When we last left our hikers, they were descending from Fifty Mountain into a thick cloud of fog on their last day hiking the Continental Divide Trail, Canada-bound. We lose the morning sunshine, disappear into whiteness, barely making out channels of river cut below, damp and lush.
The trail is fogged in for miles, and we wonder whether we will be able to see anything at the border. We reach the southern shore of Waterton Lake – which is still in the United States – and a customs office. I open the door to see if we need to check in. Oops – I open it right into the leg of a grumpy customs agent. There’s no public area or counter, just him in his chair, glowering. The agent takes himself and his leg very seriously. Fortunately, I do a good innocent ditz, backing out with bubbly salutations, and we stride out of there quickly. These are the Last Miles. Knowing they’re the Last Miles makes it hard to just hike and be. They feel monotonous, slow and fast at once, and before we know it, we’re looking back at a sign that greets people headed the other way. “Welcome to the United States,” it proclaims, followed by an admonishment to visit Mr Grumpy at the customs office four miles south. Which means that ahead of us… is Canada! We are here!
The obelisks. The border. A tiny pier. And the Cut: on the 49th parallel, from Washington to Maine, there’s a gap of about twelve feet. There must be a huge number of workers spending their days weed-eating and pruning for thousands of miles, including over mountains and many places nobody else will likely ever see. (In some ways, this denuding is the opposite of a border wall. But equally as poor a use of resources, IMHO. Although I’m not sure who pays for it, the US or Canada…) It’s a strange sight.
But it’s a sight! Did I mention that we can now see more than thirty feet ahead of our toes? The fog finally melted under strong rays of sun, which beam over Waterton Lake.
(We considered bundling up in all our clothes, pretending to shiver, and posting a prank photo to make people think it’s already winter here, but the sunshine is such that nobody would believe us.)
A British Omahan (perhaps the British Omahan; how many can there be?) is kind enough to take our photo, and hangs out to chat as J. smokes his celebratory cigar.
You may also notice he is wearing a Burger King crown. This is thru-hiker tradition, representing the Triple Crown of hiking: completing the AT, the PCT, and the CDT. He asked me to pick one up back in Butte. It’s strange to go into a BK and ask for a crown when you don’t have a kid. But I did it, glued trail insignia on each cardboard jewel, rolled it around the cigar, enclosed both in double Ziploc bags, and brought it all this way.
J. tries out the phrase, “I’m a Triple Crowner,” as we amble our way past the finish line a few more miles into Waterton Townsite, where we’re camping tonight and will meet our kind friends Jane and Garon to enjoy a little of Canada before we head home and re-enter “normal” life…
It’s time to ice the cake. Jane, Garon, J and I wake up and gather our day packs for a social jaunt to Carthew Summit, one of their favorite spots in Waterton. We catch a free shuttle bus to the trailhead and begin.
It’s a relaxing change to take the ascent slowly, at a tourist pace, purpling our tongues and fingertips with fat huckleberries.
Our packs are full of luxurious town foods from the little general store: bagels and strawberry cream cheese, juicy snap peas, wasabi almonds, gouda!
I run to the top of the ridge, gratefully aware that my ankle doesn’t hurt. All summer it was giving me grief, and I feared I wouldn’t be able to make this trip with J. comfortably, or at all. On top of the rock outcropping is a worldview I can support 100%: Canada, the United States, who cares, indistinguishable, all mountains and trees and blue glacial lakes, cerulean sky and fresh air that we are lucky to breathe for this short while. After I run back, J. says that he finds a woman with strong legs, running up a mountain, a very sexy sight. Hubba hubba.
Jane and Garon take the same route down, to catch the shuttle back to town, but J. and I decide to walk all the way back on another trail, past several gorgeous lakes. It’s a bit longer than J. wanted to hike today, but gentle… and this way, we won’t have to sit and wait for the bus. (Waiting is one of our least favorite activities.)
At the end, we snack on a park bench by the last waterfall, as tourists swarm and take selfies. We realize, looking at a map, that we have just done one of the three legs of a feat called the Waterton Triple Crown… so J. has unwittingly started another Triple Crown less than 24 hours after finishing the last one! Haha, we will have to come back again and finish it someday. (Travel hint: always leave something undone, so there’s a reason to return.)
