Independence: Resupply, Restore and Renew

Day 8: Onion Valley Campground to Kearsarge Lakes via Independence 5.8 miles

Resupply day!

8 am –  I’ve been sitting on a bear box in the parking lot at the Onion Valley trailhead waiting for a ride since 7:30. There’s no one around and there aren’t many people in the campground. I didn’t meet anyone last night (just the annoying nosey guy), so all I can do is sit here and wait…  It’s very quiet.  I may be here a while.

8:45 am– I’m in Independence!!!

I was sitting on my bear box writing when suddenly, out of nowhere, a car appeared from the campground. I crammed my journal into my pack, slung it over my shoulder and ran to the road with my thumb flying in the air.  A slight, middle aged woman who seemed habitually nervous, rolled down her window and looked at me doubtfully. My heart sank. Her little Honda CRV was already packed with gear and two dirty hikers with accents who were incoherently blathering away at her. I was sure she wouldn’t try to cram me in. But then the hiker in the back craned his head toward me over the gear-stuffed backseat and yelled, “C’mon mate, we can fit yew.” And the nervous lady yielded, saying to no one in particular, “ok, we can try”.  Apparently all the chatter I couldn’t make out was the hikers pleading with her to pick me up, as I will learn later.

Jerri from Clovis, California was our gracious driver. She’d dropped off her husband for a 5-day trip and was on her way out when the other two flagged her down in the campground. When I asked her why she wasn’t joining her husband on the trail she just laughed, “oh no, not me. I prefer 5 star hotels thank you!”. I looked at my dirt-streaked sunburned face in her rear view mirror and couldn’t help feeling a little smug in all my dirtiness.DSCN0194 kearsarge pass looking east

James, who was sharing the backseat with me and his very large backpack, was about my age, very thin and weather-worn. He helped me wedge my pack between my legs as I climbed into the cramped backseat.  There was gear everywhere; piled on the seat, rolling around the floor and crammed into the small luggage area in the back.

Fred was the other passenger, sitting in the front seat. A frail looking 78-year-old man with the same weather-worn look as his mate, gray wispy-thin hair and a beard.  They told us they came from Australia to hike the John Muir Trail and had been wandering around for 73 days – not really sticking to the trail much.   I knew I didn’t smell great despite my attempts at hiker baths, but wow, the Aussies were ripe! All I could think was, poor Jerri she’ll have to fumigate her cute little truck before her long ride back to Clovis.

James confessed to me, almost in a whisper as Fred and Jerri chatted away in the front seat, that they had come down the pass earlier and spotted me sitting on the bear box, waiting. They knew they had to get behind me if they were to get a ride, so they went into the campground and waited, finding Jerri as she exited.  In essence, he, a little too-nonchalantly admitted to hijacking my ride.  They thought it would be easier for them to convince someone to pick up a woman than for me to convince someone to pick up two dirty men, “But what if you couldn’t?” I asked.

“Well then, I guess yew’d still be sittin’ there…”  He said laughing. I wasn’t. But I’m not one to hold grudges (even when I should!) and I quickly got over it. After all, I was in the car and I couldn’t hate them for their ingenuity. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

resupply in independence
Independence, CA

So after a slow and windy, cramped and smelly trip into town I’m enjoying my veggie Subway sandwich and icy-cold black tea that took me 20 minutes to get while the guy behind the counter finished whatever he was doing in the back. Things move a little slower in Independence.  I already did my shopping at the small hiker friendly convenience store/gas station connected to Subway (I got the hiker discount!). I got my Nyquil tabs (since you can’t by Xanax over the counter), a bar of soap from which I cut a small chunk and threw the rest away (my Dr. Bronners leaked out of the cheapo screw-cap dollar containers from Walmart and I didn’t pack any more in my resupply) and my blue bandanna!  They didn’t have much vegan food and I didn’t feel like getting an upset stomach on the trail, so I avoided the ice cream and snickers bars that tempted me and opted for a banana and a big bag of Fritos.

With footlong subs and giant bottles of water in hand, James and Fred asked to join me at my outdoor table with a view of the Independence post office and the Eastern Sierra Peaks we’d descended from in the background. The post office didn’t open until 9:30 so we had some time to kill.

