Day 14 Leconte Canyon to Sapphire Lake over Muir Pass
It was a dull and dreary day. As I climbed north toward Muir Pass the wind whipped against my face and made an already challenging hike, nearly unpleasant. It could have been awe-inspiring, with one jaw-dropping scene after another: a series of jagged peaks and desolate glacial bowls brimming with icy gray water, tucked far away from the rest of the world atop grand mountains. But instead, the smoke cast a heavy gloom over the hard landscape.
Muir was another long and elusive pass. I traversed wobbly and rugged terrain, over massive chunks of broken mountain, past narrow gorges split by pristine mountain water and desolate tarns. It was a long trek, that seemed to have no end. Finally, after hours of trudging uphill, I spotted the famed Muir hut that marks the top of the pass. And on the other side – off to the distant North – through the smoky air, were the faint outlines of the peaks that surround the infamous and much anticipated Evolution Basin.
As I approached the summit, I felt like a sole astronaut landing on a distant planet until I spotted a green Osprey backpack near the entrance. Inside the hut, I found an extremely talkative man in his late twenties who offered that he’d been living in the wilderness for 58 days. He said he was escaping the shallowness of his adopted hometown- Hollywood – where he’d traveled from someplace else to be an actor. “But,” he complained, “I can’t stand the people. They’re so shallow.” So he’d escaped the shallowness and big-city problems of Hollywood for a life of simplicity and solitude in the John Muir Wilderness.
At first I didn’t mind the company and patiently listened to his life stories; a failed attempt at college, failed attempts at a variety of careers and failed attempts to find a nice place to live in Hollywood. But I began to feel heavy and overwhelmed by his endless negative energy: “….and besides living in crappy neighborhoods with a bunch of blacks and Mexicans because I can’t find a job because all the Mexicans are stealing them – now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with Mexicans – I’m not racist or anything. But, they’re taking all the jobs and ruining all the good neigh – “
“Ok, well, I better get a move on, I have a lot of trail left if I want to get to Evolution. Good luck and enjoy your stay.” Any sentence that contains the words “I’m not racist, but…” Is not a conversation I want to be a part of. I abruptly slung my pack over my right shoulder and made a sharp turn toward the trail that headed down the northern side of Muir Pass. I buckled in as I walked, feeling desperate to escape the dreary pass and even drearier young man as soon as possible.
As I hiked down the steep northern slope of Muir Pass, the frustration and weariness of the long climb up the other side slid away and was replaced with excited anticipation of reaching Evolution Valley. Evolution Basin was one of the landmark places on the John Muir trail, like Mt. Whitney, Guitar Lake, and Forester Pass. It stood out in trail lore as one of the most scenic and idyllic places (and I just loved the name, it conjured images of raw beauty and primal connectedness with nature). I couldn’t wait to get there and I hiked with renewed vigor and excitement.
The Muir Pass descent spilled me into another moonscaped world. In every direction were dramatic mountains and sharp hills cluttered with granite of all shapes and sizes. I traversed the narrow trail, barely visible from more than a few feet away as it sliced the rugged landscape, leading me along the edge of Wanda Lake. It was far too cool to swim, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to sit for a while and immerse myself in such a remote and barren scene.
Unbuckling my pack, I edged toward the lake, flat and blanketed with damp yellow grass. Finding a spot big enough to stretch out on, I slipped my pack over my shoulder and let it hit the ground with a thud; my butt not far behind. I ripped at my boot laces, peeled off my damp socks and plunged my swollen feet into the lake. Ahhhh. The frigid water temporarily relieved the aches and pains of the last 12 days. I pulled my dried mango and a Go Macro bar out of the front pocket of my backpack and sat on the edge of the lake, eating my lunch and devouring the scenery; rocky, barren and void of life.
When my feet grew numb in the icy-cold water, I pulled them out and laid back, resting my head on my backpack. The eager sun warmed me as the smoke slowly dissipated into the weary blue sky. I closed my eyes and silence flooded my ears. Stark bold silence. Not a fly buzzing, a bird squawking or breeze lapping gentle waves upon the shore of Wanda Lake. The world had gone mute.
I opened my eyes and with all my senses, greedily consumed the stoic scene. I pondered the dichotomous landscape. How can Mother Nature be so simple, yet complex; wild, yet pure; silent, yet deafening? It’s nature, I thought. Pure, unadulterated and imperfect. Full of contrast and contradiction.
My head swam with the sound of silence, my breathing slowed and my body relaxed, acquiescing to nature’s rhythm. And a nagging, sorrowful thought gently lapped at the outer edges of my psyche: How can I ever go back?
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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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!)
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.
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! 🙂
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.
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!”
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!
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?).
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.
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
Ahhh. There’s nothing like waking up to the smell of fresh cooked forest! Just as the trail chatter had said, the air at Rae Lakes is murky with smoke. Since the first light faintly glowed against the black sky in the eastern horizon, I’d wake up, peek out of my tent, get a whiff of burnt air and retreat back inside, burrowing deep inside my down bag in a futile attempt to filter the noxiousness. It’s like living in a wood-fire pizza oven – only without the pizza. (mmmm…pizza!)
But it’s ok… I’m at Rae Lakes. The Rae Lakes. And even with a smoky film muddying the scenery and polluting the air, it’s remarkable; a bowl of cool gray water framed by rocky shores surging with lush conifers. I’m a mere speck in a picturesque cirque at the foot of characteristically dramatic Kings Canyon peaks: Painted Lady, Mount Rixford, and Dragon Peak. I imagine that behind the gray film, Painted Lady stands proud, living up to her moniker; radiating brilliant shades of color and adorning the range of peaks that surround her.
