’t want to quit, but I wouldn’t mind picking up the pace to get out sooner than 30 days. I miss Capone terribly and I worry about him being at puppy camp all alone. I miss my bed. I miss showers. I miss not having every inch of my body ache or burn or pulse in pain. Maybe I was just a little tired and lonely and I was reacting to all the negative people I ran into. Being with Tony and Tim has made me feel better. All in all, I’m happy to be here and tomorrow is another day…

 

Sidenote: A thought I had on the trail today after the Golden Staircase:

Ahhh,  I’ve descended to 8700’!   I’m speeding along the trail and the little hills, my muscles feel less fatigued and I can breathe!  I mean REALLY breathe!  I feel like Super Woman! I can do anything at 8700’!!!

I can only imagine what it will be like when I get home to sea level! Watch out Bay Area. When I get home I’m gonna go on a huge Oxygen bender.  I’ll be sucking in all that thick sea-level ‘O’ the Nine-Two-Five is known for! Oh yeah! My lungs are jonesing for a big whiff of that good stuff! I’ll be running the streets  and doing cardio like a mother-fucker! Watch out Bay Area, here I come! 

Yeah- the trail gets boring and you find interesting ways to amuse yourself! 🙂

 

Just Hike..

August 29, 2015 Day 12:  unnamed pond to unnamed stream via Pinchot Pas

Dinner time just  below Mather Pass

Something shifted since my zero day at Rae Lakes: I feel like I finally found my stride, settled into a thru-hiker mindset, and got my hiker legs!  They seem to be all tied together.  I’m getting stronger and acclimating to the high altitude, but I also finally realized today that slow and steady is the way to go. I hike more efficiently and feel better when I pace myself on the ups, the downs, AND the flats. The first 9 days I was so focused on speed…  how fast can I get there? I have to keep up with so and so.  So when I’d trudge up giant mountains and over rocky passes I’d try to make up time by hiking as fast as I could downhill and on the flatter parts of the trail. (note: there seem to be no truly ‘flat’ parts on the JMT), frantically calculating and recalculating my miles per hour and ETA with each step.  I have to make up time. Hike fast… FASTER! No wonder I’ve been exhausted all the time and feeling completely worn out both physically and emotionally.

the summit of Pinchot Pass!
the summit of Pinchot Pass!

I succumbed to the rhythm of the wilderness: I enjoyed being on the trail just for the sake of being on the trail. I meandered through forests and faded meadows, across lazy creeks babbling gently with the last of winter’s snow melt and up yet another dramatic granite pass.

Today I relaxed into the trail and soaked it all in realizing I’m not out here to win any hiker land-speed records, so who cares how fast or slow I go? Why am I always competing against some impossible ideal I set for myself? Not just out here but in my everyday life: work harder, go faster, be stronger. Constantly scolding myself:  you should be doing this or you should be doing that. Or you should be this or you should be that…  And no matter how hard I work or how much I accomplish, I always fall short.  It’s never enough.  I am never enough… Today, at least as far as hiking the John Muir Trail goes,  that changed. My thru- hiker mindset kicked in and all those “shoulds” were replaced with, “who the fuck cares??? Just hike!”

Trail from the south up Pinchot Pass
Trail up Pinchot Pass from the south

That’s my new answer to all my nagging expectations and criticisms: “Just hike.”  I gave myself 30 days to hike this trail, so I just need to settle the fuck down and hike it.   30 days. That’s 30 days of experiencing nature. Of being exposed to the elements and the challenges of thru-hiking every single day. I don’t have to add to the challenge by being so damn hard on myself and having crazy expectations of hiking 3 miles per hour!  Hell, surviving out here 12 days on my own, hiking 80 miles,  over 20,000 feet in elevation is a big fucking deal! Isn’t that enough? Or maybe the real questions is: why isn’t it enough? Why do I take myself and my accomplishments for granted? Why? I guess that is something I can contemplate over the next 17 days as I “Just Hike!”

So today I hiked at a tortoise’s pace. I conquered the Sasquatch steps, hiked steadily at a comfortable pace, rested and took breaks whenever my body, mind or eyes wanted to. I swam, I stopped to soak in sweeping views of valleys and lakes, I had leisurely conversations about the trail and the smoke with South Bounders and still managed to hike almost 12 miles and climb and descend over 4700 feet in 8 hours.  I’d go so far as to say this was my best day yet:  I did my 7th pass crossing (6 passes, because I did Kearsarge twice) and I’m less than 2 miles and 1500’ from Mather Pass!  My new mindset seems to work for me!

My lunch spot on the North side of Pinchot Pass
My lunch spot on the North side of Pinchot Pass

And I got trail mail!!! As I approached the Bench Lake Junction sign, I noticed a tiny note duct taped to the post. I thought it was going to be another warning about the smoke and the wildfires, but as I approached, to my surprise, I saw that it had my name on it!  It was from Lee – one of the Arkansas Four.  Lee knew from the beginning he wouldn’t be hiking the whole JMT, he had to get back early for work and Bench Lake was his planned exit from the trail.  The note was dated yesterday morning and he wrote that Robert injured his leg descending Glenn Pass, but was hiking on anyway,  like the trooper he is.  He wrote that they’d planned on climbing Mather Pass that day (yesterday).  I was thrilled to read that: they aren’t as far ahead of me as I thought… just a little over a day! Lee said goodbye to me and left his email to exchange pics and keep in touch. I smiled for miles. I was ecstatic to get that note!!  It was comforting to know I have friends – a community out here – who are thinking about me. How cool is that? It was icing on top of a lovely chocolate cake of a day (hmm, do ya think I’m hungry?).

