Hi, readers! I put all the previous posts in one place. Also, I added a big chunk to the end.
I. HIGHS AND LOWS
If you have a perverse hankering to head for the hottest, driest, lowest place in Norh America, if the name itself doesn't turn you off and if your steering wheel doesn't give you third degree burns, you can drive to Death Valley, California, where the daytime temperature is a brain-addling 114 degrees from May to September. Welcome to the untrodden interior of the Golden State, a day's hard driving from the fog-cooled Napa vineyards and the built-up Malibu beaches, along arrow-straight highways that pass nothing and go, it seems, to nowhere. In these vast spaces, Mother Nature's microwave, the Spaniards decided to call it Cali ("hot") forno ("oven") and sensibly built their missions along the coast. It's here that the Gold Rush began. It's here that Central Valley farmers, cultivating an agricultural plateau the size of England, grow 25% of produce that Americans consume. It's a land of surprise and paradox. You'll find accents indistinguishable from the Okie farming forebears. You'll find islands of walled suburban paradise, surrounded by acres of almond groves, in anticipation of future development. And 72 miles from Death Valley, the lowest point in North America, you'll find Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48, lord of the John Muir Wilderness, king in a land of giants.
Last winter, I decided to climb Mt. Whitney as part of an even grander expedition: to trek solo along the 212-mile John Muir Trail. Hewn from some of the country's most unforgiving terrain, the John Muir Trail is an extraordinary undertaking. I am not an extraordinary athlete. I am the weak link of the IJM softball team; when our receptionist swam the Chesapeake Bay, I wondered quietly how far I would make it before sinking to the silty delta depths. Not far, I'd wager. But backpacking is less about physical prowess than a high threshold for absurd wilderness discomfitures - the ability to sleep on a rock, bathe in a snowmelt creek, slap a bandage on your blistered feet, shove them back in your boots, and keep marching. That sort of thing doesn't bother me. I bought a map and I never looked back.
II. A GOOD MAP
If you attempt a long car trip without a good map, you mind wind up missing your turnoff. If you attempt a wilderness trek without a good map, you might wind up dead. A reliable plotting of A to B is indispensable. Somewhere in San Rafael, California, Tom Harrison, geographic guru and aficionado of California's unpeopled places, churns out full-color, shaded-relief topographical maps on his Macintosh computer. Single-handedly, Harrison has made himself into the trail standard. At a poorly-marked junction, it's not unknown for hikers to invoke his maps like holy writ.
It takes no fewer than thireen pages of waterproof, tear-resistant Harrison maps to chart out the entire John Muir Trail. Starting near the town of Lone Pine, at the Whitney Portal, the JMT strikes boldly west with bright red dashes, then joins the Pacific Crest Trail for its northbound route towards Canada, breaking off at Happy Isles in the Yosemite Valley. For all of its ambitious length, the JMT does not cross a single stab at civilization more ambitious than a ranger's hut. It is the longest such stretch along the PCT.
On the map, the trail crosses through swaths of minty green vegetation, tepid blue lakes, and expanses of treeless biege. Urgent red elevation likes, sometimes widely spaced, sometimes packed together like the cars of a wrecked train, suggest the ridges, canyons, plateaus, and parapets, like whorls in the thumbprints of God.
Someone with a classical education clearly hand a hand in the place names. Lake Helen of Troy, Thor Peak, and Wotan's Throne - a nod to the pagan Saxon patheon - reek of a 19th-century American college course in world mythologies. The mountain peaks that escaped mythic etymology, like Irvine, Mallory, LeConte, and Barnard, might, depending on your level of cynicism, seem to be a series of monuments to male ego. The water bodies, less elevated in stature, were awarded the more utilitarian, and sometimes more bewitching titles. I submit, for your consideration, Lucys Foot Lake and Millies Foor Lake, neither one of which resembles a foot, even in poor lighting. I smell a story here, but there is no one to explain it.
Even good maps have their quirks, some inherited and some newly minted. All flowing water in the John Muir Wilderness, for example, whether it drips or gushes, is called a creek, and is represented by a blue thread of exactly the same size. You won't know whether to expect Niagara Falls or a mud puddle until you get there. Some clusters of lakes are not named, but dubiously numbered - Cottonwood Lakes 1, Cottonwood Lakes 2, and so on -- and one can almost hear the onset of a creative drought. Naming things is fun at first, but eventually it gets rather tedious. Many lakes have no name at all. Harrison cannot be blamed for aquatic misnomers, but I might just send him an angrily worded missive about apostrophes. In spite of their other considerable virtues, Harrison maps have an infuriating tic of doing away with all apostrophes in place names (like Lucys Foot and Millies Foot), as though there were a national shortage of punctuation marks.
Maps, it must be said, do a very difficult thing. They take a three-dimensional landscape, a set of vast, nearly limitless horizons, rock and water, sand and glacier, that changes by the season, and it condenses it all into an 8 x 11, tri-color, one-dimensional representation, something that can be folded, rained upon, dropped in the mud, and easily read by the shaking flashlight of a hiker lost in Grizzly country at dusk. That's asking an awful lot. It's no wonder then, then a map cannot tell you everything about a trail, any more than a chapter outline can tell you about a novel. The Tom Harrison maps, for instance, nestle Mt. Whitney cozily in the heart of the John Muir Wilderness, and you would never know that Josiah Whitney and John Muir came down on opposite sides of a major scientific debate and cordially hated each other's guts.
