Sunday, September 30, 2012

Racing the Season

There comes a time when the signs are impossible to ignore. Frost, a silver blanket on the grass in Brownie Basin. The casual disregard of warm clothes no longer a possibility. Nights longer and longer, darkness falling earlier each day. And so whatever your obsession is, you are wrapped up in it too tight to unspool, asking for just one more day.

My obsession is long distance hiking, especially in the alpine, but I know it is coming to an end. And if you are getting older like me, you have to wonder, how many more summers will there be? Because you still feel young, you still think you look pretty young, but you have had friends cut down early, and you think about things like this. Summers don't come as fast as they used to anymore. Sunshine is precious, each golden drop.

This time of year it is now or never. Snow could and has fallen this early. Some friends were going to be at one of my favorite lakes and even though I only had a few hours, I decided to put the hammer down and race up there for one night.

There are some nights in the backcountry that I can't sleep at all, and this was one of them. However, I wouldn't trade all the hours of sleep in the world for what happened. A full harvest moon rose over the canyon below us. The granite was flooded with light. A few stars paced through the sky. It was the most beautiful night ever.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

5Ks are hard

The other day I went to a triathlon to cheer on some friends. It brought back a lot of memories of the times when I used to compete. Standing there lamely cheering, I sorted through my reasons why I don't compete anymore. They are still valid--I don't want to spend money to do something I can do on my own. Despite not being front of the pack, I get too competitive and down on myself if people are faster. I want to do a lot of things, not just focus on training for one thing. And so on. But this looked fun. There were all sorts of people, ranging from the very serious tri-suited to the ones who were sitting on cruiser bikes. I started thinking that maybe I should branch out a little and be on a tri team next year.

Why not the whole thing, you ask? Well. I could probably do the swim. It's only 500 yards. The lake temperature was 59, which is bearable. The trick is learning how to swim with a bunch of other people. Usually I am the only one out there. If anyone is out swimming in the lake and they see another swim cap, they make a beeline to talk. That's what it's like here.

I could do the run, though. With that in mind, I decided to do a baseline run of the course. It's a 5K. Easy, I thought.

I used to complete this distance in about 22 minutes. Not fast, but not too shabby either. I think I broke 22 a few times, but it's been awhile. But today I puffed along at a much slower pace. It wasn't a ten minute mile, but it wasn't a seven minute one either.

I guess I could be depressed about this. But that would negate the reasons why I run. Some of my best runs have been in places and in conditions where running fast is just about impossible. I lived near the beach in Florida for a year, and I used to love running on the sand near the low tide line at sunset, with the people at the steps clapping as I approached. They were clapping at the sunset (side note: why do people do this?) but        I used to imagine it was for me. And then there have been all the trails: soggy and bear-haunted in Alaska, tiptoeing across slippery planks; navigating deadfall and rocks in Washington; running at 10,000 feet in Leadville; waiting out a hailstorm in a cave in Nevada. In my fast running days, I won a few trophies, but those aren't the runs I remember.

What I did remember is that 5Ks are hard. I don't really like them. I like endurance, effort evenly paced out over hours and miles. On my favorite trail runs, the fastest I can really go is an eleven minute mile. To do more is to invite face plants. And I like to look at stuff. The roads aren't really for me.

I don't think I'll change my ways. Don't look for me at the track anytime soon. I'll be out there on the trails, slowly shuffling along. Except for maybe one day in September, when the triathlon comes to town.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

scree is my weakness

If there's one thing that is guaranteed to turn me into a Whiny Baby, it's scree. I Do.Not.Like.It.

To be perfectly clear, I am not talking about the delightful, heart-soaring deep scree-skiing type scree, where you can bound gracefully in big leaps down a mountain. I am also not talking about boulder fields, which have their own challenges, but are quite lovely. No.