I awoke to a feeling of relief: I don’t have to hike today! I can rest my depleted muscles and tomorrow hike into the next section of the JMT feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. Once the sun comes up I’ll do laundry, take a bath and even wash my hair! I can’t believe I haven’t washed my hair or bathed in hot water in 10 days. I’ve have never felt so grimy in my entire life: I am constantly covered in dirt and sweat, my hair is heavy with grime, my hands and fingernails are black with earth and no matter how many times I wash with baby wipes and splash fresh stream water over me, I feel like I’ll never be completely clean again.
Laundry is done! After anxiously waiting out the cold morning, cuddled inside my sleeping bag eating breakfast and writing, the sun finally breached the peaks framing Rae Lakes, flooding my little sandy section of earth with its warmth. It was barely warm enough to bear putting my hands into the frigid waters of Rae Lake, but I was anxious to get my chores done so I could relax and enjoy my zero day. After four trips to the lake shore and back, lugging both my BV500-turned-washing-machine and my backpack full of food so the bears wouldn’t sneak into camp and steal it while I was away, I have clean-ish clothes.
It’s cloudy and still pretty cool. The brief moments the sun sneaks between the heavy gray clouds are barely enough to warm me. If it rains now I’d be in serious trouble. Everything but the shorts, tank top and down jacket I’m wearing is wet. I’m just waiting for it to warm up enough to jump in Rae Lake to wet my hair so I can wash it in the bear can with some Dr. Bronners away from the lake.
Being in one place all day is a little strange. I’ve had to fight the urge to pack up and hike. My laundry is done, I’m bathed, my hair is washed the best I could be in cold lake water, I’ve walked, read, eaten, organized, sat and stared, thought, contemplated and written. Sitting still when I still have so many miles to hike is unnerving. It’s hard to relax.
I keep thinking about Capone. Up until today I’d forced myself to push thoughts of him out of my head. But sitting here all day with nothing but silence and time I can’t ignore the heaviness of worry in my heart when I imagine him all alone at Camp Four Paws. Sure, it’s the doggy version of club med, with walks and hugs and treats and plenty of attention, resting on a farm in the country where he and his fellow canine guests have many acres to roam, play and explore. I’m sure he’s lapping in doggy bliss, poolside with a giant marrow bone right now! But I still worry. He’s 10. He had skin cancer last year. What if something happens and he’s not there when I get home? I left instructions that if something does happen, they should contact his next of kin (my ex-husband) – not me. There’s no use getting that kind of news in the back-country. Alone. Nothing good could come of that. So now, I constantly worry that the worst has already happened and I’ll arrive home to nothing…
The worry makes me want to go. I’ve been fighting the urge to get back to him as soon as possible. I gave myself 30 days to complete the trail and I don’t want to feel rushed or consumed with worry; but I miss my buddy. I push the panicky thoughts out of my mind and try to trust that he’s doing fine. I imagine him frolicking with the other dogs and getting belly rubs from the excellent staff. And I smile. He’s going to be OK. I’m going to be OK, but I sure do miss my friend…
Then my restlessness takes a new turn and I think it would be nice to hike out of the smoke. To see what’s around the next bend. But I force myself to stay put… Yesterday’s miserable climb over Glen Pass was more than enough proof that I need to stay put and rest.
I’ve taken a couple of walks around both sides of the lake to explore my surroundings. Off to the north I can barely make out the faint masses of far away peaks through the smoke. Once again, I try not to think of all the dramatic vistas and bigger-than-life mountain ranges I’m missing and instead appreciate what’s right in front of me. Today it’s Rae Lake. Some days it’s a babbling creek, lush green meadow, topaz-blue tarn, a grove of ancient gnarled foxtail pines or a rocky slope set before me yearning to be appreciated in its modest grandeur. Sure, I may not be able to see what’s miles away but maybe that makes what’s right in front of me all that more beautiful. In the year of the wildfire, these more subtle and humble players take center stage, no longer competing with the dramatic granite peaks, passes and vistas that normally hog the limelight and steal the show
Oh how I needed this day of rest! As the day lazily unfurled I could literally feel my tense and strained body relax, letting go of the fatigue and stress from the last 9 days, 65 miles, 6 passes, one giant mountain and nearly 20,000 feet in elevation. As my muscles relaxed I could feel the healing and rejuvenating. Ahhh…. Tomorrow I will be stronger!
When the sun shone bright overhead I took a nap in the warmth of my tent only to be awakened a short time later by a tiny trickle of rain. It only lasted about 5 minutes and then it got warm again. Feeling a little restless, I meandered along the sandy edge of Rae Lake taking plenty of opportunities to sit and rest and soak in my view and today’s reality. I don’t get many truly relaxing days like this. At home I’m either too plugged in, working, walking Capone, working out, running errands, or watching TV thinking about everything l I should be doing and feeling guilty about it. There is no guilt on a zero day! Not only do I feel like I earned it: I need it. My body recovers and my nature-TV comes guilt free: watching as the landscape of each peak changes with the journey of the sun. From early morning black against starry skies to Alpen-lit grays at sunrise to brightly glowing shades of granite as the sun rises high in the mid-day sky. I sat and watched the light dance off the water as the tiny waves rippled in the wind with the birds squawking, chirping, pew-pew-pewing, and whistling away in the background going about their important bird-business.
As my zero day winds down I can’t say I’m excited about getting back on the trail tomorrow, despite my restlessness. My left leg and foot have been hurting all day, I’m about to lose my left big-toe toenail (again) and walking – even without my pack – is painful. Where are these hiker legs I’m supposed to get? Why am I not stronger? Why is this still so hard? OK, time for a little reality check: I’ve hiked 65 miles, climbed and descended over 20,000 feet and climbed the tallest mountain in the lower 48. Yeah, that might have something to do with it…
Tomorrow will be a new day!
