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.


  1. Glad you found your friends.

    Fast packing is like trail running. You cover a lot of distance but it is really a different feel than backpacking it. I'm often surprised how much I miss when I hike some of my trail running routes.

  2. I'm really enjoying reading about your adventure. It's inspired me to add the JMT to my "bucket list." Thanks!


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