August 28, 2015: Day 11 on the John Muir Trail
5:30 am at Rae Lakes
My zero day is done, I’m rested and it’s time to hike. It was another damp night, and a lot colder. I woke up to dew on the outside of my tent and condensation dripping down the mesh walls on the inside.
The strain behind my knee and outer hamstring from falling in the mud at Soldier Lake on day 2 has been a constant nuisance while hiking and bolts of electric pain pulsed in it all night long. Plus my arthritic hips ache. And getting crushed into the cold ground through my Therm-a-Rest Trail Pro Mattress isn’t helping. I never used to have these problems when backpacking. Getting older really sucks…
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….