Fortuitous Wayfaring Along the John Muir Trail Part 2: Back to the Beginning

Part 2: Back to the Beginning

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.


Mount Whitney Mountaineer's Route in July

The summit of Mt Whitney. 
Below is a short video that was shot in the Eastern Sierra last summer during an ascent of the Mountaineer's Route on Mount Whitney. I didn't get much footage of the summit, but managed to squeak some nice shots of the 3rd class gully above Iceberg Lake. 

To get to the Mountaineer's Route, park your rig at Whitney Portal and hike up the unmarked North Fork Lone Pine Creek Trail. There is one section that is a little bit tricky, so it helps to have a map and a description of the route. The Mountaineer's Route also makes a fine entry or exit to the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.

Mount Whitney Permit applications are accepted on line from February 1 until March 15: Click Here 

Pro-Tips for the Summertime Snowless Ascender: Don't smash anybody with a rock. Stay to the left of the main chute on your way up from Iceberg Lake. You will probably see cairns leading up directly below the East Buttress. You can pretty much stay on (or next to) the sweet slabs after that.


Fortuitous Wayfaring Along the John Muir Trail Part 1: The Beginning

Below, I embedded a short video of my solo trip along the John Muir Trail. 
Fortuitous Wayfaring Along the John Muir Trail Part 1: The Beginning

I woke up to the screeching of a digital bird, in the form of a cell phone alarm, reminding me that the sun would be up soon. I slept on the east side of highway 395, near the June Lake Loop, and I slept poorly. My mind ran through scenarios of twisted ankles, thunderstorms, loose rock and emotional instability. On this morning, I was setting off to climb to my first real alpine rock climbing route and I was going to do it alone.  The sky was darker than usual. I could not see any stars. I made coffee, packed away my sleeping bag and drove into the charcoal sunrise.

An hour and a half later, I had bailed on the climb and was sitting next to a row of pleasant, Caucasian, suburbanites on lawn chairs. We were in Tuolumne Meadows at the permit station and everybody was discussing whether we would get our permits at eight o’clock or at eleven.

“What permit are you trying to get?” and “Where are you hiking?”, they asked each other.

My palms began to sweat as I realized that would eventually have to answer this question. The truth was that I was on my way to climb a big granite spike and I had been “rained out”. I was hiking nowhere. The only reason that I found myself sitting at Tuolumne Meadows permit station was because my original plan was covered in rain clouds and thunderheads and I really didn't know what to do yet. It was early. I had only downed one cup of coffee and I needed more time to figure things out.

The nutcrackers, warblers and mountain bluebirds birds, who were up until this point creating a serious ruckus, fell completely silent as one of the lawn chair people accosted me with the inaugural question: “What permit are you trying to get?” The words bounced around somewhere between my ears as I noticed several pairs of eyeballs peering over paperback novels.  What struck me in the midst of my pause was how each lawn chair person was wrapped in a stylistically different but equally monotone puffy jacket and each awaited my response with an equally hopeful gaze. These were nice people who liked to stay warm.

At first, a vision of a 20 something mile route through Tuolumne came to mind. It would be short enough to allow me to get back to San Diego and take a trip to Mexico with my girlfriend before teacher meetings start up in August. She had flown out of Reno a few days earlier and I was at this point car camping solo. Somehow, camping alone feels like vacationing on borrowed time. Or visiting someone’s house when they aren’t home. It is hard to make sense of the feeling of aloneness in the wilderness. It is complete and lacking at the same time. To be honest, I missed my friends and and eating tacos near the beach. Equally, I was happy to be free from the grips of the "real world". On one hand, I thought, summertime in San Diego can be a beautiful thing. The general lack of clothing combined with an overabundance of food, drinks and stuff to do makes for a really good time. On the other hand, the High Sierra is perfect in late July. Every rock climber, backpacker and peak bagger knows that when Tuolumne is good, life is good. All of the sudden San Diego seemed like a hotbed for municipal stress.

“I am going to do the JMT.” I  blurted. 

Surprisingly, telling these strangers I was going to hike the John Muir Trail felt like the right thing to say after I said it.  “I am going to do the JMT.” was not what I was planning on saying it just fell out of my mouth before I could really say anything of substance.  I suppose my subconscious mind had already weighed all of the options and deemed the JMT the most favorable.  From a practical point of view, the JMT is long enough to  be considered an “adventure”, but conspicuous enough to prepare for at the last minute. Plus, I had always wondered what it would be like to backpack alone.  I had taken overnight trips by myself, but never two hundred miles. Would I get scared at night? Would I grow homesick? What if I actually get sick or sprain my ankle or hit my head?

“John Muir Trail!” I heard someone say.  Nice.”

“Where are you going to resupply?” One of them asked me. This hadn't really crossed my mind yet. I calculated that if other people have done it, and there are books about it, it can’t really be that big of a deal. I realized at this point that I really didn't have an answer for that question. I didn't even know the name of a place that one could possibly resupply. My mind struggled. Does the JMT even cross a road?

“Where would you resupply?” I asked.

By noon, my car was a heap of outdoor gear, instant rice and various forms of zip-lock bags. I had driven back to Mammoth Lakes and read most of the John Muir Trail guidebook as it sat on the shelves at Mammoth Mountaineering Supply. I bought the JMT mapset, a canister of fuel and a plastic spoon.  I went to the post office to mail my rent check - I would be on the trail as the first of the month passed - and while there ran into a PCT hiker named “Hot Springs” along with a fellow that had a cool mustache and a motorcycle. He would later prove to be invaluable during my resupply layover in Mammoth Lakes. I talked to them about the JMT. She informed me of possible resupply options at Muir Trail Ranch and a small town south of Bishop, called Independence. She also spoke longingly about - you guessed it - hot springs.

As the sun set, I made my way back to the Tuolumne Meadows permit station. Clouds swelled above the treetops and lightning flickered off of the nearby peaks. I set up my tarp on the edge of the parking lot and opened a bottle of Stone IPA. The air grew calm, heavy and quiet as the first raindrops fell.  Humidity. Thunder. Mosquitoes. Orange sky. I sauteed potatoes and vegetables with a few organic eggs and mole sauce. I rolled three burritos, opened a can of pale ale. and began walking. I imagined the sun setting behind Cathedral Peak, where I had climbed with Rachel two days prior. I pulled my headlamp down around my neck, clicked it on and off a few times, like a luminous cowbell, and walked into my first night along the John Muir Trail.

It should be noted here that the JMT actually starts in Yosemite Valley, a little over 20 miles away. Because I had no clue that I was hiking a trail until the suburbanites on lawn chairs had asked me, I had little choice over what permit I received. I figure that I was lucky to get a permit at all. Come to think of it, the people on lawn chairs said “Ooooh....” and “Ahhhhh...” and “Congratulations!” when the National Parks person told me there was one permit left. Some die hard “thru hikers” will hang up on the fact that I did not start at the beginning, but, philosophers, relativistic astrophysicists and livers of life will assert that you can only start at the beginning.
(Stay tuned for Part 2 of Fortuitous Wayfaring Along the John Muir Trail)