Old Geezer on the John Muir Trail
In the spring of 2012, I read Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild: a memoir of her 3-month hiking journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. Many people have hiked the PCT, but few of them have described the experience in such an intimate and compelling way. She successfully juxtaposed the challenges and obstacles of her personal life with those encountered on the long dusty trail. My first thought was to get out there before the mobs of people who learn about this story from Oprah’s Book Club to lace up their boots.
There is a mountain out there waiting for all of us. To be alive is to struggle. Sooner or later everybody has to walk uphill: fight the powers that be and overcome the obstacles. In the high Sierra, you zigzag up steep switchbacks over loose gravel and talus at altitudes of 10, 12 or even 14,000 feet. The blazing, unobstructed California, summer sun will dry the throat and cloud the mind.
The air is thin: containing sometimes as little as 50% of the oxygen available at sea level. So much of success depends on pacing: the steady rhythm of steps, breathing, and hiking poles scraping the arid earth. Too fast, and you fall short of breath; and your heart will pound. Step, breath, step, breath. Slowly, calmly, deliberately winding your way to the top of the pass. The magnitude of the goal will make it seem utterly impossible. Pay it no mind. Bear down and proceed. Put one foot in front of another. No bravado necessary, only persistence. The first step requires the most effort.
For me the first step was boarding a jet from Newark, New Jersey to Reno. I felt downright daft, sitting at a bus stop with a 40-pound backpack, waiting for a bus to carry me from the Reno airport south through the sizzling Owens Valley to the desert town of Lone Pine, CA. It was July and, and unlike 22-year-old Cheryl Strayed, I was 57 years old. I had six weeks and wanted to follow the Pacific Crest/John Muir trail from Mt. Whitney to Yosemite and possibly beyond.
57 years old and alone, I knew that normal people don’t do this kind of stuff. I felt self-conscious of my nuttiness when I stopped by the post office in Lone Pine to pick up my first supply box. The woman at the counter was non-plussed. She had seen my kind and worse over the years, and cheerfully passed the over-sized parcel to me.
I had climbed Mt. Whitney a few years before and I already knew what the arduous journey would be like on the first day. After 11 miles of walking uphill with the big bag, capped off by 99 high-altitude switchbacks, the hike reached its highest point at Trailcrest (13,645).
Looking west, 2000 feet below Trailcrest, lies a lake shaped like a guitar. Not surprisingly, it’s called Guitar Lake. I descended from just south of the Whitney Summit, to make my first nights camp at Guitar Lake. A steady 15 mph wind blew across the lake from the west and brought a welcome chill to the late afternoon air. My knees were still waffling from the long dissent. I gingerly set up my tent near an unoccupied one which was shielded from the wind by a large boulder. I went about my business eating dehydrated trail food (hunger is the best sauce) and enjoying the early evening alpenglow. I never saw signs of the neighbor in the tent by the rock. I settled into my sleeping bag after the sun went down and dozed off. An hour later I was startled awake by the sound of footsteps crunching in the gravel next to my tent: one set of rapid steps and then another. I lifted the tent flap and saw two more head lamps coming like bats out of hell down the dark trail from the summit. I quickly determined that these people must be fucked in the head to descend from the summit of Whitney in the dark with only headlamps and the bright sierra stars to help them navigate through the steep talus without breaking their necks.
I met these carefree souls the next morning. They were all through-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail. They had monikers (trail names) like: Apocalypse, Pitfall, Link, and Snacks.
They were young men in their 20s, deeply tanned with mud-caked skin and dusty clothes. They carried with them only the bare necessities of food, shelter, and the worn clothing upon their backs. I liked them immediately and in turn they exhibited a friendly camaraderie. They laughed easily and rolled their own cigarettes. They liked their weed as well. I broke camp and started walking west toward Crabtree Meadow. They bounded ahead of me like long-horned sheep across the plateau and were quickly out of sight. Since I was 30 years older than all of them, it came as no surprise that their foot speed was superior.
Later that afternoon, I encountered the same foursome under a cool shady tree admiring the broad expenses of the Big Horn Plateau. We, once again, bumped fists and I went off on my way through the alpine wilderness.
The backcountry of the high Sierra is so mysterious, and otherworldly it’s hard to imagine being on the same planet as, say, New Jersey. Life becomes a series of ascents and descents. I walked throughout the day, stopping occasionally to rest, eat a Cliff Bar and take in the splendor. Undistracted by the complexities of adult contemporary life, my mind was galvanized by the power of nature. The rhythm of my steps lulled me into a deep, hypnotic state of singularity.
Five days of alpine nirvana float past and, my food supplies are depleted. I cross over Bishop pass into town.