They shared stories of their 73 days in the backcountry; how they’d been wandering around, not really following the JMT, with minimal food, catching fish with their bare hands to sustain them.  They’d caught 58 fish they said – yes all with their bare hands!  I had my doubts, thinking the Aussies were telling me tall tales.  But then they demonstrated how to reach your hands into the water, deep under rocks until you feel slimy slithery bodies and then you trap them in. The cupped their cutup hands to show me their technique.  Seeing all the cuts and scrapes on their hands and forearms my suspicions of tall-tales vanished. I truly believed I was in the presence of two legitimate Bare-Handed-Aussie-Fish-Catchers.

Kearsarge Lake REI Quarterdome tent view
I love my tent view at Kearsarge Lake

As James talked I became distracted by a black bug crawling on his cheek. I kept waiting for him to swat it away but he kept on talking like it wasn’t even there.  I watched it get to his beard line and then head toward his mouth.  I tried to focus on his fish-catching instruction in case I’m ever in a survival situation but all I could think was: what if it goes in his mouth? Will he let it go in his mouth? Do these bare-handed-fish-catchers eat bugs too?  I could almost feel the bug crawling on my own face and found myself swiping at my cheek as I devoured my sandwich.  I tried to focus on his story. On my sandwich. On my iced-tea, anything but the little critter having a field day on his cheek.  I waited for him to feel it and brush it off… And I waited. And waited… Ohmygod is he ever going to brush it off? He HAS to feel it.  HOW CAN HE NOT FEEL IT?!? I couldn’t take it any longer. I abruptly interrupted him, “there’s a bug on your face…”

“Oh, okay….”  He kept right on talking barely missing a beat. He didn’t even try to brush it off. Wow, these guys from Down Under are the real freaking deal!   I didn’t hear another word he said, I was mesmerized by the little black bug as it trekked across the Aussie’s face as if it was on its own tiny little JMT journey. I fought the urge to swat it away and watched with horror and fascination as it crawled in and out of his beard, across his cheek, toward his ear and then into his hairline where it disappeared and then remerged from behind his ear again.  Would it be rude to swat it away? He seemed to have some affinity with the tiny bug, so I felt swatting it away would be invasive. But it was making me crazy. How can he not feel it?    All I could do is watch as it trekked across his face, exploring every pore and speck of dirt it encountered as I scarfed my Fritos.

After eating, we walked across the busy two lane Route 395, dodging campervans and big rigs, to the post office.   A sense of relief swept over me when the postman came back from the stacks of boxes holding mine! Yay, it worked!  I’d had a nagging fear that my box wouldn’t be there.  The postman was very friendly, asking if I was hiking the JMT. He handed me my box and asked politely, “Please take it outside to unpack, not in the lobby.”  “No problem”, I responded and took my slightly crushed box outside where I plopped down on the sidewalk, leaned against the post office wall and tore it open.

Kearsare lakes day 9 2
Kearsarge Lakes with the Pinnacles in the background

Resupply is like Christmas morning for thru-hikers:  I was filled with excitement as I ripped through the box to find what goodies I’d snuck inside. Red Vines!  Yay! I need the sugar, I hadn’t packed enough instant energy in the first leg and I needed this for the long climbs. More trail mix! Yay! (really, I love trail mix and could eat it every day). New dinners! Yay! Toilet Paper and wet wipes! Yay! Wow, it really doesn’t take much to make me happy on the trail. I like that…

The feeling of being dirty and smelly, sitting on the sidewalk with pounds of hiker food sprawled on the ground around me as curious passers-by gawked at us was the most awesome feeling ever.  While the rest of the world was going about their perfectly orchestrated, purposely full lives; going to work, dropping off the kids, running errands, I sprawled out on the hot sidewalk (yes it was already hot) with one concern: how to fit 9 days of food in my bear can as quickly as possible so I can get back on the trail. This is what freedom looks like, folks!

5pm at Kearsarge lakes

I am utterly and completely exhausted. And I had the absolute best day! I’m alone at Kearsarge Lakes setting up camp. It feels weird to be alone. There has been a flutter of activity and people the last couple of days, being so close to trailhead with the hordes of day and section hikers, a lot of time with the Arkansas guys, spending last night in the campground and today, being in town and hanging out with the smelly Bare-Handed-Fish-Catching-Aussies.