Trail Mail!!!
Trail Mail!!!

That reminds me, I realized today that another reason I’m sluggish is because I didn’t pack enough simple carbs (aka, sugar = instant energy). I try not to eat a ton of sugar in my everyday life so I resisted the temptation to pack it. Part of my goal after all, was to lose a little weight on this hike.  But that strategy is failing me miserably:  I’ve been eating too much protein while I hike which takes forever to convert into energy and is doing me no good on these climbs and long days.  I had a package of Twizzlers in my Onion Valley resupply and the helped, but they weren’t enough.  I can’t wait to get to Muir Trail Ranch and raid the buckets. Trying to eat too healthy has been hurting my endurance.

I’m also struggling with a rash on the back of my legs from my butt down to my calves.  It burns as I hike and my hiking pants rub against it. I think it’s dry skin or maybe chaffing from not drying off completely before putting my pants back on after the lunch-time swims and sitting in the waterfall yesterday. All I have is Carmex which works for chapped lips, so why not chapped legs and butt?  I rubbed it on and believe it or not, it helped (after it stopped burning!) I want to put something on it now, but Carmex has a strong scent and I don’t want to be an invitation to bears.  My zinc oxide is all I have that’s odorless and that’s too greasy. I have Neosporin, but I don’t think that will help, I wish I’d brought Cortisone cream. Maybe I can get some at MTR.

I have the most beautiful campsite tonight in a barren and rocky landscape below Mather Pass. I feel like I’m on the moon! I’m near a crystal-clear creek cascading through the rocks and earth from Mather Pass. I found a little pool between two boulders. It was big enough to squeeze into and have a bath.  It was even pretty warm! It felt good to splash the trail dust off my grimy body.day 13 anothe rview

I’ve just seen one lone hiker heading toward the pass, about an hour ago and he didn’t see me. Other than him, I haven’t seen anyone since early afternoon. I have the whole moon all to myself! As usual, the smoke is obscuring the jagged peaks around me, I can’t wait to get up in the morning and snap some pictures while it’s clear.

It’s time to make dinner and settle in.  I hope to sleep well tonight, I have a big day planned tomorrow.  My goal is to reach the middle fork of Kings River. It’s about 13 miles after Mather Pass – all downhill. That’ll (finally) put me over the 100-mile mark!

Now it’s time to “Just Relax!”.

 

Day 11: Rae Lakes to an unnamed pond below Pinchot Pass

August 28, 2015: Day 11 on the John Muir Trail

5:30 am at Rae Lakes

My zero day is done, I’m rested and it’s time to hike.  It was another damp night, and a lot colder. I woke up to dew on the outside of my tent and condensation dripping down the mesh walls on the inside.

The strain behind my knee and outer hamstring from falling in the mud at Soldier Lake on day 2 has been a constant nuisance while hiking and bolts of electric pain pulsed in it all night long. Plus my arthritic hips ache. And getting crushed into the cold ground through my Therm-a-Rest Trail Pro Mattress isn’t helping. I never used to have these problems when backpacking. Getting older really sucks…  rae lakes 2

I was surprised to wake up and discover that the two noisy girls who got here around 8:00 last night and camped too-close to me are packed up and already gone.  I was even more surprised I didn’t hear them leave.  When they got here, their big laughs and busy chatter echoed into my camp. There’s a whole big lake with no other hikers for miles, and they chose to set up 50 yards from me.  AND they had the audacity to be all fucking happy and chipper about it!

While they were setting up I got up from my comfortable spot on the granite where I’d been peacefully reading and pretended to fidget with my Bear Canister to get a closer look. I became even more annoyed when I saw their bright Cobalt Blue Down Jackets that appeared to be ultra-clean and crisp. How can anyone stay clean out here? 

It probably wasn’t really their noise and excited chatter that annoyed me, but the regret and loneliness it awoke in me.  For a moment, I lamented not having someone to share my own John Muir Trail experience with. How much easier would these passes be if I had someone to commiserate with? How much more tolerable would the brutal parts of the trail be with conversation to distract me? While I love my solitude,  I wonder at times if having a friend to share it with would be better. I felt a slight pang of loneliness as I listened to the noisy girls get settled into camp and finally fall silent after the loud zips of their Tent doors. rae lakes 4

And now I’m feeling a jolt of competitiveness: I’m not going to let two loud, bubbly, sparkly-clean hikers out-do me! No way! If they can get to camp at dusk and then be gone before dawn, then I sure as hell can get out of here before 8 am!  I’ve gulped down my coffee, shoveled messy spoonfuls of oatmeal into my mouth, popped a couple of ibuprofen from my rapidly diminishing supply and crammed my damp gear into my backpack.  I’m ready to go!

