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.

 

Day 21 – Red Cones to Resupply day at Red’s Meadow!

Before sunrise:

REDS! REDS! REDS!!!

Today is Red’s Meadow Resupply day!! I am so excited that I’m tempted to pack up now, in the cold and the dark, and start hiking! Tempted, but not driven, because that would require venturing out of the warmth of my tent. I already scrambled out to get my bear can and stove and it’s freezing out there! My Nalgene water bottle, which I left next to my tent, has a thin layer of ice floating on top; evidence it was another bitter cold night. But I was prepared, and slept better, in my double socks, rain pants over wool layers and extra trash compactor bag beneath my Thermarest.  I wasn’t warm, but I wasn’t freezing my ass off either.. that’s progress.

 

Camp at Red Cones

***

After finishing my coffee and making my usual morning scouting expedition two hundred feet away from the creek I camped near, I discovered a hidden pocket of inspiration in this “most boring section of the JMT”.  As I bumbled through the dense forest of giant conifers and graceful aspens, stepping over felled, rotting victims of the Mountain Pine Beetle, I stumbled onto the edge the most idyllic scene I’d witnessed in days: a tiny meadow cloaked in fog and slumbering peacefully beneath the weight of the frigid night.

Framed by pines on three sides and the Red Cones on the fourth, northwest edge, the meadow gently pooled at the base of the rolling hills.  Her plush golden-green grasses mingled with the glistening morning frost, creating a mystical and other-worldly setting.  I followed a game trail for a couple hundred feet to further admire her muted brilliance as she lay docile in the crystalline morning, patiently waiting for her chance to shine again.  I stood in my tracks, facing her, inhaled deeply and soaked in the silent and mystical scene. This is what I came out here for. Scenes like these and precious moments when nature beckons and envelops me in her majesty; claiming me as one of her own.

Mystical Meadow

 

Later at Red’s Meadow Resort: My Last Resupply

Red’s was awesome! It was everything I’d hoped Muir Trail Ranch to be and wasn’t, making it that much more awesome! I could have stayed there all day, eating, showering and relaxing, but I had miles to go before I slept! (Love me some Frost!).

After leaving my magical meadow and hiking a relatively easy five miles through a forest of dead trees, (more victims of the drought, fire and the Mountain Pine Beetle), I arrived at the rustic Red’s compound around ten.  It was Labor Day weekend and bustling with tourists spilling out of the log cabins.

My first order of business was a shower. So much for my quest to go thirty days without a shower! Twenty was my limit. I couldn’t stand my dingy, pungent self any longer and couldn’t wait to strip off my filthy clothes and scrub away twenty days of sweat and dirt with hot water and soap!  I even splurged and went for the deluxe fourteen dollar, ten-minute shower (showers are $7 for 5 minutes). It was worth every single token!  Plus,  I multi-tasked and showered with my trail clothes on the floor. So, while I got clean, my clothes got clean too.

Oh. My. God. You don’t know heaven until you have your first hot shower in twenty days. Holy moly! Feeling human for the first time in weeks, I put on the cleanest clothes I had – my hiking shorts and a tank top – stuffed my sopping wet, shower-washed, hiking clothes in the dryer and moseyed to the café in search of a real meal and an outlet to plug in my phone.

The café was bustling with Labor Day resort stayers so I claimed a stool at the counter, against the far wall, near the only visible outlet that wasn’t surrounded by diners.  I debated between the veggie burger and eggs for several minutes and then opted for scrambled eggs, rye toast, home fries and an iced tea, topped off with a not-homemade giant slice of blueberry pie. The pie looked homemade and the crust might have been, but I worked at Dunkin Donuts long enough in my teens, to spot blueberry filling from a bucket, a mile away! It wasn’t very good, but I ate it anyway, adding four packets of sugar on top of it. I don’t usually like super-sweet desserts, but the pie needed it and it made me feel like a real thru-hiker!

