Continued from, Preparing to hike the John Muir Trail
An Anecdote from the Trail
One long day during my trek, I planned to camp by a lake that was almost 12,000 feet in elevation. This particular day was going to be another eighteen miles of hiking. Later that afternoon I met an older gentleman (older than me, at least) coming down the same trail I was headed up. We offered the usual greetings, and he asked where I planned to camp that night. After hearing of my planned destination, he asked if I had hiked this portion of the trail before (that should have been a warning sign!). I replied that I had not since this was my first JMT. He remarked that the next few miles were “a bitch.” Hoping for a different reality, I told myself he must have been a negative type: the whole trail is hard if you looked at it the way he did. WRONG. The man was not negative—he was coarsely stating the obvious. That short section of just a few miles is unusually rugged and was a lot of work for weary legs at the end of a long day.
As I neared my destination, the trail made a quick turn to the right along a dry streambed. As I was looking around to see where the track led, I got tripped up in my trekking poles and did a pounding face-plant into the rocks. This all hurt so bad—you know, that traumatic shock!—that I thought it possibly the end of my journey right then and there.
Slowly, I recovered enough to do a self-assessment: sprained fingers and a wrist, scraped knees, and something quite askew with my face. (I’ll save your sensibilities by not including the iPhone selfies I took of that facial injury!) I rinsed everything and felt about to see how bad the injury might be, finding a hole with my tongue on the inside of my lip and a hole with my finger on the outside. Did I have a hole through my lip? How am I going to blow up my air mattress with a hole in my lip? Fortunately, the hole did not go all the way through, the injury did not end my trip, and the damage did eventually heal.
To offset this painful and, I’ll be honest, embarrassing event, that night was so very quiet, eerily calm, and sublime—it was beyond imagining. I wrote of that night in my journal the next morning:
“Last night, no sound whatsoever. No ripple slap on the shoreline of the glass-smooth lake. Not even the smallest itinerant breath of air to rustle my abode. No bird or rodent sounds. Nothing. The creatures appreciated as much as I did those surreal night hours when it was so quiet and the evening’s darkness was so keen. There was no light pollution at all. The celestial brilliance of the stars could only ever be overshadowed by the nearly overwhelming quiet, the freakish calm of that night.”
My Typical Day on the JMT
It all begins by slipping out of the sleeping bag and into the cleanest clothes available at the time.
I collect my food cache in its bear-proof storage container, the BearVault™ 500, then come back to my campsite to heat water for breakfast. Oatmeal and tea. Always oatmeal and tea. (Stay tuned for reviews of the BV500 and some of my other gear in future posts.)
An idyllic setting off-trail near Upper Palisade Lake, north of Mather Pass. Photo credit: Brien Crothers
I am a minimalist in the wilderness and heat water for the oatmeal, then heat water for my tea, drinking the tea right from the same pot. I pack no mug. While sipping my tea, I begin to break down camp and reload my pack.
Even though my gear is spread over a quarter acre during the night—bear vault over here, cooking gear over there, and lean-to with sleeping cocoon at the flattest place in camp— it all goes back into place and rests on my back before I walk away the next morning, with one last glance over my shoulder to make sure I have everything.
As I repack my belongings, I refill my water bottles and load the day’s lunch and snacks into a pouch on my waist belt. As I hike along the route, I snack on nuts and bars, only occasionally pausing to refill a water bottle. I stop at midday for a lunch break of fifteen or twenty minutes. My afternoons are much like the mornings: I snack on nuts and bars as I stride along, ascending and descending hills, and taking pictures.
I covered the 211-mile JMT in twelve days, hiking about eighteen miles a day. As I planned the trip, I reasoned that if I were to hike at a slow pace of 1.8 miles per hour, it would take only ten hours to cover eighteen miles per day. My pace was about average, but I usually don’t stop very often and I hike for more hours in a given day than most. I enjoy the trail so much, I can’t get enough!
Most people attempting the JMT will take around three weeks to complete the distance, but other hikers I spoke with along the trail were on track to complete it in seven days. It’s important to remember to hike your own hike, at a pace that works for you.
The key to a successful day of hiking was finding the right campsite. I generally knew in advance where I wanted to camp by looking ahead in my map book, but sometimes there were several sites to choose from. I wanted my site to have shade and a view, be near to water, be flat, and be previously established. Upon arrival, the first order of business is to set up the lean-to, followed by washing my clothes and myself. I washed my feet every day, my hair every other day, and went swimming whenever I could to wash all the other bits.
Washing clothes is quite taxing at the end of a long day on the trail. I would wet the item in a stream or lake, then walk some distance away (to keep the waterways clean) and apply a biodegradable soap. I would scrub and beat the item on a rock, rinse it with water from my water bottles, wring it out, and finally hang it up or lay it on a granite slab heated by the sun to dry.
Then it’s dinnertime: eating a freeze-dried meal is a ritual. I begin by telling myself how very hungry I am and how the meal is going to taste so great. I read the directions on the package, heat some water, add it to the package, stir the concoction, and set it aside for several minutes. Then, before eating, I try to convince myself again of how great the dinner is going to be! After awhile, I got used to these modern-day freeze-dried meals. Sure, they were not fantastic home-cooked meals, but they did provide needed nourishment and got me through the next major phase—sleeping. After dinner, I clean up and critter-proof the camp.
As soon as the sun sets behind the canyon walls—usually about 7:00 p.m.—I slip into my cocoon, read for an hour or two, and fall asleep. Only to repeat the whole cycle the next day.
I found that the truly hardest part of the day was getting up in the morning (after all, I’m a grandfather). The many mountain peaks would glisten in view from my sleeping bag. It was early, but it was time to get up and get moving, and it was usually cold out there.
I would eventually slip out of my bag, turn slightly to bring my feet out, and slide them into a pair of old Crocs™. From there, it took all my upper body strength to rise from the ground to my feet.
Sophia Loren once said about aging gracefully, “Don’t make old man sounds; don’t grunt with effort.” It’s an attitude thing. I would have disappointed Ms. Loren greatly each and every morning on my JMT journey.
All this routine, this daily effort, begs the question of why do I do this? Why should anyone put in so much effort?
I remind myself that I do the work for the chance to experience something I don’t get to see and experience every day: incredible beauty! The visceral response I have to such beauty in the world is worthy of the work.
The following pictures are some of my favorites, but they do not come close to the beauty witnessed in that particular moment. Because I took these pictures, I can slip back into that moment, that setting, and feel again a bit of the grandeur, the scale, and the solace. You’ll have to experience the JMT for yourself. Photo credits: Brien Crothers
Coming up next in this series, A Few Impressions of the JMT (in No Real Order)