When you hike north-bound you talk to a lot of people in passing, but you don’t get the community SOBO hikers have.  They see the same people as they leapfrog one another, eventually forming groups and hiking together.  But going NOBO – and being solo – except for the people I pass on the trail, I’m alone most of the time.   Leapfrogging the Arkansas Four and knowing they’re nearby has been comforting. It’s tempting to want to stay with them, but I feel like I miss part of the experience when I hike with other people.  I’m not as aware. I don’t see or experience as much.  The trail becomes a prop and the wilderness a backdrop to the conversations; like the set of a play. It’s there, but you don’t really experience it, you’re more focused on the actors.  I’m glad to be alone again. 20150729_153935 kearsarge lake

Today couldn’t have gone more perfectly: getting the ride out of Onion Valley so quickly, shopping, enjoying some “real” food (not sure I’d call Subway “real food”, but it will do for now), successfully retrieving my resupply box and then getting a ride back to the trailhead within 10 minutes of sticking my thumb out.  I was back on the trail by 10:45 am!

Within two miles of being on the trail I ran into my Arkansas friends as they descended Kearsarge Pass toward their resupply. They decided to camp at Charlotte Lake tonight rather than stay at Kearsarge again, and stashed their gear near the top of the pass.  They had empty packs and were hustling down the mountain.  They were so fast, that we met up again at Flower Lake, where I was taking a break to re-organize my pack, get water and soak my achy feet.

I must have looked pretty miserable because Robert offered to carry my newly-replenished BV500 to the top of the pass. Since he was just carrying his food, he thought the extra weight would be much less of a burden on him than on me with a full pack. I flat out refused. There was no way I was going to let him carry my weight up the pass. Wouldn’t it be cheating?

They all gave me such a hard time for refusing him that I felt like an idiot and gave in… Holy shit, what a relief it was! Thanks to him I climbed that pass –  4.7 miles and 2700’ –  in 3 hours! I met up with them at the top and Robert handed me my bear can, “what the heck do you have in there? Rocks?” I laughed, it was 9 days’ worth of food. “How much does that thing weigh?”. I looked at him with what must have been a dumb look on my face and shrugged as I attempted do the math in my head. “We’re guessing at least 20 pounds!” Robert teased, smiling cheerfully as always. I felt bad – it was heavier than he thought it would be.

“Nah, it can’t be that heavy”, and the numbers finally came to my foggy brain, “my food is about 1.5 lbs. a day at 9 days… that’s 14 lbs. max. “

“It feels like a lot more than that young lady!”  He good naturedly chided me.

I wondered, can it weigh 20 pounds? There IS a lot of trail mix in there and it’s stuffed.  When I stuffed it back inside my pack and heaved it over my shoulder, I had to admit, it felt like a hell of a lot more than 14 lbs. Omg it’s so heavy. My little reprieve was over. Back to the reality of a full pack.

I’d talked about trying to hike Charlotte Lake to get closer to Rae Lakes where I was planning my zero but Tim adamantly urged me to stay at Kearsarge Lakes, touting its incredible beauty. He convinced me it was a special place not to be missed, so we parted ways once again and I headed down the thick soupy smoke to the barely visible Kearsarge Lakes. kearsarge tent by the lake great shot smaller

The climb down the western side of Kearsarge Pass was slow and painful and as smoky and dreary as yesterday. When I finally got to the set of small lakes nestled beneath the pointy pinnacles, I hiked toward the second lake as Tim suggested and scouted for a spot. Being just 6 miles from the trailhead, it’s a well-used area and there are plenty of sites to choose from. I settled on a flat sandy spot next to giant boulder that towers a few feet above my head, far enough from the grassy shore and surrounded by the smoke-subdued Kearsarge pinnacles that dramatically cut the the sky and then gradually melt into the landscape, ending abruptly in a sharp cliff at the opposite edge of the calm gray waters.  I can’t wait for morning to take some pictures.  I’ve stopped trying to take pictures in the smoke, they just look like walls of hazy smoke with a shadow of a mountain behind it. I’ve learned to wait until morning when the smoke has cleared to take most of my pictures.