Sunset –at an unnamed pond just above Twin Lakes, 2.5 miles below Pinchot Pass.

11.7 miles today!!!

Today’s hike began in one of those jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring settings that backpackers live for. When I left Rae Lakes around 7:00, and got back on the John Muir Trail heading north, the cool and damp air had cleared the smoke leaving behind a crystal-clear baby blue sky and puffy white clouds.

The sun was just emerging, bathing the silky clouds in magnificent hues of pink, red and orange.   Nature’s most perfect masterpiece was unveiled before me: the sky radiating with an otherworldly glow and Rae Lake’s still gray waters perfectly mirroring the scene, framed by sharp granite peaks.  I became immersed into a world, ethereal and divine. It almost felt like too noble a show for a mere mortal like me.  There was a pull deep in my heart and my core ached. What is that? I never completely understood the physical reaction to scenes like this: a longing and an aching. Like some invisible prehistoric and primordial force was pulling me back in time reminding me that I am tied to this earth in ways my conscious mind neither remembers nor understands.rae lakes view 2

I found it difficult to continue hiking. So I lingered. Greedily consuming the moment with my eyes and heart as the sky’s palette morphed before me.

I finally pulled myself away and hiked knowing I had miles to make if I wanted to position myself as close as possible to Pinchot Pass for tomorrow. I soaked in one more panoramic view of Rae Lake, frantically snapping pictures in a vain attempt to contain the moment – a feeling really –  that I wanted to keep and remember forever.

But the glorious morning sky didn’t last. It got smoky fast and I spent the rest of the day breathing the thick heavy air it into my lungs, stifling my already altitude-labored breathing even more.baxter creek cascade

My first 6 miles were awesome. I felt renewed and refreshed  from my day of rest as I traversed a gentle 2100’ descent through lush green forests with gently cascading streams and waterfalls.  South Baxter Creek was a memorable spot. After  easily crossing the creek, the trail led up a narrow dirt path alongside it until it eventually widened,  cascading gently over flat rock.

It was another perfect wilderness moment that backpackers fantasize about when we’re in the muck of everyday life. I couldn’t pass it up. I veered off the trail, down onto the smooth rock, finding a spot where I could sit and stick my legs and feet into the water to soak. I peeled off my hiking boots, wool WrightSocks and hiking shorts and rested my achy hips and sore left leg into the numbing water.  I filled my Nalgene and drank straight from the creek without filtering it and snacked on some trail mix. Ahhhh,  this is what this trip is about; blissful moments just like this.  Sitting high atop a rocky mountain, alone, without another soul within miles just being.  The smoke hung low and socked me in making me feel enveloped in a thick perimeter of rocky mountain forest. baxter creek cascade 2

The last 5+ miles were challenging but not too bad:  I think I finally cracked the JMT code!!! Instead of struggling up ginormous 2-foot rock steps that were obviously built for Sasquatch hikers because no human could ever comfortably climb them, I realized there is no shame in skirting up the sides like other hikers do. In my LNT compulsion I’d been insistent upon staying within the lines of the manicured trail and not veering off the edges or sides.  Well screw that. My 5’4” body and hips weren’t meant for Sasquatch steps.  And climbing is so much more comfortable walking around the giant steps or using the rocks that frame them as stepping stones than heaving my short stubby legs and my heavy backpack up them! It still wasn’t easy and my left leg is killing me today no matter how much ibuprofen I take but it was far easier than it had been.

Overall, it was a wonder-filled and amazing day on the John Muir Trail!  But now I am tired and I want to eat dinner, relax and read….

 

 

 

 

 Day 10 – Rae Lakes Happy Zero Day!!!

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!) rae lakes 4

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.

10 am:

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. rae lakes 3

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.

2:30 pm:

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… rae lakes 1

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

 

5:30 pm

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! rae lakes 5

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.

 

Glen Pass: I Met my Match

Day 9: Kearsarge Lakes to Rae Lakes via Glen Pass

(August 25)

6 am: Brrrr.. what a cold night.  I woke up to ice in my water bottles, so the temps dipped at least into the 3os, if not the 20s.  Even my legs were cold with my midweight merino wool base layer, which is rare. Every time I woke up to feel cold air crushing against my legs I thought something had to be wrong.  Is there a hole in my sleeping bag? Did all the down somehow leak out? This morning I realized the gray side of my Thermarest was facing the ground, instead of up. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but it seems to really make a difference. Maybe the gray side is some kind of heat barrier?   I’m not sure, but even with the cold I got a decent night’s sleep thanks to the Advil PM I bought yesterday,

I’m still snuggled inside my tent waking up with my strong black coffee, anxious for the sun to warm me as it glides above the eastern peaks and paints the Kearsarge pinnacles in brilliant morning hues.   There’s a chorus of birds awakening to a new day of life in the mountains.  Some are ear-insulting yawpers that pierce the morning air with shrill squawks, some whistle dainty tunes accenting the stillness of nature and then there is my new favorite: what I call the “pew-pew-pew bird”. I usually only notice it in the afternoons but this morning they are wide awake and busily pew-pew-pewing away in the trees behind camp.  It always reminds me of kids playing Cowboys and Indians, shooting play guns: “Pew-Pew-Pew. You’re dead par’ner”. Or Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory when he’s doing the same. It amuses me how a bird can make a pretend/ cartoon gun sound.

