In July 2014, I hiked the northern half of the John Muir Trail. I started at Mono Creek and walked north to Happy Isles. The distance was roughly 100 miles. But as always in life, there’s a chain of events that got me there.
In November of 2012, I left a six-year marriage. Once I was alone, I started to pursue things I had always wanted to do or thought I might enjoy. I had gone backpacking with friends in previous years, and thought I might like to backpack more. An acquaintance mentioned to me that she joined Meetup groups to do activities she was interested in. I thought about it, and then I got brave. In the spring of 2013, I did my first trip with the Meetup group DC UL Backpacking. I think I mention it here a lot, but perhaps because it was a crossroads in my life for a number of reasons. The backpacking trip was hard. It was so hard. And I wanted to do it again. I did a few more trips with DC UL, but not a lot. Bad gear, a tight budget, and life obligations didn’t allow for a lot of backpacking — not every weekend, for sure. By chance, I signed up for a May 2014 trip to Dolly Sods, West Virginia. I had been to the place once before when I briefly lived in West Virginia, and I wanted to see more of it. Dolly Sods was beautiful, of course, and I have plans to write about a recent trip there soon. I didn’t know the people on the trip very well, but a woman I had hiked with before mentioned open spots on a permit to hike the John Muir Trail. She said they were looking for people to round out the group. The caveat was that the trip was in seven weeks. I had heard of the John Muir Trail. I knew where it was and roughly what I might expect. I liked her, and we got along. I had considered it once upon a time, but never thought that I’d actually get the opportunity to do it or the people to go with, so I said yes.
The John Muir Trail is a 210-mile long hiking trail, sometimes coinciding with the Pacific Crest Trail of Wild fame, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. It is named after a man who loved them. John Muir called them the Range of Light for reasons that soon became obvious, like the alpenglow in the evenings and the light-colored granite peaks and valleys.
I can’t say I was completely prepared to hike 100 miles in the wilderness. I borrowed a backpack, because mine just didn’t fit me right. My gear was mediocre but passable. I bought some food and snacks and hiking pants. And then just like that, a few weeks after saying “count me in” to a person I barely knew at a camp atop Lion’s Head in Dolly Sods, I was on a plane to California.
One of the three other people on the trip was Al. I have mentioned Al here before because he is now my partner. As it turned out we both lived in Baltimore and worked at the same institution. We’d been hiking with similar Meetup groups for a year and did not cross paths until we met to prepare for the John Muir Trail. As irony would have it, I wasn’t looking for a partner, or even a friend. I was doing fine on my own and had every intention of staying that way.
The first time I met Al was at the trip organizer’s house, who surprised us that night by telling us that he would be dropping out of the trip, and transferring the permit to us. Our second meeting was at Centennial Park in Columbia, Maryland. We met under a park pavilion, Home Depot buckets in hand, with lots of bulk food to pack and send ahead as a resupply. While we were packing the buckets, a major summer storm blew through, with rain coming sideways into the pavilion. As I drove home that night, there was a double rainbow in the sky. I didn’t think much about it at the time.
Working in my favor against my lack of preparation for the hike was the fact that it had been a drought year in the Sierras. The only snow I saw was the perpetual glacial patch on Banner Peak at Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The northern half of the trail is at a lower elevation than the southern half, so altitude sickness never became an issue, although I did occasionally have mild headaches and was extremely thirsty.
On the day of departure, I flew to San Jose and waited for the rest of the group. Once they arrived, we drove out to Fresno, where a shuttle from Vermilion Valley Resort would pick us up the next morning. We spent one more night at altitude before heading out for the trail on day three.
Al never lets me forget my simple misunderstanding: Vermilion Valley Resort had a “ferry service” to the trail head. As we were getting dinner the night before our hike, I asked the lady at the register if there was a bathroom on the ferry. She looked at me, I’m sure invisibly rolling her eyes into the back of her head, and said, “It’s a BOAT.” As it turns out, it was a rusty old skiff, maximum seating of six, and Lake Edison was barely even a lake in the summer of 2014. We ended up walking across a third of it, silt in our shoes already.