What I am referring to is the thin patina of Grape-Nut sized pebbles that coat a sheer rock face. No matter what shoes or boots I wear, they catch in the soles and I find myself in an uncontrolled slide. I will pretty much go anywhere, but if it involves sidehilling or descending in this type of scree, watch out.

So what was I doing clinging to the side of a mountain this weekend? Well. Love, and a rare plant. Love does not have to be explained, as it causes you to do unexplainable things. The plant, though, this plant is only known to grow in three mountain tops in the world (all around here). How could I pass that up? I couldn't.

Up on the ridge, safe from scree for the moment.

So there I was, back in the scree, being a Whiny Baby. The plant wasn't easy to spot; this summer has been one long drought, and it was well past its flower. We poked along the ridge, finding only small patches, but the scree was worth it to see them: small curlicue plants with flat seed pods, hanging in there despite adversity. I could do that too, I decided.

The air was so thick it was a color, smoke from a wildfire a couple of drainages over mixing with the drift from wildfires further south. All around us were reminders of fall. We did not see anyone for two days.

What's this? A walking tent? Nope. It's a person who didn't bring the tent instructions for a new tent, and is about to get a little annoyed.

It all worked out, though.

The mountain is not a secret, but this basin is. A select few venture here, but for the most part it is forgotten. It wasn't always that way, though. We stumble upon old trails, strange tree markings, ancient fire rings, ditches, and mining detritus. And a while ago, a long time ago, this basin burned fiercely. I know this by the fire marks on old, old trees and the charcoal sprinkled on the ground. I wonder about this ancient history. I want to know the old stories.

Pretty. Pretty.

It could burn again, too. The meadows are parched, the normal pools dry. There is a hushed feeling, like the woods could burst into flame. I know that two canyons over, my favorite place is now burning. I feel sad about that, but looking around here, I know that it is an endless cycle of fire and renewal.

On Sunday we wake to drops of rain on our tent. It is the first real rain since July. It rains all day as we hike out and as we put our backpacking gear away. The spell is broken.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

This is how it begins

It was hard to believe that our trip was over. I had dreamed of hiking the John Muir Trail for half my life. Now that it was done, how would I slip back into my normal life?

I wasn't ready.

So I went hiking.

Back home it hasn't rained in over two months. With each step, puffs of dust enveloped me as I hiked towards Glacier Lake. Though fall was supposedly coming, it was still summer at 8,000 feet.

The skies were hazy with wildfire smoke as I paused on Glacier Pass. After weeks of climbing Sierra passes, this one was easy.

I had big plans for peak-climbing but once I got to Horseshoe Lake on Day 2, I stopped and swam and read a whole book. I never take the time to do that. Maybe the Sierras have taught me something after all. You don't need to rush through life all the time to get someplace. 

At four in the morning a windstorm blew in. A bank of clouds lurked on the horizon. There was the muffled thunder of trees falling in the forest. Across the lake, I saw headlamps wink on as people struggled with their tents.

This is what I learned from nineteen days in the wilderness: We pretty much are the people we are. This trip didn't magically turn me into a more patient, better person. I still like hiking solo but camping with others. I still don't get why people are afraid of things in the outdoors over which they have no control. I still want to hike fast all day but stop when I want to stop. Some things don't change. 

It only took me a few minutes to pack up. There were a lot of reasons to stay and wait out the storm. Maybe it would blow by. I could hike to the off-trail lake I had seen on the map for years but never been to. I could stay out and absorb more wilderness before I had to face the computer.

This is the edge of Horseshoe Lake. There's a rock shelf and a deep, deep drop-off.
In the end, there were more reasons to go. I love the wilderness but I can't live there all the time. 

Next year I'd like to hike the North Cascades/Goat Rocks part of the PCT. It will be very different. Resupplies will be a challenge. The country is not as forgiving. I look forward to it.

I hiked down the trail in darkness, on my way home.

Monday, September 17, 2012

John Muir Trail VI. Mount Whitney!