Kearsarge Lakes
Morning at Kearsarge Lake

A loud pattering sound rushes above my head, like helicopter blades cutting through the still morning air. What the he… Oh, it’s ‘that’ bird again.  There’s one bird that has the loudest wing flapping ever and it always sneaks up behind me furiously flapping it’s wings, causing me to shriek out loud and nearly jump out of my hiking boots. It sounds like someone – or something –  is running up behind me.  This is the second time on the trail it’s gotten me,  and I nearly have a heart attack every single time.

As usual, I can smell the raging forest fires not-too-far from the trail churning out ash and soot, blanketing the distant peaks in a thin haze.   As much as I’m looking forward to my rest day at Rae lakes tomorrow, part of me wants to move on: I remain optimistic that I will eventually hike out of the smoke.   But I desperately I need a day off. I have to rest…

Dusk at Rae Lakes

Fuck today. Fuck the stupid mountains and fuck Glen Pass. Next time I think, “Oh it’s going to be an easy day”, I’m just going to reach right up and slap myself. I really have to stop thinking that, it only sets me up for disappointment and agony.  Just face it: there are no easy days on the John Muir Trail (they don’t call this the toughest part of the PCT for nothing).Glen Pass on the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trial

I swear, the map made it look too easy. I was expecting a 7-mile day with about 1200’ up an d 1300’ down a small pass I’d barely heard of (I think it was closer to an excruciating 2000’ up and down). So this morning, I cheerfully left my perfect camp on the shores of the serene Kearsarge lake and its majestic Pinnacles glowing brilliant shades of orange, wondering what I’d do with my afternoon since I’d reach Rae Lakes so early.  I hiked toward Glen Pass, sluggishly climbing what felt like about 800 feet, feeling optimistic. Cool, I’m halfway there! And I climbed and I climbed and I climbed.  I finally saw a pass and felt relieved to be nearly done. But then Mother Nature played her most cruel joke yet: Psych! As I climbed closer I saw a giant bowl carved out of the scree mountain on the other side. Wait, that can’t be the pass. There should be nothing but air and sky on the other side. Not MORE mountain.  NO! NO! NO! 

With my morale fading, I inched toward the stupid giant granite bowl and spotted another pass up a bunch of switchbacks above it. So I climbed and I climbed and I climbed. Up massive rock-steps and narrow screed trail, mentally kicking and screaming like a petulant 4-year-old who can’t have her ice cream. No, no, no! This is supposed to be the top dammit! I’ve gone at least 1200’. I just know it. Wah, wah wah.

As I slogged past the massive bowl toward the pass, all sweaty and tired and whiny, I realized how spoiled I am – how spoiled ‘we’ are: life is just too damn convenient for us.  In our everyday lives, everything we could ever need or want is within arm’s reach, a short drive or just a few mouse clicks away. In nature, nothing is convenient. Out here you have to work for even your basics of survival: food, comfort, warmth – and Glen Pass.  My Mt. Whitney mantra echoed through my brain: “If you want it, you have to earn it.” Hike on Whiner Girl… glen pass nobo

My philosophical sojourn didn’t do much to soothe my agony and as quickly as those thoughts entered my mind they left again, leaving me to face the beast that was ripping me to shreds. mind, body and soul.  My hate for Glen Pass consumed me. Fuck you Glen Pass and your cruel, sadistic self: toying with us mere humans who assumed you’d be so easy to conquer. Who the hell are you anyway? I never even heard of you til a few days ago. Some little un-famous pass: you were supposed to be easy. Fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou.

As I lumbered along the slippery narrow ridge of the uninspiring bowl I kept sneaking peaks at the saddle above… Ok. Well at least the end is in sight. Just hike. One foot in front of the other. Don’t stop. Move forward.

At last, I crested it. NOOOOOOOOOO!  My heart sank and I felt a giant lump in my throat:  THAT wasn’t the pass either. Ohmyfuckinggod.  How many false summits can a single pass have?  I seriously felt like I was going to cry.

Fighting back the tears and the frustration and the pain, I labored along using my trekking poles to boost my full pack and me up giant rock step after giant rock step.  I went up and down and up and down again, nearly sliding off the edge of the slippery trail as I trudged over every size rock imaginable from the giant 2’ high boulder-steps to scree, to baseball sized busted granite that rolled under my feet and threatened to send me plummeting into the bowl of death.  In my fatigued and frustrated state, I was clumsily tripping over my trekking poles, stumbling, barely catching myself before falling to the ground. I hiked on: hating the mountain, hating the trail, hating my current state of misery.

glen pass
Glen Pass

And then I realized: it’s not the Glen Pass’s fault.

The mountain is just being a mountain. Innocently and cluelessly sitting there like it has for millions of years, doing its mountain thing.  It’s not Glen Pass’s fault we humans have gotten so far removed from nature that climbing him is worse than getting all my teeth pulled without Novocain, getting stung by an entire beehive, being forced to listen to “Happy” by Pharrell Williams over and over again and getting run over by a Mack truck all at the same time.

