Day 22 on the JMT: Getting Lost Leaving Red’s Meadow!

After my My Final Resupply: Dusk at camp on Olaine Lake (not on the JMT!)

With renewed energy and a feeling of “I got this-ness” I hiked away from Mammoth Lakes’ Red’s Meadow Resort and my final JMT resupply point. I navigated the confusing and ill-marked JMT/PCT trails amid the maze of Devil’s Post Pile National Monument trails, weaving in and out of the flocks of Labor Day tourists oozing manufactured human-ness: pseudo-white smiles; squeaky-clean skin reeking of overly-perfumed soap; fresh clothes cloaked in counterfeit ‘summer breeze” or ‘spring fresh” scents.

Before I even reached the Devil’s PostPile monument, less than a mile away, I realized, that despite my phone having been plugged in for hours, the battery was only at about 23% full- and that quickly drained to 13% after trying to pull up my JMT Guthook app to scout my camp for the night. Crap! I plugged it into my 12-watt solar charger, which hadn’t been working the last few days- hoping by some miracle it would suddenly come back to life. Please don’t be broken. I hoped it just wasn’t strong enough to charge a battery zapped of life by the sub-freezing nights. But no go. The tiny panels failed to turn the blazing sun into power.

I tried not to panic, despite being nervous about how I’d contact my friend Steve when I got to Yosemite Valley so he’d know it was time to come and get me (at least I’d written down his phone number on my emergency contact list in my backpack so I could always borrow a phone). But even worse, now I’ll have to rely on my maps to scout water sources and camping spots for the rest of my hike – and my topo reading skills haven’t proven to be very accurate!

I’d loaded the Guthook app before I left, hearing from friends and other backpackers on the JMT hikers Facebook group what a great tool it was for finding water sources and the best places to camp along the trail. I was hesitant – for this reason exactly. I didn’t want to be reliant on something that could be yanked away on a whim of bad luck. It’s been helpful in finding the best places to camp and water sources on the trail for the week I’ve been using it. Oh, how quickly we get used to the conveniences of modern technology! Oh well, I only have a few more days, I can live without it.

Devil’s PostPile National Monument Mammoth Lakes, CA

I reached into the side pocket of my hiking pants and pulled out the Ziploc bag holding the last section of the JMT map I’d just picked up from my resupply bucket. I unfolded the crisp, clean pages of the Tom Harrison maps (good ole Tom Harrison!) representing the last days of my hike. I absent-mindedly glanced over it as I forged my path through the buzzing crowds of Devils’ Post Pile National Monument.
When I got to the base of the mountain, I stopped amid bustling tourists snapping selfies and carrying plastic water bottles, to scan the area for signs back to the JMT. I couldn’t help but notice the stares. I could feel eyes on me. Despite having just showered and washed my clothes, I was conscious of my trail-worn state: my formerly light green hiking shirt now dingy with dust and dirt; the tips of five fingers bandaged with fresh medical tape; and my fatigued, weather-worn face. I felt like an exhibit; a native creature on display as part of their holiday sightseeing adventure. I tried to block out the clamor of humanity, realizing I stood out like a black sheep among the bright SHP (Shiny Happy People).

“Are you alone?”. I kept my eyes on my map, trying to ignore the voice that I knew, without looking was aimed at me. I wasn’t in the mood for another “have you seen Wild?” conversation.

“Excuse me, are you a backpacker?” Hmmm. I wonder if the 40lb backpack strapped to my back gave me away? At this point, politeness won over my annoyance at being lost in the maze of people and feeling obligated to talk to an intrusive tourist.

At the bottom of Devil’s PostPile

I looked up to see the inquisitive face of a 60-something year old man squeezed into the last few inches of a crowded bench, just a few feet in front of me. He was wearing faded-denim shorts that ended just above his swollen knees, a blue Mammoth Lakes T-shirt stretched over his round belly, white socks pulled up to his knees and pair of Keens that looked brand new. His obligatory tourist camera bag was strapped diagonally across his chest and he was grasping a Crystal Geyser water bottle with both hands on his lap. Despite the temperatures only being in the mid-80s and within a short uphill walk from the parking lot, he looked exhausted. His wife sat next to him, in white capris, a matching Mammoth Lakes T-shirt, and white Keds with little white ankle socks. She was holding her own water bottle and looked at me expectantly. I noticed she looked to be about ten years younger than him. As I looked at them, I wondered, is she younger or did she just age better?
“Yes, I’m a backpacker” I injected a good dose of feigned enthusiasm to mask my impatience. I just want to be back on the trail, away from this madness! Where is my damn trail?

