Tuolumne to Tahoe, Day 1: Learning to Fly

July 23, 2018

1.

The alarm goes off early for Robin to leave for Bishop. I watch him put on his hiking outfit, the now permanently dusty “white” shirt and watermelon gaiters. I feel fine until he goes to hug me goodbye, then find myself weeping uncontrollably. It’s ridiculous because I know it’s only a few weeks, a mere time hiccup compared to the 11 years we’ve spent together, but mixed with the emotional cocktail of fear, excitement, and anticipation the waterworks are unescapable.

Then my stomach drops out. One day we will learn the lesson not to load up on small town salsa the night before long trips where flush toilets are not an available amenity, but that will have to happen another time as we (again) could not resist the siren song of the absurdly delicious–and hot–chipotle salsa from the Lee Vining grocery store.

“I’m going to go to the bathroom,” I sniffle, my small voice sounds pitiful.

“Do you want me to leave while you’re in there?” Robin asks.

“Yeah.”

When I emerge from the bathroom, the hotel room is empty and quiet except for Pioneer Woman on the television explaining how to make cauliflower pizza crusts. I take a few breaths then get dressed, pulling on the outfit I won’t take off for weeks. Mint green shirt, gold sequin print leggings, neon running shorts, and because accessories are everything, hot pink sun gloves and lime green cheetah print gaiters. If I draw power from being ridiculous, this should supercharge me.

My $9 Casio watch beeps an indication that it’s time to go.

And so I do.

2.

I hoist on my pack and walk a few blocks to the YARTS bus stop to wait for my shuttle bus into Yosemite. As my departure time arrives, no sign of the bus. Five minutes pass, then 10, then 20, no bus. A seed of nausea sprouts in my stomach and I tear open a package of Brown Sugar & Cinnamon Pop Tarts and stress eat my breakfast while devising alternate plans involving a mythical second bus or hitchhiking into Yosemite.

Almost an hour after the shuttle was supposed to arrive and a half hour before the second bus was due, my bus pulls in. I climb on and the bus driver greets me with:

“I have good news and bad news. The good news is I’m still taking passengers, the bad news is the bus is barely running and I’m only taking people to the Mobil station up the way, where I’m going to have to wait for a service call. There you’ll have to wait for the next bus into the park.”

Three minutes later, I disembark at the Mobil, a small outpost gas station paradise with green manicured lawns that allegedly used to offer trapeze lessons to patrons before insurance issues got in the way. The gas station is also home to the Woah Nellie Deli, a startlingly good restaurant that has to be experienced to believe.

I laze in the grass in the shade watching the patrons come and go, still picking at the remains of my Pop Tart. A half hour later, the second bus arrives on time. Relieved and settled into my window seat, I pull out my earbuds to listen to some music on the ride. Everything’s falling into place now and I’m back on track.

I push “Play” and wait to hear the opening to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” but am met with only silence. I mess with the volume slider. Nothing. The iTunes interface shows that it’s playing but is skipping franticly from track to track after a couple seconds, with nothing coming out of the headphones. Panic rises.

It appears to be an error only fixable with internet to reset my account which, alas, I won’t have access to until my trip concludes. Months of compiling playlists, collecting albums, and strategizing music as a critical component to thwart the tough moments, lessen physical discomfort, and boost morale suddenly out the window. It’s all there on my phone, but none playable.

As I reel imagining a trip without music, for the third time this morning nausea blooms throughout my core.

3.

Around noon, my bus pulls in to the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center late from excessive traffic lined up waiting to get past the park gate–so much for my 8:45 start time. I am the only one disembarking and suddenly am standing there alone. I glance at the tree Robin napped under our fist time here, smile, then head off to the Glen Aulin Trailhead, marveling at how much can change in the course of a few years. I remember the sheer terror and excitement of that first long trip with Robin when we didn’t know what we were doing, and here I am continuing north alone with only a quiet humming uncertainty easily shooed away by the business of putting one foot in front of the other.

A brief flat trek across the sandy meadows, and then:

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The unassuming path curves up into the pine trees and out of view. I flex my toes in my shoes, whisper words of love and encouragement to my feet, and take the first steps.

Here I go.

4. 

Starting at noon brings different variables than I’d planned on, namely heat and smoke. Despite the elevation being gentle for the first few miles, the combination of warm temperatures, trail legs that haven’t woken up yet, and adjusting to the higher altitude have slowed me down significantly from my usual pace. I worry about time given the the lost morning hours and quickly feel my planned stopping point for the day sliding out of my grasp.

I remind myself that it’s ok, that I have an alternate itinerary planned with more conservative miles and it will work out, so I begin to relax and enjoy the scenery. Great swoops of granite rise and fall around me with unlikely pine trees sprouting from the rock. Slithering around the low point is the Tuolumne River, lazily sliding over the rock in a smooth sheet as it snakes towards the precipitous drop of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne ahead.

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The way is marked with occasional cairns and borders of rock to indicate where the trail is, but it’s really a free for all moving vaguely northwest. Right before the trail curves to start descending the canyon, I see a large duckbilled platypus in the rock.

