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.

 

Day 11: Rae Lakes to an unnamed pond below Pinchot Pass

August 28, 2015: Day 11 on the John Muir Trail

5:30 am at Rae Lakes

My zero day is done, I’m rested and it’s time to hike.  It was another damp night, and a lot colder. I woke up to dew on the outside of my tent and condensation dripping down the mesh walls on the inside.

The strain behind my knee and outer hamstring from falling in the mud at Soldier Lake on day 2 has been a constant nuisance while hiking and bolts of electric pain pulsed in it all night long. Plus my arthritic hips ache. And getting crushed into the cold ground through my Therm-a-Rest Trail Pro Mattress isn’t helping. I never used to have these problems when backpacking. Getting older really sucks…  rae lakes 2

I was surprised to wake up and discover that the two noisy girls who got here around 8:00 last night and camped too-close to me are packed up and already gone.  I was even more surprised I didn’t hear them leave.  When they got here, their big laughs and busy chatter echoed into my camp. There’s a whole big lake with no other hikers for miles, and they chose to set up 50 yards from me.  AND they had the audacity to be all fucking happy and chipper about it!

While they were setting up I got up from my comfortable spot on the granite where I’d been peacefully reading and pretended to fidget with my Bear Canister to get a closer look. I became even more annoyed when I saw their bright Cobalt Blue Down Jackets that appeared to be ultra-clean and crisp. How can anyone stay clean out here? 

It probably wasn’t really their noise and excited chatter that annoyed me, but the regret and loneliness it awoke in me.  For a moment, I lamented not having someone to share my own John Muir Trail experience with. How much easier would these passes be if I had someone to commiserate with? How much more tolerable would the brutal parts of the trail be with conversation to distract me? While I love my solitude,  I wonder at times if having a friend to share it with would be better. I felt a slight pang of loneliness as I listened to the noisy girls get settled into camp and finally fall silent after the loud zips of their Tent doors. rae lakes 4

And now I’m feeling a jolt of competitiveness: I’m not going to let two loud, bubbly, sparkly-clean hikers out-do me! No way! If they can get to camp at dusk and then be gone before dawn, then I sure as hell can get out of here before 8 am!  I’ve gulped down my coffee, shoveled messy spoonfuls of oatmeal into my mouth, popped a couple of ibuprofen from my rapidly diminishing supply and crammed my damp gear into my backpack.  I’m ready to go!

Sunset –at an unnamed pond just above Twin Lakes, 2.5 miles below Pinchot Pass.

11.7 miles today!!!

Today’s hike began in one of those jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring settings that backpackers live for. When I left Rae Lakes around 7:00, and got back on the John Muir Trail heading north, the cool and damp air had cleared the smoke leaving behind a crystal-clear baby blue sky and puffy white clouds.

The sun was just emerging, bathing the silky clouds in magnificent hues of pink, red and orange.   Nature’s most perfect masterpiece was unveiled before me: the sky radiating with an otherworldly glow and Rae Lake’s still gray waters perfectly mirroring the scene, framed by sharp granite peaks.  I became immersed into a world, ethereal and divine. It almost felt like too noble a show for a mere mortal like me.  There was a pull deep in my heart and my core ached. What is that? I never completely understood the physical reaction to scenes like this: a longing and an aching. Like some invisible prehistoric and primordial force was pulling me back in time reminding me that I am tied to this earth in ways my conscious mind neither remembers nor understands.rae lakes view 2

I found it difficult to continue hiking. So I lingered. Greedily consuming the moment with my eyes and heart as the sky’s palette morphed before me.

I finally pulled myself away and hiked knowing I had miles to make if I wanted to position myself as close as possible to Pinchot Pass for tomorrow. I soaked in one more panoramic view of Rae Lake, frantically snapping pictures in a vain attempt to contain the moment – a feeling really –  that I wanted to keep and remember forever.

But the glorious morning sky didn’t last. It got smoky fast and I spent the rest of the day breathing the thick heavy air it into my lungs, stifling my already altitude-labored breathing even more.baxter creek cascade

My first 6 miles were awesome. I felt renewed and refreshed  from my day of rest as I traversed a gentle 2100’ descent through lush green forests with gently cascading streams and waterfalls.  South Baxter Creek was a memorable spot. After  easily crossing the creek, the trail led up a narrow dirt path alongside it until it eventually widened,  cascading gently over flat rock.

