John Muir Trail Talk. . . Disillusionment

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OK, the experience of backpacking the John Muir Trail was not what I imagined at all; it was much less glorious, much less mystical, much less aware and attuned to nature. I’d say “no grapenuts” but there was an abundance of them! Generally, I was not in harmony with the world around me, but focused on many necessities of “through walking.” We had to make a certain number of miles per day because our food supplies were calculated to last so long and no longer. We had to eat more breakfast than I like, and I learned I had to eat less lunch than we’d calculated because my body didn’t like walking and digesting at the same time of a Sierra afternoon. I was very hungry by dinner, and even hungrier as the number of days out lengthened. I had to be careful to keep the steri pen away from the raw water. I had to keep from tearing my pants because I had two pairs for 21 days.

My pack was consistently about 45 pounds, except for a couple of days when it might have gone up to 48. I don’t know what Diane’s pack weighed on the low end and I don’t want to know what it weighed on the high end. The reason for the variance is that I carried the tent and the water equipment and stove and she carried the bear barrel and food. My load was always the same, hers varied by how much food was in the barrel. We had one crabby afternoon, just plain crabby. We picked up our last food cache at Muir Trail Ranch. The people were not very nice, especially to me. I arrived aggravated because I’d walked miles with a small stick in my underwear, and they sent me back out into the woods I’d just come through to deal with my necessities. (Yeah, I know about TMI, but these things are real on the trail.) And this was the day I thought my sock was wrinkly when it was the skin of my foot that eventually became so painful I had to look and learn the problem was skin, not sock. I could do precious little, I knew, to carry more weight, taking on only about two to three pounds, of the ten extra pounds we were about to pick up. Diane, for her part, acquired a load so heavy that she teetered. She assumed an expression of grim determination, refused to talk much because talk was a waste of needed energy; she saddled herself up and wobbled on, becoming grayish-yellow of complexion. I made the decision that we would go fewer miles and began to look for a campsite: I’d had it and I knew it. We found a perfect site next to the San Joaquin; a fire pit, logs to sit on, a flat place for a tent, and even some obsidian chips on the ground, left behind when some previous human had made a tool. We had more than one reason to eat a big dinner that night. And Diane made us a great campfire. I think we may have actually smiled briefly before falling asleep.

There were other things that were not up to snuff. My memories and images of many hours in the Sierra Nevada mountains are of hopping along boulders in creek beds, planting my face in the forest loam to smell the rich of it, courting animals until they play with me, and they often have, delighting my memory many years later. But I couldn’t hop anywhere; I was weighed down mightily and had blisters to boot. If I’d planted my face in the forest floor, I’d have been unable to get up again. I didn’t see the animals because it takes a kind of awareness that is different from the task focus of through walking and because the bears aren’t hanging around trails, now that bear barrels lock them out from human food. This lack of playing with animals was perhaps my deepest disappointment because it is one of my greatest joys.

What I did see way too much of, if I’m to be honest, was the rim of my hat and the top of my boots and the points of my walking sticks. Mmmm, yeah, and mosquitoes. Every scene was framed by these elements, and the frame dominated the picture. What mindfulness I had was generally consumed by focusing on my feet and walking poles, and when I’d look up, there was the damned hat rim. To see with intention, I had to plant my feet and poles, tip back my hat. Soon the infernal mosquitoes were buzzing and I had to get the hat in place and move.

How then was I so nourished, how so renewed?

What I think I learned again is how much of our experience is absorbed as a gestalt, a complete energetic osmosis with the totality of our environment. Though my tasks were challenging and my mind was wandering, my eyes and ears, my skin and proprioception, were taking in rock moving waters, soaring peaks, sudden meadows of wildflower and shimmering aspen, and, of course the constant company of one utterly competent and generous human being.

What I still say of it, in spite of disillusionment, is: "Now THAT is living."

And I would encourage the fearful to try it. And to carry less!