John Muir Trail - Week 4, Part 3 (Days 24-25) THE END
(Read about Day 23 HERE!)
Day 24 - Thursday September 12, 2019
I didn't sleep well that night. Between the fear of bears and my normal tendency to not sleep well, I woke up middle of the night to what I thought was a flashlight shining right into my tent. I was startled but then realized it was a bright, full moon. I got up to go pee like I usually did every night but I took my time going back into my tent. Every night on trail I'd been able to see the Milky Way and tonight even with the full moon, was no exception. I'd gotten used to seeing it every night. I tried to soak it all in while knowing that I needed to get some sleep before my last day of hiking. I knew I was ready to be done but I was definitely going to miss this.
When my 6am alarm went off I hit snooze. Then I hit snooze 3 more times. I did not want to get up. Lee and Meghan were up early, eager to be done hiking. I waved to them as they started hiking while I was still tearing down my tent. I'd catch up to them, I always did.
I started hiking at 8am, my last day hiking on the John Muir Trail and it was all downhill through Lyell Canyon to Tuolumne Meadows. I saw Lee and Meghan's footprints and figured I wasn't far behind. Where had Zoe and Reid camped the night before? How far ahead are they? I hiked for a hour and still hadn't run into any of my friends. I was hiking at a good speed, not too slow but being cautious with the rocky downhill trail. I hadn't seen many other people that morning. By the time the trail leveled out and was completely flat, hugging Lyell Canyon, I was still by myself. I kept on, feeling grateful that the next 8 miles were going to be flat. Another hour went by and still no friends. I realized at that point that I might not catch up to them in time and that I'd be hiking by myself on the last day. It seemed fitting. I'd started this by myself and here I was going to end it.
Eventually I started seeing day hikers and trail runners. Another backpacker heading in my opposite direction told me there were park rangers coming up so make sure I had my permit ready. I was excited because not once during this entire trip had a ranger been present to ask for my permit. I wanted someone to check it! But alas, I didn't even catch up with the rangers!
At 10:30am I finally saw a sign pointing me towards Tuolumne Meadows, 5.6 miles. So close! The plan was for our group to meet at the Tuolumne Meadows Post Office/Store/Restaurant. I had a resupply waiting there for me, originally meant to get me through the last few days to Happy Isles. Now it would accompany me home.
The closer I got to Tuolumne the more day hikers I saw. One family in particular was out for a hike with mom, dad, the kids and grandparents. When they saw me with my big pack they asked where I'd started. I proudly told them 230 miles ago at Horseshoe Meadows near Lone Pine! "Lone Pine??" They were speechless. I smiled and continued hiking. Eventually I made it to the junction for the Tuolumne Lodge. My NatGeo map highlighted the trail to the right so I started hiking that direction. About a quarter mile later my intuition stopped me and I started second guessing myself. It was hard to see on my NatGeo map and my Guthooks map where exactly the Post Office was located. It looked like if I continued this way I would hike more miles, slightly frustrated and a bit embarrassed, I turned around and made it back to the junction and continued on towards the campground. I felt like I was going the right way but I continued to doubt myself as several times it looked like the trail disappeared or was rerouted. Was I still going the right way? It was past lunch by now and I was hungry which was clouding my ability to make decisions. I trusted my instinct to keep going and soon I found myself walking on a paved road through the car camping area. I walked past RVs and compact cars, tents and hammocks. I finally found a friendly camper who let me know that I was in fact going in the right direction and I was almost there!
Before I knew it I was at Tioga Road. There happened to be a big map posted on a billboard on the side of the road and when I checked it I found that all I had to do was turn left and there it was! I turned left and two minutes later I found my friends! I was officially done! I dropped my pack, exchanged hi-fives and promptly went to go get food. It was the most anti-climatic ending. I didn't get any final "me wearing my heavy pack" pictures, no shots of the whole group done hiking at the same time, I didn't even get a picture of myself next to a Yosemite sign!
But it was a good ending. We ate delicious hot food (chips, not fries as Zoe had correctly taught us), drank (coffee and beer for me), hung out, talked, ate and drank some more, helped Zoe find the leak in her sleeping pad, and got our now uselsss resupply boxes from the teeny-tiny Post Office. We all knew the goodbyes were coming but we put them off for as long as possible. Soon our group would officially be splitting up. Reid and Jason (our newest trail family member from Reds Meadow) had to keep on hiking to Yosemite Valley. Zoe and Amber (a PCT friend we made at VVR) were staying at the backpackers camp. Meghan, Lee, and I had to walk to the Visitors Center to catch the YARTS bus to Mammoth for the night. We still hadn't seen Brian or Diane.
When the time finally came Lee had a speech prepared, talking about how this was farewell and not goodbye. We all hugged multiple times and then parted ways. It was so easy for our group to just be done, everyone going their separate ways. Our group was so special. (The next day we would learn that Brian and Diane did eventually make it Tuolumne Meadows just a few hours behind us! They made it to the Post Office/restaurant just before 5pm and had just enough time to get some food and beer. They stayed with Zoe and Amber in the backpackers campground. They hauled ass to complete 15 miles that last day, including climbing up and over Donohue Pass!)
We made it to the Visitors Center and had three hours to kill before the shuttle would pick us up. The Visitors Center was quite disappointing, I was hoping to buy some Yosemite themed things but there wasn't much. I did end up getting a stamp with the day's date, a little keepsake for the end of this hike. We made some friends while we waited, everyone was wondering why we had such big packs. Every now and then we would exclaim, "WE DID IT!!!"
The top of Donohue felt like the end and the last day felt like a post script. Was it all really over? Did it even happen? Did I dream it? The YARTS but was 15 minutes late and as the sun was setting we left Tuolumne. The road down heading east is steep and at some points I thought the bus was going to go right toff the edge of the road and we would "Thelma and Louise" it, off into oblivion. I kept smiling feeling proud of what I had accomplished. We got a room at the Shilo Inn in Mammoth and I sunk into that bed, eating pizza and watching America Ninja Warrior because we could.
Day 25 - Friday September 13, 2019
In the morning we were up early again to catch the Eastern Sierra Shuttle to Lone Pine. We'd busted our butts to get to Tuolumne by Thursday so that we could get to Mammoth Thursday night to catch the morning's shuttle back to Lone Pine, which only runs Mon-Fri. It's a lot easier to get going in the morning when you don't have to tear down camp!
Riding down Hwy 395 and looking at the edge of the Sierras I just kept thinking how there's a whole other world on the other side. I'm so grateful I got to experience it. When we got off the shuttle at the McDonald's in Lone Pine we ran into another PCT friend from VVR - what a small world! My car was thankfully still parked at the Film History Museum, right next to Lee and Meghan's. We talked to the owner of the museum who had given Lee and Meghan a ride to the trail head at the beginning of their hike. We stopped at a few other stores looking for JMT momentous and trinkets but no luck.
Then it was time for another goodbye. I know we'll all hike together again someday and I'll plan to visit Lee and Meghan out east. And I was ready to be back home. But it is hard to end this adventure. The people have been amazing. We spent over two weeks together every single day! We hugged goodbye and they were off. I stopped at the Visitor Center where I got my permit, delaying my own goodbye with the Sierras. I looked up at Mt. Whitney, in the same parking lot where I'd first properly seen it, where almost a month before I'd picked up my permit with no idea what was in store for me. I couldn't help but laugh. I'd climbed that! I hiked over 230 miles! I DID IT!!!
As I turned on to Hwy 395 heading south I too a final look at Whitney and blew her a kiss. It was finally time to head home. This had been the most challenging but incredible experience. I'm so proud of what I've done. I can't wait for the next one!