Aftermath

The plane touches down in Missoula, cold, drizzling, dark. The headlights of the Mazda pull around to the curb, spotted by rain, J. inside the warm car, and I climb in. Climb back into a past life, but full of experience, stories, confusion about the next steps after three weeks of knowing exactly which direction to walk.

The first days blur, shot through with echoes of the John Muir Trail, my new reference point for everything. It’s like the bells:

One evening, I walked past a dozen mules and two beautiful horses grazing in the Lyell Meadows of Yosemite National Park. Their guardian was unseen, so they seemed native, except for bells tied around their necks, bells that sang with every step. As the moon paced the sky, the mules’ melancholy chord glided down-canyon, then returned near dawn. I climbed right up Donohue Pass the next morning, quickly out of earshot, but the bell song had entered my dreams, and lingered in my ears for days.

Roaming mule bell choir
Roaming equine choir

So while I go back to work, do the laundry, do the dishes, and am again bombarded with hundreds of people per day, the song of the trail follows me around. I start writing, everything at once, not chronologically. Memories bump into each other, crowded, impatient. Spinning them out is reassuring, renewing. This really happened. It is delicious to live it all again, looking closer this time, harvesting each bit, leaving nothing in the field.

J. and I spend as much time outdoors as possible, knowing what’s ahead: we run the Sam Braxton Trail, Blue Mountain, Waterworks Hill in the rapidly shortening afternoons, clouds racing above us. The large empty spaces are precious, spaces that tell me Trail and Now are still one. It’s fall, and I’m trying to hang on.

Zippy on Trapper Peak near Darby, MT in October
Zippy and I climb Trapper Peak near Darby, MT in October

I had imagined, back in the California summer when winter seemed so far away, that I would keep my wild animal alive, the hiking organism, the outside girl. I would fight to merge trail life with the everyday. But as November draws down, the wild animal senses change, and crawls into the cave tended by the domesticated self. The wild falls asleep and stays asleep, as the brisk other moves about the dwelling, a person of brooms and Netflix, of drying herbs and making beds. She draws the line between indoors and out with a bold line, and she fears the out. It’s the inevitable townsfolk apprehension. Even after living outside and loving it for three weeks, it sounds foreign, chaotic, uncontrollable to me now. Under her rule, I watercolor arrangements of gourds and apples, and kestrels landing over and over, at the kitchen table in the basement apartment. Tamed symbols of the outside. The ringing of the bells is gone. Is this defeat?

As far as paintings go, the upper left one wins.
As far as paintings go, the upper left one wins.

Well. Really, if I lived in the wild all the time, I’d have to exist much differently than a hiker on a sunny trail, here at this latitude where daylight dwindles to a mere glow and the world ices over. Northerners are meant to partially hibernate. How surprisingly easy it was: to buy the green, woolen, made-in-Minnesota blanket that appeared at the thrift store, to cover our sleeping selves through long nights. To bake and bake and bake, warming the apartment with calories: hot pepper cornbread for our neighbors at the plant nursery, crackers for a friend at tea, bread and stuffed pumpkin for dinner guests, squash for soups.

Plum butter, apple butter, muffins...
And plum butter, apple butter, muffins…

Surrendered to this other reality, the wild inside gives nothing, requires nothing, its pulse slow, barely perceptible. As the rituals spin forth, heaping layers over the slumbering wild, I discover that there is no more to write, either. The whole story told, the drive to write evaporates, awaiting the next adventure, the next spring. It feels like a door softly closing. The latch clicks and I walk away in my slippers.

Because we are not static beings, rather each of us is many, ever changing, taking turns. Pete Seeger and whoever wrote Ecclesiastes know about this turning… so that is all for now.

*

(Except that there is a seed, underneath the Faribo blanket, deeper than the snow and freezing rain, far from weeks of work that fold in upon each other, buried below and kept warm by the sleeping creature. I don’t know how or when it will grow. But it’s kind of the color of the North Country Trail…)

 

Statistics buffet

And now, the long-awaited feast of JMT stats you didn’t know you needed to know, dished up for your edification and entertainment… and including a compare/contrast with the AT at the end. Bon appétit!

By the numbers:

    • 210, 211, 212, or 220 miles: Length of the John Muir Trail… it depends on who’s calculating.
    • 2 feet: Width of the JMT, on average. (It’s a lot easier to thru-hike the width than the length.)
    • 43,600: Total feet of elevation gain on the JMT.
    • 176.4: Miles of the Pacific Crest Trail I hiked this summer, most of which overlapped with the JMT.
    • 355: Total miles hiked, including side trips.
    • 12: Rain drops, seven of which technically made contact after I had finished the trail.
    • 2: Times I soaked my shoes, both due to clumsiness, not abundance of water.
    • 19: Pounds of backpack base weight at trail’s end (base weight = everything but food and water).
Proof of base weight: scale provided at Whitney Portal
Scale at Whitney Portal (2 pounds heavier thanks to food… totally worth it).
  • 20: Tampons carried needlessly along the entire route.
  • 84.6 miles: Distance from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States at 14,505 feet above sea level, to the lowest point in the continental United States: Badwater at Death Valley, 279 feet below sea level.
  • 45: Hikers allowed to start the JMT southbound, per day. This quota was instituted due to drastically rising demand, from about 400 people per year in 1998 to almost 3,500 people per year in 2014. This chart gives the visual.
  • 20: People who have died while hiking or climbing Half Dome.
  • Probably more than 20: People who have died lying on the couch while fearing the risks of hiking or climbing.
  • 0: Number of “zero days” (days with no hiking), despite sincere intentions to take one. Daily miles ranged from 5 to 24.7.
  • 6: Bear scat sightings.
  • 0: Bear sightings. (Closest thing to a bear encounter: Shining my headlamp at full glare into a dude’s eyes from my tent one night because he was grunting noisily as he walked. Honestly, he really sounded ursine.)
  • 4: Nights requiring earplugs. Basically, only when people camped nearby. Usually it’s critters who keep me up, as they investigate crumbs and gnaw on gear, but in the Sierras the mice were oddly diurnal.

Items lost:

  1. A tent stake left at Rosemarie Meadows… the burly one I used for digging holes, know what I mean?
  2. Dropper bottle of bleach, probably still lying next to the brook where I left it.
  3. Dropper bottle of Dr Bronner’s soap, accidentally mailed home (so, not technically lost?).
  4. One earplug, which disappeared at the Whitney Portal campground. I must’ve pulled the earplugs out in my sleep, because one was inside my shoe the next morning. The other one had to be somewhere within the zipped confines of my tent, BUT IT WAS GONE.