Back at camp, we revel in unlimited, private, clean, hot showers in the campground’s heated restrooms. Canada, you know how to treat hikers! Then we head to town to visit the Prince of Wales Hotel, which is the thing on all the postcards so of course we must see it, and see if they’re serving dinner.
The main restaurant is hoity-toity, pricey, and booked for hours… but we can eat in the informal cocktail lounge off the lunch menu. It occurs to me that despite suggestions that I’m a pinchpenny, what I prize isn’t cheapness per se, but finding a level that feels right: not wanton, not wan, just nice.
The lounge is Goldilocks’ bowl of perfect porridge in this regard. We order hearty, simple pub food, chat and laugh with our friends, and gaze out the big glass picture windows facing south over Waterton Lake, back toward the USA.
Then the floor show begins… the sun slants pink on the mountains, and as we dine, two big thunderstorms slowly pass across the vista, with rain, lightning, dramatic clouds, breezes, and gaps of sunset as intermissions.
We are glad not to be in our little tents, but instead watching from above, cozy and full. We all feel very rich in the things that matter.
On our way out, the hotel is luminous, lit at every window like a magic palace, and unsettled clouds glow in the last castings of daylight.
And our gear is dry in the tents. I don’t know how it works, that tiny little pyramid of synthetic fiber with barely a lip over the groundcloth, but we sleep tight and warm.
These past few weeks, hiking from the full moon to the new moon, this would sometimes occur to me: “I could leave all that.” That being my job in Missoula, my sign painting business, the little life we have carved out. It is always possible to be reborn, to have a different life. There are so many lives out there. We get so specific. We forget. It’s good to be reminded, and a long hike does that.
But although we could leave, and survive, and thrive, we don’t. Our little life is good. We’ll hike again. But for now, look forward to gathering in the picnic shelter in the chilly morning, heating oats and bananas and huckleberries and Jane’s homemade granola, and coffee and tea, on the little camp stove. To staring out the window of the backseat as our friends drive us away from Waterton, out of Canada, toward Chief Mountain, the plains stretching out to the east. To a belated anniversary kiss on the shore of Lake McDonald. To our way home.
Leland tucked his business card into the door of our pickup truck at the Rattlesnake trailhead. He’d seen our hiking bumper stickers and recognized kindred spirits. That’s how we met our local hiking buddy last summer. Now, he’s also our trail angel: on August 17, he shuttles me to the border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness to join Zippy for the last 230 miles of the Continental Divide Trail.
We get a sleepy start that Saturday, drive a couple hours to quiet Augusta on the mountains’ eastern edge. At the general store, Leland buys a tea bag,and I use a flush toilet for the last time in the foreseeable future. He smokes a cigarette on the one, deserted street, then we get back in his little hoopty car and rumble the 30-mile gravel road to Benchmark Airstrip, the trailhead to the Bob. (If only he had a little airplane, Leland thinks.)
We spot J. on the side of the road, waiting for us. At last! Let’s do this! …but not without a feast first: Zippy needs some town food. So we sit in the gravel of the parking cul-de-sac and spread out a picnic: sodas, fresh grapes, homemade zucchini brownies, bagelwiches stuffed with farmer’s market tomatoes and smoked tempeh, and Leland’s mother’s leftover chicken curry.
We hike out fast and energized. Leland joins us for the first day, to visit the Chinese Wall, which he missed during his own CDT thru-hike, due to a fire closure. Under the warm sun, we talk about religion and politics and all the things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite company.
I am amazed that there’s been no discernible growth in this area since we were last here in 2012. With its short growing season, the Bob recovers very slowly from the burn, which happened the year of Leland’s birth. He and all the little trees rising out of the charcoal and fireweed date from 1988.
Late afternoon rumbles of thunder hint that it’s time to pitch camp. Leland starts a fire near our little clearing by the river. He brought a pack of sausages, which the omnivores roast on sticks. The weiners drip fat into the flames as darkness fills the sky. The boys cannot eat them all. Soon, the bear line hangs, not far off, containing three raw, aromatic tubes of meat. The doused campfire probably reeks of pig too, and when J. comes into the tent I turn to kiss him and exclaim, “Your head smells like sausage!”
