Day 14 John Muir Trail Wanda Lake

How Can I Ever Go Back?

Day 14 Leconte Canyon to Sapphire Lake over Muir Pass

It was a dull and dreary day.  As I climbed north toward Muir Pass the wind whipped against my face and made an already challenging hike, nearly unpleasant.  It could have been awe-inspiring, with one jaw-dropping scene after another: a series of jagged peaks and desolate glacial bowls brimming with icy gray water, tucked far away from the rest of the world atop grand mountains. But instead, the smoke cast a heavy gloom over the hard landscape.

Muir was another long and elusive pass. I traversed wobbly and rugged terrain, over massive chunks of broken mountain, past narrow gorges split by pristine mountain water and desolate tarns. It was a long trek, that seemed to have no end.  Finally, after hours of trudging uphill, I spotted the famed Muir hut that marks the top of the pass. And on the other side – off to the distant North – through the smoky air, were the faint outlines of the peaks that surround the infamous and much anticipated Evolution Basin.

Muir Pass, john muir hut
The John Muir Hut

As I approached the summit, I felt like a sole astronaut landing on a distant planet until I spotted a green Osprey backpack near the entrance. Inside the hut, I found an extremely talkative man in his late twenties who offered that he’d been living in the wilderness for 58 days. He said he was escaping the shallowness of his adopted hometown-  Hollywood –  where he’d traveled from someplace else to be an actor. “But,” he complained, “I can’t stand the people. They’re so shallow.” So he’d escaped the shallowness and big-city problems of Hollywood for a life of simplicity and solitude in the John Muir Wilderness.wanda below muir pass 1 (2)

At first I didn’t mind the company and patiently listened to his life stories; a failed attempt at college, failed attempts at a variety of careers and failed attempts to find a nice place to live in Hollywood.  But I began to feel heavy and overwhelmed by his endless negative energy: “….and besides living in crappy neighborhoods with a bunch of blacks and Mexicans because I can’t find a job because all the Mexicans are stealing them – now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with Mexicans – I’m not racist or anything. But, they’re taking all the jobs and ruining all the good neigh – “

“Ok, well, I better get a move on, I have a lot of trail left if I want to get to Evolution. Good luck and enjoy your stay.”  Any sentence that contains the words “I’m not racist, but…” Is not a conversation I want to be a part of.  I abruptly slung my pack over my right shoulder and made a sharp turn toward the trail that headed down the northern side of Muir Pass. I buckled in as I walked, feeling desperate to escape the dreary pass and even drearier young man as soon as possible.

As I hiked down the steep northern slope of Muir Pass, the frustration and weariness of the long climb up the other side slid away and was replaced with excited anticipation of reaching Evolution Valley.  Evolution Basin was one of the landmark places on the John Muir trail, like Mt. Whitney, Guitar Lake, and Forester Pass. It stood out in trail lore as one of the most scenic and idyllic places (and I just loved the name, it conjured images of raw beauty and primal connectedness with nature).  I couldn’t wait to get there and I hiked with renewed vigor and excitement.

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

The Muir Pass descent spilled me into another moonscaped world.  In every direction were dramatic mountains and sharp hills cluttered with granite of all shapes and sizes.  I traversed the narrow trail, barely visible from more than a few feet away as it sliced the rugged landscape, leading me along the edge of Wanda Lake. It was far too cool to swim, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to sit for a while and immerse myself in such a remote and barren scene.

Unbuckling my pack, I edged toward the lake, flat and blanketed with damp yellow grass. Finding a spot big enough to stretch out on, I slipped my pack over my shoulder and let it hit the ground with a thud; my butt not far behind.  I ripped at my boot laces, peeled off my damp socks and plunged my swollen feet into the lake. Ahhhh. The frigid water temporarily relieved the aches and pains of the last 12 days. I pulled my dried mango and a Go Macro bar out of the front pocket of my backpack and sat on the edge of the lake, eating my lunch and devouring the scenery; rocky, barren and void of life.

When my feet grew numb in the icy-cold water, I pulled them out and laid back, resting my head on my backpack. The eager sun warmed me as the smoke slowly dissipated into the weary blue sky.  I closed my eyes and silence flooded my ears. Stark bold silence. Not a fly buzzing, a bird squawking or breeze lapping gentle waves upon the shore of Wanda Lake. The world had gone mute.

I opened my eyes and with all my senses, greedily consumed the stoic scene.  I pondered the dichotomous landscape. How can Mother Nature be so simple, yet complex; wild, yet pure; silent, yet deafening?  It’s nature, I thought. Pure, unadulterated and imperfect. Full of contrast and contradiction. 

My head swam with the sound of silence, my breathing slowed and my body relaxed, acquiescing to nature’s rhythm. And a nagging, sorrowful thought gently lapped at the outer edges of my psyche: How can I ever go back?



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19 comments on “How Can I Ever Go Back?”

  1. Hi Carolyn I came here from you. YouTube channel and I have to say that you didn’t go back 😀 You just found a way to extend your adventure in a more comfortable way 😋! You go girl live your life on your terms 💐

  2. We were traveling sobo and camped at Sawmill Jct. on the 28th and Bullfrog Jct. on the 29 th. There were four of us and then we hooked up with two others starting at Bullfrog. I remember speaking to someone about them having stayed at Bullfrog Lake. It could have been you. My memory is a little foggy seems we must have crossed paths.

  3. I like the part about the talkative hiker because I ran into people like that myself. And what I’ve realized is they can’t run away from themselves even though they run away from their lives unless they really start looking at who they are. Being in the wilderness is not a ticket to enlightenment.

  4. I love this section of the JMT. We were going the other direction, climbing to Muir Pass from Evolution. I found that descent from Muir going to Le Conte be a real drag, especially because it was the end of our day, and just wanted to find a place to camp. Ended up at a really lovely campsite adjacent to a hanging meadow… maybe one of my favorite campsites of all time.

  5. You have a way with words that takes us there with you. There is an answer to your question. There is something incredibly satisfying in connecting with like minded people. We are wired to live in tribes.

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