It's a strange feeling waking up on the morning you are to start on such a journey. Energized. Similar to the excitement of the first day of vacation, but with added dread - anxiousness loomed overhead. Over the next two days we would leave our car at the end of the JMT and make our way to Yosemite. We had put a lot of effort into making this trip possible and many things would have to fall into place to make it work. As an incessant task master I had to remind myself to let go and surrender to the conditions, and not lose sight of purpose of this trip - to enjoy life.
We drove to the Whitney Portal and parked in the long term parking lot. Everything we had in our backpacks and on our bodies would suffice us for the next eleven days. I had just one t-shirt, one pair of shorts, one pair of underwear... I had one of everything. Except socks.
We did a final gear check before locking the car and putting a stash in the bear bin, including toiletry products and deodorant that we would not be taking along on the trip. Au naturale. Our food was all set for the first four days. We decided we would only stock up once along the route at the Muir Trail Ranch, exactly halfway. We mailed two buckets (literally) of food weeks earlier, but the Ranch sent us confirmation that they had only received one of them so far. My bucket was nowhere to be found, which worried us slightly.
Another looming problem was the ever growing Rim Fire, Yosemite National Park's largest recorded wildfire. Just the day before, the park closed down Highway 120,which is the only way to get from Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite Valley. We had no way to get to the start of the JMT till they reopened the road. Much was uncertain.
The first order of business was to hitch a ride the 12 miles back to Lone Pine. We walked along the road for about a mile and a half, longer than we've ever had to walk while hitch hiking. A man named Jim from Mammoth was our chafer to town. He would be day hiking Whitney With his daughter the next day and was scoping out the parking situation and kindly offered us a lift.
|Watching the mountains pass as we drive north, knowing |
we'd have to hike the same distance back south
After many thanks we parted with Jim and headed for the Lone Pine McDonald’s where the new bus stop had been moved. I savored a McFlurry and was bombarded with memories of my youth working at a McDonald’s, while watching out the window for the Eastern Sierra bus to Mammoth. You know you're in a small town when the bus driver is actually helpful and stops by her house quickly to get something from her husband.
We gazed out the window watching the sun set over the ominous Sierra Mountains as the locals got on and off the bus. Each mile we drove north we knew we would have to retread south. We were worlds away from home, yet we were in a world that felt like home. So many weekends we escape to the Sierra that we feel a small part of community.
As the bus drove past Convict Lake I gazed over the line of blue water and imagined being there: the yellow setting sun, relaxing by the calm water lapping against the shore. I wanted to be there more than I wanted to face the proposition I was headed toward. I thought of my co-worker who frequently fished at Convict Lake. Jason and I had never been there, like so many places we continually pass but do not know. We’re always moving, always pushing, rarely relaxing and just enjoying. It made me think of fishing with my Dad as a little kid and how much I enjoyed it, as much for the bonding time as for the sport. Something stirred in me in that moment, driving past the lake. I wanted to fish. But I wasn't a fisherman! I resolved to learn fishing - fly fishing -once we returned from this crazy roller coaster ride.
That night we stayed at the Shiloh Inn and ate dinner at the Mammoth Chart House, toasting to success over Riesling and shrimp, while wearing Capilene tops and Houdini pants. At every opportunity Jason gleefully told others about our adventure ahead. For the first time since I was ten years old, I couldn't finish my dinner – I was nervous.
|Smoke on the horizon in Tuolumne|
The sole purpose of the next day was to find a way into Yosemite Valley and get a permit. Due to bus schedules and the Rim Fire we resolved to go to the Permit Office in Tuolumne and try our luck there.
We were going to take the 11am bus to Yosemite but Jason’s guts told him to take the 8am bus instead. Later we found out that the11am bus was cancelled due to the fire – lucky us. On the bus we met a trio of guys who were day hiking from Tuolumne to Agnew Meadows. The Yosemite Rim Fire had been burning for about a month at that point and the park was empty - we were the only ones on the bus. The bus driver said the Rim Fire dramatically reduced visitation.
When we got off the bus at Tuolumne the air smelled like smoke. An opaque white line of smoke marked the northern horizon. ‘As long as it doesn't blow south,’ we said naively.
From there we headed over to the permit office and were first in line for the 11am acquisition of permits for the following day. We made some friends after sitting in the queue for two hours, including a surfer college student. He was bright and interesting, constantly commenting on the wonders of life. A physics student at Santa Barbara, he had a very laid back, stoner aura, but at 21 this kid had his shit together. He and two other friends were also attempting to fastpack the trail in ten days. To be so young and not be afraid to tackle such lofty goals is a rare thing. I couldn't imagine experiencing something as large as the John Muir Trail at the same time you're allowed into bars for the first time. I was jealous of their ambition compared to my own at that age. We were hoping we'd see more of these kids on the trail but never intercepted them.
While waiting in line we talked a lot of strategy with other hikers. We were in Tuolumne but were hoping to get permits to start at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, the official start to the JMT.
As much as I would have liked to cut 24 miles off the trip, it didn't feel right. If we did finish the trip it would have an asterisk next to it: *Didn't hike the entire John Muir Trail. It was a no brainer, we'd start our hike in Happy Isles, and we’d have to employ the only way to get there that was available – our feet.
|Olmstead Point relief marker|
We located a trail on the topo app on my phone, starting at Olmstead Point and heading down Titus Canyon to the valley. It would add ten miles to our trip, and we’d have to hike it that afternoon, but it was the only way to get there. After a good deal of back and forth with a stonewalling park ranger, Jason eventually got a permit for Tuolumne for the next day, with the caveat that we would have to assure them we could day hike the 28 miles to the intersection with Vogelsang to be out of the Tuolumne Meadow zone to camp.
After a bite at The Grill, and dashing off the shuttle bus to stash our cache at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead bear bins, we arrived at Olmstead point. We ran our fingers over the metal relief map and looked across the smoky expanse to Cloud’s Rest. This was it. Kinda. We started our odyssey hiking down the trail to Yosemite Valley. Ten miles down. It got hot. And it got smoky. Half Dome stood dominant to the south of us, beckoning another adventure, but for now I was only thinking about getting to the bottom. Ten extra miles - it killed me to think we had to lengthen the trip, every mile counted, but there’s no other way we would rather do it.
|Smokey god-rays fill The Valley|
Yosemite Valley was so empty due to the wildfire that we figured we could probably find a hotel room for our last night. Our choice tastes lead us to the Ahwahnee Lodge where we couldn't afford a room, and were not properly dressed for the restaurant. The bearded guy at the front desk helped us book a tent-room at Curry Village. He had to wear a dress shirt and vest as his uniform, but his goatee and long hair evidenced a more bohemian lifestyle, someone like us. He asked what we were up to and we told him we were starting the JMT in the morning. I’ll never forget his reply. He looked at us earnestly and said, 'You're going to love it.' It’s the same wistful look that everyone who has done the trail wears while reminiscing. I didn't quite believe him. We had a lot to do and I couldn't keep from being stressed. I wanted to believe him and it was clear from the look on his face that he loved his time on the trail.