III. 'A Mere Sheepherder'
A shepherd's lot is rarely envied, and for good reason. Imagine traipsing through all weather in care of a bunch of animals most noted for their reckless stupidity, away from the human contact that keeps a person sane. But the job comes with excellent compensation. Shepherds have time! Time to contemplate the flights of stars and the heart of God. Time to receive wonder. It was a shepherd who was ushered to the manger-side. It was a shepherd who hurled stones into the cave at Qumran, heard the shatter of pottery, and unearthed the Dea Sea scrolls. And it was a shepherd who stumbled with his motley flock onto Yosemite's starling vistas and thought, without a trace of blasphemy, "My God."
John Muir was born in 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, one of eight children. His family emigrated and established a farm in Wisconsin. Muir studied intermittently at the University of Wisconsin and became an industrial engineer in Indianapolis. A factory accident almost cost him his eyesight, and he vowed to spend the rest of his sighted days on things he counted worth seeing. He started walking. A thousand miles later, he ended up in Florida. He would have liked to continue on to South America, but he was stricken with malaria and wound up in San Francisco. Someone told him about a valley that lay to the east, a placed called Yosemite.
No person of feeling will deny that places have personalities, or at the very least, their our minds interact with them not only as backdrops, but as sentient beings. Why else, when an airplane lands in a new city, would the feeling be so much like a first date, and why would they stir our blood to admiration or repugnance, and fill us with sorrow at leaving? Once in a great while, I think, a man is destined for a country not his own, and when he finds it, the whole universe is glad. Such was the meeting of Muir and Yosemite. His first High Sierra trip lasted eight days, but like one tethered, he stayed in the Sierra foothills, working on ferry boats, in saw mills, on ranches.
In May 1869, a sheep rancher hired Muir to care for his flocks in the Yosemite Valley. Muir spent that summer becoming enamored of the spires and valleys, laying the foundations of an intimate fondness for the wilderness that would last until his death in 1914. He belonged in a class with Emerson and Thoreau, the American Romantics. His prolific writings sound less like those of a phlegmatic naturalist, someone who might detail the needles of a bristlecone pine, and far more like those of a religious ecstatic, or someone in the thralls of romantic infatuation. His love spurred him to share and preserve the wonders he enjoyed by starting the Sierra Club (still one of America's preeminent environmental groups), encouraging legislators to protect the wilderness for posterity, and helping the American public to value nature beyond what could be cut or stripped from her.
During that fateful summer, Muir also developed the theory that glaciers had carved out the Yosemite Valley. His ideas clashed with the accepted wisdom of the California state geologist, one Josiah Whitney, for whom Mt Whitney was named. Falling somewhat short of the tandard of civil scientific discourse, Whitney dismissed the college-educated Muir as an "ignoramus" and "a mere sheepherder." He defended his own theory, that Yosemite had been created during a cataclysmic earthquake, right to his deathbed, and his official reports suppressed evidence that supported Muir's glacial theory. (Perhaps Whitney had reason to be so onerous. He was made the state geologist in 1860 at once began a serious scientific survey of the entire state. The state legislature, which was actually only interested in further gold discoveries, took away all of his funds in 1868, stripping him of all but his title.)
Today, geologists have taken sides with the sheepherding ignoramus.
A young, Yale-educated geologist by the name of Clarence King discovered California's largest active glacier during a survey of Mt Shasta. He named it Whitney Glacier, in honor of his friend and patron. While he was well aware of the Muir-Whitney debates, the irony of the name seems to have escaped him completely.
After Muir's death in 1914, members of Congress voted for the construction of the John Muir Trail across the High Sierras.
Encumbered by World War I and the Great Depression, to say nothing of the punishing terrain, the trail was not completed until 1938.
IV. Something Keen and Thirsty
I've never been very good at change. Just ask my mother. When I was twelve, she dyed her hair red, and I was inconsolable. I've gotten better, of course, as I've gotten older, and as my life has reeled like a ship in heavy seas, but a lack of consistency is still the failing I find hardest to forgive in myself or others.
But there is another part of me, a vexing, uncontrolled part, that calls for movement, for shores I have not seen, for the challenge and solitude of a long journey. All my favorite stories, whether from Tolkien or Lewis, Bunyan or Hurnard, are about such peregrinations, and in part they have planted my wanderlust, but I suspect, for the most part, they have awakened something deep and native, something keen and thirsty.
My life is a sedate one. I work in an office. My cat, opposed to any movement, stretches her langurous orange flank over my lap, puts a propietary paw of my elbow, and falls asleep while I type at home. Though we don't do it as often, Bethany and I will still ocassionally light a candle, put on the tea kettle, and read the Chronicles of Narnia until we fall asleep. But whenever I am discontented, I feel an urgent need to fly away, whither I hardly know, but let it be some place where I can wrap myself in the infinitely gracious company of trees and air that smells of untrammelled green. All through the fall and winter, I secreted myself into the Shenandah Valley, regardless of the ice. The trees, though bare, were stately and kind, the ridges always blue. So long as I kept walking, the sadness did not consume me, and cheerful thoughts wandered with my feet along the switchbacks. So long as I walked, my grief stayed back from me. Only it was never long enough.