The next few days the smoke will be horrible. I need a plan to get over Muir Pass as quickly as possible…but I’ll think about that later.
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.
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).
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…
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.
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?
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….
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…
Day 8: Onion Valley Campground to Kearsarge Lakes via Independence 5.8 miles
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
….And I hiked, winding back and forth, back and forth, down the endless switchbacks bargaining with the universe to show me signs of civilization below. Please, please, please, be around the next corner… if it’s there this time, I’ll stop for a rest. Really, I promise… With the smoke hanging heavy in the air, blotting out the sun’s lively rays, it felt much later than it was. I’d been fooled by this smoke induced false-dusk before; dropping my pack to set up camp thinking it’s at least 7, only to discover it’s just 3:00. In a normal year, I’d probably be cussing the heat and looking for a lake to jump into by then, but this year, the year of the wildfires, I spend my afternoons hiking in perpetual gloaming: fooling my body into thinking it’s more tired than it is.
Is that red? Do I see red? Far below I thought I spotted something out of place in the earth-toned terrain of the eastern slope of Kearsarge Pass. I slogged along, trying to ignore the throbbing pains in the bottoms of my feet, desperately searching… YES! Oh my god a car! I never thought I’d be so happy to see a car in all my life. A few more steps revealed (still hundreds of feet below) a whole parking lot filled with metallic bulbs of color – like a colorful garden nestled at the foot of this hellish mountain. With renewed vigor and a quickened pace I hobbled down the mountainside wondering how long it had been since I’d seen a car: Wow, it’s been 7 days!Have I ever, in my whole life, gone 7 days without seeing a car?I had to think about it. And no, in my 47 years, I had never gone 7 days without seeing a car. That made me a little sad as the reality of approaching civilization settled in.
From the time I spotted the parking lot to the moment I set foot in the campground, 90 excruciatingly looooonng and torturous minutes passed. But at last I made it…It was close to 5:00 when I finally retreated from the back country. 7 hours. 8.6 miles. More than 5500 feet. I was happy to be done, but not so thrilled about where “done” got me.
Despite my exhaustion, before dropping my pack I circled the campground to look for a site to call home for the night. You’d think I was taking a mortgage out with the amount of scrutiny I put into choosing my 12-hour home. But after spending the last 7 nights mostly alone, I wanted a private spot away from the smelly pit toilets and the curious eyes of car campers. I felt more exposed and vulnerable than I do in the backcountry and the curious stares were unnerving.
On my second pass of the small loop, the odd homeless-looking man who had been pretending to fidget around his creepy 1980-something gray van parked at a site in the center of the loop, directly adjacent to the campground host, walked toward me trying to disguise his nosiness behind nonchalance. He failed miserably: it was obvious by his anxious gait and expression that he needed to say something to me. He puffed out his scrawny chest that had long ago caved in from age and lack of any real exercise and stammered awkwardly, “Ummmm…? Hullo? Can I help you…. with sumthin?”
I copped an attitude before he even opened his mouth. I knew he was going to be trouble by the way he’d slow his fidgeting, and strain his long neck, to covertly scrutinize me out of the corner of his eye every time I passed. I surmised by the absence of a car outside the camp hosts 5th Wheel that they were probably in town running errands. Apparently, Van Guy decided it was his civic duty to hold down the fort and prevent dirty hiker chicks from causing mayhem on the Homefront while they were away. Great, a bored homeless guy with a cop complex, I am so not in the mood for this…. I gave him my finest “fuck you” glare and coolly replied, “just looking for a spot to camp for the night” I was curt and short, making no effort whatsoever to hide my annoyance.
“Errrr… a’right,” he stammered awkwardly looking from my pack to my hiking boots and back up again, but never in the eye. “Well the camp host’ll be back soon…” I could see his wheels spinning as he sized me up and sensed he had a whole lot more to say. I imagined he was mentally practicing his Ranger Rick speech: “Don’ be thinkin yer gonna get ‘way wit nuthin lil lady. Comin in here all dirty and grimy, casin the joint and thinking you ain’t got to pay fer nuttin. I got my eye on you, so just in case yer thinkin’ a causin’ trouble, you ain’t.”
I looked toward the giant self-register billboard 5 feet away and replied curtly, “that’s good to know,” and continued my 3rd trip around the loop to get a closer look at my final contenders. I felt his beady little gray eyes burning into my back as I walked away.
Coming around the loop toward wanna-be Ranger Rick’s camp once more, a real Ranger in an official green pickup truck pulled into the campground from the road and headed straight toward me. Now what? Geesh, can’t a dirty hiker look for a campsite in peace around here? He pulled up next to me, stopped and rolled down his window. A blast of cold air hit my face from the A/C blowing inside the cab. It felt refreshing on my sunburnt, salty face. He was young – maybe thirty, with a brown beard like all the hip young outdoorsy guys are wearing now, wavy hair, full lips and big brown eyes. I was caught off guard by his rugged good looks. When he flashed me his smile my attitude dropped faster than you can say “cougar bait” and I suddenly had a burning desire for a shower, shampoo, a little mascara and a miracle that would make me 15 years younger.
“How’s it going out there?” Unlike wanna-be Ranger Rick, this real Ranger knew that despite my current appearance, I wasn’t a thieving homeless lady, but a backpacker. This was going to be a friendly conversation, not another attempt to infringe upon my freedom to walk around the campground as many times as I wanted.