It’s a little hard to fall asleep.
The Chinese Wall is named as a reference to the Great Wall of China, but it’s not manmade. It’s a geologic feature ten miles long. We reach its crest at late morning, saying goodbye to Leland, who heads back toward his car and his phone full of messages, back to the life of a realtor. Zippy and I descend deeper into the wilderness, using an alternate CDT route that promises more dramatic scenery. The trail is thick and green, traversing ridges, and feels for all the world like the Appalachian Trail. Also AT-like: increasing clouds and ominous thunder. Then we notice a distinctly western touch: green signs stapled to tree trunks, ordering us not to camp here, as “the US Forest Service is in in the process of catching and removing grizzly bears from this area between 8/16-8/28.” Which is now. So we keep on, pitching the tent a short way after the signs stop. We dive inside just as a cold rain pours down around us. Narrowly avoiding being caught in a storm is one of hiking’s finest pleasures.
Next morning, the rain’s gone, but it’s still chilly and damp. I holler my way across the frigid river, thinking we’re so remote that I couldn’t possibly awaken anybody, but there is a ranger station right across the river. Oops. Fortunately, the three scientists inside are already up frying pancakes. They are the folks behind the green signs. In order to study grizzly bear DNA, they’ve been scattering cow blood in the restricted area to attract griz to capture. Don’t camp there, indeed!
Once we warm up, it is a magnificent day’s hike, all alpine ridges and little basins filled with wildflowers and berries. Only, Zippy has this thing where he doesn’t take sit-down breaks. Doing so is a waste of time, he believes. (As is carrying a stove to heat coffee and meals. He even hikes while brushing his teeth.) I decide to be open-minded and try his approach. Fortunately, visiting with another hiker (our friend Carlos again), changing out clothing layers, and digging through one’s snacks are all acceptable, functional reasons to stop, so I do get a few– well, don’t call them breaks– pauses, shall we say?
After trying Zippy’s approach to lunch, which is to pour water into a Ziploc containing dried potato mix, then carry it in your hand while hiking for the next 20 minutes as the grub rehydrates, then spoon it into your face while continuing to hike… I decide I’ll wait today for one of his functional breaks. At 4 pm, we arrive at an unmanned ranger station. Lucky for me, J. needs to make a privy stop, so I have a luxurious fifteen minutes to swing my feet off the porch and eat my potatoes and stuffing while resting on my backside, as God intended.
And now, for the gourmands, here are the best instant breakfast recipes on trail:
From Leland: Grapenuts and powdered milk. Oh man. Those little crunchies stick with you.
From Carlos: Instant oatmeal, a spoonful of sugar, and tons of dried milk. It’s almost like pudding the way he makes it. Damn. Thank you, amigo!
And from us: Granola, cold Starbucks Via coffee in place of milk, and fresh huckleberries. The perfect combination of sweet, bitter, and tart.
There are so many berries here, including the fattest huckleberries we have ever seen. It’s an amazing year for berries! Which means it is also an amazing year for bears. We spot our first, a black bear, near another ranger station. We whoop and holler and it flees like two conjoined black balls bouncing along together, its front and rear halves, adorable especially given its trajectory in the opposite direction.
(All told, we will see nine bears on our two-week trip, and probably three hundred colorful bear scat right on the trail– bears use trails too! The scat consists almost entirely of hucks, thimbleberries, raspberries, whortleberries… you get the idea. Later this month I’ll step over an almost delectable-looking apple scat. All of these encounters are comfortably far-off, unlike our Jewel Basin experience. Even far away, however, the two grizzlies we spot are hair-raising. You can just tell they are grumpier and more assertive than the others. We carry bear spray and make noise as we go, and that’s all we can do… a risk we accept in exchange for living in such a beautiful place.)
Our heartbeats quicken as the first glimpses of Glacier rise on the horizon. Then we take an alternate that turns out rutted and muddy thanks to some recent erosion-preventive bulldozing, the kind that has to look worse before it looks better, I guess. The trail’s not scenic, and it crosses the same big river at least eight times. No bridges, of course – such luxuries await us in the national park, but here in the Bob we’ll keep our feet wet.
Excited to be headed to town today. How quickly five days have flown!
