Our trip began with a snag, before even reaching the trailhead. Meghan’s bag, marked with my name, failed to arrive with our airplane, instead opting to explore conversion options in Salt Lake City. Told the earliest the bag would reappear was 11am the next morning, we proceeded to spend the next 2 hours frantically calling friends, friends of friends, enemies of friends, and anyone else who might be able to help. An 11am arrival for the bag would be a touch late for our 6am departure aboard the only public transit to Yosemite for the day.
At 10:30, a friend, with whom there may or may not be a storied and lurid past, came to our rescue, agreeing to pick us up after the bag rose from the graveyard of lost luggage, and then drive us 4 hours out to the Valley, such that we might commence our trek on time. Brief and cryptic SMS messages passed to our hiking companion, already at Tuolumne, and waiting with permit in hand.
Waking up much later than our planned departure, we make our way via courtesy shuttle to the airport. 9:40 arrived along with Meghan’s pack and our trail angel, Amy. Four and a half hours later, we breeze through the park entrance after contentedly consuming a few delicious burritos in Groveland.
Cue traffic. With it, a 3-hour long parking lot, inching forward a car length at a time. At least restrooms weren’t an issue as both Meghan and I had time enough to hop out of the car, locate appropriate foliage, and relieve ourselves at separate times. My effort to return to the car did involve a bit more running than Meghan’s. Day 0 came to a close in Tuolumne Meadows, just shy of 10 hours after the bag arrived in Jan Jose. At least that’s when our day ended; Amy still had another 4 hours to L.A. that night.
“Forth, the three hikers! We shall lay down a trail the likes of which have never been seen!”— Aragorn, sort of
After quite the ordeal and some amazing generosity, which enabled us to start on time, we made a little bonus distance and have set u camp in a great spot, minutes before rain set in.
In the morning of the first real day, we woke late, got moving slowly, then stopped for some necessary first day snaps with the John Muir Trail signposts. Despite that, we passed along Lyell Canyon at a reasonable pace and make camp a mile or so past our planned site. The tents went up quickly and I started this entry, snug and relaxed. I made it to the end of the third paragraph of the Day 0 entry. It was about that time that I noticed my shiny, amazing, featherlight, 4-season tent of awesome seemed to be dripping a little at a zipper. Over the subsequent 30 minutes, I watched that drip turning in to more, every seam more. With great generosity, and only a few minutes of deep belly laughter, Meghan let me move over to her tent (which I had lent her for the trip). Eventually we made it through the night, dry. Lake Fuck-This-Tent was drained in the morning. In an attempt to salvage a bit of mirth, I broke out the harmonica that I am only just beginning to teach myself to play, and produced a sad, but well-intentioned attempt at Taps. This would become a nightly ritual for most of the rest of the trip.
“Always on the future, his mind is. Never on where he is at – what he is hiking!”— Yoda, more or less
Monday morning started equally as late and consistently lazily. By 8 o’clock, all of us were out of camp and marching the 1000 ft up to Donahue Pass. We hopscotched with several groups, getting to know and sharing bits with each at convenient resting points. The Path to Donahue is steep, passing along a pair of tarns and opening on to a flat saddle inhabited primarily by marmots. A short break and snack with three furry friends brought our critter counts to a pair of bears, a dozen deer, too many marmots to matter and more chipmunks and squirrels than you can shake a stick at.
Coming down from Donahue dropped us in to a valley following a sizable river in to [ ] Reservoir. Before reaching the lake, you turn uphill and ascend 600 feet to Island Pass and cross over above Thousand Island Lake, somewhat hyperbolically named for the plethora of small islands it holds. Naming aside, the lake and surrounding peaks are breathtaking. Donahue Pass marks the border between Yosemite National Park and the Ansel Adams Wilderness. His photo [ ] captures the view at Thousand Island Lake.
Foreboding clouds and tired legs asserted it was time to set camp. Tents pitched and water in the Jetboil for dinner, we consulted maps to see our progress for the day. 6 miles. We had planned on covering closer to 10. As rain set in, I again joined Meghan in the older, heavier, dry tent for the night.
“The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live.’– Leo Buscaglia
Rising earlier today, we decided to shift course and take the River Trail down from Thousand Island Lake to Agnew Meadows. We covered the distance well, making the 8 mile downhill tromp by 1pm. The aptly named trail follows the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River (which eventually provides water to the entire central agricultural swath of California) from Thousand Island down to the meadow. From Agnew, a $7 shuttle (ticket good for a round trip) takes you to Red’s Meadow or the visitor’s center in Mammoth Lakes, stopping at several other places along the way. We opted for the latter, feeling that the ski resort town could better guarantee a tarp for my “4-season” (except those with moisture) tent. Also there’s an entirely reasonable brewery, which certainly didn’t sound enticing at all.
I’m pretty sure I had no right enjoying my shrimp po-boy and Paranoia Pale Ale as much as I did, given only three days’ hiking. That may also have solidified the recognition that long-distance hiking is not my pint of beer. I fully appreciate hiking in to a climb, carrying significant weight, and getting to a peak or topping out a route, as done for the Spearhead in Rocky Mountain National Park a few weeks ago with Harrison. This is not that.
