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Embracing the wild on the John Muir Trail

Four years ago I read the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Her story touched my soul.  I told my sister about the book, and after reading it she felt the same.  This was the beginning of our dream to hike the John Muir Trail. we grew up on the outskirts of the trail with our father, a miner, who worked the area and loved to explore the mountains. What a better way for us to explore the same mountains, honor our father, and embrace our inner “wild” than to hike in the High Sierra, the range of light.

Every morning since the New Year I read the John MuirTrail Guide byElizabeth Wenk.    To make this dream a reality we had to secure a permit at the end of January through a confusing lottery system put in place to limit the amount of hikers in the back-country.  We won our date and entrance location: the beautiful Tuolumne Meadows, our Dad’s favorite place to hike due to it’s unique beauty and geological evidence of glacier activity.

The John Muir Trail totals 210.4 miles. It has 10 passes that are above 10,000 feet, it is meant to be scenic (and therefore long), has many snow-covered areas that can impede progress, and therefore takes an obsessive amount of planning, visualizing and physical preparation.

There are many times in my life that I am grateful for being in the profession that I am. Co-owning and operating City Fitness Gym gives me a daily workout boost. In addition to my normal workouts that include yoga, pole fitness, step aerobics and hiking, I added more squats, assisted pull-ups, and higher intensity core exercises. Hiking up and down mountains is a very different challenge than a 5-mile hike through a city park.  In addition to the elevation challenge, the trail is not manicured and can be quite unstable, and you are carrying your supplies at all times.

In researching a hike of this magnitude, it was advised to keep our packs at 35 pounds or less. Because we had done some backpacking in the past, we already had what we thought was appropriate equipment. We just needed to add a few items and some provisions. We were required to carry a bear canister (which prevents bears from smelling your food), which added weight and took up precious cargo space. Other items included rope, tent, stove, propane, cup, spoon, matches, lighter, sleeping bag and air mattress, buff, bandannas, camp shirt, underwear, long underwear, rain jacket, rain pants, puffy down jacket, socks, gloves, fleece hat, sun hat, sun glasses, eye glasses, knife, compass, whistle, map, wilderness first aid kit and emergency handbook, sun screen, tooth paste and tooth brush, wipes, water treatment tablets, and of course bear spray.  Our food included coffee, chocolate, trail mix, protein bars, mac-n-cheese, tofu jerky, shot blocks, refried beans, string cheese, tortillas, miso soup, oatmeal, peanut butter, butter, olive oil, ramen noodles, protein powder. Much to our chagrin, the packs ended up weighing 45 pounds including water.

As we were entering the trail 17 miles in, we planned to hike 10 miles a day to complete the trail including the mileage to exit the mountains to Whitney Portal. We allowed 25 days including time for rest days and emergency weather conditions. So much for the best-laid plans...

Day one: We hiked through beautiful Tuolumne Meadows enjoying a gradual climb along the river up Lyell Canyon.  Little did we know this would be our only easy day.  Our first interaction was with a very cute ranger who checked our permit. Of course, he told us it was illegal to use bear spray in Yosemite National Park, which happens to be the bears’ favorite hangout!  We kept the spray, crossing our fingers that the bears would allow us safe passage.

With 1500 through-hiking attempts each year, it is common to engage with other hikers throughout your trip. Some you may see once at a watering hole, some in passing. Others may keep a similar pace, and you may see them frequently throughout your trek. On our second day, we stopped to re-fill our water bottles at a bridge crossing at the end of the canyon where hikers frequently gather. There, we met a group of hikers from all over the world. One hiker, Adam from North Carolina, was hiking alone as the rest of his party quit.  He recognized my sister, as he had lived previously in Bakersfield, from eating at the counter of the 24thStreet Café  where she works as a waitress.  At the same time I met an 18-year-old woman who just graduated from National Cathedral School, which happens to be here in DC, and worked out at City Fitness with her aunt.  It IS a small world after all.

From there, we started our climb to Donohue Pass, the first of many passes to come. We felt every one of the 45 pounds on our backs. A hard lesson learned on the trail was that our backpacking equipment from previous trips was not exactly right for this longer distance. Most hikers are now using ultra-light versions of what we were carrying. One thing we were happy not to have skimped on was our bear canister. On our third night, we set camp at Garnet Lake, on the edge of Yosemite, an area where there were other campers, and a bear paid us a visit. We could hear it sniffing and snorting around the perimeter of our tent. We lay perfectly still except to whisper, “Is that a bear?”  It did not smell any food, and thankfully no food = no problem. It moved on to our neighbor’s tent to be scared off by a flashlight.  A very frightening experience was safely out of the way.

