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…

Tyndal Creek Camp – Night 5 on the JMT

Day 5, August 22, 2015

Tyndall Creek- Sunset

I love it here! I feel like I’m in a Star Trek episode: beamed onto a friendly alien planet where I get to explore the desolate moonscape-like terrain. My only wish is that this planet were free of the thick yellow smoke that hangs in the air so I could see the craggy mountainscape off in the distance. Oh well, it could be worse… I could be home in front of the TV dreaming of being on the trail! No need to beam me up Scotty, I’m good.

tyndall creek camp smaller
Smokey views from Tyndall Creek Camp

After hiking all day, trekking past a couple of small lakes and finally reaching the twisty Tyndall Creek which I had to cross multiple times, I found the few worn-down-to-the-dirt camping spots crowded together in the conifers on the left-hand side of the trail.  I’m here! I made it!  However, the vast and untouched boulder-strewn landscape that surrounded me beckoned to be explored; so I moved on. Being confined to that tiny area with everyone else isn’t exactly the wilderness adventure I came out here for.

I ventured up the trail and to the right, searching the several hundred feet of rocky terrain between the trail and the creek for my new temporary home. To my dismay, I was confronted by a string of “No Camping: Closed for Restoration” signs for at least a ½ mile.  It seemed that no matter how far I hiked with my tired legs and heavy pack, I couldn’t escape the signs. Determined to find my own private piece of heaven I crossed the shallow, gently cascading waters of Tyndall Creek and headed toward the trail that leads to Shepherd Pass.

I easily reached the other side and did a quick visual scan: No signs! Awesome! I guess most people don’t bother to cross the creek to camp so no need for restoration.   Treading lightly, I conscientiously searched for a spot where I would leave the smallest imprint to call home for the night.

When planning for this hike I saw Facebook posts, books and articles advising on the best camping spots on the trail. I scoffed at the idea of camping in worn out back-country campgrounds.  For me, doing the John Muir Trail was about experiencing “true wilderness” as much as possible – much like John Muir did (despite the crowds I knew I’d encounter).  My imagination led me to virgin spots where I could experience the natural, untouched solitude of life on the trail. Huddling in dusty camper corrals with everyone else, where a million people have camped before isn’t how my adventure played out in my imagination.  I suppose that goes against my self-proclaimed Leave-no-Trace (LNT) Nazism a little bit, but I’m diligent and step carefully. I’m determined to enjoy unspoiled lands and leave no visible sign I was here for the next adventurers who seek the same.

Morning views Tyndall Creek camp
Morning views Tyndall Creek camp

And now camp is set up more than 100 feet from the creek tucked away in the field of boulders of every size and shape, closer to the Shepherd Pass trail than the JMT.  I pitched my tent on crushed rock,  doing my best to avoid the short yellowish-brown tufts of grass that would be crushed underneath my weight. When I leave no one will know I was here.

I’m absolutely exultant. This place is magical, awe-inspiring, breathtaking and profoundly serene.  I can’t wait to wake up to clear blue skies and the morning views that await. Like every other night out here so far, I’m optimistic that tomorrow I’ll wake up to another smoke-free morning. The smoke wasn’t as bad today as yesterday, but I saw it, still flooding the Crabtreee Meadow valley as I crossed Bighorn Plateau.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will only get better as I travel north.

The easy 8 mile day I thought I was going to have today turned out to be not–so-easy.  I’ve made up my mind: the Tom Harrison Maps LIE! They lie about mileage and they especially lie about elevation. I swear I didn’t see all the elevation I climbed today on my map. I guess it could be I’m just not very good at reading those tiny little topo lines that are supposed to represent 40 feet intervals. 40 feet my ass – more like 4 HUNDRED feet.   So I hiked mile after mile after mile this afternoon thinking, I should be there by now. Where is Tyndall Creek? Did I pass it already? Did I miss it somehow? Am I even on the John Muir Trail? Pulling out my map every mile or so to make sure I hadn’t missed an important turn off or walked right by my destination.