It was another perfect wilderness moment that backpackers fantasize about when we’re in the muck of everyday life. I couldn’t pass it up. I veered off the trail, down onto the smooth rock, finding a spot where I could sit and stick my legs and feet into the water to soak. I peeled off my hiking boots, wool WrightSocks and hiking shorts and rested my achy hips and sore left leg into the numbing water.  I filled my Nalgene and drank straight from the creek without filtering it and snacked on some trail mix. Ahhhh,  this is what this trip is about; blissful moments just like this.  Sitting high atop a rocky mountain, alone, without another soul within miles just being.  The smoke hung low and socked me in making me feel enveloped in a thick perimeter of rocky mountain forest. baxter creek cascade 2

The last 5+ miles were challenging but not too bad:  I think I finally cracked the JMT code!!! Instead of struggling up ginormous 2-foot rock steps that were obviously built for Sasquatch hikers because no human could ever comfortably climb them, I realized there is no shame in skirting up the sides like other hikers do. In my LNT compulsion I’d been insistent upon staying within the lines of the manicured trail and not veering off the edges or sides.  Well screw that. My 5’4” body and hips weren’t meant for Sasquatch steps.  And climbing is so much more comfortable walking around the giant steps or using the rocks that frame them as stepping stones than heaving my short stubby legs and my heavy backpack up them! It still wasn’t easy and my left leg is killing me today no matter how much ibuprofen I take but it was far easier than it had been.

Overall, it was a wonder-filled and amazing day on the John Muir Trail!  But now I am tired and I want to eat dinner, relax and read….

 

 

 

 

 Day 10 – Rae Lakes Happy Zero Day!!!

Day 10 on the John Muir Trail. August, 27, 2015

Just before sunrise…

Ahhh. There’s nothing like waking up to the smell of fresh cooked forest! Just as the trail chatter had said, the air at Rae Lakes is murky with smoke.  Since the first light faintly glowed against the black sky in the eastern horizon, I’d wake up, peek out of my tent, get a whiff of burnt air and retreat back inside, burrowing deep inside my down bag in a futile attempt to filter the noxiousness.   It’s like living in a wood-fire pizza oven – only without the pizza. (mmmm…pizza!) rae lakes 4

But it’s ok… I’m at Rae Lakes. The Rae Lakes.  And even with a smoky film muddying the scenery and polluting the air, it’s remarkable; a bowl of cool gray water framed by rocky shores surging with lush conifers.  I’m a mere speck in a picturesque cirque at the foot of characteristically dramatic Kings Canyon peaks:  Painted Lady, Mount Rixford, and Dragon Peak. I imagine that behind the gray film, Painted Lady stands proud, living up to her moniker; radiating brilliant shades of color and adorning the range of peaks that surround her.

I awoke to a feeling of relief:  I don’t have to hike today! I can rest my depleted muscles and tomorrow hike into the next section of the JMT feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. Once the sun comes up I’ll do laundry, take a bath and even wash my hair! I can’t believe I haven’t washed my hair or bathed in hot water in 10 days. I’ve have never felt so grimy in my entire life:  I am constantly covered in dirt and sweat, my hair is heavy with grime, my hands and fingernails are black with earth and no matter how many times I wash with baby wipes and splash fresh stream water over me, I feel like I’ll never be completely clean again.

10 am:

Laundry is done! After anxiously waiting out the cold morning, cuddled inside my sleeping bag eating breakfast and writing, the sun finally breached the peaks framing Rae Lakes, flooding my little sandy section of earth with its warmth.  It was barely warm enough to bear putting my hands into the frigid waters of Rae Lake, but I was anxious to get my chores done so I could relax and enjoy my zero day. After four trips to the lake shore and back, lugging both my BV500-turned-washing-machine and my backpack full of food so the bears wouldn’t sneak into camp and steal it while I was away, I have clean-ish clothes. rae lakes 3

It’s cloudy and still pretty cool. The brief moments the sun sneaks between the heavy gray clouds are barely enough to warm me. If it rains now I’d be in serious trouble.  Everything but the shorts, tank top and down jacket I’m wearing is wet. I’m just waiting for it to warm up enough to jump in Rae Lake to wet my hair so I can wash it in the bear can with some Dr. Bronners away from the lake.

2:30 pm:

Being in one place all day is a little strange. I’ve had to fight the urge to pack up and hike.  My laundry is done, I’m bathed, my hair is washed the best I could be in cold lake water, I’ve walked, read, eaten, organized, sat and stared, thought, contemplated and written. Sitting still when I still have so many miles to hike is unnerving. It’s hard to relax.

