It’s been more than a month since we toasted champagne in the parking lot at Tuolumne Meadows, marking the end of our John Muir Trail. It’s been more than a month since the eleven of us – Bob, Ted, Henk, Lisa, Patrick, Aline, Emily, Randy, and our guides Jarette and Alwyne – parted ways and scattered between Bishop and Mammoth Lakes, as we set off to enjoy the remainder of our time in California in our own ways, and made our way back to what waited for us.
As I try to rewind, I am thankful for the magic of the JMT that burns within just as strongly today as it did for the entire 350 kilometres of the trail. I call it magic because I don’t know how else to describe it. It comes from the experience of living day by day with nothing more than I carried on my back; from being totally immersed in nature, unspoiled by any of the distractions that comes from life in civilization; from unique group dynamics, shaped by each of our personalities, and evolving in light of our collective experiences on the trail; from all the aches, sweat, tears, bruises and blisters, but at the same time, the many beautiful and sometimes meditative hours spent hiking each day. It comes from a huge sense of accomplishment as I surprised myself both physically and mentally on a near-daily basis, and the sharing of that with a group of people who were, just a few weeks before, complete strangers. And it comes from something deeply personal and individual, influenced by the events of not only the previous half year, but of my entire life. It’s not only indescribable, it’s something that could never be replicated again, even if we were all to reunite and hike the JMT all over again. That’s how special this magic is.
One month and a bit later, I am thankful to have not lost this magic. I am thankful that it has not even faded. Even though a month doesn’t sound long, it has been busy enough to cause me to forget a little bit. Throwing myself back into work, with a new class of sixth grade students, a beading workshop to teach, meetings and committees, along with a personal life in Kuujjuaq complete with violin lessons, meetings, yoga classes and whatnot, it was easy to lose touch with the magic of the trail. But it doesn’t take much to find it again. Though I know that no matter what I write today, it will inadequately capture this magic, awesome is the fact that I still feel it.
“The Mountains Are Calling, And I Must Go” – John Muir
The actual JMT heading north toward Yosemite starts at the top of Mount Whitney, but we had no choice but to get there by foot. Due to strict trail permit regulations and construction complications at Whitney Portal, our JMT began at Chicken Springs Lake. Thus, we had approximately 50 kilometres of hiking ahead of us before technically starting the JMT itself.
Hiking northbound, we were faced with the highest elevations of the entire trek right from the get-go. With little time to acclimatize, the most strenuous days for us were at the beginning, complete with a 14 500 foot Mount Whitney summit just 4 days in. At the same time, we had to get used to carrying a heavy pack, and carried our largest resupply of the entire trip for the first 7 days.
The first few days were humbling. Winded by the altitude, the steep terrain, and my pack, I was reminded of a time I was very overweight and very out of shape. In those first few days, I learned that I can always slow down more (as Henk would say “there are 50 shades of slow”). At times, even when I didn’t think I could move any more slowly, I forced myself to reduce my pace by half, as I’d prefer to keep moving even at a snail’s pace, than to stop frequently and lose momentum. I also learned that I can do far more than I ever thought physically possible.
Life on the trail was fairly similar from day to day. We’d wake up in the morning to hot water for tea or coffee, which we drank as we began to pack up camp (a process which worked like a well-oiled machine in no time, as packing became very systematic and fast). I’d found something satisfying in the fact that everything had a specific place in my pack. On a journey as nomadic as this one, this consistency felt comforting.
Then we’d have breakfast. After breakfast, we’d finish packing our tents, take care of personal business (usually entailing brushing teeth and scoping out a good place to bury poop). Just before setting off, we’d do morning yoga and a map briefing.
We typically hiked 8 to 10 hours in a day. We had a few shorter days, and we had a few longer days. But on average, they were 8 to 10 hours, with a few shorter breaks, and a longer lunch break interspersed throughout. In the beginning, as we acclimatized, and as we grew accustomed to the trail, we hiked together. However, after a few days, we were able to spread out more. I’d found a healthy balance of hiking with the group, hiking with one or two friends, and hiking alone.
Our evenings were what made our JMT so unique. Arriving at camp typically around 3 or 4 pm, we’d set up camp, take some time to wash (ourselves and our clothes) in the nearest lake or creek, eat dinner, read a book or write in a journal, and relax with hot drinks, great conversation, and sometimes a game of cribbage or cards. Again, I loved the consistency of setting up camp, and the feeling of it being done after a long, hard day of hiking. But what I loved even more was the fact that every campsite was so different from one to the next.
We were usually sleeping by 9 pm (hiker midnight), but on a few occasions I’d find it within myself to stay up late enough to watch the stars pop out – a truly magnificent sight in the Sierras. On one particular night (at Lake 1160) I’d decided not to set up my tent at all, but rather to sleep under the stars. Patrick and I played Crazy Eights atop a boulder under the golden sun set. When the sun disappeared behind the mountains, we went to bed. A few hours later, I woke up, wrapped entirely in my sleeping bag (save for my eyes), to the stars and the milky way glimmering above. It was so vibrant it didn’t even seem real.
On “Whitney Day”, we woke up at 2:30 am and left base camp at 3:00. The full moon rendered our headlamps unnecessary as we begin our hike to the summit and back. I was the second of the group to arrive at the summit after a challenging 6.5 hour day of seemingly endless switchbacks and steep ascent. Patrick was the first. We passed the time posing for photos and admiring the view as the others arrived one-by-one. It did not take long for the altitude sickness to start setting in, though. Nauseous and with a terrible headache before we’d even finished lunch, I questioned my ability to make the 5.5 hour descent back to camp. It’s true what they say, though – just going even 100 feet down can make all the difference. In no time, I was feeling back to normal and on my way. Interesting was hiking back along the same trail, but seeing almost half of it for the first time. Since we’d hiked halfway up the mountain in the dark, we’d missed much of the view on the way up (though hiking by moonlight is a whole other experience of awesome).
After Whitney, everything felt easier. We left base camp on our fifth day for a 15 kilometre uphill hike to Tyndell Creek, and I found that my pack felt infinitely lighter and the ascents easier. Awesome was getting through the toughest days of the trek!