John Muir Trail: Getting There

This past summer, we hiked the John Muir Trail in California. For an overview of our trip, and links to other posts about it, go here.

August 22

1.

Lone Pine is a long way from Portland, and we don’t have a long time to get there. It’s Saturday, Krista’s cousin is getting married in Eugene tonight, and our permit has us starting on Tuesday.

We leave the wedding around ten, stop at the supermarket for gas, coffee, and sandwiches, and set out south. I try to bank some sleep for the first couple hours, but excitement or nerves or something’s got the better of me, and I just sit reclined in the passenger seat with my eyes half open.

Around midnight we pull into a rest area just before Ashland to switch positions. As we slowly climb up the floodlit freeway toward the Siskiyou Summit and Californian border, I hear Krista’s breathing slow. A few minutes later I tentatively say her name, just to check. There’s no reply. I put on an audiobook, and settle in for a long night.

August 23

2.

We pass the summit and the border, where a woman sipping coffee tells me good morning. Then we weave down toward the small agricultural towns that dot northern California. We’re winding through thin pine forest now. The smell of trees and cool air seeps in even through our closed windows.

A few hours later, we stop for gas at a small touristy pullout near Lake Tahoe. There are cases of shitty beer stacked near the windows of the closed store, and a man’s asleep in a car at the pump in front of us. The pump is loud, or maybe just seems loud in the quiet, creaking night. I feel relieved when it finishes and we get back on the freeway.

I start to fade around four, and pull out at a decaying rest stop near Red Bluff to sleep for a little. There’s a minivan parked a few spots down the way, with a man and woman standing outside, talking loudly and angrily at each other in Spanish. There’s a child’s car seat in back.

3.

Around five-thirty the sun rises over mountains to the east that somehow rose in the night. Time to wake up. I splash cold water on my face in the bathroom, stretch my legs on a rusting picnic table outside. The freeway’s more crowded now, but the jockeying cars all seem somehow serene, dyed pink by the early light.

The sun rises on a hazy day as we veer east toward the Sierra’s white, smoky peaks. Around nine we stop for gas and Krista takes the wheel again. The road rises in jittery switchbacks and I can’t really sleep, but it feels good just to close my eyes, looking up every once in a while to see the old faded gold rush towns, now tourist traps, advertising cold beer and fishing tackle.

4.

The road’s giddy rise eventually gives way to gentle foothills through brittle late summer forest. A fire came through here a few years ago, and waves of burned black husks cascade through the hills, approaching the road then pulling back, enveloping it then retreating beyond the horizon. Here and there bright white rocks abruptly emerge above the thin green brown canopy, strange moments of purity in an otherwise dusty, parched, broken landscape.

Yosemite’s summer foothills drove even John Muir to a rare moment of something less than reverence:

I saw this region in early spring, when it was a charming landscape garden full of birds and bees and flowers. Now the scorching weather makes everything dreary. The ground is full of cracks, lizards glide about on the rocks, and ants in amazing numbers, whose tiny sparks of life only burn brighter with the heat, fairly quiver with unquenchable energy as they run in long lines to fight and gather food. How it comes that they do not dry to a crisp in a few seconds’ exposure to such sun-fire is marvelous.

5.

Traffic thickens as we enter the National Park, but fades just as quickly as we turn away from Yosemite Valley and up toward Tuolumne. The road rises again, now in long swoops across smooth wooded hills. And suddenly there’s water everywhere, cascading down from unseen vistas, in thin fast streams along the road, and under overbuilt bridges, roaring toward the valley.

And suddenly there’s granite too, no longer in lonely spires above the trees, but in thick slabs the size of houses littering the hillsides, and in domes that stretch hundreds of feet into the sky, like clouds just above the canopy.

We turn a long gentle corner then descend into Tuolumne – a series of meadows, where long lazy streams wind toward every horizon and stately domes watch over it all. I’m so, so happy.

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6.

We pass through the main, crowded complex and park the car at the Wilderness Permit Station, an out of the way lot largely reserved for backpackers. Leaving the car is weirdly emotional. I guess it’s sort of the last vestige of home, the last place that’s ours and obviously safe, and leaving it here means leaving all of that. When we walk away my stomach jumps. Here goes nothing.

We wait for a while at a shuttle stop across the way for a bus to take us back to the Tuolumne Meadows store and lodge, where we’ll catch another bus south in a few hours. Somehow, though scary, leaving the car has been sort of liberating, and I just lie in the bus stop dirt, as though it’s already my home.

A few minutes in we’re joined by two deer with large chandeliers for antlers, which eye us unexcitedly before returning to something more interesting on the ground. After a few minutes more a young girl and her father approach, both carrying heavy packs and looking a little defeated. In a cheery sweet voice she asks us where we’re headed, and we tell her, a touch hesitantly. She’s enthusiastic, though, when I ask what they’re up to, she tells me that they’d meant to go from Yosemite to Red’s Meadow – at this point, I have absolutely no idea what that means – but that her dad got sick a few days in, and that they’re calling it quits early. He’s silent the whole time. I get the impression he’s having a really rough go of it.

For half an hour, she flits seamlessly between taking care of him and talking pleasantly with us. She is one of the most impressive teenagers – hell: one of the most impressive people – I’ve met in a long time. I wish I could think of some non-awkward way to tell her that. And, suddenly, I also wish I could call my dad.

7.

The shuttle eventually comes, and we all pile in for a few stops down to the Tuolumne Meadows store, where there’s a small temporary restaurant selling half-assed but somehow satisfying burgers. We have a couple for lunch, then meander back along the road to the lodge to wait for our next bus.

I’m already exhausted and we haven’t even started yet.

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8.