I love this time day on the trail; the hiking is over and I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Now I get to reap the reward; the privilege of being where few go. Of seeing what most people never see and experiencing nature in a way that so many only dream of – or don’t dare dream of.kearsarge lakes day 9 3 smaller

As I relish in the silence of my aloneness, organizing my gear and pitching my tent, I reflect on my day, thinking back to the busy-ness and constant drone of activity along Route 395 in Independence. Everyone seemed to be such a hurry (except the dude making my sandwich) to get somewhere. Everything moved so fast and seemed louder than it needed to be. As I listen to nature’s hush and loll in the company of the ancient hardy crags, stoic boulders and sturdy conifers and the small smooth lake gently lapping against the earth in the tiny breeze, I am full with gratitude. And before I know it a familiar thought seeps into my brain: The world doesn’t fit me. The world doesn’t fit me.  I feel a pull inside as the almost too-unimaginable thought touches the outer edges of my psyche and then floats away and disappears like smoke. Only to waft back in and settle on my exhausted mind like the wall of smoke above me. The world doesn’t fit me… 

All my life I’ve tried to deny this harsh thought, pushing it from my mind, pretending it was never there. How can the world not fit me? That’s insane!  The idea that the world is somehow flawed and would deny one of its own like a mama bear abandoning her only cub didn’t make sense to me. So I believed it had to be me: I don’t fit. It’s me. Flawed. Broken.  Damaged so badly that the world rejects me.  If I could just morph into a still-unknown, but pre-determined cookie-cutter mold, I’d find my place. I just needed to change. This led to a lifetime of chasing false hopes of inclusion down rabbit hole after rabbit hole.  I tried on different lifestyles, looks, friends, men and jobs like some people try on new shoes.  Something or someone is bound to fit!  How many times can a person reinvent herself, anyway?   DSCN0206 kearsarge alpenglow

It was in the backcountry that I began to make sense of that almost-too-unimaginable feeling. I finally found something that felt right and it didn’t demand that I compromise myself, change into someone I wasn’t or sell my soul. In the wilderness – away from all the clutter and noise of life, the feeling of belonging surges inside me, demanding to be recognized: it becomes an ache. A Truth: it’s not the world that doesn’t fit me, it’s THAT world. The one in which Kardashians, unfulfilling 9-5 jobs and 30 year mortgages make sense. A world that makes us so fearful that we would rather watch other people live their lives on so called “Reality TV” than get out and live our own lives.  A world in which Subway passes as real food.  A world in which we feel so trapped and helpless that we subconsciously numb ourselves: fluttering about like honeybees staying as busy as possible, trying to soothe an unnamed emptiness with More.  More responsibility. More work. More food.  More drink. More pharmaceuticals.  More TV.   More stuff that clutters the houses that chain us to our unfulfilling lives.

And I realized, I’ve been shackled to a life I don’t even want. A life that doesn’t fit me. All in the spirit of chasing some elusive American Dream I’m supposed to want. The Dream that tells us we need the bigger house, newer car and expensive vacations. The Dream that insidiously forces us into indentured servitude; trapping us beneath mounds of student loans, car payments, mortgages and credit card bills. Drowning us in responsibility and debt with the promise that if we work hard, save and live long enough we will finally be free –If. The Dream that tells us we should be happy with 2 weeks of vacation while stealing our freedom. Chasing that Dream took me further and further from a world that fits me. Further from truth. Further from myself.

Being in the backcountry, carrying all that I need to survive on my back for days on end has made me realize I was chasing a dream I didn’t want. That world is not me. The closer I got to the Dream the emptier I felt.  THIS is the world that fits me: being in the wilderness where nothing matters but survival and everything I need is carried on my back.  It is among the trees and the dirt and the streams and the lakes that I finally feel welcomed and accepted, without judgement, for all that I am. I may be bent, but I’m not broken. I may be scarred, but I’m not damaged.  Nature gave me my safe place. This is where I belong.