After breakfast, feeling fresh and clean and human, I went back into the store to claim my resupply bucket and shop for something yummy.  Carrying my bucket in one hand and a newly acquired bag of Fritos in the other, I plopped down at a picnic table outside the diner to unpack and organize my resupply. I had way too much food! I threw a bunch of leftover food away and added some of my fresh stock to the hiker bucket – which was pathetic compared to the MTR buckets. Rumor has it, that the Red’s staff take stuff out of the buckets and sell it in the store. I hope that’s not true, but that’s the rumor. Judging by the piddly selection, it seems it could be more than a rumor.

The people of Red’s were so friendly and helpful – another contrast to the “get down to business”,  no frills, attitude at Muir Trail Ranch (MTR). Actually, it was more than that: MTR wasn’t hiker friendly at all. Period. They charged an arm and a leg for a resupply bucket and didn’t even provide restrooms or water.  The feeling I got, as soon as I walked through the wooden gate was: “unless you’re spending $200+ to stay in one of our tents, get your shit and move on…”

Red’s was the exact opposite; friendly, outgoing, inviting.  The inherent attitude was, “come, pull up a picnic table and stay a while. Feel free to use our electricity, water and restrooms!”  Yes, I liked Red’s. A lot!

 

I texted my emergency contact and my friend Steve to update them on my progress.  My emergency contact and I had devised a communication plan: I’d update her with my SPOT tracking system at least every few days and then text her at my resupply points to let her know I’d arrived safely and on schedule (I was two days ahead of schedule).   Steve was picking me up in Yosemite to shuttle me back to Lone Pine to get my car. “I’m at Red’s. Should be in Yosemite Valley in 4 days” , I typed out on my phone. A sadness enveloped me. I don’t’ want to be done! I can’t believe I’m just four days away from completing what I’d dreamed of and planned for nearly a year. WOW.

With much hesitation, I heaved my newly replenished forty-pound pack over my shoulder, buckled in and headed toward Devil’s Post Pile amid happy bouncy tourists. I felt heavy – and it wasn’t just my pack. I sensed that I was marching toward the end of a dream. Toward a new unknown. Toward a life that held nothing that felt worth hiking back to…  Why can’t I stay in the woods…?

Day 16 on the JMT: Nowhere to Hide

Day 16: Piute Creek to Sallie Keys Lakes via MTR Resupply

(September 1, 2015)

I’m having some strange mountain-olfactory version of the desert mirage. Yesterday coming down Evolution Basin I could have sworn I smelled bbq; like hamburgers cooking on a Weber charcoal grill.  It made my stomach grumble and my mouth water- and I don’t even like hamburgers! And this morning, I awoke to the crisp forest air and the not-so-faint smell of fried bacon wafting into camp. I’m either having strong food cravings or I’ve developed a bear-like sense of smell and can detect food from miles away. I’m at least five miles from MTR, there’s no way I’m smelling their bacon.

I woke up missing Capone terribly. I haven’t let myself think about him much because I just get worried and flooded with guilt for leaving him at Doggy Camp (which is more like doggy Club Med, for what I paid to make sure he gets the best care!).  Every time thoughts of him swell to the surface, tears prick my eyes and the guilt tugs at my heart. So I’ve been shoving it back down, refusing to think about him. But this morning,  as I lay in my tent waiting for the sun to rise (so I can get up and rush to MTR and get a cabin!), missing my comfy bed, my soft sheets and down comforter and my huge pile of pillows, I miss waking up to my Capone sprawled across the bottom of the bed , snoring away at my feet. That guy has been with me through so much over the last ten years; he is my comfort and my rock.  Today I can’t push the feelings away,  I miss him terribly.

As someone who is more than a little relationship challenged (and not just romantic – but friendships too), he really is my best friend. He’s been with me through drunken nights of passing out and leaving him out in the rain all night, through sobering up and leaving our house and his dad, wagging deliriously from apartment to apartment after the divorce. He never judged, never complained, never left me. He just happily followed me wherever I’d go, with his trademark Capone ‘smile’ and wagging tail, into each new chapter of my life.