To get to Bishop from the trailhead I have no choice but to hitchhike, something I hadn't done since I was in my 20s. The driver of the pickup truck that stopped to offer a ride, laughed as I groaned while lifting myself with 40-pound backpack on to the tailgate. He was about my age and understood the orthopedic limitations of the situation. He took me into town enjoying stories of a hapless old man on the trail. Descending from the mountains into the town of Bishop you descend a series of switchbacks. You feel like a feather slowly floating down into the flat basin of the Owens Valley. The temperature increases nearly 20°.
I spend two nights in a humble, clean hotel run by an ambitious Indian (from India) woman who actually grew up in South Africa. My hands were chapped and cracked from the dry air of the high Sierras. Despite this I was eager to play my violin which I had mailed to myself in a “bounce box” from the town of the Lone Pine to the post office in Bishop. For two days, I rested and prepared for the next segment of the hike. It was the fourth of July weekend and I passed the hours watching several innings of heart-warming, entertaining, amateur softball being played in the searing mid-day heat at the town recreation center. Bishop is a trail town with a half dozen gear shops and decent Mexican food. The world-famous, adventure photographer, Galen Rowell was a longtime resident of Bishop. After his death in 2002, a gallery of his work was opened on the main street in town. I enjoyed the permanent display of his work housed there.
I hired a car to take me back to the trailhead in so far as I felt awkward hitchhiking back out there. That day turned out to be one of the most strenuous of the trip because I had to hike over Bishop pass, nearly 12,000 feet, and then descend nearly 3000 feet into Le
Conte Canyon. The climb up to the pass was slow and deliberate over well-maintained talus, followed by a long, knee-cracking, dusty descent over slippery scree. I was almost always in the company of pack animals and their drivers. Pack animal waste was abundant enough for some people to call it the “John Manure Trail”.
The air in LeConte Canyon was hot and thick as guacamole due relatively low altitude. Despite the uncomfortable heat, I fell asleep like a bag of wet cement. The next day my legs felt like they were stuck in quicksand and the prospect of climbing out of the canyon and over Muir pass was too much for me to handle. I logged in a measly 4 miles that day, resting for the afternoon in a pleasant campsite. I met a ranger, a woman in her 20s, who stopped by to look at my permit. With impressive strength, she dismantled a fire ring that had been illegally built, as the campsite was above 10,000 feet. The fire ring was made out of large granite rocks that must have weighed at least 30 pounds each. She hurled about ten of them twenty feet into the woods. I asked her if she ever threw shot put.
The next day I made a slow step by breathless step ascent over Muir pass stopping to have my picture taken by the stone hut at the top.
The hut had a curious round shape like a yurt. Inside, there were benches and a non-functioning fireplace that had deer antlers above the mantle. Also, on the mantle, were various handwritten journals and artifacts left by other hikers. The descent from Muir Pass was long and onerous. I stopped to camp at Lake Wanda, named after one of John Muir's daughters. The lake was windswept and lovely with numerous islands and peninsulas surrounded by the mountains (Mount Darwin, Mount Mendel, Mount Fiske, Mount Haeckel, Mount Huxley, Mount Wallace, and Mount Lamarck) of the Evolution group.
Going down 4000 feet over the course of about 14 ten miles, I was quick enough to reach the Muir Trail Ranch at the bottom of the hill in time to pick up a resupply by 5 PM. The ranch is run by a miserly, curmudgeonly, old woman named Pat. She possesses a wit that is as dry as the dust that covers the ground. For the service of holding your resupply bucket she will charge you $55. In fact, she seems to have a fee for just about every little hiker's service she provides. She reminded of the Bob Dylan song “Maggie’s Farm”
She hands a nickel
She hands you a dime
She asks you if you’re having a good time
She’s 66 but she swears she’s 54
If you were craving chocolate, beer or Coca-Cola, forget about it, she doesn't have any. The ranch has a collection of cabins that look like a throwback to the pioneer west. There is a Protestant feeling to the place. One expects to hear a church hymn being sung out of tune by a congregation somewhere on the premises. Wading across the river you will encounter many informal camp sites next to a small group of hot springs. The springs were spare and almost dried up when I visited. This is probably not always the case. The people who I met at the Muir Trail Ranch all seemed restless. One either hikes over the pass to get there, or takes a boat across Florence Lake and then hikes 7 miles to get there. There were people who were begging for soda pop, ice cream, or a motorized vehicle to take them away. I chose to take my backpack, now heavy with new supplies, up four miles and 2000 vertical feet of switchbacks to camp by a stream, halfway up Seldon pass. I fell into my tent at 8:30 PM with gentle rain falling on the tent. Just as the raindrops had lulled me to sleep I heard a woman’s voice outside the tent. Through the fabric of the tent she said that her name was Blue Sky. She asked if she could set up her tent at my site. She seemed pleasant enough, although I couldn't actually see her. It was raining and she had as much right to camp there as I did. The helpful thing to do would have been to assist her in setting up her camp. Dry and warm and cozy in my tent, I selfishly stayed put. When the rain had let up, I got out of my tent and went to greet her. She was 50-ish with dyed brown hair and vibrant blue eyes. Hence her trail name. We savored dehydrated dinners together and shared trail stories. I was happy for the company even in the mosquito infested drizzle. She had hiked the entire Appalachian trail the summer before and seemed a lot more trail tough than me. The steady, light, rain did not dissuade her from hunkering down and enjoying a leisurely meal. She was divorced with 2 grown kids. Like a lot of folks I met on the trail, she seemed to be escaping from a life that she wanted to forget. I sat with her for a while until the rain drove me back into my tent. Many nights on the trail I ended up someplace where people congregated with their tents seeking the comfort and safety of having other humans around.
