John Muir Trail Talk. . .
Post 1 The Informational Skeleton
First and most importantly, the reader must keep in mind the fundamental facts: mountains are essentially, up, down, and dirty, as well as solid and soaring.
On July 19, I set out with my longtime friend, Diane, the only person in whose company I can imagine attempting to carry 45 pounds up and down mountains ranging from 9,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation, for 137 and a half (who’s counting) miles, over 21 days. Essentially, we did what we set out to do, pretty much in the way we intended to do it, rerouting once because we had taken a wrong turn, backtracking another time when we missed a trail sign, and changing course for the last three days to come out at North Lake by way of Piute Pass, instead of South Lake by way of Bishop Pass.
Yes, we did pretty much what we intended, and we did something we could not have imagined. Hence, this series of posts.
Post 2 The Moon
As you might imagine, two fifty-something-year-old women of reasonable intelligence had each worked out to prepare for this arduous walk. I was swimming a mile and a half in forty-five minutes, then running three eight-minute miles on the treadmill (though at sea level, a real drawback), and I was the fittest I’d ever been. But we knew that neither of us was really sufficiently trained to backpack the John Muir Trail. Diane was much closer to the requirements than was I, but what the heck. Train as you go, right?
Our plan was to walk the first four days in the largely hidden company of the waxing Lughnasadh moon, building our strength as the moon built hers. We started out with an ‘easy’ nine-mile day through Lyle Canyon, and the next day we climbed Donohue Pass. I thought I’d die; my breath was short and my ankles swollen. So, with worry, effort, and the good example of Diane, who just doesn’t whine—ever—I bagged my first high pass, complete with falling into the snow field up to my waist, flailing on my walking poles for a few minutes, feeling like a collector’s bug on a pin, really going nowhere. We also did several shockingly cold and high water scary sandal-footed stream crossings, and to my surprise, these exhilarated me. When I finally fell exhausted upon Big Agnes at the end of day two, I’d done all of five or so miles for the whole day! (Mind you, there was a guy running whose goal was to do the whole 219 miles in seven days!)
The third day, we took a wrong turn, testing our map and compass reading and our readjustment skills—oh, not to mention communication!—while wringing from us those last drops of energy over an eight-mile up, down, and dirty that was hard scrabble in places. The fourth day, we followed our revised route, climbing up to Agnew Pass, then turning southward along the San Joaquin River to Agnew Meadows, an eleven and a half mile day that brought us out about five miles north of where we had planned to come out.
We’d survived our training period intact, no major injuries, bodies stronger, fears allayed. Mike, Diane’s husband and a champion of the adventure, fetched us down from the mountain and then fetched big burritos and beer for us. Phew. For two days, we rested and reconfigured our gear—my pocket knife blades wouldn’t open and the high tech steri-pen water filter died on the fourth day. And I decided that Diane had to have a Big Agnes of her own because I was feeling guilt over my excessive pleasure in my primaloft luxury next to her merely competent thermarest.
On Sunday, the moon peaked in power, and we did too. Keeping to our moon course, we set out to use up our strength, our energetic reserves, and our food supply between the full moon and the new moon. We walked and carried, made camp, broke camp, walked and carried, and gradually we waned, we wound down and used ourselves up, along with the moon, our constant companion in the blue Sierra skies. There’s a lesson in these moon cycles, but that said is too much said; you’ve got to do it to get it.
On the very day of the new moon, two renewed women came out of the high country at North Lake, and having no phone access, we hitchhiked to Bishop without a second thought. Elizabeth, my spouse and another champion of the adventure, was waiting for us at South Lake, as planned, but that’s another story!
Post 3 Young Anne's Dream
The very first day, that ‘easy’ stretch of the gorgeous (and easily accessed via Yosemite Park) Lyle Canyon, I felt the presence of someone I’d not seen in about thirty years, young Anne. Those boots going up and down on the trail beneath me were familiar, and this was her dream. I said to her, “We’re here! I got you here.” It was one of those karmic-feeling moments of awakening into an intention formed ages ago, by someone else, forgotten, but not forgotten, too deep to be lost in one of life’s dismantling storms. I’d had a similar experience when I stood in Agra, across the reflecting pools from the Taj Majal, and said joyfully and spontaneously to my eight-year-old self, “I got you here!” because she had planted a seed of intention on those many afternoons of gazing at the beautiful Taj in that old issue of National Geographic.
I started to think that this walk would be some reconnection with the self of my twenties, but that impression faded. I am no longer a romantic twenty-something person, walking around in an utterly resilient body, though I’ve been formed by her intentions and deep commitments, as well as by her too, too many compromises along the way. I felt a shared pleasure with her when, after a couple of days of walking, the few dollars in my pocket caused me to laugh, to take them out of my pocket and flash them for Diane, who laughed too. Money, you see, is ludicrous, and it just takes the right context to understand that well enough to laugh at the mere sight of it.
At last I was out there with no phone access, no camera, no television, no computer, no car, no motor noises. Young Anne’s dream come true, but gone now is her ability to be present, simply and deeply, for any length of time. Given how very in the here and now my actual experience of walking was, I was surprised by how much my mind could wander in the typical ways that minds do wander—what I shoulda said, what I might say, why my perceptions are the correct ones, what I regret, what I hope for. But even my wandering mind could not, under these circumstances, overcome persistent bodily information, or the vastness of the starry sky at night, or the multiple vocal qualities of the waters, or the delightful intrusion of wild flowers, over and over, bright in the gray of rumination.