Surviving Loneliness Solo-Hiking the John Muir Trail

Day 18 Sallie Keys Lakes to Vermillion Resort Junction at Mono Creek

September, 2015

5:30 am.  After my zero day yesterday and an amazing night’s sleep, I’m wide awake and anxious to hit the trail! I’m tempted to get going, but flubbing around in the dark, trying to break camp and pack up and then exposing myself to predators on the prowl for breakfast, isn’t high on my list of things I want to do today.

camp at Sallie Keys lake after MTR resupply
Camp at Sallie Keys Lake

Besides, I’m comfy-cozy inside my wilderness retreat.  My tiny one person REI Quarter Dome tent has become my home; my safe place. My retreat from the wind and cold. My cocoon, protecting me from creepy crawly things that want to curl up next to me for warmth during these frigid sierra nights. My shield, keeping me out of sight of prowling nocturnal hunters.  Yes, intellectually, I know the tent provides no real safety from bears or cats – or anything else that’s hell-bent on attacking me. In fact, as I get all tucked in and comfy at night, I often nervously ponder how screwed I’d be if anything ever did attack.  Stressing about how I’d be trapped inside,  unable to fight back.

 

The frightful scene plays out in my mind like a mini-horror flick:

Set: a densely wooded spot, deep in the wilderness. A lone tent nestled beneath a Lodgepole pine.

Time: half-past dead of night.

ACTION: I’m jolted from a peaceful and deep sleep by a thunderous, earth-vibrating roar and a huge weight caving in the roof of my tent.  My survival instinct kicks in; I scream and kick and punch like a caged beast. I feel the swipes of giant paws, hear the vicious growls and snorts of the hungry predator. I blindly thrash about, hindered by my prison of nylon and mesh; a tangled mess trapped in my wilderness home – my cocoon, my shelter.  A giant frantic amoeba flailing about and screaming bloody murder at attackers I can’t see. My “nothing out here wants to hurt me… nothing out here wants to eat me” mantra vanishes into the dark cold night, like a puff of smoke… I’m doomed.  Trapped like a guppy in a human sized Ziploc bag.

In my personal horror flick, I don’t end up a midnight bear-snack, there’s a twist. Maybe it’s a survival tool so I don’t scare all the shit out of myself, before going to sleep. In the wilderness. Alone. The surprise ending goes like this: outside the maniacal, bulging, pseudo-pod-amoeba-tent, sits a family of black bears, eating berries (aka: bear popcorn), snorting, growling and swiping at the tent and laughing their fuzzy bear asses off. The best bear TV ever!   Yeah the safety of a tent is all in my mind.

sallie keys lake on the john muir trail
Sallie Keys Lake View

I peek outside (is it daytime yet?). The dark morning sky is bright from a half-moon, earnestly hanging on in the western sky. While in the east, the sun is greedily pulling off the midnight blue blanket; forcing the day to rise and shine. I’m getting restless… I’m ready to rise and shine — as soon as it’s warm enough!

Autumn has settled into the high sierras: it was another freezing-cold night. The sun hadn’t even set, and I had to put on all my base layers, down jacket, gloves and beanie.  I was happy I’d gotten my laundry and bathing done early in the day.  Desperate to escape the cold, I slid inside my tent – which has become my home away from home.  With my down sleeping bag, Thermarest, Sea to Summit inflatable pillow and my kindle books, I’m feeling right at home!  All that’s missing is Capone.

Although it’s been a couple of days since my meltdown on Piute Creek, the loneliness that overwhelmed and gushed out of me, like water from a levy broken under the weight of a tempestuous storm, left puddles of emptiness and sorrow that I’ve been wading through ever since.   Even at Muir Trail Ranch, surrounded by people, I felt isolated and alone. My attempts to stir up conversations were met with two word sentences and blank stares. There were a couple of groups at the resupply shed; a group of four young men frantically scouring the ample resupply buckets and organizing their gear (I assumed, rather snarkily, that they were in a hurry to get their 30 miles in). And another group of men and women in their early thirties, who’d obviously sprung for the overpriced cabins, and were lazily sprawled out on the grass, laughing and having a grand old time. I felt a pang of envy as I watched them relax in each other’s company. Luxuriating in their shampoo-scented hair, hands scrubbed clean with soap and hot water and rounded bellies, full with fresh salad and real food that was cooked on an actual stove and not mush rehydrated over a Pocket Rocket.