Painfully aware of my current state of hygiene I replied as confidently as I could muster, “good. It’s smoky,” I decided to play the “I’m a super-cool-hiker-chick who isn’t bothered by a little dirt and B.O.” card: I casually flicked back my unkempt braid and wiped my sweaty forehead with my dirt-caked hand, trying like hell to act like I’d just come from a day at the spa and not 7 days in the wilderness without a proper shower. I smiled awkwardly, trying not to think about how I probably looked like a giant dirty tomato with my big round dirt-streaked sunburned face, “what do you know about the fires?”
“Bad. Real bad.” THAT was not the answer I was hoping for. “The Rough Fire in Kings canyon is burning outta control and it’s in the wilderness now, so they stopped fighting it.” So, the rumors were true… I’d heard this from SOBO hikers who had talked to Rangers up north so it wasn’t a surprise However, what he said next was, “the fire’s about 10 miles off the JMT,” he paused and studied me, seeming almost reluctant to continue, “they pulled all the Rangers from LeConte Canyon and Rae Lakes…” What was he saying??? They pulled the Rangers but left the hikers? What the hell does that mean? I panicked a little. My gut knotted up and disappointment dropped into my core like a boulder. I don’t want to quit. I don’t want Onion Valley Campground to be my finish. Happy Isles, it’s supposed to be Happy Isles!
“Wha–? They pulled the Rangers?” My concern about finishing the trail overwhelmed my little cradle-robbing Ranger crush and any self-consciousness over my giant tomato head. Now I was all business – now I was the hiker chick unconcerned with B.O. and dirt. “Is it that dangerous? Do you think the fires will make it to the trail…?”
“I don’t know if the fires are gonna reach the trail. But the smoke… They can’t live in that… “
That made sense and I felt slightly relieved. The Rangers live out there all summer and I’m sure there are OSHA laws about employees living in hazardous conditions. Conversely, I’m just passing through (and still holding onto hope that I’ll eventually walk out of the smoke). But still, 10 miles away, that’s a day’s hike. And they stopped fighting the fires… What does that mean exactly? I had to ask, but was afraid of his answer, “is it ok for us to be out there still?”
There was a too-long pause. I could see him trying to find the right words, “I can’t say ma’am.” He looked like a man who didn’t want to say the truth and besides the sting of this young handsome Ranger calling me ma’am I was rocked by the reality of my situation with the wildfires: I may end up having to evacuate.
I was trying to digest and make sense of this tragic news. I wanted him to give me the answers, reassure me, tell me it would be ok to continue, “B…but what if the fire does get closer? How will we know? Will they evacuate us? Will they get us out?”
He looked me square in the eye with his big brown eyes and shrugged his broad shoulders. He didn’t have to say it; the answer was ‘no’. “Just be careful out there….”
A million thoughts were flying through my mind. OMG they won’t try to evacuate us!?! If a big wind hits and the fire comes we’re on our own? No Rangers… We’re really and truly on our own. I’m no stranger to throwing caution to the wind, taking risks and charging forward without thinking things to death, and for days I’ve rationalized being out here in these conditions: I came out here to experience nature. Forest fires are part of nature. They are part of my experience. It’s neither good nor bad. It just IS. And I will keep going until it’s too dangerous to move on. So with this new information from a professional – a Ranger – a dude who knows stuff – what the hell am I supposed to do?
I tried to be optimistic and cheerful and not read too much into his evasiveness, “Ok. I will be. Thank you for the info…”
“Sure thing. Be careful out there and good luck,” he gave me a little half smile this time- was that concern I saw flash across his handsome face? “– Oh and by the way, #1 is a great site. It’s a car camping site, but it’s ok if you take it, we won’t fill up tonight.”
“Yeah, I was looking at that, thank you. And thanks for the info.” He pulled away toward the back of the campground and I walked down the driveway to site #1 one more time to try to make up my mind. But I was in a fog. What should. I do? Should I call it here? Am I walking into a wildfire? Am I taking an unnecessary risk by being out there?
I finally settled on a quiet site in the backpacker’s section away from the car-camping looky-loos and wanna-be Ranger Rick. I’ve had dinner and now I’m sitting here at the picnic table in camp, looking up toward my nemesis, Kearsarge Pass, with the first of the stars barely twinkling against the darkening sky. My brutally tough day and the troubling conversation I had with the handsome Ranger is all I’ve been able to think about. I pondered how the wildfires would be the perfect excuse to bail. I’ve heard so many stories already of hikers leaving the trail because of the smoke and I’ve wondered how many used it as an excuse. How many had days like I had today and just said, “screw it- it’s hard, it’s smoky, it’s dingy and gray and the views suck. I’m done!”?
It would be a convenient excuse, for sure. But I really and truly do NOT WANT TO LEAVE. As hard as today was, the LAST thing I want to do is quit. And even if I wanted too, I couldn’t, in good consciousness leave because the smoke is inconvenient. If it becomes dangerous, yes, but inconvenient, no!
I contemplated this: How often have I opted out of a hike because of rain or snow or wind? And isn’t my purpose for hiking to experience nature? And isn’t rain and wind and snow – and FIRE – part of nature? So by its very composition, it’s not supposed to be convenient. It’s rugged. It’s challenging. It’s unpredictable. I wanted to spend 30 days on the trail to immerse myself and really experience it – ALL of it; not just the gorgeous blue sky days with moderate temps and no precipitation. THIS is part of my experience of nature and my JMT journey: fire and smoke. Sure it’s different than other years, but so was the summer of 2010 when Arkansas Robert was here and it was all covered in snow. It’s nature. And to me, quitting now would be denying nature – and putting conditions on Her: I’ll only hike under blue skies and reasonable temperatures, no rain, no snow, no wind, no bugs and no smoke! No, I will do this on Her terms. Smoke and all.
