Mile 917 to mile 934
In the morning it’s cold and drizzly, and it’s hard to get out of my bag. At last I’m up, packing my wet tent away, feeling the tiny rain alight all over me. How do I hike in this? I don’t have much experience hiking in the rain- it’s chilly out but I know that if I wear my new rain jacket I’ll just sweat. So in the end I hike in my desert shirt, up through the beautiful forest towards the pass, and I watch happily as the my body heat dries the rain as fast as it can land on my shirt. Inside my pack all my stuff is safe inside a trash compactor bag, and I’m making enough heat through hiking that I don’t need a rain jacket. I feel like a special animal, wild and free. I live here, I think. In these woods.
I look at the footprints on the damp path as I walk. NoDay, Instigate and MeHap are in front of me, and here and there I can make out a cascadia print, buried beneath a bunch of other stuff. Not very fresh, I think. At least a day ahead. I’m becoming a tracker, I think- of my friend’s running shoes. Isn’t life strange.
Today I’ll ascend a pass, drop down the other side, walk through a long valley and eventually I’ll be in Tuolumne Meadows, a little touristy place with a store where a side trail and a road go down to Yosemite Valley. I’ve never been to Yosemite Valley, and I kind of like it that way. So many people go to Yosemite Valley, hundreds of thousands of people. It’s a bit of nature that exists for more people than almost any bit of nature anywhere, and yet I don’t even know what it looks like. This feels right to me. And I mean, how nice can it really be there? With so many people trampling around? And with the woods already so full of secret meadows, that have never even been sat in. With sunbeams and things.
As I approach the pass I meet lots of JMT-ers coming down. They are swathed in raingear with huge, billowing covers over their packs.
“It’s bad up there,” they say. “Up on the pass.”
“Yeah,” I say, as I hike along in my desert shirt. “Um huh.”
As I pass above tree line the rain grows colder and more persistant, and a little wind picks up. Soon my damp shirt turns from cool and comfortable to possibly hypothermia-inducing, and I dig in my pack for my rain jacket. The wind picks up even more and I pull up the hood of my rain jacket, cinching it around my face. Still, I’m having fun. There is water everywhere up here, near the pass. And it is the most beautiful water that I have ever seen. I stop mid-stream cross and stand on a bright wet stone, watching cool clean rain dapple the water. More water runs in trickles from the hunks of snow that cling to the mountainsides around me. The sky is a clean grey and everything smells like every kind of wet- snow wet, rain wet, lake wet, stream wet, damp grass. I was born and raised in a cool, wet place and I live in a temperate rain forest. This water is like blood to me.
As I work upwards to the top of the pass it becomes a little harder to stay warm. It’s windier way up here at the top, and the rain is even colder. My feet are wet and my gloves are soaked, and my hands are growing numb on my trekking poles. My face is stinging from the rain. But my core is dry and even though I don’t have rain pants or a rain skirt (I’m not picking those up until Washington) my running shorts and the top half of my long underwear bottoms seem impervious to the rain. How is this possible? I think, as I look down at my bone-dry rain shorts where they stick out from my saturated rain jacket. Magic legs.
It’s beautiful at the top of the pass but too cold, and I hurry down the other side. Only I can’t hurry- the trail is steep and slick and then suddenly it’s gone, disappeared beneath a snowfield. There aren’t any shoeprints on the snowfield, so I know that’s not the way across. There’s another route, a better route, and I just have to find it- I have to find the footprints.
Only there aren’t any footprints. There is just a field of huge, wet boulders, tumbling steeply down the mountain. I follow what I think are footprints but the snow, when it first disappears, leaves chunks of trampled ground that look just like they’ve been walked on and soon I’m cliffed out, standing on a big hunk of something looking down at nothing, shivering in my rain jacket with no idea where to go.
Ok, I think. You’re not a fool. You’ve been relying too much on this well-marked trail. You’ve got a brain, so use it.