In my frustration I half-jokingly came up with a new business idea: I’m going to create my own maps.  On my maps, all elevations and mileages will be exaggerated. For example:  when you study your map to plan your day you’ll think you have  12 miles and 2000’ elevation gain to get to your destination,  but it will actually only be 8 miles and 1000’.  That way, you’ll be ecstatic when your destination is so much closer and easier than you expected! I’ll call them the “Surprise and Delight” maps with the tagline:  “Hike further with less effort.”  I know this “brilliant” idea is completely ridiculous, but it kept me amused on my alleged 8 mile hike today. dnner at tyndall creek

The truth is, hiking is still hard. I’m still at 11,000’, my pack still weighs close to 40 lbs., I hiked 8 miles and a couple thousand feet today, and I’m 48, not 28.   Stuff hurts!  When will I earn my hiker legs? Day 7? Day 14? When??? Soon, I hope.

After meeting up with my friends from Arkansas at Wallace Creek today, I decided they need trail names.  When I wasn’t trying to figure out how to launch a new business of fake maps, I spent much of my afternoon trying to come up with fun monikers for each of them.  But in the end, the best I could do is a collective trail name: “The Arkansas Four”. I know, not very original… but I didn’t have the creative energy to name each one as I trudged up and over mountains carrying the ill-fitting pack they helped me adjust a little better at lunch. That led me to ponder how boring trail names would be if they were just the city or state we came from. I’d simply be “California” But there are lots of people from California. So maybe “Concord”- or “California number 15044”. Yah, I’d need to come up with something more creative for the Arkansas Four.

When I arrived at Tyndall creek I kept an eye out for the Arkansas Four, but didn’t see them. They must have gone on to Lake South America.  In a way I was relieved (even though, I have to admit, I found myself eagerly searching every campsite for them). I had mixed feelings about running into them; I came to do this alone, I didn’t really want to have to make the decision to camp with them or not.  This is better.

I met my first woman solo hiker today! I was ambling down a wooded trail somewhere between Crabtree Meadow and here when we crossed paths. I was so excited to see her that I  practically lunged at her and shrieked, “You’re Alone!?!”  She looked a little surprised (frightened?) and took a step back, probably thinking I was some wild old- lady lunatic. I realized it’s probably best not to greet solo female hikers in the middle of nowhere with what could be translated as: “Are you alone, little lady???” (insert malicious sneer). I guess she was convinced I didn’t have plans to eat her for dinner and stopped to chat with me a bit. She was half my age – if that – and didn’t seem nearly as impressed with the whole solo-female hiker sighting as I. She left Happy Isles 16 days ago and is finishing out of Whitney Portal tomorrow. Oh, the speed of youth! Anyway, I was thrilled to finally see my first solo female through-hiker. I hope to meet more.

***

Alpenglow from Tyndall Creek
Alpenglow from Tyndall Creek

I’m back from the creek now where I took a quick hiker bath and filled my Camelback and Nalgene bottle. The water is cool and crystal clear and fresh.  I’m not going to bother treating the water in my Nalgene. I’m pretty high up and the water is flowing enough.  I’ll mostly use it for making coffee and oatmeal and brushing my teeth in the morning anyway. Dinner is done and my Soloist pot washed. I’m enjoying my tea, sitting on a boulder soaking in the alpenglow views on the peaks to my north and east. How do I describe this most utopian and peaceful moment? Perfection.

Tomorrow is Forrester Pass- my first JMT Pass!!! A 5 mile, 2300 foot climb (or so Tom Harrison claims!) and then only 2-3 miles to my next camp somewhere in Vidette Meadow I think.  I’m not really sure yet, I’ll see how my day goes… From there it’s on to Kearsarge Pass and Independence for my first resupply. Wow!  It looks like I may end up there a day ahead of schedule.  I finally fit all my food, toiletries and first aid items in my bear canister this morning and now I have to fill it up again in a couple days. That means one thing: I better eat up!