Let’s back up a sec. What is this John Muir Trail anyway, and why am I walking it? It’s a 210 mile path through the Sierra Nevada mountains from Yosemite National Park to the highest peak in the lower 48: Mount Whitney. It was cobbled together over 46 years, often by early members of the Sierra Club, and finished in the 1930s, for no particular purpose other than to reach beautiful wilderness in the High Sierras. The Scottish-American naturalist John Muir didn’t create it, though he walked those mountains many times– the trail commemorates him, since he died while the trail was under construction. It’s almost entirely 8,000+ feet above sea level; it only goes below 7,000 feet at the north end, a five-thousand foot climb out of Little Yosemite Valley. And it is the cherry on top of the Pacific Crest Trail: most of its miles are shared with the PCT, and it boasts a lion’s share of that trail’s beauty.
I decided to try a thru-hike for many reasons: I love walking, exploring my surroundings, flowers and plants and animals, the ritualistic daily pattern of backpacking, the simplifying of needs. Plus I wanted to see if I could do it, and what kind of hiker I am. I felt no desire to hike a trail that would be dauntingly long, infamous for crappy weather, or apt to be more miserable than is educational. The John Muir Trail fit the bill, especially hiked southbound between mosquito season and snow season. After weeks of permit application processes, logistical planning, and games of does-this-fit-in-the-backpack, I’m striding down the trail, hiking poles clicking on either side of me, gazing up at real versions of vistas I had imagined for months. The dream came true. But not exactly true, just as a painting never completely matches the image in the mind’s eye.
It looks different from anywhere I’ve been before. It’s hard to say why. Starker than the northern mountains of Montana, and certainly not the soft Appalachians. There’s a lot of beige granite, sparse and giant trees. A mix of disparate elements: dry, vast, hot and cold. But I don’t put a lot of mental effort into analysis. The first days are consumed by physical demands, and developing a routine: the order of operations for packing my junk in the morning, the best way to fold maps, the perfect spot to keep a quarter for convenient bear canister opening. (That would be the rear shorts pocket. I develop a calloused nub on my right index finger from grasping and twisting the quarter twenty-four times a day. I don’t see any bears.)
Only after I bag several firsts do I begin to really see what I am looking at. Day Two brings the first solo scramble off-trail, a half mile climb to Columbia Finger Shoulder (strange piece of anatomy, no?). I follow the instructions in my guidebook, heading due west off the trail to the saddle between two rocky peaks. Unlike a trail, there’s no one right path, which is unsettling. The reward is a 360 degree view and a throatful of exhilaration. Coming down, even though I know I cannot help but intersect the trail again, and even though navigable landmarks rise in every direction, my pulse quickens. To be lost out here…! But it’s easy, and of course descent is quicker, so I don’t squirm long. Day Three brings the first gray cloud, which gives me the jitters every time I walk toward it, despite telling myself “That’s what rain gear is for, Ann.” It doesn’t rain. Day Four, I venture off the JMT on a long side loop for the first time. After all the traffic on the JMT, it feels eerie to see nobody. (Well, nobody except the dude who also assumed he’d see nobody. I walked up on him bare-cheeked and squatting. “I’m just gonna walk right on by, looking the other way!” I announce, holding one hand like a horse blinder. I resist informing him that he should be at least fifty paces from the trail, and telling him I hope he has a six to eight inch cathole dug in preparation for his labors.)
I also get nerves when I climb passes. A pass is a point where crossing from one mountain ridge to another is easier than elsewhere, usually a bit lower than its surroundings. For a hiker on a trail, though, it is a high point, and out here passes are usually above tree line and exposed to the sun, as well as potentially to rain, wind and lightning. The John Muir Trail winds through the Sierras over eleven passes: Cathedral, Donohue, Island, Silver, Selden, Muir, Mather, Pinchot, Glen, Forester, and Trail Crest, plus I’ll go over a twelfth, Kearsarge, to pick up a food resupply. I imagine them stark and forbidding, with thin air and dark clouds, leaving me vulnerable. A midwesterner still, I prefer to be nestled among trees, along streams. I am more deer than pika, more earth than air.
The day of the first pass, I get up early and beeline for it, because I have heard that the likelihood of storms rises in the afternoons. I need not have worried: everything is bright and placid, and Cathedral Pass, the lowest of the eleven at 9,700′, is actually lower than some of the trail before it. Perhaps I can learn not to psych myself out over phantoms in the future… oh, who are we kidding? So: one step at a time. I take deep breaths, and recite the Serenity Prayer before oatmeal in the morning, and whenever I feel anxious: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Most concerns fall under “things I cannot change,” but minor rituals have the dual benefit of calming: washing my face, hands and feet daily, pounding copious dust out of my gaiters, socks and trail runners, and rinsing out my gray t-shirt, so crusted with dried sweat that fractals in white salt ring the armpits and back.
On Day 5, I write, “I know I’m settling in: I am beginning to compose blog entries!” I sit on a stone for a minute and drop my pack off my shoulders and back. I start to notice, to talk to, the late summer flowers, the patterns of green and red lichen on granite, the racing-striped chipmunk butts dashing into holes. Without knowing it, I am awakening. The real journey is about to begin.