Selden Pass south
The climb up Selden Pass

Yep, after 16 days alone on the trail, the loneliness had hit me. And with it, a pile of memories and Truth.  There is no escaping the Truth – or yourself –  when you hike solo; especially a thru-hike like the John Muir Trail. Each day you’re challenged physically, mentally and emotionally.  Alone, you celebrate and rejoice.  Alone, you suffer aches and pains and long drawn out, never-ending mountain passes that disappear into the sky and seem to have no end. Alone, you amble through dense, dark forests with nothing but silence or the sound or a deer running through the brush, a marmot scurrying behind you as you eat your lunch atop a glacial ridge – or a pack of coyotes singing their kill-song, to keep you company. Through all this, the loneliness slowly and insidiously seeps into you.  Inch by inch you become flooded with it.

And in that loneliness, Truth is unburied.   And you try, in vain, to push it away. Avoid it. Deny it.  Being alone on the trail, your psyche visits those dark places without your permission. Places, that at home, you dodge with a million-and-one distractions; work, chores, errands, binge-watching the latest season of Orange is the New Black, Facebook, shopping, cocktails, Adderall, Valium, Prozac…. NO, don’t think about it! Just keep moving!! Have a drink, pop another pill. No, you can’t cry now, you have a meeting! Put on your big girl panties and GO! Just go. RUN!!!

And then there’s society, family and ‘friends” who tell you you just need to “get over it”.  “It’s the past – move on”, they say. Or my favorite “Your past is a gift. Everything you’ve been through has made you who you are today! Hooray!!!”  I’m sorry, but abuse and neglect are not fucking gifts. Gifts come wrapped in festive paper and tied with big bright bows.  Gifts are carefully chosen by the giver to bring joy and happiness to the recipient’s life- and a smile to their face. Abuse and neglect are the exact opposite of gifts.

I have fought so long and hard to not let my past dictate my life. I am strong. I am independent. I am NOT a victim!!!  Yet, my tearful, emotion-drenched morning on Piute Creek is proof that you can’t run from your past forever. Well, ok, maybe in our distraction-filled lives we can. But out here on the trail – alone –  it catches up to you. And you can either give in to the feelings and allow yourself to blubber away in your tent, or you can stuff them way down in the bottom of your psychological backpack and continue to lumber under its heavy burden.  I am living proof that crying doesn’t kill you.  Feeling intense and deep pain isn’t an endless black hole that you fall into and never come out of. Being alone on the trail and having these feelings is not something to be frightened of – it’s something to be thankful for, and to rejoice in.

Refreshed and ready to hit the trail, day 18!
Refreshed and ready to hit the trail, day 18!

I spent my zero day recovering, both physically and emotionally,  from that day of loneliness and sorrow. And today I’m happy. Free of the burden I’d been carrying inside my emotional backpack, weighing me down for 16 days. Free from the worry that I might break. I will not break – and in fact, I will emerge from the woods stronger, more clear and more empathetic. I will emerge with a new friend and protector: me.

And at last, I think it’s time to get ‘me’ on the trail. I have a pass to climb today, wish me luck!

6:30 pm at Mono Creek near the Vermillion Resort Cut-Off

Holy fuck! That decent from Bear Ridge Trail to the VVR Junction is ridiculous. 4. 6 miles of switchbacks, dropping twenty feet shy of two thousand feet.  I swear I’ve never – in all my years of backpacking the Sierras – hiked switchbacks like that. They went on FOR-E-VER!!!