Most prepared tree: This one:

Come and get me, forest fire, I dare ya!
Come and get me, forest fire, I dare ya!

Unlikeliest carnivore: A chipmunk plucking and eating a dead bird. (Sorry, no photo.)

Best support guy: One guess.

He sent me a cartoon self-portrait in the last resupply box. Awwww.
He even included a cartoon self-portrait, and fragments of a waffle cone from Sweet Peaks, in the last resupply box.

Most annoying earworm: a nameless, featureless rockabilly tune that accompanied every climb, something like this, on endless loop. Followed closely by “I Fall to Pieces” by Patsy Cline, which debuted after I started losing gear. Great song, discouraging message.

The one place on earth where the men’s bathroom has a line and the women’s bathroom doesn’t: A trail resupply stop. Thanks, male:female hiker ratio!

Books read by Kindle light:

  1. Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson
  2. You can’t get lost in Cape Town – Zoe Wicomb
  3. You can’t be neutral on a moving train – Howard Zinn
  4. The unknown masterpiece – Honore de Balzac
  5. On the road: the original scroll – Jack Kerouac
  6. The children’s book – A. S. Byatt (but only the first half)

A brief comparison of the JMT to the AT

  • Pro: No gross shelters on the JMT. Con: No shelters at all on the JMT.
  • The JMT’s most feared menaces: the plague and overly assertive bears. The AT’s most feared menaces: norovirus and Lyme-diseased ticks. Pick your poison!
  • Much less precipitation. Karmically, the arid JMT balanced out the saturated AT.
  • Corollary: If you hang clothes out overnight on the JMT, they will be drier, not wetter, when you wake up.
  • Nobody aspires to be “hiker trash” on the JMT. Then again, a couple of weeks may not be long enough to become hiker trash or develop a taste for the lifestyle.
  • Less vegetation, fewer wildflowers, approximately one million percent more exposure.

    But the few are wondrous.
    But the few blooms are at once tough and delicate.
  • 75% less swearing. Exception: PCT thru-hiker Angeline.
  • Much more diversity among hikers. Far more Asians and Asian-Americans, plus a few Latinos, including a wonderful gentleman who tipped his cowboy hat to me, walking behind his family near Devils Postpile in pointy black cowboy boots, a classy Wrangler shirt tucked tightly into jeans with a wide leather belt and a large silver buckle. Equally few African-Americans, though hopefully that is slowly changing… rock on, Elyse “Chardonnay”!
  • Fewer bragging rights. It’s just not as hard a trail.
  • Equally friendly townsfolk and fellow hikers.
  • But FOUR TIMES AS MANY HOT SPRINGS!

The Appalachian Trail, by percentage:

wpid-IMG_20130725_081653.jpg

(The full post, “Statistics Junkies,” has the rest of the stats on the Zippy & Diddo AT thru-hiking journey of 2013.)

The John Muir Trail, by percentage:

jmt stats

Sisterhood

The women’s dorm at the Whitney Portal Hostel in Lone Pine, California could have been a dingy, crowded bunk house à la Little Orphan Annie. Happily, it is instead a cozy room with half a dozen bunks, a mini-fridge, plenty of outlets, an air conditioner, and a clean bathroom stacked with furry white towels. Astonishing. How does a hiker hostel keep towels white?
 
The six of us are certainly no help. We take turns in the shower, dirt streaming down the drain, and gear hangs from every fixture, clean and drying off. In and out we go, scratching all our town itches: Rebecca, whom I’ve met twice before on the trail and am thrilled to finally spend time with. Two British students tramping their way through a gap year. One astrophysicist from Stanford. A weekend warrior whose car broke down in this little town, stranded until a part arrives in the mail. And me.
 
Lots of Americana, not many auto parts.
Lots of Americana, not many auto parts.

/

Before the hike, I joined several hike-centric Facebook groups, including Ladies of the JMT and Women of the PCT, mainly to research weather and gear. The general JMT and PCT groups have more typical internet snark, criticism, and the occasional sexist comment, but the women’s group is almost wholly positive, patient and supportive. On the regular forum, you might see a woman post something like “I am wondering about hitching a ride from X campground to Y town, I hear it’s pretty safe. Do you think that’ll work?” and some guy replying “Only if your hot lol”. No thank you. But the ladies– the ladies will encourage the hiker whose shin splints are devastating, whose partner dumped her a week before Day 1, who is plus-size or new or nervous or older, as well as the confident, exuberant and experienced.
 
Thanks to the women’s forums, a gal can also show up at the trailhead already equipped with friends and contacts, the social network as applied to roughing it. I didn’t connect in that way, partly because I didn’t want to feel tied down. Also, let’s hear it for the old-fashioned method of just walking into the woods, trusting that good paths will cross.
 

I did meet several Ladies of the JMT on the trail, often identifiable by the group’s signature purple paisley gaiters, designed by Dirty Girl. Cherry Bounce hikes in a colorful bonnet. Angelina swears abundantly and sews her own gear. I loved talking with anybody on the trail, but it’s extra cool to meet other solo women. So what a treat to find myself among all these hikers tonight. Crossing good paths.

/

Laundered and clean, I pony up to the bar of the Alabama Hills Café and order a mushroom and avocado omelette, which turns out to be not only lunch, but most of dinner, even with a hiker appetite.

Lunch... and dinner. The biscuit alone is the size of two fists.
The biscuit alone is the size of two fists.
I text everyone: I’m out! I’m coming home tomorrow! I phone my brother from the shade of the hostel balcony. While we talk about birds, I watch the mountains, my stone friends, high-flung anchors in the sky. An old friend says mountains provide a reference point, a constant reminder of the scale of the world and the smallness of his human problems, not present on the plains. Each time I glance back, it’s a different scene. Clouds tumble and shift, shroud and split over Whitney. Change has come.
 
Wistful view back up to the mountains...
Late arrivals tell of a dusting of snow on the summit.

/

A flask of Maker’s Mark, several six-packs of the local brew, and a half-gallon of Rocky Road. The Ladies of the JMT sit cross-legged on the floor, passing everything around, barefoot with funny tan lines, wearing comfy pants. The mini-fridge bulges with leftovers, the outlets are crammed with phone cords, and the air conditioner labors to keep the room merely not-hot. It is a grown-up sleepover party. I’m not much of a drinker, but I splash whiskey on my ice cream and feel right at home, which is rare in a group of strangers– but we are not strangers. Conversation flows from living in a town where everyone is different from you, to racism and sexism on the trail and off, uncertainty about children and the future, and dreams about the Next Big Hike.

