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.
I let ’em go.