My grief needed a project, an memorial outpouring. I remembered a photograph of my father wearing an external frame backpack, kneeling with his teenage buddies besides a brown national park sign with yellow block lettering. They were on their way from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite, a distance of 83 miles. I also remembered my mother's stories of climbing Mt Whitney with my Grandpa Jack, marine officer and outdoorsman extraordinaire. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at 59, soon after my fourth birthday. He comes to my mind as a vague, kind, salty presence, adorned with my mother's love of him, her sense of loss. I have always mourned him privately, searched for him, certain that we would have been great friends, that he would have understood that thing in me that longed to be alone to escape its loneliness, that he would have taught me lovely secrets. When I decided to find a project, there were the High Sierras, waiting for me. There was the John Muir Trail, a condensation of notions dear and sacred. I would hike it. I would pour into each footstep my love and confusion and anger and longing, and I would leave them all up there, taking from the woods their balm.
Once it presented itself as a solution, it quickly became a goal bordering on compulsion, one not easily swayed, yet I barely understood it. When anyone asked why I must go so far, alone, so soon, I felt a disproportionate defensiveness, almost an anger, as though asked to explain why I must breathe or drink or sleep.
V. Material Considerations
The thought of the John Muir Trail, exertion in uncluttered space!, pulled me through many a weary day. Not only would I be away from the office, trading the chirp of my phone for the murmur of water, but it was the only trip of such ambitious duration that I could take and stay within the confines of my budget. Lodging is free when you carry your hotel room on your back. But let no one be deceived. As you know if you have ever so much as camped in your backyard, even trips born out of a spiritual necessity has its wealth of material considerations. When the trip takes on a grander scope, like the John Muir Trail, well! Let me just say that Belgium has been invaded with less logistical forethought.
If you really want to know everything that I packed (and I doubt you do), you can refer to "The Things I'll Carry", an earlier post. Suffice to say that I spent months getting myself in shape, making absurdly detailed lists, and measuring my equipment to the gram with a small chef's scale. The story of just a few items will give you a nice flavor of the trail, with its joys and perils.
One's readiness for outdoor adventuring can be measured by a simple test: are you bothered by the lack of facilities to meet the demands imposed by your excretory system? If the answer is yes, you had better rent a nice cabin at a lake somewhere. If the answer is a "no" and a grin, then you are ready to launch into the uncharted regions. Usually, you can get along fine with some hygienic paper and a bright orange shovel (conveniently calibrated to indicate the mandatory 6-inch depth for waste disposal.) The area surrounding the Whitney Portal, however, subject to such high traffic, recently instituted a mandatory waste removal policy. "Pack it in, pack it out," the backpacker's ethic, has taken on an entirely new, odoriferous dimension. Last season, the National Park Service's website is proud to announce, wilderness revelers packed out an estimated 3,700 pounds of . . . material.
The Bear Vault:
There are two species of bear in the contiguous United States: the grizzly bear (ursus horribilis) the black bear (ursus americanus). The massive grizzly, weighing as much as a small car, has earned a reputation as a fearsome carnivore. When charging, it can attain speeds of 40 miles per hour. If a grizzly starts to chase you in an open space, don't run. Crouch down on the ground, cover your neck and face with you arms, and hold very still. So far as I can see, the logic of this advice is that whether you run or not, the grizzly is still going to eat you, so theres no point in overexerting yourself or the bear. While the grizzly bear does appear on the state flag, it was hunted to extinction in California in the 1920's. All bears in California are now representatives of the grizzly's milder little brother, the black bear. Adult black bears, weighing in at between 250 and 800 pounds, are still nothing to be trifled with, but they tend to be reclusive, if not wimpy, in their direct contact with alert humans. But they will do absolutely anything to eat your food.
It used to be that if you wanted to keep your victuals safe from Yogi and his nefarious pals, you tied put your food in a bag, tied the bag up with a rope, and used a rock to throw the other end of the rope up a tree. Next, you hauled your food bag up to at least twelve feet over the ground and several feet from the trunk of the tree, tied it off with the rope, and went to sleep with the serenade of crickets. This was called counterbalancing, and it seemed to work well. But time passed, and whether the bears got smarter or the humans got dumber, it's hard to say. Counterbalancing is no longer sufficient in many areas. As a case in point, I heard the following story from John, a hiker on the trail: Twenty years ago, as a boy scout, John traveled along the JMT with his troop. They used the tried-and-true counterbalance to store their food, and being good scouts, I doubt they skipped any of the steps. In the middle to the night, the camp awoke to strange and awful noises. John emerged sleepily from his tent to find a sow bear (such are the females called) standing on her hind feet, with her young cub standing on her shoulders, swinging at the food bag as though it were a pinata. At campgrounds, campers are ardently encouraged to remove all food and scented food from their cars, since one of the bears' favorite stunts is to smash the windshield, clamber into the backseat, remove food, and force their way out through the trunk. Try explaining that one to your insurance agent after you mistakenly leave cherry-flavored chapstick in the cup holder.
For the protection of bears and humans alike, bear-proof canisters are now required for the entire length of the John Muir Trail. Recently, though some types of bear canisters have been prohbited in the Rae Lakes region of Kings Canyon National Park because the bears have figured out how to open them. One hopes the knowledge isn't spreading.
Altitude Sickness Medication:
La Paz, Bolivia, perched in the Andes at 12,000, feet is the highest capital city in the world. Unsuspecting foreign travelers are prone to experience a range of uncomfortable symptoms: shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and interrupted sleep, something like a hangover without the alcohol. These are the early signs of altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness. As altitude increases, symptoms progress to vomiting, incapcitating weakness, ataxia (inability to walk a straight line - a bad thing on a mountain pass), disorientation and disrupted judgment, swelling and bleeding of the lungs, unconsciousness, and even death.