Nearing Highway 2, it’s strange to hear traffic again. Whooshes and rumbles that we first try to parse as natural sounds, then realize our beautiful, unusual error. The campground by the highway sports a handwritten sign: “CDT Hikers, See Campground Host.” So we walk the loop past all the RVs, but we don’t even reach the host before she crows out to us in welcome. Janet pulls out two chairs, a lap blanket for chilly me, some blue Gatorade, and a Tupperware full of homemade chocolate oatmeal cookies. We chat and enjoy her cheerful company for half an hour, as her tiny dog patrols the area. She loves to talk with travelers, and we tell her about our dream to be campground hosts ourselves when we retire. Her kindness extends to all the people she meets, and she calls out to each guest who walks by. What a natural. Thank you, Janet!
It’s nice to have that kindness in my tank as we cross windy Marias Pass, entering Glacier at last – the crown of the Triple Crown – because the trail up and over into East Glacier, cutting through the park, is incredibly brushy. Zippy’s legs are calloused and tough, so he barely feels the knapweed and other scratchy plants that hog the trail, seeking more light for their sustenance. My legs, however, are fresh and soft, and before we’re done, they’ll be etched with red and white and drops of blood. I make Chewbacca noises as we descend through a recently logged forest. It is a bit depressing: all the trees are the same age and growing so close together, it is a tinderbox without canopy or understory. We pass into Reservation lands and notice that thinning has taken place. It looks a little better. I guess that is the next step, and hope that thoughtful management continues. If we have clearcut, the least we can do is shepherd the land back into healthy forest, and harvest sustainably next time.
Late afternoon brings us to the town of East Glacier, Montana. J. buys a pound of Red Vines to hold him through the wait for a dinner table at Serrano’s. Then we dump our gear at Brownie’s Hostel, which we are relieved to find wonderfully quiet after 10 pm. J. and I have a room with two single beds, which we drag together so we can snuggle. It is worth the effort.
Dawn on a day so windy and smoky, we can barely see the mountains from town. It’s a great day for a Zero – a day where you just rest, you don’t hike at all. We head over to Luna’s for breakfast, past a woman conked out right on the roadside, her head lolling on a tiny pink backpack, her boots an uncomfortable-looking black witchy type.
Over breakfast, we wonder about her story. She’s going to sunburn out there… why doesn’t she move a few feet off the road, into the grove of pines? Is it desperation, depression, loss of hope?
We pick up our hiker box from the grumpy lady at the post office, who seems to want us to grovel before we claim it, to admit her power over such things. We’d addressed it to ourselves, c/o Brownie’s Hostel, so technically she can refuse to release it to us, instead requiring one of their staff to show up. But I am an excellent suck-up when need be, and make a big show of gratitude for her generosity in giving us our package. I’m not too proud to beg.
Then we relax in the East Glacier Lodge for an hour. J. manages to doze with a cup of coffee in his hand while I call my folks. 50 years ago, my mom spent a summer working as a housemaid at this lodge. She tells me that she used to spend a lot of time sitting and reading in the lodge, as it was more comfortable and pleasant than the worker dorms, and I wonder if she’d curled up on the very same couch we occupy now.
A historical kiosk in town displays photos of young park workers a hundred years ago. Women in overalls, men raising their arms, everyone completely smashed and hanging out riotously in the clapboard building that is now Brownie’s Hostel, festooned with signs proclaiming it a 24-Hour Dance Hall. The way we envision gender roles in the past– they obviously didn’t apply here. The kids look like they could have been cavorting yesterday at some jolly punk concert. All dead now. How strange, wave upon wave of generations, each taking a turn, then unwinding into foam. It is our turn, through no choice of our own. So we take it, wandering outside when we can, just as they did. How strange!
After another breakfast at Luna’s, we buy tribal recreation permits and head back into the mountains. (Huckleberry pie counts as breakfast… right?) I get a bit of navigation practice as we wind among cattle trails toward the Glacier Park boundary, at which point everything becomes clear and there is only one trail. At the boundary, we meet the woman who was sleeping on the side of the road yesterday, whom I dismissed as despairing. In fact, she is just a super-low-budget hiker. She cannot possibly have a tent in that little backpack! But she spent last night out here… She is a bit turned around, but we point her in the right direction and she should be good to get back to town. Unprepared and eccentric as she is, she’s out here living the life, so good for her.
