Wednesday, February 4, 2015

John Muir Part III: The Social Animal

Continued from Part II: Sleeping with Strangers...

Days 8-12: Muir Pass to Devil's Postpile

The hanging valleys of the Evolution Basin

Day 8: Evolution Basin

17.3 miles, 3655' elevation loss
Start/High Point: Muir Pass (11955')
End/Low Point: Aspen Meadow (8300')

It had been an unforgettable night in the Muir Hut, probably the most memorable of the entire hike, one of the most memorable of my life. After the endless hours hiking through the rain, arriving at that dark, dank little hut to the comfort of fellow humans who, despite being strangers on arrival, quickly became a loving family, taking care of each other, laughing with each other, trading stories and hot meals to turn the miserable damp and cold into a party in the mountains. It reminded me of my night on Cerro Tronador in Argentina seven months earlier, where after a long afternoon of hiking the volcano in the rain, Anneke and I arrived at the hut to a party of shivering New Year's Eve revelers and drank and danced the night away in a wildly fun night of shared, joyous humanity.

I slept remarkably well spooned by soggy inhabited sleeping bags in the dripping hut despite the snoring tired men, stumbling early risers, and the occasional splash in the face of water dripping from the leaky stone roof. If anything, being the middle spoon, surrounded by warm soft human bodies, was comforting after the cold, exhausting day.

I woke, tired but revived, to a beautiful misty morning in the stark castle-like peaks of the pass.

Morning at Muir Pass
We all took our time yard-saleing our gear in the cold but not-rainy morning in an attempt to get some of it at least a little dried out, making breakfast, brushing our teeth, and finding excuses not to leave as the clouds rolled in. We took group photos and exchanged contact info before hugging goodbye and parting ways, Khai and Kreg on their way south, Ash on his way north to try to catch up with Mike, who had left somewhere around 3 am because he's a crazy mofo. I stuck around a bit after everyone left, not in a hurry, enjoying the peace of the pink morning in the mountains.

Drying gear at Muir Hut
Soggy little visitor at Muir Hut
Drying my gear at Muir Pass. Photo by Kreg.
My boots, however, were hopeless.

I hiked the rest of the day alone...except for the 114 people heading south who I crossed paths with that day. It was misty and overcast the whole day with bouts of spitting drizzle, so I didn't really break pace the entire day except for a brief stop to filter water and have a snack in the morning at Sapphire Lake--a snack I then spent the rest of the day vomiting up for unknown reasons...too much, too fast? Body too stressed? It was a trend in not being able to keep food down during the day that I'd see for much of the rest of the hike. Thankfully, I had packed some pretty good dinners.

The trail took me through the Evolution Lakes area, which the Boy Scouts I had hiked a bit with in the days leading up to Muir Pass had said was the most beautiful part of the trail. But it was so grey from the clouds and the rain and the smoke from the forest fires to the north, and the visibility so poor, that although the gem-like lakes were lovely, they weren't lovely enough to want to sit in the cold and rain to enjoy.

Sapphire Lake
Evolution Lake
I took another snack break at the unoccupied McClure Ranger Station, hoping to get a weather update. Sure enough, the note tacked to the door warned of a "major tropical storm, heavy rain for the next several days". Great... While there, I was joined by a chatty German who was doing the Sierra High Route over Darwin's Bench for the second time and then by a sobbing solo hiker who had caught a nasty cold and was trying to decide whether to turn back and exit at Muir Trail Ranch or push on. "I don't want to quit!" she kept repeating between sniffles and tears. I didn't know what to tell her, but sure understood the sentiment. With the weather nasty and cold and a lot of difficult passes in bad conditions ahead, continuing on with a bad cold didn't seem wise. On the other hand, making it that far and being beat by a cold would be heartbreaking. I hoped she got some rest that night, recovered, and was able to continue.

One of the broody waterfalls of Evolution Creek.

I pushed on in the rain down the rest of the hanging valleys of the Evolution Creek basins, including the creek crossing I had been warned about. Several of the people hiking south had bought special tall waterproof boots just in order to survive the creek. Having not read the trail guide, I didn't know about the creek in advance, and was a little concerned. Until I saw it. And took my boots off and waded across through the in spots hip-deep water in my bare feet. Sure better than the chest-deep wades I'd done earlier that year!