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I stop for a quick Snickers since my late start threw off my planned meal times, and in the space of 10 minutes the faint haze has been replaced with a thick curtain of smoke. Dozens of flies start to gather around my sweat-soaked back so I cut my break short and keep moving.

The trail curves to the right and a well built footbridge carries me across the Tuolumne River, now frothing and churning as it picks up momentum for its plunge. The trail descends quickly to the bottom of the canyon via uneven, tilty stone steps that require solid concentration to land each downward step, but the views along the way are stunning and distracting.

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Once at the bottom, I hear a final roar of falling water and arrive at a large lagoon with Tuolumne Falls pouring into it. I have seen this waterfall countless times in other people’s trip reports and videos, but it still takes me a moment to recognize. I realize that the source of my confusion is the highly developed camp across the water from me, ground trampled free of vegetation with cabins and all kinds of infrastructure set back in the trees. It’s an ugly sight out in this spectacular landscape, one that is understandably cropped from most people’s renderings.

I have only been hiking for a couple hours but am already roasting, soaked through with sweat, and somehow very dirty. I drop my pack, pull out my lunch, then head to the lagoon to fill up my water bottles, catching a flash of pink and yellow in my periphery. Glancing up, I spy about ten Glen Aulin campers clad in bikinis and swim trunks watching me, their afternoon entertainment.

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I spend my lunchtime fending off a particularly industrious ground squirrel who has her sights set on my bag of tortillas. Stomach full of peanut butter and honey, I note the gray thunderheads stacking up in the sky above where I’m headed and carry on; I should be just in time for the 3:00 thunderstorms.

As my trail juts north and leaves the Tuolumne River behind, the forest grows silent as the water sounds fade into the distance. I stop several times and note that there are no sounds at all in these woods, no humming or buzzing insects, no birds calling out, no wind blowing.

And no people. With the popular Glen Aulin camp behind me, I don’t see anyone for several miles. The combined effect amplifies the loneliness of the area in contrast to the steady crowds characteristic of the John Muir Trail section of the PCT further south. I stand in the trail listening for anything at all, but after two minutes the silence remains. I am all at once very aware of being alone, but it is not with fear or sadness, but the rising excitement that comes with a sense of unfettered freedom and anonymity.

It’s not just an absence of forest sounds I’m experiencing, but the sudden silence of all recurring anxieties about my job, sick pets, future uncertainties, aging, money concerns, what my body looks like, what my body used to look like, what I want my body to look like, that dumb thing I said the other day that I can’t stop thinking about, that dumb thing I said four years ago that no one else remembers but I can’t seem to forget, and the whole host of unwelcome voices constantly rattling around in a perpetual background static drone.

I can’t hear them now. All I can hear is my slightly elevated breath from the climb and pure, unbroken silence.

My next exhale quakes a little with relief, but my calm is abruptly broken with the first clap of thunder cracking so close and hard I can feel the earth vibrating beneath my feet.

Time to keep moving.

5.

I spend the next while climbing and stopping, climbing and stopping, rinse and repeat, as the afternoon thunderstorm works itself out in passing fits. Brief bursts of rain and corn kernel-sized hail fall, pushing me under trees to wait out before continuing onward until the next wall of water and ice approaches.

During one particularly heavy downpour, I park under a juniper tree and watch the forked lightning touch down on the far ridge above my canyon, breathing in the perfect scent of ozone and pine while the thunder rumbles.

Further along, the quality of light begins to change and I sense that the trees are about to thin out. A few moments later I emerge into the first of the Cold Canyon meadows and decide to start looking for a place to stop for the day, having hit my conservative itinerary target and feeling lethargic from the elevation. I find a flat spot under some trees on a short rise hidden from the trail and set up my tent just as another bout of rain passes through.

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After the rain moves on, I emerge to see blue skies appearing and the last of the sunlight making the fresh water droplets hanging from the trees sparkle. I grab my dinner supplies and find a spot on a granite bluff overlooking the meadow and cook my beef stroganoff in the fading light.

A woman in a dress with a very large walking stick motors by, pausing when she sees me.

“You PCT?” she yells in a thick Australian accent.

“Nah, just a section hiker,” I yell back. “Where are you headed tonight?”

“You know, wherever.” The philosophy of a true distance hiker, collapsed into three words.

We wish each other a cheery good evening and she continues on her way for what I’m sure will be several more miles before true dark. I admire–and envy–the endurance and strength of the handful of PCT Nobos I’ve met so far.

Evening chores completed, I wander around the meadow for a few minutes watching the last blazes of orange and pink fade from the few remaining clouds and the canyon adorn itself in dusky shades of lavender and blue.

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Again I feel the sense of being alone, but it is solitude rather than loneliness. I amble back to my tent and snuggle under my quilt, my first full day completed despite the logistical comedy of errors that kicked off the morning.

“Perhaps I can do this after all,” I think as my body closes the heavy veil of sleep around me, readying itself for a busy night of red blood cell production and general repair. I clock out, and my other systems clock in.

I sleep.

2 thoughts on “Tuolumne to Tahoe, Day 1: Learning to Fly

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