The Ranger didn’t tell me to get off the trail. He didn’t say it was too dangerous to be out. He didn’t say we’re getting evacuated. And if you think about it, wouldn’t they err on the side of caution? Have you ever known any government agency to take unnecessary risks with the public’s safety (well, I guess it depends on how much big money is involved, right…?)? Therefore, I deemed it safe to continue. I’m going to hike until… well, I’m not sure, exactly. I’m just going to keep hiking and see what happens. End of discussion.
August 23, 2015 Day 7 on the trail and 68.4 miles completed.
This is now officially the longest backpacking trip I’ve ever been on (previously was a 6 day trip) and the most miles I’ve ever done on a single trip (previously was 50 miles in 5 days).
Welcome to civilization – or at least my current version of it. Sure, most of society would consider Onion Valley Campground the exact opposite of civilization; 13 miles from the nearest town with no running water or showers and smelly pits for toilets. But to me, today, it may as well be Times Square. “Civilization” like so many other human inventions is relative. Regardless of what you call it, being here sucks. I’m back to the land of car campers “getting away from it all’ in their forty foot, hundred-thousand-dollar Holiday Rambler buses fully equipped with DISH satellite TV so they don’t miss a single episode of Dancing With the Stars, clumped together, relaxing in their fancy LaFumas, and sipping Budweisers and Cokes.
Pardon my crankiness, it’s been a rough day…
Actually, “rough” doesn’t even begin to describe my day. “Brutal”, “painful”, “soul crushing” might come close. The hike up – and down – Kearsarge pass was so much more challenging than I expected. Yeah, I was warned; everyone I talked to and everything I read said it was tough. But for some reason, looking at the map I thought – “it won’t be that bad.” I figured I’d climbed to over 14,000’ a few days ago and 13,000’ yesterday, how bad could 11,845′ be, right? ….Right?
The first 500′ out of camp at Vidette Meadows wasn’t too bad. I’d taken my time over coffee and breakfast with the guys, and got a later start than usual. Despite my sore legs and feet, I was feeling refreshed after finally getting a good night’s sleep (thanks to the Xanax). The trail led up a steep wooded path and the greenery of the valley walls enveloped me as I climbed. It was a cool morning, the trail was soft, sandy dirt and my pack was lighter than it’s been in 7 days: life was as good as can be expected after 7 days, 60 miles and something like 20,000 feet in elevation gain and loss.
Despite leaving camp before the Arkansas Four, it didn’t take long for them to catch up to me. We hiked together out of the valley and up steep screed slopes before our trails split. They were planning a short day to set up basecamp at Kearsarge Lake and then slackpack over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley tomorrow where their pre-dropped resupplies awaited them in the bear boxes by the trailhead. They’d then turn around and head back over the pass with just their food: going up and over the pass in a single day but with minimal weight.
I, on the other hand was going over Kearsarge pass and into Onion Valley tonight –fully loaded with all my gear. Since I’ll be hitchhiking 13 miles to pick up my resupply at the Independence post office tomorrow and I have no idea how remote this campground is, I thought it would be best to sleep at the campground and get an early start – or better yet – meet someone tonight who is heading into town tomorrow who will give me a ride.
We said our goodbyes-for-now at Bullfrog Lake, with Lee vowing to leave me a note at the trailhead if they decide to move on to Rae Lakes tomorrow night. I appreciated the gesture and looked forward to catching up to them again. They’re great company.
Bullfrog Lake was the highlight of my day. The most picturesque and idyllic alpine lake you can imagine: a bowl of glittering mountain water framed by grayish-white granite boulders, late-season grass turned yellow from summer heat and the lack of rain and patches of lush conifers bringing it all to life. The small lake rested peacefully in the shadow of a set of jagged sierra peaks, whose majesty refused to be dulled behind the layer of smoky haze. And like a faithful lover, Bullfrog Lake honored the peaks, triumphantly reflecting them from the surface of its still waters.
I couldn’t resist. Once the guys were out of site, I found a perfect spot on the nearly-white boulders, stripped off my filthy hiking clothes and dove into the inviting water. It was cold, but not knock-the-breath-out-of-you cold. I swam without inhibition (well almost), basking in my freedom and the luxury of having this utopic spot completely to myself: an entire lake – all mine! I felt like the luckiest woman alive.
When planning my trip, I imagined having moments like that every day, but the smoke dulls the sun into gloomy orange orb every afternoon, chilling the air too much to think about jumping into icy water. This morning, I took advantage of the relative warmth and not-horrible smokiness and enjoyed my first real swim since Chicken Spring Lake. It was a moment to remember, for sure.
The euphoria of the 30 minutes spent luxuriating at Bullfrog Lake slipped away almost as soon I started hiking again. Within a few minutes I was hit with waves of dizziness and vertigo. My brain felt sludgy and slow, like it was swimming in an ocean of thick oil. Then the trail before me twisted and contorted and fractured into some weird kaleidoscope dream. My legs were weak and I struggled to put one foot in front of the other.
Being my normal stubborn self, I kept hiking, trying to ignore the strange feeling away… whoaaaa…. aflash of white blinded me, causing me to stop dead in my tracks. For a split-second the world went blank and my head got even woozier. What the hell is this? Worried that I couldn’t just push on and will this away, I bent over, resting my hands on my knees and took a couple of deep breaths. I don’t have time for this. I just want to go… I resumed hiking at a snail’s pace, hoping the strange sensation would pass… But the kaleidoscope vision and dizziness persisted.