Little Pete Meadow John Muir Trail
My duct taped fingers with Little Pete Meadow in the background

So, I didn’t make my goal of 17.4 miles but I did 15.5 (with a full-ish pack!) and I felt every single one of those miles on my sore and tired hips, knees and ankles. I feel like I’m getting blisters again and the moleskin isn’t worth a shit… it just slides off my sweaty feet. My feet hurt, my legs hurt, the stupid slivery cuts in 5 of my fingertips still throb and ache every time I accidentally bang them against a trekking pole or try to unlatch my pack.  I’ve gone through all my medical tape and now have them wrapped in Duct Tape.  And my back and neck have started hurting the last couple of days. The 154 miles is not only taking its toll on me emotionally, but my body feels like it’s breaking down piece by piece.

Looking south from Selden Pass on the John Muir Trail
Looking South from Selden Pass

I stopped early for a rest at the picturesque Heart Lake. It’s small crystal-clear lake, framed by granite and pine, just a few miles south of Selden Pass. I found a grassy spot just off the trail and plopped down to soak in the warmth of the sun and quiet serenity. Just one group of guys passed me, heading southbound to camp and fish for a few days.

Selden Pass was the highlight.  (Oh my god, did you hear that? A PASS was a highlight and not a horrible awful thing I had to endure! -).  It’s the lowest pass on the John Muir Trail, at just (“just” lol) 10,800’.  The trail toward the smooth and rocky pass meandered past glacial tarns and rocky hills spotted with junipers and stunted pines. The climb was long, but gradual, and at the top were sweeping views of smooth boulder-strewn mountains, patches of stunted pine and Marie Lake. Gorgeous, idyllic and picture perfect: it was my 3rd to the last pass.  A sadness swept over me when I realize,  I am now closer to the end than the beginning.  It’s been challenging in every way, and I miss Capone terribly, but I don’t want to be done.

The scenery is changing; from the dramatic and sharp glacially carved granite of the southern sierras to the gentler, softer, greener northern sierras. Yosemite is taking shape in the distance. The loose granite boulder-slabs are getting bigger, the peaks not quite as high and the water flowing fast and healthy in the mountain creeks. The smoke is also getting better, giving me more blue sky and more warmth!  I’m not freezing my ass off in the dull and smoked out afternoons anymore.

camp at mono creek on the john muir trail
Camp at Mono Creek near the VVR cutoff

I’m camped by the wooden bridge near VVR cutoff. I have a feeling I’ll be alone tonight (after a crowded camp at Sallie Keys last night- day hikers from MTR). No one is going up that damn mountain I just descended this late! I doubt anyone is coming down either. I haven’t seen any north bounders in days!

I have the perfect little sandy spot tucked in the junipers and lodgepole pines above Mono Creek. The cutoff to VVR resort is just over the bridge and around the bend. I’ve finished my dinner of veggie chili and trail mix and getting ready to retire.  Another day down on the John Muir Trail and another day closer to the end.

 

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.

 

 

 

Forester Pass: A story of Life and Death

Day 6 Tyndall Creek to Vidette Meadow via Forester Pass

After leaving the granite cirque and my peaceful creekside oasis, the trail led me across a maze of streams that seemed to flow in every direction, past tarns of all shapes and sizes and through more rock fields and high sierra meadows. It was almost hard to believe California is in it’s 4th year of drought, with the amount of water there.

When I reached the foot of the Kings-Kern Divide I craned my head back and searched for the notch I’d be crossing. I couldn’t tell where Forester Pass was exactly. To my right was a wide saddle but the trail didn’t seem to go in that direction. The only other notch was far to my left at about nine o’clock and that seemed disconcertingly  far away: the map showed 4.7 miles from camp to the pass and I’d already come at least 3.  Oh well, sometimes you just have to move forward and trust that the trail will get you where you want to go.forester views 2 reduced

I turned around scanning the basin toward Tyndall Creek, now below me, searching for my Arkansas friends.  All morning I’d been thinking: they have to be behind me, they like to take their time over morning coffee, so they can’t be ahead of me already.  But they’re faster, so they would have caught up by now.  And then I’d get worried, maybe they decided to move on over Forester Pass last night.   That thought depressed me a little. I like having trail friends that I can run into now and then. If they crossed Forester yesterday I may not see them again, they’d be nearly a whole day ahead of me… With hope I’d see my friends again, I hiked on.