Someone else wading across a shallow section of the creek.

I didn't stop until I made it to Aspen Meadows, at over 17 miles my longest day yet. I only stopped there because my feet were aching and covered in blisters from hiking all day in wet boots.

However, the one decent campsite I had seen for miles was occupied by a southbound group. I asked the inhabitants if they had seen any campsites farther down the trail, and they said not for a while, but invited me to join them. They were a fun group: a young couple who worked as physicists at Sandia National Labs, a friend of theirs, and a random and hilarious flamboyant Dutch guy they had picked up on the trail. Together we polished off the giant bag of kale my sister had left me with--fresh veggies being a real treat at that point--and then I curled up on the ground in my bivvy and fell into a deep sleep.

The tree I slept under.

Day 9: Muir Trail Ranch

9.4 miles, 2410' of climbing
Start: Aspen Meadow (8300')
Low Point: Muir Trail Ranch (7790')
End/High Point: Sallie Keyes Lake (10200')

Aspen Meadow was only a few miles from Muir Trail Ranch, which I had intended to skirt because I wasn't resupplying there, but the trail guide said there were hot springs and I assumed "Ranch" meant beer for sale and at that point nothing in the world sounded better than hot springs and beer. Just as I was stripping down to cross another creek to get to the hot springs, someone familiar emerged from the bushes--Ash from the hut! He had camped there with his brother the previous night and was spending a leisurely day washing clothes and recovering while his brother high-tailed it to the next resupply.

Bridge over Piute Creek marking the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park and the John Muir Wilderness.

We went together to the hot springs, which turned out to be a warm, deep mud hole that was already occupied by the world's creepiest mother-son duo. It felt like a scene out of Deliverance, and there was something really unsettling about their interactions, but I was desperate enough for something warm that I stripped down got in the mud pit anyhow. Half an hour of soaking in swirling dark mud with Oedipus and Jocasta was enough, though, and Ash agreed to meet me at the ranch to see if we couldn't scavenge some lunch there.

Trail Gnome

Muir Trail Ranch is the last easy resupply point for southbound hikers on the John Muir Trail until exiting the trail at Whitney Portal another 100 miles down the trail. As such, it was a scavenger hunt full of buckets of food, so many buckets of food, that resupplying hikers had decided was more than they wanted to carry on their trip South. I claimed to the gatekeepers that I was there to pick up some stuff from the resupply piles because my boyfriend had left too much food when he'd picked up our resupply the day before, giving Ash's name. Sneaky sneaky, and just like that buckets of ramen and freeze dried meals and peanut butter and jerky and sunscreen were my smorgasbord. Ash showed up, and we stuffed ourselves with two Trader Joe's Indian meals, a can of mackerel, and a novelty-sized pepperoni stick. Which I spent the rest of the day puking up. Yay.

The San Joaquin River Valley where Muir Trail Ranch sits

We stopped for the day at beautiful Sallie Keyes Lakes, wandering a good distance off-trail to find a spot to camp near the lake where we took turns fishing and making dinner. A woman who was camping on the other side of a knob we were camping behind came by to chat. She had climbed Whitney fifteen times, but was sad, lonely, and anxious because her hiking partners had bailed on her and she was worried about the weather forecast. Ash and I spent the evening talking, and our isolation from the outside world combined with that night in the hut probably contributed to the feeling that we'd been best friends for years, even though we'd just met two days prior.

Although the day had been nice, the forecast was for heavy rain, so Ash and I camped under his tarp. Although it didn't rain, the tarp was dripping with condensation from the soggy ground by morning and we both woke up soaked.

Day 10: Selden Pass and Bear Ridge

16.5 miles, 2410' of climbing
Start: Sallie Keyes Lake (10200')
High Point: Selden Pass (10880')
End/Low Point: Quail Meadows (7870')

Morning fishing.