Headlamps like scattered stars blinked in the inky blackness around Guitar Lake. The air pulsed with apprehension and excitement. I packed my bag for the last time. This was it, the last day in a string of nineteen. The trip, a trip of a lifetime, because when again will I be able to have this many days free, was coming to an end. I have a hard time with endings.

Today I would climb through the darkness, my headlamp a small circle of light illuminating the rocky switchbacks, until the sky cleared enough for me to see the black pools of lakes beneath me and the cloud cap over Mount Whitney, several thousand feet above.

I would pause at the trail junction, considering. I had been to Mount Whitney before, and the two mile hike up was steep and fog-shrouded. In the end I would go, shivering in the complete white-out, mountain dropping off beneath my feet, higher than anyone else in the lower 48 at eight in the morning.

I would descend six thousand feet, my shin throbbing with what I would later diagnose as overuse but what seemed so painful at the time that I could barely take in my surroundings until massive doses of Vitamin I took effect.

As the endless switchbacks looped through the forest and day hikers came into view, the inevitable change would occur. The whole day would switch just like that. Cars, roads, people, all the things I go into the wilderness to escape would be waiting for us at Whitney Portal. We would hang our packs on the scale and take pictures. Toss our trash, hang our tents out behind the Dow Villa motel. Eat enormous quantities of Mexican food and ice cream. We would be done.

The next day we would drive under the shadow of the Sierras. I would  look up at the crest as it took us minutes to drive by what had taken days to hike. There would be many things to think about during the two day drive home. Can a trip change your life? I think so.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

John Muir Trail V. Lake Marjorie to Guitar Lake. Bonks, Monsoons, and Living Above the Clouds

Editor's Note: If your husband hardly ever reads your blog in months, and suddenly decides to read it, probably a good blog post for him NOT to start with is one that mentions a certain hiker we named Eye Candy. OOPS!  

Halfway up Glen Pass
We had been wondering when winter would arrive, and at Lake Marjorie it seemed it had: frost and ice had a tentative grip on our wet gear and the grass. There was almost a sense of urgency in the air: keep moving. But as always the sun made all the difference, slowly spilling over Pinchot Pass as I climbed higher among the jumbled rocks.

This 16 mile day took a toll on each of us, mostly because it brutally dove to 8400 feet from our 12,000 foot pass, and then we had to endure a heinous 2,000 foot slog up a hot and dry canyon. There's usually a moment in every adventure where you question your sanity in choosing it, and this was the place. Because I stopped to dry out rain-soaked gear at a small tarn, it was nearly five when we staggered into Rae Lakes, a beautiful, shimmering set of connected lakes. It was our hardest day yet. Though I was feeling strong, so many days without a rest had begun to show diminishing returns.

I guess the slog was prettier than I remembered.

Beautiful Rae Lakes

We pounded down the trail in a hurry to meet our last food drop, the pack train from Onion Valley. Many people forgo this drop due to its expense and the fact that you sit and wait between the hours of eleven and one, which sets your hiking day back a great deal. We decided it was worth it instead of rationing food or trudging under an immense, nine-day load. We had met others on the trail who were victims of poor planning and faced a long hike out to Independence to restock. While we waited, we ate the last of our food and dreamed about what we really wanted to eat: salad. pizza. Instead, we received our resupply with more trail food. I munched on Goldfish without enthusiasm as we packed up our canisters and headed towards our river camp before Forester Pass.

Headed to 13,000 feet

Peering down from the gap on Forester

The rest of our hike we would be above 10,000 feet and often much higher. The nights were cool and occasional rain sprinkled overhead, but thankfully not the huge thunderstorms of Muir Pass. A ranger near Tyndall Creek told us we were caught in a monsoonal flow, wet air sweeping  up and across the mountains. In the evenings we sat around in our puffies and hats. Gone were the hot summer days of the Valley and beyond.

These pictures are of the Bighorn Plateau. Love.