The prying tourist repeated his first question, “Are you alone?” And added another, now that he had my attention, “how far have you hiked?”
As the inquisitive man and his younger-looking wife stared at me with expectant looks on their faces and interest and enthusiasm that was hard to stay annoyed at, I let my guard down and told them I was hiking the John Muir Trail and that I’d traveled nearly 200 miles. They were nice enough to say how impressed they were and couldn’t fathom doing it themselves, must less alone. And the woman added, “especially being a woman doing it alone! Wow, you’re more brave than I am!”

I learned they were from Humboldt, CA, which is just a few hours north of where I live, and had traveled to Mammoth to see their son and grandchildren who had walked the short path to the top of the monument. They wearily confided that they’d opted to skip the steep short climb and rest on the bench with the other older folks.

I was just starting to warm up to them when it all came to an abrupt halt (interject the needle screeching across the playing record sound effect here) Screeeeeeech…. the dreaded, predictable, and most annoying question nearly every solo female hiker can hear, came: “have you seen Wild? Are you like that girl in Wild?”

Gawwwd. Really? Fucking Cheryl Strayed taking away my thunder! Yes, I saw the movie. No, I’m not trying to be Cheryl Fucking Strayed. Anything else…? I flatly replied, “Yes, I saw the movie,” I tried to dilute what I was afraid was obvious annoyance, with some forced politeness and enthusiasm, “it was a great movie. But Cheryl hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I’m hiking the JMT.” With a glance at my map, “Ok. I should hit the trail if I’m going to get to camp tonight. You both have a great vacation!” And I turned around and headed back toward the peace and solitude of the forest that never once, in 20 days asked me if I was Cheryl Strayed!

It took less than a half mile to shed the hordes of tourists, who, in my experience rarely venture to wilder parts of any national park. The trails were confusing and poorly marked: some said PCT, some said JMT and some weren’t marked at all. I finally came to a junction that was marked with a sign: “PCT- Agnew Meadows, 3.2”. Agnew Meadows! That sounds familiar! Yes, that’s where I should be heading! The JMT and PCT had been one trail for over a hundred miles; I was sure it was the right way and it sounded like the perfect place to stop for the night. Three more miles would give me just over nine miles for the day. With my long stay at Red’s, I would be happy with that!

So, without consulting my Tom Morrison map, I veered toward Agnew Meadows along the narrow, wooded path, happy to have it mostly to myself again. I passed a few tourists who dared venture off the paved well-marked trails for the national monument (the signs for Devils’ Postpile were well-marked, but NOT the trail to get me back to the JMT). As the afternoon ceded and the sun cast burnt-orange shadows on the towering conifers, my trail weariness soon replaced the temporary boost I’d gotten from Red’s. Devoured by the lush forest again with nothing but Ponderosa Pines, Aspens and Cottonwoods to keep me company, my legs felt leaden beneath my replenished pack- and I was anxious to reach Agnew Meadows and make camp for the night.

After what felt like two hours I reached a junction with a small sign pointing the way to Agnew Meadows: 1.8 miles. What? There is no way I’ve only hiked a mile and a half! How can that be?

Annoyed and too anxious to sit down, take a proper rest and study my map, I trudged on; up the trail toward Agnew Meadow. As I hiked, I thought about all the hiking books and stories I’d read, and Agnew Meadow was one of those iconic stops on the trail! This is where I’m supposed to be going, right??? It seems to be taking too long. I should be done by now. I must have hiked 9 miles by now.

I thought back to the junction with a faint path heading into the darkness of the forest and the sign I’d passed a while back; was I supposed to take that trail? But no, the sign clearly said “Agnew Meadow” in this direction. But why do I feel like I’m veering off the JMT? I begrudgingly slogged up the hill another quarter mile… I stopped. Looked around. Hiked a few more yards. Stopped, looked around again, trying to decide if I should push on or go back.

This can’t be right. Something’s wrong. I turned around and slogged back to the junction and the sign, flopped off my pack, sat in the grass, pulled out my fresh bag of home-made trail mix, took a long swig of orange flavored Nuun water and pulled out my map, carefully tracing the maze of trails through Devil’s Postpile and up toward Agnew Meadow. SHIT! No, No, No! There it was, right in front of me. How did I miss that? Way back at the first PCT/Agnew Meadow sign, the JMT and the PCT split. For weeks, the JMT and PCT had been one trail and I could follow signs for either. I knew it would split eventually, but I thought it was further along. Then the reality struck me: I AM further along. Further than I wanted to admit. I am almost to Yosemite. Almost at the End.

That sinking feeling in my gut returned, not just at being near the end, but now the added burden of being off my trail. I had hiked about 3 miles off the JMT. The good news was, the spur trail I was sitting at went back to the JMT, via Olaine Lake.