While acute mountain sickness it well documented, doctors are a long way from fully understanding it. Some travelers might become seriously ill, and others not at all. It helps to be physically fit and well-hydrated, but the affliction is like a tornado, randomly striking some and sparing others. A patient might experience it on one trip to high altitude, but be fine on the next trip.
At least two factors are responsible: 1) The greater the distance from sea level, the lower of the oxygen saturation of the air we breathe. Each breath we draw brings considerably less oxygen to the lungs, increasing the cardiovascular workload, so that you can be at rest and feel like you just ran a marathon. During sleep, when the cardiovascular system slows down even further, you can experience oxygen deprivation and wake up with a sensation of suffocation. 2) As air pressure changes at high altitude, the brain actually begins to swell, leading to all sorts of unpleasant cognitive affects.
The human body, marvelous machine that it is, can (within limits) compensate for the physiological stresses of high altitude, just as if you reset the thermostat in your house, but it requires time to do so. Thus, rapid changes in altitude are associated with increased symptoms. When time permits, wilderness doctors recommend allowing time for acclimitization.
I didn't have much time for acclimitization, so I did the next best thing. I visited a general physician and asked for Diamox, a prescription anticoagulant to help my body adjust to altitude. I had an appointment at 2:30 and sat in the waiting room for three hours. I made it through two back issues of Time magazine. The last patient in the office, I was seen at 5:45. The doctor talked to me for three minutes, hastily wrote me a prescription, and sent me on my way. It was only five days until my departure. I was too euphoric to be annoyed.
VI. Sallying Forth
The last days before my departure swept by in a blur. I shipped a package of food to myself, to be picked up at the Muir Trail Ranch, a facility that will hold your package for an extortionate fee. My satellite phone arrived.
The satellite phone, adding an extra pound of weight with accessories, was not on my original packing list, but it was a concession made to familial sanity. To put it mildly, there was a general lack of enthusiasm about my trek, once I was certain to be going it alone.
My flight left from Baltimore at 6 am on Saturday, July 14. The Baltimore airport is not accessible by public transportation at that hour, and a taxi would have cost nearly as much as my plane ticket, so I called a Super Shuttle van. I am generally not a fan of Super Shuttle. They won't pick you up less than four hours before your flight, and then they take you for a naseauting tour of the district while they stuff the van with other semi-comatose passengers. I did once get a free ride from a Super Shuttle van. They usually take credit cards, something I was counting on, not having cash, and the driver did not tell until he dropped me off that his credit card machine was broken. He seemed to think this was my fault, but I digress.
With ample historical reason to fear missing my flight, I did not go to sleep before my pick-up. I tried to straighten up around the apartment, double-checked my gear, and got dressed in my hiking clothes, the only clothing that I would be taking with me. The van driver called me on my cell phone to say, repeatedly "Whereruaimcoming!", as though it were some secret password, and it took me a while to figure out that he wasn't speaking Pashtu, so I went downstairs to wait. Even at this improbable hour, the air was thick and warm, tense between the heat of the day before and the day to come. I propped my chin in my hands, sat on the curb, and tried not to fall asleep.
The driver came, and I was whisked off on one of those unpleasant circuits through Virginia, the District, and obscure Maryland suburbs for the other passengers. I dozed off and woke up an hour later just as we arrived at the terminal.
I had shoved my pack into a monstrous blue duffle, the same "body bag," purchased at a Quonset hut that called itself a hunting store, that has been serving me well for a decade of misadventures foreign and domestic. My bear canister, which I carried on the outside of my pack, would not fit it in the duffle, so I had to detach it and carry it around the airport as my carry-on luggage. With the heavy-duty hiking boots and my sun-bleached bandana, I was the spitting image of a runaway from a survivalist cult, something called the 2nd Amendment People's Armageddon Militia. I checked my bag, wondered fleetingly what I would do if the airline lost my bag, and shuffled off to find my gate, bear canister firmly in arm. You should have seen the looks I got from the security people. Miraculously, I thought, I was not selected for additional screening. Come to think of it, I have only been singled out when I was at my most innocuous. Perhaps that's the strategy - to only persecute the people who seem to blend.
My United Airlines flight took me to Los Angeles, where I landed after five hours and two enthralling crossword puzzles. In Los Angeles, I needed to call Anne and let her know that my flight was on time. Satellite phones are spectacular things. The model that I carried in my bear canister, an Iridium XYZPDQ2000-double "o" 7, etc, etc, can field calls from anywhere on the planet, but you have to be outdoors. I frolicked all over LAX, trying in desparation to find a single space with a clear view of the sky. All of the glass was double-paned, too thick for any signal to penetrate. I was on the point of giving up until I found a crowded outdoor smoker's lounge. Eureka! I unscrewed the bear canister lid (always a lengthy production), whipped out the satellite phone, which looks exactly like a cellular phone from 1991, and connected with Anne. Anne was driving down from Tulare, where she was doing an internship in livestock raising at the UC Davis extension, a program funded by the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, of all things. When I last spoke with her, she was feeling anxious about an expected shipment of hundreds of calves from New Mexico, all of which would need to branded and have their blood drawn. The John Muir Trail does not scare me a bit. Two hundred calves from New Mexico would scare the living daylights out me. Anne was just about to leave Tulare on schedule. All things according to plan, for the moment.