I snuggled deeper into my bag and the tears spilled over. I miss my best friend.   I hear a breeze ruffle through the Aspens outside and my rain-fly flutters. Here I am alone in the forest, curled up inside my  tent crying like a little baby.  I feel so alone.

Aspens on Piute Creek Camp
Aspens on Piute Creek Camp

The sadness turns to shame as I mentally taunt myself for being so pathetic that my dog is all I have waiting for me when I get home. (Oh – and my therapist, lol!.)  The familiar feeling of being a total fraud burns deep in my gut. Yeah, I’m some  inspiration, huh?

I tell myself: people don’t see the real me- they see what’s on the outside, the strong and determined,  “fuck the world, I’ll do what I want” me. But they don’t see the pathetic, sad, broken me; the me who no one wants to believe only has a dog and a therapist to go home to.

A therapist who would ask me why I’m being so hard on  myself right now.  Why am I? Why do feel pathetic? Why do I let this shame take over and not allow me to feel what I have every right to feel? I mean who wouldn’t struggle with relationships when their own parents abandoned them and made it crystal clear you weren’t wanted?

I reflect on this for a while.. My father enlisted in the Army and got sent to Korea when I was nine. He was supposed to get settled and send for us. But instead, he got a new family and never tried to see me,  ever again. He never called or wrote. He just disappeared from my life. In retrospect, this is probably the best thing that could have happened – he was an evil sociopath whose idea of  fun was chasing my brother and me around the house shooting us with a BB gun. Yea, that was fun family time at our house.  You don’t want to know what he did when he was angry…

Within a year of him leaving, my mother got herself a boyfriend who hates kids. She started a new life with him that didn’t include my brother and me. By the time I was thirteen she’d practically moved in with him- without us. She’d pop in our rented dilapidated farmhouse every few days to pick up fresh clothes.  It usually ended in her screaming and crying like a lunatic because her laundry wasn’t done, the house was a mess  or because the cupboards were bare and she ‘forgot’ to go to the grocery store on the way home (and we had the audacity to ask when we might expect milk and cereal and bread).

“You kids don’t appreciate nothin’. I’ve done everything for you and all I ask  is to come home to a clean house and clean clothes and you can’t even do that!?! And you wonder why I’m never home! I could have left like your father did you know. But I didn’t! I sacrificed everything for you – I have no life! And this is how you thank me???  “

She’d fall on the stairs screaming and crying, “You’re going to cause me to have a nervous breakdown. You don’t appreciate nothin! After all I’ve done for you…  and this is how you behave? You’re driving me to the madhouse!” Her performance would have put Joan Crawford to shame.

She’d grab her clothes and storm out of the house, not to be seen again for days.  Feeling guilty and vowing to myself that I’d be more grateful,  I’d retreat to my bedroom where I’d plan how to make my mother happier: I’ll not fight with Jackie (my brother). I’ll make sure her laundry is done and the house is clean. I know, I’ll surprise her and clean her room too! But I knew it wouldn’t matter. She always found something to scream about. Always. So I’d shut myself in my room, put my Blizzard of Oz album on the turntable,  turn the volume nob as far as it would go, blast “Crazy Train”, grab my bong and smoke the guilt and shame away.

Camp on Piute Creek
Camp on Piute Creek

I don’t want to think about this now. And I certainly don’t want to be holed up in my tent, all alone on the woods, crying and feeling all this.  But it just keeps coming. A floodgate has opened and I can’t hold it back. The grief pulses through me as a movie of my my life plays out in my exhausted brain.

I try to will the thoughts and feelings away. Try to turn off the movie, but it won’t stop.  It feels like an out of body experience as my mind’s eye sees a girl and a young woman struggle through life, grasping for happiness and love using all the broken tools she has. I feel so tremendously sad for her. My heart is heavy and the tears flow freely.  And then something shifts. The familiar feeling of shame is slowly melting away and a new, unfamiliar feeling is emerging: empathy.

