The care and squelching of newbie nerves

Let’s back up a sec. What is this John Muir Trail anyway, and why am I walking it? It’s a 210 mile path through the Sierra Nevada mountains from Yosemite National Park to the highest peak in the lower 48: Mount Whitney. It was cobbled together over 46 years, often by early members of the Sierra Club, and finished in the 1930s, for no particular purpose other than to reach beautiful wilderness in the High Sierras. The Scottish-American naturalist John Muir didn’t create it, though he walked those mountains many times– the trail commemorates him, since he died while the trail was under construction. It’s almost entirely 8,000+ feet above sea level; it only goes below 7,000 feet at the north end, a five-thousand foot climb out of Little Yosemite Valley. And it is the cherry on top of the Pacific Crest Trail: most of its miles are shared with the PCT, and it boasts a lion’s share of that trail’s beauty.

I decided to try a thru-hike for many reasons: I love walking, exploring my surroundings, flowers and plants and animals, the ritualistic daily pattern of backpacking, the simplifying of needs. Plus I wanted to see if I could do it, and what kind of hiker I am. I felt no desire to hike a trail that would be dauntingly long, infamous for crappy weather, or apt to be more miserable than is educational. The John Muir Trail fit the bill, especially hiked southbound between mosquito season and snow season. After weeks of permit application processes, logistical planning, and games of does-this-fit-in-the-backpack, I’m striding down the trail, hiking poles clicking on either side of me, gazing up at real versions of vistas I had imagined for months. The dream came true. But not exactly true, just as a painting never completely matches the image in the mind’s eye.

This strange geologic layer augured in, plus: peep that water line.
This strange geologic layer augured in, plus: peep that water line.

It looks different from anywhere I’ve been before. It’s hard to say why. Starker than the northern mountains of Montana, and certainly not the soft Appalachians. There’s a lot of beige granite, sparse and giant trees. A mix of disparate elements: dry, vast, hot and cold. But I don’t put a lot of mental effort into analysis. The first days are consumed by physical demands, and developing a routine: the order of operations for packing my junk in the morning, the best way to fold maps, the perfect spot to keep a quarter for convenient bear canister opening. (That would be the rear shorts pocket. I develop a calloused nub on my right index finger from grasping and twisting the quarter twenty-four times a day. I don’t see any bears.)

Only after I bag several firsts do I begin to really see what I am looking at. Day Two brings the first solo scramble off-trail, a half mile climb to Columbia Finger Shoulder (strange piece of anatomy, no?). I follow the instructions in my guidebook, heading due west off the trail to the saddle between two rocky peaks. Unlike a trail, there’s no one right path, which is unsettling. The reward is a 360 degree view and a throatful of exhilaration. Coming down, even though I know I cannot help but intersect the trail again, and even though navigable landmarks rise in every direction, my pulse quickens. To be lost out here…! But it’s easy, and of course descent is quicker, so I don’t squirm long. Day Three brings the first gray cloud, which gives me the jitters every time I walk toward it, despite telling myself “That’s what rain gear is for, Ann.” It doesn’t rain. Day Four, I venture off the JMT on a long side loop for the first time. After all the traffic on the JMT, it feels eerie to see nobody. (Well, nobody except the dude who also assumed he’d see nobody. I walked up on him bare-cheeked and squatting. “I’m just gonna walk right on by, looking the other way!” I announce, holding one hand like a horse blinder. I resist informing him that he should be at least fifty paces from the trail, and telling him I hope he has a six to eight inch cathole dug in preparation for his labors.)

The view off Columbia Finger Shoulder, toward Cathedral Pass.
The view from Columbia Finger Shoulder toward Cathedral Pass & Cathedral Peak.