I left the ostracized smokers to their nicotine comforts and went back to my gate. I had fallen asleep on the LA-bound flight, during which time my neck wound itself into a pretzel, so I added to my aura of general weirdness by testing out extravagant stretching poses. A little girl watched me from across the terminal, caught between curiosity and horror.
After a few more hours, I boarded a SkyWest puddle jumper for the friendly but unacclaimed Inyokern Airport, a facility notable for its proximity to nothing in particular - but it was the closest I could get to the start of the JMT. The flight from Los Angeles to Inyokern took less than an hour. I watched, transfixed, while the landscape fell away, first the ocean, then the clotted freeways, then the repetivie hunks of suburban development, then the rural houses and dirt tracks. Almost as soon as we had reached our highest altitude, we began to descend again. The baked-earth brilliance of Red Rock Canyon flashed beneath us, rocks split with stingy strands of vegetation. It was here, as the ground drew closer, that I felt my first pang of hesitation, the realization that there was no turning back.
VII. "The Sunshine Capital of the USA"
The little plane jounced to a halt on the runway at Inyokern. The passengers descended via a rickety set of movable stairs that was brought alongside the door. Outside the plane, I was assaulted by a wave of desert heat, a moistureless heat like opening the door of an oven. There was no terminal building. The passengers, all of whom seemed to be intimately familiar with the airport, moved en masse to an area surrounded by a chain-link fence, where a decrepit, sun-blistered table hunched gloomily on the asphalt. Two amazingly buff women tossed the luggage onto the table. This was baggage claim. I wandered to a bench in front of the Avis building. Its door opened ocassionally, emitting puffs of cool, conditioned air. I wrenched my pack out of the duffle bag and reattached the bear canister. An old man sidled up next me. His baseball cap said, "PCT: Mexico to Canada."
"You from Massachusetts?" he inquired hopefully in a thick accent straight from Boston's North Shore. "I saw the patch," he continued gesturing to my pack. My pack is encrusted with dozens of fabric patches from the places I have wandered - Nicaragua, Corfu, Florence, Hawaii, Macedonia, and Massachusetts as well.
I shook my head, sorry to disappoint, but in compensation told him about the hike up Mt. Cardigan after Thanksgiving, the closest I had ever come to actually hiking in Massachusetts.
He smiled congenially, pleased to be talking about hiking. Hikers are a wonderful lot, friendly and helpful to their own. It's as though the extent of their solitude has condensed the finer points of their humanity, and they must expend twice the normal warmth on every human interaction to make up for it.
He explained how he had retired in 2001 and hiked the Appalachian Trail (invariably called the AT in backpacking parlance), a 2,100 mile stroll in the woods from Georgia to Maine. He decided to tackle to PCT in 2007. He informed me that he had been hiking since May.
"Won't make it this year," he intoned mournfully. "Had to take a break."
"Oh?" I said politely.
"Son got married," he explained with obvious annoyance.
To change the subject, I told this robust retiree about my plans to hike the JMT in 21 days, a middling time allotment. He congratulated me and wished me well.
I called Anne to find out where she was. Mapquest had led her astray in some distressing lunar landscape, and the transmission of her truck was getting fidgety, but she was on her way, so I let myself bake on the bench for the next hour, reading up on the finer points of orienteering with GPS coordinates.
Anne pulled up in the airport parking lot, uncertain that she had actually found the airport. She bounded out of the truck, gave me a hug, and helped me stow my gear in the back. She had an apple waiting for me in the front seat. Brilliant, that girl is! Anne and I weren't friends in high school. I knew peripherally that she existed because she dated someone on the cross country team. After I graduated from college, I spent six weeks with her that included a partial ascent of Mt Olympos and several ill-considered forays into the countryside of former Communist countries. Anne would drive me to the trailhead, camp with me the first night, and leave me on the second day. I could think of no one better with whom to start my pilgrimage.
With no one else to trust, we turned once again to the Mapquest maps, trying to figure out, under the glaring midday sun, which way on the highway would take us north. After only one wrong turn, we figured it out, and set off through Ridgecrest, proud home of the Inyokern Airport and, according to a fatigued road sign, the "sunshine capital of the USA." Ridgecrest was a town slowly expiring. It was filled with desolate gas stations, houses with the charm of miniature airplane hangars, derelict shops that sold liquor AND tires AND fresh jerky, Wild West-themed RV parks unchanged since the days of their glory.
We pulled out of Ridgecrest and drove through unpeopled country to the Interagency Services Center, the wilderness permit hub of the southern High Sierras, on the edge of Lone Pine and the trail.
VIII. Abbott of the Wilderness
Leaving Anne to rest her eyes in the car, I strode into the station, expecting to pick up my permit and go along my merry way. A friendly ranger pulled my record out of a computerized system. He was a youngish guy, with a prickly shaved head of hair that would have been black. He exuded boredom and unexpended energy. He noted my plans to hike the whole JMT. He asked where I was from and what I did. He confided conspiratorially that he had gone to college at the University of Maryland, and after that he regarded me as an acquaintance of long standing, apologetic about the bureaucratic hoops demanded of him by his authority.
"I'll need to know where you're staying," he said.
"Until Happy Isles?"
"All 21 nights. If we have to do a search and rescue, it will help us know where to look."