We’re joyful because the smoke has blown away, and the wind has mostly died down.
We climb to Scenic Point with gusto, passing other hikers left and right. “Get out the shovels!” J. teaches me to think, when we spot day hikers ripe for passing (er, “burying”)– all in good fun, of course. Heading down the other side, I make J. trek a tenth of a mile off-trail to a waterfall vista. (Did you know that hiking even a single step off-trail is anathema to a thru-hiker? By their logic, it is better to hike six thirsty miles to on-trail water rather than walking 0.2 off-trail to a nearby source. So getting Zippy to agree to this is a major coup, testament to his generosity.)
We switchback down to Two Medicine, a beautiful spot on a lake with a very nice campground. The walk-in backpacker site feels deluxe after our time in the backcountry: food storage boxes, flush toilets, potable water at every turn… and ranger programs to geek out on! Tonight we will learn fun facts about wolverines from a woman in an awesome ranger hat… heaven!
Leaving Two Medicine, the hike is beautiful and gentle up toward Pitamakin Pass, the morning air wonderfully clear. Little blue lakes, like gems, glow turquoise in the holes poked out by glaciers…
We don’t have many miles to go, and we reach camp by 4:30. Fortunately, there are two other couples there, and we hang out until dark at the food prep area, sitting on logs and chatting with Becky, Mike, Sly, and Sandra. Mike and Becky are ex-smokers who became hikers, to the bewilderment of their friends. They are fiftysomethings, proudly “child-free,” and recommend the movie Sausage Party. Sandra and Sly are Quebecois, and we discover that Sly did the AT in 2010 and the JMT last year, just a few days ahead of me!
Sand, a firefighter, makes a handy little campfire for us all to enjoy. As darkness descends, she pulls out a pedometer she found on the trail earlier… it is Becky’s, which she thought was lost forever! Sly and Sand tell us they left a knife on the pass we will be climbing tomorrow. Maybe we will find it and can return it to them, completing the circle…
We meant to set the alarm so we could get a jump on our longest day in Glacier, 26 miles. But oops, we forgot! Oh well. Plus, if we’d gotten up sooner, would we have seen the two silly yet regal moose on our way toward Triple Divide Pass? We also find Sly’s knife, right where they said it would be, blade still out, fresh from slicing cheese. An extra six ounces we will gladly tote for the rest of our trip, for the pleasure of mailing it to them later.
We do a bushwhack to cut off two useless miles of trail, and it is very satisfying: less than a quarter mile, just a wade across the creek and there we are! Haha! Zing!
Interestingly, this is totally legit on the CDT, though it would be taboo on the AT. Thru-hiker culture varies by trail. The CDT is more a route than an exact path. No blazes to dictate the way, so hikers are free to choose the path that suits them best. Only thing is, no hitchhiking or skipping sections, though most hikers do it periodically and still might consider themselves true thru-hikers. Zippy is a bit of a purist in this regard, and I hear many on-trail discourses about The Definition of Thru-Hiking during these two weeks. Needless to say, Zippy has not skipped one bit. Not even when the trail’s on fire… but that’s a story for another time.
We begin to descend toward St Mary Lake. Clouds pool over the mountains on the other side. Despite what looks like rain coming, perhaps a cold rain, we set a piece of driftwood on two rocks and have a sit-down lunch for ten luxurious minutes. I don’t regret it, even as fog socks in the mountains, and a bit of what looks like snow. It begins to sprinkle and we pull out our umbrellas, shrinking from the wet bushes along the path.
Then we finally enter tourist territory: Virginia Falls and St Mary Falls. It is chilly, but with rain gloves and hoods, we are comfortable enough. The tourists look at us and our strange clothing. We must look funny. We are out for days in our sil-nylon and Cuben fiber gear with umbrellas in funny colors, whereas they are only out for an hour, so they can afford to wear cotton.
After a few hours of rainy hiking, we are happy to spot our camp across the suspension bridge. I collect water while J. puts up the tent, then we get cozy and dry inside, with our food bags in the vestibule. We snack on Pringles and nap until the rain lets up, canoodling and watching TV on J.’s phone. Maybe this is an odd idea for a romantic date, but it suits us perfectly.
