8/21/15 – Day 5: Crabtree Meadow to Tyndall Creek via Wallace Creek
“Well you just never know who you’re going to run into out here!” Arkansas Robert! I’d come 3 ½ miles from Crabtree meadow and my gear troubles, traversed the vibrant Sandy Meadow, trekked up rocky slopes dotted with old-growth red fir pines and weather sculpted flamboyant foxtails and finally down into the Wallace Creek basin, where I’d planned to take a break and fill up my Nalgene. I wasn’t expecting to see anyone and was joyfully surprised to see my four trail friends from Arkansas lounging in the shade of the Sierra conifers on the shore of the shallow and gently cascading Wallace Creek.
Robert greeted me with his now familiar signature line and the others with bright smiles and warm welcomes. It’s so fun to run into people I know out here! I stopped at the edge of their half circle and we shared our adventures from the day before: the climb down Mt. Whitney and the smelly smoky ash-rain filled night. We’re all concerned about the fires, but their attitude is the same as mine: we’ve come too far to bail. All we can do is take it one day at a time.
I told them about the medevacked squirrel with the excitement of a six year old telling her parents about a caterpillar she captured in an empty mayonnaise jar. They’d heard the helicopter from their camp on Whitney Creek and wondered what all the fuss was about. I was happy to clear up the mystery and make them laugh with my squirrel tale.
I was enjoying their company too much to hike down the creek further and find my own spot, so I happily accepted their invitation to join them for lunch. I plopped myself down in the dirt where I was standing, pulled off my dusty Salomons to air out my tired sweaty feet and fished my lunch out of the front compartment of my Flash 62 backpack: which I hadn’t quite forgiven for this morning’s shenanigans.
Unlike the first time we met, today we lingered in the shade over our trail-lunches and conversed beyond introductions. The foursome had the kind of easy friendship that comes with decades of knowing one another. Robert and Tim met in kindergarten and Lee and Tony came into the mix through grade school and high school. They got along like brothers and had endless tales of adventure and life experiences to share, each contributing their section of the story on cue, like people who have spent a lot of time together do. Every summer for decades they’ve taken a guy’s trip and have been everywhere from Glacier National Park to the Everglades to Alaska. I listened earnestly as I munched on my Teriyaki flavored Primal Spirit Soy jerky, passing it around to prove how delicious tofu jerky can be.
It took less than fifteen minutes for the conversation to shift from the polite small talk of strangers to all the things new acquaintances should never talk about: politics (which stemmed from our mutual contempt for Trump), religion, the meaning of life and solving all the world’s problems. Conversation flowed easily and naturally. Who would have thought a Liberal atheist from the Bay Area would have so much in common with four retired men from Arkansas??? I’m well aware that living in the Bay Area, I exist in a bubble that is very different from most other places in the country (I’m also well aware I can be a bit of a snob about it too), so I generally steer clear of charged topics until I really get to know someone. It was a nice bonus to be among like-minded friends.
A warm and sunny summer day. Creekside on the John Muir Trail. A gentle breeze, great company, stimulating conversation. Life doesn’t get any better than this. These are the moments I live for, where my version of reality comes to life. I “fit” here. It feels like home.
With 5 or 6 miles to hike to get to camp at Lake South America or Tyndall Creek, my new friends from Arkansas reluctantly packed up and hit the trail, leaving me to loll in our idyllic spot in solitude. I lugged my backpack and boots downstream to rinse my clothes and clean up, taking advantage of the last minutes of unobstructed sunlight before the smoke floated in, chilling the afternoon air. I laid my wet clothes out on the grass, propped my pack against a tree facing the sun, closed my eyes and lazed against it to dry off in the warm sun, listening to the waters of the cascading creek, the birds busily chirping and the soft breeze flow through the branches above me. This is what peace feels like.
An hour later I was crossing the vast and barren Bighorn Plateau. This late in the season it’s blanketed in tufts of golden grass rising up from a bed of sand and broken rock. Wow! Just Wow! Despite the yellowish haze obscuring the views of the Mt. Whitney range, it was a magnificent sight. I tried to imagine what the view would be in a normal year, when half of California isn’t on fire. I couldn’t help but feel a little jilted, but in the big scheme of things it didn’t matter: I’m on the JMT. I spun in place doing a couple 360s feeling like Mary Poppins – only the backdrop was a rugged and faded plateau instead of the vibrantly rolling hills of the Alps.
I’ve been hiking mostly alone for 5 days now. Until this afternoon my thoughts were about getting from point A to point B, dodging blood thirsty coyotes, not falling off cliffs and trudging up mountains in the thin air, focusing on getting enough oxygen into my depleted body. But today, hiking across the desolate Bighorn Plateau my thoughts drifted to my new friends from Arkansas and the bond they shared. I mentally examined the concept of lifelong friendships with the fascination one gives an alien object; dissecting it with the fingers of my brain in an attempt to understand its inner workings. How do people stay connected over decades? How do they manage to not grow apart and drift away? What is it like to have a circle of close friends and family you’ve known a lifetime that you can depend on; to know that no matter what, someone has your back? I chalked this up to yet another of life’s “normalcies” that other people have, but not people like me.