I trudged back to the car, fished out my itinerary, and presented it to the ranger, and hoped that he would just make a photocopy and let me go. Not so. The information had to be entered into his tempermental system, one which unfortunately did not recognize the names I had written down. The ranger produced a map as large as a doorframe, and we spent the next twenty minutes making my itinerary match up with places that the computer would recognize.
That chore dispensed with, he took me through the wilderness 'thou-shalt nots:'
Thou shalt not leave any trace.
Thou shalt not build fires above 10,000 feet.
Thou shalt not build furniture out of logs and boulders ("People actually do that!" he confided with an incredulous lift of his bushy eyebrows.)
Thou shalt not feed, heckle, or otherwise disturb the wildlife.
Thou shalt not -- and here he grew very dour indeed, an abbot of the wilderness, warning me, the neophyte, against the mortal peril of fleshly temptations -- I repeat, thou shalt not sleep in the alpine meadows!
Once I had promised most sincerely not to pet the black bears of pitch my blasphemous tent in any virgin meadows, he stamped my permit, drew me a map of the street route to the trailhead, and wished me luck. I went back to the truck to find Anne sound asleep in the driver's seat.
Range of Light
What a figure the mountains made, humbling the valley floor like the ranks of a massive army encamped for invasion, reposed in stength, thick with threat and promise! (Forgive the purple prose; when I talk about mountains, I can't seem to help myself.) Anne steered up the winding road, coaxing the recalcitrant truck for several miles. The sky suggested rain.
We parked at the traihead, removed anything from the truck that might possibly tempt a bear, and made one last stop an actual outhouse. It stank like roadkill three days dead, and there was no toilet paper. I'll take a tree any day, thank you very much.
After locking the truck, we stepped onto the trail, a single, red, dusty track in well-spaced stands of pine. I felt springy. I felt like singing. My journey had begun at long, long last. Not wanting to embarrass Anne, I refrained from singing. Instead, I chatted her ear off in ragged, breathless sentences, while my pulse thrummed in aggravated protest against the altitude. Though the terrain was not particularly challenging, rolling up and down, we made little progress that first night, not more than a few miles. We had been delayed at numerous points in the afternoon, and I had to stop several times to adjust my pack. I was also battling jetlag, sleep deprivation, and hunger. We called it an early night at some unnamed point, just uphill of the trail in a sandy opening. We pitched Anne's two-man tent, explored a bit up the hill (an expedition quickly cut short by complaining lungs), and swallowed some dry provisions. We crept into the tent, exhausted, and unrolled our sleeping pads and bags. We vowed to step outside to see the sky arrayed in stars, but we both fell asleep before dark and did not wake until dawn.
The Mountains and I
Anne and I packed up in the morning. After another meal eaten squatting on the stones, we prayed for each other, like we always do. We said good-bye. I gave her some things to pack out for me. We traded sleeping pads because hers was lighter. We promised to see one another when I returned. She tromped down the hill, the way we had come. The bed of pine needles absorbed her footfalls, leaving neither mark nor sound. The woods veiled her outline, and the sound of water in the meadow below floated up with greater strength. I was alone.
I confess that the first few days on the trail have rolled into one, impressionistic memory. Rainclouds that threatened, spattered a few drops, and then moved on. Boulder fields that stretched on and on, with tortured trails carved between them by the force of some man's will, piling themselves into mountains. Alpine lakes, appearing without notice in a land of gorgeous, barren nothingness, cold and gently dimpled, while the sky contemplated its own cloudless complexion in their mirror gazes. Trees, embracing the earth, splitting stones, growing for heaven with infinite patience, unless, perchance, the lightning burns them and they fall in a charred wreck like sleek, black crocodile skin. Coyotes loping like incarnate shadows in a valley of spilled twilight. Marmots, lords of meadow and cairn, calling with shrill voices, noting my passage without the least concern.
My first night alone, I was lonely, but as though I had wrestled with a demon in the dark, by morning I was glad and contented. I thought long, meandering thoughts, about God and the mountains, about Muir. About how enough solitude could drive you crazy, if you waited too long, but how just enough will keep you sane.
I went up staggering passes whittled in the mountains, places where the trail seemed to appear out of fantasy, where a mountain goat might balk. I went across sandy flats, and into the low valleys that mark the ancient march of glaciers. I learned to recognize three things: 1) when you are very thirsty, and your canteen is almost empty, the teasing of wind in the treetops sounds excruciatingly like flowing water; 2) sitting on a log with a fully loaded backpack is doomed to failure - you WILL roll of the back; 3) there is no sight on this earth half so satisfying as mosquitos bouncing off my DEET-coated limbs; they ricocheted beautifully, as if whacked by invisible tennis raquets.
I had a few misadventures that were not life-threatening. No matter how much sunscreen I put on, I sweated it off almost immediately, and I was soon aching with the sort of burns that make a dermatologist cringe, and I could feel my lips splitting open. More significantly, on the second day, I was adjusting my pack on the second day (word to the wise, don't readjust you pack on a mountain pass), when my sleeping pad (or more precisely, Anne's sleeping pad), went plummeting into an abyss from which I had no hopes of retrieving it.
It was always a special treat to run into other hikers. Almost no one was travelling in my direction, but many passed me going south. At noon on the second day, I heard rumors of a family with three small children, aged 6, 8, and 9, and all carrying packs, headed northbound on the JMT. That night I passed them as they cheerfully camped around their fire.