It dawns chilly, wet, brushy… but with clear skies! From Piegan Pass, we see a dusting of snow at 8,000 feet, left over from last night’s precip. The views in Glacier get more and more astonishing. We have hiked in this park so many times, but it keeps revealing new delights. There is a seemingly endless supply, even as the glaciers subside. If only we humans could treat the land as generously as it treats us!
We descend to a lake beneath Grinnell Glacier, and find a private spot to have what thru-hikers call a “yard sale.” That’s when you spread out every piece of gear you own, weighed down by rocks or sticks, to dry out the past day’s moisture. It’s a laughably cluttered sight in contrast with the backdrop:
We arrive at the Many Glacier Lodge between meals but are able to order sandwiches in the dining hall. I kick off my stinky shoes and we sit at a corner table so as not to be scent-offensive to other guests.
By the time we get to our campsite at Swiftcurrent Campground, I am pooped. Today was not a long hike, but my body’s not used to these sustained miles. J. is kind enough to do all the work of pitching the tent while I lay on the groundcloth in the dappled sun beneath a swaying tree. It’s another night of “deluxe” campground camping, complete with soft serve machines at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, and heated bathrooms with coin-op showers that spurt hot water so long that even taking our slowest showers ever, we can’t use all the time allotted. I wash out my gaiters and socks and hang them in a tree to dry.
The power’s out on the east side of Glacier this morning, making us glad we didn’t splurge on a hotel or cabin. Everyone’s a camper now! We make tea and coffee using the last of the hot water from the general store, then hike out.
It’s our one day to hike in wind and smoke. We’re nearly blown up Swiftcurrent Pass. The clouds look mean and grumbly, and we doubt the “Accu” portion of the Accuweather forecast (0% chance of precipitation?). But oh we of little faith: once we cross the pass, we notice that the clouds are all stacked on the eastern edge of the Divide. Some unknown force of the high ridge keeps them stacked harmlessly on the other side all day.
We turn our gaze westward to the Granite Chalet, adorably nestled among a 360-degree range of wonderful peaks:
From there, the CDT’s path is one of neverending, gradual ascents and descents traversing the Garden Wall: it’s PCT-like hiking in that one can see the next six miles of trail at any point, thin straight lines drawn across the mountains. Still, there are surprises: a waterfall that bursts out of a rock (fed by a glacial lake far above), and five bighorn sheep that browse, nonplussed, as we pass:
A family of four bears trundles down-canyon when we walk near, probably bummed to be put off their berries for a few minutes. And as we weave in and out of exposed windy areas, the lee sides of the range are lush and dense with the season’s last wildflowers, ferns, and mosses. We stop on a sheltered rock near a cool spring, sick of junk food snacks, and heat a pot of hearty corn chowder for a late lunch. I insisted upon carrying a stove for the second half of the trek, and I stand by my decision. You can’t beat hot lunch!
Then, a historic moment: we realize that the next little rise is the last time J. will cross the Continental Divide in his 2,800 mile trek. Uncharacteristically, he drags his feet toward the top. “Feeling sentimental?” “Yup.” Ah, the eloquence of a mountain man.
Our destination tonight is Fifty Mountain Campground. It’s 2000 feet higher than any of our other camps, and with today’s wind chill, we wonder how it’ll feel. Will this be a frigid night to remember? We look down on the bench with little glistening pools– springs– sparkling across the terrain, but we don’t see our home for the night. Is it nestled in the pines on the edge of the bench? Or will we be out in the open? Finally, we spot colorful squares: tents! And four men lying comfortably on their backs in the sunshine, reading books, spread out in the meadow. They look extremely content. I think we’re going to be fine.
In the camp circle that night, everyone’s dinners bubbling away on Jet-Boils and Whisper-Lites, we trade stories with the men, as well as a couple of the palest Floridians we have ever met, and a strapping Texan who strides up at dusk. One guy tells us that he counted to find out if one could really see fifty mountains from Fifty Mountain, “but it was only forty-three, if I’m being generous. I guess Forty-Three Mountain doesn’t have the same ring to it!”