I also get nerves when I climb passes. A pass is a point where crossing from one mountain ridge to another is easier than elsewhere, usually a bit lower than its surroundings. For a hiker on a trail, though, it is a high point, and out here passes are usually above tree line and exposed to the sun, as well as potentially to rain, wind and lightning. The John Muir Trail winds through the Sierras over eleven passes: Cathedral, Donohue, Island, Silver, Selden, Muir, Mather, Pinchot, Glen, Forester, and Trail Crest, plus I’ll go over a twelfth, Kearsarge, to pick up a food resupply. I imagine them stark and forbidding, with thin air and dark clouds, leaving me vulnerable. A midwesterner still, I prefer to be nestled among trees, along streams. I am more deer than pika, more earth than air.

The day of the first pass, I get up early and beeline for it, because I have heard that the likelihood of storms rises in the afternoons. I need not have worried: everything is bright and placid, and Cathedral Pass, the lowest of the eleven at 9,700′, is actually lower than some of the trail before it. Perhaps I can learn not to psych myself out over phantoms in the future… oh, who are we kidding? So: one step at a time. I take deep breaths, and recite the Serenity Prayer before oatmeal in the morning, and whenever I feel anxious: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Most concerns fall under “things I cannot change,”  but minor rituals have the dual benefit of calming: washing my face, hands and feet daily, pounding copious dust out of my gaiters, socks and trail runners, and rinsing out my gray t-shirt, so crusted with dried sweat that fractals in white salt ring the armpits and back.

Indian Paintbrush thrives between a rock and a twisted root.
Indian Paintbrush between a rock and a root.

On Day 5, I write, “I know I’m settling in: I am beginning to compose blog entries!” I sit on a stone for a minute and drop my pack off my shoulders and back. I start to notice, to talk to, the late summer flowers, the patterns of green and red lichen on granite, the racing-striped chipmunk butts dashing into holes. Without knowing it, I am awakening. The real journey is about to begin.

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Flora y fauna de Costa Rica

You knew this was coming… here’s the list of flora and fauna we’ve seen so far. We are very much enjoying the proximity of wildlife!

Los Animales

Anole: little lizards of different colors that cohabit with us and eat moths
Ant: regular, biting, leaf cutter, cleaner, and bullet
Anteater
Bananaquit
Bat
Bee, including blue orchid bees and giant ones
Beetles, including the tortoise beetle (red)
Brain coral… that’s an animal, right?
Butterfly, including heliconious, owl eye, and blue morpho
Cat
Chickens, of course
Coati, white nosed
Cow
Crab, including hermit
Cricket
Cucaracha, including a four-inch silvery behemoth
Damselfly, giant helicopter
Dogs
Dragonfly
Earwig
Firefly
Fish
Flies, and maggots
Frogs: green and black poison dart frog
Gecko, yellow headed
Goat
Grasshoppers: regular, with red knees, and ginormous
Great kiskadee, a yellow-headed bird
Green stinkbug
Hawk
Horse
Hummingbirds, including the violet sabrewing, purple throated mountain gem, and about 10 others
Iguana
Jaguarundi??
Jellyfish
Kinkajou (dead of unknown cause)
Monkey: howler, spider and capuchin
Mosquito
Moth
Oropendola, a bird with an amazing, pendulous nest
Parrot, screeching and larger green
Pelican
Scarlet rumped tanager (Passerini’s tanager)
Scorpion
Sloth, three toed
Snakes, including a small boa constrictor!
Spider, including banana, crablike spiny orb weaver, and some huge brown carapaced thing in the woodshed
Squirrel
Tick… darnit
Toucans, chestnut mandibled and keel-billed, always in pairs
Turtles
Violaceous Trogon, the bird with the best name!
Vultures, both turkey and black
Wasps, mostly stingless
Woodpecker, lineated
Wren, with her nest right by our house