The Brits decide to keep hiking south on the PCT, not stopping until Mexico if the weather holds. The weekend warrior realizes that she’s not gonna make it to jury duty on Tuesday. The astrophysicist tells us that she comes to the woods when work leaves her feeling so abstract and small that she doesn’t see the point of doing good. She meets other travelers and remembers why it matters. She sleeps under the stars, without a tent, and becomes part of the cosmos again.

It is the perfect last night. I couldn’t have imagined better. Let’s hear it for sisterhood!

Touchdown in a silver convertible

Atop the highest point in the continental U.S., one thing is clear: I am not ready to leave the woods. Fortunately, having arrived two days early, I have the luxury of sauntering. The moment I reached the top, Whitney’s irresistible, powerful magnet loosed me from its lure. No more the singular, pinpoint goal. Free to amble, adrenaline dissipates, and a lazy expansiveness oozes in to replace it. The horizon spreads in every direction. This afternoon, I’ll drink in views, sidle along in a trance, and ponder impending transitions. The new moon slices the sky. The world awaits.

/

Going down the 97 switchbacks from Mount Whitney, all the little corners smell like pee. About 150 people per day get passes to hike here, in addition to thru-hikers. It’s like the interstate, but without McDonald’s bathrooms.

ice
One cove boasts a private overhang… but it’s coated with ice from last winter.

I take it slow, nursing a bum knee that I’ve denied for the past week. No reason not to baby it now. My plan for transitioning back to town reality includes a none-too-subtle metaphor: as I gradually descend in elevation, I will wean myself off the thin, wild air of living in the mountains, back to breathing in the valley of regular life.

97 problems and Vitamin D deficiency ain't one.
97 problems and Vitamin D deficiency ain’t one.

The trick will be to see how much of the wildness I can carry down with me, make part of the good regular life I am glad to have. It is two vertical miles from the Whitney summit to the town of Lone Pine. That’s a long way to coax a wild animal. If it is to survive, there will have to be an expansive refuge for it to roam, a preserve within my heart.

/

More immediately, there’s the challenge of finding camp amid so many people. In the Mount Whitney Zone, you can’t pitch just anywhere. To reduce the environmental impacts of such traffic, there are but a few designated places to sleep. The highest, Trail Camp, is plastered with tents along every conceivable surface, boasts no shade, and raises the question: where would one go to take a dump? (Not that you’d bury it: everyone gets a wag bag on their way out of Whitney Portal, with strict instructions to “pack it out.” The last toilets were removed from the area in 2007.) Outpost Camp is prettier, with a rushing brook and some shade, but with the same crowding and private-time puzzle.

Troy and Moira, whose nap I accidentally interrupt by clamoring under their shaded boulder for a lunch break, graciously tip me off to Lone Pine Lake, less than a mile past Outpost, which delivers on their promises that it is stunning and secluded. (Why secluded? Because it is a tenth of a mile off-trail. That’s right, friends: a tenth of a mile is all it takes to weed out the crowds.) It is the prettiest tarn I have ever seen. Its far edge spills into the horizon. Best of all, it’s open to camping, but only three other people take advantage. I watch the stars from the open tent flap, and eight hours later, the sunrise. The tent faces away from Whitney, toward the world of people. Reassuringly, even from the world of people, one can usually see the sky.

lone pine lake
Sometimes two skies.

/

Whitney Portal is a bustling hub with large campgrounds for tents, families, and RVs, summer homes, a stocked fish pond, and a general store. (Oh yes, and bathrooms… as well as redolent disposal vaults for hundreds of packed-out wag bags.) Waltzing in mid-morning, I’m amazed they fit all this into a gap between mountains. The diner serves pancakes the size of hub caps, but I cling to my camp food. As long as I don’t eat town grub, I’m still in the wilderness, right? But it’s back to a numbered campsite today, with water from a pump and a bear-proof locker for food.

The gateway at Whitney Portal, where it all begins (or ends).

My neighbors and I chat about hikes ahead and behind. Some are going to attempt the One-Day Whitney Challenge. As for me, in the interest of dipping my toes into that other reality, the Lowlands, and because I just can’t not hike yet, I decide to walk the Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail this afternoon. It’s an out-and-back, eight miles total, a path crudely cut in 1881 to get mule trains, expeditions, and other early travelers from the valley to the portal. It hasn’t seen much traffic since the CCC paved a road in 1933, but it used to be the only way up.

I leave my tent pitched at the campground, and the heavy bear can in the vault. With a superlight pack and only one pole (the other is busy holding up my tent), I’m surprised to feel nerves as I descend, gradually leaving behind the familiar ecosystem of lodgepole pines and Stellar’s jays in favor of sparse scrub, then downright desert.

Nopal (prickly pear)
Nopal (prickly pear): something you don’t see in the High Sierra.
Total change of habitat
Toto, I’ve a feeling we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

What have I done? This trail goes all the way to the valley floor! Walking through the hot, exposed landscape, my water’s warm and nearly gone. I’ve bet the farm that a potable pump will be available in the lower campground where the trail ends. I’m in luck. Squinting under my bandana, I turn to hike back to the Portal, and the view of Whitney, framed by foothills, floors me. That is one looker of a mountain. Could I really have been on top just a day ago?

Oh, you stone. I love you.
Can you fall in love with stone?

It’s so far away, here in the flatland among these alien cacti. As I reclaim each of the 2,700 feet I lost on the way down, tides of hormonal emotion flood in, such as I haven’t felt since high school. (They’d bowl me over just sitting in class. These days it takes a major elevation change, apparently.) It was a shock to come all the way down today, but it proves the cliché that distance maketh the heart grow fond.

/

While my last humble dinner of beans and freeze-dried veggies stews, I chat with a six-year-old girl and her dad. (“At last, a girl!” she shouted upon spotting my magenta jacket. “There are so many boys around here.”) They’re going rock-climbing in the Arizona Hills tomorrow. She darts around the campground like an elf, investigating everything, while her father cooks.

As I meet new people, I wonder about folks I expected to see again but haven’t. For instance: Jennifer and Oliver, where are you? The friendly Mississippians camped in high style, their packs stuffed with small luxuries: they’d catch and roast perch and cook spiced couscous… and that was just lunch. They hiked early and late so as to meet more fox, and in the afternoons lazed on riverbanks to watch children splash like otters. It was Oliver’s first time in the woods, and Jennifer’s 50th birthday present to herself. Will I ever know if they finished?

Last camp dinner, last sunset in the pines, last this, last that. I’m verklempt. It’s time to get outta here before I melt into a puddle of syrup capable of soaking through a plateful of giant diner pancakes.