Olaine Lake

It would put me back on the trail at Shadow Lake. No real harm done, I’m just a few miles off… Not a big deal, just a slight change of plans.

I studied my map to recalibrate and plan my new camp for the night at Olaine Lake two miles away. It was already getting late in the day and my energy was depleting rapidly. I’m a morning person and by late afternoon all I want is to be done. Over the miles and days of my hike, I’d trained myself to hike past this state and eventually, I’d get a second wind. Time to pack up and walk toward that second wind!

As I hiked the narrow, faint path heading deeper into the forest, a sense of gloom enveloped me. I felt lost and abandoned on the strange trail. I missed the comfort and safety of the JMT: my home for the past 20 days. I began second-guessing myself again. Is this right? Even though I was sure I knew where I was this time, I questioned myself: are you sure you’re not lost? The trail felt abandoned and eerie. How do I know it’s not some random path to nowhere? Or worse,  to the cabin of some deep-woods reclusive Unabomber psycho? I hiked on, trying to feel confident in my map reading skills.

Eventually, I heard laughing and shouting above me; the tell-tale signs of day hikers. Despite their ear drum-piercing yelps, I was immediately comforted. I’m on the right track. I’m not heading to impending doom!

They were coming down the mountain trail above me; the trail I’d have taken to Agnew Meadow, I presumed. It dawned on me that Agnew Meadows is a popular PCT stop. I’ve read too many PCT thru-hike stories, that’s why Agnew Meadows had sounded so familiar!
The hike to Olaine Lake was relatively flat and the hiking was easy and fast. I passed a couple along the way and asked if they’d seen any good camping there. Yes, they said, but the man added, “it’s not a very pretty place though, you should go a couple miles further to Shadow Lake, it’s much prettier.”

“Yes, but I’ve already done 9 miles and it’s been a long day. How’s the hike to Shadow Lake? According to the map, it looks like a steep climb along a gorge, which means no camping. Did you see camping along the way, in case I need to stop before Shadow Lake?”

“The trail isn’t bad at all. You can do it. And yeah, I think there’s some camping along the way.”

His female companion gently disagreed, “Um, I think, the climb is pretty rough—“.

The man interrupted her, “No it’s not bad. She can do it”

I thanked them and moved on, debating whether I should trust the man’s advice and keep going to Shadow Lake or stay at Olaine Lake. I liked the idea of being back home, on my trail. But that would mean two more miles: uphill miles. And if it was along a steep gorge, as it looked on the map, there’d be no camping along the way. I’d be stuck with a rough two-mile climb at the end of a long day.

My cozy pink socks.. a resupply bucket luxury!

About twenty minutes later, I spotted the small tree lined mountain lake. I was still contemplating whether I should move on. I couldn’t’ shake the feeling of being lost and alone, off my trail. But I didn’t exactly trust the couple’s opposing views of the climb and decided to make camp at a large clearing on the south end of the lake. As I set up, I heard voices approach the lake from the east. A group of young rowdy people stopped at the shore a couple hundred yards away. I set up my tent and then walked around the west side of the lake to explore the area, like I do at every new camp to familiarize myself with my surroundings. It helps me acclimate and sleep better.

Back at camp, I boiled water for chamomile tea and nibbled on a Bobo’s lemon poppy seed oat bar and a handful of Jelly Bellies (the “surprise “treat, I’d added to my resupply bucket!), while I boiled another pot of water to rehydrate my vegan white beans with tomatoes. I sat in the dirt with my back against a log enjoying the beauty of the lake, drinking in the warmth of my soothing tea and relishing in the jolt of energy from the sugary goodness of Jelly Bellies (I’d made a special trip to the Jelly Belly factory near my house for them! And yes, I know they aren’t vegan) and the grainy goodness of the lemon oat bar. The noisy people eventually left and I had it all to myself; just the way I like it. The sights and sounds of nature soothed me; whimsical songs of birds, playful squirrels chasing each other up and down trees and a gentle breeze blowing through the Lodgepole Pines… The day melted away and I began to relax.

Without my phone, I had nothing to read, so rather than retreat to my tent, I walked around the lake exploring the trail back to the JMT that I’ll be hiking tomorrow

As dusk settled and the shadows melted into the lake, I climbed into my tent and slid on the  fuzzy pink socks (clean socks!) I’d put in my resupply bucket. I’d had the forethought to consider what a luxury they’d be toward the end of the trail!  Boy was I right!   I climbed inside my sleeping bag with my cozy socks and drifted off to sleep thinking about being back home on my trail tomorrow, and my last iconic stop: Thousand Island Lakes.