So I turn my frustration to Tom Harrison; cursing his map for making it look so deceptively ‘easy’ – fooling me again!  Fuck you Tom Harrison, why don’t you learn how to make a map! (No offense Mr. Harrison, I’m sure you’re a very nice guy.  And you are a fine map-maker). (*smiley face*)

Then I realize it’s not Tom Harrison’s fault.

And I curse myself for my lack of attention to detail and not reading the topo lines right. Why don’t I try harder to read those stupid little brown lines that are all scrunched together? Why don’t I actually count them instead of guestimating so I won’t be surprised every time I encounter a challenging pass?   Only on the trail has my stupid perpetual optimism turned on me:  It’s going to be an easy day!! Woo- hoo, isn’t this great. Yay, let’s climb another pass!!! Fuck myself! from here on out every day, every pass is going to be really fucking hard!

Then I cursed the JMT and PCT hikers who have written about the trail: why haven’t I  heard of this sadistic pass before? Here I thought this little not-famous pass would be of no-consequence; it doesn’t have the notoriety of Forester, Muir or Pinchot – or even Kearsarge. So when I was mentally preparing myself for the climb today I thought, how hard can this little not famous pass be? Glen Pass NOBO

And then a terrifying thought struck me: what if they’re all like this? What if all ELEVEN passes are steep and rocky and go on forever with false summit after false summit? What if it’s never been mentioned because it’s just another excruciating pass in a string of excruciating passes?  Nearly in a panic, the comments of all the SOBO hikers I met on Forester came flooding back: “what an easy pass”, “Forester is my favorite pass”, they cheerfully exclaimed as they passed me on their descent.  A panicky feeling fluttered in my gut like an angry wasp hive.   For the first time in 9 days I questioned whether I’d be able to finish the trail. I’m exhausted. My hips hurt. My quads hurt. My hamstrings, feet, toenails and hands hurt (from swinging trekking poles?). And even though I’ve had challenging and excruciating days, I’ve still been mostly positive and happy to be here. But today, for the first time, I’m cranky and miserable. Today was not fun.

Yes, this is harder than I expected. Way harder. I’ve hiked only 65 miles over the last 9 days, but probably climbed and descended more than 10,000 feet without a day off and on fewer than 2000 calories a day (because I STILL have no appetite). I’ve trying to force myself to eat more but the altitude is affecting my appetite (mental note: savor those last 2 sentences, because I’m pretty sure I will never utter the words, “I have no appetite” and “I have to force myself to eat” ever again!). I know from training for the ½ marathon a couple years ago how important recovery days are. But I’ve kept pushing on with a goal and an agenda on my mind,  ignoring the signals my depleted muscles are sending me. And now I’m finally here: Rae Lakes. I’m not sure one zero is going to do it. We’ll see…. DSCN0218 view from glenn pass maybe

I’m relaxing and stretching in the tent now. In my bed clothes eating trail mix. I’m too tired and not hungry enough to cook (again: savor that sentence!). There’s a sign at the bear box warning of bear activity in the area so I expect to get a visit tonight. I hope not, I just want to sleep forever….

When I was setting up camp I met my neighbor Michele, from San Francisco. She’s hiking SOBO from Red’s Meadow. She said tons of people are bailing because of the smoke. The trail is going to be quiet. And soon my only other NOBOers  – my Arkansas friends – will be days ahead of me.  The next few weeks will be interesting.

Ok, it’s early, but I’m going to try to take a nap and maybe get up and cook dinner later….Tomorrow will be a better day…

 

Independence: Resupply, Restore and Renew

Day 8: Onion Valley Campground to Kearsarge Lakes via Independence 5.8 miles

Resupply day!

8 am –  I’ve been sitting on a bear box in the parking lot at the Onion Valley trailhead waiting for a ride since 7:30. There’s no one around and there aren’t many people in the campground. I didn’t meet anyone last night (just the annoying nosey guy), so all I can do is sit here and wait…  It’s very quiet.  I may be here a while.

8:45 am– I’m in Independence!!!

I was sitting on my bear box writing when suddenly, out of nowhere, a car appeared from the campground. I crammed my journal into my pack, slung it over my shoulder and ran to the road with my thumb flying in the air.  A slight, middle aged woman who seemed habitually nervous, rolled down her window and looked at me doubtfully. My heart sank. Her little Honda CRV was already packed with gear and two dirty hikers with accents who were incoherently blathering away at her. I was sure she wouldn’t try to cram me in. But then the hiker in the back craned his head toward me over the gear-stuffed backseat and yelled, “C’mon mate, we can fit yew.” And the nervous lady yielded, saying to no one in particular, “ok, we can try”.  Apparently all the chatter I couldn’t make out was the hikers pleading with her to pick me up, as I will learn later.

Jerri from Clovis, California was our gracious driver. She’d dropped off her husband for a 5-day trip and was on her way out when the other two flagged her down in the campground. When I asked her why she wasn’t joining her husband on the trail she just laughed, “oh no, not me. I prefer 5 star hotels thank you!”. I looked at my dirt-streaked sunburned face in her rear view mirror and couldn’t help feeling a little smug in all my dirtiness.DSCN0194 kearsarge pass looking east

James, who was sharing the backseat with me and his very large backpack, was about my age, very thin and weather-worn. He helped me wedge my pack between my legs as I climbed into the cramped backseat.  There was gear everywhere; piled on the seat, rolling around the floor and crammed into the small luggage area in the back.

