Day 19 or 20 on the JMT 14.5 miles (180 miles total)Tully Hole to Red Cones
It’s about seven I think. I’m shoveling oatmeal in my mouth and writing frantically before I pack up and get on the trail. I didn’t write last night because I had company. Yes, I had company, and he wasn’t from Arkansas! My Tully Hole camp-mate, Etai, had is ultra-light tarp-tent all packed up and was finishing up his Power Bar breakfast when I emerged from my tent for breakfast this morning. We said a quick goodbye and he was off!
Yesterday, I left the company of the eerie mysterious voices at the cutoff at Vermillion Resort (VVR) junction to begin my three-thousand-foot ascent over Silver Pass. I was fueled with excitement about getting one day closer to Red’s Meadow, a veggie burger and a shower!!! A Shower! Ohmygod I can’t wait for a shower!
The last three days of hiking have been mind-numbing. This section of the JMT is B-O-RING! I hope this isn’t what the rest of the hike will be like. For three days, I’ve been ambling up and over forested hill after rolling forested hill. Seemingly for no apparent reason – isn’t there a way AROUND them? Is it really necessary to go up, just so I can go down again? And then hike up another hill and then down, once again? Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. Alllll dayyyyy loooong fooor threeee straigggght dayyyyyys.
I actually miss the giant peaks and long passes of the southern end of the JMT. In the south, I was (mostly) either climbing up a pass, or down a pass, and the barren above-tree-line granite landscape couldn’t hide many secrets. In the north, under a canopy of thick pines, many secrets are kept: in the form of false summits.
Half a dozen times a day as another mountaintop preens masterly ahead, my relief and anticipation of summiting builds. Yay, I’m almost there, just a little further. I’ve got this! But with each painful and heavy step another rounded mountaintop peeks up behind it, like a rising moon cresting the horizon.
And just like that, the revolting secret of the hills is revealed: another false summit. Mother Nature’s playful snickers kiss my ears as a breeze floats through the stoic trunks of lodgepole and foxtail pines. Once again, she yanks my finish line away and teasingly places it higher and further up the trail, along with my positive attitude. “NOOOOO! NO! NO! NO!!!” I try to fight the disappointment and frustration, but my cranky inner 6-year-old takes over and throws an internal temper tantrum. “I don’t wanna climb anymore! I wanna be done. I wanna go downhill now! wahhhhh.” The tantrum passes, I pull on my big-girl-panties and hike on. What else can I do?
Now I know why hikers half-jokingly say there are no flat parts of the JMT! When I think back over the past twenty days and 170 miles I have a hard time remembering any!
The last three days have felt like Ground Hog Day; same views, different day. No matter how high or low I am, all I can see are trees, the sandy-dirt path, more trees, more dirt path. Gone are the sweeping granite vistas of the Sequoia Kings Canyon Range. Gone are the 14,000 foot passes (not sure I miss those so much – although at this stage of my hike, a 3000’ climb is a 3000’ foot climb whether I’m at 14,000’ or 11,000’) where I can lounge atop the world and soak in hundreds of miles of Mother Nature’s rugged brilliance. Gone are the other-worldly moonscapes. Gone are the serene tarns, tucked away in majestic mountains, reflecting the dull gray smoke-diluted skies. It’s just forest. And more forest.
I can see how hiking the JMT SOBO would be more rewarding; the best scenery is saved for the second part. As my NOBO hike winds down, it’s feeling anti-climactic. Maybe it’s because I’m hiking into familiar terrain? As I get closer to Yosemite, where I’ve backpacked for decades, I feel like I’m getting closer to home. It feels like I’m closing in on my final finish line.
So, for the last forty miles I’ve hiked in the forest. Thick, view blocking, forest. Today I had the exact same view for ten miles; trees and more trees. There wasn’t even a drop of water for a seven mile stretch; not a creek , lake, tarn, river, or even a trickling spring. Just Forest. Dense, eerie, forest, full of stoic giants going about their silent big-tree lives like they have for hundreds, and even thousands of years. Hello tree! How are you today?
Luckily, I’d studied my map and listened to the SOBO hikers who told me about the seven-mile dry spell. I was prepared. Thirst wasn’t’ the problem. The lack of visual interest was the problem: not even a creek to break up the monotony.
Even the people I met today were boring. Nothing but bouncy Shiny Happy People (SHP) out for the Labor Day Weekend in their brand new, crisp-clean name-brand hiking clothes and freshly washed hair, clean fingernails, giant backpacks and fishing rods. They’d cheerily bounce past me leaving in their wake clouds of perfumed soap, shampoo and cologne (yes, cologne!). Even their sunscreen and Deet annoyed the hell out of me, because I know they’ll all be jumping in the lakes and creeks without washing it all off first.