I left Ash with my fishing rod to try his luck in Sallie Keyes while I got a head start on Selden Pass. As much fun as it was hiking and chatting with someone else, I reminded myself that I was on this trail for alone time, not to fall stupidly in love with some guy I'd just met and would never see again. Long hikes give plenty of time to spend having long conversations in your head, and that morning mine sounded something like,

"Really, Carie? Really?"
"But he's so fun! And cute! And he hikes!"
"After all the progress you've made, you're really going to fall for the first guy to talk to you out here just because he's cute and he's there?"
"But I like him!"
"Are you really that desperate for love?"
"Hey, brain, stop being a jerk."
"He's a stoner. He's totally not your type."
"I know, but..."
"Didn't he say something in the hut about a girlfriend? You're being dumb."

View back toward Sallie Keyes from Seldon Pass.

I needed a really hard hike to feel better, but Selden was disappointingly easy after all of the other burly passes I'd been over on the trail. Ash caught up with me on the other side of the pass at beautiful Marie Lake. It was gloriously sunny for what felt like the first time in years, and it was warm enough to jump in and swim, which felt amazing. We had lunch and took naps in the sun to dry out. Then he took off to go meet his brother at Vermillion Resort--a spot off the trail where hikers could stop and actually take real showers, go to a bar, and sleep at a bed--but promised to make it back out in time to meet me at the place where the trail to the resort met the main trail that evening.

Marie Lake

Which meant that I spent the entire day having that same conversation in my head, berating myself savagely for wanting to be loved, on repeat, with little to distract me because it was a slog through trees and meadows, versus the stunning high alpine rocky landscapes I'd gotten used to. I had a long day ahead if I was going to make it to the meeting point (but he had almost 6 more than I did), so I plodded along without stopping for the rest of the day.

I have no idea what this means, and I thought it was funny.
When I started to climb from the Bear Creek basin up Bear Ridge, the sky suddenly broke, with rain and then pelting hail as I climbed. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and seemed to be getting uncomfortably closer as I made it to the top of the ridge. Traversing along the ridge, the rain got harder and the thunder louder and faster, and I could see the sky flash with lightning. I was cold, wet, alone, exposed, and scared, hurrying along in hopes of making it back down the other side of the ridge before lightning struck.

Then it did. A brilliant pillar of white and a deafening crash and the overwhelming smell of ozone and burnt wood nearly knocked me over--lightning had struck a tree less than 200 meters in front of me. It scared the shit out of me, and I started to run with my pack on. I couldn't keep the running up long, but I was moving as fast as I could until the trail started descending steeply off the other side of the ridge. I was soaked, my heart pounding hard and fast like a terrified hamster's, and my blisters were screaming. I still had a few miles of switchbacks before I'd make it to camp, It was miserable.

The storm moving in.

So I sang. Me, alone in the pouring rain on a muddy trail with thunder crashing around me, singing as loud as I could in my exhaustion.

"Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home
swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home"

"As I went down in the river to pray
studying about those good old way
and who should wear the starry crown
good Lord, show me the way!"

"One bright morning when this life is over
I will fly away..."

I was on round 15 of my hymn soundtrack when I finally got to the bottom, dumped my stuff in a beautiful secluded campsite by the river, and tacked a note to the trailhead sign telling Ash where to find me. I briefly tried to build a campfire, but the rain made it more work than keeping it going was worth, and I let it burn out while I cooked the biggest meal I could while huddling in the rain over my pot, dressed my blisters, crawled into my bivvy, and immediately fell asleep.

Thistle. Symbol of fierce, resilient beauty. Telling me to buck up and get my butt down the trail.

Day 11: Silver Pass and Duck Lake

19.0 miles, 2930' elevation gain, 3980' of total climbing
Start: Quail Meadows (7870')
High Point: Silver Pass (10895')
End: Duck Lake (10800')

I woke up cold, wet, and alone. To the ponds of insecurity that were still living in my heart, it was a symbol of a greater life condition, a message that said, "Get used to being alone. They will always make promises and leave. You are easily forgotten. Your days of living in the warmth and comfort of love are done." I packed, got on the trail in a grey mood, and as I passed the trailhead and unpinned my sign, I started to cry.

Asshole Brain recognized that now was not the time to be a jerk, and instead attempted to console the small, vulnerable person that lives inside me.

"Hey, it's okay. You're lonely. You've been alone for a long time. It's normal to feel lonely. You are allowed to cry. It's okay. But seriously, keep walking kiddo." 

And so I sob-walked for a few miles and change until it was out of my system.