/

Next morning, I borrow a Sharpie and write the words “Lone Pine” on the back of a Moose Drool box. Not five minutes of shilling with my makeshift sign, and a fellow gives me a lift. He and his buddy aimed for Whitney today, but his knees gave out, so he’s killing time while his friend summits. We coast down the coiling CCC road in his silver convertible, looking forward, looking back. Goodbye, Whitney Portal.

Hello, town!

To Mount Whitney!

Each day the clouds seem to gather earlier. Yesterday, seven raindrops tapped my face as I skirted Sandy Meadow: change is coming. And after clearing the high curtain of the Kings-Kern Divide via Forester Pass, I’d seen a first glimpse of… could it be? That far, hunchbacked peak in the clouds, framed by nearer heights?

Obviously so. It's got bright red markers above it.
Obviously. It’s the only one with bright red lines around it.

A few miles later, the PCT splits off and continues south to Mexico. The John Muir Trail is on its own for the last few miles. Goodbye, imaginary thru-hiking J. See you for real in five days!

/

It seems I accidentally mailed my soap home, so from here on it’ll be either dust baths or plain-water scrubbing. Then I lose my water treatment, leaving the little bottle of bleach by a distractingly pretty brook. Evidently I’ll now also be carefully sourcing water from springs, or tiny streams that no dirty human shoes cross, and carrying extra in case of a dry spell. Absent-mindedness increases as the last mountain eclipses all else. From camp at Crabtree Meadows, I can see Orion scaling Mount Whitney as the night sky spins.

When day breaks, I’ll follow.

/

Pre-dawn motions are surreal: fold the tent, press air out of the pillow, stuff the sleeping bag, for the twentieth time. Summit Day. What is there to say, really? A goal, a peak, dreamed of for a year, only eight miles away. What’s the use of narration? You know how this goes: up, up, up. So let the photo essay begin.

pika
The animals are afoot this morning: pika, deer, marmot, duck…

deer

Guitar Lake
Two miles closer, I pass Guitar Lake, the traditional base camp for summiting Whitney, and begin the climb in earnest.
Looking back into the valley
It’s steep and exposed. I’m hauling extra water, and my pack pulls at my shoulders. But the view behind…
Ditching gear at Trail Crest Pass
At Trail Crest Pass, I reach the spur to Whitney. Everyone leaves extra gear at the junction, carrying only what they’ll need for the summit.
whitney sign
I ditch my bear can and an extra liter of water. Lighter, and excited by the sign, I fairly fly up the hill.
view
…except when I cling to large rocks, peering off sheer drops along the ridge. Choose those footsteps carefully.

Aside: There are a ton of people up here.  Daily, 150 people get permits to hike in the Mount Whitney Zone. Some of them look like the walking dead, slowed by elevation sickness and exhaustion. This is why: last night they camped at the Whitney Portal, and got up at two in the morning to start hiking. Wearing headlamps in the dark, they climbed 6,200 feet of elevation up 97 switchbacks to the summit, and now they’re going all the way back down in one day, a 22-mile round trip. Sounds harder than a thru-hike to me!

So we negotiate not only the terrain, but each other. We slowly pick past one another at wide spots. Those coming down nod knowingly at the energy of those going up. “Boy, you’re grinning from ear to ear,” says a descending day hiker. I didn’t realize I was smiling, but it’s no surprise.

The Nebraska Boys, four good-natured Midwesterners also finishing a thru-hike
The Nebraska Boys, four good-natured Midwestern thru-hikers, are grinnin’ too.
almost
Whitney’s ridge, now in view…
shelter
…and there it is! The little shelter on top, people swarming around the famous view. I am doing this… right now…
IMG_20150911_110256785
Did it! Done!
log
And official: signatures in the trail register.

I savor a Snickers bar, basking against the sun-warmed bricks of the shelter. People throng past in vibrant insulating layers, but my eyes are fixed on a deep blue space beyond, a space of grateful, jubilant disbelief. It’s all downhill from here. And that’s not bad at all.

/

So here we are, together on the peak. Thank you for reading this story. Knowing folks wanted to hear it has been an excellent push for writing, a reason to live the journey again, even more reflectively: to invite others onto the trail. It’s been a treat. Your comments have been so thoughtful and kind.

Mount Whitney is not the end. There will be more writing, for instance, a post about the 97-switchback hike down to Whitney Portal. (The John Muir Trail ends at the summit, but it’s still two vertical miles above civilization, and there’s no zip line.) Ever-popular hike statistics are on the way, as well as the tale of the kick-ass women I meet on the journey home, a quest to find just one beautiful thing in Reno, Nevada, a sitcom wrap-up of lessons learned… and then I’ll keep writing, albeit less often, about other jaunts, and non-hiking adventures too: there’s a Day of the Dead piece in the works, I happen to know.

Hey Gorgeous

I sprawl like a gutter punk on the pavement by the gas station trash can, my dinner and some crumpled bills in a plastic bag beside me, licking a melting ice cream cone in the heat.

A guy comes out of the store with a soda and sees me on his way back to the pump. “Hey, gorgeous,” he says.

“Hi,” I reply with a smile.

I am puzzled, for two reasons:

a) Crusty with sweat, I haven’t showered for days, and above my bizarre tan lines, a green bandana hangs knotted from my neck, as if I’m a dog. This is gorgeous?

b) I loathe honks, catcalls, and other unsolicited, appearance-centered comments that are the supposed prerogative of men looking at women. Why don’t I mind this one? Am I more susceptible to flattery in my grungy state? I think not. Somehow he seems more genuine than most. It does not feel like a power trip. I’ll have to think about this… well, after I finish my ice cream.

hey gorgeous

Months ago, I reserved a night at the Independence Inn in Lone Pine, California. Out of three weeks, one night should feel like a Vacation, right? So I hike eight miles off the trail, over Kearsarge Pass, down to the Onion Valley trailhead. Standing in the stony notch of Kearsarge, looking back into the wilderness, I see for the first time the smoke plume rising from the Rough Fire. Its white mushroom billows smoke from under its rim, which spreads and falls into the valley. Satisfying with a touch of schadenfreude, I observe it from a distance, rather than trudging inside it, blind to wider perspective. This is already a great vacation from my vacation.