Finally, I gave in, dropping my pack on flat shady spot under a clump of trees next to the trail, and plopped down next to it. Is this a side effect of the Xanax?Am I getting sick? Is this exhaustion? Oh my god, am I dying? I’m dying, aren’t I? Alone out here on the trail, I’ll be left for dead like some plague-stricken squirrel, reduced to coyote and vulture food. I got a hold of myself and realized I probably wasn’t dying, just exhausted.
I laid in the cool grass and watched the clouds lazily waft the day away. I got lost in their gentle movements and felt my body melt into the earth. I inhaled slow, deep breaths, trying to heal myself through mediation, focusing on two willowy masses perform an exquisite pas de deux; their edges drifting together and floating apart until they finally melded into one giant bulbous cloud. I laid still, breathing slowly, mesmerized by the exquisite slow-motion cloud ballet playing out thousands of feet above: oblivious to me and my ailments. It was strangely comforting thinking that even if I were laying there dying, the clouds would go on dancing above me.
When my head stopped swimming and the world transformed back into its normal non-kaleidoscope self, I slowly stood up to test the ground. My head swooned a little, but not too bad, so I strapped on my pack and cautiously resumed my climb. And I climbed. And I climbed. Up the rocky western slope of Kearsarge pass, not feeling 100% but determined to reach my destination. It was hot, it was smoky, it was brutal. Not baby-stepping Mt. Whitney brutal, not even endless switchback, Forester Pass brutal, but, “I just want to be off this fucking mountain,” brutal.
When I finally reached the summit of Kearsarge Pass, it was completely socked in under heavy sooty gray smoke, adding to the misery of my day. I could barely make out Kearsarge Lakes 1000’ below and longingly searched the shores for signs of my friends’ camp. I couldn’t see them but I imagined they were relaxing in their luxurious camp chairs lakeside and enjoying the afternoon without a care in the world… I was so jealous. I just wanted to be done.
Going down Kearsarge Pass was no easier than going up Kearsarge Pass: 4.7 miles over 2660’ down. It went on FOR-E-VER. Down. And down. And down. The trail meandered back and forth and back and forth as if it had nowhere to be. This trail… let me tell you about this trail: think about normal switchbacks, compactly carved into a mountain to get you up – or down – efficiently. These switchbacks were neither efficient nor compact. Some of them stretched clear across the entire side of the mountain, we’re talking at least ¼ mile – at least. I’d look down and see the trail wrap clear around the damn mountain, back toward the wilderness from which I’d come, before switching back, thinking, that can’t be MY trail. It’s another trail heading into SEKI, right? And I’d trudge on and soon realize, no, it was indeed my trail. Seriously? What the fuck?Who designed this stupid mess? I fantasized that it was some spiteful engineer whose father made him hike when he was a kid, when all he wanted to do was stay home and build Lego bridges and skyscrapers. So now he works out his daddy issues by building sadistic, never-ending, meandering switchbacked trails. I could just picture him sitting over his blueprints splayed about his gigantic drafting table, with a sinister sneer on is face, “ You want switchbacks father? I’ll give you switchbacks! I’m going to teach all the hiking-daddies of the world a lesson! Muah ha ha ha ha…”
It just. Would not. End.
Two huge passes back-to-back have taken their toll on my body. Yesterday, Forester Pass: 2300’ up and 3665’ down and today Kearsarge Pass: 2300’ up and 2660’ down for a grand total of 10,900 feet in elevation in just about 32 hours. And every achy muscle, tendon and ligament below my waist feels every single inch of it. I’m grimy, sunburnt, exhausted, emotionally spent and over the whole, “Ohhh hiking is so grand. Ohhh I love nature..Ohh it’s so great to be out here”, bullshit.
Today hiking the JMT became REAL – not just some fantasy hike that would be so awe-inspiring that the challenges would seem mild in comparison. No. The thrill, excitement and raw enthusiasm of being out here is G-O-N-E and has been replaced with…. With what? Apathy? Reality? I’m not sure, but the romanticism of the thru-hike has been slowly slipping away day by day, little by little, with every ache, pain, challenging climb, and smoke-obstructed view.
The reality of the thru-hike is so much more demanding than anything I had imagined. I hike. And I hike. And I hike some more. It’s not always awe-inspiring and exciting and adventurous. Sometimes it’s just grueling, sweaty, dirty, mind numbing, aching hiking. Then you get to set up camp, eat rehydrated mush, sleep on the ground, wake up sore and achy and do it all over again…
I’m not saying I want to quit. Voluntarily leaving the trail has never crossed my mind. Even for a second. I’m just saying that as beautiful as it is out here and as awesome as this adventure is, it’s hard work. Really fucking hard work.
I think I need a zero day. And something cold to drink. And maybe a giant Snickers bar…Tomorrow I resupply, but first I have to get to Onion Valley…
Day 6 Tyndall Creek to Vidette Meadow via Forester Pass
After leaving the granite cirque and my peaceful creekside oasis, the trail led me across a maze of streams that seemed to flow in every direction, past tarns of all shapes and sizes and through more rock fields and high sierra meadows. It was almost hard to believe California is in it’s 4th year of drought, with the amount of water there.
When I reached the foot of the Kings-Kern Divide I craned my head back and searched for the notch I’d be crossing. I couldn’t tell where Forester Pass was exactly. To my right was a wide saddle but the trail didn’t seem to go in that direction. The only other notch was far to my left at about nine o’clock and that seemed disconcertingly far away: the map showed 4.7 miles from camp to the pass and I’d already come at least 3. Oh well, sometimes you just have to move forward and trust that the trail will get you where you want to go.