Las plantas

Air potato… the spuds actually grow in the air on a vine!
Balsa (with feather duster looking dried pods)
Bamboo, halves of which are used for water and food troughs for the chickens
Banano, including cuadrales (four-sided), and seedy ones for the birds to eat… did you know that banana plants are herbs?
Beach grape, after which Punta Uva, or Grape Point, is named
Berry, furry and purple, of unknown name but tasty in panqueques (pancakes)
Breadfruit
Bromeliads
Bougainvillea
Cacao
Cas (sour guava)
Citronella
Coconut palms, including pipas
Coffee
Cranberry hibiscus, a delicious purple leaf
Culantro (cilantro but with big leaves)
Firebush, I think: dark berries and coral colored flowers
Gardenia
Ginger: red, white and torch
Golden trumpet
Guava, which I enjoyed until learning the fruits are often full of maggots
Heliconia
Hibiscus
Jackfruit
Jobo
Kapok / ceiba (the sacred tree of the indigenous Bribri)
Katuk (a nutty tasting green)
Lemon
Lemongrass
Lilies: spider, peace, and regular
Limes with an orange center… what the…?
Little milk star, with hallucinogenic properties
Mamón chino (aka rambutan)
Mandarino (actually lemons)
Mango
Miracle fruit (I didn’t get to taste it, unfortunately)
Morning glory
Mushroom
“Naked Indian” tree (or burnt gringo, if you prefer)
Nance
Noni
Orchids
Palms, including traveler’s, chunta, sweeta (spelling?), pejibaye (the little round fruits of which can be made into delicious hummus), and panama hat
Papaya
Passionfruit (maracuya)
Peppers, including Panamanian habanero, and sweet
Pineapple
Plantain
Poinsettia
Porterweed (strange, its small purple flower is at the middle of the stem)
Rattlesnake plant
Red dracaena
Root beer plant, which smells like it! Shampoo plant! The bracts can be squeezed for aromatic soap.
Soursop aka guanábana, which rot before ripening
Spinach, including Malabar, Pacific, and Brazilian
Sugar cane
Sweet potato, with edible leaves
Turmeric, the deep orange root
Water apple, not blooming
Yellow oleander

Superpowers

There are a few minor superpowers that one gains by walking long enough through the woods.

Your sense of smell will sharpen. You will be able to tell which approaching hikers are only out for the day: they will smell like Bath & Body Works, Irish Spring, cologne, and/or dryer sheets. You will be able to smell a campfire (or even what’s cooking on it) a mile away–just remember, it might be someone’s backyard barbeque, far off the trail, that you will never reach. There is one exception to your new supernose, however, which is both a blessing and a curse: you won’t usually be able to smell yourself. You might forget this until you go into a fine dining establishment in a nice little town and catch people with vinegary expressions backing away from you.

You will rarely fall. But you will stumble every day. You will make inadvisable foot placements, neglect to notice a sharp rock or root, flail your arms and grasp for balance. I’ve fallen fewer than five times out here, and most involved mud, ice, or snow (the last of which is best: cushioned and non-staining). Your most embarrassing slips, however, will be in town. You will stride mile after mile through difficult terrain all day, then arrive in town and trip up the front steps of some well-populated establishment. Passerby will wonder how the hell you made it to New Hampshire from Georgia if you can’t even climb stairs.

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(This is one of J’s photos, and bears no relation to anything in this post. It’s just cool.)

You will develop knowledge that is completely inapplicable in the “real” world, but that is indispensable in the woods. Such as: if the temperature is going to be near freezing overnight, loosen your shoelaces and tuck your shoes inside your tent, where they will stay a few degrees warmer thanks to your body heat. Otherwise, you will be unable to put them in the morning. The laces will stick straight out like Pippi Longstocking’s braids, and you will have to boil water to thaw your shoes… which means you have to get your stove out in your stocking feet on frozen ground.

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You will be able to tell when you are the first person to use a trail on any given day, and where another person ahead of you began their trek that morning. How? Through dozens of invisible spiderwebs you will break each mile until another person has taken up the honor. It’s like winning several hundred tiny marathons daily, except the ribbons don’t gracefully fly free as you stretch your arms in the air triumphantly–they cling around you, tickling, and occasionally deliver a small, frightened spider somewhere on your person.