Ok, here I go!  I excitedly began my ascent up the rocky trail neatly carved into the mountain, anxious to get my first real JMT pass under my belt!  Forester Pass is 13,145 feet. Looking up at the top of the ridge, I guessed I was at about 12,000 and it didn’t take long to feel the now-familiar heaviness of high altitude climbing.   Adding to the fatigue, this time I had my 35-ish pound pack strapped to my back. Ok, easy does it. Slow… baby steps.forrester pass trail not my photo

The climb was slow, but Whitney taught me to honor the challenge and take my time; that it’s ok to reach the top one baby step at a time. With heavy legs and pack, I trudged higher; zig-zagging up the mountain, one switchback at a time.  It was getting warmer and I was constantly wiping sweat from my forehead, catching it before dribbling into my eyes and burning. I need a bandanna. I’m going to buy a bandana when I get to Independence.  This one little thought started an internal battle that kept me amused for several agonizing switchbacks:

Critical Self: But you have a bandanna, you don’t need another one.

Wanting a bandana self: Yeah, but it’s the Scottish one that we brought to signal other Facebook people we’re part of their group and it’s bright yellow and red.  I’m not wearing THAT thing on my head. I want a blue one, to match my eyes…

Critical Self: But we have a million blue bandannas at home and we purposely left them behind. Remember, we’re counting weight here!

Wanting a bandana self: Seriously? How much does a bandana weigh? Like a tenth of gram? Stop being a gram weanie!  Besides I’ll be wearing it on my head, not carrying it.

Critical self: Ok fine, you can get a blue bandanna in Independence. 

Wanting a bandana self: Thank you. Geesh, was that so hard? 

After my argument was settled, I kept my mind occupied by making a mental list of all the things I wanted to buy in Independence: Kettle Salt and Pepper potato chips, Tylenol PM, a few gallon Zip-Locs for garbage and stuff (somehow I seemed to have a shortage) – I wonder if they sell them individually? I don’t need a whole box. And fruit. Hopefully I can find fresh fruit.

Inching higher and higher and still searching for the elusive Forester Pass, I encountered a metal sign attached to a giant boulder off the side of the trail.  Not wanting to interrupt the momentum I had going, I pushed forward. But several feet past it, the curiosity overwhelmed me and I had to turn back.

It was a memorial to the men who built the trail, and specifically, 18-year-old Donald Downs who died when a boulder came loose and crushed his arm in 1930.  I took a minute to let that sink in; realizing that I take these trails I love for granted. I never think about how much work and sacrifice went into building them. This mountain is no joke, and almost 100 years ago they were blasting it out with sticks of dynamite and moving these car-sized boulders with brute force (and maybe mules?).  To realize that someone died so generations of hikers can follow in John Muir’s footsteps (sort of) was pretty sobering. I was glad I stopped. It felt like a small way to pay homage to the people who made – and those who maintain – the trail that I feel so honored to be on. Thank you Donald Downs. And thank you California Conservation Corps (CCC) and all the volunteers who keep the trail safe for us. forrester pass trail not my photo2