As I hiked towards Guitar Lake in falling rain, our  last campsite, a nagging pain in my right leg intensified. I thought I knew its cause--the large stone steps of Forester Pass and the descent from 13,000 feet. It felt like a shin splint, but I worried that it might be a stress fracture. Gobbling Vitamin I by the handful, I knew I wouldn't quit now.

The last campsite--Guitar Lake
Guitar Lake was exposed and wind-scoured, not a tree in sight. Hail fell like popcorn as I struggled with my tent. A few other souls were perched here, and every time the rain and hail stopped, they emerged from tents like I did, to wander around this formidable landscape and to gaze upward at the slopes leading to Mount Whitney. We all wondered what was to come.

Stark, wind-swept, beautiful.

Monday, September 10, 2012

John Muir Trail IV. MTR to Lake Marjorie. Stormy weather, high passes, and eye candy.

It was an eerie feeling, leaving Muir Trail Ranch. We had 107 miles to go, and we felt as though we were truly entering the hundred mile wilderness. From here on, to leave the trail we would have to hike for a day, maybe more, over passes and down to remote trailheads. There was really only one way out, and that was over Mount Whitney.

Not that we wanted to leave the trail, but there was still a flicker of unease as I hiked among the ponderosas, the air smelling like vanilla. Would my body hold up to the next nine days ahead? We were now getting into the high and wild section of the trail where there would be a pass nearly every day, some scraping the sky at 13,000 feet. So far, all our gear and our bodies had held up, but to some extent we were all walking wounded. Two of us sported blisters that marched all across both little toes. The ultra-light packs that I had envied so much at the beginning were turning into a liability, causing their wearers nerve and back pain. Some people had dropped out at MTR and earlier, our ranks dwindling as the miles added up.

As I hiked across the steel bridge and into Sequoia National Park, the dank smell of chinquapin brought back memories of working here as a seasonal biological technician. In those days, life had seemed so long and possibilities endless. Move from one seasonal park job to the next, an endless flowing river. I was lost in my thoughts as we climbed up to Evolution Valley, but not so lost that I didn't notice tiny sprinkles of rain.

It was obvious that the weather was changing. The bright progression of sunny days was coming to an end. Thunder muttered in the distance as we slogged up the final switchbacks to 10,400' Evolution Lake. From there we could see an enormous storm in the distance, deep-bellied black clouds rolling toward us.

"Where are some campsites!" I hollered to a man who was loitering around, and he showed us some small places carved out from granite. I struggled to set up my tent in the wind, and its limitations immediately became known. Anchoring it with rocks, I dove in and hoped for the best.

Storms bring out the best clouds and sunsets, though, and we were able to emerge later to take in our surroundings. The sun set in a golden pool behind our campsite, and a rainbow arched from sky to water. That next morning against a dark sky the crescent moon was bracketed by two planets.

Evolution Lake
The sun did come out, long enough for us to dry out everything, a backcountry "yard  sale".

Living above ten thousand feet was extreme and close to the edge. The clouds billowed right at our shoulders it seemed as we climbed Muir and Pinchot passes. We set up our tents near lakes that are frozen a good part of the year, and went higher still through what looked like moonscapes. Lightning forked the sky and hail peppered the ground as we ducked for cover among small, nameless tarns. I felt exposed and small under a huge sky, but also vividly alive in a way I haven't felt for awhile.

The hut on top of Muir Pass.

We were getting so used to gaining elevation that if a pass was a thousand feet above us, we said, "Oh, it's only a thousand feet." Even the dreaded Golden Staircase, a grind of 1500 feet before we reached Palisade Lakes, seemed easy. I felt that this was what I was meant to do; I seemed to get stronger with every pass.