I’ve charged through life, hell-bent on not letting my past mold me or hold me back.  Determined to be strong, independent and successful in life, I wouldn’t allow my childhood to dictate who I chose to be. But the fact is: it has. It has always been there, festering and peeking it’s ugly head out in the most cunning and deceitful ways.

The old saying is true: you can’t run from yourself – especially after 15 days alone in the wilderness.  Whatever is working you in your busy hustle-and-bustle life will rise to the surface and demand to be heard  in the silent solitude of Mother Earth. She beckons, “Come. Sit with me and tell me your troubles. Trust in me and I will heal you.”  But somehow I know: it isn’t Nature, but myself  that I’m learning to trust.  The trail is teaching me to be loving,  kind and nurturing to myself. And in the process, maybe I’m beginning to heal.

I think of all that I was deprived of. All the caring and nurturing and love that most people automatically get just by being born to parents who love them: I never got it.  My parents gifted me instead, with punches and kicks, screaming, name calling, neglect, abandonment– and worse. Much worse.

So here I sit, in the middle of a beautiful Aspen grove, next to a creek on the John Muir Trail crying my eyeballs out because I miss my dog  – and maybe because I feel sad for the girl who has had to claw her way through life to find peace and happiness. My whole life has been a futile search for the love and acceptance I never had.  Crippled by neglect and abuse, I went about it in the unhealthy and fucked up ways I knew…  And maybe that’s why I sit alone, crying in the woods and missing my dog…(and at this point, REALLY needing a session with my therapist.. what the hell???)

6pm at Sallie Keys Lakes

Well today didn’t go quite like I’d hoped. No clean clothes. No hot shower. No cold lemonade or fresh salad. No trail love.  I made the five miles to MTR in less than 2 hours, arriving before 10 am – yes I was on a mission to get there before their rooms were gone!

Me on Day 15- somewhere in John Muir Wilderness
Me on Day 15- somewhere in John Muir Wilderness

I rounded the sprawling ranch-like compound and let myself in through the wooden swinging gate, bellowing out “good morning” to hikers as they happily bounced off with newly replenished packs.

I pleaded with the universe:  Please have a room. Please please, please. Oh, and plenty of ibuprofen too (I’d I only packed a few in my resupply and I’m eating them like pez).

I wandered around searching for the office, which didn’t immediately stand out. I  don’t know if I was expecting a big neon Vacancy sign or what, but I finally found it in a tiny and dark cabin tucked between the work sheds.

TWO HUNDRED TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS! Are you kidding me? I stood opposite the chipper young store-keeper,  hovering over a dusty glass display-case housing $5 ibuprofen tablets and other outrageously priced notions desperate through-hikers would need, stunned and shocked as the amount whirled in my brain doing a “should I or shouldn’t I?” dance.

But hot showers!?!

But two hundred twenty-five dollars.

But salad.

But 225 dollars

Bacon?

225 DOLLARS.

But a nice comfy bed and sheets and warmth…?

Two. Hundred. Twenty-Five. Fucking. Dollars. Trail Robbery!

Damn. Damn. Damn. Did I mention Bacon???

Over the last twelve hours as I’d excitedly hiked toward MTR I debated how much I was willing to spend for a night of comfort. I hadn’t known what to expect so I thought maybe I’d pay $125? Maybe even $150. Would I go so high as $175? Maybe.  But I couldn’t justify dishing out $225 for a log-cabin in the middle of nowhere, to a company that charged me $75 for a resupply bucket, wanted to charge $5 for a single Ibuprofen and then wouldn’t even let me use their toilets and treated me like a homeless vagrant. I just couldn’t. As hungry, tired and sore as I was, I still had a modicum of self-respect!  Besides, I came out here to live in my tent, in nature… I could do without comfort and good food for another day. Sigh…

Deflated, I moseyed back to the resupply shed to retrieve my bucket, full of disappointment and self-righteousness.  I scoured the hiker buckets brimming with mostly junk (who in their right mind brings full size bottles of olive oil and cans of soup on a backpacking trip???), contributed what I couldn’t fit in my bear can (a bag of trail mix, cardboard-flavored flax seed crackers and half a dozen packets of Justin’s peanut butter), organized, repacked and moved on. Bidding a mental middle finger to MTR on my way out.