The plume of smoke
Catch you later, smoke shroom
In the rocky keyhole of Kearsarge Pass
Kearsarge Pass is a stunner

I don’t have a plan for how to get from the Onion Valley trailhead to town, but I eke out a bar of cell service and call the innkeeper, who collects me in an old Subaru for an extra $10. The road descends 5,000 feet in thirteen twisty miles to the pancake-flat Owens Valley. My eyes are not used to flatland, especially one that stretches as far north and south as visibility permits but ends suddenly in sharp mountain ranges to the west (the Sierras) and east (the Whites). The trailhead was pleasant in the afternoon shade, but it’s 100 degrees on the plain below. It’s easy to believe that Death Valley is just forty or so miles to the east.

The Independence Inn is a modest, whitewashed motel with a big American flag sign and NO VACANCY in pink neon, despite current occupancy of only three rooms. Tourist season is winding down, and Jim, the innkeeper, is ready for a break. I dump my gear in Room #1, gasp in relief at the air conditioner, then head back into the swelter to find some grub.

Independence is a one-street, one-stoplight kind of town, not much to see. Agricultural people and eccentric retirees form the population of 669 citizens. Somebody built a clapboard museum of the Old West in their front yard. Planters of geraniums wither in the sun. Paint peels. The post office is hardly larger than one of its stamps, and dining options consist of two gas stations, a wee French restaurant, a Subway, and a taco truck parked in an empty lot.

The taco truck is reportedly incredible, but unfortunately, I cannot face another tortilla. Nor do I wish to wait more than two minutes for a meal, ruling out the restaurant, so Subway it is. As a side dish, I crave fruit– indeed, this afternoon a day hiker caught me mumbling “apple… yogurt…” like the cartoon crawling through the desert thirsting for agua. Produce options in Independence are either bagged green apple slices from Subway, or an elderly orange from the convenience store. I gamble on the orange, and supersize it with an overpriced, pre-pack ice cream cone.

Now it’s melting on my face, and the guy says, “I like your eyes.”

“Thank you.”

“Can I at least know your name?”

“Sure,” I say, and tell him. He shakes my hand, introduces himself as Felipe, then gets in the car with his buddy, waves, and drives away.

/

Truth is, I do feel gorgeous. It’s obviously not grooming, or clothes, which are always the same, liberating a good ten minutes of time from my daily routine. No, it’s feeling the energy of life move through me so vibrantly, strong, free. And plain living: time away from mirrors, magazines and billboards.

Wilderness measures a body not by appearance but by usefulness as a tool that enables one to roam, maneuver, recover, dissolve. Countless living beings are both deformed and beautiful: the giant juniper tree symmetrical on one side, charred and split on the other. The bird missing half its tail feathers, swooping through blue regardless. The dying bush that becomes a bonelike sculpture of itself. These things are what they are. They do not try to be otherwise.

/

Back at the inn, I forget my deep and superior thoughts about nature vs media, and in true American style eat dinner in front of the TV. The dimpled orange tastes like wine, and the TV’s inanity is deliciously weird. As the cherry on top of my media binge, I snap a selfie.

A happy hypocrite

In the morning after breakfast, I veg out in my room. I’m not really sure what to do on Vacation. I’ve taken a shower, washed clothes, phoned J., his parents, and mine. I mess around with my gear, repack it and mail home extras. I watch more junky TV. I want to hang out all day, but why? Now what?

I couldn’t resist coming to town earlier than expected, nor can I resist going back up early today. I’m antsy for the trail. And it doesn’t hurt that I lose my room at noon. A retiree who also spent last night at the Inn gives me a ride back to the trailhead. It’s generous of him, but my opinion sours when he tells me, in the middle of otherwise normal chitchat, that he likes to do the grocery shopping because “I like to girl watch, from the waist down.” Felipe he ain’t. Why would you say that to anybody? I hand him some gas money in the parking lot and disappear into the woods. If I meet his wife, who is hiking above while he plays golf below, I swear I’m gonna say, in the most cheerful tone possible, “Oh yes! I met your husband, he told me that he likes to girl watch… from the waist down!” But fortunately I don’t see her. No need to pay caddishness forward.

Thus ends my Vacation. I’m back in high gear, striding over Kearsarge Pass, clamoring on the now-familiar and dear spine of the Sierras. Fewer than forty miles left. This is really happening. One more full day of hiking, then Summit Day. My pulse speeds from excitement.

Next stop, Mount Whitney!

Chasing Mr Inov-8

It seems I have become an amateur detective. In the dirt, no rain for two weeks, are tracks and marks and dots left by hiking poles. I start to wonder: Whose footsteps are these, which direction, what size shoe, what gait? Looks like somebody got off to filter water… someone must’ve camped over there… whoops, dead end! I am no pro, and I rarely see animal tracks besides mule deer, but like an animal, I try to glean who else is around, sight unseen.

At the moment I’m sussing out a set of prints with the same tread as mine, going the same direction. They are Inov-8 trail runners, a distinctive pattern with three widening stripes along the arch. A man’s tracks. I know because the prints are bigger than mine, and I have feet like the bride of Sasquatch.

Usually I catch up to the owners of the footprints I see. But these I’ve followed for a day and a half, starting before Muir Pass. This guy is trucking. I walk 24 miles, through what I hope is the last of the smoke, and a few minor scourges of the flesh: my derrière is chapped where sweat has soaked the bottom of my pack and irritated the skin, raising red welts. And my feet are swelling, as would be expected after several weeks of continuous pounding. My goal tonight is Deer Meadows, but just as time dictates I should be almost there, I spot a beautiful, large campsite down by the river. It’s tempting. Still, I walk on until I’ve reached the edge of Deer Meadows: mission accomplished. Another large site beckons, already occupied by a bright blue tarp and a camp chair. A guy reclines in the chair, looking away across the river. I conjecture that he is the owner of those fresh footprints, and want to rush down and say “GOTCHA!” –but I decide not to disturb him. Where two or more are camping, I sometimes join, but if there’s only one, he may want solitude. I go back to the first soft, brown site and call it home. Close enough.

There are compensations when it’s smoky: nearsighted, you focus on a fern unrolling, a wildflower poking from a seep, or a cushy campsite along a brook, which soothes you to sleep with white noise even as your nostrils may be assailed. I slap socks and gaiters and shoes against a river rock to pummel out dust and sand, and cook up a mess of split pea soup and cous cous. A bit of dishwashing and I’m in the tent by 7:30, ready for reading and bedtime. Catch you tomorrow, Mr Inov-8!

(7:30? The bedtime of a six-year-old, I know, but most hikers synchronize to daylight after a while. Once electricity is out of the picture, circadian rhythms relax into alignment with the spinning earth. Backpacking forces us to dwell more in the animal self, less separated by humans’ signature distractions and mental gymnastics. How far would this go, I wonder: if I had no electricity in the deep Montana winter, would I sleep sixteen hours a night?)