Things Go Wrong
On the afternoon of the third day, I got my first bloody nose. Having nothing else to use, I stopped it with my bandana, and then, with a little repulsion, stuck it back on my head. On the evening of the third day, I went to bed with a splitting headache, which I sincerely hoped was not the start of altitude sickness. I drank a lake's worth of water, took some Advil, and went wearily to bed. I woke up feeling a bit better and traipsed to a creek to filter my water for the day. The dawn was chilly. My fingers stumbled. I accidentally dumped out the water- twice. I headed back to my tent, not in the best of spirits, packed up and prepared to head out. Within a few steps, I felt nauseated. I tasted metal. I was congested. After another quarter of a mile, my headache returned, as though it had some unfinished grudge, and I developed a fever.
If I'd felt this way at home, I would have called in sick to work, lounged on the couch, and taken comfort in Honeydew's extravagant purring, or possibly some Ben & Jerry's. But at 11,000 feet, in midsummer heat, with 40 pounds on my back and 10 miles to hike, the world looked increasingly grim. I soldiered up a pass that morning and through a sandy flat that ground painfully upward, hot as a baking sheet fresh from the oven. I stopped for a rest every quarter of a mile. My nose shot raspberries three times that morning, each one leaving me woozier and weaker than the last. My bandana, stained crimson stood straight up with the acculumated starch. I wanted (oh, how I wanted!) to pretend that this would pass, but at 11,000 feet, I could feel my strength ebbing, even I could only be so stubborn. Even if I felt better in a few days, I had no hope of making up enough mileage to finish on schedule. I pulled out the satellite phone and called in the cavalry. I told my mom that I was sick and coming out early, and we arranged to talk again that night and arrange the details.
I dragged myself through the rest of the day in a sort of daze, stopping with infuriating frequency to rest, drink water, and fume about ow little mileage I was waking. But I never fumed long; the woods were too majestic for a toxic mood. But I do think the fever, or perhaps the extended solitude, addled my senses a bit. The wind and the water began to sound like music to me. Gales at play in the mountain pinnacles came to me like Gregorian chants, of a rock opera theme without irony. I firmly believe that such would the music of the mountains be, like the anthems of total despots, raised by their charisma and power beyond pity or self-reflection. Hitler or Mussolini in stone. In the smiling split faces of boulders I saw Guernica. In slumped, rotting trees, in bushes, I hoped idly for human forms. That night, I was visited by a ghost.
That night, as darkness encroached fast on the forest, I flung up my tent indifferently in a sandy wash-out. I stashed my bandana in the bear canister, afraid that the blood my prove too intriguing for a passing large mammal, and rolled it further from sleeping place than usual.
From around the next bend in the trail, with a bounding step, came a late hiker with the steel-drum chest and pencil legs of a mountain devotee.
From a distance, he hallooed my camp, asking if there were any decent nooks further along. I answered him and kept fiddling with the my rain cover, expecting him to continue on his way. But he didn't. He left the trail, sauntered into the washout, and seemed in every way prepared to have a nice conversation, as though I had invited him to tea. The dark was no deterrent. I had pepper spray for such ocassions, but I never thought of fetching it. No one could have been less intimidating.
He started chatting pleasantly in a thick Scottish brogue, with a perpetual smile that deepend the bevels around his eyes. He was doing the whole trail in a brisk fifteen days. With any luck, he would summit Whitney in another day or so. His eyes gleamed at the prospect.
He asked my name. I told him. This was also his wife's name, which he found to be a thrilling coincidence.
I told him my predicament - that I was taking blood thinners (like Advil) to control my fever and headaches, but the blood thinner were causing nosebleeds.
Nori, as he called himself, nodded in commiseration.
"I've hiked me all over France, Italy, Scotland ("of course" he added, aside). Once I was up in Spain and I came doon with a 104-degree fever. I had to hole up in a refuge in the mountains for two days. They were going to send a heli-copter fer me."
"What happened?" I asked.
"Oh, well now, I walked oot."
Of course you did, I thought to myself.
"I'm a nurse back in Scotland," he announced, to my complete shock, at which point he took off his Golightly (a sublime little pack that weighs only a pound) and produced a two-day supply of tablets for me to take, something available only in the UK that reduces fever and pain without thinning the blood. He instructed me on how to take them, then sealed up his pack, said good-bye, and disappeared around the next bend.
A moment later, his voice floated back to me.
"I fergoot to tell ya," he yelled, "Make sure to take it with a wee bit'a food so it doesn't upset yer tummy!"
I assured him I would. I knew at once that the encounter was providential. It didn't occur until I while later that my benefactor was probably the ghost of Muir, that first amiable Scotsman, or so I'd like to think.
Afterwards, I called Justin, who was at the base of Kings Canyon, preparing to enter for his scheduled portion of the trail. He would enter until he hit the JMT and hike southward until he found me. I would continue north and try not to pass out.
The next morning, strengthened a little by providential British medication, I crossed Tyndall Creek and Bighorn Plateau, where the mountains rose around me black and fierce, fantastical minarets, pirahna-jaw ridges, their flanks littered with slipping stone. It is extraordinary to see how the mountains have decayed, falling inward, and to think they were once taller and grander. I went through the ordeal of getting my throwaway camera from my pack, only to discover that it had broken.