Below me is the valley I’m about to traverse, and to the north where the valley meets the slope of the mountain I just can make out a bit of trail. A little ways up from that I can see where the trail cuts into the mountain, and if it continues on its course that would mean that I could find it in the clump of trees to my left, across a steep ravine. I shiver in my rain jacket, feeling tired and cold and small. I’m so used to following the trail, to being stuck to it with an almost magnetic force. Well, I think. It’s not going to hurt me to find my way cross-country. It’s just a mountain afterall, here under my feet, a thing made of stones and mud and earth. I know how to do this.
I retrace my steps up the slippery boulders, cross a stream swollen with rain and snowmelt, pick my way over rock slabs the size of cars, traverse the sodden grass and mud, climb a slope into a copse of trees and then there it is, that tidy strip of trampled earth, wending its merry way as though nothing was the matter at all.
I stick it with my trekking pole.
“Trail,” I say. “I have found you.”
A moment later I realize that I am shaking from hunger. I haven’t eaten a snack in hours, and the effort of climbing up and over the pass in the rain has exhausted me. I crouch on the wet grass and eat a handful of dramp trail mix, but it’s too cold to sit still for long. Well, I think. I’ll be down in the valley soon. I can eat then.
According to Yogi, the ten miles before Tuolumne Meadows, called Lyell Canyon, is major “problem bear” territory. “Do not camp here,” she says, “Or you WILL have bear problems.” Phoebe, the southbound JMT-er we met on top of Muir pass, slept in Lyell Canyon and a bear pawed her pack while she was cowboy camping, tearing little holes in it with its claws. She had to chase it away. I am by myself and I know that if I camp here I will sleep terribly, even if there isn’t any bear. I will wake at every little noise and lie in my bag, heart thumping, as I attempt to make out the shapes of the trees in the dark.
Well hell, I think, as I shiver my way down the mountain. I am cold and exhausted and nothing sounds better right now than stopping, pitching my good little tent, and crawling into my warm dry sleeping bag. But I have to make it to Tuolomne Meadows, because of the bears. There is a campground there with bear boxes, and I’ll sleep much more soundly. I look at my watch- at this point I’ll get there after dark. Night hiking, I think. In the rain. Eleven more miles, and I’m so tired already.
A few miles into the valley I find a dry patch of ground beneath a huge pine tree and stop to cook dinner in the rain. While I’m sitting there, staring forlornly at the sack of food that won’t fit in my bear canister, a couple of other thru-hikers pull up. Their names are Scat Tracker and Unicroc, and they’re planning on camping in Lyell Canyon.
“But what will you do with your extra food?” I say. “Mine won’t fit in my bear can.”
“We hang our extra food,” they say. “Do you have rope to hang yours?”
“No,” I say. “I just sleep with it. I guess I bank on the fact that the bears are more afraid of me than they are curious about my food.”
“Ah,” they say.
A little later I finish eating and hike on. I can barely walk, I am so tired at this point, and it feels like a really bad idea to try and night-hike to Tuolumne. Like the worst idea ever, actually. I see Scat Tracker and Unicroc, setting up their tent in the trees a little ways from the trail, and a few minutes later I find a similar spot, in a little cluster of trees in the meadow. Fuck it, I say, as I fill my gatorade bottles in the swollen, glassy stream. I pitch my little shelter and crawl inside happily, pulling off my wet things and unstuffing my sleeping bag. I’ve placed my bear canister in the dirt a stone’s throw away from the tent, where I can watch it from where I’m laying. Bear TV, I think. If it comes to that. The rest of my food is in my pack at the bottom of my tent, per usual.
I lay in my sleeping bag and feel my blood circulating. I’m warm for the first time all day, and it feels incredible. The simple things, I think. It’s these small things that have such tremendous value. Like being warm and dry. What pure and perfect heaven is this.
The light is fading from the sky, and the trees around me are becoming indistinct. My sleepiness is overwhelming, and I feel myself drifting off. No bears, I think. Bears don’t bother me tonight.