As my sense of belonging envelops me like a warm quilt I crawl inside my tent to set up home:  blowing up my Thermarest, pulling my fluffy down bag out of my pack and thinking about the corn chowder I’ll have for dinner.  I’m smiling as I pull my wool sleeping clothes on over my dirty legs and wrap my bag around me. It’s only 5:30 but the lake is socked in under a thick layer of smoke, making for a gloomy and cold evening. In a normal year, I’d probably be jumping in the cool still waters to clean myself up, but now I have to settle for relaxing inside my tent, curled up in my sleeping bag, sipping chamomile tea.

I’m still exhausted. The bottoms of my feet still throb. My muscles ache and my pack still doesn’t fit right.  And it was a perfect day! I feel completely and utterly and beautifully Content.

 

Arriving at Onion Valley

At Onion Valley Campground, Night 7

….And I hiked, winding back and forth, back and forth, down the endless switchbacks bargaining with the universe to show me signs of civilization below. Please, please, please, be around the next corner…  if it’s there this time, I’ll stop for a rest. Really, I promise… With the smoke hanging heavy in the air, blotting out the sun’s lively rays, it felt much later than it was. I’d been fooled by this smoke induced false-dusk before; dropping my pack to set up camp thinking it’s at least 7, only to discover it’s just 3:00. In a normal year, I’d probably be cussing the heat and looking for a lake to jump into by then, but this year, the year of the wildfires, I spend my afternoons hiking in perpetual gloaming: fooling my body into thinking it’s more tired than it is.DSCN0217

Is that red? Do I see red? Far below I thought I spotted something out of place in the earth-toned terrain of the eastern slope of Kearsarge Pass. I slogged along, trying to ignore the throbbing pains in the bottoms of my feet, desperately searching… YES! Oh my god a car! I never thought I’d be so happy to see a car in all my life.  A few more steps revealed (still hundreds of feet below) a whole parking lot filled with metallic bulbs of color – like a colorful garden nestled at the foot of this hellish mountain. With renewed vigor and a quickened pace I hobbled down the mountainside wondering how long it had been since I’d seen a car: Wow, it’s been 7 days! Have I ever, in my whole life, gone 7 days without seeing a car?  I had to think about it. And no, in my 47 years, I had never gone 7 days without seeing a car. That made me a little sad as the reality of approaching civilization settled in. Onion Valley Campground

From the time I spotted the parking lot to the moment I set foot in the campground, 90 excruciatingly looooonng and torturous minutes passed. But at last I made it…It was close to 5:00 when I finally retreated from the back country. 7 hours. 8.6 miles.  More than 5500 feet.  I was happy to be done, but not so thrilled about where “done” got me.

Despite my exhaustion, before dropping my pack I circled the campground to look for a site to call home for the night. You’d think I was taking a mortgage out with the amount of scrutiny I put into choosing my 12-hour home.  But after spending the last 7 nights mostly alone, I wanted a private spot away from the smelly pit toilets and the curious eyes of car campers.  I felt more exposed and vulnerable than I do in the backcountry and the curious stares were unnerving.

On my second pass of the small loop, the odd homeless-looking man who had been pretending to fidget around his creepy 1980-something gray van parked at a site in the center of the loop, directly adjacent to the campground host, walked toward me trying to disguise his nosiness behind nonchalance.  He failed miserably:  it was obvious by his anxious gait and expression that he needed to say something to me. He puffed out his scrawny chest that had long ago caved in from age and lack of any real exercise and stammered awkwardly, “Ummmm…?  Hullo?  Can I help you…. with sumthin?”

I copped an attitude before he even opened his mouth. I knew he was going to be trouble by the way he’d slow his fidgeting, and strain his long neck, to covertly scrutinize me out of the corner of his eye every time I passed. I surmised by the absence of a car outside the camp hosts 5th Wheel that they were probably in town running errands. Apparently, Van Guy decided it was his civic duty to hold down the fort and prevent dirty hiker chicks from causing mayhem on the Homefront while they were away. Great, a bored homeless guy with a cop complex, I am so not in the mood for this…. I gave him my finest “fuck you” glare and coolly replied, “just looking for a spot to camp for the night” I was curt and short, making no effort whatsoever to hide my annoyance.