Many, many, many, many, many, many (yes, that many!) switchbacks later, I finally spotted the pass- or what I assumed to be the pass… Are you kidding me? How am I supposed to get up THAT? It rested just above a narrow slit that ran perpendicular to the ridge and looked like a deep ditch slicing it in two. Am I going to have to climb all the way down and then back up that? Ok, this is going to be interesting…forester reduced I was relieved when the trail curved toward the head of the slit, not down into it.  I spotted a narrow shelf cut in the nearly vertical mountain as I entered a dark cool alcove just a few hundred feet below the pass.  It felt like being behind a waterfall, without the water.  I crossed the head of the steep, jagged ditch that cut a thousand feet down the mountain.  As I exited, voices from above were cheering me on, “You’re almost here. You’re doing great. See you up here!”   I couldn’t see them, but I heard them loud and clear.  I was elated to be so close to the top and excited for the camaraderie that awaited me. I climbed a small set of switchbacks that took me up the final stretch and spilled me onto the pass. Forester Pass! I’m here!

It was buzzing with activity. There were five, or maybe six guys sitting around enjoying the victory. After doing a couple three-sixties to absorb the views that lay behind – and ahead of me –  I searched for a suitable place to squeeze my butt and pack in on the very narrow landing.  I finally settled on a pile of lumpy rocks.  The group cheerfully welcomed me and introduced themselves. One group was from Nevada City, just a couple hours from me and the others from the east coast, I think. We had a good time sharing trail stories, talking gear and eating trail mix.  I love summit parties!

I stretched my stiff achy hamstrings and quads and then sat back and relaxed as much as I could with a bunch of rocks up my butt.   I’d been there maybe 20 minutes when the steep southerly trail delivered another hiker.  Robert!  It’s Arkansas Robert!   Where the heck did he come from? I didn’t see them coming up the trail…

forester view from top reduced

“Robert!!! Hi!” I beamed at him, excited to see my friend.

“I need a minute,” he answered with a shaky voice and headed up away from the rest of us.  He was clearly having a moment; this wasn’t the happy jolly Robert I’m used to seeing. I figured he was having a flood of emotion like I had summiting Mt. Whitney. This stuff can be pretty powerful.

Later I learned that he’d climbed Forester Pass before.  It was the summer following the last big wet winter California had.  That year, Mother Nature dumped so much snow on the Sierras that hikers encountered snow well into late summer. The Sierra/JMT hikers who were out tell stories as if it’s ancient folklore: “Back in the Big Snow of ’10 parts of the trail were covered with snow until August and we had to crampon up the passes and glissade down them. Yep, there was even snow at Guitar lake in July! AND we had to cross 2 bridges in 12 feet of snow, barefoot to get there!” (Ok, I made the last part up.)

After the rest of the Arkansas Four arrived, Robert rejoined the group and told us his story of the Big Snow of ’10: “I was coming up this pass,” he started, nodding toward the trail from which he’d come, “and it was still buried under a bunch of snow. It was icy and slick. A lot of people had gotten off the trail because it was too scary. But for some reason, I forged ahead. I was near the top, right down there,” he said pointing to a spot near the big scary slit with his trekking pole, “and lost my footing. I slid so far down… I don’t know how, but I caught myself.  In those few moments, I really thought I was going to go all the way down. I thought I was a goner.” He paused for a few minutes and I could see the emotion in his face, “and coming up here today, I wasn’t expecting it, but it all came flooding back…” His voice was shaky and his eyes were a little misty. “Whew. I’ll tell ya, I’m sure glad to be here now!” We were silent as we listened to Robert’s story. A single word crossed my mind listening to his story and reflecting on the memorial I’d passed on the way up: Respect. These mountains demand our respect. Snow or no snow, it can be a dangerous place.forester views 3

The summit party got even better with my trail friends there. It was good to be reunited with familiar faces. The others left and we had the pass to ourselves: lounging around for a long time sharing trail mix and snapping photos.  I found out they’d stayed at Lake South America last night where they found a remote and picturesque lakeside spot that sounded perfect.

forester group pic
Arkansas Four and me (with Zinc Oxide all over my face.. geesh)

We spent the afternoon hiking together toward Vidette Meadow. Descending Forester pass we were immersed in soupy-thick smoke. The expansive views were diluted and cut off by a wall of yellow smoke: but displayed before us were vast glacial bowls and cirques dotted with patches of subalpine greenery and gloomy charcoal gray tarns sweeping toward the north. The air quality was the worst it had been since it rained ash at Crabtree Meadow.  Feather light shreds of burnt forest – some as big as a quarter –  wafted down upon us.  I felt a slight burning in my eyes that wasn’t sweat and my breathing was a little more labored than it should have been (we were descending!). It was so bad that some of the SOBO hikers we passed had bandannas over their noses and mouths trying to filter the polluted air. I guess this will go down in trail lore as the “Smoky Wildfire Year of ’15”.

