…I wonder, wandering the hot streets of Fresno, waiting for the bus to Yosemite. I swing a plastic bag containing all my money, and one isopropane fuel canister. (You can’t put those things on airplanes, you have to buy one upon arrival.) I don’t know anyone within a two hundred mile radius. People are having picnics and coming home from work and living out here for some reason. This happens when you travel: you realize that other lives are happening all the time, lives that smell and taste and sweat differently, and you’re suddenly alien. It had been scenes from The Grapes of Wrath out the Amtrak window that morning, miles and miles of parched scrubland interrupted with fenced culverts and ditches with little tarps and patched-together pieces of cardboard that I have to assume are people’s homes, two or three square meters of shade. I don’t see any people. Are they out picking fruit for America? And is this the California I’m supposed to hike in?
Later, lying awake in my tent that does nothing to keep out the wide-eyed moonlight, I wonder again: What have I gotten myself into? Three weeks I’ve got to fill with hiking, or else what? It was dark by the time the bus deposited its passengers inside the national park, and six of us hopeful hikers wandered a maze of paths looking for the backpackers’ campground in the boondocks, our headlamps clouded by plumes of dust our feet kicked up. I won’t really know what it looks like until morning. At least there are giant trees canopying us all tonight– a good start.
I repeat to myself until I fall asleep: I am a Professional Hiker. I will wake up tomorrow and pack up my mobile home and do this thing. Courage! (This last word in the manner of Edith Piaf.)
Also, I remember that I have been delivered here with love. It matters. Yesterday, my friend Patty gave me a ride to the airport, quizzing me about bears. At the other end of the tarmac, my aunt Julia picked me up and brought me to her condo. We looked out over the Castro from the chilly rooftop, the fog ambling up from the sea. She and her wife Caroline took me to a restaurant that melted my Montana-stunted taste buds. “We figured you needed to carbo-load, so Italian sounded good.” No doubt: gnocchi, ripe tomatoes bathed in oil, beet salad with goat cheese, tiramisu– I’ve surely already eaten the best meal of this journey. Plus (keep this in mind, future nervous hikers on Thruhike Eve), a little red wine and an hour of watching cat antics, and I slept like nothing’s afoot.
Before dropping me at the BART station, Julia tells me: “If anything goes wrong, call. We’ll come and get you. Seriously.” “Thank you,” I say. Much as I do not want to bail for any reason, her actionable care girds me. I think it might even make me more likely to succeed: even solo, I am not alone.
It’s funny how many biggies get ticked off right away on this trip. Not just the best meal, but the grossest bathroom experience: forget the woods or any outhouse, it’s the Merced BART station. I do everything with my right foot. My hands, though untouched, are contaminated by mere air. I am sorry for the bag lady who has to do all her washing in there, body and clothes. I hold the door for her (with my foot) and wish her a good morning.
Also, the most physically strenuous moment. It came not six hours into the hike. I woke up excited, grabbed my permit from the rangers as early as possible, and scampered up the mountain (as quickly as you can scamper with 19 pounds on your back). I am pretty sure, climbing Half Dome on Day 1, that nothing I do in the next 212 miles is going to get me as, ahem, high-strung. Half Dome is a nearly 5,000 foot ascent from the valley floor, with the last 400 feet being an extremely steep climb made while clinging to a pair of metal cables, with rickety two-by-fours every eight feet or so to give your feet something to grip. Plenty of people do it– 300 per day– including plenty in less-than-awesome physical shape. But that doesn’t make it any less frightening:
Half Dome isn’t on the John Muir Trail, but it’s not far off, and I scored a permit, so why not? Most hikers leave their backpacks at the base of the cables and just bring daypacks with water and a snack. But I didn’t have a daypack, and I was unwilling to go without water, so I pulled myself plus my full pack up that beast. I got to the cables and gaped skyward momentarily, then plunged into the climb, hand over hand. My hands began to sweat and slip. Fortunately, a girl heading down said: “What, no gloves?”
“Gloves?” I asked, then noticed that every other person going up or down was wearing rubberized garden gloves. I would have noticed the multicolored pile of them at the base had I bothered to look down. So I shimmied back down half a dozen two-by-fours, grabbed a pair, and started over. Whew… indispensable. It was still an extremely strenuous climb, requiring intense concentration, but I made it!
Strangely, going down was easier. Just don’t look down, or imagine in too much detail what would happen if the big guy just above you lost his grip. And fortify yourself by encouraging and supporting those still climbing: “Take your time… you’re doing great… would you like me to move to the other cable so you can pass, or do you wanna rest?”
By late afternoon, I lay on my plastic groundcloth in camp, muscles jelly, 110% content. I was mentally and physically spent: from elevation, sun exposure, the trek up and down Half Dome, from starting this adventure. I bit into a well-earned apple, listened to the lazy creek tickle the rocks, and sighed with pleasure. What have I done? What have I done!