I turned around scanning the basin toward Tyndall Creek, now below me, searching for my Arkansas friends. All morning I’d been thinking: they have to be behind me, they like to take their time over morning coffee, so they can’t be ahead of me already.But they’re faster, so they would have caught up by now. And then I’d get worried, maybe they decided to move on over Forester Pass last night. That thought depressed me a little. I like having trail friends that I can run into now and then. If they crossed Forester yesterday I may not see them again, they’d be nearly a whole day ahead of me… With hope I’d see my friends again, I hiked on.
Ok, here I go! I excitedly began my ascent up the rocky trail neatly carved into the mountain, anxious to get my first real JMT pass under my belt! Forester Pass is 13,145 feet. Looking up at the top of the ridge, I guessed I was at about 12,000 and it didn’t take long to feel the now-familiar heaviness of high altitude climbing. Adding to the fatigue, this time I had my 35-ish pound pack strapped to my back. Ok, easy does it. Slow… baby steps.
The climb was slow, but Whitney taught me to honor the challenge and take my time; that it’s ok to reach the top one baby step at a time. With heavy legs and pack, I trudged higher; zig-zagging up the mountain, one switchback at a time. It was getting warmer and I was constantly wiping sweat from my forehead, catching it before dribbling into my eyes and burning. I need a bandanna. I’m going to buy a bandana when I get to Independence. This one little thought started an internal battle that kept me amused for several agonizing switchbacks:
Critical Self: But you have a bandanna, you don’t need another one.
Wanting a bandana self: Yeah, but it’s the Scottish one that we brought to signal other Facebook people we’re part of their group and it’s bright yellow and red. I’m not wearing THAT thing on my head. I want a blue one, to match my eyes…
Critical Self: But we have a million blue bandannas at home and we purposely left them behind. Remember, we’re counting weight here!
Wanting a bandana self: Seriously? How much does a bandana weigh? Like a tenth of gram? Stop being a gram weanie! Besides I’ll be wearing it on my head, not carrying it.
Critical self: Ok fine, you can get a blue bandanna in Independence.
Wanting a bandana self: Thank you. Geesh, was that so hard?
After my argument was settled, I kept my mind occupied by making a mental list of all the things I wanted to buy in Independence: Kettle Salt and Pepper potato chips, Tylenol PM, a few gallon Zip-Locs for garbage and stuff (somehow I seemed to have a shortage) – I wonder if they sell them individually? I don’t need a whole box. And fruit. Hopefully I can find fresh fruit.
Inching higher and higher and still searching for the elusive Forester Pass, I encountered a metal sign attached to a giant boulder off the side of the trail. Not wanting to interrupt the momentum I had going, I pushed forward. But several feet past it, the curiosity overwhelmed me and I had to turn back.
It was a memorial to the men who built the trail, and specifically, 18-year-old Donald Downs who died when a boulder came loose and crushed his arm in 1930. I took a minute to let that sink in; realizing that I take these trails I love for granted. I never think about how much work and sacrifice went into building them. This mountain is no joke, and almost 100 years ago they were blasting it out with sticks of dynamite and moving these car-sized boulders with brute force (and maybe mules?). To realize that someone died so generations of hikers can follow in John Muir’s footsteps (sort of) was pretty sobering. I was glad I stopped. It felt like a small way to pay homage to the people who made – and those who maintain – the trail that I feel so honored to be on. Thank you Donald Downs. And thank you California Conservation Corps (CCC) and all the volunteers who keep the trail safe for us.
Many, many, many, many, many, many (yes, that many!) switchbacks later, I finally spotted the pass- or what I assumed to be the pass… Are you kidding me? How am I supposed to get up THAT? It rested just above a narrow slit that ran perpendicular to the ridge and looked like a deep ditch slicing it in two. Am I going to have to climb all the way down and then back up that? Ok, this is going to be interesting… I was relieved when the trail curved toward the head of the slit, not down into it. I spotted a narrow shelf cut in the nearly vertical mountain as I entered a dark cool alcove just a few hundred feet below the pass. It felt like being behind a waterfall, without the water. I crossed the head of the steep, jagged ditch that cut a thousand feet down the mountain. As I exited, voices from above were cheering me on, “You’re almost here. You’re doing great. See you up here!” I couldn’t see them, but I heard them loud and clear. I was elated to be so close to the top and excited for the camaraderie that awaited me. I climbed a small set of switchbacks that took me up the final stretch and spilled me onto the pass. Forester Pass! I’m here!
It was buzzing with activity. There were five, or maybe six guys sitting around enjoying the victory. After doing a couple three-sixties to absorb the views that lay behind – and ahead of me – I searched for a suitable place to squeeze my butt and pack in on the very narrow landing. I finally settled on a pile of lumpy rocks. The group cheerfully welcomed me and introduced themselves. One group was from Nevada City, just a couple hours from me and the others from the east coast, I think. We had a good time sharing trail stories, talking gear and eating trail mix. I love summit parties!
I stretched my stiff achy hamstrings and quads and then sat back and relaxed as much as I could with a bunch of rocks up my butt. I’d been there maybe 20 minutes when the steep southerly trail delivered another hiker. Robert! It’s Arkansas Robert! Where the heck did he come from? I didn’t see them coming up the trail…
“Robert!!! Hi!” I beamed at him, excited to see my friend.
“I need a minute,” he answered with a shaky voice and headed up away from the rest of us. He was clearly having a moment; this wasn’t the happy jolly Robert I’m used to seeing. I figured he was having a flood of emotion like I had summiting Mt. Whitney. This stuff can be pretty powerful.