Most of my life I’ve felt like an outsider looking in; mingling and mixing with the ‘normal’ people with their big happy families and friendships born in sandboxes at preschool and sustained through Girl Scouts, homecoming dances, graduations, marriages, births and divorces. I’ve watched with the fascination of someone who went to thirteen elementary schools and learned early in life that making friends was a futile endeavor. By the time I reached high school I didn’t even know how to make friends anymore. I was quiet, withdrawn and used to being teased and bullied at every new school I went to. Usually it was because of my weight – but mostly just because I was an outsider and easy prey.
High school foreshadowed the life that lay ahead for me: I didn’t fit into the predefined social cliques nor did I have tons of options when it came to choosing friends. I wasn’t outgoing, athletic, pretty, cool or funny. I was smart, but too serious and mature beyond my years for even the brainy clique. Plus, I was awkward and self-conscious and didn’t know how to relate to people my age. I made a few friends – outcasts like me – but I never really felt like anyone “fit” me. We outcasts came together, not because we liked each other necessarily, but out of pure necessity: finding safety in numbers. We’d pair up and quietly slink down the hallways between classes hoping no one would notice us and huddle together in the corners of the cafeteria at lunch, each of us trying desperately to fade into the group and become invisible to the bullies on the prowl for their next victim.
I eventually found my place with the burnouts; learning at a young and impressionable age that Carolyn the ‘bad girl” had a lot more company than the smart quiet girl. And so the patterns of my life were born; cycles of partying and the friends and relationships that came with it, followed by getting clean and leaving them behind for new sober friends and then falling off the wagon and alienating my new healthy friends…
Confidence and sociability came with age and experience. By the time I moved to San Francisco at 21 I found it easy to meet people, but even during my periods of lucidity most of the people who came into my life didn’t stick. My periods of sobriety were quests for personal discovery and growth; uncovering my truths and finding the reasons I kept going into dark places. This has meant a lot of very hard soul-searching and reinventing myself over and over again. Each new phase meant learning what – and who -fit into my new reality and often making the hard choice to move on: alone. Which has always been a source of shame and doubt for me. Why can’t I hold on to friends like “normal” people do? How many times do I have to reinvent myself? Why can’t I just be normal?
I paused in place on the rocky trail and spun around soaking it the view of Bighorn Plateau to get out of my head. This little trip down memory lane was consuming me and I wanted to step back into the present. Behind me Mt. Whitney majestically jutted toward the sky in the smoky distance. I smiled. I climbed that.
And in that moment something happened. Standing on that plateau with Mt Whitney behind me and hundreds of miles of peaks and passes ahead of me it all came together. I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
My heart swelled with…. Happiness? Pride? Relief? I wasn’t sure, but I felt completely and totally and unabashedly free. Freer than I have ever felt before. Not just because I’m on the John Muir Trail and have nowhere to be for the next 25 days but free from all the judgement I’ve carried about the relationships and friendships I’ve had to say goodbye to over the years. Free from what I thought I should be and should have. Free from some manufactured idea of what my life should look like. Free from the falsehoods of a world dressed up in Hallmark moments and cheesy prime-time sitcoms that neatly wrap up every relationship issue in a half hour. Free from a world that tells people like me that we aren’t ok because we don’t have what Hollywood and Capitalist America tells us we’re supposed to have.
Yes I was dealt a shitty hand. Yes, I’ve had to fight and dig and claw my way through life alone, figuring things out as I go and learning all my lessons the hard way. I could have settled for “surviving” like so many people do, but that has never been good enough for me. I’ve never been one to sit on the side lines, taking the safe route. I am not one to just go through the motions, biding my time on this planet. I want to live – I mean really live. That has meant a life of experiences, risks and experiments – some of them healthy and some – well, let’s just say, maybe not so much. Trying things – and people – on for size is how I’ve discovered who I am and what fits.
Today I was set free. Today I saw myself in a kinder, more empathetic light: I am exactly where I want to be and I owe that to the sum of my experiences. Good and bad.
I got here by being brave enough to face my truth. By making mistakes, getting into bad relationships and trying on friends that didn’t fit. I learned something from each and every one of those experiences. And they got me here, to this exact spot at this most awesome and beautiful moment. Not everyone’s path is the same – and that is ok.
I was so deep in thought that I barely noticed the plateau was behind me and I was beginning my descent toward Tyndall Creek on a wooded trail. My mind was racing with all the clarity that was flooding in. Like some invisible gate of self-love and empathy had flung open and I could see clearly for the first time. How could I have known what type of men I wanted to date or women I wanted to befriend if I didn’t even know who I was? All those years of selling myself out had left me an empty shell; a chameleon ready to take on whatever colors I needed to blend in. But not anymore. The last couple of years have been about learning to be true to myself. About learning that I don’t even want to blend in and be like everyone else! It’s been about accepting – and now celebrating – my uniqueness.
I wanted to scream into the forest, “YES I AM DIFFERENT GODDAMMIT AND IT’S OKAY!”
It’s fucking OK…
I trekked on with renewed purpose and an awakened sense of myself. Just a couple more miles t to Tyndall creek where I may or may not meet up with my new friends. And either way, it will be perfectly OK.