John Muir Trail – I finished and no one was there.

Day 23 (7/21/2017)

Packed up, fed, and ready to finish, I started down.  I hit Sunset Camp around dawn, when the hikers were still snoring, well one was up watching the sunrise.
My thoughts were filled with finishing, how to get home, and I was 1 day ahead of what I told my wife.  How was I going to surprise her?  How was I going to surprise my kids?  I fantasized about homecoming as I proceeded.  I needed to refill my canteen and wash my socks so they could dry.  There was a small stream just after Sunset Camp.  It was cold, in the shade, so the mosquitoes were not bad at all.  I set my pack down and stepped across the stream which couldn’t have been more than a foot wide.  I walked upstream a little, looking for a place to take a knee where I could wash things easily.  I spotted one on the other side of the stream and crossed again.  Stepping on some wet grass, my right leg went out from under me and I fell on my back twisting my knee.  STOP.  Body check: Was I wet? Could I move my feet? Could I move my legs? Was I bleeding?  I stood up.  Could I place weight on my knees.  Holy crap that was close.  One momentary lapse of concentration was all it took to create a situation that could have been disastrous.

It was time to regain focus.  I thought that since I was skipping Cloud’s Rest, maybe I could hit half dome instead.  It had been at least 20 years since I’d summitted the iconic Yosemite peak.  I passed a few meadows and entered into a sparse forested area, where I just had to set my pack down again.  In order to escape the mosquitoes, I set my pack down on a log and walked about 20 yards from it.  It was my only respite from those little goons.

Back to the trail and series of steep switchbacks down.  I passed quite a few people on the way up who were absolutely miserable with the up.  Keep going I told them.

I crossed a stream and entered into the remains of a great fire — The Meadow fire. At first there were some lightly burned trees and shrubs, but after clearing a ridge, it was absolute desolation.  Very few ferns and shrubs.  Blackened spires were everywhere.  Despite the fire happening three years ago, in the three mile area I did not see one living tree, not even saplings.  But I did see Half Dome through the haze.

Closer and closer, and before I knew it I was at the junction.  I decided to go for it.  I sped up the gentle incline to the base of the ascent where a ranger checked my permit again to make sure I was cleared to ascend.  I stayed for a while and watched some hikers get turned away and listened to stories about the growing Mariposa fire.

I started up.  It had been a long time but I remember the steep switchbacks where one slip meant a long trip down the smooth granite.  What I didn’t remember was the switchbacks ending, and having to just scale up the smooth granite until the Half Dome saddle point.  I made it to the cables and was stunned to see how few people were there.  My last journey here was with my brother when there were easily 200 people trying to go up/down the cables simultaneously.  Now, maybe 25 people were making a go of it.

With a full pack, I grabbed some gloves from the pile, and huffed up the cables.   Sheer adrenaline got me up.  I wanted to take some triumphant pictures of me on Half Dome.

Instead, all I could think about was my wife and kids. Why was I even up here? What time was it? Could I make it to the bus by 6pm? I decided to go for it. I hustled down the cables, and scurried down the sheer face to find the switchbacks.

I sped down through the forested areas to the JMT junction. The rain and snow had clearly eroded much of the trail from my last visit. Instead of dirt path, it was mostly rocks that I had to navigate.  I sped past people, leaping from rock to rock, using my poles to keep me balanced.  The sand in little Yosemite slowed me down. I took the Mist Trail shortcut to get down faster.   To be clear there was no hurrying here.  The trail was steep, and for whatever reason, I got disoriented.  I found my self at the Vernal Falls headwaters.  I had been moving a solid clip and needed a rest.  I dunked my head in the waters and had a bar.  I couldn’t make sense of the map I had, but I continued down and captured one of the most amazing shots of my trip:

Vernal Falls in afternoon light

Stunned, I paused here. How amazing is this place? Just a few hours from the city, people could come here and witness such raw beauty. How lucky was I?
Back to business. Down.

As I hustled by people the sweat dripped off my brow and into my eyes. I became aware of my stink. My shirt was drenched, and I could tell as I passed people they were talking about how bad I smelled. I didn’t really care. Although their lotions, perfumes, colognes, and suncreens filled my nostrils. I hadn’t smelled anything like that for weeks. I was starting to reenter civilization.