Later I learned that he’d climbed Forester Pass before. It was the summer following the last big wet winter California had. That year, Mother Nature dumped so much snow on the Sierras that hikers encountered snow well into late summer. The Sierra/JMT hikers who were out tell stories as if it’s ancient folklore: “Back in the Big Snow of ’10 parts of the trail were covered with snow until August and we had to crampon up the passes and glissade down them. Yep, there was even snow at Guitar lake in July! AND we had to cross 2 bridges in 12 feet of snow, barefoot to get there!” (Ok, I made the last part up.)
After the rest of the Arkansas Four arrived, Robert rejoined the group and told us his story of the Big Snow of ’10: “I was coming up this pass,” he started, nodding toward the trail from which he’d come, “and it was still buried under a bunch of snow. It was icy and slick. A lot of people had gotten off the trail because it was too scary. But for some reason, I forged ahead. I was near the top, right down there,” he said pointing to a spot near the big scary slit with his trekking pole, “and lost my footing. I slid so far down… I don’t know how, but I caught myself. In those few moments, I really thought I was going to go all the way down. I thought I was a goner.” He paused for a few minutes and I could see the emotion in his face, “and coming up here today, I wasn’t expecting it, but it all came flooding back…” His voice was shaky and his eyes were a little misty. “Whew. I’ll tell ya, I’m sure glad to be here now!” We were silent as we listened to Robert’s story. A single word crossed my mind listening to his story and reflecting on the memorial I’d passed on the way up: Respect. These mountains demand our respect. Snow or no snow, it can be a dangerous place.
The summit party got even better with my trail friends there. It was good to be reunited with familiar faces. The others left and we had the pass to ourselves: lounging around for a long time sharing trail mix and snapping photos. I found out they’d stayed at Lake South America last night where they found a remote and picturesque lakeside spot that sounded perfect.
We spent the afternoon hiking together toward Vidette Meadow. Descending Forester pass we were immersed in soupy-thick smoke. The expansive views were diluted and cut off by a wall of yellow smoke: but displayed before us were vast glacial bowls and cirques dotted with patches of subalpine greenery and gloomy charcoal gray tarns sweeping toward the north. The air quality was the worst it had been since it rained ash at Crabtree Meadow. Feather light shreds of burnt forest – some as big as a quarter – wafted down upon us. I felt a slight burning in my eyes that wasn’t sweat and my breathing was a little more labored than it should have been (we were descending!). It was so bad that some of the SOBO hikers we passed had bandannas over their noses and mouths trying to filter the polluted air. I guess this will go down in trail lore as the “Smoky Wildfire Year of ’15”.
By 3:30 we’d descended into Vidette Meadow Valley and the smoke wasn’t as bad. Around mile ten, we found a big clearing with a bunch of sites next to a small creek and there was some discussion amongst the group about camping there. After exploring the area and finding lots of options for camp I dropped my pack and decided to call it home for the night. I was hoping the guys were done too and was a little disappointed when they decided to move on. I was enjoying their company and didn’t want it to end.
Yesterday at Wallace Creek, in their characteristic respectful way they’d invited me to camp with them. Tim was the first to offer, “we don’t want to infringe upon your independence in any way and we want to honor your solo adventure, but we want you to know you are more than welcome to camp with us…” I was so appreciative of the offer – and the way he presented it. This is why I love backpackers – we just ‘get’ each other.
But today, I was being characteristically stubborn and maybe a little pig-headed. I thought that by staying with them, I’d be giving up something; latching on to men for comfort. And I didn’t want to do that. That’s not who I am or why I came out here. I’m doing this alone dammit! I must do it alone! So I dropped my pack and boldly proclaimed. “I’m home for the night. I hope to run into you guys again.”
We said our farewells and as I watched them disappear around a bend into the thick forest, I felt my stomach sink and then a flood of loneliness swelled inside like a noxious gas. I just stood for a few minutes in the big barren clearing, all by myself, in complete silence for the first time since ascending Forester Pass. I shrugged it off, picked up my pack and headed into the woods toward Vidette Meadow which by now was glowing vividly through the trees beneath the afternoon sun.
With boots off and feet soaking in the cool water, I looked back at the contents of my pack scattered about, ready to set up camp. I got an uneasy eerie feeling being so deep in the trees and realized I didn’t really like the spot I’d chosen. I didn’t want to be there… “Fuck this,” I said out loud, pulling on my socks and boots and leaping up to pack up and go find my friends. I’m not sure if I just needed an excuse or if I really just didn’t like the spot, but once I got back on the trail, I was excited and I comforted myself about my decision as I hiked along: It’s ok to not want to be alone. This doesn’t lessen my experience or make me any less independent. Some company tonight will be nice…
The two miles of trail between my almost- campsite and my friends’ camp was easy and quick. And about half a mile in I stepped over a giant pile of fresh bear poop. I knew I didn’t like that site or a reason. There are bears here!
Within an hour, I again emerged from the woods and appeared on the edge of the camp of four friends from Arkansas. They were clearly surprised and seemed genuinely happy to see me. “Yes, of course, we told you – you are more than welcome to camp with us! Find a spot to pitch your tent and come join us for dinner,” Tim said as I approached them asking, “hey is there room for one more?”
After pitching camp, taking a hiker bath down the creek away from camp and filling my water, I joined them for dinner. We had a good time telling stories and watching the dear in the meadow over dinner.
It’s been dark a while. I stayed up late enjoying the company of fellow backpackers and hearing their many stories of adventure.
I’m inside my tent now getting ready for bed and feeling veeeeery relaxed. Someone I may or may not have met on the trail may or may not have given me a Xanax to help me sleep (in case the DEA is reading this, I don’t remember what they looked like and I didn’t get a name) :-). I think it’s already kicking in… I hope to sleep tonight.