Over the next ten days, we saw the best and worst of each other. Hiking with others tends to do that, I think. I cried, but only twice: once, after the other woman cried too; and a second time when I got a text from my parents atop one of rare peaks with reception informing me that my dad would start chemotherapy in the fall for mantle cell lymphoma. We had known about the lymphoma, but finally pursuing treatment meant that certain markers had fallen, a sign of progression.
Besides the tears, I was unprepared for the night temperatures and spent a few cold nights. I put a hole in my tent with my hiking pole. I got painful blisters symmetrically on each pinky toe. Al gave me extra clothes to wear at night so I wouldn’t be cold. He gave me tape to patch the hole. And, uh, he helped me pop the blisters, because I was too scared to do it myself.
We also climbed peaks (six, to be exact), ate terrible and terribly uncooked trail dinners, saw rosy evening light fall on the Sierras and the mountain reflections in the lakes, counted lots of marmots and two bears, watched the night sky, and slept under the stars. The rest of the group climbed Half Dome while I waited at the subdome with their packs, shooing a persistent squirrel away. Al reassuringly told me that the view from the subdome was the same as the view from the top of Half Dome, because of the El Portal fire that was burning and filling the sky with haze.
We celebrated the end of our hike — for me, it’s always bittersweet — with more junk food than I’d like to admit at Pizza Deck in Yosemite Valley. We spent our last real night in the valley backpacker campground before catching the YARTS shuttle to Merced and later to the San Jose airport.
When I returned to Baltimore and got back to my car, I realized how nervous I must have been: I left the driver’s side window down. All the way down. For 12 days.
It’s been three years exactly since that fateful trip, and I joke that our first date was 312 hours long and certainly neither one of us expected it to change our lives to the extent that it has.
This year, 2017, we decided we would return to the John Muir Trail and complete the southern half. We would start again at Vermilion Valley Resort, but this time head south and summit Mount Whitney before exiting the trail. We put in our permit request. We got approved. When Al told me we were accepted, I got a little teary-eyed. We got the “golden ticket” (the permits are yellow). We started to look into booking shuttles and hotels. Friends who had done it before encouraged us and told us about their experience on the southern portion.
And yet. The Sierras had a record snow year this year. Bridges are out, roads are out, campgrounds opened late, and snow is still on the passes. When we considered the increased risks this year over, say, the first time, we had a tough decision to make.
It doesn’t help that I’m not much of a thrill seeker. I’m certainly not an experienced mountaineer. I can’t really use an ice ax. I’ll never do Angel’s Landing. I’ll never really do Half Dome. I get panicked on cliffs that must be navigated on a precipice. Post-holing is tedious. I saw a video of a black bear being washed away in Yosemite (it lived). There have been a number of search and rescues this year, not always with happy endings.
Our start date was supposed to be August 1. Next week. As much as we wanted to return, we decided to postpone. I have a feeling that probably it would have all been fine. Hikers are making their way up and down the trail as I write this, and completing it in either direction, both northbound and southbound. But my worrisome nature (and Al’s too, probably because he’d be the one who would have to listen to me reason endlessly) said it would be better to postpone than to worry about the conditions for the months leading up to our departure. About two months ago, we decided to postpone and try again in 2018. On the one hand, it gives us more time to get ready for it. More hiking, more backpacking. On the other hand, we will be one year older, and my knees, maybe, will be 12 years older.
Then again, three years ago, I signed on to this trip with little more than optimism, a borrowed backpack, and a few weeks lead time. Should 2018 be a reasonable winter with promising early season reports, we will put in another request. We will most likely get a permit, since our entry point is less common. And then we will pack our backpacks, fly to California, catch a ride through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, until our feet are firmly planted back in the soil and rocks of the Range of Light, sun in our eyes, only 110 miles to go.