"Hey kid, it's okay, check it out, you hiked almost 19 miles yesterday. You're over halfway there, two full days ahead of schedule already. You're tough, kid. You're doing great. We'll do great. Hang in there. We're going to hike the effing John Muir Trail. Alone. And that's awesome. Alone is okay. Alone we do awesome things, right? I know you feel lonely, but we have each other, and it's going to be okay." 


Hey kid, cry all you want, but we've got mountains to climb.

And hauling a backpack full of melancholy, I made it up Silver Pass, with the stark grey talus fields that are the home my soul prefers. Grey, empty, hard, and howling with beauty. In those vistas, alone with the rock, the sky, the brooding clouds, and God, is where I feel whole. I stopped for lunch at the pass, basking in my solitude, and headed down, eyeing a turquoise lake below for some fishing and a swim if the weather held.

View from Silver Pass

I was paddling lazily on my back in the frigid lake when I heard a whoop and, "Carie! Carie!" Two spots I recognized as Mike and Ash (as the only northbounders for days in either direction) were snaking their way down the pass and had spotted me. I went to shore and put my clothes back on and they showed up, kicked their shoes off, and we had lunch. While his brother was off pump-filtering water, Ash apologized for not making it to camp that night. Between blisters, the thunderstorm, the six extra miles, and the draw of a warm bed, shower, and beer... I smiled and laughed and said with a lie that I had been too passed out to notice, and packed up my stuff to continue on. "You'll probably catch me, if not, have a great hike guys!"

And off I went.

Classic Sierra Nevada view from the trail.

They caught up with me six miles later on the climb from Tully Hole to Lake Virginia, where I planned to camp. They were continuing on to Duck Lake, another seven and a half miles up the trail, in order to take a shortcut into Mammoth, where they were ending their hike. I agreed to join them until the trail split.

Lake Virginia, where I had planned to camp...before hiking another 5.5 miles because I was craving human companionship.

The trail split, Ash was dragging, and Mike decided they could camp another night and wake up early and still make it out in time. So I found myself, despite being tired and foot-sore myself, joining them for an extra five and a half miles and one final night on the trail. We cooked a big group meal, or rather Mike and I cooked a big group meal and I tried unsuccessfully to fish while Ash napped, hurt and exhausted from their long day. We were treated to a jaw-dropping pink sunset before turning in for the night.

Duck Lake at sunset

Day 12: Duck Lake to Devil's Postpile

15.4 miles, 2930' elevation gain, 3980' of total climbing
Start/High Point: Duck Lake (10800')
Low Point: Reds Meadow (7430')
End: Johnston Meadow (8120')

We woke up as the sun started to rise. I dallied at the lake after the guys plied me with coffee and then took off, resting in the quiet of the glowing morning, breathing in a mixed sense of sadness and relief that came with being alone again. With the guys gone, gone for good, I could settle into my solitude again, the solitude that had carried me through the past glorious year, the solitude that had made me mostly whole and mostly strong again. It was me and the mountains again, the mountains who had my whole life been my dearest loves, who although cold and dangerous, never left, never failed me, were always strong and beautiful. My literal rocks. My sanctuary.

Rejoining the John Muir Trail after the side trip to Duck Lake

I hiked back down the Duck Lake trail to re-join the John Muir Trail, and continued north. My goal for the day was Reds Meadow, my second resupply point. I was two full days ahead of schedule and there was no reason to rush, but I had earned my trail legs, and although every inch of me hurt, the hurt had lost its novelty. I walked, mind blank, boots kicking up mud and dust, in the steady rhythm I'd developed over the past two weeks of walking.

A few miles in, I spotted a hat. It was a grungy, camo ball cap with a black Birdman patch on the front. I thought it was pretty much the most awesome hat I'd ever seen, and clearly a sign.

"Hey Slayer, check it out, it's your hat."

The Hat

I picked up the hat. I set down my backpack. I pulled out my first aid kit and surgically removed the Birdman patch from the hat. Then took out my sewing kit and sewed the patch onto my own hat (didn't want cooties, after all...since someone who hasn't showered in two weeks should be worried about cooties).

And just like that I was transformed from the achingly lonely little person that lives inside my head into Slayer, Destroyer of Trails, Breaker of Hearts, Climber of Mountains, Certified Badass.