I keep thinking about Capone. Up until today I’d forced myself to push thoughts of him out of my head. But sitting here all day with nothing but silence and time I can’t ignore the heaviness of worry in my heart when I imagine him all alone at Camp Four Paws. Sure, it’s the doggy version of club med, with walks and hugs and treats and plenty of attention, resting on a farm in the country where he and his fellow canine guests have many acres to roam, play and explore. I’m sure he’s lapping in doggy bliss, poolside with a giant marrow bone right now! But I still worry. He’s 10. He had skin cancer last year. What if something happens and he’s not there when I get home? I left instructions that if something does happen, they should contact his next of kin (my ex-husband) – not me. There’s no use getting that kind of news in the back-country. Alone. Nothing good could come of that. So now, I constantly worry that the worst has already happened and I’ll arrive home to nothing… rae lakes 1

The worry makes me want to go.  I’ve been fighting the urge to get back to him as soon as possible. I gave myself 30 days to complete the trail and I don’t want to feel rushed or consumed with worry; but I miss my buddy.  I push the panicky thoughts out of my mind and try to trust that he’s doing fine. I imagine him frolicking with the other dogs and getting belly rubs from the excellent staff. And I smile. He’s going to be OK. I’m going to be OK, but I sure do miss my friend…

Then my restlessness takes a new turn and I think it would be nice to hike out of the smoke.  To see what’s around the next bend. But I force myself to stay put… Yesterday’s miserable climb over Glen Pass was more than enough proof that I need to stay put and rest.

I’ve taken a couple of walks around both sides of the lake to explore my surroundings. Off to the north I can barely make out the faint masses of far away peaks through the smoke.  Once again, I try not to think of all the dramatic vistas and bigger-than-life mountain ranges I’m missing and instead appreciate what’s right in front of me. Today it’s Rae Lake. Some days it’s a babbling creek, lush green meadow, topaz-blue tarn, a grove of ancient gnarled foxtail pines or a rocky slope set before me yearning to be appreciated in its modest grandeur.  Sure, I may not be able to see what’s miles away but maybe that makes what’s right in front of me all that more beautiful.   In the year of the wildfire, these more subtle and humble players take center stage, no longer competing with the dramatic granite peaks, passes and vistas that normally hog the limelight and steal the show

 

5:30 pm

Oh how I needed this day of rest!   As the day lazily unfurled I could literally feel my tense and strained body relax, letting go of the fatigue and stress from the last 9 days, 65 miles, 6 passes, one giant mountain and nearly 20,000 feet in elevation.  As my muscles relaxed I could feel the healing and rejuvenating. Ahhh…. Tomorrow I will be stronger! rae lakes 5

When the sun shone bright overhead I took a nap in the warmth of my tent only to be awakened a short time later by a tiny trickle of rain.  It only lasted about 5 minutes and then it got warm again.  Feeling a little restless, I meandered along the sandy edge of Rae Lake taking plenty of opportunities to sit and rest and soak in my view and today’s reality. I don’t get many truly relaxing days like this.  At home I’m either too plugged in, working, walking Capone, working out, running errands, or watching TV thinking about everything l I should be doing and feeling guilty about it.  There is no guilt on a zero day!  Not only do I feel like I earned it: I need it. My body recovers and my nature-TV comes guilt free: watching as the landscape of each peak changes with the journey of the sun. From early morning black against starry skies to Alpen-lit grays at sunrise to brightly glowing shades of granite as the sun rises high in the mid-day sky. I sat and watched the light dance off the water as the tiny waves rippled in the wind with the birds squawking, chirping, pew-pew-pewing, and whistling away in the background going about their important bird-business.

As my zero day winds down I can’t say I’m excited about getting back on the trail tomorrow, despite my restlessness. My left leg and foot have been hurting all day, I’m about to lose my left big-toe toenail (again) and walking – even without my pack – is painful. Where are these hiker legs I’m supposed to get?  Why am I not stronger? Why is this still so hard?   OK, time for a little reality check: I’ve hiked 65 miles, climbed and descended over 20,000 feet and climbed the tallest mountain in the lower 48. Yeah, that might have something to do with it…

Tomorrow will be a new day!

The next few days the smoke will be horrible. I need a plan to get over Muir Pass as quickly as possible…but I’ll think about that later.