At Palisade Lake under a grey sky, we sat on a big rock and people surrounded us like satellites. It was a social gathering in the middle of the wilderness. First two older guys marched over with tea and a chocolate energy bar. Then two solo hikers showed up and pitched their tents close to us. They were both fastpackers, but the nice variety, the ones who loved hiking alone but liked some company at night (I could definitely relate to that). We talked about gear, routes, and the weather, an omnipresent threat now that we were so high. Light rain sprinkled the sky. The next day we had Mather Pass, then Glen and the big daddy, Forester. The passes were stacked up in front of us. All we had to do was climb them.

Palisade Lake. Eye Candy not included. Sorry!

Eye Candy carefully set up his tiny tarp. If a huge storm came up, he was sunk, but he was making good time, going northbound in half the time it was taking us. We had watched in appreciation earlier as he had gone down to the lake to rinse off. While I appreciated the view, he was just another passing story, someone we would never see again.

The coming days would challenge us even more; our camp at Lake Marjorie, at 11,000 feet, was both beautiful and stark, with torrential rain that cleared up to a foggy landscape. It was August but fall was already in the air. I could smell it and taste it; this country didn't have long before winter would close in. We scurried through the exposed rock like the pikas. Sometimes it felt like we didn't even belong up here; that only a thin shell of nylon kept us from certain disaster.

There were other times though when it felt like this was the only place I belonged.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

John Muir III. Red's Meadow to Muir Trail Ranch. Tweakers, hiker barrels, and losing elevation

I poked through the contents of the Red's Meadow hiker barrel. Hiker barrels are drop spots for items that thru-hikers no longer want. Some long distance hikers carry less food than they need, depending upon the items in these barrels. I had rolled into Red's on fumes, my food estimation working out perfectly, but I knew that there were many passes ahead. This one was packed with bug repellent, a testament to the extremely dry summer (In nineteen days, I never once used mine, and often lamented that I carried an entire four ounces of the stuff the whole way). Ignoring the many packets of oatmeal, I picked out a couple of Clif Bars.

It's strange what you crave on a long trail. I had packed wheat thins and Goldfish and tuna, figuring that these would provide both salt and protein. I also brought lots of food I ordinarily wouldn't eat: Snickers, chocolate covered pretzels. But it turned out that I didn't want my typical trail food. What I craved was cheese, and I bought a big block.

While I was doing this, Kim ran in the store. "They're here!" she said. At first I didn't comprehend what she was saying. But it was true. My lost three companions appeared, toting backpacks. They quickly told us the whole story: one of them had gotten deathly ill, unable to hike for hours. The whole three days they had tried to catch us, putting in 16 and 17 mile days. They had gotten the trail messages we had sent behind us, but nobody had been faster than Kim and me, and so nobody they told had caught up to us to let us know they were still on the trail.

Back to normal again, we went about our resupplying business, donating the optimistic energy bars and other items that had sounded so good when we had packed them, finding Vitamin I and other needed items. Others were doing the same; it was apparent we were on the same schedule as many of the people around us. We quizzed each other: are you staying here tonight (most were); are the showers working (sadly, no, shut down because they were unsanitary, we laughed at this); when is your summit date? It felt like a loose-knit family, one we could count on.

Lake below Silver Pass

Leaving Red's wasn't easy; you could get sucked into the vortex of milkshakes, but we moved on to Purple Lake after a dry and hot slog through an old burn. Around dark a fastpacker approached, the telltale sounds of pounding hooves and clacking poles giving him away. He even spoke quickly: "Where'sagoodcampsiteIneedtobeatCrabtreeMeadowsbySunday!" Though I admire the athleticism of fastpackers and I have been known to put on big miles, their hurried demeanor when compared to the open and friendly hikers we normally encountered was disturbing. To each his own, but we really enjoyed the chatting and sharing we did with everyone else. Somewhat unkindly, we dubbed this guy "Tweaker" because everything about him was quick; he even over-blinked as he talked. (To set the record straight, we did run into some fastpackers later who slowed down in the evening and sat and talked with us. One was Eye Candy. Ah, Eye Candy. More on him later.)