Fred was the other passenger, sitting in the front seat. A frail looking 78-year-old man with the same weather-worn look as his mate, gray wispy-thin hair and a beard.  They told us they came from Australia to hike the John Muir Trail and had been wandering around for 73 days – not really sticking to the trail much.   I knew I didn’t smell great despite my attempts at hiker baths, but wow, the Aussies were ripe! All I could think was, poor Jerri she’ll have to fumigate her cute little truck before her long ride back to Clovis.

James confessed to me, almost in a whisper as Fred and Jerri chatted away in the front seat, that they had come down the pass earlier and spotted me sitting on the bear box, waiting. They knew they had to get behind me if they were to get a ride, so they went into the campground and waited, finding Jerri as she exited.  In essence, he, a little too-nonchalantly admitted to hijacking my ride.  They thought it would be easier for them to convince someone to pick up a woman than for me to convince someone to pick up two dirty men, “But what if you couldn’t?” I asked.

“Well then, I guess yew’d still be sittin’ there…”  He said laughing. I wasn’t. But I’m not one to hold grudges (even when I should!) and I quickly got over it. After all, I was in the car and I couldn’t hate them for their ingenuity. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

resupply in independence
Independence, CA

So after a slow and windy, cramped and smelly trip into town I’m enjoying my veggie Subway sandwich and icy-cold black tea that took me 20 minutes to get while the guy behind the counter finished whatever he was doing in the back. Things move a little slower in Independence.  I already did my shopping at the small hiker friendly convenience store/gas station connected to Subway (I got the hiker discount!). I got my Nyquil tabs (since you can’t by Xanax over the counter), a bar of soap from which I cut a small chunk and threw the rest away (my Dr. Bronners leaked out of the cheapo screw-cap dollar containers from Walmart and I didn’t pack any more in my resupply) and my blue bandanna!  They didn’t have much vegan food and I didn’t feel like getting an upset stomach on the trail, so I avoided the ice cream and snickers bars that tempted me and opted for a banana and a big bag of Fritos.

With footlong subs and giant bottles of water in hand, James and Fred asked to join me at my outdoor table with a view of the Independence post office and the Eastern Sierra Peaks we’d descended from in the background. The post office didn’t open until 9:30 so we had some time to kill.

They shared stories of their 73 days in the backcountry; how they’d been wandering around, not really following the JMT, with minimal food, catching fish with their bare hands to sustain them.  They’d caught 58 fish they said – yes all with their bare hands!  I had my doubts, thinking the Aussies were telling me tall tales.  But then they demonstrated how to reach your hands into the water, deep under rocks until you feel slimy slithery bodies and then you trap them in. The cupped their cutup hands to show me their technique.  Seeing all the cuts and scrapes on their hands and forearms my suspicions of tall-tales vanished. I truly believed I was in the presence of two legitimate Bare-Handed-Aussie-Fish-Catchers.

Kearsarge Lake REI Quarterdome tent view
I love my tent view at Kearsarge Lake

As James talked I became distracted by a black bug crawling on his cheek. I kept waiting for him to swat it away but he kept on talking like it wasn’t even there.  I watched it get to his beard line and then head toward his mouth.  I tried to focus on his fish-catching instruction in case I’m ever in a survival situation but all I could think was: what if it goes in his mouth? Will he let it go in his mouth? Do these bare-handed-fish-catchers eat bugs too?  I could almost feel the bug crawling on my own face and found myself swiping at my cheek as I devoured my sandwich.  I tried to focus on his story. On my sandwich. On my iced-tea, anything but the little critter having a field day on his cheek.  I waited for him to feel it and brush it off… And I waited. And waited… Ohmygod is he ever going to brush it off? He HAS to feel it.  HOW CAN HE NOT FEEL IT?!? I couldn’t take it any longer. I abruptly interrupted him, “there’s a bug on your face…”

“Oh, okay….”  He kept right on talking barely missing a beat. He didn’t even try to brush it off. Wow, these guys from Down Under are the real freaking deal!   I didn’t hear another word he said, I was mesmerized by the little black bug as it trekked across the Aussie’s face as if it was on its own tiny little JMT journey. I fought the urge to swat it away and watched with horror and fascination as it crawled in and out of his beard, across his cheek, toward his ear and then into his hairline where it disappeared and then remerged from behind his ear again.  Would it be rude to swat it away? He seemed to have some affinity with the tiny bug, so I felt swatting it away would be invasive. But it was making me crazy. How can he not feel it?    All I could do is watch as it trekked across his face, exploring every pore and speck of dirt it encountered as I scarfed my Fritos.

After eating, we walked across the busy two lane Route 395, dodging campervans and big rigs, to the post office.   A sense of relief swept over me when the postman came back from the stacks of boxes holding mine! Yay, it worked!  I’d had a nagging fear that my box wouldn’t be there.  The postman was very friendly, asking if I was hiking the JMT. He handed me my box and asked politely, “Please take it outside to unpack, not in the lobby.”  “No problem”, I responded and took my slightly crushed box outside where I plopped down on the sidewalk, leaned against the post office wall and tore it open.

