Voices in the Wind at Mono Creek

September 3: Day 19 at Mono Creek

I left Sallie Keys Lakes yesterday; rested, relaxed and ready to tackle Selden Pass. The soft pine-needled trail meandered along the lakeshore I’d called home for two nights, leading me north toward the pass.   At just 10,880 feet, it was a relatively easy climb, through the now-familiar rocky terrain, sparsely populated with high sierra pines and cool, serene  tarns.  By ten am I was at the top of the wide pass enjoying a spectacular view of Marie Lake just a few miles to the North. It reminded me of Rae Lakes, with its islands and peninsulas floating serenely atop sapphire blue waters.

Once on the north side of Selden Pass, I had a long decent into Quail Meadows. I hadn’t seen a single soul for hours when I stumbled into my camp on the south side of the wooden bridge crossing Mono Creek, near the Vermillion Resort Junction (Mono Creek Trail).

Selden Pass View on the john muir trail
Selden Pass View

Sometimes as I hike, my mind plays tricks on me and I’ll hear voices whispering in the breezy trees or in the echo of waterfalls rushing through narrow gorges. Even bold conversations can be heard swirling from creeks and rivers as their waters splash and gurgle their way around boulders.  Like the day of the coyote-kill encounter, the ghostly conversations jolt me to a to a stop.  With a skipping heart, I freeze in place, holding my breath.  My ears strain to hear what I cannot see: signs of people on the trail ahead or relaxing in the forest nibbling on trail mix. Seeing nothing, I move on, attributing it to another of the forest’s great mysteries.

As I surveyed the flat,  sandy sites between smooth slabs of rock, looking for the perfect place to call home for the night, waves of discourse wafted toward me as the invisible creek-ghosts carried on their lively conversation, as if I wasn’t even there.  I’d stop. Look around. Scan the trail and the boulders for signs of humanity. Nothing.

Feeling secure that Mother Nature was in one of her playful moods, toying with my mortal senses, I continued pitching my tent.  Once it was set up and my bed made, I pulled on my Merino wool base layers, my clean bedtime wool socks and camp shoes and settled in to boil water for dinner.  As I rehydrated one of my favorite homemade meals of cabbage, tomatoes and white beans, I listened to the rushing Mono Creek for signs of more ghost talk. I heard nothing but rushing water. I got up and stretched my legs and then wandered around the perimeter of my camp investigating the  fallen trees and smooth exposed rocks. It relaxes me to explore the area I’m camped in, and once I was satisfied I knew what was around me, I settled in to eat my dinner.

View from Mono Creek Camp
View from Mono Creek Camp

I was comfortable. It was obvious the area got a lot of use in the height of the season. But now, just a few days before Labor Day, I had it all to myself.  After dinner, I retreated to the warmth of my tent,  feeling comfortable in my alone-ness.  I hadn’t seen another hiker since early afternoon and  I felt confident I’d have the place to myself for the night

Exhausted, within seconds of laying down,  my eyelids drooped  and sleep courted my tired bones. Just as I was about to slip into that blissful comfortable place I heard a man’s voice, just a few feet away from my tent. “Hmmm” I thought, “late-comers. They must be looking for a place to camp.”  I couldn’t hear what he was saying over the roar of the creek, but I definitely heard a man’s voice.

I laid there on high alert.Waiting for the beam of their headlamp to hit the walls of my tent; it was too dark to pitch camp without light.  But the light didn’t come.  I heard talking again – this time it sounded like two men. Then it was silent. I laid still in my tent, not breathing. Listening. Nothing. Ok, I must have been hearing things. I relaxed again, determined to not be scared by imaginary voices in the night.

Thud- Clunk.

It sounded exactly like a bear canister hitting the ground just a few feet from my head outside my tent; Surely, they see me. They can’t be camping right next to me… Can they? I was at least thirty feet off the trail. They’d have had to walk over some nice campsites to get to mine. They must know I’m here. Why would they be right outside my tent? Without lights?

I  was more curious than scared and started wracking my tired brain: was that my bear can I heard? Is there a bear out there  swatting my can around? Then I realized mine was tucked away in the rocks about 10 yards on the opposite end of  camp.

Silence fell like a hammer on the night and only the roaring creek occupied my camp.  No voices, no headlamp. Nothing.  I figured my mysterious neighbors had quickly set up and called it a night. Although I couldn’t quite let go of the odd fact that they’d set up without light.  “I’ll see in the morning” , I thought.