You will develop amazing, giant, slightly revolting leg muscles. However, your arm muscles will wither away, and if you ever did ab work, the benefits of it will disappear. It is the superpower of the T. Rex training plan.

Finally, you will become friends with the plants and animals. Over the months, my wildlife sighting list has grown dramatically. There are still many creatures in the woods that you will not know, but every time you recognize a maidenhair fern, a wild rose, or a chattering chipmunk, you will greet it, and feel more at home.

(Speaking of which, anybody know what this plant is? I’ve been watching the leaves grow for months, awaiting the blooms… and now the green flower bunches are mystifying me.)
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PS. Here’s what you might look like once you gain these special powers:

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Yeah, yeah, but I can explain: it was cold out, hence the rain chaps, the hoodie, and the gloves… but it was sunny, so I had to wear the ballcap backwards so I could get maximum Vitamin D. See?

Holy Weeds

“A buck and two random acts of kindness.”

“Two random what?” I ask, thinking maybe he’d said two random patchy wild ones.

He’s wrapping wet newspaper around the small diameter of stems, rubber banding the bouquet. “Two random acts of kindness,” he clarifies. “The size of the smile on you, it shouldn’t be hard to pass along.”

He cuts his conversation back to the couple looking over the spread of flowers under the shade of the farmer’s market booth, explaining why what we’re oohing and ahhing over, and shelling out greenbacks for, are often classified as weeds:

A weed is any plant that’s growing where someone doesn’t want it. Doesn’t mean it’s a bad plant. Nobody thinks of lupine as a weed, but it’s been considered one before. And weeds are the hardiest, toughest flowers and grasses, with the brightest colors. I can promise you any of these flowers, except this one and maybe this one, will last seven to ten days, as long as you treat it right. Don’t put it in water you wouldn’t drink yourself. And even this one, it’ll shed its petals in a few days, but look what it leaves behind–it’s still architecturally interesting.” He’s fingering a blown bud, round and taut, with a kiss of daddy-long-legsy spindles exploding from its center in perfect right angles.

His treasure is on display in dozens of jars, vases, and buckets set on folding tables or right on the ground. Each is loaded with a single variety of grass, reed, or bloom. He points, drops Latin names, common names, tendencies, talents, casually expert about his charges.

No, I no longer think of flowers as a bunch of scentless, waxy roses shipped on ice from Colombia, grown by underpaid, oversprayed workers, petals invisibly dripping with fossil fuel. Not after the hardy, stemmy blooms growing along the edges of compost piles in Ohio, brightening an ugly apartment with their orange and magenta attitudes. Not after the wildflowers hiding under fern fronds, found secrets in the pine woods of Georgia, prizes to be left growing for others to find among fiddleheads. And not after this farmer’s market in Montana, realm of the flower man, who packs away his living wares when the morning’s over, but leaves behind bursts of color on the windowsills and nightstands and kitchen counters of city people.

Oh, two random acts of kindness. I hand him the dollar, thank him, take the flowers. They’re so fresh and real that bees follow me home, circling, wanting to taste. I nest the bouquet in an old beer bottle full of pure water and would stare at the pink and lavender stems and yellow leaves all afternoon if I didn’t have a job to get to.

The hours bring distraction, and by the time I return, a storm has blown through the valley and gone. It soaked my customers, blew the automatic doors off the hinges, ripped the sales flyers off their racks… and funneled through the little kitchen window, overturning the bottle of precious weeds. A puddle on the floor, dry flowers, the three long necks broken. Sopping the mess, finding a tiny jar for the cut-off necks — they are hardy after all, and go right on blooming even after being thus abused — I realize I’d forgotten all about the two kindnesses. Is there not more time to be good, to prove that weeds too are holy?