Day 12… the Last Day
It’s gonna be a great day. The dawn is blue and friendly. We slept surprisingly warm. And, like the Hanukah miracle, our fuel canister sputters empty only after steaming the water for this morning’s coffee and chai. Tonight we eat in town… in Canada!
But what happens as we descend into Waterton Valley, where signs are noted in both miles and kilometers, to the Canadian border, is a story for another day.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
(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…)
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).
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.
A tent stake left at Rosemarie Meadows… the burly one I used for digging holes, know what I mean?
Dropper bottle of bleach, probably still lying next to the brook where I left it.
Dropper bottle of Dr Bronner’s soap, accidentally mailed home (so, not technically lost?).
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:
Unlikeliest carnivore: A chipmunk plucking and eating a dead bird. (Sorry, no photo.)
Best support guy: One guess.
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:
Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson
You can’t get lost in Cape Town – Zoe Wicomb
You can’t be neutral on a moving train – Howard Zinn
The unknown masterpiece – Honore de Balzac
On the road: the original scroll – Jack Kerouac
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.
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:
(The full post, “Statistics Junkies,” has the rest of the stats on the Zippy & Diddo AT thru-hiking journey of 2013.)
The bus diesels out of the McDonald’s parking lot in Lone Pine, CA at six am, minutes after I creep out of the room of sleeping women in the Whitney Portal Hostel. The first driver wears a cowboy hat and listens to classical guitar. The second driver growls at pit stop requests. “I think he has a case of the Mondays,” another rider whispers. Oh yeah. It is Monday. We are reentering the world where the day of the week can foretell mood, and heart attack likelihood. Because we are going home: a passel of assorted hikers, plus a few locals headed north a stop or two.
The bus dumps its passengers in Reno, Nevada, which is the ugliest city I have ever seen. Still, looking at a six-hour layover, I am not just going to hang out in the airport. Here’s the mission: find one Beautiful Thing here in Reno. Surely there is a redeeming sculpture, tree, mosaic… something beautiful both inside and out. Three weeks of natural beauty have spoiled me, and my tolerance for the products of profit-driven construction is low. With a $2 city bus pass in my pocket, the quest begins.
The riverwalk is concrete, decorated with trash. The river itself flows strangled and brown. Down-and-out people lie on the curb or push along on canes. Bad junctions, hard living. The neighborhoods struggle. I pace the streets with a few tourists, the ones who can’t afford Vegas, shuffling between tacky casinos. The synthetic facades have not been renovated since the seventies, which looks awful, but I may actually support this neglect: isn’t it preferable to the endless facelifts of swankier towns, unneeded, superficial? You know what you are getting here. You can see all the way to the core.
I think about my trail trust that the right paths will unfold. They always have, if not immediately. But why? Reno is a reminder that this is not the case for everyone. I am not sure why I have been so fortunate. Having money helps, as well as other kinds of privilege, but some people still find themselves in bind after bind. There is no guarantee. How do the people of Reno see their town? Do they find beauty here? They must. You must find it where you are. Where is it? Can I see with Reno eyes?
The bus driver is kind, advising me on the best place to get off, but it’s not beauty. The begging man is kind, but it’s not quite beauty. In line at the post office to mail home my sharp objects, which cannot be checked through airport security, two people burst in singing happy birthday, carrying helium balloons and neon cupcakes to a postal clerk’s counter. She reddens and won’t meet their eyes. Her manager bounces on tiptoe as she belts the refrain over-enthusiastically, and some of us in line faintly join in.
None of it is beauty, but all of it is human. Maybe human will have to do. So after my wanderings and a couple of street tacos, I surrender beauty and retreat to the airport sidewalk. I lean my pack on a bench near the taxi lot, and pull out a book to kill time.
But then: with minutes to spare, in peripheral vision, brightly colored cloth. A man’s voice, chanting. On the grass by the road, three cabbies are praying toward Mecca. Their voices rise and fall over the traffic. They sing for fifteen minutes, then rise and walk back to work, the older man with his arm around a younger man’s shoulder.
Okay, Reno, there is your One Beautiful Thing. The color, the song, the reverence, the brotherly love, the willingness to pause profit for spirit. It goes all the way through. Well done. You win.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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′!
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.
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.
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.