Crossing Bear Creek. We only had to take our boots off and wade once on this whole trek.

By now, Day 7, we had everything down to a science: awaken around five or six, depending on which tent you slept in, gather up belongings, shove in pack, eat breakfast, walk. We were usually on the trail by seven, mostly because we crawled into our tents by 8 the night before. A couple of us had brought Kindles, but we rarely read them, falling asleep the moment we rolled up our puffy jackets for pillows. It was a simple life and I loved the simplicity of it. Hike all day, pick a campsite, filter water, rinse out the same clothes we would wear day after day. Sometimes it felt like I really could do this forever.

Many of the hikers we had been seeing up to this point took a detour after Silver Pass to head to the Vermillion Valley Resort for resupply. We were glad we hadn't, since the normal ferry that takes hikers across had ceased due to low water. As we marched on we felt somewhat superior in our decision, but that feeling soon faded as we noticed what came next: Bear Ridge. The VVR people were avoiding this because the folks at the resort were dropping them off at a trailhead on the other side. They weren't hiking the whole JMT, but they were omitting the least pleasant part of it: a 2,000 foot slog up a viewless, waterless ridge.

"Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall," I chanted under my breath as I headed up the trail. It took three rounds of 99 beers to make it to a lunch stop and the flat top of the ridge. We sat in the dust, feeling worked. The JMT was showing us its true nature. In the days since leaving Red's, we had ascended and descended from 7000 feet to nearly 10,000 several times, sometimes twice in the same day. There is a point of diminishing returns for hard exercise and I was feeling it, the constant movement taking a toll. Not for the first time, I wondered why we hadn't budgeted a rest day, but the answer was clear, not enough time. Schedules to keep. Tweaking couldn't be the only answer. There had to be some balance between working full-time and scraping together enough vacation time to really enjoy the experience and the ability to live, not work. I still haven't figured this out, but I know that is what I want.
Looking down at Marie Lakes from Selden Pass.

We were out of Yosemite and into the national forests now, but there is no clear boundary. It was a seamless transition, lakes like blue gashes in white rock, trees marching away as we approached timberline, crumbling rock passes and deep canyons. There was so much wild country, most of it unexplored by us, that it was hard to imagine that we were in California. Though nearly every night someone had camped near us, the crowds were absent. Hours could go by before we saw anyone.

Silver Pass

True to form, I was nearly out of food before the next resupply: Muir Trail Ranch. It was what we now considered a short hiking day away: 12 miles, up and over Selden Pass and back down to low elevation again, the coolness of the high country giving way to the dry blast of heat at 8,000 feet. Muir Trail Ranch was a cluster of small buildings, a little store where we optimistically bought more sunscreen, perhaps jinxing us for the days to come. There was an elaborate hiker barrel system, separated by type of food. There were also cabins for rent, but we dragged our now-heavy packs to a campsite overlooking the river. Opening our resupply bucket was like Christmas--we had forgotten what we had sent, and the contents were greeted either with delighted surprise or groans--more Goldfish?

The amazing hiker barrels at MTR.
With hot springs, a cool river to lie in, and unlimited food to pick through, MTR had its own gravity vortex, but sadly, no milkshakes. We vowed to move on.

 It was day ten, halfway through our trip, something I didn't want to think about. This was approaching the longest amount of time I had been out in the wilderness. I sometimes felt as though there was something essential I should be learning, something I could not quite grasp. All I knew was this: time was moving faster than the river below our campsite. Soon the trip would be over. But until then, we had a pass a day to cross. We had a pack train to meet on Day 16 for our last resupply. We had Mount Whitney to climb. For now, though, we had to pack up and start hiking. There is nothing like a long trail to teach you to live in the present. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

John Muir Trail II. Epic thunderstorm, the camaraderie of the trail, and losing my companions

Kim and I huddled in our respective tents at the Lyell Canyon bridge as a thunderstorm swept over us. The ground shook from the thunder and lightning flashed from cloud to cloud and on the pass above us. Rain pelted our little tents. This was easily the most intense thunderstorm I had ever been in, and even though we were only at 8,500 feet, it was hard to know if trees around our campsite would be struck.

