July 12, 2021
My pilgrimage of 422,000 steps, marked with dots registered by satellites orbiting the earth, was a journey of self-discovery that began in Yosemite National Park and ended 30.4 miles short of the John Muir Trail’s final terminus, the apex of Mount Whitney.
Having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail solo in 2015 over a period of six months, I imagined three weeks alone on trail would be “a breeze”. Boy, was I quickly humbled by the power of the Sierra wilderness! Three hail and lightning storms, two bears, three coyotes, twelve deer, four ducks, millions of mosquitoes, numerous marmots, birds, pikas, Golden-Mantled ground squirrels, and some of Scruffy’s remains were my only companions through much of my alpine adventure. On one of the most remote trails in the nation, I was almost completely disconnected from the people in my life with zero cell reception for days upon days. I only had myself and the strangers I met on trail, most of whom were PCT hikers going the opposite direction. I noted early on that encountering other solo hikers on the JMT was an anomaly. Nearly everyone I met had embarked on this adventure with at least one other human, and it was easy to see why. Loneliness consumed me like a heavy cloak, having no one with whom to share any of the myriad daily experiences. The JMT resembled nothing of the Appalachian Trail which had taught me six years ago to love hiking alone.
Thankfully, the trail always provides. Fortune smiled down on me, and I met a few good souls traveling my way for several days and nights of companionship. “Number 8”, a 19-year-old guy who took his first backpacking trip two weeks prior, was a friendly camping companion the first few nights. My third night on trail, I met a group of gals who would become lifetime friends in only a few short days. Bella (Buggy), Keeley (Bear), and Kara spent a rainy night with me in a hiker cabin at Red’s Meadow Hostel, shared life stories as we walked big miles together up and over mountain passes, survived a harrowing experience with Mother Nature’s electrifying vengeance on an exposed ridge, and laughed together so hard that tears streamed down our faces. My newfound friends exited the trail about halfway through, and I was on my own again. The grueling miles felt longer and the nights camping were lonesome. Continuing on without them was one of the hardest decisions I had to make. Faced with a big temptation to depart the trail and go on a road trip adventure with my new friends, I instead loaded my backpack with 18 pounds of food smashed into my bear canister and thought of all the homeless cats and dogs in my community who would benefit from me completing the miles I’d promised. I put my head down, and set off into the most remote section of the trail with no escape for almost 100 miles. Seven days later, my hike ended in Onion Valley where Bella and Kara picked me up at the trailhead, shuttled me four hours to Las Vegas, woke up at 3:45 in the morning to get me to the airport for my 6am flight, and continued their adventure to the Grand Canyon. People are amazing.
The John Muir Trail was an illuminating sensory experience. My virgin eyes gazed upon a world so foreign, it might as well have been a walk on another planet. Sometimes the terrain actually mirrored our lunar moonscape! Alpine lakes are ubiquitous in the June Sierras and are a stunning sight to distract a hiker from simply focusing on making the miles. Lakes and streams flowing crystal clear water, reflecting the blues of the sky and the greens of the surrounding pines and hemlocks are invitations to stop for a refreshing swim or enjoy nature’s pedicure by soaking tired and blistered feet. Admittedly, if I never cross another creek in my lifetime, it will be too soon, but thanks to the low snow year, none of the crossings were as dangerous as they would have been normally. From verdant valleys filled with the purples, yellows, and reds of wildflowers to the black death and glaring silence of a charred woodland scarred by forest fires of recent years, each section of the trail had something to teach those filled with wanderlust to experience her.
My ears heard foreign sounds. Nighttime noises such as the eerie cacophony of wailing coyote packs were frequent lullabies. Thunder at exposure, over 10,000 feet high, boomed at a previously unimaginable decibel level and echoed across the canyon below. My sense of smell was excited by breathing the crispest, cleanest air yet confused by air so dry that my nose never could quite adjust to it. My taste buds soaked up the deliciousness of drinking the purest water yet protested the grossness of another peanut butter and jelly-smeared tortilla that I had to force down my throat. I felt the skin-prickling refreshment of a swim in frigid mountain lakes on hot, sweaty days. My hands were gloved in thick layers of dirt accumulating between washings, and the exposed skin on my body felt the heaviness of days of built-up oil, sweat, Deet, and sunscreen. The sunshine at JMT elevations where shade is nonexistent for most hours of the day microwaves skin, so my favorite trail hours were early morning when I could hike in daylight not yet touched by the sun still hiding behind surrounding mountains. The constant companions of tiny mosquitoes, so numerous their hums were audible, presented a massively miserable challenge. So determined were they to feast on their new friend that they would light on my shirt and pierce their proboscis through my Permethrin treated clothes for a taste of the blood flowing under my skin. Visualize this — a hiker squatting and swatting those suckers from unmentionable areas while uncomfortably trying to take care of business on the side of a mountain was misery defined in the moment but something to giggle about later.
In the low points and the high, I found the clarity I was seeking from this journey. One hundred eighty JMT trail miles and thirty-one additional trail miles into and out of places to collect my resupply items and experience notable views gave me a much-needed reprieve from the rapidity of everyday life and technology. Although my experience would have been enhanced by a few moments of cell service to share my thoughts and photos with my friends and family along the way, the habitual instinct to check my phone was beautifully interrupted. I was reminded that shared experiences with people are what bring life to the best and the worst. I learned that not all trails are considered equal. I internalized the happiness I find in my home. I noticed the greatness of the little things so easily taken for granted elsewhere…finding a giant rock boulder to use as a chair in a shady rest spot, the peaceful music of a babbling brook as I lay my head down to sleep at night, the taste of an unexpected trail magic hamburger and beer on July 4th in the middle of nowhere, the joy of meeting a fellow hiker on the summit of a mountain and sharing lunch while trading stories, the pride in forcing mind over matter to continue walking when physically, mentally, and emotionally spent.
As earthquakes rattled parts of the trail, excessive heat warnings were put into place, and a UTI caused constant discomfort, I knew it was time to come home. On my last full trail day, I celebrated by forming my first-ever July snowball and throwing it as far as possible, releasing it from its semi-permanently frozen state. I thanked the trail for her lessons while joyfully anticipating the near relief for my blistered feet, bruised hips, aching back, and lonely heart. I am happy to be home and ecstatic for the journey I completed. It was exactly what I needed, even if it wasn’t anything like I expected.