Kearsare lakes day 9 2
Kearsarge Lakes with the Pinnacles in the background

Resupply is like Christmas morning for thru-hikers:  I was filled with excitement as I ripped through the box to find what goodies I’d snuck inside. Red Vines!  Yay! I need the sugar, I hadn’t packed enough instant energy in the first leg and I needed this for the long climbs. More trail mix! Yay! (really, I love trail mix and could eat it every day). New dinners! Yay! Toilet Paper and wet wipes! Yay! Wow, it really doesn’t take much to make me happy on the trail. I like that…

The feeling of being dirty and smelly, sitting on the sidewalk with pounds of hiker food sprawled on the ground around me as curious passers-by gawked at us was the most awesome feeling ever.  While the rest of the world was going about their perfectly orchestrated, purposely full lives; going to work, dropping off the kids, running errands, I sprawled out on the hot sidewalk (yes it was already hot) with one concern: how to fit 9 days of food in my bear can as quickly as possible so I can get back on the trail. This is what freedom looks like, folks!

5pm at Kearsarge lakes

I am utterly and completely exhausted. And I had the absolute best day! I’m alone at Kearsarge Lakes setting up camp. It feels weird to be alone. There has been a flutter of activity and people the last couple of days, being so close to trailhead with the hordes of day and section hikers, a lot of time with the Arkansas guys, spending last night in the campground and today, being in town and hanging out with the smelly Bare-Handed-Fish-Catching-Aussies.

When you hike north-bound you talk to a lot of people in passing, but you don’t get the community SOBO hikers have.  They see the same people as they leapfrog one another, eventually forming groups and hiking together.  But going NOBO – and being solo – except for the people I pass on the trail, I’m alone most of the time.   Leapfrogging the Arkansas Four and knowing they’re nearby has been comforting. It’s tempting to want to stay with them, but I feel like I miss part of the experience when I hike with other people.  I’m not as aware. I don’t see or experience as much.  The trail becomes a prop and the wilderness a backdrop to the conversations; like the set of a play. It’s there, but you don’t really experience it, you’re more focused on the actors.  I’m glad to be alone again. 20150729_153935 kearsarge lake

Today couldn’t have gone more perfectly: getting the ride out of Onion Valley so quickly, shopping, enjoying some “real” food (not sure I’d call Subway “real food”, but it will do for now), successfully retrieving my resupply box and then getting a ride back to the trailhead within 10 minutes of sticking my thumb out.  I was back on the trail by 10:45 am!

Within two miles of being on the trail I ran into my Arkansas friends as they descended Kearsarge Pass toward their resupply. They decided to camp at Charlotte Lake tonight rather than stay at Kearsarge again, and stashed their gear near the top of the pass.  They had empty packs and were hustling down the mountain.  They were so fast, that we met up again at Flower Lake, where I was taking a break to re-organize my pack, get water and soak my achy feet.

I must have looked pretty miserable because Robert offered to carry my newly-replenished BV500 to the top of the pass. Since he was just carrying his food, he thought the extra weight would be much less of a burden on him than on me with a full pack. I flat out refused. There was no way I was going to let him carry my weight up the pass. Wouldn’t it be cheating?

They all gave me such a hard time for refusing him that I felt like an idiot and gave in… Holy shit, what a relief it was! Thanks to him I climbed that pass –  4.7 miles and 2700’ –  in 3 hours! I met up with them at the top and Robert handed me my bear can, “what the heck do you have in there? Rocks?” I laughed, it was 9 days’ worth of food. “How much does that thing weigh?”. I looked at him with what must have been a dumb look on my face and shrugged as I attempted do the math in my head. “We’re guessing at least 20 pounds!” Robert teased, smiling cheerfully as always. I felt bad – it was heavier than he thought it would be.

“Nah, it can’t be that heavy”, and the numbers finally came to my foggy brain, “my food is about 1.5 lbs. a day at 9 days… that’s 14 lbs. max. “

“It feels like a lot more than that young lady!”  He good naturedly chided me.

I wondered, can it weigh 20 pounds? There IS a lot of trail mix in there and it’s stuffed.  When I stuffed it back inside my pack and heaved it over my shoulder, I had to admit, it felt like a hell of a lot more than 14 lbs. Omg it’s so heavy. My little reprieve was over. Back to the reality of a full pack.

I’d talked about trying to hike Charlotte Lake to get closer to Rae Lakes where I was planning my zero but Tim adamantly urged me to stay at Kearsarge Lakes, touting its incredible beauty. He convinced me it was a special place not to be missed, so we parted ways once again and I headed down the thick soupy smoke to the barely visible Kearsarge Lakes. kearsarge tent by the lake great shot smaller

The climb down the western side of Kearsarge Pass was slow and painful and as smoky and dreary as yesterday. When I finally got to the set of small lakes nestled beneath the pointy pinnacles, I hiked toward the second lake as Tim suggested and scouted for a spot. Being just 6 miles from the trailhead, it’s a well-used area and there are plenty of sites to choose from. I settled on a flat sandy spot next to giant boulder that towers a few feet above my head, far enough from the grassy shore and surrounded by the smoke-subdued Kearsarge pinnacles that dramatically cut the the sky and then gradually melt into the landscape, ending abruptly in a sharp cliff at the opposite edge of the calm gray waters.  I can’t wait for morning to take some pictures.  I’ve stopped trying to take pictures in the smoke, they just look like walls of hazy smoke with a shadow of a mountain behind it. I’ve learned to wait until morning when the smoke has cleared to take most of my pictures.