This wasn't our only worry. The rendezvous with our other companions had never happened. We had arrived at our meeting spot at 2 pm amid a light rain shower. The others had left later than we had, but as the hours stretched on and other hikers arrived without having seen them, we could only speculate what might have happened and what we should do. Wait another day at the bridge or move on? Moving on to keep the schedule and our food drops seemed like the only answer.

It had all started well along Lyell Canyon. "This is the only flat section of the JMT," a couple coming the other way told us. It was a day of walking next to a slow, unhurried river that alternately flowed over bedrock in cascades or wound lazily through big meadows. It was easy, and we had made good time. But where were our hiking partners?

In the morning they still had not arrived, the note we left for them untouched. Unsure of what to do, we packed up our wet gear and headed up our first pass of the trip, Donahue. Despite what other hikers had told us, this was a meandering, enjoyable walk through small tarns and flowers, gradually ascending to about 10,000 feet. The other side of the pass was equally inspiring, a downhill walk past more small lakes and streams until we reached a low point and had to climb again, up Island Pass.

My worries temporarily fell away as we reached the top of the pass, the trail passing two mirrored lakes, the miles to come stretching in front of us. At this point, on Day 5, Day 19 seemed too far away to even contemplate. Something happens when you spend a few days in the wilderness, something that is hard to describe or explain, but it was happening now. The rest of the world seemed insignificant. This was my life now. Wake up at first light, pack my bag, walk for hours. Find a campsite, make dinner, and go to sleep. It was simple and good.

We started passing lakes as beautiful as dreams, turquoise water with black peaks above, white granite surrounding them. Thousand Island Lake, Ruby Lake, and our campsite for the night, Garnet. We camped on rock slabs overlooking the lake. Once again, our companions failed to show. Our only hope now was that they would meet us somehow at Red's Meadow, our next resupply and accessible by shuttle. Maybe they left the trail, we theorized. It was hard to know, and even in the busy Sierra, it was easy to feel somewhat alone with my uncertainty.

The next day was another 14 miler, a dusty climb past another chain of lakes and then a long, pumice trail past Devil's Postpile to Red's Meadow. Water was scarce and temperatures soared as we lost elevation. The trail, diving into deep forest punctuated by enormous blowdown, held little interest. For the first time I questioned my ability to continue. Somehow I had acquired blisters that marched along the tops and sides of both little toes, reducing me to a hobble. Maybe, I thought, I should leave the trail at Red's.

These thoughts were forgotten as we came to a junction pointing to the general store. We poured the contents of Kim's water bottle over our dirty legs. Here there were milkshakes and our resupply, and other hikers to talk with. We sat on the lawn in blissful tiredness.

Pretty soon, though, Kim would have to take the shuttle back to her car. I would be on my own. The thought did not terrify me, but what to do about my companions? Did I just keep going, pushing on to meet our scheduled horse packtrain resupply? Did I wait here? As I fretted, a group we had seen since Toulumne came up. "You can have our alcohol stove," Brewer said. He handed it to me with a bottle of alcohol.

This is the thing I was learning about the long distance trail life: People are better out there. At Garnet Lake, two other hikers shared their stove with us after Kim's failed to work. People said hello. They stopped in the trail to talk with us. They showed us good tent spots. Now here were some strangers giving me their stove. I loved this about the trail. I already knew I didn't want it to end.

I gathered our food bucket, mailed weeks ago. My last hope evaporated. My companions were not here. It was almost time for Kim to go. We exchanged worried glances. What could have happened to them? Should I go on by myself?

The mountains held no answers. I would have to figure this one out on my own.