John Muir Trail. Day by Day. Part 2

John Muir Trail. Day by Day. Part 2

22 August • Day 7

Despite a cozy bed and a warm shower, we rested fitfully at Mt. Williamson Motel, eager to replace the sound of roadside traffic with creeks and birds and the crunching of rocks beneath our feet. By 830 am we were back out on the trail with smiles in our hearts and conditioner in our hair, heading back over Kearsarge pass to rejoin the JMT. We were immediately swaddled in the scent of mountain sage, and cloaked in the warmth of trailside boulders and pines, and we practically skipped the 7 miles back to the trail junction.

After 5 hours or so, we felt we’d covered enough distance for the day and we stopped beside a small lake at 11,200 feet, about a mile shy of Glen Pass.

With the tucked away lake all to ourselves, we whiled the afternoon away practicing yoga on our thermarest pads (our yoga mats didn’t make the cut in our fastidious and ruthless packing), bathing in the lake, and plotting our route for the next few days.

In some ways it feels like we’ve only just begun. Certainly with the new moon and the eclipse at our backs, we feel lighter, and like we’re being given a new start – full power and ready for the next two weeks.

23 August • Day 8 

We’ve got our morning routine down – coffee, trowel mission, breakfast, thaw ourselves in the sunshine, break camp – and at 9 (or thereabouts) we step on the trail.

But the day that follows – while simple – is anything but rote or routine. We walk and walk and find the most marvelous wonders laid out before us. Today we hiked our longest and most ambitious distance – nearly 14 miles – and along the way saw pools of melted glacial water, turquoise in color, sitting atop glistening white ice, which itself sat on crystal clear lakes that hovered at the base of snowy mountain peaks; we saw topaz lakes dotted with emerald islands; there was swift white water flowing down huge slabs of marbled granite like a giant water slide; aspen forests; periwinkle butterflies; snow bridges; and a bear! Who crossed our path nonchalantly, playing with and turning over rocks as she went. We didn’t make it to camp until after 7, where we hurriedly set up the tent to outwit the swarms of mosquitoes and warmed ourselves with hot food before tucking in to dream of the day’s beauty.

24 August • Day 9

As the days go by, we’re starting to feel more and more like reflections of nature, rather than something outside of it. We see ourselves in the trickling waters, in the snowy slopes, in the lichen-covered boulders, and in the swooping sparrows. We feel our minds emptying of the gunk of real and fake news and of urban life, and filling with wonder and clarity.

After crossing Pinchot Pass we ate lunch by the bluest of blue lakes – Lake Marjorie – and felt the whisper of the mountains sing to us sweetly.

On our way down the trail we saw at least a dozen workers, all around our age, tirelessly maintaining the trail, their faces muddied and tanned, their arms and legs strong from a summer of backcountry living. We felt grateful for their efforts and were left in admiration of their commitment.

We set up our tent in a beautiful creekside spot, amid boulder slabs and next to a friendly man, Michael.

Tomorrow is another day, another Pass – Mather.

25 August • Day 10

Today we woke to a frosted tent and frozen limbs, waited for the sun to peek over the mountains, then hiked the 4 remaining miles to Mather Pass, which looked intimidating from afar, but turned out to be gentle and sweet. We descended down what’s called the Golden Staircase, an impressive set of switchbacks that lead to Palisade Creek. The view from the Golden Staircase was a masterpiece, the sights below breathtaking, made even more special and twinkling by the dusk glow in which we descended.

Truthfully, the physical aspect feels relatively smooth for both of us. Challenging, yes. But manageable.

And when it comes to teamwork, we have a few tasks that we parsed out well – for instance Justyna worked hard to get us our sponsors and plot our route and Erica was largely responsible for food and resupplies. In other areas we’re questioning – is the weight of responsibility unevenly distributed? What expectations or needs aren’t being met? Justyna felt overwhelmed with the responsibility of planning and preparing high quality content for sponsors, and Erica felt like everything she did to help was seen in a negative and self-serving light.

We knew it would take time to acclimate to the mountains – the altitude, the long distances, the dehydrated food, the heavy packs – but we didn’t consider how long it would take us to acclimate to one another. It feels like we didn’t quite give ourselves enough time in LA to really connect, and our time there was tense.

Is it because we don’t share the same values? Is it because one of us is more committed than the other? Can we trust one another out here?

We’re attempting to care for ourselves and each other in trying conditions, and all along the way there’s missteps and heartache. We went to bed barely even saying goodnight.

26 August • Day 11

We slept for 12 hours last night. These long, hot days of hiking 6-10 hours are perhaps more tiring than we know. Although we probably can’t start fresh, we can start the day with a fresh cup of coffee and a renewed sense of hope and commitment. Or at least we can try.

