view from selden pass north on the John muir trail

Surviving Loneliness Solo-Hiking the John Muir Trail

Day 18 Sallie Keys Lakes to Vermillion Resort Junction at Mono Creek

September, 2015

5:30 am.  After my zero day yesterday and an amazing night’s sleep, I’m wide awake and anxious to hit the trail! I’m tempted to get going, but flubbing around in the dark, trying to break camp and pack up and then exposing myself to predators on the prowl for breakfast, isn’t high on my list of things I want to do today.

camp at Sallie Keys lake after MTR resupply
Camp at Sallie Keys Lake

Besides, I’m comfy-cozy inside my wilderness retreat.  My tiny one person REI Quarter Dome tent has become my home; my safe place. My retreat from the wind and cold. My cocoon, protecting me from creepy crawly things that want to curl up next to me for warmth during these frigid sierra nights. My shield, keeping me out of sight of prowling nocturnal hunters.  Yes, intellectually, I know the tent provides no real safety from bears or cats – or anything else that’s hell-bent on attacking me. In fact, as I get all tucked in and comfy at night, I often nervously ponder how screwed I’d be if anything ever did attack.  Stressing about how I’d be trapped inside,  unable to fight back.

 

The frightful scene plays out in my mind like a mini-horror flick:

Set: a densely wooded spot, deep in the wilderness. A lone tent nestled beneath a Lodgepole pine.

Time: half-past dead of night.

ACTION: I’m jolted from a peaceful and deep sleep by a thunderous, earth-vibrating roar and a huge weight caving in the roof of my tent.  My survival instinct kicks in; I scream and kick and punch like a caged beast. I feel the swipes of giant paws, hear the vicious growls and snorts of the hungry predator. I blindly thrash about, hindered by my prison of nylon and mesh; a tangled mess trapped in my wilderness home – my cocoon, my shelter.  A giant frantic amoeba flailing about and screaming bloody murder at attackers I can’t see. My “nothing out here wants to hurt me… nothing out here wants to eat me” mantra vanishes into the dark cold night, like a puff of smoke… I’m doomed.  Trapped like a guppy in a human sized Ziploc bag.

In my personal horror flick, I don’t end up a midnight bear-snack, there’s a twist. Maybe it’s a survival tool so I don’t scare all the shit out of myself, before going to sleep. In the wilderness. Alone. The surprise ending goes like this: outside the maniacal, bulging, pseudo-pod-amoeba-tent, sits a family of black bears, eating berries (aka: bear popcorn), snorting, growling and swiping at the tent and laughing their fuzzy bear asses off. The best bear TV ever!   Yeah the safety of a tent is all in my mind.

sallie keys lake on the john muir trail
Sallie Keys Lake View

I peek outside (is it daytime yet?). The dark morning sky is bright from a half-moon, earnestly hanging on in the western sky. While in the east, the sun is greedily pulling off the midnight blue blanket; forcing the day to rise and shine. I’m getting restless… I’m ready to rise and shine — as soon as it’s warm enough!

Autumn has settled into the high sierras: it was another freezing-cold night. The sun hadn’t even set, and I had to put on all my base layers, down jacket, gloves and beanie.  I was happy I’d gotten my laundry and bathing done early in the day.  Desperate to escape the cold, I slid inside my tent – which has become my home away from home.  With my down sleeping bag, Thermarest, Sea to Summit inflatable pillow and my kindle books, I’m feeling right at home!  All that’s missing is Capone.

Although it’s been a couple of days since my meltdown on Piute Creek, the loneliness that overwhelmed and gushed out of me, like water from a levy broken under the weight of a tempestuous storm, left puddles of emptiness and sorrow that I’ve been wading through ever since.   Even at Muir Trail Ranch, surrounded by people, I felt isolated and alone. My attempts to stir up conversations were met with two word sentences and blank stares. There were a couple of groups at the resupply shed; a group of four young men frantically scouring the ample resupply buckets and organizing their gear (I assumed, rather snarkily, that they were in a hurry to get their 30 miles in). And another group of men and women in their early thirties, who’d obviously sprung for the overpriced cabins, and were lazily sprawled out on the grass, laughing and having a grand old time. I felt a pang of envy as I watched them relax in each other’s company. Luxuriating in their shampoo-scented hair, hands scrubbed clean with soap and hot water and rounded bellies, full with fresh salad and real food that was cooked on an actual stove and not mush rehydrated over a Pocket Rocket.