Oh, they weren’t that bad… just slightly annoying and an insult to my hypersensitive senses. I’ve been out here mostly-alone too long and maybe more than a little self-conscious about my 20-day unshoweredness (like that new word I just made up?) state. Yes, I felt a bit like Jodie Foster’s Nell as I tried to put coherent sentences together to answer their annoying questions: “Where’s the next water?”; “How’s the fishing?”; “can I see your map?”; “Do you have any extra cologne?” (ok, I made the last one up).
I met one person today who neither shined nor bounced, nor reeked of cologne. As I trudged up the trail toward Tully Hole at the end of a long day, looking for a spot to camp, I met Etai. He’s a 22-year-old guy from Israel. He was headed south and I north and we stopped each other to ask if there were any good camping spots back in the direction we’d each come. “No” I said. “Nope, he replied. just a long climb ahead of you with nothing but steep hills and canyons; no good camping.”
We’d crossed paths at the bright green meadow in, what I’m assuming was Tully Hole. “There’s a tiny spot in the woods about a quarter mile behind me,” I said, “but I don’t really want to camp there, it’s tiny, wooded and kind of eerie.”
We both walked back in the direction I’d come to check it out. We stood on the trail, just feet from the tiny clearing in the dark woods next to the creek. It was barely big enough for one person, much less two and there was nothing but rocks and steep hills all around us.
“I was thinking about staying here, but I’d rather sleep out in the open,” I said pointing toward the meadow where we’d met. “I don’t really like camping in the woods. I’m kinda scared of the woods. “I laughed self-consciously as I confessed my irrational fear to the young stranger.
“Me too! I hate the woods, they’re creepy!” he admitted and we both laughed at the irony of two solo-hikers in the woods, admitting to be afraid of the woods. “Let’s go check out the meadow.”
With packs still on, we headed back to the meadow and then parted ways to scout for camping spots. I slopped around in the soggy mess trying to find a spot dry enough to camp. I felt guilty for traipsing through the delicate eco-system of the marshy meadow. Not exactly the best Leave No Trace (LNT) move, but it was necessary if I didn’t want to get eaten by forest-monsters in the middle of the night, I told myself. After stepping ankle deep in mud and mush a couple of times I looked over at Etai who was busy sloshing around and scouting for a spot himself, wondering if he was having any better luck.
I slogged back to the trail where he joined me. No luck. So, we headed back down toward the eerie wooded site. He pointed to a steep bank across the creek that appeared to be flat on the top. “I’m gonna ago check that out.” By then, we’d pretty much decided we were camping together for the night. I don’t know if we even talked about it or it was just assumed.
He was half my age, in great shape and was on day four of his South Bound John Muir Hike, compared to my day twenty, so I felt no guilt in sloughing off my pack and resting against a tree as he rock-hopped across the creek and easily scaled the steep bank on the opposite side. As he disappeared into the woods above I had a few fleeting concerns about camping with a strange man; is he up there preparing a torture apparatus? Finding a tree to tie me to to leave me for dead? Plotting how he’ll chop me up and bury me far off the trail where no one will find me? I entertained the thoughts for a few minutes and then weighed the more real threat of being alone in a spooky forest full of unknowns. I decided to take my chances with the mortal stranger.
A few minutes later he was careening down the bank toward me with a huge smile on his face. “It’s great! There’s a ton of space and plenty of flat spots to camp! What do you think?”
Great, so you found a perfect tree to hang me from, huh? “Awesome! Let’s go!” I said out loud as I pulled my pack on and followed him up the bank. Once I crested it, a whole new flat world of forest splayed before me! Yay!!! My new non ax-murderer friend found us a perfect home for the night!
We ate dinner together, shared hiking stories and I enjoyed hearing about his life in Israel and his summers spent in the U.S. taking youth on backpacking trips into the wilderness. See, serial killers don’t take youth on backpacking trips, you have nothing to worry about!
Later, as I laid in bed with my ears perked for signs that he was sharpening his hatchet, something else about him struck me: he’d started his JMT hike out of Yosemite four days ago. And a reality that I’d been ignoring hit me; I’m almost done. I’m fewer than 60 miles from Yosemite Valley. I can probably be in Tuolumne Meadows in three days. A sadness and panicky feeling spread over my tired and aching body as I snuggled into my bag to keep out the cold night.
I’m almost to Yosemite. I’ve hiked from Horseshoe Meadows all this way. I’ve hiked one hundred eighty miles. I’ve been out here twenty days. I felt a surge of pride at my accomplishment.. an unfamiliar feeling -and it brought tears to my eyes. I must be exhausted…
As I slid into sleep I thought about checking on Capone when I got to Tuolomne Meadows. I miss y buddy and can’t wait to see him, but what will it be like going home? What will home feel like after this?
It’ll be interesting to see what comes of this experience.
(Epilogue: When I read that last line in my journal entry I was blown away. Yes, interesting, indeed. for those of you who don’t know, this is my new life: http://CarolynsRVLife.com and on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/CarolynsRVLife)