The climb out of MTR was all I’d expected:  long, hot, steep, ugly and boring. I climbed the same tiresome, tedious switchback 30 times.  But I made good time and even ended up going further  than I expected, getting 10.5 miles in (not bad considering I spent a couple hours at MTR).

But now as I rest in my camp nestled in the conifers on the bank of Sallie Keys Lake, absorbing the views of the gorgeous mountain lake, I’m thinking I might take a zero tomorrow. I need to rest my muscles, try to let my cracked fingertips heal so I can at least button my shirt and strap on my pack without excruciating pain, and do laundry.  But I also just want to keep going… home to my dog.  I’ll decide in the morning. It’s been a very long day…

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.

 

 

 

Day 7: Ups and Downs

The Hike Over Kearsarge Pass from Vidette Meadow

August 23, 2015 Day 7 on the trail and 68.4 miles completed.

This is now officially the longest backpacking trip I’ve ever been on (previously was a 6 day trip) and the most miles I’ve ever done on a single trip (previously was 50 miles in 5 days).

Welcome to civilization – or at least my current version of it.  Sure, most of society would consider Onion Valley Campground the exact opposite of civilization; 13 miles from the nearest town with no running water or showers and smelly pits for toilets.  But to me, today, it may as well be Times Square.  “Civilization” like so many other human inventions is relative. Regardless of what you call it, being here sucks.  I’m back to the land of car campers “getting away from it all’ in their forty foot, hundred-thousand-dollar Holiday Rambler buses fully equipped with DISH satellite TV so they don’t miss a single episode of Dancing With the Stars, clumped together, relaxing in their fancy LaFumas, and sipping Budweisers and Cokes. onion valley campground

Pardon my crankiness, it’s been a rough day…

Actually, “rough” doesn’t even begin to describe my day. “Brutal”, “painful”, “soul crushing” might come close. The hike up – and down – Kearsarge pass was so much more challenging than I expected. Yeah, I was warned; everyone I talked to and everything I read said it was tough. But for some reason, looking at the map I thought – “it won’t be that bad.” I figured I’d climbed to over 14,000’ a few days ago and 13,000’ yesterday, how bad could 11,845′ be, right? ….Right?

The first 500′ out of camp at Vidette Meadows wasn’t too bad.  I’d taken my time over coffee and breakfast with the guys, and got a later start than usual. Despite my sore legs and feet, I was feeling refreshed after finally getting a good night’s sleep (thanks to the Xanax). The trail led up a steep wooded path and the greenery of the valley walls enveloped me as I climbed. It was a cool morning, the trail was soft, sandy dirt and my pack was lighter than it’s been in 7 days: life was as good as can be expected after 7 days, 60 miles and something like 20,000 feet in elevation gain and loss.

Hiking out of Vidette Meadow looking toward Kearsarge Pinnacles
Hiking out of Vidette Meadow looking toward Kearsarge Pinnacles

Despite leaving camp before the Arkansas Four, it didn’t take long for them to catch up to me.  We hiked together out of the valley and up steep screed slopes before our trails split. They were planning a short day to set up basecamp at Kearsarge Lake and then slackpack over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley tomorrow where their pre-dropped resupplies awaited them in the bear boxes by the trailhead. They’d then turn around and head back over the pass with just their food: going up and over the pass in a single day but with minimal weight.