Selden Pass south
The climb up Selden Pass

Yep, after 16 days alone on the trail, the loneliness had hit me. And with it, a pile of memories and Truth.  There is no escaping the Truth – or yourself –  when you hike solo; especially a thru-hike like the John Muir Trail. Each day you’re challenged physically, mentally and emotionally.  Alone, you celebrate and rejoice.  Alone, you suffer aches and pains and long drawn out, never-ending mountain passes that disappear into the sky and seem to have no end. Alone, you amble through dense, dark forests with nothing but silence or the sound or a deer running through the brush, a marmot scurrying behind you as you eat your lunch atop a glacial ridge – or a pack of coyotes singing their kill-song, to keep you company. Through all this, the loneliness slowly and insidiously seeps into you.  Inch by inch you become flooded with it.

And in that loneliness, Truth is unburied.   And you try, in vain, to push it away. Avoid it. Deny it.  Being alone on the trail, your psyche visits those dark places without your permission. Places, that at home, you dodge with a million-and-one distractions; work, chores, errands, binge-watching the latest season of Orange is the New Black, Facebook, shopping, cocktails, Adderall, Valium, Prozac…. NO, don’t think about it! Just keep moving!! Have a drink, pop another pill. No, you can’t cry now, you have a meeting! Put on your big girl panties and GO! Just go. RUN!!!

And then there’s society, family and ‘friends” who tell you you just need to “get over it”.  “It’s the past – move on”, they say. Or my favorite “Your past is a gift. Everything you’ve been through has made you who you are today! Hooray!!!”  I’m sorry, but abuse and neglect are not fucking gifts. Gifts come wrapped in festive paper and tied with big bright bows.  Gifts are carefully chosen by the giver to bring joy and happiness to the recipient’s life- and a smile to their face. Abuse and neglect are the exact opposite of gifts.

I have fought so long and hard to not let my past dictate my life. I am strong. I am independent. I am NOT a victim!!!  Yet, my tearful, emotion-drenched morning on Piute Creek is proof that you can’t run from your past forever. Well, ok, maybe in our distraction-filled lives we can. But out here on the trail – alone –  it catches up to you. And you can either give in to the feelings and allow yourself to blubber away in your tent, or you can stuff them way down in the bottom of your psychological backpack and continue to lumber under its heavy burden.  I am living proof that crying doesn’t kill you.  Feeling intense and deep pain isn’t an endless black hole that you fall into and never come out of. Being alone on the trail and having these feelings is not something to be frightened of – it’s something to be thankful for, and to rejoice in.

Refreshed and ready to hit the trail, day 18!
Refreshed and ready to hit the trail, day 18!

I spent my zero day recovering, both physically and emotionally,  from that day of loneliness and sorrow. And today I’m happy. Free of the burden I’d been carrying inside my emotional backpack, weighing me down for 16 days. Free from the worry that I might break. I will not break – and in fact, I will emerge from the woods stronger, more clear and more empathetic. I will emerge with a new friend and protector: me.

And at last, I think it’s time to get ‘me’ on the trail. I have a pass to climb today, wish me luck!

6:30 pm at Mono Creek near the Vermillion Resort Cut-Off

Holy fuck! That decent from Bear Ridge Trail to the VVR Junction is ridiculous. 4. 6 miles of switchbacks, dropping twenty feet shy of two thousand feet.  I swear I’ve never – in all my years of backpacking the Sierras – hiked switchbacks like that. They went on FOR-E-VER!!!

Little Pete Meadow John Muir Trail
My duct taped fingers with Little Pete Meadow in the background

So, I didn’t make my goal of 17.4 miles but I did 15.5 (with a full-ish pack!) and I felt every single one of those miles on my sore and tired hips, knees and ankles. I feel like I’m getting blisters again and the moleskin isn’t worth a shit… it just slides off my sweaty feet. My feet hurt, my legs hurt, the stupid slivery cuts in 5 of my fingertips still throb and ache every time I accidentally bang them against a trekking pole or try to unlatch my pack.  I’ve gone through all my medical tape and now have them wrapped in Duct Tape.  And my back and neck have started hurting the last couple of days. The 154 miles is not only taking its toll on me emotionally, but my body feels like it’s breaking down piece by piece.

Looking south from Selden Pass on the John Muir Trail
Looking South from Selden Pass

I stopped early for a rest at the picturesque Heart Lake. It’s small crystal-clear lake, framed by granite and pine, just a few miles south of Selden Pass. I found a grassy spot just off the trail and plopped down to soak in the warmth of the sun and quiet serenity. Just one group of guys passed me, heading southbound to camp and fish for a few days.