The view West from Kearsarge Pass Trail
The view West from Kearsarge Pass Trail

“Errrr… a’right,” he stammered awkwardly looking from my pack to my hiking boots and back up again, but never in the eye. “Well the camp host’ll be back soon…”  I could see his wheels spinning as he sized me up and sensed he had a whole lot more to say. I imagined he was mentally practicing his Ranger Rick speech: “Don’ be thinkin yer gonna get ‘way wit nuthin lil lady.  Comin in here all dirty and grimy, casin the joint and thinking you ain’t got to pay fer nuttin.  I got my eye on you, so just in case yer thinkin’ a causin’ trouble, you ain’t.”

I looked toward the giant self-register billboard 5 feet away and replied curtly, “that’s good to know,” and continued my 3rd trip around the loop to get a closer look at my final contenders. I felt his beady little gray eyes burning into my back as I walked away.

Coming around the loop toward wanna-be Ranger Rick’s camp once more, a real Ranger in an official green pickup truck pulled into the campground from the road and headed straight toward me. Now what? Geesh, can’t a dirty hiker look for a campsite in peace around here? He pulled up next to me, stopped and rolled down his window. A blast of cold air hit my face from the A/C blowing inside the cab. It felt refreshing on my sunburnt, salty face.  He was young – maybe thirty, with a brown beard like all the hip young outdoorsy guys are wearing now, wavy hair, full lips and big brown eyes. I was caught off guard by his rugged good looks. When he flashed me his smile my attitude dropped faster than you can say “cougar bait” and I suddenly had a burning  desire for a shower, shampoo, a little mascara and a miracle that would make me 15 years younger.

“How’s it going out there?”  Unlike wanna-be Ranger Rick, this real Ranger knew that despite my current appearance, I wasn’t a thieving homeless lady, but a backpacker. This was going to be a friendly conversation, not another attempt to infringe upon my freedom to walk around the campground as many times as I wanted.

Painfully aware of my current state of hygiene I replied as confidently as I could muster, “good. It’s smoky,” I decided to play the “I’m a super-cool-hiker-chick who isn’t bothered by a little dirt and B.O.” card: I casually flicked back my unkempt braid and wiped my sweaty forehead with my dirt-caked hand, trying like hell to act like I’d just come from a day at the spa and not 7 days in the wilderness without a proper shower. I smiled awkwardly, trying not to think about how I probably looked like a giant dirty tomato with my big round dirt-streaked sunburned face, “what do you know about the fires?” DSCN0217

“Bad. Real bad.” THAT was not the answer I was hoping for.  “The Rough Fire in Kings canyon is burning outta control and it’s in the wilderness now, so they stopped fighting it.”  So, the rumors were true… I’d heard this from SOBO hikers who had talked to Rangers up north so it wasn’t a surprise However, what he said next was, “the fire’s about 10 miles off the JMT,” he paused and studied me, seeming almost reluctant to continue, “they pulled all the Rangers from LeConte Canyon and Rae Lakes…” What was he saying??? They pulled the Rangers but left the hikers? What the hell does that mean? I panicked a little. My gut knotted up and disappointment dropped into my core like a boulder. I don’t want to quit. I don’t want Onion Valley Campground to be my finish. Happy Isles, it’s supposed to be Happy Isles!

“Wha–? They pulled the Rangers?”  My concern about finishing the trail overwhelmed my little cradle-robbing Ranger crush and any self-consciousness over my giant tomato head. Now I was all business – now I was the hiker chick unconcerned with B.O. and dirt. “Is it that dangerous? Do you think the fires will make it to the trail…?”

“I don’t know if the fires are gonna reach the trail. But the smoke… They can’t live in that… “

That made sense and I felt slightly relieved. The Rangers live out there all summer and I’m sure there are OSHA laws about employees living in hazardous conditions. Conversely, I’m just passing through (and still holding onto hope that I’ll eventually walk out of the smoke). But still, 10 miles away, that’s a day’s hike. And they stopped fighting the fires… What does that mean exactly? I had to ask, but was afraid of his answer, “is it ok for us to be out there still?”