I’m up and hiking before seven the next day, but Mr Inov-8 is already gone. Sneaky, I think, though I’m projecting. Who makes hiking decisions based upon the schedules of people they don’t even know are behind them? Today I begin by climbing the Golden Staircase, the last part of the JMT to be completed. For many years the trail had to wend another way, as nobody could figure out how to connect it.

How to climb this without fancy equipment?

The Golden Staircase is a feat of engineering, an arpeggio all the way up the piano. Its short, tight switchbacks get hikers over the steep cliff to the hanging valley above, a pair of cobalt lakes and then, above those, Mather Pass: 12,100′!

Part of the Staircase. Photos flatten depth, so trust me: it’s steep.

I crest the hanging valley, and plunge into the sun. Backpackers make our own sunrises: the Staircase, nested on a south-facing cliff with high ridges on both sides, kept me in pre-dawn shade although the sun was far above the “horizon,” the imaginary ground line that doesn’t exist in the mountains. When I reach sunrise, the full-bore, warm rays welcome chilly fingers and nose. The sky is perfectly clear: yesterday’s smoke whisked out overnight, making for excellent hiking.

Almost time to make a sunrise!

Stepping into the sun, I spot a guy on a rock by Palisade Lake, soaking in the rays with a Nalgene bottle in one hand. The guy from last night’s tent site? I try not to stare at his shoes, and avoid blurting “Haha! Caught you, finally!” or “I’ve followed you for a day and a half!” Instead, I wish him a good morning and ask: “Are those Inov-8s?” Strange opening question, maybe, but we’re all used to gear chats. I fess up to having noticed his footprints. Yes, they’re Inov-8s. At last!

We hike at a similar pace, which I figured was likely given how long I chased his tracks. He is an off-duty backcountry guide, and as we climb Mather Pass and then descend for miles on the other side into a broad, hot valley, we nerd out about footwear and other minutiae, and share snippets of our life stories. It’s nice to talk with someone while hiking. Not many people have the same pace, and I’m not good at speeding up or slowing down for folks, so it happens rarely. I’d forgotten how the landscape flies by when the mind is occupied with the invisible hills and valleys of conversation.

The trackmaker

After a few hours, Mr Inov-8 (whose name I never learn) stops for a lunch break, and I never see him or his tracks again. I go on, nibbling an energy bar, wanting to get down to tree line (that is to say, shade) before I rest my heels and force down the daily double serving of peanut butter tortillas. Hiking alone, the joys change: time passes more slowly (which can be good or bad, depending), I notice more, have conversations with rocks and flowers and small rodents, and gain space for a pleasant emptiness of mind, if I can calm the chirping voice that aims to plug it with trivia.

The purpose of hiking is not to overtake others. Still, the pursuit of an arbitrary set of tracks helped me through yesterday’s smoky afternoon, distracted me from my own backside, drew me up the Golden Staircase on light feet, and provided a bit of fun besides. 

Five minutes after polishing off lunch, I notice them: a fresh pair of Inov-8 tracks on the trail ahead. Even bigger steps — they’re moving fast.

I let ’em go.

All clear

Awareness crowds in, whispers with every mile that ticks from ahead to behind: this will not last forever. Appreciate every step. A few more days, one last town stop, then the scramble to Whitney. I get teary thinking about a ground squirrel, or unrolling my gear, obvious symptoms of pre-nostalgia: missing something while it’s still happening.

Carrying everything necessary, how it cares for me! (Oh seriously... this is getting syrupy.)
It’s probably good I’m on the home stretch… this is getting syrupy.

Also, the nervousness that dogged me so often has mostly dissipated. I got used to living outside, and hadn’t even noticed. The nerves’ absence creates a vacuum, which draws in observation, reflection, whimsy, and just being. I’m getting past the smoke, both the literal stuff and the haze of fretting. The smallest moments begin to glow:

A guy runs breezily up Mather Pass with an Arc Blast and a silver sunbrella.

A crazed meteor streaks through nightly light show that is the silver lining of having to get out of a warm tent at 2:00 am to pee.

Best seat in the house
Best seat in the house

A waterfall plunges into a stain of lipstick red at its base. Graffiti? Here? My confused, civilized brain automatically categorizes shapes in the woods as urban things: a rectangular stone reads as an abandoned mattress, what looks like a cigarette butt is actually a two-inch snap of branch, and the graffiti? A dense cluster of crimson flowers. Much better. (The exception: whenever I hear a rumbling in the sky, I still assume it is a thunderstorm approaching, although invariably it’s just another airplane roaring out of LAX.)

Sometimes I don’t photograph the glowing moments, even if my phone is handy. This is just for me, I think, predicting that Dollar Lake will, under the influence of memory, expand into a mythic beauty greater than two-dimensional reality, amplified by being unquantified. Perhaps some things are best left unshared.

/

Helping other hikers, even in very small ways, also gives a good feeling that lasts for miles. How satisfying to be able to provide from the small amount carried on one’s back in the middle of the John Muir Wilderness. I am able to do this twice:

Crossing Glen Pass, I find four extremely tan people lounging on top. They are waiting for the fifth in their party, a woman I ran into on the way up– almost literally. I was sweating and grunting and staring at the trail beneath my feet so intensely that I didn’t notice her until she was practically underfoot. She’d found a tiny column of shade under a rock and was breathing hard, resting. She gave a few words of encouragement, and I squinted through a stinging mix of salt and sunscreen and chirped my usual “Beautiful day!”

raelakes
View from Rae Lakes to Glen Pass, bumping against deep sky

Up top, while I chug water, they wait for their friend and discuss caloric miscalculations. They hired a pack mule string to deliver a resupply, but it won’t arrive until tomorrow morning. All they have to feast on is the view. They casually, carefully intimate that they are out of food for the rest of the day. This is called yogi-ing, probably after a certain bear of “What’s in that pic-a-nic basket?” notoriety. It’s not outright asking… just apprising passersby of one’s situation and… and… ?

Fortunately I have lots of pemmican to share. A fellow shakes my hand enthusiastically, then slices each bar into five rectangles with a tiny knife. Thus divided, it doesn’t look like much, but maybe it’ll take the edge off. The caboose hiker appears at last, to cheers and a snack.

Later, I meet a father and son from LA, hiking for a week. They just started, but already the son’s trekking pole is failing. “Do you have tape?” he asks me, by way of greeting. My repair/first aid kit is tiny but decent. I hand him two feet of duct tape carefully wrapped around an eighth-inch diameter metal tube that encloses a sewing needle. (Got to keep the needle safe, else it’ll put a pinhole in the groundcloth, the tent, the inflatable pad, or one of a dozen other sensitive items. This is the stuff you tinker with obsessively during the long winter before a journey, when it’s too cold to hike.)