After that the going was easy. I coasted the twelveish miles through the pines, past the cinder cones marking the region as imminently explodey, through the scarred forest fire burn areas ugly except for the views they opened up and the flickers that flitted from burned snag to burned snag, and into Reds Meadow. I had arrived at my goal for the day by lunchtime. It was the first road I had seen in twelve days.

Looking down towards Devil's Postpile National Monument area from the trail.

Burnt snag in the burn zone.

Reds Meadow, first road and first vehicles I'd seen in 12 days.

I went straight into the convenience store and, after grabbing a beer from the refrigerated section, asked for my resupply box. I was hoping hard it was there, in part because it would mean that my sister had survived her hike out over Bishop Pass four days prior. Sure enough, there was my bear can box stuffed full with all of the things I had packed for the final leg of my hike, covered in pink duct tape and labeled with my name, courtesy of my hero of a little sister. I paid for my beer, bought a laundry and shower pass, a small shampoo and mini bar of soap, and then wandered across the street to get a giant burger. The burger wasn't actually giant, but it was a burger! Sweet baby Jesus, best burger ever! I sat on a stump outside the restaurant, drank my beer, and ate my burger while unpacking my resupply box.

Resupply box.
Out came a week's worth of breakfast bars and freeze-dried dinners, a roll of vitamin tablets, fresh underwear, fresh band-aids, fresh duct tape, fresh batteries, and, complements of my sister, two beers.

After two weeks on the trail, my one beer already had me seriously buzzed, so I threw all of my clothes in the laundry (leaving little to walk around in...I used my hair tube as an improvised tube top while my shirt washed) and took my first shower in two weeks. It took the entire shampoo bottle to get the grime out of my hair. The hot water felt amazing.

I ate pie and drank another beer as I sifted through my resupply and my laundry finished, and chatted with the other tourists and through-hikers. There was a cute couple working at the restaurant who were getting married and then doing an extended honeymoon backpacking Asia. A guy solo hiking southbound who told me about the tequila fest going on in town and offered to split a campsite with me. A group of friends hiking a section of the trail who also offered their campsite. A young couple with a newborn ("it's another type of adventure") who had done the entire Pacific Crest Trail a few years prior and were on a road trip around the U.S. "The John Muir Trail section was the most beautiful!" he reminisced. When my laundry was done, I went to pay for my pie, only to get a receipt on which was written "O.T.H. (on the house) :-)" complements of the soon-to-be weds. Awwwww.

Love you, too, Stud. (my sister is the best)

I put on my clean clothes--where clean was relative, as my shirt clearly had developed some permanent sweat stains--and shouldered by backpack which was now full again with a week's worth of food, and took off down the trail. As interesting as all of the gathered characters were, I was craving solitude and antsy to get back out of "civilization" (where civilization was a dusty back road with a few cabins and a little restaurant + convenience store).

I was already two full days ahead of schedule, and continuing on meant an even shorter time on the trail. I could in theory spend more time chilling at the side of a lake, but I hadn't spent a day chilling yet--I'm not good at chilling. And I was starting to miss my friends. And Slayer was having fun killing trail. (not that my distances really qualify as killing trail, but my average was a heck of a lot better than I had planned on). I called my sister to let her know I was alive and to thank her for the resupply box, and called Frank who was going to pick me up on the other end of the trail to let him know I'd be in a few days early. We arranged to meet at Yosemite in five days (vs. the planned nine), which would still give me time to take it easy and explore off-trail if I wanted to.

Devil's Postpile

After getting turned around in the confusing maze of roads and trails in the area (I was used to just having one trail and one direction to go...), I finally made it to Devil's Postpile as the sun was setting. After continuing and seeing it from a dozen different angles, I picked a spot to camp on a ridge overlooking the Postpile. Feeling overly-fed from the burger and pie and beers was gross after my two weeks of semi-starvation and mostly vegan backpacker diet, so I had a small handful of nuts for dinner and called it a night.

I laid in my bivvy for a while contemplating my self-imposed exile from humanity, committing to it, looking forward to it, and ready to start a new chapter of this hike.

My campsite away from the crowds.

Stay tuned for the final leg in Part IV: Seeking Solitude!

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