I, on the other hand was going over Kearsarge pass and into Onion Valley tonight –fully loaded with all my gear.  Since I’ll be hitchhiking 13 miles to pick up my resupply at the Independence post office tomorrow and I have no idea how remote this campground is, I thought it would be best to sleep at the campground and get an early start – or better yet –  meet someone tonight who is heading into town tomorrow who will give me a ride.

Robert and Tim on the Trail Heading up toward Kearsarge Pass
Half of the Arkansan Four on the Trail Heading up toward Kearsarge Pass

We said our goodbyes-for-now at Bullfrog Lake, with Lee vowing to leave me a note at the trailhead if they decide to move on to Rae Lakes tomorrow night. I appreciated the gesture and looked forward to catching up to them again. They’re great company.

Bullfrog Lake was the highlight of my day. The most picturesque and idyllic alpine lake you can imagine: a bowl of glittering mountain water framed by grayish-white granite boulders, late-season grass turned yellow from summer heat and the lack of rain and patches of lush conifers bringing it all to life. The small lake rested peacefully in the shadow of a set of jagged sierra peaks, whose majesty refused to be dulled behind the layer of smoky haze. And like a faithful lover, Bullfrog Lake honored the peaks, triumphantly reflecting them from the surface of its still waters.

Bullfrog Lake
Bullfrog Lake

I couldn’t resist. Once the guys were out of site, I found a perfect spot on the nearly-white boulders, stripped off my filthy hiking clothes and dove into the inviting water. It was cold, but not knock-the-breath-out-of-you cold.  I swam without inhibition (well almost), basking in my freedom and the luxury of having this utopic spot completely to myself: an entire lake – all mine! I felt like the luckiest woman alive.

When planning my trip, I imagined having moments like that every day, but the smoke dulls the sun into gloomy orange orb every afternoon, chilling the air too much to think about jumping into icy water.  This morning, I took advantage of the relative warmth and not-horrible smokiness and enjoyed my first real swim since Chicken Spring Lake. It was a moment to remember, for sure.

R&R at Bullfrog Lake
R&R at Bullfrog Lake

The euphoria of the 30 minutes spent luxuriating at Bullfrog Lake slipped away almost as soon I started hiking again. Within a few minutes I was hit with waves of dizziness and vertigo. My brain felt sludgy and slow, like it was swimming in an ocean of thick oil.  Then the trail before me twisted and contorted and fractured into some weird kaleidoscope dream.  My legs were weak and I struggled to put one foot in front of the other.

Being my normal stubborn self, I kept hiking, trying to ignore the strange feeling away…  whoaaaa…. a flash of white blinded me, causing me to stop dead in my tracks. For a split-second the world went blank and my head got even woozier. What the hell is this?  Worried that I couldn’t just push on and will this away, I bent over, resting my hands on my knees and took a couple of deep breaths. I don’t have time for this. I just want to go…  I resumed hiking at a snail’s pace, hoping the strange sensation would pass… But the kaleidoscope vision and dizziness persisted.

Finally, I gave in, dropping my pack on flat shady spot under a clump of trees next to the trail,  and plopped down next to it. Is this a side effect of the Xanax?  Am I getting sick? Is this exhaustion? Oh my god, am I dying? I’m dying, aren’t I? Alone out here on the trail, I’ll be left for dead like some plague-stricken squirrelreduced to coyote and vulture food.  I got a hold of myself and realized I probably wasn’t dying, just exhausted. day 7 smokey kearsarge pinnacles

I laid in the cool grass and watched the clouds lazily waft the day away.  I got lost in their gentle movements and felt my body melt into the earth.  I inhaled slow, deep breaths, trying to heal myself through mediation, focusing on two willowy masses perform an exquisite pas de deux; their edges drifting together and floating apart until they finally melded into one giant bulbous cloud.  I laid still, breathing slowly, mesmerized by the exquisite slow-motion cloud ballet playing out thousands of feet above: oblivious to me and my ailments. It was strangely comforting thinking that even if I were laying there dying, the clouds would go on dancing above me.