There was a too-long pause. I could see him trying to find the right words, “I can’t say ma’am.”  He looked like a man who didn’t want to say the truth and besides the sting of this young handsome Ranger calling me ma’am I was rocked by the reality of my situation with the wildfires: I may end up having to evacuate.DSCN0201

I was trying to digest and make sense of this tragic news. I wanted him to give me the answers, reassure me, tell me it would be ok to continue, “B…but what if the fire does get closer? How will we know? Will they evacuate us? Will they get us out?”

He looked me square in the eye with his big brown eyes and shrugged his broad shoulders. He didn’t have to say it; the answer was ‘no’. “Just be careful out there….”

A million thoughts were flying through my mind. OMG they won’t try to evacuate us!?!  If a big wind hits and the fire comes we’re on our own? No Rangers… We’re really and truly on our own.  I’m no stranger to throwing caution to the wind, taking risks and charging forward without thinking things to death, and for days I’ve rationalized being out here in these conditions: I came out here to experience nature. Forest fires are part of nature. They are part of my experience. It’s neither good nor bad. It just IS. And I will keep going until it’s too dangerous to move on. So with this new information from a professional – a Ranger – a dude who knows stuff – what the hell am I supposed to do?

I tried to be optimistic and cheerful and not read too much into his evasiveness, “Ok. I will be. Thank you for the info…”

“Sure thing. Be careful out there and good luck,” he gave me a little half smile this time- was that concern I saw flash across his handsome face?  “– Oh and by the way, #1 is a great site. It’s a car camping site, but it’s ok if you take it, we won’t fill up tonight.”

“Yeah, I was looking at that, thank you. And thanks for the info.” He pulled away toward the back of the campground and I walked down the driveway to site #1 one more time to try to make up my mind. But I was in a fog. What should. I do? Should I call it here? Am I walking into a wildfire? Am I taking an unnecessary risk by being out there?

I finally settled on a quiet site in the backpacker’s section away from the car-camping looky-loos and wanna-be Ranger Rick. I’ve had dinner and now I’m sitting here at the picnic table in camp, looking up toward my nemesis, Kearsarge Pass, with the first of the stars barely twinkling against the darkening sky. My brutally tough day and the troubling conversation I had with the handsome Ranger is all I’ve been able to think about. I pondered how the wildfires would be the perfect excuse to bail. I’ve heard so many stories already of hikers leaving the trail because of the smoke and I’ve wondered how many used it as an excuse. How many had days like I had today and just said, “screw it- it’s hard, it’s smoky, it’s dingy and gray and the views suck. I’m done!”?

It would be a convenient excuse, for sure. But I really and truly do NOT WANT TO LEAVE.  As hard as today was, the LAST thing I want to do is quit.   And even if I wanted too, I couldn’t, in good consciousness leave because the smoke is inconvenient. If it becomes dangerous, yes, but inconvenient, no!

I contemplated this:  How often have I opted out of a hike because of rain or snow or wind? And isn’t my purpose for hiking to experience nature? And isn’t rain and wind and snow – and FIRE – part of nature? So by its very composition, it’s not supposed to be convenient. It’s rugged. It’s challenging. It’s unpredictable.  I wanted to spend 30 days on the trail to immerse myself and really experience it – ALL of it; not just the gorgeous blue sky days with moderate temps and no precipitation. THIS is part of my experience of nature and my JMT journey: fire and smoke. Sure it’s different than other years, but so was the summer of 2010 when Arkansas Robert was here and it was all covered in snow.  It’s nature.  And to me, quitting now would be denying nature – and putting conditions on Her: I’ll only hike under blue skies and reasonable temperatures, no rain, no snow, no wind, no bugs and no smoke! No, I will do this on Her terms.  Smoke and all.

The Ranger didn’t tell me to get off the trail. He didn’t say it was too dangerous to be out. He didn’t say we’re getting evacuated. And if you think about it, wouldn’t they err on the side of caution?  Have you ever known any government agency to take unnecessary risks with the public’s safety (well, I guess it depends on how much big money is involved, right…?)? Therefore, I deemed it safe to continue. I’m going to hike until… well, I’m not sure, exactly. I’m just going to keep hiking and see what happens. End of discussion.