I love this time day on the trail; the hiking is over and I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Now I get to reap the reward; the privilege of being where few go. Of seeing what most people never see and experiencing nature in a way that so many only dream of – or don’t dare dream of.kearsarge lakes day 9 3 smaller

As I relish in the silence of my aloneness, organizing my gear and pitching my tent, I reflect on my day, thinking back to the busy-ness and constant drone of activity along Route 395 in Independence. Everyone seemed to be such a hurry (except the dude making my sandwich) to get somewhere. Everything moved so fast and seemed louder than it needed to be. As I listen to nature’s hush and loll in the company of the ancient hardy crags, stoic boulders and sturdy conifers and the small smooth lake gently lapping against the earth in the tiny breeze, I am full with gratitude. And before I know it a familiar thought seeps into my brain: The world doesn’t fit me. The world doesn’t fit me.  I feel a pull inside as the almost too-unimaginable thought touches the outer edges of my psyche and then floats away and disappears like smoke. Only to waft back in and settle on my exhausted mind like the wall of smoke above me. The world doesn’t fit me… 

All my life I’ve tried to deny this harsh thought, pushing it from my mind, pretending it was never there. How can the world not fit me? That’s insane!  The idea that the world is somehow flawed and would deny one of its own like a mama bear abandoning her only cub didn’t make sense to me. So I believed it had to be me: I don’t fit. It’s me. Flawed. Broken.  Damaged so badly that the world rejects me.  If I could just morph into a still-unknown, but pre-determined cookie-cutter mold, I’d find my place. I just needed to change. This led to a lifetime of chasing false hopes of inclusion down rabbit hole after rabbit hole.  I tried on different lifestyles, looks, friends, men and jobs like some people try on new shoes.  Something or someone is bound to fit!  How many times can a person reinvent herself, anyway?   DSCN0206 kearsarge alpenglow

It was in the backcountry that I began to make sense of that almost-too-unimaginable feeling. I finally found something that felt right and it didn’t demand that I compromise myself, change into someone I wasn’t or sell my soul. In the wilderness – away from all the clutter and noise of life, the feeling of belonging surges inside me, demanding to be recognized: it becomes an ache. A Truth: it’s not the world that doesn’t fit me, it’s THAT world. The one in which Kardashians, unfulfilling 9-5 jobs and 30 year mortgages make sense. A world that makes us so fearful that we would rather watch other people live their lives on so called “Reality TV” than get out and live our own lives.  A world in which Subway passes as real food.  A world in which we feel so trapped and helpless that we subconsciously numb ourselves: fluttering about like honeybees staying as busy as possible, trying to soothe an unnamed emptiness with More.  More responsibility. More work. More food.  More drink. More pharmaceuticals.  More TV.   More stuff that clutters the houses that chain us to our unfulfilling lives.

And I realized, I’ve been shackled to a life I don’t even want. A life that doesn’t fit me. All in the spirit of chasing some elusive American Dream I’m supposed to want. The Dream that tells us we need the bigger house, newer car and expensive vacations. The Dream that insidiously forces us into indentured servitude; trapping us beneath mounds of student loans, car payments, mortgages and credit card bills. Drowning us in responsibility and debt with the promise that if we work hard, save and live long enough we will finally be free –If. The Dream that tells us we should be happy with 2 weeks of vacation while stealing our freedom. Chasing that Dream took me further and further from a world that fits me. Further from truth. Further from myself.

Being in the backcountry, carrying all that I need to survive on my back for days on end has made me realize I was chasing a dream I didn’t want. That world is not me. The closer I got to the Dream the emptier I felt.  THIS is the world that fits me: being in the wilderness where nothing matters but survival and everything I need is carried on my back.  It is among the trees and the dirt and the streams and the lakes that I finally feel welcomed and accepted, without judgement, for all that I am. I may be bent, but I’m not broken. I may be scarred, but I’m not damaged.  Nature gave me my safe place. This is where I belong.

As my sense of belonging envelops me like a warm quilt I crawl inside my tent to set up home:  blowing up my Thermarest, pulling my fluffy down bag out of my pack and thinking about the corn chowder I’ll have for dinner.  I’m smiling as I pull my wool sleeping clothes on over my dirty legs and wrap my bag around me. It’s only 5:30 but the lake is socked in under a thick layer of smoke, making for a gloomy and cold evening. In a normal year, I’d probably be jumping in the cool still waters to clean myself up, but now I have to settle for relaxing inside my tent, curled up in my sleeping bag, sipping chamomile tea.

I’m still exhausted. The bottoms of my feet still throb. My muscles ache and my pack still doesn’t fit right.  And it was a perfect day! I feel completely and utterly and beautifully Content.