One of our saving graces on the trail, offering us a reprieve from our own tense conversations, has been the people we’ve met along the way. There’s Shelly from Minnesota who rises at 5am to get a good hiking start to the day; there’s Jo, a solo female traveler who expects to complete the trail in 15 days; there’s Marie and Strider from the Mt. Williamson Motel who shuttled us to and from the trailhead, washed our clothes, blessed us with necklaces and sent us on our way with bellies full of fresh peaches and advice for campsites along the way; there’s Michael, a respiratory therapist in in Reno who has been exploring the Sierras for the last 25 years; there’s Callie and Stephen, a couple from Wisconsin who will go to Romania after completing the JMT and who we seem to keep criss crossing paths with each day; there’s Brian who hiked 16 miles in a day to camp at the same rock he and his father sat twenty years prior; there’s Tim who loped to the top of Mather Pass looking straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and launched into tales of his glory days climbing Yosemite walls with Jim “The Bird” Bridwell; and there’s LaVon, a woman who must be in her 70s who takes the teeny tiniest steps you’ve ever seen – as we were hiking into Onion Valley to resupply she was going the other way back over Kearsarge Pass to rejoin the JMT, and we passed her again heading over Pinchot Pass several days later, and together we three watched a bear cross our path; and there have been countless others who smile, encourage, share the trail and campsites and bug spray and make the days go by a little easier.

Today we hiked from Deer Meadow even further down into Le Conte Valley – 15 years ago a fire raged in Le Conte Valley and the trees’ charred remains still stand. The area feels a bit like a solemn cemetery, although new life is popping up in the underbrush, and there are many animals breathing, singing, prancing through the new-growth meadows, giving a simultaneous sense of vitality.

After marching through the valley we hiked way back up again to a perfect perch at 10,500 feet, nestled beside a waterfall and beneath a perfect sky, lit by a brilliant sliver of a moon. Justyna captured the starry sky on her camera, the mountains silhouetted by the dark night. Tomorrow we’ll face Muir Pass, the tallest remaining summit of our trip, and descend into Evolution Basin.

27 August • Day 12 

Our pace on the trail is ever so slightly slower than anticipated so we’ve been carefully counting out our meals, rationing our salt, whiskey, chocolate, soap, sunscreen and other sundries, stretching them out to last until our next resupply at Muir Trail Ranch – which with a little push today will be tomorrow evening.

But it’s no matter. We don’t want to rush. This experience is too precious. There’s no sense pressuring ourselves to be somewhere at a certain time because life is full of pressures without us adding unnecessary ones. We will get there in our own time and way and perhaps if we’re a bit gentler with ourselves and each other we’ll be able to get through this stronger friends than ever.

Coming up and over Muir Pass was such a sight! It was magical, wild, mystical, subtle – there were snow-capped waterfalls, icy bridges, pristine and serene lakes – on down into a world of quiet boulders, cascading waterfalls, and wide open space. We hiked slowly because Justyna had a bit of a stomach ache but also because we wanted to take our time wandering through this surreal labyrinthine landscape. We hiked through Evolution Basin and landed in McClure Meadows where the sunset on the river had us both grabbing our cameras, and feeling blessed for this journey.

28 August • Day 13

We hauled our patooties eleven miles from McClure Meadows to Muir Trail Ranch for a resupply of food and provisions and with the hopes of being able to use wifi to send along some pictures and tales of the trail. Our bucket was waiting for us and was filled with treasures – peanut butter chocolate cups! lavender soap! nutritional yeast! pumpkin seeds! toilet paper!! We didn’t realize how badly we had been craving certain luxuries. It was fun to watch other hikers rifle through the boxes of items left behind, and to see people ecstatic with their new acquisitions. Our bellies were happy, but sadly the ranch offered no wifi and no camping. After sorting our goods and loading up our packs we were sent about 1/2 mile away to a campsite that supposedly had hot springs. We arrived to find the hot springs across a river whose current felt too strong for us to attempt to ford. We began to set up camp and like a light switch the rain turned on – we hurried to beat the wet, cold drops but gave in and took a plunge in the brisk San Joaquin river, accepting that our hot springs were out of reach. When the rains cleared the sky was a strawberry pink so rich it turned the water and stones pink too.

We’ll try our best to get words out to friends, family and sponsors tomorrow!

29 August • Day 14 

We were hoping to make today a rest day, logging a grand total of zero miles, instead soaking in Blaney Hot Springs. But the hot springs seem just out of reach, and we’re eager to deliver words and pictures. And if we put on a few miles today, we’ll only have a few miles to do tomorrow! So we settled for a half day off, loafing around camp, catching up on laundry, drinking several coffees, practicing a little yoga and reading and writing a bit too. The sun and rain took their turns, so we moved laundry from the tent to the rocks back to the tent, on to a line and back to the tent, on and on.

Then in the hottest sunniest part of the day we set sail for Sallie Keyes Lake, where hikers have reportedly received good cell reception. With our food freshly resupplied and water a ways off, our packs felt HEAVY. The steep climb to rejoin the John Muir Trail was tiresome, eased only by the fact that we knew we didn’t have far to go, and we could reward ourselves with a cocoa or tea or matcha upon arrival. We arrived just in time for a sunset dip in the lake, but unfortunately still have no phone connection. We’ll try, try, try again tomorrow.

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