Dose of Awesome # 284

You don’t realize how much you don’t actually need until you have to fit it all into a 75 litre backpack and carry it over mountains for days on end. You can get by with a lot less than you think, even in extreme circumstances.

As I packed for the John Muir Trail, I tried to keep it to a minimum. Learning from past experiences on smaller treks, I knew that there was always room to make things smaller and lighter, but that how to do it might not always be obvious. I just never put much thought into it before, because I never had to.

In the past, the most food I had to carry was a few snacks, and maybe a lunch for the day. On the Inca Trail, my food (and most of my gear) was carried by porters; on the Tour du Mont Blanc and in the Dolomites, I hiked hut-to-hut, where multiple course meals were provided almost on arrival; on the Laugavegur Trail, food and camp gear was transported from one camp to the next in a van (though, at the time, I knew I’d be hiking the John Muir Trail and had opted to carry most of my own gear as I hiked, in preparation). Still, compared to all my past experiences, this trek was a whole other animal – it was time for me to start thinking about ounces.

I meticulously considered each and every item I had in my pack. I had:

-A lightweight Therma-Rest and sleeping bag
-Two pairs of pants
-Two t-shirts
-Two pairs of underwear (one of each to wear, and one of each to wash)
-Three pairs of socks (one to wear, one to wash, and an extra in case my washed ones didn’t dry in time – I figured it would be worth it to splurge on dry feet for this one)
-Long johns and a thermal base layer
-One long sleeve shirt
-A fleece sweater
-A rain coat, rain pants and a rain cover for my pack
-A pair of running shoes to wear at camp each night
-Such essentials as water bottles (two one-litre Nalgene bottles), sunglasses, a Swiss Army knife, a headlamp with spare batteries, a pack towel, a spork, and collapsable cup and bowl.
-My toiletries consisted of my toothbrush and a travel-sized tube of toothpaste, and the smallest bottle of bug repellent, sun screen, hand sanitizer and first aid kit I could justify.
-My luxury items included my camera and a spare battery, my iPod, and a pair of tweezers and a travel-sized mirror.
-I also had a book to read, and my journal for writing.

Keeping in mind that I’d still be carrying several days worth of food, a bear can, part of a tent and group gear, I wanted to keep it light. For a 23 day trek, I thought I’d done alright.

The morning I was to begin my trek, I picked up my beautifully organized pack and experienced the mélange of feelings that I would imagine many through-hikers experience as they lift their pack for the first time. I was both shocked and disappointed by its weight. I was also a bit intimidated. How would I carry this, for 23 days?

As I took another mental inventory of the contents of my pack, I was stumped and overwhelmed. The only thing I felt  willing and able to sacrifice was my book. I had solid reasons for keeping everything else (not to mention, everything in their was on the packing list provided by my guides). As much as I looked forward to reading the book, I figured I’d be busy enough either living the magic of the trail, or writing about it in my journal that I could do without it (I found myself bored enough in the mountains, I could pluck my eyebrows).

I knew, though, that I needed to get rid of more than a book to save weight.

One of the perks of staying in hostels is the people you meet. Hostels are full of people from all over the world, and time spent in hostels are full of fleeting conversations with them about their varying travels and experiences. In Mammoth Lakes, my hostel was full of hikers – day hikers, section hikers, and through-hikers of both the John Muir and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Awesome were these people.

Awesome are not only the stories they shared, but also the encouragement they offered as I picked their brains over the course of my 3 days in Mammoth Lakes.

Especially awesome is the woman, whose name I never did actually catch, who took time that morning to help me pare down the contents of my pack. With her help, I was able to do so without sacrificing anything. She suggested I cut my pack towel in thirds and bring only one third, that I mail things to myself in resupplies (like that extra t-shirt and pair of socks) that I wouldn’t need right away, and convinced me to bring a pair of flip flops rather than my running shoes. Without her help, I probably would have never thought to cut the handle off my tooth brush, leave the deodorant behind (it’s futile, anyway), or tear my book into sections (each to be sent in a resupply along the way). These things that might seem insignificant, but do add up to make an enormous difference in weight. Without her help, I probably would have found myself trudging along the John Muir Trail with a monster of a pack that not only would have held me back, but probably would have put a damper on my experience.

To all the hikers I met in Mammoth Lakes: nakurmiik for your stories, help, and encouragement!

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All organized and ready to pack!

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My pack, which didn’t normally have things dangling from it, but it was laundry day in the wild.

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Dose of Awesome # 283

There were only two times I’d really questioned my decision to hike the John Muir Trail. The first time, I was clinging to a boulder in the middle of a waterfall a few hundred feet up a mountain. We were ten days, and almost 100 miles into our trek. Forced to take a zero day by delayed arrival of the mule train that carried our resupplies, some of us decided to take advantage of the extra time and attempt to summit the insurmountable Giraud Peak, which overlooked our camp. Though technically we weren’t on the John Muir Trail at that point, I was on an adventure of a lifetime and part of that, I felt, called for doing it all.

The second time was the very next day. Almost 11,000 feet above sea level, in a tent I was only able to half set up before panic got the best of me, I sat huddled atop both my pack and my Therma-Rest for insulation in case lightning struck (and inside my sleeping bag for good measure), as a thunder storm exploded all around me – an experience made all the more harrowing as thunder echoed off the mountains with an inescapable fervor.

Sure, there were other times throughout my 23 days on the trail that I would have given anything for a foot massage and a hot shower (a gallon of ice cream wouldn’t have hurt, either). There were times (near-whole days, even) that the straps of the 38 pound pack I’d carried felt like knives slicing into my shoulder blades, and I fought the urge to eat the entire contents of my bear can just to find a little relief. There were other times, between blisters and a sprained ankle (the result of a mishap involving an inconveniently-placed rock, a swarm of mosquitoes and a steep descent out of camp at Bench Lake), that I’d wondered whether I’d ever walk with grace or ease again.

But stronger than any discomfort endured on the John Muir Trail (even stronger than armpits smellier than I’d ever imagined possible), was an insatiable hunger for more – more mountains, more wilderness, and more of all the challenges along the way. It was this insatiable hunger that pushed me to keep going as I hiked the 350 kilometers between Cottonwood Pass and Tuolumne Meadows. It all but carried me as I climbed more than a cumulative 37,000 feet up mountains, ridges and passes along the way (which, for a matter of perspective, is as high as planes fly).

Awesome was the journey, which, try as I might, I will probably never adequately put into words, and awesome is celebrating the single-most challenging physical feat I’d ever completed. I’m still processing it. Awesome was reminding myself several times a day, every day, that I am capable of more, both physically and mentally, than I sometimes think possible. Awesome are all the small things – describable and not – that I will take from my experiences on the trail and carry into my day-to-day life.

And awesome was sharing this experience with a group of strangers – each and every one of whom had something to teach me about the world, about hiking, and about myself – and awesome was the magic of an experience that can never be replicated, even if we were all to do it again together. Emily, Aline, Henk, Lisa, Catherine, Sam, Patrick, Bob, Randy, Ted, and especially our guides, Alwyne and Jarrette, thank you for being part of this magic. As I try to capture the essence of our trek over the next few blog posts, I dedicate my efforts to your courage, strength, and little bits of uniqueness that I found so inspirational.

Nakurmiimairaaluk ❤️

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