When my head stopped swimming and the world transformed back into its normal non-kaleidoscope self, I slowly stood up to test the ground.  My head swooned a little, but not too bad, so I strapped on my pack and cautiously resumed my climb. And I climbed. And I climbed. Up the rocky western slope of Kearsarge pass, not feeling 100% but determined to reach my destination.  It was hot, it was smoky, it was brutal. Not baby-stepping Mt. Whitney brutal, not even endless switchback, Forester Pass brutal, but,  “I just want to be off this fucking mountain,” brutal.

When I finally reached the summit of Kearsarge Pass, it was completely socked in under heavy sooty gray smoke, adding to the misery of my day. I could barely make out Kearsarge Lakes 1000’ below and longingly searched the shores for signs of my friends’ camp.  I couldn’t see them but I imagined they were relaxing in their luxurious camp chairs lakeside and enjoying the afternoon without a care in the world… I was so jealous. I just wanted to be done.

One of my many breaks up or down the pass
One of my many breaks up or down the pass

Going down Kearsarge Pass was no easier than going up Kearsarge Pass:  4.7 miles over 2660’ down. It went on FOR-E-VER. Down. And down. And down. The trail meandered back and forth and back and forth as if it had nowhere to be.  This trail… let me tell you about this trail: think about normal switchbacks, compactly carved into a mountain to get you up – or down – efficiently. These switchbacks were neither efficient nor compact.  Some of them stretched clear across the entire side of the mountain, we’re talking at least ¼ mile – at least.  I’d look down and see the trail wrap clear around the damn mountain, back toward the wilderness from which I’d come, before switching back, thinking, that can’t be MY trail. It’s another trail heading into SEKI, right?  And I’d trudge on and soon realize, no, it was indeed my trail. Seriously? What the fuck?  Who designed this stupid mess?  I fantasized that it was some spiteful engineer whose father made him hike when he was a kid, when all he wanted to do was stay home and build Lego bridges and skyscrapers. So now he works out his daddy issues by building sadistic, never-ending, meandering switchbacked trails. I could just picture him sitting over his blueprints splayed about his gigantic drafting table, with a sinister sneer on is face, “ You want switchbacks father? I’ll give you switchbacks! I’m going to teach all the hiking-daddies of the world a lesson! Muah ha ha ha ha…”

It just. Would not. End.

Two huge passes back-to-back have taken their toll on my body. Yesterday,  Forester Pass: 2300’ up and 3665’ down and today Kearsarge Pass: 2300’ up and 2660’ down for a grand total of 10,900 feet in elevation in just about 32 hours. And every achy muscle, tendon and ligament below my waist feels every single inch of it. I’m grimy, sunburnt, exhausted,  emotionally spent and over the whole, “Ohhh hiking is so grand. Ohhh I love nature..Ohh it’s so great to be out here”,  bullshit.day 7 trail

Today hiking the JMT became REAL – not just some fantasy hike that would be so awe-inspiring that the challenges would seem mild in comparison. No. The thrill, excitement and raw enthusiasm of being out here is   G-O-N-E and has been replaced with…. With what?   Apathy?  Reality? I’m not sure, but the romanticism of the thru-hike has been slowly slipping away day by day, little by little, with every ache,  pain, challenging climb, and smoke-obstructed view.

The reality of the thru-hike is so much more demanding than anything I had imagined. I hike. And I hike. And I hike some more. It’s not always awe-inspiring and exciting and adventurous. Sometimes it’s just grueling, sweaty, dirty, mind numbing, aching hiking.  Then you get to set up camp, eat rehydrated mush, sleep on the ground, wake up sore and achy and do it all over again…

I’m not saying I want to quit. Voluntarily leaving the trail has never crossed my mind. Even for a second. I’m just saying that as beautiful as it is out here and as awesome as this adventure is, it’s hard work. Really fucking hard work.

I think I need a zero day. And something cold to drink.  And maybe a giant Snickers bar…Tomorrow I resupply, but first I have to get to Onion Valley…