The man’s father speaks little English, and they talk softly with each other while the son twists tape around the pole joints. The son’s accent makes his gladness all the more appealing: “Thank you, thank you!” he shouts. “I will tell everyone that I have been saved by a beautiful hiker!” I’m not sure he’s saved– the duct tape probably won’t hold all week, but maybe for a few days… or at least until he meets the next beautiful hiker with tape to spare.

/

The trail passes through different neighborhoods, so to speak: here’s a scrubby, run-down patch where the working stiffs live, there a fine Japanese garden, next palatial old-money estates of old money, and now an abandoned lot. Nature wears many costumes.

chinquapin
And watch out when she’s wearing chinquapin

Considering this, I pass a couple of guys hiking north. “It’s even prettier upstream,” they tell me. Not half a mile farther, I hear a “whoop!” as four pale, skinny-dipping men flail for cover when they see me coming. “The world’s smallest towel!” one moans, dodging behind a bush with a hankie. Was that what they meant by “prettier upstream”?

I laugh my way south. This is gonna be good.

 

Speed and a Rede

In September, Heather “Anish” Anderson set the speed record for an unsupported thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. She bested the previous women’s record by 26 days, and topped the men’s record by 4 days. No sense gendering it anymore: it’s just the Record, and for now, she’s got it: 54 days and change. The Ghost, as she’s called due to her habit of gliding swiftly down the trail at night, also holds the speed record for an unsupported thru-hike of the PCT.  At her pace, she would’ve completed the John Muir Trail section of the PCT in four or five days.

This sounds– and is– grueling, but she seems very happy as described in an article at Appalachian Trials. (By the way: unsupported means she didn’t have sag wagons meeting her with pillows and fresh undies at every road crossing, toting her tent and food for her. She even had to walk to town to resupply– no hitching.)

By the end of week #2 of 3, I have completed half the miles of the JMT. An enjoyable urgency is building: one week left to do the other half. The urgency is composed of four elements. The magnetism of the goalpost: Mount Whitney’s hulk exerts an almost gravitational pull. The trail rumor that the smoke peters out near the end. The badass feeling of what you might call my Anish legs: a few weeks’ experience, acclimated to the climate, elevation, routine, and my body feels good, as if it could walk forever. Obviously impossible, but the sensation is an elated hiker’s high. I get why Anish is smiling in those photos.

And finally: it’s cold overnight. I wear everything to bed and it’s still cold. Shorts and a t-shirt are still my day uniform, but in a mountain range where summer means only July and August, fall or even winter could drop in anytime. Moreover, the trail gains overall elevation, and thereby loses temperature, the farther I go: the passes are reaching 11,000 feet above sea level. Soon they’ll be at 12, then 13.

Oh yeah, and a hood too.
Oh yeah, and a hood too.

So I decide to do four “twenties” (twenty-mile days) in a row, to put me slightly ahead of schedule– and just to see how it feels. This will give me a little wiggle room in case of bad weather. I wake before my 6 am alarm, chilly but ready to go by 7, and hike eleven hours a day, flipping through map after map with satisfaction. For love of miles, I even skip a one-mile detour to Blayney Hot Springs, a major coup in priorities.

/

This doesn’t mean I don’t socialize. I am unwilling to give that up; it’s part of the experiment. I stop half an hour short one afternoon to camp along a sunny stream with amiably gruff Rich and Kent, engineers as well as hiking buddies. Rich is sitting pretty, having designed himself a camp chair out of the removable stays of his backpack and a bit of spare fabric. His life advice, dispensed while I dine on Knorr’s teriyaki noodles and powdered lemonade: “Be safe… but not too safe!”

During the day, I leapfrog four French men (no pun intended). They sing and laugh and holler down the trail as we take turns passing one another. One of them, Noé, I met the very first morning at the permit office in Yosemite. He was sitting on his bear canister outside the locked door, in line hoping for a walk-in permit. He got it.

This is a perk of my two weeks of extra forays, backtracking, and double-hiked miles: running into people again and again, often surprising them from an unexpected direction. Les hommes français, Jennifer and Oliver from Mississippi, Rebecca from Missouri, three tattooed guys who also like to wander the side trails: the more we meet, the happier we are to see one another.

Chattering with a non-human friend counts, too.
Chattering with non-human friends counts too, right?

/

There’s a popular saying on long trails: Hike Your Own Hike. It means that there’s no one right way to thru-hike, so don’t judge, nor should you be judged. Carry what you want, wear what suits you, choose your own route, fast or slow, heavy or light, part or all. Speed records notwithstanding, hiking is a non-competitive sport. (Hike Your Own Hike is not, however, permission to disrespect people or the earth, a point well made in another Appalachian Trials article. At essence, it is the old Wiccan Rede: “An it harm none, do what ye will.”)

Hint: leaving TP in the woods is not HYOH. (Thanks for putting a stick on it though! /sarcasm)
Hint: leaving TP in the woods is not HYOH. (Thanks for putting sticks on it though! /sarcasm)

My additional mantra is “Nothing to Prove.” As a person rich in both insecurity and confidence, it reminds me not to demand of myself certain feats, the appearance of strength, or admiration from others. When I am nervous, or when I am cocky: Nothing to Prove. If I feel nervous and foolish, do something kind and take the next step– or stop and rest. If I stride badass over two passes in a day, do it for joy, not to impress another traveler, especially not if he or she might feel worse as a result of that monster, comparison. Every one of us has a unique combination of burden and privilege: emotion, experience, body, gear, budget, obligation, luck, chance. This is not a succeed/fail endeavor. There is no binary. There is only putting oneself into this particular space and time and seeing what happens.

A friend of mine from Montana spent two months last year hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Her legs gave her great trouble along the way. Injured and frustrated, stuck at a convent hoping for recovery, she was changed when one of the Sisters said, “Although you walk, you are not walkers. You are pilgrims.” The journey is interior, not to be measured in numbers.

/

Muir Pass is iconic for JMT hikers. Mile 129.1, but we’re not measuring in numbers, right? So let’s just say that spotting the speck of Muir Pass Hut on the horizon, far above, is a psychological milestone. Everyone’s seen it in pictures beforehand. To step at last within its stone walls is stepping into history.

The early morning ascent is beautiful and clear, but quickly hazes over as the heat of the day arrives. The lakes and peaks en route are named for John Muir’s daughters, Wanda and Helen, and for titans of evolutionary science, apparently by an enthusiastic fan of both Darwin and the old Scottish-American naturalist. (Creationists might smugly reply that Hell for Sure Pass is not far off.)