Selden Pass was the highlight.  (Oh my god, did you hear that? A PASS was a highlight and not a horrible awful thing I had to endure! -).  It’s the lowest pass on the John Muir Trail, at just (“just” lol) 10,800’.  The trail toward the smooth and rocky pass meandered past glacial tarns and rocky hills spotted with junipers and stunted pines. The climb was long, but gradual, and at the top were sweeping views of smooth boulder-strewn mountains, patches of stunted pine and Marie Lake. Gorgeous, idyllic and picture perfect: it was my 3rd to the last pass.  A sadness swept over me when I realize,  I am now closer to the end than the beginning.  It’s been challenging in every way, and I miss Capone terribly, but I don’t want to be done.

The scenery is changing; from the dramatic and sharp glacially carved granite of the southern sierras to the gentler, softer, greener northern sierras. Yosemite is taking shape in the distance. The loose granite boulder-slabs are getting bigger, the peaks not quite as high and the water flowing fast and healthy in the mountain creeks. The smoke is also getting better, giving me more blue sky and more warmth!  I’m not freezing my ass off in the dull and smoked out afternoons anymore.

camp at mono creek on the john muir trail
Camp at Mono Creek near the VVR cutoff

I’m camped by the wooden bridge near VVR cutoff. I have a feeling I’ll be alone tonight (after a crowded camp at Sallie Keys last night- day hikers from MTR). No one is going up that damn mountain I just descended this late! I doubt anyone is coming down either. I haven’t seen any north bounders in days!

I have the perfect little sandy spot tucked in the junipers and lodgepole pines above Mono Creek. The cutoff to VVR resort is just over the bridge and around the bend. I’ve finished my dinner of veggie chili and trail mix and getting ready to retire.  Another day down on the John Muir Trail and another day closer to the end.

 

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10 comments on “Surviving Loneliness Solo-Hiking the John Muir Trail”

  1. Carolyn your writing is so beautifully descriptive. I can see so clearly the things you describe.
    I am an artist who was afraid to share my creativity for fear of judgement – until I saw the quote “it’s not yours to throw away”.
    Your ability to communicate is a gift. Thanks for having the courage to share it – for as you can see, you are touching people.

    1. Bonnie – It took me many years to find my voice and this blog has helped me use it.. and it probably led to what you see on YouTube too!

      Thank you so much for sharing your story about your fear of sharing your art – it IS scary. And I love the quote.. wow.. I am glad you too found a way to share your art.. ONe thing sharing mine taught me is that we all have a story.. they may not be the same as mine, but it’s a story and if we are courageous enough to share ourselves, we can connect and heal.

      Your comment touched me.. To read an artist talk about my work as ‘art’..wow!!! A dream come true!! Thank you so much and I wish you all the best. – carolyn

  2. I love this bit of writing:

    “And you can either give in to the feelings and allow yourself to blubber away in your tent, or you can stuff them way down in the bottom of your psychological backpack and continue to lumber under its heavy burden.”

    One of the blessings of being on the trail is the opportunity to think deeply about ourselves, which in the end can be live changing – it certainly was for me. My first JMT trip changed my life, and I look at it as one of the best things I have ever done in my life!

    Enjoying your words …

    1. Ernesto,
      I agree with you – that is what I got out of the trail too. Those of us who do it alone get so much more out of the experience, I think – because we don’t have the distractions of other people. And yes, the journey did change my life in the most amazing and profound ways! I am glad it did for you too. It sounds like you took a lot from the experience and it impacted you deeply!

      I appreciate your comment and your kind words. Glad you’re enjoying reading my personal journey! – Carolyn

  3. So powerful. I, too, had an emotional neglectful (non existent actually) and pyschologically abusive childhood. I always say I survived and thrived IN SPITE OF, not because of, my parents. We are transcendent children, somehow able to guide our own lives in a more positive direction rather than perpetuate our past. We’ve certainly stumbled along the way but here we are today-look at what you’ve done!
    This was a meaningful post for me-thank you.

    1. Rhea – Thank you for sharing a bit about yourself. I knew there would be people who could relate to my story – and that’s why I wanted to share it. I’ve said the same thing – I’ve survived and thrived – IN SPITE OF the shit hand I was dealt. I love your description, “transcendent children, somehow able to guide our own lives..” beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing yourself with me! And for continuing to follow my journey. *hugs to you my friend! – Carolyn

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