The next day began with a long ascent over yet another pass. Just one mile down the other side, I was already tired enough to set up camp for the night. I just ran out of mojo and had to rest. After 12 hours of sleep, I hiked 15 miles downhill to the shores of Edison Lake where I caught the ferry to Vermillion Valley resort. The boat ride across the lake was beautiful in the late afternoon sunlight. My fellow passengers were all hikers laden with heavy backpacks such as my own. The water level of the lake was disturbingly low, and the boat had to land nearly a half a mile from the resort. This forced us withering travelers to trudge across a half a mile of low-traction beach sand. When we arrived at the main building, the resort owner informed us that there were no available lodging facilities except for a small backpacker area where we could set up our tents and camp for no charge. All of us did just that. Unlike the Muir Trail ranch, the resort had plenty of beer and abundant quantities of junk food. The beer and food were served by a wonderfully snarky waitress named Olive. She dished out wholesome food along with stinging sarcasm at no extra charge. We were all entertained by her frank, irreverent commentary and I for one enjoyed dishing it right back.
It was a young crowd at the bar. Olive loudly proclaimed that she absolutely loathed people in their twenties. They adjourned to a large campfire at about 9PM and partied into the wee hours. I drank one bottle of beer that made me dizzy with delirium and sent me crawling in my sleeping bag at dusk. A trio of recently graduated guys from Santa Clara University in California were in good company with a duo of female hikers who had just finished up at Harvard College. Olive told them that they were spoiled brats. But she didn't mean it.
The resort was a wonderful place for through hikers to bond and to feel the warmth and camaraderie that the PCT and the JMT are well known for.
A small tear fell from the corner my eye when I boarded the ferry to re-embark on my journey. I would miss Olive. During dinner, we exchanged pleasantries:
Olive: Hey New York asshole. What’s your name?
Olive: Do people call you Dick?
Me: Not people I like.
Olive: Hey Dick!!
Me: At least have the decency to call Big Dick.
Olive: Why don’t you like being called Dick?
Me: I don’t want to stick out.
The trail between the ferry landing and Silver Pass was steep and insistent. Clouds were beginning to gather, and rain was imminent. I set up my tent at 6 PM in a small meadow by a lazy stream with way too many mosquitoes. I was lucky because the downpour did not occur until I was safe and dry in my small cozy tent.
The next morning, I spent four hours slogging my way up sun baked switchbacks to the top of Silver Pass. Mid way to the top five young hikers passed me. One of the hikers (trail-named Pitfall), immediately recognized me from Guitar Lake and called me by my name. The rest of his crew had earbuds on and were pushing their way quickly to the top of the pass. The last hiker in the procession actually had a boom box that he was loudly listening to on his way up. The guy must have been deaf. I continued at my steady 57-year-old pace and an hour later I was warmly greeted at the top of the pass by the same quintet of hikers. They were passing a joint. We spoke briefly about our first meeting at Guitar Lake and then he introduced me to his entourage. The group consisted of Pitfall, his girlfriend Pinchot, Apocalypse, Stone, and Preppy. They reminded me of the 20-year-old friends that my own children brought around the house to visit. We exchanged another 20 minutes of mirthful conversation until I picked up my backpack and continued down the other side of the pass.