From there, I tackled to relentless ascent to Forester Pass, five miles of steady climbing through an open, wind-hassled space, infested with marmots and the skeletons of bristlecone pine, which can last for 7,000 years (the trees, not the marmots). I lost the trail here and had to descend to ask directions from some backpackers bivouacked by the creek. They were sunburned and contented. They had passed me in the morning as I broke down camp. They sent me back the way I had come, so I pushed up the grade again. I knew that I could never make it over the pass, a dizzying 13,200 feet, before dark, but I pressed along as far I could. There was almost no place to camp, and the wind picked up. Mountain clouds, generated by the pass's own micro-climate, frisked against a sky turning rose-coloured, and fog piled up against the far side of the range, though it must have been hundreds of miles away. I found the only spot I could, shielded a bit from the wind by some shattered boulders, and fought to set up my tent against the wind. I woke often, aching vaguely with the cold, and bunched my bag over my head.
In the morning, the three hikers passed me again. Even a thousand feet lower, where they had camped, they had woken to frozen water bottles. I described Justin to them, asking them to report my whereabouts if they saw him. They were happy to do the favor, so happy that they gave me their trail names: Riquito, Marmot, and Squirrel. Trail names are yet another fascinating result of hiker subculture. Once in the wilderness, hikers seem to relinquish their normal identities and take on fresh ones. By some unwritten code, you cannot pick your own name. It must arise from the experience of trail. I had no name. The Three Musketeers, as I fondly thought of them, wound up the knife-blade switchbacks, and I prepared to follow them.
Forester Pass was something else. It seemed to fling itself vertically. There was no trail, at times, but only a scrabbling over boulders crusted with lichen and alpine sorrel, blood-red flowers with a brief summer life. Halfway up, there was a plaque dedicated to Daniel Downs, a worker who died in the building of the trail up Forester Pass. It's funny, but you'd think that a man named Downs wouldn't meet his death two miles above sea-level. Stumble in any direction, and it would be only to easy to join him. A little further along, and the center of the trail had eroded, leaving a gap the size o manhole. Through it, I could spy the trail below and the azure border of an alpine lake. Dizzy, spent, and top-heavy with the weight of the pack, I moved on. The trail twisted on itself, and all at once, there was the top. I could see the trail before and behind me for fity miles, falling in all directions. I shouted Whitman's line about resounding yawps, enjoyed the view for a while, and continued north.
At the bottom of the descent, I spotted a bright yellow T-shirt hoofing up the grade. Justin! I say without any exaggeration that I have never been so glad at the sight of another human being.
I raced down to meet him, and to his credit, he displayed no shock, though I smelled like a goat and my face could hace stopped traffic - in a bad way. He had been prepared for the sight by the Three Musketeers. "She's in good spirits," they cautioned him, "but she doesn't look so good."
During a liesurely lunch beside a brook, Justin made a photographic record of my facial disfigurement, and I swallowed as much of his cheddar cheese as my altitude-shrunked stomach would permit. We packed up again, and going downhill all the way, we made good progress to East Vidette Meadow and camped early alongside a creek with a bear box (a steel chest for foodstuffs).
That night, we made a fire and enjoyed Mountain Man beef stroganoff straight from the bag. Heaven. The thirteen minutes that it took for the powdered cheese to congeal were some of the longest in my life. John, a neighboring camper, offered me a cup of Darjeeling tea (I had been fantasizing about a cup of tea for 6 days) and joined us at the fire. He was a super-hiker intent of finishing the trail in 10 days. That's 23 or 24 miles a day. Upon hearing this, I had to reflect for a time on whether to revere or hate him. We talked for an hour about human trafficking, and then for another half hour about structural engineering, of which I understood not a word.
To my delight, John had seen Nori at the summit of Mt. Whitney. After the ascent, John was cold and tired. He admired the view momentarily and then hoped to get off, but Muir's ghost detained him in euphoric conversation. Nori was planning to camp at the summit. John left him just was he was getting all worked up over some Mountain Man instant chicken-and-rice.
The caffeine in the tea kept me up half the night.
The next day, Justin and I left the John Muir Trail. We hiked an energetic fourteen miles alongside Bubbs Creek. The elevation plummeted, and we entered a new biosphere, a landscape of lush ferns and lordly, giant sequoias, of manzanitas, with their waxy, oar-shaped leaves and burnished red stems, of pale, blanched aspens, shivering and tittering with senseless delicacy. Every now and then, a rattlesnake crossed the path. Justin would freeze. Then, he would walk on, cautiously, and I would trail him, eyes glued to the ground. I cannot imagine how many thousands more sunned themselves lazily around us. As the blistering afternoon waned, we tramped across two miles of dust to the Roads End trailhead. We collapsed onto a picnic table beside a lodge, momentarily indifferent to anything besides the urge for inertia. After a while, we bathed ourselves in the Kings River, where whole families were frolicking the water like Independence Day at Virginia Beach. We got in the car, turned on the music, and turned the air conditioning to full blast. Civilization is ocassionally glorious.
We stopped at a small convenience store. Justin satisfied a craving for barbecued potatoe chips. I bought another patch for my backpack and a book of postcards.
"What happened to your lips?" said the cashier, with a look in his eyes like someone watching a 1950's horror film, where the heroine has just turned into an enormous lobster.
"Altitude," I said.
All Clear! - Of all the memories, experiences and things I brought back from Uganda, I have managed not to bring Malaria with me. I was so happy I had to share it with ...
8 years ago