“We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessels contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves…. I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.” — Meriwether Lewis
You were probably thinking I’d start with an obligatory John Muir quote here, don’t fret, there will be plenty in future posts. I’ve always been fascinated by John Muir, but ever since I was a child, I have been far more fascinated by the fantastic accounts in the journal of Meriwether Lewis and his adventures with William Clark. Starting near St. Louis, they made their way west in a feat of exploration lasting two years. It’s a journey one can only try to comprehend, as it is so far removed from anything we could ever hope to endure. Still, when I read the words of Meriwether Lewis, I can’t help but long for the great outdoors and the opportunity to see new lands.
As humans, the spark of adventure and desire to explore unseen horizons is hardwired in our DNA. It’s a part of our evolution. The ineffable sense of anxiety and elation one gets when planning an adventure is a chord that’s stuck deep within the nature of our core. For centuries, the spoils of war, the promise of a new day, following the hunt, and movement from fallow fields to rich, was about the survival of your tribe. The rewards were huge for those willing to take a chance at exploration.
We live in a comfortable day in age where exploration is a choice and no longer required for survival. Nonetheless, the rewards can be just as life changing and personally fulfilling.
The John Muir Trail is nowhere near the level of adventure encountered by Lewis & Clark, but I can’t help but feel the pure rush of adrenaline and excitement every time I get a chance to backpack in the old Wild West.
Julia and I arrived in Lone Pine at 1:30 AM on July 8. We had originally planned to arrive much earlier, but had our work schedules change at the last minute. This didn’t allow us to leave Southern California until 10:30 PM. The marquee for the Dow Villa Motel drew us in from the long drive on highway 395, and we quickly checked in and proceeded to our room. Before attempting to go to sleep, we went through our packs one last time to ensure we had all of our gear ready for the 225 mile trek that stood before us.
We had a 4:30 wake up call, forcing us to beat the sunrise in order to catch the northbound Eastern Sierra Transit Shuttle that leaves from Lone Pine at 6:15 AM. Luckily, the shuttle picks up riders just outside of the McDonald’s, so we were able to grab a calorie dense breakfast before making our way north towards our final destination of Yosemite Valley.
Having hiked to the summit of Mt. Whitney last year, it was pretty cool to be back in Lone Pine with a new mission. It all started to hit me as I looked west towards Mt. Whitney and saw the first photons of the early morning sunrise start to hit the peaks in view. I started to think of how I’d be standing on the summit once again, if all things went according to plan and we were able to finish the John Muir Trail.
We hopped on the shuttle after our breakfast at McDonald’s and were joined by quite a few other riders. There was a father-son team starting on the same day as us, a guy from the Air Force who had just finished, a few local riders, and an incredible father-daughter team that had just finished. What made the father-daughter team such an amazing story was that the girl was only 13! The dad carried all of the weight in his pack, and let his girl carry a day pack to keep them moving at an equal speed. I can only imagine the looks on other students’ faces when her teacher starts off the first day of school by asking “What did you do this summer?”.
The weather forecast was calling for a lot of really wet weather in the coming days, and the hikers who had just gotten off the trail spoke of how many thunderstorms and rainy days they had to walk through. It all came as a huge surprise to those of us from California, as we’ve been in the grips of a severe drought. With the Sierra snowpack at record lows, and emergency water rationing in effect, any rain is good rain. We were just selfishly wishing it didn’t hit right when we started our thru-hike.
We stayed on the Eastern Sierra Transit until we reached the city of Mammoth Lakes. From Mammoth, we caught the YARTS bus with service to Yosemite Valley. This stretch of shuttle driving was absolutely beautiful, with stops in June Lake, Mono Lake, and Lee Vining, before heading up the Tioga Pass towards Tuolumne Meadows. I had never been this far north on the 395 during the day, and a part of me wanted to stop in each of these locations to take in the scenery and shoot a few pictures. Unfortunately, we were on a tight schedule that required us getting to Yosemite Valley to procure our permits and check into the backpacker’s camp before sundown.
We arrived in Yosemite Valley at 12:15 and got ourselves in line to pick up our permits. Luckily, the line wasn’t too long and four rangers were working, so we were on our way in no time. Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful pieces of land on planet earth. There are few places that come close in regards to the spine tingling, breath stealing, raw and uncut beauty. Unfortunately, a lot of this is lost while walking around near the visitor center. In this area, there are air conditioned trams shuttling selfie-stick yielding tourists from spot to spot. I’m all for maximizing visitation to our national parks, but the area near the visitor center feels a little too much like Disneyland.
We made one stop in Yosemite Village, at the Village Grill. We knew that hot, cooked, salty, fatty foods would be hard to come by in the days ahead, so we took advantage and crushed a few burgers. I doubled up, and went to town on two burgers and two fries. It was the perfect meal to kick things off.
After demolishing the burgers at the Village Grill, we made our way over to the backpacker’s camp, to pick a tent site for our first night. Usually, I’m not a big fan of organized campsites, as it can feel a bit strange pitching a tent next to 20-30 other tents. This site was different though, as all of our campsite neighbors were fellow Yosemite backpackers, JMT backpackers, and PCT backpackers. It was a very cool group to be sharing a patch of dirt with.
We made our way through the wooded campground and I got my first chance to geek out on some great backpacking gear. Researching, testing, and reviewing gear is one of my favorite things about backpacking. The thing is, I only get to try one thing at a time. It was really cool for me to see a lot of the tents, backpacks, hammocks, bear canisters, etc., that I didn’t select. I also got to see quite a few other people with the same tent, the TarpTent Double Rainbow, and learned a few new things from their alternate pitch configurations.
Just after setting up camp and getting our bear canisters in the bear bins, the skies opened up for a little afternoon shower. It was very pleasant, and helped put to rest a body being controlled by a mind that was anything but calm. I was looking at my feet hoping they would carry me to Mt. Whitney free from injury. They had carried me over more than 450 miles of training hikes in 2015 with 144,000 feet of elevation gain. Would it be enough? Was it too much? Only time would tell.
The rain came and went, just like my moments of self doubt. We ate dinner, prepared our things for an early morning start, and settled in for the night. In the morning, we would be starting the John Muir Trail, more than 200 miles of mountains, lakes, meadows, and some of the most beautiful vistas you’re ever likely to see on planet earth. I had a date with destiny, and the morning couldn’t come soon enough.