Memory is a strange beast. 41-years-ago I did the John Muir Trail from Tuolumne Meadows to Kings Canyon. 19 Days. The JMT is the center section of this Bishop Pass loop, a solid third of the 55 miles, and I walked it solo those many moons ago. But I recall little of it and it takes me awhile to figure out why.
41-years-ago was after—during actually—a very wet winter. It had just snowed a couple of feet the last weekend in June and I headed out the July 4th weekend, so all the rock I’m seeing now was buried under blinding snow. Fields of snow that turned to slush in the day and ice at night. Creeks running high and hard by the afternoon. Wet, cold feet. I almost bought the farm three times on that journey once punching through a field of snow and nearly falling to hidden rocks below, another sliding down a hillside of ice encrusted snow in the early morning and a third when I got so cold and dehydrated, I shook from deep in my core, convulsions so strong I could barely light my stove.
Alone, and in all of those 19 days I saw SIX people. Six.
Now, the weather is perfect and all the rocks you would ever want to see are revealed and I’m not alone, I’m with my daughter, and we see six people in the first six minutes. And a dog.
And the pack has that familiar heaviness but I’m holding these walking poles, ski poles to me, and knowing I would have thought that was the dweebiest thing in history 41-years-ago.
One thing is the same. It’s frigging hard and being older makes it harder. I need this stuff called electrolytes now and even hammering those all day, we are in just under three miles and arrive at the first alpine lake and after I set the pack down and find a campground, the cramps start. My cramps have cramps and I’m afraid to move but it settles down, we swim in the frigid waters.
And I love this, love it like nothing else I do or have done. So hard, so strangely rewarding.
Each day gets a little better and I follow the mantra I learned from an infantry veteran when I was a teenager. “Take care of your feet.” I add in knees and ankles to that equation and those darned poles really, really make it a lot easier to live up to that rule.
Back in the day I had “a plan.” I pushed myself on that lonely rite of passage, logging huge miles once I was up to speed. “Up to speed” now is the pace that allows me to enjoy the walk. I have no other agenda except curiosity about whether my body can do this. It can. I keep an eye on Mika, but she is very self-sufficient, and we get stronger together.
Meals, resting, pumping water to filter it, rinsing clothes and socks. Unpacking and making sure we have enough food.
Finding campgrounds. Mosquitos.
We move through this touched un-touched land that might truly look as it did when the Piute called it home. I’m sure they went deep into these mountains and knew them well, knew where to find the fish and deer, the elk. Knew grizzlies because they had to in order to survive. No grizzlies now.
Days Two and Three we climb over Piute Pass and head down for a long time finally ending at the San Juaquin River and the John Muir Trail. We cross a bridge, the first stark sign of trail construction on the trip so far and head South. There are tents and people everywhere. Dozens.
We find a decent campsite a bit up the trail with no people, few mosquitos and the first half or so of the journey is over as we begin the long climb to Muir pass.
This is easily the most pleasant part of the loop. Relatively level and rising, a perfect day with clouds shading us from the sun. We log our first serious miles, but the day is cut short of our goal a bit early by rain. Not hard, but enough. And we find a glorious campsite with a waterfall and a swimming hole.
We are a day behind, but we don’t care too much. The team at home might worry a bit, but they are expecting this possibility. Nothing pressing awaits.
Evolution Valley this is called, and it is lovely as you get well into it. Meadows that would impress Maxfield Parrish.
And then up, out of this valley and into the high country once again. Stairs and rocks.
At the base of that steep section, we have our first incident. It doesn’t happen to us.
When there are so many people on the trail, you pass some going the other direction and they are gone with a quick “Have a good hike.” Some are moving slowly, others have their heads down and trudge forward. Some even wear very light packs and are out running! Veeeeery different from 41 years ago.
Sometimes you fall into a yoyo pattern—you pass them, they pass you—with groups going your direction and we had encountered and “gotten to know” one such group at the bridge when the JMT portion begins. Two teens, a boy and girl and Dad and Uncle. First timers but for the uncle. They are following our similar pattern, getting stronger as they go along, and we are climbing a rise when the daughter and dad catch up to us and go by very quickly. She is in the lead and is clearly on the other side of “I don’t like this.” She has hiker’s high and has realized she can do this.
We are right behind them when we come to a stream crossing and for some reason she doesn’t like what looks to me to be an easy rock hop to the other side. She goes right passed that and I’m thinking maybe she knows something, maybe there’s something even easier and I’m about to follow when I hear her short, surprised scream. It’s not a good sound because it has pain in it.
She had tried crossing on wet logs, a big no no, and had saddled onto her posterior and tail bone. Her boots were soaked in the stream and her dad also slipped off trying to help her but he was not hurt, simply wet feet. (Take care of your feet.)
He had no back up shoes for crossings and he would now have to walk with wet boots.
She got herself to the other side but was both scared and hurting. As dad carried their packs to her side, we stayed with her for a moment and I asked her if she thought she was injured. She was in a lot of pain.
I was about to intervene, give her what help I could, when uncle and brother showed up. I figured she would have all the care she could ever want in a few seconds, so we said our good lucks and headed out.
Mika and I speculated about her fate, figuring that she would either feel it recede and be able to continue or need an airlift. We finally asked two young men who were passing us from behind and they said that indeed she thought she had broken her tailbone and they were waiting for the helicopter. A couple hours later it flew over, carrying the young woman to help and safety, a great story to tell but one we hoped wouldn’t make her world smaller, wouldn’t change its direction into an “I can’t” way of looking at things. She was really smokin’ up that hill before she fell.
We continued for two more really hard days, having to make up the miles so we could get out just a day late instead of two—no food for that last day if it went that long.
Lots of down out of Muir Pass; Uff Da as we would say in Minnesota.
Then lots of up towards Bishop Pass, especially early in the crossing, and we did some smart things with elevation and finding campgrounds and taking care of our feet and crossing streams and we got a bit faster and moved with knowledge, each step you take a mini exactness that you do almost unconsciously. Legs, shoulders, hips all stronger.
Halfway through we begin to talk about things other than food and tents and such and it’s a dream come true to be with my daughter in this adventure, this disconnection from the normal flow of things, this challenge.
As we reach the summit of Bishop Pass, just a few downhill miles to go, I see a man standing there pecking away at his cellphone. He’s texting. I realize he must have Star link and that the days of disconnection are soon to be a memory. He stands on a saddle of great glory, looking at his phone, erect, intense, a “go-getter” I surmise. Here and not here, and it is a bit sad, but not my sadness.
We crank through those final miles, smelling the stable. It goes well and we walk down an easy hill towards what looks like the end only to discover cruel stairs, twenty or so, awaiting us before we reach the parking lot. We force our weary muscles to respond and we are back amongst cars. The first thing we hear is an argument.
And there is nothing like the first cheeseburger in the end.