Smoke is pretty at dawn
A little smoke is pretty… but just a little

The hut, built by the Sierra Club in 1930 for emergency storm shelter, has a bricked-in fireplace and a pair of antlers resting on the hearth. Its little cave smells old. I love it.

A solo hiker can't be too choosy about her photographic help.
Muir Pass Hut. (Solo hikers are at the mercy of bystanders’ photographic abilities.)
View of smoky Muir Pass area from the hut
Smoky view from Muir Pass Hut

The triumph of reaching this pass lends a certain extra Nothing to Prove freedom. I’ve made it to the Hut. Even if I broke a leg right this minute, I made it this far. Six days left. Onward, pilgrims… at whatever speed ye will!

La extranjera (the stranger)

After eleven days, it’s time for a shower. I would rather wash up than eat a hot restaurant dinner tonight, and that’s saying something. This is the menu of my dreams:

Locally sourced shower with nine minutes of hot water, full-size terry towel, side of soap ……. $5

I step into the bathroom like Encino Man. Oh god, a bench to sit on. A furry floor mat. And it’s clean. I put the token in the slot and gasp as hot — hot — hot water shoots from the nozzle. How to describe the shocking bliss? It’s pretty much the video from Outkast’s So Fresh, So Clean, minus getting busy and getting high. Are André 3000 and Big Boi closet hikers? Cuz they really get it.

After lathering everything at least twice, I stand hypnotized in the hot water for another thirty seconds. How quickly I have become a stranger to such amenities! Still, I err on the short side. This experience is not gonna end with me yelping in freezing water at nine minutes and three seconds.

/

IMG_20150903_182116383

Vermilion Valley Resort, on the shore of Lake Thomas Edison, is not a picture postcard resort. It’s humble and relaxed. A diverse assemblage of campers and vans, primitively girded for wintering, houses those employed there. Though they sweep, hammer, clean, and cook, I suspect the resort is more essentially a tolerant place to live an unusual life in relative privacy. This season, due to drought, the lake reservoir is drained low, the dock a plank into nothingness, eliminating a major source of tourism. The place is off grid, powered by a generator that runs from 7 am to 9 pm. No electricity overnight. No cell reception. Two old dogs and the kind proprietor’s little daughter run underfoot through the camp store.

/

I almost didn’t make it here tonight. Certainly there was no confidence from the guy who asked my plans this morning. He clearly thought I was crazy, or at least sub par at math, for choosing the long way in: I’m aimed for a cutoff five miles beyond and six miles longer than the easy route, which is a flat two-mile spur to the lake, then the rest of the way by ferry. I hear the Bear Creek Trail is prettier, I tell him in vain. He may have been swayed had I instead said, “I’d rather climb this hill carrying one day of food on my back than five,” though practicality was not a major consideration. Oh well, why do I need to please his logic? I put my engine in low gear and power up the switchbacks (sixty-seven, says another hiker, who also regrets having counted). A 2,000-foot ascent in seventy minutes, bisected by a one-minute break to stuff a pemmican bar down my gullet. It’s unexpectedly satisfying to plod relentlessly, mind detached from chugging body, watching the forest floor fade farther below with each minute. I hum along, a little full of myself.

Five hours later, still hoofing, I reflect that maybe the guy had some justification. It’s more like ten off-trail miles, not eight, and the last two ain’t pretty. They abut the dam around the lake on a gritty forest service road. By the time I get to VVR, dusk is nigh, my legs are weary, and I am READY.

VVR

Which may have made the shower even better. Back in the bathroom, I touch my stomach in wonder, a stomach I hadn’t seen in days. Clean skin feels like an amazing foreign planet. In the mirror, I discover welts on both hips. I had no idea. Why would I have bothered to look back there? (Hiking makes you kind of a Nevernude.) Then it’s on to the joys of the towel, followed by the joys of combing and drying and clipping and just sitting inside a room.

/

What I actively miss while I’m hiking makes a very short list:

  1. J.
  2. Family

But the list of mostly absent things that unexpectedly thrill me is longer:

  1. Fresh fruit and veg
  2. Hot running water
  3. Soft towels
  4. The option of walls and a roof
  5. Technology. By which I mean things like chairs. When I spy a dingy cushioned back, a seat, and two arms, somewhat levelly raised off the floor, I’m agog. It’s genius.

Almost as much as I love being in the woods, I love coming out and intoxicating myself with the mundane. I think Spanish does a better job at describing both these lists in a single verb: extrañar. Technically “to miss,” it means at once a heart-in-the-throat, mariachi-melancholy personal estrangement (List A), and experiencing its object as foreign, faraway, alien, surprising, extranjero, even if it isn’t (List B).

[Aside: my Español is extra rusty, rather extranjero itself, so apologies for any errors.]

/

Emerging at last from the bathhouse, I pitch my tent next to Dan and Rose and cook beans in the dark. There’s free camping for hikers, and a fire ring. When the stars come out, someone stokes a fire, and a bag of jumbo marshmallows appears. We find sticks and roast sweet, white lumps until they are caramelized and flaming. We talk hiker talk. I learn from those who took the ferry that its narrow path ends short of VVR. They walked the last mile across the dry moonscape lakebed, following orange traffic cones. Warm and clean and fed, I don’t regret taking the long way in. Bear Creek, in dappled sun, alternately flowed wide and shallow along sandy rocks and cascaded into deep clear pools perfect for soaking weary feet. Most of us will take that path out.

Ahh, beautiful Lake Thomas Edison.
Ahh, beautiful Lake Thomas Edison.

In the chilly morning, before the generator kicks on, I luxuriate in the laundry room. My throne is a dusty upholstered chair, and I boil water for chai on my camp stove, balanced on the clothes-folding table. Rose and Dan and I pile our dirties into the machine and coo when socks and long johns tumble hot out of the dryer. In the dining room, I invite myself to the breakfast table of a friendly couple from Massachusetts. As a newly minted extrovert, I kind of don’t give them a choice about it: “Hi, mind if I join you, or is this a date?” And I buy half an hour of internet to assure loved ones of my continued existence. I don’t miss Facebook, but it’s awfully damned convenient.

Thus pass fifteen hours at VVR, seven of them horizontal, before I walk away from lo que he extrañado: both what I miss and what I thrill to find. But I walk toward the irresistible lure of what is extranjero in regular life: simple needs, few distractions, natural rhythms, and the immediate, constant awareness of being among the infinity of tiny travelers in a vast and swirling world.

creek