Daily we woke up naturally at sunrise, had coffee, breakfast and packed up our camp.  I was surprised how long a mountain mile really is.  We hiked up switch –backs, down switch- backs over varied terrain; shale, rolling round rocks, granite slabs, pumice, big stone steps, and wet slippery rocks and many water crossings, even past a waterfall going down a cliff.  It took us all day to travel between 7 and 14 miles, climbing up, up, up to 10,000 feet and higher, over a pass and down the other side trying our best to get below 9000 before dark where we could camp near water and make a nice warm fire. Many days we were running away from the inclement weather, doing our best to get over the pass before the afternoon thunderstorm, rain, sleet, hail or snow arrived.

It was so great to spend three whole weeks with my sister Shara, laughing and enjoying the expected muscle pain and soreness but well worth it to see Mother Nature at her best.  We made new friends; Fiona, from North Carolina who founded an active ladies of the JMT facebook group, and Legia from the bay area that gave me my trail name, Squaw who stops to talks a lot.  I loved hearing about where everyone I met was from, why he or she was on the trail and where he or she was headed.  The funniest line I got from many tired hikers when I asked where they were going…Canada is all they replied.    Those skinny PCT hikers could be spotted a mile away!  And the joke when asking how far it is to here or there, ‘Mile, Mile and a half.” never got old.  We meet people from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Canada, and Mexico and all over the United States. It was refreshing to see many young people on the trail and a hand full of women my age inspired by the book Wild.

Despite our best planning, food became an issue on the trail. It is hard to pack with enough variety; we packed a lot of similarly flavored white foods. In addition to getting a taste aversion to them, food trash had to be packed in the lower portion of the bear canister causing quite a smell each time we opened it. It is also impossible to carry enough provisions for your whole trip in a light enough pack, so there are re-supply stations along the way. These allowed us to refill our food stores and to have moments of what you might call “normalcy” in our eating. Often, there are free giveaway items left out and we found a few treasures. We even shipped ourselves a bottle of hooch. We did not know until we picked it up that it was illegal to send it in the mail. Oops…but it helped us make friends.

About 80 miles in we made it to the Muir Trail Ranch and our second re-supply.  We had run out of food and seeing our bucket was a sight for sore eyes.  We rummaged through all leftover buckets, finding homemade strawberry jam, whole-wheat tortillas and luxury items like grapefruit scented wipes and apricot face wash!  That afternoon we set up our camp early at the ranch in a common area, jumped in the San Joaquin river, soaked in the natural hot springs and shared our contraband Bowen’sWhiskey  with our fellows campers around the camp fire.

The next four days we made our way with up the very hot Piute Canyon toward Evolution Basin, a place behind our childhood home where there are 10,000-year-old glaciers.  This beautiful, rugged, in an “other worldly way” place was my favorite. Clear, clean ice blue water flows out of granite, down green tarns, into high mountain lakes, one stacked on top of the other surrounded by boulder fields all the way to Muir Pass.

The weather began a turn for the worse and we decided to change our plans.  At this point, our energy was drained, our food supplies were almost depleted, and two hikers had joined our party and one was having major knee trouble. We did not want to risk going another 80 miles over 5 more passes over 12,000 feet, so we decided to exit over Bishop Pass saving the goal of Mt. Whitney for a future trip. This was the toughest day of all.  Starting at 7 am we hiked 7 miles up steep switchbacks in weather that changed every half hour.  We made it to Bishop pass 12,000 feet at 4:00p.m. totally exhausted and out of food.  We hiked another 7 miles down very steep switch- backs then up and down past 5 lakes until we reached the parking lot at 8:00p.m.

We planned to hitch a ride to Bishop but saw no one around. Earlier that day we meet a packer with his mules who told us we could use the phone at the pack station a mile/mile and a half down the road from the parking lot.  We left our friends and backpacks, only taking our bear spray, as it was getting dark and headed to find help. As we walked we noticed headlights coming down the road so we stuck out our thumbs and a sweet family, forgiving our stench, gave us a ride.  They had talked with our friends who asked them to be on the look out for us.  They did not have room in their car for all four of us but surprised us by going back to pick up our friends and packs and hauling them to the pack station.

The phone did not work!  So Squaw who stops and talks a lot was appointed the task of asking a guest in one of the log cabins to give us a ride to where we could get cell phone reception and call my local family to pick us up.  Instead, the kind man with a very big truck and his teenage son took us the whole 30 miles to town and dropped us off at a restaurant.  Thank god for small and large miracles.  As he was driving the sky opened up and it rained cats and dogs.  Thanks to these warm hearted souls we made it out of the WILD and to our small hometown safe and warm.

Life is meant to be enjoyed, feet on the ground, spiraling up to our higher self to vibrate at a higher frequency. We learned to respect nature in both its beauty and its harshness. I have a deeper appreciation for fries and milk shakes, as that meal I had waiting for my niece Holly to pick us up tasted amazing. Our warm and comfortable bed in Mammoth Lakes was so soothing. And we awakened the next day to sunshine and fresh food including a kale and brussel sprout salad with an ice-cold beer at Mammoth Brewing Company.  A great ending to a wonderful adventure!

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