The sun was getting low and knew I wasn’t going to make the bus. I slowed a little and tried to have some significant reflections on the trip as I sauntered down. No good. I smelled. I missed my family. How was I going to get home?

And then I was at the bottom. It was evening and no one was there.

The beginning for many, but the end for me

I did a little silly dance, and with tears streaming down my face I kept telling myself I did it. I stared at the sign for a little and I thought about what exactly I had accomplished. With little experience I had hiked 280 miles, through some of the roughest trail  conditions in a decade. Sure people were doing far more than me, but I did this.  This could never be taken away from me.  I needed a shower. I sauntered across the paved bridge to Curry Village Half Dome village. I passed a bus stop full of pleasantry dressed people smelling wonderfully. One of them had seen me on Half Dome and asked:

“Where are you hiking from?”

“I just hiked 280 miles from south of Mount Whitney.”

“Holy Shit! Can I buy you a beer?”

“No thank you, I need a shower, and I want to get home to my kids!”

He and everyone in the bus stop clapped and congratulated me. It was a small gesture, but it was the first time, that I felt someone acknowledged how much I had actually done.   I don’t think they actually knew how much and how hard it was but I appreciated the gesture. I stumbled through the tented cabins turning heads. Children steered clear moving closer to the parents, people gave me wide berth as I stormed down the tented allies.

I came to the showers under the pool:

“Closed at 6pm, opens tomorrow at 7am”

I saw this and was heart broken. No way. I missed the bus and I don’t even get a shower. While staring at the sign a worker said, as if sensing my dilemma:

“The doors are not locked, no will stop you.”

I raced in to the empty wash room, found a stall and striped down. MMMMMMM warm water. MMMMMMM apricot shampoo. For 15 minutes I watched the grime and dirt from three weeks of being on the trail go down the drain. I washed my hair three times and scrubbed my body twice.

I put on my pajama tops a pair of swim trunks I never wore. The rest of my stuff stank too much. I shoved my hiking clothes into a plastic bag and tied it into a knot and headed up to the lodge for food.

I walked in and perused the buffet a few times. I ordered three vegan entrees and picked up some orange juice and some fruit and two salads. I sat down to eat. I wasn’t hungry. I nibbled at my food as people around stared at their devices and computers. Then to my surprise Nosebleed walked up and gave me a hug: “I knew you could do it!” We talked for a while and caught up.

“Have you seen Strawberry? No one’s seen her and she’s over due.”

I had seen her, and told him where. He said that he would tell Ramses as Ramses was updating people via his social media posts.

I couldn’t finish my meal.  I had no appetite.  I went to lounge and found an open chair in a back corner.  Everyone was on a device.  Kids fought over chargers.  A group of nuns was showing an older woman on how to use some apps.  The light were blaring and I realized how far from nature I was — even though it was right out the window.

I tallied my trip accomplishments:

  • 19 miles on the day.  2100 feet of up and 7420 feed of down (what  a day!)
  • 43612 feet of gain.
  • 48677 feed of decline.
  • 2 failed ascents (Whitney and New Army)
  • 11 successful passes
  • 22 days straight of hiking.

What did I glean from this remarkable experience?  Had I leveled up in wisdom?  Could I now teach a guru a thing or two.  Not really.  My realizations were small but significant.

  • I loved my family deeply and I missed them.
  • Be mindful of the beauty, but always watch where you step.
  • Positive Reinforcement really does work.
  • I’m capable of much more than I thought.
  • I don’t need as much as I thought I needed.
  • Earth offers some amazing places, and I’m so grateful to have witnessed some. I hope I can do something keep these places available for future generations.

Around ten pm (The latest I’ve stayed up in 3 weeks),  I saw Nosebleed head off to the campsite.  I asked him to show me where the backpacker site was.  I setup my tent in the dark and went to sleep amidst all the backpacker noises.  Snoring, people shuffling about organizing their bags for the start of the hikes, conversations about food, and navigation.  I heard all the questions I had, and now had answers too, but I let them figure it out for themselves.  That’s part of their journey.

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