Before I had walked two miles, I ignored the advice of a backpacker traveling in the opposite direction and I took a left where I should have taken a right. Right away, something seemed off about the whole situation. There was a paved road too close to the stream. The trail was too steep. It was nearly ten p.m. and the John Muir Trail, in the West’s most crowded wilderness, was somehow elusive. I walked through black forest as the sky cracked and fell apart. My rain gear sat dusty in San Diego. I pitched my tarp in a stand of fir trees so that I could get some sleep and “officially” start hiking in the morning.
The Yosemite Bear Car-Door Tearing Propaganda Machine had done its part to increase my fear of black bears in National Parks. Before actually falling asleep, I walked off into the black with long underwear and my headlamp to bury some half-eaten potatoes and stash my bear canister. I was nervous. The woods loomed dark, stormy, and bear infested. I was alone. I walked farther and farther away from my campsite so that, if a bear did come to check out my food, I wouldn’t be nearby. Up until this point in my backpacking career, I had always used my food as a pillo, even in serious black bear country. The food pillow works really well so long as you don’t camp in established campgrounds, don’t cook near your tent, don’t sleep near water and don’t go to bed with honey-breath. Anyway, I walked over a hill and finally found a suitable location to place my bear canister. I walked farther away to bury the food.
What ensued for the next twenty five minutes was ridiculous. The rain began to come down in sheets and the visibility reduced to 10 feet. My headlamp lit up silver drops of rain and only hinted to the trees behind the drops and white rocks within the trees. My dark gray tarp - which was intentionally difficult to see at night - had disappeared somewhere in the forest. I paced through the woods faster and faster, worried that my headlamp batteries would die. Are these the same batteries I was using in Joshua Tree over Spring Break? I was lost. My camp was gone. I had no rain gear. My light was fading. It was only the first night. I am an idiot.
I found the trail that I had hiked in on and made a pile of rocks to act as a marker. Luckily, I had counted fifty steps west of the trail before I had pitched my tarp. I don’t usually count steps, it seemed neurotic, but I did this time for some reason. Using the pile of rocks and a search pattern that I had learned in search and rescue SCUBA diving, I combed the forest. The pattern went something like this: Walk west fifty steps from the trail. Turn right ninety degrees and walk 50 steps. Then turn right again and walk another fifty steps. And so on and so on.
I was drenched and scared. Not afraid of the dark, but of embarrassment. Someday, I would have to tell somebody this story, as I am doing now. I wondered, would I need to walk out the road and then go back to my truck and then re-follow the trail just to find my tarp? My trip was nearly over before it began, when I stumbled across one of my tarp’s guylines. The solution, I realized, would have been to leave my flashlight turned on and inside of my tarp. It would have lit up the forest like a Japanese lantern. I dove under the tarp and onto the groundsheet like it was my own tiny island. A tiny, plastic island in a sea of rain and pushy bears.
Tuesday was ten minutes away when I decided to actually look at the trail map and make a plan for tomorrow. At this point, I realized that I was hiking the wrong trail. To make matters worse, I had set up my tarp in a NO CAMPING zone. In the rain and darkness, I had abandoned all wilderness ethics and common sense. Upon reading the hiking permit, I learned that one shouldn’t camp within 4.5 miles of the permit station because bears have been known to “obtain food from hikers”. If a Ranger found me I would get a ticket and probably lose my JMT permit. Technically, it was still Monday, my first day on the trail. I could start over!
I packed my tarp, made a percussion instrument out of an empty beer can and began walking north, back to the beginning.