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)