Our bus comes around four, and takes us directly to the Shilo Inn in Mammoth, where we’ll be staying for the night. Public transit in the Eastern Sierra is sort of a mess: YARTS will get you to Mammoth, and the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA) runs a bus that will get you from Mammoth to Lone Pine. However, the two schedules do not link up. At all. And so, if you’re going south, you pretty much have to spend a night in Mammoth. Or hitchhike.

The ride goes smoothly enough, though, and we check into the shabby hotel without incident. We’re both dragging pretty hard at this point, and we wander out for dinner at the closest thing we can find – the fantastically named Nik-N-Willies Pizza-N-Subs, where a ten year old boy very professionally greets us and takes our order.

We eat in the hotel room watching some crime drama, and are asleep something like forty-five minutes later. At eight.

August 24

9.

The next day, we wake up early to catch the ESTA shuttle. We wait alone at the bus stop for a few minutes, than are joined by the first of what we’ll come to think of as the Wildfire Smoke Doomsayers: a half a dozen dudes, all in their mid-forties, all with massive packs, all from far away, and all having just quit their southbound trips at Red’s Meadow due to what they take to be apocalyptic smoke from the Rough Fire, southwest of Yosemite.

One southern dude, who I’ll call Mr. Pufferfish, walks over to the rock where we’re sitting, asks us some cursory questions, then spends a good ten minutes aggressively trying to convince us to cancel our trip right here and now. If it was too much for him, how can we ever make it!? Especially, he seems to imply: how can Krista make it? I mean, she’s a woman! It’s weird and patronizing and not so subtly sexist. He finally leaves after we tell him to back off – we’re from the west, we’re used to smoke, this is why you lost the Civil War, etc – but the whole thing leaves a bad taste in our mouths. What the fuck dude?

A few theories:

#1: Dude’s spent a long time planning for and dreaming about this, and leaving’s really hard. He needs to make himself feel better, and so wants to justify his choice to everyone who will listen, and to make sure that they know it’s probably the right choice for them, too.

#2: Stopping’s been really hard on dude’s ego, and so he needs to feel like everyone’s eventually going to have to stop. This is probably a variation of #1.

#3: Dude’s used to being in charge of Things, and out here has had that control taken away from him. So he needs to exert control over something… anything… before his whole patriarchal self-understanding starts to crumble.

#4: He’s just a sexist, condescending asshole.

I suspect it’s a combination of all these.

10.

Once on the shuttle, we listen to the Doomsayers tell increasingly outlandish stories to each other about their heroic battles with the smoke. Mr. Pufferfish, it transpires, wrestled a knife out of the smoke’s hands, heroically protecting his wife and twenty kids. At one point he also refers to a male deer as an “eight point buck.” This tells us absolutely everything we need to know about him.

Eventually we get to Bishop, where some more reasonable hikers get on, who tell us that, yes, the smoke’s there and sometimes tough, but that it’s also variable, and that, as ever, we should hike our own hikes.

I start to think of this as something like a mantra: see things for yourself, make your own decisions, and hike your own hike. The Confederacy’s been wrong before.

11.

The shuttle drops us off at the Lone Pine McDonald’s, where I buy a giant iced coffee and Krista loiters for an hour while I hitchhike a few miles down to road to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center to pick up our permits.

It’s only a little after ten in the morning but it’s already really hot – somewhere between 90 and 95 when I leave town. As the sidewalk ends, I stick out my thumb, unsure of how this whole hitchhiking thing works, but am picked up almost immediately by a kind grizzled old man driving a Frito Lay truck. I’ve had very pleasant dreams that begin this way.

He asks me where I’m headed and I tell him. “Ah, yea, we used to have a machine out there.” I ask him about his route, and he tells me he serves this whole section of the highway—from Tahoe to Death Valley. Up and down. At least once a week.

There’s an awkward silence, and I start in, hesitantly, on a question I’ve wanted to ask someone for a while. “So, do you remember an old flavor of Doritos, Fiery Habanero?”

He sighs deeply. “Yep.” He sighs again. “That was a controversial one.” I’ve hit pay dirt. “We got a lot of complaints about it—too hot, mostly. More complaints than any other flavor.” I try to look empathetic. “Oh, right. That makes sense. It was a good flavor, though.”

He looks straight ahead. “Damn good.” I want to give him a hug.

12.

The visitor center is crowded – a few hikers, but mostly families on their way to drive through Death Valley. I wait in line for a while, then get our permit from a wonderful young ranger. He asks if we’re planning to have campfires, and I tell him no: we’re not Neanderthals. We have a stove. He smiles broadly. As I’m leaving, he shouts, over the shoulder of his next customer, that we’ll remember this trip for years.

13.

All the traffic’s headed the other way, so I don’t even really try to hitch back into town, even though it’s now well over a hundred degrees out. I walk on the highway shoulder, on dirt then broken gravel then uncertain asphalt. To my side, there are herds of cattle grazing on dry grass in the shadows of the tallest mountains I’ve ever seen.

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I’m suddenly very excited by all of this, and I call Krista. “We got the permit!” Of course we did. There’s no surprise, but I mean to say something more: “We’re doing this! We made it over the last hurdle!” As always, she understands.

14.

We check into the hotel around noon. It’s got air conditioning, and we spend a pleasant few hours just lying in bed, cooling off, and watching the last TV we’ll see for a long time. A while later we venture out for a short, sticky walk through the gathering smoke. A while after that, we venture out for barbeque, which is sold by the pound at a new restaurant that still seems a month from completion. Our last meal!

More smoke comes in the evening, when we venture out one last time for beer and to watch the sunset. Man: Lone Pine’s a pretty place.

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