By 3:30 we’d descended into Vidette Meadow Valley and the smoke wasn’t as bad.  Around mile ten, we found a big clearing with a bunch of sites next to a small creek and there was some discussion amongst the group about camping there. After exploring the area and finding lots of options for camp I dropped my pack and decided to call it home for the night.  I was hoping the guys were done too and was a little disappointed when they decided to move on.  I was enjoying their company and didn’t want it to end.

Yesterday at Wallace Creek, in their characteristic respectful way they’d invited me to camp with them. Tim was the first to offer, “we don’t want to infringe upon your independence in any way and we want to honor your solo adventure, but we want you to know you are more than welcome to camp with us…”  I was so appreciative of the offer  – and the way he presented it. This is why I love backpackers – we just ‘get’ each other.

But today, I was being characteristically stubborn and maybe a little pig-headed.   I thought that by staying with them, I’d be giving up something; latching on to men for comfort.  And I didn’t want to do that. That’s not who I am or why I came out here. I’m doing this alone dammit! I must do it alone!  So I dropped my pack and boldly proclaimed. “I’m home for the night.  I hope to run into you guys again.”

We said our farewells and as I watched them disappear around a bend into the thick forest, I felt my stomach sink and then a flood of loneliness swelled inside like a noxious gas.  I just stood for a few minutes in the big barren clearing, all by myself, in complete silence for the first time since ascending Forester Pass. I shrugged it off, picked up my pack and headed into the woods toward Vidette Meadow which by now was glowing vividly through the trees beneath the afternoon sun.

With boots off and feet soaking in the cool water, I looked back at the contents of my pack scattered about, ready to set up camp.  I got an uneasy eerie feeling being so deep in the trees and realized I didn’t really like the spot I’d chosen.  I didn’t want to be there… “Fuck this,” I said out loud, pulling on my socks and boots and leaping up to pack up and go find my friends. I’m not sure if I just needed an excuse or if I really just didn’t like the spot, but once I got back on the trail, I was excited and I comforted myself about my decision as I hiked along:  It’s ok to not want to be alone. This doesn’t lessen my experience or make me any less independent. Some company tonight will be nice…  

The two miles of trail between my almost- campsite and my friends’ camp was easy and quick.  And about half a mile in I stepped over a giant pile of fresh bear poop. I knew I didn’t like that site or a reason. There are bears here!

Within an hour, I again emerged from the woods and appeared on the edge of the camp of four friends from Arkansas.  They were clearly surprised and seemed genuinely happy to see me. “Yes, of course, we told you – you are more than welcome to camp with us! Find a spot to pitch your tent and come join us for dinner,” Tim said as I approached them asking, “hey is there room for one more?”

dear near vidette for blogh
nice buck near Vidette Meadow

After pitching camp, taking a hiker bath down the creek away from camp and filling my water, I joined them for dinner. We had a good time telling stories and watching the dear in the meadow over dinner.

It’s been dark a while. I stayed up late enjoying the company of fellow backpackers and hearing their many stories of adventure.

I’m inside my tent now getting ready for bed and feeling veeeeery relaxed.  Someone I may or may not have met on the trail may or may not have given me a Xanax to help me sleep (in case the DEA is reading this, I don’t remember what they looked like and I didn’t get a name) :-).  I think it’s already kicking in… I hope to sleep tonight.

It was a good 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!