They must have idled away quite a bit of time, smoking roll-your-own cigarettes and passing spiffs. About 6PM that night they glided past my campsite at Tully Hole: this time joined by, guitar-toting, “Tuscan Raider”, and his pretty blonde girlfriend, “Smiles”. Pitfall shouted, " See you in Mammoth. Beer at Base Camp!!" The next day I walked 16 miles to Red's Meadow slowly circumnavigating the copious blow-down on the trail. The campground was shabby and depressing but I spent a perfunctory night there waiting for the store to open up at 7AM so I could pick up my supply box and another box with the violin I had bounced up from Bishop. Nobody in the store believed it was really a violin, so I had to take out of the box and play it. One woman said it reminded her of the Titanic. It seemed like a California thing to say.
Since my visit to Bishop, I hadn't been in the "civilized world" for more than a week. The denizens of this world seemed softer, cleaner, and shallower than I had remembered. I observed them with detached wonder as I boarded the National Park Service shuttle bus that would take me to Mammoth Lakes and the motel room that I had reserved, via IPhone, for the next two nights. With a 40-pound backpack and an awkward box carrying my violin I had to change buses 3 times under the watchful curiosity of many National Park tourists. I was worried that the staff at the Best Western hotel might turn me away in my awkward, unwashed state, but they were actually quite accustomed to PCT hiker types and were cheerful and friendly.
The dirt that was caked on my legs and feet was so ground into the skin that it took two showers over the course of the evening to even get 80% of the lower half of my body clean.
While my trail friends were ether staying at the youth Hostel or squatting in the town park, I was living it up in the Best Western. The room was spacious and quite classy. The shower was fully equipped, and the flat-screen TV was full of the latest ball scores and political posturing. On that account, I had missed little.
What I had missed most was my family and my violin. My mother was undergoing initial treatments for breast cancer and I was anxious to get the latest news. Whenever I go away there is always an ache in my heart for my wife. We had a wonderful, hilarious talk for a half an hour, and I felt so much lighter afterword. The world just seemed like a better place knowing she was there. My appetite took off like a rocket. I wanted to eat the junkiest food I could find. I wanted calories: thousands of them. Tacos, beans, rice, fries, pie, chocolate, muffins, scones, eggs, home fries, Doritos and cafe mocha.
I ran into Pitfall, Tuscan Raider, and Stone just walking around town. It was embarrassing to tell them where I was staying. I gave them my cell # but none of them had phones.
I must have spent five or six hours playing the violin over the next two days. It was like catching up with an old friend.
The hike from Mammoth Lakes to Tuolumne was supposed to be three days in duration however it ended up being 2 1/2. I could have done it in two days easily, but I was so enraptured with the Thousand Lakes area that I took my time. The entire Yosemite area was overrun with tourists. Most of them seemed more interested in shopping, talking on cell phones, and eating than anything else. An interest in nature seemed secondary to most of them. There are regular shuttle buses that will distribute the otherwise distracted tourists through a gamut of natural wonders presented like paintings in a museum that one breezes through. Lodging and services are not cheap and demand for them is nearly frantic during the peak summer months. I tried to ignore the masses and enjoy the natural beauty of the Valley. I was able to do this for a 24-hour period before I became inpatient with the crowds, prices, and insistent heat. I happily hitchhiked back up to Tuolumne Meadows, insofar as the bus only runs twice per day. I was fortunate enough to make it there fleetingly with the aid of two quick rides. The first ride was with a backcountry ranger who offered a wide range of insights about the park and what it is like to work there. The second ride was with a middle-aged Australian man who had many questions about the United States and its political issues. I was more than happy to expound upon my political beliefs.
Once I was dropped off at the Tuolumne Meadows store, I commenced with my hike North on the PCT. I camped that night at a designated area called Glen Aulin. It had a number of tent cabins that you could rent for the usual exorbitant cost or you could simply walk up the hill and camp for free at a beautiful site overlooking a deep rocky gorge. I chose the latter option and I have no regrets. The tourist element was still quite prevalent, but the numbers were thinning due to the increasing remoteness of the area. The section of the trail from Glen Aulin to Sonora Pass is long and remote. 68 miles and no towns or roads. I had no way of packing enough food. The clouds above were becoming more organized and thunderclaps were rumbling in the distance. At this point is seemed wiser to turn around. And so, I returned to the Tuolumne store where I waited four hours for the bus back to Mammoth Lakes. One of the store employees was playing a guitar seated on a bench in front of the store. I approached him and reassured him that people appreciated his contribution to the scene even if they seemed to be it ignoring him. I told him that I had been a musician my whole life and I knew his position. Since he lived in a tent cabin behind the store, he offered to retrieve a mandolin that he had so that we could jam. We played music for the entertainment of ourselves and curious passersby. In this way, we managed to pass the time pleasantly until I had to catch my bus and he had to go to something he referred to as a “safety meeting” with his coworkers.
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