A few hours later, when I went out to go the bathroom, I scanned the dark night for signs of my late-arriver neighbors. My eyes adjusted enough in the dark to see within a few yards of my camp. Nothing.  A little puzzled, I went back inside and fell asleep.

When I woke up in the morning and exited my tent, the first thing I did was look for my new neighbors. I looked around me, further into the woods, on the other side of the creek; there was no one. I was completely alone.  The voices, I chalked up to the sounds of the rushing water or the wind. But the bear can? The sound of heavy plastic hitting rock and dirt? Who knows. Another of nature’s mysteries.(Side note: I now realize it could have been night-hikers passing through. But it still seems odd they didn’t use headlamps, but it’s possible).


Well, it looks like Autumn is here to stay in the mountains. I was awake at six am, curled inside my sleeping bag, trying to protect myself from the frigid pre-dawn air and condensation oozing from my tent walls. I’ve discovered that I stay warmer inside my sleeping bag wearing just my base layer, instead of donning every stitch of clothing I own.  Last night, I skipped sleeping in my down jacket and instead draped it over my bag (and now it’s damp with condensation). I must be acclimating and learning how to survive out here; a thirty-two-degree night (there’s frost on my tent) and I slept like a baby!

I forced myself out of my cozy trail-bed and into the biting-cold morning as soon as the sun broke the horizon; I wanted to lay my sleeping bag, jacket and tent in the sun to dry, before stuffing them into my backpack. I had to dodge sparkly, bitter-cold frost resting in the shadows of the giant boulders framing my camp as I worked.

Very cold at Mono Creek in September!

The past few days I’ve been feeling more at home here; missing the conveniences of “normal” life a little less and settling into a routine. Not the hiking so much, that’s always going to be difficult, even John Muir himself probably would have scoffed at hiking fifteen miles a day, covering four thousand feet in elevation with forty pounds on his back.  He was smart: a hunk of bread and a blanket. How pampered we are these days!

What I mean is, I am feeling more at home, living out here. I have been living in the wilderness for nineteen days! Nearly three weeks! It feels comfortable. It feels like home.

The first week was about the adventure of it; the excitement and awe. Week two was Reality: this is hard work, it’s uncomfortable, inconvenient, and tough. Week two was when I started missing home and my every-day life. This past week, I’ve been feeling like I’m settling in.  Like I’m acclimating to a new reality: a new world, free from the hustle-and-bustle and stimulus of my every-day life.

I feel like I am really learning how to survive – and thrive – in the elements. I’ve learned that I can’t swim every day in the windy chilly conditions and not dry off before putting my hiking pants back on and hitting the trail because it chaps my skin.  I realized that hiking longer, and getting into camp later, feels better than stopping early, sitting around for three hours and being in bed out of boredom by seven (that also helps me sleep better). I’ve learned not to be in a hurry to get from point A to point B, but to take my time and enjoy the journey.  I’ve learned that I need sugar for instant energy, and when I’m hiking eight to ten hours a day I can eat anything I want!  I’ve also recognized that just being out here nineteen days is giving me the experience I came here for: I am really living in nature!

Camp at Mono Creek
Camp at Mono Creek

The whole reason I decided to take a full thirty days to do this is because I knew it would take a while to shed modern life. Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten that and started focusing on being done.  I think the discomfort got so omnipresent that I just wanted to rush through and finish the trail.   But as I see myself settling in and becoming more comfortable being out here, in the wild, alone, I wonder what the end will feel like? And what Home will feel like?  Will it feel more like home than it did before I left?  Or will I still have the same delusions and fantasies of escaping into the wilderness to live off the land? Will this hike cure that thinking or make it more pronounced? Will “home” still feel fake, forced and unnatural? Or will this shatter my philosophies about the ills of modern society and the benefits of returning to the natural world? Will this experience make me more grateful for the comforts of modern living or despise them even more?   Will being in nature still feel more real to me or will this experience cure me of my “roughing it” fantasies? As I move into my final week to ten days of my hike, I wonder: what will I experience next?

These are the thoughts and questions that rumble through my mind, relaxing and unsettling me at the same time as I pack up my gear to begin my nineteenth day of hiking. Today I climb 10,900′ Silver Pass – my ninth pass! (That means only two to  go… that makes me happy and sad at the same time…) I’m getting used to them by now- and they’re lower than the southern passes. So I just trudge on and climb and climb and climb… my goal today is to make it to Tully Hole – and Red’s Meadow in two days!!!

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.