The challenge of long-distance hiking seems to be just willing yourself onward. Muscles tire, blisters form, shit happens. I assume this is what running a marathon is like, just longer and slower, with nicer scenery. Running – also not my thing. Give me a high point and say “Go!” I can will my self along, but I question the payout from simply walking day in and day out. Needless to say, I experienced no paradigm-shifting, life affirming epiphany during our trip.
Mammoth Lakes sated our appetite, quenched our thirst, and provided unto us a lovely tarp, all at resort prices (excepting the tarp – that was just hardware store price). Rather than pushing back out to Red’s Meadow, we booked a room at the adorable Sierra Nevada Inn, taking an evening to enjoy showers, laundry, and a massive fireplace. The girls, I think, enjoyed the showers more than I, someone pulled our wet clothes from and usurped the dryer, but the fireplace was both impressive and awesome. The stone-and-brick warmth-giving wonder is 10’ square, in the center of a large room with vaulted ceilings with seating all along the fireplace and walls – truly a skiers’ rest.
My old man knees had been in rough shape since the descent down to Thousand Island Lake and I was not confident that I would be able to make our itinerary. The relaxed afternoon gave way to a lengthy discussion about planning for the rest of the trip, followed by anger, a bit of a meltdown, and several accusations (both accurate and less so). This was not directed at an injury, as much as an outlet for frustration. The night ended silently, taps unplayed.
“Give me climbing spikes and 10 good men and I’ll impregnate that bitch.”-Bronn
Last night, during the luxurious stay, I dreamt I had found a game store in a generic Middle Eastern country and was haggling over game prices in Arabic. In the morning, Meghan was reading news and commented that a librarian at the Univerity of Birmingham had found a bifolio of what appeared to be the oldest copy of the Koran known, possibly penned by a contemporary to the Prophet Mohammad (Peace be upon him). Coincidence? I think so.
Also a coincidence, when you mail a resupply bucket and t arrives at the appropriate Post Office a day before the pick-up service ventures to said office, the pick-up service doesn’t always do as its name might suggest. Tally of critical trip support not arriving when it is needed: 2.
More anger, more meltdown, same issues.
Our revised plan had us going out and returning to Red’s Meadow, the pick-up service and campground, in 3ish days. Meghan and I paid the appropriately inflated, hiker-fleecing costs for enough food to cover the round trip, rather than losing half a day getting back to town via the shuttle, finding the Post Office (where, delivery confirmation asserted, our bucket and food sat), picking up the resupply, just to return to Red’s or Agnew and set out.
$60 lighter, we headed along the PCT back through Agnew Meadows and up the High Trail. Along the way, we brushed past Devil’s Postpile, averting our eyes as we had a day trip planned for pictures and gazing in wonder, upon returning to Red’s. Once split from the JMT and on the PCT proper, a mandatory stop materialized in the form of Minaret Falls (again, Middle Eastern theme for the day?) and some class 3 scrambling to the top. It turns out that I *love* foot jams in hiking boots.
8 miles, a little hail, and we set up camp along the High Trail overlooking the valley and some beautiful clouds forming over Mt. Banner to our northwest. Taps sounded, I passed the night in my own tent, covered with an 8×10 tarp.
Day 5 started with a shift in mentality. Becky set out ahead by about an hour, getting a head start on the remaining low-grade climb along the northbound PCT High Trail. The trail is generally uneventful, but does offer impressive views of the valley, especially when once you exit the forested sections. For company, Meghan and I had a pair of coyotes and an energetic hummingbird, in addition to the requisite chipmunks, squirrels, and fowl. We met up with Becky at Thousand Island Lake, the second time, taking a long lunch and enjoying the serene lake.
After an hour or two, we turned back south, heading towards Garnet Lake. Two spectacularly blue alpine ponds sit between, the trail passing between a pair of smaller alpine lakes, before opening over Garnet.
We set up camp a short ways down the lakeshore (Becky accusing, “That was NOT a trail”) between two wind-breaking mounds. At least a half-dozen hikers passed our site, most longingly commending our awesome spot. As we were situated a few yards from the shore and the sun was shining, it seemed absolutely necessary to venture in to the water. For the 15 minutes I pondered just how cold an alpine lake at 9600 ft – fed by glaciers we could see – might be, the 20 feet I managed to swim were well earned. My exclamation, upon diving in, may have fallen along the lines of “Holy shit that’s cold, fuck this!” I did not make it to my goal, the small island about a dozen yards from shore.
That done, the sun and warm rocks quickly abated my shivering. We relaxed, ate, enjoyed the sunset, and the day passed into history.
1 Billion Seconds
The alarm on my watch sounded at 12:15AM, bringing me back from the world of the resting. I found my headlamp, camera, and puffy, unzipped the tent and stared out at more stars than seconds of my life. Seeing the milky way on a moonless night is the fastest way to understand just how minute you truly are.
I passed my billionth second in the mountains of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, along the John Muir Trail, gazing at stars beyond number in a perfectly clear sky. I can think of no better way.
As I turned west, to head back down to my tent, a shooting star lit the sky with a brilliant orange tail. Thus begins the next billion.