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